Directing movies has always been a high-wire act, and it has only gotten harder in this unpredictable era of the pandemic. In mid-November, six filmmakers behind some of the year’s most celebrated cinematic work gathered for The Hollywood Reporter’s Director Roundtable: Pedro Almodóvar (Parallel Mothers), Kenneth Branagh (Belfast), Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog), Guillermo del Toro (Nightmare Alley), Asghar Farhadi (A Hero) and Reinaldo Marcus Green (King Richard). The group, who convened in person in L.A., talked about giving up guns on sets, mining personal traumas and why they wished they had “slept more, laughed more and breathed more” on their films.
How would you explain the job of a director to a 5-year-old?
KENNETH BRANAGH It’s like a kind of creative traffic cop.
GUILLERMO DEL TORO It’s creating curiosity about everything. The camera is looking for a question that the camera knows the answer of.
Was being a director a job that you understood to be open to you when you were a child?
JANE CAMPION Absolutely not. What I did love doing was putting on plays with my friends at school and at home. Making a film is like going back to that time, and one of the first things we always thought about was costumes. What costumes have we got, ’cause that’s going to define the story. I do still feel like, when I get onto the set and I get over my nerves and anxieties, which are enormous and endless, you suddenly feel that play energy come up through you, and I feel liberated and really excited. That’s still at large in me.
DEL TORO And the costumes on your film are amazing. They’re perfect storytelling.
CAMPION Thank you. Kirsty Cameron, who did our costumes, she and I would just sit in her little tea costume department room and play and look at references and puzzle it out. And she was brilliant, because she thinks about stories so much, she really works with the character and not just [to] make an effect.
REINALDO MARCUS GREEN I was a baseball player. My first outfit was a New York Mets onesie and my dad thought he was raising a professional athlete. I played college baseball, had a couple of Major League tryouts, but once that failed, then I had to get a job like everybody else. I’ve had two careers before filmmaking. I taught kindergarten through fifth grade, and then I left that to go to Wall Street. I have a brother that’s a filmmaker, Rashaad Ernesto Green, and he was the one that was doing drama and art. When he became a filmmaker and went behind the camera, he started telling our family stories. I was like, “Oh wait, that’s a pretty cool concept, if I can figure out how to do it.” So I applied to film school at 27 or 28 years old, got in and left my day job to pursue filming.
Are there parallels between being a kindergarten teacher and running a set?
GREEN One hundred percent. Won’t name names, but, at the end of the day, everybody learns differently and you can’t speak to everybody the same. When you’re teaching, you can’t teach broadly, you have to give students individual attention. And I was able to learn that, and obviously the faculty, the staff and all the different levels of institution that you have to work with in a school system.
PEDRO ALMODÓVAR I started watching movies very early, like 8, 9 years old. I’m talking about the ’50s in Spain. It was a very good period for cinema, but a very hard period for Spain, one of the darkest moments of our history [when Francisco Franco was dictator, before the country became a democracy in 1975]. So the cinema for me, it was the parallel world that I would like to live in. I wanted to be inside, I wanted to belong to that universe. I thought, “Oh, I want to be one of them, I want to become an actor.” But at 16, then I discovered that there was someone behind the camera and someone that writes the story. In that moment, I decided that I wanted to be in that place.
Do you think of a particular audience when you’re writing?
DEL TORO Not really. I really write for myself, and if I’m writing with somebody else, for us. What is fascinating for me was to learn the rhythm of English, because it is my second language. Spanish is very lyrical, it’s melodic. For me, writing a line of dialogue is fascinating. It has the construction of a small story. Writing, it’s the most solitary, horrible process … [While staring at the blank screen], it’s, “Come on, make me do it,” and then, “I don’t know, you win today. I’m going to watch YouTube.”
ASGHAR FARHADI When I’m writing, there is only one audience, myself. You ask yourself, “Does it work? Does it have enough emotion?” Sometimes you are not honest with yourself, you think you are writing for yourself, but you are thinking about outside your country, you are thinking about producers and others. But if you are honest, when you are writing, there is one audience in front of you and always he’s fighting with you. And this is a good fight, because you write something and suddenly he says, or she says, “It doesn’t work.” I love this period [of the process]. Indirectly, we are sharing our questions. We don’t have answers. Some people, they think we have answers. It is not like this. I share my question with you. For this, I love writing and I hate the rest of the process. In a group, I don’t feel I’m safe. Being in a room alone is better for me.
