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Greta Gerwig, Bradley Cooper and the THR Director Roundtable: “Final Cut Is a State of Mind”

Ava DuVernay, Michael Mann, Todd Haynes and Blitz Bazawule also talk war stories with studios, lucky charms, bad ideas and who actually yells ‘Action!’ “I remember an hour into the first day, I thought, ‘Why? Why did I choose this?’”

The preshoot rituals they can’t live without, the studio negotiations they’ve learned to finesse and the creative choices they still can’t believe they got away with — the directors of six of this year’s most remarkable movies got together and talked shop. In November, Blitz Bazawule (The Color Purple), Bradley Cooper (Maestro), Ava DuVernay (Origin), Greta Gerwig (Barbie), Todd Haynes (May December) and Michael Mann (Ferrari) convened for THR’s annual Director Roundtable.

How do you like to start on set? Do you actually call action?

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GRETA GERWIG I guess I say, “When you’re ready.” It seems less aggressive. 

AVA DUVERNAY I call action. Or I have action called. It took me a long time in my filmmaking to feel confident not to be the one calling action. Now I’ll just tap my AD, and he or she will do it. But I find it important to do because there’s more than the actor who is working in that moment. You need to call attention to everyone on the crew that, “We are now focused, stop, and now we’re going to look here.” And so I like to do it. 

BRADLEY COOPER I have hand signals with the sound mixer and the camera operator. And I don’t call action. After everything’s set up, I’ll just start talking and bring the actors and often they don’t know we’re rolling. And then they’re like, “The scene’s over.” And they’re like, “Huh?” Also, I’m [playing] Lenny Bernstein, so I’m not breaking in and out of character. So I have much more ability to create this illusion. 

DUVERNAY So you stayed in character in between takes? So Leonard Bernstein was directing everybody? 

COOPER Yeah. I would show up with Kazu Hiro, the makeup artist, at 1 a.m. And then I would be Lenny all day. And then he was different ages, so the crew was like, “Oh, we got young Lenny. This is going to be a quick day.” Old Lenny, it’s like, “Oh, here we go.” The first scene we shot was when old Lenny teaches [a student] conducting. And it was baptism by fire. But it was beautiful because I was so naked, I felt so vulnerable. I remember really feeling like, “Are the crew going to start laughing at me?” And they didn’t. It was like, “Oh, we’re a troupe.”

Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig Photographed By Austin Hargrave

How important is choosing the first scene you’re going to shoot? How does that set a tone? 

DUVERNAY I remember about an hour into the first day, I thought, “Why? Why did I choose this?” It was a matter of location availability. It was purely a logistics decision. I woke up that first morning, Monday, 4 a.m. call for 1,000 background actors to heil Hitler. And I thought, “You know what? Let’s just start it off. Let’s just do this.” And it set a tone for the seriousness of the subject matter, the intention with which we’re going to work throughout the production. 

MICHAEL MANN I’m not that concerned with the first day. What I’m concerned with is when in the schedule I want to have the most pivotal and important scenes. For me, that’s usually around week four or five, because regardless of how much we’ve all prepped, you learn about making the film as you go. [In Ferrari,] it’s the scene when Enzo and Laura have their big blowup. And then, of course, the last scene in the film, which is key. The last scene is Laura when she makes her wish, which is kind of a primitive demand that he not give his illegitimate son the name “Ferrari.” So I wanted those scenes to be week four.

GERWIG The thing that I wanted to hold to the end was actually shooting in Los Angeles, because everything about this movie was so absurd and heightened, and I felt like we had to stay in this protective world [on soundstages] as long as we could. I think if we had done L.A. at the beginning, everyone would’ve been like, “This is … No.” But at the end, I was like, “Well, it’s all done now.” 

Are there moments that you’re amazed that you got away with? 

GERWIG There are many moments I’m amazed I got away with. There’s some very obscure jokes that I can’t believe are in the movie. Like a Proust Barbie joke. I heard one woman in New York laugh at that joke, so that one was for you. There’s a Stephen Malkmus of [indie rock group] Pavement joke, which I was like, “That’s a deep cut.” There’s a dream ballet of Ken’s. But I think when you make strong stylistic choices — which is true of everyone at this table — you have to get behind it 100 percent. There’s sort of freedom in realizing, “I guess I’ve committed.” 

