The contenders — also including Oliver Stone, Barry Jenkins, Damien Chazelle and Mira Nair — discuss first gigs, the backlash over ‘The Birth of a Nation’ director Nate Parker’s rape trial, and their “painful” directing process: “It’s like trying to cram 10 pounds of shit into a 5-pound bag.”
In 1991, director Mira Nair made Mississippi Masala, a romantic drama with an international twist starring a young Denzel Washington, hot off his first acting Oscar win for Glory. Twenty-five years later, the Indian-born Nair (Queen of Katwe), 59, sat next to Washington (Fences), 61, who since has become an accomplished filmmaker himself, at The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual Director Roundtable.
The duo was joined for the hourlong conversation at a Hollywood production studio by a pair of outspoken and often controversial industry figures — Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge), 60, and Oliver Stone (Snowden), 70 — as well as two exciting emerging writer-director talents, Damien Chazelle (La La Land), 31, and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), 37.
Not surprisingly, the conversation quickly turned into a spirited debate among peers, touching on their often-paralyzing fears (“I was like, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” recalled Washington of his first directing gig), cast and crew complaints (“They make your life hell sometimes,” quipped Stone), the backlash over The Birth of a Nation director Nate Parker’s rape trial (“I don’t think it’s fair,” said Gibson) and the feeling that making a movie is akin to going to war (“You feel like you’re a general and you have troops,” added Gibson). Toward the end, Nair came full circle with Washington, revealing she had cast a first-time actor in a scene with him all those years ago. Responded Washington with a laugh, “I didn’t know she had not acted!”
Where and when did you first fall in love with film?
Mira Nai Under a mosquito net in East India, where I grew up. We had a foster grandfather-type who used to shoot man-eating tigers, and he took us to the only cinema that existed in this little town — and they showed only one film every Sunday morning, and that was Doctor Zhivago. So the contrast of Siberia with Omar Sharif and the heat of tropical India was palpable and memorable and made me want to tell stories.
Denzel Washington Same story. (Laughter.) But it was Creature From the Black Lagoon because I grew up in the Boys & Girls Club, and for whatever reason, that was the only film they got, so we watched it over and over. The creature from the black lagoon — he’d come out of there with the bad makeup and the stuff hanging off …
Oliver Stone It scared the shit out of me.
Washington It scared you? All that stuff hanging off?
Stone That was in the nuclear age, when it started, and everybody was thinking about extraterrestrials coming to Earth in some form or another and killing us all.
Washington I didn’t grow up a film [lover]. My father was a minister, so The Ten Commandments and King of Kings was it. That’s all we saw. And we went to church. I didn’t go to movies, wasn’t interested in movies. I started acting in the theater, at Fordham University, and we were snobs and thought we’d make $650 on Broadway one day. But I started [seeing] Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Straight Time, Marathon Man — [movies that starred] anybody with an “O” — Pacino, De Niro, Hoffman-o. I didn’t see anybody who looked like me, so I didn’t aspire to act in movies, but I liked those New York movies.
What was your first job or your worst job?
Washington I was a garbageman, like Troy [his character in Fences]. You get eight hours’ worth of work, but you can do it in three. So you can go home as soon as you finish. Post office, you get three hours of work and you make it last eight. I did both. I liked being a garbageman better. But they weren’t bad jobs.
Stone I was a lot of things. I was a soldier, I was a merchant sailor. Before that I was a teacher in Asia. Then in New York, I was a temp — every day, do a different job. That was hard. Messenger, production assistant on several things, including a porno film. But it was a soft porno; it wasn’t particularly exciting.
Barry Jenkins My first job was cutting grass. In Miami, this grass grows everywhere. You just get the lawn mower out, walk down the neighborhood, cut grass. When I first moved to L.A., I was a director’s assistant, and then I was a development assistant. And I had this rude awakening that I was bullshitting myself because I thought, “Oh, I want to be a filmmaker and this is my way,” but I wasn’t really trying to be a filmmaker, you know? I was trying to be a development assistant. Realizing that about myself, I felt terrible.
Damien Chazelle had a bunch of those odd jobs starting out, making sandwiches at a deli counter and carving meat and stuff like that. [Working for a] moving company. I got paid a little bit as a musician. That’s probably the thing that fed into filmmaking the most. And my version of Barry’s story was getting work as a writer for hire. It was really, really, really schlocky rewrites on sequels of horror movies. But I loved the idea — that I’d actually pay a bill by writing was just miraculous.
Mel Gibson I’ve done a bunch of really boring things in factories and stuff. The worst one was making aluminum prefab windows, just putting together hammers and bits of rubber. And then I worked in an orange juice factory. It was like Jerry Lewis. Ten-thousand-gallon vats, and you’d take the wrong hose off and flood the factory.
