When six A-list directors -- Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker); James Cameron (Avatar); Lee Daniels (Precious); Peter Jackson (The Lovely Bones); Jason Reitman (Up in the Air); and Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds) -- gathered recently for a candid discussion of filmmaking, hilarity ensued immediately as they swapped war stories.
DO YOU GUYS CONSIDER YOURSELVES OUTSIDERS OR INSIDERS?
Jason Reitman: Dead silence. (Laughs.)
James Cameron: If we're all outsiders, who's on the inside?
Quentin Tarantino: Well, actually, that's a very interesting question to start off with because I did my first movie in '92, so this was the year I actually counted how long I've been in the business. Officially as a director, that's 17 years, and I think for the first 10 years I did consider myself an outsider. But if you last this long and you're not just doing marginal work -- which could be great work -- but you're not just doing marginal work for the people who like your stuff at film festivals, then I guess you actually kind of are in the inside. I remember going to the Governors Ball dinner and actually feeling like I was part of the room -- that these are my people.
Peter Jackson: I guess I'm the guy with the geographical situation, living in New Zealand. So I definitely feel like an outsider. Like, in New Zealand, we don't film ourselves having breakfast. It just never happens.
Reitman: I've done this every day of my entire life. (Laughs.) My father set up a camera.
Jackson: To me, this is an alien culture. Hollywood is the other side of the world and it's another planet.
EVEN THOUGH YOU DIRECTED ONE OF THE MOST WELL-RECEIVED TRILOGIES IN FILM HISTORY.
Jackson: I'm not really thinking about filmmaking as such. I'm thinking about the culture of Hollywood and the business. We're so far removed from it, which I like. I'll be staying down there, having my breakfast in peace and quiet.
Cameron: I'd like to answer his question for him. You're an outsider by process but you're an insider by the types of films that you make. You love the big spectacle films.
Jackson: Yeah, sure I do.
Cameron: And I think I'm probably the same in the sense that I like to make films for the mainstream, for the global audience. I'm not interested in making a film for film-festival crowds. I'd just as soon not meet people and talk about the movie. And I don't mean that in some disdainful way, it's just the movie should be the movie. But I don't consider myself a Hollywood insider in the sense that, well, first of all, I didn't have an agent for 15 years and don't have a manager, don't have a publicist, I just like to live quietly and stay out of the public view as much as possible. I don't go to parties, don't do lunches, don't do dinners, I just like to hang with the fam when I have free time. So I guess that's an outsider by process and insider by result, maybe.
Lee Daniels: I feel like an outsider, and even the films I've produced have been done in Harlem and I only come here to cast. I never felt embraced.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE STRONG RESPONSE IN HOLLYWOOD TO PRECIOUS?
Daniels: It's really nice. Now I feel sort of embraced. I feel this weird, sort of, Am I part of (Hollywood)? Oh my God, I guess I am. I don't know.
KATHRYN, YOU'VE SEEN FILMMAKING FROM INSIDE AND OUTSIDE THE SYSTEM, CORRECT?
Kathryn Bigelow: Actually, all my films have been independent. So even though some people think they're studio films, they were only studio at the end of the day when we had a distributor.
OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS STUDIOS HAVE BEGUN QUESTIONING THE VALUE OF CASTING STAR ACTORS. DO YOU AGREE?
Bigelow: You cast not for marquee value but for performance and talent. The right actor for the part. Anything else is a compromise.
Daniels: I like working with friends that I'm comfortable with, that know my DNA and also fit the character descriptions. I'd rather work with someone I know personally than a mega-star or a really talented, brilliant actor.
Reitman: George (Clooney) made my movie so much easier to make. And most importantly he was perfect for the part. But there was just as much interest in Ellen Page playing Juno as there has been in George playing Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air. So it was a blessing to get the movie made, but once we were making it, he was perfect for it, and now that we're actually putting it out there, I've found that there's just as much excitement about what he's bringing to the role as there was about this young girl who's playing Juno.
Bigelow: I found the same thing with Jeremy Renner. Same kind of interest. Who is this guy?
BUT JIM, YOU MUST HAVE KNOWN YOU'D HAVE AN EASIER TIME INTERESTING A MASSIVE AUDIENCE IN AVATAR IF YOU'D PUT A MAJOR STAR IN THE LEAD ROLE.
Cameron: We figured we were going to be spending so much on the effects that there wasn't going to be a whole lot of coin left when you turn the bag upside down to hire a $20 million actor. And I think the studio felt the same way. I'm comfortable working with unknowns or relative unknowns and making my own judgments on whether they're the right people for the roles. The only real stars I've worked with were Sigourney (Weaver) and Arnold (Schwarzenegger), if you think about it. I worked with Arnold three times but the first time he wasn't a movie star yet. He's a friend and Sigourney's a friend, so I feel very comfortable working with them. For me to work with a star, it's not something I wouldn't consider, but I'd have to do my due diligence, find out what they're like, get to know them. Find out if we can be eye-to-eye.
WHAT'S THE TOUGHEST SCENE TO FILM?
Daniels: There was a dance scene, a party scene in Precious where Precious got her award. And it didn't feel like a party to me. It didn't feel real, it didn't feel honest. I fixed it to my liking in post where I actually went into parties and the environment and actually put a mike around and brought words and sentences and phrases into the scene to make it honest.
Tarantino: The scenes that always give me trepidation leading up to them are the big cinematic scenes, big action scenes. Because I don't want to be a piker. I want them to be awesome, all right. So if I'm doing the car chase in Death Proof I want it to be one of the greatest car chases of all time. But I've never shot a car chase before. Part of it, if you haven't done it before, is you're gonna learn how to do it as you do it. You gotta know, I'm not going to know exactly how to do it on the first day, but I'll figure it out over the course of it and that's going to be cool.
Bigelow: Shooting in a Palestinian refugee camp, there was a lot of trepidation. Everybody said, That can't be done. We had a little extra security. (But) I was determined to shoot there, architecturally it was perfect and you know what it's like when you get it in your head, this is where you want to shoot.
THE DIRECTOR RENOIR MADE A LOT OF FILMS AND THEN STOPPED TO WRITE NOVELS. IS THERE ANYTHING YOU'D CONSIDER DOING INSTEAD OF DIRECTING?
Tarantino: I intend to quit at 60 (he's now 46). And I'm going to do exactly what he did. I'm going to write novels and cinema literature, stuff like that.
Cameron: I want to die directing. But I took my hiatus already because I figured I can still be directing when I'm 80 but I can't be doing the deep ocean expeditions, riding around in a zodiac on a 20-foot sea when I'm 80, I'll break my neck.
Daniels: I'd like to teach acting in the Bronx.
Reitman: I'd want to tell stories in one way or another, whether it was just convincing people to listen to me or whether I became I writer.
Jackson: There's one area of directing that I'd love to improve upon. I tend to get involved in big movies that take two or three years of your life and I see what Clint Eastwood does and what Ridley Scott does, and they're able to do those films and also mix it up with these in-n-out, seven- or eight-month (films). I think that's a real skill and talent. I'd love to learn how to do that. So not everything took three years for one project. I'd love to reinvent the way I work, to some degree.