First Time Directors DGA Award
Courtesy of The Filmmakers

Five first-time feature filmmakers discovered they’d been nominated for a prestigious new Directors Guild of America award they didn’t even know existed.

“I was surprised,” says “Son of Saul” director Laszlo Nemes. “I didn’t expect the call. I didn’t know about the category. It’s a big deal, I guess.”

The DGA’s latest award, which recognizes the directorial achievement of a first-time feature director, includes one woman, Marielle Heller, among the nominees.

“The DGA is making a major effort to reach out to young filmmakers and make the union accessible to indie filmmakers and first-time filmmakers — and women,” says “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” director and recently minted DGA member.

Industry-wide pressure to diversify has impacted the insular guild whose director membership is only 14% female, 3.6% African-American and 2.7% Latino. With this new category, the guild expanded its reach, softening the blow that the traditional feature film nominees are all male. In addition to Nemes and Heller, the DGA is also recognizing Fernando Coimbra (“A Wolf at the Door”), Joel Edgerton (“The Gift”) and novelist-turned-filmmaker Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”). The award shines a spotlight on directorial talent that may be overlooked by the Hollywood establishment, recognizing smaller, more intimate films and a variety of genres.

While “Son of Saul” also received a foreign-language film Oscar nomination, the movie itself is a breakthrough in a familiar awards genre, the Holocaust drama. Nemes believed his fellow filmmakers responded to his work because it doesn’t “take the language of cinema for granted.”

“We question the established standardized way of telling stories,” says Nemes. “It’s really the immersive quality of the film that relies more on the imagination of the viewer and trusts the viewer, breaking with the tradition of over-covered filmmaking.”

Addressing the same question, Heller felt her peers recognized her achievement because her “movie takes risks and takes on its subject matter in a very unapologetic way.

“Directors acknowledge how difficult it is to manifest a singularity of voice without judgment that permeates every detail of the filmmaking,” Heller says. “I made it my mission to take on the female teenager’s point-of-view in a period movie set in the ’70s in San Francisco. Directors know how tough that is and were impressed by that.”

Peer recognition is crucial for filmmakers embarking on a career. With this award, the DGA addresses its diversity issue while recognizing talent often overlooked during awards season.
According to Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which distributed the films by Heller and Nemes, “We at Sony Pictures Classics are so thrilled that the DGA added this category. For years, so many great directors didn’t make the cut. It’s terrific now and says a lot about the DGA having faith in the future.”

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