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10 Directors to Watch.

Hailing from all over the world, this crop of helmers represents some of the most exciting, original voices working in independent and international cinema

HAIFAA AL MANSOUR

Distaff storyteller shares joy and humor of conservative Saudi experience

Haifaa Al Mansour didn't set out to be Saudi Arabia's first female director, but that breakthrough has brought her debut, "Wadjda," much-deserved attention and awards at festivals ranging from Venice to Dubai. One of 12 children raised in a conservative country where cinemas were illegal and film was considered a corrupting influence, Al Mansour grew up watching videos her father brought home --an eclectic mix of Disney cartoons and Jackie Chan fight pics, Egyptian mellers and Bollywood musicals.

"They were nothing intellectual or deep, but still, those films took me on journeys," she says. "It's difficult sometimes in Saudi because you are so invisible as a woman. People don't see you, they don't hear you. I wanted to do something that would give me a voice."

Al Mansour started making short films as a hobby, which led her to a competition in Abu Dhabi, where she connected with agent Rena Ronson. Encouraged by such support, Al Mansour started planning her first feature, a five-year undertaking she took to several Middle Eastern workshops, including a Sundance-sponsored writers lab in Jordan. The experience was invaluable to the novice helmer, who reconsidered her original's bleak tone and downer ending. "We have so many stories about victims," she says. "I thought it was time to bring joy to stories and positive characters who actively want to change their destiny."

Inspired by a niece whose prospects narrowed when her parents became conservative, Al Mansour invented young Wadjda, an ebulliently unsubmissive teen who wants nothing more than to buy her own bicycle, despite local taboos that forbid girls from such simple pleasures.

Finding actresses was especially difficult in a culture where many consider it wrong for women to appear on camera. "We were panicking," Al Mansour says, "and then (Waad Mohammad) came in one week before principal shooting, wearing Chuck Taylors and jeans. She had headphones and was listening to Justin Bieber, and that was exactly what we were looking for."

--Peter Debruge

Homebase: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Inspired by: "I watched a lot of Iranian films because they deal with similar issues," says Al Mansour, singling out Jafar Panahi's "Offside." "It's a conservative culture; they have censorship, but they still want to bring meaningful stories about their culture and society."

Reps: Agents: Rena Ronson, Keya Khayatian, Larry Salz (UTA); Lawyer: Craig Emmanuel

WAYNE BLAIR

Crowd-pleasing period pic makes waves Down Under

In the annals of Aussie feel-good indies, few have captivated their home audience like "The Sapphires." Inspired by the true story of an Aboriginal girl group that performed for Vietnam War troops, the ebullient period pic stands as Oz's highest grossing domestic film of 2012.

"The quality of films from indigenous filmmakers is second to none, but this film has such a commercial accessibility," says Wayne Blair, whose feature debut was nabbed by the Weinstein Co. on the eve of its Cannes premiere and bows Stateside in spring. "It's definitely one that will open up the American market for other indigenous filmmakers and Australian films."

This particular story has a personal resonance for the actor-turned-director, a star of the original Sydney stage production who was handpicked to helm the big-screen adaptation by playwright Tony Briggs, son of one of the real-life Sapphires. "My old man was the first Aboriginal sergeant major in Australia," Blair says. "Everywhere you looked, there were people in our lives that had a close association with that time period and what was taking place. It was sort of meant to be."

The stars may have aligned, but Blair was ready for the opportunity. Juggling stage-acting gigs, he found time to take special classes, one at NYU and the other designed for emerging indigenous filmmakers at Sydney's Metro Screen. He put that training to the test directing shorts and television.

"What's put me in good stead is just having that close proximity with actors--an understanding of what they're after," he says. "I'm interested in directing a good story that has heart and pathos and gives the world a little bit of love, whether that's in the U.S., the U.K. or Australia. I love to sit in the cinema with a smile on my face and a little tear in my eye. Then you can walk out and feel a bit more human again."

--Gregg Goldstein

Homebase: Sydney

Inspired by: Spike Lee and Steven Spielberg. For "The Sapphires," he studied "Ray," "The Color Purple" and "Angela Bassett as Tina Turner."

