Emmys Q&A: Vera Farmiga

This story appeared in the June 5 issue of AwardsLine.

Vera Farmiga admits she was skeptical when she first heard about Bates Motel, the series that serves as a modern-day prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. But playing a character who was merely an idea in the original source material has proven to be the right role at the right time for her. The Oscar-nominated actress is almost protective in describing Norma as the parent of a mentally ill child, choosing to see the single mother as sympathetic. While the A&E series has been picked up for a second season, Farmiga also will star in July’s The Conjuring, in which she plays a paranormal investigator.

When Bates Motel came to you, were you looking for a TV project specifically?
I think I was looking for a career tweak. I have so many other interests in life, and no role is more challenging, rewarding and inspiring than my real-life role as a mom and a wife, so I pretty much just look at the most remunerative offers these days. (Laughs.) But seriously, if I’m going to step away for 18 hours a day, there better be some sort of a paycheck or spiritual salary being offered. And Bates Motel surprised me. (The role) made me reflect so deeply on the love I feel for my children. I was craving a deeper level of, I don’t know, virtuosity. The writers presented me with this deeper level of sophistication, the creation of Norma, and I pounced on the opportunity. Also, I was craving all that cable serial television has to offer, which is the risk and the wackiness, the unorthodox.

Did you have any misgivings about tackling such an iconic film from an iconic director?
The purist in me was really suspicious. I love that film, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t kind of turned off by the interdependence to Psycho. Upon reading it, I think setting it in the present really liberated it from the confines of the original. And after all, my character is a corpse; she’s a notion. The challenge is portraying her as an individual, rather than this caricature of an evil mother looming over Norman’s superego. In many ways, what I’ve been hired to do by (executive producers) Kerry (Ehrin) and Carlton (Cuse) is to be that criminal defense attorney, to dispute her image as that eternal narcissist who created that emotional damage and harmed her child. Instead, I want to represent a woman who has genuine empathy and who has an unlimited capacity for giving her child unconditional love.

Is it difficult to strike that balance between her being slightly off-kilter and seeming genuinely maternal?
I choose to see her as always being strong, brave, tough, resilient and passionate. Yes, she’s troubled and wrong—and just errant at times—but I only doubt her fundamental morality, like, 1 percent of the time. There are websites that I continually reference for inspiration, and I cannot help but approach this with enormous compassion. There’s no parent that can utter the words “My child has a mental illness” without their spirit completely imploding. There are no clear steps that any parent can take to make their mentally dysfunctional child healthier. But it’s an astounding character setting in that respect.

Now that the show has been renewed for a second season, where do you see that relationship with Norman going?
Other than downstairs in a root cellar? (Laughs.) It’s the great American tragedy, and we know where that story inevitably leads. And it’s grisly. It’s grim. We know that Norman’s going to become some sort of version of the guy in Psycho, and that Norma’s going to become some sort of version of that skeleton with the updo, but how are we going to get there? For me to answer that question, I’d have to divulge a major plot point. It’s like Chopin. It begins and it ends with dissonances, but in between I want to strike all those beautiful chords that make the story so complex.

You directed your first feature film, Higher Ground, last year. Do you have plans to direct again?
I was just asked by Carlton if I wanted to direct an episode, and with a 2- and a 4-year-old, I can’t. I just don’t have the time. To be honest, I still am trying to grasp the tone of Bates. It’s a wonderful thing, and I’m really enjoying it, but I feel like I’m on some rough seas because the tone of this show switches like the wind. It’s only been 10 episodes, so I am still getting to know my character. As far as directing, I do love it. I just haven’t found that story. I’m only comfortable working in the independent film arena for a very small budget where I have creative control and I can put my stamp on it.

You’re turning 40 this year. What do you see that meaning for you as an actress?
Do I care that my birthday cake will look like a small forest fire this August? No. If anyone else is concerned, they can go eff themselves. I transitioned out of youth and beauty roles before my career ever began. The kinds of roles I gravitate toward have become more abundant with age and wrinkles. I’m happier than ever; I’m older than ever.

Rule Changes And A Theatrical Program Help Shorts Find A Bigger Audience

Although short films have been a part of the Oscars since 1931, the live-action, animation, and documentary shorts categories are getting more time in the spotlight than ever before. Voting on the winners in each category will be open to the entire Academy membership for the first time this year, and the Academy is sending DVDs of the nominees to every member—two changes that Jon Bloom, who chairs the short films and feature animation branch, says were important to the executive committee.

“It is, for us, a bit of an experiment,” Bloom explains. “Everything within the Academy about the awards is a work in progress from the standpoint that we’re all always trying to make things better.”

Nevertheless, it’s all about visibility when making voters and viewers take notice of these small yet powerful categories. And Bloom points to the theatrical and video-on-demand program, Oscar Nominated Short Films 2013, that DirecTV’s ShortsHD short-movie channel began offering to consumers eight years ago as helping elevate the profile of short films.

Adam and Dog is about the bond between people and canines.
Adam and Dog is about the bond between people and canines.

“The huge breakthrough was to think of the shorts as a collection, meaning being feature length and being available in a way that fits,” Bloom says of the program, which packages each category of film into a theatrical, iTunes, and VOD presentation. “By having the Academy’s seal of approval on a handful of shorts that are being touted as special, then having audiences respond to those, has been very gratifying for us.”

It has also been a relatively successful venture for ShortsHD, its distribution partner Magnolia Films, and the nominated filmmakers. Theatrical receipts have increased 800% since the program’s 2005 debut, and 2012’s package ranked in the top 50 grossing independent releases, earning $1.7 million nationwide.

“Last year, we made a 5% return on the release. We consider it marketing, rather than something we’re trying to make money on,” ShortsHD CEO Carter Pilcher says, adding that each nominated filmmaker receives a $5,000 flat-fee advance. “After we recover the costs of the release—we work very hard not to make them very expensive—we then do a 50/50 split on all the receipts.”

(The documentary shorts are part of the doc branch, and four of the five nominees are owned by HBO, so ShortsHD pays a fee for the right to include them in the release.)

A man gets a second chance at life through the help of an odd collector.
A man gets a second chance at life through the help of an odd collector.

Making short films more accessible has increased Oscar submissions in the categories, as well. “The numbers are not staggering when you look at a Sundance that’s getting something like 7,500 shorts submitted to them,” Bloom says. “But this year, we had 120 live-action and 55 animated shorts. For us, that was a record number in those two categories. It’s partly the digital explosion that’s making tools and opportunities more plentiful and more affordable.”

They’ve have also become an appealing alternative for international filmmakers looking for Academy validation, according to London-based Pilcher, who says this year’s rule changes are “one of the best things the Academy has done.”

