DGA panel honors feature nominees

Danny Boyle, others discuss their films in L.A.

Danny Boyle admits that directing “Slumdog Millionaire” has not only done wonders for his career, it’s altered how he feels about himself and how others perceive him.

“It’s kind of mystical being in India,” the British helmer said Saturday ayem before a capacity crowd of 400 at the Directors Guild of America theater. “I wind up sounding like an old hippie.”

Boyle, who won the DGA Award for feature film later that night, spoke as part of a panel featuring the guild’s film nominees. Also in attendance were David Fincher (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), Ron Howard (“Frost/Nixon”), Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”) and Gus Van Sant (“Milk”).

The three-hour discussion, moderated by helmer Jeremy Kagan, offered the quintet the opportunity to explain the intricacies of the development and execution of their films — but each went to significant lengths to give credit to others.

Nolan offered up particular tribute to the late Heath Ledger for the clarity of his performance as the Joker. Ledger’s role was crucial because “Dark Knight” dealt so heavily in iconography and because the Joker character had been etched in the public consciousness by Jack Nicholson’s perf in “Batman” two decades ago.

“I wanted to have Heath with an ironclad opening,” Nolan added in explaining the importance of the film’s beginning.

Howard noted that with a particularly talky script for “Frost/Nixon,” he attempted to cast actors who were able to improvise in the manner of a Robert Altman movie.

“I wanted people who were incredibly comfortable in front of the camera,” he added. “My brother wound up talking throughout the film and his only scripted line is ‘5-4-3-2-1.’ ”

Fincher gave particular credit to screenwriter Eric Roth and the actors in “Benjamin Button,” particularly Brad Pitt and elderly cast members who worked 10-hour shifts.

“The casting was painfully easy,” he added. “When you have a great script, people come out of the woodwork. It was tough on Brad, because he had eight or nine weeks with six-hour turnarounds.”

Van Sant gave credit to Sean Penn for understanding the intricacies of Harvey Milk (“He was almost like Groucho Marx or Abbie Hoffman,” he observed). Penn also suggested Josh Brolin for the Dan White part, and if that wasn’t enough, he gave Van Sant early advice on the script, which had been sent out minus a sex scene early in the script with the goal of making it less difficult to attract actors.

“When Sean read it, he said, ‘You need a sex scene up front,’ ” Van Sant recalled.

Howard told the audience that one of the toughest aspects of doing “Frost/Nixon” was deciding on an ending — whether to have Nixon wear the shoes that David Frost had given him. He made the decision to go with the ending in which Nixon doesn’t wear the shoes even after a focus group rated the shoe-wearing ending higher because it showed that Nixon had changed.

“It scored five points less but we had to go with it,” he said.

Boyle asked the aud to applaud his first assistant director, Raj Acharya, for enabling him to navigate the complexities of shooting in Mumbai.

“Raj taught me how to film in Mumbai and stopped us from being a target,” he added. “It’s not a conventional city.”

Boyle noted that he ran into difficulties finishing the scenes shot at the Taj Mahal once authorities became aware that the film presents the monument in a less-than-favorable light. He and his team shot the final scenes, he said, in the guise of being a German documentary crew.

Boyle concluded the sesh by saying that the best part of directing “Slumdog” was the sense of rejuvenation he felt each day he was on the pic.

“Each day’s a new day, and we’ve got another chance to do it right,” he noted. “And the worst part of it are the moments when you wonder, What are we doing?”

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