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Foreign helmers take position in the kudo race

LONDON — Oscar has opened its doors lately to more international clientele, at least when it comes to the directing category. Recent go-rounds have seen Roman Polanski the surprise recipient of the director trophy for “The Pianist” and Brazil’s Fernando Meirelles an utterly unexpected nominee for “City of God.”

This year’s candidates include a comparably polyglot group, such as Swiss-German helmer Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland”), English maverick Mike Leigh (“Vera Drake”), Brazilian Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries”), Frenchmen Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“A Very Long Engagement”), China’s Zhang Yimou (“House of Flying Daggers”), and not one but two Spaniards working in their native tongue: Pedro Almodovar (“Bad Education”) and Alejandro Amenabar (“The Sea Inside”).

“There is an internationalization of directing talent,” says Simon Channing Williams, producer of Leigh’s $9 million Oscar hopeful, and a real willingness to embrace a broad spectrum of talent.

That thinking may derive, in turn, from Hollywood’s desire not to be commandeered by the xenophobia present elsewhere in the culture, or so argues Pedro Almodovar, speaking by phone from his office in Madrid.

The plethora of foreign directors, says Almodovar, “has revealed the independence of Hollywood against an openly, blatantly reactionary government and an insular presidency.” (These comments won’t surprise anyone who remembers Almodovar’s impassioned Oscar acceptance speech two years ago for writing “Talk to Her,” for which he also received a director nom.) The resulting landscape proves the vitality of other cultures and languages, continues Almodovar. “It’s always healthy to recognize other cultures as well as your own.”

This year’s candidates fall into two groups: Helmers, such as Almodovar, working in their own language on pics with crossover potential; and those working in other tongues. The latter category comprises mostly of Europeans, such as Gondry and Forster, who have cracked the English-language market, as foreigners in Hollywood often have (think Billy Wilder, Josef von Sternberg and Ernst Lubitsch).

“America is a country of immigrants, so it’s kind of logical that you go there,” says Gondry, who over the last year and a half has supplemented his Gallic base with an additional one in New York.

In the U.S., Gondry says speaking from Paris, “there is more opportunity for work, and in some way there is a natural selection of people who make the decision to go there; maybe they’re a little stronger than others who don’t go.”

Meanwhile, Salles — whose mother tongue is Portuguese and who had to learn to speak Spanish to helm Focus’ Che Guevara road pic — believes the international wave is a reflection of the fact that financing comes from so many different countries today.

But while all of these helmers are part of the awards discussion this year, some aren’t convinced they’ll feel Oscar’s embrace this year. “There are very few foreign directors nominated in the directing category,” says Zhang, speaking via an interpreter from China. “If I get the chance this year, it will be a surprise to me.”

During a London stopover, “Sea Inside” helmer Amenabar told Variety that maybe we should wait this year before unfurling a global flag: “We shouldn’t forget that the Oscars were created for awarding and rewarding people who work in Hollywood, and it’s for people of the industry — the industry giving awards to people from the industry.”

But homegrown helmer John Landis, for one, observes that the industry is not so inward-looking these days. He says the prevalence of foreign filmmakers “is a direct response to the fact that what’s called the Hollywood film business is really the international film business. Who owns Hollywood: the Japanese. Just as for a while it was the Canadians or the French. And the good news is that they’re recognizing great filmmakers around the world.”

The most fruitful combination might belong to those who have had both American and overseas experiences. Such is the case with “Finding Neverland’s” Forster, born in Germany, raised in Switzerland, and a resident of the U.S. for 14 years.

“I personally think it’s always a good thing if there’s a more international feel to filmmaking and storytelling,” says Forster, a chameleonic talent who has shifted focus from the working-class terrain of the American South (“Monster’s Ball”) to the genteel Britain of “Finding Neverland.”

What matters, Forster says, is to have different points of view from different people from all over the world. And if a foreigner wins an Oscar, language need not pose a barrier: After all, virtually anyone the world over can utter the simple phrase “thank you.”

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