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Spirit Awards Tue 3.14.2023

Directors Close-Up: Daniels, Polley, Reijn and Foumbi Discuss Creating Community On Set, Casting

The 2023 edition of the Directors Close-Up series concluded March 1 with the much-anticipated annual panel “The Spirit of Independence” featuring a selection of Film Independent Spirit Award nominees for Best Director and Best Feature.

The live event, part of a four-night run at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, welcomed Ellie Foumbi (Our Father, The Devil), “DANIELS” Kwan and Scheinert (Everything Everywhere All at Once), Sarah Polley (Women Talking) and Halina Reijn (Bodies Bodies Bodies) for a conversation moderated by Film Independent President Josh Welsh.

The filmmakers discussed the roots of their projects, how they approached casting their projects, the importance of creating a comfortable environment on set and how their past lives as actors shaped their process. Watch the full panel below and keep reading for highlights. The 2023 Spirit Awards were help March 4, 2023 on the beach in Santa Monica.

Welsh had everyone take it from the top, talking about the origins of their respective films. For eventual Spirit Award Best Feature winners DANIELS, the seed for Everything Everywhere All at Once was planted back in 2015, courtesy of an inspiring theatrical experience. (We’ll also mention here that EEAAO had a pretty good night at that other awards show, too!)

“This movie started when Dan went and saw a double feature of The Matrix and Fight Club and he was like ‘Man, it’d be so cool if we could make a movie like The Matrix.’ And I was like, duh,” Daniel Scheinert joked as he recounted how collaborator Daniel Kwan’s outing to Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema would spark the duo to begin thinking seriously about a project of this type.

“I was reminded again of how bonkers movies were back then [in the ’90s]. Those were big budget movies, massive swings. I was like, we’ve got to bring that kind of filmmaking back. But for a tenth of the budget, because no one’s going to give us the money,” said Kwan.

Bodies Bodies Bodies, on the other hand, came together quite quickly for Halina Reijn. Powerhouse film distribution company A24 sent her the script one day–to her surprise–and production commenced shortly thereafter.

“I made my first film, Instinct, which was a very dark erotic thriller. And then they sent me the script, and I was like ‘no’ because I’m a complicated arthouse person and I cannot do this horror thing,” Reijn said, of her reluctance to accept the project that would throw her out of her comfort zone. She went on to admit that she didn’t even know who A24 was at the time, but ultimately decided to accept and embrace this change of pace for her career.

Welsh steered the discussion to casting, asking each filmmaker how they approached that crucial task. For veteran actor and Women Talking director (no to mention eventual Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay) Sarah Polley, casting runs in the family. Her brother John Buchan served as casting director for the film and her mother Diane Polley was also a casting director.

For this reason, she considers the 2023 Robert Altman Award the film won to be something that she shares with her mother. “I really grew up literally on the floor of a casting office listening to conversations about actors,” Polley said on her experiences early in life that shaped how she views the process. “Of anything that we could receive for this film, that was the most meaningful thing” she added on her elation about receiving the Altman Award.

Ellie Foumbi said her Our Father, The Devil lead actors Babetida Sadjo and Souleymane Sy Savane were both incredibly invested in the script, which was a great foundation for the film.

Interestingly, she explained how she decided to cast Sadjo solely based on the actress’s appearance in a trailer for a movie where she did not even have a speaking role. “She didn’t even have a scene. She was in a supermarket aisle, and she just turned to camera. I was like, I have to work with her. I knew it was her,” said Foumbi.

She would go on to talk about the fact that pandemic restrictions would prevent her from getting Sadjo in a room with her other actors, making the final chemistry of the cast she had hired a complete (and terrifying!) mystery.

The panelists went on to discuss different ways in which they make their cast and crew feel comfortable and ready to be at their best. DANIELS said they like to treat their set like a summer camp of sorts and recognize crewmembers who are rarely acknowledged.

One of the ways they do this includes giving out little trinkets as awards. “Let’s just say it was Smirnoff Ice in a diaper. It was the worst present. Here’s the Never Took a Break at Work Award for Joe,” Scheinert said when talking about how a seemingly minor gesture can mean a lot. This award brought a teamster on their set to tears.

Sarah Polley believes bringing her actors together as much as possible is the best way to foster a sense of community. “We had a greenroom. We didn’t have trailers. Everybody went from the hayloft to another hayloft. It became this community, and they really knew each other” she said about her philosophy on set.

One last topic the filmmakers, all with acting history apart from Kwan, touched on was why they decided to put acting on hold and step behind the camera. Two amusing anecdotes were shared. “My theater teacher was like, ‘Don’t pursue acting, you’re too opinionated! You roll your eyes, and you look so grumpy if you disagree with me,’’” Scheinert said on his enlightening experience with an acting teacher.

Halina Reijn said the rigors of theater acting and travel had weighed on her and at some point, she had had enough. She went on to liken her experience to that of a famous Russian dancer who announced his retirement onstage during a performance. “He said, ‘little horsey is tired’ and then he left the building and never came back” Reijn said on the highly relatable story. And with that, it was a wrap for the 2023 edition of the Directors Close-Up series!


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