Directing actors against what, for them, is a blank slate must be difficult for them. How did you put them in the scene that you saw in your head and on your monitor?
This is where the amount of work that we put into this, which was staggering at the time, came in to play. Ten months prior to shooting the live action, we created the entire film in animatic form, essentially an animated version of the film. We recorded the actors' voices and used that, so they were able to watch the entire film before we shot it and had a pretty good sense of what was going to be around them. So they had the context for it. Then they just approached this film more fundamentally like theater. It doesn't sound like much of a distinction, but when you walk onto the blue screen soundstage, that's the thing that most immediately comes to mind if you're going to make any analogies or comparisons. They had experience on stage, they had experience acting with essentially nothing before. It became something that was familiar as opposed to being this completely foreign experience. If they simply approached it like every other film they made, if they had thought about it in those terms, and there's no set, and there's nothing for them to interact with, then they're lost. That approach seemed to give them some grounding.
As a first time director making a big budget commercial film with major stars, what was your challenge in directing performances?
What I tried to do with the actors was just be very prepared. In terms of their actual performances, they needed nothing from me. I wasn't there to provide any acting lesson or that sort of thing. What I did find was that each actor has their own set of needs. Gwyneth neither needs nor wants the same kind of input as Jude, for instance.
Can you give me an example?
Gwyneth is a much more - and this will come off sounding wrong - she's more, I hesitate to say spontaneous, but she comes there and she's got this natural gift. She simply wants me to tell her the context of the scene, to say explicitly what's going on and even how she's reacting to that world and even how she's behaving emotionally, all the information she needs to know right then and there as we're doing it. And then she just nails it like a laser beam. She takes it and does the most amazing things with it.
Jude and Angelina come very much with what they want to do in their head, so when they walk out on the stage they know exactly what they plan on doing and what they want to do with it. What they need from me is different. They've sorted that out themselves in advance, so it becomes a different kind of feedback they're looking for. I never even thought about the levels of... I wouldn't call it complexities, but nuances of actors. They are human beings, they have different approaches, different styles, and they need different things. I wasn't versed in even what their particular quirks were. I am now and in the future I would take the time to investigate the method of acting they use and the types of feedback they need so I would be prepared for that. But it really all boiled down to the same thing, which was simply always letting them know what was in my head, letting them know what I had intended and hoped to get from the scene.
What we also did was watch various films of the 30s and 40s that helped to shape the characters tonally, what we were shooting for, be it To Have and Have Not with Lauren Bacall for Gwyneth, or The Philadelphia Story. Both Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn had qualities that we were looking for. And other films like The Third Man for the basic tone, the basic feel. And just discussed those things to saturate ourselves with the sensibility of the approach. Then I just watched the performance, as you would watch a movie, and if it felt wrong, we would talk about it and try again. So it was a fluid process that I think is different for every actor and every director and every movie.
You've answered one of the questions I wanted to ask, specifically, what was your model for that sniping, contentious love-hate relationship between Polly and Joe.
Probably the quintessential one is Nick and Nora of the Thin Man series. They're the model for that relationship. It's never been done better, it's never been duplicated, and that certainly was for me a source of inspiration. But [Preston] Sturges also did really incredible work in his films like The Lady Eve. Those were very modern kinds of performances and, frankly, the subject matter was quite racy and advanced for his day. And certainly the films of Howard Hawks, to a lesser degree. We never wanted to risk venturing into parody, and if you look at a film like His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, that is when they developed the mile-a-minute patter and the overlapping dialogue that just ran into each other. That's probably one of the films most mimicked when people go back to do this and I think it's the one where you run into trouble because it becomes a parody. But that's what we used as the template for tone.
Did you have any movie homework assignments for, say, Angelina Jolie?
Angelina came in pretty late in the process. She was working on the last Tomb Raider film when she came in, she had literally just finished and walked over the next day. I only had her for three days. Angelina was a complete surprise in that she was another one of these people who had done an extraordinary amount of work in terms of the character. She gave me a disc that contained hours of interviews she had conducted with fighter pilots. She had completely researched and understood this world and the jargon, the language, and was even correcting me at times, because I took it from the fantasy aspect. I probably didn't do my homework from the military aspect as much as I should have. So she had a complete sense of her character when she came in. She was ready and exactly what you saw on screen was what she came in with. It was strictly her. She certainly knew the references that we were going after as well, but I would say by and large it was the work she had done, her own research.
What about Giovanni Ribisi?
Working with Giovanni was about as enjoyable an experience as you could ever dream of. His nature as an actor, of always wanting to take chances, was always in evidence. We worked for some time to define and refine his character. He came in with all sorts of ideas for his character as well. Some of them weren't exactly what I'd had in mind but I think what neither of us wanted to approach it as the quirky nerd character that you've consistently seen. I think he wanted to play this part with the vulnerability and the sensitivity of that character, but also have some heroism about himself, make him feel like a counterpart rather than the little sidekick for comic relief. And I think that the balance that he struck and created was just that, a character that's very endearing and yet you don't per se feel sorry for him. He's an equal character, I think, to Jude and certainly holds his own. I'm quite happy with how he turned out.
You made the references to Howard Hawks and he feels like a character sprung from that universe, like the junior Red Buttons from Hatari!. He's the guy who knows what he's doing and is always there for the leader, but once he gets his assignment he does his own thing.
That's exactly right.
And he's got a tremendous amount of energy.
He was just great. Both Giovanni and Angelina had the misfortune of coming in the middle of the whole process. Jude and Gwyneth had time to ease themselves into the whole process, but they were just suddenly thrust into the whole thing and their shooting schedules were much more brief, so I'm even more amazed at the work they were able to do.
For what it's worth, I think their characters are a little more surprising, a little more unpredictable.
I would agree. Some of that is because Jude and Gwyneth are onscreen 90 percent of the movie and they are modeled after more familiar and iconic characters, so in that regard, I think their path and the things that they are doing are more conventional. I think the fact that Giovanni and Angelina had a chance to do something original with their parts that wasn't directly modeled after any one thing gave them an opportunity.
Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow seem to be perfectly cast, at least in terms of visual icons that capture the matinee looks of the period.
Without a doubt. A lot of this film is driven by iconic imagery, not discounting even the actors, so that's utterly correct. Again, hopefully not done to the point of distraction. It was a hard line to straddle.