We’re hopping in the way-back machine today to revisit the second-ever edition of Film Independent’s ongoing virtual Coffee Talks series. Back on April 9—as we were all still adjusting to our new life under quarantine—Film Independent was thrilled to bring two of Hollywood’s most interesting and innovative filmmakers together for a one-on-one chat streamed live (as all our Coffee Talks are) to Film Independent Members.
The filmmakers? Karyn Kusama—whose filmography includes Destroyer (2018), The Invitation (2015) and Jennifer’s Body (2009) as well as TV work, including recent episodes of HBO’s The Outsider—and Rian Johnson, whose credits include Knives Out (2019) and The Last Jedi (2017) and classic episodes of AMC’s Breaking Bad.
After a brief introduction by Fi’s Paul Cowling, the two filmmakers were left alone to discuss the creative processes, their thoughts on current events and many other aspects of movie-making and life-living. The ultimate goal, they agreed, is to produce art with the intention of making people feel something—an emotional resonance they each strive to achieve on set when working with cast and crew.
Their Coffee Talk is now available for the general public to watch below, so sit back and absorb what this exceptionally talented pairing has to say:
First things first. How is Kusama really doing (as of early April) with the current state of the COVID-19 crisis? “I have to say, it could get pretty emotional for me. Just to feel that I’m really facing the moment of my good fortune,” she said, mentioning that she’s been thinking about a “broken system” and understanding how to be a part of change. Continuing, she added, “But I’m trying to embrace the time and what’s possible in this moment right now” in terms of focusing her creative energy on new projects.
Of a new project already in the works—a limited series adaptation of a novel—Kusama said: “I’m re-reading the novel with broad strokes in mind about visual inspiration, thematic overlap. It’s a very broad, epic story. So it’s been really interesting to have to just sort of think about associations, visually,” she said, adding that building effective visual transitions between scenes is a hugely undersold aspect of the filmmaking process.
Johnson chimed in, stating that he’s always started from scratch with his storytelling. “If I read a book that I love,” he said, “I’m never thinking ‘How can I make this [into] a movie?’ Just because that process seems so daunting to me, of distillation.”
Kusama agreed, but said, “It’s really interesting, because it mirrors a process that I like to go through when I have a screenplay and I’m about to start shooting. Which is, I like to read the script in one sitting and take notes, in the moment, where my interest isn’t engaged,” she said. Checking in on her own sense of engagement from scene to scene, is for her, an important part of the writing process.
She continued: “I’m kind of doing the same thing with this book, where I realize ‘Oh that chapter just doesn’t figure in my imagination of this potential limited series.’” This instructive approach has been helpful for the filmmaker to put herself in the mindset of a potential viewer.
Touching on what happens in the edit room, Kusama said, “The one thing I’m getting much better at is watching something and knowing right away—‘Oh let’s lift that scene entirely.’” According to Johnson, taking out a scene that’s just not clicking can help creators deduce what the scene is missing. Viewing a cut without a scene that isn’t working, Johnson says, “Lets you go back to the scene with the re-focus of What is the essential kernel of that scene?” In other words: what needs to be done in order for that scene to earn its place in the film? “It’s so interesting to see what that kernel is,” he said.
“Sometimes at the script level and the shooting level, and even deep into cutting, you think it’s, ‘Oh I need to understand these pieces of information.’ But really, what you need is just to see a person touch another person’s hand,” Kusama said, echoing Johnson’s point that at certain points during production it helps for you, the filmmaker, to experience the movie again with a fresh, nonjudgemental pair of eyes.
With the hustle and bustle of production, what keeps the two filmmakers grounded during a hectic shoot? Said Kusama, “Sometimes I just like to say, can we take a second, take some deep breaths and just feel the energy travel [through your body]… Can we just be here together?” Adding: “For me, it’s about this idea of paying attention to how I feel as I’m watching something, to say: do I feeling anything while watching it?”
Johnson said that so much of calling “action” is making sure you snap back to being an audience member “and to experience that as purely as you can, then to create as pure a connection as possible between what you experience and what you then communicate when you walk out, after you call cut,” he said.
Johnson had some helpful tips for when you’re moving fast on set in production. He said: “For me this is a dumb practical thing that sounds really obvious… On a rushed day [when] you’re shooting out of order, taking a moment for yourself to read the scene previous to that scene and to read the scene after that scene” helps you stay focused on where you’re coming from and where you’re going, Johnson said.
Lastly, Johnson said that taking time to watch a part of another movie that inspires you, even if it’s under just 20 minutes, is always helpful during production. “Just watching something that is going to make you feel, connect, and just remembering this is what a movie does.” That’s ultimately what it’s all about.
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