For all their current success as directors, Ang Lee and Steven Soderbergh insist they are driven by fear of failure.
Lee asserted that filmmaking comes down to facing embarrassment and confronting one’s deepest fears again and again. “I believe fear is the strongest emotion,” he told an overflow audience of 500 during a panel discussion at Directors Guild of America headquarters on Saturday morning.
Soderbergh agreed, saying fear is what he needs to keep him on his toes, reminding himself that the potential for a poor film is constantly shadowing a good one. “The ease with which you can make something bad is terrifying,” he added.
The panel, conducted by director and author Jeremy Kagan, is an annual presentation by the DGA. Nominees Cameron Crowe (“Almost Famous”) and Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”) were unable to attend.
Both helmers often used the same self-deprecating tone during the 2-1/2- hour session. Lee, who won DGA’s top feature award for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” on Saturday night, drew large laughs when he explained that he identified most strongly with Chow Yun-Fat in the film and added, “It’s true that the leading man is really a better-looking version of the director.”
Soderbergh, the first director to be up for two best picture nominees at once (“Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic”), admitted that he has difficulty in selecting shooting locations. Often, he added, his impulse is to settle for the very first one. “It’s torture,” Soderbergh said. “I become that irritating person who says, ‘I know what I want but that’s not it.’ ”
Lee said the most difficult task is the constant pressure to answer questions quickly. “You have to make hundreds of quick decisions every day on the set,” he added. “You’re often just pretending that you know.”
Despite his track record, Soderbergh insisted that the process is as difficult as ever, with weeks of shooting sometimes needed to resolve simple problems. “It never gets any easier,” he added. “It’s like jumping out of a plane with the belief that the parachute will open before you hit the ground.”
Lee stressed that the idea of making “Crouching Tiger” had to be compelling enough to devote two years of his life to it. “That last image of the girl flying down the mountain — it would not go out of my head,” he explained. “Good movie ideas are difficult to find. They have to hold an audience for two hours.”
Soderbergh and Lee differed sharply in one area — whether to socialize with cast and crew after shooting is done for the day. Lee said he believes everyone needs a break from his presence while Soderbergh maintains that going to dinner together helps give him insight into the personalities of his associates, plus an occasional chance to make a quick one-on-one comment. “Usually, if you’ve cast well, it’s just a word or two,” he said. “You can say ‘FFB’ — faster, funnier, better.”
Both took the opportunity to stress how heavily they depend on others. “Once the script is in, you live and die by the performances,” Soderbergh said. “I have so much respect for what actors do.”
Finally, the helmers declared that they see themselves as fortunate to be working on high-profile films. “It’s the best job in the world,” said Soderbergh, who took a break from shooting “Ocean’s Eleven” to appear on the panel. “The only thing that gets me down is falling short,” he added.
“We like what we do so much that we often forget that we’ve been standing there for 16 hours,” Lee said.