Early on in the conversation that follows between five of this year's most formidable filmmakers, "Cold Mountain's" writer-director Anthony Minghella points out the absurdity of talking about "Return of the King" and "Lost in Translation" in the same sentence. One, of course, is vast, the other minimalist. But both films are indisputably the products of the singular vision of their directors. One is taken from a classic book and the other is based on Sofia Coppola's original idea, but the triumph of Peter Jackson's epic is that it is no less personal a project than Coppola's autobiographically inspired, jet-lagged encounter. These movies are their directors.

It wasn't all that long ago that people scoffed at the notion of directors as visionary artists or "auteurs." Sure, filmmaking is a collaborative art form, but these days nobody seriously doubts that when great movies happen, it's because of the eyes and soul of the man or woman behind the camera.

It's revealing and highly unusual that three of the movies nominated last week for a best-picture Oscar--Gary Ross's "Seabiscuit," Jackson's "Return of the King" and Peter Weir's "Master and Commander"--didn't receive a single acting nomination. All three movies had sterling casts, but the message was clear. Directors have become the ultimate stars. Eastwood was the only one at NEWSWEEK's round table who wasn't also his own screenwriter, but that doesn't make the mournful, lacerating "Mystic River" any less his own. His stamp is on every frame.

At the round table, both Minghella and Eastwood had a certain gentle courtliness. But there the similarities end. Eastwood's movies, like him, observe a certain classical propriety, and are never in a rush. Minghella's fuse pain and yearning, lyricism and doom. Coppola, small and lovely, was the shyest of the group. She's a watcher, and that's what makes the intimate, meticulously observed "Lost in Translation" unique. Ross, outgoing, intense and movie-star handsome, paints with the brightest, most hopeful palette of the group: his uplifting "Seabiscuit" invites the audience in with a big populist handshake. Jackson, scruffy, amiable but acutely focused, was asked to take his shoes off for the photo shoot--shoelessness is his natural state--and he kept them off. The soles of his feet were earthy and calloused. The man who spent years making the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy would have to be some combination of ox and sprite. Excerpts from a true meeting of minds:

NEWSWEEK: The timing this year is a little unusual because we're doing this round table before the nominations are announced.

Clint Eastwood: It will be really embarrassing if none of us is nominated. [Laughter]

The Oscars were moved a month earlier this year, partly to shorten the awards season and make your lives a little less insane.

Eastwood: I don't notice a difference. The last time I was involved was 1993. It seemed hectic then, but each year it seems like there's more and more events--more 24-hour days.

Sofia Coppola: Pretty soon it'll just combust. It'll explode.

Anthony Minghella: It's a strange part of the process. Just looking at this table, and looking at the types of films that we made this year between us, how would you, why would you compare or contrast them? How can you talk about "Lord of the Rings" and "Lost in Translation" in the same sentence? They're both beautiful achievements. But they bear almost no relationship to each other, other than the fact that they are collected on film.

Peter Jackson: It's like the appropriation of films by a sporting culture. If you want to be an Olympic sprinter when you're a kid, you have it drummed into you that you've got to beat the other guy. With filmmakers, it's almost the opposite, because it's about collaboration. And yet people like twisting it and manipulating it into a sporting event.

The media love turning the Oscars into a horse race, but the studios do, too. Gary, Universal's campaign for "Seabiscuit" has been pretty intensive. It must be flattering to have the support.

Gary Ross: Well, yeah. That was that their decision. But it's actually not that different from other campaigns. All these movies have taken out a lot of ads. "Seabiscuit" came out a long time ago. So I guess some person made the decision to remind people of the movie, because all these other movies have huge ad campaigns in current release. I'm certainly glad people remembered the movie.

Let's talk about why you all became directors.

Jackson: I used to make movies on Super 8 when I was about 7, which was a result of seeing "Thunderbirds," a British TV series. [To Minghella] You'll be the only person at the table who knows the magic of "Thunderbirds." Minghella: At this very moment the movie version of "Thunderbirds" is previewing somewhere in London.

