Oscar-Nominated Directors Do What They Know

All five filmmakers examine subjects that are close to them by applying ideas and themes that hit home

Denis Villeneuve Bradford Young Arrival
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Whether finding a corollary between artistic duress and a family tragedy or drawing on nostalgia to inform a sci-fi aesthetic, this year’s Oscar-nominated directors discovered ways to personalize their films.

For Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”), a reading of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” conjured plenty of self-recognition. Jenkins grew up in the same Liberty City Miami neighborhood as McCraney, and like the playwright, his mother struggled with addiction.

Jenkins’ mother has yet to see “Moonlight,” however. “I have a hard time watching the film, so I imagine she’ll have as much of a hard time,” he says. “What I always say to her is she lived through these things. There’s no reason for her to experience them again. But she reads everything Naomie [Harris] says about playing her, and she approved of her approach.”

Denis Villeneuve (along with cinematographer Bradford Young) also mined personal nostalgia when crafting the look of alien psychodrama “Arrival.”

“For me it was that light of summer, the humidity in the atmosphere,” the director says. “I was saying to Bradford, ‘Remember school rides when you were young, when it was rainy, boring, but there was a kind of joy and happiness in that beauty of the rain?’ Those were my favorite days because I was allowed to read and not have to work or go outside. I could read sci-fi.”

Mel Gibson, the veteran of this year’s director nominees, is often attracted to stories about martyrdom, though he twice passed on directing “Hacksaw Ridge,” “like Caesar with the crown,” he says. Drawing on the messaging of his Catholic upbringing, Gibson eventually found the headspace to tackle Desmond Doss’ story.

“I was always taught from when I was very young that some things were more important than life,” he says. “A lot of these characters in my films, they have that attitude, and Desmond was one. Through filial love he wouldn’t touch a weapon, but also through filial love he wanted to serve. The ultimate act of love is to lay your life on the line for someone else.”

Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” is often referred to as a love letter to Los Angeles. But it came together at a time when he was struggling with his new life in the city. The movie’s story about being so close yet so far away from one’s goals reflects that feeling.

“L.A. was an acquired taste for me,” Chazelle says. “The things that felt the most present were just the months and years rolling by. There were no seasons, so time just seemed to slip through my fingers, and I’d wake up and realize a year had passed and I wasn’t any closer to realizing my dream.”

And finally, when Kenneth Lonergan set about writing “Manchester by the Sea,” he was coming off an unpleasant period following the legal and procedural difficulties of his previous film, “Margaret.” He admits that plenty of that residue made its way into “Manchester.”

“I don’t think it would be that far afield to say my life had been wrecked somewhat, partly with my complicity,” Lonergan says. “I think that feeling definitely fed my interest in this particular story of a guy who has literally destroyed his own life. It’s not nearly as bad as what my characters go through, but you’re always using your own experience as an analog.”

With a Directors Guild award in tow, Chazelle seems to have the inside track among the five contenders for Hollywood’s top directing honor. If he wins, he’ll become the youngest filmmaker ever to do so.