As awards season shifts into high gear, acclaimed directors, actors, producers, screenwriters, composers, animators and more — headlined by the likes of directors Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Ryan Coogler — joined Variety for the virtual FYC Fest, dedicated to highlighting this year’s most celebrated films. Over the course of multiple panels, Variety editors and writers spoke with the creatives behind some of this year’s biggest awards season contenders about how their critically-lauded films came to be.
Here are the six biggest takeaways from this year’s virtual FYC Fest.
‘Big’ Movies Don’t Have to Be Action Blockbusters
During the Making of “The Fabelmans” panel, director Steven Spielberg was joined by many of the film’s creatives, such as producer Kristie Macosko, editor Michael Kahn and more, to talk about how they brought the longtime director’s autobiographical story to life. During the conversation, they discussed the film’s size and scale feeling much smaller than the blockbusters Spielberg has helmed in the past. He remarked that he didn’t see the film in terms of scale, but rather one that was so personal that he felt “shy” for decades about telling it.
“These stories have always existed within me, and these stories have always been part of my life cycle. And yet as a private person, which I fervently am, to go public with some of these secrets was hard for me,” Spielberg said. “But when the decision came to actually turn it into a film, that was probably the greatest leap of faith I’ve ever had to take, especially in recent years. So I don’t see it as a small film, I just see it as a very intimate one.”
Representation in Animation Is Just as Important as Live-Action
During the Animation Directors panel, Domee Shi, Henry Selick, Don Hall, Pierre Perifel and Mark Gustafson talked at length about their recent animated efforts such as “Turning Red,” “Wendell & Wild,” “The Bad Guys” and more. A prominent conversation topic was about diversity and representation, in which Shi and Selick recalled efforts to increase representation of diverse main characters in their films.
“I honestly just used this feature film project as an outlet, as a way to finally share all of my experiences, my emotions during that time and hope that people could relate to that,” Shi said of “Turning Red.” “And that girls now are able to see a lot of themselves in this animated feature film, and they have a piece of media that can show them, ‘Look, growing up is messy and confusing and kind of ‘effed up. But everyone goes through it and it’s totally normal… and you’re going to be fine.’ Because I wish I had that while I was growing up and Mei’s age.”
Honoring Different Cultures Through Musical Representation
The Music of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” panel saw director Ryan Coogler, composer Ludwig Göransson and music supervisor Dave Jordan discuss how music became a driving force behind the Marvel Studios sequel in the absence of franchise star Chadwick Boseman. Conversations were had about one of the film’s central themes focusing on grief, and how to represent that through Shuri’s theme, while pulling from the cultural frameworks that the film’s factions are inspired by.
In the case of the Namor character and the underwater city of Talokan, Göransson talked about the cultural trips he took to learn about Mayan history, finding inspiration for composing Namor’s theme and the sound of Talokan. “We went to Mexico and Yucatán, working with music archeologists that are experts in their field, they can reimagine what the sounds of the Mayans were, and what the music of the Mayans were, because that culture and that music was forcibly erased a long time ago,” Göransson said. “So, we’ll never really understand exactly what the music sounded like, but we can try as best as we can, to try to reimagine what that would be.”
Rian Johnson, James Gray, Edward Burger and William Nicholson Dive Into the Obscurities of Screenwriting
The Screenplay panel saw Rian Johnson, the writer, director and producer of “Knives Out” and its 2022 sequel “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” join screenwriters James Gray (“Armageddon Time”), Edward Burger (“All Quiet on the Western Front” and William Nicholson (“Thirteen Lives”) for a conversation on the obstacles faced during the writing process and the weirdest script notes they’d ever received.
“I wrote a script for Glenn Close way back, that actually never got made, but it was about the Ebola outbreak in Central Africa, and she was supposed to play the CDC scientist who solved it,” Nicholson revealed. “And then they ran into all sorts of worries about white savior syndrome, and so the note came back, ‘Could you make her be a Belgian nun?'”
As the panelists erupted into laughter, Johnson joked he had gotten the same note about Bruce Willis’ performance as an assassin in the 2012 action-thriller “Looper”: “The Belgian nun thing was having a moment.”
Ron Howard and Viggo Mortensen Talk ‘Thirteen Lives’ Inspiration
Ron Howard, director of the biographical survival feature “Thirteen Lives,” led a panel with the film’s star, Viggo Mortensen, who plays the heroic cave diver who devises a rescue plan for a group of young boys trapped in a rapidly flooding cave. As emergency rescue units from across the globe worked in tandem to bring the boys to safety, Howard explained he was inspired by the humanity that arose from 2018 tragedy, which sparked the idea for the film.
“What rescuers did there in Thailand when they managed to save these boys was they gave us proof,” Howard said. “They gave us a case study in what is possible in this sort of cross-cultural collaboration, ignoring politics, ignoring a lot of personal risk, not just physical, but also career emotional, all of these things. And I think that’s why you choose to do these true stories.”
Immense prep was required for the project, Howard revealed, to the extent that co-star Colin Farrell practiced underwater diving to get a feel for the equipment. A water unit and a dialogue unit filmed simultaneously during the shoot, which also needed to be planned well in advance of production. Mortensen added that the presence of some of the actual survivors in advisor roles on the production was extremely effective in priming the cast and crew for production as well.
‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’ Filmmakers Bring Beloved Character to New Generations
“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” director Joel Crawford, co-director Januel Mercado, head of story Heidi Jo Gilbert, production designer Nate Wragg, editor Jim Ryan and composer Heitor Pereira all joined for a spotlight conversation about the upcoming spinoff of the beloved “Shrek” franchise.
After a decade-long hiatus since the last film in the franchise was released, DreamWorks Animation’s upcoming feature sees the feline bounty hunter (voiced by Antonio Banderas) on the last of his nine lives, which does little to hamper his signature fearlessness.
“It’s so absurd; it’s such a fairytale idea that a cat has nine lives,” Crawford said in regard to developing the film’s concept. “I don’t know where that came from, but it’s so ridiculous. But then as a team, when we were talking about what’s this movie about, we boiled it down to, ‘Wow, how special is that to focus on how Puss has one life left.’ As human beings we’re all just gifted with one life, and we really wanted to combine that absurdity with that beautiful reality of life.”