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Directors Talk Assembling Below-the-Line Dream Teams

It’s one of the oldest truisms about filmmaking — that 90% of directing is all about the casting. And like so many truisms, there’s a lot of truth to it, but it only gets it half right: As much as directors depend on casting every single role exactly right, and working with actors to ensure that every performance is fine-tuned to execute their vision, equally if not more important is the casting of the below-the-line crew.

Directors tend to have just as long-running relationships with crew members as they do with repeat actors — from DPs and editors to sound designers and camera operators — and often look to new collaborations to bring out fresh sides to both parties. And ensuring that every member of the film’s crafts team is on the same page can be just as key, and just as time-consuming, as working out cast dynamics.

“Casting the crew is not dissimilar to casting actors,” says “Baby Driver” director Edgar Wright, who aimed for a blend of old collaborators and new for his car-chase musical. “In ‘Baby Driver,’ the cool thing was that I got to work with a lot of people I’d worked with for many years. It was my third movie with my DP Bill Pope. The same production designer that I’ve always worked with. My editors, I’ve worked with for over a decade. But there were also new people to cast – [choreographer] Ryan Heffington was someone new to work with, because I needed a choreographer who could be there for the entire shoot. My stunt guy that I used on the last two movies wasn’t really a car specialist, so I asked around for, ‘who’s the car guy?’ which turned out to be [stunt coordinator] Darrin Prescott, who can kind of do anything, and is also particularly great with cars. It was kind of a perfect blend.”

Wright singles out his locations department and second-unit team for their work pulling off the film’s big setpieces in the middle of Atlanta, and adds that his secret for crew cohesiveness involved a sense of transparency.

“I think basically your job with the crew and the actors becomes the same thing, which is: Make sure everyone is making the same movie,” Wright says. “You just have to get everybody on the same page, and the thing that I do, which not all directors do, is I basically try to share everything with everybody. It’s not like everyone just has the script: Everybody’s got the [story] boards, everybody’s got the music. The only way to get through it is to have the right people for the job, and make them feel empowered within their department, and also share all the information with them.”

For “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson, approaching the massive undertaking of an effects-driven film involved turning to some of the directors oldest collaborators, including DP Steve Yedlin, whom the director has known since he was a freshman at USC, and whom he credits with showing “me how to load a film camera, and he’s shot every film I’ve done since then.”

But of course, there were plenty of new faces on the scene, and he singled out production designer Rick Heinrichs to Variety.

“The tactile feeling of having a set felt really important for this movie,” Johnson says. “We built a lot. I think we had 120-140 sets for a 110-day shoot. Beyond the tremendous work of Rick and his team, it was a massive logistical undertaking. It was like a big Tetris game fitting all the sets into our available soundstages, shooting them, and then immediately knocking them down to build a new set.

“Rick is an incredible collaborator. There is something specific and tricky about a ‘Star Wars’ movie. You’re chasing a wisp of smoke, which is ‘Does it feel like “Star Wars”?’ Rick and I got on same page early about the feel we wanted with the sets; he would then work with designers who were tuned into the aesthetic. ‘Star Wars’ is not science-fiction, it’s not futurism; it’s almost like a period piece — and the period that you’re after is ‘a Star Wars world of the mind’ that you played in when you were a kid. It’s a very specific and delicate aesthetic to capture and I think Rick knocked it out of the park.”

For “The Post,” Steven Spielberg once again teamed with his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and thanks to their extensive working relationship, the two were able to pull off nimble shots, such as the scene in which the Washington Post team first pores through the Pentagon Papers — out of order and without page numbers — in the living room of editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks).

Spielberg says: “The characters are reading the Pentagon Papers to each other, but the page numbers had been cut off because that’s where the top secret stamps were. So the news team had to figure out how to collate this into a cogent document. I kind of took on the role: ‘If I was allowed in the room with one camera, and had to use my ears and lens to capture what was grabbing my attention, what would a scene like that look like?’ That was philosophy; we basically did the shoot with one camera. There were many set-ups, but not multiple cameras. I wanted to hear something that grabbed me and swing the camera to see who had just said that and grabbed my focus.”

But how does a director know exactly whom to cast in starring roles for his below-the-line-crew? What are the most important attributes a new collaborator should have? For “Logan” director James Mangold, who worked with his longtime editor Mike McCusker and production designer Francois Audouy, as well as a platoon of new collaborators, there are a host of intangible qualities.

“The first thing you’re looking for if it’s someone you haven’t worked with before is the quality of their portfolio; that’s the first prerequisite to get in the door,” Mangold says. “Then, a much bigger issue for me, bigger even than the quality of the portfolio, is the ability to articulate themselves about creative choices. I always say being a director is like being a brain in a jar: You can’t really touch anything, so your mouth is your only tool to evangelize, manipulate, cajole, and encourage people to get onboard your vision. The most important thing is an ability to talk and converse.

“I often joke about the ways different department heads can get focused on based on what their friends will say: What they’ll say to you back at the ASC clubhouse, the crap they’ll get from their peers. Like, ‘that night scene doesn’t look like night,’ or ‘where did that backlight come from?’ And I don’t give a shit about that. I think too many of us operate in a world where we’re thinking about our peers and not about our audience, and then a lot of the movie gets spent thinking about this very inside-the-Beltway type of criticism, as opposed to how the audience feels. So I’m very sensitive to someone who has too many rules about what they do and don’t do.”

It follows, then, that Mangold puts a premium on collaborators and craftsmen who see themselves as part of a larger whole. “Can they get along with others? Do I sense a sort of narcissism, or a protectionism about turf? This particular brain in a jar, meaning me, is not very understanding about turf. I understand unions, I understand professionalism. But I don’t like it when the boom guy gets picked on just because he’s lower-ranking. I don’t like it when the costume designer and the production designer aren’t attached at the hip. If my days are spent sorting out squabbles, that’s exhausting, and the energy I spend sorting them out could have been spent filmmaking. I love it when a costume designer has a great script note. I love it when a production designer comes to me and suggests where we could put the camera. I love it when the DP comes to me and says, ‘I think this actor can go further.’ I love it when my collaborators are also my friends and compatriots, and they all feel free to be a part of making the movie, not just their piece of the movie.”

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