The same five filmmakers who have been nominated for Best Director Oscars — Lenny Abrahamson (Room), Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant), Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), Adam McKay (The Big Short), and George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road) — were celebrated individually and collectively as Outstanding Directors of the Year by the Santa Barbara International Film Festival at a packed Arlington Theatre last night.
Hosted briskly and efficiently by Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg, it was a rich two-and-a-half-hour affair. The rising importance to film aficionados of the role of the director has been underscored as the festival has elevated the Directors Panel into this primetime celebration. Feinberg interviewed each director one-on-one and then as a collective. Each one of them deserved an entire evening.
Lenny Abrahamson recounted how he wrote the novelist Emma Donoghue a long letter analyzing her novel Room and a detailed plan for its adaptation. The first half of the movie was shot in an 11 x 11-foot room without cutaway walls to bring the audience into the intense reality of mother and son’s captivity. The environment was so restrictive Abrahamson spent a great deal of time directing from the bathtub on the set. He shared his secret to working with child actor Jacob Tremblay: “I told him to see how close we can be to you instead of acting” as well as how he turned a horrifying tale into an uplifting story of hope, “By paying close attention to the experience of a child.”
Legendary director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Revenant, Birdman) offered how he calibrates his interest in a project. “When you feel fear, it’s a good thing,” he remarked. He found it easier to direct the actors and crew while shooting on location in the elements. “Everyone could understand the story better when we were actually really cold,” he quipped. His “kid-like, joyful collaboration” with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki took him to new challenges shooting the entire film in “the most complex and beautiful light — natural light — provided by Brother Sun.”
Todd McCarthy (Spotlight) described how his experience as a former altar boy gave him a foothold on the story of child sexual abuse by the Catholic Church. An actor himself (he played Scott Templeton in The Wire) made him the ultimate actor’s director, and his cast was star-studded. “You could sense them challenging each other,” he remarked. An homage to “legacy journalism,” i.e., reporting that is based on accuracy, independence, and impartiality, Spotlight has even been screened for the Vatican.
Adam McKay, was the cutup of the evening, and it was refreshing. Famous for Will Ferrell movies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, The Big Short was a career high. His no-holds-barred approach to a dense, complicated story was aided by his comic fortitude. He cited the film 24-Hour Party People Movie as a precedent for his fourth-wall-breaking techniques. McKay, a true critic of the banking system, lauded the fact that his film has been cited equally by pundits on the right and the left and has even been screened for Congress.
Last but hardly least, fabled filmmaker George Miller symbolized the long view of a business that is notoriously replete with delay and indirection. He was a physician in the 1970s when he created the first Mad Max film. Today, 37 years later he’s tapped into feminism, the climate crisis, and a fresh look at the vastly overused hero tropes that Joseph Campbell and Hollywood development execs have made humdrum. The new iteration, Mad Max: Fury Road, was 17 years in the making and it seems clear that Charlize Theron’s role was key to that enlivenment.
Scott Feinberg wrapped up the evening with all five directors on stage in a very buddy buddy fraternal group as Santa Barbaran Oscar-winning director Andrew Davis awarded each director stirring praise and the SBIFF award.