Projects hit close to home for feature noms

A look at the nominees, their connection to their respective projects

TIP SHEET
What: 58th Annual DGA Awards
When: Saturday
Where: Hyatt Regency Century Plaza, L.A.
Emcee: Carl Reiner
Wattage: Debbie Allen, George Clooney, Matt Dillon, Clint Eastwood, Cheryl Hines, Ron Howard, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Haggis, Heath Ledger, Ang Lee, Ludacris, Bennett Miller, Steven Spielberg, Ziyi Zhang

Hardly hired guns, this year’s DGA feature film nominees were singled out for projects that reflect the deepest personal passions, backgrounds and histories of the helmers.

Recent guild winners like Peter Jackson, Rob Marshall and Ron Howard seemed to have shared little, if any, private connection to the respective subject matter of their films.

But this year’s noms, for the most part, were motivated by themes, people and issues that go beyond preoccupation or curiosity about a particular topic and strike far closer to home.

Here’s a look at these nominees and their connection to their respective projects.

GEORGE CLOONEY
“Good Night, and Good Luck”

Clooney wasn’t around to witness legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow’s famous broadcast battles with Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, the subject of his highly acclaimed second feature as a director, “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

But as the son of TV news anchorman Nick Clooney, the young Clooney heard plenty about them. “The film came from growing up with Murrow,” says the actor-turned-director. “I always felt it was one of the greatest moments in broadcast journalism.”

While Clooney’s political views are widely known, his passion for television is often overlooked. The young Clooney grew up in his father’s newsrooms. He operated a TelePrompTer when he was only 8.

And in his 30s, he pushed for a special live broadcast of “ER” and a live televised remake of “Fail Safe,” John Franken-heimer’s 1964 Cold War thriller.

With another TV remake in the CBS pipeline (“Network,” Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning TV news satire), Clooney has shown a dogged commitment to examining the Fourth Estate — its responsibilities and its failings.

Even his directorial debut, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” — scripter Charlie Kaufman’s stylized comic drama about the secret life of TV personality and “Gong Show” host Chuck Barris — dealt with the struggles and dangers of working in TV.

“They’re very different,” Clooney admits. “But it’s almost like I’m working backwards: The first film is about the downfall of a moral center in broadcasting, and this one is about the highpoint.”

PAUL HAGGIS
“Crash”

For more than 25 years, Haggis lived in Los Angeles and thought he’d come to terms with the problems of race and class that surrounded him.

But one night in 1991 changed all that: Coming out of his neighborhood videostore, the Canadian writer-turned-director was carjacked at gunpoint. “That event, a collision of two worlds that normally don’t intersect, forced me out of my complacency,” Haggis has written.

“Crash’s” sprawling cast of characters — starkly divided by race and class, and often intersecting in incendiary ways — has fueled plenty of passionate discussion. But Haggis says he made the film not to raise a national dialogue about racism, but to work through his own issues.

“It was never about forcing other people to confront (racism),” he says. “It was about forcing myself to do it. It was my desire to confront my fears, the horrible stuff inside of me. I was forced to admit that if I could write these things, then obviously I could think them.”

A passion project from the beginning, Haggis made “Crash” well before he scored an Oscar nomination (last year for “Million Dollar Baby”) and writing jobs from the likes of Clint Eastwood (for whom he wrote both “Million Dollar Baby” and the WWII film “Flags of Our Fathers”).

ANG LEE
“Brokeback Mountain”

The premiere of “Brokeback Mountain” culminated a tenacious eight-year struggle on behalf of screenwriter Diana Ossana to adapt Annie Proulx’s short story about two romantically entangled ranch hands struggling against their surroundings.

But the project hit close to home for Taiwanese family-man helmer Lee, too. In fact, when he read the script for “Brokeback” four years ago, Lee says, “I didn’t know what hit me.”

Winner of a DGA award for 2001’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Lee admits that every one of his films is about people besieged by social conventions. His adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility,” which was also DGA-nominated, dealt with “social obligation vs. personal free will,” he says, while “The Ice Storm” was “the flipside. The social roles urge the characters to be free and rebellious, but the characters are actually very uncomfortable with that and suffer because of it.”

Lee admits that his relationship to his own cultural heritage causes such explorations to hit close to home. “There is a lot of regulation, repression and social convention,” he says of Chinese culture. “In the American West, you can feel the same social pressures and you have to express yourself more indirectly. At its heart, because of this, I think they’re very similar.”

From an aesthetic perspective, Lee says he also felt attuned to the film’s milieu. “We have a philosophy of dealing with space in our art,” he says. “And when I tried to capture the elegiac mood, the spaciousness and the melancholy of Annie Proulx’s story,” he adds, “I felt very at home, too.”

BENNETT MILLER
“Capote”

“I’ve known Danny since I was 12, and we’ve both known Phil since we were 16,” says first-time DGA nominee Miller, referring to his close “Capote” collaborators, screenwriter Daniel Futterman and actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.

For each, understanding the complex character dynamics of “Capote” was a stretch. “Doing a project like this forced each of us to face ourselves, our experiences and reconcile them with each other, so we’d be making the same movie,” Miller explains. “I think it was a very personal film for all three of us.”

Miller’s first feature was a documentary called “The Cruise,” a portrait of an eccentric New York City tour guide, that outwardly shares little with “Capote,” a period drama that attempts to capture Truman Capote’s life during the time he was writing “In Cold Blood.”

But Miller acknowledges that both films are explicitly related. “In ‘Capote,’ you have someone with wherewithal who comes across somebody who does not, who is a real outsider, who doesn’t have power. And with ‘The Cruise,’ it’s very similar,” Miller says, putting himself in the role of the Capote character.

But while “Capote’s” themes, and even its observational style, were close to Miller’s identity, the New York native admits that the kinds of films he wants to make will always be personal endeavors.

“I really need to know the people I work with,” he says. “All my keys are friends I’ve worked with on commercials for years.”

STEVEN SPIELBERG
“Munich”

With 10 DGA nominations (and three wins) over the past 30 years, Spielberg is no stranger to the guild. But not since 1994’s “Schindler List” has one of his DGA-honored projects centered on such a sensitive topic for the 59-year-old helmer.

“Munich,” Spielberg’s bracing thriller about the assassination of those responsible for the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of 11 Israeli athletes, taps into profound issues about the state of Israel, the Middle East conflict and Jewish identity.

“It made an indelible impression on me,” Spielberg says.

But “Munich” is not simply about the 1972 terrorist attack, but the political policy of vengeance and the bloody cycle of violence it causes.

Spielberg concedes that making “Munich” was as much about telling an important historical narrative as about taking a personal risk. “I couldn’t live with my
self being silent for the sake of maintaining my popularity,” Spielberg told the Los Angeles Times. “And I’m at an age right where if I don’t take risks, I lose respect for myself. And this was an important risk for me to take.”

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