As a general rule, directors usually work their way up to an Oscar nomination. It’s exceedingly rare to land on the Academy’s shortlist with one of your first three films, but it can happen.
Steven Spielberg, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, and Steve McQueen were all first-time nominees for their third films, while James L. Brooks, Kevin Costner, and Sam Mendes claimed director trophies for debuts. Many of this year’s leading contenders fit that atypical profile.
Take Barry Jenkins, who has caused a sensation with his second feature, “Moonlight.” The drama about three stages in the life of young black man in Miami currently ranks as the best-reviewed movie of the year on Metacritic and drew the year’s highest-opening weekend per screen average at the box office.
Although he was working with a relatively modest budget of under $5 million and a tight 25-day shooting schedule, the sophomore effort is still a tremendous step up from Jenkins’ 2008 debut “Medicine for Melancholy,” which was made for $15,000 in 15 days with a five-person crew and two primary actors.
“We actually tried to apply some ‘Medicine’ principles to the ‘Moonlight’ shoot,” Jenkins says. “We could’ve shot this in 22 days and had a larger crew, but we tried to give ourselves a couple more days and had a lighter crew to give the actors more time with some of these scenes. Thank goodness we did that, I’m really happy in the space we’re able to afford the actors.”
In the seven-year gap between his first two features, Jenkins kept busy not only developing a few projects that stalled, but also shooting commercials and short films. He was exercising his filmmaking muscles and building new skills that, Jenkins says, “lended themselves to trying to make a movie like this on this schedule and budget in this place.”
And gave him the ability to instill confidence in his crew. “The only people in the crew I knew [before the movie] were the producer, James [Laxton, the DP], and the gaffer. All these people had no idea who I am. Here’s a guy who hasn’t made a movie in eight years, and yet we’re being aggressive and light and nimble, and moving fast. People had to catch up, and be like ‘This is organized chaos, this guy knows what he’s doing.’
“I didn’t approach it any different than ‘Medicine,’ but I do think ‘Moonlight’ is a much more accurate depiction of my filmmaking voice.”
For fashion mogul-turned-auteur Tom Ford, the process of making his second film — the sophisticated thriller “Nocturnal Animals,” which claimed the runner-up prize in this year’s Venice fest competition — meant solidifying his personal style.
“I would not have been able to tell you what my style as a filmmaker was after [‘A Single Man’]. Now, after looking at both of them, I’m starting to understand,” Ford says.
“I don’t think anyone starts out saying, ‘This is going to be my style.’ You make choices constantly, which I do intuitively. And when I look back at it collectively I’m able to say, ‘Oh, I like a heightened sense of reality. I like a composed frame. I like drama that verges on melodrama. I like people to be movie stars.’ ”
“Nocturnal” blends a present day story with flashbacks and scenes from the pulpy thriller protagonist Amy Adams is reading.
“I’m a more old-fashioned filmmaker, I think,” Ford says. “We have so much reality in today’s world, I don’t actually want to see reality. I want to see a heightened reality. I want it to reflect and be something that does relate to my life or the viewer’s life, something that is universal in its appeal. But I do tend to exaggerate those things.”
While Jenkins and Ford both had feature experience under their belt, “Lion” director Garth Davis is technically on his film debut. But his Emmy-nominated work co-directing acclaimed miniseries “Top of the Lake” with Jane Campion and substantial commercial experience more than prepared him for the job.
“In the early days I always thought film was about art,” Davis says. “But now I realize it can still be that, but the real beauty of film, and challenge, is in sharing a story with an audience.”
By staying true to the incredible story that inspired “Lion,” which follows Indian-born Saroo Brierley, who is raised in Australia after being separated from his birth family, Davis believes he unlocked his own signature style.
“I am open to change [from film to film],” he says. “It excites me, the opportunity to explore different worlds, genres. But I suppose aesthetics, for me, is arriving in a place, after a long journey in how and what interests you as human being. So whilst you can adapt the aesthetics to certain projects, the truth of what you do points back to your own true self.”
Honesty was also paramount for Theodore Melfi on his third feature, “Hidden Figures.” The inspirational historical drama about three black women who played pivotal roles in the early days of NASA’s space program had an unexpected personal connection for Melfi.
“I believe the pages of the script are your blueprint. How the characters talk, how they act, tells you everything you need to know about tone and look and style,” says Melfi, who shares a writing credit with Allison Schroeder.
“I wanted to infuse the family life [into the script] and the balance between home life and work life. How these women lived in the segregated lifestyle in 1961, imagine being a single mom of three in 1961? My mom was a single mom of three, I kind of got it.”
Melfi had an unusually long gap between his directorial debut, the 1999 indie “Winding Roads,” and his second film, 2014’s “St. Vincent.” Like Jenkins, he built up his skills on numerous short films and commercials. When it came time to helm “Figures” for 20th Century Fox, he felt ready.
“For the past 20 years the commercial career has allowed me to shoot any scenario I can imagine,” he says. “I’ve learned to be very, very efficient and very detailed. I’m an insane storyboarder and meticulous preparer of every detail. The emotional reason for every shot goes into my storyboards. [Making a movie] is over so fast and there’s no time to not be prepared.”
Like Melfi, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan had an extended gap between his 2000 debut “You Can Count on Me,” troubled follow-up “Margaret” (shot in 2005 and released in 2011), and current contender “Manchester by the Sea.” He joins Denzel Washington (“Fences”) and Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) as top contenders for their third films.
Mike Mills, writer-director of “20th Century Women,” also feels he came into his own with time, citing his previous film, 2010’s “Beginners” (which won Christopher Plummer a supporting actor Oscar), as the breakthrough.
“The last two films I really feel happy with what I can do with my filmmaking,” Mills says. “It’s very personal to me and my background coming from art school and not film school, incorporating different media and a more open idea of what’s allowed inside a film.”
But it was after completing his first feature, 2005’s “Thumbsucker,” that, Mills says, he learned a valuable lesson from Oscar-nominated helmer Spike Jonze.
“I asked him, ‘Does it get easier?’ and he said, ‘Oh no, not at all.’ I didn’t expect that to be his answer. He said, ‘Maybe if you made the exact same film again, maybe it would get easier, but probably not. Besides, you’ll make a completely different film with completely new problems and the problems always surprise you.’
“Spike is farther down the road than me, and I was like ‘Holy crap.’ But that’s proved to be true. If you know that, it’s much easier to roll with it.”