Bob Odenkirk on Industry Lessons

Anthony D’Alessandro is managing editor of AwardsLine. This story appeared in the June 12 issue of AwardsLine.

On mentors
(My improv teacher) Del Close was the first guy that I saw, in person, do what I would call “acting.” Occasionally, in class he would get up and do the exercise, and he was fundamentally better—and, of course, a lot older—than everyone else. But it was a revelation. You could really feel the difference between what we were doing, which was reaching and searching, and an actor who was discovering the moment in a very immediate way.
(My late manager) Bernie Brillstein always said to me, “Trust your own talents.” I love collaborating and that got a little annoying with Bernie at times. He said, “Just do your thing. You have a voice, just do it.”

On professionalism
Watching Chi McBride, who starred in some of the movies I directed, really made me think. He came in to audition for one part; it was a long monologue. He knew it cold, and he delivered it with the intensity and the professionalism that you would want in the final performance. And I was like, “Holy shit! You brought it big time.” I either forgot or never realized that there are really professional actors out there who show up completely ready to rock. But Chi was one of the first that I saw, just in auditioning, at another level. Seeing him made me think, “This is what I have to do if I’m going to call myself a pro and not just get jobs from my friends, or jobs that I wrote for myself.”

On big breaks
My first big break was Saturday Night Live, and I’m not sure I ever got it right. I hung in there. I was a bit overwhelmed by it. I think at a certain point you get set back on your heels and you get intimidated, and from that you either quit the biz or you learn that you have some modicum of talent to rely on. Breaking Bad has also been a huge break for me. Outside of The Larry Sanders Show, which had a very real feeling, I’d never have roles like Saul Goodman offered to me. I guess it’s shown me that I can approach acting with a seriousness of purpose, and people have been pretty positive about the result.

On learning from mistakes
I constantly repeat my mistakes and say, “I’ll never do it again!” That’s what being a person is all about. I guess one mistake I try to avoid is saying yes to material before I really know it and know that I can contribute. I’m so thankful to be a part of this crazy business that I have, on occasion, accepted an offer or tried for a project that I don’t have the necessary connection with. That rarely comes out well. Nowadays, if I don’t really “get” the material, I’m much more apt to back away. That can be very hard to do, saying no to an opportunity, but I need to be confident that I can participate.

On giving advice
Spend more time developing the idea than executing it. Act 3 doesn’t mean a thing if the first five pages don’t make me excited to hear your story. And if I’m super excited about your story, you can probably mess up a million times and I’ll still be interested. You can make it better as you go. It doesn’t matter if Page 48 has a good joke on it, or where the damn act break belongs, if I don’t really care about the story. So think about that story that’s really worth telling, and then worry about laughs or the structure. Unless you’re writing a book about structure, then go nuts! You’ll sell a million copies! I’ll buy one, and it won’t help me a bit!

Emmys Q&A: Kat Dennings

After stealing comedic thunder from the goddesses in her 2000 debut as the foul-mouthed Jewish princess Jenny Brier in Sex and the City, Kat Dennings made an impression on the show’s creator, Michael Patrick King. So when King offered Dennings a shot at playing a free-spirited New York waitress in the CBS series 2 Broke Girls, which he cocreated with Whitney Cummings, choosing between film or TV was a little easier for the actress. Kind of a Laverne & Shirley for the millennial set, the series finds Dennings is right at home as Max Black, delivering one-liners in the style of Bea Arthur, Megan Mullally or even Fran Drescher. In fact, since her early teens—and without any acting lessons—Dennings has vamped and deadpanned, a natural talent that’s given her the opportunity to work with director Judd Apatow on The 40-Year-Old Virgin and play a supporting comic-relief role in Marvel’s Thor franchise.

You’ve distinguished yourself as a comedic performer with your deadpan cadence. Did you nurture this over time?
That’s really interesting—I’ve never thought much about that. I guess it’s just how I am. But I know for a fact my older brother Geoffrey is also very much like that. And I worshipped him as a kid, so I give him a little credit.

What was that first Sex and the City audition like?
I was 13 or 14 then, homeschooled, lived in the woods and didn’t have TV. So I had no idea what this show was. (The audition) was six pages of sides; I read it, and Michael said, “Come back tomorrow. Memorized.” And I looked at him, and I was like “Fuck it, I will!” So in the cab on the way back to Penn Station, there was a building covered in the Sex and the City poster, and I thought, “Damn! I just sassed that guy, and this is such a big deal!”

You were joking around?
I was messing with him, but also I was sort of challenging him. Like, “I can do that too.”
Did Michael see you in another project prior to 2 Broke Girls that reminded him of you?
I guess. I’ve never asked. I’ve heard him talk on panels so that’s how I get my information. Maybe Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist?

Tell me about the genesis of 2 Broke Girls.
I think the waitering part and Caroline’s (Beth Behrs) jobs are based on Michael’s experiences. The hoarders episode happened to Michael, as well as the one where we went into this guy’s apartment and found naked pictures of him. The cupcake shop and its demise are based on his sister’s experience. And he loved that as a device, which is really smart.

In discovering Beth Behrs, did they test a number of girls with you?
I was in Florida shooting a really dark film. They called and asked if I could fly back and read, and I’m like, “I’m in Florida. I’m getting raped in a tub. I’m not in a good spot.” And they said, “We get it. Just watch her Funny or Die stuff.” However, they needed to see us together. We got in front of CBS to test, which was one of the most terrifying experiences. I’ve done it a few times. Ninety-five percent of the time no one laughs. You know when you watch those SNL auditions and no one laughs? It’s like that. This was the last step in Beth’s hiring process. Michael loves telling this, but we left that test, and I put my arm around her instinctively.

You were initially inspired by Fran Drescher for your character and then threw that out.
When you start putting someone in the character instead of yourself, it’s muddled. Before we shot the pilot, I was so nervous. It’s a live audience. I watched Jack Black in High Fidelity, and his performance made me feel brave. And I watched The Nanny because she was the only one I could think of who was sort of like that tough Jewish Brooklyn girl. But again, that’s someone else’s character, and I have to develop my own. I kind of ended up imitating my mother because she was a poor girl from Queens who was cool and tough.

Does your delivery of zingers on the show come naturally?
Well, I’ve learned the best way to do it is not to think about it. We’ll get to the show and we’ll do a take, and then the writers rewrite everything. Eighty percent of what airs was given to us the second before we said it. And that’s where they do their best work and gauge what’s funny off the audience. You’re discovering the jokes at the same time as everybody else.

When you read scripts, can you tell the difference between material coming from a male versus a female writer?
Jhoni Marchinko is a legendary sitcom writer, and I can tell her jokes from when she was on Will & Grace. I can tell her flavor on stuff. I mean, Pat (Walsh) and Michael and the male writers are brilliant, but we’re writing for two girls all the time, so having women is essential. Also we have a lot of gay writers, which is a really important voice for our show. It’s just such a perfect melody with all these different instruments.

Q&A: Tim Burton On Frankenweenie

In the final stretch before the Oscar ballot deadline, there’s still hope that voters remain undecided in the animation category. Though Walt Disney has cornered the Oscar slot with three titles, its Frankenweenie stands as an island against the epic Brave and the existential crisis comedy of Wreck-It Ralph. The film is an auteur’s youthful dream short, once buried by the studio that has resuscitated it as a 3D stopmotion feature—the first in black and white. This Frankenstein homage about a boy who brings his dead dog back to life is signature Burton complete with his monster movie motifs, funky production design, and poetic adolescent themes. Many will argue that Burton is long overdue for an Oscar, and God knows, he’s come close: He was previously nominated in the animated category for 2005’s Corpse Bride. His 1994 absurdist biopic Ed Wood garnered a supporting actor win for Martin Landau (as Bela Lugosi) and best makeup, while 2007’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street won best art direction and noms for Johnny Depp as best actor and Colleen Atwood’s costumes. Another appealing Burton attribute for Oscar voters is that he remains an iconoclast among the big-studio directors working today—he’s a visual artist with a spooky canon that appears alienating with its deep subtext, but that lures the masses with its fanciful spins on children’s tales such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland. AwardsLine recently spoke to Burton about his career and Frankenweenie’s place in it.

AwardsLine: Why was this the best time to make Frankenweenie as a stopmotion feature? You were just as successful then as you are now and could have conceivably made it in 1993 instead of Nightmare Before Christmas.

Tim Burton: All these projects take a long time. I remember when I first designed Nightmare, it took about 10 years to get that in place because nobody really wanted to do stopmotion, and in a way, there weren’t a lot of facilities that were doing it. We did the Frankenweenie short many years ago, and I never really planned on it being anything else. Over the years, I just kept kind of thinking about the relationship with my dog, but also other monster movies, the kids and teachers from my school, and even the downtown places in Burbank. A lot more thoughts came into Frankenweenie, and it just felt like the right medium for it. It was fun to do the live action thing, but going back and forth and looking at the original drawings (stopmotion) felt like a more pure version to do it. And, again, it was fun to expand on all those kind of memories.

