Hobbit Digital Characters: Familiar Faces But Radically Different Construction

Although the wait is nearly over for the familiar goblins and mystical forests of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, senior visual-effects supervisor Joe Letteri says the only thing that remains the same for this iteration of Peter Jackson’s fantasy films is on the surface. The digital tools that brought countless Orcs to life and gave Gollum his distinctive distorted face are virtually unrecognizable from those used a decade ago for the The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

“It’s changed almost completely,” Letteri says. “On the outside, you want Gollum to look like the same character, but he’s completely different (under the hood).”

The biggest change from the first set of films is the way that actor Andy Serkis’ performance is captured and analyzed in order to create the digital character, according to visual-effects supervisor Eric Saindon. “Our facial capture has progressed leaps and bounds,” he says. “Now we actually capture all of Andy’s performance, when he’s acting with Martin (Freeman) in Gollum’s cage on set. We have a small camera attached in front of his face that captures his exact facial performance. Rather than an animator going in and doing it frame-by-frame, the computer analyzes Andy’s performance and then fires Gollum’s muscles to do the exact same thing. So the first half of the animation, which is the raw mo-cap data, is really Andy.”

“We know so much more about how the face works,” Letteri adds. “When people communicate face to face there are so many things that are going on that you really have to study now and put into the characters. We hope that people recognize that there’s this extra layer of depth.”

The "before" version of the stone giant sequence, part of which was shot on a very small stage.
The “before” version of the stone giant sequence, part of which was shot on a very small stage.

While Gollum takes a bit of a back seat to the other myriad creatures in The Hobbit, the film’s team at Weta had plenty of other digital characters to create, including the formidable stone-giant and its complex sequence. The crew shot the actors on a very small set climbing a hill along a rock wall, and every other element was added digitally after the fact, including the rain. “We did try to capture rain on set; it worked OK, but it was very easy to get rain on the mirror for the 3D, and then the stereo breaks instantly. The lighting was (also) very hard to control with the rain. So we did it for about a day and then we decided that it would be better just to do the rain in post. Then we added the stone giants, which are basically these mountains that come to life to have a thunder battle.”

The "after" version of the stone giant sequence.
The “after” version of the stone giant sequence.

Saindon admits that sometimes it’s tough to tell the practical effects from the digital, which is exactly the level of detail the team hopes to achieve.

“Your eye is not easily fooled,” Letteri says. “We all go to the movies because we want to be fooled, but on the other hand we want to be fooled really well.”

Behind The Scenes On Argo

This story appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of AwardsLine.

With more than 120 speaking parts and a key scene that required 2,500 Persian extras, Argo couldn’t have struck the right note of realness without showing faces that lived through the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and that meant heading somewhere in the Middle East to shoot. Several locations were on the short list, including Jordan and Bulgaria, but ultimately Turkey won out for having the right Persian look. (Director and star Ben Affleck jokes that Turkey having a posh Four Seasons Hotel is what really clinched the deal.)

“In truth, it really was very similar architecture, and it was next to Iran, so I felt like we’d be able to get a lot of Farsi-speaking extras,” Affleck says. “As it turned out, that was a false assumption; most Iranians were afraid to be in the movie because of reprisal against their family, which kind of brought home the seriousness of the real story.”

Alan Arkin and director Ben Affleck on the set of Argo.

In fact, because the production had so much trouble finding extras in Turkey, some of the scenes had to be moved to Los Angeles, which has its own eager population of Farsi speakers. The pivotal airport scene moved to the City of Angels, and Affleck says he was overwhelmed by the passion of the Persian extras, many of whom had lived through the revolution and talked about family members still living in Iran.

“For them, it was like someone was telling their story. The whole movie absorbed an extra level of seriousness just being around the Persian population of Los Angeles. People in the crew were really, really moved,” Affleck explains.

The production team’s commitment to veracity—with the requisite dose of dramatic license—in telling Argo’s story of how the CIA and Hollywood teamed up for the top-secret rescue of six American diplomats caught up in the 1979 Iranian Revolution paid off with a warm welcome that has continued since the film’s Toronto Film Festival debut in September. Oscar pundits immediately bestowed best picture status on the film, and audiences have also shown their support, with Argo set to hit $80 million at the domestic boxoffice at press time. And during awards season, it doesn’t hurt that the film has an accolade-heavy cast that includes Affleck, who plays CIA agent and plot mastermind Tony Mendez; Bryan Cranston, who plays the Washington, D.C.-based agent running the logistics, Jack O’Donnell; Alan Arkin, who plays veteran (and fictional) producer Lester Siegel, charged with finding the right script to fool the Iranians into accepting Argo as a real film; and John Goodman, who plays Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers.

The film’s production path started about five years ago, when Smokehouse Pictures’ Grant Heslov and George Clooney optioned Joshuah Bearman’s April 2007 Wired article, “The Great Escape,” a tightly written, little-known story about how the CIA worked with Hollywood insiders to devise a fake production company, set up a fake film, and turn six trapped diplomats into a fake film crew as a way to smuggle them out of Iran. After the project was set up with the studio, then-Smokehouse development exec Nina Wolarsky suggested screenwriter Chris Terrio, who pitched Smokehouse and got to work.

