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Directors on directors.

Helmers from film and television discuss what made their colleagues' work shine

J.J. Abrams on Peter Berg


"Lone Survivor," Peter Berg's latest and most accomplished film, begins with the bond: a montage of men--physical specimens all, determined, superhumanly tireless--enduring brutal Navy SEAL training. They pledge not just to country, but to each other. It is this bond that is agonizingly tested over the course of this tense and harrowing film.

Directing from his own screenplay (based on the book), Berg unflinchingly depicts a mission in the Afghanistan mountains that goes horribly sideways. Berg is in full command, utilizing myriad techniques to put the viewer in warriors' boots. The performances are raw and affecting, the battle scenes terrifying, and all the more painful because its true.

Berg makes us all witness to the hell of war, and by doing so, he creates another type of bond, between the viewer and the hearts and souls of those who make the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of us.

"Star Trek Into Darkness" helmer Abrams is already at work on 2015's "Star Wars: Episode VII."

Ryan Fleck on Derek Cianfrance


The first time I saw Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Beyond the Pines," I remember feeling a strange combination of emotions I'm not accustomed to feeling at the multiplex these days. Friends who attended the screening with me asked how I felt about the film, but I just didn't feel ready or capable of talking about it in that moment. It was too soon, and I was enjoying the swirling, complex, and contradictory sensations I was experiencing in the afterglow of this film about two generations of working-class antiheroes.

I've seen the film twice since, and I admire it more with each viewing. From the stunning opening shot to the haunting final frame, Cianfrance and his collaborators manage to pull off the impossible in creating a film that is at once epic and intimate, audacious and honest."

Fleck won the Gotham Awards' breakthrough director honor for "Half Nelson," then co-directed "Sugar" with Anna Boden.

John Turturro on Ethan & Joel Coen


Very few films have a perfect title. But "Inside Llewyn Davis" captures the journey that Joel and Ethan Coen take you on. You're immediately thrust into watching and listening to Oscar Isaac, who gives a beautiful performance, perform the opening song, efffortlessly expressing so many things about his character and his journey. It's rare that a flint about music tells you the story through its music, as this film does, all recorded live.

To see Llewyn watch the talented army musician perform while he himself sits next to Justin Timberlake, who's most appreciative, and watch his own recognition of the guy's talent on stage, and see his competitiveness and jealousy welling up, is not only revealing, but captures the essence of so many creative artists who are confronted with someone who's just as good, if not better.

Watching the trio of Isaac, Adam Driver and Timberlake perform the complete song of "Please Mister Kennedy" is a perfect example of high comedy done through precision of music. It's a great treat. And finally watching Llewyn audition for F. Murray Abraham, the man who holds his future in his hands--the simplicity of the staging and the complexity of what goes on between them is not easily forgotten. Llewyn, who is now a soloist, will always remain one.

The theme of being talented, irresponsible and even somewhat of a jerk, but always remaining out of reach of commercial success is perfectly calibrated. It brought memories rushing back to me, of all my uncles who were musicians, coming to stay with us, full of personality, fun, and always on the lookout for a handout.

The film doesn't manipulate you or ask you to feel a certain way about the guy. It just takes you somewhere you haven't been before: inside Llewyn Davis.

Turturro's latest film is "Fading Gigolo," starring himself alongside Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara, Vanessa Paradis and Liev Schreiber.

Oren Moverman on Scott Cooper


Scott Cooper is a fearless, unrelenting, passionate director. He's an entertainer, a realist, a ruthless explorer of masculinity and a tender painter of its emotional contradictions.

While his directorial debut "Crazy Heart" proved Cooper was the real deal, he directs his second effort, "Out of the Furnace," like a dealbreaker. It's a director's director's film, an actor's director's piece, an aesthetically ambitious portrait. It speaks the language of cinema fluently, and reaches down to its most primal, American fucked-upness with an ease that is as frightening as it is impressive. It claws at your soul and demands you watch it as intended by Coo per's guiding hand, not as prescribed by tropes or formulas.

