Oscar-Nominated Filmmakers on Creating Art in a Shifting Political Landscape: "It Can't Be Business as Usual"

Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic (2); Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage
From left: Mike Mills, Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins

Contending directors and producers reveal their hopes and plans for the future of cinema under President Trump. Says '20th Century Women' helmer Mike Mills, "I'm trying to figure out how to make work for this new, weird world."

On Sunday night, actors took center stage at the SAG Awards but it wasn't back-patting business as usual. Many winners — among them Lily Tomlin, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Denzel Washington, Emma Stone, Mahershala Ali and David Harbour —  took the red carpet occasion to denounce President Donald Trump's controversial politics, either during the live telecast or backstage in the winners' room. 

Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes in Hollywood, Oscar-contending creators say they're paying close attention to the political landscape while facing a new challenge: How to produce content with a new consciousness that could, perhaps, reflect the changing times? "I had some ideas before the election, but I feel like I have to step up my game now and address social issues more than I ever have," reveals original screenplay nominee (and director) Mike Mills, whose 20th Century Women nods to 1970s politics via a scene that features Jimmy Carter's speech about a "crisis of confidence" in America. "My films have an embedded political viewpoint, but it can't be business as usual anymore," says Mills. "I'm trying to figure out how to make work for this new, weird world."

It's a dilemma that many auteurs are wrestling with. "Everything goes from the top down," says Moonlight's Barry Jenkins, Oscar-nominated for directing and adapted screenplay. "In that way, the art we make takes on a different currency." Writer-director Matt Ross, whose Captain Fantastic garnered SAG Award and Oscar nominations for Viggo Mortensen, agrees. "The election made me think about what role films will play culturally," says Ross. "Very specifically about what I'm writing and what I want to address." Jackie filmmaker Pablo Larrain, whose star Natalie Portman also was nominated by SAG and the Academy, is firm about the focus of his next film. "Humanity," he says, clearly in response to the political landscape.

Not everyone is reacting to the action in D.C. "It's very difficult to translate what is happening politically to a movie," says filmmaker Paul Verhoeven. "You're so close to it. You need more distance." The Elle director, whose star Isabelle Huppert is Oscar-nominated for best actress, adds, "I'm more interested in characters now: what they think and where they go."

Bill Mechanic sees a different cultural imperative. "In bad times, fantasy plays better than reality," says the producer of best picture nominee Hacksaw Ridge. "You're looking for how to transport people to a different time and place. The political environment just continues to get worse, so it's almost extraneous."

13th director Ava DuVernay says she can't wait to experience what emerges: "It will be fascinating to see all of this art that comes from dissent and depletion. Think of all the films that came after the Black Lives Matter movement. Art is going to be amazing."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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