Selections full of edgy work from unsung directors

Any notion that the DGA is this intractable group of cronies dedicated to protecting the interests of longtime members was shattered by the announcement of its feature nominees on Jan. 8.

All of this year’s finalists — Paul Thomas Anderson, Joel and Ethan Coen, Tony Gilroy, Sean Penn and Julian Schnabel — are first-time contenders, with “Michael Clayton” representing Gilroy’s directorial debut. (Joel Coen has been previously nominated, but not as part of a team.)

More importantly, the maverick nature of the group’s work represents a critics’ sensibility that hasn’t always been evident in past DGA honors. After all, it took Martin Scorsese seven nominations before winning for “The Departed,” a high-charged genre remake but hardly as cutting edge as “Taxi Driver” or “Raging Bull.”

That the DGA feature award is the most consistent barometer for who will win the Oscar — aligning all but six times since the guild started handing out its own kudos in 1948 — might be a matter of pride, but it also points to a kind of conservative bent associated with the Academy’s dedication to traditional storytelling and high-gloss production values.

Which is not to say that the DGA is averse to honoring new blood.

Since 1970, when the guild consistently started narrowing its prospective candidates to no more than five names, 20 first-time feature nominees ended up winners.

Upon reflection, however, some of those choices appear tired (“Rocky’s” John Avilden over “Network’s” Sidney Lumet or “Dances With Wolves'” Kevin Costner over “Goodfellas'” Scorsese) rather than inspired.

Now and then in the DGA’s 60-year awards history, visionaries who altered the language of cinema like Alain Resnais (“Hiroshima mon amor”), Federico Fellini (“8 ½”) and Terrence Malick (“The Thin Red Line”) would show up on its long or short list of nominees.

More often than not, however, you’d have a Bertolucci (“Last Tango in Paris”) losing to a George Roy Hill (“The Sting”) or a Kubrick (“Dr. Strangelove”) losing to George Cukor (“My Fair Lady”).

But anyone who sees this year’s top DGA choices heralding a new New Hollywood might be overstating the case.

“If you’re talking about a changing of the guard, I would think that it would be a pretty glacial move,” says Gilroy, who became a DGA member about two years ago, just prior to shooting “Michael Clayton.”

Guild president Michael Apted acknowledges that the lack of establishment names in the nominations — like a Ridley Scott or a Sidney Lumet or a Mike Nichols — makes this year’s group a horse of an entirely different color.

“These things usually go in phases,” Apted explains, “where you have combinations of independent films and studio films (contending). It’s not really trackable but it’s understandable that this one is odd.

“To me, it seems as if (the guild membership) is voting for the movies and not the filmmakers,” Apted adds. “I think critics tend to have darlings that they like and vote for; whereas the members here seem to go for the quality of the film. And they’re not interested in the (director’s) track record or the body of work.”

Nor could the nominee choices be attributed to the individualistic tastes of a jury or branch committee. All of the DGA’s 13,800 members — 40% of whom work below the line, such as assistant directors and unit production managers — have a say in both the nominations and the final awards.

“We have one of the most aggressive screening programs in the industry,” explains Marcel Giacusa, the head of operations for the DGA. “We go out of our way to try to screen every theatrical film in L.A., New York, Chicago, Washington, etc., so that our members can be better informed prior to exercizing their vote. Our members don’t sit at home waiting for DVD screeners to come in the mail; they actually go to movies.”

There are some unifying qualities to the films cited for feature honors that all directors might appreciate.

All the helmers worked on relatively modest budgets (between $15 million and $25 million), allowing them wide aesthetic leeway and the benefit of final cut, with little to no studio interference.

In fact, Warner Bros. didn’t see “Michael Clayton” until it was finished.

“We did test screenings,” explains Gilroy, “and there were suggestions, and part of it came at the natural moment when you’d be doing this anyway. But entering the Warner Bros. world, we didn’t do anything we didn’t want to do.”

Miramax bought Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” at Cannes, where Schnabel garnered top directing honors. The painter-turned-filmmaker had free reign on everything from the decidedly uncommercial decision to shoot the film in French to the choice of his wife, Olatz Lopez Garmendia, to play one of the film’s key roles.

“Yes, I got the final cut,” Schnabel says. “I’m responsible and guilty for everything in the movie.”

Schnabel is the only one of the five nominees who didn’t also write his film’s script, even though his personal stamp is evident on every frame of the movie.

“When you’re writing and directing,” Gilroy says, “there’s simply no filter between your work and your personality and the audience.”

In this regard, “Diving Bell,” about the late Jean-Dominique Bauby’s struggle with locked-in syndrome, shares a certain uncompromising approach to difficult subject matter that’s reflected in the films of the other four DGA nominees.

“All could have been approached in the sentimental fashion,” Gilroy says, “and there’s very little sentiment in any of these films. There’s a pretty stern eye on subjects that could have been approached in different ways.”

“Michael Clayton” deals with corporate malfeasance and the corruption of the soul; Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” revolves around a misanthrope whose ambition leaves little room for human warmth or contact; the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men” appears to operate in a godless universe of unspeakable violence; Penn’s “Into the Wild” follows its protagonist’s self-destructive pursuit of a utopian ideal, equally exposing its hero’s idealism and folly; and “Diving Bell” is largely told from the standpoint of a man who’s completely paralyzed save for the use of his left eyelid. All the films, save for “Clayton,” end in death, with little in the way of salvation or hope.

“‘Diving Bell’ is a pretty rugged experience,” Gilroy suggests. “It doesn’t cut any corners.”

But for Schnabel, to approach the story — told from the largely claustrophobic view of its protagonist — in any other way would have been a lie.

“You need to take the trip, you need to go into the diving bell in order to escape from the diving bell,” he explains. “And you can’t fudge that or be euphemistic about that.”

Schnabel, who describes his fellow nominees as “a wonderful group of people,” recounts a conversation he had with “There Will Be Blood” star Daniel Day-Lewis, and his own approach to his role as a brutal, and ultimately murderous, oil baron.

“He said to me, ‘If I can’t believe this, how can I make somebody else believe it?’ And I feel the same way. So (‘Diving Bell’) had to be in French.

“Sometimes an American director has to go to France to make an American film. All of these boundaries should disappear. I’ve said this before, that I believe making art is an act of peace. People from so many different kinds of political vantage points put their guns down and there is a cultural exchange.”

TIP SHEET
What: 60th annual DGA Awards
When: Saturday
Where: Hyatt Century Plaza Hotel, Los Angeles
Host: Carl Reiner
Presenters include: Daniel Day-Lewis, Hal Holbrook and Martin Scorsese

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