The performances by Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe and the rest of the cast are constructed with keen precision. A simple scene of ex-lovers on the bridge will move you in unexpected ways. A father's dying stare will stay with you throughout. A bare-knuckler veteran's demise, a brother's revenge. a stream of betrayals, all add up to a shockingly heated vision of the terrible, beautiful, unforgivable things men carry.

Moverman directed "The Messenger" (for which he was nominated for an original screenplay Oscar) and "Rampart."

Julian Schnabel on Lee Daniels


It is rare when life seems fair or justice occurs. It is one of the sui generis moments when hard work, uncompromising convictions and plain good storytelling can find its form in a film. "The Butler," directed by Lee Daniels, is a civil-rights movie in a world that is not civil and almost never right.

Lee Daniels is my friend. I am so proud to know him and have watched him hone and perfect his filmic voice over the recent years. Intimate, brutal, heartbreaking and necessary. It's a miracle to find out that there are actually good people out there who care and have gone to see this picture. He certainly told a tale of an America that has been so hard to recognize as the land of the free.

The point of view of "The Butler" is a lens that gives all of us a perspective that we desperately need. We've seen these atrocities filmed before, but now we look at them through a father's eyes. Lee did that.

Schnabel was nominated for an Oscar for directing 2007's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."

Guillermo del Toro on Alfonso Cuaron


The purest act of magic always has the same goals: to look as effortless as reality and to provoke an emotional response in the audience --to create a moment of childlike awe.

This act is invariably followed by the same, grinning question: "How did they do that?"

I've known Alfonso for a quarter of a century, so roughly half my life. I've seen his talent grow and mature, and I've seen him transform as an artist and as a human being. This parallel growth is not accidental--Alfonso's films push the technical and artistic boundaries in search of one thing: the human spirit.

He probes the emotional connection with the material at hand and then, and only then, does he define the technical challenge to bringing those emotions home. Like any great illusionist, he works indefatigably on the illusion; he hones the sleight of hand through countless hours until the illusion seems effortless ... and real. Through the years, Alfonso has mastered the unbroken link between film and audience.

His films remain humanistic stories, terse parables about our condition, but they are rendered in the sleek, perfect style that one normally associates with more remote filmmakers. That unique quality, that impossible mixture of raw emotion and astonishing technique, has taken him through an incessant search for the truth--through the low-budget wonders of "Y Tu Mama Tambien" to the fringes of outer space in "Gravity." He is talking about us--about what makes us human--about the impossibility of love or the rebirth we can achieve when we break through grief and loss.

On many of his journeys, I have been at hand to observe and comment and support, but, to this day, the essential part of his craft--the thing that makes his magic tricks work--remains a mystery to me. I know the parts, I know the moves, but, like any great magician, the final gesture, the one that makes things appear or disappear, is all his own. The greatest privilege I have, I have as an audience member: I can still look at his films and smile like a child, look to the side and ask: "How did they do that?"

Del Toro directed "Pan's Labyrinth" as well as this year's "Pacific Rim."

Ben Affleck on Nicole Holofcener


Nicole Holofcener's "Enough Said" is sublime. The performances and the direction are honest and restrained. She expertly coaxes the characters along through the story, and she manages to accomplish that rare feat: to make the performances so realistic you think it's a bunch of actors improvising as themselves, only to reveal a carefully constructed, interlocking story woven expertly around profound themes.

She has a graceful directorial touch. She makes space for her actors' success and seems to know precisely when they've achieved it. Her modesty as a director, her insistence not to step in front of the movie, at first serves to immerse us more fully into the film--and then pulls us from the feelings we didn't even know were there (and had been, no doubt, percolating on Ms. Holofcener's timetable all along).

Her direction is void of spectacle, distraction or maudlin sentiment. She directs with the humanist, realist sensibility of Renoir, and like the great humanist films, "Enough Said" depicts our shared experience, illuminates the individual and celebrates what it means to be human.

Affleck directed the most recent Academy Award winner for best picture, "Argo," and won the Directors Guild's feature film honor.

John Hillcoat on Ralph Fiennes


I love actors, working with them and most of all watching them. I'll always remember when Ralph Fiennes arrived onscreen in the early '90s and the incredible, visceral nature of his performances. There has always been a fiercely intelligent quality to his work, so it comes as no surprise that he has developed into such a talented and effective director as well. His ability to get extraordinarily nuanced performances out of actors and craft a film around them while playing the lead himself is nothing short of a jaw dropping feat.

