Pete Hammond’s Down-To-The-Wire Final Oscar Predictions

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist.

Can’t we just end all this suspense about winners or losers and call it one massive tie this year? The 2012 crop of Oscar nominees, and films in general, is so impressively dense with quality it seems a shame the Academy has to pick just one winner in each category. But that’s the name of the game we play this time of year, and with ballots going out just as I had to turn this piece in, it is still a fluid situation as to just what the final results will be. With so many movies spread across many categories that are genuine contenders, a split vote resulting in some surprising twists and turns is possible, even though the various guild Ocsar Statues Are Made Ahead Of This Year's Academy Awardsawards give strong clues about industry sentiment. If the past is any indication, I am aware some readers might take these predictions as gospel and bet the farm on it in their Oscar pools, so I offer a disclaimer before we begin. I am not responsible for any monetary loss you might incur, nor do I expect 10% of any winnings. I am just trying to read the winds of Oscar after several months of analyzing every tea leaf. Here is where I have a hunch it stands, but please note I have made a few tweaks since the original version of these predictions were published in last week’s print edition of AwardsLine (I switched in production design and makeup/hairstyling). Results at BAFTA, WGA, and several other guild award shows have now been taken into account since then, but it is all still a crap shoot in one of the craziest Oscar years in memory.

Ben Affleck, right, and Bryan Cranston star in Argo.
Ben Affleck, right, and Bryan Cranston star in Argo.

BEST PICTURE

All season long, this has been about as wide open a race, and as competitive a field of contenders, as we have seen in many years. With nine nominees, the same number as last year, it has taken a while to figure out a surefire winner. But with key awards from the PGA, DGA, WGA, BAFTA and SAG, in addition to best picture honors at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Movie Awards, Argo has clearly emerged as the frontrunner, a remarkable turn of events considering its director, Ben Affleck, was snubbed by the Academy’s directing branch Jan. 10. Oh, what a difference a few weeks makes. The big question is, can the Warner Bros. juggernaut maintain momentum and win Oscar’s top prize, even without that directing nomination? If so, it would be only the second film to win without a directing nom, following Driving Miss Daisy’s feat at the 1990 ceremony. With the best picture category holding the strongest possibility for success among Argo’s seven nominations, could it actually win here and nowhere else? Not likely, but it’s possible, especially in a year in which I think the Academy will be spreading the wealth. Lincoln, with a leading 12 nominations (a good, if not always correct, indicator), Silver Linings Playbook, and Life of Pi are probably still in the mix here as well but…

The Winner: Argo

The Competition: Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty

Director Ang Lee tackled both 3D and digital effects for the first time in his career with Life of Pi.
Director Ang Lee tackled both 3D and digital effects for the first time in his career with Life of Pi.

BEST DIRECTOR

With the quirky director’s branch going out of their way to snub DGA nominees Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper, and DGA winner Ben Affleck, we know for sure we can’t count on the usual spot-on correlation between the DGA winner and the eventual victor in this category. Affleck actually would have been my prediction to win here, but, alas, he’s not even nominated, which means voters might very well be splitting their vote for director and picture this year — certainly not unheard of in recent years but increasingly rare. As directors of the two films with the most nominations, Steven Spielberg for Lincoln and Ang Lee for Life of Pi, are the likely frontrunners, with Silver Linings Playbook’s David O. Russell coming up on the outside. If initial frontrunner Lincoln has been eclipsed in the Best Picture race, this is the place voters could come to kneel at the Spielberg-ian altar. Or not. Lee’s triumph in even managing to bring the “unfilmable” Pi to the screen just screams “directing”, and that could play very well here.

The Winner: Ang Lee, Life of Pi

The Competition: Michael Haneke, Amour; Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Steven Spielberg, Lincoln; David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

The president walks slowly down the hall, heading to the theater for the evening.
The president walks slowly down the hall, heading to the theater for the evening.

BEST ACTOR

This is Daniel Day-Lewis’ to lose at this point. Playing such a well-known biographical figure is, of course, a big plus. But Day-Lewis brought a lot to the table and remains the guy to beat in an impossibly fine field of contenders. Day-Lewis’ biggest drawback is that he has already won this prize twice, and a third would be unprecedented for lead actors in Oscar history. Also no actor has ever won an Oscar for playing a U.S. president, another potential first. The Academy might want to reward equally deserving newcomers to the category like Hugh Jackman or Bradley Cooper instead, but judging from the pile of precursor awards Day-Lewis has already won, it looks like you can bet a very large pile of $5 bills that he will make Oscar history with honest Abe.

The Winner: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

The Competition: Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook; Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables; Joaquin Phoenix, The Master; Denzel Washington, Flight

Emmanuelle Riva plays a stroke victim in Amour.
Emmanuelle Riva plays a stroke victim in Amour.

BEST ACTRESS

I got this one wrong last year when Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) beat Viola Davis (The Help), and this is another tough one. The race for lead actress is hotly competitive, with both Silver Linings Playbook’s Jennifer Lawrence and Zero Dark Thirty’s Jessica Chastain claiming other early awards and also impressing with strong performances (Naomi Watts is magnificent in The Impossible, but that film got no other nominations, putting it at a disadvantage here against four other actress nominees from Best Picture contenders). Plus, never underestimate the so-called “babe factor” (thanks to the Academy’s dominant male membership) that this category often, but not always, favors. A win here for either one could be a chance to give either of their movies an important award, while shutting them out elsewhere. The real wild card in this race is 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva, whose performance in the foreign language film Amour has been widely praised and admired, particularly by her fellow actors, who comprise the Academy’s largest voting block. As the oldest Best Actress nominee ever (she actually turns 86 on Oscar Sunday), she could trigger a sentimental factor and a feeling that the others will have another shot someday. SAG champ Lawrence probably has the edge and is where the smart money’s going, but a split in this very fluid category could provide one of the evening’s most interesting stories. So going way out on a limb…

The Winner: Emmanuelle Riva, Amour

The Competition: Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty; Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook; Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Naomi Watts, The Impossible

Robert De Niro as Pat Sr. in Silver Linings Playbook.
Robert De Niro as Pat Sr. in Silver Linings Playbook.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

In a category of five former Oscar winners (a first indeed), I could actually see five different, and logical, results. Christoph Waltz took the Golden Globe and BAFTA, Philip Seymour Hoffman was the Critics Choice, and Tommy Lee Jones won at SAG. Alan Arkin is playing an industry insider in the enormously popular Argo, and the Weinstein Co. has been effectively reminding everyone Robert De Niro hasn’t won an Oscar in 32 years or even been nominated in 21 years. He’s coming up on the outside as Silver Linings Playbook has become a sizable hit just passing $100 million over the weekend. Truly, toss a coin here. There’s no true frontrunner, and a logical route to victory is possible for each one of these veterans.

The Winner: Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook

The Competition: Alan Arkin, Argo; Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master; Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln; Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Anne Hathaway as Fantine in Les Misérables.
Anne Hathaway as Fantine in Les Misérables.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Like the best actor race, this one has a clear frontrunner in Les Misérables Fantine, Anne Hathaway. Having won just about every precursor award including SAG and BAFTA, it looks like this year Hathaway will make it to Oscar’s stage without hosting the show. A video parody of her moving performance singing the signature “I Dreamed a Dream” went viral but shouldn’t stand in her way. If any of the other contenders have a shot, it’s definitely Lincoln’s Mary Todd, Sally Field. We know Oscar likes her — they really, really like her (she’s won twice) — but it appears to be Hathaway’s year in the winner’s circle.

The Winner: Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables

The Competition: Amy Adams, The Master; Sally Field, Lincoln; Helen Hunt, The Sessions; Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

Ben Affleck, left, with Argo screenwriter Chris Terrio.
Ben Affleck, left, with Argo screenwriter Chris Terrio.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

This is a very tough category with several worthy entries, all Best Picture nominees. Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning playwright Tony Kushner’s herculean efforts in finding the right tone and approach to Lincoln are well chronicled, and he has the solid endorsement of Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the book Team of Rivals from which he drew a lot of source material. He is a major contender, even if Argo takes Best Picture over his film. A late-breaking controversy sparked by a Connecticut congressman over some of the facts in the film hit just as ballots reached voters hands and that could be a factor here. On the other hand, Chris Terrio’s meticulous and tricky work on Argo is impressive, and voters might want to reward the film’s script, especially if they are voting it Best Picture. That is usually how it works, but this is a weird year. Argo has also had its own fair share of criticism from some quarters for tweaking some of the facts for dramatic purposes. Of course voters may realize they aren’t voting for Best Documentary.  David O. Russell’s funny and moving adaptation of Silver Linings is another strong possibility and recently took this prize from BAFTA, so it’s a three-way battle. But with its Best Picture likelihood…

The Winner: Chris Terrio, Argo

The Competition: Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar, Beasts of the Southern Wild; David Magee, Life of Pi; Tony Kushner, Lincoln; David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

The French-language Amour follows a husband who must care for his ailing wife.
The French-language Amour follows a husband who must care for his ailing wife.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

This is another category that seems widely split with no obvious frontrunner. But the three likeliest contenders would appear to be Django Unchained which won this award at Critics Choice, Golden Globes and BAFTA, Zero Dark Thirty which took it at WGA, and Amour, considering all three are also Best Picture nominees. That would indicate more widespread support among the entire Academy, which gets to vote in the finals. Both Quentin Tarantino’s Django and Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty have been hit by controversy over their respective elements of treatment of slaves and use of torture, giving both of those former winners in this category more of an uphill climb to overcome negative publicity. That leaves an opening for the widely admired Amour, which could become the first to win both Best Foreign Language film and Original Screenplay since Claude Lelouch’s 1966 film A Man and a Woman, a movie that, like Amour, also happened to star the great Jean-Louis Trintignant. Django could well bring Tarantino his second writing Oscar, but…

The Winner: Michael Haneke, Amour

The Competition: Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained; John Gatins, Flight; Wes Anderson and  Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom; Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty

THE OTHER CATEGORIES

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

A strong group of movies, but the other four nominees have the misfortune of being named in a year that also includes Amour, which despite being a French film is actually the Austrian entry because of the nationality of its director, Michael Haneke. Winner of the Palme d’Or and just about every precursor prize this year, as well as being only the fifth film in Oscar history in this category also to be up for Best Picture, it would appear to be unbeatable here. But if any category has offered surprises in recent years, it is this one since you can only vote only if you prove you have seen all five entries.

The Winner: Amour (Austria)

The Competition: Kon-Tiki (Norway), No (Chile), A Royal Affair (Denmark), War Witch (Canada)

Wreck-It Ralph in the videogame world of Sugar Rush.
Wreck-It Ralph in the videogame world of Sugar Rush.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Tim Burton, whose Frankenweenie was a critical hit but a box office disappointment, is overdue for Oscar recognition, and this one might be his most personal film yet. However, there are two other stop-motion entries in the category, including the acclaimed ParaNorman, which has been campaigned heavily, and the highly underrated and hilarious Aardman ’toon The Pirates, which by comparison has been well hidden by Sony. Two other Disney entries — Pixar’s Brave, which won the Golden Globe and BAFTA, and Disney Animation’s Wreck-It-Ralph, which triumphed at the PGA and Annies — could help split the studio vote with Frankenweenie, but I doubt it.

The Winner: Wreck-It-Ralph

The Competition: Brave, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Searching for Sugar ManBEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

A deserving group of nominees dealing with heavyweight topics are likely to lose to a fascinating and very human musical documentary about the resurrection of a singer long given up for dead who finally finds fame in the most unlikely of ways.

The Winner: Searching for Sugar Man

The Competition: 5 Broken Cameras, The Gatekeepers, How to Survive a Plague, The Invisible War

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

If there were a production more beautifully designed this year than Anna Karenina, I am not sure what it is, but reaction overall to the movie was mixed, meaning large-scale Best Picture nominees Les Misérables, Life of Pi, or Lincoln might sneak past it, but which one? For the sheer technical challenge of it all, I would say take another slice of Pi.

The Winner: Life Of Pi (Production Design:  David Gropman; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock)

The Competition: Anna Karenina (production design: Sarah Greenwood, set decoration: Katie Spencer); The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (production design: Dan Hennah, set decoration: Ra Vincent and Simon Bright); Les Misérables (production design: Eve Stewart, set decoration: Anna Lynch-Robinson);  Lincoln (production design: Rick Carter, set decoration: Jim Erickson)

Real candles lit this scene in Life of Pi.
Real candles lit this scene in Life of Pi.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Life of Pi is considered a masterful technical achievement, and one of its chief attributes is Claudio Miranda’s stunning cinematography, which blends the CGI world with the real and makes it all a cohesive whole.

The Winner: Life of Pi, Claudio Miranda

The Competition: Seamus McGarvey, Anna Karenina; Robert Richardson, Django Unchained; Janusz Kaminski, Lincoln; Roger Deakins, Skyfall

RELATED: OSCARS: Cinematographers On Creating The Right Imagery

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Two of the nominees here really scream costume design and deliver on all fronts: Mirror Mirror from the late Eiko Ishioka and Snow White and the Huntsman from frequent winner Colleen Atwood. There are also two more high-profile Best Picture nominees in the mix — Lincoln and Les Misérables — but this category often marches to the beat of its own drum, and this year the stunning work from Jacqueline Durran for Anna Karenina will likely stand above the rest when voters sit down to assess these contenders.

