If you’re a fellow cinephile, there are few things better than hearing your favorite filmmakers discuss the craft of making movies—aside from watching the movies themselves, of course. Audio commentaries feel like little gifts that studios make just for the faithfully devoted or unendingly curious, and hearing insight about not only how a movie was made, but what was going through the director’s mind at certain key points throughout production is an invaluable resource for burgeoning filmmakers.
Which is why it’s an absolute joy to see a recent Q&A in Empire Magazine that provides all-too-brief but nonetheless interesting (and hilarious) responses from some of the best filmmakers in history. Spectre director Sam Mendes guest-edited the latest issue of Empire, and he reached out to a cadre of filmmakers to pose probing questions about the process of moviemaking. Taking part in this delightful conversation is Steven Spielberg, David Fincher, Sofia Coppola, Christopher Nolan, Edgar Wright, Suzanne Bier, Paul Greengrass, Alexander Payne, Steven Soderbergh, Joe Wright, Joss Whedon, Ang Lee, Roger Michell, Rob Marshall, George Clooney, and Alfonso Cuarón. So yeah, you could say things get pretty interesting.
We’ve highlighted some of the more interesting Q’s and A’s below, but really the entire thing is worth a read—it’s fascinating to see how wildly different the techniques are between these master filmmakers, and yet their results are all so incredible. Moreover, I’m convinced Fincher is the funniest person in showbiz.
Check out some of the responses below, via Empire.
HAVE YOU EVER WALKED OFF A SET IN A TEMPER?
Steven Spielberg: I’ve never walked off a set before and I can’t imagine why I would.
Ang Lee: I only Hulked out once.
Edgar Wright: Almost. Once on Channel 4’s Spaced I was having a tricky time shooting 15 scenes from seven different episodes with a new-that-day crew. When lunch was called I went for a walk and kept on walking. Then I called my producer Nira (Park) from a phone box and said, “I can’t hack it anymore, you should get someone else for Monday.” She talked me down from the ledge and I came back to work. So, I have never really flipped out on set, but I can be an incredible sulk.
Paul Greengrass: Once, when I couldn’t work out how to shoot an eight-handed dialogue scene in the desert in the middle of the night. After I’d banged my head against a Humvee for ten minutes trying to work it out, I was fine and carried on!
Joss Whedon: Nope. I’ve lost my temper, but not impressively. I’ve walked out of a VFX review in
a quiet, blind rage, but only for a minute or so ’til I could see again.
Christopher Nolan: I once tried, but nobody seemed to notice, so I came back.
Steven Soderbergh: No, but I did walk ON to a set with a temper once when an actor showed up late two days in a row.
George Clooney: No. The reason is because eventually you have to walk back on, and that would be too humiliating.
FILM OR DIGITAL?
Nolan: Butter or margarine? It’s called filmmaking, after all.
Payne: Of course, I prefer to shoot film, but what truly matters is projection – film projection – and that battle is already lost.
Lee: I like them both. They’re like bananas and oranges – I don’t know why some people try to imitate film with digital.
Whedon: Digital. I’M SORRY ART WORLD!!! I like to keep things open, figure out some blocking and concepts on the day. And everything I’ve ever made has been under-rehearsed and under the gun. Digital’s more forgiving, and I don’t worry about wasting film. “It’s only ones and zeroes,” is something else I say a lot on set.
Fincher: Digital – what is this film?
HOW OFTEN DO YOU DO ONE TAKE AND MOVE ON?
Spielberg: I’ll average one take before moving on, maybe twice a movie.
Fincher: Never, not once, ever, in 35 years…
Bier: Never. If you did, you’d never get to see what happens next.
Joe Wright: Very rarely. In the old days of celluloid there was an insurance firm called Lloyd’s, so after we got the take we needed a call would go up, “One more for Lloyd’s.”
Soderbergh: As often as possible, but you know, it makes people very nervous.
Whedon: Just enough to make executives pee a little. I’m usually after something specific and if I have it, I move on.
Greengrass: On Captain Phillips we only had one take on the aircraft carrier doing a high-speed run-by at night!
Nolan: Not since the lab broke the film on one take on Memento.
WHAT’S THE MOST TAKES YOU’VE EVER DONE?
Spielberg: I did 50 takes on Robert Shaw assembling the Greener Gun on Jaws. The shark wasn’t working, but we all wanted to so I just kept shooting to make the production report look like we were accomplishing something and to keep cast and crew from going crazy from boredom. It was a strategic indulgence.
Nolan: I never pay attention to the number of takes.
Michell: Like current Australian batsmen… Very rarely double figures.
MUSIC OR NO MUSIC ON SET?
Spielberg: I’ve occasionally played music on set during silent scenes. For the last scenes between David and his mother in A. I., I played Morricone’s Cinema Paradiso.
Edgar Wright: Yes, sometimes music to psych people up! On Scott Pilgrim we would blast songs constantly. And on World’s End the actors would have songs in their earwigs, so they could all walk in time to The Doors. I also remember playing a Teenage Fanclub intro from my laptop shooting a close-up of Paddy Considine pining for Rosamund Pike. It’s fun to score the ends of scenes too, give them finality.
Cuarón: Not often but I’ve played specific music for particular scenes, if it helped the actors get into the mood on set. Chaplin used to always have a violinist on set. I’m thinking of having Engelbert Humperdinck singing on set for my next film.
Greengrass: None — though I once walked round playing guitar for an hour when I was bored with what I was doing…
Rob Marshall: Well, the majority of films I’ve done are musicals — so more often than not I’m calling, “Playback!” as opposed to, “Action!” But the truth is, there’s nothing like having music on the set! It creates mood, rhythm and emotion.
Payne: No music. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Fincher: No music, unless it’s a club scene, in which case we will play music earsplittingly loud so that the actors might speak to the level of the expected ambience.
Joe Wright: Always music and all the time. I have my set rigged with the biggest sound system possible and have a mini jack for my iPod attached to my director’s chair. I find playing music is a very direct way to communicate with actors and the crew, especially those crew members who are on the periphery of the set. I like dancing on set too, it’s a good way to release tension.
WHAT’S YOUR WORST-EVER DAY ON SET?
Joe Wright: The day an actor tried to punch me. I’ll say no more.
Whedon: Buffy presentation. My first gig. Whole thing was a nightmare. At one point there was pure chaos and a total lack of confidence from all involved. I stood outside the set, wanting to slink off home and realising that if I did, if I didn’t walk in there and somehow take control, I was going to be an increasingly miserable script doctor forever. So I walked in. Worst day ended up not so bad.
Edgar Wright: Too many. I can remember a low point on every shoot. Shaun, it was in the pub finale; we were up against it and had to cut action. Hot Fuzz, we were rained off, lost the light or night shoots went abysmally slow. Scott Pilgrim, I think there was a complicated, disastrous day of effect cues that sent me into a deep funk, and then on World’s End I remember a day where nothing went right where we ditched an entire sequence. Cue my transformation into The Sulk.
Payne: I abhor when the actors don’t know their dialogue cold. When I have to spoon-feed dialogue to a lazy actor, I think of all the great Russian novels I could be reading instead of wasting my time. It makes me want to turn exclusively to documentaries — no hair and make-up, no second takes, and everyone knows his or her dialogue.