Although the mission to Iran wasn’t declassified until the mid-1980s, Terrio says he had no shortage of material to consult when researching the political climate and top-secret event. In fact, the Wired article was the start of a months-long process of devouring everything he could find about the details of the mission.

“The article was really the beginning of a long trail,” says Terrio, whose script also incorporated details from The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA, a book from plot mastermind Tony Mendez. “Then, of course, eventually you just have to sit down and write. You circle and circle, and convince yourself you can’t possibly write until you read one more book. Finally, you think, OK, I’m going to get fired if I don’t (start writing).”

Terrio successfully condensed his extensive research into a script that Heslov has called the best first draft he’s ever seen. Nevertheless, Argo would have to wait.

“We knew we had a script that we loved,” Heslov explains, “but we didn’t really have time to make it at that point because either we were making a film or George was acting in a film or I was producing a film. It was one of those (situations) where you know you’re going to make it (eventually). “

The script sat at Warner Bros. for a while before it landed in the hands of Affleck, who was looking for a followup to 2010’s The Town.

“Ben read it, and he actually called George and me,” says Heslov, who was working with Clooney on Ides of March at the time. “Basically, he pitched us on why he should direct the film. We were both huge fans of his previous films, and the way that he saw the film was right in line with the way George and I saw it.”

When it came to casting, Affleck didn’t have much trouble figuring out who would play the lead of CIA agent Mendez in the film.

“That part of me that will always be looking for the good role said, ‘I’d be good for this.’ The director part of me thought it would be too much trouble not to give the actor the part,” Affleck says. He was so eager to take on the film that Heslov says the director started prepping before the Smokehouse team finished Ides.

“Ben was like a pony at the gate, ready to go,” Heslov recalls. “The day that we wrapped the Ides of March, George and I jumped right in to producing Argo.”

Three separate locations—Turkey, L.A., and Washington, D.C.—helped bring the story to life, but along the way, the fact that the film was dealing with traumatic historical events was never lost on cast and crew, and the filmmakers carefully balance humor and drama. Though that balance was always a part of the script, according to Terrio, Affleck says seeing it through was thanks to the actors, notably the charming and all-too-accurate Hollywood-types Goodman and Arkin play in the film.

“All the performances were I felt very real, very honest—even the ones that had the most potential to be over the top felt very real,” Affleck says. “Reality being funny doesn’t feel different from reality being tense and dramatic. What would have picked away at the fabric of the reality that we were trying to construct would have been if the comedy had been arch.”

For Cranston, the real story behind what motivated Mendez and his fellow agents, as well as how the Hollywood component fit in, was the appeal from the moment he first read the script.

“These are guys that feel that they’re doing the right thing, with the knowledge that they (might) never have public praise for their work,” Cranston says. “There was no way of knowing that this file would have been declassified. And the Hollywood component—there was no financial gain to be had. No recognition. So why would they do it? Because they’re patriots.”

Q&A: Richard Gere On Arbitrage

This story appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of AwardsLine.

Director Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage tells the story of a charismatic businessman whose shady deals finally start getting the better of him. Richard Gere plays the smooth, successful commodities broker, and he’s earned some of his best reviews in years. Gere recently spoke with AwardsLine about his character, shooting in New York City, and working with a first-time director.

AWARDSLINE: Do you still look for the same things in scripts that you did when you first started acting?

RICHARD GERE: To be honest with you, I can’t remember that I was ever looking for anything. I was waiting for something to touch me. It’s like, I’ll be open to it, and see if it moves me. There has to be a “falling in love” moment. At the same time, you can’t know what the voyage is going to be. There has to be something that beckons that voyage and process. And I don’t know what that is. Things come out of nowhere, and you start evaluating the director, the cast, and all those other things going into it.

AWARDSLINE: You’ve said that the character you play in Arbitrage, who has been called a Bernie Madoff-type of antagonist, is really more of a guy in a bad situation, rather than a traditional bad guy.

GERE: He does bad stuff. Bernie, by all accounts, was a sociopath. I mean, this is someone who was off the charts. I don’t think (character Robert Miller) was a sick guy, in the clinical sense of sick. He’s sick in the sense of he’s not responsible in an emotional way to his world. But that’s a sickness we all can have. (Laughs).

AWARDSLINE: Were there any scenes that were particularly challenging for you during the shoot?

GERE: Shooting in New York can be a problem. I remember a scene (with Graydon Carter, who played James Mayfield in the film)—that actually turned out really well—at Le Caprice, the restaurant at the Pierre Hotel. It was one of the most trafficked places in New York, and we didn’t have enough people to control it; it was a small production, so just getting to and from the set was hysteria. It took me some concentration to keep at it (in the scene) because I was coming in from outside, so I had to walk through a crowd, come in the front door, and play the scene.

AWARDSLINE: Was there anything about working with a first-time director Nicholas Jarecki that surprised you?

GERE: No, I was just very open. (Sometimes when) someone’s directing for the first time, they’re afraid to include everyone—they have to prove they’re the director. But he never was like that. He would always encourage ideas and go with the best idea.

AWARDSLINE: What was the rehearsal process like?

GERE: He asked me, “How do you want to (rehearse)?” I said, “Slow, easy, as much time as we can. We don’t even have to talk about the script.” A lot of making a movie is the comfort level of the people. It’s just feeling open. We need to get along. We have to know something about each other. We made a lot of tea. He laughs about it because I insisted on having tea to make me feel (at ease). And you can’t lose that way. You hire the best, create an environment where the best will come out, and, of course, you’re going to be fine.

