From ‘West Side Story’ to ‘Dune,’ Established Directors Delve Into Uncharted Territory for Oscar Recognition

Steven Spielberg West Side Story Directors
Courtesy of Niko Tavernise/20th Century Studios

An assembly line follows a simple formula. Use the most efficient way to mass-produce something and repeat. Some filmmakers can get away with that approach for a time. The ones who challenge themselves to work outside their comfort zones add skills to their tool kits, and, not coincidentally, often find themselves in the mix when awards season rolls around.

Steven Spielberg has directed dozens of films in many genres, but this year’s “West Side Story” adaptation marked his first movie musical. Even for a director who has brought aliens, dinosaurs and the invasion of Normandy to the screen, the project spurred anxiety. “Fear is my fuel and confidence is my enemy,” Spielberg told the Guardian about the project. “If I’m on my heels, I get better ideas than, let’s say, coming in to do the sequel to ‘Jurassic Park.’”

That fear of working in uncharted waters helped Siân Heder as she approached writing and directing “CODA,” an English-language adaptation of the French film “La Famille Bélier,” which tells the story of a hearing girl who is a child of deaf adults.

“I find that being outside of your comfort zone means you’re pushing yourself as an artist,” Heder tells Variety. “If I felt safe making a movie, I think I might not be making something interesting.”

Heder learned American Sign Language (ASL) to prepare to work with her cast, a leap of faith with no certainty as to where she would land.

“I was very fearful about having to use an interpreter to direct because it’s such an intimate relationship and having another person in the middle of that felt like it would dilute that connection,” she says “Finding a new way to establish that connection with my actors and guide a performance was really a beautiful way to grow and I think I’ll take elements of that process forward into how I work now.”

Siân Heder (center) directs Emilia Jones (right) and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (left). There are also ways for a director to break their modus operandi while still examining the same themes. Courtesy of Mark Hill/Apple TV Plus

Many of Joel Coen’s films tell the stories of men corrupted by greed or desire and the consequences they suffer. His “The Tragedy of Macbeth” falls into that category, but it stands apart by being a faithful adaptation of the William Shakespeare play and it’s his first outing without brother Ethan, his longtime writing, directing and producing partner.

“I spent 40 years staring at Ethan after every shot or watching him see if there was a problem. So I missed him because that wasn’t there,” Coen said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. “On the other hand, [Francis McDormand, his wife, who plays Lady Macbeth and is a producer on the film], was there as a producer bringing a different skill set, especially in the context of this particular movie due to her experience in the theater.”

Exploring new avenues is part of what led Jane Campion to tackle “The Power of the Dog” after a long resume of projects featuring female protagonists. Speaking with the L.A. Times, the helmer shared. “At this point in my career, I want to do something that surprises. I want to sing a song that’s really sung.”

Another director looking for new challenges this year was Denis Villeneuve, whose “Dune” might, at first glance. appear to stand alongside his previous films such as “Blade Runner 2049” or “Arrival.”

“My approach has always been the same so far and I was wishing for a change,” says Villeneuve of wanting to shoot the movie for IMAX. “I had to adapt my approach of shooting specifically for ‘Dune,’ which brought me a new freedom.”

While technical aspects of this approach impacted the entire process, Villeneuve never felt constrained. “You can’t quantify freedom. You are free, or you aren’t. I would not be able to make a movie without freedom.”