At the beginning of 2017, I set out on a mission to interview the directors behind some of the year’s biggest movies. In total, I was fortunate enough to speak with 22 of them. They are the filmmakers behind blockbusters and conversation starters, and they represent one particular slice of what the movie landscape in 2017 looked like from behind the camera.
Here they are (you can read or watch each interview by clicking on the film title):
M. Night Shyamalan, Split
Digging into the 2017 archives: Here's part of my chat w/ M. Night Shyamalan for #Split where I asked whether being known as the guy w/ the "twist endings" has helped or hindered his career. pic.twitter.com/ssG0S125cs— ErikDavis (@ErikDavis) December 19, 2017
James Mangold, Logan
Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Kong: Skull Island
Gareth Edwards, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story*
James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Ridley Scott, Alien: Covenant
Jon Watts, Spider-Man: Homecoming
Alex Kurtzman, The Mummy
Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman
Colin Trevorrow, The Book of Henry
Michael Bay, Transformers: The Last Knight
Matt Reeves, War for the Planet of the Apes
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Darren Aronofsky, mother!
Doug Liman, American Made
George Clooney, Suburbicon
Jason Hall, Thank You for Your Service
Taika Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok
Kenneth Branagh, Murder on the Orient Express
Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Rian Johnson, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
*Technically, this film hit theaters in 2016, but the conversation around the movie continued well into the New Year, so it makes the list!
All of these conversations were engaging and insightful, and you can read what came out of them at the links above. Do I wish I spoke to more women filmmakers? Of course I do. And do I wish more women filmmakers were afforded the chance to direct some of the year’s most important movies? You’re damn right I do. Hopefully 2018 will produce more opportunity for female filmmakers, and I will make it a personal goal of mine to tell more of their stories in the new year.
That being said, of the 22 filmmaker interviews I conducted in 2017, there were ten conversations that stood out most. Check out a little more on those below.
10. Matt Reeves for War for the Planet of the Apes
One of the questions I asked most often when speaking with filmmakers this year was for them to discuss some of the other movies that influenced them during the process of making their movie. When it came time to discuss the excellent War for the Planet of the Apes with Matt Reeves, he and I pretty much spent the entirety of our conversation talking about that film’s many influences, so much so that I created a separate piece listing the titles, as well as how they inspired the third Apes movie.
From Apocalypse Now to the Empire Strikes Back, this was an enjoyably nerdy convo about some great movies. Here is Reeves on how Empire influenced Apes:
“For me, I was very excited about this idea about the mythology of the Force and what it meant, and I thought, "Wow, there's something really powerful about what that represents in these stories, how it's this representation of dark and light," and for me, it was like a light bulb,” he said. “[Cowriter] Mark [Bomback] and I started talking about it, that actually we'd had that all along, because our Force was this question of human nature, this idea of looking at us grappling with the different aspects of our nature… you know the animal and the rational.”
9. Ridley Scott for Alien: Covenant
Ridley Scott doesn’t care about spoilers.
When I sat down with him, Katherine Waterston and Danny McBride to chat about Alien: Covenant, Scott was so open about the film that Waterston had to keep interjecting in order to stop the director from not only spoiling its biggest secrets, but also his plan for future Alien movies.
It was probably the most amusing of all the filmmaker conversations I had this year, with Scott not afraid to say whatever was on his mind, both to me and about me. When I mentioned how much I liked the different ways he used blood on a floor to escalate tension in a scene, he called me a “sick f**k” and we all had a good laugh.
Needless to say, I’d happily have another chat with the sassy Mr. Scott (curse words and all!), who began our convo with these words about Alien: Covenant:
"It's beginning to answer the who and why," he said. "It's definitely gorier, and smarter. In it, we raise some very interesting questions about the position and possibility of AI against human condition, and it crosses into the zone of apartheid -- kind of like how Roy Batty was treated like a second-class citizen [in Blade Runner]. And so is David (Michael Fassbender). The knee-jerk was to create a second-class citizen, even if he is superior to everyone. So the natural thing to do at the end of Prometheus was to send them off together because when you think you've got it, you've got to keep the characters alive, as opposed to killing them. And [Coventant] starts to answer the who and why."
