Monday, January 26, 1998

Interview: "Lights, Cameras, Oscar"

January 26th, 1998

It's January. Have you written your acceptance speech yet? Newsweek's David Ansen and Corie Brown ask some of Hollywood's hottest directors to vent about studios, statuettes and Titanic.

It is awards season in Hollywood, and the only talk is of Oscars. Shall we listen in? Newsweek invited four of 1997's most celebrated directors to a round-table discussion at Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. Two of the filmmakers seem sure to get Best Director nominations; one's a long shot and the other doesn't have a chance in hell. Still, from the moment they met they all bonded marvelously. Curtis Hanson, who directed "L.A. Confidential"; Gus Van Sant, who made "Good Will Hunting," and Paul Thomas Anderson, of "Boogie Nights" fame, all exchanged apparently heartfelt compliments. Barry Sonnenfeld, who gave us "Men in Black," arrived enthusing about the movie he'd just seen, "Wag the Dog." The directors posed for pictures, dissing difficult actors and sleazy agents. ("They're just guys who sleep with hookers--it's disgusting," one said about a particular agency.) And then they sat down for the interview.

James Brooks, who directed the highly nominatable "As Good As It Gets," couldn't make it to Hotel Bel-Air, but he called in from Australia to say that one of the highlights of awards season is finally meeting some of his fellow directors. "You're herded into the same parties, you go to the same events," he said. "You get to know each other for the first time." He missed quite an afternoon in L.A. Excerpts:

Does "Titanic" change anything in Hollywood? It cost $200 million, and it's a huge hit.

Sonnenfeld: No. I think that literally everyone at Fox is probably thinking, "Oh, my God, the executioners didn't have bullets! Let's walk away and never get caught here again!" What this says is, here is a movie that the audience perceives is something that they can't see at home. It's an event. I don't think it's going to encourage a lot of studios to make $200 million movies, although I'd hate to be the studio that has Jim Cameron's next movie.

Van Sant: Cameron will get $400 million for his next movie.

Why is it a front runner for Best Picture?

Anderson: Because it just came out and we're in the middle of "Titanic" frenzy. But by the time the Academy votes come in, we'll all have calmed down a second, and "L.A. Confidential" is going to win.

Hanson: "Titanic" delivers, is my opinion. It delivers to the audience.

Sonnenfeld: It's also the longest movie, which is helpful for winning the Oscar.

Does it bother you that most of the people who will vote on the Oscars are going to see your movies on those videotapes that the studios send around?

Sonnenfeld: Yes, yes. Although we like getting those tapes. The truth is, most people will see your movie with better sound at home than in the average movie theater.

Hanson: But I love going to the movies. I very rarely rent a tape, unless it's something I can only see that way. And the Academy screeners--I don't look at them.

Sonnenfeld: Can I have them?

Do Oscars really represent the industry's appreciation--or are they about politics?

Hanson: To me, appreciation means just being able to get somebody to put up the money so that one can make a picture.

Anderson: He's right. It sounds romantic, but it's true. People go see your movie and you go to the premiere and you get your picture taken and it's cool. But it isn't a tenth of how cool it is to make the movie.

Sonnenfeld: And the other problem is, you win an Oscar, you get divorced, I think.

Is there a correlation?

Sonnenfeld: Or in the case of F. Murray Abraham, he just never worked again.

Anderson: I know someone that won an Oscar for Best Screenplay who just said, "You don't want to win. You don't even want to be nominated. Take my word for it."


Anderson: He wouldn't explain why. Then he asked me for five bucks.

Hanson: I do know from our experience that, in fact, awards and nominations mean a lot. You know, Warner Brothers is very jazzed that their logo is on our picture. And, personally, as a filmmaker, if you get an Oscar, you have that much more ability to do what you want to do.

Sonnenfeld: To be an asshole.

Hanson: If that's what you want to do.

Anderson: But if "L.A. Confidential" wins an Oscar, it's not like "Braveheart," which had already made $100 million. Your movie's going to get an Oscar because it's a great movie, and it's also going to get more people to go see it.

Hanson: Which is the most exciting aspect about it.

There is sort of a bias in the Academy against comedy.

Sonnenfeld: I would agree with you. I think the problem is that Academy members think that they're voting on the most important movie of the year, not necessarily the best, or most entertaining. I just looked it up and, over the last 10 years, "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Babe" are the only two comedies I could find nominated for Best Picture.

What will you get nominated for?

