Every year, Variety hosts an intimate brunch where it honors 10 Directors to Watch and the recipients of the Creative Impact Awards the morning following the Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival Gala. Past honorees include Charlie Kaufman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Will Smith and Richard Linklater. This year’s honorees will be feted on Jan. 3 at the Parker Hotel in Palm Springs. Presenters include Gal Gadot and Jessica Chastain.
Creative Impact in Directing
Fifteen years ago, Patty Jenkins announced her arrival as a filmmaker to reckon with and won an Independent Spirit Award for first Feature for her debut film, “Monster.” That movie won Charlize Theron an Academy Award for lead actress and put Jenkins on Hollywood’s radar. While it would take some time for her to release a follow-up film, “Wonder Woman” was more than worth the wait, having grossed over $821 million worldwide and won over fans and skeptics alike. In fact, “Wonder Woman” was recently named one of the 10 best movies of the year by the American Film Institute (AFI), which happens to be Jenkins’ alma mater.
It’s not that Jenkins wasn’t busy during her time away from the big screen: she directed several acclaimed episodes of everything from “Arrested Development” to “The Killing,” which earned her Emmy and DGA Award nominations. She circled several films, even signing on to “Thor 2: The Dark World” before leaving over creative differences. She was also raising her son with her husband, former firefighter Sam Sheridan. “When you have a little baby, directing a feature where you’re gone every few years is not the easiest thing to sync up,” Jenkins told Variety. “I know people who have done it. It wasn’t something I chose to do.”
It seems superheroes were always part of her destiny; she recalls going to see the Christopher Reeve “Superman” as a child with her sister. “I remember everything about the experience of seeing it,” Jenkins says. “It really hit me in that way of exactly what I think superheroes were designed to do — to inspire you to metaphorically imagine the superhero within.
“I always thought, because of ‘Superman,’ one day I want to make a movie that makes other people feel like that movie made me feel. The fact that that’s come true is so stunning.”
Jenkins wanted to pay tribute to the original “Wonder Woman” created by William Moulton Marston — whose story was also put on screen last year in “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.”
“I did very much want to get to love — because that’s what she stands for — and the complexity of what we’re facing,” she says. “It’s the journey of a character who believes in good and evil, facing a world that shows you how unbelievably complicated it is to tackle that in any black-and-white terms, and therefore how much love it requires to make this world a better place.”
Jenkins is at work on the sequel to “Wonder Woman,” which she is co-scripting with Geoff Johns and David Callaham. Sources put her salary between $7 million and $9 million to write, produce and direct, making her the highest-paid female director of all time. But Jenkins can’t concentrate on figures; she’s been down this road before.
“I knew when I briefly signed on to do ‘Thor 2’ that I would have been [the highest-paid female director], and that made big news and I was like, ‘Oh, OK, there we are,’” she says. “But that had nothing to do with my objective.”
Creative Impact in Acting
A year ago, most Americans knew Daniel Kaluuya for his work in an episode of the British anthology show “Black Mirror” or his supporting role as Emily Blunt’s partner in “Sicario.” Now, following the critical and commercial success of “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s scathing look at race relations via a horror film, Kaluuya finds himself a newly minted star with Golden Globes, Gotham, Independent Spirit and two SAG Award nominations.
Reflecting on his whirlwind year at Variety’s “Actors on Actors” Studio in November, Kaluuya said he owes a big thanks to Netflix. Once the streaming service began showing “Black Mirror” in 2014, people became familiar with his episode, “Fifteen Million Merits” — even though he had shot it three years earlier.
One person who caught it was Jordan Peele, who passed the “Get Out” script along to Kaluuya.
“I read his script and I was like, ‘Yo, this script is insane,’” Kaluuya recalled. “I saw it on the page. I saw it in the first line. It just felt like it cost him something. I always think that’s really exciting to work with a filmmaker that’s putting it all on the line.”
The year is shaping up to be another stellar one for Kaluuya after other directors found him in unique places; Ryan Coogler saw a short film at Sundance and reached out to him for “Black Panther” and Steve McQueen cast in him in “Widows” after seeing the actor in a play in 2010.
As for his own sensibilities, Kaluuya loves both “high-brow cinema and arthouse cinema. I ideally look for both in the same project. If I feel it, then I feel it. Then my friends will feel it, too. I just wanna make stuff for my friends.”
Creative Impact in Writing
With all his accomplishments — including an Academy Award for scripting “The Social Network” and six Emmy wins for producing and writing “The West Wing”— it’s hard to believe Aaron Sorkin had never stepped behind the camera before his directorial debut, “Molly’s Game.” Based on the book by Molly Bloom about her time running an elite underground poker game, the movie crackles with confidence and the fast-talking, thought-provoking dialogue we’ve come to expect from Sorkin. There are stellar performances from Jessica Chastain as Bloom and Idris Elba as her attorney.
So it’s a surprise to learn that Sorkin never thought he would be the person to tell Bloom’s story. Though he found her book entertaining, he thought he would pass on adapting the book, but took a courtesy meeting with Bloom. “I was expecting to meet someone, frankly, I wasn’t going to respect very much,” Sorkin told Variety. “I was expecting to meet someone who was just cashing in on their decade-long brush with celebrity. But within 10 minutes she had completely turned me around. She, it turns out, is built out of character and integrity. Far from cashing in, she has paid a big price for not cashing in.”
Sorkin’s script digs deeper than the book, looking into Bloom’s formative years as an Olympic hopeful skier and her relationship with her driven father. It is also set largely after Bloom’s book was published, when she was raided by the FBI. Originally, Sorkin was only going to pen the screenplay, but producers Amy Pascal and Mark Gordon wanted him to direct the film himself. Sorkin, who at one time was considering directing “The Social Network” before David Fincher became involved, eventually chose to step behind the camera. “The reason, ultimately, that I decided to direct it, for better or for worse, was I knew there was a gravitational pull back toward the book, toward the shiny objects, the decadence, the money, the glamor, the sex,” he says. “I wanted to do a story set against the backdrop of that.”
But he admits had he known he would end up directing the film, he might have written some things differently: “I’m so grateful that I didn’t know I was directing it when I was writing it, because I would have been too scared to write some of the scenes that I wrote.”