by Shannonn Kelly
5:41AM, EST, March 20, 2013
Even though there’s still snow on my terrace from two days of winter’s last gasp, I wish you all a very Happy 1st Day of Spring.
I was reading a few blogs this morning and came across an article from AwardsLine.com, a site I visited for the first time today. I almost didn’t read it due to the landing page style. Then I realized it was a feature site dedicated to this years Oscars. When you click through you’ll find some interesting Q&A’s with key creative directors, producers and stars such as: Anthony Hopkins, Hugh Jackman, Grant Heslov and Kathleen Kennedy from this years 85th Annual Academy Award® nominated films.
The article was a snapshot of how the nominated directors envisioned their ideas, but more so, some of the hoops they had to go through to bring their film to life.
I saw all of the films below, and while Lincoln and Argo were terrific films, it was the quiet independent, ‘crew and actor sourced’ film “Beasts of the Southern Wild” that stole my heart. In every sense of the word, this film was truly “independent”. Made for 1.8 million dollars it has grossed 100 times it’s budget at the box office due to (I think) an audience craving for something fresh and original.
The crew of 13 professionals shot the film on 16mm. They sourced residents to add to cast and crew from the small Louisiana town of Montegut that also stood in as the “Bathtub” region affected by an approaching storm.
The man who plays the father “Wink” is actually a baker whose store was located across from the “Court 13” production office, an abandoned gas station. One day when business slowed down for an hour or two, they went in and, after a few attempts finally convinced Dwight Henry to audition. He got the part.
Quvenzhané Wallis who played his daughter Hushpuppy, was nominated for an Academy Award® and was the youngest nominee in Oscar history. Quvenzhané was only 5 years old when she answered the casting call that was originally for girls aged 6-9 years of age.
When director Benh Zeitlin and his casting people saw her, they were impressed with her advanced reading skills. Also, she was required to scream blue murder and burp on command. Quvenzhané nailed both.
The first few moments of this film, I felt I was watching something special. I didn’t know what to expect. As someone who’s been to Louisiana 22 times, I will be automatically drawn to any film where that state is a backdrop. The town of Montegut and its then 1803 residents played characters in this movie, even to the point where sets for the “Bathtub” were hand built from rusted-out equipment and objects both cultural and from day-to-day living were found within the surrounding area.
I was completely and totally moved by this film. For the fantasy mixed realism, to the true-to-life portrayal of what happens to a town when hit by disaster people knew was coming, but too poor to stave off.
Noted New York Times film critic A. O. Scott named this film in his Top 3 of 2012. Roger Ebert called the film a:
“remarkable creation… Sometimes miraculous films come into being, made by people you’ve never heard of, starring unknown faces, blindsiding you with creative genius. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is one of the year’s best films.”
Michael Haneke | “Amour”
Oscar pedigree: He has two nominations this year for screenwriting and direction. Previously, 2009’s The White Ribbon received two noms for best foreign language film and cinematography.
Birds and death: “The pigeon. You can’t direct a pigeon. At most, you can entice it to move it a certain way by placing corn on the ground. But even then, it won’t obey your instructions. Of course I’m joking when I say that. The most difficult scene in the film is the one in which (Georges) suffocates (his wife). The scene is preceded by a 10-minute monologue. And Jean-Louis Trintignant had a broken wrist at that time, so we had to shoot around that. And Emmanuelle Riva was concerned about her safety physically. So it was difficult for everyone involved,” says the Amour director.
No shame: When directing Emmanuelle Riva’s nude shower scene in which she is assisted by a healthcare worker, Haneke explains: “As a director, it wasn’t difficult for me. It was far more uncomfortable for her. But it was clear from the beginning that it was necessary to shoot this scene—to capture the fragility of her situation. My job as a director was to make sure I didn’t betray her, that she wasn’t shown critically or depicted in an unpleasant light, but just to show what people in such situations have to go through.”—David Mermelstein
Ang Lee | Life of Pi
Oscar pedigree: In addition to best picture and directing nominations this year, Ang Lee won a 2005 best directing Oscar for Brokeback Mountain. He was nominated in the directing and best picture categories for 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which won best foreign language film. His 1995 film Sense and Sensibility rallied seven Oscar noms, including best picture, and a win for Emma Thompson’s adapted screenplay of Jane Austen’s novel, but Lee was overlooked in the directing category. In addition, Lee’s 1993 films The Wedding Banquet and 1994’s Eat Drink Man Woman were the Taiwanese submissions during their respective years and nominated in the best foreign language film category.
