Six top filmmakers — also including Patty Jenkins, Denis Villeneuve, Angelina Jolie and Joe Wright — open up about choosing the right projects ("You don't want to end up in a bad marriage"), firing staff and what it feels like to direct a movie that bombs: "People think you move on, but you don't."
What if you could put a camera anywhere, at any time in history? What if there were no limits to what you could direct? "That would be suicide," says Guillermo del Toro, 53 (The Shape of Water), at THR's Nov. 12 Director Roundtable. "Limits are what give you freedom." Still, pushed, he admits he would love to film his grandmother, with whom he had a complicated relationship, to check his memory.
First-time director Greta Gerwig, 34 (Lady Bird), would shoot Socrates. "He had these dialogues with Diotima, a prostitute in ancient Greece — I would have loved to hear what those women had to say," she offers. Denis Villeneuve, 50 (Blade Runner 2049), would train his camera on Jesus. Patty Jenkins, 46 (Wonder Woman), would put hers in a high-security prison. And Joe Wright, 45 (Darkest Hour), would like to "see things through the eyes of an angel." But Angelina Jolie, 42 (First They Killed My Father), thinks far too much has already been captured on film — "from chemical attacks in Syria to the Rohingya being displaced" — without anything being done about it. "I see very little call to action," she says, with regret.
Of course, each of these directors, in his or her own way, sees film as a call to action, as they made intensely clear in their conversation with THR.
You're on a lifeboat with a Blu-ray player …
GUILLERMO DEL TORO We are going to do that? That's not fair!
What are you going to take with you to watch? Let's start with you, Guillermo.
DEL TORO Oh, why?
DENIS VILLENEUVE Because you are the cinephile of the group.
ANGELINA JOLIE Always, always.
DEL TORO It's so difficult for me to answer, because I will answer something completely non-prestigious. When I was a teenager, The Road Warrior  completely destroyed me. It's the first time I noticed how the camera worked and moved, and it was a ballet, and I have never been the same. But I would probably change my mind halfway through the lifeboat journey, and I would go, "Where is Frankenstein ?"
PATTY JENKINS Oh, my God! So many movies go through my head.
DEL TORO Come on. I did The Road Warrior.
JENKINS The weirdest one keeps coming into my mind. I Know Where I'm Going, [1945, directed by Michael] Powell and [Emeric] Pressburger. I love that movie. The design of it fascinates me because it's so romantic, but you never notice that it's becoming that romantic.
What did it teach you?
JENKINS The pocket of emotion of romance — the space where you get it and it's sincere and it's real and you just keep it from hitting the ground. You're right there in it. "Oh, my God, it's happening." It's what love is to me: It's when fear is mixed with desire. There's something so incredible about that moment.
Is love in real life ever what it is on film?
GRETA GERWIG Yes.
JENKINS I have theories about love. But fear and desire being equal is the thing. Film allows that to happen, but that's what it is in real life, too, although we always want to shut it down. Your desire is always to get the upper hand on [the fear], and as soon as you do, it's not so much love anymore. Film allows people to feel comfortable extending it longer.
GERWIG I am not choosing this on my boat, but Brief Encounter : She looks at him and says, "You looked like a little boy just then," and he looks at her and it's like, too late, they are already in love. Anyway — Singin' in the Rain , I mean, if you are on a boat.
Do you try to imitate someone else's best film, or react against it?
DEL TORO Against.
JENKINS But why just one? It would be hard to pick just one that you are reacting against. You are always studying and paying homage to the people before you, and then turning it just a little bit yourself. That's the whole game.
JOE WRIGHT Personally, [my work is] probably a reaction against my father, as well as his work. He was a puppeteer.
DEL TORO Bet Freud would have something to say about that.
WRIGHT Exactly. He was a puppeteer and made very beautiful marionette shows. He founded the first purpose-built puppet theater in London in 1961, and one of the burdens of his career was that everyone saw puppetry as children's entertainment, and he considered it a fine art. So a lot of [my work] is a reaction against his perceived failure. Determination to do better, I guess.
VILLENEUVE I think I am reacting to when I was a very [young man]. Right out of film school, I made a short film. I was liked by an older filmmaker, Pierre Perrault, who was a master doing documentaries, and in the '60s he was part of a realistic film movement where they were the first ones to take the camera off the tripod and go with real people. They made a fantastic movie called Pour la suite du monde [For Those Who Will Follow, 1963] on a small island in Quebec, where they spent three years shooting fishermen. For some reason he liked me, and he was very sad that I was going to do fiction instead of documentary, because for him fiction was fake. All my life, I felt I owed him a lot, but I always felt I was the bad son who went to do fiction.