Ralph has always possessed a preternatural ability to disappear completely into a role. The same can be said for his directorial efforts in "The Invisible Woman." You never once feel him behind the camera pushing buttons or pulling strings. It is that supreme level of restraint that elevates this movie and reflects the Victorian times with their restrictive manners that suffocated women. Every shot reveals itself as if it were a series of paintings, evoking the ambience of an era. What begins as a meditative exploration on the enigma of fame ultimately becomes a tragic story about the cruelty of passion, the difficulty of love and the diminishing returns for those who sacrifice themselves in the role of the muse to "great men."

Hillcoat is the director of "The Road" and "Lawless."

Charles Ferguson on Asghar Farhadi


First in "A Separation" and now in "The Past," Asghar Farhadi has given us brutally, beautifully honest inquests into the unremitting misery that, he seems to say, is contemporary emotional and family life, Everyone is a good person, with passions and compassions, and yet their interlocking flaws create a fatally perfect collective prison. Everyone bears some responsibility, everyone has a reasonable point of view, and the result is hell on earth, beautifully, realistically, devastatingly portrayed.

In "The Past," Farhadi has moved from a pervasively Islamic Iran to a deracinated immigrant Paris, and it makes barely any difference. Once again there is an adolescent girl who watches--and intercedes in--the dishonesty around her; once again the adults mostly make things worse, no matter how much they care for each other and their children. All of this is observed with understated craft, detachment and measured compassion. Beautiful art, after which you'll need a very stiff drink.

Ferguson directed the Oscar-winning 2010 documentary "Inside Job," for which he also won a DGA Award.

Judd Apatow on Ron Howard


Infuriatingly, Ron Howard seems able to do it all. He seems tirelessly curious, but one thing ties his films together: He lets the film direct his style, not the other way around.

Ron's films focus on individuals, real or fictional, who are complicated, not always immediately accessible, but very human.

In "Rush," Ron's created a masterpiece of conciseness of movement--in character, in narrative, in action. It gives us two lead characters who never work to charm us, who despite heroics and fame, remain thorny, merciless combatants with a mania for winning that connects them. They are dimensional, complicated, inconsistent human beings. Did I mention it's also funny?

The action is stunning You'd think he spent a lifetime on a Formula One track. But he was a novice to the sport, open to exploring its complexities, its characters, and its appeal in a way only he could.

"Rush" is like no other Ron Howard film, except it's like all of them: It lets the story be the star.

Apatow's films include "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up," "Funny People" and "This Is 40."

John Singleton on Steve McQueen


The thing that I'm most affected by is the picture's juxtaposition of the pathos of the human experience, in terms of human beings being so horrible to other human beings, with all the terrific visions of nature. For example, when Solomon is hanging from the tree, and he's only able to place one foot on the ground, and life just goes on around him--that's what makes the film much more profound than what people might want to make out of it, because they're shocked by it being probably one of the first pictures to actually show the truth of the brutality of slavery on film.

I realized that when I saw his first film, "Hunger"--Steve McQueen has always had scenes that have a juxtaposition of beauty and horror. Steve is an interesting filmmaker: The way in which he shoots, the way in which he edits, the way in which he directs does not conform to any accepted formula of how a contemporary narrative picture should go.

What was most profound about the picture is he didn't over-dramatize anything. He showed, plain as day, what Solomon's dilemma was in having to defend his humanity. Steve didn't move the camera obtrusively, to accentuate any of the hard-hitting things that were happening in the narrative. American filmmakers are always taught, when we have a hard subject, goose it up, but Steve let it play.

I think he's a phenomenal director. I love his work, and this picture shows he's going to be someone to really watch in the years to come. What interesting subject matters and what truths--what ugly truths--he'll get to talk about.

Singleton was nominated for a directing Oscar for 1991's "Boyz n the Hood."

