Directors reveal the backstories of their Oscar-eligible films


"Backyard" (Mexico)
Director: Carlos Carrera

This Mexican thriller sheds a light on the femicide running rampant in Ciudad Juarez.

My only condition was to shoot the film in the actual places where the events occurred. We had a lot of problems: There was a very difficult situation going on in Ciudad Juarez; there is a war between the Mexican Army and the drug cartels and also between drug cartels. Sometimes we had to change the location because we heard there were people murdered where we intended to film.

There was a threat made to the original actress who played the main character, Juanita. She quit after she received a very nasty message. They put blood and a dead goat in front of the porch of her house. We thought that by releasing the first actress, the problem would be solved, but when we started shooting in Juarez, we received a new threat to the new actress. There was an investigation, and it was a very curious thing because we had the protection of the police although we were making a film that was against the police and the government.

It's very sad, but many of the people who were in the credits of the film, the crew members who live there in Juarez, are now gone. They've been murdered.

This violence is happening in many countries, even in First World countries like Spain. We wanted to make the movie to make people aware of that. It's not the same to read the numbers of women murdered in the world as knowing a person through cinema. I wanted the audience to love Juanita and then feel the loss of a person you feel close to.

"The Misfortunates" (Belgium)
Director: Felix van Groeningen

Adapted from Dimitri Verhulst's best-selling, semi-autobiographical novel, this dark comedy follows the misadventures of a debauched quartet of brothers as seen through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy.

The characters have everything. They're terrible people and still you love them, and that's very human. The story was told from the inside out: The author of the book grew up among them and loved them. He writes about them with so much love; he's part of them.

I certainly didn't have a youth like he did, but my parents had a bar when I was 7 or 8 years old, so I've seen a lot of things. I grew up in the bar, and it was a night bar: It closed at 9 in the morning. I went there and drank hot chocolate and then I went to school.

A lot of people ask about the naked bicycle race scene in the film, if it really happened or not. No one's really sure if this happened, but when we were having a party at a bar in a really small village where we were shooting, there were three or four drunk people there, half-naked and dancing. They were really going crazy. They were like characters from this movie! They asked us what the movie was about and we said, "Here's this crazy family and they do crazy stuff like a nude bicycle race." They said, "Oh, we did that last week!"

For the premiere in Cannes, we had a crazy idea to ride through the city naked on bicycles -- five actors, the editor, producer and me. It was very liberating.

"A Prophet" (France)
Director: Jacques Audiard

Audiard's prison drama follows a young inmate and his ascent through the criminal ranks.

After completing my last film, I asked myself what the next project would be and what actors I would like to work with. I wanted to work with a new pool of actors. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I felt I had worked with great satisfaction with all the actors that I already liked. I had to push myself toward a different type of cast.

Most of the extras playing inmates were ex-convicts and, at the beginning of production, things weren't quite gelling between them and the extras playing the guards. They would barely talk to each other and were prone to altercations, yet most of the extras playing guards were ex-cons themselves! When both camps figured that out, things calmed down. But isn't the power of a uniform crazy?

Every film has its share of difficulties, but this one was the hardest I've ever made and the longest. In my previous films, I never had to deal with so many people every morning for such a long duration. Even if this was just a film being shot on a set, I still had to go to jail every morning for 15 weeks. After a while, it takes its toll.

"Letters to Father Jacob" (Finland)
Director: Klaus Haro

Leila, a recently pardoned murderer, learns about loyalty and forgiveness while working as a blind pastor's assistant in Haro's touching drama.

Two years ago, I was at home with the flu and I received a script in the mail. Usually if someone sends me a script and I don't know them, I don't read it. But since I was sick, I said, "Let me have a look at a few pages." When I finished it, I thought, "Wow, why didn't I think of this?" It was the kind of story I'd wanted to write myself for a long time, a story about greed and forgiveness.

Usually when somebody sends you a script, there's a letter saying how much they like your previous work and asking if you would be so kind as to read this script. There was nothing. I was a little annoyed with it -- there wasn't even a proper name, just the capital letter J and the last name Makkonen. I was going to call this guy and teach him a lesson, that this is not how you do business and if he wants to stay in the business, change his manners. I called -- and it was a woman so, of course, right away I became much more polite!

It turns out she wasn't a professional scriptwriter but a social worker, a lady in her 40s who had taken time off to take a scriptwriting course. This was her final thesis. Her teacher said, "Why don't you send this to Klaus? He might like it." She admitted she wouldn't have sent it if she hadn't promised her teacher. When I told her I was very interested in the story and I'd like to rewrite it, she said yes straight away.

What she expected was an A or a B, not for it to be made into a film!

"Reverse" (Poland)
Director: Borys Lankosz

Set in 1950s Warsaw, this drama follows the life of Sabrina, an introverted girl pestered by her mother and grandmother to find a suitable husband. Once she falls in love, their lives are changed forever.

For a long time, I have been interested in all the kinds of oppressions that a person can encounter. This film gave me the opportunity to talk about one of them, telling the story of the women who found themselves in an inescapable situation.

My grandfather often told me about those times when human dignity was being broken. People were making various choices then. I always admired those who managed to come through with honor. Above all, I would like to believe that one can survive a similar oppression without killing anybody.

Andrzej Bart wrote the screenplay especially for me, based on a fragment of his book "Rien Ne Va Plus" ("Nothing Works Any More"). The greatest determination was required from the producer of "Reverse," Jerzy Kapuscinski, who was almost buried under an avalanche of negative reviews of the screenplay, written by the representatives of the Polish cinema establishment.

On lighter note, there was a panic on the movie set once when a golden dollar coin, which the film's protagonist was supposed to swallow in a critical moment, got lost. Strangely enough, the actor playing a secret agent -- whom the woman in the film wanted to hide the coin in her stomach from -- found it.

"Samson and Delilah" (Australia)
Director: Warwick Thornton

Thornton's movie deals with life in a remote Aboriginal community in central Australia and the ways in which one young couple manages to escape its mundane existence.

Samson and Delilah's challenges and struggles are inspired by what I see as I journey through my own life. I was born in Alice Springs, Australia -- it's a hard town to live in; You see the absolute lows and highs of life every day. I often think growing up in Alice Springs is like growing up on the front line of survival, and it gave me a unique outlook on life.

As a kid, I was able to roam the streets till dawn if I felt like it. I always found the nightlife more exciting than school. I saw things no one should see and things everyone should see. As a filmmaker, I draw on these childhood memories to create a truthful representation of the world in which my people live.

I cast my older brother, Scott, as the character Gonzo. For years he was always saying to me, "When are you gonna put me in a movie?" So I wrote the Gonzo role for him. One catch: Scott has been an alcoholic since his early teens. I said to him, "If you can sober up, you can have the role." So six months and three rehabs later, he was sober, on set, and ready to roll. It was an amazing achievement for him.

"Samson and Delilah" is a love story first and foremost. It's also a film about the untouchables. Everyone has prejudice, for whatever reason. I like to think people may walk away from this film with a renewed sense of compassion, a desire to fight for what's right, and most of all, to remember what it was like to fall in love for the very first time.