Facing the big challenge

These films and filmmakers took chances and raised the bar this year

Great work involves high risk. Several of the year’s most lauded filmmakers and creatives talk about the big challenges in the movies they made — and what kept them up at night, until they got it right.

Actress-producer Nicole Kidman on “Rabbit Hole”
“Before I start a film, I get that feeling of ‘Oh my gosh, are we crazy to attempt this?’ I wake up from nightmares, particularly with this subject matter. With ‘Rabbit Hole,’ we were trying to do something for so little money, and we wanted to make it special and honor it, because the film is about the most terrifying thing for a parent. I tend to do my best work in idiosyncratic films, maybe because I find myself the most free. When I tend to conform is when it tends to go awry. When the financing happened for ‘Rabbit Hole,’ it was a year after I had my baby and I was in this place: Do I walk away from this out of fear, or do I stay with it? I went, ‘OK, I’ll run with it instead of away from it.’
“For me, the most important scene in the film is the scene with my mother (Dianne Wiest) and me. She talks about what it’s like to carry pain and grief; it never goes away and evaporates. I find it gut-wrenching. A lot of the performance is not giving over to those hysterical emotions, not collapsing on a heap on the ground, but trying to put one foot in front of the other each day.”

Editor Andrew Andrew Weisblum on “Black Swan”
“It’s never what you worry about during production that becomes your biggest challenge in editing, because that’s what starts out getting the most attention. An example: The scene where Leroy (Vincent Cassel) taps dancers to audition for ‘Swan Lake’ was full of technical challenges: seven hours of footage documentary style — no two takes alike, exposition and characters to establish, dancers in different positions always, Leroy walking and talking throughout the room, and mirrors everywhere. It was intimidating but exciting to edit.”

Docu filmmaker Charles Fergusonon “Inside Job”
“Many of the most potentially interesting people didn’t agree to be interviewed, because they knew that they had something to hide. But overall the greatest challenge was to keep ‘Inside Job’ accessible. A film about the worst financial crisis since the Depression can be a very complicated, dry, dull subject, and I absolutely did not want to make a complicated, dull movie. The underlying reality of what happened is actually pretty simple and clear, and anybody can understand it. I didn’t want to lose sight of that.”

Supporting actor Andrew Garfield on “The Social Network”
“My big worry with Eduardo Saverin is that he would be the girlfriend, the needy girlfriend who gets broken up with, a victim of fate or fortune. But he’s not a victim at all. I wanted him to be justified in everything he did and the decision he made. It could be argued that he didn’t have the same vision as Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), but he had a much more stable value system. And loyalty. His loyalty was important to me. I wanted my relationships with Jesse to be deep and real, and I had to care about him, like a brother I’d forgive anything. Even in arguments, there would be this blood type.
“I did dream about Eduardo and his struggle. We split shooting one scene over two days — the scene when I arrive in Palo Alto at the apartment. We shot half of it, then I went to sleep and had nightmares about breaking up with Jesse, and felt I’d behaved badly. I was already into the guilt stage. I thought, ‘If maybe I’d dealt with it differently.’ Then the other half of me was, ‘No, you are justified, it is your house, they’re messing with your hard-earned money and you’re being taken advantage of.’ It was useful going onto the set the next day with that dream.”

Composer Hans Zimmer on “Inception”
“One of the things that made it very different from other movies is Chris Nolan actually made me write the whole music without seeing the movie first. While that’s sort of a challenge, it also gave me an insight into his way of thinking about not inhibiting my imagination through the mechanics of having to hit cuts. It was fit in with the spirit of the story’s idea of shared dreaming.”

Producer-director-screenwriter Danny Boyle on “127 Hours”
“I was initially worried about sustaining James Franco, really, because he was so on his own. You can talk about (the role) in theory — about spending all day in one place, apart from toilet breaks — but in reality, it could drive a person insane. But he handled it brilliantly.
“With ‘127 Hours,’ basically, we exploited the opportunity that you only get once in your career — when you have a success like ‘Slumdog.’ And then, obviously, you set off this worry among people that this is going to be a vanity project, because you can see in their eyes they’re thinking, ‘Is this his lunatic project and three people are going to turn up and watch it?’
“One of things that I have as a blessing is when I put my head on a pillow, that’s it. I can just sleep. So I was OK on this film. We worked very hard deliberately and pushed everybody to get the film out at this time of year. Because with a film like this, which is potentially difficult to sell, we wanted it out during this season when you get a bit longer run. We pushed ourselves very hard to get it ready for now. I think the energy in which we approached it bleeds into the film. The way you make a film bleeds into the texture of the film.”

