We talk to the five directors about their films and upcoming projects

By Keith StaskiewiczSara VilkomersonAdam Markovitz and Anthony Breznican
Updated January 30, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST

Alfonso Cuarón
Age: 52
Oscar History: He was previously nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing for 2006’s Children of Men, and also for Best Original Screenplay for 2002’s Y Tu Mamá También.
French Twist: Cuarón and his son Jonás, who co-wrote Gravity, drew inspiration from classic cinema. “We were talking about some European films that we love, like A Man Escaped,” Cuarón says, referring to Robert Bresson’s 1956 thriller about a French resistance fighter imprisoned by the Nazis. “And we thought, ‘Why don’t we try to do a mainstream Hollywood version of that, here they take a minimalistic approach to do something huge?'”
Long Shot: Gravity opens with a bravura 17-minute shot. But Cuarón hopes that audiences are too caught up in the drama to notice. “People should not be aware of these things. What I like about extended takes is just the sense of real time, capturing the moment and trying to take out the artifice of cuts,” he says. “It’s never intended to be a ‘Hey, mama, look, no hands!'”
Buddy System: Before tackling Gravity‘s immense technical challenges, Cuarón and his team sought advice from visionary directors such as James Cameron and David Fincher. “Fincher said, ‘This is a great idea. You may be able to do it years from now when the technology is ready,'” says Cuarón. “He was right — we had to invent the technology.”
Up Next: He co-created the NBC supernatural thriller Believe (debuting March 10). —Adam Markovitz

Steve McQueen
12 Years A Slave
Age: 44
Oscar History: First nomination.
Show and Tell: “Steve was the first to ask the question: Why have there not been more films on the American history of slavery?” says Brad Pitt, who produced 12 Years a Slave and costars as an itinerant worker. “It’s a question it took a Brit to ask.” McQueen, whose parents immigrated to the U.K. from Trinidad and Grenada, thinks it’s still worth exploring. “If we don’t face our past, we as a people will never understand what possible future we have,” he says. “A lot of people in the film turn their backs on slavery and don’t do anything about it. There’s no bravery that needs to happen here by watching a movie, but it’s about acknowledging the most important part of American history.”
Slave Songs: For McQueen, one of the most enjoyable parts of making the film was re-creating the music of the mid-19th-century American South. “I found these recordings from Alan Lomax,” he says. “He went around America during the ’30s and ’40s recording folk songs. I found he’d recorded some of these old slave songs.” While Hans Zimmer wrote the film’s score, McQueen worked closely with composer Nicholas Britell to reinterpret songs from the Lomax recordings.
Up Next: He’s developing an HBO project about a young black man in NYC high society, and is also working on a movie musical. —Anthony Breznican

Martin Scorsese
The Wolf of Wall Street
Age: 71
Oscar History: This is Scorsese’s eighth nomination for Best Director — he won for 2006’s The Departed. He’s also received two noms for writing and one for producing.
Made Men: Of all the films in Scorsese’s career, The Wolf of Wall Street most resembles GoodFellas, his 1990 classic depicting Mob life as alternately glamorous and gruesome. Wolf’s white-collar criminals may draw the line at murder, but the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of their rock-star hedonism ring familiar. “I’d never want to compare a movie I’m in to GoodFellas,” says Jonah Hill, “only because it’s my favorite movie of all time, but he’s doing something similar here. He knows how to bring you into this seductive world that’s dangerous at the same time.”
Despicable He: Leonardo DiCaprio’s trader-hustler Jordan Belfort belongs in Scorsese’s gallery of grotesqueries, a collection that includes Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), Rupert Pupkin (The King of Comedy), and Max Cady (Cape Fear). Despite Belfort’s over-the-top nastiness, the director manages to keep us interested in him. “[Scorsese] has this way of making despicable characters seem empathetic, sympathetic,” says Wolf screenwriter Terence Winter. “And he’s got this very unique sense of sardonic humor, which kind of likens itself to what seems to be a dark period and a dark character.”
Up Next: Scorsese is preparing to shoot his long-in-the-works adaptation of Silence, Shûsaku Endô’s 1966 novel about persecuted Jesuit missionaries in 17th-century Japan. —Keith Staskiewicz

Alexander Payne
Age: 52
Oscar History: This is Payne’s seventh nomination, and he’s won twice: Best Adapted Screenplay for Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011).
Location, Location, Location: Payne completed principal photography on the film in just 36 days, shooting entirely in Nebraska. “I don’t like shooting on a stage. I like locations. It’s how you get authenticity,” says the Omaha native, who also used the movie to explore some of the farther reaches of his home state. “For Nebraska, Omaha is the metropolis to the east — much as New York City is to the rest of the country. The town where we shot [primarily], Plainview, Nebraska, I had never even heard of before.”
The Color of Money: Payne insisted on making the movie in black and white (“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” he says). The film’s financiers, though, worried about the commercial prospects of a modern noncolor film. “Of course I received pushback. This is America, after all,” says Payne. “But when they saw that I could make the movie on a relatively low budget” — $13.5 million, it turns out — “and that I was committed to doing it that way, they relented. But that’s my career. I try to conduct myself responsibly so I can have some degree of creative freedom.”
Up Next: Payne hasn’t announced a follow-up to Nebraska. —Adam Markovitz

David O. Russell
American Hustle
Age: 55
Oscar History: Russell was nominated twice last year for Silver Linings Playbook — for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay — and in 2011 for directing The Fighter.
Hidden MVP: His actors agree that a Russell set is unlike any other. “He’s sort of the character you never see in the movie,” says Amy Adams. “He’s always right there in the scene, coming up with new ideas. There’s a real sense that he’s very invested and will not settle. He’ll keep going until he sees not just one take that he feels resonates, but five or six that he can use.”
He’s Got A Feeling: Christian Bale says that for Russell, what really matters is the internal world of his characters. “There were scenes we came up with in 10 minutes because David said, ‘You know what? I’m not feeling it,'” says Bale. “He’ll kill plot to get to character any day of the week.”
Disco Fever: American Hustle is Russell’s first period film, with all the glitter and sheen one expects of a story set in the late 1970s. “This is one of my favorite time periods,” he says. “It was the one I grew up in, and I have a great love for the music and the style.”
Up Next: He has not announced his next project. —Sara Vilkomerson

12 Years a Slave

  • Movie
  • R
  • 134 minutes
  • Steve McQueen