Jackson: Is it? Wow. So I was making these little Super 8 movies. Then, when I was about 9, I saw "King Kong," and it got me just so excited that I started doing my own remake the following day. I built a cardboard model of the Empire State Building. And I built a little rubber King Kong out of wire and my mother's fur coat--which I've still got, actually.

Eastwood: You're halfway there. [Laughter]

Jackson: That's right! But hardly any of it got made. I realized that, at the age of 9, a remake of "King Kong" was a bit ambitious.

Sofia, your father's a director, obviously, so you grew up in a creative atmosphere.

Coppola: I was always hanging out on my dad's sets, and it always looked like fun. And he's so enthusiastic about film. It's hard to be on a film set and see everyone making stuff and not want to do that.

You've said that some of your happiest memories are of being a kid on the set of "Apocalypse Now." That sounds a little weird.

Coppola: I had a great time. I had no idea there were problems. I was riding in the helicopters, and I had the costume department making stuff for my dolls.

Has he been to the sets of yours?

Coppola: He didn't come to Japan for "Lost in Translation," but he came on "The Virgin Suicides." He sat around, and talked to the extras, you know? He just came for a couple of days, and that was OK. It was a little distracting.

Gary, you did a variety of things before becoming a director.

Ross: Yeah, I was always sort of dancing around it. I mean, I studied acting with Stella Adler when I got out of college. She was obviously an amazing woman. And then I wrote two novels, but I was starving and I started getting way more money to write movies. I kind of apprenticed on all the movies I wrote. On "Big" and on "Dave" I was on the set every day. By the time I directed "Pleasantville," I had been around movie sets for a long time.

How hard was it to get all your movies off the ground?

Eastwood: You want to know about the studios' enthusiasm, or lack thereof?

Right. Warners would make "Mystic River" only if you kept the budget small.

Eastwood: I've had a long relationship with Warner Bros. over the years, and I took the project to them. They were very cooperative about buying the project, but then when it came time to make it they said, "You know, we can make it--but if you want to take it elsewhere, you can."

Which can't feel very good.

Eastwood: So I did take it elsewhere. We took it around and showed it to a couple of people. One studio had had a tremendous success with a comic-book character and said, "Well, we're looking for something more in that line." So finally I went back to Warners and I said, "I'll make it for what you say your maximum budget is, and I'll defer my salary to get it made. But I don't want to cheat the actors because they've worked hard to get where they are." So that's how it came about. Finally, Warners did it. While we were making it, they were gearing up for the release of the "Matrix" films. That was our ally in a way, because they were so interested in that, we just kind of went off to Boston and nobody knew we were there. After I came back, I just put it together and said, "Here it is." I don't know whether they liked it until somebody told them to. [Laughter] Warners had felt it was dark subject matter. They might have been right. This film could have easily tanked. Today's market is such an infantile market. Everything is geared toward 14-, 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds.

Anthony, your last three movies have all been quite dark.

Minghella: I remember doing a very early interview for "The English Patient." Somebody from the studio was offstage, and afterwards they came and said, "You must never use the word tragedy again."

Eastwood: Do you think the studios were interpreting tragedy as a comedy that doesn't work? [Laughter]

Anthony, you've said, "If I ran a studio, I'd never make one of my films." Please explain.

Minghella: [Laughs] Well, it's just that I've made three films that nobody wanted to make, particularly. Even when I was trying to sell "The English Patient," I went from studio to studio with my little shopping bag of photographs and location pictures, and then I would try and describe the film, you know? "A man on a bed telling stories to a French nurse." And everybody's eyes would glaze over. Or [for "The Talented Mr. Ripley"] "a man starts committing murders, and he's never caught and it's all about purgatory." It's not a particularly appetizing series of stories, if you're judging only its apparent entertainment values. The films that interest me are for grown-ups.

It always seems as if Hollywood is willing to release serious movies only in December. Universal took a risk releasing "Seabiscuit" in the summer--in terms of awards, at least.

Ross: Yeah, that's true, but I mean, it would have been a little hypocritical to have a populist movie and then hold it back for December for an awards strategy.