Reps: Agents: Andrew Cannava, Bec Smith, David Flynn (UTA), Duncan Heath, Roxana Adle (Independent Talent Group), Jean Mostyn (The Yellow Agency)

JOHN KROKIDAS

Indie 'Darlings' positioned to provoke discussion in Sundance

According to writer-director John Krokidas, "'Kill Your Darlings' was originally designed to have a film noir structure." He and co-writer Austin Bunn believed they had found the perfect noir in the story of how a 19-year-old Allen Ginsberg fell in with a magnetic charmer named Lucien Carr, the man to whom the poet dedicated "Howl."

"Carr was bright, charismatic, worldly and wealthy," Krokidas says. "He looks at Allen and says, 'You're an artist and I see it in you.' Allen fell in love instantly."

Carr introduced Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs and inspired him with his own brand of Emersonian bohemianism, which he dubbed "The New Vision." Then, in 1944, Carr admitted to killing a man named David Kammerer, claiming that he'd been stalked. The Daily News stoked the era's homophobia, labeling it an "honor slaying."

"I thought to myself, I'm dealing with a story that ends in murder, in which the protagonist faces a siren-like character who tempts him into kind of an underworld," says Krokidas, an NYU film grad whose short "Shame No More" imagined a 1950s gay America where homosexuality was the norm and "breeders" necked in illicit clubs.

With the help of producer Christine Vachon, Krokidas assembled an improbable cast for the Sundance selection, led by a risk-taking Daniel Radcliffe, who tells Variety, "The confidence he had in the story we were telling and the way he wanted to tell it was a huge part of why we all wanted to be involved."

Krokidas decided the best solution was to focus on "the enthusiasm and exhilaration of being young," he says. "I told the actors, you're not playing Allen Ginsberg, you're playing a kid named Allen, age 18, in the closet: an insecure, awkward person who has the potential to do something big."

--Logan Hill

Homebase: New York

Inspired by: "The holy Italian trinity of Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma. I come from an Italian Greek and Jewish background, so minimalism or holding back emotion has never been my entry point."

Reps: Agents: Andrew Cannava, Keya Khayatian, Rena Ronson (UTA); Managers: Steve Dontanville, Frank Frattaroli (Circle of Confusion); Lawyer: Andrew Hurwitz (Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Seiz)

TOBIAS LINDHOLM

Danish scribe brings reality to nail-biting drama

With his two feature films, the 2010 prison drama "R" and the recent thriller "A Hijacking," Tobias Lindholm has exhibited a knack for tense storytelling and palpably gritty realism.

After taking a stab as a novelist, Lindholm entered Denmark's national film school and focused on screenwriting in order to master movie structure. "American films are so well built, and I remember at one point I decided to only watch documentaries, to understand the logic of reality, instead of the logic of the editing room." He fondly recalls the presidential campaign doc "The War Room": "I remember thinking if I can ever write a film as clear as this, that would be the best. Reality is so precise."

Such close attention to veracity has infused his work: For "R," he cast real-life inmates and guards; "A Hijacking" features an actual hostage negotiator and sailors who had experienced a hijacking just a year before. "It's all about working with the actors," he says. "And the best way to get true feelings from them is to surround them with these professionals, so it will seem as real as possible."

Lindholm's frequent collaborator Thomas Vinterberg, with whom he wrote "The Hunt," praises the writer-director's "sympathy, clarity, coolness, courage and ambition," as well as his "ultra-precise portraits of human beings (and) beautiful combination of real life and grand drama."

For now, Lindholm is content to continue making such genuine dramas. "I'm drawn to these tragedies of the world I live in," he says. "I don't feel like I'm smart enough to do comedy."

Next up, he plans to complete his "trilogy" about "men in small places" with a movie about the war in Afghanistan, likely to shoot in summer 2014. (He just had twins.)

--Anthony Kaufman

Homebase: Copenhagen

Inspired by: "The 1970s in the U.S. was one of the most interesting periods in film history," he says, also citing the Dardennes, Dogma 95, Ingmar Bergman and "United 93," which he calls "a naturalistic masterpiece."

