LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The sequence was vast: A long walk across war-torn France, with thousands of extras, German bombers, tanks and artillery strewn across the landscape — the kind of scope that would have made David Lean proud.
There was just one problem: The scene in “Atonement” was going to cost $4 million. As depicted in Ian McEwan’s novel, the journey incorporated “hundreds of thousands of refugees in the roads and the strafing of those refugees,” said Joe Wright, the director of the World War Two-era tragic romance.
“It was a big, epic thing. I was very excited to try and achieve that. But it was costing us a lot of money. So I went one day to (producer) Tim Bevan and said, ‘I need an extra $4 million to realize the walk to Dunkirk.’ And Tim said, ‘I won’t give you a dollar over $30 million for an art film.”‘
Bevan’s words had a curious and quite unexpected effect.
“The idea that I was making an art film suddenly liberated me,” Wright recalled. “I said, ‘If you are calling this an art film, then I can really follow my intuition and instincts totally?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘I accept that!”‘
Accepting reality is a crucial part of a director’s work, which — arguably more than that of any other artist — requires functioning within the limits of the possible.
“Any filmmaker has to balance the creative aspects and the practical, money aspects,” said David Cronenberg, director of “Eastern Promises.” “That is a normal part of filmmaking; it is one of the many tricks you have to be able to do.”
Knowing he couldn’t populate the landscape with people and equipment, Wright decided to go the opposite route and make its desolation an element of the story.
“And I became quite excited about just these three figures (the three soldiers he follows in that scene), the blind leading the blind, walking through this blank canvas.”
Paul Haggis, the director of “In the Valley of Elah,” said he welcomes financial limitations.
“I don’t know what I would do with all the money in the world; I think I would be a very bad director. (Limitations) make you think and challenge yourself.”
Haggis had to challenge others too, especially in persuading the film’s stars to slash their salaries for his under-$20 million project.
“When I called Charlize Theron, I said, ‘I am sending you the script with no money in,”‘ Haggis remembers. “And Charlize called me the next day and said, ‘I am in.’ And I said, ‘Maybe you didn’t hear this part of the conversation? There’s no money!”‘
Craig Gillespie made a virtue of necessity when he embarked on MGM’s “Lars and the Real Girl,” which stars Ryan Gosling as a bereft man who falls for a lifelike doll.
Gillespie understood one thing right from the start: With a modest $12.5 million budget, he could either cut whole sequences from a script that was already extremely tight, or limit the number of camera setups and takes for each scene. With 196 scenes and only 31 days to shoot them, he opted for the latter.
“In some ways, it was actually a gift,” he said, “in that you had to be so well prepared and really analyze every shot you were doing and how necessary it was.”
Nor was Gillespie able to indulge in repeated takes. “The great opportunity of that is, the actor can really give it everything in the four or five takes we do. He knows he is not going to have to repeat it, which is very liberating.”
Tony Gilroy also turned a negative into a positive with his George Clooney drama “Michael Clayton.” He had to wait six months so that the busy actor could finish “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “The Good German.”
With that extra time on his hands, he prepared his script so well that when it came time to shoot, “Nothing could go wrong,” he observed wryly. “We didn’t have any margin of error.”
Joel and Ethan Coen had little wiggle room for a critical sequence in “No Country for Old Men” in which actor Josh Brolin is chased into a river by a rabid dog. Having decided the sequence should take place at dawn, they had to make it work in a practical way.
“It is hard being at the mercy of the elements in the shooting days,” said Ethan Coen, “and particularly (for) that big chase scene.” The Coens managed to shoot it “in panicky patches of 10 or 20 minutes at the end of many days, in several different locations.”
Luckily, the dog was “unbelievably motivated,” Coen added. “There was a toy — a neon-pink squishy thing you’d put in the water — and he would try to get to it wherever it was. He would do take after take. He was unstoppable — alarmingly!”