Production designer Robert Stromberg on “Alice in Wonderland”
“The biggest challenge I faced on ‘Alice’ was coming in with a fresh perspective. I had just been through nearly four years of intense work on ‘Avatar’ and suddenly had to change gears creatively. Here we were creating another world, and I didn’t want ‘Avatar’ to influence that.”

Producer Darla K. Anderson on “Toy Story 3”
“I think it was the humans. That’s something we didn’t have the technology to get right in the original ‘Toy Story,’ where we shot the humans from the knees down. It was so important that these humans be spot-on within our stylized world to convey all the emotion that was happening. We knew from the beginning that the ending would be a gentle scene with lots of nuanced acting. We didn’t want the humans to be photoreal, but we wanted them to not be a distraction by being unattractive.”

Actor Colin Firth on “The King’s Speech”
“There was no guarantee that any of this was going to work. Even misjudging the stammer could’ve been a catastrophe. If it had been inauthentic, it would’ve been just too difficult for people to listen to. Tom Hooper was very vigilant in how far to take things like the stammer, how intense it should be in certain scenes. So I felt very much in his hands on that.
“One of the scenes that I worried about the most was where I talk about the traumas of childhood, because I didn’t want there to be any kind of ‘poor me.’ If there was any suggestion of self-pity, particularly from a member of the royal family, that would kill us. So it was very important to me that this was a character who didn’t wallow in his misery, and used humor to subvert that, and who had enough wit not to seem syrupy and earnest. Those things I think worried me the most.”

Cinematographer Roger Deakins on “True Grit”
“On the first day of the shoot, we went to this location 120 miles from Santa Fee. There was a blizzard. We’re standing in this white-out. What can we shoot? We had the actors we needed for another sequence where we needed snow, but it was back in Santa Fee. So we went back to Santa Fe. That was our first day, and it was a taste of what was to come. We were always chasing the weather.”

Visual effects supervisors Janek Sirrs & Ben Snow on “Iron Man 2”
Sirrs: “If I had to single out a particularly tricky visual effects moment, I’d probably have to go with the deployment of the ‘suitcase’ suit. Working out how to cram a 6-foot-5 metal suit into something the size of briefcase required a great deal of collective head scratching and plenty of failed concepts before landing on the final successful version seen in the finished picture.”
Snow: “The challenge of ‘Iron Man 2’ was to both improve the realism of the visual effects that was so important to director Jon Favreau and our team but also make the action more spectacular than the first film.”

Director/screenwriter Lisa Cholodenko on “The Kids Are All Right”
“The nightmares were, was I representing these characters and this topic — gay marriage, sperm donors — in a way that I felt good about? I didn’t want to be precious about it. I didn’t want to have a gay agenda. Collectively, Annette Bening, (co-screenwriter) Stuart Blumberg and I felt anything sanctimonious or overtly politically correct would not be good for the film. It was a tricky balance. What it required was that Stuart and I had to dig deep into these characters so they transcended their sexual identities, and became a human story.
“Filming in 23 days with a $3.5 million budget seemed impossible. My blood pressure went through the roof. Was I squandering this script, which took four years to write? That was a bit of a living nightmare until I got on the set. It was a kismet with the right people and there was enormous goodwill. But I don’t know if I’d want to have that task again.”

Supporting Actress Barbara Hershey on “Black Swan”
“We’re looking at all these characters through the eyes of Nina (Natalie Portman). The movie is from Nina’s point of view. But you can’t really play someone else’s point of view. We can find anybody inside our ourselves. I had to go inside and find the truth of this mother Erica, and mainly the truth was in the contradictions. There’s the scene where Erica gives Nina the cake. She is thrilled for her daughter, but cake is sabotage for any ballerina. It’s a perverse thing. And when Nina doesn’t want the cake, Erica starts to throw it away, then basically forces her to eat some cake. There’s a lot going on there. How does someone who is mentally ill take care of someone who is mentally ill? Erica is not the mother from hell; she is a mother in hell.
“With most movies, the real regret is not feeling used up. You go home and wish you’d tried it this other way. Darren Aronofsky has you do it 10 ways, so you’re used up in a great way. It was cathartic, and so my dreams after being on the set all day were quite peaceful.”

Related links:
Pushing past the doubt

More Scene

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content