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I got my annual front and center seats to the DGA panel of nominated best directors.  This year was a great line-up: Tom Hooper (Les Miz), Ben Affleck (Argo), Katheryn Bigelow (Zero Dark 30), Ang Lee (Life of Pi) and Steven Spielberg (Lincoln).  Expertly moderating as usual was my friend Jeremy Kagan.  Was a very engaging 3 hours.  For the record, later that night, Affleck would win the top honor for directing ARGO.  Here are some highlights from memory:

  • Spielberg: When he first approaches a film, he asks himself what the worst case scenario would be if it all went wrong – for this one, could he never pass another $5 bill again in his life, would he allow DDL to give the worst performance of his career “on my watch”, etc, once he gets that all out, and flushes it away, and he still feels as strongly as ever, he never has to deal with doubt again on the project. When DDL gives the impassioned speech about why the 13th amendment is crucial, Spielberg set up a dolly with Lincoln’s cabinet members in the foreground, and as the dolly went, and DDL was “channeling” Lincoln, whenever he would speak the most eloquently, a FG person would block it, and whenever he paused, the view would be unobstructed. Spielberg realized he’d made a mistake, and decided he had to move the dolly track 7 feet. DDL was unfazed, as he will do unlimited takes. Spielberg was nervous though, “I’m not sure this can get anymore Lincolnian!  Something supernatural was happening,” DDL was channeling the spirit of Lincoln and Spielberg wasn’t sure how long Lincoln himself would be willing to keep doing takes! Spielberg said that for this film, he wanted to stand back behind the actors, behind the script, and not be equal to them, but be subservient to them, to be restrained. He thought it’s the most restrained he’s ever been.
  • Ang Lee: The boy had never acted before, and did 4 hours of yoga a day. 2 hours in the morning, with Ang, and 2 hours in the afternoon. He shot in sequence, as to allow the kids psychology to naturally progress. For the last 1 month, Lee didn’t allow the boy to talk to anyone. Shooting 3D was a huge learning curve, and he considers himself now finally a novice at it. Shooting in water, there were days when the lenses would fog, and after 12 hours, not a single shot would be in the can. He said it pained him greatly to see his crew suffer, as they just wanted do much to give him what he wanted as a director.  Lee expresses himself was such sincere emotion, that you can’t help but deeply empathize with him – and when he lamented how hard it was to see his crew in pain, I looked over at Spielberg who at that very moment looked at me, and we shared one of those “co-audience reaction moments” where we exchanged looks of deep sympathy, then went back to listening to Lee.  That happened!  Lee went on to explain that he reshot a lot of the third act, finding it as they went. Sometimes he just wants to make the “most expensive art film ever made,” and then he reminds himself he’s there for the audience. He said each film is more ambitious and each is more humbling. You have to surrender to the process.
  • Bigelow: To create the sense of cinema verite, she used 4 cameras at all times, and there would be no rehearsal – the cast, camera would just go – creating that sense of reality unfolding for the cameras. They built the compound in Jordan and the entire attack sequence was shot in pitch black with night vision on the cameras. Crew all wore night vision too, and if any light turned on, it could have hurt people’s vision. The “stealth helicopters” were stuck in customs for quite a while, as you can imagine they looked suspicious. They weren’t really stealth, but the art department made them pretty convincingly. Also, it was hard to get the night vision equipment into the “war zone” that region of the world had become. This was her first digital film; she used the Alexa primarily because of the low light conditions of the finale.
  • Affleck: His character and his wife had a large recurring story line that was in the first cut of the movie, which played disastrously slow. Only after cutting that story almost completely did the movie finally work. (“Like the movie was rejecting a kidney transplant,” Affleck explained of that part never really working.) This film was the first he felt that he didn’t have to exclaim with hyperbole how awesome it was going to be, to get people to trust him and come on board, because he finally had a track record. Most was shot on film, but in the bazar, they had to shoot digitally with Alexa, because there could be no lights.
  • Hooper: Anne Hathaway rehearsed singing with the piano (both which were photographed live), and the camera, so that her range of motion would be reduced to accomodate the tight lens, which is hard for a singing performer to accomplish. For “Dreamed a Dream” take 4 of the B cam was used in its entirety in the movie. Wasn’t even the intended main coverage! “A” cam was doing a slow push in from med wide to close up, but Hooper felt that that shot created the impression that the end of the song, when it was in CU, and what she sang, emoted, was more important than what was at the beginning, when the camera was wider.