Cinephile’s dream at Santa Barbara

Directors talk about choice at panel discussion

While sports fans may have been focused on football over the weekend, for movie lovers, the Lobero Theater at the Santa Barbara Film Fest was the place to be. The fest’s opening weekend featured a pair of writing and directing panels that collectively comprise a cinephile’s Super Bowl. All of this year’s Oscar-nominated helmers and five nominated scribes attended one of the fest’s panels, an admirable turnout for its silver anniversary.

Moderating Sunday’s Directors on Directing panel, Variety VP and editorial director Peter Bart grilled the participants on issues of creative control, funding and sequels. Among the themes emerging from both panels: the notion of creative independence, specifically the idea that an artist can flourish despite — and, paradoxically, because of — limitations imposed on the creative process. Bart asked Kathryn Bigelow if she intended to seek a bigger budget for her forthcoming South America-set drama given the recent awards for “The Hurt Locker.” “No,” she replied, having learned that “with a more modest budget you get to retain more creative control.” But “modest,” she insisted, is a relative term; for the ambitious scope of a project like “Avatar,” that film’s budget might have felt comparatively modest. “That’s right,” quipped James Cameron. “We could have used a lot more money.”

The benefits of parameters came up again when Quentin Tarantino (“Inglourious Basterds”) said he had been tempted to direct an animated film until he became daunted by the prospect of the milieu’s limitless possibilities. “If you can do anything, then what do you do?” he lamented. Peter Docter (“Up”) explained that a Pixar creative pillar is to establish a set of consistent rules within a film that will facilitate an audience’s “investment and belief in the characters. You set it up in subtle ways early on,” thereby convincing them that, say, a house could be airborne by a bundle of balloons.

Cameron chimed in on Tarantino’s dilemma, noting “an infinity of choices is not a luxury” and quoting a popular 1980 tune: “Freedom of choice is what you got; freedom from choice is what you want.” Bigelow agreed, quoting, “Art is born of restraint and dies of freedom.” That prompted Cameron to note self-mockingly, “Kathryn quotes Andre Gide; here I am quoting Devo.”

At Saturday’s It Starts With the Script, IndieWire’s Anne Thompson queried panelists on their respective sources of inspiration and memorable development challenges. The importance of casting was iterated during both panels, as Bigelow, Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”), Lee Daniels and Geoffrey Fletcher (“Precious”) all agreed that known actors, for better or worse, bring with them the baggage of audience expectations and associations. Scribe Mark Boal said he’d never imagined Jeremy Renner for the lead in “Hurt Locker,” having seen him in “Dahmer,” but it was Renner’s lack of fame that made him a perfect candidate for the part. Some stars’ baggage can, of course, enhance a film when a writer gets the thesp he’s envisioned. Helmer-scribe Jason Reitman openly acknowledged writing “Up in the Air” with George Clooney in mind; he also admitted he’s wanted Clooney for “Thank You for Smoking” — but had not been so lucky.

Asked how to overcome a creative roadblock, Reitman recalled the advice Judd Apatow had given him during a Santa Barbara panel in 2008. “Write the last few scenes in the movie. Then you’ll already think you’re done.”