Ewan McGregor, Veteran Actor Turned First-Time Director: 7 Lessons Learned
Ewan McGregor's directing masterclass was full of insight for both first-time and experienced directors.
Ewan McGregor’s 23-year career has earned him the reputation of being one of cinema’s most naturally versatile actors, from art house indies to the big-budget Star Wars. This year, however, the talented Scottish actor was at TIFF as a first-time director. His film: an ambitious adaptation of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, American Pastoral.
"In my time as an actor, I’ve seen too many first-time directors make really stupid suggestions, ignoring their DP who clearly had more experience."
At a masterclass held by the festival, McGregor was quick to admit that being behind the camera for the first time wasn’t easy. "I put on this huge backpack full of weight that I carried for 16 months," he said. "It changed my life totally.” By the time the film was ready for TIFF, he had seven new rules to live by.
1. Fight the fear
McGregor had been interested in directing for over 15 years. "I wanted to be involved in the whole process of storytelling from the beginning to the end," he explained. "But I knew it had to be a story that I was burning to tell, I knew I had to believe that I was the only guy who should tell it." So, what finally spurred him to take the plunge? "The fear of not doing it."
McGregor has been down this road before. He described how he chased the novel Silk "years and years ago," but was intimidated by the author’s demand for a "master filmmaker" to adapt his novel. "I was frightened; I backed off. Eventually, the film was made by someone else. I kicked myself because I might have had an opportunity. I let those voices get into my head."
This time around, McGregor persisted. “I was attached to American Pastoral as an actor for several years," he said. "Films come and go in your career, some never get made—but there was something about this script that I couldn’t let go. So there it sat, right under my nose, waiting for me to realize that this was the story that I’ve been burning to tell."
McGregor grinned at the memory. "I finally devoted a day to just [sitting] with the script, turned every page, really made myself look at it and asked, 'Can I do this?' I was trying to be as honest with myself as possible. By the end of it, I was so excited (and so full of coffee) that I finally said 'Yes, I can.' I called Tom Rosenberg, head of Lakeshore, told him I wanted to act and direct. And he immediately said that he thought it was a good idea. 'We’ll have to bring the budget down and renegotiate your fee,' he told me. 'But you can do both.'"
2. Steal from the best
McGregor’s mix of humor and modesty are manifest in his every word. "As an actor, I’ve had the advantage of witnessing lots of different directors in action... and I drew from all of them," he admitted.
His list of collaborators is extensive, to say the least: Danny Boyle, Roman Polanski, Baz Luhrmann, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Lasse Hallström, Steven Soderbergh, Ron Howard, Mira Nair, Tim Burton, Woody Allen, Michael Bay, Todd Haynes, Peter Greenaway… and many more. McGregor cited them all as influences, but claimed, "I relate most to Michael Bay."
After letting that one land, he shook his head, laughed, and then softened the blow: "I actually like the film I made with Michael. I do."
McGregor’s real inspiration, however, turned out to be his first collaborator. "Danny Boyle, he was my first-ever director on my first feature film Shallow Grave," he said. Boyle also directed McGregor’s most recent performance, in Trainspotting 2 (out in January).
"Boyle sets the bar very high in terms of what a relationship can be between a director and an actor," McGregor continued. “He leads, he pushes everyone quite hard, but he’s gentle. He gives you something to reach for on every take, but it’s always based on something you’re already doing. We both come from theater, and I’ve always felt that he understands exactly what I’m trying to do. That’s not always the case with directors."
He paused, suddenly reflective. "I just hope I was like that [on the set of American Pastoral]," he said.
3. Use both sides of your brain
"I’ve always felt like a filmmaker; as actors, we are filmmakers," said McGregor. "There are two halves of the brain that you employ as an actor. One half involves imagination, emotion, creating the false reality of a scene, the truth of the moment…. While the other half of your brain is thinking, 'Okay, the focus puller is on a long lens, better not rock back and forth too much, gotta hit that mark, and remember to look up there.' I like the thrill of the two halves working together: the emotional and the technical."
"I lived in that novel. I did the same with the script. I put them down only when I began prepping for the actual shoot."
