Helmers elaborate on myriad approaches
In the Hollywood scheme of things, this would be considered a breakthrough year for Spanish helmer Alejandro Amenabar. Not only was his “Abre los ojos” remade by Cameron Crowe into “Vanilla Sky,” with most critics preferring the original, but his classic ghost story “The Others,” starring Nicole Kidman, emerged as one of the sleeper hits of the year with a $171 million take worldwide.
“I wanted to do a story with not too many characters in a single location,” he says about “Others.” I also wanted to do a horror film (reminiscent) of films of the 1940s and 1950s.
“Writing the script was a fast process; it took about a month,” says the multitalent, who not only has sole writing credit, but also scored the film. “I knew how it was going to begin and end.”
Aside from shooting in remote locations in often dark interiors, Amenabar says the greatest challenge in filming “was learning to speak English. Spanish is my first language.”
As for what the movie says about him as a filmmaker, Amenabar says he wanted to turn “words and images (into) metaphors. I feel comfortable with horror. It helps me to express many of my concerns and paranoias. Horror is almost mathematic. The story gives you a specific result with the audience.”
After securing a cult following with his indie debut, “Bottle Rocket,” and critically lauded “Rushmore,” 32-year-old director Wes Anderson steps closer to the mainstream with “The Royal Tenenbaums,” an all-star family saga that retains his and returning co-scenarist-star Owen Wilson’s signature off-center humor.
“I wanted to make a New York movie,” says Anderson of his motivation for “Tenenbaums.” “The next step was this idea of a family of geniuses — well, ex-geniuses or failed geniuses, really. I also knew I wanted to make something that was an ensemble piece; there was a certain bunch of different actors I wanted to work with and I wanted to make something for them. I drew some inspiration from J.D. Salinger’s ‘Glass’ stories … and also from ‘The Magnificent Ambersons,’ which begins with this self-contained introduction that’s both a family back history and a history of that part of the world at that time, using a narrator who’s not a character in the actual story.”
Anderson says his greatest challenge was the logistics of working with an all-star cast that includes Gene Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bill Murray, Anjelica Huston and Owen Wilson.
“Each of them were only available at different intervals, and somehow they had to become a family … yet (on the set) they immediately took to each other,” says Anderson, who describes his approach as instinctual.
As for the eccentricities of his characters, the filmmaker says he doesn’t necessarily think of them that way. “It’s not like I sit around trying to think up these weird personalities. I just want to create people that I find funny or intriguing.”
Since directing the 1999 film “The Green Mile,” Frank Darabont has become associated with films that deal with humanity and redemption, not to mention being the perennial subject of Oscar buzz.
“I read the script and it just rang this bell with me,” he says about his latest, “The Majestic,” a tale of mistaken identity that deals with the Hollywood blacklist starring Jim Carrey. “It spoke to my love of Frank Capra movies. It was the love letter to Frank Capra that I’ve always wanted to write. Capra was a huge influence on me as a filmmaker. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is my all-time favorite movie.”
The film was shot in a small California town called Ferndale near the Oregon border amid “radically changeable” weather conditions, says the director.
“Filming the scene in which Jim Carrey’s car plunges off a bridge was challenging,” he says. “I’d never flirted with physical effects before to that degree. We built a part of the bridge up at Falls Lake at Universal Studios at a tank. We digitally filled in the landscape and extended the bridge and added the water.
“It’s really amazing how physical and digital effects can be so challenging. I don’t know how Steven Spielberg does it with all the dinosaurs.”
As for how the movie reflects his ethos as a filmmaker, Darabont says he tends “to like stories where you’re kind of drawn into a world and really get to know the characters. I’m not cutting edge, I’m kind of a throwback, those are the kind of movies I love the most. Like Mr. Capra, I do tend to wear my heart on my sleeve a bit. Audiences tend to like it and critics tend to hate it. It’s not for me to judge. Time and the audience will really judge what we do.”
