By Devan Coggan Joe McGovern Nicole Sperling and Jeff Labrecque
Updated January 25, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
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Kerry Hayes

No one was sure who would be nominated — and not everyone was thrilled — but when Chris Rock hosts the 88th annual Academy Awards on Feb. 28, a whopping 57 films will be represented. So to help you prep for the least predictable Oscar race in recent memory, EW has your inside scoop on who’s been nominated and why. Ahead, a look at the year’s best director nominees. Pick up the latest issue of EW here.

ALEJANDRO G. IÑÁRRITU, THE REVENANT

He isn’t interested in repeating himself, yet every film he’s made informs his next. With The Revenant, Alejandro G. Iñárritu took a daring approach — shooting few takes, making minimal cuts, relying on natural light — that wouldn’t have happened had he not made his Oscar-winning Birdman first. “I wanted to try to solve things in real time,” he says. “It allows people to really submerge themselves into the character’s experience, especially if you are shooting from the right point of view. I learned that from Birdman.” He also learned to test his actors’ endurance and upped the ante with The Revenant, putting his stars through hours of rehearsal, often in freezing conditions, to capture long takes when the lighting was just right. It was worth it, according to them. “The second I met him, he had such a specific vision for how he wanted the film to look and feel,” says Leonardo DiCaprio. Not that his vision was always easy to communicate. “He’s unlike any director I’ve ever worked with,” says Tom Hardy. “He sees things how he sees them, so giving him back what he wants is an interesting experience. But I love him so much, I want to know what he wants so I can do it for him.” — NICOLE SPERLING

LENNY ABRAHAMSON, ROOM

The odds were never in Lenny Abrahamson’s favor. Five years ago he was the director of just two features, neither of which had made waves outside of his native Ireland, but he wrote a detailed 10-page letter to fellow countrywoman Emma Donoghue, who had written the beloved novel Room about a mother and her son imprisoned in a shed. To make a totally uncompromised film version of her book, Abrahamson pleaded, he should be the director. Donoghue stalled, but when the director began production on his indie film Frank — featuring boldfaced actor Michael Fassbender as a rock star in a papier-mâché mask — she said yes. “The most satisfying thing for me is that we started from zero and made exactly the film we wanted and achieved all this,” Abrahamson says. That’s particularly true given that he was considered a dark horse for a nomination. “I was absolutely flummoxed and flabbergasted when I heard my name,” he says. “It’s wonderful that not everything in life is so predictable.” — JOE MCGOVERN

ADAM MCKAY, THE BIG SHORT

The more you learn about the culture of greed and the willful ignorance that precipitated the 2008 mortgage meltdown, the more you realize that The Big Short needed Anchorman director Adam McKay. Who better to see the farce within the fiasco? “This movie is about a group of people who saw something that our entire culture did not see,” says McKay, who was also nominated for co-writing the script. “What were we paying attention to? This pop culture noise that’s always around us.” Hence a film that stops the plot to have Margot Robbie, in a bubble bath, explain subprime lending. “We knew it was breaking some primary rules of filming,” he says. “But you let the story tell you what you have to do. It just felt like that had to be the way.” Like his characters, McKay was the oddball who saw the big picture. — JEFF LABRECQUE

GEORGE MILLER, MAD MAD: FURY ROAD

Nothing is accidental. Not the chrome spray in Nux’s mouth, nor the wire skull that adorns Furiosa’s steering wheel. When George Miller decided to return to the franchise that launched his career, with Mad Max: Fury Road, he left no detail to chance. “You talk to him about any of the tribes involved, or the vehicles, and they are all characters to him, and they all mean something,” says titular star Tom Hardy. “He doesn’t bang on about any of it, but it is a meditation on all of his imagery and iconography and symbolism.” And it has earned him his first Oscar nod for directing. Miller prefers to run his sets like a partnership with his cast and crew. “It all felt very collaborative,” says costar Charlize Theron. “It’s not ‘Oh, I’ve got to listen to her, and I guess I’ve got to light that scene to make her happy.’ It was very authentic and organic.” And the film provided Miller the opportunity to match his decades of experience with today’s technology, reinvigorating the action genre he helped reinvent more than three decades ago. “I’ve always been fascinated by any work that has an optimum medium on which to experience it,” says Miller. “Fury Road has to be seen in a cinema; the experience would be diminished at home. In many ways, it’s got to be there, with the congregation of people in the dark.” — NICOLE SPERLING

TOM MCCARTHY, SPOTLIGHT

Digging through old news clippings and legal documents may not sound gripping, but when director-screenwriter Tom McCarthy and his coscribe, Josh Singer, decided to tackle The Boston Globe‘s investigation into sex abuse in the Catholic Church, they knew the key was to emulate the journalists themselves and stick to the facts. “There was a lot of drama inherent in the story, and we just had to capture it as honestly as possible,” McCarthy says. “Hopefully, we did that.” And, like all journalists, they were aided by their sources. “The Globe reporters were incredibly helpful and generous with their time, not only through countless interviews and conversations over two and a half years, but by read- ing multiple drafts of the screenplay and really breaking it down bit by bit,” he says. The result is a film that succeeds as both a riveting procedural and a call to arms for keeping local papers alive. “We wanted to make sure we captured the heart and courage of the survivors and the journalists,” McCarthy says. “To get a favorable response from them is as important to me as anything.” — DEVAN COGGAN

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