“We’re teaching them slowly that the other route to an Oscar for a national film is short film,” Pilcher says, adding that live-action and animation shorts Oscars are generally won by foreign filmmakers. “Countries find it very difficult to compete except in the foreign-language film category, but it’s an enormous political gunfight to decide which film of theirs will be the one to go to the Oscars.”

Although the Oscars are watched less attentively east of France, anytime a local filmmaker gets a nomination, it’s cause for national celebration, says Pilcher, pointing to Belgian nominee Tom Van Avermaet, who directed the live-action Death of a Shadow. “They’re sending over TV crews. It has huge national interest suddenly. All of Belgium will be paying attention to this particular category,” Pilcher says.

A hair salon gives free beauty treatments to women undergoing chemotherapy in Mondays at Racine.
A hair salon gives free beauty treatments to women undergoing chemotherapy in Mondays at Racine.

Receiving a nomination means a lot to filmmakers around the world, but a win can be career-changing, particularly for those who are already toiling in the trenches of Hollywood. For example, Chris Wedge’s 1999 win for Bunny made the industry take notice of the animation house he founded, Blue Sky, which ultimately partnered with Fox on the Ice Age movies. And Brave director Mark Andrews was nominated for his animated short One Man Band in 2006, no doubt raising his profile in Pixar.

Whatever additional changes come to the categories, they will be about bringing attention to an artform that deserves to be seen. “In many ways, the shorts categories are the purest and most passionate of any of the Oscar categories because these are not big commercial projects. They’re labors of love,” Bloom explains. “We don’t think we’re pulling the train. We know that people are most interested in the features and in the glitzy stuff. But we’ve gained a tremendous amount of traction with the public in terms of excitement in the category, and not just from people who aspire to make a short and win an Oscar.”



Nominees: Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine

A 15-year-old homeless undocumented immigrant refuses to let her circumstances crush her dream of being an artist.

Kings Point

Nominees: Sari Gilman and Jedd Wider

Five seniors living in an American retirement resort grapple with themes of self-reliance, community, and aging.

Mondays at Racine

Nominees: Cynthia Wade and Robin Honan

On the third Monday of every month, two sisters open their hair salon to women undergoing chemotherapy for free beauty services and camaraderie.

Open Heart

Nominees: Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern

Eight Rwandan children take a long journey without their families to have heart-valve surgery to repair their rheumatic heart disease.


Nominees: Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill

A portrait of people called canners who survive in New York City by collecting bottles and cans and redeem them for cash.


Adam and Dog

Nominee: Minkyu Lee

A story that explores the relationship between man and dog from the perspective of the canine who forms a bond with Adam in the Garden of Eden.

Fresh Guacamole

Nominee: Adam Pesapane (PES)

The avocado is a hand grenade and the lime is a golf ball in this stop-motion-animated two-minute demonstration on how to turn everyday objects into guacamole.

Head Over Heels

Nominees: Timothy Reckart and Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly

A married couple live separate but parallel lives: She lives on the ceiling and he lives on the floor. When the husband tries to rekindle the spark, neither spouse can agree on how to fix their relationship.

Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare

Nominee: David Silverman

When Maggie gets dropped off at a new daycare and gets paired with the average kids, she spends the day trying to save a vulnerable cocoon from a classmate that likes to smash butterflies.


Nominee: John Kahrs

A chance meeting on the train platform leaves a lonely young man searching for the woman with whom he crossed paths.

Live Action


Nominees: Bryan Buckley and Mino Jarjoura

An all-Somali-refugee cast brings to life the story of a boy who must choose between the life of a pirate and earning an honest living as a fisherman.

Buzkashi Boys

Nominees: Sam French and Ariel Nasr

Set against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s brutal game of horse polo, Buzkashi, this coming-of-age story follows two best friends as they progress to manhood in a wartorn country.


Nominee: Shawn Christensen

A man gets a call from his sister asking him to care for his 9-year-old niece.

Death of a Shadow

Nominees: Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele

A soldier who died in World War I finds that a strange collector has imprisoned his shadow but gives him a new chance at life.


Nominee: Yan England

A concert pianist’s life is thrown into disarray when the love of his life disappears.

Q&A: Walter Parkes On Flight

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

When Walter Parkes and his wife and partner Laurie MacDonald read the first 40 pages of John Gatins’ script for Flight in 2006, the adult drama about a substance-abusing airline pilot piqued their interest. The dark, character-driven story hearkened back to the type of films the major studios used to make on a regular basis. Neither Parkes nor MacDonald envisioned a high-wattage actor like Denzel Washington taking on the role—not only was Washington way out of the price range of a film that needed to be made on a modest budget, their main character worked in a field with few African-American pilots. Nevertheless, once the script made its way to Washington’s agent, the late Ed Limato, the actor read it and was hooked, according to Parkes. “The excellence of a project is no longer enough to get it made: It’s a combination of the quality of the material, the quality of the people making it, and, honestly, the financial circumstance under which the movie is made,” says Parkes, who points out that Washington’s enthusiasm (and, well, severe price cut) helped push Flight to the finish line. Parkes recently spoke with AwardsLine about how it all came together.

AWARDSLINE: Hindsight says that Flight was a great project to take on, but did doing a midrange-budget adult drama give you pause when it first came across your desk?

PARKES: It’s been so long that the business was slightly different then. We first got involved with the project in 2006. John Gatins sent us 40 pages, the only 40 pages he’d written of the project, which only really took us to the crash and the immediate aftermath. While it wasn’t exactly clear where the movie was going, the quality of the writing and the strength of that premise were enticing enough that we felt that, if the script was completed correctly, it would attract terrific elements. And at the end of the day, that is necessary to get a movie like that made. We’re talking 2006, before the (financial crisis) and the way it affected Hollywood. You know, there were many independent labels then—Paramount Vantage would have been a good place for this—but over the course of the development, they pretty much stopped being in business, as did many of the specialty labels of other studios. All that meant was that it was less of a sure bet that the project would get made, regardless of the quality of the script. It really put it upon us to meet certain other criteria—mainly, get really amazing people to do it for very little money. (Laughs.)

AWARDSLINE: So how did you get those amazing people to participate?

