Exclusive: Filmmaker Scott Hicks

ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to the filmmaker about how he works with these big-name actors and most importantly, what he’s been up to since his last feature film.

ComingSoon.net: It’s been a while since you directed “Hearts in Atlantis” so what have you been doing in the last six years?

Scott Hicks: Yeah, well let’s see. I guess it was three years in a sense that I started this movie nearly two years ago. After “Hearts in Atlantis,” I decided to take a little time for myself. Living in Australia, making a movie is a huge commitment. You have to go and live somewhere else for a year, so I just thought that I want to spend a bit more time at home, and I did that, and at the same time, I got really invited into the world of American TV commercials, which is a whole departure for me. I hadn’t done it before, and I found that I enjoyed it. I liked it. They were short-term, they were interesting concepts, they were very smart people that I could work with, good budgets, they were lucrative. So I did dozens of those. I’ve done massive things that you’ve probably seen but had no idea that I’d done them.

CS: I never heard anyone say that American ad agencies are easy to work with.

Hicks: Well, I didn’t say anything about American ad agencies being easy to work with. I was talking about the people MAKING them. I’m working with the best cinematographers, the Bob Richardsons, the Janoz Kavinskys, Wally Fister, all these people, just working on budgets that just for 60 seconds cost more than some of the movies I’ve made. So really, it was fun, and then I’m also while I’ve been doing “No Reservations,” I’ve also been making a cinematic documentary about Philip Glass, which is just about finished, so I did two films in eighteen months. I’m back… with a vengeance!

CS: Have you been involved with “No Reservations” since Warner Bros. first got the English remake rights to “Mostly Martha”?

Hicks: I was approached by Warner Bros. who asked me if I was interested in directing a movie that Catherine was attached to and she liked my work and would like to meet. And that was the lure to me, was Catherine. I thought she was someone that would be really interesting to work with. Obviously, you have a very beautiful woman, but a really dynamic actress, and here was a role that was a real character that carries the film. Yes, there’s an important triangle with the Nick and Zoe character, but it’s really her movie. I was very intrigued to meet her, and I said to her, “Look, are you up for this? This is sweaty, hot, unglamorous work in a kitchen.” And she said, “Are you kidding? This is what I want. I want you to push me,” and it was terrific. I just found her really motivated.

CS: Once you knew you were going to do this, did you go back and watch the original German movie or did you try to avoid it?

Hicks: Actually, it was seeing the original movie that really… how can I put this? It was that really decided me that I really wanted to do it because the script was one thing, Catherine’s involvement was very important, but when I saw the original movie, I thought, “Well, that is a really charming, delightful story that I think I could certainly tell for an English speaking audience.” It was so refreshing to get a script from a studio that involved relationships, life, love, loss, real people living lives in rooms. (chuckles) For a studio movie, that’s very unusual. There’s no high concept thing, big action, special effects. It was just about people and relationships and those are the things that interest me, so coming from a studio with a big star like Catherine on it, I was like, “I can do that.”

CS: Was there already a script finished when Catherine came on board and they approached you?

Hicks: Yes, there was.

CS: Was the story always set in New York?

Hicks: No, it wasn’t set anywhere. I just wanted to do it in New York. The studio wanted me to do it in Toronto and make it look like New York, so I managed to convince them that we could do it here and it wouldn’t cost more. They didn’t believe me, and then they did, and it was true, and we came in under budget. The great thing being that it gave me access to a fantastic supporting cast, incredible locations, the best crews in the country I would say, so it was wonderful. It was a really good moviemaking experience.

CS: How did you develop the script from there? I know a lot of professional women in New York like Kate who are very career-driven with very little time for a personal life.

Hicks: It was a lot of writing and rewriting and so on. Obviously, it was a remake of the earlier movie, so it was a certain storyline but then the cultural differences set in Germany and a German restaurant. I mean, New York kitchens and New York restaurants are different to those in Europe. They have different sensibilities, different cultures and frames of reference, so the whole thing had to be rethought through that angle if you like. That had an impact on plot and on story and all sorts of things, but the essentials were there, about the nature of that character.

CS: You mentioned at the earlier press conference that Abigail Breslin hadn’t even finished “Little Miss Sunshine” when you cast her. Were you shooting the movie when that movie came out and took off the way it did?

Hicks: We started shooting probably a week or two after “Little Miss Sunshine” appeared at Sundance. We were shooting February through May 2006 and then I did post-production in Australia, which is where I’ve done all my movies from here, I take them back to Adelaide and I have a really good post-production team there, and then the movie was finished earlier this year, March or something, when we had the final final thing.

CS: So the movie’s been done for a while now. Has it just been a matter of Warner Bros. waiting to find a good weekend to release it?

Hicks: Yeah. I was thrilled that they chose such a strenuous date, do you know what I mean? I think the studio feels very excited about it, so I think it shows a lot of confidence.

CS: Can you talk about working with Catherine and Abigail in their scenes together? Abigail’s very much a seasoned actor at this point, having appeared in movies for three or four years.

Hicks: More, since she was five. She’s a veteran.

CS: Were you able to shoot their scenes in a certain order to show how their relationship evolves?

Hicks: Not really because the sets and locations sort of dictate the sequence of how things happen, but no, there wasn’t any particular order. One tries to avoid obviously the most intense dramatic scenes too early. You want people to get a certain amount of familiarity with each other and to get into it a bit, but no they’re both very easy to work with. I mean, Abigail has such powerful instincts, and everything that she does seems real. It doesn’t feel like acting at all, which is what is so remarkable about her. Catherine is someone who’s really meticulous in her preparation.

CS: So she is a lot like the character she plays in this, I guess.

