DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Over the past year, Terry has spoken with all five movie directors who are up for Academy Awards this weekend. So on the eve of the Oscars, we thought we'd condense those conversations into a one-stop visit with all five Best Director nominees: Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow, Jason Reitman, Lee Daniels; and our first guest, James Cameron.

James Cameron has directed what are considered, by some measures, the two highest-grossing films of all time, the 1997 film "Titanic" and of course, his latest film, "Avatar." "Avatar" has made over $2.3 billion and has received nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.

"Avatar" stars Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, an injured Marine who is now in a wheelchair. He takes a job with a military contractor to work on the planet Pandora, where the company is trying to extract a precious ore. But the natives on the planet, the Na'vi tribe, are getting in the way.

Jake's job is to be an avatar, to take the form of one of the Na'vi and infiltrate them - both for anthropological information and to try to get them out of the way. In this scene, he's reluctantly recording one of his first video logs about starting to learn the Na'vi ways.

(Soundbite of film, "Avatar")

Mr. SAM WORTHINGTON (Actor): (As Jake Sully) This is a video log, 12 times 21, 32. Do I have do this now, like - I really need to get some rack.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) No, now, when it's fresh.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WORTHINGTON: (As Tully) Okay, location: shack, and the days are starting to blur together.

The language is a pain, but you know, I figure it's like field-stripping a weapon, just repetition, repetition.

Na'vi.

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) Na'vi.

Mr. WORTHINGTON: (As Tully) Na'vi.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) Na'vi. (Unintelligible).

Mr. WORTHINGTON: (As Tully) Neytiri calls me scoun(ph). It means moron.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Jim Cameron, welcome to FRESH AIR. Can I ask you to give us an example of a shot or two, or a scene, that epitomizes for you what you can do with 3-D that you couldn't do in a regular film?

Mr. JAMES CAMERON (Filmmaker, "Avatar"): Well, 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.

GROSS: And there's even a shot - and I think this looked deeper because of the 3-D, but you tell me - there's a shot in which the spaceship that's transporting the people to Pandora, it's a shot of, like, a long, narrow bench, basically, of seats, like a row of seats that the guys are sitting on. And I think it looked particularly long because of the 3-D, or is that just me?

Mr. CAMERON: No, I think you're right. I think it's an enhanced sense of depth. We get depth queuing in flat images all the time. We understand perspective, you know, linear perspective, aerial perspective. When we see a human figure, and that figure's very tiny, we don't - our brain immediately says that's not a tiny guy, an inch tall, that's somebody very far away.

So all those depth queues are always there. When you add what 3-D does, 3-D gives you parallax information. It actually gives you the difference between what the left eye sees and what the right eye sees, and that creates even more depth information.

So now all these different depth queues have to be correlated in the brain in the space of a few microseconds when you first see the image. And I would submit, although I haven't seen data on this, that the brain is more active. The brain is more engaged in the processing of the images.

GROSS: Didn't you help develop, like, a special, new virtual camera?

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah, but that's a whole different deal. That has nothing...

GROSS: What is it?

Mr. CAMERON: That has nothing to do with 3-D. The virtual camera was a way of interfacing with a CG world so that I could view my actors as their characters when we were doing performance capture. So imagine, here's Zoe Saldana or Sam Worthington in our capture space, which we called the volume, and when you look at them, they're wearing kind of a black outfit, which is their capture suit, but what I look at, and what I see in my virtual camera monitor is an image of them as a 10-foot-tall, blue, alien creature with a tail.

GROSS: Wow, that's...

(Soundbite of laughter) Mr. CAMERON: And it's in real time.

GROSS: That's kind of amazing.

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah, it's simultaneous.

GROSS: So there's, like, a computer, a CG computer in the camera that transforms the image?

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah, more or less. The camera really is just a monitor and a set of tracking markers, and it connects to a couple of computers, actually. The first one takes in that tracking data and figures out where the camera is in space relative to the actors, and then the second computer takes that information about the characters and where they are and turns them or the actors and where they are and turns them into their characters and supplies the setting.

So I would see Zoe and Sam as Neytiri and Jake in the jungle of Pandora, for example, you know, fully lit image of the Pandoran rain forest. You know, it's not the same as the final image of the movie in the sense that it's a much lower resolution so it can render in real time.

GROSS: Let's talk about the characters a little bit.

Mr. CAMERON: Sure.