Washington I’m just curious: Anybody here wanted to be a filmmaker as a child?
Washington Oh you did? How old?
Chazelle I can’t remember wanting to do anything else. The first movie I saw was Cinderella on TV. I just sat and watched that over and over again. I became one of those kids that very early on was glued to that experience of being completely transported. One of the most formative movies I ever saw was Glory.
Washington Oh yeah?
Chazelle And the reason it was so formative was, I didn’t know that characters could die at the end of a movie. It never dawned on me. As soon as you and Matthew Broderick went down, it was like, “Wait! What the … ?” And I got angry. I was like, “Get back up!”
Gibson I had a lot of brothers and sisters, and no one took us to the cinema, so my cinema experience was at home on a little black-and-white [TV], one channel. And you just digested whatever came along. I was like a hydra. Something would float by, I’d go [gulp]. I used to regale my parents with [imitations], like at the age of 4 by doing [the John F. Kennedy accent], “Drinks at the, uh, Ambassador with my brother Bobby?” Everything I saw was emulated somehow. So I just drank it all in.
Stone I never thought I could make films. [I had] no relatives [in the business], nothing. Just, my mom loved going to the movies, and my dad, too.
Nair discovered cinema when I crossed the ocean to come to Cambridge, Mass. And it was at Harvard that I saw [Satyajit Ray’s] Apu Trilogy for the first time. In India, we saw very middlebrow Bollywood, if we went at all. I didn’t get drunk on movies. There weren’t any. For me, the passage was through theater, through becoming an actor and performing on the streets in Calcutta, a lot of Shakespeare.
Stone I couldn’t stand Shakespeare. But I had puppet shows to make money for my family. We’d force them to pay; they’d come and see it. And violent — beat each over the head, like a Mel Gibson movie. (Laughter.)
Jenkins I didn’t really want to be a filmmaker growing up. Other than Spike Lee’s movies, I would think, “Where is a place for me?” We were so damn poor that it just seemed too far beyond. But I ended up at Florida State University, and when they rebuilt the stadium, they had to put an arts program there [with] the film school. So I’m walking to a football game, and I see a sign that says “film school.” I go, “Oh, well, I like movies. Let me try this out.” First semester was terrible. I didn’t know you needed light to expose film. So I took a year off, and I took a still photography class, started reading Sight & Sound and watching movies. Everybody in film school, the films they made were like [those of] the filmmakers they were obsessed with. A lot of Spielberg knockoffs. I was like, “I want my voice to be different,” so I started watching nothing but foreign films. I remember seeing Tarantino’s face on the box for Chungking Express, and I was hooked, man, I was just hooked.
Was there ever a moment when you fell out of love with film?
Stone Sure, several times. It’s tough. It’s a long haul, and you go through a lot of defeat. There’s a lot of setbacks. We have some successes here and there, but it always seems like there are more failures than successes.
Gibson It’s like going to battle. You feel like you’re a general and you have troops, and sometimes it’s a good gang and sometimes there’s a few of them lacking and they leave you hanging out to dry. There are many frustrations.
Stone Every film makes you reassess where you are on the evolutionary scale.
Washington I had a defeat, and I said, “You know what? I’m out.” It wasn’t healthy, to be honest with you. And I didn’t plan on being a director. Someone gave me a script and forced me to do it. I remember talking with Philippe [Rousselot], the cinematographer, and I was like, “Where do you put the camera?” This is long before we were shooting. He said, “Well, you put it in front.” (Laughter.) I thought there was some magic formula. It was a lot of fear when I first directed.
More fear than with acting?
Washington A different kind of fear, because 200 other people are sitting around, waiting for you to tell them what to do. When I was working on [2002’s] Antwone Fisher, we had a scene down in San Diego at the Naval Yard, and there’s ships and 3,000 or 4,000 people. And I didn’t want to come out of the trailer. I was like, “I can’t do this. I’ve gone and got myself in trouble.” And the [assistant director] actually talked me into coming out. I’d have paid off everybody just to go home.
Gibson It’s so overwhelming sometimes. If you thought about the big picture, you’d crawl back into a hole and die. You’re dropped in the middle of the ocean, a sea of troubles and people and logistical problems and cameras and in-fighting. There’s so much stuff going on, and you have to ignore it and just start swimming that way, one stroke at a time, and you’ll hit land eventually. You haven’t really got time, once you’re amongst it, to actually be too worried because you’re just too damn busy. And you’ve got to do it fast, especially now. We’ve all been relegated to the area where we are sort of [making] independent films. This is a whole new cinematic landscape. You don’t have the luxuries that you used to. Hacksaw Ridge, I had 59 days, right? I had twice that time on Braveheart and more of a budget, and that was 20 years ago. I had 59 days to do three major-pitch battle sequences with the logistical nightmare of explosions and extras and soldiers and stunts and everything else. It’s like trying to cram 10 pounds of shit in a 5-pound bag, you know?
