October is the Awards Season month where the terms “red eye” and “bonus miles” take on new importance as the key buzz screenings and discussions are driving the top contenders to take to the skies. “12 Years A Slave” helmer Steve McQueen (pictured above) performed the week’s hat trick by participating in Variety’s Focus on Directors panel at the Mill Valley Film Festival on Saturday, October 12, after bowing his film earlier in the week at the New York Film Festival and the next day as the closing night film of the Hamptons Film Festival.
Fellow panelist John Wells also saw his contender “August: Osage County” in New York, Hamptons and Mill Valley, while panelist Ryan Coogler is getting into the heat of the season with his “Fruitvale Station” already having played to acclaim after its Sundance premiere and Cannes bow. JC Chandor’s mileage meter has been on fire since “All is Lost” started generating awards-season heat in Cannes and Telluride. Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace,” his follow-up to his double Oscar-winner “Crazy Heart,” hasn’t preemed yet so the Variety talk was essentially his first public leap into the fray.
Variety features editor Peter Caranicas moderated the wide-ranging talk, as the panelists addressed the challenges of financing and producing independent dramatic features when the studios are looking the other way, targeting high-budget tentpoles – many of which are sequels – replete with spectacular vfx and merchandising opportunities.
Yet, while none of the films discussed during the session features car chases, explosions or zombies, they’re all imbued with violence of a more personal and visceral nature.
“Well I don’t think we should kid ourselves; violence is the reason why we’re all here,” said McQueen. “For 400 years people were kept in slavery. Well, how were they kept in slavery? There was psychological violence… and physical violence… One has to… show that in order to make the narrative of slavery and of the film.”
The violence in Cooper’s “Furnace” takes place in a little-known world of backwoods brutality. The picture also brings the violence of the Iraq war into the psyche of one of the characters.
Coogler’s “Fruitvale” centers on a single act of violence documented in cellphone videos that tore apart a community. Wells’ “August” takes the audience into a family wrenched by emotional violence. And Chandor’s “Lost” is about the violence of nature – and a man’s violence against himself.
Coogler commented that the violence in “Fruitvale” is the kind that young black males face every day, with death by gunshot being the most common cause of mortality among their demographic. He added that he was deeply moved by McQueen’s unflinching portrait of slavery in America.
Cooper addressed the potential pitfalls of writing for specific actors. “For better or for worse, I tend to write — and this can be very dangerous — with actors in mind. I wrote “Crazy Heart” for Jeff Bridges having never met Jeff… and wasn’t going to make it if not with Jeff. And similarly I wrote (“Furnace”) with Christian Bale in mind and didn’t know Christian.”
He added, “I tend to be drawn to actors whose private lives you don’t know much about. Christian is a very private, man as is Jeff, so you’re more readily available to buy what you see on screen.”
Once actors for a project are secured, “It’s all about trust,” said Wells. One of the director’s most important jobs is “making certain you’ve created an environment in which the actors feel safe to try and do their best work.”
Wells explained that at the start of any relationship with a director, actors are “naked and exposed, and completely dependent upon you for the choices that you’re going to make with their work. So there’s an insecurity… at the beginning of the relationship and part of your responsibility is making certain that they understand that you understand what they’re going for.”