Power of persuasion: “Tom Rothman at Fox pitched (it to) me as a family movie,” Lee recalls. “I asked, ‘Why do you want to spend this kind of money?’ Because I’ve been in this business long enough to know that’s probably not going to be true. Tom said, ‘It’s a family movie.’ I said, ‘What do you mean a family movie?’ He said, ‘What happened to you when you first read the book?’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I introduced it to my wife and my family.”
Solving Pi: “I started to get hooked on, ‘How do you crack this thing? How do you examine illusion within illusion?’ We all know movies are based on illusions—the image, the emotional ride—but how do you do that while you’re examining the power of storytelling? Once I started to think about the solution, I got hooked. And I thought of 3D maybe adding another dimension. The whole thing could open up; what doesn’t make sense could make sense. And I thought of the older Pi telling stories, so I have the first person going through the story while the third person is examining it, but they’re the same person.”
Long days sinks ship: “The most challenging scene to direct and produce was the freighter sinking sequence. What was involved was the ocean, rain, lightning, and wind. We weren’t out at sea; we were in a wave tank that we created in Taiwan. We spent 78 days on that scene. It was a two-year preparation, so it was a big undertaking,” Lee told AwardsLine at the PGA Awards.
Harnessing visuals: “With new media (3D), nobody really can give you advice. People who have done it will tell you what it’s about. It will turn out most of that is not true. I took lessons, I took advice. But next year, people will look at this film and say, ‘Oh, he should have done something different.’ This is that new to us. It hasn’t been established in the audience’s mind. There are things like conversion points, you can make adjustments later, but how you frame it, how you separate the camera, the volume of depth, you have to decide on the set. You’re doing something you don’t know, how that depth works with the lens. You just don’t know, you’re guessing. That’s the scary thing.”—Paul Brownfield
David O. Russell | “Silver Linings Playbook”
Oscar pedigree: He has two nominations this year for directing and best adapted screenplay. He was previously nominated for directing 2010’s The Fighter.
Pat Jr. comes home: “The first scene where Pat Jr. faces his dad was challenging because that establishes the entire tone of the picture. I directed it many different ways. Because Bradley (Cooper) had to create that character, we tried him more bipolar and less bipolar, with more Asperger traits and less, being more explosive with his father and more loving. We were finding that balance. We were also establishing the whole setup of the movie, because the mother is taking Pat Jr. out early, the father is a bookmaker, which is something I did in the adaptation. I chose to follow the 2008 season and locked into that, as it availed us of a lot of interesting information that I heard from Philadelphia Eagles fans, such as (wide receiver) DeSean Jackson. From that, we have Pat Jr. wearing his jersey. DeSean spiking the ball on the one-yard line is literally a metaphor for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, which symbolizes the Eagles’ struggle and symbolizes Pat Jr.’s struggle. I made Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) a bookmaker because the economy collapsed in 2008. In the book, one doesn’t really know exactly what he did. I imagined he was a DHL Express manager of a hub, and he retired and lost his pension, which happened to a lot of people. His obsession in the book with bookmaking is just an obsession, but in the movie, it’s an obsession that goes to the economic livelihood of the house. So in that opening scene, establishing the tone and characters was extremely important.”
Tiffany makes her grand entrance: “The scene where Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) comes in the house for the first time was also crucial in getting the emotional content to land hard. We collide the agendas. We invented the best friend, Randy, who is the nemesis who bets against Pat Sr. The nemesis’ role is important as he loves the wife and always thinks she’s beautiful. It also creates the world of the neighborhood. I loved that all the characters travel by foot. Nobody gets in the car unless Pat Jr. goes to therapy. They even walk to the dance.”—Anthony D’Alessandro
Steven Spielberg | Lincoln
Oscar pedigree: Eight picture nominations, one win for 1993’s Schindler’s List. Seven directing nominations, two wins for Schindler and 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg also has a 1986 Irving G. Thalberg Memorial award.