GROSS: Let me tell you one of the first things that strikes me about the heroine. Now, in comics and in pulps, and I know you're big fans of those, the women were always curvaceous and buxom and, of course, scantily clad.

Mr. CAMERON: Of course. That's a given.

GROSS: That's a given. Now, the heroine in "Avatar" is so skinny. I mean, all the characters are. All of the characters in this imaginary moon, they're all kind of elongated and very thin. So she's elongated and very thin with, like, little breasts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And scantily clad.

Mr. CAMERON: Athletic breasts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. CAMERON: Something that wouldn't be cumbersome when you're running through the forest rapidly in pursuit of your prey.

GROSS: So I'm wondering about that decision because I think that must say something. I'm not sure what it says, but I figure it must say something about people's expectations of sexuality or athleticism now and, like, you know, a female heroine and also what, I mean, a lot of action and fantasy films are directed at young males, and young males usually want to see that full-figured, buxom, you know.

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah, yeah. They don't...

GROSS: So talk to me a little bit about designing her and how that compares to, like the female sci-fi comic heroines you grew up with.

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah, I mean, your typical comic heroine is, you know, is quite voluptuous. You know, we were just looking for something that was a little bit alien, and so, you know, I use the example of, you know, Giocometti sculpture, you know, where you have these kind of vertically attenuated figures and then relating it back to some, you know, tribal cultures in Africa like the Masai, you know, herders who were, you know, very, very tall and lean and, you know, quite beautiful, and you could see they are muscular, very clearly defined.

And you know, it was a way of having them be human and slightly pushed at the same time. Because for me, the Na'vi always were about an expression of kind of the better part of ourselves in the sense of them being, you know, kind of the almost the Rousseau model of the noble savage, untainted by civilization, all that, which is a quite romantic idea, and not one I think is really true, by the way, in the real world. But it made sense to me that in this film, you've got this polarization where the humans actually represent an aspect of human nature that is, you know, venal and corrupt and aggressive and so on.

And the Na'vi represent an aspect of human nature that is more aspirational for us. They're more the way we would see ourselves or want to be. You know, they're athletic, they're graceful, they're, you know, connected to their environment and to each other and so on.

You know, so I didn't want to make them these fat waddlers, kind of crashing through the bush. I wanted them to suggest a kind of antelope-like grace.

GROSS: Now, you had to make up a language, also, I think with the help of a linguist.

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah.

GROSS: What were you looking for in the language, and how do you put together a kind of grammatically coherent language?

Mr. CAMERON: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, that's where the linguist, Dr. Paul Frommer, came in. And he was the head of the linguistics department at USC at the time, and he did more than help. He actually created the language. Or more properly, he created the translations of the lines that we needed for the script. I don't think - he didn't create, like, a full language with a vocabulary of 20,000 words, but I think we now have a vocabulary of about 1,200 or 1,300 words.

And I actually had him on set with me so that if the actors wanted to improvise, they could go over to him, and say how would I saw this, how would I say that? Sometimes he had to create words right on the spot, but they had to be words that were consistent with the kind of sound system that we were using for the language.

And I guess I sort of set it in motion when I created character names and place names and based them on some, you know, kind of Polynesian sounds and some Indonesian sounds. And he riffed on that, and he brought in some African sounds that were ejective consonants and things like that, kind of clicks and pops, and he sprinkled those in. And he came up with a syntax and a typical sentence structure, which I think has the verb at the end, kind of in the German sentence structure, you know, I to the store go. It's noun, object, verb. So I think that's how Na'vi is structured.

So it follows linguistic rules, and that's why it sounds correct. And all the actors had to adhere to a standard of pronunciation so that it didn't sound like everybody was making up their own gobbledygook, which I think over and a two-and-a-half-hour movie you would have felt you were being had if we had done it that way.

GROSS: So can you speak to me in the Na'vi language?

Mr. CAMERON: You know, I mean, I can only say lines that are in the film.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, that's fine.

Mr. CAMERON: I can say, well: (Speaking Na'vi language). That means I see you, my sister. No, I see you my brother.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMERON: (Speaking foreign language) is I see you, my sister. Or (speaking foreign language) means I was going to kill him, but there was a sign from Awha(ph).

GROSS: One more question: a lot of people have noted that your film is up against "The Hurt Locker" for an Oscar.

Mr. CAMERON: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And "The Hurt Locker" was directed by Kathryn Bigelow who you were once married to. And I think she gave you a copy of the screenplay to look at even though you had long separated...