Eastwood: "Unforgiven" came out on Aug. 12. Nobody ever expected it to win anything--until the L.A. Film Critics jumped on it in October. All of a sudden everybody was saying, "What do we do?" and taking out ads.

Ross: Yeah, in fact, [executive] Bob Daly reassured me about my release date by saying, "We released 'Unforgiven' on Aug. 12. Don't worry, you'll be fine."

Sofia, you financed "Lost in Translation" independently so you didn't have a studio to answer to, is that right?

Coppola: Yeah. I wrote the script, and I wanted to keep the budget really low so I didn't have a boss--and I wouldn't have gotten final cut if I brought it to a studio. So the ideal thing was to go off to Japan with Bill Murray and our crew and not have anyone looking at the dailies. So we did foreign sales and raised the money.

Eastwood: Did you ever show it to a major studio?

Coppola: No.

Eastwood: I can imagine the glaze-over. [Laughter]

Bill Murray is famously hard to get an answer out of. Would you really have abandoned "Lost in Translation" altogether if he hadn't said yes to the part?

Coppola: Yeah. When I was writing it I was picturing him. Finally, I got the script to him, and he agreed to do it, but we never had a contract. It was a week before shooting in Japan. I thought, I hope Bill Murray shows up, because we don't have a backup plan.

Eastwood: Some Japanese actor'd be playing the part.

Coppola: Right. With eye makeup.

Peter, Miramax was originally going to make "Lord of the Rings," but their parent company, Disney, wouldn't OK the budget. Miramax gave you the chance to sell the movie elsewhere and reimburse them for the money they'd spent, but the prospects weren't good.

Jackson: Nobody thought it would happen. Harvey [Weinstein] had put, you know, $10 [million] or $12 million into it. He and Bob [Weinstein] had to have 5 percent of the gross. They had to have executive-producer credit, and they wanted all of their money to be paid within four weeks. Because we had been working with Miramax for 18 months, we had a lot of visual materials. So we decided to make a little movie, which in hindsight is probably the most important 30 minutes that I've ever shot in my whole life. I got some of my crew, and we put a sort of documentary together, almost like a making of the film before it had even gotten made. We spoke to the camera. We were saying how excited we were about this film, and how great it was going to be--except we were basically trying to save its life, you know? We were dying inside.

Was New Line really your very last chance?

Jackson: Yeah, we were terribly worried. We didn't want New Line to know that they were the only studio that was interested. So even though they were the only company that was interested, we canceled a couple of appointments, and we said, "Listen, we can't come because the meeting that we're in is going a bit longer than we thought. Can we reschedule it for tomorrow?" [Laughter]

We won't pester you with a lot of geeky "Lord of the Rings" questions, but could you just explain one thing? Sauron is the bad guy. He's a disembodied evil eye, and he wants the ring. What's he going to do with a ring? He's an eye!

Eastwood: One of those eyebrow rings, maybe?

Jackson: [Laughs] Well, in the book there is a vague reference made to him slowly gaining some sort of physical form. So eventually he'll probably get a finger to put the ring on. He'll be an eye and a finger.

Gary, you'd been interested in making "Seabiscuit" into a movie for a long time.

Ross: I actually bought the rights before the book was ever written. It was a magazine article, and I called Laura Hillenbrand and said, "I hear you're doing a book. I'd like to see if I can buy these rights." Because the story was just as compelling in the magazine article. We had a long talk, like four hours, on the telephone, and she decided to sell us the rights. Subsequently it became this massive best seller, and I wrote the script. But even so, it's not like the studio jumped up and down and went, "Get me a period horse-racing drama!" It was not met with a lot of elation. It was set in the Depression. It doesn't really have a single lead. It has three leads. All that presents tremendous obstacles, and it had to be financed by three different companies to get us up to $85 million, because nobody saw this as intrinsically commercial.

Anthony, MGM and Miramax were going to finance "Cold Mountain" together.

Minghella: Yes. Three weeks before we started shooting, MGM called Harvey Weinstein and said they weren't interested anymore. I was in Romania. I had been there for months and we'd built sets.

What did Harvey say?