TODD HAYNES The music that we used in the film was inspired by a Michel Legrand score from a Joseph Losey film, The Go-Between, from 1971. I knew May December needed a very strong tonal frame to create this sense that you’re really questioning what you’re watching all the way through, and it entices the viewer into that discomfort of feeling the ground shift beneath you, which is really what happens throughout the film. So that music, this score from that film, became my example. A very bold, very in-your-face score. So the very first setup we did was Natalie Portman driving up to the community center where she does a flower arrangement scene with Julianne [Moore]. Right away, I was like, “Hit it, Ben,” my assistant. And all of a sudden we go, “Da-dum, da-dum.” This music. And the whole crew was, “What movie are we making?” We played the cues to this other score the entire shooting of the movie, but it put us all in the same tonal space.

MANN I try to have the music ahead of time. Because it becomes, as you’re talking about, kind of a poetic modular. “What is this scene about again? Is there a certain emotional quotient that I can’t put into words?” And if you have one piece of music for a pivotal scene or for the whole thing, for me that’s kind of a poetic modular for something, and so I try to have it ahead of time. 

Bradley Cooper
Bradley Cooper Photographed By Austin Hargrave

Blitz, when there was first discussion of making The Color Purple as a movie, your thought was, “Why?” There’s the 1985 movie, there’s the musical, there’s the novel. But obviously you ultimately became persuaded. What persuaded you? 

BLITZ BAZAWULE Throughout, the challenge was, how do you not be redundant? For a piece of material that’s been this explored, what are you actually going to contribute? That was my biggest challenge. Once I found this idea of this imaginative space, then it became about, what are the elements that are going to help us explore better? And some of them were visual, some of them were sonic. But also, when I think about people who deal with trauma and abuse, they’re often miscategorized as being docile or waiting to be saved. I think nothing could be further from the truth. It’s really people who are in their heads, trying to figure out how to work their way out. I grew up around many people like this, some in my family. So I knew very quickly that pathway was going to open up so much opportunity for us to actually contribute to the canon. 

Ava, Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, the book on which Origin is based, is amazing. But your film is not in any way an obvious cinematic adaptation. Where did you get the idea to frame it the way that you did? 

DUVERNAY I read the book the first time and didn’t understand it. And that frustrated me. I read it again, and I started to get a feel for it. By the third time I read it, I thought, “People need to know this information.” Those characters throughout history who the author references, I wanted to animate them with real life, to put flesh and bone on them. I said, “Well, is this Crash? Is this a bunch of stories kind of together that touch a bit tangentially, or could I find a character that delivers it to us?” When you read the book really closely, you see Isabel, the author, speaking in her voice. She is discovering, she’s the delivery system. When I researched her even further, she lost people in her life within a 16-month span while she was writing the book. Now that’s a character. That is someone I want to get to know, someone who I feel empathy for, someone who I want to deliver this information for us. And so it’s an unadaptable book. That’s always the kind of book you want to adapt. 

There’s a quality with Isabel’s character where she’s often having to persuade skeptical people about her book, and I wondered if there was any of you in that.

DUVERNAY Yes. Did I say I made it independently? This isn’t the kind of film that you take to a studio and say, “Can you give me millions of dollars to make a story about a woman who’s going through a trauma, and through that trauma writes a book about varied subject matter that she believes will save humanity? There’s no actual enemy or antagonist. The antagonist is all of us.” That pitch meeting doesn’t go well. So we just didn’t do it. There weren’t a lot of no’s. I tried to surround myself with people who saw me reaching for something and who supported that. There was one friend of mine who I leaned on so heavily in this. His name is Guillermo del Toro. When people were saying, “I don’t get it,” he was like, “Keep going. You must.” That friend who said, “This is untraditional. This is a little different. But you deserve space to do that. You can do it, too. Keep trying, keep pushing.” So I think the answer to the question is yes, there were a lot of people saying no, but I surrounded myself with the people who said, “Try, try.” And that kept me going. 

