Quentin Tarantino, Ridley Scott, Inarritu, Danny Boyle, David O. Russell and Tom Hooper are answering
What’s the biggest challenge facing film, as a whole, today?
Art and Experience: Put six of the world’s greatest filmmakers together in one room, and it’s inevitable they’ll talk about their favorite films. But who’d have thought a visual stylist like Ridley Scott would have chosen an Australian comedy (Muriel’s Wedding) or that David O. Russell would sing the praises of an old British comedy called Hobson’s Choice? Those were some of the surprises that emerged when the filmmakers — Danny Boyle (Steve Jobs), 59; Tom Hooper (The Danish Girl), 43; Alejandro G. Inarritu (The Revenant), 52; Russell (Joy), 57; Scott (The Martian), 78; and Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight), 52 — gathered in an L.A. photo studio on the morning of Nov. 12 to talk about the thing they love most. Another surprise? To see how thrilled Tarantino was to be seated next to Scott — and to hear the story of how Scott called Stanley Kubrick to help fix a problem on his classic Blade Runner.
Alejandro, you’ve gone from indie films to the very expensive Revenant. What went right and what went wrong?
INARRITU A lot of things went right — it’s just that, to make it right, we had to fight a lot. I remember Clint Eastwood said: “You are dealing with horses and snow. Sorry for you.” And I didn’t know. How am I going to shoot a horse? I was having nightmares. And everything was in the mountains, in remote locations and incredibly bad conditions. The weather, it’s like a terrorist: Everything can explode in any moment. This was like rock climbing without the rope. Once we established the rules of the film language, we couldn’t change and say, “Oh, let’s go to a blue screen,” because [the film] will collapse. There is no way back when you are rock climbing. You go up or you die.
TARANTINO We had a lot of the same issues. And one of the things that prepared me for that was watching a documentary about Apocalypse Now and hearing [cinematographer Vittorio] Storaro talking about creating an aesthetic: “Once you do, you can’t go back.” I told that to the crew, I go: “We’re going to create this thing, and we can’t go backward. If that means it takes us three months to do this scene, because we have to match that snowfall, then that’s what we have to do.”
How do you deal with the studio in those situations?
TARANTINO They backed us. Everyone knew what the problem was, all right? It’s not that we’re jerking off. They all see what the problem is, they all know what we’re trying to do. They trust us. They like the project in the first place, so they double down.
INARRITU This is an art form and it’s a business form; that’s why it’s so contradictory, so exciting and at the same time so nasty. But we responded responsibly [to the] circumstances. When we went out there, the budget we all signed was $90 million to $95 million — and we knew that was already dangerous because we could confront problems. Well, guess what? It was the hottest winter in the history of Calgary, which changed weather seven times a day, easily. And we were there in February, running out of snow. Now we were chasing ice, and it was really difficult. That impacted the postproduction because then we were running out of time, so then it cost more money. Was it our fault? No. We responded correctly. There was no indulgence.
SCOTT Planning is a big thing. Who’s your line producer? He may need his head slapped. I’m a strategist because I’ve had so much experience [with] 2,000 commercials, every which way: upside down, in lakes, under water, in snow. And that’s a textbook you’re never going to get in the career as a filmmaker. Watch the problem coming over the horizon, and if it’s a problem, knock its head off before it gets near you.
HOOPER Sometimes your most urgent battles are lack of time and lack of money, lack of resources. And yet we all find ways to render this fight invisible. So when you see the final film, you’re not aware of what the directors were really facing. I had a screenplay [The Danish Girl] with 184 scenes and 44 days to shoot it — four scenes every day. And in the U.K. system, it’s always a strict 11-hour day.
What’s the biggest challenge facing film, as a whole, today?
SCOTT The problem with this town is there is no tax rebate. We’re in the village, the place of the beginning of features, in Hollywood, and there is no tax rebate.
TARANTINO There are philosophical problems with films today. I mean, frankly, I have to tell you the truth, a lot of films that 10 years ago I would have actually [gone] out to the theaters and watched, I can wait for them to get to the cable channels. I’m watching them six or seven months later, and I’m perfectly enjoying them, but I didn’t really miss that much.
INARRITU Independent filmmaking has [been] transported to TV. There’s great stories, great things. And in a way, the screens are now full of films that look like TV, just on the big screen. There is no revelation, there is no mystery. I need the mystery of it.
SCOTT The bar is lower because there are way too many films being made. Maybe there’s too many [directors] in the field and therefore the general quality [is worse].
INARRITU What has happened in the economy in the world is happening to film: the 99 percent and the 1 percent division. Now there are super-expensive films or just very tiny-budget films. The middle-class films are disappearing.
Tom, is film a working-man’s medium?
SCOTT Yours aren’t, Tom. You’re highbrow.
HOOPER I hope my [box office] numbers for the past two films [The King’s Speech, Les Miserables] defend me against that. I mean, I’ve always felt I make films for audiences. I really don’t make them for myself.
SCOTT I don’t ever do that. I only make it for me.
INARRITU Well, as a species we look at each other. If tomorrow an atomic bomb finishes humanity and I am the only one staying alive, will I make a film for myself? I don’t think so. We are made to communicate and to express. That’s what film is about: the need to share.
Do you feel you’ve been underestimated?
