Zhang Yimou’s greatest fears on set, Kevin Macdonald on being too lazy to be a commercial filmmaker and why Billy Bob Thornton always wanted to be a history teacher.
BERLIN — Six nations and six very different styles of filmmaking were on display at The Hollywood Reporter’s Berlinale Directors Roundtable, from the down-home Americana of Billy Bob Thornton, 56, here with Jayne Mansfield’s Car; the grand spectacle of The Flowers of War from China’s Zhang Yimou, 60; the hand-held realism in Captive from Pilipino auteur Brillante Mendoza, 51; the quiet precision of German Hans-Christian Schmid, 46, and his family drama Home for the Weekend; the Englishman James Marsh, 48, with his low-budget, tightly plotted thriller Shadow Dancer; and Scotsman Kevin Macdonald, 44, in Berlin with the music documentary Marley. But when they met at the SoHo House in Berlin for a freewheeling discussion of their craft, the group found plenty of common ground.
The Hollywood Reporter: As a director, what do you bring to a project that makes it yours?
Brillante Mendoza: Basically, it’s how I do it — how I treat the subject matter. The subject matter has to interest me. I have to feel I want to say this in a film, and from there I would work on the script. But on the shoot, I leave the script. I won’t show the script to my actors, and that’s how we move on and that’s how we start filming.
Kevin Macdonald: I agree that you have to find something that resonates with you internally and that that’s the challenge. I’m a very lazy person, and unless I find something that I’m really passionate about, I’d rather just stay in bed. Which is why I would never be professionally successful as one of those professional directors who makes commercial movies.
James Marsh: It’s true, I think most directors are unemployable as anything else. Right? (Laughter.)
Hans-Christian Schmid: Directing is not the difficult part of filmmaking, It’s finding a story and it’s writing the script, and that’s why …
Macdonald: And casting.
Schmid: … and casting. If I have a good script and a good cast, it’s hard to spoil or to ruin the movie. So I try to bring in my attitude, the way I look toward life, into the development of the script.
Billy Bob Thornton: I think everybody is saying in a lot of ways the same thing, which is that, at the end of the day and particularly for me, my best work is gonna be what I know. I think one of the most important things about being a director or an actor or anything else is to know yourself. I’m not the guy if they’re making a new Star Trek movie. They need to call someone else. Because stories, if you boil them down to the basic thing, most things are personal — unless it’s a movie about models and gladiators or, you know, goofy comedies with kids who get in trouble with a sheep in a hotel room.
Marsh: That could be very personal for some people. (Laughter.)
Zhang Yimou: Most of the time, I’m actually looking for good material rather than writing it myself. And, of course, I don’t want to repeat what I’ve done, so I’m always looking for new challenges. And because (in China) material has to have government approval, for me as a director, I have to take that into consideration: whether this material can be approved by the government. If there is material I’m absolutely certain that won’t be approved, I probably won’t make a movie out of it.
THR: On set, what kind of directors are you? Are you loud or quiet? Do you scream at actors?
Macdonald: Is anyone going to admit that?
Thornton: Well, first of all, I’m also an actor.
Marsh: So you scream at yourself. (Laughter.)
Thornton: Sure. We have a pretty loose set. We tend to have a pretty family-like atmosphere. I don’t have a very quiet set – but I’m not a screamer, no. But I don’t make people shut up: I like energy on the set. So right up until we roll, we let people do their thing, you know. And then sometimes at lunch, we go in the trailer and have a couple of beers.
Zhang: I am actually a very quiet person myself, so on the set of my own movies I am pretty quiet in the way I talk to the actors and actresses, I normally pull them aside rather than yell.
Mendoza: Well, the bulk of the work for me is on the preproduction side. So I give a lot of attention to preproduction, including talking to the actors and the staff and the crew. For the actors, I don’t give them so much about the story but more about the character. And I don’t have so many rehearsals. I never have any rehearsals, in fact, so I can shoot very fast and I work with spontaneity and my instincts.
THR: What was the most challenging experience you’ve had with an actor?
Macdonald: I’ve got one of those. I like the actors to try things out, to experiment, and for things to go wrong. But with this one actor, it was impossible to do that. He wanted to be told what to do, but at the same time, once you told him what to do, he would argue with you. If I said: “Well, let’s just try.” He said: “Don’t be so weak! Tell me what to do!” I find that really completely antipathetic to my way of working. Coming from documentaries like James and liking spontaneity, I find working with an actor who refused to be like that, who refused to play, in a way, was the most cramping of any creativity.
Schmid: I remember having a hard time, and I think I can say her name because we talked about that. It was when we shot Storm with Kerry Fox and we couldn’t agree on the costume. And we couldn’t agree before shooting and always tried to kind of shift the problem from day to day to day. I thought it was about nervousness and that once we started shooting, everything would be fine. But in one part in this hotel in Sarajevo, she just refused to shoot a scene in this costume. What I learned from that incident was that it’s not good to avoid a clear discussion about something that’s important to the film, even if it’s costumes.