Todd Haynes
Todd Haynes Photographed By Austin Hargrave

Does that resonate with anybody? 

MANN Probably about half the table.

COOPER Everybody said no to Maestro. Every studio passed. A studio I had made so many movies with that were also big risks that worked out [passed]. And luckily [Netflix film chairman] Scott Stuber, man, one guy, he said, “Look, I trust you.” It’s crazy. A movie about a fluid male character who’s a classical musician, and half of it’s in black-and-white, and you’re going to shoot it on 35 millimeter black-and-white stock. And he said, “Yeah.” 

Can I do a segue real quick? Because I wanted to get it in here. I’ve been an actor for so many years, still an actor. And one thing I learned from this man (gestures at Mann) was, I put myself on tape for Public Enemies years ago, and I didn’t get it. And he wrote me a letter. I got a letter from Michael Mann saying, “Thank you for auditioning, and I see something in you.” I kept that on my bookshelf for so many years. And you never know the impact you have. I learned from that. Anybody that auditions, I always write them. And that’s because of you.

DUVERNAY Is this the Michael Mann tribute section? Because if I may: Michael is the reason I thought that I could become a filmmaker. I was a publicist on his film Collateral. I had always been on sets but had never seen anyone shooting in communities of color in Los Angeles where I was from. Collateral also had a cast of people who looked like me. I know everyone thinks Tom Cruise, but Jada Pinkett and Jamie Foxx and Javier Bardem, as well as Mark Ruffalo, were also in that film. And Michael was shooting in East L.A., he was shooting in South Central. He was shooting in the communities I grew up in. And he was shooting with these newfangled cameras called digital cameras. I said, “God, these are fast. What is he doing?” Just watching him on that set as a young publicist made me think, “I’m going to look into this.” I was seeing the way he controlled the set and really was so visionary in what he wanted.

Michael, what is it like for you to know the impact that the choices you’ve made have had on people? 

MANN It’s a surprise. Because to me, I pretty much occupy a present, looking to the next thing I want to do. Go forward.

DUVERNAY I think it’s important because you have a reputation in this business as a hard-nosed guy. And to me, you’re just a teddy bear.

MANN Don’t tell anybody. 

Ava Duvernay
Ava Duvernay Photographed By Austin Hargrave

Array, Ava’s company, released Blitz’s movie The Burial of Kojo about five years ago. So there are a lot of connections here.

BAZAWULE I’m a musician. Went to Ghana with a community who had never made a feature film before. We made this film. Then it became about these lofty goals of, “Maybe it’ll go to Cannes. Maybe it’ll go to Venice.” And none of that happened. So then you go, “Well, I’ve got to take it to every small film festival in the world.” I played Urbanworld [Film Festival] and Ava’s amazing company, Array, was like, “I see something here.” It became Ghana’s first film to be on Netflix. That’s what Beyoncé saw, on Netflix by the way, and called me to do Black Is King with her. And fast-forward, making The Color Purple. You don’t know how you arrive at these places, and you have no idea how each decision, big or small, affects your trajectory. No one from where I’m from has ever made a studio picture. There’s nobody to call to go, “Hey, you came from Ghana, you came from Kenya. Talk to me about how you manage a studio relationship.” So we find ourselves in these pioneering positions that you can only get here based on goodwill or kindness of heart.

Greta, I’ve heard you say that on Barbie your motto was, “Drive it like you stole it.” Can you explain that? 

GERWIG Margot [Robbie], who I had as a producer, she has integrity, and she’ll always say [in meetings], “Does anybody have anything else they want to say?” I was like, “They gave us the yes, Margot, just leave the room. We don’t need to look for another thing, let’s just go.” I did feel like you get the yes and just keep going. 

BAZAWULE I’ve also got to say, and this is just being very transparent, guys, when we were talking about our first days, a lot of us don’t have the grace where you’re allowed to fail and find your footing. I remember my first AD sent me the schedule, and I looked at that stuff and said, “Guys, if I commit to this schedule and I shoot these first five days, I’ll be out of here.” It’s not that I can’t direct, it’s just that it’s ordinary people talking. [Instead, I said,] “We’re going in … in these first three days, we’re shooting a huge, massive dance number, like day two.” 

