Writers and Directors of Best Picture Contenders Discuss Experiences and Influences

·19-min read

Paul Thomas Anderson
Director-Screenwriter-Producer, “Licorice Pizza
For Anderson’s ninth feature, the filmmaker returned to the San Fernando Valley to chronicle the lives of a young man and woman in the 1970s. When asked in a Variety cover story why he chooses this location frequently for his films, Anderson replied: “Comfort. Joy. I like the way it looks. I like the way it tastes and smells. I don’t know beyond I love it. Do I wish I had more range? Yes, I do. I was writing another story. I was deep into it and I was distracted by the pull of this one, and of course there’s a moment where you go, ‘Are you really going to make another film in Los Angeles in the ’70s again? Don’t you think you’ve done that?’ Then you ignore that voice, and you swat it away like a fly.”

Kenneth Branagh
Director-Screenwriter, “Belfast”
Harnessing the memories of his youth and imbuing the real world with a touch of whimsy and melancholy, Branagh’s deeply personal tale of an inquisitive boy navigating the rigors of youth during a turbulent period often hits emotional high notes. And because the vision feels so authentic, the audience becomes even more invested.

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“In the early days of the first lockdown, I contacted, and was contacted by, so many friends who I had not spoken to in a while,” recalls Branagh. “All wanted to reconnect, to prioritize friendship and personal connection at a time of deep uncertainty. Many friends experienced his same yearning for the direct human experience of sharing, of listening, of knowing that we are not alone. This atmosphere recreated something I had experienced profoundly as a child in Belfast. Violence arrived into my early life, and though it ruthlessly drove some people apart, it often forced people together, too. This was the experience of my family and my 9-year-old self. We soaked up every laugh, every song, every ad hoc dance, every makeshift game among the barricades that we could share with our friends and neighbors, as if asserting the right to fragments of happiness and joy, even in the middle of a world that seemed hell-bent on taking such experiences away. In the movie ‘Belfast,’ my childhood lockdown was reimagined in our own. And while making the film, I realized that this story could have an impact on those who had been blessed with living in a time of peace, one that didn’t seem possible when the events of our story took place.”

Jane Campion
Director-Screenwriter-Producer, “The Power of the Dog
To help build the character of Phil, a closeted rancher, filmmaker Campion and actor Benedict Cumberbatch consulted with Kim Gillingham, a Jungian dream coach based in Los Angeles. Campion spoke about the process during a Variety interview for Directors on Directors, noting, “I really felt that we had to build him from the psyche up, and I also needed to be open to the depths of the story. Like, I was sort of sitting on the edge of this amazing novel by Thomas Savage and thinking, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to get inside it?’ And we did it through our dreams.”

Campion then elaborated, “I had the dreams, I wrote them down. I met with Kim, and she sort of got me to lie down, put on soothy music and everything. And then she started with the script to facilitate almost a discussion between myself as Phil and Jane the director. One of the first questions she says is, ‘Jane, you are Phil now. So as Phil, what would you want to tell Jane about what she needs to know to tell your story?’ And immediately I said, ‘Well, that bitch has got to get real. She’s got to take off that little white scientific coat of hers. And get dirty. Just get in the dirt because that’s the truth.’ I was so tough to Jane the director.”

George Clooney
Director, “The Tender Bar”
The film, based on the memoir by J.R. Moehringer, was born during COVID isolation, Clooney says.
“‘Tender Bar’ was tricky. We wanted to do a smaller movie because it was during the pandemic. I sent it to Ben [Affleck] and he jumped at it. He sent me a two-page email, describing everything about this character. He knew it. He was so excited and we knew it would be a fun project.”

Clooney continues, “All these actors showed up with their hearts open; they said let’s have fun and explore these characters. So you have Lily Rabe and Chris Lloyd swinging for the fences, in a way that was really fun. In the middle of that was Ben, who doesn’t usually get these kinds of roles. He came in, saying ‘Let’s make a really good film.’ I was so proud to be a part of this, to be a witness to an actor getting his teeth into a really good part, because it doesn’t happen often.”

Joel Coen
Director-Screenwriter-Producer, “The Tragedy of Macbeth”
In adapting one of Shakespeare’s greatest and best-known tragedies for the big screen, Coen knew he wanted to hew close to the original text. “Doing ‘Macbeth’ without the language seemed to be missing probably the most important part,” said Coen in promoting the film. “It’s the melody of the piece and, for me, it had to be in the foreground. The question, though, was how to do that and make it highly accessible at the same time. I didn’t want to transliterate it into a modern idiom or any of that. Instead, I started thinking about how to put the performances into a context where people would be able to enjoy the richness of the language.”