Thornton: A great rule is: When you’re working with actors, you should never call them out publicly. You shouldn’t yell across the set or anything. And that goes for other crew members. I mean, for anyone. So, you know, our sets run pretty smooth. I haven’t really had much trouble with actors. Being an actor myself, I understand the “actor speak.”
Macdonald: A big advantage.
Thornton: But the difference between an actor and a director, when you get to the set every day, is that the actor comes to the set only thinking about that scene that day. In other words, their performance in that moment is what the actor is thinking about. Whereas the director has to be thinking about the whole movie every day. You have to know how this scene today fits in what’s gonna be coming here or there. And sometimes the actors aren’t thinking that way. So they may read on the page: “Ah! Here’s my big moment!” And then they may give it a little too much, and you go: “You know, kind of let off the gas a little from this thing because I got plans for you later.” And if you talk to them that way, they usually get it.
Marsh: You said something there that’s very interesting when you said you should never call an actor out – and you shouldn’t, absolutely not. But what if the actor calls you out? That was my worst experience with an actor, who shall remain nameless. He called me out and said: “Get your f—ing act together! What the f— are you doing?” To be fair, it was my first feature film, and I didn’t know how to speak to actors and that was the root of the problem. There’s a sort of language that actors have, and I was very inarticulate in that language. It’s not a matter of saying tone it down or crank it up. What does that mean, tone it down? The actor doesn’t have a switch they just suddenly turn up or down.
Thornton: Not to yap on here, but this one kind of gets my ire up a little bit. I don’t believe in actors yelling at directors. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t collaborate – but it’s very important as a director to assume the role of leader. It’s the same thing on a ship — like if there’s a mutiny on a ship, the ship’s going to go down. You have to maintain a strong enough hand as a director to know that you’re the leader. I’m not good, I’m too co-dependent in my regular life, to be much of a boss. My employees or my assistant, I end up getting their coffee. I mean, seriously. But on the movie set, it’s the one place that I can actually be the leader.
Zhang: I really took my time with all the actors I’ve worked with, whether they are very famous or first-time actors. It’s really my job as a director to make them feel comfortable. But I’m most nervous with my actors on my action movies that they will get hurt. For example, there is a scene in Hero where Jet Li is on a safety line 20 meters above a crowd. So I’m praying … Action is quite challenging and really nerve-racking.
THR: Is there more interference the bigger the budget?
Marsh: I wouldn’t know!
Thornton: Yes, I experienced that one time, I’ve only done one big-budget movie as a director (All the Pretty Horses) And there is much more interference, to the point where it shows you that if there’s something wrong in the film business, that’s what it is. Not to say that there aren’t good big-budget movies, and that it can’t be done, and that some people aren’t interfered with.
Macdonald: A lot of your energy is being expended on things that actually aren’t ending up on the screen. I spent 90 percent of my energy on stuff that had nothing to do with the film – it felt very wasteful.
Thornton: There’s so much money in the blockbuster movies: The donut budget alone is more than we made Sling Blade for. We made that with $980,000, and I had 24 days to do it! And they spent 24 days, you know, checking snare drums or something for the death scene.
Zhang: I’d actually like to go back to the previous discussion about talking to actors. I agree with you both that less is more. For me, I sometimes face the problem that after 10 takes, the performance is OK, but it’s not exactly what I want but is very close. And I would go to the actors and tell the actors: “It’s great, but what more can you offer me?” So I’m always joking with actors on the set saying: “Your performance is great, but can you give me more stuff for free?”
Thornton (to Zhang’s translator): Can you tell him something from me? Tell him that even though I don’t understand a word he’s saying, I find him mesmerizing and I want to cast him in a movie!
Yimou: I have actually acted before. Before I was directing, I acted in a couple of movies.
Thornton: Oh, good! I may have to cook something up there …
THR: You mentioned at the very beginning that directors are sort of incompatible with any other profession. If you hadn’t become a film director, what would you be doing now?
Marsh: A drug addict. I think I’d be leading a life of pointless hedonism. So, of course, I’m looking forward to my retirement.
Schmid: I don’t know. It’s what I always wanted to do somehow. And I studied documentary filmmaking, so I also probably could be a journalist or something like that.
THR: Don’t set your sights so low!
Macdonald: I wanted to be a journalist, but I couldn’t find a job! So you’re on a level above me.
Mendoza: If I couldn’t be a filmmaker, then I would be working in advertising.
Zhang: I actually was a cinematographer first, before I was director. So if I stopped being a director, I would go back to cinematography.
Thornton: I always wanted to be a history professor. I’m just interested in history, and it’s the only thing I made a decent grade at.
THR: Well, there’s still time.
Thornton: Yeah. For that one, there’s still time.