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...because she wanted your opinion on it. So this is like a big media story that, you know, ex-spouses up against each other at Oscar. So what does that mean to you?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, I think it completely trivializes our relationship to reduce us to exes. You know, we were married for almost two years 20 years ago and since then we've been colleagues and collaborators and close friends for 20 years.

And I've produced two of her films and, you know, I've always sort of, you know, steadfastly promoted her career as a director, you know, when I was actually acting as her producer and subsequently, not that she in recent years has really needed any help. 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, it's 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, it's a win-win situation.

BIANCULLI: James Cameron, speaking with Terry Gross last month. Coming up:

(Soundbite of film, "The Hurt Locker")

Mr. DAVID MORSE (Actor): (As Colonel Reed) What's the best way to go about disarming one of these things?

Mr. JEREMY RENNER (Actor): (As Staff Sergeant William James) The way you don't die, sir.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORSE: (As Colonel Reed) That's a good one.

BIANCULLI: We'll hear from the director of "The Hurt Locker," Kathryn Bigelow. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Our next Best Director Oscar interview is with Kathryn Bigelow, director of "The Hurt Locker." It's about an Army bomb squad in Iraq. Terry spoke with Kathryn Bigelow, and with the movie's screenwriter, Mark Boal, who's also up for an Academy Award.

"The Hurt Locker," based on Boal's reporting from Iraq, stars Jeremy Renner as a sergeant who's just taken over the team. He is fearless and brilliant at diffusing bombs, but often recklessly risks his life and the lives of his men. In this scene, Renner and one of his sharpshooters, played by Anthony Mackie, are in Renner's room. Mackie pulls out a box from under Renner's bed and it's filled with fuses, wires and other remnants of bombs Renner has diffused.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Hurt Locker")

Mr. ANTHONY MACKIE (Actor): (as Sergeant JT Sanborn) What do we have here?

Mr. RENNER (Actor): (as James) They're, you know, bomb parts, signatures.

Mr. MACKIE: (as Sanborn) Yeah. Yeah. I see that, but what they doing under your bed?

Mr. RENNER: (as James) Well, this one is from the U.N. building, flaming car, dead-man switch, boom. This guy was good. I like him. This one, you know, is from our first call together. This box is full of stuff that almost killed me.

Mr. MACKIE: (as Sanborn) What about this one? Where is this one from, Will?

Mr. RENNER: (as James) It's my wedding ring. Like I said, stuff that almost killed me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TERRY GROSS, host:

Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, welcome to FRESH AIR. Kathryn, the first IED that we see go off is in, it's close to the beginning of the film, and it's a really horrifying moment. I mean, you basically see, and I think you shot this, part of this in slow motion - you basically see the pavement lift up and fragment and fly into the air.

Can you talk a little bit about shooting that scene and making it have real impact, and by that I mean it's not special-effects impact. There's so many movies where things are always blowing up, and it's visually dazzling, but you don't necessarily feel anything. You're just thinking, like, wow, pretty cool, stuff blowing up, big special effects. But this you really feel the threat and the impact and the danger and the horror.

Ms. KATHRYN BIGELOW (Director, "The Hurt Locker"): Well, I wanted to really put the viewer at the epicenter of the event and, you know, really feel that horror, and we shot the movie in the Middle East. We shot it in Amman, Jordan. That particular location happened to have been in a very densely populated area.

In fact, it was near a customs house, and there was something like 200,000 cars that traveled through that area on a daily basis, although we did shut that part of the city down temporarily. But it was a very densely populated area, and we knew that had to be a form and type of detonation that was very palpable.

We were very interested in trying to replicate it as realistically as possible. In the case of a 155, which was the particular ordinance 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 of 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 - I think you could you see it for - it was like a four-story-high explosion that you could see for, you know, miles and miles, and I 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.

GROSS: Mark, when you were embedded with a bomb squad in Iraq. How close did you get to any of the explosions?

Mr. MARK BOAL (Screenwriter, "The Hurt Locker"): Well, I got - you know, when you're embedded, unfortunately or fortunately, you're just sort of right there with the soldiers. So I was as close as the soldiers would be, and it, you know, depended.

If they were a mile away, I was mile away. If they were 100 yards away, I was 100 yards away, and close enough that you can feel the heat of the explosion, which is really quite impressive and intensive. It's almost like someone's taking a hair dryer and spraying it in your face, and obviously close enough that the shrapnel is whizzing by around you, and it's very loud and percussive. It's like being at a rock concert.

