Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts and Marc Forster
Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts and Marc Forster
on the set of Stay

Five years ago, a little film called Monster’s Ball snuck into theaters and changed the landscape of contemporary independent film. Shot in Louisiana on a budget of approximately $4 million, the movie brought in almost $40 million worldwide, earned an Academy Award for Halle Berry and propelled its director, Marc Forster, straight onto the Hollywood A-List.

As he prepares for his upcoming projects—Stranger than Fiction and The Kite Runner—and the DVD release of his latest film, Stay, Forster speaks with MM about his indie breakthrough, living up to the standards of past successes and peeling the layers off the storytelling process.

Jennifer Wood (MM): Do you remember the moment when you first decided you wanted to be a moviemaker? Was there a particular film that inspired you to follow this career path?

Marc Forster (MF): It was over a period of two or three months in my early teens that I became passionate about being a storyteller. The first time I actually saw a film was when some friends of my parents took me to a screening of Apocalypse Now. I was 13 and the whole experience was such an amazing moment in my life—looking at the images was so dream-like—I was fascinated.

MM: How has the reality of the occupation changed your goals, if at all? Have the realities of Hollywood forced you to change or alter the kinds of films you want to create?

MF: No, it hasn’t changed my goals. My goals are always changing, but they always involve telling stories I’m passionate about. The truth is, I would never make a film I didn’t believe in and that I didn’t have a need to make. I choose projects that interest me and always have.

MM: When people talk about Hollywood—and how unfair it is that producers, studio execs, etc. think they know "what audiences want" based on the success of other movies (however erroneously)—Monster’s Ball often comes up as an example of an indie film that proved them wrong. How has being the sort of poster boy for indie moviemaking helped and/or hindered your career?

MF: Monster’s Ball really opened the doors for my career, it was never a hindrance in anyway. The only negative issue one has to deal with is the pressure to live of to up the standards of your past success. I treasure all four films I’ve made, despite the financial successes—or failures—of any of them. Everything Put Together, Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland and Stay are all films that mean something to me because they meant something to my life at that point when I was making them.

MM: Yet, even as your budgets grow, you still seem to maintain a sort of staunch independence with your movies. Yes, you’re working with A-list names, but there’s still a very personal nature to your films that’s increasingly rare in studio movies. What’s the thread that connects all your projects—from Everything Put Together to Stay? You seem very interested in the emotional and psychological inner-workings of people’s minds and distinguishing between reality and fantasy.

MF: Yes, that’s correct. I am fascinated by emotions and the psychology of people and trying to distinguish between reality and fantasy—sometimes I can’t tell what’s real and what’s not myself. Another element that finds its way in my films is mortality, altered states of consciousness and forgiveness. I think forgiveness is ultimately the key to life.

MM: So let’s talk about Stay: When did you first read the script and how did you eventually become attached as director? What is it that attracts you to any script and to Stay in particular?

MF: I read the script right after David Benioff sold it to New Regency; David Fincher was attached and developing it. After a year, though, Fincher removed himself from the project as director and I took the position. A script attracts me in an instinctual way. If while I’m reading it I feel good about, and I can visualize the film clearly in my head, then I know I need to do it.

Stay isn’t set in reality, that’s what particularly attracted me to it. When you do a movie that has a clear story line getting from A to B it’s easier; you’ve got clear objectives and everything happens to further something else. With Stay I liked the challenge of not having that safety. There’s no clear story to fall back on and that made it an interesting task, my direction had to come from a more instinctual place than a rational one.

MM: With a psychological drama such as this one, it often seems like you’re able to discover more and more in the material with each new read (or viewing)—that what you took at face value initially turns out to be something much more complex later on. How did this story, and your directing decisions, evolve for you over time as you read the script more, got your actors attached, etc.?

MF: I saw the script as a canvas with no frame, a surface where I could create layers upon layer of the characters through storytelling. Each layer tells a story in itself through the themes, the environments, the angles, etc. It was about laying things down on top of each other to create discovery.

MM: How did you envision the film, visually? Since it’s not based firmly in reality, how did you work with your DP, production designer, etc. to convey this from a visual standpoint? What were some of the visual elements you knew you wanted to incorporate?

MF: When I first read the script, it was the transitions that jumped into my mind. I felt a need for this story to float seamlessly from one scene to the next. All my department heads worked very closely together from the beginning. It was important that the DP, production designer, costume designer, VFX designer and editor were all on the same page from the start. We shot this entirely on location in New York, but I didn’t want it to look like the New York one usually sees in films. There couldn’t be any sweeping helicopter shots of the skyline and I wanted to the Brooklyn Bridge to be the only iconic image of the city one could recognize. Everything in the film was very well-planned, nothing is by accident and every detail has a meaning.

MM: Can you talk a little bit about the casting of the film? You’ve got an A-list team of actors—Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, Ryan Gosling, Bob Hoskins—each of whom has a very distinct character to portray and probably prepares for a role in a very individual way. As a director, how much do you like to rehearse? How do you balance the needs of your individual actors—whose performances need to be pitch-perfect—while managing all of the other duties of making your days, etc.

MF: I’m not a big rehearser and we didn’t do too much for this film with the actors. I had Ryan and Ewan come to my apartment for one day and we went through the script and read a couple of scenes. One thing I had them do was learn each other’s lines. Seeing as how ultimately they are both playing a different perception of one person, I thought it was important for them to know each other’s lines so they could bounce back and forth and get more into the psychology of Henry.

MM: At the end of the day, what is it that keeps you going? Directing a movie can be the toughest job in the world. What is it about the challenge that makes you want to do it again and again?

MF: I think we live in a time where each storyteller should be responsible for what they create due to the impact it has on our culture. The more positive and thought-provoking a story can be, the better. I love actors, I love the craft, the language of film. It’s a way for me to express myself, it’s not so much challenging, as necessary—it’s like breathing.