BRANAGH I was very precise about when I started writing every morning and when I finished. My absolute instinct was “Do not overthink this.” I’d make sure that I started at 9 o’clock every morning. It was like a sort of race against the clock. The first phrase that I learned directing films that was the most useful phrase for me was “I don’t know.” When I was brave enough to say I don’t know, that’s when all this amazing advice and collaboration came, but in this instance I wanted to get in, get out and trap my instinct before I decided to make it better. I wanted to leave the blood on the page.
CAMPION And who did you share it with in the end?
BRANAGH I didn’t really share it with anybody. My wife didn’t even know what I was writing, she just knew I went to the shed every day. I’d been involved in a couple of big films where I just felt, “Jesus Christ, if I have another meeting with another massive number of very talented people …”
Is that why you made such a personal movie now?
BRANAGH It was … 50 years of looking at the same thing, a particular moment in my life where everything changed. There were about 20 seconds in my life when I heard a noise that I thought was bees, and then everything slowed down, and then I turned around and it’s not bees, it’s people. “Oh, Christ, they’re coming toward us.” And it turned into a riot [during The Troubles in Northern Ireland] where they smashed windows and pulled the drains up out of the street. As I thought about this years later, I realized I was never the same again with my family, I never lived in the same place, I didn’t sound the same, I didn’t do what I thought I might be doing. Twenty seconds where the world turned upside down, and I have spent about 50 years slowly coming to the realization that that was the most defining [moment] in my own little personal life. And that I needed to go back and try and understand. I’ve been sort of haunted and I would say probably guilt-ridden as well, for about half a century, so I just had to do it.
Pedro, why was Parallel Mothers the movie you made now?
ALMODÓVAR I tried to do it before. I write alone, and would like to collaborate with someone, but it’s like to find a husband or a wife, it’s very difficult for me. Sometimes I feel bad writing alone. I tried to write this for the first time, like, 12 years ago … I left it in my desk. I have many stories at the same time, so when I finish the one, then I go back to one of them that is more appealing.
DEL TORO I remember when Pedro produced [del Toro’s film] The Devil’s Backbone with me, he would come to the editing room for many days and he would bring his little lunch, and he always would say, “You want to try it?” Because we were always on a diet.
DEL TORO Always on a diet. And he would say, “What are you having today? I’m having egg with truffle sauce.” But every day he would tell us a different screenplay that he was working on. Every time he would say, “But I haven’t finished that because I haven’t found this or that.”
ALMODÓVAR I am very rough with myself. I write almost every day. Not at 9. Noon. It’s difficult to be satisfied, difficult to feel enthusiastic and also curious. A script is like a novel that you are interested to know what is happening, but you have to write it to know. It’s a very exciting experience, mysterious, and of course you don’t feel secure. It’s a big adventure.
Reinaldo, how did you pitch yourself to direct King Richard?
GREEN I was slipped the script by four different people. “You’re not first up to direct it, but you should check this one out.” I really responded to the story, the Williams sisters and their journey, and of course we know who they are, but this particular script really was a different window into their lives, an interesting take through the father’s perspective. Having grown up in a single-parent household and having had a very similar relationship [with my father] to the one that was in the script, I just said, “How do I get this one?” I was able to land an interview with Warner Bros. I had never done a studio film before. I didn’t really even know how to be. I was like, “Should I have a pitch presentation? Like, what do I do?” “Just be yourself, be yourself.” Is myself good enough? I’m not sure. I just went on that meeting, didn’t have a presentation and just connected with the story as a script. Growing up an athlete, as someone that had experienced that …
CAMPION I mean, you’ve got everything there, I would give you the job.
GREEN I guess the studio felt so. And then Will [Smith] was the final step in that. I said, “OK, I’m going in to a meeting with Will Smith, I’m not going to go in with a pitch presentation. I’m just going to be me and have a conversation about what it’s like being a father myself, what it’s like for him, and what are we going to connect on?” When you walk into the room, you’re like, “OK, he’s the star player, but what is he looking for in a young director? What is it about me? Why am I in this room?” We just hit it off as two guys. [But] it was all poker face by the end of the meeting. Will was like, “Cool.” I was like, “All right, well, I guess that didn’t go so well.” Like a week and a half later, I got that call.
CAMPION How was it working with a studio after working more independently? Did you manage to create in a way that you felt free or comfortable?