RUSSELL It’s like J.D. Salinger. He wanted to be a great writer, and he was a 25-year-old kid who had a great voice, but it wasn’t till he landed on D-Day and had trauma — he was in every great battle, the Battle of the Bulge — just eviscerating trauma. That made him, that pain and humility. There is a fractured war veteran in all of us, and the more you go through the blood and guts of your life and get humbled, which I got — humbled — it’s a good thing. It makes you more human. It makes you love more stories. You are more open to humanity, whether it’s a working-class person running a metal garage or someone who’s going to do something beautiful and sing.
Have you had moments in your careers where you despaired?
BOYLE I made a space movie called Sunshine. And it’s weird making space movies because you are in the footsteps of the people who have been there before — principally him. (Looks at Scott.)
SCOTT I finished Blade Runner, and it was a disaster. And my investors, who were giving me a really hard time, said, “We have to test this with an uplifting ending.” Why do we always want uplifting endings? “All right. I’ll do it.” By then, I had talked to Stanley Kubrick a few times. I called him up. I said: “Listen. I know you shot the hell out of The Shining. I know you’ve got [hours] of helicopter stuff. Can I have some of the stuff? The next day I had 17 hours of helicopter footage. So the end of Blade Runner is Stanley Kubrick’s footage.
RUSSELL The romantic ending is very magical. And that’s part of the reason I go to the cinema — for magic.
SCOTT You should be my producer.
RUSSELL I know some great directors in our town who have come back from rough experiences and said: “I don’t know, man. I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.” It can be very, very intense and very challenging. But you get to live in a magic world and create magic.
If you had some other career, what would it be?
SCOTT I was at the Royal College of Art with David Hockney [training to be an artist]. We’d have Francis Bacon come and lecture. My biggest battle was at the provincial art school [before the RCA]. I loved to paint motorbikes, and I was always arguing with the tutor. “Why are you painting motorbikes?” And I know now, he should have let me paint motorbikes — that was my thing. I might have been the best motorbike painter ever. So I gave it up for that reason, because I was discouraged. I started painting again, five or six years ago. I just paint myself or the old lady, OK? And I just keep going.
INARRITU I can’t do nothing. (Laughter.) I can’t.
RUSSELL Sometimes people have said to me, “If you were on Survivor, you’d be the first person asked to leave the island.” They’d say, “Can you build a house?” I’d go, “No.”But hopefully I would stay on Survivor because I would entertain people and tell them stories.
Who’s taught you the most about film?
HOOPER I remember directing Prime Suspect for TV. It was one of the first days of the shoot, and I laid this long track, and [Helen Mirren] came in first thing in the morning. I said: “Good morning, Helen. You’re going to walk from here to here, and the camera is going to go like this as the camera tracks.” And she looked at me and said, “Well, why am I walking?” I said, “Well, because …” and then I started to run out of steam. And she said, “I think I’d be over there, smoking out the window.” And I thought about it and realized that there was no particular reason why this character would be walking. And this moment of a guilty cigarette, where the character has been giving up, was far better. At that moment, I realized that the truly great actors have a kind of mise-en-scene in their head. And from that moment on, I’ve never imposed the way I’m going to shoot on an actor.
BOYLE We did a lot of rehearsal before we started shooting [Steve Jobs], and then you turn up in the morning and do a little bit of blocking and stuff like that. And [Michael Fassbender] said to me, “Will you shoot the rehearsal?” And we did. And I will always do that now, forever more. It was incredible because it lifts everybody.
TARANTINO One of the things that me and Ridley have in common is we both made our first movies with Harvey Keitel [Reservoir Dogs and The Duellists]. And Harvey really took me under his wing, and one of the things that he taught me in auditions was [what to do when] actors come in. He would say: “Quentin, don’t help them out in that very first reading. Don’t tell them how you want the scene. They’ve had the material themselves, and they’ve come up with their own thing. You will never, ever see what was in their head the very first time unless you let them do it.” And I have held onto that for 21 years.
SCOTT I never rehearse, ever. [But] I storyboard everything from scratch, right through. And so I’ve shot it on paper before I get there. Harvey is absolutely right. Don’t tell them what you want. I want to see how you tick, dude.
Ridley, you’ve had a long career. Do you have any regrets? Do any of you?
SCOTT Nothing, nothing.
BOYLE I did this little family film called Millions. It’s a beautiful little film about a boy and his mom. And one of the great Clash songs was going to be at the end of the movie, and I was persuaded out of it by one of these music supervisor people. That’s the only thing I can think of.
INARRITU I come from a Catholic background, so guilt is a big part of it. But I would have loved to be a bit more practical. I am a little bit romantic, and that can backfire on me badly.
RUSSELL I tend to be hopeful and positive about everybody, and that has made me naive sometimes, picking certain crewpeople that you knew were not going to be in tune with you, and then it turned out to be an unpleasant experience.
HOOPER I feel a lot of my life I’m fighting the possibility of regret. Whenever you make a movie, it’s two years of your life and it’s a huge investment, and you’re not guaranteed that it will find an audience. And I suppose I’m always afraid that I’m going to say no to a script — and realize that was the thing to do. It’s just a matter of time.
TARANTINO The only thing that I actually really regret about my behavior is — especially when the film is a long shoot — you get down, and you just get sick of it. You’ve just f—in’ had it. And that day I feel sorry for myself, and I’m a grumpy a-hole and everyone’s [saying], “Oh, Quentin’s in a bad mood and stay away from him” — I really regret that. And what usually snaps me out of it is, like, “Oh, poor you! You’re living your dream and it’s so difficult. Oh, everybody f—in’ cry for Quentin.”