Courtesy of Becky Sapp / SBIFF

The smell of popcorn wafted from the Arlington Theatre greeting guests as they filed in for the sixth day of the Santa Barbara Film Festival on Feb. 12. Attendees chattered excitedly in anticipation of the night’s events where legendary director Martin Scorsese and directorial ingénue Justine Triet would be honored with Outstanding Directors of the Year at the 39th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival. 

Outstanding Directors of the Year is sponsored by The Hollywood Reporter and has been given out at Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) since 2009. Esteemed directors such as Greta Gerwig, Kathryn Bigelow and Steven Spielberg have all been past recipients.

Scorsese and Triet felt like an unlikely duo for this year’s awards — Triet’s suspenseful French masterpiece, “Anatomy of a Fall” very different from Scorsese’s somber American epic, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” not to mention Scorsese’s long list of critically acclaimed pictures and Triet’s shorter, though still impressive, filmography. But that’s what the award is, bringing together the people who dominated the year’s film in massive, albeit different ways. 

The crowd hummed excitedly as movie lovers began to take their seats. The Arlington Theatre, Santa Barbara’s 93-year-old historic movie theater, smelled like popcorn from a day full of movie screenings and the air was warm, a pleasant contrast from the chilly February night. 

The event began with a brief introduction welcoming the audience to the event from SBIFF executive director Roger Durling. He brought out the night’s moderator, Scott Feinberg from The Hollywood Reporter. 

“She has had a breakthrough year that makes clear to everyone that she is a great filmmaker,” Feinberg said of Triet, the first of the night’s honorees. Triet joined Feinberg onstage, waving to an applauding audience. She was followed by Fred Cassidy, who helped to translate the conversation from French to English. 

Courtesy of Becky Sapp / SBIFF

“Anatomy of a Fall” has been nominated for Best Picture and Best Editing at the 96th Academy Awards. The film’s leading actress, Sandra Hüller, was nominated for Best Actress, and Triet herself received two nominations, Best Screenplay and Best Director. The directorial nomination makes Triet one of eight women ever nominated for the award. “Anatomy of a Fall” also received the Palme d‘Or, the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival. Triet is one of only three women to ever receive this award. 

The conversation began with a discussion of Triet’s work with Hüller. They first worked together when Triet was in the process of making “Sibyl.”

“I was so impressed by her. For me she was not playing, she was living,” Triet said. With Hüller doing largely German work and Triet focused on French cinema, there weren’t very many opportunities for collaboration between the two of them. It’s from this that “Anatomy of a Fall” was born, a story of a German woman living in France. 

Sandra Hüller’s character, also named Sandra, goes to trial over the ambiguous death of her husband, Samuel, played by Samuel Theis. When questioned about the more sinister aspects of the film, Triet laughed. Her own husband had been a collaborator on the film.  

“He’s alive, he’s okay,” Triet said of her husband. “We have a normal life.” 

The delicacy of marriage was also a central theme for Triet. Feinberg cited Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” as an inspiration for this aspect of Triet’s film.

“Yes, the reciprocity between women and men and how we live together, and how we can build something without putting someone down,” she agreed.

The conversation wrapped up with a discussion  about the other compelling characters in “Anatomy of a Fall,” including 15-year-old Milo Machado-Graner as son Daniel and the family dog, Snoop, portrayed by 7-year-old border collie Messi. Messi was recently photographed with Ryan Gosling at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon. 

Feinberg introduced Durling once again to give Triet the award. Durling was late to the stage, prompting Feinberg to jokingly ask Triet about her choice to include a steel band instrumental cover of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” in the film.

The cover is replayed over and over again in the opening scene of the film. Hüller’s character is being interviewed downstairs when her husband Samuel blasts the cover to annoy Sandra. The song continues to be relevant throughout the subsequent trial and is integral to the film. 

Triet explained that she wanted Dolly Parton’s infamous “Jolene,” but wasn’t able to obtain the rights to play the song. 

“There was a very important scene in the courtroom, [that] dissects all of the lyrics,” Triet explained. Though “Jolene” certainly would have been on par with the themes of Triet’s film, the 50 Cent cover works just as well in confusing the audience. 

Durling finally emerged from backstage, saying a few words about Triet and her work before handing her the award, a shiny gold trophy shaped like the Arlington Theatre. The crowd erupted in applause.

“Knowing all the talented, talented directors who made films this year, the fact that you’ve chosen me to receive this award is incredibly moving,” Triet said in her acceptance speech.

