Filmmakers behind the slate of Sony’s awards hopefuls this year took unique and fascinating paths to creating a sense of meaning in complicated worlds. Those messages were central to their films covered Saturday afternoon at Deadline’s The Contenders New York event at the DGA Theater.
For Quentin Tarantino and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, meaning centers on a dissection of the friendship of Westerns actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Each is all too aware that the best part of their lives and careers has passed.
“I’ve always been fascinated by actors that had their day, either from a hit TV show or a good supporting role in a movie that made them pop, and for a while it looked like they could continue but then things happen and you see where the career settles out,” Tarantino told the crowd. The poignant quality of those buddies is woven together with the alternate history Tarantino concocted to dramatize the 1969 Manson Family tragedy, allowing the audience to get a more complete sense of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
“I had that ending in my head quite a few years and when I wrote this I was thinking, ‘It’s all good. Hey I saved her,’” said Tarantino, recently named Best Director by the National Board of Review for the film. “But I think it has a different feeling when you watch it. There’s this moment of ‘great,’ but then the bittersweet came roaring back into it in a way that’s profound.”
For Little Women writer/director Greta Gerwig—who earned Oscar nods for both disciplines for 2018’s Lady Bird— Louisa May Alcott’s famed 1860s coming-of-age story of the March sisters offered an opportunity to also bring a unique sensibility to a well-known story. Telling the tale in two time periods, Gerwig’s film turns a greater focus on the young adult lives of the sisters, allowing for a more contemporary take.
“As women, you’re always walking with your younger self and wondering, are you being as brave as you could be?” said Gerwig of a film she suggested she’s wanted to make for 30 years. “That structure allowed me to get to this feeling I’ve had of telling us how to go forward based on how we were as children.”
On a panel that included Gerwig’s Lady Bird star Saoirse Ronan along with Florence Pugh (Amy) and Eliza Scanlen (Beth), it was Laura Dern, who plays Marmee, who added that, “Greta brought the revolution to a story that always was holding it but never expressed, which was to reveal the mess and the complication and the brokenness and beauty that is held in family. I’m very moved that she would put her focus on compassion and integrity and deep love, which is something incredibly radical in cinema right now. Its the thing that’s most missing.”
Compassion. Integrity. Deep love. It would be hard to find better words summing up Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The film details the reclamation of a jaded journalist (Matthew Rhys, in a role based on Esquire writer Tom Junod) feels while he researches a feature story on famed TV children’s host, Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks).
“We realized early on that Mr. Rogers doesn’t make a great protagonist of a movie. He’s too far along in his emotional evolution. But he makes a great antagonist,” Heller shared with the audience. “In his lifetime he had the ability to elicit real change in the people he came in contact with. He asked for a level of intimacy and truth that most people don’t require. And those people he met had these incredible experiences with him; you’re not let off the hook.”
No scene seems to capture that better than the one in the clip screened for the audience. Rogers, in a diner with Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel, asks the journalist to take a minute — literally, a full minute in screen time— to think of all the people who loved him into being. (In the film, the late Rogers’ real-life friends and loved ones were featured in the scene.) For a good part of the moment, Heller had Hanks look directly into the camera, which brought the audience right along to share the depth of meaning. “It was a risky move, but it was clear to me from the beginning and something we never questioned,” Heller said.
Not everyone went along with the director’s instinct at first. “Tom Hanks thought that scene wasn’t going to work,” Heller said with a laugh. “It’s very vulnerable to do that; you’re trained never, ever to look into the camera lens.” But as Heller assured the reputedly warmest guy in Hollywood, “‘I’m going to have you stare right into our souls for a minute.’”