Rookies of the year

First-time feature directors field films with breakout potential

Oscar-directing nominees in 2006 included two newbie narrative theatrical feature helmers in Bennett Miller, for “Capote,” and Paul Haggis, for picture winner “Crash.” This season’s crop of first timers with kudo potential includes a commercials/musicvid duo, and an American and a German helmer, both transitioning from shorts.

Some backstory on each:

Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris

Musicvid vets Dayton and Faris set aside their “bread and butter” to helm their first feature, the pic that became this year’s indie comedy juggernaut “Little Miss Sunshine.”

But it took five years for the helmers to see a green light. They were approached early on by producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa with Michael Arndt’s script, which resonated immediately. “The concept of winners and losers, working in this town, you can’t help but feel those pressures,” says Dayton.

“Little Miss” languished in development for three years at Focus Features before being optioned by Marc Turtletaub’s Big Beach shingle.

Faris says the time helped them hone the script and fully prepare scenes. “Tone was everything,” adds Dayton. “That’s one reason why it took so long to get made. Studios didn’t understand what the tone was supposed to be. We had time to explore it.”

They cobbled together a cast including Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin and Steve Carell, then focused a week of rehearsals on creating a real family. “We had the actors do writing as their character,” says Faris, “how they felt about each other, and then had them read it aloud. By the first day of shooting there was a family dynamic.”

“Little Miss” scored what’s believed to be the largest payday in Sundance history, when Fox Searchlight picked up the film for more than $10 million. It has since grossed $59 million domestically.

Ryan Fleck

Indie darling “Half Nelson” started as a short, “Gowanus, Brooklyn,” which Fleck co-wrote with his girlfriend and writing partner Anna Boden.

“It was a tool,” Fleck says of the short, which won Sundance’s 2004 short film prize. “It got us an agent (WMA’s Craig Kestel) and he helped us put the feature together.”

Fleck studied film as an undergrad at NYU, then moved on to P.A. jobs in Gotham while also working with Boden on their own projects. “We’d shoot on video, making little documentaries,” he says. “We always knew we wanted to make a fiction film. We had this idea that popped into existence about this very odd, unique friendship between a flawed but brilliant school teacher and one of his students.”

“Gowanus” focused on a student (also played by the feature’s Shareeka Epps) who uncovers her teacher’s secret. “Nelson” is more the story of the drug-addicted teacher, played by Ryan Gosling.

“We didn’t want it to be an issue film, but about these characters that also talk about politics and class,” Fleck continues. “But there’s never this one revelatory moment where you find out how these people’s backgrounds shaped them.”

Pic went on to compete at Sundance in January and win several international festival prizes and distribution via ThinkFilm.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

He might be German-born, but von Donnersmarck has spent a lifetime living abroad, making him a keen observer of human behavior and environments.

As the son of a Lufthansa exec, he lived in New York, Berlin, Frankfurt and Brussels throughout his childhood and teens, then moved to the Soviet Union after high school, studied at Oxford and interned for Richard Attenborough — who insisted he go to film school.

He made several shorts and attended Munich’s Academy for Film and Television before moving on to his first feature. In line with his wanderlust and hankering for rigorous environments, von Donnersmarck checked himself into a monastery in the Vienna Woods to write “The Lives of Others.”

Pic, set in 1984 East Berlin, concerns a Stasi agent who spies on artists with whom he eventually comes to sympathize. “It’s about people at two extremes,” the helmer says. “Both meet toward the middle of the scale by the end of the movie.”

After cobbling together coin and finding his actors, he shot the film in late 2004, paying particular attention to getting the setting right. “My time in Leningrad really helped me understand the visual world of it all. I deciphered the colors, shapes and special aesthetics of the Eastern Bloc.”

“Lives” has since collected a mountain of kudos; the Sony Classics pickup is also Germany’s official Oscar entry.