Courtesy of Becky Sapp / SBIFF

Scorsese, the second director of the evening and often regarded as the greatest director of all time, walked out onstage after Triet and Durling’s exit. The crowd was on their feet for the 81-year-old director, whose list of accolades and prominent films is unending. 

Courtesy of Becky Sapp / SBIFF

“Woah,” Scorsese said, looking out over the roaring crowd. Scorsese returned to the directorial world this year with “Killers of the Flower Moon,” a 3-and-a-half-hour-long film about a series of violent murders in the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. The film has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Feinberg dove right into Scorsese’s filmography, asking if Scorsese sees “Killers of the Flower Moon” as an amalgamation of all of his prior work — from the gangster films to the spiritual trilogy. 

“I think you’re right. I’m agreeing with you from this point,” Scorsese said. “Looking back, I didn’t think that would be that way.”

Scorsese was drawn in by the actual, tragic story of the Osage, not necessarily the idea of a magnum opus film. He had been working on telling the story since 2017 when he started the script. 

Scorsese addressed that the titles and themes of some of his previous films may be rooted in microaggressions and stereotypes, and he faced apprehension not only from the Osage people but from the public when taking on this project. To combat this, Scorsese visited the Osage Nation and recalled a dinner he had with them. It was there that he met Margie Burkhart, the granddaughter of the main characters, Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone). 

“She talked about, you know, it isn’t as simple as villains and victims. It just isn’t,” Scorsese said. These complex moral themes brought up by Margie are reflected in the movie through Ernest. 

Scorsese explains that part of the reason he is so invested in stories that deal heavily with power dynamics is because of his life growing up in Manhattan’s Little Italy. There, he saw these themes firsthand and became intrigued with telling these stories. “I saw my father and a number of other family members trying to live a decent life, but under the control of organized crime figures,” Scorsese said. 

Not only did his life in Little Italy inspire much of his work, but it was also where he met the first of his two great muses, Robert De Niro. The collaboration between De Niro and Scorsese is one of the most fruitful and longstanding cinematic partnerships in history, with 10 critically acclaimed feature-length films together. The two met briefly as young men in Queens and reconnected in 1973’s “Mean Streets.”

“I learned from him, and I also began to trust him,” Scorsese said of his long-time collaborator and pal. “He had really good instincts. But not just about you know, the street guys, but about human nature and psychology.” 

This collaboration-turned-friendship culminated in 1976’s “Taxi Driver.” Scorsese described the making of the iconic “are you talking to me” scene and how that was a moment of trust between De Niro and Scorsese when filming. De Niro not only produced 10 films for the director but also introduced him to the second great muse of his filmmaking career, Leonardo DiCaprio. 

“He gave me a second life making movies. He made me get excited again,” Scorsese said. Scorsese and DiCaprio first worked together on 2002’s “Gangs of New York,” producing a total of six feature films since they met, five of which received Best Picture nominations. 

Courtesy of Becky Sapp / SBIFF

Scorsese described the distinct differences between working with De Niro and DiCaprio, with De Niro being more reserved and decisive, and DiCaprio being effusive and energetic. It’s a careful and prolific meeting of creative minds, and “Killers of the Flower Moon” is the trio’s first film. DiCaprio plays leading man Ernest Burkhart and De Niro plays his mastermind uncle, William Hale. 

The concluding scenes of “Killers” are the pinnacle of this cinematic triumvirate, with DiCaprio and De Niro crammed together in a jail cell faced with impossible decisions of morality and betrayal. Scorsese explains the difficulty the men had with this scene, being undecided on how exactly to approach the final confrontation between Ernest and his father figure. 

“It was like fine painting in a way,” Scorsese said. “We eliminated everything until finally he just had to face it.”

Durling once again came from backstage to the podium to say a few words and hand the award to Scorsese. Durling mentions that despite being nominated for Best Director a total of 10 times, Scorsese has only won one for “The Departed” in 2006. Scorsese simply shrugged. 

The crowd was once again on its feet for the titan, as he walked over to the SBIFF podium. He thanked his people, before commenting on the trophy and his lack of Academy awards, “The real gift was getting to make the films.”

Courtesy of Becky Sapp / SBIFF

The underscoring moment of the event was when Triet joined Scorsese onstage for pictures. Despite the skyscraping legacy of Scorsese, he stands at just five feet and four inches tall, much shorter than Triet. She towered over Scorsese, and he had to get up on his tiptoes to kiss her cheeks. Despite being such an unlikely duo, it worked incredibly well to showcase them alongside each other: a brilliant newcomer and a cinematic giant.