The Winner: Anna Karenina, Jacqueline Durran

The Competition: Les Misérables, Paco Delgado; Lincoln, Joanna Johnston; Mirror Mirror, Eiko Ishioka; Snow White and the Huntsman, Colleen Atwood

RELATED: OSCARS: Nommed Costume Designers Talk About Challenges

BEST FILM EDITING

This is sometimes a category where voters go their own way, such as last year when non-Best Picture nominee The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo shocked the frontrunners here and won its one and only Oscar in a bit of a surprise. This year, all five nominees are also up for Picture, so it should follow more closely to tradition. Because of its technical challenges, Life of Pi’s chances cannot be discounted, but this seems a place also to honor Argo for its tricky dance with tone and pace, although its editor William Goldenberg is competing with himself for Zero Dark Thirty. Still….

The Winner: Argo, William Goldenberg

The Competition: Life of Pi, Tim Squyres; Lincoln, Michael Kahn; Silver Linings Playbook, Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers; Zero Dark Thirty, Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg

RELATED: OSCARS: Nominated Film Editors Break Down Key Scenes

Sacha Baron Cohen plays innkeeper Thenardier in Les Misérables.
Sacha Baron Cohen plays innkeeper Thenardier in Les Misérables.

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

This one’s almost a toss-up. Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth might normally have an advantage just because of the very nature of the film — unless voters want to reward the changing looks of Jean Valjean and Fantine in Les Mis which won at BAFTA.

The Winner:  Les Miserables,  Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell

The Competition: Hitchcock, Howard Berger, Peter Montagna, and Martin Samuel; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Swords King, Rick Findlater, and Tami Lane

BEST ORIGINAL MUSIC SCORE

Of course Lincoln’s John Williams is a perennial nominee and winner already of five Oscars, while Skyfall’s 11-time nominee and recent BAFTA winner Thomas Newman is still looking for his first. But I have a feeling it’s between the masterful mix of Middle Eastern strains and orchestral score that Alexandre Desplat pulled off in Argo versus first-time nominee Mychael Danna, who earned a nomination for his elegant and stirring score in Life of Pi, as well as an original song nom.

The Winner: Life of Pi, Mychael Danna

The Competition: Anna Karenina, Dario Marianelli; Argo, Alexandre Desplat; Lincoln, John Williams; Skyfall, Thomas Newman

BEST SONG

Oscar host Seth MacFarlane cowrote one of the nominated songs, the sprightly tune from Ted, and it has a shot because it is the type of upbeat melody that has won here in recent years. If a Muppet can win last year, why not a stuffed bear? The one and only original song in Les Mis, “Suddenly”, isn’t all that memorable compared to the rest of the score. We’re going with the frontrunner and Golden Globe winner, Skyfall, which should make Adele the latest pop star to successfully infiltrate this category. It also would be the first-ever James Bond song to actually win, appropriate in 007’s 50th year, don’t you think?

The Winner: “Skyfall” from Skyfall, Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth

The Competition: “Before My Time” from Chasing Ice, music and lyrics by J. Ralph; “Everybody Needs a Best Friend” from Ted, music by Walter Murphy, lyrics by Seth MacFarlane; “Pi’s Lullaby” from Life of Pi, music by Mychael Danna, lyrics by Bombay Jayashri; “Suddenly” from Les Misérables, music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil

RELATED: OSCARS: Best Original Song Race Handicap

A boy loses his family in a violent shipwreck in Life of Pi.
A boy loses his family in a violent shipwreck in Life of Pi.

BEST SOUND EDITING

The sound categories are rarely completely understood by the membership at large that gets to vote in all categories, but again, the technical achievement and challenges of Life of Pi probably prevail over a worthy field that could include another bow to James Bond, or a tip of the hat to Argo as part of its Best Picture booty, but probably won’t.

The Winner: Life of Pi, Eugene Gearty and Philip Stockton

The Competition: Argo, Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn; Django Unchained, Wylie Stateman; Skyfall, Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers; Zero Dark Thirty, Paul N. J. Ottosson

RELATED: OSCARS: Sound Editing and Sound Mixing Nominees Often Overlap

BEST SOUND MIXING

Life of Pi might very well take the sound category, but here musicals often triumph, and what greater sound mixing achievement was there this year than blending nearly unprecedented live singing with other sound elements in Les Mis? Among other things, they had to bring an entire orchestra in during post to match the songs.

The Winner: Les Misérables, Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson, and Simon Hayes

The Competition: Argo, John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, and Jose Antonio Garcia; Life of Pi, Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill, and Drew Kunin; Lincoln, Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom, and Ronald Judkins; Skyfall, Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell, and Stuart Wilson

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

This one’s a runaway. The biggest sure thing on the ballot. Even at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon when the name first came up, there was a big whoop and applause from the voter-heavy audience. And it ran over the competition at the VES awards and BAFTA, too.

The Winner: Life of Pi, Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer, and Donald R. Elliott

The Competition: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, and R. Christopher White; Marvel’s The Avengers, Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams, and Dan Sudick; Prometheus, Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley, and Martin Hill; Snow White and the Huntsman, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Philip Brennan, Neil Corbould, and Michael Dawson

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT

As usual, this category has a strong list of heavyweight topics, but it’s likely between Mondays at Racine, a touching film about a beauty shop that opens its doors once a week to cancer patients, and Open Heart, about a group of Rwandan children being flown to the only free medical center in Africa for treatment of heart disease. In a year that features more than one contender dealing with the pain and problems of aging, Kings Point might also have a shot. This is a category where you can only vote in person at special screenings of all five (four of the five films are from HBO which dominates here).

The Winner: Open Heart

The Competition: Inocente, Kings Point, Mondays at Racine, Redemption

An estranged couple finds its way back together in the animated short Head Over Heels
An estranged couple finds its way back together in the animated short Head Over Heels

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM

This is a very rich category, and for the first time, DVD screeners of the contenders here and in live-action short (as well as feature docs) were sent to the entire membership, rather than allowing voting only at special screenings where all five noms are shown. With a Simpsons ’toon from Fox, as well as a Disney Animation Studios title in the mix, those studios with large numbers of Academy voters could have the advantage, especially if those studios’ Academy members stay loyal to their home team. That could put others here — such as the charming and remarkably accomplished British student stop-motion animated entry Head Over Heels, about a longtime married couple who have grown apart literally and figuratively — at a disadvantage. And Disney’s Paperman is equally wonderful giving it frontrunner status, as it also played theatrically earlier in the year. This is a really tough choice.  However, Goliath doesn’t always beat David, so on a hunch….

The Winner: Head Over Heels

The Competition: Adam and Dog, Fresh Guacamole, Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare, Paperman

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM

A generally intriguing group of films, most with a strong international flavor, provide great showcases for some potentially major new directors. Particularly cinematic are Death of a Shadow, Asad, and Afghanistan’s remarkably fine and memorable entry, Buzkashi Boys.

The Winner: Buzkashi Boys

The Competition: Asad, Curfew, Death of a Shadow, Henry

Directing Nominees Discuss Bringing Their Ideas To Fruition

Mike Fleming Jr. is film editor of Deadline. Anthony D’Alessandro is managing editor of AwardsLine. Paul Brownfield, Diane Haithman, and David Mermelstein are AwardsLine contributors.

Amour writer-director Michael Haneke
Amour writer-director Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke | Amour

Oscar pedigree: He has two nominations this year for screenwriting and direction. Previously, 2009’s The White Ribbon received two noms for best foreign language film and cinematography.

Birds and death: “The pigeon. You can’t direct a pigeon. At most, you can entice it to move it a certain way by placing corn on the ground. But even then, it won’t obey your instructions. Of course I’m joking when I say that. The most difficult scene in the film is the one in which (Georges) suffocates (his wife). The scene is preceded by a 10-minute monologue. And Jean-Louis Trintignant had a broken wrist at that time, so we had to shoot around that. And Emmanuelle Riva was concerned about her safety physically. So it was difficult for everyone involved,” says the Amour director.

No shame: When directing Emmanuelle Riva’s nude shower scene in which she is assisted by a healthcare worker, Haneke explains: “As a director, it wasn’t difficult for me. It was far more uncomfortable for her. But it was clear from the beginning that it was necessary to shoot this scene—to capture the fragility of her situation. My job as a director was to make sure I didn’t betray her, that she wasn’t shown critically or depicted in an unpleasant light, but just to show what people in such situations have to go through.”—David Mermelstein

Director Ang Lee tackled both 3D and digital effects for the first time in his career with Life of Pi.
Director Ang Lee tackled both 3D and digital effects for the first time in his career with Life of Pi.

Ang Lee | Life of Pi

Oscar pedigree: In addition to best picture and directing nominations this year, Ang Lee won a 2005 best directing Oscar for Brokeback Mountain. He was nominated in the directing and best picture categories for 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which won best foreign language film. His 1995 film Sense and Sensibility rallied seven Oscar noms, including best picture, and a win for Emma Thompson’s adapted screenplay of Jane Austen’s novel, but Lee was overlooked in the directing category. In addition, Lee’s 1993 films The Wedding Banquet and 1994’s Eat Drink Man Woman were the Taiwanese submissions during their respective years and nominated in the best foreign language film category.

Power of persuasion: “Tom Rothman at Fox pitched (it to) me as a family movie,” Lee recalls. “I asked, ‘Why do you want to spend this kind of money?’ Because I’ve been in this business long enough to know that’s probably not going to be true. Tom said, ‘It’s a family movie.’ I said, ‘What do you mean a family movie?’ He said, ‘What happened to you when you first read the book?’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I introduced it to my wife and my family.”

Solving Pi: “I started to get hooked on, ‘How do you crack this thing? How do you examine illusion within illusion?’ We all know movies are based on illusions—the image, the emotional ride—but how do you do that while you’re examining the power of storytelling? Once I started to think about the solution, I got hooked. And I thought of 3D maybe adding another dimension. The whole thing could open up; what doesn’t make sense could make sense. And I thought of the older Pi telling stories, so I have the first person going through the story while the third person is examining it, but they’re the same person.”

Long days sinks ship: “The most challenging scene to direct and produce was the freighter sinking sequence. What was involved was the ocean, rain, lightning, and wind. We weren’t out at sea; we were in a wave tank that we created in Taiwan. We spent 78 days on that scene. It was a two-year preparation, so it was a big undertaking,” Lee told AwardsLine at the PGA Awards.

Harnessing visuals: “With new media (3D), nobody really can give you advice. People who have done it will tell you what it’s about. It will turn out most of that is not true. I took lessons, I took advice. But next year, people will look at this film and say, ‘Oh, he should have done something different.’ This is that new to us. It hasn’t been established in the audience’s mind. There are things like conversion points, you can make adjustments later, but how you frame it, how you separate the camera, the volume of depth, you have to decide on the set. You’re doing something you don’t know, how that depth works with the lens. You just don’t know, you’re guessing. That’s the scary thing.”—Paul Brownfield

Director David O. Russell, center, with stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence on the set of Silver Linings Playbook,
Director David O. Russell, center, with stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence on the set of Silver Linings Playbook,

David O. Russell | Silver Linings Playbook

Oscar pedigree: He has two nominations this year for directing and best adapted screenplay. He was previously nominated for directing 2010’s The Fighter.

Pat Jr. comes home: “The first scene where Pat Jr. faces his dad was challenging because that establishes the entire tone of the picture. I directed it many different ways. Because Bradley (Cooper) had to create that character, we tried him more bipolar and less bipolar, with more Asperger traits and less, being more explosive with his father and more loving. We were finding that balance. We were also establishing the whole setup of the movie, because the mother is taking Pat Jr. out early, the father is a bookmaker, which is something I did in the adaptation. I chose to follow the 2008 season and locked into that, as it availed us of a lot of interesting information that I heard from Philadelphia Eagles fans, such as (wide receiver) DeSean Jackson. From that, we have Pat Jr. wearing his jersey. DeSean spiking the ball on the one-yard line is literally a metaphor for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, which symbolizes the Eagles’ struggle and symbolizes Pat Jr.’s struggle. I made Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) a bookmaker because the economy collapsed in 2008. In the book, one doesn’t really know exactly what he did. I imagined he was a DHL Express manager of a hub, and he retired and lost his pension, which happened to a lot of people. His obsession in the book with bookmaking is just an obsession, but in the movie, it’s an obsession that goes to the economic livelihood of the house. So in that opening scene, establishing the tone and characters was extremely important.”

Tiffany makes her grand entrance: “The scene where Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) comes in the house for the first time was also crucial in getting the emotional content to land hard. We collide the agendas. We invented the best friend, Randy, who is the nemesis who bets against Pat Sr. The nemesis’ role is important as he loves the wife and always thinks she’s beautiful. It also creates the world of the neighborhood. I loved that all the characters travel by foot. Nobody gets in the car unless Pat Jr. goes to therapy. They even walk to the dance.”—Anthony D’Alessandro

Director Steven Spielberg on the set of Lincoln.
Director Steven Spielberg on the set of Lincoln.

Steven Spielberg | Lincoln

Oscar pedigree: Eight picture nominations, one win for 1993’s Schindler’s List. Seven directing nominations, two wins for Schindler and 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg also has a 1986 Irving G. Thalberg Memorial award.

Intimate setting: “The difference between Lincoln and Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan is that the last two films take place outside,” Spielberg says. “Lincoln is within the intimacy of a set in actual, practical locations. So every room was like a library. It was quiet, there was not a lot of room to work. We didn’t want to tear down walls and suddenly have the actors see the entire crew and monitors just glaring at us from 20 yards away. So even the sets that Rick Carter built—he built a good deal of sets for this—did not have wild ceilings or wild walls. With Schindler’s List, I wanted actors to step out of character, step off the set, to return to reality as often as possible. It was different on Lincoln. It’s a beautiful literary piece.”

