They are among the season's most acclaimed directors. But if you ask these five filmmakers, each would say they learned more from movies that didn't work than from movies that did.
Here are edited excerpts from a roundtable conversation with J.C. Chandor ("All Is Lost"), Paul Greengrass ("Captain Phillips"), John Lee Hancock ("Saving Mr. Banks"), Spike Jonze ("Her") and Steve McQueen ("12 Years a Slave"):
Q Do you learn as much from failure as you do from success?
Greengrass: You learn much, much more from failure.
Chandor: I had a wonderful education, had every opportunity and then basically went (through) 15 years of absolute mediocrity and failure. I'd been thinking about ("Margin Call") for about two years, but I wrote an 82-page draft over four days, and it was literally my last chance. Now I actually know what I'm doing.
Hancock: It's like there's great power in understanding what pleases you and embracing that. You have to know what you want to say, because there'll be lots of people telling you, "This is good. This is right for you," and oftentimes -- almost always -- it's not.
Jonze: The worst failures are when you fail yourself. And when you fail your intention. The first movie I worked on was a movie that didn't get made, called "Harold and the Purple Crayon," a children's film. The studio (kept) giving me, "It's got to be funnier." "It's got to be snappier dialogue." "It's got to be this; it's got to be that." A year and a half later, I realized this thing is so far away from what I wanted to do. I got to learn that lesson without making the movie I didn't want to make.
Hancock: I think that the fact that you can get a movie made is not the reason to make a movie. The fact that you must make it is the only reason to make a movie, and you fight that fight.
Q Is there a specific scene in your film that was more accident than design?
Greengrass: Well, the last scene of my movie came because we were shooting a different scene on the ship that didn't work. We had to be off that ship at 7, and I think it was about half past 5. The ship's captain said, "When (the Hanks character first came back to the ship after being held in the lifeboat), he would have gone to the infirmary." So I said, "Can we go down there and just try something there?" And he said, "Yeah, sure. There'll be a medic on duty. You can use her." Of course, at that moment, blind panic sets in. You stop thinking about it, and you start being entirely instinctive.
Q So you have no script? You have no dialogue? And you get what is probably the most memorable scene in the movie? Steve, there are those beautiful shots that "12 Years" cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and you created of Chiwetel (Ejiofor) just standing there. Were they planned?
McQueen: I don't do shot lists, really. I feel that sometimes you have to do a little bit of tai chi within the environment where it's almost like the camera's on a tripod and the wind blows it this way. An example of that is Chiwetel Ejiofor with a close-up -- I think it's 2 minutes and 20 seconds. We shot it in a car park. It was a minimal crew. Just natural light. You switch the camera on and you find it. It's just him in his head. And it holds you.
Q Spike, was there something in the making of "Her," whether unplanned or unscripted, when you said, "This is beautiful -- let's keep it in the movie"?
Jonze: There's a scene at the end of the movie where (Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson) are having this very emotional conversation. We'd shot the scene, and I was really happy with what we got. And our script supervisor said, "At one point you had mentioned wanting to do this (scene) with him not saying the dialogue verbally, just thinking it and hearing his dialogue." I said, "Joaquin, hold on. Let's not wrap." We just kept rolling, and he didn't turn away. I was just so moved by him and so grateful that everything lined up to get us that.
Greengrass: Isn't that the sort of magical paradox of filmmaking? You're doing two entirely different things all the time: One is having a plan; the other is you listening to what the actors are feeling, what the script supervisor says to you.