Phillip Noyce's velvety accent and snow-white mane made his aphorisms sound handed down from on high while Richard Kelly and Ruben Fleischer offered two examples of what it means to be a young filmmaker at a panel of directors at the L.A. Film Festival on Sunday.
Fleischer, probably best known for Zombieland, is prepping his first big-budget drama now. “I've made two action comedies with a lot of poo poo pee pee jokes,” Fleischer fretted. In a few months, he'll be directing Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin and Sean Penn.
Not to worry, said Noyce: “The most succesful actors are successful because they recognize their success depends on empowering the director.” The audience applauded. Fleischer looked unconvinced.
Kelly, meanwhile, waxed rhapsodic about his new iPad. “How are you all adapting to new technology?” he asked Fleischer. “I don't really have the acumen for it,” Fleischer confessed. Instead, he experimented recently with old media, shooting a project on film. And? “I'm very much looking forward to a return to digital,” he said.
Noyce agreed. He's filming Luck with Michael Mann for HBO on a digital camera. “Film, unfortunately, is dead,” he announced. Is he right? Probably, yes. But while the medium evolves, time-tested obstacles remain. Especially the cash-related ones. “In order to be a director I had to have money. And the only way I could get money was by selling parts,” said Noyce who made his first shorts in Australia by letting his friends bid for roles. Unorthodox to be sure, but it worked: Noyce's last feature, 2010's Salt, starring Angelina Jolie's lips, grossed nearly $300 million worldwide.
Of course, getting your movie made is easy. Once it exists, people have to come see it. “It's almost like you have an STD if your film screen tests poorly. You need Valtrex,” said Kelly. Fleischer, whose 30 Minutes or Less (set to come out in August) debuted to positive audience polling but dipped with each successive screening, agreed. “Testing is helpful as a reference, but at the end of the day you've got to go with your gut,” he said. Or hire a good sound designer, said Noyce. “Music,” after all, “becomes the glue that binds the unfinished drama together.”
Directors in the audience consulted the filmmakers about handling multiple big-name actors (and their egos) on set. “Get there early in the morning,” said Noyce.
Inevitably, someone asked how they each got their big break. Fleischer taught himself how to direct, filming low-budget shorts for eight years before anyone paid him attention. Noyce helped convince Orson Welles' girlfriend to let him adapt a book whose rights had been optioned to Welles. The movie, Dead Calm starring Nicole Kidman, got him traction here. “I got really lucky,” said Kelly who wrote Donnie Darko in six weeks while working at a post-production house just out of film school.
His producing partner Sean McKittrick got him repped at CAA, Kelly got the script to Drew Barrymore and the film got made. And that was it for luck. By now who doesn't know about Donnie's near-universal panning? “We almost premiered on the Starz channel,” Kelly said. “We had to beg the distributor to put us in the theater.” It was years before the film's nightmare rabbit tapped into the psyches of college students everywhere, and Kelly became a household (um, if your household was a dorm room) name. His next two films, Southland Tales and The Box, flopped anyway. “I've kind of had nothing but failure to deal with,” Kelly said. “I've talked to Tony Scott” — the legendary director-producer — “and I'm like Tony, does it get easier? And he was like 'no.'”
Kelly started the conversation by asking, “Is directing the best job in the world?” By the end of the hour the question had shifted. “Does it get better?” he asked. “It does get better,” Noyce said. “You appreciate the opportunity to make films more as you get older.” “There you have it,” Kelly announced to the audience, looking less relieved than he might have. “Guys, it gets better.”