Whose vision will capture Oscar?

Academy favourites

At some point, deep in the four and a half years it took to make Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón, the director and co-writer, screened his lost-in-space saga for a test audience. And? “It was a disaster,” he said.

The footage was rough, animations with the heads of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney grafted on, equipment for the rigs that made them appear weightless still visible. The grand vision of the film, with its themes of loss and rebirth, was hard to discern. “So you start having all this feedback from audiences,” Cuarón recalled, like, “I wish there was an alien or a monster,” or “a love story between mission control and Sandra, you know, floating in space.”

Cuarón and his son Jónas Cuarón, his co-writer and close collaborator, rejected all those ideas, preferring to keep their story simple, as simple as a 3-D epic with two major movie stars could be. It worked, earning the elder Cuarón the top prize from his peers at the Directors Guild, an award long considered a harbinger of Oscar success.

Gravity, with 10 Academy Award nominations, including best director for Cuarón, is now in a three-way heat for the best picture Oscar, pitted, Oscarologists say, against Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and David O Russell’s American Hustle, which have each won other precursor trophies from industry groups (the Producers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild). “American Hustle,” the 1970s caper comedy, also has 10 Oscar nominations, and 12 Years a Slave, the 19th-century historical drama, has nine. Not since 2001, when Gladiator, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Traffic were all nominated, has there been such a highly contested race.

This year, too, the films showcase their directors’ distinct aesthetic and storytelling style: Cuarón’s long, unbroken takes (the opening shot is 15 minutes); McQueen’s painterly juxtaposition, depth and unflinching eye; Russell’s indelible, larger-than-life characters.

With American Hustle, his third film in four years, Russell has now had a hand in 25 Oscar nominations, including 11 for acting, as awards consultants and publicists have helpfully noted. He’s been nominated himself, for best director, for each of the films in this newly flourishing phase of his career — The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and now American Hustle — but so far has gone home empty-handed, a streak he is hoping to end March 2, when the Oscar winners are announced.

An early script, by Eric Singer, for what became American Hustle was sent to Russell after many years in development — at one point, Ben Affleck was attached to direct, and years before him, Louis Malle. But with Singer’s blessing, Russell went his own way, diverging from a procedural plot loosely based on the 1970s Abscam scandal, and instead focusing on personalities, helped by a cast of heavies he’d already worked with: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams. Jennifer Lawrence came aboard late, and with only three weeks of shooting time between her Hunger Games and X-Men assignments, Russell said. Otherwise, he created the script around his stars.

“I go to Christian’s house, we talked for two hours, I come out and there’s three scenes,” he said. “Go to Amy’s, talk to her, three scenes, great. Bradley — the scenes start to write themselves.” They discussed the themes, Russell said, and also, “they share with me personal observations and personal experiences from their own lives, and I then used that to put into the characters.” One scene that has been a hit with audiences, and that bears the wild Russell creative stamp, is a montage in which Lawrence’s character cleans the house while singing and dancing, her blonde updo ferociously bouncing, to “Live and Let Die” by Wings.

The idea came to him, Russell said, in the middle of the 42-day-shoot, with no room in the schedule for it. Still, he texted Lawrence. “She goes: ‘That’s amazing. Where will that go in the story?’ And I go, ‘I don’t know, but I think we should shoot it,’” Russell recalled. In the editing room, they found a spot, intercut with scenes of Bale’s character being driven away by mobsters. The moment worked, Russell felt, because it telegraphed the desperate states they are eager to escape. “You have to get mad sometimes and blow up a stick of dynamite to dynamite yourself, and that’s what she’s doing,” he said.

12 Years a Slave was also shot on film, on location over a Louisiana summer, in 35 days, with one camera. Though he was a visual artist before turning to the big screen, McQueen does not storyboard his films. “For me, cinema is to be present in the moment,” he said. “And to allow the actors to do their thing.”

Sean Bobbitt, his cinematographer and camera operator, is “almost a tai chi cameraman,” McQueen said, moving seamlessly with the actors as they roam the landscape. Bobbitt watched the 12 Years cast rehearsing the story of Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped into slavery, and found locations like a tree used in a lynching scene. “That actually was a lynching tree” in the 19th century, McQueen said. “Around the tree was the graves of the slaves.”

The setting bore its bruises, but many of the most powerful moments in 12 Years involve wordless close-ups, especially on the reflective face of Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Solomon Northup. McQueen said he didn’t need to give much direction for those intimate scenes. “It’s like running — it takes 20 minutes to get there, it’s a hard slog, but once you’re there, you’re in the zone,” he said.

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