AwardsLine: Was there a specific part of Burbank that you grew up in that you based the setting upon?

Burton: Off Victory Boulevard, Hollywood Way, moving toward North Hollywood, but the flatlands of Burbank. And a little bit of the downtown area, up where the City Hall is, but mainly the flats. There’s also that geography of the flats and then the hill—the sort of up-against-the-mountains kind of thing.  It was based on memories—the starkness of things like the park and even the downtown; we tried to personalize it as much as we could. The original we shot live action in Pasadena, which isn’t really the same kind of feel and look of Burbank. Burbank is kind of a hermetically sealed place. It doesn’t really change much. There are more trees now than there used to be, but it’s kind of the same.

AwardsLine: When you made the original short, where did you see it being placed?

Burton: It was originally meant to go out with an animated feature. It’s like in the old days when animated features were fairly short, they’d have a nature live action short Country Cougar Goes to Hollywood—you know, that kind of “raccoon comes to town” stuff. The idea was it would go out with Pinocchio as a featurette. Then when Disney saw it, they got freaked out by it, and so it didn’t get released. They showed it in front of Pinocchio and nobody had a bad reaction to it, but when Pinocchio and the whale came onscreen, kids were screaming and crying out of the theater. That’s what Disney movies do! So it never got released, but it was still enjoyable to do.

AwardsLine: That’s really bizarre. I was crying and screaming when I saw the whale as a kid, but there was never a Disney short that could trigger such an emotion.

Burton: I know, that’s the weird thing. It’s hard to find logic in things sometimes. That’s why I can’t analyze things too much because it often doesn’t make much sense.

AwardsLine: Well, given whatever hiccup you had with Frankenweenie, you had a really successful run with the studio. How has Disney’s philosophy, or their way of thinking, changed toward avant garde artists such as yourself? How has it changed throughout the years?

Burton: Obviously there’s been different regimes over the years. All different types of people have come in, but they always try to follow some slightly strange Walt philosophy, which gets kind of abstract down the years. But I have to say, on this movie and my recent experiences with them, there were no arguments about the black and white; they seemed to understand it. I think it probably helped that the movie didn’t cost a whole lot; it made it easier to accept the black and white. They were cool about it, and they were very supportive of it, and I’m just always very grateful when that happens. It’s not their usual thing so for me it means a lot.

AwardsLine: What is it that you love about stopmotion? I know 3D makes the art form more amazing.

Burton: Well, I mean I love it. I think of Ray Harryhausen’s work—I knew his name before I knew any actor or director’s names. His films had an impact on me very early on, probably even more than Disney. I think that’s what made me interested in animation: His work. And there’s something that’s old-fashioned and quite beautiful about it. The thing that’s amazing is, it’s like live action but imagined, and it’s tactile. The puppets are usually these beautiful little works of art that move, and to see a character walking in and out of shadows one frame at a time and the lighting, it’s like a real movie. There’s something magical about it. It kind of connects you back to the origins of film, in a way. There’s something about seeing this little inanimate object coming to life that’s just very exciting. That’s why with Nightmare I held out for so long to do it.

AwardsLine: I remember the ParaNorman filmmakers speaking at Deadline’s The Contenders and mentioning that it took them a week to shoot one minute of footage. Is that the same production time for you?

Burton: Oh, yeah.

AwardsLine: Or do you have the benefit of working with several crews?

Burton: No, we had a pretty small crew. I would say there were times that we wouldn’t even get a minute in a week. We had a smaller crew, definitely, than we had on Nightmare or Corpse Bride, for sure.

AwardsLine: Wow. On those films, were you able to do two minutes a week or is that just a crazy schedule?

Burton: No, it depends. It depends on the shots. I mean, it can take up to a week to do a shot, depending on the complexity of it. At most, you’d be lucky to get a couple of shots a day once you get up and running and ramping, and you’re fully into it. Also, sometimes you start out with a slightly smaller crew, and as it goes the people that are assistants actually are quite good at animating, so (you) sort of train people that don’t start out as animators but several months into production they become decent animators. So it kind of changes a little bit.

AwardsLine: So you’ve actually taken on journeymen in stopmotion, and by the end of the film, they’ve become pretty experienced?

Burton: Yes, and it’s actually quite difficult because it’s such a rare find. The people that are good at doing it get lured into the more lucrative computer animation, and/or they go to other companies, so each time I’ve done a project. I’ve had to find people. There’s a few people I’ve worked with that have been consistent, but you have to start from scratch almost each time because, also, it takes time to mount. From Nightmare to Corpse Bride to this, building the puppets takes a lot of R&D. There’s a lot of time: Here’s the drawing, but is the puppet going to work? And there’s a lot of ripping and tearing, and now we have to make this bigger, and you know all that stuff that goes into making (it) that takes up quite a bit of time.

AwardsLine: Well, creative justice has been served and Frankenweenie is nominated for an Oscar. Have you ever tried to make heads or tails of the Academy and the way they vote? Did you ever make a film and say to yourself, “Hey, this could possibly be Oscar worthy”?

Burton: No. I mean, I can’t even target this for children or adults (laughs).  Honestly, I think you can find by our conversation, there are a lot of things that are quite abstract about the whole thing, so I think for me it’s not something that’s in your control. It’s hard to analyze or predict things. I think if I ever had that thought, it would freak me out and I wouldn’t be able to do a project!

AwardsLine: I first saw Pee-wee’s Big Adventure when I was 13, so I’ve grown up with your career and came to embrace your work in the same vein as David Lynch and Terry Gilliam. Each of you had your own distinctive voice, but what you’ve been able to do that they haven’t, is you’ve become widely appreciated and most of your work is mainstream. What do you attribute that to?

Burton: Again, it’s hard for me to analyze it because, as everybody, you have your ups and downs, but it’s funny because I’ve never been able to target. Like I said, from the beginning of my career, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice were on some of the year’s worst Top 10 lists and it’s like, “Whoa!”, you know? So I’m no stranger to bad reviews and things. But then many years later, those two worst movies of the year, “Well those were his two best films,” you know? (laughs). Like, is it going that downhill? Some of the worst movies of the year were my best? I may as well just end it all right now. So I mean it does make it kind of a strange in an Alice in Wonderland kind of world in that way. I find that the most special thing to me is if you’ve connected to people in some way. If someone comes up to you on the street and says something to you and you know it’s meant something to them and it’s connected to some project. That, I find, is amazing. Every movie can go either way and you never can predict it.  That whole MoMA exhibit (on my work)—a lot of people think that I went to MoMA and said, “Hey, would you put my artwork up in your museum?” (But) they came to me, which I was quite surprised about, because it’s not something that I would have ever thought of or even considered. So that was a strange surprise. I liked the curators. I felt my work was in good hands, but again it was not something I was looking for. It was an amazing, interesting surprise.

AwardsLine: Was there ever a filmmaker or studio executive who influenced you in your career and made you trust your voice?

Burton: I’ve had lots of help. To be honest, whatever troubles you’ve had, I’ve also gotten the opportunities to do things. I remember early in my career with Disney, which was a very strange time in the company—there were a couple of executives who were very supportive of me and kind of let me do my own thing. You know when I went to Warner Bros. there was a woman named Bonnie Lee who was an executive who helped me to get to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. They’re giving you the money, and you try to find people you relate to as much as possible, so I’ve been lucky to have people, especially early on, be supportive and help me along.

AwardsLine: Touching on Johnny Deep for a moment.  You know, I never watched 21 Jump Street…

Burton: (laughs) Yeah, I’ve never seen that.

AwardsLine: Well, Edward Scissorhands was the first time I ever saw him act, and he blew me away.

Burton: I think it probably helped that I hadn’t seen 21 Jump Street (laughs).

AwardsLine: What did you see in Depp early on?

Burton: It was quite simple. I mean, I knew about 21 Jump Street, and I had seen pictures and stuff, and I met him and he just reminded me of what the character was. At the time he was perceived as a teen idol, you know, a Justin Bieber type of guy, but as a person he wasn’t that. So, for me, he mirrored what Edward Scissorhands was: He was something inside, but people treated him a certain way because of the way he looks. So in a weird way, he was the character, because he had those feelings.

AwardsLine: Is he involved early on in the scripts with you, particularly with Dark Shadows? I remember Seth Grahame-Smith mentioning at a Q&A that Depp acted out the character of Barnabas Collins in a development meeting with both of you.

Burton: It depends. Every one has been different. I’m trying to think back.  With Ed Wood, the script was there. I think on Sweeney Todd, I just asked him, before there was a script, if he’d go for it. But usually there’s a script.

AwardsLine: And your next project?

Burton: Yeah, I don’t really know what it is, so don’t bother with that (laughs). Really. Because I just sort of injured myself so I’m just getting through the pain threshold now, so it’s kind of hard to think at the moment. And I don’t really have anything at the moment.

AwardsLine: Jumping back to Frankenweenie, you said you re-created some of your teachers in the film.  And there’s this great homage to the old monster movies: There’s a kid who looks like Igor, the science teacher looks like Vincent Price who I’ve always known has been an idol of yours. Now, did these people in your life actually look like Igor and Vincent Price?