GREEN I did, and maybe it’s because I had the relationship with Will. So long as that relationship was tight, I didn’t feel like I was really answering to anybody else.
CAMPION Can you play tennis?
GREEN [Smith] didn’t play tennis, I don’t play tennis, which was I think liberating in a lot of ways because I needed it to make sense to me as a non-tennis player. I know baseball. As a baseball player, I know how boring that is for somebody who doesn’t play. How can I make this exciting for somebody like my mother who’s never seen a match, how can she understand the tennis in the movie? And so I tried to work a lot on the tennis storytelling so that it would be digestible for somebody who doesn’t understand.
Asghar, how did you cast your leading man?
DEL TORO The face!
DEL TORO But incredibly compelling.
FARHADI This guy [Amir Jadidi] is a tennis player and very famous in my country. Our plan was to spend two months on rehearsal. But [during] the pandemic, we postponed preproduction to later, and we had 10 months of rehearsal and every day they came to my office. I said, “Amir, when the character has more problems, smile more.” He said, “Oh, it’s very risky, people, they will laugh.” And I said, “No, people understand. You want to make a nice face for other people.” These small things change everything, change the character. As Guillermo said this morning to me, we have empathy with him, we understand his situation and we hope he will win. He has a very good future, I think.
Kenneth, how do you go about casting people who are going to play your family members?
BRANAGH What I wanted, particularly from the 9-year-old boy [Jude Hill] who was going to be at the center of it, was the ability to listen. Half of his performance was going to be reacting, us seeing how the situation was written on his face. So casting him was critical. And it’s amazing, actually, that you say 10 months of preparation. We went the other way with the 9-year-old, which was just to rehearse as little as possible. He loves playing football, so we shot him playing football a lot. Generally, we would try and find a way of keeping it playful, so he didn’t become too technically accomplished, skillful in the wrong way. There was quite a bit of improvising in the film with basic situations. They have to tell their son that they’re going to move, and I’d written a scene with him going, “I don’t want to leave Belfast.” And I realized this was a big ask for a 9-year-old to start like that. When we said, “Well, look, Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe, your parents, they’re going to improvise, and try and explain what this decision is,” you could see the little glee in his eye, because he didn’t know what was coming. I rarely did second and third takes with the boy. You just were rolling the dice on capturing life as it happened.
CAMPION With kids, one thing that I’ve been struck by is the depth of their honesty. I’ve found that you can talk to them an hour or so before they’re going to do a scene, they’re just playing around and I say, “Hey, the scene that we’re doing today, what do you think? And I’m thinking maybe this should happen.” They just solemnly take it in, they stop playing for a moment and just hear it, and then just let them go. You can see that somehow their psyches worked on it. And when the moment comes, they love it, and that it’s coming through them. It’s the holy grail, really, isn’t it?
DEL TORO It is.
CAMPION When you open that in your life or with the work that you do, feel it in writing that you have this way of connecting to the unconscious or beyond yourself, it’s probably the best thing about living, to have that connection and not know why you’re writing this or where it comes from. It’s a kind of glorious gift.
Guillermo, how did the pandemic affect your movie?
DEL TORO We decided to stop before it was mandatory. At first I said, “Well, it’ll be a couple of weeks, it’ll be over.” We were going to lunch and we pulled aside [producer J. Miles Dale], Bradley Cooper, myself, and we said, “We have to stop. We should not come back from lunch to the set. If we get somebody sick, there’s no way we can live with it.” So we called back to Los Angeles during lunch, and we came back and said, “See you later.” And we had to leave all the sets standing. I was told, “Well, stay in Toronto for nine weeks, maybe it’ll be over.” Sixty pounds [of pandemic weight gain] later, we still were not over. I then edited the second part of the movie [the portion that had completed filming] for nine months. I was editing a little every day, and refining the screenplay for the first half. On the last day of shooting, or next to last day [right before leaving because of the pandemic], Rooney Mara came to me and said, “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m pregnant.” And then she came back to the shoot with a baby.
Your first responsibility before anything as a director is to run a safe set. And then [the lockdown] gave you the blissful opportunity to reconsider and rethink and reevaluate. Directing is a hostage negotiation with reality, that’s the job of a director. And in reality, the thing that is the worst thing that could happen is the best thing, if you think about it. So we went at it with that discipline.
There’s a lot of conversation in Hollywood right now about safety on sets because of the tragedy that happened on Rust. What would be the best way forward on the issue of guns on sets?