PARKES: I wish we could take credit for a lot of it, and we really can’t. Sometimes your job is to keep a project afloat and in the consciousness of the studio, long enough for the right elements to become attached. We worked with John for the better part of 2006 and 2007, and there was a draft, a good draft. There had been conversations with different actors and certain actors chasing it, but there wasn’t the kind of explosive combination that would ignite it as a movie to be made. That really happened because Denzel Washington’s agent, (the late) Ed Limato, had read it and took it upon himself to call me and Laurie and say, “This would be extraordinary for Denzel.” We said, “Great, if he’d be interested…” And about six weeks later, I got another call from Ed saying Denzel read it and he loves it, and he’d love to sit down and talk. So Laurie and I flew to New York, and we had lunch with Denzel. We sat down and Denzel said, “Well, I’m in.” And I said, “Denzel, we don’t really have a director yet.” And he said, “We’ll get a great director.” And I said, “The studio hasn’t said that they’re making the movie,” and he said, “I understand.” And I said, “Denzel, it’s not that kind of movie where everybody’s going to get paid their full rate,” and he said, “It’s a great role, though; it’s a great movie. Let’s see if it can get done.” But still we went through probably a good year having different conversations with different directors. There was a moment there where John Gatins himself was being considered as the director, and Denzel was open to it, but I think for that role he felt that he needed a more experienced hand behind the camera. But it was all done in the very positive way of, “How can we make this work?” I had never thought that Bob would do this small of a movie, (but) it suddenly began to make sense because he’s a pilot, and he was inspired by the screenplay. Once that happened, it felt like we were finally going to make the movie. Even so, there were still fairly stringent financial circumstances that had to be met in order for the movie to be officially greenlit. But, luckily, a director as masterful and experienced as Bob can make a movie like Flight for the price that we made it for.

AWARDSLINE: Did you go in knowing that this needed to be in that $30 million dollar range long before anybody was attached?

PARKES: It’s not our first time at the rodeo. It was not a conventionally commercial project, so the studio would only feel comfortable if we spent “x” on it. It’s not a bad way of approaching interesting and unique material, which was an approach we used at DreamWorks: Use your professional experience to make a best guess (about) a break-even scenario and see if the movie could be made properly under this financial circumstance. Then if you exceed (expectations), the movie is wildly profitable and successful for everybody involved.

AWARDSLINE: The film also walks a careful line in tone with having a somewhat unlikable protagonist. Did you have a lot of discussions with John Gatins about maintaining that balance?

PARKES: There’s an aspect of the character of Whip as portrayed by Denzel that was absolutely on the page: He was charming; he was high functioning; and he had, even on the page, the kind of competence and swagger that we look to in our heroes. So the fact that all of that in a person that was self-destructive, selfish, and teetering out of control just made it more interesting. We were even less concerned once Denzel was cast, because Denzel has pure charisma—no matter how dark he goes, as proven by Training Day, somehow the audience never loses connection with him. I also don’t think I have ever seen him portray fear like this, portray a man who is much smaller than his circumstances. There’s a scene where we’re inside the big meeting with Carr, the owner of the airline, and they’re all talking about, “Is he going to jail?” Through the glass, you can see Denzel, and his knees are together, and he’s in this suit, and his head is frozen down on a magazine that he’s turning the pages of. It’s what you do when just don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing. That kind of vulnerability is just extraordinary.

Q&A: Kathleen Kennedy On Lincoln

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

Kathleen Kennedy has worked with Steven Spielberg for more than 30 years, producing boxoffice successes and critical hits in equal measure. But she says that in all that time, one biographical topic came up consistently in their development discussions: “The subject of Lincoln was something that always fascinated both of us,” she says, noting that their current release took 13 years and multiple iterations to make it to theaters. “We were both really surprised that there hadn’t been more done in cinema (on Lincoln) over the years.” With a script from Tony Kushner, their complex—and occasionally humorous—portrayal of the 16th president’s efforts to pass the 13th amendment in the months before his assassination has already hit $100 million domestically and earned seven Golden Globe nominations. Kennedy recently spoke with AwardsLine about Lincoln’s languid path to production and her new role as president of LucasFilm.

AWARDSLINE: Every film has its own set of rules, but what consistently surprises you or keeps you interested when you’re starting a new project?

KATHLEEN KENNEDY: My tastes tend to be eclectic, so if I’m working on something that’s a small budget where the challenge is in all the nuances of trying to literally get it made, that presents its own set of challenges; if I’m making a big effects-driven studio picture, then it’s really more of managing all the moving parts. For something like Lincoln, we knew that this was going to be a difficult movie to get made, even if Steven Spielberg was directing it. And as you can see on the screen, we had many different partners just in trying to get the movie financed.

AWARDSLINE: Can you explain how that all came together?

KENNEDY: In this day and age, you say that you’re doing a movie about Abraham Lincoln, and nobody necessarily sees the opportunity for making lots of money—it’s not like doing Jurassic Park. So that’s something we knew going in, and we began to explore the options of who might step in and share the risk of making the film. It ended up taking almost a year before we put together the necessary partners. Stacey Snider was very involved at DreamWorks in really pulling most of that together while we were making War Horse. And when we came back, we went immediately into prepping Lincoln. I had already had many conversations with everybody in Virginia about being able to use the government buildings in Richmond while they were out of session. That, I knew early on, was going to dictate our shooting schedule. That gave us a goal in terms of knowing when we had to have the financial partners in place.

AWARDSLINE: Was there ever any other actor during this 13-year process of getting Lincoln made that you considered for the title role?

KENNEDY: It’s been in the press that we had conversations with Liam Neeson—this is after Daniel (Day-Lewis) had turned the movie down the first time. And once Tony (Kushner) wrote the script, and Daniel had a chance to read that draft, that’s when he turned around and committed to the project. But the only serious conversation we had with any other actor was with Liam.

AWARDSLINE: A lot has been written about Steven’s almost Method approach to working with the actors on set. Can you talk a little bit about that aspect?

KENNEDY: What was really going on was that Steven recognized very early that this was going to be a movie where it was all about what was going on in front of the camera. It was a movie that was focused predominantly on performances. He didn’t want an environment where there was a lot of chit-chat and conversations going on about what was happening behind the camera or just the kind of socializing that tends to go on when you’ve got a lot of down time. And this was a movie where there was virtually no downtime. There was always focused discussion on what was going on within the scene and within the performances, and conversations with the actors because we have in excess of 149 speaking parts (with) fairly complicated wardrobe and hair and makeup. Steven wanted to know as soon as the actors were ready and on the set, (so) he would be ready to start shooting and take full advantage of the time he had. What’s really interesting about any movie I’ve done with Steven (is) we usually adopt a kind of attitude depending on what the movie is. The closest experience I’ve had was working with Clint Eastwood. I’ve made a couple of movies with Clint, and he runs a set in a similar way. In large part, that comes from the fact that he is an actor, and it’s always the most important thing to Clint that when the actor arrives on the set, things are immediately quiet, and the focus turns to those performances. And that’s exactly what Steven did on this set.