Nair There is a great beauty in looking into the eye of the storm and just having that one thing to focus on when you’re directing a film. There is a real sort of simplicity to be in that state of —
Gibson — shock.
Nair Yes, shock, but also of complete focus, that that is what you’re looking for and you will not stop until you get it and all these elements come together to get hopefully an epiphany, but most likely not.
Gibson I find that under duress you actually make better decisions. And when I’m pushed, I actually get calm. I remember being on an airplane when I was 21, and one of the engines caught on fire. And the hostess freaked out. She’s like, “Oh my God, we’re all going to die.” And it’s amazing how quiet you get. I thought, “Wow. I guess the jig is up.”
Mel, how have your past personal issues affected your approach to your work?
Gibson My God, any experience you have in life enriches your work somehow, good or bad. I developed a lot of things when I had some time off. It was the off-season, you might say. (Laughter.) It’s just so good to be able to come back and do what I love doing, just tell stories. We’re all just storytellers, right?
Have any of you had a cast or crew rebel?
Nair I have. I was shooting [2012’s] The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a political thriller set in Lahore. And there were two actors at a table talking, and a large part of the film was like that, so we had done a lot of rehearsal. But on the day of shooting, one actor refused to say his lines the way that they were discussed. So I had to stop, in a big teahouse that had maybe 200 extras, and I go into my little video den and rework it as soon as I possibly could in order for us to keep going. And I managed to do that, but it was stressful.
Oliver is smiling.
Stone With Snowden, there was a tremendous sense of responsibility carrying something to its conclusion — and then it’s painful on the set because so many people disagree. They don’t want to say a line this way or that way, they make your life hell sometimes. But when you get to the editing, you’re repeating this process over and over. [And later] you’re being judged, judged by everybody, questioned by everybody. When Kubrick said that famous line about “it takes years to make a film and two hours to write about it,” he was really venting his frustration at people who can sit there and think they see it all in the two hours. It’s not possible. The editing process is the most questioning on earth. You have to go through the whole script again, and it often leads to rewrites in the editing room. You’re dead by the time it comes out.
Did you fight with Edward Snowden?
Stone No, no, no. He’s a very forthright young man, very square, very much a straight arrow. A Boy Scout. I got an invitation from his human rights lawyer to come and meet him because he wanted to sell his book about him [a novelized version], which we bought. It’s an interesting book. But we ended up telling the Snowden story because he warmed up. I did nine visits, ultimately, to Moscow. He looked at the film and he gave me advice, very good technical advice and sometimes other than technical. And he was happy with it. The NSA is saying this is all bullshit. But you live with that.
Barry, you had a different challenge: reliving your experiences with your mother and shooting those scenes in only three days.
Jenkins My mom and [source material writer] Tarell McCraney’s mom both went through this horrible addiction to crack cocaine. And Naomie Harris plays our mom in this film, essentially. We had this issue with her visa [Harris is British]. So instead of shooting her over the course of five weeks, we shot all her work in three days. So for three days I am just living in walking therapy. And it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do because I had to separate myself, the director, from myself the human being, reliving all these things that I’ve tried my hardest to not relive.
Has your mother seen the film?
Jenkins She has not. We [rented] a theater for her, and then a couple of days before, she decided she wasn’t ready. But my sister has seen it and relayed it to my mom, and she did say, “I did those things. I was out there. I’m proud that you made it, but I have to see it on my own schedule.”
Damien, were your actors afraid of the singing and dancing in La La Land?
Chazelle We were all nervous. If a musical goes off the rails, it can be ugly. We all knew that, but they were able to not let the nervousness translate into their work — and that is something I was never able to accomplish.
Is there a part of the directing process that you love the best?
Nair The shooting. Because the challenge is how to capture life. I shoot in real locations because authenticity is a huge part of what gives me that life. And shooting in Katwe, the worst slum [in Uganda], the community came out, the pigs came out, the bugs came out, the mud came out, the brick kilns were smoking. And I always love — like I did with Denzel in Mississippi Masala 25 years ago — putting incredibly skilled actors opposite people who have never thought to act before. In Mississippi Masala, it was a young woman called Sarita Choudhury.
Washington I didn’t know she had not acted! You didn’t tell me.
Nair You were completely comfortable with her.
Washington I’ve worked with some actors that need to stop. (Laughter.) Real, experienced actors that really should quit.
What do you not like about the process?
Nair Fighting against time. And working with kids. There was one Disney executive, he always reminded me of The Seventh Seal. When he would come on set, I knew that my children were going to be taken away [to comply with underage work laws].
Stone There’s all those challenges. How do you play mental games with people? How do you get them to do something that you think is right? And you could be wrong, too.
