On gross points, censorship and why he really wants to direct
Has directing spoiled acting for you?
Working with Steven (Soderbergh) and Joel and Ethan (Coen) has ruined me for other directors. They are so specific, they have such points of view, they have such incredible technique and style and the ability to mix genres — and they make it all fun. Days are short, they do one or two takes and know exactly what they want. Really, until (“Syriana” director Stephen) Gaghan, in the last five years I’ve only worked with Joel and Ethan and Steven.
Have they changed the way you work as a director?
Here’s what I believe as a director: Cast the right people. Period. Then let the right people do their jobs.
Your partner is a great director. Have you leaned on Steven while directing your own films?
I think “stole” is the better word. I stole a ton from Steven. Other people as well. After “Confessions,” I sent Mike Nichols an apology ’cause I stole shots from him. I sent Sidney Lumet an apology letter, too. Not to mention all the stuff I stole from Joel and Ethan.
So you’re not the kind of director who’s going to try to beat the right performance out of an actor?
I don’t believe in it. I think it’s a shitty thing to do. We’re lucky enough to be in an incredibly creative business, and there doesn’t seem to be the need if you cast the right people and if they’re doing their jobs.
When was the decision made to shoot “Good Night, and Good Luck” in black and white?
I knew right off the bat that we wanted the old footage of McCarthy because I thought no actor could play him. No one would believe that anyone in that situation could be that much of a buffoon. No one could giggle like a hyena and be believable. So we wanted to use the real footage, in the same way Murrow used the footage of McCarthy to hang him. That meant we were shooting in black and white.
What about the rest of the directing style?
I knew I wanted, in kind of an Altman way, dialogue overlapping. I wanted that ’cause I’d seen it growing up in newsrooms with my father. So I started looking at documentaries like “Primary” and “Crisis.” A lot of the stuff was written and then improvised, because we wanted to give our actors all the information we could, and then let them fill in the details. So they would show up in the morning, and we’d give them newspapers for the day — say, October 5, 1954. They’d have The New York Times, The New York Post and The Washington Post. They’d sit down at manual typewriters for two hours and type up their stories. Then we’d have two cameras running, and I’d bring them in and say, ‘OK, pitch me your lead.’ They would run their leads by us, just like I’d watch my father do as a newsman.
You’ve been creative with your salary to get films made. When did you begin taking points instead of upfront pay?
“Three Kings” was the first. I didn’t really see any money out of that one, but I just wanted to make the movie. Then, on “Oh, Brother” I got paid about 500 grand, but I also wanted to get that movie made. From that point on, for the two “Ocean’s” films we took a quarter of what we normally get paid, but we had gross points, and actually made a lot of money. That was great. On the other hand, “Confessions” I did for nothing. “Good Night” I did for a dollar. Wrote it for a dollar, directed it for a dollar. And I didn’t have gross points because nobody wanted to make a black-and-white film about the ’50s. So we had to take an adjusted gross, which we’ll probably never see anything from. But the point is we get to do films we believe in. I’m doing “The Good German” right now for scale. “Syriana” I did for half a million bucks. Now that’s a lot of money to people, but when you’re offered $20 million for some films and talking half a million to do something worthwhile, well, I’m proud of that.
What’s harder: Gaining and losing 40 pounds or directing a movie?
Directing a movie a month out of surgery was pretty rough. I usually just run on energy. I’m like the Pete Rose of directors. What I lack in talent, I try to make up for in hustle. But I didn’t have a whole lot of (energy).
Do you think there are any real dangers in making political films?
Well, sure, but it wasn’t like making “The Young Lions” shortly after WWII and having Brando be a Nazi and Montgomery Clift be a Jew harassed by the Americans in his own army. That was a real political hot potato. Or if you look at film’s greatest period — 1964 to ’76 — we came out with these incredible, angry, questioning films that I can’t stop watching. There’s an anger and an outrage to them, and I love that. We haven’t had that sort of outrage for about 20 years. Now people are concerned again, and not just on the right or left. “Syriana” isn’t an attack on the Bush administration. It’s about questioning 60 years of failed policies in the Middle East. “Good Night” deals with the right to dissent and the responsibility of the fourth estate. These aren’t films that try to answer questions, they’re films that ask them. That’s the whole point. I have the right to ask these questions. I demand my right of freedom of speech. I demand my right of dissent. But I’ve also got to be willing to let people say bad things about me when I make those demands. You have to take your hits and be a grown-up about it. I could easily sit around and do nothing and live in my house in Italy. That’s not that hard to do. Or I can try to be on the right side of history. Look, I’m friends with the guys from “South Park.” I helped them get their show going. But I’d be ashamed if they hadn’t blown me up in “Team America.” That’s the way it should be.
Do you have a desire to direct huge studio films?
I haven’t really seen one yet that I want to direct.
Have they been offered to you?
Yeah, a lot of them, a couple a week. But you have to know what you’re good at. The things I’m good at wouldn’t lend themselves to big action films. That’s not what “Good Night, and Good Luck” is, and it’s not what “Confessions” is. If I found something that interested me and that I could do well, maybe then I would say yes.