AWARDSLINE: A lot of actors are producing and directing in order to have more control over the projects that they do. You’ve dabbled in some behind-the-scenes work, too, but is gaining that control important to you?

GERE: I never felt a lack of it. Very rare were the times that I was locked out of the process. And most of the time that I was, it didn’t bode well for the movie. I’m rarely in a situation where, if you have a good idea, it’s not embraced. That’s stupid. And I don’t work with stupid people.

AWARDSLINE: Is the promotional work for a film more demanding than it was when you started in the business?

GERE: No. I’ve actually done longer interviews (for Arbitrage). The ones that are killer is when you do 150 in one day at, like, 3 minutes each. (To someone in the background) That’s tomorrow? (Laughs). That’s tomorrow! It’s deadly, but you try to make it sound like it’s the first time you’ve said it. But it goes with the territory. I mean, you have to do that with every movie.

A movie like this, they don’t have the kind of power to go out and buy television. I certainly am doing more on this picture than I would normally do because of where I am on the marquee (and) the fact that this company doesn’t have unlimited power to break through in the marketplace. So it’s up to me and (the rest of the cast) to do a job that maybe in the not-too-distant past would have been just a TV buy.

Q&A: VFX Supervisor Eric Saindon On The Hobbit

When the Academy’s visual-effects peer group meets today to vote on this year’s short list, among the films they’ll be examining is Warner Bros. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Industry audiences and ardent fans will be pleased to see the familiar goblins and orcs, but visual-effects supervisor Eric Saindon says much of the technology underneath the characters is virtually unrecognizable from the first Lord of the Rings trilogy. Saindon recently spoke with AwardsLine about how much things have changed.

AWARDSLINE: What’s the biggest difference between the technology used on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey?

ERIC SAINDON: Back on Rings, we motion-captured Andy (Serkis), but on the first two Rings we motion-captured him on a stage. We got very rough motion—it was not bad, and it gave us his general performance. Then we always had lots of video cameras on him so that the animators could go in and then hand key-frame all of his facial poses. On this film, we actually capture all of Andy’s performance when he’s acting with Martin (Freeman), and we capture all his facial performance. We have a small camera attached in front of his face that actually captures his exact facial performance. Instead of an animator going in and putting that animation—or Andy’s performance—back onto the puppet, we sit with Andy and we go through his (performance) as a separate thing: “OK, this is your happy face,” “This is your sad face.” Our computer analyzes what pose he’s in when he’s on set making all these faces and puts it back into the pose Gollum would be in if he was making the same pose. Rather than an animator going in and doing it frame-by-frame, the computer analyzes Andy’s performance and then fires Gollum’s muscles to do the exact same thing. Really, the big difference is on Rings, everything was captured post. Frodo (Elijah Wood) did his thing on set—Andy was there most of the time acting also—but then Andy would have to do it again. Three weeks later, Andy would have to do the same performance, and Elijah’s performance couldn’t change. (This time) Martin and Andy actually just acted together, they acted off one another, and that performance—that exact performance—went back onto Gollum.

AWARDSLINE: It’s amazing that Andy was able to achieve the performance that he did in those first films.

SAINDON: Well, he’s not afraid of the technology. A lot of people get the suit on, and then they freeze up. Outside of the suits they did great, but then you get them in the suit and it takes them two days to get used to (it). It’s definitely an art that not everyone can do.

AWARDSLINE: What kind of challenges did the 3D aspect of the film pose for you?

SAINDON: One thing we did a lot of on this movie is 3D scans of every single set, and with this 3D scan we could bring it to the computer and have a 3D representation of the entire set with textures, model detail—everything that was actually shot. Because everything was in 3D in this movie, we needed a proper depth. On Rings, we could easily just cheat something. A foot contact that didn’t work or something that didn’t look like it was the right depth or space, we could just scale it down a little bit. With this movie, because everything was 3D, we had to do it at the proper scale and the proper depth, so when you’re watching it, it doesn’t hurt your head, and it doesn’t pop out as (not looking) quite right.

AWARDSLINE: As the technology constantly changes and improves, does it ever get easier or faster to put together a movie like this? It seems like the answer is probably no.

SAINDON: I would love to say that it’s easier, but it’s never easier. Our computers are 50 times faster than they were on Rings, and it still takes all night to render a shot properly. (Plus), the audience is expecting more. The general viewer going to see the film can spot a digital double, where back in the day, they really didn’t think about it as much. So you could get away with a little more. But nowadays the digital doubles have to look just like the actors. On Rings, we did very simple digital doubles (with) little bit of cloth and a few strands of hair. On this movie, we’ve done full-cloth simulations, skin dynamics, fat dynamics. It’s taken to a much more extreme level. Obviously, you can do things with a digital double that you never could do before, but it also requires a lot more computer power—a lot more time—to get it right. On Rings, we had about five terabytes of disk space for the whole movie. Then on this one, we’re in multiple petabytes of information, which is insane.

Q&A: Naomi Watts On The Impossible

This story appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of AwardsLine.