Sonnenfeld: Nothing. But that's OK, as long as Al Roker likes my movie. He's the weatherman on Channel 4. He's a big fan.

Well, he's an alien. [Roker was one of the aliens on the big board in "Men in Black."]

Sonnenfeld: You caught that! I'm very impressed. [Sonnenfeld takes out a dollar and hands it over.]

What are you willing to give up in return for total control of your movies?

Sonnenfeld: I have total control. Studios totally give up control. They don't know what you're doing. They don't understand what filmmaking is, and at the end of the day, they don't know what a director does.

Van Sant: I haven't run into a problem where I lost more than a couple of shots.

Hanson: You're lucky. I've lost battles.

Did Jim Cameron really need to give up his paycheck to finish "Titanic"?

Sonnenfeld: Absolutely not. He absolutely didn't need to. They couldn't fire him. They just couldn't fire him.

Anderson: You have to worry less about Jim Cameron or anyone at this table than, like, the first-time independent director who goes to a supposedly independent company. I mean, my first experience [the movie "Hard Eight"] was with a company called Rysher Entertainment. And they are a bunch of knuckleheads. They tortured me and took the movie away from me and recut it. I was really young, really naive, totally unprepared. I didn't know how to deal with it. I tried to talk to them like they were fans of movies. Mistake No. 1. Just talk XYZ technical jargon and confuse them, which is what I learned. But at a big studio it really isn't like that, because they know better. If they fire the director the actors won't do publicity. I only got my first movie back because I had Gwyneth Paltrow and Sam Jackson going "don't fucking do this." Any self-respecting studio probably wouldn't do that. At the same time I won't make a movie for [Miramax's] Harvey Weinstein, because I wouldn't put it past him to break down the editing room door and then cut the film.

Van Sant: Somebody asked a junior executive what his favorite part of making a movie was. He said, "Oh, the editing." They said why? And he said, "Well, because I can save the movie." Even if there's only something tiny wrong they want to feel like they can save it.

Sonnenfeld: When I started out on "Addams Family" at Orion, they were going bankrupt. They sold "Addams Family" to Paramount. At 5 o'clock on the day Paramount bought it, their chairman got fired. Stanley Jaffe [the new acting chairman] comes in and sees the same 20 minutes we showed to get Paramount to buy it. He hates it and says the movie is uncuttable and unreleasable, OK? But I still had eight more weeks of shooting. So now they're all nervous. I get done shooting and the two heads of production at Paramount take me to lunch and they say, "Show it to us right away." I said, "No, you're the enemy, you're not going to see it for 10 weeks." So they say, "Well, at least tell us what it's like." I go, "OK," and we're now leaving the Paramount commissary. I say, "Did you see 'Sophie's Choice'? It's sort of like a sadder version of that." And I go back to my office. The phone's ringing. Scott Rudin, the producer, is saying, "Schmuck, did you tell the head of the studio that?!" I said yes. He says, "They believe you." I had to call up these two guys and convince them that I was being ironic, and that it's really a comedy. And this is a true story.

Hanson: The worst thing that's happened to the movie business is the public's obsession with the box office--with turning every weekend into a horse race. That's the message that Middle America is getting--which horse won which weekend? And it's great when you're that horse, but what it's done is it's made the old "let a movie have a life of its own" go by the boards.

Van Sant: There is a debate in my mind about the weekend-box-office mentality.

Anderson: Your movie just made $10 million over the weekend. Of course you're split.

Van Sant: It's like sports. The readers of USA Today follow it like sports, which can be good. But there is a side of me that says this is really bad because of the repercussions it has on what movies you can make.

Hanson: The bad thing about it, Gus, is that when we look back at the pictures that we loved as kids, the pictures that made us want to make pictures, how many of them won their weekend? How many of them were the big hits? A few of them were. But many of them weren't.

Van Sant: Did "L.A. Confidential" fit into a category at Warner Brothers? They have, like, five different marketing category strategies to go with.

Hanson: They didn't have a noir category.

Van Sant: "To Die For" got pushed into a Sony category.

Hanson: What was it, comedy?

Van Sant: It was romantic comedy [laughter]. They didn't have dark comedies. They didn't have that side to their marketing concept.

Are movies too long?

Sonnenfeld: Movies should be shorter.

Van Sant: I think shorter is good, too. "Good Will Hunting" is 2:05. We couldn't really figure out how to make it shorter. But I like it when a movie is about 90.

