Oscar Watch: The Directors

David Fincher and the other best director nominees face a formidable foe in Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire"

Wandering around the crowded Shrine Auditorium party after "Slumdog Millionaire" had won the top prize at the SAG awards last month, its director Danny Boyle seemed especially giddy.

His elation was understandable. Only months earlier he was trapped in a London editing suite when a call came telling him that Warner Bros. was shuttering "Slumdog's" backer, Warner Independent Pictures -- meaning that the film would almost certainly go straight to video.

"It looked like suicide was now the only option," Boyle jokes. "Seriously, you think you might as well kill yourself."

Today, rescued by Fox Searchlight, buoyant as his movie heads toward the $100 million mark in worldwide boxoffice, Boyle is one of the five nominees for the best director Oscar. Like his colleagues Stephen Daldry ("The Reader"), David Fincher ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), Ron Howard ("Frost/Nixon") and Gus Van Sant ("Milk"), he has endured crises and confrontations that would have compromised the aspirations of many helmers.

None seemed as great as the Warner Independent debacle last summer.

"(WIP's) Polly Cohen and Paul Federbush had given us enormous support -- 40% of the budget," Boyle recalls. "Our budget was 7 million pounds" (roughly $10 million today, but closer to $14 million when the movie was made).

That relative generosity, ironically, made it harder for the studio to offload the film. Who would want to pay so much for an obscure indie release? Then "something extraordinary happened. Somehow (Warners') Jeff Robinov and Kevin McCormick showed it to (Searchlight's) Peter Rice. This was a couple of weeks before Telluride (the film festival)."

By the time the movie opened at Telluride, Rice and Warners had a handshake deal, though it would be weeks before they concluded an agreement that Searchlight would handle the film's release and the companies would split revenues 50-50, including India.

"It was extraordinary the way it worked out," Boyle recalls.

Ron Howard was equally lucky that Universal agreed to front the roughly $29 million budget for "Frost/Nixon," his movie version of Peter Morgan's play -- though to get it made, he had to work for scale.

With a projected 40-day shoot, "I had to devise a visual style that I felt would stimulate that kind of speed," Howard explains. "The cinematographer (Salvatore Totino) and I sat down and talked about very naturalistic lighting that was not set-up specific but a little more documentary-like."

Howard had to make other sacrifices to meet the restraints of his ultra-tight budget.

"I wanted to shoot at the real Casa Pacifica, Nixon's western White House in San Clemente, and that is outside the Report-To Zone," he says, referring to the geographical limit outside Los Angeles beyond which union workers cannot go without being housed overnight. "We looked at our budget, and we couldn't afford it."

But Howard was adamant. "Ultimately, I combined two sets into one and dropped one day from the schedule. We then stayed over only one night."

He got what he wanted: a day and a quarter in Nixon's own home.

Gus Van Sant had his own challenges with "Milk," primarily competing with other biopics in the works about the slain activist, including one that Oliver Stone was to direct.

The biggest problem for Van Sant was securing financing, even with Sean Penn and -- at that stage -- Matt Damon attached to star. "It probably took us six months," he says, noting that it was the sole project he was pursuing at the time. "We had sit-downs with maybe five different companies. Only one of them said yes."

That was MIchael London's Groundswell Prods., which then sold the movie to Focus Features as a negative pick-up. In the process, however, Van Sant lost Damon, who couldn't commit to the movie with the new schedule.

Personnel problems also befell Stephen Daldry, the British director nominated for "The Reader," who lost both his original leading lady and his producer: Nicole Kidman exited the project in favor of having a baby; and Scott Rudin left in favor of spending less time with Harvey Weinstein.

Daldry says his first reaction was to be "delighted" that Kidman was pregnant, even though shooting was well underway in Berlin, and she was expected to arrive imminently for her own part of the film. Oddly, he had approached Kate Winslet to play the part before Kidman, but she was unavailable. Now, during a forced hiatus, he went back to her again.

"The hiatus became an opportunity," Daldry notes.



No such opportunity presented itself to Fincher, who presided over an enormously complex shoot, a weighty budget (at $160 million, more than five times that of any other best picture nominee's) and a studio that saw the departure of the management team that had initiated the project.

The story of "Button" goes back years before Fincher came on board. Howard himself at one point was meant to direct. Fincher, who at first had been too unknown to be considered, only entered the race after the success of his 2002 drama "Fight Club."

"I read the earlier version many years ago and thought it was a wonderful story," he says, "but I didn't have any kind of cachet in Hollywood at the time, so I wasn't on the shortlist of people to bring it to the screen."

Once he was hired, Fincher had to deal with a slew of challenges -- not least when Hurricane Katrina threatened hopes to shoot in Louisiana in order to access its favorable tax benefits.

An immediate concern in post-Katrina New Orleans was the shortage of construction materials.

"The not-very-funny joke was that we were in line at Home Depot, like everybody else," says Cean Chaffin, Fincher's longtime producing partner.

But there were other concerns, too: Fincher couldn't find a house that might pass as Button's. When he did, during a scout in New Orleans' Garden District, Chaffin found it difficult to secure permission.

"Of course, it had never been filmed in before, and they said they don't allow filming," says Chaffin. "It was one of those things where we had to get everyone to say yes" -- including matriarch Mary Nell Nolan, who had evacuated to Houston.

After a location manager was dispatched to Texas to meet her, she agreed -- luckily, she had a past as an aspiring actress in the 1930s.

"The city of New Orleans allowed us to shut down the Garden District for, good God, four or five months," says Fincher. "We closed streets. We created a lot of hardships for the neighborhood."

Yet shooting in the right location was easier than casting one key role -- that of Button love-interest Daisy's elderly grandmother. The first actress chosen for the part became ill and had to drop out; she died a week later. Her replacement "had a really hard time moving around," says Chaffin. "We found out later she had a broken back." It was only the third actress cast, Phyllis Somerville, who stayed in the film.

Several older extras passed away during the long shoot. Ted Manson, 82, who in the movie is struck by lightning, died shortly after production -- but of natural causes.

Other disasters were narrowly avoided. After great effort, a period tugboat was found in Jamaica and brought to Louisiana, where the "Button" visual effects team had one day to shoot digital images. On its way back to Jamaica, the tug sank.

Luckily, the movie didn't. With $100 million-plus in domestic boxoffice and 13 Oscar nominations, it is "Slumdog's" main competitor for picture and director.

Being in that race at all still stuns Boyle.

At the SAG Awards, freshly returned from the Indian premiere, he said he was amazed at the response his film has had -- not least in India, where almost everyone had seen it before it even premiered.

"They don't do press screenings in India," Boyle says. "But everybody had seen it on illegal copies. This one reporter, she was wonderful -- she insisted she was going to wait and see the film in the theater. I said, 'Thank you so much!'"

Just in case she couldn't, she assured him, "I've got it right here on my pen drive!"
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