Naomi Watts plays the matriarch in The Impossible, the unbelievable story of a family reuniting after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Though Watts’ performance has been praised for the emotion she conveys onscreen, the actress says the role was also physically demanding. She recently spoke with AwardsLine about the challenges of working with real water and the moving meeting she had with her real-life counterpart before production commenced.

AWARDSLINE: When did you first hear about the story of Maria Belon in The Impossible?

NAOMI WATTS: My agent called and said, “There is this movie about the tsunami,” and my first reaction was, “How’s that going to work?” It just wasn’t like a slam-dunk, “Oh, I want to do that.” But then he mentioned the director (J.A. Bayona), and obviously, I knew The Orphanage and thought that film was brilliant. Meeting (Bayona and producer Belen Atienza), the level of passion that came through in that meeting was so intense and so wonderful—it was very seductive. I knew right away that I wanted to do it.

AWARDSLINE: You spent a good amount of time researching the role and talking with Maria. What kind of questions did you have for her?

WATTS: I was very nervous. I just thought, Oh, God. I’m an actor, and this is a woman who nearly died and nearly lost her entire family. Is this going to be an uncomfortable situation? I felt frozen with fear on how to begin that conversation. We had a couple of emails in the lead up, and then finally we got in a room together. I think she had her own anxiety about it, and we didn’t actually speak for a few minutes. We just looked at each other, and it’s, like, just one look in her eyes told her whole story, and we both just started to cry. It’s such a big event that’s taken place in her life, and to be retelling this story brings it all up again. She was completely open to talk endlessly and with great detail about every beat in the story. I was very fortunate to have that guidance. When you’re making a film, it’s very easy to get caught up in the process, but we were always grounded by this very real thing that took place. Not just Maria. Every time you walked on the set there were hundreds of extras who were telling their version of their story. It was all deeply moving.

AWARDSLINE: How much time did you spend in rehearsals?

WATTS: With Ewan (McGregor), I didn’t have any rehearsals, but with Tom (Holland), we had about 3½ weeks together, and I just loved it. I went home at the end of the first day of the rehearsal and told Liev (Schreiber, her husband) how much I loved the director because I thought his way of doing things was just brilliant and fun. (Bayona) had us sit down in front of each other and draw each other. It felt kind of goofy and silly—particularly because neither of us can draw. (Laughs). But it was just, like, “Let’s do this. Let’s hang out.” (We were) free to explore weaknesses, strengths, whatever. It was (about) creating a forum so that we both felt completely safe and bonded and could have this family history.

AWARDSLINE: You shot the water sequences in a water tank in Spain—what was that like?

WATTS: Working with water is one of the more difficult things to do on film, and it certainly lived up to its reputation. But it was a very well-planned, worked-out science. They had this gigantic pool that had currents running both ways, and you were strapped into these sort of giant flowerpots, and you would just be forced to move with the current, against the current. Tom enjoyed it and thought it was like going to the water park. Me? No, not so much.

The underwater stuff was incredibly difficult, and I did not like that at all. It’s always nerve-wracking holding your breath, and obviously, the longer you hold it, the better the shot’s going to be so you always want to try to get the best stuff. But we were anchored into a chair (with) weights on us to keep us down. You had the oxygen tank right there up until you rolled, and you’d push it away and then the chair starts spinning, and you have to do all your arm-acting and head-flipping. There was one point when I was about to get out of the chair, and I couldn’t get out. It was a technical problem, and it really freaked me out. I remember being really angry when I came out of the water because it just made me panic, and that’s the emotion that came out of me. And it’s funny because when Juan Antonio had me resurface in the movie and I’m holding onto that tree and I can’t see any member of my family, he had me shouting and screaming and I didn’t quite understand it. I kept thinking, Wouldn’t I just be exhausted and terrified? It

Q&A: Looper director Rian Johnson

What started out as a three-page script almost a decade ago has turned out to be writer-director Rian Johnson’s most successful film to date, Looper. The time-travel tale stars frequent Johnson collaborator Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, both playing the same character from different points in their lives. “It was less (about) taking 10 years to get it done and more kind of writing it and thinking it up eight years later,“ he explains. Johnson recently spoke with AwardsLine about why it’s fun to work with friends and how he’s learned that directing is more about listening than anything else.

AWARDSLINE: When you expanded your initial three-page script into a feature, you wrote with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in mind for the main character. What makes collaborating with a lot of the same people on your films work well for you?

RIAN JOHNSON: The main benefit of it is just that level of trust that’s automatically baked into working with someone who’s a friend of yours. What I hope that leads to is giving you the comfort level to take some risks or try some things you may be otherwise afraid to. Because you have leapfrogged putting a lot of energy into forming a new relationship, you can redirect that into just making the movie better. But our sets don’t feel like cocktail parties; our sets tend to be really focused places.

AWARDSLINE: When did Bruce Willis get involved in the film?

JOHNSON: I’d thought of the part for Joe, but when we started casting, Bruce was the first person we went after. I really didn’t think we would get him, just because some of the darker elements in the script. I mean, in the movie, he does some very un-Bruce Willis-like things. (But) he responded almost immediately to it and then set up a lunch. I was terrified and shaking like a leaf, but I went to lunch with him, totally expecting him to say, “Well, I’m interested, but we’re going to have to change this and this”—and there was absolutely none of that. He was just really into it and ready to get to work. It was kind of disconcerting, actually.

