Best Directors: The 'Fresh Air' Interviews

Best Director nominees Kathryn Bigelow, Lee Daniels, Jason Reitman, James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino

hide captionThe Best Director nominees for the 2010 Academy Awards on set (clockwise from upper left): Kathryn Bigelow, Lee Daniels, Jason Reitman, James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino.

Summit Entertainment, Lionsgate Films, Dale Robinette/Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, The Weinstein Co.

Besides winning nominations for the Academy Award for Best Director, this year's nominees — James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino, Lee Daniels and Jason Reitman — have at least one experience in common: They've all appeared on NPR's Fresh Air to talk about their nominated films.

Cameron's Avatar — the first in history to gross more than $2 billion worldwide — gestated in its director's brain for more than 15 years until the technology needed to create the film existed. The film takes place on the fictional planet Pandora, where a military contractor is attempting to take a precious mineral away from the native people.

Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is about an Army bomb squad in Iraq, made up of three men: one who disarms bombs and two who protect him while he works. Bigelow shot the movie in Amman, Jordan, and says one of the biggest challenges was making sure the explosions in the film looked realistic.

Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is a hybrid spaghetti western-World World II film set in France in June 1944. The film follows a team of American soldiers hunting down Nazis — as well as a character called "The Jew Hunter," a Nazi sent to capture the last few remaining Jews in France.

Daniels' Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire stars newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as an overweight, illiterate 16-year-old girl who is physically abused by her mother and pregnant by her father for the second time. To find Sidibe, who played Precious, Daniels held open casting calls around the country.

Reitman's dramatic comedy Up in the Air stars George Clooney as a businessman who feels most at home in airports, hotels, and airplanes. When a company is laying people off and doesn't want its own VPs or HR people to relay the bad news, it brings in Clooney's Ryan Bingham to do the dirty work; Bingham manages to convince people their dismissal is an actually an opportunity for growth.

Cameron, Bigelow, Tarantino, Daniels and Reitman share skill and an obsession with craft that makes them Best Director nominees. The stories behind their films make each of them ideal subjects for Fresh Air.


James Cameron i i

hide captionThe official budget of Avatar was $237 million, with an additional $150 million built in for promotional activities.

Mark Fellman/20th Century Fox
James Cameron

The official budget of Avatar was $237 million, with an additional $150 million built in for promotional activities.

Mark Fellman/20th Century Fox

James Cameron, Avatar

Cameron on what makes filming a 3-D movie like Avatar different from a 2-D film:

I think it's sometimes as simple as, you know, a shot in a snowstorm would feel so much more tactile to the viewer. You'd actually feel like the snowflakes were falling on you and around you, you know, that sort of thing, any time that the medium of the air between you and the subject can be filled with something. So we did a lot of stuff in Avatar with, you know, floating wood sprites and little bits of stuff floating in the sunlight and so on, and rain and foreground leaves and things like that. It's all a way of wrapping the audience in the experience of the movie.

On going up against his ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow, in the Best Director category:

She's, you know, definitely been well-established and the accolades that she's getting now, you know, in this awards season and the critical recognition and so on is for one, way overdue. For two, its such a great celebration of her accomplishments as a filmmaker that, you know, I'm the first one to cheer when she wins an award. For me its a win-win situation.

Full interview broadcast on Feb. 18, 2010


Kathryn Bigelow i i

hide captionDirector Kathryn Bigelow tells Terry Gross that she cast Jeremy Renner as the lead on the bomb squad team because he is "one of the most talented actors of his generation."

Courtesy of Summit Entertainment
Kathryn Bigelow

Director Kathryn Bigelow tells Terry Gross that she cast Jeremy Renner as the lead on the bomb squad team because he is "one of the most talented actors of his generation."

Courtesy of Summit Entertainment

Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker

Bigelow on making the explosions in The Hurt Locker look realistic:

A lot of it has to do with what the matter is that's being detonated, but we were very interested in trying to replicate it as realistically as possible. In the case of a 155, which was the particular ordnance in the middle of the road, it was meant to have a very dark, dense, thick look that was very different than those kind of gaseous orange plumes or kind of fuel that perhaps maybe is more conventional in films. Anyway, so we performed this detonation, and the effects man, Richard Stutsman, did an extraordinary job, but it was a very, very large ... it was like a four-story-high explosion that you could see for, you know, miles and miles, and he used something called a phantom camera, which shoots 10,000 frames per second, you know, to kind of look at the granular nature of a detonation of that size.

On the advantage of filming on the street, with real people:

It's a matter of always keeping your camera department alive and looking in all directions just in case there might be some surprise, a beautiful woman up on a balcony, head shrouded in cloth, looking down, gazing down on you, and just trying to be very sensitive to the environment in which you're in and open and spontaneous and take that into consideration where you're shooting.

Full interview broadcast on June 24, 2009


Quentin Tarantino i i

hide captionQuentin Tarantino attends the Sydney premiere of his new film, Inglourious Basterds.

Gaye Gerard/Getty Entertainment Images
Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino attends the Sydney premiere of his new film, Inglourious Basterds.