Rep: Agent: Robert Newman (WME)

DAVID LOWERY

After editing others' indies, Texan talent is Sundance-bound

David Lowery had directed a feature before, but never like this.

"You show up on day one and there's 50 trucks and a crew you've never met," the young helmer says of "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," a Southern Gothic-tinged drama set to bow in competition at Sundance. "It was strange at first. I'm used to making films for $15,000 or less."

He's not kidding. Lowery's last movie, 2009 indie "St. Nick," was a nearly dialogue-free story of two young siblings who run away from home and try to survive on their own. It cost $12,000.

The self-taught filmmaker ("I was always stubbornly independent; I never went to film school") started out learning the ropes with P.A. gigs and assistant director stints, gravitating toward editing and amassing a string of credits as a splicer.

"There's an alchemy to it," he says of editing. "You're taking things that already exist and smashing them together to make something new. For me, that's where the magic in film comes from."

"St. Nick" preemed at South by Southwest, and that film plus the Sundance 2011 showcase of his follow-up short "Pioneer"--about a father telling his son an epic bedtime story--paved the way for "Ain't Them Bodies Saints." "Pioneer" producers Toby Halbrooks and James M. Johnston took the brewing "Bodies" to the Sundance producers lab, and Lowery subsequently worked on the script as part of Sundance's screenwriters lab, later casting Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck and Ben Foster to star.

Lowery had originally wanted to pen an action pic, and traces remain in the final product. But eventually he pared the tale back to the archetypal bones that would let him explore the facets of filmmaking that have always attracted him.

"What interests me is the characters," he says. "I want to watch them in all the little moments between the big moments."

--Gordon Cox

Homebase: Dallas

Inspired by: Paul Thomas Anderson ("He's matured so much from film to film--it pushed me to mature, too"), Robert Altman (especially "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"), David Fincher ("He makes movies I could never make").

Reps: Agents: Craig Kestel and David Karp (WME); Lawyer: Victoria Cook (Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz).

JON LUCAS & SCOTT MOORE

'Hangover' duo take their brand of funny behind the camera

After giving audiences one wild ride after another with their scripts for "The Hangover." The Change-Up" and "Four Christmas," Jon Lucas and Scott Moore decided it was time to take greater control of their comedic vision, applying the successful "Hangover" formula to their shared directorial debut. "21 and Over." The laffer, set on the eve of a big med school interview, tracks three college-age guys (played by Miles Teller, Skylar Astin, Justin Chon) whose wild and crazy exploits form the pieces of a key mystery.

Lucas and Moore met while working for scribe Dan Petrie Jr. ("Beverly Hills Cop") about 15 years ago. "He was a very benevolent boss who gave good notes on our writing," recalls Moore. The friends finished their first script in 1999, but were disappointed when their first produced feature--basketball-themed Martin Lawrence starrer "Rebound"--fizzled.

Still, Lucas says, "There's nothing like going out the first day ever on your own movie set."

According to Moore, directing together is similar to writing together: "We pass ideas and opinions back and forth till we have one we agree is best and that's what happens whether you're on set or breaking story," Lucas adds that the biggest difference in helming lies in casting actors who fit their vision of the roles.

Though "21 and Over" may feel familiar to "Hangover" fans. Lucas says, "The truth is that Scott and I are getting older and there's only so long we can keep our feet in those worlds (of comic debauchery)." The duo eventually hope to write deeper comedies in the vein of such heroes as James L. Brooks and Cameron Crowe, but plan to stick to their creative partnership.

"It was nice having your sounding board for 13 years sitting right next to you," Lucas says. "It would have been way more daunting on my own."

--Carl Kozlowski

Homebase: Los Angeles

Inspired by: Lucas cites Judd Apatow, while Moore says, "I really love 'Groundhog Day' because it's funny, the characters seem real, it has a real emotional core and is structurally brilliant."