AWARDSLINE: There’s actually a scene in Looper when Willis’ character is shooting up an office that made me think, “This is the Die Hard scene they just worked in. This is what everyone wants to see.”

JOHNSON: (Laughs). It’s funny, that scene was there before we even knew who we were casting, but Bruce coming into that role adds an extra dimension to it where it feels like it was written for him. Besides the fact that Bruce is just a great actor, I thought it would be very interesting—particularly with this part and with this script—how his action-movie persona and how audiences’ expectations of that would interact with his character’s arc.

AWARDSLINE: As a writer and director, do you generally go into production with a locked script? Or are you fine-tuning while you’re shooting?

JOHNSON: With something like this, there’s not a ton of improvising that you can do, just because it’s an interlocked puzzle to some extent. But at the same time, by the time I get on set, I feel like I’ve had a version of the movie in my head for a couple of years, and it’s not that interesting for me, so I’m looking to find people who are going to surprise me. I’ve come from the mode of storyboarding everything out, having everything very planned, that low-budget kind of filmmaking. But one of the things I’m trying to do to grow as a filmmaker (is) get better at being open to the moment on set. So there were a lot of scenes in Looper where if a moment didn’t feel quite right, we would be sending the crew away and taking half an hour to talk it through with the actors. So much of directing is not directing but just listening and being present in the moment and just keeping your eyes open.

AWARDSLINE: Did you consciously decide not to get too caught up in the details of time travel when you were writing?

JOHNSON: Time travel from a writing perspective is such a beast, and I knew that. Even if you take the approach that we took with Looper, and you don’t have a “chalkboard” scene—you don’t have a scene where they explain it all out—that doesn’t mean that you can’t have your system for how all this works. I did spend nearly a year working out my set of rules. Then that just serves as an invisible foundation. The tricky thing is once you spend all that time creating all those rules, the temptation is to explain them. The temptation is to lay it out and show the audience how clever you’ve been. There may be a segment of the audience that may miss it not being there, but at the end of the day, it’s not what the story’s about.

AWARDSLINE: Were there any scenes during production that were particularly difficult to shoot?

JOHNSON: The scene that surprised me in terms of its difficulty, or just how intensive it was, was the diner scene. We had two days to shoot the conversation between (Willis and Gordon-Levitt’s characters). Just a couple of cameras, and two guys sitting in a booth talking. But in its own way, (it was) a lot more intense than any of the action stuff.  It was of surprising to me that that was the scene that was the most draining to shoot—and the most exhilarating. Seeing those two actors play off of each other for two days was fun. We actually, in those two days, burned more film than we did for the entirety of Brick.

AWARDSLINE: What’s changed for you since Looper’s release? Are you getting more or better offers to direct and write?

JOHNSON: It’s really cool to be having conversations with people at studios, but for me not a lot has changed—I’m doing the same thing I was doing after the last movie. I’m sitting down to write the next one. Not that there’s not great material out there, but, for me, I’m really just focused on telling my own stories right now, figuring out how to do that. So, yeah, it’s the same thing. I’ve got my head down again in notebooks, hanging around the house and trying to figure it out.

AWARDSLINE: (Laughs). Procrastinating…

JOHNSON: Procrastinating the hell out of it. And I’ll panic in a few months. My house is never cleaner than when I’m writing.

Behind The Scenes On The Impossible

When the production team behind Summit’s The Impossible met with 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami survivor Maria Belon at a quiet coffee shop in Barcelona in the spring of 2008, they weren’t certain that she would agree to have her family’s harrowing story told in a feature film. Producer Belen Atienza knew they were in for an emotional afternoon—she was the one who first heard Belon’s story on the radio, a drama so profound that it left Atienza in tears after it concluded. But Atienza, director Juan Antonio Bayona, screenwriter Sergio Sanchez—who have a shorthand from working together on Bayona’s Spanish-language horror hit The Orphanage—gained Belon’s trust in a simple way: They listened.

“We were all really nervous,” Atienza recalls about the initial meeting. “She talked for three and a half hours. It was exhausting for her and for us. We didn’t open our mouths—we were just listening—and she was extremely thorough.”

The resulting film, an almost unbelievable tale of one family’s struggle to reunite amidst a country’s horror and loss, stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, whose performances started some Oscar buzz after the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September. The Impossible also has the benefit of being cofinanced and distributed by a studio familiar with nurturing films through awards season, Summit, which was behind the Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker in 2008. The Impossible doesn’t open in the United States until Dec. 21, but it has already earned the distinction of having the biggest opening weekend in Spain’s boxoffice history, with $13.3 million on 638 screens.

Though bringing Belon’s story to the screen wasn’t without its challenges—from uncooperative weather to complex visual effects—Sanchez says Belon made her intentions clear during the first meeting, and it became a constant refrain during production.

“Maria kept saying, ‘This is not our story. This is the story of lots of people,’” Sanchez recounts.

The first step in giving the story more universal appeal and demonstrating how the tsunami’s destruction of 300,000 lives touched multiple countries was to dramatize the family itself. Belon is Spanish, but Watts and McGregor play their roles as British. Sanchez says the decision was clear after he finished the first 40-page treatment for the film, most of which ended up having English dialogue. Atienza adds that, more importantly, it made sense from a
business perspective.

“We needed to finance the budget, which was 30 million Euros, and the Spanish-speaking market is not so big,” she says. “There is no question that an English-speaking film has a potential for a much wider worldwide audience.”