AWARDSLINE: You’re stepping into the role of president of LucasFilm at a time when it’s being acquired by Disney. How will that affect your producing duties? You have a lot of work on your plate.

KENNEDY: (Laughs.) Yeah, it’s a lot on my plate, but it’s been fantastic. I consider it such an honor that George (Lucas) came to me after all these years and asked me if I would take over the company and ensure that his legacy continued. There’s going to be a lot that looks really fun and interesting, and it will still utilize many of the skills that I use as a producer. I don’t envision that a lot will change that dramatically. Many of the movies that I did with Steven over the years involved carrying through a lot of other areas of the business of making movies, and that’s something that I’ll probably end up doing more of. But I’m finding out what the job is right now.

Q&A: Scott Rudin On Moonrise Kingdom

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

With a long list of collaborators that includes some of the most sought-after writers and producers in the business, Scott Rudin is no stranger to awards season. He’s earned best picture nominations for the last two years running, for The Social Network and True Grit in 2011 and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close last year. He won his only Oscar in 2008 for No Country For Old Men—a year in which his other film, There Will Be Blood, earned a nom for picture—and this year he earned the career distinction of having received all four major entertainment statuettes when he added a Grammy for The Book of Mormon soundtrack. In 2012, Rudin also saw the release of his fifth feature film with director Wes Anderson, the boxoffice hit Moonrise Kingdom. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and has gone on to win a Gotham Award for best film and earn five Independent Spirit Award nominations. Their creatively and financially lucrative partnership continues for Anderson’s 2014 followup, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which reunites much of the same cast and crew from Moonrise, including star Bill Murray and financier Steven M. Rales of Indian Paintbrush. The very busy producer recently spoke with AwardsLine about the film’s success.

AWARDSLINE: You always have a fairly heavy workload for a producer. How do you maintain the quality and still give everything the attention it needs?

SCOTT RUDIN: I have no idea other than there’s no alternative. Honestly.

AWARDSLINE: Wes Anderson said in his AwardsLine interview that he really relies on you in terms of helping shape the material. What kind of feedback did you give him for Moonrise Kingdom?

RUDIN: It’s always, is the story coming across the way he wants it to? Does it have the shape of a narrative in the beginning, the middle, and the end? And are the events landing in a sequence that continues to build on the one before it?

AWARDSLINE: This story is more personal than some of his previous films—does that factor into the feedback you give him?

RUDIN: That’s true, but I didn’t know that when we were working on it. That was never a factor. I would only ever respond to it as a story he wanted to tell. However much of it was personal or not was kind of beside the point of making it into a movie.

AWARDSLINE: Does he usually pitch the story to you, and then you help shape it from there? Or does it depend on the film?

RUDIN: We’ve been in the process for five or six movies, and it tends to be the same on every movie. Sometimes there’s more script when he shows it, and sometimes he does much less—and we work from a lot of conversations.

AWARDSLINE: For this film, what was your role in terms of getting it to the right studio and making sure that the right budget was there?

RUDIN: Steve Rales and Indian Paintbrush financed it, and they’ve done the last few movies, and we always hope to have them on everything. They’ve been fantastic; Steve’s been an incredible supporter of Wes’. Then we talked to a handful of people, and Focus liked it a lot and chased it very hard.

AWARDSLINE: You’re also generally very involved in the marketing of the films that you produce. What were some of the challenges for this particular film?

RUDIN: Realistically, it’s always hard when you make a movie that’s fundamentally about kids for adults. It’s  hard to make them work, although this one has worked at a really extraordinary level. But that’s always difficult: How do you make people aware of who the adult cast is without making them feel that the adults are the center of it? Because the adults are really part of the ensemble, but the subject of the movie is the two kids. You don’t want to make it misleading, but at the same time you want to
make it appealing.

AWARDSLINE: And obviously it worked. Why do you think that the film did so well at the boxoffice?

RUDIN: People really respond to what it’s about. It’s a very specific (story), but because it’s so sophisticated, it’s also quite universal.

AWARDSLINE: And it’s been generating awards talk since Cannes.

RUDIN: Well, his movies are executed at such a high level that it becomes an inevitable conversation.

AWARDSLINE: This one in particular has been called more accessible—is that why Moonrise Kingdom is getting that kind of attention?

RUDIN: I think so. And Wes now has made a lot of movies, and he’s a filmmaker with a very loyal fan base.

AWARDSLINE: In terms of your career, you always emphasize that you’re attracted to story not genre, but it seems like you’re also attracted to filmmakers who have a very distinct voice, like Wes Anderson, like David Fincher, the Coen brothers, and Matt Stone and Trey Parker. How do you preserve those voices and serve the project?

RUDIN: I don’t know. I think the job is trying to get the filmmakers to make the movie they want to make.

AWARDSLINE: There’s been a lot of talk about the midrange budget, studio, adult drama—like Flight—connecting at the boxoffice. Has something shifted in the business that makes it more attractive for a studio to take a risk on a film like that?

RUDIN: They’re hard to get done, but they actually can really work. Any movie in which the movie stars work for free, that’s always a big draw. (Laughs.)

Q&A: Grant Heslov On Argo

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

Having a script that everyone loves doesn’t always ensure the quickest path to production. Just ask Argo producer Grant Heslov of Smokehouse Pictures. Five years ago, Heslov and producing partner George Clooney hired screenwriter Chris Terrio to turn Joshuah Bearman’s April 2007 Wired article, “The Great Escape,” into a script. The previously classified true story of the CIA’s collaboration with two Hollywood insiders in setting up a fake production company and turning six trapped diplomats into a fake film crew as a way to smuggle them out of Iran was a riveting read in first-draft script form. Nevertheless, scheduling proved an issue for years until the script made its way through Warner Bros. to Ben Affleck, who was eager to make Argo his next project. With the boxoffice hit and festival-circuit favorite firmly entrenched in the awards conversation, Heslov took time from the set of his next project, August: Osage County, to talk about arriving at the right budget number and why Smokehouse is always involved in the marketing of its films.

AWARDSLINE: It took Argo about five years to make it to the screen. Was it just a matter of scheduling for you or were there other roadblocks that were holding things up?

GRANT HESLOV: We found it about five years ago, and we developed it, and it was one of a few films that we had that we felt were ready to go. But George (Clooney) and I just hadn’t had time to get it made or figure out what we were going to do with it. When we were shooting The Ides of March, we heard that Ben (Affleck) was interested, so we got together with him, and that’s how that ball started rolling.

AWARDSLINE: How concerned were you about dramatizing some of the real events in order to make them work for a film?