Rian Johnson on Spike Jonze


It's impossible to talk about Spike Jonze's sci-fi love story "Her" without overusing the word "honesty." Spike takes the high-wire concept of a man who falls in love with his computer's operating system and balances it at every step with unflinching emotional and narrative honesty. Spike spins into something both delicate and rock solid, complex and crystalline.

The alchemy of Spike's work is that the craftsmanship, which is expert on every level, fades away from the experience of watching, and we're left with the impression that this massive construction is held in the air by one single invisible thread: the filmmaker's courage to look at the weakest, scariest, most painful parts of being in love, and put it all on the screen with painful, compassionate honesty. Early in the film, the protagonist Theodore worries aloud that he's had every new experience he's going to have in life, and all that's left are repetitions with diminishing returns. Samantha, the OS, promises him that's not true. Watch enough movies, and it can be easy to occasionally lapse into the same funk. Thank God for storytellers like Spike and movies like "Her," proving Samantha right.

Johnson has directed "Brick," "Looper" and multiple episodes of "Breaking Bad."

Rodrigo Garcia on Richard Linklater


Is it not a miracle that so many couples work as well as they do? And by "well," I mean that they survive, and in these matters survival cannot be overrated. Our planetary commitment to dreams is tested every day by the grueling realities faced by individuals who once were strangers to each other, but who have since become diabolically dedicated to building a life for two.

Hence the pleasures and pains of "Before Midnight," in which Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) are still at it, now joined at the hip forever by twin girls. The particulars of this couple are theirs, but the screeching, grinding sounds of their cogwheels are like everyone else's. That's a virtue.

I'm thankful that Linklater and Delpy and Hawke have toughed it out for these two, because often the real story of a relationship is the story of feelings in time, and it can hardly be told in anything less than a lifetime. I very much want future installments, for Celine's sake and Jesse's. And for mine, too. Don't stop. Don't wake me up.

Garcia's credits include features "Albert Nobbs" and "Mother and Child" and the smallscreen's "In Treatment."

Vince Gilligan on John Lee Hancock


It's tricky business, telling a story in which the hero is not heroic and behaves badly (trust me on this). If such a story is not told just right, the audience has no rooting interest. It's hard to keep them engaged, to make them care.

Judging from "Saving Mr. Banks," P.L Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, was an absolute pill. At her best, she was smug and condescending. At her worst, which seems to have been on days ending in "Y," she was abrasive to the point that you picture yourself hitting her in the head with a shovel. You imagine the satisfying whoosh said shovel would make as it arced through time air.

So why then did I find myself feeling empathy for her? Why did I tear up just a little, and they were manly tears--when I watched her view the movie version of her life's work? (Spoiler alert: Disney winds up making a Mary Poppins movie.)

It's because of my friend John Lee Hancock. Working with a very fine script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, John knew just whom to cast, and he knew how to direct them. Emma Thompson, whom I'd happily watch read aloud from the phone book, outdoes herself here. She gives us subtle peeks at the inner vulnerability of a character who wears her outward prickliness like porcupine armor. But she never overdoes it. Nor does John Lee. Missus Travers has no Scrooge-like conversion in the end. Never does her heart melt with warmth and love for her fellow man, which is fitting. Rather, we grow to understand why she is the way she is, and we respect her for it. We sympathize.

And man, is Tom Hanks ever good as Walt Disney! Within five minutes, I'd pretty much forgotten he was Tom Hanks--no easy feat, that. I simply sat there wishing for more of him, and wishing that I had had the chance to meet Walt in real life.

"Saving Mr. Banks" is excellent, old-fashioned filmmaking. It's the kind of movie I wish Hollywood would make more often.

Earlier this year, Gilligan directed the series finale of his Emmy-winning creation, "Breaking Bad."

Michael Mann on Paul Greengrass


In "Captain Phillips," Paul Greengrass takes upon himself a high degree of difficulty, telling a story about which everybody knows the outcome. What's stunning is that it impacts with so much dramatic tension and emotional power.

One reason is that Paul locates us deep within his people. (And Tom Hanks is brilliant!) With Phillips--as well as with the Somalis and the grim circumstances of their situation--creates an actuality that makes us feel the texture, the fabric of their lives. We're at one with these characters inside the events and within the parallax between Captain Phillips' deceptive intent, his subterfuge of the moment to protect his crew, and Muse's X-ray intuition, trying to read Phillips' real intention. At every moment, our awareness is of Phillips, having to play at the very top of his game and to sustain that. We're experiencing his experience of unwavering tension.

