A remarkable number of films by first-time feature helmers populates the kudo mix this year. Among them are two pics directed by thesps (“Gone Baby Gone” and “Away From Her”) and one by a rock photographer (“Control”). A peek at how these newbies — all adapting from books or short stories — did it:
Actor and Oscar-winning scribe (“Good Will Hunting”) Affleck says he’d been looking for something to direct when it was recommended he read Dennis Lehane’s novel “Gone Baby Gone.”
“It has a really strong plot architecture on the surface,” he says of the book’s appeal. “It’s a very compelling, modern noir mystery-detective story, and underneath it’s dealing with a lot of rich material. It’s really a character piece.”
A photography buff since age 19, Affleck wanted to shoot in a “pseudo documentary” style, by capturing real people exhibiting unselfconscious behavior and “papering the movie with those folks and that feel. The hope was that the documentary layer would weave together with the traditional dramatic layer to color and flavor and improve it. But the danger was that they could clash, like a transplant that gets rejected.”
The transplant took, and Affleck says a lot of that was thanks to his crew, whose ideas he always encouraged. “One of the benefits of being an actor is that you get to see so many different management styles,” he explains. “I’ve seen the autocrat, the dictator and the total rollover (directors). That’s not to be emulated. But getting people to go the extra mile for you is rare. … I’ve been impressed by that.”
Reading the New Yorker on a plane ride back from Iceland after an acting gig, Canadian thesp Polley found the material for her first feature: Alice Munro’s short “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” about a couple dealing with the wife’s onset of Alzheimer’s.
Polley immediately thought of her friend and colleague Julie Christie for the lead. “I couldn’t stop imagining her face.”
If it seems audacious for a 28-year-old to direct a film about people several decades her senior, Polley says she found it more stimulating to tackle something she’s curious about versus what she knows. “You find connections and avenues into your own life that would be impossible with something closer to my life,” she says. “For me, the mess of love is more interesting when you have more years behind you.”
It took a few years for “Away From Her” to go before cameras, but Polley says she feels lucky to have been able to direct without much interference. Financed chiefly by Canadian public sources, she notes, “I had a tremendous amount of creative freedom. It was a privileged and luxurious way to make a first feature.”
Dutch photographer Corbijn moved to London in 1979 and soon after his arrival met and shot a series of iconic stills of the band Joy Division. It’s almost too perfect, then, that Corbijn would make his first feature about that seminal post-punk band (based on the memoir written by lead singer Ian Curtis’ wife Deborah). He says he initially dismissed the idea of directing “Control,” but then came around to it after failing to find a project that he felt he could bring something unique to. “Joy Division had an emotional attachment in my life, so I felt it could compensate a bit for my lack of filmmaking skills.”
Among his rookie moves, he proudly notes that he did everything people told him not to do: He shot in black-and-white, put up his own money and worked with an unknown lead.
Admitting he’s not much of a film buff, Corbijn adds he also knew nothing about photography before making it his profession. “If you’re not a virtuoso, you can learn to do something in a very particular way.”