Yet as big a concession to the truth as that might seem, it’s one of the few instances that the script veers from the details that Belon provided during months of meetings and email exchanges with the production team. However, 30 drafts later, Sanchez says some aspects of the story didn’t make the final script both to compress time and to keep the script grounded.

“Sometimes we were just bringing the story down a few notches,” Sanchez explains, “because there were some moments in the real story that were so incredible that it’s, like, ‘Nobody will believe this. We have to make this simpler because otherwise it’s going to look like a movie.’ ”

Watts, who was the first actor to sign on to the film, admits that hearing the concept for the script didn’t initially pique her interest. But that all changed when she started reading.

“Right from the first page I felt like, this feels real, this feels authentic,” Watts explains. “Yes, the tsunami is the important backdrop of the film, but at the core of it was this beautiful family story with a whole lot of heart that I found incredibly moving.”

For McGregor, it was a chance to play a role he’s had in real life for more than a decade. “One of the main draws for me was that it was the first time in my career that I explored parenthood. I mean, I must’ve had some kids in films before, but not many, and I’ve certainly never made a film that’s really about that relationship,” McGregor says.

Re-creating such devastation on a grand scale meant that Bayona had to ensure that every scene in the film was fully realized before shooting commenced, so that he could focus on the performances. Ultimately, he storyboarded the whole film.

“Everything had to be very controlled. Everything had to be written on paper,” Bayona explains, adding, “so all the time I was trying to put life back into the process.”

Bayona allowed for about three weeks of rehearsals: Watts and her young costar Tom Holland worked together, while McGregor and the two actors playing his sons, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast, forged their own relationships for the screen. (Incidentally, Watts and McGregor’s characters are separated for much of the film, so they didn’t spend any time rehearsing together.)

Bayona was intently focused on maintaining the realism required to engage the audience, which is why many of the extras are locals who lived through the tsunami and there’s no digital water at all in the film.

“We did it almost the old-fashioned way,” the director says. “We barely used green screen, and sets were huge. We were trying to be faithful to the real story.”

Watts and Holland shot their wave scenes in the second-largest tank in the world in Spain, strapped into containers Bayona refers to as “teacups” to keep them protected as a series of pumps churned the water. It took about a month to complete the tank shots.

“We did have a lot more dialogue on the page than we actually ended up saying,” Watts says. “We quickly worked out that you cannot speak in those situations because you’d just be swallowing a bucket full of water. It felt very safe, but it was difficult.”

The final onscreen tsunami sequence was a series of tank shots and miniatures, which when combined with a bass-heavy soundtrack is one of the most frightening scenes in the film. It also happened to be a real nail-biter for Atienza.

“We had to destroy the miniature because the big wave goes against the hotel. The miniature was really expensive, so we had one shot for that. That was the most tense moment,” Atienza recalls.

The tension continued when the production moved from Spain to Thailand, where the monsoon season was supposed to have just ended. Nevertheless, it rained from mid-October through Christmas, forcing some rewriting and shooting some of the more emotional scenes earlier than anticipated.

“For the first time in a century, the monsoon lasted until Christmas,” Atienza says. “So our nightmare was that we were running out of interior effects to shoot. We had to change the schedule around all the time—the art department went totally crazy.”

Despite the forces conspiring against completion of the film, Bayona says he believes he did justice to the story that Belon first told in that café in Barcelona. There was no official screening for the family because Belon was onhand for much of the shoot. But the family of five was at the film’s Toronto premiere, where the audience gave them a standing ovation.

“It already felt like a film when Maria was telling the story on the radio,” Atienza recalls.

Awards Season At A Studio-By-Studio Glance

With the awards season is dissected and examined these days, it might appear as though creating a successful campaign is simply a matter of shrewd marketing and a key release date. But even the most cynical strategist will admit that luck is still as much a part of earning an Oscar nomination as anything else. When asked about the plan for a particular film in the awards race, a veteran campaigner said simply, “Light candles, pray.”

Whether they’re already on pundits’ lists or just looking for a little good juju, here’s a look at the films that are in the conversation, not including animation, documentaries, or foreign-language (with a few notable exceptions):

The Majors:


Last year, Disney’s partnership with DreamWorks yielded two best picture nominees, War Horse and The Help, the latter of which also earned supporting actor Octavia Spencer her first statuette. This year, Steven Spielberg’s followup to War Horse, Lincoln, is considered an all-category heavyweight, from director to Tony Kushner’s adapted screenplay to costumes to production design. And Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as the 16th president of the United States already has prognosticators declaring best actor in advance of its Nov. 9 theatrical release. Disney also has this summer’s hit from Marvel, The Avengers, which earned $1.5 billion at the worldwide boxoffice and is likely to factor into the below-the-line race.


It’s going to be hard to top last year’s success with Martin Scorsese’s 3-D love letter to film, Hugo, which ultimately earned five Oscars. But having a Denzel Washington-Robert Zemeckis project nestled in prime awards territory certainly won’t hurt. Flight, which marks Zemeckis’ first live-action effort in more than a decade, stars Oscar winner Washington as a commercial pilot with a substance-abuse problem. The film could be considered a dark horse for best picture, and is getting buzz for screenplay and supporting actor John Goodman. Paramount Vantage also has David Chase’s first post-Sopranos film, Not Fade Away, which follows a group of friends who start a band and features a supporting role from Tony himself, James Gandolfini.

