Extended Q&A

Lights, Camera, Inspiration

Extended Q&A: Four busy directors -- Christopher Guest, Catherine Hardwicke, McG, and Anthony Minghella -- discuss the life of the modern auteur

DIRECTORS' COMMENTARY Roundtable participants (from left) Guest, McG, Minghella, Hardwicke
Image credit: Directors Roundtable Photograph by Justin Stephens
DIRECTORS' COMMENTARY Roundtable participants (from left) Guest, McG, Minghella, Hardwicke

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let's talk about your first cinematic inspirations.
ANTHONY MINGHELLA (52; The English Patient and Breaking and Entering): My first collision with the cinema was selling ice cream. My parents were, and still are, ice cream makers, and the cinema was next door to our café, so we used to go in the intervals to sell chocolate ices. I saw lots of bits of films, standing there holding a tray. But when I saw [Federico Fellini's] I Vitelloni, it was like a light went on. I was a boy growing up in the Isle of Wight, dreaming about London, and this film is almost exactly that story but located in Rimini, with a lot of guys dreaming about being artists, thinking about Rome. It's the most extraordinary film. If you come from England, there's such a reserve and coolness in the culture, and because my parents are Italian I never could understand that. And I Vitelloni is a movie that has tragedy and farce and emotion, just one beat after another. There's no cartilage between variations of style or language. That seemed much closer to the kind of world I had in my family and my culture. It was like finding a movie which talked directly to my own experience.

CATHERINE HARDWICKE (51; Thirteen, The Nativity Story): I grew up in South Texas, and the only movies they showed in our hometown theater were Westerns and films in Spanish. I started out as an architect and decided to become a filmmaker and move to Los Angeles. I hadn't seen very many interesting films before that time, but when I started seeing movies like [Robert Duvall's] Angelo My Love and [Dennis Hopper's] Out of the Blue, these films that were so raw and real, they blew my mind about what filmmaking could be. In my mind I saw all these possibilities.

McG (36; Charlie's Angels, We Are Marshall): I've always been interested in things that are very different from my path. That definitely goes for [Francis Ford Coppola's] Apocalypse Now. Growing up in this sort of protected pocket in Southern California, you felt like such a pussy. You see Apocalypse Now and you think, This actually happened. These people lived through this experience. It was such a triumph of cinematic force. I respond to originality. For example, [Jean-Pierre Jeunet's] Amelie — I'd never seen a picture like that. I thought, How can you have so much style and not compromise heart? It completely transported me to this world, and the pleasure I got from that picture made me want to go forward and improve. [Milos Forman's] One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest I responded to because it destroyed me and was just so overwhelming. I have my own mental health demons and everything that goes into that, and I found that film so gutting. [To Christopher Guest] Chris, do you love film? Or do you just make your films as an expression of what you're interested in at the time?

CHRISTOPHER GUEST (58; Waiting for Guffman, For Your Consideration): That's a good question. I didn't imagine I was going to make a film until I started making films. I was a writer and then someone said, ''Why don't you direct a film?'' And I said, ''I don't know, why don't I?'' So I did. And after every film I've done, I say, ''I'm not sure I'll do another film.'' I think my influences are as much musical as cinematic, because the way we do these films is closer to musicians improvising music with each other.

MINGHELLA: I had exactly the same experience Chris is describing. I'd been writing plays for a long time and someone said, ''Why do you always give your plays to someone else to direct?'' That sort of tripped me up a bit. So I thought, Well, I'll try directing.

GUEST: It's about control. Anyone who writes something wants to ultimately control the whole piece. As someone who started writing when I was in my 20s, I had one experience where I wrote something and someone else directed it and I thought, Wait a minute — that's nothing like what I imagined. That's the last time that happened. Now it may be s---, but at least it's going to be mine.

EW: When you're dealing with studios, do you generally get the feeling that they're interested in making interesting, challenging films, or is their real inspiration the bottom line?
HARDWICKE: I've been told, ''We're coming to you because we want something creative and different. We want something like Run, Lola, Run or Sin City.'' But when I gave them a treatment that had its own new thing, it was like, ''This is too way-out.'' It's hard for them to take a leap on something they haven't seen, that they can't put in a category.

McG: I see both sides of that. I agree, it'll make you nuts and it's very fun for all of us to give the executives a good kick to the ribs. But at the same time I don't know if there's any mustache-twirling on the studio's side.

GUEST: When we were writing This Is Spinal Tap, no one would make that film. Finally, Norman Lear said to Rob Reiner, ''Just make the movie. Here's the money. I'm not going to tell you what to do.'' And then, when Rob started Castle Rock, he said the same thing to me. And that's been my fortunate position for years. But the difference is: I don't make $150 million movies. I don't make movies about people in Rome and chariot races.

MINGHELLA: It would be very interesting if you did.

GUEST: [Dryly] Yes, that's my next film.

MINGHELLA: I had the same experience on The English Patient — nobody felt inclined to make that film. And partly I understood why. I wasn't sure if I'd been on the other side of the table I'd have spent any money on it either. If you want to have your say on a very broad canvas, if you're going to spend $70 million or $80 million or $100 million of someone's money, you must expect that there's going to be some sort of contract.

McG: I'm curious: Are you guys interested in people enjoying your pictures, or do you make them basically for yourself and that's enough?

HARDWICKE: With Thirteen, I didn't think people would enjoy it. It was the feel-bad movie of that year. I thought it would be a powerful experience, but not enjoyable. I tried to make it as short as I could so the pain would last the least amount of time. It's a horror movie, really.

McG: I'm not that pure of an artist. I wish I were. I'm still that kid who wants to be accepted. I can't just walk away and make my own little films in the closet.

MINGHELLA: Don't apologize. It sounds like you're apologizing.

McG: I suppose if I was a little more in touch with doing it for all the right reasons, I wouldn't care. But I still sit in the back of the room and wring my hands and want so desperately for people to feel what I was trying to do.

GUEST: When I work on a film, I have a collaborator, Eugene Levy, and if we don't make each other laugh and have some fun, then we don't do it. I can't expect that most people will like my films. That's not why I do them.

MINGHELLA: When I'm working, I have this little card over my desk that says, ''If nine Russians tell you you're drunk, lie down.'' Because especially if you write and direct your own work, there's a danger that you have absolutely no perspective. For me, I feel quite clear and austere and strong when I'm working, and then when I've made the film, I just desperately hope it will communicate something to someone else. [Laughs] It's like you're a monk in the cutting room and a whore in the cinema.

NEXT PAGE: Do directors learn more from watching good films or bad ones?

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