He enlisted the aid of an old friend, Hanford Woods, a professor who taught Shakespeare at Dawson College in Montreal. “I asked about the history of different productions of the play, about what critics and historians have thought about certain aspects and themes, about Shakespeare’s original sources for the story, and about how he diverged from the real history,” he recalled. Coen also asked about the true meaning of certain key phrases, no matter how obvious they may have seemed. “No matter how much you read Shakespeare, there are certain things that can remain a little bit opaque, and some of the words can be ambiguous, so I wanted to understand as much as possible how everything was intended.”

Guillermo del Toro
Director-Co-Screenwriter-Producer, “Nightmare Alley”
In del Toro’s latest, Bradley Cooper plays a damaged con man who often reflects on his disdain for his father. Asked about the film’s daddy issues in a Directors on Directors interview for Variety, del Toro said, “My dad passed away after ‘Shape of Water,’ but it is not about my father. My dad and I got along really well, but it is the shadow of that: How do you explore it? Every time we do a movie, I’m thinking how much can I be truthful about myself? And Bradley Cooper’s character is someone who decides to lie and be a populist, and he never has enough in the movie. And that was what intrigued me. When people ask me what it’s about, I say that ‘Nightmare Alley’ is about the American dream. Because the flip side of that is a nightmare for most people. One of the myths I fear the most is the idea of success. It’s such torture.”

Asghar Farhadi,
Director-Screenwriter-Producer, “A Hero”
Farhadi spins a delicate, complex, and deceptively simple story, this time concerning a man losing his grasp on his own self-made reality, with external forces creating simmering pressure points. The everyday surfaces of Farhadi’s work often show unexpected thematic revelations, while never forgetting to remain wholly cinematic.

“This is the story of a man who is gradually descending, which is a very interesting theme to me,” says the Iranian filmmaker. “Something that was really exciting for me was getting closer to actual life with this story, examining the true reality of the situation. Even further closer to life than I’ve gotten in my previous work. I’ve worked in realism in my other films, but my goal is to get my films as close to life itself. I want audiences to forget that they are watching a movie when they enter the theater and feel like they are experiencing life itself. Sometimes we believe that life can be very dull and repetitive and it’s hard to imagine life through the cinematic language, but you can make a good drama out of the material of everyday life. Sometimes drama can be based on big issues that are happening in society, but I prefer to explore the smaller dramas that are unfolding around us every day. Things with small stakes, or the little white lies that we tell ourselves or other people, those are the things that sometimes create bigger issues for ourselves.”

The Lost Daughter Maggie Gyllenhaal
The Lost Daughter Maggie Gyllenhaal

Maggie Gyllenhaal
Director-Screenwriter, “The Lost Daughter”
When Maggie Gyllenhaal chose to adapt Elena Ferrante’s bestselling novel “The Lost Daughter” as her debut directorial venture, there were a lot of directions in which the Oscar-nominated actress could have gone. Ferrante’s book, centered around a professor (Olivia Colman) who confronts a troubled past while on vacation, takes place on a beach near Naples, Italy. But Gyllenhaal decided to set the story elsewhere.

“I adapted it originally to take place in a kind of unnamed, Eastern seaboard beach town–you know, with boardwalks and lobster rolls,” says Gyllenhaal. “In fact, we had a whole budget done for New Jersey. And, of course, that was never right, artistically. But then the pandemic happened and it became clear to us after a few weeks that shooting in New Jersey was probably going to be impossible. We thought about Rhode Island–my cast and my crew, my friends and my Israeli producers. And we had the British and Irish cast. And America–it just seems impossible to get all the pieces together in time, because we had to shoot by the end of September [2020]. So then we were like: Maybe we’ll try Nova Scotia. But Canada didn’t want us. Just too many people coming from too many places and [COVID] was happening. Then one day, out of the blue, really like out of a dream, or out of artistic necessity, I just kind of thought it could be somewhere like Greece. Because it’s idyllic and very far from home. We decided, yes, that could work. And Greece really did provide so many things for us. It was a haven in the middle of the pandemic, there were no cases on the island. We were in a safe place. We’d work really hard all day. And then at night we’d hang out and make real relationships. I’d always had a fantasy of working like that. And then it happened.”