So would you choose his film for the lifeboat as a kind of penance?
VILLENEUVE I might. Or, to prepare me for death, it would be [1968's] 2001: A Space Odyssey. [This is] my favorite film of all time. It's the closest thing to a very existential journey. It would be good to prepare me for the passage if you are on a lifeboat without hope.
JOLIE It's a really interesting question because it's not like a favorite film, right? It's more the film that prepares you for death or helps you through solitude. I don't know if I would want to be watching movies. I love [Sidney Lumet's 1965 film] The Hill, and maybe it would help on the lifeboat to see how you manage surviving against all odds. But my real answer is: I don't know. Film does take you out of yourself, and I am somebody who can't listen to music because I get too influenced by it.
VILLENEUVE I am the same.
JOLIE I hear certain music, I will get dark or light, or I will start to feel …
DEL TORO You mean emotionally?
JOLIE Emotionally. So I tend to not regularly watch films, because I get very swayed by things. It affects me so.
Does directing movies affect you as well?
JOLIE Yes. In Cambodia, [the Pol Pot regime] is subject matter that has been debated. [But] this history is not known internationally and it made me upset when I was in that country. I have seen how it affects the people, and I have a son [Maddox, born in Cambodia] who deserves to know his history, and I want him to know what his birth parents went through. But did I feel I had the right to be the one doing that? It was hard every day to know if I was good enough or the right person to do it. Every day I woke up feeling, "Am I good enough?"
VILLENEUVE I had a similar experience but on a smaller scale, when I did a movie in the Middle East about the Lebanese Civil War [2010's Incendies]. But I felt welcome, talking about the story of other people, even if I was technically a tourist.
Patty, were you welcomed by Warner Bros. when you made Wonder Woman?
JENKINS I was. I mean, to get in there was a long story. I had first talked to them about it in 2005, and there were so many different chapters when they were and weren't going to make it. These tentpole movies, I feel it's more like dating than it is [like], "Hey, just buy my pitch." It's a serious commitment. I had almost done other big movies and had seen very little disagreements [derail a project]. So I was extremely circumspect when I came in to [talk about] doing Wonder Woman. I was really cautious. And when I first was meeting with them, they wanted to do something different, and I was like, "Ah, it's a shame. I don't think we are the right match." By the time they came back and realized they wanted to do something very similar to what I had been saying, it was a much different conversation. So I was extremely welcomed. I was very supported. And it's the biggest advice I ever give young filmmakers: Pick the right projects, because you don't want to end up in a bad marriage.
DEL TORO In 25 years, I have had one single bad experience: [Mimic] in 1997 at Miramax/Dimension. I learned that great word, which was "no," which is the same in every language, but I learned it. I agree completely with what you are saying: It's like adopting a baby tiger. A year later, that baby tiger eats your face.
What did you learn from directing your first film?
GERWIG I learned that I could do it. I don't think you quite know until you are on the other end of something like that. You take the leap and hope there is a parachute attached. But part of learning how to direct was being on film sets as an actor and, in particular, early films I made. I knew from having been on different films that when things came up that were problems or difficulties or something went awry, that was not a deviation from the path; that was the path.
DEL TORO There's a Buddhist saying: The obstacle is the path.
WRIGHT And always the obstacle gives you solutions that you find are far more interesting and far more crazy. The Steadicam shot in [2007's] Atonement [tracking the soldiers at Dunkirk in a single shot] was purely a result of the fact that we only had one day to shoot that scene, and the tide was going to come in and go out, so we really only had three hours of clear set. And this montage sequence was impossible to shoot in three hours, so the solution was to do it as a single take.
What was the biggest problem you had to solve on Blade Runner 2049, Denis?
VILLENEUVE Hmmm. What I'm going to say must stay around this table.
Don't worry, no one is listening.
VILLENEUVE How can I say it? Oh, boy. Let's say, doing this movie, I lost my virginity as a director. I thought before doing this movie that I love working with other people — the thing I love about filmmaking is to bring everybody around an idea and working together — and I thought, before, that I was able to bring everybody in the same direction. And I learned on Blade Runner why you have to fire someone. And that's a big, big thing.
Why did you have to fire someone?
VILLENEUVE At the end of the day, it's a matter of egos. You feel there is no reconciliation possible. And on a movie of a different scale, you can compensate. But on a movie like Blade Runner, where honestly I was dead at the end, [there's no] having to compensate.
GERWIG Before I directed, I had conversations with directors. Someone told me, "If you don't like a shot, turn off the lights, because it gives you a second to figure out what you don't like." And somebody told me, "Anyone is replaceable if they're hurting the movie."