Minghella: It was extraordinary, actually. He didn't really miss a beat. He called and said, "MGM decided not to support the film. They left." And he said, "We'll find a way of doing it. Keep going." And you remember those things. As Brecht said, "You only find out what people are like when they have to make decisions."

Sofia, your brother, Roman, went to Tokyo at one point to help out on "Lost in Translation." How did that come about?

Coppola: My brother is also a director, and we only had 27 days for the shoot and we were falling behind schedule. The producer said, "You have to start cutting out scenes." And I thought, No, I can't cut out any of the scenes! So my brother was a hero and came over. He got off the plane with a second camera, and we caught up. Roman knows me so well that he knows exactly how I want everything. It's so useful to have a brother who's a director.

Were you floored by all the praise that "Lost in Translation" got?

Coppola: Yeah. Writing an original screenplay made me wonder if I was being completely indulgent. You think, Does anybody care about these things that I'm writing about? You've been thinking about this one little area of life. You never know who it will connect with.

At the end of the movie, Bill Murray whispers something to Scarlett Johanssen that the audience can't hear. Everybody has an opinion about what it is. Heard any good theories?

Coppola: [Laughs] Yeah, my niece who is 16 said, "Oh, I hope he gave her his e-mail address."

Last year we had actors here and they talked about the fact that they were always asked to shoot their biggest, or most emotional, scene on the first day. The consensus was that it had to be a conspiracy on the part of directors.

Ross: I definitely tested the crew. The first day we shot I threw two people off horses in the middle of a racetrack. It was the hardest stunt we did. We had a very tight schedule, which we couldn't go over, and I wanted a little baptism by fire.

Clint, your actors went to real emotional depths for "Mystic River." How did you help them?

Eastwood: I had some very emotional scenes with Sean, and I didn't want him to do them too many times. At the end of the three takes, his voice was completely gone. So I just made sure I got all those three takes on film. Sean's just brilliant about getting himself into the mood. And a lot of times I don't use "action" and I don't use "cut." I learned years ago on the "Rawhide" set, when you yell "action" the horses all go in nine different directions.

Do you have an editor making a rough assembly of the movie as you're shooting?

Eastwood: Yeah, my editor assembles and we talk at night.

Ross: How long did you cut before you felt like you had a cut you were happy with?

Eastwood: It was about a week. A week and a half. [Stunned laughter]

Ross: I was just waking up after a week and a half!

Eastwood: I would bring the [computer] up to the ranch at Carmel and I'd go in in the morning, and then I'd go play golf, and then come back in the evening. We'd work till 10 or 11 some nights.

Minghella: [Laughs] This is a terrible, terrible bit of the conversation! "I edit for a week and play golf during the afternoon"?!

Eastwood: Well, you've got to get your mind off of it and then come back to it.

Minghella: But, seriously, you actually worked only for a week in the cutting room?

Eastwood: I'd say so.

Anthony, you'd still be cutting "Cold Mountain" now if you could, wouldn't you?

Minghella: I would be. I'm just so humiliated by this. Obviously I'm doing something very wrong. [Laughter]

Clint, you're famous for doing very few takes. That must help in the editing room because there's not as much to choose from.

Eastwood: I did a film with Vittorio De Sica years ago, and he never shot an inch more film than he was going to use. You would be right in the middle of a sentence, and he'd say, "Stop!" You'd say, "Can I just finish my sentence? I've got the momentum!" "No, no. I'm not going to use that!"

How do you all feel about test-screening movies? Minghella: Oh, it's repulsive. When you get into a preview room, you become a prostitute to the audience. However, if I made movies without any studio involvement, I would still preview them. What I wouldn't do is assume there was any science in the preview process. I think screening the film without friends is a very useful way of understanding it.

Eastwood: It is like having your fingernails pulled out, though.

Minghella: I have a memory of being on the Paramount lot with "Ripley" for a preview, and the [response] was so hostile because Ripley wasn't caught at the end of the film. I actually had to run out of the preview room, because I couldn't sit there any longer. I was walking around on Melrose. I don't know Los Angeles very well, and I didn't have any money. I was wandering around and this police car slowed down to see what I was doing. I was standing outside the Paramount lot thinking, They're destroying my film in there.