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
Director-Screenwriter, “Drive My Car”
Set against the backdrop of everyday life, Hamaguchi’s patient and rewarding storytelling reminds us that personal connections are what we still need the most. This socially observant and charming Japanese film presents an unlikely friendship, where the viewer experiences the various simplicities of life, all of which form a deeply humanistic portrait. It’s based on a short story by Haruki Murakami.

“One of my friends read the short story in a magazine in 2014, and he thought I’d enjoy it, so he gave it to me,” says Hamaguchi. “I loved it and knew that it would make for an interesting movie, but more had to be done with the original text. My job as a storyteller is to show how the characters respond to specific situations, and while I don’t drive a car myself, the intimate setting of two people in a car is perfect for a drama where you’re focusing on people who are building a relationship. And because of what happens to the characters, the interior of the car beings to represent different things for them. I expanded upon certain aspects of the story in order to make it cinematic and to of course make it long enough for a feature. I’m drawn to stories that are realistic and this one felt very real to me, and working on something that came from Haruki Murakami was something that was very important for me to do as an artist.”

Sian Heder
Director-Screenwriter, “CODA”
“CODA” writer-director Heder saw a 2014 French film “La Famille Belier,” about a hearing daughter in a family with three deaf members. In the French film, most deaf characters were played by hearing actors.

“There were missed opportunities in terms of casting, and I don’t feel deaf culture was represented in an authentic way. I became very adamant about the way the movie needed to be told,” says Heder. “That meant half the movie would be in ASL, and hearing characters would not voice what the deaf characters are saying. Lionsgate wanted Marlee Matlin to play the mother, but wanted hearing actors to play her husband and son and hopefully a pop star to play Ruby, the hearing daughter. When I first met with Marlee, I told her I was fighting with the studio. She said ‘I will walk off the project; they have to cast deaf actors in both those roles.’”

Heder and Matlin got their way and the resulting film scored a record-breaking sale out of the Sundance Film Festival. Says Heder, “We made the movie with not enough time, but it was the movie we wanted to make.”

West Side Story Tony Kushner
West Side Story Tony Kushner

Tony Kushner
Screenwriter-Executive Producer, “West Side Story”
Kushner knew that when it came to reinventing a classic, he and director Steven Spielberg would have to keep things fresh and dynamic. And because the story is rooted in a robust thematic discussion of ethnicity and our collective place in society, the time is more than right for this story to re-emerge on the scene.

“I’ve always loved the musical and the score, which I heard over and over again as a kid. I had the original Broadway recording on record. When I was in my 20s, I saw the movie for the first time, and fell in love with it. It’s a story that always makes me cry,” says Kushner. “I’ve written one other musical, and I love the form and I hope to do another one in the future. Words are tied into the natural structures of the brain and they are the building blocks of cognition. Music gets past that, and reaches into deeper places, unlocking a creative reservoir in people, both of joy and sorrow. There’s something extraordinarily powerful about the stage. So, it’s quite thrilling as a dramatic realist to do something with more of a heightened realism, and it’s supported by these astonishing melodies by Bernstein and Sondheim – it takes you places you can’t get to otherwise. Both Steven and I loved the 1961 film very much, and we knew it was going to be a complicated journey. But I had this suspicion, just like Steven did, that I’d love every moment of it, and we were heartbroken when filming was finished. The musical is an art form that was born in this country, and has no direct parallel, so I loved getting involved with this new version for so many reasons. It takes you to places you can’t get to otherwise.”

Steven Levenson
Screenwriter, “Tick, Tick…Boom!”
When penning the adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical “Tick, Tick…Boom!”, screenwriter Steven Levenson was inspired by childhood memories of going to see “Rent,” Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical. Starring Andrew Garfield as Larsen, who died the night before his play opened to reviews in New York, Levenson felt “connected” to the lyricist and composer.

“I’m a child of ‘Rent,’” says Levenson. “I am part of that generation, that cohort of people who saw ‘Rent.’ I was 12, and we saw [the play] at the Kennedy Center; it was a touring production. I always loved musicals. There was just something on a cellular level. I absorbed musicals as a kid, and yet they always felt a little bit like something from my parents’ generation. But ‘Rent’ just caught me. And I felt it on this visceral level that I had never felt while watching a musical before. I didn’t know the musicals could feel like that, that they could feel so alive and electric and so current. And so I was inspired to tell the story of the person that made that show. And I think the thing that inspired me most about this story is the fact that it’s the story of a failure. Most stories of artists are stories of triumphs. But when you hear the pitch for ‘Tick, Tick…Boom!’ this is the story about a guy who spent eight years working on a musical that nobody believed in. And he kept going and going. And finally, that musical was ‘Rent.’”

