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On road to the Oscars, director-actor partnerships make their mark

Director-actor teams like Inarritu-Watts ('Birdman'), Linklater-Hawke ('Boyhood') take award season by storm

As the adage goes, directing is 90% casting, so it would follow that an equally high percentage of directors make it easier on themselves by casting the same actors again and again. This season, 100% of those re-collaborations have resulted in stellar work. Paul Thomas Anderson wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay of "Inherent Vice" with Joaquin Phoenix in mind, marking their second partnership after "The Master." Wes Anderson filled "The Grand Budapest Hotel" with returning guests, including Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, and was awarded a Golden Globe for a motion picture comedy along with best picture and original screenplay Oscar nods, among others.

"Birdman," with multiple Oscar nominations, costars Naomi Watts, who was previously in director Alejandro G. Iñárritu's "21 Grams." Meanwhile, British writer-director Mike Leigh has a veritable troupe of actors that he returns to. At least 10 of them appear in "Mr. Turner," including star Timothy Spall, who won the lead actor award for the role at Cannes last year. The two have worked together for 33 years.

FULL COVERAGE: Oscars 2015

"When you're shooting a film, you don't really have time to direct people very much, and you don't have time to rehearse very much, because you have such a tight schedule," says film historian David Thompson, whose new book, "Why Acting Matters," will be published this month. "So if you know these people inside out and if you've written for them, then it makes the shooting process a whole lot simpler."

Richard Linklater can attest to that. The writer-director has been working with Ethan Hawke since they went off to Vienna to make "Before Sunrise" in 1994. "It's been one of the wonderful elements of the last 20 years of continuing to make movies that Ethan's been in a lot of them," Linklater says. How many precisely? Eight, he thinks; he's lost track.

Through 12 of those years, they worked on "Boyhood," an award season favorite and an Oscar nominee. Hawke was on board before Linklater wrote the screenplay. "He was invested in the whole project," says Linklater, adding that, while in Greece for the release of "Before Midnight," the two of them worked on scenes Hawke wasn't even in. "I'm talking to him about other scenes, like, 'What did your mom say when you left for college?' He'll say something funny, and that'll end up in the movie." The longtime collaborators — and the film itself — have earned Oscar nominations along with costar Patricia Arquette ("Boyhood" and Arquette also took home Golden Globes).

PHOTOS: Oscars 2015 top nominees | Presenters | Nominee reactions

Writer-director Ava DuVernay is another firm believer in going with who you know. Omari Hardwick was in her first narrative feature, "I Will Follow," and she cast him in her second, "Middle of Nowhere." She worked on that film with Lorraine Toussaint, whom she then hired for "Selma." "And now I'm working on a new project that I can't discuss, but it's got someone from each of the three films in it," DuVernay says.

David Oyelowo also starred in "Middle of Nowhere," but she didn't bring him to "Selma." He brought her.

"Selma" had been in various stages of development since 2007. Oyelowo won the role of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 2010. In the years before and after he came aboard, the project went through six directors. "I knew that I needed to be under the directorial gaze of someone who could help me find the man, as opposed to someone who's just going to want to beat the drum and further accentuate the myth and the historical figure," says Oyelowo. After working with DuVernay, he knew she would be a perfect fit. So he went about selling the producers on her.

As a result, the film and DuVernay received Golden Globe nominations and the film went on to earn an Oscar nomination as well. But that isn't as important as the work. Promises Oyelowo, "I'm going to make sure this is only the beginning of our collaboration."

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