Peter, did you ever preview the "Lord of the Rings" movies?

Jackson: No. The main thing we had to do was to pass the Bob Shaye test. [Shaye is the co-chairman and CEO of New Line.] Because "Lord of the Rings" is complicated--there's lots of characters, and you can't always remember their names--we'd think, If we can get it to a level where Bob Shaye can understand the plot, that's all that we need to do.

There was an early critics' screening of "Return of the King" in Washington, D.C., and right before the first big battle sequence the movie started playing upside down. Did you hear about that? And did it cause your blood pressure to fluctuate?

Jackson: [Laughs] Well, yeah. I just thought the projectionist was a complete moron. There's no other explanation, because it happened twice in the screening, as I understand. The first time it happened, they rethreaded it all, which takes about 20 minutes. They started it up again, it played--and then a couple of reels later it was upside down again.

Eastwood: That's a real nightmare.

Jackson: Oh, yeah.

Let's talk about piracy for a minute. Anthony, we saw "Cold Mountain" DVDs for sale in the New York City subway for $10.

Minghella: You did? Before the release, or after the release?

After the release.

Minghella: We were released on Christmas Day, and a friend of mine was in Southeast Asia over the holidays, and he said it was selling for a dollar on the street.

Jackson: We were released just before Christmas, and a friend of mine was in Thailand, and the beach resort where he was staying was playing it in the bar on a TV.

Warner Bros. suggested the ban on Oscar screeners as a way to stop piracy, but in the end they actually sent copies of "Mystic River" out to voters.

Eastwood: Yeah, they finally did. I figured you can't just have some people sending tapes and not others. I have mixed feelings about it all. I thought that the studios should start policing themselves. There's so many leaks in these studios. There's so many departments calling and saying, "I need 139 cassettes right now!"

Jackson: Everybody hates piracy because it has a potential to really damage the film industry, and it's only going to get worse before it gets better--if it ever gets better. But to me the whole screener thing was just badly mishandled. There was no consultation with anybody.

Coppola: It was sneaky.

Eastwood: Last year, I think Warner Bros. sent out probably 400,000 tapes. They wanted to go from that to zero. So they started insulting various branches [of the industry], saying you guys aren't reliable and you guys aren't reliable. Everybody kind of rebelled, and justifiably so.

Security measures have obviously been stepped up quite a bit all around.

Jackson: We send our movies away for foreign dubbing. And that has to go out weeks ahead of time, so what they end up doing now, which quite surprised me, is that they send a videotape to Japan or Spain and they black out the entire screen --apart from a little window, which is the mouth of the actor, and if the actor moves around, a little window follows his mouth around. The actor is trying to dub the voice, and he can't see a thing! [Laughter]

Four of you adapted books this year. Do readers understand that you have no intention of harming their favorite books somehow?

Minghella: I think one of the things that's inaccurate is this notion that in some way, a filmed version of the book annihilates the novel.

Jackson: That is exactly right. I used to talk to the fans who were somehow annoyed that we were threatening Tolkien's book. And I just said, "The book is the masterpiece, not the film. We're not asking you to bring your book along to your screening so we can burn it."

Peter, at the expense of generating hate mail from fans, you're not really going to consider making "The Hobbit," are you? Even if you can get the rights, why take the chance of somehow ruining this whole thing retroactively?

Jackson: [Laughs] I don't know. I haven't really thought about it, and I will think about it if they ever call me.

Sofia, why do you think it's so hard for women to get nominated for Oscars as directors? If you get nominated, you will be the first American woman ever.

Eastwood: Is that true?

Jackson: That's unbelievable.

The only women who've been nominated for best director are Jane Campion and Lina Wertmuller.

Coppola: That's hard to believe... I don't know. Well, hopefully, you know, it won't always be such a rarity.

OK, we're ready to release you all from custody. Thanks for being so generous with your time.

Eastwood: It was a pleasure. A pleasure being with you guys.

Minghella: [Laughing, to Eastwood] You spent almost as long on this as you do cutting a movie!