Sony Pictures

Sony’s big awards-season hopeful is a film with an enviable pedigree: Zero Dark Thirty, which details the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, is the followup effort of director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, both of whom won Oscars for their work on The Hurt Locker in 2010. The film is likely to factor into all major categories including lead actress Jessica Chastain, supporting players Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle, as well as below-the-line slots. Among Sony’s other films are the new Bond film Skyfall, which has a cast including Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, and Javier Bardem—none of whom are strangers to Oscar—plus an original song from Adele; Rian Johnson’s Looper, which has drummed up small but ardent Internet support; and the August release, Hope Springs, which features Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones.

Twentieth Century Fox

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, which drew early raves when it opened the New York Film Festival, is a visually stunning story about a young man (Suraj Sharma) who’s adrift on the ocean, sharing his vessel with a tiger. Having an unknown in the lead will make it tough to break into the acting category, but it has all the other indicators of a serious all-category contender. Two other potential candidates from Fox’s slate are Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which could get recognized below the line, and Won’t Back Down, which stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis.


All eyes will be on Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables when it starts screening in November, ahead of its Christmas release. Not only are voters eager to see the big-screen adaptation of the musical—which stars Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman and has a supporting performance from Anne Hathaway—but its unveiling will bring further clarity to the race. It’s likely to factor into all categories (except original score, of course), including for the song “Suddenly,” which was written specifically for Jackman. The studio also has hopes for Judd Apatow’s followup to Knocked Up, This Is 40, which will qualify as an adapted screenplay because it picks up some of the same characters; Snow White and the Huntsman for below the line and original song; and Oscar host Seth MacFarlane’s summer hit Ted, in the visual-effects category; and Oliver Stone’s Savages.

Warner Bros.

Even with Gangster Squad and The Great Gatsby moving off of Warner’s 2012 slate this summer, the studio boasts a formidable group of films. Leading the pack is Ben Affleck’s Argo, which has been garnering plenty of Oscar talk since its debut at the Toronto Film Festival. Based on a true story, the film will factor into all the major categories, as well as editing, production design, costumes, and music. Not only will The Dark Knight Rises get an all-category push to mark the end of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, but Oscar winner Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit will be in all of those same categories and hail the start of a new three-film franchise. Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski’s time-bending Cloud Atlas is also being considered an all-category film, with an emphasis on the Wachowski Starship’s adapted screenplay and the crafts categories. Plus, it helps to have a cast of previous Oscar winners: Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in lead, Jim Broadbent in supporting. Trouble With the Curve will get support for Clint Eastwood’s lead role and Amy Adams’ supporting. And finally, for the ladies, Matthew McConaughey will get a boost for his supporting role in Magic Mike.

The Indies:


Shortly before this year’s Toronto Film Fest got underway, former Oscilloscope Laboratories cofounder and president David Fenkel announced his new distribution company, A24. Barely off the ground, the fledgling company is pushing to get into the awards game with Ginger & Rosa, starring Elle Fanning as a teenager in 1960s London dealing with family issues amidst the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s one of the few films this season directed by a woman, Sally Potter.

Focus Features

Focus’ 2011 awards push earned Gary Oldman his first best actor Oscar nomination for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, plus two others for adapted screenplay and score. And this year, Focus has four films that are a part of the conversation, including Wes Anderson’s Gotham Award-nominated Moonrise Kingdom, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and is a likely original screenplay contender. In addition, Joe Wright’s lush, highly stylized adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic, Anna Karenina, which is an all-category contender, hits theaters Nov. 16. Keira Knightley is getting attention for her role as the doomed Anna, and the film’s costumes and production design have craftspeople swooning. Focus earned some festival-circuit attention for also Hyde Park on Hudson, which features Bill Murray as President Franklin D. Roosevelt who strikes up an affair with his distant cousin Margaret, played by Laura Linney; as well as Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land, a relatively late addition to the Oscar schedule that stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski, both of whom also cowrote the original screenplay.

Fox Searchlight

With two best picture nominees last year—The Descendants and The Tree of Life—Fox Searchlight is firmly entrenched in the awards game. The specialty division made two key purchases at January’s Sundance Film Festival, both of which have prognosticators buzzing about Searchlight’s prospects for this year. First, Beasts of the Southern Wild, the feature-film debut of director Benh Zeitlin and starring two first-time actors, has earned just over $11 million at the boxoffice since June. Second, The Sessions, is a bittersweet story that stars John Hawkes as a paralyzed man who consults a sex therapist, played by Helen Hunt, which had a solid limited opening in late October. Searchlight’s big hit of the year, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, has grossed $134.4 million worldwide since its May release and features a top-notch cast including Judi Dench and Bill Nighy. And when the November release Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi, was announced last month as the opening-night film of the AFI Fest, it was instantly clear that the Helen Mirren-Anthony Hopkins picture would be a big part of awards chatter heading into a crucial balloting period.

Indomina Films

This relatively new indie distributor bought LUV, a drama about a boy and his troubled uncle starring Common and Michael Rainey Jr., at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.


Earning just over $400 million, The Hunger Games took the summer’s boxoffice by storm. Lionsgate is hoping the Academy will recognize the Jennifer Lawrence-starrer for its crafts achievements.


