Veteran Helmers Seeking First-Ever Director Win Roar Back Into Oscars Race

What do Pedro Almodóvar, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Kenneth Branagh and Jane Campion have in common? They’ve helmed acclaimed films for decades, earned Academy Award nominations and done some of their best work this year … yet they’ve never won a director Oscar.

In exclusive new interviews with Campion, Branagh, Almodóvar and Wes Anderson — plus some unpublished thoughts from Paul Thomas Anderson — this reporter discovered how they built on their distinctive histories and tackled new challenges in films that embody their mastery of the form.

Since her first feature, 1989’s “Sweetie,” Campion has almost solely explored the inner lives of female protagonists. But her adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel “The Power of the Dog” shifts her focus to a sadistic rancher (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his impact on a near-exclusively male cast of characters.

“This project had a great balance of a whole lot of fear with a whole lot of inspiration,” Campion says. “What was the fear? Managing the depiction of a very masculine world. There are a lot of big and dangerous animals on the ranch. [It’s] a harsh environment with such an extraordinary wind factor on location that standing up in some moments was impossible. … Of course, the terrifying challenge is to manifest the whole world of 1925 Montana so that an audience will trust and lean into the experience. And the inspiration? Always the actors, and supporting their mysterious, subtle work of embodying their characters.”

The latter is very much in Campion’s wheelhouse. “For Benedict, the challenge was particularly steep; how to create this seething, tormented man,” she says. “Drawing [that] portrait alongside Ben was an exhilarating exploration, one that we both knew the entire film depended on.”

The tension-filled dance between him and the other actors, set against the kind of breathtaking landscapes Campion captured in her 1993 breakthrough “The Piano,” keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. “The content of the story [and] its texture is beautiful to me, because it feels personal, particular and ranges between tenderness and brutality … I like the contrast [of] the formal qualities of story with the mess, beauty and rawness of life. ‘The Power of the Dog’ has that rare balance of form and content that I believe has a fusion that is original and explosive. I was excited to see what happened when it came together, [and] I wanted to experience that impact.”

Like Campion, Branagh has arguably done his best work to date with “Belfast.” After helming several Shakespeare adaptations (including his 1989 debut, “Henry V”) and big-budget movies, he revisits his childhood during Northern Ireland’s conflicts for his most intimate project.

“The experience was overwhelming, and my family never spoke about the day that riot [re-enacted in the film] happened or the events that led to our departure from Belfast, [so] it took a very, very long time to obtain any objectivity to be able to consider them,” Branagh says. “Life is so precious and unsettled now [with COVID], and so reminiscent of the time back then. Not really knowing what the world would be like [made me feel], ‘If not now, when?’ I was compelled to do it.” His goal? “To inhabit the perspective of a child handling a nightmare and trying to work it out with his dreams — of football, romance, movies — as a heightened means of escape.”

To convey this, Branagh used editing to add “unexpected jolts of color, movement and violence into this largely still world.”

His war-torn hometown and scenes of family life are captured in vivid black and white, with many artfully composed shots. “COVID protocols and child working hours reduced our shooting time and gave me no time to second guess, so first choices from the gut were the ones we stuck to. And with direct access to something deep inside of me, we were unashamedly poetic: we filmed the rain, the clouds, the leaves. We let the environment speak to us.”

Branagh says he also “vacuumed up anything that was real life, including — much more than in my other films — improvisation, making sure that the film was not a navel-gazing exercise. It needed to be owned by the actors. [Yet it’s] my most exposed, vulnerable and possibly my most complete work as a director. A director friend thought it was a surprisingly new tone from me, and if you’re surprising people after 30 years as a director, it’s a lovely thing to hear. I certainly surprised myself.”

Almodóvar also dives into his country’s fraught political history for the first time in “Parallel Mothers.” As the film tells the story of two single moms (Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit) whose lives become intertwined after they meet in a maternity ward, it features a subplot about exhuming the graves of citizens who were disappeared during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

“It represents my biological maturity — I’m getting older,” says the 72-year-old director. “In the ’80s, I thought more about my freedom and the freedom of my characters. I wasn’t really thinking about historical memory; I was more interested in documenting life in the streets, what young people were doing. I think I was political because all of my characters had absolute moral autonomy. But in the last 20 years, I’ve been more concerned about the social problems of my country. I wanted to talk about the mass graves, but I didn’t find the right script [until ‘Mothers’]. Spain is the country with [the most] missing people after Cambodia. One of the greatest challenges was [filming] the opening of the graves, because of the sensitive nature of the topic and out of respect for the people. I had to shoot in a documentary-like style, and we took great care in constructing the different layers of the graves — these are all special effects.”

The film marked other firsts for him as well. “It’s a movie with few actors, and it’s very complex because of its complex characters, so I’m really relying on the actors to carry the movie,” he says. “Penélope’s character is acting one way but feeling another, and that’s a very difficult thing to manage as a director and as an actor. It’s much more somber and restrained [than my other films], because I needed that kind of containment.”

