DGA Awards contenders tell intimate stories intensely


In a rejection of the traditional studio divide between writers and directors, the 60th Annual Directors Guild of America Awards are celebrating helmers who do both, genuine auteurs as opposed to Hollywood craftsmen.

Four out of the five nominees for the DGA's feature film awards wrote the scripts for their pictures as well as directed: 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 Sean Penn (Paramount Vantage's "Into the Wild"). Only Julian Schnabel, a celebrated artist who has stamped his vision on Miramax's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" through powerful images and distinctive editing, did not also write the film (Ronald Harwood did).

"They are recognizing filmmakers, not directors," says writer-director-producer Pen Densham (1996's "Moll Flanders"). "When I was working in Canada, I thought of myself as a filmmaker who did everything. But here in Hollywood we get hyphenated into different segments -- either in the PGA, the DGA or the WGA. I see four filmmakers being celebrated who have created a vision, dreamed it up and achieved it on the screen. That is an auteur: a visionary. And while corporate control is leeching away individual creativity, the guild is celebrating individual talent."

That celebration couldn't be better timed, coming as guild members sigh with relief after the DGA negotiated a new three-year contract with the studios. But the filmmakers nominated stand out for their nonstudio way of doing things -- and, not surprisingly, four of the five nominated films were funded either independently or by the studios' specialty divisions.

"Blood" and "No Country" were joint ventures between Miramax and Paramount Vantage; "Wild" was a Vantage film; and "Diving Bell" was financed by Paris-based Pathe. Even "Michael Clayton" was structured like an independent film, with Warners buying it as a "negative pick-up" -- meaning the studio essentially agreed to pay some $20 million-plus for the finished film, without any creative involvement.

What makes the DGA's recognition of these films especially interesting is that its members form the heart of the studio system, whether they are directors, assistant directors or unit production managers. This is not a critics' group or an avant-garde collective; it is a coalition of people who earn their living working on popular Hollywood product.

Their decision to nominate these pictures, according to insiders, reflects a deep dissatisfaction with the current direction of studio filmmaking, even among those who have benefited most from it financially.

"What this is saying is, 'If you, Mr. Studio, are not making these ultra-interesting movies, we are going to celebrate the people who have the tenacity to put these projects together," says Ed Decter, director of 2002's "The New Guy." "Business-wise, the studios are not even making the two or three movies that would fit into this category any more because they are spending their money on their summer tentpoles."

Of course, this is not the first time that the DGA has shunned the studios, and in some ways it simply compounds a trend that has been gathering momentum in recent years. Ang Lee won for the independent "Brokeback Mountain" in 2005 and also for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in 2000. And in 1997 -- "the year of the indies," as it was dubbed at the time -- the DGA nominated a slate of films that were almost as independent-minded as this year's: "The English Patient," "Fargo," "Jerry Maguire," "Shine" and "Secrets & Lies."

But this is the first year the DGA's slate has included so many films by writer-directors, and it's the first time there have been so many indie-type movies, with not a single one budgeted at more than $30 million.

Why so many films like this are being nominated now may have less to do with the DGA's rejection of the studio system than with the films getting seen by DGA members.

"People's viewing patterns are different than they used to be," notes writer-director Gary Ross (2003's "Seabiscuit"). "So many DGA members are getting screeners, they are seeing movies they might not have seen in the past. They are exposed to a much wider breadth of material than just studio films.":

They are also being exposed to much darker material, and this is the first year where an entire slate of films has seemed unified in its dark vision of the world, a vision remarkably antithetical to that of mainstream studio moviemaking.

That is equally true of Anderson's dyspeptic view of the American dream -- a film whose unattractive hero made it a no-go for every studio until Miramax and Vantage agreed to finance it as a joint venture -- as it is of Schnabel's, an adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir that many believed was unfilmable.

And it is also true of both the Coens' nihilistic view of the American heartland and Sean Penn's heartbreaking analysis of the risks of breaking free.

Even Gilroy's "Clayton" -- the release that on the surface seems to hew most closely to conventional Hollywood filmmaking -- with its echoes of the paranoid thriller genre that marked the 1970s, shares that dark vision and a conflicted hero confronting a moral wasteland.

"People are so refreshed at seeing a very specific, not highly marketed piece of material," says Decter. "When you see a movie like 'No Country,' as dark as that is, you are saying, 'Thank God, Coen brothers, thank God you had the power and talent to make a unique and groundbreaking film that isn't blanded out to appeal to every single demographic."

Direct competition: the major category nominees for the 60th annual DGA Awards

Feature Film
Paul Thomas Anderson: "There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage)
Joel & Ethan Coen: "No Country for Old Men" (Miramax)
Tony Gilroy: "Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.)
Sean Penn: "Into the Wild" (Paramount Vantage)
Julian Schnabel: "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax)

Movies for Television/Miniseries
Jon Avnet: "The Starter Wife" (USA)
Jeremiah Chechik: "The Bronx Is Burning" (ESPN)
Lloyd Kramer: "Oprah Winfrey Presents: Mitch Albom's For One More Day" (ABC)
Mikael Salomon: "The Company" (TNT)
Yves Simoneau: "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" (HBO)

Dramatic Series
Jack Bender: "Lost" -- "Through the Looking Glass" (ABC)
David Chase: "The Sopranos" -- "Made in America" (HBO)
Eric Laneuville: "Lost" -- "The Brig" (ABC)
Alan Taylor: "Mad Men" -- "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (Pilot)" (AMC)
Tim Van Patten: "The Sopranos" -- "Soprano Home Movies" (HBO)

Comedy Series
Michael Engler: "30 Rock" -- "Rosemary's Baby" (NBC)
David Grossman: "Desperate Housewives" -- "Something's Coming" (ABC)
Beth McCarthy-Miller: "30 Rock" -- "Somebody to Love" (NBC)
David Nutter: "Entourage" -- "The Resurrection" (HBO)
Barry Sonnenfeld: "Pushing Daisies" -- "Pie-lette" (ABC)

Jerry Foley: "Late Show With David Letterman" -- "Episode 2773" (CBS)
Louis J. Horvitz: "The 79th Annual Academy Awards" (ABC)
Jim Hoskinson: "The Colbert Report" -- "Episode 3052" (Comedy Central)
Chuck O'Neil: "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" -- (Comedy Central)
Glenn Weiss: "The 61st Annual Tony Awards" (CBS)

Reality Programs
Craig Borders: "Who Wants to Be a Superhero?" -- "Episode 208" (Sci Fi Channel)
Tony Croll: "Shooting Sizemore" -- "Episode 101" (VH1)
Scott Messick: "Pros vs. Joes" -- "Episode 201" (Spike TV)
Tony Sacco: "Project Runway" -- "Fashion Giant" (Bravo)
Bertram Van Munster: "The Amazing Race" -- "Episode 1110" (CBS)

Ken Burns & Lynn Novick: "The War" (Florentine Films/PBS)
Alex Gibney: "Taxi to the Dark Side" (Jigsaw Prods./ThinkFilm)
Asger Leth: "Ghosts of Cite Soleil" (Sony BMG Feature Films/ThinkFilm)
Richard E. Robbins: "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience" (The Documentary Group)
Barbet Schroeder: "Terror's Advocate" (Magnolia Pictures)