Art is unlike other media in that it requires its creators to share parts of themselves as they’re likewise primed for the supremely subjective criticism that follows. After all, no dentist is asked to soliloquize about how a tooth extraction reflects life choices. The directors of three of this year’s potential best picture contenders account for their recent work in the most personal of ways.
“Belfast” writer and director Kenneth Branagh, who based the film loosely on his family’s experiences in 1960s Ireland, doesn’t call the film strictly autobiographical yet the connection is undeniable. “In leaving Belfast at nine years old, my heart was broken,” he says. “I made this film to try to put it back together.”
Experiencing such profound violence at a young age was transformative. “As a legacy in personality, I think it has made me more guarded, protected and controlling than I felt myself naturally to be.”
While actors often talk of vulnerability and authenticity in their work, casting Jude Hill (Buddy) as his on-screen avatar further ensured Branagh couldn’t avoid seeing some version of himself return to Belfast.
But, the film goes beyond a personal moment of nostalgia while inviting the audience deeper. It’s to “taste again what it’s like to drop the cynicism of our adult worldliness and experience life with a greater sense of wonder, gratitude and fun,” he says.
As for what Branagh learned about himself, he says, “‘Belfast’ for me, and the beauty of the times before the troubles, is a state of mind. At best, even in all its human frailty, a state of bliss.”
It isn’t just the autobiographical-leaning that exposes life’s truths. When Maggie Gyllenahaal read Elena Ferranti’s novel “The Lost Daughter” she connected with the material in such a way that she wrote the adapted screenplay with plans to direct her first feature film. Yet Gyllenhaal, whose acting career spans about three decades, refers not to her vocation but her children as a “massive part” of her identity.
With her directing debut, Gyllenhaal strove to portray motherhood in a way that other women could truly see themselves. “It was really important to me that [Leda, played by Olivia Colman] not be crazy,” says Gyllenhaal. “And, this does feel imperative and important artistically as I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve realized there are so many movies about crazy women made by really interesting filmmakers starring formidable, brilliant actresses” but they give audiences an out; when the women on screen are unhinged, it’s easier to dismiss them and their mainstream similarities. These depictions almost protect women from their own feelings in an us/them mentality.
“But here,” says Gyllenhaal, “we’re asked to consider a sane woman who still has this broad spectrum of feelings.”
While Gyllenhaal feels deeply for the material, it’s overly simplistic to draw personal comparisons between a female filmmaker with children of her own and “The Lost Daughter.” Even though the film portrays a universality of feelings, its storyline and characters are fictional. To make it otherwise Gyllenhaal says it would feel “terrifyingly vulnerable.”
Gyllenhaal recalls instructing Dakota Johnson to make her character Nina look as different as possible from how Johnson looks in real life, or any of her other films.
“It will open a door for you,” Gyllenhaal remembers telling Johnson. “It will give you freedom to make her different from you even though ultimately your hearts are the same. Your souls are the same. To make her circumstances very different is going to serve you.”
This fictional film, however, is truly a vehicle for connection. “Through that story, [if] you can say something you think is universally truthful, that’s the place I’m trying to hit,” notes Gyllenhaal.
Part of that truth came when Gyllenhaal realized her position as director was regarded differently from that of an actor. Citing an example during the pre-production process when the tax-incentivized Jersey location didn’t feel right, Gyllenhaal had to reach out to the producers and financiers with a request that would surely lead to more money pouring into the budget. Rather than resistance, there was instead an unexpected acquiescence.
“That was when I realized, I’m actually being dealt with in a completely different way [than when I’m working as an actor],” she says. “And to be honest with you, I think that’s because directing is a traditionally male job and so I was being dealt with in the way that I think is maybe more male.”
While a director’s interest in a project can stem from experience, as with Branagh, and themes, as with Gyllenhaal, there’s also the connection of a similar lifestyle, as with writer and director Aaron Sorkin and “Being the Ricardos.”
However, unlike Branagh and Gyllenhaal who were compelled to move forward on passion projects, Sorkin was approached specifically by producer Todd Black and asked to write a film about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. At the time, Black was perhaps best known for producing “The Pursuit of Happyness,” an adaptation of a true story starring Will Smith, who went on to garner an Oscar nomination for his efforts.
Rather than delving in as a traditional biopic, Sorkin moved in a direction that seems to parallel his own fascination with the behind-the-scenes struggles of creating entertainment. In addition, Sorkin reveals that he wanted to play against the obvious.
“When people think about Lucy and Desi Arnaz, they’re really thinking about Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. I thought it would be fun and interesting to bounce the lives of the actors against the lives of the characters they were playing.”
The film encompasses one specific week for them and the volatility that comes with both production and passion. It’s easy to spot the threads of connection between Sorkin as a producer and his subject matter.
“We can see how high the stakes are for Lucy … she lives and dies with the success of each episode,” says Sorkin. “It’s not hard for me to relate to that.”
As for any similarities between Lucy and himself: “Lucy’s physicality is performative. She’s trying to make people laugh. My physicality when I’m writing is just energy.”
While many writers and filmmakers may seek to connect with audiences on a variety of levels, from pure entertainment to revealing a facet of the life experience, they all must begin with a particular thread of connection that the creator wants (or needs) to unravel. With Branagh, Gyllenhaal and Sorkin, it’s through deep emotion that the humanity escapes.