Directors Talk Film Faves

Some Best Animated Feature Oscar contenders tell us about the Big Five that matter most to them.

Can you spot The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Baron Munchausen and Night of the Hunter in Coraline?

Given the heat of the Oscar race, we thought it would be fun to ask several contending feature directors to list the five most significant films for them, (live action as well as animated). Some couldn't resist expanding the list, which is fine. So, if you've ever wondered what has influenced Henry Selick (Coraline), Wes Anderson (Fantastic Mr. Fox), Adam Elliot (Mary and Max), Conrad Vernon & Rob Letterman (Monsters vs. Aliens) or Christopher Miller & Phil Lord (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), read on…

Henry Selick (Coraline)

Here goes, in chronological order, of when I first saw the films:

1.) The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad:

This might have been the first movie I ever saw, late '50s, probably at the Carlton Theater in Red Bank, NJ. No one remembers that a guy named Nathan Juran directed the film; it was Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion monsters that made this film a classic and have a huge impact on me. Harryhausen brought to life a scary two-headed giant Roc bird, a sword-wielding skeleton and a dragon, but it was his cyclops that grabbed my attention and haunted my dreams for years. My appetite for stop-motion animation was whetted right there.

2.) The Adventures of Prince Achmed:

This was the world's first animated feature released in 1926 by Lotte Reiniger. I initially saw it chopped up into short bits on a local TV kid's show called Claude Kirchner's Terrytoon Circus when I was around 7. Reiniger specialized in silhouette cut-out animation that could bring a fantasy world to life while maintaining a sense of mystery. You had to imagine the expressions on the darkened faces, all the acting was expressed in poses and body language and there was a sense of dance to how everything moved. I learned from this film that showing less sometimes can be the best way for an audience to be drawn into your characters and story.

3.) The Night of the Hunter:

The only feature that the great actor, Charles Laughton, ever directed. I remember watching this film on television with my older sister, probably the early '60s; years later I saw it at a revival house, and have owned it on VHS, then laser disc, and DVD. The story and images connected to the Old Testament bible stories from Sunday school for me, where good and evil were absolute. The image of a drowned Shelley Winters, both terrifying and beautiful with her long hair moving in the currents, has stayed with me always. Robert Mitchum's blood-thirsty charlatan preacher is one of the greatest of all screen villains. The compositions of shots, the theatrical magic that Laughton employed, the lighting; all have influenced my work.

4.) Fantasia:

Specifically, the "Night on Bald Mountain" and "Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequences. I saw these first when I was really young, on a Disney Halloween special on television, then subsequently at the movie theater in a re-release in the late '60s or early '70s. Walt Disney always had a dark side to him and these two sequences show two flavors of that. In "Night on Bald Mountain," the demon Chernabog (I always assumed he was Satan himself), animated by Bill Tytla in a world designed by Kay Nielsen, may be the greatest piece of truly terrifying animation ever created and the visuals are a perfect marriage to the music by Mussorgsky. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence, animated to Paul Dukas' music, showed the more playful side of Disney's darkness, with Mickey Mouse getting into trouble with his master's wand while left alone to clean up. This was inspiring to me on many levels, perhaps the most basic being I identified with Mickey -- who doesn't dream of controlling the stars and planets and the crashing ocean with a little magical help?

5.) The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: I saw this amazing film in San Francisco when it was first released in 1988. Terry Gilliam is one of the greatest, most inventive visual storytellers of all time, with many of his films -- Time Bandits, The Fisher King, Brazil and 12 Monkeys -- among my all-time favorites. His work is a varying blend of his Monty Python roots with his own gifts for spectacular invention with his brand of truth, weight, dark and light. Munchausen is such an influence on my own work that I created an homage to his "Birth of Venus" scene with Oliver Reed and a very young Uma Thurman in my own recent film, Coraline.

Also, you must include these additional foreign film favorites -- I'm breaking the rules here, but no way can I not list several of my favorites from abroad: Kurosawa's version of King Lear, Ran; Fanny and Alexander by Bergman; Juliet of the Spirits and 8 1/2 by Fellini; Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away -- all profoundly great movies and very influential in my own work.

And a few more American films that have stayed with me always: Polanski's Chinatown; Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven; Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and Lolita; Brad Bird's The Iron Giant; and John Lasseter's Toy Story.

Wes Anderson likes Rosemary's Baby and Treasure of Sierra Madre.

Wes Anderson (Fantastic Mr. Fox)1.) Rosemary's Baby

for its shots and blocking and perfect script.

2.) Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which is also my father's favorite movie.

3.) Le Roman de Renard, which inspired our animation for Fantastic Mr. Fox.

4.) Watership Down, which was my favorite film as a child.

5.) Rear Window, which made me want to be a director.

Adam Elliot (Mary and Max)1.) My Life as a Dog:

I first saw this on VHS in the early '90s. I simply adored this simple yet often profound childhood perspective. So funny, original, moving and poetic. It has influenced all my films, especially, <Brother>.

2.) The Elephant Man:

One of the first adult features I ever saw as a child. I had no idea who David Lynch was but loved the wonderful balance of light and dark. The black-and-white tones and engrossing cinematography showed me that dark subject matter can be incredibly nourishing and life affirming no matter how tragic the ending.