No drama in the Civil War: “The first screenplay draft I showed to Daniel Day-Lewis (in 2001-02) was also not a biopic. It was more like a Civil War drama. It was the story of the last three years of the Civil War, and it involved seven huge battles. Lincoln was prosecuting the war, first through Gen. McClellan and then Gen. Grant. But it was much more of a Saving Private Ryan, set between 1863 and 1865. And it quickly wore thin on me and became clear that it was not the story I wanted to tell. It took Tony (Kushner) and I a long time figuring out what part of Lincoln’s life would be able to give audiences an appreciation and understanding of his humanity, to take him off his alabaster pedestal and Mt. Rushmore to be able to understand that he was someone that could and should be related to. And that was not doable with the Civil War in his way. James McPherson, the great Civil War historian, once said that the Civil War is so vast that even a gigantic figure like Abraham Lincoln could get lost in it. And McPherson was absolutely right; Lincoln got lost in my first attempt to tell the story of the Civil War through his eyes, and I jettisoned that project within a year.”

Long story short: “This was going to be a story of his last three years, but the script was 550 pages long. For me, the most compelling part of that screenplay was a 65-page section which was the struggle to pass the 13th amendment that abolished slavery. Tony and I found that the more real estate of Lincoln’s life we covered, the more it diminished him as someone who understood politics, personalities, and political theater. And it took us away from his family. It took us away from the deep cold depths he would find himself in that some people thought was his form of depression. It took us away from that because it covered too much territory. The Emancipation Proclamation and the struggle to find the right time to announce it, the Gettysburg Address—there were so many bullet points in Lincoln’s life that actually the more that we spread over 550 pages, the more superficial his character felt. Once we focused everything on two great issues, the passing of the 13th amendment and ending the Civil War, everything got a lot more concentrated and a lot more focused.”—Mike Fleming Jr.

(Quvenzhané Wallis), (Benh Zeitlin), (Dwight Henry)Benh Zeitlin | Beasts of the Southern Wild

Oscar pedigree: Beasts marks Zeitlin’s first nominations in the directing and best adapted screenplay categories.

The Beasts of the BP oil spill: “A lot of our sets were on the wrong side of the barriers that they put up to block the oil, so we actually had to be in negotiations with BP to get a lot of our sets,” Zeitlin says. “There were incredibly difficult hoops to jump through, but they were looking so bad in the media they were actually uncharacteristically, I would say, willing to cooperate. Actually, it was amazing that we managed to get back there. Anything for good PR at that time, they were going to do. We used that to our advantage.”

Casting without preconceptions: “It’s part of the idea of (my film company) Core 13, to not just write something and fill in the blanks, it’s about trying to work on these ideas and concepts and work on trying to find the essence of the character, to search for that essence in somebody. When you are looking for something in that way, you can find it in unexpected places. We wanted to stay open to what we might find out in the world. We definitely had written the character as a girl—we wanted it to be a girl and focused on casting girls—but within that, we looked at a tremendous variety of people. If you see a brave little boy, you think it might work, but obviously we found a pretty great little girl. We were rehearsing at the bakery in the mornings so that Dwight Henry could get his work done. That was key to his taking the role—he had turned it down several times. On set, we tried to make sure that it felt like a game for Quvenzhané Wallis at all times. We tried to shelter her from the panic of a film set. We always tried to maintain energy on the set that a 5-year-old would want to be part of.”—Diane Haithman

Original Screenplay Nominees On Finding Ideas To Explore

Anthony D’Alessandro is managing editor of AwardsLine. David Mermelstein and Paul Brownfield are AwardsLine contributors. This article appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of AwardsLine.

The French-language Amour follows a husband who must care for his ailing wife.
The French-language Amour follows a husband who must care for his ailing wife.

Amour

Auteurs wouldn’t be auteurs if they weren’t enigmatic, especially when it comes to deconstructing details of their oeuvre. “Let the film speak for itself” is often the motto, and for Amour director and screenwriter Michael Haneke, that’s not too far from his own credo. However, he’s not completely inaccessible when responding to the audience’s fervor for his work.

“It’s very difficult for me to say, it was so long ago, I can’t remember,” Haneke told AwardsLine when asked if there were one particularly challenging scene to write for Amour. “Generally, when it comes to screenwriting, I can say that if it’s flowing, you enjoy it. If not, it’s far less pleasant. But there’s always ambivalence—the struggle to put something there on a blank page when there was nothing there before. If it’s successful, you’re happy; if not, you’re depressed.”

In writing the story of 80-year-old husband Georges who contends with his dying wife Anne’s debilitated state, Haneke was spurred by a beloved aunt’s long and painful battle with a degenerative condition. For the director, the story of the elderly couple’s struggle was a universal tragedy versus a tragic drama “about a 40-year-old couple who is coping with a child dying of cancer.”

In researching the script, Haneke met extensively with medical specialists who work with stroke victims. His only note to Emmanuelle Riva in terms of preparing for the role was to undergo speech-therapy sessions for stroke patients. Riva initially read for the part of Anne, but Haneke had Jean-Louis Trintignant in mind for the role of Georges and wouldn’t have made Amour if the actor weren’t available.

“I like writing for actors who I know and respect, and I know I can get results,” says Haneke, who has admired Trintignant’s work since he was a teenager. In regards to Isabelle Huppert, another Haneke vet from such films as The Piano Teacher and Time of the Wolf, the director praises her talents. “She is like a Stradivarius violin, on which you can play Bach, Mozart, or Brahms, and it will always sound good.”

Setting the film in one apartment “was always the choice,” says the director. “When you get older, when you have ill health, your life is reduced to the four walls that you are living in. But beyond that, there was also the challenge of dealing with a theme of this gravity. For that, I went back to the classical use of time, space, and action.”

Though asked by his aunt to assist with her death, a request Haneke denied, the director-scribe asserts that there’s nothing in Amour that he cribbed from real life. In particular, the film’s tragic ending.

“That’s the kind of question I never answer on principle,” says Haneke in regards to interpreting Amour’s conclusion. “I respect my films, and I am trying to force the spectator with these scenes to find their own answers and their own interpretation of what they see on screen. If I were to provide interpretation, I could be wrong and robbing you of your imagination.”

Spoken like a true auteur.—Anthony D’Alessandro, David Mermelstein

Jamie Foxx stars as a slave-turned-bounty hunter in Django Unchained.
Jamie Foxx stars as a slave-turned-bounty hunter in Django Unchained.

Django Unchained

Just as Quentin Tarantino casts extensively for the right actor who’ll recite his dialogue properly, he is equally exacting when it comes to the punch and snap of his comedy scenes. And if there’s one takeaway moment that helps ease the ultraviolent intensity in his revisionist western Django Unchained, it’s the lynch-mob scene where a gaggle of hooded Klansmen, led by plantation owner Big Daddy (Don Johnson), plot their attack against bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx), who have offed slave handlers the Brittle brothers.

“The comedy rhythm is very specific and an actor needs to say this word and this word for a punchline to work or for the tone to work, but I have perfect actors,” Tarantino explains.

It’s a classic western comedy moment, rivaling the campfire sequence in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles: The dim-witted Klansmen debate about wearing hoods or not, because the person who made them didn’t cut the eye holes in the right places. For Tarantino, watching Birth of a Nation after his Django Klansman scene is all the more hilarious because the reality probably was that those actors couldn’t see a thing.

“I’m positive it’s half the reason why Amy (Pascal) wanted to be involved in the movie because she felt that the bag scene was so funny,” Tarantino says. “It’s actually terrifying to write something that funny on the page. If I write something that funny on the page and count on Jamie (Foxx) and Sam (L. Jackson) to say it, then I have no worries. But I had to spread that scene out between six people, and they all had to deliver.”

Despite any outrage that Django has triggered in the African-American media, in particular Spike Lee’s ire, the film was recognized by the NAACP Image Awards with best supporting acting wins for Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson, as well as a best picture nomination and acting nod for Jamie Foxx. Yet from what Tarantino has observed at screenings, it’s his bag scene that’s a clincher.

“You get a cathartic laugh from audiences, especially black audiences, because they start giggling uncontrollably as that scene builds in its absurdity,” says the director. “The tone of the laughter is: ‘We were scared of these idiots?’ ” —Anthony D’Alessandro

Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) safely lands a jet after a catastrophic failure in Flight.
Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) safely lands a jet after a catastrophic failure in Flight.

Flight

In Flight, screenwriter John Gatins had to figure out how his main character, pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), would first cross paths with the heroin addict Nicole, played by Kelly Reilly.

Flight is a story about an alcoholic hitting rock bottom inside the protective shell of an act of daring heroism: The crash-landing of a commercial flight. But Gatins says he wanted “a little bit of a two-handed narrative in the first half of the movie.”

Enter Nicole, a junkie on her own descent. Gatins set their random meeting in the stairwell of a hospital. He did not, however, expect a third character to insert himself into the scene—a young cancer patient, played by James Badge Dale, who, finding Whip and Nicole smoking in the stairwell, asks to bum a cigarette and becomes “thematically a guy who comes and talks about the random nature of life and events that have to do with, what
do you believe?”

“Had I sat to really try to outline the entire movie, I never would have said, ‘Oh, scene 17 is going to be in a stairwell, and a cancer patient is going to walk in and talk for six pages and then leave, and we’re never going to see him again.’ But given the nature by which I wrote this movie, with letting the story unfold a little bit, and even though it was a little bit unwieldy at times—it was long and I had to do a lot of cutting and circling back and everything else—that cancer patient was one of those happy accidents of living in the world of (Whip’s) mind and what he might encounter once he was there,” Gatins explains.

Yet even though the character simply called Gaunt Young Man helped solidify the scene, Gatins wasn’t necessarily sure the man would ever be fully realized as a character. “There was a part of me that thought at times that he wouldn’t survive the movie or even the script cut, but I kind of fell immediately in love with him. I mean, I know he was a bit of the Oracle at Delphi, but I loved that about him, too. It was one of those things where it’s like, ‘Well, he can just say whatever he wants.’ Everyone has interesting reactions to that scene, which is another thing that made me very grateful that I decided to leave it in the script, and when (director Robert) Zemeckis and I sat down, it was one of the first things he wanted to talk about. He said, ‘It’s the framework of the whole movie. It’s important, it’s pivotal.’ ”—Paul Brownfield

Jason Schwartzman is a Khaki Scout in Moonrise Kingdom.
Jason Schwartzman is a Khaki Scout in Moonrise Kingdom.

Moonrise Kingdom

On the lam from their parents and the authorities, two 12-year-old lovers enlist the aid of a high-ranking official in the Khaki Scouts to marry them quickly and help them escape the forces that would return them to adolescence. Roman Coppola, who cowrote Moonrise Kingdom with director Wes Anderson, is quite fond of the scene that stars his cousin, Jason Schwartzman.

Schwartzman is Uncle Ben, the aforementioned high-ranking official in the Khaki Scouts. Paid off to help the young Scout Sam and his child-bride-to-be Suzy escape, he tells the boy: “There’s a cold-water crabber moored off Broken Rock, the skipper owes me an IOU, we’ll see if he can take you on as a claw-cracker. Won’t be an easy life, but it’s better than shock therapy.”

“He can’t legally wed them, but he has a certain status due to being this high-level scout,” Coppola says. “And his language and the way he speaks has a distinctive manner that has to do with his position.”

Within Uncle Ben’s blizzard of words and comic alliteration—“cold-water crabber,” “claw-cracker”—is the surface tone of Moonrise Kingdom, in which characters have their own verbal coding: Deadpan and heavily formalized speech is part of the engine of a comedy about adolescence.

“The choice of words relate to the character’s function,” Coppola says. “For example, there’s the police officer, and the parents of Suzy are some type of lawyers. Often in their conversations, they use legal turns of phrase.”

Uncle Ben talks fast, in keeping with his function in the story—to conduct a quickie, unofficial wedding and get our two young lovers off the island. Schwartzman, with little time to waste, speaks his lines in what Coppola calls “a wonderful kind of ’40s, Ben Hecht-ian kind of way, in this urgent blast of dialogue.”

“When some dialogue comes out so quickly, it takes a moment to catch up to it, so it’s a scene I enjoy watching again and again,” Coppola continues. “The writing of it, and seeing Wes manifest that through his work as a director—and the actors, of course—it’s really one of the more touching scenes for me. These two young lovers are committed to each other, and they want to be married. They’re willing to be on the lam and live in a chaotic way, due to this true love. The sentiment is rather deep and sincere, and yet it has a very playful way that it’s presented.”—Paul Brownfield

Zero Dark Thirty
Seeing Maya’s transformation after years of obsessively tracking Osama bin Laden was a key part of Mark Boal’s screenplay.

The scene calls for our CIA agent heroine Maya (Jessica Chastain) to explode at her boss in Pakistan, station chief Joseph Bradley, over the prioritizing of resources in the near-decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden.

“It’s the day after the attempted bombing in New York City” in 2010, screenwriter Mark Boal explains. “We’ve watched (Maya) evolve and devolve from a relatively innocent young officer in the course of seven years to this obsessively driven, committed hunter.”

Stoic for much of the film, Maya finally sheds her emotional armor. “It’s scripted in a way that allowed Jessica to uncork a powerful emotional moment. So it works on an emotional level, and she has the opportunity to really flex her acting muscles and show the strain that she’s been holding beneath this veneer of professionalism. But it also works on a political level, because it shows the resource allocation was so important to the story, and that the CIA was constantly torn between the trade-off between trying to prevent an attack and trying to achieve the longer-term goal of finding and killing bin Laden. We know from history that different administrations placed different priority on that trade-off.”