The other explanation of the picture's emotional power is Greengrass' direction is so architectural and succinct. Among many brilliant moments, consider the instant the SEAL team fires. But the singular incidence of a director doing his work so perfectly is Paul's casting and direction of Navy corpsman Danielle Albert. After unabating stress and tension, Phillips is finally rescued. His ordeal over, he's being examined in the ship's hospital by Albert. She asks questions about his condition. Her protocol is designed to get answers from traumatized patients. It may be necessary, but her manner is distant, cold, clinical. And, that is the precise, perfect counterpoint to the stream of Hanks' emotional release. He no longer needs to bear the mantle of control. It's all fragmented speech, emotional associations, tears and blood--it is one of the most powerful conclusions of a film in recent memory. It is the perfect antipode to everything that's come before. For any director, seeing work this good is uplifting.

The films of Mann include "Heat" "The Insider" and "Ali."

Peter Bogdanovich on Alexander Payne


"You'll probably think I'm old-fashioned," John Ford said to me, "but black-and-white is real photography." On the same subject, Orson Welles referred to black-and-white as "the actor's friend." I asked him why. "Because every performance looks better in black-and-white!"

The latest proof: Alexander Payne's excellent new movie, "Nebraska," a mordant, deadpan comedy drama shot in monochromatic black-and-white that beautifully underlines the bleakness of the family life the picture deals with, these "lives of quiet desperation."

Actor's friend? Black-and-white always helps to create a sense of harsh reality, and thus lends greater intensity to the actors' performances: no color to distract from the painfully human emotions being displayed, so behavior and expressions are virtually naked.

Certainly this is true with the superb cast of "Nebraska," led by Bruce Dern, whose portrayal is absolutely artless, simple in its unspoken complexity; it's a tour-de-force with no frills whatsoever. As his most sympathetic son, Will Forte establishes himself as a fine serious actor, with a witty, subtle subtext of humor. The rest of the supporting players are every bit as good as these two.

This is a courageous film, a story of an "unimportant family" that is both typical and deeply individual. That's not the kind of picture many people are making these days, and it is a very pleasant experience to be in the presence of a filmmaker who believes that no landscape is quite as compelling as the faces of people.

Bogdanovich earned an Oscar nomination for directing "The Last Picture Show."

Stephen Hopkins on Brian Percival


When you have Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush together at the core of a complex, three-handed family drama, your confidence as a filmmaker would be high. However, when the film also relies on the performance of a 12-year-old girl who loses everyone she holds dear in Nazi Germany as she is being observed by the welcoming figure of "Death," things can become much trickier.

In "The Book Thief," the deft choices made by the writer Michael Petroni and director Brian Percival are so vivid and dramatic that only such an emotionally sure and experienced cast, alongside the tough innocence of Sophie Nelisse, could help you navigate the beautiful and intense journey through so many heartbreaks and terrors. Directed so thoughtfully, the film appears to have a simplicity about it, but the avalanche of emotion and story is anything but.

How Percival handles the story's claustrophobic nature is a joy to study. The world is closing in, and though stretches of the film are almost like a play in the tiny house they inhabit, it never feels repetitive or small. I guess the themes are so large and important, and the characters so strong and unusual, there is always hope.

In addition to films, Hopkins has directed many episodes of shows including "24" and "House of Lies."

Mark Duplass on James Ponsoldt


Every now and then, a movie comes along and makes you walk a little more slowly out of the movie theater than when you walked in. Your head spins, so you put your feet down a little more carefully. Your body still wants to be in the theater seat, so you leave the building a bit reluctantly.

This year, for me, it was "The Spectacular Now." The amount of truth and vulnerability oozing out of this movie basically melted my face off. The faux-cocky-insecurity from Miles Teller. The sad-hopeful-wide-eyed love from Shailene Woodley. The feeling that anything is possible for two people who haven't been dealt the best hand. I hadn't been so knocked out by a teenage love story since "Say Anything," and this film did it without a Peter Gabriel song.