Despite “Mothers” being one of the best-reviewed works of his career, Spain chose Fernando León de Aranoa’s comedy “The Good Boss” as its official 2022 selection for international feature. When asked if his film’s political subject matter might be one reason, Almodóvar points out that he “experienced the same thing 19 years ago with ‘Talk to Her,’ and curiously with the same director and the same actor [Javier Bardem in “Mondays in the Sun”]. I got all the awards you could imagine for that film, but in Spain, the movie [won virtually none]. Perhaps I was too successful for many people there at the time. And perhaps you are right — part of the country is against [excavating] the mass graves. A phrase that Milena Smit’s character says in the film, ‘This is only good for opening old wounds,’ is almost like a rallying cry from the right … In any case, the answer isn’t nice to me. What I recommend is to see the other movie and compare the two.”

But reaction to the snub could end up benefitting him: it helped “Talk to Her” land Almodóvar his sole director Oscar nomination and a rare original screenplay win for a foreign-language film. The screenplay award is a longstanding consolation prize for writer-directors who lose in other categories, and could benefit someone like Branagh or Campion, who won one for “The Piano.”

While it’s not a candidate for international feature, Anderson’s anthology “The French Dispatch” — which follows writers, artists and students in the fictitious French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé — plays like one at moments. What new challenges did it present? “I don’t know if you would call it a challenge, but a lot of this movie is in French,” Anderson says. “Sometimes one character speaks French and another answers in English. We frankly just mix the languages any way we like. This was new for me, though [in] my previous movie ‘Isle of Dogs,’ we did play quite a lot with words spoken and seen, and especially translation. I think we may have taken the art/science of subtitling in an ever-so-slightly new direction!”

His response mirrors the film’s quirky humor, which includes some subtle commentary on the awards season, one of Anderson’s many trademarks. The deadpan dialogue, elaborate art direction, inventive cinematography and set design all make it unmistakably his creation, yet it’s arguably his most ambitious film to date. “I always think I am doing something I have never attempted before, but I’m not so sure other people see it that way when they watch my movies,” he says. “I had stupendous experiences with actors new to me and old to me. Each one brings an entirely new voice to the thing in every way.”

Tackling an anthology is one of several firsts for Anderson. “Our movie is a collection of short stories, so our subject matter veers off down many routes. One is sort of about the courage and inspiration and feelings of freedom of young people who follow the impulse to protest or [offer] resistance, [and we] spend a lot of time with writers in this movie. I don’t know if I have specifically done a sequence that was meant to be a poem before, which I sort of tried to do in one of these little stories.”

Another writer-director with a quarter-century of experience helming features, and the same last name, is Paul Thomas Anderson. While “Licorice Pizza” isn’t as directly autobiographical as “Belfast,” the comic romance might be his most personal. He used the true stories of his friend, producer Gary Goetzman, to capture the mood and feel of 1970s San Fernando Valley better than any film since, well, his 1998 porn industry saga “Boogie Nights.”

“You just sort of substitute a movie camera with a waterbed or a pinball palace, and I was probably an extension of Gary,” Anderson said at a Nov. 11 New York City screening this reporter attended. “I didn’t exactly have that kind of charisma or that way with words — he’s one of a kind — but the stories he told [offered] an opportunity to enter a world that I remember very well. And having [four] children, [it allowed me] to show them the world that I grew up in.”

But Anderson, whose work has been as varied as “There Will Be Blood” and “Phantom Thread,” downplayed the suggestion that he was entering a reflective phase. “This just came like a very generous drop into my lap. It was irresistible and felt important to pursue. Don’t worry, I can still be cranky!” he cracked. “But I had a friend, [late AMPAS president] Tom Sherak, a great man, who said [after watching], maybe it was ‘The Master,’ ‘You’re really, really good at this, but you should make one every once in a while that people actually understand.’ I remember putting this together and I thought, ‘This is for you, Tom.’”

Does not winning a director Oscar after helming acclaimed features for 25, 32, 43 (Almodóvar) or 44 years (Ridley Scott, whose “House of Gucci” is gaining awards buzz for its performances) and being a sentimental favorite benefit any of these vets? “My impression is that the Academy has always voted for sentimental favorites in every category, except when people have absolutely no clue about what the meaning of the category is,” such as technical awards, says former New York Film Festival head and DGA voter Kent Jones, who helmed “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” a doc about two auteurs who never won a director Oscar. “The sentimentality is secondary to the question of what [people feel it] would look best to vote for. When the stars align and the director is a sentimental favorite, too, that’s great.”

Toronto Intl. Film Festival CEO and Academy voter Cameron Bailey says, “There are very few times where there’s a momentum of support for directors because they haven’t won before and they deserve it. Martin Scorsese’s award for ‘The Departed’ was one of a few examples, because he wasn’t onstage collecting the Oscar for ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull.’”

What’s clear is that this year’s crop of great films from auteurs in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s belies Quentin Tarantino’s recent statement that “most ódirectors have horrible last movies,” implying that they’d be better off retiring early. “Sometimes that’s true, but sometimes somebody makes ‘The Irishman,’” Jones says. “I think he should stop talking so much.”

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