Adam McKay
Director-Screenwriter-Producer, “Don’t Look Up”
If McKay’s latest film — about a pair of astronomers trying to warn of a comet on its way to destroy Earth and meeting with indifference, apathy and disbelief from the government and public — feels timely, consider the fact it was written before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world. McKay says, “It was a strange experience, writing the script, casting it scouting and then having to stop go into the quarantine … and then every other day getting texts from department heads or cast going, ‘Oh, my God, did you see this just happen? This is in your script!’ And then three days later, ‘Oh, my God, this just happened. This is in the script!’”

But in some ways, McKay says it’s not that surprising. “I don’t think I’m exactly Nostradamus. Clearly our society’s been teetering and careening and collapsing for a good chunk of time now – it just seems to be reaching some sort of terminal velocity at this point,” he says. “You know, when you see someone lean against a giant stack of crystal glasses, and they start to wobble, it’s not too hard to predict what’s going
to happen.”

Mike Mills,
Director-Screenwriter, “C’mon C’mon’”
Filmmaker Mills deeply appreciates whenever serendipitous moments arise as a way to strengthen the story. And capturing this sense of authenticity in “C’mon C’mon,” a sweet, sincere drama centered on a radio journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) temporarily looking after his young nephew (Woody Norman), felt no different. “Me and my DP Robbie [Ryan] love hunting for that kind of stuff. I’m very eager to see something I didn’t see coming. I often find those are gifts from the film gods that are the most treasured things.”

One such breakthrough happened early on in their shoot, when an energetic Norman began drumming on a table and someone pantomimed what he did. “I thought it was the whole movie in one physical action, like about what we give each other consciously and unconsciously especially in families and primary relationships,” says Mills. This mimicry game, an “easy directing prompt” he soon discovered, was quick to catch on with the actors. But by the end, it was old hat. “The last shot of the movie, Woody started running his fingers up Joaquin and Joaquin did it back. It’s a thing I didn’t ask them to do.”

Mills favorably highlights works from other storytellers in his films to augment thematic sentiments. “I love having all that reality in my fiction, messing with fiction and also messing with my authorial voice,” he explains. “Some of my favorite parts in the movie are when I’m tired of my own voice. It’s fun to have this heterogeneity for me as an author.” One of those emotional touchstones was an essay by documentarian Kirsten Johnson, which materialized late in the game. “I didn’t plan it. I had to find footage to go with it. It’s completely invented in the edit. It has a spontaneity to it.”

Aaron Sorkin
Director-Screenwriter, “Being the Ricardos”
Sorkin’s peek behind the curtain of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Jr.’s tumultuous marriage and the day-to-day operations of the beloved series “I Love Lucy,” didn’t initially spark with the filmmaker. “In 2015, [producer] Todd Black asked me if I’d like to write a movie about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. I didn’t say yes but I didn’t say no,” says Sorkin. It took a bit of time and persuasion for him to — in hero’s journey jargon — answer the call. “Over the next year and a half, we’d meet every month or so and we’d talk about various points of friction in Lucy and Desi’s lives, beginning with the accusation that Lucy was a communist, Lucy’s pregnancy and Desi showing up on the cover of a tabloid magazine with another woman.”

Through these discussions, details began to align for how to properly tell the story he was envisioning through an unconventional approach, compacting these key events. “I knew I didn’t want to write a biopic — a cradle-to-grave story. But I thought if I narrowed the lens and set the whole story — all these points of friction during one production week of ‘I Love Lucy’ — it could work as a caldron.”

When setting about to recreate iconic moments from the show, Sorkin, a TV veteran himself, trusted Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem to pull off the huge task of sinking into their roles as titans of TV to bring incredibly revered sequences to life. And, like many of us watching, he wasn’t immune to the infectious, nostalgic charisma, comedy and charm captured with loving care. “It doesn’t get much more fun than Nicole Kidman rolling around in a vat of grapes or Javier Bardem singing ‘Cuban Pete.’”

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