Back when I was dumber than I am now, I was talking with a friend about where I would best fit in the industry. He told me that any job that exists outside of film exists within it -cop, reporter, you name it. Eventually I said with some resignation, ‘I’ll just direct’. My friend retorted, ‘That’s like saying I’ll just be CEO’. After that shot of perspective, I understood the importance of the director. So it was with great humility I saw three of the best at Film Independent’s Director’s Close-Up.
The event was held at the Landmark Theater and was moderated by Hitfix.com co-founder and editor-in-chief Greg Ellwood. He struck me as a fan boy who worked his ass off to reach his enviable position. The panel of directors consisted of Mike Mills (Beginners), Jonathan Levine (50/50), and Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter). Let me go ahead and be honest and say that I have only seen two of these films, 50/50 and Take Shelter, and so was unfamiliar with Mike Mill’s work. Fascinating then that he left the biggest impression on me at the end of the night. That is to take nothing away from the contributions of the other two.
The panel opened up talking about how their films came to be. This is another reason I could never direct: Not enough patience. Jeff Nichols shot his first film Shotgun Stories in 2004, first festival in 2007, in theaters in 2008. And this was a good film! Jonathan Levine expressed his relief in the hype surrounding 50/50 compared to other projects, people would tell him how good they hear his movie is even though it hasn’t even premiered.
Despite the hype, there was a Cuban Missile Crisis like moment when Levine lost then lead James McAvoy just days away from shooting. Fortunately Joseph Gordon-Levitt came in and the rest is history. This left them little time to rehearse. When asked if he was nervous about the lack of rehearsal, Levine responded that at that point, he was so relieved that the film didn’t just fall apart.
Warning to lazy actors: Mike Mills loves to rehearse, and to take his actors for some Magic Mountain rollercoaster rides to demonstrate the highs and pitfalls and dread associated with love. He defends this by stating that the actors are only willing to go as far as you do. On the flip side, Jeff Nichols does not rehearse. In fact, him and his three-time lead (I’m including the not yet released Mud) Michael Shannon do not even talk except after they are ready to move on. Even then Shannon only asks if he got it or not.
Before showing a scene from Mills’ Beginners, Ellwood asked the director why he chose this scene. He said, ‘Because I’m tired of talking about (Academy Award nominee) Chris Plummer.’ The film came from Mills’ own personal experiences with his father, a 75-year-old widower who suddenly came out and how he dealt with his ‘historical shortcomings.’
Jeff Nichols also writes from personal experiences, but not in any specific way. He said that Take Shelter was written in his first year of marriage- the sudden anxiety that comes over you when you realize that you have something to lose. His was an emotional response to the anxiety of starting a family. Both Mills and Nichols talked about how a good narrative should look as much like a documentary as possible, and their disdain for gadgets and effects. Nichols seemed to both revel and dread the fact that he had the power to stop traffic on his latest film.
When asked if they were worried about their indie success leading to lack of control, all three shrugged that notion off almost with a ‘That could never happen to me’ swagger. Mills made an excellent point questioning what is really independent. He needs financing, stars for the financing, sure only one person paid for his film but it still goes to a large audience. Same game, smaller scale.
Nichols was especially unfettered at the idea of losing control, crediting producer Sarah Green for allowing him both freedom and growth. I was glad to hear that. I saw Take Shelter in that very theater opening weekend (check out my earlier review of the film) and thought (actually still think) it was the best film of the year and Michael Shannon was a sure Best Actor Nom (apparently not). Both Mills and Nichols noted how few people saw their films. Nichols even had those in the theater who had not seen it to raise their hands. Humility comes to CEO’s as well.