How we got here

Last year was supposed to belong to studio releases and A-list helmers: Universal’s slate alone included Ron Howard’s “Cinderella Man” and Steven Spielberg‘s “Munich.” Potential candidates for the helming Oscar also included prior winner Rob Marshall for “Memoirs of a Geisha,” kudo perennial Woody Allen for “Match Point,” as well as former Oscar darlings such as Peter Jackson.

Fast forward to February ’06, and Oscar’s helming nominees are a mix of newbies and established auteurs mostly working in nonstudio terrain. All five nominees also competed for DGA honors, and for only the fourth time, all of the nominated directors’ films also are up for picture.

George Clooney followed his 2002 directing debut “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” with Edward R. Murrow/Sen. Joe McCarthy face-off “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Clooney says his main focus with “Good Night” was to get his facts right. Every scene was double-sourced, he says. “Our job was representing people who stood for something so remarkable and who stuck their necks out when it was a much more difficult time to stick your neck out. We owed them.”

“Crash,” the only early-year release nommed in multiple major Oscar categories, is one of Paul Haggis‘ longest-gestating projects. Based in part on a 1991 incident when Haggis and his then-wife were carjacked, the script spent years languishing in a drawer. After his Oscar nom for penning “Million Dollar Baby,” Haggis finally was able to get “Crash” financed, albeit for just $6.5 million. Penny-stretching tricks and a stellar cast allowed the pic to spring to life. “Somehow, my actors just took my words from the page and walked onto the set and gave them back to me fully realized,” he says.

Ang Lee is the category’s front-runner, given a slew of kudos so far — including the DGA award — for his haunting “Brokeback Mountain.” Lee’s aim was to “balance the film’s two elements: The masculine elements of the Western and then the real genre of the film, which is a romantic story, and a gay one,” he says. “Usually in our social and cultural conventions, they’re opposing each other, but I had to make them work together.”

For a stretch of time, Bennett Miller‘s “Capote” was talked about mostly in terms of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s perf. But then the DGA put its stamp on Miller, shining a bright light on the talent it took to bring “Capote” to the screen. After reading the script, penned by pal Dan Futterman, Miller says he quickly figured out how to make it work. “From my perspective,” he says, “it was a character study that delved deep into a person’s interior, private and concealed self.”

Spielberg is the category’s most established helmer. This is his sixth Oscar directing nomination and he has won the category twice. “Munich,” which has divided opinion, tracks a Mossad revenge squad in the aftermath of the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes. Spielberg told the London Times recently, “The film doesn’t criticize Israel, it doesn’t even criticize Israeli policy, but it says that there are unintended consequences in everything that has to do with violence.”

Oscar Pedigree

Two of this year’s nominated helmers — George Clooney and Bennett Miller — are Oscar virgins.

Paul Haggis, nommed last year for adapted screenplay (“Million Dollar Baby”), goes to the big show for direction for the first time.

Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg are slightly more familiar to the Acad.

Lee, well regarded for films including “The Ice Storm” and “Sense and Sensibility,” was nommed for direction and picture for 2000′s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” This year, after winning the director kudos from the DGA, the Golden Globes and major critics’ orgs, Lee seems to have a leg up. But, then again, the year Lee won the DGA kudo for “Crouching Tiger,” the directing Oscar went to Steven Soderbergh for “Traffic.”

Spielberg is the group’s most nominated member, with five previous directing bids, for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), “E.T.” (1982), “Schindler’s List” (1993) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998).

In 1987, Spielberg, who had yet to win an Oscar, received the Acad’s honorary Irving G. Thalberg statue. He then went on to win the Oscar for direction twice, for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” (He also won for picture on “Schindler’s List.”)

If you want more…

… Truman Capote: Pick up the DVD of 1976 Neil Simon detective spoof “Murder by Death.” Tru plays a millionaire who invites five private eyes to witness a murder. Cast includes Peter Falk, David Niven and Peter Sellers. Capote’s latenight yakker appearances aren’t on video, but with the renewed interest in him, at least one homevid distrib’s pondering the idea — if the original tapes can be found.

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