Directors work as visionaries that champion a film project from start to finish, and they set the tone for the creative process. They feel the most pressure for success while working under the fast pace and tight deadlines of today’s entertainment industry. Three filmmakers recently discussed their views on their profession at this year’s Produced By Conference in Burbank, Calif. Francis Ford Coppola, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are all known for their innovative work as filmmakers. While Coppola’s filmography is iconic, Rogen and Goldberg are making big waves with cutting-edge comedy, and they all agree that the benefits of being a director far outweigh the challenges.
Director/Producer/Writer Francis Ford Coppola
A five-time Oscar winner, Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) is a visionary risk-taker and artist who was inspired by filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and John Frankenheimer while attending UCLA’s Film School. “When I was in film school you didn’t think you would ever get to make a feature film,” said Coppola. “You thought maybe you would get a job working for the USIA [United States Information Agency] making documentaries. I made it my business in those days to try to make a feature film and I did. My thesis was a feature film, which I managed to put together, so a lot of younger students from USC, in particular George Lucas, John Milius and Walter Murch, sort of gathered around me because they thought the secret to making a feature film had happened.”
As he was starting out, Coppola admitted to having a lot of naïve ideas about filmmaking. “I thought, well, the secret is if we could own the equipment and be able to buy the film, which we called the means of production,” Coppola explained. “So we went and scrounged and bought cameras and used film equipment. We realized just owning the equipment wasn’t the solution. Then I thought if you had money, if you could figure out a way to make money then we could make film. It wasn’t until later I realized the secret is distribution. If you can control the distribution then you could make movies.” Coppola also noted how structure is important when it comes to the role of each person on set, as filmmaking is a collaborative effort. “If you are building a house, the producer is like the contractor,” he said. “The director and the writer, if it’s the same person, is like the architect … whereas the architect is responsible for the vision of the film and the design. The producer is responsible in gathering all the resources together to efficiently make it happen.”
The filmmaker stressed that directing in particular is an art form, and that directors are artists who are critical and insecure of themselves and their work. Coppola admitted that, with the exception of The Godfather, most of the films he made were “sort of shaky” when first released. “[The] Godfather was a hit [but] Apocalypse Now was really scary when it came out,” he said. “Artists tend to be insecure. You tend to side with the people who don’t like what you’re doing. What I noticed over 30 to 40 years [was that] a lot of those movies that were very shaky are now thought of much more generously.” Twenty years after the release of Apocalypse Now, Coppola was watching TV in a small, dumpy English-style hotel when he came across the beginning of his film. “I always liked that opening so I thought I would watch it,” he recalled. “I ended up seeing the whole picture, and I remember thinking, ‘This movie isn’t so weird.’ You know what happened? It was weird but the times changed with it, and the weird stuff of yesterday becomes the wallpaper that you put in your kids’ rooms of tomorrow. Art has that funny ability to change with everyone around it.”
Every great director has experienced a learning curve as they master their craft, including legends like Coppola who can see the progress he’s made over the years. “Looking back, knowing what I know now, I would learn better ways to do less in my movies,” he stated. “To curve my instinct when I’m scared, I tend to put out more and make it complicated with more characters. So much of it is wasteful from a producer’s standpoint.” Coppola believes that imagination is the key to creating a great movie-going experience. “I think that’s the big thing I look for when I go to a film,” he said. “I want to come out and say, ‘I never saw anything like that before’ rather than ‘Didn’t I see something just like that before?’”
The filmmaker is also a big fan of independent film and how it embraces brilliant directors, like David O. Russell, Alexander Payne and Wes Anderson, because they test the limits of the medium. Coppola believes that without the indie film industry, we would only have conventional movies. “When you look at the cinema today, not that the big $150 million movies can’t be good, but for the most part they are less imaginative and less beautiful,” he noted. “I know a lot of filmmakers who don’t have a lot of money and resist the opportunity to take the big job given to them because their heart really is into making [their own] beautiful cinema. It’s something to be really, really proud of in our country [that we have] such a rich and abundant group of talent.”
Producing Partners Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
In the last few years, producing partners Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have emerged as filmmaking’s funniest tag team. Their company Point Grey Pictures is known for its R-rated, balls-to-the-wall comedies, and the duo’s first few productions Knocked Up, Superbad and Pineapple Express were all shot within a 12-month period. Following the success of their co-directorial debut This Is the End, Rogen and Goldberg will soon release their second film as co-directors, The Interview, which stars Rogen and James Franco and will hit theaters in October.
Rogen and Goldberg have worked together for 13 years after meeting at a Bar Mitzvah class in Vancouver, Canada. They’re both inspired by filmmakers like Mel Brooks, whose films didn’t rely on special effects in order to be relatable to wide audiences. While Rogan also had a love for standup comedy, Goldberg was intrigued by writing. “I was really into comedy and Evan wrote a ton,” Rogen recalled. “He was the first person I met when I was 12 years old who wrote a lot, [real] stories and stuff like that.” The two buddies decided to write and create their own content after being disappointed by the quality of comedies they were watching. “There’s a specific incident where we were watching a movie, and we honestly can’t recall what it was, and we [said], ‘This movie sucks shit. Let’s go write a better one,’” added Goldberg. “And we decided to do that and didn’t really know what we were doing, and that eventually became Superbad.”
Rogen and Goldberg produce, write and direct, which gives them a more knowledgeable approach to shooting. “The fact that we are directors and producers is helpful because we know the real ramification of let’s say, ‘We want five days to shoot this scene. Well, we can only afford three days to shoot the scene or two days or one day,’” Rogen explained. “If we were just the directors we would tell ourselves to go fuck ourselves then we would have to go deal with that.” Still, there are times when directing while producing will create conflict. “[As the director] it’s your job to obtain as many things as you humanly can and push your resources as far as you humanly can so that when you are editing the movie you have everything you need to put together a great product, and often that’s directly at odds with logistical and financial and emotional limitation,” Rogen noted. “As a producer you are trying very hard to control and keep within a neat package so things aren’t exploding all over the place. We are the ones who eventually get the call from the studio if it goes way over budget, so as directors we can’t do that.”
After producing the dramedy 50/50, Rogen and Goldberg have learned that they have more fun making comedies than creating movies in other genres. “We aren’t geniuses with a deep regrettable message,” said Rogen. “We just stick to what we know, and what we know is our relationship with our wives and friends and just that simple stuff. If I was into space travel maybe I could endeavor to do a space thing, but that’s just not who we are or what we’ve done in life. We just tend to stick to what we know. Superbad was about us in high school not getting laid and being buddies and growing up.” While Rogen and Goldberg write most of their material, they do hire writers and push them to incorporate their own personal experiences into the material. “[We’ll tell them], ‘Put more of your shit in this,’” said Rogen. “‘You’ll like it more and you’ll want to work on it more and it will be in your interest.’”
When it comes to advising new filmmakers on how to succeed in the industry, Rogen said that his advice is always the same. “Write something you can make and then make it,” he stressed. “At this point it’s hard to take people that seriously who haven’t made a very concerned effort to just do it themselves. We work with very few people who don’t have the gumption or the willingness to fail and put themselves out there. I think most people are scared to do that because they have to confront the quality of their own work. Honestly, they don’t want to do it because then they have to [find out] if it’s good or not.” Goldberg’s advice for filmmakers is a bit different. “My real answer would be: be careful who you get in bed with,’ he said. “One you sign on to work with someone, this guy better be good because we’re stuck with him for several years now. Sometimes you forget that when you make a movie with somebody. You’re not going on a week-long trip, you’re on a year-long journey at minimum. I would just say to assess people out before you hitch your wagon to theirs.”