As an example, McGregor cited his experience in Black Hawk Down, where both dramatic depth and technical expertise were required. "I got to perform my own stunts," he recalled with pride. Getting the timing right when dodging a rocket meant as much to him as nailing "a big emotional scene."
4. Rely on your DP
For McGregor, the most important relationship on American Pastoral was with his DP, Martin Ruhe (Harry Brown, Control, The American).
McGregor knew that he wanted to work with Ruhe after seeing the opening of Harry Brown: "There’s a sequence of shots that introduce us to Michael Caine’s character. After those seven or eight shots, I knew exactly who this man was without dialogue. I realized then that Ruhe was the one I wanted to have at my side shooting [American Pastoral]."
Aesthetically, American Pastoral is a beautiful film, but McGregor’s choice of DP wasn’t just about deft cinematography. This relationship was particularly important for McGregor because he was now going to be both in front of the camera and behind it.
"Even when you’re looking at all the wrong locations, you’re furthering your ideas. You start to map it out."
"I knew this choice was crucial," McGregor admitted. "In my time as an actor, I’ve seen too many first-time directors make really stupid suggestions, ignoring their DP who clearly had more experience… and much better ideas. I knew I needed a DP I could rely on, not just as a beginning director but also because I would have to step out in front of his camera and play the Swede. That was dangerous… but when I met Martin I knew immediately that I would be in good hands. He became a real partner."
5. Preparation is a team effort
McGregor’s collaboration with Ruhe began well before production. For both of them, preparation was key. "I’ve never been so prepared in my life," laughed McGregor.
At first, it was just McGregor, Philip Roth’s book, and the script (written by John Romano). "I read and re-read the book whenever I had a moment," he recalled. "I listened to the audiobook whenever I was driving, in a hotel room, or flying. I lived in that novel. I did the same with the script. I put them down only when Martin and I began prepping for the actual shoot."
Then it was all about Pittsburg: McGregor and his team began choosing locations. "I was there for 12 weeks before we started shooting," he said. "I needed to be there for my own peace of mind. Even when you’re looking at all the wrong locations, you’re furthering your ideas. You start to map it out."
"Many people see rehearsals as a waste of time. Yet if you don’t do it, that can lead to terrible time-wasting later on, because nothing is born yet."
And then came the storyboards. At first, McGregor resisted. "As an actor, I’d always thought that storyboards take spontaneity out of the equation," he said. "I thought it was like painting by numbers: Okay, you’ve got that one, then someone with a big fuck-off sharpie marks off scenes with an X. The worst feeling for me as an actor is to come onto a set where someone says, ‘Okay, Mr. McGregor, you’re on this mark, then you’re gonna move over to this mark for this line.' I always look at these people and go, ‘How do you know?’ I don’t like that pre-planned feeling."
But then McGregor realized that he and his DP needed to be on the same page. "So we sat through two weeks of prep with a whiteboard," he said. McGregor pretended he was holding a Sharpie: "I drew floor plans of locations we’d found to show Martin how I imagined a scene… with me in it! Then we’d talk about how to achieve that, how we’d like it to feel, watching lots of other movies for references."
The Russian drama Leviathan (2014) and the Swedish comedy-drama Force Majeure (2014) influenced their visual style. McGregor explained why: "I admired the bravery of [those films] and loved the fact that the director would set a scene in a frame and not move the camera. Forget the classic wide shot, two shot, close up. It reminded me of working with Woody Allen, where 85% of the shots were single shot scenes. That gave the actors more freedom: they could choose their performance, as long as it fit in that frame. It also gave us more time in the schedule. And it felt more like theater."
"It’s very popular to shoot with two cameras nowadays to save time, but I think that interferes with the acting."
McGregor also avoided shooting with a second camera. "It’s very popular to shoot with two cameras nowadays to save time, but I think that interferes with the acting. Actors know where the lens is and play to it, but when there are two lenses on set, one of the eye-lines will be slightly off."
Basically, it was a trade-off: less coverage, stronger performances. "That’s why the shot list was so important," McGregor said. "Wouldn’t do it any other way now."