Intimate setting: “The difference between Lincoln and Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan is that the last two films take place outside,” Spielberg says. “Lincoln is within the intimacy of a set in actual, practical locations. So every room was like a library. It was quiet, there was not a lot of room to work. We didn’t want to tear down walls and suddenly have the actors see the entire crew and monitors just glaring at us from 20 yards away. So even the sets that Rick Carter built—he built a good deal of sets for this—did not have wild ceilings or wild walls. With Schindler’s List, I wanted actors to step out of character, step off the set, to return to reality as often as possible. It was different on Lincoln. It’s a beautiful literary piece.”
No drama in the Civil War: “The first screenplay draft I showed to Daniel Day-Lewis (in 2001-02) was also not a biopic. It was more like a Civil War drama. It was the story of the last three years of the Civil War, and it involved seven huge battles. Lincoln was prosecuting the war, first through Gen. McClellan and then Gen. Grant. But it was much more of a Saving Private Ryan, set between 1863 and 1865. And it quickly wore thin on me and became clear that it was not the story I wanted to tell. It took Tony (Kushner) and I a long time figuring out what part of Lincoln’s life would be able to give audiences an appreciation and understanding of his humanity, to take him off his alabaster pedestal and Mt. Rushmore to be able to understand that he was someone that could and should be related to. And that was not doable with the Civil War in his way. James McPherson, the great Civil War historian, once said that the Civil War is so vast that even a gigantic figure like Abraham Lincoln could get lost in it. And McPherson was absolutely right; Lincoln got lost in my first attempt to tell the story of the Civil War through his eyes, and I jettisoned that project within a year.”
Long story short: “This was going to be a story of his last three years, but the script was 550 pages long. For me, the most compelling part of that screenplay was a 65-page section which was the struggle to pass the 13th amendment that abolished slavery. Tony and I found that the more real estate of Lincoln’s life we covered, the more it diminished him as someone who understood politics, personalities, and political theater. And it took us away from his family. It took us away from the deep cold depths he would find himself in that some people thought was his form of depression. It took us away from that because it covered too much territory. The Emancipation Proclamation and the struggle to find the right time to announce it, the Gettysburg Address—there were so many bullet points in Lincoln’s life that actually the more that we spread over 550 pages, the more superficial his character felt. Once we focused everything on two great issues, the passing of the 13th amendment and ending the Civil War, everything got a lot more concentrated and a lot more focused.”—Mike Fleming Jr.
Benh Zeitlin | “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
Oscar pedigree: Beasts marks Zeitlin’s first nominations in the directing and best adapted screenplay categories.
The Beasts of the BP oil spill: “A lot of our sets were on the wrong side of the barriers that they put up to block the oil, so we actually had to be in negotiations with BP to get a lot of our sets,” Zeitlin says. “There were incredibly difficult hoops to jump through, but they were looking so bad in the media they were actually uncharacteristically, I would say, willing to cooperate. Actually, it was amazing that we managed to get back there. Anything for good PR at that time, they were going to do. We used that to our advantage.”
Casting without preconceptions: “It’s part of the idea of (my film company) Core 13, to not just write something and fill in the blanks, it’s about trying to work on these ideas and concepts and work on trying to find the essence of the character, to search for that essence in somebody. When you are looking for something in that way, you can find it in unexpected places. We wanted to stay open to what we might find out in the world. We definitely had written the character as a girl—we wanted it to be a girl and focused on casting girls—but within that, we looked at a tremendous variety of people. If you see a brave little boy, you think it might work, but obviously we found a pretty great little girl. We were rehearsing at the bakery in the mornings so that Dwight Henry could get his work done. That was key to his taking the role—he had turned it down several times. On set, we tried to make sure that it felt like a game for Quvenzhané Wallis at all times. We tried to shelter her from the panic of a film set. We always tried to maintain energy on the set that a 5-year-old would want to be part of.”—Diane Haithman
Sidebar: Mike Fleming Jr. is film editor of Deadline. Anthony D’Alessandro is managing editor of AwardsLine. Paul Brownfield, Diane Haithman, and David Mermelstein are AwardsLine contributors.