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Unexpected Hopefuls Enliven This Year’s Oscar Race for Director Gold

The Oscar buzz surrounding “Green Book” has been a revelation for Peter Farrelly, directing solo without brother Bobby this time around.

“I have a very thick skin, but I didn’t realize we were so looked-down-on,” Farrelly says with a laugh. “I thought we were highly regarded.”

Critics have marveled that the director, who created a crass-comedy oeuvre with Bobby, was at the helm of this awards-track film. He has a theory about the warm reaction to “Green Book,” audience award winner at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival: “It’s because this movie is not just a bunch of laughs,” Farrelly says. “It’s got heart, a feeling that gets to people.”

If an Oscar-tipped film such as “Green Book” seems like it’s a big step outside Farrelly’s comfort zone, think again. Farrelly’s work has often examined the clash of extreme cultural differences, whether Siamese twins who can’t get along (“Stuck on You”), a guy hypnotized to believe an obese woman is his svelte dream girl (“Shallow Hal”), or a one-armed bowler looking for redemption (“Kingpin”).

He’s not the only one pleasantly surprising awards-watchers this awards season. Yes, Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” deals with racial themes, familiar terrain for the director, but who would have seen John Krasinski breaking out with a horror film like “A Quiet Place”? Certainly not Krasinski himself.

“If you told me I’d be directing a genre movie, I’d have told you that was insane,” he says. “But I thought the script could become this great metaphor for parenthood. I realized I was writing a love letter to my kids, which sounds insane if you look at the poster.”

Sure, Barry Jenkins tackled “If Beale Street Could Talk,” an even more ambitious exploration of black identity than his Oscar winning “Moonlight,” adapting a James Baldwin novel for it. And while Alfonso Cuaron last won an Oscar for space odyssey “Gravity,” his “Roma,” a low-key, black-and-white look at a family and its servants in Mexico City in the early 1970s, circles back to the character-driven drama he explored in “Y Tu Mama Tambien.”

But on the other hand, Mimi Leder, a rare female Emmy directing winner in the 1990s, returns to features after a long break with an of-the-moment look at the early life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (played by Felicity Jones) in “On the Basis of Sex.” As far as the “Deep Impact” and “Pay It Forward” director is concerned, this is no comeback story.

“I’ve been working in TV for many years so I’ve been making little movies the entire time,” Leder says. “I don’t differentiate. It’s about story-telling.”

In a career that has included two Emmy wins for “E.R.,” and credits on series including “The Leftovers,” “Shameless” and “China Beach,” Leder says her new venture “was one of the most life-changing experiences I’ve ever had. I was making a film about the origin story of a modern-day superhero.”

That it is being released into a world caught up in changes wrought by #MeToo and Time’s Up is not lost on Leder: “It’s more relevant than ever.”

And yet, the timing of its release is actually coincidental. “We were already shooting this when the Harvey Weinstein news broke and the #MeToo movement began,” she notes.

Indeed, coincidence, circumstance and luck often figure more prominently in the choice of projects than a desire to try something new. “When the writer on this movie first told me the story, I said, ‘That’s a great story.’ It wasn’t a conscious choice to make a drama,” Farrelly says.

Director Peter Farrelly (center, in blue) checks the footage on the set of “Green Book,” a change of pace from the comedies he has co-directed with his brother Bobby.
Patti Perret/Universal

Steve McQueen, whose 2013 “12 Years a Slave,” won the best picture Oscar, doesn’t see himself as jumping into genre film with his latest, “Widows.” The trappings of the thriller are simply the structure upon which McQueen hangs the ideas he’s interested in.

“A genre film always has a beginning, a middle and an end,” McQueen says. “Once it starts, you know certain things have to be completed. It’s like stepping on a train — or a rollercoaster. The heist is a construct, but I wanted to steep it in the reality of Chicago and look at race, politics, corruption, religion. I want to put that story in the context of these people’s everyday lives.”

Similarly, Damien Chazelle, who won an Oscar for the earthbound “La La Land,” didn’t strategize a stylistic shift with “First Man.” In fact, he already was developing the moon-landing tale when “La La Land” became viable: “It’s not like, well, I’ve done X, Y, Z so I should try something new,” Chazelle says. “It was almost a circumstantial thing.”

Oscar likes actors who become directors; ask anyone from Clint Eastwood to Robert Redford to Woody Allen to Mel Gibson. So it’s no surprise that Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, “A Star Is Born,” is getting serious award consideration. As with Redford with “Ordinary People,” he gravitated toward a meaty personal drama for his directorial debut, and then upped the ante by choosing to remake a storied Hollywood tale and filming big concert scenes opposite a music super star, aka Lady Gaga.

Still, actor Paul Dano, whose directorial debut, “Wildlife,” may figure in year-end critical awards, admits that moving behind the camera was a bigger step than he expected.

“Making your first film, there is no comfort zone,” says Dano, who co-wrote “Wildlife” with partner Zoe Kazan from a Richard Ford novel. “It’s absolutely scary — it’s so thrilling, so fun, so hard and every day you’re learning so much.”

“I’ve been working in tv for many years so i’ve been making little movies the entire time.”
Mimi Leder

Having worked with filmmakers as varied as McQueen, Bong Joon-ho, Paul Thomas Anderson and Kelly Reichardt, Dano tried to draw from a work ethic he admired in his directors.

“The biggest thing I’ve taken away is the spirit of it — that you need to wait from something to be right, even though time and money [are] going by,” he says. “That you have to demand excellence and integrity. That you’re not afraid to stop when something’s not right. To lead the way with love and care.”

Sometimes subject matter pushes a director toward something new. Joel Edgerton, whose work as a writer, director (“The Gift”) and actor have tended toward edgier fare, seems an unlikely choice to dramatize the memoir of a teen who went through now-debunked gay-conversion therapy. But, with “Boy Erased,” Edgerton was intrigued by the possibility of reconnecting with something from his own past.

“I was raised Catholic and lost touch with my faith and my practice of religion,” Edgerton says. “This was a chance to rekindle my understanding of religion. I wanted to depict, rather than demonize, in order to have an empathetic approach. It was important to spend time with people on the other side of the story and not just have one point of view.”

“Green Book” wasn’t an effort by Peter Farrelly to re-brand himself as a director. But Farrelly admits that the film’s break-out status as an awards contender will affect the choices he’s offered in the future.

“It’s definitely opened some doors for me to make different kinds of movies,” he says. “There are lots of things I’d like to do. But I don’t think I should try a horror movie. It’s not like I’m trying to prove all the different kinds of movies I can make.”

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