Burton: Oh, yeah. There was definitely a weird girl—I very specifically remember her. And some of the people there were a mixture of types. There was a couple that were maybe like two people that were kind of stuck into one—just the sort of dynamics and the kid politics and the way kids act toward each other and the wise oldies. Again, I just tried to go back and remember all those feelings and the way that other kids felt quite strange to me. So I just tried to capture those feelings of those memories.

AwardsLine: Lastly on the music. Your composer Danny Elfman mentioned that there isn’t a shorthand between the two of you after working together for several years, that each time is like starting anew. What was your take on your musical process together, particularly with Frankenweenie?

Burton: It is funny because I’ve known him since the beginning of my career so it is strange. It doesn’t seem like it’s getting any easier (laughs). I don’t know what that is all about because there is a weird—I mean, I’m not a musician, so it’s hard for me. I do find it hard sometimes to communicate with him, and the easiest thing for me to do is to play him a piece of music, but he doesn’t like that. And I don’t really like doing that either because it’s like, well, most composers don’t like temp scores. On a project like this, it’s the kind of (Bernard Herrmann) stuff that he loves, so there’s that kind of obvious connection there. He grew up loving those old monster movies as well. He got the emotion of the story as well. So it wasn’t that difficult.

Jon Voight Remembers Winning The Oscar

“There were wonderful films represented and great actors that evening. Bobby De Niro was up for The Deer Hunter, Warren Beatty for Heaven Can Wait, Gary Busey for The Buddy Holly Story, and Laurence Olivier for The Boys From Brazil, and I was the frontrunner according to Vegas odds and everything else. It seemed to be a moment between two Vietnam films, one being Deer Hunter and the other being our film, Coming Home.

A couple days before, I flew in from New York. Two seats away from me was Laurence Olivier. He was just recovering from prostate cancer. He had very thick glasses, as he could hardly see, and had arthritis that was so severe (that) when he stood up to put his coat on; he needed the help of his son Richard. It was very sad for me because I had seen Olivier play kings and do a magnificent job. I was really attentive to his entire career, and in his generation, he was the great actor who inspired and created dreams for other actors. So he was the man. Then I saw him in this state.

Then the night before the Oscars, I got a phone call at home. ‘Hello, Jon, this is Larry Olivier.’ I said to myself, ‘Oh, my God, I didn’t know what to call him!’ It was Lord Olivier. I explained my real attentiveness to all his work and the kindness of his call, and he called to say how wonderful my performance was. Can you imagine? That was a big deal.

Now, I go the Oscars and I’m sitting there with the nerves of that event. I had a little something prepared to say if it came my way, and all of a sudden Cary Grant introduces the lifetime achievement award, and it’s going to Laurence Olivier. There I am, part of this focus of that evening and even the center of that focus in some way because the best actor award is one of the big ones. So Cary Grant comes on stage and introduces very beautifully, as he does in his charming style, his friend, Larry Olivier.

And Larry Olivier walks out on stage. And he has no glasses. And he’s standing erect. And he gives a speech that is prepared, like a piece of poetry: A brilliant, beautiful speech of gratitude to the Academy, and to the business and to the art of filmmaking and his career. It was like watching a great sports moment. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God!’ He’s like a tightrope walker. I know the guy can’t move his arms. I know he can’t see. I know he’s in a debilitated state, but look what he’s doing. As I’m watching him, the people who are running the show saw my response immediately. I was very moved by him. And then as he started doing his speech, I was overwhelmed because no one comes that prepared in some sense. He was showing us not only through his career, but through his appearance, how to handle that moment in the spotlight. They cut from his speech to my response, back and forth. Finally, when he finished, I went ‘Phew!’ It was like watching an impossible act happen, and when he concluded with such a gracious speech, finishing with a perfect manner and words, it was ‘Bravo!’ for all that it meant.

When they finally announced my name, the first thing I said graciously and profoundly is that I was overwhelmed by listening to that great man speak. Sometimes, when they replay my Oscar acceptance, they play back that moment when I’m moved by Olivier as though it was my response to getting the Oscar. But it wasn’t. My response to getting the Oscar was to put my head down and say, ‘OK.’ I took a real long pause and made my way to the stage eventually. I didn’t have that kind of emotion coming off the announcement of my name. It was quite a stirring moment.

My real focus was on Olivier. It took away from me a little bit, so I was a little bit more comfortable, and it put my award in perspective in some fashion. It was a great thing to see the great man in that moment and to know all the things that I knew about him. I wasn’t so moved by receiving the Oscar. I was moved by it, but the emotion of that evening was invested in watching Olivier take the stage.”—As told to Anthony D’Alessandro

Original Song Category Sees Return Of Pop

Anthony D’Alessandro is Managing Editor of AwardsLine.

This year’s crop of contenders—a doc tune, a musical melody, a jazz ditty, and an Indian lullaby—are similar to the genres that the category has recognized in recent years. Pop-radio songs, which arguably have been sparse over the last 10 years with the exception of the Beyoncé-performed Dreamgirls song “Listen” and Eminem’s Oscar winner “Lose Yourself” from 8 Mile, marked their return this year with Adele’s James Bond ballad “Skyfall.” A glance at this year’s best song nominees:

J Ralph wrote "Before My Time" for Chasing Ice, which details the melting of the polar ice caps.
J Ralph wrote “Before My Time” for Chasing Ice, which details the melting of the polar ice caps.

“Before My Time” | Chasing Ice

Music and lyrics by J. Ralph

Where it’s heard in the film: End credits

Backstory: Looking to bring emotion to glacial meltdown, J. Ralph, who scored the Oscar-winning docs The Cove and Man on Wire, enlisted the breathy vocals of Scarlett Johansson and the touching high notes of violinist Joshua Bell. “As the song plays over the final sequence of the film,” Ralph says, “I wanted to create a transportive, hypnotic experience where the audience could absorb all they had seen, as if Scarlett is singing to each person individually. The song explores the dialogue between mankind and nature and the perception of time. In the end, no one is bigger than Mother Nature.”

Odds: Given the Academy’s penchant for songs that earnestly jibe with a film’s sensibility, don’t count out “Before My Time” just because it’s tagged to the end of a documentary. Just six years ago, the Academy gave an Oscar to Melissa Etheridge’s call-to-action environmental song “I Need to Wake Up” from An Inconvenient Truth.

Oscarcast host Seth MacFarlane is nominated for the song he wrote for Ted.
Oscarcast host Seth MacFarlane is nominated for the song he wrote for Ted.

“Everybody Needs a Best Friend” | Ted

Music by Walter Murphy; lyrics by Seth MacFarlane

Where it’s heard in the film: Opening credits

Backstory: “I had always wanted to have a song upfront in a showy way (in Ted) and have lamented the recent trend of putting credits at the end of the movie,” MacFarlane says. “It seems like a little old-fashioned showmanship gets lost when that happens. Walter Murphy remains one of the few composers I know who can write a catchy melody and keep it new.”

Odds: The chances of this song winning aren’t impossible. If anything, since 2000 voters have lauded adorable jazzy songs like Randy Newman’s Pixar two-fister “We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3 and “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc. It’s reminiscent of a Rat Pack standard, a genre MacFarlane knows best, having crooned such tunes on Family Guy and his big-band album Music Is Better Than Words.

Mychael Danna won a Golden Globe for Pi's Lullaby.
Mychael Danna won a Golden Globe for Pi’s Lullaby.

“Pi’s Lullaby” | Life of Pi

Music by Mychael Danna; lyrics by Bombay Jayashri

Where it’s heard in the film: Opening credits

Backstory: “Ang Lee’s thought was to have the film start in this children’s paradise, in a zoo—the place where Pi sprang from. It’s beautiful, literally enclosed with these marvelous animals and a mother’s love. And the best way to get this across was with a lullaby. Jayashri’s an established south Indian classical singer, and if I was an Indian boy, I would like my mother to have her voice,” Danna says.


Odds: Very good given the Academy’s embrace of world-music tunes such as “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire and “Al Otro Lado del Rio” from The Motorcycle Diaries, but Fox knows the types of niche tunes that sound sweet to voters’ ears: between 2007-09, the studio’s indie arm Fox Searchlight swept this category each year with songs from Once, Slumdog, and Crazy Heart.

Adele's opening-credits song for Skyfall marks the return of pop music to the original song category.
Adele’s opening-credits song for Skyfall marks the return of pop music to the original song category.

“Skyfall” | Skyfall

Music and lyrics by Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth

Where it’s heard in the film: Opening credits

Backstory: Adele and her “Rolling in the Deep” song scribe Epworth spent months tweaking “Skyfall” in order to hit its dynamic gravity. Rather than go with a romantic tone like other 007 ballads, the duo opted to reflect the film’s death and rebirth narrative in their song. And that homage to Monty Norman’s famous four-note Bond theme? Clearly intentional.

