By Joe McGovernSara Vilkomerson and Nicole Sperling
February 08, 2017 at 07:20 PM EST

On Feb. 26, Los Angeles will become what La La Land promises: A city of stars. But before the envelopes are opened, we’ve got inside intel on the nominees. Below, read about the nominees for Best Director, and look back at spotlights on the Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Supporting Actor categories.

Barry Jenkins

Director Of: Moonlight
Age: 37
Oscar Past: 0 Nominations; 0 Wins

Born and raised on the rough side of Miami, much like his movie’s introverted protagonist Chiron, Barry Jenkins is a filmmaker who feels the truth like gravity. It might not be visible but it’s always there, keeping us on the ground. With Moonlight, his staggering second film (after 2009’s Medicine for Melancholy), Jenkins deployed unorthodox methods to elicit the human essence of his characters. He insisted, for example, that the three actors playing Chiron at different ages never meet until after filming was completed. “I didn’t want them to physically mimic what the others were doing,” he says. “Whenever a new chapter starts, I wanted the audience not to see the same exact person but the results of the life that’s been lived.” That’s truest of the transformation from the scrawny teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) into the hulking, jewel-toothed adult (Trevante Rhodes) — a practical effect that’s every bit as spectacular as a character in a Marvel movie. “Over time some people become less and less themselves and instead turn into this thing that they feel like they need to be in order to survive,” Jenkins explains. His instincts were exactly right: Audiences get it. “It might take a minute for people to catch up,” he says of the movie’s leaps between segments, “but these cats in the audience are smart. They don’t mind a little bit of work.” — Joe McGovern

Denis Villeneuve

 

Director Of: Arrival
Age: 49
Oscar Past: 0 Nominations; 0 Wins

There’s a deafening hush that permeates Arrival regardless of the action on screen. Turns out it existed behind the cameras, too. “The set was the quietest I’ve ever worked on,” says Amy Adams, who plays Louise, the linguist tasked with communicating with aliens. “No drama, no yelling.” Such is the influence of Denis Villeneuve, a man who says his favorite places are churches and deserts — a surprise from the director of the darkly tense Prisoners and Sicario. “I deeply love silence,” the French-Canadian says. “Silence makes you listen more closely. And I know for actors, it’s precious to keep concentration.” This kind of consideration is entirely characteristic of Villeneuve. “He was confident in telling this intimate story,” Adams says. “Anytime it would start to get at all crazy he would say, ‘We just need to tell Louise’s story.’ As big as it would get, he’d always remind us of that.” Her costar Jeremy Renner was equally impressed. “He’s a gentle, thoughtful man,” Renner says. “I didn’t realize until after I saw the completed film just how visual he is. I walked out of the film thinking, Now that’s a goddamn director.” For whom silence may be golden indeed. — Sara Vilkomerson

Kenneth Lonergan

Director Of: Manchester by the Sea
Age: 54
Oscar Past: 2 Nominations; 0 Wins

Just about every actor in this shattering drama had scenes that required them to strip themselves to their emotional bones. But at least they could take comfort knowing their director was right there with them. “He’d be crying behind the monitor,” says Michelle Williams. “He was living it with you. You could hear him weeping.” The accomplished playwright set three weeks aside for rehearsal before shooting his third film. “The things between the lines are not always on the page,” says Casey Affleck, who stars as the Massachusetts janitor reluctantly pulled back to his hometown after his brother dies. “Kenny loves actors and likes working with actors — I think that’s the most fun for him.” Especially when he collaborates with a friend such as Affleck (who starred in a 2002 British production of Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth). “There’s not a word in the script that Kenny didn’t think about,” Affleck says. “And his answers are just the beginning of a conversation. I loved arguing with him all the time. He argues with love.” — Sara Vilkomerson

For more on this year’s Oscar contenders, pick up the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now, or available here — and subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Damien Chazelle

Director Of: La La Land
Age: 32
Oscar Past: 1 Nomination; 0 Wins

On Oscar night, Damien Chazelle will be 32 years and 38 days old — and a win in this category would put him in the record books as the youngest Best Director ever. That’s most remarkable because his film, more than any other this year, is a magnificent throwback, an old-fashioned celebration of the genre once defined by the likes of Busby Berkeley, Gene Kelly, and Jacques Demy. “Musicals are a hard sell for today’s audiences,” Chazelle says. “The full-fledged idea of people breaking into song is something that I love, but the challenge was to make that seem accessible and relevant.” That he gloriously did. Assisted by the electric charm of actors Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling and nine musical numbers that both enrapture and bring tears to the eyes, Chazelle (Whiplash) crafted a drama about yearning in which floating off the ground is as natural as breathing air. “No genre better simulates the feeling of falling in love,” he says. “That’s the promise of the musical: looking at things that might not seem so operatic on paper — real people doing everyday things — and investing them with the epicness of dreams.” It’s a gift for us that Chazelle is so young. We’ll be buying tickets on his dreamship for decades. — Joe McGovern

Mel Gibson

Mark Rogers

Director Of: Hacksaw Ridge
Age: 61
Oscar Past: 2 Nominations; 2 Wins

With Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson made a brutal war film about World War II hero Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who refused to pick up a gun. The film’s three major battle scenes are epic, the carnage gruesome. “They are like movements of a symphony — they all have to have different characteristics,” says Gibson, a master of the genre, who pulled off the whole project in 59 days with only $40 million. “I know what I’m doing,” he adds. “You don’t want people to give you a special round of applause because ‘Oh, it’s an indie film.’ I think it looks like 100 million bucks.” The Academy thinks so too, redeeming a man who became a Hollywood outcast a decade ago after he uttered anti-Semitic epithets during a 2006 DUI arrest. To star Andrew Garfield, it’s ancient history. “I had heard everything everyone else had heard, and I was really excited to find out, really, who he was. I fell in love with him,” Garfield says. “He’s done things he’s not proud of and he’s worked through that. He hasn’t abdicated responsibility for that at all. And that’s not easy to do.” Whether the industry has forgiven him remains to be seen. — Nicole Sperling

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