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SANTA BARBARA FILM FESTIVAL PRESENTS STELLAR DIRECTORS PANEL
by Susan Royal

The Santa Barbara Film Festival always draws top talent to its popular industry panels. Taking place right after the Oscar nominations are announced, panels include many, and sometimes all, of the nominees in any one category.

Such was the case this year with the Directors on Directing panel which kicked off the series. The directors of Babel, Little Miss Sunshine, Little Children, Cars and Monster House were present. The panel was moderated by Daily Variety's Peter Bart, who began by asking what it was like for the directors to bring their films to festivals and get feedback from audiences.

Jonathon Dayton (who directed Little Miss Sunshine with wife Valerie Faris) said, "We spent five years getting this movie to the finishing line. We had no idea it would take another year to promote it, but it's been great fun to get reactions and to meet the other directors."

Babel director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu said, "We thought the film may be risky but never thought it would have the impact it's had. Now to listen to what people think, well, it's been a beautiful journey. You have to be very humble."

Director Todd Field (Little Children) said a teacher of his at AFI had told him not to worry about reaction to your film. "Just make your choices, make your film and then get out of the way."

Field said, "I'm glad I believed him, but it's not true. You come to events like this and you learn about your film through people's good, bad and indifferent reactions. You have a different perspective while you're making it, which is an excruciating process. Really, there's no joy at all—maybe some moments, but mostly it's just terrifying."

Bart asked John Lasseter, the director of Cars and the head of Pixar, to explain the difference between directing live action and animated films.

Lasseter explained, "It's the same in terms of working on the story, getting the script to support the emotional core of the story, and getting the best performances from the actors. But because animation is so expensive we can't afford to do coverage or multiple takes. So we create story boards and then story reels and we work and rework the story reels with temp voices, temp special effects and temp music. If the story reel doesn't work all the expensive animation we might put on will never save the film. So we will spend over four years on a film at Pixar – two and a half years of which is storyboards and reels.

"There are no location shoots, we get nothing for free. We have to create the universe of the film. But we do get die cast toys and action figures!"

Jonathan Dayton joked that Little Miss Sunshine should have action figures. Lasseter suggested "the yellow van – you put batteries in but you still have to push it to make it go."

Gil Kenan, director of Monster House, acknowledged how lucky he was to get discovered by Bob Zemekis after making a student film. "My thesis film got me in a room with Bob Zemekis and somehow I got him to let me direct this huge movie. I had one chance, one screening of my film at the DGA. One chance to convince him I could do it."

The panelists were asked about the casting process for each film.

Lasseter said Pixar looks for actors who can improvise. "In the recording studio we need spontaneity. Owen Wilson is fantastic, Tom Hanks is amazing – we handed him a fake severed arm and he did five to ten minutes on it. Bonnie Hunt, who was in Cars, is one of the great ad libbers."

He also said the actors voices must be easily distinguished from each other. "A lot of actors' voices are in the same register. To test this we make a reel of their dialogue from other movies and cut back and forth between them. It makes absolutely no sense and is often hilarious. We've named it Pixar Non-Sequitor Theatre."

For Babel, Inarritu looked for actors and non-actors all over the world. "At first we were looking in the streets and then people began forming lines and we videotaped them." He would consider anyone. "My computer assistant's assistant walked in and I looked at him and said, 'I have better plans for you.' In casting I look for their interior or spiritual life – some gravity – I can see it in their eyes."

Casting all over the world for Babel was complicated by language problems. "If I didn't understand their language we did the 1-2-3 exercise. I would see if they could create the emotion while counting."

Casting for a deaf Japanese actress was particularly difficult. "We had to convert my bad English into Japanese, then into sign language and back. The results were very interesting. I'd ask a question and the response would come back: 'Yes, in June.' What? It was like The Three Stooges."

Valerie Faris said of casting Little Miss Sunshine: "Until we had the money and a start date, we were just kind of floating. It took four years to get greenlit, but once we had the money the cast came together rather quickly. We found actors who weren't too different from the characters they played, like Alan Arkin."

Her co-director Jonathan Dayton added, "We wanted the actors to all be in the same moment. We had a week of rehearsals to improvise and build relationships so that they felt like a family. It was particularly important that Alan and Abby (Abigail Breslin) worked together."

Todd Field spoke about fallout from his casting of Kate Winslet in Little Children. "Her character was not supposed to be likeable; that was a given based on Tom's book. Kate understood this from the beginning. She kept pushing how abusive her character was to her child. Our producer said to me, 'She's not very nice, you know. It's not good what she's doing with the child.' The studio was also very upset. They said, 'We don't like her.' I said, 'Yeah, isn't it great.' I told Kate and she burst out laughing and said, 'Isn't that wonderful.' And in the end, it made that moment when she finally sees her child for the first time so powerful."

Peter Bart asked the filmmakers how, if given the chance, they might reinvent the Academy Awards show. Inarritu replied, "Invite more Mexicans, maybe?" He went on to say he wished the show would honor films with a presentation, rather than with awards. "It's all a little awkward to be competing with great filmmakers."

Todd Field commented that American culture is driven by black and white ideas such as the "best." "People want the 'best' car, the 'best' wife. Film is an art form meant to entertain and to engage. We don't tell stories to get awards. You make your film with the modest hope that it's not too embarrassing. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that as a child I rehearsed my acceptance speech."

John Lasseter had no complaints about the Oscar show. "I love the Oscars. I'm on the board of directors of the Academy and I'm a movie fan. The red carpet is insane. We always find some actress striking a pose we can stand behind. We have fun with everything we do."

In the past, that fun has included Lasseter arriving at the awards show on board the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile ("An Oscar winner is an Oscar weiner").

He recalled tossing weiner whistles to the crowd. "It was so funny. There are always angry protestors outside going 'Grrrrrr' and then they see the weinermobile and smile and shout 'Me, me, I'll take one!' and then they go right back to 'Grrrrrr' again."

Todd chimed in, "That was you? Really? I caught one of those weiner whistles."

Gil Kenan said, "I am so honored to be nominated that I'm just going to be happy to be there. And if I can use it to prove to my mom for once and for all that I actually made Monster House, it will all be worthwhile."

Todd Field said, "I'm still reeling from the fact that John was the weiner guy. I was at the 2002 ceremony, standing outside next to Dame Judi Dench. I heard her say, 'Oh my God, there's a man coming down the street riding a banger.' And that was you."


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