Adam Driver, David Lowery, and Jeff Nichols Debate Indies, Studio Movies, Netflix, and Legacies
IndieWire spoke with three artists who have found critical and commercial success on everything from ‘Star Wars” to “A Ghost Story,” and how to maintain that delicate balance.
Last weekend in Little Rock, Arkansas, Jeff Nichols launched Premiere, the first event of his newly minted Arkansas Cinema Society. The writer-director of “Loving,” “Mud,” and “Midnight Special” screened a selection of smart movies, including Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” and J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” hosted by star Adam Driver, whose family spent summers in Arkansas. Austin-based David Lowery brought “Pete’s Dragon” and “A Ghost Story” and producer Noah Stahl came with current release “Patti Cake$.”
I interviewed Driver, Lowery, and Nichols about how they define creative independence as they balance high- and low-budget movies. (It has been edited for length and clarity.)
Working with the studios
Jeff Nichols: I’m smack dab in the middle of the first draft of “Alien Nation” for Fox, trying to balance sensibilities. When you set out to work on something with a big price tag on it in terms of production cost, I’m aware that it needs to do certain things that lower-budgeted films don’t do. I put stress on myself to try to write something meaningful and deep and also populist.
[Vice-chairman] Emma Watts at Fox said, “We hired you because we wanted you.” I keep trying to enjoy it because I feel that will be reflected in the work. I didn’t enjoy writing “Midnight Special.” I wrote that in a fever, it was so personal to me. I loved writing and making “Mud,” which was reflected in the material. I’m trying to keep that spirit, which is hard to do in this age when everybody is so divisive and people are pissed.
Adam Driver: I don’t consciously think of whether it’s a studio movie or not. I’ve tried to follow the directors. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of good ones. I did a movie one time for money, and it felt terrible. (Editor’s note: It wasn’t “Star Wars.”) It helped pay for things like college debt. Looking back on that feeling, I never wanted to feel it again.
When “Star Wars” came, it was an example of a big Hollywood movie, but it was not a financial choice. It’s a good role and J.J. Abrams was directing it. When I did “Midnight Special,” it wasn’t because it was Warner Bros. It was Jeff Nichols. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with studio movies when they’re good. When they suck, I feel duped. It makes me angry.
But if somebody comes to you like Martin Scorsese [“Silence”], obviously, “OK, I’ll do that.” Soderbergh, Nichols, Noah Baumbach — no-brainer — Terry Gilliam [the historically troubled “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”]. Even now, when no one is on set, everyone is expecting a flood to happen in the editing room!
David Lowery: I’m literally sitting on the couch working on the first draft of “Peter Pan,” and editing “The Old Man and the Gun.” Fox Searchlight took that off the market when it was in prep. I never got any script notes. I wrote quite a few drafts. It’s a journalistic true-crime story. Everyone knows what the movie is, with no surprises. Then we went off and made it. They visited the set twice, saw Robert Redford.
“Peter Pan” will take longer to shoot. In every regard, the stakes are higher. It’s one of the crown jewels of Disney’s animation empire. I feel a responsibility to make sure it’s done right. It’s also a movie I want to make.
Working with Steven Soderbergh
Adam Driver: Making “Logan Lucky” was intimate. There was nothing in excess. “Star Wars” has more moving pieces; they’re not running the set like a NASCAR heist movie. Almost every day, Steven would say, “Everybody break for lunch, and that’s a wrap!” We were done so early because he controls the pace, which is so much faster. Money is utilized in such a smart way. There’s no sitting around, losing momentum. He picks up the cameras, everything is lit practically. He can put the camera where he wants it. So he can work that fast.
He was inclusive and unmysterious. He invited the crew to come and watch him edit. Everyone at the hotel was at the bar. He had 30 minutes edited two weeks after shooting it. He will try something, he’s going off his first impulses, then he’ll try something else, do a lot of takes. It’s a different way of working. It feels more economical.
