DGA nominees borrow from the masters

Directors cite specific influences for their films

Directors, says Danny Boyle, are magpies. “We steal from everywhere,” admits the “Slumdog Millionaire” filmmaker.

Of course, some directors borrow more liberally from their forerunners (say Brian De Palma, Quentin Tarantino), while others are less obvious in their inspirations. But there’s no escaping the legacy of those master helmers that preceded them.

Indeed, many of this year’s Directors Guild of America feature film award nominees cite specific inspirational sources or cinematic starting points, such as Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men” for Ron Howard’s take on “Frost/Nixon” or Michael Mann’s “Heat” for Christopher Nolan’s rendition of “The Dark Knight.”

“There’s something so inspiring about the elegance, the tension without manipulation, and the blend of writing, acting and strong compositional choices,” Howard says of Pakula’s famous political thriller.

“I’m finding it a must-see touchstone before going into any project.”

For his work with actors, Howard, a two-time DGA winner, pays debt to Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The Pawnbroker.” “He’s great with emotional material and not letting it becoming overwrought, and yet still mining it for all its intensity,” Howard says.

For Nolan’s urban-set comicbook blockbuster, the London-born director actually screened Mann’s L.A. crime drama for all his department heads before going into production.

“I always felt ‘Heat’ to be a remarkable demonstration of how you can create a vast universe within one city and balance a very large number of characters and their emotional journeys in an effective manner,” Nolan says.

A strong location, says Boyle, was also crucial for his making of “Slumdog Millionaire.” In fact, Boyle says the city of Mumbai was the film’s biggest direct inspiration.

“I usually have a series of films that I want the actors to watch, but with ‘Slumdog,’ we wanted to create an approach that the city would dictate.” That said, Boyle adds he found three contemporary Bollywood dramas “very inspiring”: Anurag Kashyap’s “Black Friday” (2004) and Ram Gopal Varma crime thrillers “Satya” (1998) and “Company” (2002).

“These serious films are much more interested in realism,” explains Boyle, unlike standard pop Bollywood fantasies, “and that made me feel secure about enforcing this kind of British realism in the film.”

Gus Van Sant had also begun his latest, “Milk,” from a starting point of realism. “Initially, we were looking at ‘Primary,'” says Van Sant, referring to Robert Drew and company’s classic 1960 direct-cinema documentary, as well as Frederick Wiseman’s “Law and Order.” But when the studio convinced Van Sant to shoot 35mm instead of 16mm, he and his team switched gears.

“Once you’re in 35, you can’t really do that,” he says. “Verite style in 35mm no longer looks like Pennebaker and Maysles; it looks like ‘The Office.’

“So we changed our philosophy to something more influenced by ‘The Godfather,'” says Van Sant, “a more steady style where the camera wasn’t moving as much … and letting the actors do the work.”

Similarly, David Fincher says it was always his and his team’s intention to “try to take a back seat to the cast” when making “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” However, in terms of direct influences, Fincher ultimately stayed away from any obvious sources.

“We never named names, i.e. Lean or Minnelli,” Fincher says. “The only way in that was talked about stylistically was that the film would be simple and formal, and I suppose in that respect classical.”


What: 61st annual Directors Guild of America Awards

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel

Web: dga.org