Oscars: What Drives This Year's Top Directors

7:00 AM 1/29/2016

by Anna Lisa Raya

This year's best director contenders — Alejandro G. Inarritu, Lenny Abrahamson, Tom McCarthy, Adam McKay and George Miller — reveal their favorite shoot days, the auteurs and movies that inspired them, and which film they wish audiences would revisit.

Courtesy of A24;Twentieth Century Fox; Open Road Films;Paramount Pictures; Warner Bros. Pictures

  • Lenny Abrahamson


    Courtesy of Caitlin Cronenberg/A24

    Favorite day of filming on Room: Shooting is a battle, and I rarely have time to reflect on the process while I'm trying to survive it, but there's a scene in Room where the family — Ma [Brie Larson], Jack [Jacob Tremblay], Jack's grandmother [Joan Allen], his grandfather [William H. Macy] and [his step-grandfather] Leo [Tom McCamus] — all sit down to their first meal together. It's a complex scene and took a lot of concentration and work from the cast and crew, but I remember at one moment just standing back and relishing the sheer pleasure of working with actors of that caliber on a great scene.

    Most inspiring director: I'm going to cheat and pick two from the long list I've been inspired, challenged and productively frustrated by: John Cassavetes and Robert Bresson. Their ways of working couldn't be more different: Bresson is all control, exact repetition, high austere ritual, while Cassavetes' work is loose, searching, instinctive.

    Movie you wish viewers would revisit: My first feature, made in 2004, Adam & Paul. It’s become a bit of a cult film in Ireland and the U.K. It’s the one that Dublin cab drivers quote back to me. Like Room, the basic description of Adam & Paul belies the experience of watching it. It’s 24 hours in the life of two junkies, dragging themselves around the city looking for a fix. It sounds like so much gritty realism but it’s as much Laurel & Hardy as Ken Loach with a bit of Joyce and Beckett thrown in. Maybe because the accents are so strong — at its North American premiere in Telluride it was subtitled — it never made an impression outside the British Isles. It was written by an incredible actor-writer, Mark O’Halloran, who also stars in it and contains, for me, one of the great unsung performances from the late and hugely missed Tom Jordan Murphy. I’d like more people to see it, even just to honor him. 

    On Hollywood's diversity controversy: It's part of a much bigger problem across the whole culture. It's a problem that, for me, as an outsider [he's Irish] can only be addressed if there is real political will to change fundamentally how things work in the U.S., in access to education, in the legal system, in how wealth is distributed. There needs to be a serious commitment to a fairer, more inclusive society. Hollywood can certainly make changes. The studios have most of the power and could exercise it in terms of which projects they finance and the talent they choose to support. But it's hard to see how things could improve without those deeper changes.

    Movie that influenced your career: Just one movie … that’s hard. I remember being taken to see 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was too young to understand much of anything about it. I can still feel how confused I was by it, but also exhilarated. I was 11 or 12, and it was the first time I had seen a film that didn’t just yield up its meanings like I’d come to expect from the movies. I think that experience stayed with me, opened me up to the idea that cinema could be something big, something mysterious and powerful. It’s not my favorite film, not even my favorite Kubrick — hands down that’s Barry Lyndon — but it holds a special place for me as a filmmaker.

  • Alejandro G. Inarritu

    'The Revenant'

    Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox

    Favorite day of filming on The Revenant: Probably the last day of the Arikara attack. The sense of joy we all felt after we accomplished such a complicated scene after so many years in my head and so much time of rehearsal and effort, was great. [Afterward,] we took a wonderful picture on the boat [from that scene].

    Most inspiring director: It is impossible to name one, but most are directors from different backgrounds and cultures.

    Movie you wish viewers would revisit: Films change with time, and we change too. Sometimes you revisit a film you did not respond to a long time ago and now it speaks to you. It depends on what the viewer is looking for.

    On Hollywood's diversity controversy: I think the problem is beyond Hollywood. It's a problem of the culture in general, and this has to be discussed in depth and with kindness. African-Americans, Native Americans, Latin Americans, Asian-Americans, women, [members of the] LGBT [community] and people with disabilities, et cetera, all these minorities [make up] the unique social fabric of the U.S., and it is in there where the greatness and power of this country is. So many great stories with so many talented people, … all this should conform and impregnate the universe of the film industry for the enrichment and benefit of the culture, the society, the entertainment and, yes, if they are smart, the box office.

