Will Gluck Interview

Peter Rabbit is one of the big family releases for the Easter school holidays in Australia.  I recently had the chance to speak with director Will Gluck about the project…

Matt:  What stood out and lured you into this project?

Will:  My parents read me the novel when I was a kid and I loved it.  My dad’s name was Peter which is another part of the reason we’re talking today.  I read it to my kids and remembered why I loved it so much and I thought it would be great to make this into a movie that had never been done before.

Matt:  You’ve made a few movies now and dabbled in a few genres but this is your first time with something that is part live-action, part animation.  How was the experience?  Was there a lot you had to learn beforehand and during the process?

Will:  I should have learned it beforehand if I was smart.  I had to learn as I went along but I had the huge advantage of working with Animal Logic which is Sydney based and probably the best visual effects house in the world.  They took me by the hand and talked me through everything.  I can think of no better teacher than them.

Matt:  I was going to ask about that.  It sounds like there was a bit Australian connection to this movie in terms of the cast, locations and production companies involved.  How did all that come about?

Will:  It started with Animal Logic who had the idea of making a hybrid film about Peter Rabbit.  They spoke to me about it, we got the rights to the Beatrix Potter estate, wrote the script and went from there.  The intention was always to do the filming and visual effects in Australia which was a new place for me but it now feels like a second home.

Matt:  Was live action always the go here?  Was there thought of a purely animated feature?

Will:  Live action was always the idea with just the animals to be computer generated.

Matt:  We live it a work where there are seemingly more animated films and family films as ever.  When you come on board a film like this, what are you hoping to achieve?  What are you looking to do to reel audiences in and perhaps find a point of difference to make this stand out?

Will:  I never set out to make a movie to achieve anything in particular.  I just want to make a movie that I like.  This movie is a little special because I love that families can see it with both parents and kids enjoying it.  It leaves them with the message of owning up to your mistakes and family is the most important thing.  It’s a Trojan horse message in this funny movie we made.

Matt:  I was surprised how much adult humour was in the movie.  There were jokes I laughed at that might be out of the each of some children.  Was that always part of the script?  How do you balance up the laughs?

Will:  I had a mantra that if there was a joke that the kids wouldn’t laugh at, we wouldn’t put it in.  We wanted to make a movie that parents and kids would like just as people.  Having two kids of my own, I think we sorely estimate how smart children are and even if they don’t understand something, they lock it away in their memory bank until they get it 6 months or a year later.  The cool thing for me is my kids just figuring out the joke in something they saw 2 years ago.

Matt:  So did you use your kids as a test audience on this film so to speak?

Will:  Of course.  As life progresses, you develop different interests and given I have kids now, I want to do things with my kids and for my kids.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shown them scenes from this movie.  They roll their eyes every time I talk about it now.

Matt:  The houses in the film have a charm about them.  Did they actually exist or did you have to build them from scratch?

Will:  We built them from scratch based on houses we’d seen in the Lake District in the United Kingdom.  Usually you can build a set on a sound stage but I really wanted to feel the district countryside so we built both houses in Centennial Park.

Matt:  Oh wow.  Did you have to deal with a lot of background noise there given its proximity to the centre of Sydney?

Will:  Traffic and people weren’t that bad but every now and then the sound department would make us stop because of an Australian bird making a noise in the background.  Centennial Park was a fairly quiet area and so most people went about their day without bothering us.

Matt:  Did you have to knock all the houses down when you finished?

Will:  Yeah.  It took us 2 months to build the set and about 2 hours to get rid of it which is always the sad part.

Matt:  It feels like a bucket list item for actors in Hollywood that they have to lend to their voice to an animated character at least once in their career.  You’ve got a huge range of voices here.  Is it a long casting process or is it easier than we think?

Will:  It’s usually a long casting process but for this movie, because of everyone’s love for Peter Rabbit and Beatrix Potter, the first people we went for on every role said yes.  We were very lucky.  Throughout the whole project, everyone went above and beyond because they loved these characters.

Matt:  We see the human actors talking and interacting with the animals and even cuddling them in their arms.  It all looks so seamless but can you tell us how those scenes are created?

