After 23 studio releases, master filmmaker Ridley Scott begins each new project the exact same way. The iconic director, whose fall blockbuster “The Martian” has earned Scott his best reviews in years, still sits down and sketches out every single shot in his movies the old-fashioned way — on paper.
“I start quick on pencil and then I fill in with these gray felt tips with a fine felt tip. I do the whole film,” Scott says. “ ‘Black Hawk Down,’ that was a nightmare, 11 cameras. I’d do each fragment of what I wanted. There were three cameras in each corner. So, I would just put my head down and sketch, ‘This, this, this, this.’”
Scott’s approach appears to be consistent over the years, but many of his peers, such as Todd Haynes and Danny Boyle, have their own perspective on tackling new films. Haynes took on the directing duties of the early ’50s drama “Carol” aware that one of his most acclaimed and well-known pictures, “Far From Heaven,” was set toward the end of the same decade. But Haynes says if you assume he has a “thing” for that era you’re mistaken. In his mind “Heaven” was filtered through the language of high melodrama backlot filmmaking, while “Carol” was inspired by the photo documentation and journalism prevalent in 1952. That being said, he made sure he didn’t reference his previous work.
Haynes recalls walking into the color-timing suite where cinematographer Edward Lachman was already hard at work adjusting a number of shots. Realizing the color palette looked slightly too familiar, he said he immediately told the d.p.: “ ‘Wait! Ed, that’s “Far From Heaven.” And he was like, ‘Omigod. You’re right.’ We were both like, ‘No, it’s not Technicolor. It’s not over saturation.’ It’s about this more subtle, more soiled color palette that we both love and he totally dug.”
For the always-energetic Boyle, who won the director Oscar for “Slumdog Millionaire,” it’s hard to fathom a signature style because his goal is to address each film with a “certain naiveté.”
“When you arrive at the question of ‘Hey, how you going to direct it?’ You want to have a sort of freshness and innocence about you,” Boyle says. “You’re not feeling overconfident really about how you do it because you are trying to discover it through that process and a lot of it, for me, is that you try and work through the actors more.”
Like Haynes, however, Boyle is smart enough to realize when the viewer may recognize a reference to an earlier film, even if it’s not an intended one. Hence the unexpected “Steve Jobs” and “Trainspotting” connection moviegoers may have caught.
In the Universal Pictures biopic there is a scene where star Michael Fassbender, as Jobs, is doing yoga. Before filming commenced Boyle recalls thinking, ‘‘He’s upside down, why is that?’ And you could track that back and I do remember thinking, ‘We’re not gonna do that? Bloody hell, no, it looks great. Let’s do this.’ It’s an important moment where Jobs appears to have everything he wants and you show him upside (down) to just sort of cast some doubts on that, I suppose.”
Like Haynes, Boyle’s perspective is that the material dictates how a scene is filmed and if that reminds audiences of a previous picture he helmed? Well, so be it.
A relatively new director compared to many in the awards-season mix, Scott Cooper has already made a name for himself guiding standout performances from some of Hollywood’s most talented actors including Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart,” Zoe Saldana in “Out of the Furnace” and, most recently, Johnny Depp in “Black Mass.” He is purposely sticking to a directing style that he hopes trumps any signature aesthetic.
“The kind of films I hope to make are the kind of films where you don’t feel the director’s hand. I don’t like the audience to recognize or feel the camera,” Cooper says. “It’s much easier to move the camera than not and I have a much more restrained cinematic style that allows my actors to flourish and allows the world to feel it’s not being overly manipulated.”
On the flip side, legendary director George Miller reminds directors both young and old that no matter what your initial plan was, once you get on set “you’ve got to be able to adjust it.”
Miller adds, “You’re driven by the story and the characters. And you’re driven by the technical realities of what you’re trying to achieve. So, if you’re sitting there thinking about what the fans will think that’s another voice that you don’t need to hear.”
After 30 years of diving into more serious drama and fetching an Academy Award for the animated feature “Happy Feet,” Miller returned to the post-apocalyptic world that announced his arrival in global cinema with “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The critically lauded epic took over a decade to get off the ground, but Miller realizes that with any artistic endeavor fit for public consumption at some point all those years of work will belong to someone else — the audience.\
“Someone said to me, once a film gets out there and people respond to it in different ways then it’s no longer the filmmaker’s story, it’s everybody’s story,’” Miller says. “You have to think about putting all your skills and wisdoms into the process. What comes out on the other end people are going to grab hold of or not.”