Talent and 'boatloads of luck' propelled this year's director nominees

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He was a novice director who had yet to complete his first feature, a young man whose total movie work amounted to a few short films. So when Jason Reitman heard of an intriguing screenplay about an oddball teenager and her unwanted baby, he knew there was little chance he'd be hired for the job.

"I read the script and fell in love with it, (but) I hadn't established myself," Reitman remembers. "I was just finishing (2005's) 'Thank You for Smoking'; it had not even played Toronto. I was at that time just a short-film maker."

As Reitman expected, the producers hired another director, Brad Silberling. But a year later, Silberling pulled out over creative differences.

"The opportunity came up again and I threw my name in the ring and campaigned pretty hard," he says. "I had my agents call incessantly, and I took as many meetings as I could and told them how passionate I was." Next thing he knew, he'd landed the gig.

Today, Fox Searchlight's "Juno" is the bona fide sensation of this year's specialty releases, and Reitman is one of five nominees for best director at the 80th Academy Awards, along with Paul Thomas Anderson (Paramount Vantage's "There Will Be Blood"), Joel and Ethan Coen (Miramax's "No Country for Old Men"), Tony Gilroy (Warner Bros.' "Michael Clayton") and Julian Schnabel (Miramax's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly").

A bit of luck -- along with a lot of talent -- shaped "Juno," just as it did the work of all this year's directing nominees.

"Boatloads of luck come into play," notes Joel Coen.

If George Clooney had not given in to his friend Steven Soderbergh's pleas to meet Gilroy, would "Michael Clayton" have been the stellar work it is? If the producer who bought the rights to Upton Sinclair's long-forgotten novel "Oil!" had chosen not to collaborate with Anderson, would "There Will Be Blood" ever have reached the screen? If the Coens had stuck to their initial conviction that Josh Brolin was wrong for the leading role, would "No Country" have had its considerable impact? And if Schnabel had made "Diving Bell" in English, as financier Pathe wanted, would his movie have become a critical phenomenon?

Luck has helped bring these directors to where they are today, but who will win the Oscar is anybody's guess. The Coens were early favorites -- especially after winning the DGA Award in late January -- but many Academy members might split their vote, opting to reward them for best picture or adapted screenplay.

Most insiders believe the odds are against Gilroy and Reitman. In Gilroy's case, his directing style might seem muted when compared to the razzle-dazzle of his rivals. And in Reitman's, his failure to be nominated for either a Golden Globe or a DGA Award -- traditional litmus tests for the Oscars -- would seem to indicate that he doesn't have the widespread support needed to win.

Reitman admits his nomination stunned him. He watched the announcements with his wife at Sundance, and says he almost tuned out when it came to the directors' names. But afterwards, as word spread and the phone began to ring, "everyone was crying," he recalls.

In a movie that has drawn raves for its screenplay by Diablo Cody and for its star-making turn by Ellen Page, Reitman has been the underpraised element -- but that happens frequently to comedy helmers.

"People are confused about what a director does," he says. "They have this image in their head of a guy standing on a mountain with his hands in front of him, creating a frame, and thousands of extras on horses. As a director, your job is to be the mediator of tone and rhythm."

Even without the thousands of extras, Reitman faced big challenges: He had only 30 days to shoot his entire movie; he had to make it convincingly span four seasons; and his budget was under $7 million, the smallest of this year's director-nominee films.

But the hardest task Reitman faced was getting the tone just right on a project that could easily have veered into farce. "You have a screenplay that is heightened across the board in its dialogue, and you have characters that are going through very tricky emotional things," he says. "That was the hardest part of my job."

For Gilroy, the toughest part might have been just getting his film off the ground. All told, it took some seven years from the time he started writing to the point when it was completed. But once he got that first meeting with Clooney, the pace quickened. Financier Steve Samuels put up the $21.5 million the movie cost, and Warners agreed to buy domestic rights as a negative pickup.

Still, Gilroy had to face the challenge of working as a first-time director.

To begin with, he says, he was lucky that Clooney didn't start shooting until two or three weeks in, giving Gilroy a chance to get up to snuff and not be too intimidated by the megastar. For another, he was lucky to have a cinematographer, Robert Elswit, who was comfortable with tight budgets and limited schedules and who knew Clooney well, having worked as his DP on 2005's "Good Night, and Good Luck."

But Gilroy was also lucky not to be stumped by simple things that he hadn't imagined would prove nettlesome -- like the difficulty of filming a car sequence over many locations.

"I learned along the way that it's really impossible to shoot cars," he says. Also, "I will never type the words 'just before dawn' again. I may write them for another director, but never in a script of my own."

The car shoots eventually worked out fine, but luck was less on Gilroy's side when he began editing the picture and discovered that he had to cut two scenes involving actors he admired -- especially Jennifer Ehle -- and then had to call and tell them the bad news.

"(One) was a very unpleasant scene between (Clayton) and the woman he was sleeping with," Gilroy explains. "It was another dead end for him, really. It wasn't a ray-of-sunshine scene. But as brilliant as Jennifer Ehle was -- and she was incredible -- it was a six-minute scene, and in the end we just didn't need it."

Luck also seemed to be against the Coens when they were searching for an actor to play Llewelyn Moss, the role eventually filled by Josh Brolin. They considered one performer after another, but none seemed right for the blue-collar role. Nor did Brolin, who doggedly pursued them for the job, having his agent call again and again with a barrage of requests that they meet the actor.

"He sent us an audition tape, but it didn't do anything for us," Ethan Coen notes. "We didn't have a backup, even two weeks before the shoot." What would the brothers have done if Brolin hadn't come in and convinced them on the spot that he was right for the part? "We probably would have just killed ourselves," Ethan quips.

But once the Coens finally settled on Brolin, disaster struck: Shortly before he was scheduled to begin shooting, Brolin broke his collarbone and injured his arm in a motorcycle accident. After keeping the accident secret for a while, Brolin was finally persuaded to call Ethan and confess what had happened.

Instead of killing himself, Ethan asked, "Which arm?" And when he learned the damage was done to Brolin's right arm, he sighed with relief. "That's OK," he told Brolin, "because Moss is shot in the right shoulder" early in the shoot. The movie was able to go ahead on schedule, with the perfect cast.

"Diving Bell" would have been a wildly different film if Schnabel had been able to work with his dream lead, Johnny Depp, the actor who brought him aboard the project to begin with. Initially, he conceived of the movie in English, then shifted his thinking toward shooting entirely in French, believing that it would feel more authentic. But that also meant Depp would have had to act in French.

But luck intervened again. Depp called Schnabel to say he couldn't do the film due to his tight schedule. So instead, Schnabel had to go ahead with near-unknown Mathieu Amalric, who was recommended to him by producer Kathleen Kennedy after she had worked with the French actor on 2005's "Munich."

But Amalric might have made all the difference: He gave the Frenchman he played a credibility that Depp might not have, and helped launch "Diving Bell" on its path to the Oscars.

Luck with casting was also crucial for Anderson on "There Will Be Blood." From the time when he first sat down to write his script, he had Daniel Day-Lewis in mind for the leading role. But Day-Lewis is one of the most pursued actors on the planet.

When Day-Lewis said yes, Anderson had to deal with another problem: He hadn't obtained the rights to Sinclair's novel.

Thankfully, the producer who held the rights agreed to a deal, and when Anderson secured financing through Miramax and Paramount Vantage, he was able to proceed with his movie, bringing it in around $35 million and even getting away with a major oil derrick fire that could easily have been a disaster.

"We made it out of there without anybody getting hurt," he says. "We were lucky."
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