Odds: Even though this is the first Bond song nomination in 31 years (the last being Bill Conti and Mick Leeson’s “For Your Eyes Only”), 007 ballads are typically bridesmaids, and the Academy has been deaf to Top 40 tunes. However, Adele’s bluesy alto and the song’s hypnotic melody are sublime.

"Suddenly" was written specifically for the big-screen adaptation of Les Misérables.
“Suddenly” was written specifically for the big-screen adaptation of Les Misérables.

“Suddenly” | Les Misérables

Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg; lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil

Where it’s heard in the film: Jean Valjean rescues Fantine’s daughter Cosette from the Thenardiers.

Backstory: Director Tom Hooper requested the song from the musical’s original lyricist and composers after reading the passage in Victor Hugo’s novel. “We called the song ‘Suddenly’ because Valjean suddenly discovers the world is not all bad, it’s not about revenge and hatred,” explains Boublil.

Odds: A number of original tunes from Broadway big-screen adaptations have been recognized over the last decade, i.e. 2006 when three Dreamgirls songs made the category. However, the last one to win was 16 years ago: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “You Must Love Me” from Evita. Nonetheless, it’s always better to have the original songwriters on the case, which is what team Les Mis did correctly.

A Look Back At SAG Awards ‘I’m An Actor’ Speeches

This article published in the Jan. 2 issue of AwardsLine.

Here’s some of our favorite “I’m an Actor” speeches from SAG Awards shows over the years.


“My first memory of wanting to be an actor came when I saw my mother play the title role in Evita. I watched her die on stage and come back to life in time for the applause, and I thought, Hi-diddly-dee. My name is Anne Hathaway, and I’m an actor.”

“I performed my first scene ever when I was 12 years old in the 7th grade at Birmingham High School. I was very shy, and I had no idea what I was doing, so I just flung myself off the cliff and felt like I was falling. I’ve been falling ever since. I think that’s kind of what it is, informed falling. I’m Sally Field, and I’m an actor.”

“My favorite thing about acting is that it truly allows you to transform yourself into another person. I’m Johnny Depp, and I’m an actor.” [as delivered by Jane Krakowski]

“I’ve talked my way out of 11 fights. I’ve cried more this year than most women do in a lifetime. Wherever I go, I seek out a mirror, and when one’s not available, I’ll make due with a car window or a dark picture. I’m Will Arnett, and I’m an alcoholic [quickly corrects himself], actor!”

“On Jan. 15, 2009, a US Airways pilot named Chesley Sullenberger performed an exacting, perfect emergency landing into the icy cold waters of Hudson River. It’s a good thing I was not behind the controls of that plane, because I’m Steve Carell, and I’m an actor.”

“When I was waitressing right out of college, I went on my first television audition. The casting director told me to move to Europe because my looks would never make it on TV in America. I’m Julianna Margulies, and I’m proud to be an actor.”

“When I was a kid, I agonized about whether I wanted to be an actor when I grew up or an astronaut. And both of them have their advantages. Actors get to meet and work with the most beautiful women in the world, and astronauts get to spend long-duration space flights in pressure suits filled with their own urine. I’m Jon Cryer, and I’m an actor.”

Behind The Scenes On Boardwalk Empire

This story appeared in the Jan. 2 issue of AwardsLine.

Rusty-voiced, sweet-natured, a tin mask covering up his facial World War I wound, Richard Harrow, as played flawlessly by Jack Huston, is the type of vigilante one might find in a DC Comic book, warts and all. But in HBO’s 1920s epic Boardwalk Empire, he’s a supporting character that creator Terence Winter and his writers transformed from late gangster Jimmy Darmody’s trusted sharpshooter into a human being. For the bulk of this season, Harrow refrained from killing off any bad guys as he wooed a war veteran’s daughter and acted as the surrogate father to Darmody’s orphaned son, Tommy. “Richard knows how to kill. He doesn’t do it well; he does it great,” says Huston about Harrow, who even puts fear in lead Atlantic City kingpin Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) “I reminded Terry that I was getting an itchy finger, and he said, ‘Just wait.’ ”

Bobby Cannavale plays Gyp Rosetti, right, a vicious bloodthirsty gangster.
Bobby Cannavale plays Gyp Rosetti, right, a vicious bloodthirsty gangster.

And then the Timothy Van Patten-directed season 3 finale, “Margate Sands,” arrived. In a riveting swinging-camera four-minute gun ballet, Harrow rescues Tommy from his duplicitous grandmother Gillian Darmody’s (Gretchen Mol) whorehouse, which notorious gangster Gyp Rosetti has seized. The payoff: Just as Harrow fakes his surrender, he annihilates the hitman who has a gun to Tommy’s head. “Tim told me, ‘You’re going to be happy with the finale. It’s very Tarantino-esque,’ ” says Huston, who carried around 40 pounds of fake guns, earning cuts and bruises during the scene. “I was meant to shoot nine people, but they kept adding.”

The character of Harrow, from Huston’s nuanced acting to his fireworks finale, is just one example underscoring the cinematic huzzah that punctuated Boardwalk’s third season. So what made this season better than all the others? While the media has long drawn stylish similarities between The Sopranos creator David Chase and his protégé Winter, especially after Boardwalk’s abrupt season 2 finale in which Nucky kills Darmody, it’s clearly evident that Winter came into his own.

Boardwalk Empire“David (Chase) didn’t often engage in wish fulfillment for the audience. If it didn’t work for him for the storyline, he didn’t feel obligated to pay things off. I don’t necessarily feel obligated, but I enjoy setup and payoff,” explains Winter, who would sometimes encourage to payoff storylines on The Sopranos. “I knew Harrow going into the Artemis Club would be a great crowd-pleasing moment. That’s what I’m waiting to see all year is Harrow be the bad ass that we know him as and rescue Tommy. (In season 3), it’s all about that ride and the entertainment and the catharsis.”

Adds executive producer-director Van Patten: “We promised war at the end of episode 11 between Nucky and Rosetti. The last image is of Al Capone and his troops arriving (to help Nucky), and we felt that we had to deliver. I wanted (episode 12) to be part Sam Peckinpah, part Sam Fuller, part Sergio Leone, part Arthur Penn, while referencing Raoul Walsh’s films. When Nucky and (his brother) Eli are trapped in that lumberyard, it felt like a western.”

Nonetheless, one can see Chase’s influence throughout Boardwalk, and it’s that mixture that enables season 3 to rival the gangster and western genres to which it pays homage. Winter told Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr. 
in a spring AwardsLine interview that one of the takeaways from working with Chase was “dismissing the first five things that occur to you” in the writers’ room in order to keep the story fresh. Case in point: It would have also been a crowd-pleaser to see Nucky enlist Harrow’s help to mow down Rosetti’s gang. However, Harrow operated on his own accord. “That was certainly on the table, and we dismissed that for the very reason that you’d expect that to happen,” Winter says.

Likewise, starting season 3 a year later in the characters’ lives and glossing over season 2 cliffhangers were also nontraditional means of handling unraveled plot. “Starting in 1923 put the characters in a different place physically and psychologically, and this was way more challenging,” says Winter.

But the lifeblood of season 3 belongs to the über-villain Rosetti—a twisted, short-fused, perverted gangster with a fetish for S&M who has his eye on taking over Nucky’s Atlantic City bootlegging empire. Having played lovable lugs like Vince D’Angelo, the boyfriend of Will Truman on Will & Grace, Bobby Cannavale owned Rosetti’s ferociousness, outstripping such hothead turns as James Caan’s Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, and yes, even James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. “People told me that they covered their eyes when Gyp came on screen,” says Winter, adding, “Bobby never read for the role.”

Cannavale was one of the few Italian-American actors who Winter never had the chance to work with on The Sopranos, as their schedules never synced. After seeing Cannavale play a heavy, blue-collar type in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play The Mother**cker With the Hat, “It reminded me why I wanted to work with him,” says Winter. “In the play, he had veins popping out of his head. When you meet Bobby in person, he’s physically intimidating. He understands that predatory way that gangsters have to keep people off balance.”

Unlike the standard HBO villain, Rosetti lacks any redeemable qualities. Heck, in the opening sequence of the third season’s first episode, Rosetti bludgeons an old man to death with a tire iron after he helps him fix a flat, and then steals the guy’s dog. “We never start off with a cold opening like that, introducing a strange character, but we wanted to interject someone in the show that would distinguish it from last season,” says Van Patten.

The birthing of Rosetti by Winter and his team stemmed from the fact that as Prohibition progressed, the decade became darker. The average person began relying on bootleggers for their liquor, especially as their stockpiles ran dry. Competition and profit margins were greater, and the game got dirtier.

“As things got competitive, we needed to put Nucky under the most possible pressure. He needed a nemesis like Gyp. Nucky creates a monster in a subtle moment when he decides he’s not going to do business with him. One misstep with a guy like Gyp, and a mountain grows out of molehill,” Winter explains.

Boardwalk EmpireWith gangsters running around at a fever pitch, one would assume that executive producer Martin Scorsese had a heavy hand this season, however, “He isn’t involved in story,” says Van Patten. “He reads and notes the scripts, sees and notes the cuts. His notes are precision bombing: He identifies the problems right away, as he has an eye for these things.”

