January 23, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Past Noms: 0
Past Wins: 0
Age: 52
Oscar History: This is Boyle’s first nomination.
Lights, Camera, Crowd Control!: After filming 2007’s Sunshine inside the claustrophobic replica of a spaceship, Boyle couldn’t wait to shoot Slumdog on the bustling streets of Mumbai, India. ”The stimulus coming at you all the time is enormous,” says the British director, admired for cult hits like Trainspotting and 28 Days Later. Mumbai has a population of 19 million, and some days Boyle felt like every last resident had piled onto his sets. ”Some of the time, we got incredible crowd scenes for free. Other times,” he adds with a laugh, ”they’d ruin it. If you watch the film a few times, you’ll see there are a few odd-looking people, clearly not involved in the story, just staring into the camera. But you just go with it — that’s part of the blessing of the place.”
Up Next: Boyle hasn’t chosen his next project.
Missy Schwartz

Gus Van Sant, Milk
Past Noms: 1
Past Wins: 0
Age: 56
Oscar History: He earned a nod for 1997’s Good Will Hunting.
Harvey of Arabia: Van Sant cites David Lean’s 1962 classic Lawrence of Arabia as a model for his biopic of gay-rights pioneer Harvey Milk. ”Though [T.E. Lawrence] had a long life, the film zeroes in on the most cataclysmic part,” says Van Sant. ”It’s also very romantic, and I thought Harvey’s life was very romantic.”
Whole Milk?: Milk‘s subject may seem risqué, but Dustin Lance Black’s original script was even racier. ”There were two or three very specific Queer as Folk-style sex scenes,” says Van Sant. ”We were ready. We had the fake penises and everything.” But in the end, he says, ”I felt it was a diversion.”
Up Next: He’s developing another Black script, based on Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Adam B. Vary

Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Past Noms: 2
Past Wins: 2
Age: 54
Oscar History: Howard earned two Oscars for 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, for Best Director and Best Picture (as producer).
Filming the Unfilmable: ”I thought I’d written an unadaptable play,” says Frost/Nixon playwright Peter Morgan, ”which was my intention.” But when the play became a hit in London and New York, Howard realized the story’s cinematic potential by having the characters speak directly into the camera and encouraging the supporting players to improvise to enrich their backstories. And then he got out of the way. ”On the very first day, Ron said, ‘I have all the film in the world, and I have scissors,”’ says Langella, who reprises his stage role as Richard Nixon. ”In that simple direction, he freed me of all the rhythms of my stage performance.”
Up Next: Howard’s Da Vinci Code follow-up, Angels & Demons, arrives in theaters May 15.
Jeff Labreque

David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Past Noms: 0
Past Wins: 0
Age: 46
Oscar History: First nomination.
One for the Ages: For 20 years, various directors flirted with adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who ages in reverse, only to be foiled by the seemingly insurmountable technical challenges. Fincher, the mastermind behind dark films like Seven, Fight Club, and Zodiac, was undaunted: ”If you’re making a $150 million movie that has aging at its core, it’s like, ‘Who’s the nutcase who wants to throw his hat in the ring?”’
Love and Death: On the surface, Button may appear to be an old-fashioned epic romance about Benjamin (Brad Pitt) and his beloved Daisy (Cate Blanchett). Fincher saw the story in a decidedly more macabre light. ”I was selling the anti-love story,” he says. ”I said to Brad, ‘I think it’s a movie about death.”’
Up Next: He’s in preproduction on a film about legendary Prohibition-era crime fighter Eliot Ness.
Josh Rottenberg

Stephen Daldry, The Reader
Past Noms: 2
Past Wins: 0
Age: 47
Oscar History: After nods for 2000’s Billy Elliot and 2002’s The Hours, Daldry has now been recognized for each of the three films he’s directed.
Double Drama: Daldry had to suspend production for several months, waiting to shoot some sexually explicit scenes until costar David Kross reached his 18th birthday last summer. Then last fall, the Weinstein Co. pushed Daldry to rush postproduction for a 2008 release. ”There were a number of challenges along the way with this movie, none of them of our making,” he laughs, ”but it was one of the best experiences of my working life.”
Up Next: He’s prepping an adaptation of Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
Dave Karger

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