8. James Mangold for Logan
James Mangold was proud when we spoke. Proud of the movie he had delivered, and proud of the risks he and the cast took to produce a dark, gritty and violent superhero movie unlike any that had come before it.
What I enjoyed most about this interview was Mangold’s honesty. We spoke openly about the state of superhero movies and what they need in order to continue evolving. For Mangold, the success of future comic-based films isn’t necessarily about ratings or risks or audience fatigue.
“I believe there was a time in the middle ‘50s where people were like enough with the Westerns, I’ve seen enough Westerns,” he said. “There was Gunsmoke and Bonanza on television, and nothing but John Wayne, Clint Eastwood in theaters. I’m sure people saw way more bad Westerns than they did good ones. But now, 30 years later, we look back and the good Westerns live and the bad Westerns are out of distribution. I imagine the same thing will happen with comic book movies, where in 30 years when we look back it’ll be the movies that touched us that live. It’ll be the movies with heart that live.”
7. Taika Waititi for Thor: Ragnarok
There’s a reason why Thor: Ragnarok topped my list of favorite movies of the year (see below), and much of that has to do with its director, Taika Waititi.
This is Waititi’s biggest film to date, and it’s one that accomplishes so much. Not only does it tonally reboot Marvel’s Thor character utilizing the series’ existing cast, but it also leans into humor so much that the film acts as a borderline genre parody at times. Like Rian Johnson’s Star Wars movie, both films use comedy to lighten up a broader message to fans, which is: stop taking this stuff so seriously!
With Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi proved that you could be super silly and kick lots of ass, and the two aren't mutually exclusive. It may be Marvel’s most watchable movie to date (I’ve watched it six times!), and it’ll no doubt push Waititi’s career behind the camera forward in a major way.
But when he first began discussing the film with Marvel, even Waititi was a little confused about why they were talking to him, exactly.
“I was only apprehensive because I thought, I wonder if there is some other filmmaker with a name that sounds like mine who they think I am,” he joked. “Because, you know, coming from what I've done, I was like man, this is odd. I definitely agree with a lot of the fans who've given me sh*t on Twitter and in that I'm not the most obvious choice. I feel like I'm a very unexpected choice, here. But, then obviously, you look at James Gunn and the Russos. You look at what they've done, coming into the MCU. It's not very surprising, that they would ask me to do this.
6. Jordan Vogt-Roberts for Kong: Skull Island
I love speaking to filmmakers on the verge of releasing their biggest film to date, and such was the case with Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who I met back when he was debuting a film called The Kings of Summer at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Vogt-Roberts is an outspoken dude who says what's on his mind, and he brought that creative confidence to his first major studio movie, Kong: Skull Island. He pitched them an idea that was unlike the one they were already working on, and he set out to make sure his vision -- and not someone else's -- was the one audiences finally saw on screen. And when I finally caught up with him a couple of days before advance tickets went on sale here at Fandango, Vogt-Roberts was thrilled that all the nerdy things he had wanted for this film had materialized in a big way.
“I wanted this crazy genre mash-up, and I pitched them this idea of Apocalypse Now meets King Kong,” he said. The original script had nothing to do with that, and the original script almost in no way reflects the movie that’s on-screen. The fact that the studio let me run with these really crazy ideas and let me build out this sort of wish fulfillment, most insane version of this movie is cool. This is the movie I’d want to see and the movie I think my friends would want to see, and hopefully audiences feel like it’s something they haven’t seen.”
5. James Gunn for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
A few of the interviews that I conducted this year were timed to when advance tickets were going on sale. What’s unique about that time period is it’s often weeks before release and the films typically aren’t finished yet. Such was the case when I spoke to James Gunn, who took my call from inside the editing booth while he worked feverishly to put the finishing touches on his Guardians of the Galaxy sequel.