The hunt for bin Laden, by then, has also led to the death of Maya’s close colleague Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), killed in a suicide bombing on a U.S. base in Khost, Afghanistan. “We think of the CIA as just this faceless organization, but it’s susceptible to all the same personal pettiness of any big corporation or any big high school,” Boal says. “And over the years she’s lost friends and put up with enormous frustration. And then she finally screams at her boss.”

Although the government remains a big bureaucracy, Boal says he also wanted to show how close CIA agents become in this type of work. “The team that found and killed bin Laden is a pretty small team,” he says. “And they all, or most of them, knew each other. It was a very personal undertaking. There’s so much death all around on this story. You have all the deaths in 9/11 and then subsequent deaths in Iraq on both sides and the civilians, and Afghanistan, you have the horrors in the black sites and everything. But in addition to that, you have the deaths among the CIA. There was a real historic, personal connection between Maya and the character that’s represented as being killed in Khost. There’s a scene in the film where they’re texting each other right before. They were friends. That sort of friend-mentor relationship in the film I didn’t pull out of my ass—that’s real. It just shows how personal this all was for them.”—Paul Brownfield

Best Picture Nominees Had Uphill Production Battles

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of AwardsLine.

As the industry kicks into full awards mode, with one guild after another handing out trophies to whomever they consider the year’s best in any given field, it’s become increasingly clear this is a year like we have not seen in a while. Certainly every season we go through this ritual of watching the crème de la crème of the industry line up to get awards, but rarely have we seen as dense a field of top contenders, and especially deserving ones, as we have this year. The common denominator among most, if not all, of the contenders in Oscar’s 24 categories is how difficult it was in the first place to get any of these films made in a sequel-happy, franchise-loving, play-it-safe motion picture industry.

Daniel Day-Lewis, who stars in Lincoln,is the frontrunner in the best actor race.
Daniel Day-Lewis, who stars in Lincoln,is the frontrunner in the best actor race.

For example, Steven Spielberg began talking about Lincoln with Doris Kearns Goodwin before she started writing the book and struggled for well over a decade to bring it to the screen, getting turned down by three studios in the process. And first-time feature filmmaker Benh Zeitlin went against all industry norms to make the unique and hard-to-define Beasts of the Southern Wild come to life. But no matter who the filmmaker is, the most often-heard mantra is stick to your core beliefs and vision and somehow an Oscar-worthy film can be willed into being. Even James Bond ran into trouble when MGM went bankrupt and a normal 2½-year process turned into twice that for Skyfall, which went on to win five Oscar nominations. It also got recognition as one of the year’s best pictures from the Producers Guild, as well it should, considering what its veteran producers went through to just to make it.

Of course, it doesn’t matter who you are or how many Oscars you have won, it is never easy. Life of Pi’s Ang Lee worked a grueling five years before finally seeing his unusual and once-thought unfilmable film version of Yann Martel’s book get to the screen and earn $500 million-plus worldwide and counting. And 20th Century Fox had it in development for 10 years. “Everyone was nervous. The studio dropped me twice. It was a kid, water, a tiger, digital, 3D, Taiwan location, a philosophical movie, a film about someone adrift in water who wasn’t Tom Hanks,” Lee explains. It took him a solid year just to prep the digital water scenes before shooting any footage.

For a film on the opposite end of the scale, Silver Linings Playbook, which relies almost solely on its actors for its special effect, the journey was just as long and just as hard. It started with two late producer-directors Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella before eventually finding its way to David O. Russell, who wanted to make it five years ago, even before The Fighter, but found that the stars weren’t aligned yet. They eventually would be, but not before blood, sweat, and tears went into a shoot that in the end had to be accomplished in a remarkable 33 days for a 150-page script.

Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty closely follows the real-life raid on Osama bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty closely follows the real-life raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan.

Or what about Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty, the movie that was developed about the hunt for Osama bin Laden? The filmmakers had to turn on a dime when bin Laden was killed, rewriting the concept and reporting the story at the same time it was being crafted. And Argo, a true declassified story about the amazing CIA mission to use Hollywood know-how to help rescue six American hostages stuck in the Canadian Embassy during the 1979 Iranian crisis, spent years in development as a George Clooney project but only finally found its way through Ben Affleck.

Then there’s Les Misérables, a true worldwide stage musical phenomenon that still took 27 years to get to the screen and went through hell to do it. Or Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which during a 130-day shoot saw its leading actors sidelined by emergency surgery when Christoph Waltz’s horse was bitten by a bee early on, and Waltz, thrown to the ground, had to have a pelvic operation. Then Jamie Foxx’s shoulder gave out, and he had to go into emergency surgery in the middle of production.

These select few, which made the immense effort required to see their films through, earned Oscar nominations for a job well done. These enormously talented film artists can still stand very proud that they got through it, made something great, and are headed to the Dolby Theater on Feb. 24. Some will get to the stage and some won’t, but this year in particular they all deserve to be called winners.

The French-language Amour follows a husband who must care for his ailing wife.
The French-language Amour follows a husband who must care for his ailing wife.

Amour (Sony Pictures Classics)

Producers: Margaret Ménégoz, Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Michael Katz

Awards: 5 Oscar noms, Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner, 4 European Film Awards (best actor, actress, director, film), 1 Golden Globe win (foreign language film), 4 BAFTA noms, 1 CCMA win (foreign language film), and an Indie Spirit nom (international film).

No simplicity in small sets: “It wasn’t a very fast shoot. It took nine weeks. Even though the film takes place over two hours in roughly the same room, it’s complicated to dress the set, not only to make it interesting but that it syncs in every scene. Our actors weren’t young people, and they need more time to learn the script,” Ménégoz says.

No business in geriatric scripts: “Michael’s critical and boxoffice success with The White Ribbon ($19.3 million) didn’t open doors to financers. A lot of them were afraid of Amour’s subject matter surrounding elderly, ill people. It’s a taboo subject. I was able to make the film at €8 million ($10.8 million), but the French were so afraid that they didn’t give me enough money; I had to go back to our German coproducer,” Ménégoz recalls.

Seriously, we really need you for this: “Jean-Louis Trintignant stopped making movies years ago, but he’s worked nearly every day in all the live theaters in France. He completed a tour of poetry readings, and he likes his work in the theater. He is an actor that likes to be in front of the audience—on the set of a film, they’re very far away. He loved Caché by Michael Haneke. I gave Jean-Louis the script for Amour, and he told me that he didn’t want to make any more films: ‘I’m too tired and old. I like the theater,’ he said. He read the script and liked it, especially that it was comprised of three main characters and took place from room to room. He thought the dialogue was very precise, but found it to be a sad script. ‘I won’t do the film,’ he said. So I talked to Jean-Louis three or four more times until he finally accepted. Emmanuelle Riva always wanted the part. She auditioned with other actresses, but she knew deeply in her heart and head that this was the part for her. It was obvious she was the best as she made the perfect couple with Jean-Louis,” Ménégoz says.—Anthony D’Alessandro

A big cast and multiple shooting locations made Argo a producing challenge.
A big cast and multiple shooting locations made Argo a producing challenge.

Argo (Warner Bros.)

Producers: Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, George Clooney

Awards: 7 Oscar noms, 7 BAFTA noms, 2 Golden Globe wins (director and drama), 2 CCMA wins (picture and director), 1 SAG Award (ensemble), PGA Zanuck Award, plus DGA and WGA noms.

Having a writer on the set: “On my other two movies, stuff had to be rewritten, and I would go off into a corner and kind of puzzle over it. It would take me forever, and I would stay up all weekend. (On Argo), it was so nice to be able to say to (screenwriter) Chris (Terrio), ‘I don’t think it’s clear 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,” Affleck explains.

Scale and scope mean challenges: “(For) those big protest scenes in the beginning, we had 2,000 actors, and those days were really impossible days. We had bad weather, but just logistically speaking, to get 2,000 people to a set, ready to shoot, by 6 o’clock in the morning, all having to go through wardrobe that day because you don’t fit them the day before, takes military precision. Everything takes forever—just to reset for the shot and to get everybody turned around and get everybody looking in the right direction is a major effort,” Heslov says.

But it was still kinda fun: “It was cold, it was raining, it was very hard to keep people around and, of course, it turned out somehow we didn’t have enough food—there were all sorts of problems like that. Meanwhile, I’m worrying about, ‘OK, let’s do the big shots with the cranes,’ and as we lose people, I keep making the big shots tighter and tighter and tighter because I’m worried people are going to start just walking off the job. The other issue was that the people who were available to be around all day to come be extras in movies are the elderly. The younger people are working. This is supposed to be a student revolution; the students are in school. So basically we had a lot of folks who were over 65 in a student revolution. So they just made up for it with passion—chanting, going nuts. It was ultimately exhilarating, fun, and thrilling—it felt like it had a real partnership,” Affleck explains.

Connecting with extras in L.A.: “It was intense. People had these stories of, ‘I was there,’ ‘This is how we escaped,’ so it just got overwhelming. It was like simultaneously shooting extras and day players and (doing) research. Not only were we hearing it, but they were telling everyone in the crew, and people in the crew were really moved. Up until that time, they had looked at it just as a movie, and not something based on historical events that were incredibly traumatic. So the whole movie absorbed an extra level of seriousness just being around the Persian population of Los Angeles; the majority of them left right around the revolution,” Affleck recalls.—Christy Grosz

Beasts of the Southern Wild features a 6-year-old star who had never acted before
Beasts of the Southern Wild features a 6-year-old star who had never acted before

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Fox Searchlight)

Producers: Dan Janvey, Josh Penn, Michael Gottwald

Awards: 4 Oscar noms, 4 Cannes Film Festival awards (FIPRESCI, Golden Camera, Prix Regards Jeune, Ecumenical Jury), 2 Sundance Film Festival wins (Cinematography, Grand Jury Prize), 4 Indie Spirit noms, 1 CCMA (best young actor/actress for Quvenzhané Wallis), 1 BAFTA nom.

Epic demands: “We had to find a 6-year-old, and we wanted to make this film on an epic scale on a low budget,” producer Josh Penn revealed at the PGA Awards Breakfast Jan. 26. “Then we had to make these giant prehistoric beasts that we didn’t want to do via computer, but rather live beings, so we got these baby pigs. Then once you have baby pigs, how do you make them 15 feet tall? Plus, none of us had made a feature film before.”

Cherchez la femme: “We had a similar challenge to Ang Lee (on Life of Pi) in searching for a movie star who we could rest the entire movie upon her shoulders. It was like the Hugh Jackman kind of thing with Les Misérables where there was only one person who could play the part, and they were somewhere in the first through fourth grade of Louisiana. Literally, a friend of Quvenzhané Wallis’ mother saw fire in (Quvenzhané) and said to her mother, ‘Quvenzhané likes to play make-believe. Why don’t you bring her to this audition?’  She never thought of acting before. We saw 4,000 kids across Louisiana and thought someday, this girl would walk into our lives. If we didn’t find this girl, there was no reason to make this movie.”

Christoph Waltz, left, is nominated for Django Unchained. He was thrown from a horse during production.
Christoph Waltz, left, is nominated for Django Unchained. He was thrown from a horse during production.

Django Unchained (The Weinstein Co.)

Producers: Stacey Sher, Pilar Savone, Reginald Hudlin

Awards: 5 Oscar noms, 5 BAFTA noms, 2 Golden Globe wins (supporting actor Christoph Waltz, screenplay Quentin Tarantino).

Location, location: “Nothing was easy about this movie. It was challenging from day one: Getting going, scouting New Orleans and Mammoth Mountain, then building our location there and realizing that we had no snow. Then uprooting to Wyoming, and Quentin driving by an elk field and saying to our line producer and location manager, ‘I want to shoot there.’ Well, that’s a challenge—it’s a wildlife preserve! Quentin will look at you at any given moment and say, ‘I need this actor that I shot with three weeks ago, and I need him tomorrow,’ ” says Savone.

“He always knew when he saw two or three of us approaching, that it was something large like global warming that we had to deal with —like the time when we had to inform him that it’s not going to snow in Mammoth for the first time in 100 years,” adds Sher. “There were a lot of ‘Bring me the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West moments.’ But we had a joke among the three of us: ‘No’ is not an option.”

Addition and subtraction of actors: “We had huge movie stars wanting to do day-player parts, people we had to work a schedule around given the film’s logistics. However, every one of those actors are used to being No. 1 on the call sheet, rightly so, so everyone typically schedules around them. Because of everyone else’s schedule, snow, weather, and location, we couldn’t do that for everyone. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony LaPaglia went off to make other movies. The happy accident was that our schedule and Jonah Hill’s changed, making him available. Who ends up having Jonah Hill in one scene? We were so blessed, but we always knew the tail couldn’t wag the dog. Quentin needed to make the movie the way he needed to make it,” explains Sher.

Bee-stinging serendipity: “Christoph Waltz’s horse was stung by a bee during pre-pre-production, and Christoph was thrown and it was going to be a while before he could ride again. This is where the idea of the tooth wagon came from. Christoph suggested, ‘What if I rode a wagon?’ and Quentin and the late J. Michael Riva came up with the wagon, that magical tooth. It was heartbreaking when we lost Michael, and it was devastating for the film, the crew, and his family,” says Sher.—Anthony D’Alessandro

The live singing in Les Miserables meant everything from the sets to the costumes had to be modified to be quieter.
The live singing in Les Miserables meant everything from the sets to the costumes had to be modified to be quieter.