While Boardwalk has been a below-the-line juggernaut in terms of wins at the Emmys over the last two years—with directing wins for Scorsese’s pilot and Van Patten’s second-season finale “To the Lost”—the series has also rallied at SAG over the same frame, with back-to-back drama prizes for best ensemble and best actor for Buscemi. This awards season, both are eyeing their third charms in the two categories. The show won at the Golden Globes in its first year out, along with Buscemi, and both are nominated again this year. For the third year in a row, the Writers Guild recognized Boardwalk with a TV drama nom, but the show has only won once in the new series slot last year.

And if the last season of Boardwalk could be considered mind-blowing, season 4 promises to be even more unhinged as Boardwalk heads into 1924, the year that earned the decade’s moniker, “The Roaring ’20s.” It’s a time when fellow gangsters Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, and Charlie Luciano galvanize their reputations as kingpins, and Nucky goes underground to form his own gang. It would seem that Winter and his team’s M.O. is to outstrip the thrills of such gangster forefathers like The Untouchables, but that’s mere flattery, as Boardwalk’s rule of thumb for mastering the genre is quite simple.

“We pull out the stops, and sometimes it does take us three or four episodes to peel the onion,” says Van Patten, “But at the end of the day, we look at each other in the writers’ room and ask each other, ‘Is this entertaining?’ ”

Taylor Swift Plucks Heart Strings With Globe-Nommed Hunger Games Song

Who better to provide a voice to the well-received feature adaptation The Hunger Games than the generation’s most popular soulful vocalist, 23-year-old Taylor Swift? However, when Lionsgate executives and Oscar-winning singer-songwriter T-Bone Burnett approached Swift to pen an end-credits song, it wasn’t about the marriage of pop brands, rather it was her penchant for confessional folk ballads that caught their ear. Still, synergy doesn’t hurt. Last year, Swift’s album-sales headlines read like the boxoffice numbers of a record-breaking tentpole film: Her fourth album Red marked the second time in a debut week she sold over a million records, a feat no other female recording artist—not even Lady Gaga—can tout.

“They wanted the song to reflect what Appalachian music would sound like in 300 years, and they wanted me to write from Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence’s character) perspective,” says Swift of the Golden Globe-nominated tune. After watching exclusive clips from the apocalyptic thriller in Nashville, she promptly ripped through Suzanne Collins’ trilogy before teaming up with Burnett and the Civil Wars (Joy Williams and John Paul White). When the four gathered in a studio home that Burnett was working from, “It was just like lighting a match,” she says. “Joy suggested that we write about how Katniss wants to protect and comfort (the youngest Hunger Games contestant) Rue to the very end.” Coincidentally, Swift had been working on a song concept she was calling “Safe & Sound,” hence the tune’s title. Swift wrote the song on the back of her baby Taylor guitar (a brand unrelated to Swift), while the Civil Wars mapped out harmonies, an experience that she says was akin to “watching twins.”

“Throughout the course of writing ‘Safe & Sound,’ we discovered we were also writing about Katniss and her (best friend) Peeta, as well as her relationship with her (sister) Prim,” explains Swift. “The theme of protecting and comforting someone is so broad-reaching throughout the film.”

This is further evident in the song’s refrain, recalling the scene in which Rue dies in the forest before a crying Katniss: Just close your eyes/The sun is going down/You’ll be alright/No one can hurt you now/Come morning light/You and I’ll be safe and sound.

Swift dropped the song on Twitter just before Christmas 2011, three months prior to the Stateside release of Hunger Games. Within two days, the song sold 136,000 copies on iTunes before culminating a tally of 1.4 million last month, in addition to two Grammy nominations (best country duo/group performance, best song written for visual media) and, of course, its Golden Globes best original song nom. Unfortunately, the song was deemed ineligible by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences as it plays as a second end-credits track—a pity because the song, coupled with Swift’s ethereal, touching vocals, truly captures the film’s spirit.

Outside the film, “Safe & Sound” stands on its own with its guitar-stringed heart-wrenching lyrics about undying love against a wilderness setting. Should “Safe & Sound” softly bring to mind Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” that’s no coincidence.

“Stevie Nicks has inspired me in so many ways,” exclaims Swift, who spent time with the iconic artist a few years ago, “I’ll never forget the way she tells a story. There’s so much feeling in everything she does. No wonder that comes through in her songs.”

Q&A: Sacha Baron Cohen On Les Mis

While awards voters traditionally underestimate the merits of comedians, Sacha Baron Cohen is the best possible proof that a comedic actor can possess a wider range than his dramatic counterparts. Like his idol Peter Sellers, Cohen arrests stereotypes and authority figures through his iconic personalities (flamboyant Austrian fashionista Bruno Gehard; the blunt Kazakhstan journalist Borat Sagdiyev, and the fierce Middle Eastern totalitarian Admiral General Aladeen as featured in last summer’s comedy The Dictator). However, Cohen has a leg up on Sellers in that his alter-egos brilliantly cross the line, as he throws them into real-life clashes with celebrities and politicians, often exposing their prejudices and shortcomings. Equally balancing Cohen’s outrageous laugh facets is his ability to escape into serious roles, (read his turns as Signor Adolfo Pirelli the Barber in Tim Burton’s adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the station inspector in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo). This holiday season, Cohen continues to generate buzz in his second musical role following Sweeney Todd as the duplicitous innkeeper-cum-master of the house, Thenardier, in Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables—a part Cohen takes to another level with his own sense of humor. In 2007, Cohen received a best screenplay Oscar nomination for cowriting Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. This year, he shares an ensemble award SAG nomination for Les Misérables as well as a National Board of Review ensemble win.

AWARDSLINE: How did the role of Thenardier come to you? Was this a project you always wanted to be a part of?

SACHA BARON COHEN: Actually, I only have a history with Les Mis in that when I came out of university at age 20 or 21, I went through an open audition for the chorus in Les Mis—not even one of the named roles. And there were about 300 people who were lining up outside the Palace Theater in the West End, and I passed the first audition, which was singing, and then they had a group audition for dancing, and they taught a little routine. I had no idea how to learn choreographed steps, and so I just decided to freestyle and came to the actual audition. There were seven people doing perfectly choreographed steps and then me just doing some very bad breakdancing in the corner. I did not get the role. So, there is a history.

AWARDSLINE: You’ve also done some musical theater previous to this. You were in Fiddler on the Roof.

COHEN:At the University of Cambridge, I did Fiddler on the Roof and My Fair Lady, and obviously was in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd. I played Tevye in Fiddler and grew my first beard for that. And in My Fair Lady, I played Alfred Doolittle, which is not a million miles away from Les Mis in that you come on for a little bit, have a couple of nice songs, and then spend the rest of your time in the dressing room.

AWARDSLINE: Was there really this rigorous audition process for Les Mis where the actors had to go in for six weeks?

COHEN: Truth be told, it was slightly brief with me. I heard that Tom Hooper was interested in me for the part, and then I did actually audition. I had to sing—he made me sing a number of songs from Fiddler on the Roof. Even though he actually kind of sprang the audition on me; he came to my house and there’s a guy with him. I asked, “Who’s this guy?” And he basically was a pianist, and then the electric piano arrived, and then Tom made me sing “Master of the House” for him, which I thought terribly unfair because I hadn’t prepared for it at all and hadn’t really sung it since the age of 15 when I first saw it in the West End. It was the humiliation of having to sing a bunch of songs for Tom Hooper in my kitchen.

AWARDSLINE: What were some of the Fiddler songs you sang for him?

COHEN: He made me sing “If I Were a Rich Man,” which, funny enough, I auditioned with for Tim Burton, as well, because when I auditioned with Tim Burton, Stephen Sondheim had to approve all of the actors. Then Tom made me sing all of Thenardier’s songs from Les Mis. I did offer to sing Hugh Jackman’s songs, but he wasn’t interested.

AWARDSLINE: And what’s wonderful is that Tom really gave you room to be you in the role Thenardier.

COHEN: That’s one of his great strengths. I think he’s a fantastic director, but what you get with directors of that stature is there’s a lack of ego, which I also noticed with (Martin) Scorsese when I was doing Hugo. Tom and Scorsese are so confident in their own craft that they’re happy to sometimes give over the reins when it’s a comic number or when there’s a comic side to the piece. So Tom was very happy to listen to every idea and to try and work out something that was different to the stage show and would be unique but also something that could remain authentic to the whole character of the film. I mean what he was worried about was that the piece or two would stand out and would not blend in with the whole genre. So that’s not really worth the challenge. I’ve got to say (singing live during Les Mis) was one of the reasons that I got excited about the project because when I was in Sweeney Todd… when it came to singing my number Tim Burton wanted me to mime along to the track that I recorded a month beforehand. At that point (when I recorded it), I didn’t have a costume; I didn’t really have a fully-formed character, and I didn’t have an incredible set around me with 200 extras. So I pleaded with him to let me sing live because as an actor I need to respond to stuff that’s going on in the moment whether it’s the audience or the actor I’m playing opposite. Particularly jumping off Borat, I wanted to have the song feel authentic. It was a challenge because it was a traditional musical. So I finally convinced Burton to let me sing a couple of takes live and actually they were used. When I first read for the part of Thenardier, Hooper and I talked about (singing live). It’s an exciting idea—singing a musical live—because you can react to things in the moment, and it allows me in the movie to have little asides and throw a little bit of dialogue in between.