Gunn was playful, loose and confident – and of all the directors I spoke to, he came off as the biggest, dorkiest fan of the characters and world he had helped create. When I asked about major Easter eggs, he giggled, turned to his editor and confirmed there was a big one only a few frames into the film. Not all filmmakers are as excited to work on a big, important sequel like Guardians Vol. 2, especially when the first Guardians was unexpected and came with way less pressure on its shoulders. But Gunn is a rarity; he is someone with immense love and adoration for the property and it spills out of him organically and with passion. When we spoke, all I heard on the other end of the phone was this guy who simply couldn’t wait to share his baby with the world.
“I think the whole movie is going to surprise you,” he said. “It’s something you don’t normally get in big spectacle films. There’s a ton of heart to it, and then the visuals just go above and beyond anything we’ve ever done with the Guardians or at Marvel Studios. People thought we took a lot of risks and did a lot of new things with Guardians Vol.1, and we sort of exponentially upped that in Guardians Vol. 2. It is nothing like anything that’s come before it.”
4. Michael Bay for Transformers: The Last Knight
Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies -- I will fully admit that. They're big, loud, complicated and I never know which robot is which. But I have always admired Bay’s work ethic and just how far he goes to deliver a big-screen experience like none other. Bay quite literally gives it his all, and is the farthest from someone who’s just phoning it in for that blockbuster paycheck. This is a dude who hustles for every shot and for every explosion. He is part of a select few working hard to push the theatrical experience forward.
Bay’s first three movies – Bad Boys, The Rock and Armegeddon – are three of my favorite action movies ever, and so when I had the opportunity to speak to the director for almost 30 minutes, I leapt at the chance to not only talk about his tenure as director of the Transformers series, but also his work ethic, his stunts and, yes, those first three movies.
Because the interview was a long one, I decided to break it out into three parts (Michael Bay: Past, Present, Future), and my favorite of the three parts was looking back at Bay’s first three movies and how they forever changed him as a filmmaker.
On Bad Boys: “It literally was such a hard experience,” Bay said. “The crew kept telling me, 'Well that's not gonna cut, and that’s not gonna cut,' and 'You can't do it like this.' And I'm like, 'Well, I'm doing it like this.' So it was one of the first movies where it was cut very fast, the action. They all said, 'You can't cut that fast.' I'm like, 'Well, I am.' And now you see it imitated, but way back when I was cutting fast for a reason ... to hide the cheap art direction and to give it some energy.”
3. Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk
Christopher Nolan is an intimidating interview. Not because he’s mean or dismissive – quite the contrary. Nolan is a very nice guy and happy to dissect his process, but he’s also precise and no-nonsense, and knows exactly what he does and doesn’t want to talk about. (When I tried to slip in a Batman question, he quickly shot back: “I’m here to talk about Dunkirk.”)
I spoke to him twice this year – once at CinemaCon in Las Vegas roughly four months prior to the release of Dunkirk, and then again right before release and after I had seen the movie. The more memorable conversation was the one in-person at CinemaCon. I had ten minutes with him right before he was to introduce a big presentation to exhibitors. If he was nervous, you couldn’t tell. I was definitely more nervous – this was my first time interviewing the filmmaker, and I wanted to get the most out of those ten minutes.
So we spoke about Nolan’s love of IMAX and just how different Dunkirk was to anything he had done before. Like Michael Bay, Nolan is a filmmaker who cares deeply about the cinematic experience, and with each movie he sets out to push boundaries and put cameras in places they logically should not be in (like an IMAX camera on the wing of a plane). And as we spoke, I could tell this was a very personal film for Nolan. The story of Dunkirk was one he learned of when he was a little boy. He grew up around it; the events at Dunkirk were a part of him and when he set out to put the story on screen, he did so in the most authentic way possible, going so far as to shoot on the beach at Dunkirk. I noticed him light up when I mentioned the aerial sequences, though. This, I think, is what Nolan was most proud of when it comes to filming Dunkirk.