GROSS: And did the bomb squad team have a pretty decent idea of what the range of the blast will be if the blast goes off so that they know what the safety zone is?

Mr. BOAL: They do. They're kind of - have a very keen sense of that, actually, and their whole expertise in terms of the physics of it is quite extraordinary and impressive. I mean, these are guys that are actually trained to diffuse nuclear bombs.

So for them to calculate the physical blast radius of an IED is something they can do. It's the kind of math they can do in their head very quickly, and so they can tell you with a pretty high degree of certainty where the blast is gonna go and what the impact will be on a given structure, whether it'll take down a house or put a hole in a house or whatever.

But again, that's assuming that they know exactly what the content of the bomb is, and some of the time they don't really know.

GROSS: Kathryn, one of the things that made an impression on me in the movie is that occasionally there'd be, like, a stray feral cat walking across the street or down the street. And one of the cats has only three functioning legs, and one of the cats just looks half, like, starved to death and unhealthy and kind of afraid. And I was wondering, like, whether you cast these cats, whether these were, like, stray cats that you found or that were actually - happened to be walking down the street.

Ms. BIGELOW: In all honesty, they happened to be walking down the street. Kind of the bonus of shooting in situ, in an environment that was in an area that was sort of I suppose kind of down market, shall we say.

And so 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.

GROSS: You know, one of the things I got the impression of from your movie is that your movie is in part about men who have no talent for ordinary life, for life on the home front, for ordinary family life, that something is stirred in them being on the front lines, being in danger, being in a bomb squad, you know, that kind of work, but at the same time, you reach a point where you can't take that anymore, either, and then what are you left with?

And I guess I'd just be interested in some of the thoughts you had during the making of the movie about people for whom ordinary life isn't enough, isn't pleasurable or fulfilling in any way?

Ms. BIGELOW: Well, I don't know if you're familiar with Chris Hedges' book, "War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning."

GROSS: Yes.

Ms. BIGELOW: It's a pretty extraordinary piece of writing, and he discusses that very fact, that sense of purpose and meaning that moments of peak experience can provide. In this case we're obviously referencing combat, and it could come with, you know, race car driving or, again, moments of peak experience that once, you know, once that captures your imagine, it's a very difficult feeling, sensation, emotional peak to replicate other than in that context.

BIANCULLI: Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal speaking to Terry Gross. They are both up for Oscars this weekend, as are the three directors featured in the second half of our show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Im David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.

Like James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino earned his newest Oscar nomination by directing a film about war. But instead of the battlefield of an imaginary world, or a very current real one, Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" takes place during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II with a scenario that takes some very bold liberties with actual history. Terry spoke with Quentin Tarantino last summer.

The film also follows a team of American soldiers hunting down Nazis. The Germans will come to call this group the Basterds. They are led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt.

(Soundbite of movie, "Inglourious Basterds")

Mr. BRAD PITT (Actor): (As Lieutenant Aldo Raine) My name is Lieutenant Aldo Raine, and I'm putting together a special team, and I need me eight soldiers, eight Jewish-American soldiers. Now, you all might have heard rumors about the armada happening soon. Well, we'll be leaving a little earlier. We're going to be dropped into France dressed as civilians, and once we're in enemy territory, as a bushwhacking guerrilla army, we're going to be doing one thing and one thing only: killing Nazis. Sound good?

Unidentified Group (Actors): (As characters) Yes, sir.

GROSS: Quentin Tarantino, welcome to FRESH AIR. So in this team of Jewish soldiers that the Brad Pitt character, Lieutenant Aldo Raine, puts together, he tells them that he's got a little Injun in him, that he's part Apache, and that their battle plan will be the battle plan of Apaches, that they're going...

Mr. QUENTIN TARANTINO (Director, "Inglourious Basterds"): Yeah.

GROSS: ...to scare their enemies. He says the Germans will be sickened by us, and the Germans will talk about us, and the Germans will fear us. And when the Germans close their eyes at night and their subconscious tortures them for the evil they've done, it will be thoughts of us that it tortures them with. And he explains to these Jewish soldiers that they have to scalp the Nazis when they get them, and he insists that they each bring back 100 scalps each or die trying. How did you come up with the idea of scalping...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...of the Jews scalping the Nazis that they hunt down? Again, it's this hybrid of World War II and Westerns, but why that?

Mr. TARANTINO: 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 able, from different points of time, between having 200 braves to 22 braves, were able to fight off for decades both the Spaniards and the Mexicans and the U.S. Cavalry for years because of their - they 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 then you take the scalps, and you - even though the scalping wasn't created by the American Indians. It was created by the white men against Indians, and they just took it and claimed it.