A harsh yet ultimately uplifting tale of racism, violence and familial grief set in the contemporary U.S. South, “Monster’s Ball” has swept Swiss-born helmer Marc Forster from unknown status onto the short list of Oscar candidates.
“I responded (to the script) for both personal and social reasons. The issues it addresses — breaking the cycle of violence, racism and abuse — weren’t presented in a preachy way, and I feel what the film is ultimately about is forgiveness and redemption.
“I’d had a turning point in my own life … there was a three-month period when my father, my brother and my grandmother all died. So I understood how something like that changes you in the way you see life and the way you do things. At the end of the day, in a bizarre way, it was a very positive and enlightening experience.”
Forster faced a rigorous shooting schedule of 25 days, with an original script comprising 250 scenes. “Under those circumstances, you go along having to make decisions on the fly in terms of what you’re going to cut and what you’re going to keep,” he says. “Ultimately, those factors probably worked to our advantage. And in the most important sense, I had all the creative freedom I wanted to do the film as I saw fit.”
Adds Forster: “There are two kinds of movies: stories that need to be told, and pure entertainment. I find (the latter) interesting, but they’re hard to do really, really well. So far I’m going through a phase in my life where the stories I’m telling do have some personal importance to me, as well as a degree of social commentary. … I’m happy about the overall tone I was able to achieve, which includes the silences, the visual style, and the relationships between the actors . I think I captured the script in those senses, and I feel pretty good about that. The film has a certain originality to it.”
Ron Howard, one of the few helmers to win a Directors Guild award (for 1995’s “Apollo 13”) but never be nominated for an Oscar, was attracted to “A Beautiful Mind,” about Nobel Prize-winning mathemetician John Nash, due to a number of key elements:
“I thought that it was very unusual to see a screenplay that could work well as a strong, compelling, involving drama and truly have something original to say,” says the actor-turned-filmmaker. “I also felt that I was going to be challenged in exciting ways that I hadn’t been before, maybe ever. Thirdly, there’s nothing I like better than directing good actors in complicated and interesting scenes and the script is built on those kinds of scenes.
” ‘John Nash’s mind, which is powerful enough and unique enough to lead him to these complicated math insights, is the same mind that turns on him and threatens to destroy him from within. It sort of shatters that thin connection between genius and madness.
“I think that cinematically, I was trying to draw the audience inside John Nash’s mind in a complicated enough way that the audience goes on the journey with him without being blatant about it or having the audience be aware of any kind of directorial manipulation. Without the film ever being a complicated logistical undertaking, it was the most challenging movie that I’ve ever worked on.
“Amelie” represented a departure for French helmer Jean-Pierre Jeunet, previously known for the baroquely dystopian “Delicatessen” and “City of Lost Children.”
“I wanted to make a positive film for a long time, maybe because I did three dark movies before,” says the director. “I had worked on this collection of stories for maybe 25 years that I wanted to make into a film. In fact, it was very difficult to find the (unifying) concept. One day I understood the center of the story. It was just one little story in the middle of the other stories, the story of the woman helping other people. And then everything was easy — easy to write, easy to shoot, easy to edit.”
“Amelie’s” setting – a kind of storybook Paris — also represented a departue for the filmmaker. “The challenge for me was to shoot outside, because I did three movies (on a sound)stage,” he says. “I tried to get the same quality of work. To shoot outside, it wasn’t easy in Paris, because the Parisians are pretty tough. I remember one time, a guy parked his car in front of the camera, and he said, ‘fuck the cinema!’ That’s Paris.”
Although Jeunet says he makes films for himself, he says the opportunity to please viewers is only frosting on the cake. “I didn’t expect success like this. It’s much brighter than my other films, ‘Delicatessen’ and ‘The City of Lost Children,’ which I did with (co-director) Marc Caro. It’s impossible to put some personal emotion in (when collaborating with someone else).