HESLOV: You know, we weren’t. George and I have done a bunch of films that are based on the truth, and (for) this one, we felt like as long as we stayed within the spirit of the story, the things we did to add drama—and there aren’t that many, when you really look at it—we didn’t have any problem with that.

AWARDSLINE: There’s always haggling with the studio and the director over what that budget number is going to be. Do you go in with a number that you know you can’t go under and have the film still work? How does that process work for you?

HESLOV: We know how much we can make the movie for, have a gut feeling. (But) it’s not just how much do you think you can make the movie for but how much do you think the movie can make. There’s a lot that goes into it, and we’re not cavalier about it, we really think. For instance, a film like Good Night and Good Luck, you make that for $7 million because you know it’s a black-and-white film, and it’s not an easy sell. If you make it for $7 million, then everybody can have a chance to make a little bit of money, and you get to make the film you want to make.  But on a film like Argo—it’s period, there’s a lot of locations, and there’s a big cast. You have a gut feeling about the number and you go, “Look, we know we can’t make it for anything less than this, and if we can make it for more than this, then that would be great.” Then getting to the haggling with the studio over what the number is, it’s never as much as you want, but they usually come up a little, and you go down a little, and find someplace in the middle.

AWARDSLINE: How involved are you as a production company in marketing the films that Smokehouse produces?

HESLOV: We’re incredibly involved. If you asked the studio, they’d probably say we’re too involved. But look, George has been involved in the release of tons and tons of movies. Even when he’s an actor in the film, he still has to sign off on everything. So he has years of experience, and I’ve learned from him that you just have to be on top of all the marketing stuff. We have very strong opinions about the way that the films that we work on are sold. The studios, as they should, want to extract every dollar out of that opening weekend. But at the same time, for us (a film) is what lives on with us forever, as a one-sheet on our wall, as part of a legacy that we’re trying to put together. You want to have stuff that you feel good about in the way the film was marketed, and you also want to make sure that you’re selling the film that people are actually going to want to go see, because that can backfire on you. We’re very involved.

AWARDSLINE: Did you think that Argo would be tough to market?

HESLOV: Yes. It’s got an odd title, and it’s a very hard film to sell. On one hand, it’s a real nail-biter thriller and on the other hand, there’s a lot of comedic moments in it, but it’s not a comedy. If you sell it as a comedy, people are going to be disappointed. So it was tricky, but the studio did a great job. We’re really happy with what they did with it.

AWARDSLINE: Is it tough to balance the rigors of promoting a film while you’re on location with a high-profile film like August: Osage County?

HESLOV: It’s not really hard… We premiered at the London Film Festival, and we couldn’t be a part of that because we couldn’t leave. There were certain screenings that I wish George and I could have been at. You know, you make a movie and you’re proud of it, and you want to share those moments with your collaborators. But in terms of the actual work that has to be done, everything I do is practically on the phone anyway, so not so bad. (Laughs.)

Q&A: Chris Terrio on Argo

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

Hearing that an Oscar-winning screenwriter has just signed on to direct the highest-profile script of your career could be somewhat nervewracking. But for Argo’s Chris Terrio, working with director Ben Affleck was made easier because of Affleck’s writing background. “At the beginning, you’re slightly defensive, thinking, ‘The director’s going to come kidnap the baby and carry it away,’ but there was zero of that. From our first conversation, it was just us geeking out about how we could make every scene better,” Terrio recalls about working on the film. Terrio is enjoying the experience of watching audiences see his first major-studio project, all while learning the ropes of awards season as a serious writing contender. Terrio recently spoke with AwardsLine about the complexities of researching the script and what he learned from working with Affleck.

AWARDSLINE: Were you familiar at all with the Argo story when Smoke House’s Nina Wolarsky first called you about writing the script?

CHRIS TERRIO: Of course I knew something about the Iran hostage situation, and I had always been curious about it and had read various books, but no, I didn’t know anything about Argo. I had read Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, and that book briefly mentions it, but I think I read it without ever thinking too much about it. One of the few people in that book that comes off well is (Argo plot architect and CIA agent) Tony Mendez because that book is (about) a litany of mistakes that the CIA made; in fact that New York Times writer is not very popular at the CIA.

AWARDSLINE: You obviously started your research with Joshuah Bearman’s April 2007 Wired article, “The Great Escape,” but what other material did you consult for the script?

TERRIO: The Wired article, it’s short, and I credit Josh completely with the clash of worlds depicted in the movie, which is to say Hollywood and the CIA. But if you’re going to write a two-hour movie, there’s tons of research that you have to do that isn’t in the article. I spent probably the whole spring, and even longer, just circling and circling: Read every book that I could find on the 444 days, anything I could about Iran; looked at some Iranian movies from that period, ones made by expatriates. The Iran Hostage Crisis is the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle, so there’s an enormous amount of video footage that you can see at places like the Carter Center and the National Archives and the Paley Center in New York.

AWARDSLINE: How did you go about boiling it down and making sense of the multiple narratives and still feel like you were being true to the story?

TERRIO: Some of it is just instinct and trial and error. There were definitely moments where I worried that I wasn’t giving a comprehensive enough version of this moment in history. As American filmmakers, we can never tell a comprehensive story about the plight of people in Iran at that moment, but the film—without ever losing the forward momentum—lingers a bit to remind you that there are all these unresolved stories. I have to credit Ben with all that. Those stories could be scripted, like the Iranian housekeeper plot, or could just be a closeup of people waiting for their visas at the beginning of the film. Those closeups tell all kinds of stories: There’s a woman who’s wearing a mink stole and has put on makeup and is just sitting waiting for a visa. I look at that closeup, and I imagine her whole history—it’s just a two-second shot but I think at every margin of the story there are these little hints of stories that we’re not telling.

AWARDSLINE: How long did it take you to write the script?

TERRIO: The script was written in a matter of a few weeks after months and months of research, but I think that’s always the way with me. I need to circle something for a long time, and the characters are gradually showing up and taking their places. Finally, by the time I was ready to write, I knew. They had told me what they wanted to say, and I could sort of take dictation, which I know sounds a little crazy, but I’d imagine most writers would say that. You’re afraid every morning when you sit down that the characters aren’t going to show up for work, and sometimes they don’t, but when they do, you’re happy and you write fast.

AWARDSLINE: You’ve directed film and TV—did you pick up anything from Affleck while you were on the set of Argo?

TERRIO: The mood that Ben created. Ben is very easygoing, but that belies somebody who knows what he wants and knows how to get it. Ben’s ability to work with (cinematographer) Rodrigo (Prieto) and quickly get what he wants, know what he needs, and give himself options is a great thing that I picked up. He already is cutting the movie in his head when he’s making it. He immediately has an instinct about when it’s in the can and when it’s not.