Screeners went out early for Millennium Entertainment’s dark comedy Bernie, which premiered at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival. The film, which stars Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey, is gaining momentum after earning Gotham Award nominations for feature and ensemble. Millennium also has Lee Daniels’ Florida noir The Paperboy, which drew decidedly mixed reviews at Cannes but stars Oscar winner Nicole Kidman.

Magnolia Pictures

The ripped-from-the headlines story in Compliance stars Ann Dowd as a fast-food-store manager who’s manipulated by a caller pretending to be a police officer. Magnolia also has Sarah Polley’s latest directorial effort, Take This Waltz, as well as Denmark’s official foreign-language entry, A Royal Affair, which has an attention-grabbing performance from Mads Mikkelsen.

Open Road

Liam Neeson’s emotional performance in the survival drama The Grey received a lot of attention when the film was released in January, but the actor race is particularly crowded this year, perhaps making it tough for him to break through. Open Road also has the well-received cop drama End of Watch, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, which could get attention for screenplay, crafts, and acting, particularly Michael Pena’s supporting performance.


There will be a very targeted effort from Relativity this year for the costumes of Mirror Mirror and Keith Urban’s original song, “For You,” from Act of Valor.

Sony Pictures Classics

It’s rare for a foreign-language film to break into major categories, but Sony Pictures Classics has two that are a topic of conversation. Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning Amour is appealing to older audiences through its emotional lead performers, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, both of whom could earn acting noms. Rust and Bone, a Palme d’Or nominee, stars Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard as a whale trainer who loses her legs, for which the visual effects alone are worth Academy attention. On the English-language side is To Rome With Love, Woody Allen’s followup to last year’s Oscar-winning original screenplay, Midnight in Paris; Celeste & Jesse Forever, starring Rashida Jones—who also cowrote the original screenplay—and Andy Samberg; and Smashed, featuring a performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead that’s getting some attention.

Roadside Attractions

Richard Gere has been well-reviewed in Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage, giving many awards watchers reason to start talking about the actor getting a career-first Oscar nomination. The indie label has hopes in all categories, particularly for Jarecki’s original screenplay. Stand Up Guys, which stars Al Pacino and Christopher Walken, is getting an actor push, as well as one for the Jon Bon Jovi original song, “Not Running Anymore.”


Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible, which stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, tells the real-life story of a family separated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It’s an all-category contender, particularly for screenplay and its detailed re-creation of the devastating wave. Summit also has The Perks of Being a Wallflower, adapted from Stephen Chbosky’s novel and starring Emma Watson.

Sundance Selects/IFC Films

The long-in-the-making adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s seminal On the Road had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, more than 50 years after its publication. The film, starring Garrett Hedlund and Kristin Stewart, could be a dark horse for adapted screenplay and below-the-line categories.

The Weinstein Co.

Master campaigner Harvey Weinstein is following his best picture win for The Artist with an awards-season slate that includes some of the most renowned directors working today. Although the Gotham Award-nominated September release The Master has divided audiences, there’s no argument that the all-category Paul Thomas Anderson film is visually stunning and has great performances from Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, which stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, was a crowd-pleaser at the Toronto Film Festival and recently earned an ensemble Gotham Award nom. Quentin Tarantino’s December release Django Unchained, still yet to be screened, is a third all-category film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx. In addition, multiple Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman makes his directorial debut with Quartet, about a group of aging musicians in a retirement home that stars Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, and Billy Connolly; and Brad Pitt has a lead role and James Gandolfini supporting in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. The company also has France’s official foreign-language submission The Intouchables, which is being pushed for best picture.

First Awards Season Stop: The Hollywood Film Awards

The Hollywood Film Awards might not boast the same caché as the Academy Awards, but it’s widely regarded as the first of many stops on the way to the Dolby Theater for awards hopefuls. The glitzy gala, which takes place tonight at the Beverly Hilton, has risen in prominence over the last few years, representing the official start of awards season–at least in terms of the flurry of red-carpet opportunities and sit-down dinners that comprise November through February in Los Angeles.

While many of this year’s honorees are likely to hear their names when Oscar nominations are announced Jan. 10, this group is determined not by industry professionals, but by Hollywood Film Awards founder, Carlos de Abreu, and a small committee. Nevertheless, de Abreu has been prescient in his past selections, which last year included Oscar winners Jean Dujardin, Octavia Spencer, and Christopher Plummer.

All of the honorees are announced ahead of time, so there won’t be any moments of shock or surprise, meaning everyone can relax at their crowded tables and enjoy the show. Tonight’s affair will include an ensemble award for the cast of Argo, for which Warner Bros. is in full campaign mode; director David O. Russell, lead actor Bradley Cooper, and supporting actor Robert DeNiro will receive mention for Silver Linings Playbook, another serious contender for The Weinstein Company and Cooper’s first real shot at an acting nom; Rust and Bone star and previous Oscar winner Marion Cotillard will receive an actress award; Quentin Tarantino is getting a screenwriting award for the film he also directed, Django Unchained; and Les Miserables and Anna Karenina producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner of Working Title Films will receive producer awards. Richard Gere, who’s getting great reviews for his role in Arbitrage, is tapped for career achievement, and Amy Adams will be honored for her supporting role in The Master.