David Frankel Interview - Collateral Beauty

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David Frankel is an Oscar winning director who also gave us, The Devil Wears Prada, Marlee and Me and Me and Hope Springs. 

In his latest film Collateral Beauty, a successful New York advertising executive (Will Smith) experiences a deep personal tragedy and retreats from life entirely. His colleagues devise a drastic plan to force him to confront his grief in a surprising and profoundly human way.
He also touches upon working with an all-star cast of Academy award nominees and winners including Will Smith, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton and Helen Mirren.

This is movie takes us on quite an emotional roller coaster. What was your initial reaction to the material? 

My reaction was exactly how you reacted to the movie. I also think that this is such an emotional roller coaster. I was really struck by the design of the script and every time you time you thought it was going to go one way it went another way and there were some surprises at the end that I absolutely didn’t see coming.  For me the ending is the reason to do a movie. A really powerful ending is what makes a film. 
 

Talk about hitting the jackpot with a cast. Everyone in this film is so extraordinary, i honestly don’t think you could have gotten a better cast.  Let’s just start with Will smith. We have seen him do emotional roles before, but he really has to go to a dark place to play this guy. He doesn’t even speak for the first 45 minutes of the movie. What was it like to direct him and go through this journey with him?  

To be honest, I do very little when you are working with such extraordinary actors. I’ve been blessed over the years to work with people like Meryl Streep, Owen Wilson and Tommy Lee Jones and my job is to just get out of the way. I see myself as their audience and I stand in the corner and I laugh when they make me laugh, and i cry when they do something sad. I have come to trust that and in this instance what was special about this movie was the range of performance that everyone has to bring is amazing.  We were just trying to find the right tone, the right mix of  humour and drama and how much pain can someone endure. We would adjust the dialogue from take to take so we tried a lot of stuff. So Will was open to pretty much anything. He has such range and makes it look almost effortless, it was truly a joy to work with him on this film.  The great thing about working with actors of this calibre is that they never want to repeat themselves and they will give you something great in five different shades. 

Helen Mirren as death. Brilliant casting! That woman could read the phone book for 2 hours and I would watch that! 

Yes, Helen Mirren was outstanding to work with. There’s so much thought that goes into her performance, you’d be amazed at the little details she found so important to help her with this role. It started with the length of her hair, what’s on her T-shirt, should she wear a leather jacket or not.  The little details that go into it are so important to her.  Then she looks through the script and cuts out things that she feels aren’t necessary for her to say.   She actually cut her part by half, she is really one of the most generous actors I have ever worked with. 

It must have been difficult to cut out anything that she did.

Well, funny that you say that because there was one scene that we actually shot that we didn’t end up using in the movie and it made me sad to lose it. 

What was that? 

It’s honestly the only thing of hers that we cut.  We shot a scene where Michael Pena’s character dies and she is there at the moment. Just the look on her face was award worthy, she didn’t have to say anything. It was really powerful stuff. But, there are definitely moments with her when she delivers scenes like that.

I wanted to ask you about Michael Pena because I really think he is such an underrated actor. I think my heart went out to him the most

Yeah, i don’t doubt that because he is probably the most relatable and most vulnerable because his character is dying and he’s fighting it so hard. When people ask me what was the most surprising thing about working on this film i have to say the pairing of Michael Pena and Helen Mirren. They had such a great chemistry and rapour together and I’ll tell you that Helen just loved working with him. They actually improvised their way through a lot of their scenes, and i have to say that they were magical together. 

Watching what Will Smith went through was gut wrenching.  He’s a parent and he’s very close to his kids, plus his father recently passed away so he had a lot to deal with it. Was there ever a day on set when he said, I need to just take a minute?  

No, I think he really loved the challenge and doing the work. He loved the character and felt very connected to him. Will is such a joyful person but i think that’s just the flip side of what he is all about.  He’s a very perceptive sensitive guy and maybe a little lonely and a little sad, yet I’ve never met anyone who is more committed to spreading joy. He is also so aware of “time” and it’s value. He’s talked about how he needs love and he draws so much energy from his fans and entertaining people.  Even while we were shooting there were thousands of people on the street shouting his name, he’d stop to take pictures with people and fans. There’s a reason he’s made some of the films he has that are so emotional and I think that his performance in  Collateral Beauty is the best of his career.

I have to ask you about the domino scenes in the movie. Thousands of dominos were set up for a few scenes that had to collapse perfectly. That was not CG was it? 

Oh no, absolutely not. 

Were you not freaking out that someone might bump the table or it wouldn’t pull of exactly how you needed it to? 

It was terrifying, it was the scariest thing i’ve ever attempted to shoot.  You’re a little worried when you are doing a big action stunt  and blowing stuff up. This was a lot like that because you only get one shot and it has to work. There were 10-thousand dominoes and it took two teenage girls two and a half days to set them up. 

I’m impressed! 

We did have one aborted take where we almost blew it. The sweat was pouring off my forehead that day! (laughs) 

Before we wrap, I have to ask you – when you were shooting The Devil Wears Prada, did you know how special Emily Blunt was when you cast her. I mean really, look at her now! 

It’s always hard to tell if someone new is going to explode, but with Emily I just knew we had a gift. One of the reasons i initially cast her was because she had something. She just leaped off the screen for me personally. She had Will Smith like charisma. She only had one line for the first few weeks we began shooting but she would come every day and hang out and do the slate, and kibbitz at the monitor and give me advice. Everybody in the crew and cast fell inlove with her and then when she really started shooting her role opposite Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep she was outstanding. We all knew that something big was going to happen for Emily and I am going to tell you that in my career i have NEVER seen a crew and cast weep when an actress wrapped her role. With Emily – it was tears all around. No one wanted to see her go. I am so happy for her and how things have turned out, she is an amazing woman. 

Collateral Beauty is now playing in theatres across the country.