AWARDSLINE: What’s it been like being a part of the awards-season machine so far?

TERRIO: I live in New York, so I’ve been at the margins of it, and I haven’t necessarily been in the belly of the beast yet, if it is a beast. It’s just been a rush for me to see people watching the movie and responding to it, but also to capture a little bit of that film-school excitement about movies.

Q&A: Ben Affleck on Argo

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

After directing two successful features, Gone Baby Gone in 2007 and The Town in 2010, Ben Affleck has come into his own, perhaps finding greater creative success behind the camera than he ever has as an actor performing in front of it. In fact, the Oscar-winning screenwriter stands a good chance of earning another nom, this time for helming Argo, an almost unbelievable real-life story about how the CIA teamed up with Hollywood to rescue six diplomats stranded in Iran after the Shah’s fall. Affleck also stars in the film, and he’s clearly still passionate about acting. “The director part of me thought it would be too much trouble not to give the actor the part. I’d never hear the end of it,” he says about taking on the role of agent Tony Mendez. He recently spoke with AwardsLine about directing himself and the challenges of shooting the film’s pivotal embassy-takeover scenes.

AWARDSLINE: At the film’s DGA screening, you talked about how it was important for you to foster a bond among the six actors playing the houseguests in Argo. Can you talk a bit more about what that rehearsal process was like?

BEN AFFLECK: I wanted them to get to know one another better and just be more familiar and at ease around one another, and that could only be accomplished really with time exposure. I wanted them to know what it was like on a subconscious level to feel trapped and holed up in a place. So this idea that I came up with was to put them up someplace for a week inside the set. We dressed it and had everything that they would have when we shot: There were newspapers from the period, magazines from the period, and I put in movies from that period that I wanted them to watch, records and a record player—all kinds of things. I didn’t give them much instruction and said, “This is where you have to be,” because that was the circumstance under which the people were (living). They didn’t have any goals other than to sort of stay there and stay hidden. I didn’t know (what) would develop in the rehearsal process, but whatever happened, it was genuine, it was good. Ultimately, I don’t know what happened. It was part social experiment, part reality show with no cameras. (Then) we came, and we set them free. (Laughs.) I knew it was good because they didn’t seem to want to talk about what happened.

AWARDSLINE: Did they leave at night?

AFFLECK: No, they lived there! They slept there. It takes time to develop a sense of humor, shared world views. I just felt like putting them in the bag and shaking (it) up—you don’t know what the pattern of flour and chicken is going to be, but you know you’re going to get some good fried chicken.

AWARDSLINE: The script was completed before you signed on, but you ended up extending the opening sequence before production started. Were there other tweaks that you and screenwriter Chris Terrio worked on?

AFFLECK: There were all kinds of adjustments and back and forth, just work that goes on between a director and a writer. (As) a director who is a writer, I have respect for writers, so I’m less likely to step on an idea or a line. We were both really comfortable telling each other that things didn’t work if we didn’t think they worked.

AWARDSLINE: And Terrio was on set for a lot of the shoot, too, right?

AFFLECK: Yes. Initially I thought, I’m going to get this script and run with it, and do my thing, like I did with the other two movies I made. Then I talked to Chris, and he was so smart and insightful and had done all this research, and so I was like, “This guy would be a huge asset and a great writer, so let’s keep him on.” On my other two movies, stuff had to be rewritten, and I would go off into a corner and puzzle over it. It would take me forever, and I would stay up all weekend. It was so nice to be able to say, “Exactly what the agenda is of the State Department in this scene? Could you rewrite that scene?” and have him come back later with the answer. I felt like I was looking at the back of a test.

AWARDSLINE: How does it work when you’re directing yourself?

AFFLECK: Everyone has a different approach, but I like to shoot a lot of film anyway. I like to shoot until we have a relaxed environment on the set, and I try to schedule that. And I do the same thing for myself (as an actor) that I do for others. I get to the point where I feel relaxed, and then I just shoot a ton of material and make a lot of different choices. (I) try new things and give myself permission to fail and experiment because only that way can you get really successful. I don’t go back and look at the monitor between every take; I wait until I feel like we finally got it right: “Let me stop and look at that last one on the monitor.”

AWARDSLINE: In terms of the location shoots, were there other Middle Eastern locations that you considered?

AFFLECK: We scouted all over the place. There’s the competing concerns of creativity and budget, and that was a pretty close race with this movie. We scouted Jordan, we scouted a couple of countries in North Africa—this was before the Arab Spring. Jordan we would have been OK, but the truth is, it looked very Arab. Persia is very different from the Arab Middle East in terms of architecture and language. Even though we think of them as one big Middle Eastern area, in truth, Persia’s quite distinct. So we looked at Bulgaria, which also happens to be profoundly inexpensive, and then we looked at Turkey. That was the last place we went, and it was also the nicest place.

AWARDSLINE: What was the most difficult scene to pull off in terms of scheduling and budget constraints?

AFFLECK: The (embassy) takeover stuff in the beginning, where we had 2,500 extras, that was really hard to do in Istanbul. We could only afford so much, so it was hard to pay people enough so that they would come out there and work all day. Turkey’s growth rate was 8% last year—it’s not a developing country. You have to pay people real money. And we had to pick people up in buses at one in the morning, get there, get everyone in wardrobe, get them out in the street, give them signs, and teach them how to chant their slogans. In the extras’ holding area, I put our research on a loop, which is images of the actual revolution, so people could get a sense of the anger and the power of the whole thing. They were psyched; the extras got into it. So that was really fun. (But) it was cold, it was raining, (and) it was very hard to keep people around. Of course, it turned out somehow we didn’t have enough food, or we didn’t have as much food as we thought—there were all sorts of problems like that. Meanwhile, I’m worrying about the big shots with the cranes, and as we lose people, I keep making the big shots tighter and tighter. The other issue was that the people who were available to be around all day are the elderly; the younger people are working. So basically, we had a lot of folks who were over 65 in a student revolution. So they made up for it with passion. They were chanting, going nuts. It was ultimately exhilarating, fun, and thrilling and felt like we had a real partnership. I’ve been an extra in, I don’t know, 20 movies, so I feel like I know how it is. I’m trying to make people feel welcome and feel valued.

Q&A: Ewan McGregor on The Impossible

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

Ewan McGregor has played a lot of different kinds of roles since he first rose to prominence in 1996’s Trainspotting, but there’s one that has eluded his grasp: parenthood. In the December release The Impossible, the real-life father of four plays a man whose family is torn apart by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. He struggles to keep his two young sons safe amidst the chaos while searching feverishly for his wife, played by Naomi Watts, and eldest son, played by Tom Holland. Though it’s the third film he’s appeared in this year after Haywire and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, McGregor doesn’t take much time off. He recently spoke with AwardsLine from the set of August: Osage County, which is currently shooting in Bartlesville, OK.

