Guild favors indie, int'l helmers

The Directors Guild of America chose five first-time nominees for DGA’s feature film honors Tuesday, another indication of the wide-open nature of this year’s awards derby, as well as the strong presence of independents in the field of contenders.

The nominees are Anthony Minghella for “The English Patient,” Joel Coen for “Fargo,” Cameron Crowe for “Jerry Maguire,” Mike Leigh for “Secrets & Lies” and Scott Hicks for “Shine.”

This is believed to be the first time since the 1950s – in the awards’ early days – that all the feature film directors were first-time DGA nominees, according to a guild spokesman.

Perhaps the most notable omission was past winner Milos Forman for “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” Forman, who won a Golden Globe on Sunday for his direction, won a DGA Award in 1975 for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and in 1984 for “Amadeus.”

Also not on the list were Alan Parker for “Evita,” Woody Allen for “Everyone Says I Love You” and Lars von Trier for “Breaking the Waves.”

“It’s very healthy that all five of these nominees are new, are first-time nominees,” DGA president Gene Reynolds said after announcing the nominations. “It shows that we are betting on people regardless of tradition and track record, and that there is this resurgence, this great opportunity for new talent to come into the foreground.”

In fact, Hicks and Leigh aren’t even DGA members, although they hold guild memberships in their home countries. Coen just recently joined the guild.

Once again, the field of nominees had an international flavor, with Minghella and Leigh from the U.K. and Hicks from Australia.

“I am normally rooting, quite naturally, for American directors,” Reynolds said. “I think this shows an impartiality and an objectivity by our membership and our desire to go for excellence.”

Television nominees will be announced in early February, with the ceremony scheduled for March 8 in Los Angeles and New York.

The DGA Award is one of the industry’s most accurate barometers of the Oscars.

Only four times since 1949 has the winner of the DGA Award not gone on to win the Oscar for best director. The most recent example was last year, when Ron Howard won the DGA Award for “Apollo 13″ and Mel Gibson won the Oscar for “Braveheart.” Steven Spielberg won the 1985 DGA Award for “The Color Purple,” while Oscar voters picked Sydney Pollack for “Out of Africa.” Francis Ford Coppola won the 1972 helmers award for “The Godfather,” while the Acad went for Bob Fosse for “Cabaret.” And in 1968, Carol Reed took home the Oscar for “Oliver!”; the DGA gave its kudo to Anthony Harvey for “The Lion in Winter.”

But on Tuesday, nominees made much of the fact that the DGA Award comes from their peer group.

“I am just blown away,” said Crowe, who recalled that his only other major nod in the past was a Writers Guild of America nomination for “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Minghella said that a factor in the nomination for “The English Patient” could have been the film’s complexities.

“It is a film that required a great deal of me as a writer, but also a huge amount as a director,” Minghella said. “Any director looking at the film understands what was involved, not just because of the scale of the film but because of the film itself. It has so many different types of activity in it. You go from romantic scenes in crowded ballrooms in Cairo, to shooting desert landscapes and airplane crashes, to very intimate lovemaking scenes.”

Leigh, who just returned to London after attending the Golden Globes, said the nomination is especially important because it comes “not from a random gang of people voting on various criteria. It is people who know. The directors know what they are talking about, let’s face it.”

Hicks, from his home in Australia, noted that it was exactly a year ago Tuesday that “Shine” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

“If anyone had told me then that one year later I would be getting this news, I would have dialed 911 and called a white van to take them away,” Hicks said. “It is an extraordinary feeling for several reasons. One is that it is your peers acknowledging your work. It is also extraordinarily generous (by the DGA) for being able to look beyond the boundaries of their own organization.”

In the past year, Hicks has signed a development deal with DreamWorks, where he is considering several projects, including “Arkansas.” He also is attached to direct Warner Bros.’ “The Secret History,” based on Donna Tartt’s novel.

This year’s list of contenders is made up almost entirely of directors who also had credit for writing their projects. (Hicks did not get writing credit on “Shine.” That went to Jan Sardi.)

Being a writer-director, “you have authorship, both written and visual,” Crowe said. “It just makes the film more personal.”

The list of DGA nominees also was notable because all but Crowe came from outside the studio system, a fact that has been a running theme throughout the award season. Helmers on some of the indie projects cited the lack of studio interference, and the ability to have their movies speak in one coherent voice.

If he worked within the studio system, Leigh said, “I don’t think (“Secrets & Lies”) would exist. And if it did, it would be a pile of crap. I don’t think you could possibly make this film in that context.”

Even Crowe said “Jerry Maguire,” a box office smash, benefited from the presence of talent such as Tom Cruise and James L. Brooks, who were able to protect the project’s original vision. ” ‘Jerry Maguire’ is a small movie at the heart of it,” he said.

The DGA does not require that its nominees be signatory to its contract. But the WGA, which announces its nominations Feb. 6, requires that nominees be signatory to its contract or to affiliated guilds in other countries.

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