6. Rehearsals are essential
McGregor the actor had become a director—but he never lost the perspective gained from years in front of the camera.
“I believe in rehearsals,” he said. “So I adopted the approach I learned from Danny Boyle. What he did was to clear everybody off the set, rehearse each new scene on location before the crew came in to shoot it. It makes a big difference. Your actors retain a physical and emotional memory of the rehearsal. And then when the whole crew is finally brought in, it really becomes like a little performance; you suddenly have an audience."
McGregor shook his head. "Seems totally obvious, but you’d be amazed how many people see rehearsals as a waste of time. And yet if you don’t do it, that can lead to terrible time-wasting later on because nothing is born yet."
"I found it easier to give directorial notes when I was actually in the scene."
The hardest part for McGregor was directing himself. "At first, I was afraid it would wreck the dynamics, become a distraction for the other actors on set," he admitted. "But then I spoke to my friend Ben Affleck. He’s an actor who has directed himself, so I asked him for advice, and he reassured me. And it turned out he was right! I liked doing both. I found it easier to give directorial notes when I was actually in the scene. I got to improvise with the other actors, explore my own character based on what they were doing—but I also got to control it. I could feel where it was going, both as an actor and as a director.”
Affleck initially warned McGregor not to skimp on coverage of himself. "He told me that I might find it embarrassing to ask for another take, so I made sure that I got plenty of coverage," said McGregor. "But what he didn’t mention was that I might bring that same self-consciousness into the editing room—which I did."
McGregor looked rueful. "In the early versions of the film, I literally didn’t include enough shots of myself. The Swede wasn’t really present. So we had to do a pass where we made sure he was there."
7. Savor what you get right—and keep moving forward
When it finally came time to show his finished film to Philip Roth, McGregor was terrified. Many film directors have tried to adapt Roth’s books without great success—critics say that Roth’s writing is simply too complex to translate—but to McGregor’s amazement, Roth said that he loved it and that it captured the essence of his novel.
"That meant the world to me," McGregor said.
Even so, early feedback on American Pastoral has been mixed. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is the quality of the acting ensemble—and that isn’t just being said by the critics.
Dakota Fanning, who played the teenaged Merry, said at the film's press conference: "Making this film was a really special experience. There’s something that actors feel when they connect intensely with another actor, and Ewan knows that feeling from personal experience. He understood what we felt— and I think that’s why he was able to capture that energy, to transmit it onto the screen and into the audience.”
The rest of the cast is equally enthusiastic.
Orange is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba, who has a supporting role in Pastoral, explained why. "You don’t always have the privilege to work with people who are always excited, who have a vision," she said. "Ewan’s energy and voice were so passionate."
Valorie Curry—who had a few show-stealing scenes as Rita Cohen—also agreed. “Ewan facilitated this incredibly supportive, truly collaborative environment," she said. "It made me feel so free and empowered, I was able to go to the extreme places that I knew he was asking for."
"I have yet to make what is most people’s first film: the breathless $3 million five-week shoot, running around, painting stuff."
According to McGregor, "The whole process was an incredible learning curve. And such a privilege, to be able to stand in the middle of these incredibly talented people and help them do their best work."
Although McGregor admits that the film is far from perfect, his passion for the story itself has yet to fade. "I’ve seen [the film] so many times, and I’m still moved by the story. I can only assume that’s because it’s about a father and his daughter: I’m the father of four daughters, and I get that relationship. As I was making the film, my eldest was going [off to college], and the film is about a man losing his daughter in a very extreme way."
What’s next for McGregor?
"I really liked doing this, and I’d like to do it again," he said. "It may sound odd, but I feel a bit like this was my second movie: I had amazing actors to work with, a sizeable budget, the backing of Lakeshore, a 35-day schedule, a very relaxed post-production… Basically, I was supported across the board."
"But I have yet to make what is most people’s first film: the breathless $3 million five-week shoot, running around, painting stuff," he continued. "I think I might like to do that— maybe in Scotland, with young people, contemporary and urban... and without me in it. Something small and gritty. But I couldn’t jump straight back in unless it’s a story I’m burning to tell."