That feat is due in no small part to the gentle, loving spirit of director James Ponsoldt. Watch this movie, people. And watch out for whatever Mr. Ponsoldt decides to make next. He's the real deal. And this movie will break your heart in all the right places.

Multihyphenate Duplass has co-directed such films as "Cyrus" and "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" with his brother, Jay.

Marc Webb on John Wells


John Wells wisely brought the production of "August: Osage County" to shoot on the hot plains of Oklahoma. It's an early decision that in many ways defines the film. The dense local heat rolls across the landscape and penetrates the clothes, the space and the psyches of his legendary ensemble. It's strange to say, but there's something exotic about the wideness of Wells' Oklahoma: a place so utterly American but so rarely studied on the screen.

The film swaps out the ghosts of Americana drenched in nostalgia for the living specters lurking in the shadows of manifest destiny. The ethos of frontier America flourished in places like Osage County. But where there is the possibility of individual triumph, there is also the possibility for terrifying abandonment. And that abandonment is made all the more tragic by the intimation that Violet Weston probably owes her survival to her irascible, fighting nature--the same harshness that drives away those who love her.

But through the harrowing narrative, Wells manages to conjure joy through a symphony of lyrical dialogue, humor and a call sheet that reads like the movie equivalent of the 1927 Yankees. There's a thrill in watching such virtuoso talent like Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Chris Cooper, not to mention the hilariously bombastic performance of Juliette Lewis.

And that's the wonderful thing that Wells has accomplished with Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize winning play: a deeper, funnier and more serious contemplation of the American ethos than you are likely to get on the screen for a long time. It's a challenging piece of heartland cinema that shrugs off the warmth of tear-stained epiphanies for brutal domestic collisions and highly weaponized truth telling.

Webb is the director of "(500) Days of Summer" "The Amazing Spider-Man" and its upcoming sequel.

Adam Shankman on Jean-Marc Vallee


In attempting to explain Jean-Marc Vallee's extraordinary direction of "Dallas Buyers Club," I find myself grabbing at phrases like "breathtaking simplicity," "epic economy," or "harrowing clarity." Simply put, it is visionary storytelling.

Vallee never judges these all-too flawed and painfully human characters. The protagonist is fundamentally reprehensible and morally unkempt to the very end, yet we feel his pain. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto are forces of nature in this film, and with them Vallee keeps every moment brave and heartbreakingly real. That takes a special something of a director: to be able to communicate a vision so effectively to your actors that it takes their commitment to a whole new level.

With "Dallas Buyers Club," Vallee has created a rich, painful and complicated film with epic scope, without flourish or gimmick. It's a master class on not wasting one frame of film, or shooting any gratuitous moments. Yes, there is physical and emotional violence, and beautifully shot, loveless sex, but the figurative and literal rawness of these scenes is essential to understanding Vallee's characters, the world they inhabit and the depths of their stories.

Shankman directed "Hairspray" as well as episodes of "Glee."

Gary Ross on Denis Villeneuve


It's hard to feel more agonizingly tense than you do while watching Denis Villeneuve's "Prisoners." I saw it alone and hugged my kids the minute I got home.

It's fashionable to dismiss "suspense films" as a lesser "genre," but many are their directors' masterworks: "The Shining," "Rosemary's Baby," "Alien," of course "Psycho." Hitchcock never won an Oscar, but it wasn't long before Truffaut was writing a book about him.

There is a methodical pace, a stillness, a bleak, spare landscape whose brown and frozen palate is so undesigned it deconstructs the very idea that you are in a movie. In fact, there is so much arresting restraint in "Prisoners" that the "filmmaking" falls away, and soon you are fully immersed in the nightmare of this small American town. Roger Deakins' work is remarkable.

It isn't so much about the banality of evil as it is the evil of banality. This could be you or me or anyone or anywhere. It's the plausibility of the premise, the ease with which this nightmare unfolds that plunges you headlong into it.

Ross' films include "Pleasantville" and "The Hunger Games."
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Title Annotation:Eye On The Oscars: Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 13, 2013
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