Les Misérables (Universal)

Producers: Cameron Mackintosh, Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan, Debra Hayward

Awards: 8 Oscar noms, 1 CCMA win (Anne Hathaway best supporting actress), 3 Golden Globes (best musical/comedy, supporting actress Hathaway, Hugh Jackman for lead actor in a comedy/musical), 1 SAG win (supporting actress Hathaway), and 1 DGA nom.

The Long Road: “I was originally going to do it 25 years ago after Les Misérables opened on Broadway and came close with Alan Parker. Over the years, we had inquiries, then in 2010, Eric Fellner (approached me); we’re Chelsea football fans, and we got to know each other socially. I like Working Title and they’re a very good company. Bill Nicholson started work on a screenplay. And then Tom (Hooper) rang up and asked to meet me. Being a complete film virgin I hardly knew anyone, and The King’s Speech was only just doing rounds at Sundance. Tom spoke passionately about how he would do it and that he felt it should be recorded live, and I felt passionately about that. That was the clincher, because Tom wanted to take what was a big leap in the dark. Les Misérables isn’t a normal musical; you need people who are comfortable telling a story through music. Tom Hooper was the man to do it. I’d been looking for directors over the years, and the fact that Tom came to me with a POV was the clincher,” Mackintosh explains.

No way, José: “There was a suggestion that it should be done in 3D, and I was very against it. Even though it’s my first film, I have joint final cut with Tom and Eric, and I represented all the music on behalf of Alain and Claude-Michel. It was a collaboration and couldn’t be any other way because I’d been so involved in the material for 30 years. This was the best way,” says Mackintosh.

Blowing up the stage: “The key challenge was finding the balance of reality, that it looked and felt authentic but at the same time it needed to be heightened. The style had to be similar to the style of the show. Gliding in and out of spoken word and singing so seamlessly that you didn’t realize they’re singing most of the time. Cinema is a medium of realism, and we had to find our brand of realism,” adds Mackintosh.

Making the impossible, possible: “This was one of the hardest films we’ve done. It’s a genre that’s challenging by its very nature—people aren’t used to going to see a musical in a movie theater. We also had to make sure that in adapting Les Misérables, we didn’t alienate fans, and having the original team of Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbie Kretzmer, and Cameron Mackintosh, we were able to keep all the original DNA intact. Then, shooting a film with an appetite of $100 million for $60 million was interesting,” says Fellner.—Cari Lynn

Life of Pi was thought to be unfilmable until Ang Lee tackled the challenge.
Life of Pi was thought to be unfilmable until Ang Lee tackled the challenge.

Life of Pi (20th Century Fox)

Producers: Gil Netter, Ang Lee, David Womark

Awards: 11 Oscar noms, 1 Golden Globe win (best score for Mychael Danna), 2 CCMA wins (cinematography, visual effects), 9 BAFTA noms, DGA nom, WGA adapted screenplay nom.

Practical preplanning: “I didn’t know if could do this film. It was still waiting for me after Taking Woodstock. I began to think about it. It was unsolvable both on the economic and artistic sides: The two sides that will never meet, like Pi. Well, what if I had another dimension? And I thought 3D,” Lee said at the PGA Breakfast Jan. 26. “The only reasonable place to do this was Taiwan—I needed every resource from Hollywood. I brought my kids to school over there. It’s a long process. I did all the casting and previsualized the water section, all 70 minutes of it.”

Finding Pi: “Three thousand people auditioned for the part. It was crucial to find a 16-year-old Pi. There’s no Indian 16-year-old movie star. So I had to search for new faces. We have an army under casting director Avy Kaufman. We just asked every high school in India. Most of those who auditioned hadn’t done more than a school play, if that. After three rounds, we came down to 12. Suraj Sharma was one of them. Later, I found out, he didn’t go through the audition. He escorted his younger brother to the audition, and the casting director said, ‘What about you?’ When I met him, he looked like Pi. He’s the everyman. I felt his vibe in his soulful, deep eyes from my professional instinct. When I read him, it was heartbreaking. He started to cry when he told me one of the second stories (I gave him). It was heartwrenching. Halfway through (the audition process), he was the kid. So he anchors everything: The older and younger Pi, the whole picture around him. I was very lucky. He never acted before, and I had three months to drill him. We shot the movie in order so that he could lose weight,” adds Lee.

It took Steven Spielberg 12 years to get Lincoln made.
It took Steven Spielberg 12 years to get Lincoln made.

Lincoln (Disney-DreamWorks)

Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg

Awards: 12 Oscar noms, one Golden Globe win (best actor drama, Daniel Day-Lewis), two SAG wins (best actor Day-Lewis, supporting actor Tommy Lee Jones), three CCMA wins (actor, adapted screenplay, score), 10 BAFTA noms, DGA nom, WGA adapted screenplay nom.

No stone unturned: “On the surface, it looks like one goes out, buys Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, hires the finest American playwright, gets Steven Spielberg, and just add a little water,” said Kennedy at the PGA Awards Breakfast Jan. 26. “When Tony Kushner’s 500-page script arrived, Steven called and said, ‘What are we going to do? I can’t make this!’ Tony asked, ‘Do you think we can do it as a miniseries?’ Whittling down the script was a laborious process and took years. It wasn’t until Steven recognized a suspense drama inside the legislation, and that isn’t something you walk into a studio and say, ‘Hey! Here’s a great idea!’ It was essentially 15 pages of Doris’ book, but the philosophical idea behind Lincoln having the foresight to bring people into his cabinet who didn’t agree with him was the foundation of the story.”

Getting everyone on the same page: “We had an extraordinary reading in Cooperstown, NY. Doris pulled together an illustrious group of people to read the script for the first time. We knew there were many historians that wrote different accounts of Lincoln and had several different interpretations,” adds Kennedy. “Those fascinated with the voice of Lincoln; details like that we had to extrapolate. I think Tony read 300 books before he wrote this script. He read many details that came from The New York Times. When those debates went on with the 13th amendment, much of what Thaddeus is saying goes right down to ‘nincompoop.’ ”

Determined casting: “Daniel said no a lot to the role. But it was an exercise in tenacity on Steven’s part. Daniel inhabits that role. His process for determining what he’s going to do next is a long one. Playing Lincoln was something he wasn’t going to come to easily. When he said yes, it was around War Horse. We had 150 speaking parts that we wanted to cast. Thank God for the Internet. It allows directors and producers to get into a room and look at a wide variety of talent. We had the benefit of Tony Kushner who had amazing relationships with amazing actors in New York. We had these big boards in front of us with faces of real people. We knew it was going to be hard to keep track of the Democrats and the Republicans and knowing that the Democrats are what the Republicans use to be, and whether they were from the north or the south, when the vote took place, keeping track of who you saw before, all of that was a quite a jigsaw puzzle,” explains Kennedy.

Silver Linings Playbook was in development with Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella before finding its way to David O. Russell.
Silver Linings Playbook was in development with Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella before finding its way to David O. Russell.

Silver Linings Playbook (The Weinstein Co.)

Producers: Bruce Cohen, Donna Gigliotti, Jonathan Gordon

Awards: 8 Oscar noms, 4 CCMA wins (acting ensemble, actor in a comedy for Bradley Cooper, actress in a comedy for Jennifer Lawrence, best comedy), 1 Golden Globe win (best actress in a comedy/musical), 1 SAG win (best film actress), 5 Indie Spirit noms, WGA adapted screenplay nom.

Synthesizing: “Getting the tone right was a challenge,” says Cohen. “The script that David O. Russell had written and the movie we fell in love with was an intense family drama and romantic comedy. Those types of films are very hard to do. It’s hard to market them and assemble them.”

Timing: “Making this movie in 33 days was a Herculean undertaking, and the script was 152 pages long. That’s a challenging schedule for any movie, let alone a script that is that long—40-45 days would have been ideal,” says Gordon.

Falling stars: “When we received the greenlight from the Weinstein Co., as a producer you typically take the money and say, ‘OK, here’s the start date.’ But Mark Wahlberg (who was to play Pat Jr.) had Contraband. We would have been backed into Thanksgiving 2011, and we couldn’t go beyond that date in terms of shooting given our budget constraints. It would have meant we pushed into the New Year in terms of shooting. Then Anne Hathaway (who was to play Tiffany) had this crazy Dark Knight schedule. They would get her for this huge period of time, and then she would drop in and out of that schedule,” explains Gigliotti.

The right faces at the right time: “Casting was the biggest challenge and getting the right actors in these roles. By comparison to the other films that are nominated, we had a pretty small budget, and it’s not as though we had a lot of money to spend in terms of cast. We had to have actors that were recognizable in order to make the numbers work—that’s for the business side. The challenge for the creative side is to find actors who could inhabit those characters and be authentic. Bradley Cooper is a big movie star in terms of The Hangover. That’s a plus on the business side, but then one needed to evaluate whether he was right for the role. That’s a total tribute to David O. Russell since he understood Bradley’s depth and how he could get that performance. Jennifer Lawrence was a different kettle of fish. She was in the middle of Hunger Games. We didn’t know it was going to be so behemoth. She did the Skype interview; we showed it to Harvey Weinstein, who is fearless when it comes to these things. He took one look and said, ‘Cast this girl! She’s unbelievable!’ I don’t know if we would have made this movie if Bob De Niro said no. We didn’t have a lot of money. How do we get Bob De Niro and not pay him a fortune? It came down to David. It’s really a potent thing when David and his actors connect. Jacki Weaver was the casting director’s idea. Jacki was in a production of Uncle Vanya in Washington, D.C. One look at her eyes and Cooper’s eyes and you think they were connected. You believed she could have been Bradley’s mother,” says Gigliotti.—Anthony D’Alessandro

The real story that Zero Dark Thirty tells was unfolding as Mark Boal was writing his script.
The real story that Zero Dark Thirty tells was unfolding as Mark Boal was writing his script.

Zero Dark Thirty (Sony Pictures)

Producers: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Megan Ellison

Awards: 5 Oscar noms, 1 Golden Globe win (best dramatic actress for Jessica Chastain), 2 CCMA wins (actress, editing), 5 BAFTA noms, DGA nom, WGA original screenplay nom.

Everywhere at once: “This is not a $45 million movie; this is an $85 million movie. There’s over 100 different sets in this movie, we filmed on three continents with helicopters and special effects and (covering) a 10-year time period and 100 speaking parts and a giant action sequence, and at times we were shooting like a TV schedule—five pages a day. Part of the challenge was getting this much scope—we filmed in Pakistan, we filmed in India, we filmed in Jordan, we filmed in Washington, we filmed in the U.K. Part of the challenge was getting this much scope on the screen, and we could really do that because Kathryn had a vision for how to do it, and because she shoots it and it’s done and we can move on. There’s not a lot of second-guessing going on,” says Boal.

No fear of Babel: “I like going to these places where there isn’t a lot of film infrastructure. Jordan has absolutely none. India has some. Of course there’s a big film industry there, but it wasn’t really geared to making a movie about an American CIA team hunting a terrorist, for any number of reasons. It’s hard to shoot action in India—very, very, very hard. You can’t do aerial photograph; there’s a million permits if you want to take a gun out,” adds Boal.

Red tape: “These are hard movies to get made. Negotiating with those governments, moving equipment in and out, dealing with security issues, dealing with the secrecy issues, dealing with the press, dealing with government pressure and investigations from our government. We were under investigation by Republicans since the day we started this movie for just trying to get information. That’s not easy to have hanging over your head when you’re simultaneously trying to arrange for the use of three military Black Hawks from a foreign government. It gets complicated pretty quickly,” adds the screenwriter-producer.

Worst-case scenario—production or post-release: “The politics is pretty tough, I will say. I would take the logistical challenge of trying to find a 40-ton crane in Jordan over dealing with Washington any day of the week,” Boal says.—Paul Brownfield

Foreign Language Nominees Tell Intimate, Personal Stories

David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of AwardsLine.

If one thing links all five of this year’s nominees for the foreign film Oscar, it’s that the director of each picture was driven to make his movie because of strong, deeply personal feelings. These five films—a varied batch if ever there was one—have nothing in common in terms of where and when they are set, but they all deal, unapologetically, with powerful emotions. And those feelings are expressed not only by the characters in these films, but also by their creators.

The French-language Amour follows a husband who must care for his ailing wife.
The French-language Amour follows a husband who must care for his ailing wife.

Perhaps the most obviously personal is Michael Haneke’s Amour, which achieved the rare feat of earning best picture and director noms, as well. The film has been cited for, among other things, its unblinking look at the degradations inflicted by illness on an aged couple. The German-born writer-director says that his recollections of a beloved aunt’s increasing infirmity inspired him to make the film. “I was forced to look on as someone very close to me suffered, someone for whom I cared very much,” he says, noting that the specifics of his aunt’s condition were not replicated in the movie. “What’s shown in the film is the product of lengthy research and my imagination.”

Yet one especially chilling aspect of his aunt’s situation—her asking him to assist in her suicide—was strongly echoed in the film. “Of course I had to tell her I was unable to do it,” Haneke recalls, “because I would have been put in jail if I had done it. I was grateful for that alibi, for I don’t know if I would have had the strength to do it otherwise. But she did it anyway, without my help.”

Asked whether he himself—now age 70—worries about a fate similar to that faced by the principal characters in Amour (portrayed with uncanny and moving effect by octogenarians Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, who earned a best actress nomination for the role), Haneke responds wryly and invokes another, very different, master filmmaker. “Billy Wilder was asked a similar question,” Haneke says, “and he responded by saying that the bombardments, so to speak, are coming ever closer.”