Will:  They’re holding a combination of things.  Sometimes they’ll hold a stuffed animal, sometimes they’ll hold sticks and something they’ll hold people in blue suits.  It’s the genius of Animal Logic that makes it work.  I had to give up so much control and put my faith in them.  When you’re making the movie, it looks bananas as the characters are running around getting hit by sticks and puffs of air and then a girl in a blue suit would punch someone in the face.  The outtakes from this movie are quite something.  When the animation started coming in, I realised they knew what they were doing and it felt seamless to me too.

Matt:  Obviously you do the live shoot first and then the animated stuff second but what are the timeframes for each?

Will:  The live action was a normal movie shoot – about 60 days.  The animation started during the movie and took almost 12 months.  We finished it in early February and that’s actually a quick turnaround compared to other animated films.

Matt:  Didn’t the film come out in February?

Will:  We finished the film 6 days before it came out which was a crazy short period of time.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  What will we see from your next?

Will:  I’m making a TV show and then after that, I’m going to an R-rated dark comedy in Los Angeles to cleanse my pallet.  There’s also talk of dipping my toe back into the Peter Rabbit world if this film does well. 

Garth Davis Interview

Last year, he won the Directors Guild of America Award for best first-time feature film and the AACTA Award for best director.  He was recently in Brisbane for a Q&A screening and it was great to chat to Garth Davis about his follow up feature, Mary Magdalene.  Here’s what he had to say…

Matt:  We see plenty of biopics made every year but it’s not often we see one about a person born 2,000 years ago.  I know you didn’t write the screenplay but what the source material here.  How did the writers come up with the script?

Garth:  The writers were drawing on the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Mary.  They also drew upon an interpretation of Mary that hasn’t been told before.  We all know about the story of her as a fallen woman and prostitute which was confirmed by Pope Gregory in 591 AD but the one we’re telling is the one we believe to be more accurate.

Matt:  So why this particular version?

Garth:  Everyone felt it was astonishing that her story hadn’t been told before.  It’s a beautiful story that acknowledges Mary Magdalene as a great spiritual leader and an incredible apostle.  She played a major part in one of history’s great stories.

Matt:  How did you become involved in the project?

Garth:  It’s my producers’ fault (laughs).  I was in post-production on Lion and Emile Sherman and Iain Canning sent over the script.  I was intending to take a break but they said I’d like this.  There was a bit of trepidation about making a religious movie but I read the script and fell in love with it.

Matt:  We’ve seen in recent census here in Australia that the number of people who identify as being from “no religion” has increased significantly.  What’s the target audience here?  Is this a film for Christians or is the scope wider than that?

Garth:  There’s no doubt that this will connect with a wider audience.  I don’t have a religious background and I invested a chunk of my life into making this movie because I believe it is a very human, very spiritual telling.  Like Lion, it celebrates the themes of unconditional love and forgiveness.  They’re themes I want to help bring into the world as an artist.

Matt:  It’s interesting that you say you’re not religious yourself.  Did you learn a lot out of this process about the story and the way it has shaped religion?

Garth:  I was intrigued by the fact it was a world I didn’t understand.  That was exciting as a filmmaker.  You can go in with an objective viewpoint.  On getting involved, I always felt a connection with Mary and her relationship with Jesus.  That came from the script.  However, all the detail was the stuff that I learned and needed to understand along the way.

Matt:  We’re going back 2,000 years in time – how do you go about coming up with a look for the film – from the costumes of the characters to the towns where they live?

Garth:  It’s a good question.  You have to draw on all the research that exists.  I sat down with all my heads of departments and looked at that together.  We also visited Israel and retraced the steps of Mary in her journey.  That helped a lot.  We went to the Sea of Galilee where just recently they’ve discovered the city of Magdala.  A guy was building a hotel and dug into the foundations of Magdala town.  It was incredible to stand where Mary would have been.

Matt:  I remember when Mel Gibson made the Passion of the Christ 15 years ago that he used Latin as the language for the film.  You’ve gone with English here which I understand makes it more accessible for the average audience but how did you come to that decision and how do you then settle on the accents and the way that characters speak?

