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Contemporary directors: Stylists or shape-shifters?

Golden Globes Update

Woody Allen (“Midnight in Paris”) likes therapeutically confessional tete-a-tetes laced with jokes. David Fincher (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) favors a crisply beautiful visual and purposeful camera moves. Steven Spielberg (“War Horse,” “The Adventures of Tintin”) choreographs onscreen action like no one else.

These directors — along with many others in the running for Golden Globes this year — could be said to have identifiable styles, even when the subject matters and locations change, as when Allen traded New York for Europe, and Fincher swapped serial killers last year for computer nerds.

Other Oscar contenders, however, are harder to pin down.

There are filmmakers like Stephen Daldry, who’s vaulted from a dancing English lad (“Billy Eliott”) to a couple of time-hopping literary adaptations (“The Hours,” “The Reader”), and now has a post-9/11 childlike adventure set in New York (“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”). Is he a chameleon?

What about Bennett Miller, who’s gone from the rarefied world of a mid-20th century literary icon (“Capote”) to Major League Baseball as it’s played today (“Moneyball”). Does he have a stylistic thumbprint? Or will he turn out to be a shape-shifter?

“It’s hard to know yet,” says Vogue film critic John Powers about Miller’s work. “They’re both brilliant outsider movies, shot with more detachment than you normally expect. There’s careful framing, and they’re both rather quiet.”

Director Chris Weitz, who shifted gears from a massive franchise sequel (2009’s “The Twilight Saga: New Moon”) to this year’s smaller father/son drama “A Better Life,” is an example of a filmmaker who would prefer to never make the same movie twice.

“I never want to get pigeonholed,” says Weitz, who loved going from a heavily storyboarded, CGI-rich world like “New Moon” to something small, location-dependent — “A Better Life” utilized 69 locations around Los Angeles — and contingent on a realistic depiction of urban life.

“In a way, it’s a disadvantage, career-wise, because people like to associate you with one thing, or a particular style. But I just try to suit myself to whatever the material is at hand. I don’t have a single unifying theme that I’m always obsessed with fleshing out.”

He does admit one visual tic, though. “I like turning the camera upside down, for some reason,” Weitz adds, with a laugh. “I don’t know why.”

Daldry, meanwhile, attributes his body of work so far to self-described Catholic tastes. “I’m drawn to a whole variety of different stories,” he says. “I think it’s intentional. I never like to pigeonhole myself. It’s about the passions and enthusiasms that I discover.”

It means that the material ultimately dictates the style used, Daldry notes. “Form always follows content.”

“J. Edgar” helmer Clint Eastwood, on the other hand, has a classically unvarnished directorial style that could have fit right in during the studio system era.

“The way he composes shots is very old-fashioned,” says Powers. “His sense of rhythm is slightly pokier than modern. His stuff often breathes and has the emotions of an old-fashioned movie. I think it’s one of his virtues.”

It stems from a belief in never pandering to an audience, according to Eastwood’s longtime cinematographer, Tom Stern. The director’s fondness for a sometimes overpoweringly dark lighting scheme of shadows and blacks, for example, is not only a stylistic choice, but a way of “empowering the audience’s imagination,” says Stern.

“Especially in the Hoover picture, where you’ve got somebody who isn’t really black and white, it just felt extremely appropriate,” Stern says. “Sometimes, if it’s real dark, I’ll say ‘Is this OK?’ And (Eastwood) will say, ‘We’re in reel three of the film; they know who it is.’ And he’s absolutely correct. If you meet the silhouette in reel one, then he becomes the silhouette in reel three.”

All in all, Weitz looks at directors’ styles as growing out of how they got into filmmaking. Did other interests — like theater or writing — come first? Or were they cinephiles from early on?

“There are independent artists who came at it because they were thinking about movies since they were 12, who really have a stylistic thing they’ve sorted out in their minds,” he says. “For me, I’ve been learning since my first day on a film set. But I think most other people want to make a body of work that exemplifies who they are.”

GOLDEN GLOBE UPDATE
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