Gael Garcia Bernal stars in No, which takes place in Chile, following the removal of dictator Augosto Pinochet.
Gael Garcia Bernal stars in No, which takes place in Chile, following the removal of dictator Augosto Pinochet.

Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s closeness to the subject of his film No is palpable, even though he was only 12 years old when the1988 referendum that removed strongman Augusto Pinochet as president of Chile occurred. His film examines that historic vote from an unconventional perspective—through the eyes of a young marketing executive, played by Gael Garcia Bernal—but the view is no less compelling for its novelty.

“It’s a big shadow for everyone in my country,” Larrain says, referring to Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship. “We are still quite divided. You cannot avoid it or pretend it never happened. Pinochet died at the end of 2006, not long ago—a free man and rich. He’s a very controversial figure. He really damaged our society and created a lot of pain. You can’t pretend it doesn’t affect you.”

Though Larrain didn’t encounter outright opposition to his unconventional dissection of a delicate subject, his approach did elicit some head scratching in his country. “There were people who were curious why we picked the ad guy’s perspective,” the director acknowledges. “When you do a movie like this, a period movie but not from long ago—and it’s a huge date in my country—everyone has an opinion about it. So we had to deal with walking on eggshells.”

Politics weren’t the issue. “Now most people—nearly 90 percent—would say no to Pinochet, or to another one like him,” insists Larrain, whose choice of protagonist proved more controversial. “Some people felt we were telling this story to the world through the eyes of people who weren’t the most important, but I think the ad guys were important on many levels. Pinochet imposed capitalism on Chile and brought with it the logic of marketing and advertising. So without realizing it, he created the tools that finally pulled him out. And we thought that was fantastic. There were other people who were important in the No campaign, but I’m not sure they would have succeeded without these ad guys, because they made people feel more comfortable about voting no.”

Larrain offers an unexpected analogy to explain his film’s foundation. “It’s like ancient Greek tragedy,” he says, noting how Pinochet was, in effect, undone by instruments of his own making. “The more you try to avoid your death, the closer you get to it. What happened with Pinochet is a little Greek story, in my opinion. If they had known, they would have reacted differently. But by the time they knew, it was already too late. It’s a paradox, and we know that works very well in movies.”

Though the director at first maintains that his movie “doesn’t intend to be a political film,” he then allows, “I would understand if somebody thinks so.” Ultimately, he broadens his definition of the term. “Every movie by anyone is political,” he said, “because it has a perspective on human behavior. It could be a comedy or drama, brilliant or not. Movies always have a political point of view somewhere.”

War Witch focuses on child soldiers in Sub-Saharan Africa.
War Witch focuses on child soldiers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Politics with even more immediate resonance seems to lie at the heart of Kim Nguyen’s War Witch, a French-language Canadian production that focuses on child soldiers in present-day Sub-Saharan Africa. But what motivated Nguyen to spend almost a decade nurturing the project was its humanity. “As I started doing research for the script, it came quite early on that the point wasn’t an educational film but rather a dark poem about 21st-century Sub-Saharan Africa in turmoil,” the writer-director explains.

“I’d seen a lot of movies about Sub-Saharan Africa, and it always ends up as the white man who saves Africa,” Nguyen says. “I thought it was important to give a voice to the forgotten ones, who often find inner strength to survive these horrendous situations—especially women who are child soldiers. About half are girls. And unfortunately the girls are not only soldiers but sexual slaves and forced laborers as well.”

Nguyen immersed himself in research to create his complex characters—often a compelling mixture of childlike innocence and sociopathic brutality—but he didn’t limit himself to the safety of his computer screen. “I went to Burundi and met ex-child soldiers,” he says. “And in the Congo, where we eventually filmed, I saw things like houses built out of abandoned billboards. They’re used for survival, and it creates a whole new postmodern message. The film carries a lot of those symbols of reinvention.”

The royal couple attempts to bring reform to Denmark in A Royal Affair.
The royal couple attempts to bring reform to Denmark in A Royal Affair.

Many Americans might expect the Danish film A Royal Affair to unspool as a dry history lesson—though the movie is more like a political thriller with powdered wigs. But for Nikolaj Arcel, the film’s director and cowriter, the 18th-century story of Dr. Johann Friedrich Struensee, Queen Caroline Mathilde, and King Christian VII remains resoundingly contemporary. Though the forward-looking physician and the good-hearted if naïve royal couple tried and failed to bring reform to Denmark, they paved the way for the next generation to effect lasting change.

“It’s almost impossible not to know this story if you’re from Denmark,” Arcel says. “Every school kid knows it. So it was more a question of getting to a point of where I was mature enough to do the film. I’d been thinking about it for some time. It was a bit of a daunting prospect. I spent a year writing the script and then about four years trying to finance it. So it wasn’t that easy. In fact, I did a whole other film while waiting for financing.”

Germans and Britons had previously filmed the story, but apparently poorly. Yet no Dane had succeeded in getting it to the screen, despite repeated attempts. “A lot of great directors, even idols of mine, had been trying to make it,” Arcel says. “It was sort of like: Let me try and fail like the others. And we almost failed. There were times I felt we’re never going to make this. I was actually quite depressed for a while.”

But Arcel did succeed. The film has done huge business in Denmark and fared extremely well in the U.K., Australia, and France. Arcel had never directed a period drama before, and he owns up to having felt intimated by the prospect. “I was terrified, actually,” he says. He didn’t even have the comforts of home to console him, for re-creating 18th-century Copenhagen proved impossible in 21st-century Denmark, and the Czech Republic had to substitute. What drove him forward were the progressive ideas at the heart of the film.

“I’m a little bit of a political nut,” the filmmaker says. “There are some movements in Denmark and also here in America that are moving away from the Age of Enlightenment. I have quite a liberal viewpoint. I truly believe that every man is equal and should have an equal chance in life. And that’s what Struensee fought and died for, and it’s something we have to keep fighting for—rationality rather than irrationality.”

Kon-Tiki is a re-creation of Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s epic trek across the Pacific, from Peru to Polynesia.
Kon-Tiki is a re-creation of Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s epic trek across the Pacific, from Peru to Polynesia.

It could be said that the opposite—irrationality over rationality—drives the figures at the center of Kon-Tiki, a re-creation of Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s epic trek across the Pacific, from Peru to Polynesia, which is codirected by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. Some older Americans might recall this incredible feat, which occurred in 1947, but many more know of it through Heyerdahl’s bestselling book, also titled Kon-Tiki, and the identically named documentary it inspired, which won an Oscar in 1951.

But Rønning and Sandberg’s enthusiasm for this story goes far beyond that of an armchair explorer. Like Arcel and his film, these helmers—who have been making movies together since they were kids—feel a personal tie to the tale they tell. “Thor was extremely well known, maybe the biggest celebrity of all in our country,” Sandberg says. “But he was even more important to Joachim and I because he came from the neighboring town, even smaller than ours. And he made the life he wanted for himself. And in that sense he was a huge inspiration for us becoming directors. In Norway, you’re not really supposed to stick your nose out, so to have a man like that from almost the same place as ourselves was a great inspiration.”

Though Sandberg allows that Kon-Tiki didn’t necessarily have to be made by Norwegians, others had tried and failed, including Hollywood. “We’ve been working on it for four years,” he says. “We tried to get ahold of it earlier because we were so interested in it, but we were told to forget about it. As the saying goes, luck is where persistence meets opportunity. And this movie is bigger than the system here in Norway allows. There’s only 5 million of us—a number we hit just three months ago.”

The shoot required four weeks on the open sea and another four in a tank, with the production based in Malta. The raft they used could hardly have been more real, as it was the same one, slightly modified, that Heyerdahl’s grandson used to re-create his grandfather’s famous voyage. As for the realistic-looking shark scenes, Sandberg owns up that “all the sharks are Scandinavian”—in other words, virtual, thanks to CGI technology.

Regarding the division of labor, Sandberg jokes that he and Rønning alternate at the helm “every other day.” But seriously: “We grew up together in this small town and have made movies together since we were 10,” Sandberg says. “So the process evolved with Joachim taking care of visuals and me talking to the actors on set. But we talk about everything all the time. And because we’ve always done it this way, it’s completely natural.”

Lead Actor/Actress Handicap

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of AwardsLine.

In a race as tight as the one this year for best actress and particularly best actor, there were many deserving performances that might have made the cut in any other year but were overlooked because of intense competition. As far as lead acting categories go, this year is one of the most fiercely fought in recent Oscar history. So what was it about the 10 nominated performances in the top two acting categories that sealed the deal with Academy voters? Here’s a look at why they made it to the golden circle.

Best Actor

Bradley Cooper stars in Silver Linings Playbook.
Bradley Cooper stars in Silver Linings Playbook.

Bradley Cooper | Silver Linings Playbook

Coming into the project just shortly before production began, Cooper proves a shrewd choice to play Pat Jr., a volatile man just released from an institution, in denial about his dead marriage, and just trying to put his life back together. Mark Wahlberg was cast in the part originally, but after he dropped out, Cooper got the role and ran with it. It’s a delicate balance of comedy and drama that Cooper must navigate, and he creates a wholly original and likable character, a neat trick considering Pat Jr. isn’t always sympathetic. Coming off popcorn movies like The Hangover and The A Team, Cooper finally shows his true acting chops, and his scenes opposite Robert De Niro and Jennifer Lawrence prove he is a talent to be reckoned with. Watching him and Lawrence go toe to toe in the dance competition is worth the price of admission alone. Seeing him try to explain his reaction to a Hemingway novel while his parents try to sleep might be the comic scene of the year.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays the 16th president in Lincoln.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays the 16th president in Lincoln.

Daniel Day-Lewis | Lincoln

If ever there were a match made in heaven between actor and role it has to be Day-Lewis channeling Abraham Lincoln at a key moment in his presidency. Many actors have tackled Lincoln before with great success, but the reason Day-Lewis is likely to become the first actor to win three best actor Oscar statuettes, and the first to win for playing a president, is because he shows a complex, human side to the man we only thought we knew. His risk-taking acting choices—including creating a voice for Lincoln, which no other actor has dared attempt—make this more than just the usual standard biopic performance, one that definitely is not an impersonation but a full-bodied three-dimensional Abe for the ages.

The original composers of Les Misérables wrote a new original song, "Suddenly," for Hugh Jackman to perform in the film.
The original composers of Les Misérables wrote a new original song, “Suddenly,” for Hugh Jackman to perform in the film.

Hugh Jackman | Les Misérables

Audiences have been waiting a long time for triple-threat performer Jackman to get his first shot at a big movie-musical. If the man were in his prime in Hollywood’s golden age, when musicals were the norm, he probably would have made 10 or 20 of them. His extraordinary turn as Jean Valjean in this iconic musical, though, was worth the wait. It’s a role that required a 2 ½-octave range in which he had to sing live, a revolutionary idea for a movie-musical that has almost never been attempted onscreen. Jackman gets to the essence of the man with an emotional power he has rarely shown in his other roles. Jackman and Jean are an irresistible pairing, and if he can get past the Lincoln juggernaut, he could become the first actor since Rex Harrison in 1964 to win this prize for a full-on musical role. And how ironic it is that Harrison was the last actor in a major musical who himself attempted live singing on film? A good omen, perhaps?

The Master: Though it’s polarizing in many aspects and sure to divide audiences, Paul Thomas Anderson’s tour de force got people talking.
The Master: Though it’s polarizing in many aspects and sure to divide audiences, Paul Thomas Anderson’s tour de force got people talking.

Joaquin Phoenix | The Master

Almost from the moment The Master started screening, it seemed inevitable Phoenix would be among the year’s best actor nominees, in spite of his early comments about disdain for the Oscar race itself. In a risky performance that recalls the best of Marlon Brando or Al Pacino, Phoenix nails it in a riveting turn as a man searching for answers in a post-World War II America. His scenes opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman as the cult leader trying to lure him in are about as electrifying as screen acting gets these days. However, the Paul Thomas Anderson movie itself has polarized audiences and received its only three nominations in the acting categories, which will make it hard for Phoenix to prevail in the end. If he does, that extraordinary one-on-one encounter with Hoffman at the movie’s end will be the reason.

Denzel Washington plays a pilot with a substance-abuse problem in Flight.
Denzel Washington plays a pilot with a substance-abuse problem in Flight.

Denzel Washington | Flight

As an alcoholic, drug-addicted airline pilot who has to summon every ounce of courage and skill he has to crash-land a plane while intoxicated, Washington has one of the stellar roles of his career. As Whip Whitaker, an enormously talented pilot but a man battling his own demons, Washington shows the dark side of an alcoholic that the screen has rarely seen. His character is so despicable and helpless that it makes it especially impressive that some audience members are even rooting for him to get away with it. Washington says he turned to YouTube to study what many drunks are like and incorporated that into his research. Whatever he did pays off in director Robert Zemeckis’ gritty adult drama that has earned this two-time Oscar winner his sixth nomination.

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain stars as a relentless CIA agent pursuing bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty.
Jessica Chastain stars as a relentless CIA agent pursuing bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty.

Jessica Chastain | Zero Dark Thirty

Nabbing what has the be the premiere, grittiest, gutsiest, take-no-prisoners female role of the year as a CIA agent who methodically tracks down Osama bin Laden’s hiding place, Chastain continues her remarkable rise to the top tier of film actors. Essaying a role about a woman who is not beholden to a man in any way, personally or professionally, Chastain dominates the film with an impressive mix of toughness, cunning, self-doubt, anger, and power. The moment in which she reveals she is the “motherf—-r” who tracked down bin Laden is priceless, perhaps the most satisfying line of the year. After watching most of her recent films sit on the shelf until suddenly being released one after another last year and nabbing her first Oscar nom in the supporting cast of The Help, Chastain proves she is the real deal as a leading player in Zero Dark, with a Golden Globe and Critics Choice Movie Award already on her mantel with obviously more to come.