But they would, you know, scalp them and desecrate the bodies, you know, tie them to cactuses or bury them in anthills or things like that, and you know, cut up the bodies and stuff, and then the other enemy soldiers would come across and find their comrades laying there ripped apart, and they would be sickened by it, and it would scare them. It would psychologically get into their heads, so much so that if you're a U.S. Cavalry guy and you thought you were going to be captured by the Apaches, you might kill yourself. If they were with their wives and they thought they were going to be captured, they would shoot their wives for fear of the Apaches getting them.

GROSS: You're part Cherokee.

Mr. TARANTINO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did you identify with the Indians when you watched Westerns?

Mr. TARANTINO: Oh yeah, no, completely. I always did. Yeah, I was always - I remember, like literally saying - watching some cowboy-and-Indian movie with my mother, and I go, so, if we were back then, we'd be the Indians, right? She goes, yup, that's who we'd be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TARANTINO: We wouldn't be those guys in the covered wagons. We'd be the Indians.

But the idea of using the Apache resistance, one, it works effective to actually get German soldiers to think of Jews that way. You know, and they're not just any Jews, they're the American Jews. They're Jews with entitlement. They have the strongest nation in the world behind them. So we're going to inflict pain where our European aunts and uncles had to endure it. And so the fact that you could get - actually get Nazis scared of a band of Jews, that's -again, that's a gigantic psychological thing.

The other thing is even the Jews in the course - even though metaphorically aligning themselves with Indians, and you know, you have genocide aligning itself with another genocide.

GROSS: "Inglourious Basterds" is so much about movies. It's about the genres that you're using. It's about - a movie theater plays a prominent role in it, movies themselves. I don't want to give away a lot, so I'm going to talk in code here. But movies are in some ways the hero of the film. But it's also about how Hitler perverted movies and how his propaganda man, Joseph Goebbels, perverted movies by making these propaganda films. Did you go and watch German propaganda films while you were making "Inglourious Basterds"?

Mr. TARANTINO: Yeah, I watched a few of them. Oddly enough, most of the books written about the subject aren't very good because they just focus in on the more hateful movies that they did very early, early on when they were trying to, you know, get Germany into the war, whether it be anti-Semitic movies like "Jud Suss," or "The Eternal Jew," or movies made against the Polish to help, you know, create sympathy for them to invade Poland. And, you know, there'd be movies where there would be some German girl living in Poland who's raped by the Polish or something. And then they'd make movies against England, you know, in the same way, to help, you know, feather their nest for their aggressions.

But the truth of the matter is, that was fairly, fairly early on in Goebbels' 800 movies that he made in Germany. The majority of them, especially once the war got going, you hardly saw Nazi officers in it at all. They were mostly musicals, comedies and melodramas and stories of great German men from the past.

You know, if you want to see jackbooting Nazis in movies, you've got to watch American movies made at that time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's funny.

Mr. TARANTINO: Yeah, I mean, there were some...

GROSS: Well, what about the Leni Riefenstahl films?

Mr. TARANTINO: Well, yeah, but Goebbels had nothing to do with those. Leni Riefenstahl was the one person Goebbels had no control over in the filmmaking community of Nazi Germany, and they despised each other. But because she was Hitler's favorite, she could do what she wanted. She was the only filmmaker that did not have to cow down to Joseph Goebbels. But even then, you know, that was all before the war. Her movies "Olympia" and "Triumph of the Will" were made before, you know, America even got into the war.

GROSS: Can I ask you a casting question about "Inglourious Basterds?"

Mr. TARANTINO: Sure.

GROSS: The casting is great. But what's - the person who's just like brand new to me and I think most American viewers and is like super extraordinary and it is Christoph Waltz who plays the quote "Jew hunter," the person...

Mr. TARANTINO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...who is sent by the Gestapo to find the last remaining Jews hiding out in the countryside of France. And this is an actor who speaks three languages very well in the movie. He plays this Jew hunter, this Nazi, as somebody who, like a lot of mobsters are portrayed in movies who on the...

Mr. TARANTINO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...surface is like very polite and gracious and complimentary. And, you know, he's just like taking your measure so he can totally undo you and probably kill you or...

Mr. TARANTINO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...whatever it is. And he's very kind of like neat and organized and he - when he's at the farmhouse looking for the Jews who he suspects are hiding, he takes out...