AWARDSLINE: How did you first hear about The Impossible?

EWAN MCGREGOR: I heard about it through my agent, and I knew about J.A. Bayona and his film The Orphanage, although I don’t think I’d seen it until I’d read the script for The Impossible. I knew Naomi was attached—I’ve worked with Naomi before—and, yes, after reading the script I was left with no doubt. I didn’t know at the time that it was a true story, but there was something very honest and true about the writing. Another one of the main draws for me was that it was the first time in my career that I explored parenthood, although I’ve been a dad for a long time. I must’ve had some kids in films before, but not many, and I’ve never made a film that’s really about that relationship between you and your kids.

AWARDSLINE: How did the script read to you? There’s not a lot of dialogue, so I’m wondering what it was like going through the script the first time.

MCGREGOR: It had a very strong structure. It could have been written in a much more chaotic way—we fly back and forth and back and forth between all of the family’s experiences. I thought it even played against the chaos. (The structure) also started building up the tension about if they were going to find each other. I didn’t feel like it was spare of dialogue. Really good writers don’t feel the need to explain everything with lots of dialogue, I find.

AWARDSLINE:  Were you able to spend any time with Maria Belon’s husband, your character in the film, before you started shooting?

MCGREGOR: I spoke to him on the telephone while I was shooting Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a few days before I was due in Thailand, so I didn’t get a chance to meet him (before shooting). It’s a funny thing—the real family is Spanish, and because we weren’t playing them as Spanish, I felt like I was sort of free to create him. The whole family came out to visit the set, and when I met him, I thought, Oh, I’m not too far away. It was the writing I guess. The path through the film for me is that he really holds it together, he doesn’t allow himself to collapse until the bus station scene where he does allow himself the luxury to fall apart for a minute.

AWARDSLINE: Did you do any other research for the role?

MCGREGOR: We worked from an amazing documentary Channel 4 in Britain made called Tsunami: Caught on Camera, which was made using all the footage from (tourists’) cameras intercut with interviews with six or seven people who were there. It’s brutal and it’s devastating, and I watched it only twice, no, three times. I tried to go back to it, and I couldn’t. The art department had a great deal of research—photographs of hospitals and coastline shots, hotels, and then of the temples where the bodies were taken. There just reached a point once we started filming that—I mean, we’re spending all day trying to re-create this tragic event, and then we’re surrounded by a Thai crew, most of whom were affected by it and lost people there. All the hotels that we were staying in had been hit by the tsunami, so you’d be in bed at night thinking, Well, who was in this room and did they survive? I would concentrate on getting it right at work, but I couldn’t plunge myself into the horror of it because you can’t sustain that.

AWARDSLINE: You spend most of your time on screen with Oaklee Pendergast and Samuel Joslin, the young actors who play your sons in the film. How were they to work with?

MCGREGOR: They were just absolutely brilliant little guys, and I was always very careful with them. They had a child minder who was also a drama teacher for them, so he would prepare them for the scenes they were going to play, but I’m always very wary of how children are dealt with on movie sets. I said right up front that I wouldn’t involve them in anything that would actually frighten them or play any games with them just to get a desired effect on camera. So we worked quite hard with them. In some of the scenes where we had to huddle and cry—that doesn’t just happen on its own accord. We worked on that, I remember, for about a week or maybe more before we started shooting. And then when we did shoot, they were told quite clearly that when we were was on set, I was their dad. They knew I was their pretend dad, but still whenever I’d arrive on set, they’d run up and go, “Dad! Dad!” I’d send pictures back home to my kids: “Here’s my other family, my secret family in Thailand.” (Laughs.)

Q&A: Bryan Cranston on Argo

Although he’s better known to TV audiences as the meth-making teacher Walter White on Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston spends a good portion of his year working on plenty of other film and TV projects. “It’s like a drug to be able to tell stories—that’s (my) drug of choice,” says Cranston, who directed an episode of ABC’s Modern Family this season and is prepping his own feature to direct when Breaking Bad finishes shooting its final episodes early next year. He recently sat down with AwardsLine to talk about his latest role as CIA agent Jack O’Donnell in Argo, Ben Affleck’s story about how Hollywood and the CIA teamed up to rescue six stranded diplomats in 1970s-era Iran.

AWARDSLINE: When you read the script for Argo, did you know that you would be playing CIA agent Jack O’Donnell?

BRYAN CRANSTON: The first time I read a script I don’t really want to know what character they’re thinking of. I just want to get a sense of the story by itself. I could even sometimes look at it and go, “There’s a good story here, but it’s kind of hidden with this muddled script.” If that’s the case, and I like the character, then I’ll talk about (working) on improving the script, which is mostly the case for me. When I heard this story and I read the script, and I was taken away by it. Not only is the story fantastic and real, but Chris Terrio’s screenplay was so supportive of that story and told it beautifully. I realized there’s no discussion here as far as “the script is lacking.” The role of Jack O’Donnell just popped off the page for me, because he’s an integral part of the story but also has his moment of heroism. He needs to rise to the occasion, damn the torpedos.

AWARDSLINE: Besides reading the Wired article, what kind of research did you do?

CRANSTON: I went to Langley, VA, and interviewed CIA officers there. They were a little surprised that I was asking more personal questions than mission-related questions. They said often, “There’s only a few things that we can actually talk about,” and I said, “That’s alright. I’m really more interested in finding out what a CIA officer is like as a person” After a little while, they opened up and went beyond the monosyllabic answers. I told them, “My job here is to take what is a composite character, representing the CIA, and I really want to do it justice.” They wanted to cooperate, as well, because they want to be seen in a light that is at least fair.

It’s interesting the clandestine nature of the subject allowed these people to work under the radar for the right reasons, and there’s no one who wants to celebrate that more than audiences: To say, “The man or woman who was not going to get any recognition for their deeds just got recognized.” That’s a wonderful feeling.

AWARDSLINE: Do you prefer to rehearse?

CRANSTON: Rehearsals to me are fantastic luxury. If you’re able to do that in film and television schedules, you have a bonus. There were directors like Sidney Lumet who used to have it in his contract that there would be an extensive rehearsal period prior to him shooting anything, and I regret that I never had a chance to work with him because that would have been great. We had a rehearsal period on Drive that was soenjoyable. It really allows the actor to be responsible for what you’re bringing to the picture and the story. By the time we started that movie, we were all fully invested because we spent timeon this. But that’s not always the case. In fact, more often that not, it’s not possible.