David Lowery: I aspire to a certain degree of what Soderbergh does. I’d never try to shoot my own movie. Not my skill set. I love editing. It’s my comfort zone. On a small film like “A Ghost Story,” it’s easier for me to do it all myself. I did learn that it’s possible to make an indie film on my own terms, but I wouldn’t do it the same way again. I don’t want to repeat myself. I’m applying the model on my wife’s [Augustine Frizzell] feature film “Never Going Back,” based on a short film at SXSW a couple of years ago. I learned I can help other filmmakers use that model as well.
Keeping your own voice
Jeff Nichols: Since I started making films in 2004, on the independent film circuit everyone searched for a definition of what independent film means. The broadest definition: there’s some unique voice behind the work. That begs another question: when and how do you find your voice in the first place?
Some filmmakers make one film, and go to make a studio film. How do they maintain something that is still developing? There has to be a point of view that is undeniable, even if it is your second film. The way you put these stories together is such a complex thing in the film industry. That point of view — it can’t be dampened by big budgets or small budgets. Look at people we consider big filmmakers like Christopher Nolan; there’s a point of view there in his early work.
I wish the “Alien Nation” genre was more defined: Sci-fi isn’t a genre, it’s a storytelling technique. The original was a detective film. But the way I build narrative is weird and strange and awkward. I’m less interested in that type of genre structure and a hook that brings the audience into the story. Can I keep my method of storytelling that I’m accustomed to? Can I have my cake and eat it too? Or am I even that kind of writer?
Reaching an audience
Jeff Nichols: I sit awake at night staring at the ceiling worrying about this. It’s easy to eat your own tail. I went to see “Patti Cake$” with Geremy Jasper, and we had this exact conversation. How’s this going to work and connect? It’s a crowd-pleasing film, but sometimes it gets knocked for striving to be too crowd-pleasing.
David Lowery: You have to collaborate on any movie, whether it’s a studio or indie film. The studios do listen. On “Pete’s Dragon,” I was very firm. I did what I wanted to do, but I tested it out. You listen to the spirit, if not the letter, of what they’re saying.
I can see how a film can become diluted and lose its voice. Any time I saw the potential of that on “Pete’s Dragon,” I was on red alert. I was very careful to keep it on track without jeopardizing my relationship with the studio. I made sure they were happy, while making sure the movie didn’t become a film by committee. A film can go astray. It’s not a quick switch, a binary thing; it’s death by a thousand cuts.
Jeff Nichols: There is a zeitgeist. I believe in it. Richard Linklater, he’s been able to touch it at least twice in his career. There’s some breath of your film in the culture… that, to me, is the ultimate success. We want these things to exist in 10 years. Quentin Tarantino, he wants legacy. To be one of the greats. I don’t care so much about that. I just want to touch people with the work.
I’d love to have a populist film that’s smart and affecting. “Mud” connected the most, and had the most famous people [Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon]. It totally helps. And it had a happy ending. That’s the special sauce: how these things affect people. That’s the only thing that can cause resonance in the zeitgeist.
Writing your own movies
Jeff Nichols: Being a writer is really necessary. Not to knock critics, but it’s easy to forget how hard it is to make a damn movie. That’s what makes directors who make multiple good films really special. Money helps, but it doesn’t cure everything. Sometimes you do a lot of things right and it doesn’t connect.
David Lowery: Because I start at the script stage, my movies are always entirely mine. If it’s a studio movie or a tiny indie film, it doesn’t matter. Starting at page one writing the first word allows me to maintain my voice. “Pete’s Dragon” is also reflective of my taste. I was satisfying the audience member in me who grew up watching Disney movies.
David Lowery: The film industry is doing pretty well, thanks to Netflix and Amazon. I prefer the big-screen experience, but I can’t fault Netflix for financing movies that would otherwise not get financed. It’s a gift to the film industry and to filmmakers. Studios are leaning toward releasing movies on iTunes. Once that happens, the theatrical window will go away. I don’t want it to go away.
IndieWire | Anne Thompson | September 2, 2017