AWARDSLINE: I understand Tom Hooper would shoot a song as one long entire take.

COHEN: Yes. This is really challenging, particularly when it’s “Master of the House,” which has a lot of business in it. I mean the problem with these very long takes was that eventually it gets grating on the voice. After a month, I actually lost my voice. And I said to Hooper, and this is actually a testament to him, “Fine, I’ll just mime it. I’ve got the track of me singing, and I’ll just mime it.” And he said, “Absolutely not. It has to be sung live.” And so they shut down the movie. They shut it down for a week during which time I was forbidden from speaking. I was on voice rest. And they brought in Chris Martin’s vocal teacher,who’s the head of voice at the Royal Academy of Music, to train me up again in three days for the “Master of the House.” But when you see the first take of “Master of the House,” it sounds like I’m a drunk guy who’s got a croaky voice but that actually was me with a very croaky voice. Tom Hooper found himself with Helena Bonham Carter and a soft-voiced, stumbling English actor; it was like The King’s Speech all over again.

AWARDSLINE: You’ve mastered the docucomedy whereby you can be a character, interact with real people and elicit a reaction from them. As you became more popular with Borat and Bruno, are these types of films harder to pull off now? Are there places in the world you can still go where people don’t know who you are and pull a stunt off?

COHEN: I mean there probably are places, but the reality is you want to have—when you make a movie like that, you want to make sure that the people you’re interviewing are deserving targets. So you don’t just want to interview some doorman at a hotel; you want to interview the incredibly wealthy guests at the penthouse, high-ranking politicians or people who are threatening. The problem is it is definitely challenging, especially now with Twitter and Facebook. It’s very, very hard to get away with.

AWARDSLINE: Is this one of the reasons why you shifted gears with The Dictator, which was more fictional; still a character but placed in a fictional setting?

COHEN: I wanted the challenge of trying to make a really funny movie that was scripted, but also satirical. I did consider for a while having a Middle Eastern dictator character in the real world, which could have arguably been more satirical to see how people would have done anything for money, you know, which essentially they did with all of these Middle Eastern dictators. There’s a huge hotel in London all the studios use which was built by Colonel Gaddafi, and it’s down the road from the London School of Economics where he was given an honorary doctorate. So essentially these dictators were given carte blanche in any of the western countries that needed their money. It was tempting to take that character into the real world, but I wanted the challenge of creating a comedy script that had improvisation in it as well.

AWARDSLINE: This reminds me of diplomatic immunity whereby foreign ambassadors and their wives, particularly those at the United Nations, have this kind of untouchable privilege here in the states: If they ever shoplift in a store, they can never be prosecuted to the fullest extent of our laws.

COHEN:Yes, dictators certainly have that now. Look around London, and it’s seen as a haven for dictators. With this particular hotel I’m referring to, there are private rooms in the spa for Gaddafi’s children to enjoy themselves in any matter they see fit. What was interesting while making The Dictator were all these organizations that have to show respect to dictatorships, for example, the United Nations. We wanted to shoot a scene there, and they eventually refused us. We asked why, and they said, “Well, we represent many, many dictatorships, and we don’t want to upset them.” So, in the end, we had to re-create our own version of the United Nations. It was ridiculous, really. You know, they said the problem with our movie is that it’s antidictatorship.

AWARDSLINE: In terms of your future projects, you are preparing The Lesbian at Paramount Pictures about the Hong Kong billionaire who offered $65 million to any man who would marry his daughter.

COHEN: Yes, the project about Cecil Chao. I’m working on that at the moment. I’m actually writing a couple of things at the moment and deciding which one to get very excited about.

AWARDSLINE: I have to bring up what happened at the Oscars last year.

COHEN: I can already probably give you my answer before you finish your question.

AWARDSLINE: Was it a publicity stunt, or was it not a publicity stunt?

COHEN: In regards to…?

AWARDSLINE: Admiral General Aladeen appearing on the Oscar red carpet.

COHEN:Well, I mean, Ryan Seacrest was not in on it at all. He was told about an hour beforehand that he would get an interview with me, but he had no idea what was going to happen. He was very excited at the time. In regards to the rest of them, no, it was very real. The Academy did ban me from the awards, and I was. In fact the head of the Academy called up my agents and said if I was to turn up within a half a mile of the Academy he would have me arrested by 200 FBI agents. And then when I turned up as Aladeen, and finally they gave in, the police actually stopped me, surrounded the car, and decided that it was imperative that they search the car. I asked, “For what reason?” and they said, “Well, we’ve been told that you’re bringing in live ammunition into the Oscars.” And so, obviously inside the limo I had a few virgin guards and the urn. I was scared that he was going to go inside and find the urn and ask, “Why have you got Kim Jong-Il’s ashes in your car?” And then I luckily managed to slightly embarrass the cop because I said, “Listen, if you want to search the car, fine. You can strip-search me, and you can strip-search the girls.” And he looked at the girls, got embarrassed, and said, “No, you guys are fine.” You know, the whole thing was very real. With the urn, we asked ourselves, “How are we going to smuggle it into the Academy Awards?” So I decided to camouflage it as a vase. If you actually have a look in the back of one of the video shots, you can see the guy taking off the camouflage and taking away the flowers and turning the flowers into an urn.

AWARDSLINE: Heck, this is show business. It’s a new year, the Academy has a new president, ill will certainly has to have withered since last year’s scenario, no?

COHEN: Listen, I mean I’m a member of the Academy so, I think it’s an important institution. I think it encourages studios and individuals and filmmakers to make great films. Now if it wasn’t for the Academy and the Oscars, there would be less of an incentive to make movies that are not purely boxoffice hits. And in terms of ill will, I’m sure there are Academy members that would not want me back. But, no, I haven’t received anything negative at this time. At the time, they actually threatened Marty (Scorsese) and said that if he didn’t convince me to not turn up, that it would jeopardize the chances of Hugo winning, which is absurd. And by the way Marty responded, “Sacha does what he wants, and if you think I can control him, you’re wrong.”

AWARDSLINE: The sharp comedic and dramatic turns you’ve made between political/social comedies and auteur fare brings to mind Peter Sellers’ career. Is this a career path that you’ve planned?

COHEN: The reality is there’s no plan. I am incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to work with these directors. I remember, I was shocked when I first met Scorsese that he was even speaking to me, let alone I was in the same room with him. I remember we ended up having a meeting, and I thought it was going to be 15 minutes. We ended up spending three hours together, talking about the filmmaking process and just details of editing and writing. So I have been incredibly fortunate to be able to work with these directors, and for me it’s not really a plan each time I’m on a set with one of them. I think about what I can learn from them because I’m very aware that my filmmaking skills are very modest. And so with Marty, for example, I asked him very early on, “Is there any chance I could sit in the tent with you?” He has a little director tent where he watches his work. And he let me in, and for a few months I actually sat by his side and saw the master at work. If you’d told me when I was 20 that at one point I’d be sitting next to Scorsese for a few months and watch him direct I wouldn’t have believed it. Yes, these are incredible moments and there’s no plan. But if there’s an offer I can’t refuse, then I take it. I’ve only done four movies outside of my own: Les Mis, Sweeney, Hugo, and actually Talladega Nights.

AWARDSLINE: I read that you were originally cast in Django Unchained. I’ve got to imagine it was about scheduling in terms of not committing to it as a number of other actors were unable to for that very reason.

COHEN: It was. I was editing The Dictator, and we were very close to release, and Paramount wouldn’t push the date. I knew I’d have to jump straight from there into Les Mis, and it basically became a choice of either pulling out of Les Mis or pulling out of Django. I’m sure Django is an incredible movie, but it was essentially one scene.

AWARDSLINE: What was the role?

COHEN: It was a character by the name of Scotty who Leonardo DiCaprio’s character plays a poker game with. The stakes become Scotty’s slave girl, Broomhilda. [Ed. note: The final cut of Django Unchained doesn’t include the character Scotty, nor a poker game wagering Broomhilda.]

AWARDSLINE: You’re also getting ready to play Freddie Mercury.

COHEN: I am. We’re still working on the script actually. We want to get it right. There’s quite a lot of work on the script.

AWARDSLINE: Aside from what we already know about Freddie, was there anything you learned about him that many people don’t know?

COHEN: Was there anything? I mean, he was a series of contradictions. He was one of the most famous gay men, but he was also essentially married to a woman. He was one of the early celebrities, but he was also deeply private and protective of his privacy. And he was also one of the finest performers and extroverts that ever lived, but also deeply shy. So he’s a great guy to portray. For an actor, you want those contradictions, and they’re kind of a gift for any actor. I hope I’ll be able to do him justice.

