Eye on the Oscars: Best Picture Preview

Clint Eastwood births one film per year. Woody Allen continues to pop them out like the Duggar family. And after a three-year break, Steven Spielberg will deliver not one, but two directing vehicles in late December.

Though some awards-season regulars are maintaining a prolific pace, other decorated helmers — Terrence Malick (“The Tree of Life”), Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”), Lynne Ramsay (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”), Bennett Miller (“Moneyball”) and Bruce Robinson (“The Rum Diary”) among them — stand out for the well-spaced entries in their filmographies. Whether or not absence makes the heart grow fonder depends on the talent.

When Malick returned to action 20 years after “Days of Heaven” (1978) with “The Thin Red Line,” his reputation had gone beyond cult to legend, doubtlessly due in no small measure to a reclusiveness that would make J.D. Salinger proud. The result was an Academy that welcomed Malick into the fold, rewarding the enigmatic artist with his first two Oscar nominations, for writing and directing.

Though the six-year gap between Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and his previous directing effort, “The New World,” marks a comparatively rapid follow-up, rumors have been swirling about an origins-of-the-universe project connected to Malick dating back to the ’80s.

For Payne, Ramsay and Miller, the gap had much to do with aborted projects. Nine years elapsed between Ramsay’s previous directing effort, “Morvern Caller,” and “Kevin,” with several of those years spent developing Alice Sebold’s novel “The Lovely Bones.” The Scottish writer-director, who originally held the option on Sebold’s dark drama narrated by a murdered girl, began penning the script before the author’s manuscript was finished.

“I was on my own path with the script when the book became an international best-seller,” recalls Ramsay. “I then felt under pressure to write a very literal translation, and I didn’t think it would work as a film, so I left the project.”

Peter Jackson famously took on “Lovely Bones,” which became an expensive CG-heavy adaptation, while Ramsay segued to “Kevin,” a project that took four years and was nearly derailed when the film’s budget was slashed from $12 million to $6.5 million due to the global recession.

“It was very complicated to make on less money as it spanned over 17 years with four versions of Kevin from a baby to a teenager,” notes Ramsay of the film, which centers on the mother of a teenage boy who embarks on a high-school killing spree. “I had to cut it to the bone and be inventive and economical to make it work. The film was prepped within an inch of its life as we had only 30 days to shoot with costume changes and limited hours with children.” Variety called the film “exquisitely realized” at Cannes.

Similarly, Miller got caught up on a project that was eventually shelved. After his successful collaboration with Philip Seymour Hoffman on “Capote” in 2005 the two began developing “Foxcatcher,” a film about troubled scion John du Pont.

“I could not imagine that it wasn’t going to happen,” says Miller, who spent several years on the pic before conceding defeat. “It was really a struggle to find something worthy but that could also get off the ground.”

The subsequent project, “Moneyball,” touts the highest score on Metacritic.com, 87, of all current releases.

Payne spent much of the six years since the release of “Sideways” — which received five Oscar nominations including a screenwriting statuette for Payne — working with his Ad Hominem partners Jim Taylor and Jim Burke on the epic “Downsizing,” which revolves around a down-on-his-luck man who decides he can have a better life if he undergoes a process to shrink himself.

“Given that the production of ‘Downsizing’ is such a beast, I coaxed (Payne) into doing ‘Descendants,’ ” says the film’s producer Burke, who optioned the manuscript for “Descendants” five years ago. “I probably asked him 40 times. But he needed to find his own personal connection to the material.”

Once Payne did, the film was cast and began shooting within months. At Telluride, where it premiered in September, the film’s right-to-die subject matter was described by Variety as handled “with such sensitivity that it’s hardly noticeable you’re being enlightened while entertained.”

Though “Tree of Life” reached the bigscreen faster than a typical Malick outing, the director has been collecting images for the film for more than a decade. The one-time MIT professor consulted with world-renowned academics to grasp the science behind the formation of the universe, which the film depicts.

“All along, Malick was hunting for the Tao, that completely unanticipated phenomena, those magical unexpected moments that no one could possibly design,” says special effects maven Douglas Trumbull (“2001: A Space Odyssey”), with whom Malick consulted.

Meanwhile, Robinson’s 20-year hiatus is due to the fact that he retired from directing. Robinson was coaxed by Johnny Depp — a huge fan of Robinson’s sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll saga “Withnail and I” and his wildly satiric “How to Get Ahead in Advertising” — to return to write and helm “Rum Diary,” based on Hunter S. Thompson’s novel.

“These two films destroyed me,” Depp told the L.A. Times recently, adding he felt Robinson’s penchant for “huge humor and absurdity” was the perfect match for a work that foreshadows Thompson’s ground-breaking gonzo style.

Whatever the reason for a film’s lengthy gestation, as Orson Welles once suggested while shilling for Paul Masson, “no wine before its time.” And this is how Miller views “Foxcatcher,” which he hopes to resurrect: “I never think of the time spent developing a film as time lost.”

EYE ON THE OSCARS: BEST PICTURE PREVIEW
Reading the voters’ minds | Rewriting history to suit the demands of drama | Veterans back in action | Beyond the boards

AWARDS SEASON CALENDAR
November | December | January | February

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more