Mr. TARANTINO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...his papers and he fills his fountain pen very neatly. And everything is done with a little flourish. How did you find this actor, Christoph Waltz, who is so splendid in this? What was your audition like for him? How did you know you had found your man?

Mr. TARANTINO: 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 - English wasn't the language for them to read poetry in. And there is a - there's a poetic quality to my dialogue. 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 you have to be able to sell my jokes. And if you're talking about somebody like Sam Jackson, they do that. Christopher Walken can do it and a lot of people can do it, all right. Sam is just probably like the most famous for it. 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. 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.

BIANCULLI: Quentin Tarantino speaking to Terry Gross. Coming up, a talk with Lee Daniels, director of the movie "Precious." This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Our next guest in this best director Oscar fest is Lee Daniels who directed the movie "Precious." Set in Harlem in 1987, it's about a 350-pound, illiterate, 16-year-old African-American girl who is physically abused by her mother and impregnated more than once by her own father. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, plays the young girl Precious. And in this scene, Precious is visiting her welfare caseworker played by Mariah Carey.

(Soundbite of movie, "Precious")

Ms. GABOUREY SIDIBE (Actress): (As Precious) You don't even like me.

Ms. MARIAH CAREY (Singer-songwriter, Actress): (As Mrs. Weiss) Have we not been in this room together for, like, a year, discussing your life?

Ms. SIDIBE: (As Precious) Does that mean we like each other, because we discuss my life?

Ms. CAREY: (As Mrs. Weiss) I can't speak for you. I can only speak for me, and I do like you. I do.

Ms. SIDIBE: (As Precious) So are you Italian, or what color are you, anyway? Are you some type of black or Spanish?

Ms. CAREY: (As Mrs. Weiss) What color do you think I am? No, I'd like to know. What color do you think I am?

Ms. SIDIBE: (As Precious) My throat is dry.

Ms. CAREY: (As Mrs. Weiss) Your throat is dry?

Ms. SIDIBE: (As Precious) It's really hot in here.

Ms. CAREY: (As Mrs. Weiss) It is kind of hot in here. I'm going to go get a soda.

GROSS: Lee Daniels, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me agree with everybody who says that Gabourey Sidibe, who plays Precious, really does an extraordinary job. And she wasn't a professional actress. How did you put out the call? I mean, did you have a casting call for 350-pound teenagers? I mean, how did you find her?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEE DANIELS (Director, Producer, "Precious"): I called an agent in Hollywood and said listen, can you help me? I'm looking for a 355-pound black girl, and he just - there was silence on the phone. And I realized at that point, okay, well, here we go. I've got to attack this from a completely different way than I ordinarily attack the casting process. And that meant work, a lot of work.

But my brilliant casting director, Billy Hopkins, and my sister in Los Angeles, Leah Daniels-Butler, began a search for the girl. And they had to have seen at least a thousand girls. And we actually narrowed it down to, like, 20 girls. These girls were in a Precious camp, where they were dancing, and these girls were...

GROSS: This is like a Precious training camp you're talking about.

Mr. DANIELS: Yeah, yeah. They were dancing. They were having acting lessons, had a vocal instructor. And it was so beautiful watching these girls, who I'd find at McDonald's or we flew in from, you know, a Radio Shack in Chicago and, you know...

GROSS: GROSS: Wait, wait, wait, let's stop right there. So you'd go up to somebody in McDonald's and say, well, they look heavy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: They look fat and may be talented. I will go up to them? I mean -yeah.

Mr. DANIELS: Yeah, they immediately - it was not as easy as you would think, you know. They were very guarded. It wasn't easy coasting these girls into - the two times that I did it, once was at a theater, the girl serving behind the counter, you know, the movie theater, and the other one was at a McDonald's. And it was not - you know, it was not easy.

But so, anyway, they did this, and then they put out open calls, which is really a good thing, too. They had a, you know, put posters out in schools and stuff around the country. And so anyway, we had these 20 girls narrowed down. They were the real girls. These girls really were, you know, they had problems speaking in their diction, and Gabby came in. It was a great audition. And then when I meant 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. 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.

GROSS: You also got a terrific performance out of Mo'Nique, who's best known as a comic and talk-show host.

Mr. DANIELS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: She plays the mother, the very emotionally and physically abusive mother. Before we talk about her performance, let me play a short scene. And this is a scene - Precious and the social worker are in the office. Precious has explained to the social worker, the Mariah Carey character, about the abuse that she suffered at the hands of her father and her mother, and the social worker has called in the mother because the mother insists that she wants Precious and Precious' new baby to move back in. And, of course, Precious doesn't want to do that.