DUVERNAY That is an important conversation. The management of people who have given you the millions of dollars. It’s a big part of the directing that we don’t talk about much. 

MANN I’ve only had one movie in which they said, “Michael, what do you want to do?” I wanted to do Last of the Mohicans. “Great idea. Let’s do it.” Once. “How about Daniel Day-Lewis?” “Great idea, let’s get him.”

DUVERNAY Were people saying no to Heat

MANN Heat was different. I wrote the screenplay, got Bob [De Niro], got Al [Pacino]. There was no development. The studio hated the fact they liked it a lot and had no control over it. 

Blitz Bazawule
Blitz Bazawule Photographed By Austin Hargrave

Who here had final cut on their films? (DuVernay, Haynes and Mann raise their hands.) 

COOPER I didn’t.

GERWIG I’ve never had final cut. 

COOPER No, me neither. I did have an ace, because I was like, “Well, I mean you could fire me, but then you’ve got to recast Lenny. Good luck, dude.” 

GERWIG With what [Bazawule] said about what the studio looks at the first week, I remember with Little Women, I was shooting all these dark, candlelit scenes, and someone’s like, “Do not send them a bunch of underlit scenes.” I was like, “That’s right. We’ve got to change the schedule and do girls at Christmas.” Because they’re like, “That looks like what I thought.” 

DUVERNAY No one told me the first week on Selma not to shoot David Oyelowo and Colman Domingo in a jail cell in Selma, Alabama, lit by one streetlight through the window. It’s in the film, [cinematographer] Bradford Young shot it. We were like, “We’re going to make it feel like the hull of a slave ship.” “Here you go, guys, here’s the dailies.” Literally, they freaked out. They made us reshoot the scene. That [reshot] version didn’t get in, but no one told me to do the dancing girls first. Now I know.

You have this commerce issue in the back of your mind. How do you put that to the side and focus on what you need to in those creative moments? 

HAYNES It’s so remarkable to hear the war stories and strategies of how to keep studios engaged and to keep earning their trust and not freak them out. I have to thank my unbelievable good fortune of having Christine Vachon at my side, as my producer, from my first feature film. I feel so lucky and protected that I’ve been able to keep working in that artistic vacuum. I’m so curious to hear if that’s how you felt, Michael? Because your films were so absolutely distinctive from the very beginning.

MANN I think final cut is an attitude. It’s a state of mind. I was only making films I felt passionately about. The more you can have your financial partners understand, “This is the film. If you don’t want to make this film, don’t make the movie.” 

DUVERNAY Final cut is a state of mind. That is the T-shirt. I love that. 

GERWIG With this movie, I was like, “I don’t need to make a Barbie movie. I’d like to make this one.” If you don’t want to make it, I don’t need to make it. I didn’t actually have final cut, but I could have had the T-shirt. 

Michael Mann
Michael Mann Photographed By Austin Hargrave

COOPER I don’t mind being challenged if I’ve done the work. Sometimes you learn something. I actually don’t mind not having final cut. I didn’t pay for the movie, they did. That’s very clear to me. I respect that. But I have the power to say, “I’m walking away.” 

GERWIG (To Haynes) I was going to say, you made the original Barbie movie. There was a bootleg of it at Cannes. 

COOPER I saw it in film school. At Georgetown, the teacher had a print of it. Am I going to jail? 

HAYNES This is Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. [Haynes’ 1988 musical doc used Barbie dolls as actors to portray Carpenter’s life as she struggled with anorexia. Haynes had used The Carpenters music in the cult film, which was removed from circulation in 1990 after Karen’s brother, Richard, successfully sued for copyright infringement.] 

GERWIG It’s a wonderful thing that we’re sitting at the table right now because I think genuinely, you made [the Barbie movie’s backers] nervous about the possibilities about what it could be.

HAYNES Are you kidding? I mean, my use of Barbies was as a subtext to a story about how women’s bodies are commodified and this incredibly heartbreaking story of a young woman suffering from anorexia nervosa. But you took on the cultural meaning of Barbie, and you exploded it and also made a concoction … a confection that everybody could share. 