Reps: Agent: Gregory McKnight (CAA); Lawyer: Warren Dern (Sloane, Offer, Weber & Dern)

DAVID ONDRICEK

Son of legendary Czech lenser carries on family tradition

Not everyone is a born director, but a few--like helmer David Ondricek--are born into the business. The son of famed cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek, second-generation cinephile David has spent the past two decades writing and directing modest features in his native Czech Republic. This year marks a breakthrough of sorts, since his Cold War thriller "In the Shadow" was tapped to represent his home country in the Oscar foreign-lingo film race. (His dad was nominated twice, for lensing "Ragtime" and "Amadeus.")

"My father taught me that you have to make films very realistic," Ondricek says. "It's my mantra: Don't make any artificial things."

A paternal influence can be found throughout the director's life: His Lucky Man Films production outfit is named for one of his dad's first non-Czech assignments, "O Lucky Man!" One of several seeds for his interest in film was planted on his childhood trip to the set of another project his dad lensed, "The World According to Garp." And the basis for his latest, most acclaimed work came from the elder Ondricek's suggestion to make a film about currency devaluation in post-WWII Prague.

Combining detective fiction and film noir, Ondricek's film touches on real events of personal significance to his family. "After financial devaluation, we lost every thing," he recalls. "I'm part of the last generation who lived through communism, and I never forgot the feeling from that time. It was terrible--no freedom of expression."

"Shadow" is a departure for Ondricek, who has mostly worked on comedies, most notably the 2000 local hit "Loners." He plans to return to the genre for his next feature, followed by a biopic of 1950s Czech Olympic legend Emil Zatopek. But he notes that they could easily be postponed for the right U.S. project, preferably one that allows him to shoot in Europe.

--Gregg Goldstein

Homebase: Prague

Inspired by: His father, Miroslav, and longtime collaborator Milos Forman ("They are my biggest teachers"), Ivan Passer, Stanley Kubrick and "Garp" director George Roy Hill

Rep: Krystof Mucha (producer and exec director, Karlovy Vary Film Festival)

ANDY MUSCHIETTI

Spanish chiller gets Guillermo del Toro's blessing

The way Andy Muschietti sees it, "Horror is not a rational, grownup feeling. It's those irrational fears from childhood, those wounds we still carry."

As a child growing up in Argentina, Muschietti was obsessed with scary movies. "At four, I was taken to the drive-in to watch 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,' and it was traumatic. That was the first stain, the first trigger," he says.

But it took Muschietti years to try his hand at making a horror film of his own. He studied film at the Universidad de Cine in Buenos Aires, then made a living as a storyboard artist while shooting his own shorts. When a comedic short about football became a regional hit, he says, "I was pigeonholed as a director who made comedy commercials." After becoming a successful blurb director in Argentina, he signed with Spanish company Double Nelson in 2001. In 2003, he was joined in Barcelona by his sister Barbara, and they formed Toma 78, an ad shop named, he says, "for the moment when you're in deep shit on the 78th take."

Still, the helmer's nightmares dogged him, and in 2007, he awoke one morning with a vision of two terrified young girls and two questions: "Why are these kids running from this thing? And why do they call it Mama?"

Muschietti's creepy two-shot short impressed Guillermo del Toro, who signed on to co-produce the feature version of "Mama," which stars Jessica Chastain, to be released Jan. 18 by Universal.

Muschietti feels he has come full circle to childhood fears: "Making these movies has a lot to do with recovering those lost feelings. I love this genre. I sort of believe in a higher expression of horror, and I'd humbly like to offer it to the world for a couple more movies if they let me."

--Logan Hill

Homebase: Barcelona, Spain

Inspired by: "Most of my favorite filmmakers are not horror directors," he says, citing Steven Spielberg, Dino Risi, Roman Polanski and Jacques Tati.

Rep: Agent: Marc Helwig (ICM)

Joachim Roenning & Espen Sandberg

Ad-savvy duo set sail with Norwegian epic

Using Hollywood math, Joachim Roenning and Espen "Kon-Tiki"--about Thor Heyerdahl's harrowing expedition across the Pacific on a balsawood raft to prove Polynesia was settled by South Americans --would have been made for at least $50 million. That they brought it in for $15 million can be considered a major coup by anyone other than themselves.