Jennifer Lawrence stars in Silver Linings Playbook.
Jennifer Lawrence stars in Silver Linings Playbook.

Jennifer Lawrence | Silver Linings Playbook

As Tiffany, a tough but endearing young widow who wears armor on the outside but is trying to put the pieces of her life back together with the help of Pat Jr. (Bradley Cooper), Lawrence at age 22 pretty much shocked the industry with an all-knowing and richly rewarding performance that can be compared to Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik in The Apartment or even Cher’s Oscar-winning turn in Moonstruck. Like those actors, she walks the fine line between comedy and drama, delivering a flesh-and-blood, flawed human being we want to root for. In a role designed for an older actress, Lawrence proves she can probably do it all, and her best actress nomination for Winter’s Bone two years ago was definitely not a fluke. If there is a silver lining at all in this year’s Oscar race, it’s that Jennifer Lawrence is a keeper, one to watch for decades to come.

Emmanuelle Riva plays a stroke victim in Amour.
Emmanuelle Riva plays a stroke victim in Amour.

Emmanuelle Riva | Amour

At 85, she is the oldest best actress nominee ever, and in fact, turns 86 on Oscar day, Feb. 24. It would be a nice birthday gift to give this veteran French actress that statuette—and she could get it, even though the film is foreign and in French, and those aren’t usually easy things to overcome. As a wife finding her health failing and the end of her life nearing, Riva is heartbreaking but never drifting into sentiment as she deals with the nightmare of aging, leaving her husband, brilliantly played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, to care for her when all she wants is to keep her dignity as life fades away. It was easy to see that this star, previously best known for 1960’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (there’s that word again), would be nominated. Nearly every actor’s branch member I talked to mentioned her name first when I asked who their favorite was. The role—and the player—touched many in a story that hits very close to home.

Quvenzhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy, a strong-willed child who lives with her father in the bayou, in Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Quvenzhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy, a strong-willed child who lives with her father in the bayou, in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Quvenzhané Wallis | Beasts of the Southern Wild

At just 9 years old, Wallis is the opposite of Emmanuelle Riva, the youngest best actress Oscar nominee in history. And in truth, she was a total nonprofessional 6-year-old when she tore up the screen as Hushpuppy, a determined girl who must face nature’s cruel ways while trying to keep her life together in the most primitive part of the Delta. It’s about as fierce and nuanced a performance you will see from an actress at any age, never mind a child. Kids are often taken for granted and overlooked in the big Oscar categories, with voters thinking the director might have used a bag of tricks to get the goods. This was a performance that simply couldn’t be ignored.

The Impossible tells an almost unbelievable story about a family that survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
The Impossible tells an almost unbelievable story about a family that survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Naomi Watts | The Impossible

Playing the real-life survivor of the disastrous 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Watts had what she admits is the toughest, most daunting role of her career playing Maria Belon, who struggles to survive and bring her family back together after the waves hit their hotel and separate them. From a physical sense, there are few actresses who have ever had to endure more, and Watts spent the better part of a month being battered around in a water tank to demonstrate her character’s sheer will to live. But physical challenges aside, what makes Watts so effective here is also the essence of great screen acting. She plays it with her eyes, those soulful eyes that tell us so much about what she is going through and who she is. Watts is the sole nominee for this extraordinary film, so she might have an uphill climb, but if voters watch it, she could be the big surprise on Oscar night.

Q&A: Michael Haneke On ‘Amour’

David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor.

Though his films might lead you to believe otherwise, Michael Haneke is surprisingly good-humored in conversation. His latest film, Amour, is nominated for five Oscars: best picture, foreign-language film, director, original screenplay, and actress. It soberly and precisely charts the decline of an aged French couple, played to a fare-thee-well by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. The film might be the writer-director’s most personal to date, for though it retains the intense focus and absence of sentimentality present in his other work, its plainly expressed—and inevitably touching—humanity was inspired by a chapter from Haneke’s own life. Until Amour, Haneke was best known in America for the Oscar-nominated The White Ribbon (2009), which chillingly depicts village life in pre-World War I Germany and hints at the foundations of Nazism, and Cache (2005), which plumbs issues of memory, guilt, and identity. Speaking from Madrid, during rehearsals for a production of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte, the filmmaker discussed with AwardsLine various issues connected with his recent film work.

AWARDSLINE: What compelled you to make Amour?

MICHAEL HANEKE: Nothing forced me [to make the film], but what motivated me was a case in my family. I was forced to look on as someone very close to me suffered—but not specifically as depicted in the film—someone for whom I cared for very much. And that led me to make the film.

AWARDSLINE: Your films are all very distinctive, but Amour is perhaps more specifically personal. I understand that you had an aged aunt who was ill. And she asked you to help her pass away. Was that part of what made you want to write and direct this film?

HANEKE: Yes. Of course, I had to tell her that I was unable to do it. I would have been put in jail if I had done it. But I was grateful for that alibi, for I don’t know if I would have had the strength to do it otherwise. But she did it anyway, without my help.

AWARDSLINE: And were there things in the film that you took directly from your experience with your aunt?

HANEKE: No, there’s nothing at all in the film based on my own experience. What’s shown in the film was the product of lengthy research in similar situations [to what the film shows] or from my imagination.

AWARDSLINE: You are now 70 years old. Do you yourself worry about the traumas of age and infirmity that you depict in Amour?

HANEKE: Billy Wilder was asked a similar question, and he responded, “The knocking is all the more insistent”. No, not the knocking at the door, but rather that the bombardments, so to speak, are coming ever closer.

AWARDSLINE: What was the most challenging scene to direct in Amour?

HANEKE: The pigeon. You can’t direct a pigeon. At most, you can entice it to move it a certain way by placing corn on the ground. But even then, it won’t obey your instructions. Of course I’m joking when I say that. The most difficult scene in the film is the one in which he [Jean-Louis Trintignant, the husband] suffocates her [Emmanuelle Riva, the wife]. The scene is preceded by a 10-minute-long monologue. And Jean-Louis Trintignant had a broken wrist at that time, so we had to shoot around that. And Emmanuelle Riva was concerned about her safety physically. So it was difficult for everyone involved.

AWARDSLINE: What about the scene in which Ms. Riva was naked in the shower? I can’t imagine that was easy to direct.

HANEKE: As a director, it wasn’t difficult for me. It was far more uncomfortable for her. But it was clear from the beginning that it was necessary to shoot this scene—to capture the fragility of her situation, what’s forced up on you as a human being [in such circumstances]. My job as a director was to make sure I didn’t betray her—that she wasn’t shown critically or depicted in an unpleasant light, but just to show what people in such situations have to go through.

AWARDSLINE: With regard to writing the script—was there one particular scene you especially enjoyed writing, and why?

HANEKE: It’s very difficult to say. It was so long ago, I can’t remember [any details about that writing process]. But generally when it comes to screenwriting I can say that if it’s flowing, you enjoy it; if not, it’s far less pleasant. But there’s always ambivalence—the struggle to put something there on a blank page when there was nothing there before. If it’s successful, you’re happy; if not, you’re depressed.

AWARDSLINE: You remade Funny Games in English, but does Hollywood hold any allure for you?

HANEKE: No, I’m willing to work anywhere [where] I’m given the working conditions I prefer. With the exception of a fascist country, I’m willing to work anywhere where I can work as I wish to work. I really can’t say [about Hollywood] because I’ve never worked in Hollywood. But in Hollywood, producers have their say in the project and can impose their own conditions on it. In terms of the conditions I require, I’m willing to work with a producer, but if a producer wants to make his own film, then he’s free to do so, just not with me.

AWARDSLINE: Whom do you make films for? Or does that change depending on the film?

HANEKE: For everyone and for myself [I make my films]. With Funny Games, I intended an attack on the spectators who enjoyed consuming violence. Unfortunately, it didn’t reach that audience. But like every filmmaker, I make my films to reach the widest audience possible.

AWARDSLINE: Some of your films are in German and others in French. How do you decide what language to film in?

HANEKE: In the case of this film, what determined that it be in French was that Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva only exist in France. Beyond that, if I have the good luck, I can call on collaborators [which is to say, producers] in different countries. It’s great to be able to do that. It’s very difficult to finance films these days. All my films have been coproductions, and that’s made things a lot easier for me. Absolutely Amour is a story that can take place anywhere in the Western world.

AWARDSLINE: But not The White Ribbon.

HANEKE: Naturally. Well, yes and no. The film wasn’t intended to be limited to Germany. It’s rooted in the German past, but it shows the dangers of when certain ideas are transformed into ideology. The lesson of the film isn’t limited to Germany. It draws on the German past to tell a lesson that can be applied anywhere. For example you could shoot a similar story in any country with an extremist Islamic regime. The details would be different, but the basic principles would be identical. In the case of The Piano Teacher, too, it was because of the actress [i.e., Isabelle Huppert] that we filmed in French.

AWARDSLINE: And are there specific challenges attached to one or the other language?

HANEKE: I never write in French. I always write my scripts in German, and if they need to be translated, I give them to the same translator I’ve always used. Then I revise them line by line with the translator. Of course, it’s easier to work in your mother tongue. Not because it’s easier to express yourself in the script, but because it’s easier to follow what’s happening on the set if you’re working in your mother tongue. It takes a lot more effort when you’re working in a foreign language. But having worked so often in French now, the stress has diminished.

AWARDSLINE: You’ve made a number of films with Isabelle Huppert—in particular The Piano Teacher and Time of the Wolf, but also Amour, of course. What is it about this actress that you find so compelling, and can we expect to see her again in future films from you?

HANEKE: She is like a Stradivarius violin, on which you can play Bach, Mozart or Brahms, and it will always sound good. I like to write for actors I know and with whom I’ve worked before. You can write to their strengths and weaknesses and write roles that are better suited to them.

AWARDSLINE: I understand you were once a film critic. So were Truffaut and Godard, of course—and Bogdanovich too. Do you think there is a something film critics bring to filmmaking that others do not?

HANEKE: It’s hard to say. You become a film critic because you’re interested in film. I don’t know whether knowing so much about cinema leads you to make better films, but it certainly can’t hurt.

The Best Picture Contenders, Part 2

The second in a three-part series in which AwardsLine breaks down all nine of the best picture contenders. This article appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of AwardsLine.

Silver Linings Playbook: David O. Russell’s funny and moving character study of two broken people who use each other to mend was perhaps the critical and audience consensus winner at Toronto and the one to beat come Oscars.
Silver Linings Playbook: David O. Russell’s funny and moving character study of two broken people who use each other to mend was perhaps the critical and audience consensus winner at Toronto and the one to beat come Oscars.

Silver Linings Playbook

What the Academy says:  8 nominations (Picture: Donna Gigliotti, Bruce Cohen, Jonathan Gordon; Directing: David O. Russell; Lead Actor: Bradley Cooper; Lead Actress: Jennifer Lawrence; Supporting Actor: Robert De Niro; Supporting Actress: Jacki Weaver; Film Editing: Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers; Adapted Screenplay: David O. Russell)

What the public says: $71.4M domestic boxoffice; $19.8M international (as of Feb. 1)

What Pete Hammond says: Because it is a comedy, albeit one laced with drama, Silver Linings Playbook is at a disadvantage right out of the starting gate because comedies don’t traditionally win best picture Oscars. But this critically acclaimed story about two broken people who are trying to get their lives back together benefits from a passionate base of admirers, and that’s key in building a best picture campaign. Plus, it has the Oscar campaign know-how of the Weinstein Co., which has won the best picture Academy Award for two years running. And now it has achieved a landmark in Oscar nominations, becoming the first film since Warren Beatty’s 1981 film Reds to win nods for picture, screenplay, director (for David O. Russell who was overlooked by the DGA), and all four acting categories. Additionally, it even got an editing nomination, which every best picture winner has had since 1980. The pundits say it is an underdog, but the tea leaves are starting to say it could really happen.

What other awards say: 3 BAFTA noms, 4 CCMA wins for acting ensemble, best comedy, best actor in a comedy for Bradley Cooper, and best actress in a comedy for Jennifer Lawrence; 1 best actress in a musical/comedy Golden Globe for Lawrence; 5 Spirit Award noms; 1 SAG Award for lead actress Lawrence; plus a WGA nom for Russell.

What the critics say: “Lawrence and Cooper face off in the most convincing way, matching each other stride for crazed stride. It would spoil the fun to even hint at all what goes down between two people equally possessed by partners who are not coming back, but you can be sure it won’t be dull. That’s also true for Silver Linings Playbook as a whole. Russell’s gift for smart, honest, and unexpected dialogue and situations keeps you off-balance in an almost addictive way. He’s brought a reality to the world’s damaged, uncertain strivers that makes them next door to irresistible, and that can’t have been an easy thing to do.”—Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

What the producer says: “I don’t want to speak for (Russell), but he does say this all the time, that having had the experience on The Fighter in dealing with the creative core of that movie, he felt as though he could extend what he was exploring in that film,” Donna Gigliotti explains. “He really does think about these two films as companion pieces. And you can see why he thinks that. They’re dealing with similar themes. So while it wasn’t easy—I don’t want to undersell this idea that it was like, ‘Oh, great, he made The Fighter. Fine, let him make Silver Linings’—there were a lot of issues going on in terms of how I got him the budget that he needed, putting together textiles in Philadelphia, shooting it on a schedule that made sense for the budget. After The Fighter, he wanted to go back to work; there were other projects out there. But I never doubted that this was the one that he was most attached to emotionally.”

