Eye on the Oscars 2013: The Director

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The subject matter of their films may range from momentous historical events to bipolar disorder and survival to spirituality, but there is one thing that the five Oscar-nominated directors of them have in common.

Their past work, whether successful or not, has informed and influenced the shape of their current movies.

David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook”), Ang Lee (“Life of Pi”), Michael Haneke (“Amour”) and Steven Spielberg (“Lincoln”) each have a deep reservoir of directorial experience, while for Benh Zeitlin, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was his first feature-length effort.

The 30-year-old director, whose pic shot out of the gate at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, had experience in animation and in editing docus before he directed short film “Glory at Sea.” The 25-minute pic — a fantasy-adventure involving building a boat from debris and rescuing people trapped under the sea — led to development of “Beasts.”

“It was a crazy experience. We would shoot for a week and then run out of money,” says Zeitlin, who financed “Glory” on his credit cards. ” ‘Beasts’ was much more under control. We found ways to convey wildness without doing anything dangerous and the renegade spirit carried over. We had so much momentum, and it had been an extraordinary life-changing experience that really served us. Somehow we were naively and brashly confident we were going to be able to make a feature film.”

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is seen through the eyes of 6-year-old Hushpuppy, played by Quvenzhane Wallis, the youngest-ever Oscar nominee for lead actress. Although Zeitlin did not have experience directing child actors, he had taught an after-school moviemaking class to 6- to 9-year-old kids in New York City.

Lee’s “Life of Pi” also involved a young person and a CGI creature, the fierce feline Richard Parker, and it wasn’t his first tangle with a tiger. Lee was nominated for directing and producing “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2000, and took home the Oscar for directing 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain.”

Lee says the martial-arts “Crouching Tiger” was the first time he used spectacle to portray internal emotions, which interest him most, and he learned a great deal from the digital and special effects in “The Hulk” before taking on the 3D “Pi,” a story that he originally considered unfilmable.

The risk-taking director, whose diverse worlds range from 1970s suburbia to pre-Victorian England, compares the film’s vast ocean to the open spaces in “Brokeback Mountain.”

“Water is the hardest thing. It has to become a character. At the end of the day, it’s a thinking movie with a budget. It has to look like a populist film, but at heart it’s really a philosophical matter, and that’s the hardest challenge.”

Russell was nominated two years ago for directing “The Fighter,” which, like “Silver Linings Playbook,” depicts complex, intense family relationships.

“He is good at capturing quirks and nuances and tensions within these complicated families, and that goes back to ‘Flirting With Disaster,’ the movie that put him on the map in terms of his talent,” says Stephen Farber, president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.

“I feel like I’m a late bloomer and hitting my form in the last two pictures,” Russell says. “For me it’s a matter of finding the world and the voice that I want to hit really hard and about a rhythm and a feeling that I can bring to life. The desire to connect from the heart is deeper than ever for me. There’s nothing like struggle to do your best work, at least in my case.”

The Matthew Quick novel upon which Russell based his nominated screenplay drew him in because of the challenges he faced dealing with his son’s mental-health issues.

“You want to deliver more emotionally,” he says of his goals as a filmmaker. “I wish I had made ‘I Heart Huckabees’ more grounded and raw emotionally. I think it would have connected and not have been as obtuse.”

Prior to “Amour,” Haneke directed 2009’s “The White Ribbon,” which was nominated for foreign language-film and cinematography.

“As you do your work, everything contributes to help you master your craft,” says Haneke, whose other works include the thrillers “Funny Games,” “Cache” and “The Piano Teacher,” all of which he wrote. “What you bring is a sum of previous experiences, but that’s never a guarantee that your next film is going to be better.”

“Lincoln” marks Spielberg’s seventh Oscar nom for director. He’s taken the statuette twice — 1993’s “Schindler’s List” and for 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan,” both period pieces that revolve around personal stories of heroism.

Before “Lincoln,” Spielberg also dealt with slavery in 1997’s “Amistad.”

Despite the obvious thematic similarities of oppression, civil rights, and freedom in “Amistad,” “The Color Purple” and “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg says nothing in his film directing experience comfortably prepared him to direct “Lincoln,” as the 16th president was the most complex and important character he’s attempted to bring to the screen.

“No film I’ve ever been involved in has ever demanded from me a kind of urgent respect for details,” Spielberg says. “There was this unprecedented need for every department to recognize all the little things that allowed us to take audiences back in time to the period of the Lincoln presidency.”

Many Spielberg films call attention to themselves by the way the camera is used in the first person to tell the story, but that was not the case with ” Lincoln.”

“Perhaps for the first time in the history of our collaboration, (cinematographer) Janusz (Kaminski) and I decided to take a different path. The lens would not be the first priority. We knew instinctively that the audience would need to focus primarily on the language of Tony Kushner’s brilliant screenplay and all the performances, starting with Daniel Day-Lewis’, right down to characters that only had two or three lines,” Spielberg says.

“With all of the complicated issues of this critical time in American history, that emphasis had to take precedence over everything else,” he says. “I knew that Lincoln had to cast a longer shadow than the camera itself and I felt that we worked hard never to allow that to upstage any aspect of his legacy.”

Critics immediately noticed the differentiation of style.

“‘Lincoln’ is a little different as it is very much a film that belongs to the writer, with a lot of literate interchanges between characters, so I give Spielberg credit for subordinating his own personality in serving the script,” Farber says. “To my mind, it’s not as much as a bravura piece of filmmaking, but very much a literary or theatrical piece.”

Eye on the Oscars 2013: The Director
Previous films shape current projects | Last 10 years bring surprises and snubs | Eastwood’s ‘Unforgiven’ still resonates 20 years later | Nominated directors look ahead

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