When your movie is making a killing at the multiplex and collecting all manner of rave reviews, it's safe to assume that your movie is working. But the six filmmakers who came together for the fourth annual Envelope Directors Round Table looked for a different metric when evaluating their accomplishments.
The filmmakers — Ben Affleck from "Argo," Kathryn Bigelow from "Zero Dark Thirty," Sacha Gervasi from "Hitchcock," Tom Hooper from "Les Misérables," Ang Lee from "Life of Pi" and David O. Russell from "Silver Linings Playbook" — said the ultimate measure of success is how their films affect the people in the seats and in some cases the people they admire.
In addition to describing those reactions, the directors reflected on what happened on the first day of filming, including a special ceremony Lee holds before cameras roll.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:
How do you know whether you've done a good job on a movie? Your Rotten Tomatoes score, the reviews, the box office?
Ben Affleck: It's absolutely necessary to develop your own criteria of what you're interested in doing as an artist — and to set those criteria doesn't mean telling yourself that you've always met them. That would be very bad. But it does mean being really honest about it.
David O. Russell: I agree completely. When you can say, "I feel that I love the picture, and I'm happy," that's — as you say — meeting your own standards. I met the heart of this endeavor; the rest of it is out of my hands. I also feel like it's an emotional response from audiences for me as well. So Danny Elfman, our composer, has an 86-year-old mother who's a no-nonsense, tough lady, who doesn't suffer fools easily, and I was scared of her seeing the picture. And so when she said to me, "I'll tell you, I've been watching movies since 1932, and when I say that's a movie, that's a movie. And that's a movie." And that meant everything to me.
Tom Hooper: It's about audiences, and the good thing about promoting films is you get to travel with your film and have one-on-one feedback about what audiences feel. You're not making it for yourself, you're making it for them, and that's very moving. But also, like David, I think it's when the legends you grew up with kind of say you did a good job. With "The King's Speech," I finally got to meet some incredibly famous directors I'd looked up to, and [they] liked what I did, and that was very exciting.
Ang Lee: I found that the movies are like my children. They have a life of their own. You give everything you have, you want to be proud of them, and they just have a life of their own. You always try to do your best and be proud of yourself and everybody who works with you.
Sacha Gervasi: For me, it was wonderful to screen it for all the people who knew Hitchcock, who worked on "Psycho," and all these people that knew the couple, having them say the spirit of that person that they worked with, the essence is in that movie. That was hugely validating. But the great filmmakers, like, I did the film "Anvil," and when I met Marty Scorsese and he told me it was one of his favorite movies, that was like, "OK, that's cool. I'm done now. I can go home."
Russell: When I had families come forward who had bipolar members or something they've struggled with and said to me that the film let them see more from the point of view of an adult child who'd gone through such a thing than they had before, that meant everything to me.
Kathryn Bigelow: I kind of start [the film as] a question, and I know I'm nearing the end when I feel like there's been an answer. But it's just so recent. I only just finished, like, a couple of weeks ago, so it's sort of like going from this dark room for five, six months, and then it is a process of letting go. And it's probably because of some of the — you know, it's kind of an emotional piece because of the connection to 9/11, and so I've had some incredibly emotional reactions. And so it's been very — it's the beginning of that next phase, and it's been extremely gratifying. And I think as a filmmaker, our greatest hope is to capture the essence of something.
Can you rewind the clock and think about the first day of photography on your films — what's your state of mind?
Hooper: I was determined to go to France to shoot the journey that Valjean makes, this kind of spiritual journey through the Alps to find God on the top of this mountain. And you know, my line producers just kept saying, "There isn't the money. We've run the numbers, we can't do it. Go to Scotland, go to Wales." And I'd go to Scotland, and I'd climb up mountains and go, "This is nothing like France."
Affleck: God wasn't up there?
Hooper: So I said to my first assistant director, why don't we just sneak away to France in prep and just steal three days [of our rehearsal time]. And we worked on how to do it for $30,000, which involved Hugh Jackman flying on this sort of low-budget airline called EasyJet. We took all our gear on EasyJet. We stripped the crew down so small, I operated the camera. And we — I remember the first day, we were up a mountain. And Hugh was doing his first bit of live singing, and it was below freezing.... I've had comments about how it's brilliant how exhausted Hugh looks when he's up the mountain. "How did you get that?" And the truth is it's because he lugged half the gear up the mountain.
Gervasi: Yeah, sheer panic, of course. I'm just trying to get through the day because we had like five scenes to do, which was really two more than I needed to do. So I was just trying to focus on how do we get it done. And then when you get there, it then becomes really enjoyable. Because, oh, my God, you've sat around thinking about this thing for a few months, and suddenly here the actors are doing it, and then you get ideas. So it was wonderful, but interspersed panic and fascination and enjoyment.
Bigelow: We were in India, and I don't know if any of you have shot in India, but we were in this marketplace, beautiful location, the people are wonderful. But you have about 2,000 people looking at the camera. So you go, "Oh, wait a minute, that might not work. I don't know, maybe —"
Affleck: One or two actors, the audience will overlook.
Bigelow: Exactly. And I'm thinking, "OK, how do we this?" So we set up a diversionary set. We could parcel off a camera, parcel off a partial crew and set up an entire scene, like, 100 feet away. A decoy, a diversionary shoot. But you get maybe about 20 minutes, and then you've got to come up with another one because then they realize, "Wait a minute, I'm not sure that's what's going on."
Lee: The first day I always do a ceremony, I focus on the ceremony.
Which is what?
Lee: A big ceremony. Incense, everybody gets together, hit the gong, saying prayers. People love that, and they are blessed. I take it easy the first day. It's a long process, of course. Discover the movie along the way.