“I don’t think anyone’s ever tried to do aerial combat the way we’ve done it and photographed it in this film,” he said. “My DP, Hoyte Van Hoytema, just never gave up. When we would look at how you can’t fit a camera in the cockpit and fly the plane, we would build a special kind of snorkel lens and put the camera there. We’d work with the pilot and plane owners to really just go for it, and do as much of it for real as possible.”
2. Patty Jenkins for Wonder Woman
When I spoke to Patty Jenkins for Wonder Woman, she was fired up. The first couple of screenings for the film had produced excellent reactions, and I could sense a tide turning from within the studio, from hesitant and skeptical to confident and joyful. Wonder Woman was still weeks away from becoming the biggest hit of the summer and one of the year’s most talked-about movies, but with a dynamic, energized Jenkins in command of its story, there was a feeling the film was going to be a much bigger deal than initially anticipated.
Jenkins and I spoke at length about the year's only female-driven superhero movie, but it was the director's story behind the “No Man’s Land” sequence that stood out most. It was clear after one viewing that this scene would define the movie, but no one knew at the time just how big of an impact this moment would have on the entire year in pop culture. It is arguably the best scene in a movie this year, and it is a scene that almost didn't happen.
“It’s my favorite scene in the movie and it's the most important scene in the movie,” Jenkins said. “It’s also the scene that made the least sense to other people going in, which is why it's a wonderful victory for me. I think that in superhero movies, they fight other people, they fight villains. So when I started to really hunker in on the significance of No Man's Land, there were a couple people who were deeply confused, wondering, like, ‘Well, what is she going to do? How many bullets can she fight?’ And I kept saying, ‘It's not about that. This is a different scene than that. This is a scene about her becoming Wonder Woman.’”
1. Paul Thomas Anderson for Phantom Thread
Of course I have a bucket list full of filmmakers I'd love to interview at some point during my lifetime, and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood) has long been situated towards the top of said list. I had tried to interview the elusive writer-director for three films now, and with his newest, Phantom Thread, arriving this Christmas, I finally slipped past the PTA gatekeepers and found myself tossed into a vibrant, personable 20-minute conversation with a filmmaker I have long adored.
We sat in a hotel room inside the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, and for twenty minutes we spoke about Phantom Thread, about working with Daniel Day-Lewis, about the movies that changed him and influenced him, and, somewhat randomly, about Star Wars. The chat concluded with us musing about the various Nutcracker performances both sets of our kids happened to be participating in over that weekend, and I left wanting the conversation to continue, naturally (there were a million questions I still wanted to ask), but also with this immense feeling of satisfaction, as if I had finally conquered a mountain that had eluded me all my life.
My favorite part of the interview came when I asked PTA which of his films he learned the most from in terms of the filmmaker he wanted to become. Here's what he said:
"I felt like on Punch-Drunk Love it was a really nice moment. We had all worked together -- almost all of us – on three films before that [and] that really turned out good. We learned loads on that. But by the time we got to that film, there was something that kind of clicked; of experimentation and independence and confidence. Guts, care, and hubris all just kind of came together in a nice way, allowing ourselves to discover things, or be insecure. It was a really nice moment, but it was also f**king challenging. The first couple weeks of that film was just trying to find a new way to work that was a little bit looser. Yeah, I look back really fondly on that time with a great feeling. A lot of lessons were learned on Punch-Drunk Love.
Finally, to finish out the year, here are my 15 favorite movies of 2017. Wanna know more about these picks? Hit me up on Twitter right here.
1. Thor: Ragnarok
2. The Big Sick
3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
4. Get Out
5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
8. I, Tonya
9. Good Time
10. War for the Planet of the Apes
11. The Florida Project
12. Baby Driver
14. Call Me By Your Name
15. The Shape of Water
Thanks for reading, and here's to 2018!