JENKINS A big movie is a massive organism. And you have to be a leader, you have to be a manager on a whole other level. I had interesting massive-group dynamics, where I was like, "This whole group of people works together great. And now, all of a sudden, they are all complaining about each other. Where is the [problem]? Oh, it's you." And I had to get rid of that person. And I feel for you and all of that. But you are a destructive personality in the midst of hundreds and hundreds of people who need to go to work every day.
JOLIE When I started, I wanted everybody to feel this is the greatest experience. And then I realized, there can be days they don't like me. I would rather them not like me and be proud of the end result.
VILLENEUVE You are not there to make friends.
DEL TORO The other [thing] is when many of the members of the crew believe you are making something completely deranged. That is one thing as directors that we don't talk about, that we [must] have unwavering faith. We may have moments of darkness on the set, but to the crew, you have unwavering faith.
What was your worst day on Shape of Water?
DEL TORO I had a first day that I cannot think about. The second day was worse. In 65 days [of shooting], we had 64 really difficult days. There was a moment when Michael Shannon parks, stops, runs up the stairs. So Shannon parks the car, gets out — and the car stays on drive. It's an old car. The car continues going. Michael runs to try to stop the car. The car drags Michael in the middle of the rain. It hits the first post. Shower of sparks. Goes for the second post and it's coming straight for the video system. Everybody says, "Run!" Now, I never run for anything in my life! (Laughter.) And I go, "I am going to die." And the car stops at the second and final post, which is anchored to the ground. Everybody was horrified. And I say, "Now I can make my shot."
JOLIE So is that the one good day? (Laughter.)
Among your filmic heroes, who was different than you expected?
JOLIE Because I grew up in this business with my father, I early on realized how average everybody is. I grew up thinking there is nothing unbelievably special or unbelievably different about these people, except sometimes they think they are unbelievably special.
WRIGHT One thing that surprises me when I meet great actors is that they want direction.
What direction did you give Gary Oldman when he was playing Winston Churchill?
WRIGHT The rhythm of his character. I talk a lot about rhythm when I am directing. Film is more similar to music than any other art form. I am always almost conducting a scene so that they know where the rise is and where the falloff is, rather than talking about backstory and stuff like that, which I think is fairly useless. And although I am not keen on method actors, I am a bit of a method director in the sense that I have to feel [the characters'] emotions and I have to identify closely with the character. Really those characters are always an expression of myself. So I tried looking for the similarities. Finding out how Churchill and I are the same? Ridiculous! But for me, the film is about self-doubt. And I just had an experience of extreme self-doubt and thought I was going to leave the industry. I made a film called Pan , and it lost about $100 million, and it was universally slighted by the critics, and I thought, "I don't understand this world anymore. And I don't know if I want to be a part of it."
DEL TORO People think that you move on, but if you are worth anything, you don't move on. You go into a deep, dark place.
WRIGHT Because our filmmaking is an expression of our soul. It's the closest to my essence.
JOLIE But it can also make you feel stronger. A film I did, By the Sea , even when we were making it, people were saying, "Well, that's not going to be what people want." I [heard something negative] on CNN. I was like, "Oh …" Then the young punk in me had this weird moment of: "OK. You did your best, and you learned something, and it's not for everybody." It was like a talk with myself: "Don't become safe from this. If you become safe, you are never going to do anything worth anything."
Patty, have you ever lost your resolve?
JENKINS All the time. I never decided to be a director. I was at painting school, and my first love was music, and it finally came together when I took an experimental film course and I was like, "That's it." But I definitely had many moments where I was like, "Ugh, you could just restore antiques or something." There was a period of time, not long before I made Wonder Woman, when everything [didn't work]. I had made Monster , then I had a movie not go, then I had my son — so I purposefully just did pilots for a while. And when I came back, the bottom had fallen out of the indie film market. The films that I had ready to go, nobody wanted to make. They didn't even want to read them. I was like, "I just want to leave Hollywood." It's ironic that I turned around and made Wonder Woman.
What's the most crucial quality a director needs?
WRIGHT A director has to think in film. And that's rare. It's not about thinking visually or dramatically; it's about seeing the world as film, as an audiovisual, time-based experience.
JENKINS You also have to have some responsibility to the realities of filmmaking. Doing such a huge movie, there is a huge insurance policy on you. You cannot ride a bike. I had a couple of moments where I was like, "Oh, my God, I am the only person who understands how 17,000 pieces are going to fit together."
DEL TORO But also being fearless. Because sometimes the most brilliant things are those that are closest to being ridiculous.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.