Adam Elliot is partial to My Life as a Dog, Elephant Man and The Piano.

3.) Nuts in May: One of Mike Leigh's early features about camping in England in the seventies. I only saw this for the first time a few years ago on DVD and it instantly became one of my favorites. I wouldn't say it has influenced my own work, but love it because it is so incredibly funny and has not seemed to date in my eyes.

4.) One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: I saw this at the cinema when I was about 8 or 9. I was way too young to see it but it deeply impressed upon me and I have seen it many times since: Another example of a tragic yet uplifting end to a film that works perfectly. The conclusion to Mary and Max is my own egotistical attempt to try and emulate this emotive and nourishing ending.

5.) The Piano: Saw it in the mid-'90s and fell in love with the score. Awakened me to the importance of music and how it can be the vehicle that drives the film. Can you imagine this film without music?

Conrad Vernon (Monsters vs. Aliens)

The most influential movies of my life, in no particular order:

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Once Upon a Time in the West shine with Conrad Vernon and Rob Letterman.

1.) Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

2.) Hedwig and the Angry Inch 

3.) Young Frankenstein

4.) Annie Hall

5.) 10

Rob Letterman (Monsters vs. Aliens)

This is an impossible question because I don't have five favorite movies, I have 5,000. But here it goes:

1.) Once Upon a Time in the West: Sergio Leone is a master filmmaker. All of his films have been a visual, musical and storytelling influence on me. But this film, in particular, is my favorite for one reason: It has the greatest opening credit sequence I have ever seen.

2.) The Professionals: I love stories about bad guys doing the right thing, and I especially love this one [by Richard Brooks] because of the twist in the middle of the movie, which I don't want to give away if you haven't seen it. I was also heavily influenced by Conrad Hall's cinematography.

3.) Full Metal Jacket: In my opinion Kubrick makes perfect movies and the only reason I listed Full Metal Jacket instead of Strangelove, Paths of Glory and the rest, is because Full Metal Jacket was the first Kubrick movie I saw when I was a kid and it made me go out and watch all his other films.

4.) Star Wars: Duh.

5.) All the President's Men: This is my favorite detective story. I feel like I'm doing something important just by watching it. The scene where Woodward comes across the name of Howard Hunt always floors me. It's just Robert Redford on the phone -- doesn't cut away -- and it has more tension and heart pounding action than, well, most action movies.

Pee-Wee and Sleeper had a definite impact on Cloudy.

Christopher Miller & Phil Lord (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs)

We talk about certain movies again and again…

1.) Pee-Wee's Big Adventure: "When we first moved out to LA 13 years ago and were meeting with studios and were asked what movies we admired the most, we'd say Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Raising Arizona," Miller recalls. "Pee-Wee's has such a great design sense and is very whimsical but also really compelling with a strong main character."

"And a great love story between a boy and his bike," Lord adds," and also involves all kinds of animation. And there's this scene where they're doing this cartoon convention: It's pitch-black and they have these blinking white eyes -- and that's exactly in our movie in a weird way. It was a great inspiration for Cloudy: How can I make something that rarified and also that lovable for so many people?"

2.) Raising Arizona: "We talk about Raising Arizona all the time, especially the first 10 minutes, which gets across a lot of exposition really quickly and efficiently in an entertaining manner," Miller suggests. "And it's made like an animated movie with tons of wide angle lenses."

3.) Toy Story: "We talk about Toy Story the most," Miller says. "As everyone knows, it's an awesome movie and one of the greatest of all time, but it did expand our minds when it came out."

"It's not a fairy tale, it's incredibly contemporary, it happens in a real setting, even though this fantastical thing is going on and it's this incredible story about jealousy and betrayal and regret," Lord adds.

4.) The Jungle Book: "When we were making this movie, we wanted everything to feel like it was hand-made and that's why we liked Jungle Book a lot," Miller offers. "You can really see the pencil -- it was like when you were using the Xerox machine instead of retracing and inking all of the cels."

"Something I said to the crew members was that I want to see your artistic hand in your shot," Lord says. "And that informed our process of working with our crew members."

5.) Sleeper: "I saw [Sleeper] for the first time in college, and it really blew my mind hole open because it was half-way between smarty pants satire and really silly, fun, silent movie-style, slapstick comedy," Miller explains. "And it has giant food in it, and we had actually talked about doing a giant banana peel gag and I can't believe it never made it into the movie. But it seemed like it was going to be a reference of a reference of a reference. And we didn't want it to seem like a rip-off. It informed me about how to stage comedy things: wide shots for physical comedy and not too many crazy cuts when you're trying to do a joke."

Plus, The Muppet Movie and The Jerk: "These were the two movies that Phil and I bonded over when we met in college," Miller reveals. "We were inspired by [The Muppet Movie], which [has] simple designs but work really well in three dimensions. And another thing we wanted to do with [Cloudy] that we got from The Jerk is that it doesn't talk down to anybody and it wears its heart on its sleeve."

"These live-action movies are all smart and dumb at the same time, which is what we work really hard to do," Lord concludes.

 Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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