J.C. Chandor (“All Is Lost”), Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”), Scott Cooper (“Out of the Furnace”), Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) and John Wells (“August: Osage County”) joined in a Focus on Directors panel that Variety sponsored at the Mill Valley Film Festival on Oct. 12. What follows are excerpts of the session, moderated by Variety deputy features editor Peter Caranicas.
What attracted each of you to the story behind your film?
Chandor: There’s a letter that opens “All Is Lost.” It’s a kind of death letter, which is the base of any survival film. I wrote that, and it sat around for probably five or six months, and then I slowly started to collect a narrative around it. It was an idea that wouldn’t go away. I was doing some other jobs at the time, and I was editing “Margin Call” but just built from that one little kernel.
Coogler: I saw the handheld footage of an unarmed guy being shot and killed for pretty much no reason. And the guy looked like me, he wore clothes like mine, his friends are like my friends. I went through a whole range of emotions. Out of those feelings I got the idea to work on (“Fruitvale Station”).
Cooper: After “Crazy Heart” was released and met with some acclaim, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to tell next. I felt this responsibility to shine a light on some of the things that were occurring in the American narrative — a crumbling Rust Belt economy, soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with no way to assimilate back into American society. And also a man, played by Christian Bale, who was beset on all sides by a relentless fate. I read about this small dying steel town in Pennsylvania called Braddock. I felt I could set a narrative there.
Wells: I saw Tracy Letts’ play before I knew I’d have anything to do with it. Then I met with Harvey Weinstein and he said, “Oh, you ought to direct ‘August: Osage County.’ ” And I said, “Sure.” Harvey tends to say things like that sometimes, and you don’t really ever hear anything about it. But I got back to my office and they said, “Well, I guess you’re doing ‘August: Osage County.’” So I spent a couple of wonderful years back and forth with Tracy Letts working on a screenplay.
McQueen: I wanted to make a comment about slavery. For me it hadn’t been given a cinematic treatment, which I wanted to investigate. I liked the idea that someone was free and has been kidnapped and taken to this maze of slavery. My wife said to me, “Why don’t you look into true accounts of slavery?” We came across the book “12 Years a Slave.” It’s very strange to have an idea and then see it in a book within weeks from starting a project. I was upset with myself that I didn’t know this book, but then I found out no one knew it. It was a mesmerizing book. I live in Amsterdam; it was like reading Anne Frank’s diary for the first time. A first-hand account of slavery. That was my passion, that’s the film I wanted to make.
All of your films are independent dramatic features, the kinds of movies the major studios are shying away from these days. … How do you manage to get them financed and made?
Chandor: My original script is only 31 pages long, so it goes against the grain. But we found the right budget that made sense, and Lionsgate came on board along with Roadside Attractions, who had produced my first film. It was based on the script and the actor. And then Universal Pictures Intl. bought about 95% of the world in a two-day period. The business model made sense to them. They never felt overexposed financially and let us deliver the exact movie that was in that first 31 pages. We had no equity player in the film. It was bank-financed, and in a way it gave us as great of a freedom. All we had to do was hand in a movie that somewhat resembled that original document. It’s Robert Redford not speaking for an hour and 45 minutes, so it’s not your average pitch.
Coogler: Our film was made for just a little bit under a million dollars. When I was finishing up my last year of film school, Forest Whitaker’s production company was looking for a filmmaker to mentor. I went in, had a meeting with Nina Yang, who was running the company. She said, “I’ve seen your short films.” I showed her some new stuff I’d written. She said, “I’d like to get you in to sit down with Forest.” I was nervous as hell, didn’t know what to wear or anything. I met him and told him about the Fruitvale story, and he said, “Great, I want to help you make that.” And then he shook my hand and left the room. Then, once I delivered the script we were able to raise a little bit more money and really got a lot of help from the Sundance Institute and the San Francisco Film Society.
One theme that runs through all of your films is violence. It’s overt in “Slave” and “Furnace.” “Fruitvale Station” centers on an act of violence. In “August,” there’s emotional violence; in “Lost” it’s the violence of nature.
Cooper: Conflict is the essence of drama. In my particular instance, there is violence in the picture. It was about training the spotlight on the fact that 46 million people live in poverty, that we’re a violent nation, and I thought the movie would be a way to highlight what people are going through in Oakland, Detroit or Damascus. It was important to me that we not make the violence feel gratuitous but emotional.
McQueen: I don’t think we should kid ourselves: Violence is the reason why we’re all here. And love is the reason why we’re all here. For 400 years, people were kept in slavery. But on the flip side, love and survival are the main character. Solomon Northup survives his ordeal for 12 years — and wants and needs to survive because of his love for his family.
Coogler: It’s really interesting and cool to be up here with you guys talking about Steve’s film. I just saw it last night. It had a profound effect on me. Among African-American males, the most common cause of death from age 16 to 35 is homicide. That’s in 2013. The most likely way for me or somebody who looks like me is to die is to have their life taken away from them through violent means. That’s something I live with as a person. What comes through in a filmmaker’s words is the realities of violence they deal with. My life wasn’t dissimilar to the life of my character. What comes for us at the end of a gun is very real, very tangible: It’s something that terrifies me. And what Steve is talking about is the flip side of that. I think about the people I love and not being able to be around them anymore. Violence exists at the opposite end of the spectrum of love. That’s basically at the essence of all conflict.
(Pictured: The packed crowd at the Mill Valley Film Festival heard the five directors tackle topics including the role of violence in film.)