So here's the scene where the social worker, played by Mariah Carey, and the mother, Mary, played by Mo'Nique, are talking with each other.

(Soundbite of movie, "Precious")

Ms. MARIAH CAREY (Singer, Actress): (As Mrs. Weiss) You've been calling this office, saying you want to be reunited with Precious and your grandchild. Now I really need to know what's going on in that home.

Ms. MO'NIQUE (Actress): (As Mary) Mrs. Weiss, I understand we need to discuss it, but I'm just telling you. You said I've been calling here, and I've been wanting to see Precious and my grandson. You're goddamn right I want to see them, because they belong to me, okay? Now there was a time Precious had everything, and I done told her that, and me and Carl(ph), we love Precious, and you need to know that. We love Precious, and we had dreams. Precious was born around the same time Mrs. Weiss' son got killed - the summertime. She was born the summertime, remember? Remember that?

Ms. GABOUREY SIDIBE (Actor): (As Precious) I was born in November.

Ms. MO'NIQUE: (As Mary) November. Yeah. That's right.

GROSS: How did you know that Mo'Nique could pull that off?

Mr. DANIELS: 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.

BIANCULLI: Lee Daniels, director of "Precious."

Coming up:

(Soundbite of movie, "Up in the Air")

Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY (Actor): (As Ryan Bingham) To know me is to fly with me. This is where I live. When I run my card, the system automatically prompts the desk clerk to greet me with this exact statement:

Unidentified Woman (Actress): A pleasure to see you again, Mr. Bingham.

BIANCULLI: We'll hear from Jason Reitman, the director of "Up in the Air" after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Our final guest in today's best director Oscar fest is Jason Reitman, nominated for his movie adaptation of Walter Kirn's book "Up in the Air." Terry spoke with Jason Reitman last year.

The movie stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a man who gets hired by corporations to deliver the bad news to employees who are about to be laid off. This potentially depressing job requires lots of travel, but rather than being depressed by that too, Ryan loves to fly. And he loves, especially, to rack up frequent flyer miles and all the perks that come with them. His goal in the film is to pass the 10 million mile mark.

In this scene, George Clooney, as Ryan, is at a hotel bar flirting with a fellow business traveler played by Vera Farmiga. They're comparing their elite status cards from airlines, hotels and car rental agencies.

(Soundbite of movie, Up in the Air)

Mr.�CLOONEY (Actor): (As Bingham) Oh, Maplewood card. How dare you bring that into this palace?

Ms.�VERA FARMIGA (Actor): (As Alex Goran) Hilton offers equal value and better food, but the Maplewood gives out more cookies at check-in.

Mr.�CLOONEY: (As Bingham) Oh, they got you with the cookies, did they?

Ms.�FARMIGA: (As Goran) I'm a sucker for simulated hospitality.

Mr.�CLOONEY: (As Bingham) You know, there's an industry term for that. It's a mixture of faux and homey: fauxmey(ph).

Ms.�FARMIGA: (As Goran) Oh my God. I wasn't sure this actually existed. This is the American Airlines...

Mr.�CLOONEY: (As Bingham) It's a concierge key, yeah.

Ms.�FARMIGA: (As Goran) What is that, carbon fiber?

Mr.�CLOONEY: (As Bingham) Graphite.

Ms.�FARMIGA: (As Goran) Oh, God, I love the weight.

Mr.�CLOONEY: (As Bingham) I was pretty excited the day that bad boy came in.

Ms.�FARMIGA: (As Goran) Yeah, I'll say. I put up pretty pedestrian numbers, like 60 thou a year domestic.

Mr.�CLOONEY: (As Bingham) It's not bad.

Ms.�FARMIGA: (As Goran) Don't patronize me. What's your total?

Mr.�CLOONEY: (As Bingham) It's a personal question.

Ms.�FARMIGA: (As Goran) Oh, please.

Mr.�CLOONEY: (As Bingham) And we hardly know each other.

Ms.�FARMIGA: (As Goran) Oh come on, show some hubris. Come on, impress me. I'll bet it's huge.

Mr.�CLOONEY: (As Bingham): You have no idea.