    Movie that influenced your career: Apocalypse Now (1979). (It's one of many man-against-nature films that influenced Inarritu's decision to shoot The Revenant on location. "We have lost the taste for the real," he has said.)

  • Tom McCarthy


    Courtesy of Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films

    Favorite day of filming on Spotlight: It might have been the first day we moved into the Spotlight offices, because we had the entire team there for the first time. We had three out of the four actual reporters there, and it sort of felt like a benediction. When we get to a key location, I usually say something, but I didn't this day and turned it over to the real Walter "Robby" Robinson. He said something about their work and the time they spent in that office, and it was an incredibly spontaneous and moving moment — not just for the cast, but for the crew. It gave our work a deeper sense of purpose.

    Most inspiring director: I'd probably have to say Sidney Lumet and David Lean because they do different but similar things, to me. The thing I love about David Lean is that he's so epic in so many ways, but at the same time he's incredibly intimate. I think they each built their careers out in wonderfully similar ways, though Sidney's work is a little more character-driven.

    Movie you wish viewers would revisit: I would say The Station Agent, but a lot of people come up to me about that movie. So maybe The Visitor. I think there's a parallel with that film to Spotlight, and I certainly built on some of the things I did in The Visitor. You could probably see the evolution to some degree.

    On Hollywood's diversity controversy: It's something that we all collectively have to ask ourselves: "What is my part in this — as a writer, director or actor? What can I do?" If we all do that, if we all own it on all sides of the issue and don't point fingers, but rather say, "What can we do to change things?" — then we will. I believe in this community. I think it's very forward-thinking and inclusive. We have to do better, and we will.

    Movie that influenced your career: The Verdict (1982). It was wonderfully acted and was compelling, in terms of plot, and incredibly emotional and personal, in terms of character. It was Sidney [Lumet] at the height of his power.

  • Adam McKay

    'The Big Short'

    Courtesy of Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures

    Favorite day of filming on The Big Short: I loved shooting the scenes in Florida with Rafe Spall and Hamish Linklater and the way Barry [Ackroyd's] camera work showed the large, elegiac scope yet, at the same time, nuanced intimacy. I also felt like the scene with the tattooed homeowner and son — whose landlord was ripping him off — was one of the emotional centers of the movie.

    Most inspiring director: Barry Levinson. Diner and Tin Men are movies I have seen over and over again. Levinson is able to combine mood and setting with character development in a way that feels effortless and real. He has a sense of humor, yet there is a sadness at play.

    Movie you wish viewers would revisit: The Other Guys. In addition to having a lot of really funny stuff and being a good-looking movie, there is a whole layer to it that is about the financial collapse and the need for a new kind of hero.

    On Hollywood's diversity controversy: We started the company Gloria Sanchez to develop female writers and directors. We didn’t do it out of some sense of altruism. We did it because we felt it was an untapped source of talent. The same thing would apply to minorities and voices from all around the world. Film is the storytelling narrative for all people. I hope that I can support and nurture diverse voices any way possible. 

    Movie that influenced your career: Election (1999). It's a movie about something very small, but yet it's about everything. It is funny, tragic, specific and perfectly made. Honestly, I'm kind of in awe of it.

  • George Miller

    'Mad Max: Fury Road'

    Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

    Favorite day of filming on Mad Max: Fury Road: The day that we pulled off the final stunt where the war rig rolls over and blocks the canyon. In a movie full of the most difficult stunts, that one had the finest margin of error. We only had one war rig left that could do it. And the stunt driver hit the sweet spot.

    Most inspiring director: Alfred Hitchcock. He mastered cinema dating back to the silent era. He experimented and defined so much language and, in a very iconic way, was extremely articulate about it. He talked about creating suspense and how much more valuable suspense was than surprise. Surprise is just one brief moment, but suspense — when you're expecting something to happen and it doesn't — is much more valuable.

    Movie you wish viewers would revisit: The film that probably wasn't widely seen that I found really interesting to make was Lorenzo's Oil. It was made with a kind of urgency, and I had never really made a film like that.

    On Hollywood's diversity controversy: In Australia [Miller's home] there's been a big movement to bring a lot of indigenous storytelling to cinema, and that's been a very deliberate policy, even though the indigenous are a relatively small percentage of the population, which is very diverse in Australia. I think the solutions, like most world solutions, are long-term and multifactorial. This being the biggest story of the Oscars — the fact that everyone's alerted to it — is a good thing.

    Movie that influenced your career: M*A*S*H (1970). It was the first time I ever watched a movie, walked out of the cinema and walked straight back in to watch it again.