Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave,' directed by Steve McQueen.
Editorially, all five films take us out of our comfort zones in this strange season of survival and rebirth: from the chameleon-like con of "American Hustle" to the abduction at sea in "Captain Phillips" to the weightless terror of "Gravity" to the ticking clock death sentence of "Dallas Buyers Club" to the horror of having your life and liberty snatched away in "12 Years a Slave." I got an insider's view from Jay Cassidy ("American Hustle"), Christopher Rouse ("Captain Phillips"), John Mac McMurphy ("Dallas Buyers Club"), Mark Sanger ("Gravity"), and Joe Walker ("12 Years a Slave").
"In addition to being highly topical, the survival theme also raises basic questions about who we are," suggests Rouse, who describes "Captain Phillips" as the ultimate in Paul Greengrass-style verite. "So just as 'Phillips' frames a struggle for individual and collective survival in the modern world -- all of these films, and others as well this year -- have entered that territory with strong points of view.
'"In 'American Hustle,' I think Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, and Alan Baumgarten did an incredible job of walking that tonal high-wire between drama and comedy, and created a wonderful multi-character tapestry in the process. I read a quote of Jay's where he talked about how he approached the piece -- how the comedy had to emerge from the drama -- and I thought that was a great instinct, and it paid tremendous dividends in the telling of that story.
"I don't know Jean-Marc Vallee [who goes by John Mac McMurphy as editor] or Martin Pensa who cut 'Dallas Buyers Club,' but I thought their work was marvelous. Their film reminded me of a beautifully composed '70s film -- emotionally rich and free. Editorially, it was restrained when it needed to be, and bold when it powerfully supported story and character.
'Gravity' is a technical tour-de-force in so many ways, and it's an extraordinarily well-considered film editorially. To be able to achieve that degree of suspense and tension, and to be characterful while retaining that level spectacle is remarkable.
"I met Mark Sanger recently, and he described their editorial process to me. My hat is off to Alfonso and him…And I thought Joe Walker’s work was amazing. '12 Years' is so well judged editorially -- each scene is handled with tremendous attention to story and character. As in Steve MacQueen's other films, Joe’s choices are truly brave: For example, the confidence to hold on characters for long periods of time, allowing us to experience their emotional paths in a pure, unflinching way. I loved the scene when Patsey [Oscar-nominated Lupita Nyong'o] is making her dolls in the field. Beautifully put together."
Sandra Bullock in 'Gravity'
For Sanger, the greatest thrill was to stand in the same room with Rouse and discuss his process with Greengrass. "For me, I'm interested in how that relationship translates on screen. It starts off with the basics of how much footage he supplies you, how much flexibility you have with that footage, and how you judge performances and basis of your assembly. To delve into the symbiosis of that relationship between a director and an editor is fascinating.
"What I love about that final scene with Tom Hanks is the simplicity and the choices in the camera work but also in the editing where there's something unnatural happening in front of you: an improvised scene with an incredible performance. But to just let it breathe the way they all did collaboratively there. What a way to end the movie."
For Cassidy, who believes it's a worthy field this year but preferred not to discuss the competition, agrees that "American Hustle" is about reinvention, if not rebirth. He suggests that it was a creative balancing act crammed with rich characters and subtle details. "And the tone is certainly David [O. Russell's]," he says. "He comes at this material with no cynicism and he loves these characters. He finds people in his own life or people that he knows and these characters become composites that carry these elements, and that's what gives it resonance."
In Dallas Buyers Club," the mixture of rhythms and beats was almost rock-like (even though there's only 13 minutes of music). "We just let the performances go," Mac Murphy admits. "Their characters were so big and bold and my reaction the first week as a director was that I was concerned about it being so big. So I asked them to get a little bit out of their comfort zone since I was out of my comfort zone. But there was something more real and emotional about these performances, so we used a lot of the 'more is more' takes in the cutting room.
Meanwhile, Mac Murphy has high praise for "12 Years a Slave": "I'm always impressed with Steve's style -- he makes us feel uncomfortable but at the same time there's a beauty to the shots, there's a reality to it and it was a very powerful story. The hanging scene is like a tableau and you get uncomfortable and it makes you think about how they were dealing with this."
Walker concedes that one great choices that they made on "12 Years a Slave" was to tell the story through the vantage point of a free man turned slave rather than the "Roots" model. "And I think that has a great benefit because we no longer see the film as a white person or an African American or whatever. You see it as a free person. Steve always talked about it as being an alien's view of what happened in 1841 in America: to a certain extent dispassionately in terms of the history but very passionately in terms of the central character, so it has all that."
For Walker, "Captain Phillips" is an extraordinary film. "Take that little yellow boat: Four unknown actors and Tom Hanks in this little space and it's so uncinematic and yet it's one of the tensest moments that I've seen. 'Gravity': a great technical advance for filmmaking and I felt weightless completely for the length of the film and I adored a lot of the quirkiness of Alfonso's ideas. I celebrate that he made an art film on a massive scale and was so successful."
And Sanger acknowledges that it's been an interesting season about survival and rebirth. "When these things happen during awards season, I always question whether it was by design or whether or not it was just some cosmic event. I think this one's a cosmic event and this is what appeals to audiences at this point in time."