TERRY GROSS: Jason Reitman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. There's a scene at the beginning of the film that I really love. It's the first time George Clooney is at the airport, and he goes through the whole ritual. And you photograph it so ritualistically: the collapsing of the handle on the carry-on luggage so it can be put on the, you know, security conveyor belt and then, you know, slipping off of his shoes, putting them in the little box, putting his shoes back on. Can you talk about shooting that to get a ritualistic flavor from it?

Mr.�JASON REITMAN (Director): Well, certainly. I choreographed all of the way that George packed his luggage and the way he went through security. I was very specific about the kind of Tetris of how that all works. And we were the first movie to ever shoot in the real TSA. Normally, if you see a film that has a scene of a person going through a security checkpoint, they just threw up a metal detector in a hotel hallway or at a convention center hallway, and we were the first film to be allowed to shoot in the real thing.

It was actually very tricky to shoot. I choreographed every single shot. I storyboarded it out. We went out to the security checkpoint at Lambert Field in St.�Louis, and we did a trial run, where I shot the whole thing on video, edited it together, refined it again and then because we were given basically a slot, from 10 p.m. until 4 a.m., when there were no passenger going through, where they basically closed down one side of security and let us use the other. And its actually the hardest night of shooting I've ever done.

GROSS: What kind of lighting did you want? I mean, the lighting in airports and airplanes tends not to be very flattering.

Mr.�REITMAN: Well, look I think actually, particularly in modern airports, there is some beautiful, atrium-style lighting. Often, you get these giant windows, and if you're there at the right time of day, light will kind of cut across the entire airport, sending these giant shadows and, you know, beautiful colors that are coming off of the horizon. So and then other times, you are in these dank, fluorescent-lit holes, and you feel like a prisoner. So we wanted to create an arc over the course of the entire film, 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 handheld and long-lens, and the film stock was grainier, and even the extras were picked because they were sloppier.

GROSS: You also have some great aerial shots of what you'd see from flying in a plane. How did you get those?

Mr.�REITMAN: Well, you know, I wanted to see the world from two perspectives: one from 20,000 feet in the air, and the other one, the world is two inches away from your face and nothing really in between. So the trick is to get footage from that high up. You know, normally when you see aerial footage in a film, it's done at 5,000 feet up, which is helicopter height. No one shoots from up in the sky the way you see outside a plane when you're up, actually up there.

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.

GROSS: People are really curious about, like, how product placement works in movies now. Where, like, you see a certain brand of product, and what happens often is that the that company has paid to have their product in the movie. Now I know that American Airlines has kind of partnered with you on the movie and that they let you use some of their facilities. Is that a product placement thing or something different?

Mr. REITMAN: Well, American Airlines actually gave us no money. What we did was - it was a bit of a trade - that they gave us access to their gates and their checking counters. They even flew in a 757 for us to fly on, which is unheard of. When you shoot a plane in a movie, youre always on what's called a mock-up, which is fuselage that's on a stage and we were shooting on an actual plane half the time. And in trade, you know, Ryan exclusively flies American.

I thought a lot about this because I'm as sensitive as any one else is to product placement in the film, and I really did not want my film to come off as some sort of shill. But the truth is, Ryans greatest friend on Earth is his airline. He knows American and Hertz and Hilton closer than he knows any individual person, because I had the choice to actually make it fictitious. But if it was a fictitious named airline like Sunshine Airlines or something like this, all of a sudden the movie is a satire, it doesnt take place in the real world, and I wanted this film to be set in reality. And American ended up being this wonderful partner to us. I mean, one, you know, they flew was everywhere we shot. They gave us the chance to create a sense of reality.

GROSS: The downside of them flying you everywhere is you probably got no miles for those flights.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REITMAN: Youre absolutely right. Thats exactly right. The frustration of getting free flights is you dont get miles. And one of the reasons I dont use my miles to travel is when you use your miles to travel, you dont get miles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, boy.

BIANCULLI: Jason Reitman, speaking to Terry Gross last year. He and all the other best director nominees will learn their Oscar fates when ABC televises the Academy Awards Sunday night.

(Soundbite of song, "This Land Is Your Land")

BIANCULLI: You can find interview highlights with all five best directors as well as other Oscar coverage at our Web site at freshair.npr.org.

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: On the next FRESH AIR, we meet professor, writer, and former dominatrix Melissa Febos.

Professor MELISSA FEBOS (Author, "Whip Smart"): People are actually surprised. I did another interview, recently, where the interviewer ask me where my favorite boutiques for shopping for equipment were - and actually Home Depot was one of my favorite outlets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Her new memoir is "Whip Smart."

Join us.

(Soundbite of music)

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