Behind The Scenes On Django Unchained

This article appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of AwardsLine.

“I think she had to be in there for 20 minutes before I yelled action.”

What Quentin Tarantino is specifically referring to is the time that Kerry Washington spent in the hotbox—a hole in the ground on a plantation where slaves were sent when they tried to escape. It’s where Washington’s character Broomhilda is trapped when her husband, Django (Jamie Foxx), arrives at Candyland—the vast Southern estate owned by her master Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Her voice parched from screaming and her body weakened, Broomhilda doesn’t know that Django has come to rescue her with the help of bounty hunter-cum-dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).

Jamie Foxx, left, and Kerry Washington star in Quentin Tarantino's mashup western Django Unchained.
Jamie Foxx, left, and Kerry Washington star in Quentin Tarantino’s mashup western Django Unchained.

“Kerry is very game to make things as real as possible,” says Tarantino, who as Waltz points out, can often inspire actors with their characters’ back stories, “Leaving her in the box for 30 seconds and then yelling action wouldn’t work. Nor would sticking her in the box for hours. But 10 minutes in the box could feel like 30. The idea was for Kerry to become disoriented, lose track of time in there, and contemplate what eight hours in the box would feel like. She could yell or scream.”

“But there was a safe word,” adds Washington, “so that the crew knew when I was panicking as a person, and not as an actor. This is how a lot of the film went—taking the reality as far as we could.”

Welcome to Tarantino’s Antebellum South. But instead of the Jewish soldiers bashing in Nazi skulls of Inglourious Basterds, it’s southern slave Django slaying a slew of white devils to get to his bride who has been sold down the river.

We know that Tarantino is the master of cool. But after his boxoffice Oscar breakout Pulp Fiction ($214 million, seven Oscar noms, with an original screenplay win for Tarantino and Roger Avary), he hit a lull. Some of his cinematic homages were relegated to cult status: His double feature with Robert Rodriguez Grindhouse collapsed at $25 million stateside, and the blaxploitation film Jackie Brown made $40 million at the U.S. boxoffice.

What happened? His style hadn’t changed. Tarantino was still the same ultraviolent, cinema vérité absurdist guy, however, he struck a nerve with audiences with his own branded subgenre: The historical wish-fulfillment tale in which the oppressed exact revenge on their oppressors. Basterds minted more than $320 million worldwide; earned eight Oscar noms, including director and picture; and turned unknown Austrian star Waltz into a supporting actor Oscar winner. When news broke in April 2011 that Tarantino was prepping a southern tale much in the same fashion as Basterds, every studio and marquee actor threw their hats in the ring.

Christoph Waltz plays a dentist-cum-bounty hunter in Django Unchained.
Christoph Waltz plays a dentist-cum-bounty hunter in Django Unchained.

Basterds was something audiences didn’t know that they wanted, and that can be a cool thing—to have something that wasn’t articulated to them before,” assesses Tarantino. “They knew what other World War II movies were like and didn’t want to see the same old tired film again. The same (resonance) could follow through with Django.”

In the same way that Basterds was related to the 1978 Enzo G. Castellari film in title only, so is Django, in regards to the original Sergio Corbucci spaghetti western series (the original Django, actor Franco Nero, makes a cameo opposite Foxx in the film).

“I am only influenced by Corbucci’s oeuvre in terms of the bleak, pitiless, surrealistic west he got across. It wasn’t so much Django itself,” says Tarantino, “As the genre moved on; the name Django became synonymous with all spaghetti westerns. There wasn’t even  a character named Django in some of these movies.”

Even though Tarantino turns archetypes on their heads, quite often laced with humor—i.e. Django as the bounty hunter wears a green coat a la Little Joe’s get-up on TV’s Bonanza while a bunch of KKK men clownishly complain that they can’t see through their hoods—the protagonist’s bedrock rests on the life of pre-Civil War African-Americans. Approaching the severity of the material proved to be a grueling dramatic process for the cast.

Samuel L. Jackson, left, and Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained.
Samuel L. Jackson, left, and Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained.

“I don’t know how anyone lived like this in any real way. We barely made it through for nine months,” Washington explains about the emotional pain of shooting on the Evergreen Plantation outside of New Orleans. “It just added to the resonance of things that we were embodying and portraying these crimes against humanity; that this happened on this sacred ground. There was always this dance between reality and storytelling and the heartache of both.”

To ease the atmosphere during the plantation scenes, Tarantino played gospel music between takes. Nonetheless, the haunting spirits lingered. While preparing for a day’s shoot, Washington remembers trying to take her mind off of one scene by taking in the beautiful trees around her on the plantation grounds. Upon noticing one tree without moss, Washington learned that it was the hanging tree for slaves.

“There were nights when I would text Jamie Foxx at 4 a.m. and say, ‘If this goes on for any longer, I’m not going to make it,’ ” says Washington.

“When you see Leonardo build this eloquent evil character as Calvin Candie, you want to hear those words,” says Foxx about his costar’s racist character, who doles out a monologue on the phrenology of slaves. “Hearing those words, and you hear them enough, it became second hand because that’s how they talked back then. Django is the truest depiction of slavery.”

Partnering Up

Typically, an adult film with a true depiction of slavery, or World War II, might face an uphill battle getting to the big screen. However, Tarantino is in the fortunate position of being able to finish a script, give Harvey Weinstein a call, and the project is fast-tracked from there. A meeting at the director’s house follows, where his friends and the production crew relish a grand reading of his latest work. Sure, having a studio cofinancier such as Columbia Pictures on Django enables Tarantino to get bigger budgets, but the director attributes any higher costs on his films “to moviemaking becoming more expensive. Kill Bill had a huge canvas, but I wanted for nothing.”

Universal coproduced and cofinanced half of Basterds’ $70 million budget, in addition to handling foreign, where they catapulted the film’s overseas boxoffice to $200 million-plus. But despite the studio’s passionate presentation for Django, as reported by Deadline Hollywood, the Weinstein Co. and the producers opted to go with Sony.

“Something spoke to everybody in the room when we met with Sony,” says producer Pilar Savone, who has worked with Tarantino in various capacities across five films since Jackie Brown. Despite Tarantino’s early talks with Will Smith for the role of Django, “partnering with Sony had nothing to do with the studio’s connection to Will Smith,” says Django’s second producer Stacey Sher who first produced with Tarantino on Pulp Fiction.

What is apparent is that Sony has always been passionate about being in business with Tarantino. “I remember talking to Amy Pascal at Sony about Basterds. I told her, ‘I want this movie to be a hit. I don’t want you to do this movie because it’s cool to work with me or for just the cache,’ ” says the director. “And her response to me was, ‘We really want to work with you, and we think this will be your most commercial movie.’ And the same thing with Django, so we’ll see.”

Roles To Kill For

When Smith didn’t commit to the material, Tarantino turned to six other candidates including Idris Elba, Chris Tucker, Terrence Howard, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Tyrese Gibson before settling on Foxx, who won the director over with his Texan roots, cowboy image, and his tolerance of racial issues in the current day South (Foxx even used his own mare Cheetah as his horse Tony). Casting Django was the opposite experience Tarantino faced on Basterds: If he hadn’t found Christoph Waltz to play the multilingual Col. Hans Landa, the director would have been unable to make the movie.

“Quentin was clear with every studio we met with that he wrote the role with no actor in mind. If they did the movie with him, he wasn’t going to cast one actor over another,” says producer Reginald Hudlin who Tarantino first discussed the Django concept with 15 years ago.

“A studio had to be prepared to make the film with an unknown,” adds Sher.

Despite the relentless amount of ink Django received in its casting of Kevin Costner, Anthony LaPaglia, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Sacha Baron Cohen, these actors’ inability to commit largely boiled down to scheduling conflicts as Django shot across several locales including New Orleans; Jackson, WY; Mammoth Mountain, CA; Big Sky Studios in Simi Valley, CA; and the Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita, CA. Costner was originally slotted to play Ace Woody, a Mandingo trainer at Candyland, while Cohen was to play a poker player Scotty who loses his slave Broomhilda to Candie. Initially, Jonah Hill was unable to commit, however, his schedule opened up, and he makes a cameo as one of Big Daddy’s (Don Johnson) KKK men.

“We had huge movie stars wanting to do day-player parts,” says Sher, “These actors are typically number one on the call sheet, so everyone schedules around them. But because of everyone else’s schedule and because of snow and weather, we couldn’t accommodate everyone.”

While Django was overlooked by the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Hollywood Foreign Press embraced DiCaprio’s performance with a supporting actor nod along with Christoph Waltz as well as three other noms for best drama, director, and screenplay.

And with voter audiences having as much fun at Django as they did with Basterds, all this steam begs the question, does Tarantino has a sequel in mind?

“After shooting for nine months and editing for 12 weeks and going on this Mount Everest press tour, I can’t imagine going back,” exclaims Tarantino. “But there’s a story to be told there: Django and Broomhilda still have to get out of the south.”