Garth:  The common language was Aramaic which we decided to use as English.  It really comes down to what you want the film to do.  I wanted audiences to relate to this and feel the emotion under the skin of the characters.  I didn’t want them to feel like they were watching the History Channel or a documentary.  It’s worth noting that the area was a very nomadic place with people moving through there.  I love the idea that there were different people with different backgrounds and different accents.  It mirrors the global society we’re living in today.

Matt:  There’s not as much dialogue in the film as I was expecting.  Was that part of the script or a conscious decision on your part?

Garth:  There wasn’t much dialogue in Lion either.  What’s unique in this story is the spiritual calling.  Mary has an undeniable connection to something that is calling her but because of the patriarchal society that she lives in, she can’t explore it.  So in a way, it is about the silence and it is about the thing she can’t express and understand just yet.  When she finally musters the courage to leave home and follow Jesus, that’s when things start to liven up.

Matt:  Talk me through the casting.

Garth:  I’d just worked with Rooney on Lion and she’s a very unique actress.  During those silences that we just mentioned, she has a worldliness and emotional atmosphere that I felt we needed for the character of Mary.  You can feel her searching for something spiritual.  As for Joaquin, he’s a great actor.  He has so many colours and so many emotional sensitivities – compassion, burden and fear.  All of those attributes helped create a Jesus that is both human and of the spirit.

Matt:  This is one of the final films for composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and it’s tragic that he’s passed away so young.  Can you talk to me about your working relationship with him and how you settled on the score for the film?

Garth:  We did a collaboration with Jóhann and Hildur Guðnadóttir who is very close to him.  Hildur is a beautiful composer who helped capture Mary’s voice.  She understood her journey and found both its truth and beauty at the same time.  Jóhann brought the other worldly qualities.  I didn’t want the music to feel of the time.  As we got closer to truth and closer to God, I wanted the music to feel like we were going into space and taking us into another realm.  The two of them together was an exciting journey.  They both worked out of the same studio.

It was devastating that we lost Jóhann.  One of the final pieces he focused on was the piece that opens and closes the film which is about ascension and there’s a particular irony in that.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  What will we see from you next?

Garth:  I don’t have a project locked and loaded but I’m taking some steps with a few at the moment.  The biggest project I’m working on at the moment is spending time with my family. 

Steve S. DeKnight Interview

Oscar winning director Guillermo del Toro was at the helm of the original Pacific Rim but for this sequel, Steve S. DeKnight had his name on the back of the director’s chair.  I caught up with DeKnight when he was recently in Australia to talk about how to make a big blockbuster action movie…

Matt:  I’d love to delve into the art of making an action movie – what you know and what you’ve learned during this particular film.  I guess I’ll start out with the special effects and the visuals.  Given so much of what we see on screen is created with visual effects, how do you work as a director?  What’s the relationship you have with the visual effects guys?

Steve:  You have to work very closely with your visual effects supervisor.  I was extremely lucky to have Peter Chiang from Double Negative as my wingman.  I love him to death as a person and he’s brilliant at what he does.  You need to work in tandem with the visual effects supervisor making sure you’re getting the live action stuff you need.

One of the great tools that we usually don’t have time to use on TV is Previs.  It’s basically a stripped down computer animation version of what you’re seeing.  It’s a rough blueprint but it is moving images as opposed to storyboards.  For any of these big action scenes, we plan everything and then we Previs it.  It’s not like the old day where we have a tennis ball and we tell the actors “imagine a giant monster here.”  I always had my iPad with me and Peter Chiang by my side so I could show the actors what’s happening.  It’s a huge advantage and it makes the shoot go much faster.

Matt:  Do the action scenes have to be very well choreographed then?  I guess you don’t have a lot of flexibility to mix things up because of how expensive the scenes are.

Steve:  You have to make sure you know what you’re doing.  In this movie, we had to know what was going on outside the Jaegers because that informed the action inside the Jaegers where the actors were.  For instance, if a sequence called for them to throw a punch, we needed to know if they were throwing right hook or a left jab because once we shoot that, we can’t go back and reshoot that without a lot of expense.  You have to really nail down your choreography before you start shooting.

Matt:  Where do you draw the line between what can be achieved by building a huge set and what can be done in front of a green screen with the background inserted in later?