What the filmmaker says: “I needed to work, I needed to write something and I needed to make a living,” Russell says. “And I also really, really responded to the material. So it was a matter of having the tone right. You had to not stop working on the tone all the way through the editing process. The key to the whole thing is to keep it real, is to keep the people’s emotions committed and real.”

John Goodman, left, and Alan Arkin play Hollywood insiders who collaborate with the CIA in Argo.
John Goodman, left, and Alan Arkin play Hollywood insiders who collaborate with the CIA in Argo.

Argo

What the Academy says:  7 nominations (Picture: Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, George Clooney; Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin; Film Editing: William Goldenberg; Original Score: Alexandre Desplat; Sound Editing: Erik Aadahl, Ethan Van der Ryn; Sound Mixing: John T. Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, José Antonio García; Adapted Screenplay: Chris Terrio)

What the public says: $118.2M domestic boxoffice; $71.5M international (as of Feb. 1)

What Pete Hammond says: With its director Ben Affleck famously dissed by the directors branch, this extremely well-liked (if not loved) movie managed to land seven nominations overall, a good showing that keeps it in the race—and remember Affleck still got one of those noms as a producer of the film with Oscar veteran George Clooney and Grant Heslov. But can it become the first film since 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy to win best picture without a director nomination? Time will tell if it can and also if, oddly, it only wins best picture, considering the film is not really thought of as a frontrunner in any of the other six categories in which it is nominated. Now wouldn’t that be an Oscar twist for the ages?

What other awards say: 7 BAFTA noms, 2 Golden Globe Awards for best director and best drama, 2 CCMA wins for best picture and director, 1 SAG Award win for ensemble, PGA Zanuck Award, plus DGA and WGA noms.

What the critics say: “Mr. Affleck handles his own roles, on camera and behind it, with a noticeable lack of self-aggrandizement. He doesn’t show off with his direction or the performances, going for detail instead of bombast with eerie silences, traded glances, trembling gestures, and beaded sweat. (It’s a good guess that he’s committed the unnerving opening of Three Days of the Condor to memory.)”—Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

What the producer says: “We thought it would be a tricky film to market because it’s got an odd title, and it’s a very hard film to sell,” says Heslov. “On one hand, it’s a real nail-biter thriller, and on the other hand, there’s a lot of comedic moments. But it’s not a comedy. If you sell it as a comedy, people are going to be disappointed. So it was tricky, but I think the studio did a great job. We’re really happy with what they did with it.”

What the filmmaker says: “L.A. turned out to be our saving grace. Had we just stayed in Turkey, we would have been completely screwed because we couldn’t get any Farsi speakers,” Affleck says. “Then I was told there’s a huge population of Iranians here—they call it ‘Tehrangeles,’ and there are half a million Persians here. It was like realizing that you’re sitting on a gold mine. Not only that, but there’s this very robust theater tradition and acting history, and all these bilingual people. They really understood what you wanted in English, and they could do it well in Farsi. So we switched the airport scene (to L.A.), and we had 500 Persians in Ontario, CA, pretending to be stopping our houseguests from leaving Tehran. We had so much enthusiasm. For them it was like someone was telling their story. They knew the airport. They knew that the tile in the bathrooms was teal, to the point where I would go, ‘That’s good. We don’t need all that, we don’t have any scenes in the bathroom.’”

The French-language Amour follows a husband who must care for his ailing wife.
The French-language Amour follows a husband who must care for his ailing wife.

Amour

What the Academy says:  5 nominations (Picture: Margaret Ménégoz, Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Michael Katz; Directing: Michael Haneke; Actress: Emmanuelle Riva ; Original Screenplay: Michael Haneke; Foreign Language Film: Michael Haneke [Austria])

What the public says: $1.8M domestic boxoffice; $13.1M international (as of Feb. 1)

What Pete Hammond says: One of the rare films to win both best picture and best foreign language film nominations (Z, The Emigrants, Life Is Beautiful, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were the others), Amour looks very strong with directing, writing, and lead actress bids as well. However, no foreign language movie has ever won best picture, and it is a long shot to think the Academy will award it both picture prizes since it is a foregone conclusion it wins in the foreign film category. An original screenplay win for writer-director Michael Haneke is probably most likely to be the only other Oscar category it could take, matching the feat of another film that starred Amour’s leading man, Jean-Louis Trintignant, when A Man and a Woman won both in 1966. But in a year with so many genuine contenders and the possibility of a widely split vote among as many as six films, could this one sneak in? It has a passionate fan base in the Academy, and anything is possible in this topsy-turvy year.

What other awards say: Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner, 4 European Film Awards (best actor, actress, director, film), 1 Golden Globe win for foreign language film, 4 BAFTA noms, 1 CCMA win for best foreign language film, and an Indie Spirit nom for best international film.

What the critics say: “Considering Haneke’s confrontational past, this poignantly acted, uncommonly tender two-hander makes a doubly powerful statement about man’s capacity for dignity and sensitivity when confronted with the inevitable cruelty of nature. Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics before Cannes, this autumnal heartbreaker should serve arthouse-goers well—not for first dates, but for those who’ve long since lost count.”—Peter Debruge, Variety

What the producer says: “When I first met Michael Haneke, it was during the sound mixing of The Piano Teacher, and he said to me, ‘Perhaps we can do something together?’ I said, ‘I’m not sure I can spend two years of my life with cruelty and blood!’ And he let out this big Austrian laugh,” exclaims Margaret Ménégoz who has worked with him since 2003’s Time of the Wolf. But did she have any sway in terms of convincing Haneke to take on more humane films like Amour? “I don’t think so,” says Ménégoz. “He decided that.”

What the filmmaker says: “I don’t think I made a film about aging or dying, but rather in my personal life, I was confronted with the case of someone who I loved very deeply, someone in my family who was suffering very deeply, and I had to look on helplessly at the suffering. That led me to think about making the film. I could just as easily have made a film about a 40-year-old couple who is coping with a child dying of cancer, but however tragic that story would have been, it would have remained an individual case, whereas old age is something all of us are going to have to cope with at some point,” Haneke explains.

Anything Goes In This Year’s Oscar Race

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of AwardsLine.

With less than a month to go, the stage is set for one of the strangest Oscar showdowns in memory. Certainly the season started with some clear favorites emerging, like Argo at Telluride, Silver Linings Playbook at Toronto, then Lincoln just after the election, followed by Life Of Pi. I thought Paramount’s Flight also might emerge as a major best picture contender around this time, but when critics awards and early nominations for Globes and CCMAs started coming in, it was clear this was mainly just a play for Denzel Washington and John Gatins’ original screenplay. At Christmas time, we got Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained, and the hotly anticipated Les Misérables to complete our seven-pack of best picture contenders. What many weren’t anticipating was that two small indie films that made a splash earlier in the year were also going to come in. Beasts Of The Southern Wild managed to hold on to all that momentum from its Sundance debut a year ago, and then Amour took Cannes by storm, winning the Palme d’Or and later travelling on the fall film circuit to Telluride and Toronto. That both were able to cash in that early 2012 awards goodwill and still make Oscar’s list was impressive, especially in the face of one of the most competitive and rich races for the ultimate prize in many years.

So what do we have? It’s as free-wheelin’ a race for Oscar as it can possibly be. Usually at this point, there are one or two strong contenders left in the hunt. Not this year. An argument can be made that, depending where the momentum shifts in the next month, it is almost anyone’s race, at least for best picture. But that also extends to some of the acting races (well, maybe not for you, Daniel Day-Lewis and Anne Hathaway) and even director, which has been turned on its head by the directors branch, who went their own way in snubbing DGA nominees Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow, and Tom Hooper in favor of smaller films from Michael Haneke, Benh Zeitlin, and David O. Russell. At the very least, the directors have upended the race and made it a lot more interesting and less conventional. It is entirely conceivable that the guilds, which most closely reflect the Academy’s sensibilities, will further upend the race. In a year when so many movies are top quality and have their own unique constituencies supporting them, a split vote could produce some very nervous moments on Oscar night and some very unexpected results. Could a popular movie like Argo actually emerge as the best picture champ without winning any other Oscars?

It’s possible—not likely, but possible. Will the directing and picture categories split? Possible. Could Argo win DGA, Life Of Pi win best director at the Oscars, and Lincoln take home best picture? Who knows? It is a year where anything, and I mean anything, can happen.

And then there is the question of the earlier nominating period and online voting. The Academy assured me, perhaps because of all the publicity about snafus in the new voting system, that more members voted this time around than ever before. Will that continue through to the finals, especially now that there is a longer period, six weeks instead of four, between nominations and the Oscar show? Will the method of voting continue to be the story and could it affect the outcome in a razor-thin margin race like this one promises to be?

It has indeed been a rollercoaster ride for Oscar in his 85th year, and I have a feeling he’s got a few more surprises in store for us before this is all over.

Themes Of Struggle Link Foreign-Language Film Contenders

David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of AwardsLine.

Fairly or not, European films are widely considered more serious than their American counterparts. Certainly the movies eligible for the best foreign film Oscar this year fit the mold. Several make struggle a central theme, doing so in varied but consistently engaging ways.

Pablo Larrain’s No, from Chile, examines the 1988 plebiscite forced on General Augusto Pinochet, the result of which marked the beginning of the end of his dictatorship. In the film, a gifted marketing executive, Rene (Gael Garcia Bernal), must choose between middle-class comforts and his conscience—a choice complicated by his family’s ties to leftist politics. His boss (Alfredo Castro), who is firmly in league with the pro-Pinochet forces, plays Mephistopheles in this situation, reminding Rene, in no uncertain terms, that the creature comforts he enjoys are by no means guaranteed. Complicating matters are Rene’s shaky relationship with his politically engaged wife, Veronica (Antonia Zegers), from whom he is already separated. All of which leads to the film’s central question: What price bravery?

Denmark's official Oscar submission is A Royal Affair, which transports viewers to the 18th century.
Denmark’s official Oscar submission is A Royal Affair, which transports viewers to the 18th century.

Chen Kaige’s Caught in the Web, China’s contender this year, essentially flips the individual-versus-society question as it examines the struggles faced by Ye Lanqiu (Gao Yuanyuan), a mild and attractive executive assistant who is given a grim prognosis of advanced lymphatic cancer. That dire news triggers a chain of events in which the stunned secretary acts rudely on a public bus, and her behavior, captured on a young reporter’s cell phone, creates a cause célèbre, catapulting her to national vilification as “Miss Sunglasses.” This double blow of fate and ostracism is compelling, but Chen is more concerned with turning the lens around, from the individual onto Chinese society. There, he suggests, obsession with technology has reduced public empathy to everyone’s detriment.

Iceland's The Deep is based on the true story of a fisherman who survives a shipwreck.
Iceland’s The Deep is based on the true story of a fisherman who survives a shipwreck.

Based on real incident, The Deep, from Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur, relates the incredible story of a simple but happy fisherman named Gulli (Olafur Darri Olafsson) who finds himself the sole survivor of a sinking ship. Battling nature and the guilt he feels at being unable to save his crewmates, he makes an improbable bid for survival, defying long odds and swimming to safety. Yet doubts confront him once he does, with people—especially those in authority—refusing to believe his death-defying accomplishment. Then, after confirmation of his experience, he is subjected to medical tests, in hopes of finding a scientific basis for his fortitude and good fortune, so unwilling is the establishment to accept extraordinary actions from such an ordinary man.

Struggles of a strictly private nature lie at the heart of Michael Haneke’s Amour, a French-language film flying the Austrian flag. Centering almost entirely on an aged couple (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) who must suddenly come to grips with infirmity and—by implication—mortality. Though the much-lauded and singular Haneke would not seem an obvious choice for such a picture, his utter lack of sentimentality pierces the essence of what it means to grow old. Here, Riva must contend with the ravages of a stroke while Trintignant watches his life partner disintegrate before him, powerless to do much more than offer limp comforts.

Transporting viewers to 18th-century Denmark, Nikolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair uses a historical romance between King Christian VII’s wife, Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), and the king’s physician-cum-chancellor, Johann Streunsee (Mads Mikkelsen), to explore the challenges facing enlightened nobles attempting to improve a backward nation. Beneath the rustle of damask and flickering candlelight, Arcel asks eternal questions regarding a nation’s leaders and their responsibilities—questions made all the more pointed when the populace is too ignorant to embrace its own interests. This particular tale did not end well for those involved, their struggles and sacrifices made apparently in vain. But history takes the long view, which Arcel clearly appreciates in his touching coda.

Said Ould Khelifa’s Zabana! also takes a page from history to appreciate the short life of the Algerian freedom fighter Ahmed Zabana, whose execution helped bring about Algeria’s war of independence from France. And though Australia’s entry for an Oscar this year, Lore, is fictional, its German-language story is grounded in a historical subject that film lovers never seem to tire of: World War II and its consequences. In this case, the protagonist is teenage girl whose parents were ardent Nazis.

Such films as these aren’t are always shortlisted, let alone award winners, of course. Last year’s outstanding A Separation, from Iran, delved deeply into matters of perception and truth, but on an intimate scale. Still, the Academy clearly has a soft spot for foreign films that tackle big issues in which struggle figures prominently. Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009), from Germany, is a perfect example, with its implicit societal indictment. And so is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006), also from Germany. Both contend with man’s eternal battle to come to terms with both himself and the society in which he lives. And these are struggles to which we can all relate.