GERWIG But I would say the approach in that movie that you took, it was something that Noah [Baumbach, Barbie co-writer] and I talked about. The way you used Barbies was part of the cultural history of Barbie. But I think they were like, “Are you going to do that thing that he did?” And we’re like, “Well …”

Does anybody have a ritual that sets them up for the day? 

MANN Yeah, I’ve got to work out. I’ve got to run. I’ve got to get my heartbeat up to 120 [beats a minute] for 20 minutes. And while in that state, that’s when I zone into what I’m going to do.

COOPER As an actor, I used to always go to set for crew call, even before my call time, because I just love the filmmaking process. And I always felt a little goofy doing it. In this one, I got to go to work six hours before crew call because I would become Lenny before [in the makeup chair]. I actually found that, as a filmmaker, it was invaluable.

GERWIG I’m like a Major League Baseball player who has to do the same things all the time. Then, if the day went well, I’m like, “I’ve got to do that again.” So I have lots of things. On Barbie, the week before we started, Rodrigo Prieto, who shot my film, his wife, Monica, gave me a special stone that she said was magic. But then I needed it with me all the time. I have to wear the same thing every day. I learned how to do transcendental meditation because of David Lynch. I’ve never gotten a vision like he has, but I’m waiting. I do it. I get my heart rate up. I do like 20 minutes. Meditate, hold my stone. It’s all ritualistic. If you tend in that direction mentally, movies are not helpful for you.

BAZAWULE The dressing the same every day, though. That became my thing. I went to H&M, bought the same black shirts, went to Uniqlo, got the same black pants, like 20 of them. Never had to do laundry. It makes people comfortable when you show up every day, because they just go, “All right, that guy seems to be a steady guy.” Whether you are or not. It feels like, “He’s consistent.”

MANN As a film student in London, I interviewed Stanley Kubrick three times. Every time I interviewed him, he wore the same pants, the same jacket. The third time, I said, “Mr. Kubrick, I have to ask you, why are you wearing the same clothes?” He says, “No, I’ve got 30 of these pants and 30 of these jackets because I don’t want to have to put any mental energy thinking about what I’m going to wear tomorrow.” 

HAYNES All Ingmar Bergman did was wear mismatched socks.

GERWIG Bergman, I have gone to his house in Faro [a remote island in Sweden]. It’s a thing to see. There are so many amazing things. But one thing is on the back of his office door, he rated every single month of his relationship with Liv Ullmann, even after they were divorced. Some months got a heart and some months got a devil. Also, he has the VHS of Anger Management in his house. 


GERWIG Yeah. He also has other things, but he has Anger Management. I loved to think of Ingmar Bergman being like, “Play.” 

From left Cooper, in makeup as Leonard Bernstein, directed Maestro while in character; Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis in DuVernay’s Origin; May December is Haynes’ fifth collaboration with Julianne Moore center and first with Natalie Portman left.
From left: Cooper, in makeup as Leonard Bernstein, directed Maestro while in character; Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in DuVernay’s Origin; May December is Haynes’ fifth collaboration with Julianne Moore (center) and first with Natalie Portman (left). Maestro: Jason McDonald/Netflix. ORIGIN: Atsushi Nishijima/Array Filmworks. May: François Duhamel/Courtesy of Netflix.
From left Adam Driver in Mann’s Ferrari; Greta Gerwig’s motto directing Barbie was, Drive it like you stole it; Fantasia Barrino left and Taraji P. Henson in Bazawule’s The Color Purple.
From left: Adam Driver in Mann’s Ferrari; Greta Gerwig’s motto directing Barbie was, “Drive it like you stole it”; Fantasia Barrino (left) and Taraji P. Henson in Bazawule’s The Color Purple. Ferrari: Eros Hoagland/Neon. Barbie: Dale Robinette/Warner Bros. Purple: Ser Baffo/Warner Bros.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

THR’s Director Roundtable will air as Off Script With The Hollywood Reporter on AMC’s SundanceTV on Sunday, Jan. 7, at 8 a.m. ET. The full Roundtable video can be viewed on THR.com/Roundtables and YouTube after broadcast. Look for the complete Off Script series streaming on AMC+ starting March 4.