“I remember sometimes I wanted to put a love story in and I know he doesn’t like this kind of story. So, I thought I would keep this idea for my own film. Almost all the stories in ‘Amelie’ are true, except for the joke with the garden gnome around the world. I use a lot of small details from my childhood. I modify a lot of things, but the hypochondriac woman in the cafe — that’s my mother. That’s my life.”
In describing what inspired him to tackle the life of Muhammad Ali, filmmaker Michael Mann deferred to a critic: “Peter Travers in Rolling Stone put it better than (me): ‘…to catch Ali in the act of discovering himself as a man, an African-African, a Muslim, an athlete, a husband, a political activist and a cultural icon.'”
Because Ali was such a public figure, and his life and times constitute relatively recent history, Mann felt an obligation to give the story an immediacy that felt contemporary.
“The challenge was to construct an authentic milieu, (fully capturing) the feel of the time. Mimicry of Ali-vocal, attitudinal or movement-wouldn’t work,” says the Oscar-nominated director of “The Insider.”
“What had to be done was to build the core of the man, (his) mania, histrionics, his intuitive foresight that put him at the vanguard of political and racial politics, generational conflicts with his father, his fears, how he masked them.
“Will (Smith) had to be able to take in the world as Ali would have taken in the world. Acting out spontaneously from that core of character is what we worked toward. This was made more difficult by the fact that Ali was one of the best known and most complex of people during some of the most (turbulent) times in American history. Not only his voice and looks but his movements in the ring have a unique signature to them. It’s sobering to note that Will Smith and I confess we exhausted ourselves making a dramatic motion picture (that illuminated only a) fraction of the dynamic conflicts Muhammad Ali actually lived.
“I’m attracted to stories that are challenging to capture, but truly move the people who see it and stand the test of time. I hope I’ve done that with ‘Ali.'”
Ridley Scott, who couldn’t be reached for this article, directed last year’s Best Picture winner, “Gladiator,” but did not take home the helmer’s statuette. Twice a bridesmaid (he was also nominated for 1991’s “Thelma & Louise”), Scott is nevertheless one of the most influencial filmmakers of the last 25 years, and responsible for two of the more lasting sci fi statements: 1979’s “Alien” and 1982’s “Blade Runner.”
“I’ve worked with a lot of (very talented) directors: Oliver Stone, Michael Mann, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese; but I’d never worked with Ridley Scott,” says Tom Sizemore, who plays Lt Colonel Danny McKnight in “Black Hawk Down,” Scott’s depiction of the catastrophic mission of U.S. Special Forces troops in Somalia in 1993. “So I was (very excited) when he called me at home. It was a big thing for me to work with him.”
Adds the actor: “He inspired me. Like most great directors, Ridley doesn’t direct actors, but directs the anatomy of actors. He leaves the acting up to the actors.
“He’s an intellectual, too. There we were, shooting a gritty vicious drama. At the same time, he can talk intelligently about any number of things, like architecture or philosophy.
“Someone asked Ridley who he’d like to be in a foxhole with. He said Tom Sizemore. He knows that if you smack me in the face, I will smack you back. As for really being in the Army, I don’t know. When those bullets start flying, I don’t know (how I’d handle it).
” ‘Black Hawk Down’ represents a purity in filmmaking.”
Steven Spielberg said, “Stanley never talked to me about his other films, but he did talk to me about ‘A.I.’ over a period of more than eight years, mainly on many long-distance telephone conversations we had on many topics. At one point in the last years, he surprised me saying I should direct ‘A.I.’ and he would produce it. I said you direct it and I’ll produce it. When he suddenly died, his wife, Christiane, and Jan Harlan said it would never be made by anybody if I didn’t direct it.”
As for the biggest challenge, Kathleen Kennedy, who co-produced the film with Spielberg and Bonnie Curtis, added, “Since the film was set in the future and then 2,000 years ahead of that, everything had to be invented.”