Sonnenfeld: Someone told me that the span of dreams is 90 minutes, or REM cycles, and there's a reason why movies are supposed to be that long. I like that theory.

Anderson: I'm the opposite when it comes to editing. I fall in love with my stuff.

Gus, do you ever feel that you get boxed by people's idea of what a Gus Van Sant movie should be? Were you nervous about "Good Will Hunting" because it is different from "My Own Private Idaho"?

Van Sant: Yeah, I mean, that's the constant comment about this film. In this case, I was going straight for what I thought was a commercial film. I mean, my version of it. And I wanted to stay out of the way of the script, to let the actors act it as it was written. I really loved the script. It kind of bugs me when people have preconceptions, because that limits what I'm supposed to be doing.

Sonnenfeld: You know, I'm sort of the exception here. Directing isn't a passion for me, and it's not who I am. I didn't grow up wanting to be a filmmaker. I'm a plumber that happens to make his living as a director. But these guys really love film. For me it's a job that I'm hired to do, and I have to do it as good as I can so that I can make money for the studio.

Anderson: You don't mean that.

Hanson: Barry, no matter how tradesman-like your self-image may be, one sees you coming through in your movies.

Van Sant: When filmmakers have a strong voice sometimes, like Tim Burton, it's because they had to reinvent the wheel or else they wouldn't be able to do it at all. They couldn't figure out how to do it traditionally. I have been in that category. So by not being able to do it by the book, you develop this weird style that is recognizable.

Anderson: I feel a slightly different thing here. I don't want to seem too self-important, but I'm a writer, too, so I'm creating my own stuff, and it is coming from a pretty weird, selfish place. Directing is having opinions, but that's not what writing is. That comes from another place. But I'm young; don't listen to me.

Paul, speaking of "Boogie Nights," did you know that Barry started in porn?

Anderson: I actually heard that.

Sonnenfeld: When I heard you were doing this movie, boy, I was so depressed, because I was going to do a movie someday about the nine days I shot nine feature-length pornos. Someday I'll tell you some amazing stories. We shot all nine at the same time. We would light a room, and then bring in different actors for each movie. In fact, we accidentally did one whole movie where all the sex scenes took place on a desktop, just because we weren't paying attention.

Anderson: And you tried to tell us you were a plumber.

What do you think of movie stars? Have they gotten so powerful they can take over the movie?

Van Sant: I was reading about D. W. Griffith. Mary Pickford was his star. It was sort of the emergence of stars, and he didn't see why she was so powerful. Then she left, and his movies didn't do quite as well. His downfall was partly because of his jealousy over the stars, and wanting to be the star himself.

Sonnenfeld: The truth is, it's not about stars. It's, can they act good? I have had stars that didn't act good.

Anderson: Who?

Sonnenfeld: You're a troublemaker. You are going to have to stay after school... There's nothing wrong with stars. I prefer working with them if they can act good. There is something really nice about having actors that know their lines. And a few do. Would you say less than half of the people that came on the set knew their lines?

Hanson: Less than half? My people knew their lines.

Sonnenfeld: Did your people know their lines?

Anderson: Yeah. Everybody...

Sonnenfeld: Burt [Reynolds] knew every one of those lines?

Anderson: I didn't say that. I hadn't finished my sentence. Everybody but one.

Sonnenfeld: I've been cursed with non-knowledgeable actors. My theory is, the more you pay an actor the less they respect you. Because in many cases they're full of self-loathing. I didn't say that. [Points at Anderson.] He said that.

Anderson: They're just pretending they don't know their lines to fuck with you.

Sonnenfeld: Well, yeah, and there are certain actors that you know will never learn their lines. They ruin everyone else's performance because they don't throw the lines back fast enough, and it will always force a cut back to them.

Is it a ruse to get the camera on them?

Sonnenfeld: It's a little bit of that. And the cut is the enemy of comedy. I mean, comedies play out best when you let action and reaction happen in the same shot, like "Bringing Up Baby" and "His Girl Friday." But you can't do that now. You have to shoot everything like you're [MTV-style director] Michael Bay, who I think is incredibly talented. I ran into him once. I said, "Hello, Michael, my name is Barry Sonnenfeld." He said, "Hi, Barry." And I said, "Hey, how is your little meteor movie coming?" He was about to start shooting "Armageddon." And he looked at me and he said, "It's not little. It's very, very, big and very, very, expensive." And I said, "I'm sorry. I know it is, and you're a really good director." But by the way, I hear he has a very large penis.

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