"You have to keep in mind that this is the biggest budget ever for a Norwegian movie," says Roenning. "This is huge in Scandinavia. We are not used to big budgets (because) there's no market to justify it."

The epic biopic, funded by 24 financiers, including the Norwegian Film Institute, and shot in five countries in both Norwegian and English, earned a Golden Globe nomination-- a first for Norway--and has attracted the attention of Hollywood, where Roenning and Sandberg recently took meetings with producers and studio executives all over town.

The pair's prior feature, "Max Manus, was seen by a record 1.2 million people in Norway, more than one-fifth the country's population.

Like the Scott brothers, Roenning and Sandberg hail from commercials. Their acclaimed 2000 Super Bowl spot for Budweiser, "Rex's Bad Day," about a movie dog trying to find his motivation, gave the filmmakers a taste of L.A., where they lived for almost two years, mad where they're likely to return from their native Oslo early this year-this time with their families.

Weinstein picked up the domestic Rights to "Kon-Tiki," and it's just a matter of time the filmmaking tandem will be announding their next big screen venture, with Paramount Universal and Warners Universal Being the most aggressive Suiters.

According to Sandberg, the directors seek stories with a strong emotional core, epic feeling and fantastical element. "We have that in 'Kon-Tiki,' and there are several projects that we are now closing in on."

--Steve Chagollan

Homebase: Oslo, Norway

Inspired by: Seeing "E.T." made Roenning want to become a director. Sandberg names "My Life as a Dog" by Sweden's Lasse Hallstrom: "We were lucky to meet him in L.A. That was a great inspiration."

Reps: Agents: Ramses IsHak, Michael Sheresky (UTA); Manager: David Mcllvain (Brillstein Entertainment Partners); Lawyer: Warren Dern (Sloane Offer Weber & Dern)

Rebecca Thomas

Mormon upbringing fuels unique coming-of-ager

Rebecca Thomas attributes her distinct filmmaking vision to a unique upbringing: "I grew up as a Mormon in Las Vegas, surrounded by all things holy and righteous, but with Sin City just at my periphery. It was an interesting way to grow up."

Indeed, Thomas' debut feature "Electrick Children," which premiered in Berlin and earned her a Spirit Award Someone to Watch nomination, presents a perfect marriage of Thomas' opposing sides. In the film, a 15-year-old pregnant girl leaves an ultraconservative desert cult to seek out the father of her "immaculate conception" in nearby Vegas.

Thomas, who defines herself as an "inactive" Mormon, began researching fundamentalist Mormons for a documentary while studying film at Brigham Young. (During these formative years, she also embarked on a Mormon mission to Japan, and wrote, edited and acted in a 13-minute short called "Nobody Knows You, Nobody Gives a Damn," about a mother struggling with postpartum depression, which premiered at Sundance in 2009.)

Later, at Columbia U.'s film program, she came up with the idea for "Electrick Children," which was guided in part by Pier Paolo Pasolini's "The Gospel According to St. Matthew." "He takes a fairly neutral and nonjudgmental approach to the New Testament," she says. "It was also important for me to keep my version of the Virgin Mary story as grounded as I could, even though I was dealing with the supernatural: I like to ground things that are fantastical to understand them more."

These days, Thomas is reading scripts; developing a post-apocalyptic adaptation of "The Little Mermaid" set in Japan, which combines puppetry, animation and live-action; and working on another script called "Miss New York," about a young woman who finds her doppelganger in Miss New York. "It's a suspense noir with beauty queens," she says.

--Anthony Kaufman

Homebase: New York City

Inspired by: From Frederick Wiseman to Claire Denis ("Beau Travail," "White Material"), "The Wizard of Oz" to "Boogie Nights."

Reps: Agents: Ida Ziniti, Nick LoPiccolo, Lucy Stille (Paradigm)
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Title Annotation:V PLUS
Publication:Variety
Article Type:List
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 7, 2013
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