The fortunate aspect for Argo is that (the) script was just so good that the guide posts were very clear. Nothing was murky. When it came time for me to have meetings with Ben, I didn’t really have many questions. So basically what I did was alone time. I went to the bowels of the underutilized L.A. Times building where we shot. The first thing I wanted to do was go to that bullpen area were Jack O’Donnell lives. The bulk of his career was spent in that bullpen. And I went into my office, and I moved things around. In my backstory, I wanted him to be a devout Catholic, so I asked for rosaries and other religious artifacts that I could put on my desk. Not to billboard it or show it, but for me. (In the backstory), I just wrote, “You know he’s a better man than he is a husband, and he was divorced twice.” I had a feeling like, if this mission we call Argo could work, that’s Jack O’Donnell’s swan song. I think he’d retire after that.

AWARDSLINE: In addition to directing an episode of Modern Family this season, you’re prepping your own feature-film directing project. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

CRANSTON: We hope to be shooting next year, after Breaking Bad finishes shooting. (The story is) a strong family dynamic drama as much as it is a murder mystery. It’s about a man who wants to rekindle family values with his small family, his 16-year-old son and his wife, after he abruptly quits the FBI even though he was lauded for his work. He just feels he needs to do this for his family. But things start to fall apart, and the father and son end up literally and figuratively saving each other’s life.

AWARDSLINE: Does it have a title yet?

CRANSTON: It does, but I don’t want to give it out because we may change it.

AWARDSLINE: Has the success of Breaking Bad changed the type of roles that are coming your way?

CRANSTON: Oh, yes. That’s why I’m sitting here. Breaking Bad has opened up the level of opportunity for me, and I couldn’t be more appreciative. On screen, it is the role of my life; I will never have a role better than Walter White. I know that, and I’m fine with that. Then off screen, it’s afforded me the chance read a better quality of script and meet with fine filmmakers that I would love to continue a relationship with. I don’t play golf, I’m not one of those guys—I enjoy storytelling. I like to write it, I like to direct it, I like to act in it, I like to produce it. I like to be around storytellers. That’s what excites me.

Q&A: Paul Williams

Although the documentary Paul Williams Still Alive didn’t make the Academy’s short list this week, there’s an original song by the Oscar-winning composer wrote for the doc, aptly titled “Still Alive,” that remains in contention. Williams, who at first resented director Stephen Kessler’s attempts to document his childhood idol, now calls the doc “a gift” that has allowed him to gain a new appreciation for his songwriting work. While the doc doesn’t discuss much of Williams’ current activities, he’s been working behind the scenes as chairman and president of ASCAP since 2009, something he calls an honor, quickly joking, “I’ve got a black belt in back slapping.” With several new songwriting projects in the works, including a musical version of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Williams is still very much alive and still busy. He recently spoke with AwardsLine about his reticence to participate in the doc and reflected on his Oscar win in 1977.

AWARDSLINE: What made you finally decide that you were going to agree to participate in the documentary? It’s pretty clear that you weren’t thrilled initially.

PAUL WILLIAMS: There was a time in my life when I became much better at showing off that showing up. If you put down a couch and a camera, Paul Williams would appear on that couch. You know, to feel like you’re really different is difficult. To feel like your special, in my case, it was addicting. Eventually my addiction to alcohol and cocaine outran all other addictions—I think I ignored songwriting; my craft kind of fell off. For me, to revisit this with Steve… He started by sending me an email. For some reason, I just backed off immediately about the idea of somebody following me around, and didn’t want to participate in another VH1: Where Are They Now?. I didn’t know if he wanted to make fun of me, (but) he seemed to really know my music and be a real fan. I found that every time he would hang a microphone on me, there was a little place that kind of tightened up, and it just was like, “I don’t like this.” I have a lovely balance to my life right now. I have a great relationship with my wife and my kids, and I’m working just about as much as I want to. There was a lot going on that didn’t make it into the film. While we were filming, I went to Disney and pitched an idea for the Muppets: I wrote the songs, I cowrote the story and cowrote the teleplay for a one-hour TV special for the Muppets (A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa). I got nominated for an Emmy (for the song “I Wish I Could Be Santa Claus”). That’s not in the movie, though. I think that if Steve Kessler had found me living in a trailer behind a junkyard playing at the Red Lion Inn and singing to a sock puppet he would have been thrilled, like, “Look how far he’s fallen.” That really wasn’t the case, but he eliminated things to tell the story in the best way.

AWARDSLINE: It also reflects the view that a lot of people have about fame: If people don’t hear about you anymore then you must not be doing anything.

WILLIAMS: You cease to exist, yeah.

Paul Williams MupptesAWARDSLINE: What has been the response since the film’s release?

WILLIAMS: First of all, I had no idea it would get the kind of response it had. I wrote the title song about three weeks before we went into Toronto, and the response to the film and song was just amazing. What Steve did that was a real gift to me was his willingness to put all of his ineptness at certain moments back into the film. Those things where I challenged him and said, “You’re interrupting a meaningful story about my dad taking me to the ballgame so you can ask some silly-ass questions about a talent show. Put that in the movie,” and he did. Moments where he’d ask me questions that, frankly, just felt like a dig. God bless him, he put them in the film.  So you wind up with a film where you observe a relationship begin to take place with us, which I think is funny and interesting. I think part of the journey for Steve was he went into the process thinking that fame equals happiness, relevance. And then in the midst of it, in 2009, I was elected president and chairman of the board of ASCAP with 150,000 people that are fighting to make a viable living through music. For the first time in my life, I felt really, really connected to the world around me. And that’s what I was afraid of giving up if we shot this film.

AWARDSLINE: The original song you wrote for the documentary, “Still Alive,” is getting some Oscar attention, which has to be fun for an awards-season veteran like you.

WILLIAMS: I’ve been nominated six times, and the fact is, the nomination comes from your peers—just from the music branch—so the huge event is being nominated. When I really look at it, I see that it’s the win to be nominated. (But), obviously, it’s amazing to walk up on the stage. You know, they play my acceptance speech (for “Evergreen” with Barbra Streisand) every now and then because I looked at the audience and said, “I was going to thank all the little people, and then I remembered I am the little people.” I remember walking out, andNeil Diamond gave us the award, and I hugged Barbra and I looked at the audience: It’s like, there’s Kirk Douglas, there’s Gregory Peck, there’s Elizabeth Taylor. You see me backstage in the green room having a conversation with Bette Davis and Cary Grant, and you go, “Oh, my God, how did he get here?” Now if I look at it, I would say that what I did to get there was a small part of it. (It was) immense good fortune and the people that I met along the way.

Listen to Williams’ original song for the documentary: Still Alive