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Will Oscar Sing for These Three Unsung Directors?

SAG Award nominations will be announced next week, and among the films likely that will no doubt be recognized are “August: Osage County,” “Before Midnight” and “Saving Mr. Banks.” The films have also been praised for their scripts, with WGA noms unveiled Jan 3. While these pics are deserving of attention in both realms, the contributions of the directors are mysteriously shortchanged.

There is a special place in the cinema pantheon for directors who don’t make a fuss: No auteur flourishes, no startling camera angles. They’re just there to serve the material and they do it so well, their work is almost invisible. Don’t critics and industry folks realize how hard that is?

John Wells (“Osage”), Richard Linklater (“Midnight”) and John Lee Hancock (“Mr. Banks”), pictured left to right, worked with a strong cast and screenplay, so some people may think they just pointed their cameras and let it happen. Au contraire.

Wells worked for 18 months with Tracy Letts (amid various interruptions) to turn the Pulitzer-winning play into a script. While it’s rich source material, the cinematic graveyard is littered with prize-winning plays that fell flat on screen. And while the cast is mega-talented (with Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep, among others, impressively stretching themselves), there’s a huge range of acting styles there, but they work as a unit.

Because of his experience as a writer (including two stints as WGA West president) and producer, some awards voters may underestimate his strength as a director. But actually, those two other roles feed into his directing work.

Here’s one example. When filming the dinner scene, a bravura 19-minute segment, Wells told the continuity people to not get nitpicky about details; if something didn’t match, he reminded, he had 10 characters to cut to. He wanted to allow the actors to work with a sense of freedom, without distraction.

In other words, Wells worked hard to make it look easy.

Linklater collaborated with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy on “Before Sunrise” in 1995, “Before Sunset” nine years later and now “Before Midnight.” The three holed up and wrote the script so that every word and move was in place before filming began. Delpy told Variety that Linklater was so rigorous, he would not allow even an ad-libbed pause or “y’know” when filming. The result is that the film looks so fluid and natural that some voters may assume it was all improvised.

In addition, Linklater has a few long takes that seem deceptively simple, such as one 13-minute sequence of the two actors in a car. In another, they go through a range of emotions while walking among Greek ruins. The 18-minute continuous shot appears straightforward, but Delpy said it was unbelievably complex, with crew members scrambling  behind the moving camera to maintain the illusion of in-the-moment casualness.

In other words, Linklater did careful planning to make it look spontaneous.

With “Mr. Banks,” Hancock’s work is so straightforward that it’s almost daring. It’s easy to be ironic and detached these days, since we live in an age of guarded emotions and alienation.

Cynics may balk that the film glides over the darkest aspects of both Walt Disney and P.L. Travers, which it does. But Hancock dives head-first into the emotions of the piece, which is the only way it could work.

Scripter Kelly Marcel said he treated her as a collaborator, including her on decisions during production and post. And with no disrespect to the two Oscar-winning stars, Colin Farrell’s performance is the best example of Hancock’s work with actors: We’ve seen the character of the alcoholic charmer a million times before, but Farrell makes him original and multi-layered, thanks to the script and director.

In other words, Hancock dealt with a lot of complexities to make it look simple.

This stuff is much harder to pull of than some people realize. All three men had a cast and crew who emerged from the experience with devotion and enthusiasm for the directors’ kindness and efficiency. In a crowded year, they may not get enough recognition. But one lives in constant hope.

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