Gibson I’ve worked with actors who never acted before, a whole cast of them on Apocalypto. It’s time-consuming but very rewarding. And I found out that I’m actually not a bad acting teacher, because I would instruct them: “It’s all about breathing.” And they’d believe me. They looked at me like I knew what I was talking about. (Laughter.) Maybe I’m on to something, I don’t know.
Stone What about dogs, Mel?
Gibson Dogs? I hate dogs. (Laughter.) I love dogs. I love to pat ’em on the head.
Stone I’m talking about shooting dogs. I did some hunting scenes, and I had retrievers. It took so long to get these shots. And we lost so much time.
Gibson Try a jaguar.
Stone Oh. A jaguar? How did that work out?
Gibson They’re completely wild. They can’t be trained.
Jenkins I love production. I could do it 365 days a year. Post is different. It’s just too slow, and everything is very finite. I love how beautiful it is [on set]. You walk on a set and you have no idea — that’s why I don’t storyboard. It’s all possible. Man, we had this scene in Moonlight, the swimming scene [where the lead character experiences the ocean for the first time]. I think I have six hours, but there’s a storm coming in, and I’ve got 90 minutes. Now for 90 minutes, it’s just full go. Everybody is full go. And something comes out of that that you can’t get otherwise.
Should a film be judged separately from the personal story of the filmmaker?
Stone I have had that problem since I started. Because one of my first films was about Vietnam, they thought I was a soldier, and then because I had some rough language about women in Salvador, they identify you, they typecast you, and it stays that way. There are some critics still knocking me 30 years later. What are they talking about? (Laughter.) I’m not Richard Nixon and Jim Morrison; they’re two different people. But they kind of assume that I am crazy or I’m Richard Nixon in some way. You get type-cast the whole time, I can guarantee that. (To Gibson) What do you think? You have a Jesus complex, right?
Gibson There’s perceptions that you can’t shift, no matter what. I don’t know if it’s unfair, it’s just not right.
Chazelle In a weird way, you find it more often in the case of good movies. If you’re being thought of as Nixon or Jim Morrison, to me that’s part of why those movies are great.
Stone Because you get subjectively involved. You are that person while you’re making the movie. But then you shift your persona. Like an actor, you go into something else.
Gibson I was on live television one time, and Anderson Cooper [said], “People actually booed when the credits on your film came up at the beginning of the movie.” And I said, “The credits aren’t at the beginning of the film.” (Laughter.) So he’s full of shit.
A lot of people didn’t see Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation because of the controversy surrounding him. Was that fair?
Gibson I don’t think it’s fair. He was cleared of all that stuff [a rape trial in which Parker was found not guilty]. And it was years ago. You have to follow the system there. I think he’s innocent of all that stuff. The fact that he has to live with that stigma, and that it affects the art he does, is unfair.
Nair I think yes, the art should be separated. But in this case, it was ironic that at the heart of Birth of a Nation was the nature of what he was linked with [a rape of the lead character’s wife]. That was, I think, what created ambiguity and confusion in the eyes of the audience.
What did you get in trouble for as kids?
Nair Being in an open-air truck with 16 young men and being spotted by an uncle as we went under a main bridge in Delhi was not a good thing for a good Indian girl.
Chazelle I was a handful. One memory is, my mom was getting into her car, pulling out of the driveway, and I thought, “Oh, it’s going to be awesome to ride atop the car.” So I just jumped on and held on to the top of the car. If she hadn’t noticed, I would’ve just ridden wherever she was going down the New Jersey Turnpike.
Jenkins I was a pretty good kid. But we were really poor. I remember I was begging for this f—ing welfare cheese — “Just give me cheese, give me cheese, give me cheese.” We’d put it in the microwave, put it on two slices of white bread. And to teach me a lesson, my grandma sat me down one day with the whole block of cheese, and she made me eat it. The lesson was: We eat this because we have to, not because we want to.
Gibson Oh God. I cut up a lot as a kid. I had these four brothers all around the same age. So I walked on the top of barns where the roof was falling in, and I’d get a hiding for that kind of stuff. I was always the damn fool that used to tell the truth and own up to stuff. I’d be the one getting the hiding at school or anywhere else. I don’t know, occupational hazard.
Stone You got the question backward. For me, the trouble starts later. (Laughter.)
Is there a passion project you’ve been unable to make?
Gibson I’m working on a story about the 15th century and the Medicis. It’s about Lorenzo the Magnificent. In fact, I called it The Magnificent, but I might have to change the title since Denzel stole it on his last picture [The Magnificent Seven]. (Laughter.)
What about you, Denzel?
Washington I don’t even have passion projects as an actor. I want to do what I want to do when I want to do it. But I know it’ll be a while before I [direct] again.
Tune in to the full roundtable when it airs on SundanceTV Jan. 15, 2017.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.