Eye on the Oscars: The Director Preview

The distance between the Sundance Film Festival and the Academy Awards isn’t as vast as one might think.

Last year, Sundance standouts “Winter’s Bone,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Blue Valentine” and “Animal Kingdom” nabbed Oscar 10 nominations among them. In 2009, Park City premieres “Precious” and “An Education” represented with nine noms between them. Great filmmakers have to start somewhere.

This year, a number of Park City newbies have broken out of the indie box and received widespread recognition — it’s not any independent film that gets screened at the White House (as Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” recently did).

Along with Durkin, who is just 28, writer-directors Jeff Nichols, 32 (“Take Shelter”), and Drake Doremus, 28 (“Like Crazy”), are among a new breed of American filmmakers making important movies by the skin of their teeth.

One of the biggest challenges for Durkin, for instance, was just trying to get investors to have the confidence in a first-time director.

“It was a gradual process of making people believe that I could make a film,” he says.

Helped by the fact that his short film, “Mary Last Seen,” won a prize in Cannes, he got into the Sundance Lab, and Ted Hope came on board as an executive producer. “Martha” finally got its greenlight with an under-$1 million budget.

Similarly, while Nichols had made a film before — 2007’s “Shotgun Stories” — he admits, “It wasn’t like people were lining up to make a Jeff Nichols film.”

Eventually, Nichols found the support of then CAA agent Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, who helped line up funds from producer Tyler Davidson and exec producer Sarah Green. While “Shelter’s” budget has been reported as $5 million, Nichols says it was made for less. “A ridiculously low amount of money,” he says.

“As an independent filmmaker,” Nichols continues, “in the same way that you’re creative about the style of the story, you have to be very creative about how you make your movie. You have to be constantly aware of your resources and how to maximize them.”

Indeed, Doremus made “Like Crazy” with a $250,000 budget, shooting the film in 22 days.

According to Doremus, the crew endured several 14- to 16-hour shooting days, because they had a limited amount of time in each location. And with the camera constantly rolling (“I didn’t have time to call action and cut and re-set the scene,” he says), the filmmakers had to sift through almost 80 hours of footage in post. “It was not a very good shooting ratio,” Doremus says.

If the films’ limited budgets proved daunting, these tyro directors also had to pull off tricky dramatic material.

Both Durkin’s “Martha Marcy” and Nichols’ “Take Shelter,” for example, tread a fine line between psychological thriller and arthouse drama — a delicate balance that wasn’t always so easy to achieve.

As Nichols says, “I thought ‘anxiety’ was worth making a movie about, but how do you take this subject mater and present it in a way that is palatable?”

Nichols used such films as Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” Todd Haynes’ “Safe” and Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” as reference points.

“In the way Kubrick moves that slow creeping camera, there’s a supernatural force that lives outside of the frame and enters into the film,” he says. “And the same thing applies in ‘Take Shelter.’ ”

For Durkin, it’s harder to define the tension he was trying to convey.

“I think a lot of it was in the script, but when you’re on set, you just feel it,” he says. “And there were certain scenes where we needed it, and didn’t get it, and those are not in the movie.”

Durkin’s influences were less direct; he mentions Robert Altman’s “Three Women” and Alan Pakula’s “Klute.” But “Martha Marcy” was more inspired by the film’s central location: an abandoned farmhouse in upstate New York, with its “worn, weathered and beautiful” appearance, explains Durkin, demarcated by milky black interiors and brightly lit exteriors.

“Like Crazy” — with its more traditional tale of young love — might seem more inspired by Hollywood romances, but Doremus’ influences were no less cinephilic. In his desire to capture “something truthful or magical” in the relationship between his two characters, he cites the importance of Lars von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Y tu mama tambien.”

“Those films were constantly in my head in pre-production,” he says.

All three filmmakers also acknowledge the importance of another key player in the cultivation of their work: Sundance itself. Durkin says his experience at the Sundance Labs was “life changing,” giving him the confidence to conceive the film in the first place.

Each of the directors points to the significance of the festival as a place that puts special focus on the filmmaker, placing them in the limelight.

“For an independent film, it is the best way to speak to the industry in one sitting,” says Nichols. In one week in Park City, he adds, “all of L.A. saw my movie.”

Eye on the Oscars: The Director Preview
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