Having grown up in Los Angeles, I don’t get star-struck easily. That said, I can still be reduced to a nervous, sweaty-palmed wreck when in the presence of certain, very special people. Imagine my reaction when faced with an entire table filled with them. That was the case at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Directors Panel last Saturday.
The panel was a cross-section of the folks behind many of the major films of the past year: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Babel”), Todd Field (“Little Children”), John Lasseter (“Cars”) and Gil Kenan (“Monster House”).
As is customary, they all expressed genuine disbelief in their presence at the table -not to mention many of their nominations for the Golden Globes and the upcoming Academy Awards. The awards season was a hot topic among the panelists and the little gold statues basically dominated the discussion for much of the panel.
First-time feature directors Dayton and Faris, who were totally the adorable hipster couple you would want to hang out with at a cocktail party, said they still couldn’t believe their film had made it to Sundance, not to mention being nominated for Oscars.
“It’s funny, because our film is really about rejecting the notion of beauty contests,” Dayton said. “So we’re a little confused.”
And, Faris pointed out that, as the only woman on the panel, she has a unique perspective on awards season.
“I think I’m the only one on the panel who can complain about having to wear something different at every event,” Faris said.
Inarritu said he is surprised “Babel” is in the running for the Best Picture Award at the Oscars – a ceremony to which he said he would “invite more Mexicans,” were he given the chance to change anything about it.
“Always, we thought it would be a film that would be hard to accomplish,” I-‡rritu said. “It was a risky film. … I never thought the film would have that impact.”
Field, who is living proof that the cute, kind of awkward film geek in your discussion section will one day be a famous director worth watching, merely expressed his disbelief that his films get made at all. “I’m terrified every time I start work on a film,” Field said. Predictably, he said his films aren’t made for awards season either.
“Art is a real eye-rolling, dirty word for a lot of people,” Field said. “But I believe this is an art form. It’s meant to entertain and engage. … That’s why we tell stories. It’s not to win American Idol.”
Pixar guru Lasseter had a different take on things. “I love the Oscars because I love movies,” Lasseter said.
According to Kenan, he would be happy with an Oscar because “I can use it to prove to my mom once and for all that I actually directed “Monster House.” When asked how he went from being a film student straight to being the director on such a major film, Kenan said “Really, I caught a lucky streak. … For me, it was really about being in the right place at the right time.”
Inarritu talked about being in the right place at the right time as well, in as much as his cast for “Babel” was largely composed of local people who happened to fit the bill for specific characters.
“We went to the towns,” Inarritu said. “And in the south of the Sahara, we went to these small towns and … we had to call all these people out and we videotaped them. … The boys [who were cast in the movie] were playing football and the guy who was taking care of Brad Pitt arrived as a computer systems assistant. … The vet was the real vet in the town, so his hands that day really smelled like goat.”
Ultimately, if there is one thing all the filmmakers agreed upon, it was the power of the filmmaking process. Whether it was being rejected by Bill Murray – who was apparently offered a role in “Little Miss Sunshine” and never called Dayton and Faris back about it – or convincing Cate Blanchett to get up close and personal with a guy who smelled like goat, the directors all celebrated the process and power of making movies.
“Process is something you must trust,” said Field when asked what advice he would give to up-and-coming filmmakers. Obviously, for these six directors, the process is working.