Eight helmers reveal what they took from past movies (most with an Oscar nom or two) that carried over to this year's contenders: "In many cases," says 'Roma's' Alfonso Cuaron, "it's about what you don't want to do next."
La La Land was my first instance of having to do larger, set-piece-type sequences, and so that helped as training for First Man. Because we tried to do everything in-camera [rather than using visual effects in post] in both films, there was a lot of emphasis on choreographing stuff beforehand, figuring out timings and ways to do full takes. Some of those scenes on First Man felt weirdly like doing musical numbers, so that was helpful to have had a bit of practice with.
On a broader creative level, [there was] this idea of trying to bake two different movies into one movie. La La Land was the old-fashioned musical on the one hand, and this modern relationship drama on the other. And First Man was even a little more extreme, I'd say: It was this big space mission movie on one hand, and then this intimate family documentary on the other. Trying to find a way to have both of those be alive within the same film but feed off each other, and one never to outshine the other — that was, in many ways, the biggest creative challenge of both films.
Creed was my second feature film, so I was learning the whole time. I learned about how I could use actions to tell a specific story: when you have multiple action scenes, how they have to feel different. They have to feel different in terms of how they look, in terms of what they're about and in terms of how they make you feel. Both films have several action scenes that happened in different acts, so just kind of knowing what your final fight has to feel like versus your first fight, and what all the ones in the middle have to feel like.
Both films deal with identity: That's what's at the core.
In many cases, it's about what you don't want to do next. After all those years of working on Gravity, I said, "I want to do something very grounded." But by the same token, from a technological standpoint, being involved in Gravity [provided] opportunities to create with certain tools and technologies — it allowed me to express myself the way I wanted to express myself.
We were transforming a city that in 1970 grew up without any urban planning, so it was really challenging. We tried to shoot as much as possible in the real locations, and those locations needed a lot of CG fixing. In many ways, the whole goal of it is that this should not show up on the screen. We have to understand that all these things are tools. And there's a tendency of visual effects films that you have to notice them, see the visual effects because that's what you're paying your money for in certain kinds of films. I'm more of the school where the visual effects are just a tool to create your reality. You should not be aware of them.
I was being pitched every teenage movie under the sun after I made Diary, and it was really clear to me that I didn't want to be pigeonholed as a director of teenage movies because I had never viewed Diary as a teenage movie. It was a very universal story about what it feels like to be a teenage girl, but [what mattered] was the truth and honesty behind it and the giving voice to somebody who doesn't usually have a voice.
Similarly, Lee [Israel, the subject of Can You Ever Forgive Me?] feels like a woman we don't give voice to very much in our society. We tend to ignore women over 50, and we tend to ignore women who care more about their intellect than their appearance. She's just not a character I feel like we've seen highlighted very much. I felt just as connected to Lee as I felt to Minnie, and I felt like it was a continuation of my career trajectory, but in a sort of more grown-up way. I felt like I was getting to expand my vocabulary and show that I wasn't just making movies about teenagers.
Moonlight was a very small film, so it wasn't much different from the sets that I was accustomed to directing, whether for short films or commercials. Whereas with this film, there was much more machinery to the filmmaking process. Which is great, because there were certain things we never could have done, or had the resources to do, on Moonlight that we were able to do in this film.
The conundrum I found was, how do you expand your footprint? How do you add more tools but keep the same energy, particularly for the actors? There are scenes in this film with eight people in a room talking. If you look at everything I've made before this, there might be two scenes with more than one or two people in them. It was really interesting to understand that this is a different muscle I need to learn to master. And do I want to do it in the same way, with the same intimacy? The sacredness of performance is still key.
George Clooney [in Up in the Air] was the first time I've worked with a movie star of the highest level, where the audience already has so much understanding of the actor going in that who [he is] as a human has all this connective tissue with the character. In this movie, there's an air of decency to Gary Hart that can get lost in the midst of a scandal. I knew that Hugh Jackman would always weigh those scenes in balance with his own genuine decency.
This is a movie where almost the entire cast is on set every day, and sometimes you're the star and sometimes you're the background. And Hugh was there for all of it, even if he was there just to be the background actor — an extra, basically, for one of the many members of this cast. He not only did it without complaint, he did it for the thrill of it.
I just thought I had the wind in my sails [after 12 Years a Slave]. I thought, "OK, there's nothing I can't do. Let's go for it. Let's just push the envelope here." When you get to a situation where you're making a $19 million movie, you're doing an epic, you're doing it under certain conditions, and you're doing so much with so little, you think to yourself, "You could push yourself to go further."
I never have [the need to prove myself] in my head, because in some ways I know that's who I am. I've done lots of things people thought wouldn't be possible or thought, "How can he do that?" — from making a film about Bobby Sands in Northern Ireland or doing the movie about sex addiction [Shame] or 12 Years a Slave. If I'd listened to what people had to say, I wouldn't have put one foot in front of the other. So my life is not at the service of other people. My life isn't at the heart of what other people think and try to make. I don't live my life in the reaction of other people. I just do what I want to do.
With young actors, there is a willingness to immerse. [For Winter's Bone,] Jennifer [Lawrence] put in a lot of time and effort to get to know the kids in the holler where we were shooting. It paid off beautifully in the rapport that she had and the traction she could get with the very young actresses she was working with as her siblings.
Thomasin [McKenzie] was very similar. She took a shine to the skills training. It was a way for her and Ben [Foster] to bond. She was so pleased to make a selection with the skills trainer about a good knife that would be in character — and then learn how to use it really well so that she could perform everything onscreen herself.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.