This story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
The only thing certain about this year’s best directing Oscar is that whoever’s name is in the telltale envelope, he will become a first-time Oscar winner. That’s because the Academy’s directors branch nominated two stalwarts of the indie world — Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater — for the very first time, introduced into the club Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum for his first English-language feature and also welcomed back Alejandro G. Inarritu and Bennett Miller, each of whom has been nominated in the category once before (but has never won).
Getting into the nominees circle was no easy feat. This year, there are eight films nominated for best picture, but only four of them were coupled with nominations for their respective directors. Best pic helmers who didn’t hear their names called for the directing category included The Theory of Everything‘s James Marsh and Whiplash‘s Damien Chazelle. The fact that Selma‘s Ava DuVernay wasn’t included triggered cries of protest since her fans were hoping to see her make history as the first African-American woman nominated for best director. And though American Sniper picked up five nominations in addition to best picture, Clint Eastwood, a two-time Oscar winner for best director, who was nominated by the Directors Guild of America, was omitted as well. The five finalists shared with THR the backstories behind their films’ creations.
Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman
Sure, Alfred Hitchcock did it before, 67 years ago, with Rope, creating a feature film that looks as if it was shot in one long, continuous and uninterrupted take. But then again, Hitchcock didn’t have to deal with Michael Keaton fast-walking in his underwear in the middle of Times Square.
“It was absolutely unconventional,” 51-year-old director Inarritu says of making Birdman. “The process was insane.”
That process involved shooting every scene of the movie — some as long as 20 minutes — in one take, then stitching those scenes together in ways that make the film feel as if it’s unfolding in real time on the screen. It turned out to be a maddeningly complex task, even for a filmmaker of Inarritu’s skill and stature (he became the first Mexican filmmaker to be nominated for the best directing Oscar for 2006’s Babel), requiring merciless focus and endless patience. “Bending time and space — those are natural tools of cinema. But when you can’t count on those tools, when you try to write a script without them, it’s like trying to write without commas. You can get lost in an ocean of possibilities. We had to invent and explore and fail many times in order to know what we had to learn.”
The risks for Inarritu were enormous, but he ignored warnings from the late Mike Nichols, who told him he was courting disaster. “Normally, I can count on six months of a luxurious, rational process in the editing room, manipulating, polishing or hiding my shit,” he says. “But I couldn’t do that here. … It’s like a live concert. You can’t fix it, so if you f— it up, everything goes nuts. Everything you see in the film is real, and everyone is treading water.”
Bennet Miller, Foxcatcher
When Miller, 48, first learned of millionaire John du Pont, who more or less adopted the U.S. Olympic wrestling team, including brothers Mark and David Schultz, he says, “I became fascinated with what it was he imagined he was doing and what these guys’ understanding was. And how does it end up in murder?” Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum, initially applauded the film, then lashed out at Miller in December, saying the movie had destroyed his name and reputation. He recanted Jan. 17, apologizing to Miller and calling the film “a miracle.” But the director already knew the risks of bringing real lives to the screen. After 2005’s Capote, for which he also was nominated for best director, he received a letter from Harper Lee (portrayed in that film by Catherine Keener), who told him a lot of what was depicted onscreen hadn’t happened the way it was presented, but “the film told the truth about Truman.” And, says Miller, “That shook me. As a filmmaker, you want people to get what you do.”
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game
“Seeing the first edit is the worst,” says Tyldum, the 47-year-old Norwegian director. “You see the assembly, and you think, ‘I f—ed it up!’ It’s long, it’s dreadful and you hate it — it’s the worst watching [your own movie] for the first time.”
Either Tyldum is being too hard on himself or his films get a whole lot better after a second viewing. He was hired for The Imitation Game largely because of 2011’s Headhunters, his slick art-heist thriller that became the highest-grossing film in Norway’s history ($15 million worldwide). But getting the job of directing Alan Turing‘s life story, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, was only half the battle — he also had to deal with the film’s U.S. distributor, Harvey Weinstein. “I was actually pretty scared walking in,” he confesses. “I mean, you hear all the stories. But it went really well. He had a few notes, and you have to be open to notes.” There was some initial disagreement over whether the last act should show Turing’s suicide, which Tyldum ultimately cut, explaining, “I wanted the ending to celebrate his life.”
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ultimately, Anderson’s uniquely whimsical movies take place in his own idiosyncratic imagination. But in the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which has grossed $175 million worldwide to become the 45-year-old director’s biggest hit, a number of specific factors sparked his desire to create a comedy of old-world manners, set in a Middle-European resort hotel during the two World Wars. It all began in 2007 as he and artist-writer Hugo Guinness strolled around the parks of Paris, trading stories about a mutual friend of theirs, laughing together about his knack for bons mots. Guinness forgot all about it, though, until five years later, when Anderson called him with the idea of using their friend’s eccentricities as the basis for a character called M. Gustave, a cultivated but somewhat rakish hotel concierge. Anderson was influenced by the work of the Austrian Jewish novelist and playwright Stefan Zweig, who, though forgotten today, was wildly popular in the ’20s and ’30s for his tales of sexual desire breaking free of society’s restraints. “It’s more or less plagiarism,” Anderson jokes of the screenplay that he wrote as a sort of homage to Zweig.
For further inspiration, Anderson led his production team on a tour of Eastern Europe. And he selected a library of movies from the ’30s and ’40s, including Edmund Goulding‘s Grand Hotel and Ernst Lubitsch‘s To Be or Not to Be, which he used to school his actors in the style of the times. To play Gustave — who attempts to uphold old-world standards as they collide with an escalating plot full of murder, art theft, betrayals and narrow escapes — he turned to Ralph Fiennes, who heads a cast that includes such Anderson regulars as Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton and Jason Schwartzman. “This character is quite grand and theatrical and has to recite poetry,” says Anderson, declaring Fiennes was “the person I thought will make this a real man.”
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Boyhood may have taken 12 years to film, but the initial inspiration for the marathon project “came to me in a flash,” says Linklater, 54. “I was kind of stuck trying to articulate something about growing up. Since it would be spread over so many years, I just didn’t have that one spot. And then it hit me all at once. But I think it came from years of thinking about it. I’ve always been fascinated with cinematic storytelling and narrative possibilities.” In his Before trilogy, for which he earned two Oscar noms for adapted screenplay, he had followed a couple, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, during three different decades of their lives. In the case of Boyhood, “the good news was that I had an idea for a story I hadn’t seen before. The bad news was that it was going to take 12 years to do,” he says.
For all that could have gone wrong — financing disappearing, actors wandering off — the project, which cost just under $5 million and has grossed $44 million worldwide, steadily came together. Young actor Ellar Coltrane literally grew into the part, with the help of Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the boy’s divorced parents. With characteristic understatement, Linklater describes it all as “kind of a cool experience.”