DEL TORO I haven’t shot a real gun on a movie set since 2007 or 2008. I don’t think it’s necessary anymore. I really don’t.
Guillermo, since you’ve done without real guns on your movies since 2007, is it not hard to do?
DEL TORO It started with The Devil’s Backbone, because we were forbidden to shoot in Segovia [Spain]. We were forbidden to shoot in a forest because the ignition could start a forest fire. After that, I thought, that is the safest thing you can do, and you can do it almost with a phone app. All the paraphernalia that comes with [real guns], you have to put Mylar glass in front of the camera, everybody has to leave the camera crew, everybody has to be protected, you do a whole number. And from the practical safety point of view, there’s no reason to do it.
FARHADI We have a lot of good films with guns, like The Godfather. Without a gun, how can we imagine The Godfather? Or Scarface? But I think sometimes it’s too much, watching a lot of fighting and killing in films. So, when I’m writing a story, I try to not write this kind of scene.
DEL TORO Accidents do happen, I’ve had accidents in my sets. If an accident happens by the confluence of three, four factors that are unpredictable, that’s one thing. But if they happen and there’s one or two factors that are preventable, that weighs heavily on the director or producer. But you try to prevent them, and the rest is tragedy, it really is tragedy. And no one can be above to judge.
CAMPION But I do think that the rushing that’s on set sometimes and people trying to make deadlines and sense of cutting corners and things …
DEL TORO Rushing through a breakfast scene that you have to cover somewhat fast, it will produce something, but rushing on something critical, a weapon or a vehicle …
CAMPION It should be make-believe.
Will the changes that happened to the movie industry during the pandemic — in terms of the way people have learned to watch things at home — be permanent?
CAMPION I think we have to make fabulous films that people are talking about and excited to see, and they want to see in a big cinema. It’s really — that’s the number one thing. That’s what I think we as directors need to do.
DEL TORO It’s hard to calculate if this is transitional, or if it’s generational. Meaning, did it happen because of the pandemic? Or did it just underline something that is generational? If you talked to Mozart and said, “Look, somebody’s going to listen to your quartet while they’re jogging on a little iPod, or they’re going to listen to your quartet while they’re cooking.” He would’ve said, “Absolutely not.” So we don’t know, it’s early to tell.
CAMPION It’s a sort of submission, isn’t it? To something bigger than yourself.
DEL TORO That is the difference, because I think the TV obeys you, and you obey the cinema.
BRANAGH You get the epic nature of the human face, just seeing massive close-ups of faces in the cinema, that makes me feel different about the human condition. Seeing it the same size as me, then I can put the kettle on. Any director will go, “But that’s the bit, you can’t go away when she’s about to do this or do that …”
DEL TORO Going out is not Saturday night anymore, it’s a death-defying experience, this movie is good enough to get delta for. Do I have my three vaccines? Do I have my mask? Do I have my hand sanitizer?
What do you wish you had known on your first film?
CAMPION I wish I’d known that you should ask other people about crewmembers. I had the most difficult crew you could ever imagine, and it caused me so much stress that the skin literally peeled off my hands. I had a wonderful woman that was a camera assistant, she was doing focus, but she had a heroin habit. My continuity person was taking showers during the film and she was actually having a mental breakdown and she stole all the lights — it was just like, so chaotic. This is on Sweetie. Yeah, so check their references.
GREEN I would say the power of saying no. On my first film, I just wanted to make everybody happy and please everybody, and it’s just impossible to do that. I’ve learned to say no as I’ve gotten a little older, and there’s power in being able to do that. I try to encourage students to say no to things that don’t feel right. Trust your instincts. There are producers and all these other people that come in and have so many great ideas. You can listen and you can take them in and you can still say no.
BRANAGH I’d like to know how to sleep more. Why was I so cranky? Why am I so emotional? Why am I getting so worked up? Why am I coming home after that scene and I’m bursting into tears?
ALMODÓVAR This is love.
BRANAGH My first film, Jesus Christ, I couldn’t have been more serious. So I wish I’d slept more, laughed more and breathed more.
DEL TORO Jim Cameron says, “Eight hours of sleep is the first duty of a director.”
BRANAGH Wouldn’t that be beautiful? Eight hours.
DEL TORO Eight hours. I don’t practice it in my life. The only thing I would say to myself is, when you’re young, you want to talk, and when you’re older, you learn to listen and that’s it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.