Filmmaking is a personal experience, or at least it should be. If executed with care, a director’s craft and point of view can be felt in every frame. Most often, this is experienced in low-budget, independent films. Unfortunately, when directors of the aforementioned works go on to make big “studio” projects, that voice can get lost.
At Comic-Con International in San Diego, Entertainment Weekly celebrated three filmmakers whose voices are always apparent in their work: Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-Man 2), Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Gravity) and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, The World’s End). At a panel called “The Visionaries,” these creators spoke about their perspectives and processes to the audience assembled in Hall H.
The panel was moderated by EW writer Anthony Bresnican, who started things off by asking what most excited the filmmakers about their current projects. Wright was first to respond, and spoke about his upcoming sci-fi comedy The World’s End.
“This film is a combination of films I’ve made with [actors] Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the first one being Shaun of the Dead and then Hot Fuzz. With this one, we kind of wanted to wrap up the thematic trilogy. We’ve done three films in three different genres – the zombie film, the cop film and the sci-fi film – but they’re really all Trojan horses for relationship comedies.”
Webb was next with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and what made him most excited was something basic, yet big: “Taking on really simple, relatable relationships and putting them in the context of something massive and extreme – that’s what’s fun for me.”
Cuarón spoke about Gravity, which he wrote with his son. He explained that his excitement came from “the idea of one single human floating in space, completely alone – then taking that character [and the situation] and turning it into a suspenseful action film with minimal elements.”
To create this vision, Cuarón cast George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as two astronauts in orbit. An accident occurs, and they end up adrift in space, unable to communicate with Earth. However, “the whole film was a big miscalculation,” laughed Cuarón.
Initially, the filmmaker sent the completed script to his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and said he wanted to do a simple shoot that would take a year. However, tt then took four years to figure out how to make the movie. Cuarón explained the main problem was that the characters spend nearly the entire movie floating and spinning on different axis.
They made numerous attempts to find a solution, even looking at a “vomit comet” – it’s a plane used for training astronauts that provides a brief near-weightless environment -- the effect would last only 20 seconds. Finally, they ended up using robotics, lights and computer effects.
Cuarón said the process was physically demanding for the actors, but added that they were good sports. He also mentioned it was easier to work with them separately than together, because if they were in the same room, they teamed up on Cuarón and made fun of his accent.
When Bresnican asked who did the better imitation, Cuarón chuckled, “They both sucked! They did it like I was Cuban.”
Bresnican next asked Webb whether there was something he wanted to see Spider-Man do in this sequel that he hasn’t done in previous films. The director considered the question, and realized the answer lay in his choice of villain.
“You want villains to bring out characteristics you haven’t seen before in the (hero) character,” he replied. “That was one of the reasons we chose Electro as the main villain was to have him have to contend, not just with the physical aspects of such a demonic, godlike force, but somebody who he has to deal with in an interesting, creative way. The fun part is to get yourself into a corner and not know how to get out of it.
“I always thought Electro would be the most fun challenge to have in the movie because there’s something so magnificent and beautiful about a creature that can blend and merge with electricity in that way. I thought that was something that I really wanted to explore. … As a kid, I was always fascinated and terrified by somebody who could disappear.”
While he didn’t want to give away any spoilers, this response was interesting, as it possibly indicates a different power set for Electro than those seen in the comics.
Wright followed this talk of onscreen battles with a discussion of the action in The World’s End. Something he wanted to try in this film was to shoot the action sequences without cutting. He said the actors were up for the challenge, and all six of them trained with a stunt team. Together, they designed fights that could be done in one take.
Wright’s favorite scene to choreograph was one in which the 40-year-olds have to fight a bunch of 15-year-olds. They actually used 15-year-old stunt “boys” in the film, and the elder actors received a thrashing.
Adding to the discussion of choreographing long takes, Webb mentioned the challenge and fun involved in filming the song-anddance sequence in 500 Days of Summer. He said there’s an intangible joy he could sense from audiences as they watched that scene.
That led to a conversation about the extra-long take (454 seconds) in Cuarón’s Children of Men. The filmmaker explained that he had 12 days to shoot the scene before losing the location. But after 10 days of preparation, they still hadn’t shot the scene.
On the last take of the last day, they were filming when some fake blood hit the lens. Cuarón said, “Stupid me, I started yelling cut, but there was an explosion so nobody heard. … So we kept on going. Then at the end, everybody was congratulating everybody, and I said, ‘Yes, but there was this splash on the lens.’ And [my cinematographer] turned to me and said, ‘You idiot, that’s the miracle!’”
After the audience laughter died down, Webb said he most enjoys the surprises his actors throw his way in their performances, which lend the scenes a feeling of authenticity.
Wright echoed that sentiment, saying his film had to be shot in 12 weeks, and by the end, the cast was exhausted. But that tiredness added to their performance, because it showed how they would feel after a night such as the one in the movie. Wright also added that Pegg broke his hand during the film but didn’t let it slow him down. He wore a cast when he was off camera, but removed it when he had to perform – including for a final fight sequence.
The filmmakers then talked about films that influenced their current projects. Cuarón said Steven Spielberg’s Duel served as inspiration, while Wright pointed to Village of the Damned, Quartermass shows, and Doctor Who episodes. Webb joked that his main influence was Operation Dumbo Drop.
A question was posed to the group regarding their thoughts about Spielberg and George Lucas’ comments on the future of film. (Hyperlink - http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/lucas-spielberg-on-future-of-entertainment-1200496241/) Cuarón agreed that the way films are distributed is changing, but added that it’s not wholly a bad thing. He acknowledged that multiplexes seem to be mainly for “big” movies – franchises and sequels – particularly during the summer, while indie films are being marginalized. But the good news, he felt, is that there are more places to see indie films, including cable television, streaming and VOD.
Wright said that original films are still needed. “Otherwise, the studios won’t have anything to remake in 30 years,” he said.
While on the topic of the future of cinema, the creators talked about 3D filmmaking, too. Cuarón admitted he isn’t a fan of the format for a variety of technical reasons (e.g. film contrast and resolution). That said, he designed Gravity to be seen in 3D, and said he actually prefers that version of the film.
Webb agreed with Cuarón’s opinion, but added that the way 3D is viewed often depends on the delivery mechanism (i.e. the theater’s projection system). He added that with a character such as Spider-Man, 3D seems an appropriate choice.
Wright took this moment to needle his co-visionaries that The World’s End was 2D. He did, however, have to confess his next film, Ant-Man for Marvel Studios, will be in 3D. The applause seemed to indicate the audience was fine with this choice.