Steve:  These days, there is no line.  We obviously never built a 270 foot robot that could move.  That was a little beyond our technology and our budget.  That said, there are things in the movie that you could swear that are real but actually are not.  There’s a scene were John Boyega jumps out of his Jaeger and onto its arm, onto the street and then takes off running.  I was reviewing it to make sure the visual effects in the scene were correct and then I realised that none of that was real.  We didn’t build one single real element of that scene.  It fooled even me for a moment.

Matt:  I was looking at some of the scenes were the Jaegers are fighting and the sound effects are so loud, so distinctive.  I have no idea how the sound engineers come up with that stuff.  How do those guys apply their craft?

Steve:  We had an amazing team at E Squared who had worked on films like Transformers and Godzilla.  They’re magicians.  I’d be sitting with them and saying “that sounds great” and they’d be saying “that’s my cabinet door from home”.  For me, the sound and music are equally important as the visual effects.  All three of those go hand in hand.

Matt:  How do you find all these great craftsmen to work behind the scenes?  Some of the guys you’re working with here have some great credits to their name.  Do they lobby you or do you have to go seeking them out?

Steve:  It’s a little bit of both honestly.  For instance, when we were looking for a director of photography, Legendary sent me a long list of people.  I looked for those people who were the director of photography on movies that I’ve loved.  One name that jumped off the page at me was Dan Mindel.  I had loved his work with J.J. Abrams like on Mission: Impossible 3, the Star Trek movies and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  I never thought I’d be able to get him but we met up and he signed on.  This entire movie has been like that.  I had the same reaction to John Boyega as I never thought we’d get him either.

Matt:  One element I always find amusing in big disaster action films is that you have shots of extras screaming and running away from things.  How easy are those scenes to shoot?  To get everyone on the same page, doing what you want them to do?

Steve:  Whenever you’re wrangling together big crowds of extras, that’s under the purview of the first assistant director.  There are rules about what a director can and can’t tell someone who doesn’t have speaking lines.  It’s very convoluted.  So basically, the director has to tell the first assistant director what to tell the crowd.  I had a guy, Nick Satriano, who was brilliant at dealing with those crowds.  He was always upbeat and positive and got them to give it their all.

Matt:  I’m not quite sure what the budget is on a film like this but I’m guessing it’s pretty hefty.  Wikipedia tells me $150 million but I’m not sure how accurate it is.  The question I was going to ask is as a director – how conscious are you of costs?  Is there an accountant looking over your shoulder saying “um yeah, not quite sure we can afford that?”

Steve:  Yeah, of course.  When you get to a budget this big, a little bit extra here or there won’t break the bank but coming from TV, I’ve always had to be very budget conscious.  There were things I had to cut.  Without running anything as it’s in the trailer, there’s a big attack in the Shatterdome where some drones have gone half Kaiju.  Part of that scene was to have John Boyega and Scott Eastwood’s characters get inside Gypsy Avenger and have a fight with one of the Kaiju drones.  It would reach a point where they hit the drone so hard that it knocks its alien brain out, it lands on the ground, sprouts legs, and tries to eat the cadets.  I loved it but it added $10 million to the movie so we had to cut it.  There’s always give and take but you usually end up with something on screen that’s a great compromise.

Matt:  Now I believe that most of the shoot took place at Fox Studios in Sydney but there were some exteriors shot around Brisbane.  I was trying to see if I recognised any places in Brisbane but was struggling.  Is there any particular scene I should keep an eye out for?

Steve:  You have some hope.  There’s a bunch of stuff shot in Brisbane to double as Tokyo.  Also, a good chunk of the opening in the Jaeger scrapyard was shot in a decommissioned factory up there.

Matt:  Now the door has certainly been left open another instalment in this franchise?  Do you know what the plans are?

Steve:  Yes, in broad terms.  As I was developing Uprising, I was jotting down a bunch of notes about what I’ll do in the next movie.  I didn’t want to paint ourselves into a corner and not have anywhere to go.  There is a plan for the next movie which will need some fleshing out but I’m hoping that the audience shows up for this one and it warrants the third part of the trilogy.  I’m also hoping my schedule allows me to be a part of it.