Gaye Gerard/Getty Entertainment Images

Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Tarantino on coming up with the idea to have American Jewish soldiers scalp Nazis in Inglourious Basterds:

Well, it hit me that an Apache resistance would be a wonderful ... metaphor for Jewish American soldiers to be using behind enemy lines against the Nazis because the Apache Indians were ... great guerrilla fighters. They were great resistance fighters. And one of their ways of winning battles was psychological battles. They never did straight-up fights. It wasn't about, you know, getting killed in the line of fire. It was all ambush, ambush, ambush, and you ambush somebody, and then you take the scalps, and you — even though scalping wasn't created by the American Indians. It was created by the white man against Indians, and they just took it and claimed it.

On finding actor Christoph Waltz to play the trilingual Nazi Col. Landa, "The Jew Hunter" in Inglourious Basterds:

Well, you know, it was wild because I had seen already like a few different German actors for this part and was not finding my Landa at all. And part of the problem was, well, obviously they could speak German well. And most, actually, German actors have like, some speaking of French. So, the French wasn't the problem. But, I was having a problem with them doing my dialogue in English. And it wasn't a matter of fluency. You know, a lot of them could come in and we could speak for the next nine hours in English and there would be no problem. It was — but it was — English wasn't the language for them to read poetry in. And there is a — there's a poetic quality to my dialogue. I mean, there's an aspect I've always said that is — it's, you know, it's not poetry but it's kind of like it. It's not song lyrics but it's kind of like song lyrics. It's not rap but it's kind of like rap. And it's not stand-up comedy but it is kind of like stand-up comedy. It's all those things together. ... And when it came to a lot of these German actors with the English, they just couldn't do it. They couldn't get the poetry out of it. They couldn't own it and make it their own. And they were struggling with it. And then, Christoph came in and I didn't know who Christoph was. He's a TV actor in Germany. He does like miniseries and stuff. And he came in and I can literally say halfway through the reading of that first scene in the farmhouse, I knew I'd found my Landa.

Full interview broadcast on Aug. 27, 2009


Lee Daniels i i

hide captionLee Daniels' other producing credits include Monster's Ball, Shadowboxer and The Woodsman.

Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Lee Daniels

Lee Daniels' other producing credits include Monster's Ball, Shadowboxer and The Woodsman.

Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Lee Daniels, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

Daniels on casting Mo'Nique as Precious' mother, Mary:

We're very good friends, and I had already worked with her before on Shadowboxer. And through that friendship, you know, Precious came along. And though in the book, Precious' mom, Mary, is actually bigger than Precious, and it's sort of the reverse in the film, I knew that Mo'Nique would tear it out. So it was just something intuitive. You know, my intuition has led me to where I'm at. I've rarely been wrong about an actor.

On the process that led to casting Gabourey Sidibe as Precious:

Gabby came in to [casting director] Billy [Hopkins]'s office, Billy found her, and she auditioned. It was a great audition. And then when I went to meet her, she started talking like this white girl from the Valley, and I just thought my God, this is — who are you? And I realized at that moment if I had used one of the girls that was really Precious, that I would have been exploiting them, and it would not have been — I would have made a mockery of Precious. So this girl is not Precious. And so she's, you know, she has a different life, and she's — though she's from Harlem, she's very worldly and really has a sense of self-confidence that either, I don't know, I've never seen anything like it before in my life. She is truly, you know, either in denial about her physicality, or she's on a higher plane. I know she's got several boyfriends. She's so secure with who she is that it's mind-blowing.

Full interview broadcast on Nov. 5, 2009


Jason Reitman i i

hide captionJason Reitman began writing Up in the Air six years ago but put it aside to write and direct his first major feature, Thank You For Smoking.

Dale Robinette/Paramount Pictures
Jason Reitman

Jason Reitman began writing Up in the Air six years ago but put it aside to write and direct his first major feature, Thank You For Smoking.

Dale Robinette/Paramount Pictures

Jason Reitman, Up in the Air

Reitman on how the lighting in the airport scenes changes over the course of Up in the Air:

We wanted to create an arc over the course of the entire film, and this went through all departments, where at the beginning of the film, the world is beautiful, and we are seeing Ryan's version of air world. The lighting is, there's a lot of half-light, there's a lot of contrast, there's a lot of muted colors and tones. We used a lot of wide angles and moving camera. Even the extras were picked because they were kind of more fit and more attractive, and they were — you know, we tailored their clothes better. The production design, there was not a scuff on anything. Everything was shiny and perfect. And over the course of the film, the colors became warmer, and the shooting became more hand-held and long-lens, and the film stock was grainier, and even the extras were picked because they were sloppier.

On getting the many aerial shots in the film:

And I figured, you know, we'd just throw a plane up and point a camera down, and it would be as simple as that, but it was a lot trickier, in fact. We tried once with a jet, with a camera shooting down through a little glass dome, but the atmosphere was wrong, and the film grain was wrong, and the optics weren't quite good enough. So we went back up with a propeller plane, but to get it that high, the pilots had to wear oxygen masks, and this time, we put a digital camera on the wing. And then if you can imagine this, the camera would only go down, let's say, 75 degrees. It wouldn't go down 90 degrees to point straight down. So to get it to go straight down, they would then put the plane into a dive, and that is how we got straight-down footage.

Full interview broadcast on Nov. 30, 2009

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