Q&A: Wes Anderson On Moonrise Kingdom

This article appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of AwardsLine.

The deadpan, rhythmic pop-and-snap banter. The dysfunctional parents and rebellious teens. And that classical-funk soundtrack played against those doll-house sets. These are some of director Wes Anderson’s stylistic hallmarks, idiosyncrasies that point to the cinematic evolution of absurdist theater. “I certainly have often thought of Harold Pinter,” says the Houston, TX, native about his muses, which have also included J.D. Salinger and François Truffaut. “(Pinter’s) a writer who has always inspired me. Samuel Beckett maybe in a more distant way, but Beckett through Pinter is one. The sparseness and abstractness of Pinter has always been a real inspiration for me.”

But while a number of absurdists maintained cynical views toward humanity, Anderson couldn’t be more optimistic. No more is this apparent in his Cannes Film Festival-launched summer arthouse hit Moonrise Kingdom, which has earned $65 million worldwide. The tale about two lost, romantic adolescent souls whose lives are more together than their parents has charmed critics since its bow, and its momentum has continued to a Gotham Award best film win and five Indie Spirit nominations including feature, director, and screenplay.

AWARDSLINE: What was the genesis of this project?

WES ANDERSON: It was some years ago, and I wanted to make a story about my memory of falling in love at age 11, but also my memory of the fantasy that went with it: The desire for something bigger to happen and the desire to be living a fantasy life, which was a strong feeling for me at that age. Moonrise Kingdom is autobiographical in the sense that it’s very close to the experience that I envisioned for myself when I was the age of those characters. All of my films are filled with personal details, and a lot of those personal details are where the emotional connection comes into it.

AWARDSLINE: Is it easier for you to launch a production nowadays? Do you simply make a phone call to producers Scott Rudin and Steven Rales?

ANDERSON: Even if you have people like Steven and Scott supporting you, one still has to figure out the foreign-sales numbers and other factors, like who is in your cast and how much are we getting for various territories, which helps you figure out a reasonable budget number. While that’s happening, there’s another kind of preparation that needs to be done and that I like to do: There’s a thorough, rigid preparation for my movies. Plus, the biggest thing with Moonrise Kingdom, once there was a script: Who are the actors for these two kids? Because if we can’t find them, we don’t have a movie. So we set aside time to search.

AWARDSLINE: Expound on your filmmaking relationship with Scott Rudin.

ANDERSON: My hunch is that Scott does something different on every movie he works on, and he has very different relationships with moviemakers. On some movies he’s saying (to a director), “Here’s a book you have to do” and bringing the material. And on some movies, he is on the set every day giving feedback. On my movies, his role has been very consistent over the years. He’s my producer-ial adviser—he’s my key adviser along with Steven Rales—and Scott is a great script reader and analyst. He has a very good feeling for storytelling. The main thing he gives me is a bunch of criticism that I may or may not use and that may aggravate me, but always leaves me with something to do next. The best thing you can ask for is that your conversation with your collaborator continually results in making a project better. He’s also important when it comes to releasing a movie and how we’re going to handle it.

AWARDSLINE: Every awards season, you seem to be in the conversation. What’s your takeaway on the season?

ANDERSON: It’s great to get (Oscar) nominations; I have not gotten many. I’m not one of those guys (that) if you go to my office, you find a staggering number of trophies on the shelf. We got one for Darjeeling Limited at the Venice Film Festival called the Leoncino d’Oro. At first we thought we won the Golden Lion, but slowly realized, “Wait a second, this means the Lion Cub.” It turned out it’s an award given by school children in Venice. We took that home, and it was really small. That same year, we also got an award from the American Association of Retired Persons as their favorite film of the year, which was strange. We were honored by the youngest Italians and older Americans. I always find something like this very moving and a surprise.

AWARDSLINE: It goes without saying that your filmmaking style stands out. Would you ever change it up?

ANDERSON: What makes my movies like my other movies—all those different things I do that prompt someone to say, “Well, I think we know who did this one”—those things are like my handwriting to me. What I’m focusing on (in each movie) are those things that are different and that I’ve never tried before. I’m always directing a movie where I wrote a script with a collaborator. It’s something that I invented and feels automatic and natural to do in my handwriting. If I was adapting Dashiell Hammett, I might find myself working in ways that are less recognizable as my thing. I’m not positive about that. But at some point along the way, I don’t want to force myself to make my movies unlike my other ones. Instead, I want to force myself to make them as entertaining, personal, and moving as I can make them.

Q&A: Philip Seymour Hoffman on The Master

This article appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of AwardsLine.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is a theatrical director, a film producer, and a board member of the Labyrinth Theater Company. But above all, he’s an actor, and a relentlessly inquisitive one. Much like the cult leader, Lancaster Dodd,  he plays in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Hoffman is continually deconstructing flawed souls on the stage and screen: An accused pedophiliac priest (Doubt), the suicidal Willy Loman (Broadway’s Death of a Salesman), and Truman Capote (Capote) are among the many. Meryl Streep once told the New York Times about her Doubt costar: “One of the most important keys to acting is curiosity. I am curious to the point of being nosy, and I think Philip is the same. What that means is you want to devour lives. You’re eager to put on their shoes and wear their clothes and have them become a part of you. All people contain mystery, and when you act, you want to plumb that mystery until everything is known to you.” In The Master, Hoffman imbues the puzzling depths of his guru with a warm, paternal nuance while exposing Dodd’s violent, drunken underbelly. Of utmost importance for Hoffman was syncing with the dramatic rhythms of Joaquin Phoenix’s delinquent Freddie Quell, who is not only his protégé, but his doppelganger as well.

AWARDSLINE: How did Paul prepare you for the role?

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: It doesn’t work that way, where Paul prepares you. He’s a writer, so he’s writing all the time. The screenplay was an amalgamation of many things he was writing through the years and then eventually, he had a screenplay. He sent it to me four years out from shooting it. I was part of a development process with him of the story and the character. He had a plan and knew what he was going to do, but I was the guy he was bouncing it off of for a while because I was going to play Lancaster. So that’s how I prepared for the part, talking about and ruminating about it. It was a journey we both took together; it’s just that his job was a lot bigger than mine.

AWARDSLINE: How did Lancaster Dodd change between drafts? Because when we meet him and Freddie, they’re at turning points in their lives.

HOFFMAN: The character didn’t change so much, it was more what to put in, what to take out, what to concentrate on. Early on in the development, these two men always had a relationship where they were polar opposites but mirror images of each other. That was something that was making itself known, and there was a love story in that. That the idea—that the turning points in your life are so profound; they mean so much that they’re almost not real. They become these memories or dreams when something is so epic in your life. Or a person you met that’s changed your life so much, you don’t see them anymore. They become mythical. So if any changes happened, it happened inside that paradigm. Those were the themes. And then what was buttressing all of this was the venue which was the early ’50s; based on a Scientology-like movement, based on an L. Ron Hubbard kind of guy from that time. Anytime we got too far away from the core relationship of these two men, and their journey and what they were going to do to each other, and how they were ultimately going to reveal each other—which is the most profound thing—it was no good. The more detailed we were about the movement, the script got away from itself.

AWARDSLINE: How does Paul work with his actors? Does he know exactly what he wants, or does he give you the breadth to do what you want?

HOFFMAN: It’s very clear that he knows what he wants. You see his movies and the details in his movies are astounding, and that’s good for us. You know you’re being taken care of as an actor because the detail around you is so great. He wants the actor to do their job. He has a real respect for actors. If someone can act well, that means a lot to Paul. He holds that very high, and he doesn’t want to get in the way of that. He only says what he feels he needs to say, but ultimately he has said everything before we start shooting. He’s very good at casting. He has an energy about him on set. No, he’s not a micromanager when it comes to the acting. I think the one thing about Paul is that he’s not predictable. The only thing that’s predictable is don’t try to predict him. He might shoot a scene that you thought would take forever, and it goes quick. Then there’s a scene that you thought was small, and he shoots for two days. He’s going to go where the bigger stuff is happening.

AWARDSLINE: The audience reaction to The Master has been divided. Why is that?

HOFFMAN: I really don’t know, to be honest. I think it’s divided a lot of critics.This one really baffles me, because I think the movie is full of emotion and feeling from beginning to end, like Paul always is. I don’t know how you watch the movie and feel distant and cold, as opposed to those who are taken away with it. It’s all heart and primal, gut feeling. It’s all need, love, aching, and craving from the beginning to the end. People have a lot of opinions about the movement: “Is it based on Scientology?” Or people have an opinion about the characters or how Joaquin is as a person. People project all over this more than any film I’ve ever done. (Laughs.) I hear people say things, and I’m like, “Wow! That’s not even something that crossed my mind in making this movie!” I think that’s what it comes down to: The movie allows you to project on it. There’s stuff going on in The Master that one reacts to, that one distances themselves from. I think people take themselves out of it, because there’s something about the movie they don’t want to be involved with. That’s my gut feeling.