Matt:  And can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?  What are we going to see from your next?

Steve:  I have a tonne of projects swirling but none I can officially talk about.  I have plans to shoot a small, three-person thriller as a bit of a pallet cleanser and also some other really gigantic projects in both film and television.

And so another Oscars has come and gone.  It was one the most predictable Oscars in recent memory with the favourite winning in most categories.  I only managed 14 out of 24 which is a poor result compared to others but that’s because I was hoping for a few upsets that never eventuated.  It was great to see Jordan Peele win best original screenplay for Get Out but sadly there wasn’t enough love for the film to carry it over the line for best picture.  It was The Shape of Water (a weaker movie in my opinion) which took the honours.  The Academy made the wrong choice but I say that every year.

The major winners were:

Best picture – The Shape of Water
Best director – Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water)
Best actor – Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)
Best actress – Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Best supporting actor – Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Best supporting actress – Allison Janney (I, Tonya)
Best original screenplay – Get Out
Best adapted screenplay – Call Me by Your Name

Thank you to everyone who entered by 18th Annual Pick the Oscars competition.  I always pick tough categories and this year there was just one lucky person who managed 6 out of 6 – Jordan Bastian.  Those with 5 out of 6 were Jamie Jensen, Lisa Malouf, Sarah Ward, Brady Duncan, Nigel Middlebrook, Prue Knox and Sam Dagan.  It seems the hardest category to predict amongst the entrants was best picture.

I didn’t manage to win any money on this year’s Oscars but I came out even thanks to a tidy win on Frances McDormand.  It’s ironic that I backed her to win 21 years ago and she’s come through for me both times.  As I like to keep a record of my ups and downs over the years, here’s the updated table of my Oscars punting…

1996 – profit of $750 – won on Susan Sarandon
1997 – profit of $300 (cumulative profit $1,050) – won on Frances McDormand
1998 – loss of $250 (cumulative profit $800)
1999 – loss of $250 (cumulative profit $550)
2000 – profit of $620 (cumulative profit $1,170) – won on Kevin Spacey and Michael Caine
2001 – loss of $190 (cumulative profit $980) – won on director Steven Soderbergh
2002 – profit of $480 (cumulative profit $1,460) – won on Halle Berry
2003 – profit of $275 (cumulative profit $1,735) – won on Catherine Zeta-Jones and Adrian Brody
2004 – profit of $150 (cumulative profit $1,875) – won on Sean Penn
2005 – profit of $214 (cumulative profit $2,089) – won on Hilary Swank
2006 – profit of $350 (cumulative profit $2,439) – won on Reese Witherspoon
2007 – profit of $1,463 (cumulative profit $3,912) – won on Eddie Murphy at Globes, Alan Arkin & West Bank Story at Oscars
2008 – profit of $268 (cumulative profit of $4,280) – won on Tilda Swinton and the Coen brothers
2009 – profit of $253 (cumulative profit of $4,533) – won on Mickey Rourke & Kate Winslet at Globes, Kate Winslet at Oscars
2010 – loss of $830 (cumulative profit of $3,703)
2011 – profit of $30 (cumulative profit of $3,733) – won on Social Network at Globes, Tom Hooper & King’s Speech at Oscars
2012 – loss of $640 (cumulative profit of $3,093) – won on Jean Dujardin at Oscars
2013 – loss of $850 (cumulative profit of $2,243) – won on Ang Lee at Oscars
2014 – loss of $72 (cumulative profit of $2,171) – won on Matthew McConaughey at Globes and Oscars
2015 – loss of $50 (cumulative profit of $2,121) – won on Eddie Redmayne at Oscars
2016 – profit of $1,325 (cumulative profit of $3,446) – won on Mark Rylance and Spotlight at Oscars
2017 – profit of $870 (cumulative profit of $4,316) – won on Damien Chazelle, Casey Affleck, Emma Stone and Mahershala Ali at Oscars
2018 – profit of $330 (cumulative profit of $4,646) – won on Frances McDormand and Three Billboards at Globes and Frances McDormand at Oscars

It’s been such a wild race in terms of best picture.  Hopefully next year can offer up something just as exciting.