Film directors panel: ‘The First Wave,’ ‘Mitchells vs. the Machines,’ ‘Procession,’ ‘Respect’
Everyone thinks they know, generally, what a director does, but what is something that’s part of the job that that people might not be aware of? For one, what a group effort making a film is, regardless if it’s a narrative feature, animated film or documentary, Matthew Heineman (“The First Wave”), Mike Rianda (“The Mitchells vs. the Machines”), Robert Greene (“Procession”) and Liesl Tommy (“Respect”) share during our Meet the Experts: Film Directors panel. Watch the exclusive group roundtable video above. Click each name to watch that person’s individual interview.
“I think people think, like, Walt Disney just sort of popped up and was like, ‘I got an idea for a picture. It’s ‘Bambi.’ And here’s the beginning, the middle and the end. I did it. Goodbye! I’m Walt Disney,'” Rianda quips. “And the movies end up being so wonderfully collaborative where I was just think about it — if you take out one person and replace them with a different person, the movie would be different. There’s a Pollyanna, like, ‘We all made the movie together,’ but it’s really true. I thought it was a lie before I made a movie.”
Greene concurs, adding that he looked at his two hats on “Procession,” as director and editor, as specific jobs with lots of parts to them. “Editing, especially, for documentaries has a lot of power in what actually becomes the film, and I’ve edited fiction films as well, so I know that it has a lot of power in fiction as well,” he says. “That myth that the only way to be an auteur is to sort of dominate the scenario is absolutely wrong. I realize probably the reason nonfiction is most exciting to me is because I know the limitations of my own ideas. I know what I don’t know, which is a big advantage actually. I know what I’m good at, I know what I’m not good at, and I don’t want to do the things that I’m not good at. And the team knows that.”
On “The First Wave,” which chronicles the first four months of COVID-19 at a New York hospital, it was paramount that everyone involved in the production put safety first. “We had so little information on how this disease was transmitted [then], so we literally thought that every single thing we did could’ve killed us or killed our subjects or killed our team,” Heineman shares. “So we were constantly, constantly overly aware of that fact and something we took extremely seriously. I’m very proud that no one on my team, despite four months in an ICU, filming 12 to 18 hours a day, got COVID while making the film and that we didn’t transmit it to anyone that we filmed with.”
“Respect” was also impacted by COVID — it had already wrapped filming but was delayed for a year. Tommy spent that time editing the Aretha Franklin biopic, which was her feature film directorial debut. “I think people don’t know that for the length of making the film, you’re not going to sleep and you’re going to lose stomach lining. I was editing during COVID in my apartment,” she states. “Just the enormous responsibility, the sheer volume of details that you just have to keep in your head — I don’t think I slept really for two and a half years making that film. You just can’t know how insane and intense it is. And even though every single day on set was the best day of my life, when you’re making a studio film, there’s so much external pressure, there’s so many layers of anxiety that’s not even your anxiety that you have to filter. I feel like everybody who makes a studio film, they have to give you a separate organ to put into your body to filter that anxiety.”