Hicks: Well in the sense that she does the work. She really does, and it’s so detailed. Of course, she’s dealing with accent, which is not easy, especially when you’re dealing with emotional scenes to keep that authentic feeling to an accent. It’s hard work, but I think that a lot of her early training as a dancer and in choreography and so on is something that she still carries in her acting work because she’s just so precise, so detailed.

CS: Did you shoot all the restaurant scenes on location or was that all done on studio soundstages or mix and match?

Hicks: No, no, no. I mean, the restaurant is an actual restaurant on the corner of Bleeker and Charles. It was a disused restaurant, and we took it over. My design team and the production designer Barbara Ling just did a fabulous makeover. It was a wonderful location because it was on a corner, so I had windows on two sides and the kitchen was a large set, because I had to make it feel like it was totally integrated with the restaurant.

CS: Really? That kitchen was all on a soundstage?

Hicks: You couldn’t shoot a movie in an actual kitchen, you’d go mad! I’m glad we fooled you, because it was done on a soundstage, but it was a fully working kitchen, had real line cooks in there, which is why I think it feels as authentic as it does. It was a challenge because restaurant kitchens are crazy places, just lunatic places, so it was kind of fun trying to get those details as right as you could.

CS: That was actually one of the cleanest kitchens I’ve ever seen anywhere.

Hicks: Oh, maybe. Some kitchens are clean, but it depends on the kind of restaurant.

CS: How about shooting in the restaurant itself, because I’m sure that had its own challenges and obstacles?

Hicks: Absolutely, and you’ve got all the crazy stuff going on in the kitchen and then this kind of refined thing in the front of house. That was a challenge because when you shoot any location, the space is very limited. You’ve got quite a deal to work with as far as a lot of extras, where to put the lights, where to put all the gear, so there are a few challenges but I had a very good camera team.

CS: Can you talk about mixing the humor and romance with the drama of this story? Can you talk about blending the two plotlines in this movie, because they’re very different tones and it’s often difficult to combine comedy with drama.

Hicks: I know. Well, it was inherent in the story obviously, the premise being that the little girl has lost her mother and that color can never really leave the palette. It has to stay in there as a presence. To me, it gave it depth. It stopped it from being just a froth and bubble story, and it added depth for all of the characters, and then, as far as getting the balance of the drama vs. the humor, a lot of that is in the editing finally. Initially, I put a little bit too much weight on the drama side of it and then as we progressed in the cutting, I realized I could just hone that down a bit. So there’s no formula for it.

CS: Were you able to move scenes around or were you governed by the script in that sense?

Hicks: To some extent, but it’s more about the emphasis that you give a certain scene or how long it is, ’cause you can edit anything to whatever length you want. At one stage, I ended up taking two or three minutes out of a sequence to do with the mother and the going home and the funeral, because it was all getting too… suddenly all the air went out of it, so then you take that back and then if you follow a very intense melancholy scene with a fish head sliding into frame, you get a laugh, and suddenly people remember, “Oh, I can laugh. It’s okay.” This is not Ingmar Bergman.

CS: When you directed “Shine” with Geoffrey Rush that broke him as a star almost…

Hicks: Almost? Totally! (laughs) He’d never made a movie before. That’s why it was so difficult to get it financed. Look, he’s Australia’s finest theatre actor, incredibly trained and an absolutely amazing actor, but never done any film, because he’s never available. He’s always booked out like two or three years ahead on stage as great actors are. I had people like Miramax saying to me, “Who is this and how old is this guy? 43 years old and he’s never made a movie? What kind of a failure is this guy? Forget about it!” Did they forget that Sydney Greenstreet was 60 before he made a film? Or Margaret Rutherford? Geez, at least Geoffrey was only 43. Sorry, anyway…

CS: I just wanted to ask if it was easier working with established stars than it is working with lesser-known actors.

Hicks: You know, to me, there’s no difference to working with any of these people in the sense that if they’re actors and they’re up for it, then I love working with them. I mean, the best actors are always ready to do the work, but to me, even on “Shine”, I had John Gielgud, who was a star in 1928, like shortly after my father was born. I’ve always taken the view that working with any actor–and the same with Catherine on “No Reservations”–it’s about just talking to them, you’re giving them your feedback, you’re telling them what you think about what they’re doing, and that’s what they want to hear. They don’t want to be with someone who says, “Oh, that’s brilliant! Marvelous!” They want the feedback, they want to know, and the really good actors will always listen. One of the things that I do is I don’t sit way over there behind a bank of monitors yelling instructions. I sit next to the camera, under the camera, and I watch them and when I say “cut” I’m the first eyes they look at, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Anthony Hopkins or Max von Sydow or Sam Sheppard, whoever, Catherine Zeta-Jones, I think they like to know that you’re watching closely what they’re doing. If you watch a monitor for a performance, you miss the detail. You don’t see the eyes, you don’t see the emotion, so you just say “Oh, do another one” ’cause you don’t know if it’s good or not.

CS: What’s this Philip Glass documentary you’re working on? Is that a history of his life?

Hicks: It’s really more of a cinematic portrait of him in the sense of being in his company on and off over the last two years, just rolling up with my camera and filming with him wherever he took me or he’d be doing something and I’d go around and film it, so accumulating a lot of really interesting material. I mean, he’s an endlessly fascinating fellow.

CS: How much time did you spend with him?

Hicks: Oh, months and months over a period of time, not every single day.

CS: Are you still editing that?

Hicks: Just finishing it. I just took it up to show the Toronto Film Festival, so likely, it will be there, so I’ll have like two movies opening in six weeks. (laughs)

No Reservations opens on Friday, July 27. Check out a press conference with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart here.