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

Writing Nominees Discuss Their Adapted Screenplays

Anthony D’Alessandro is managing editor of AwardsLine. Paul Brownfield is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of AwardsLine.

Ben Affleck, left, with Argo screenwriter Chris Terrio.
Blending tones was always Chris Terrio’s biggest concern in adapting Argo.

Chris Terrio | Argo

Chris Terrio had a trove of primary and secondary material to consult in writing the screenplay for Argo, most notably the memoir Master of Disguise, by former CIA agent Tony Mendez, and Joshuah Bearman’s 2007 article in Wired magazine based on declassified documents about the remarkable clandestine Iran hostage-rescue caper.

But this hardly gave Terrio a blueprint for a screenplay that deftly blends Hollywood satire with a historical international crisis. Terrio says his biggest fear was that the Hollywood scenes of the Argo screenplay would slide the movie too far into show-business farce.

However, a passage in Mendez’s book gave him license to go there in one case. “In Tony’s book,” Terrio says,  “there’s a passage in it where Tony’s describing being with (makeup artist) John Chambers and figuring out that they’re going to call the fake movie Argo. And then it describes how that title both comes from a joke—which literally was a joke that Chambers and Tony used to make, which is the ‘Ah, go fuck yourself’ joke—but also that it has these mythological connotations to it, which Chambers and Mendez were aware of and chose. I feel that somewhere in that passage is the root of the tone of the film, which in some sense was a harder thing to get at than the particular narrative.”

In getting to that narrative, Terrio arrived at the idea of creating a staged reading of Argo for the Hollywood press. “You have all these people sitting around in these ridiculous costumes and yet you have the great mythological intonations of, ‘Our world has changed.’ It’s a nudge and a wink, but there’s also something earnestly mythological about it. Plus, you have the slightly spitballing point of view of Chambers and Tony and Lester Siegel in the room watching this, and you’re trying to evoke the geopolitical world that they’re operating in, plus the human drama of both the houseguests and the hostages.”—Paul Brownfield

Beasts of the Southern Wild features a 6-year-old star who had never acted before
The scene in the film in which Hushpuppy looks for her mother is significantly different from the original source material.

Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin | Beasts of the Southern Wild

Playwright Alibar and first-time director Zeitlin call it the Elysian Fields scene—the moment in the third act of the screenplay when Hushpuppy leaves behind Wink, her dying father, and seeks out her mother, whom she believes works on a kind of floating stripper barge in the Gulf.

Juicy and Delicious, the one-act play on which Beasts is based, was not set in the Bathtub of the Louisiana bayou but the rural South (in the play the character Hushpuppy is a boy). “What happened in the play,” Zeitlin says, “was that Hushpuppy sort of wandered into the road and hitched a ride from this mythical truck driver that was driving down the highway, and he brought her to this diner and this woman, who wasn’t supposed to be the mother at all and just kind of gave a cooking lesson.”

The cook carried over in the movie, in just as big a way. “As we worked on the adaptation, people would look at the script and say, ‘Where is the logical plot justification for Hushpuppy to leave her father who’s the center of this story and go to a place that we’ve never heard of before in the script and have this bizarre experience?’ ” Zeitlin says. “That doesn’t really fit into what you think of as your instigating moment of the third act, or whatever you hear in screenplay school. But one of the things that I loved so much about Lucy’s play is that it never operated on a narrative plot logic, it operated on an emotional logic.”

In the play, Alibar wanted the emotional possibility that the cook could be Hushpuppy’s mother. “If it wasn’t, I wanted Hushpuppy to be hoping that it was,” she says. “I think the dialogue was pretty similar, if not exactly the same. Benh and I went back and forth a lot with the tough love aspect of it.”

“That monologue is actually a really good example of how the text from the play was revised into the movie because I remember very specifically me and Lucy taking that speech to (actress Jovan Hathaway) and working with her on reshaping the language to fit her accent,” Zeitlin says. “In the end there is a collaboration between me, Lucy, and Jovan, sort of revising this speech that the waitress made in the play. It’s more Jovan, it’s more Louisiana, but the ideas in it and the substance of it are very much the same.”—Paul Brownfield

Screenwriter Tony Kushner on the set of Lincoln.
Early on in the process, screenwriter Tony Kushner knew that he wanted to use a scene of the president taking in the carnage of the battlefield.

Tony Kushner | Lincoln

Early in the process of what would become his screenplay Lincoln, Kushner came to a scene on page 716 in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. It was a description of Lincoln riding across a battlefield, the gory, horrific ravages of war at his feet. “I got to that scene,” Kushner says, “and I wrote in my notebook and then emailed Steven: ‘This has to be in the movie.’ ”

Lincoln’s grim ride is followed by his conference with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on the piazza of a house in Petersberg. Kushner found no historical record of their conversation, “so I felt like that’s kind of cool. I can have them talk about what I’d liked them to have talked about, as long as I can defend what they say to one another, and I think I can.”

As such, Kushner chose to leave Lincoln puzzling over what he had just seen on the battlefield while in a quieter place. “Lincoln saw a couple of battles outside of Washington, but they were fairly small skirmishes,” Kushner says. “He saw this one battle that was unfolding that was kind of a charge by (Confederate Gen.) Jubal Early’s troops in July of 1864 that was repelled. He went to meet Grant in Petersburg the morning after this really ugly battle, which was the end of Lee’s 10-month siege. He rode across the battlefield, which was strewn with bodies, and it was the first time he’d ever seen the immediate aftermath of a battle with nothing really cleaned up. And the description by one of the men that accompanied him, of Lincoln sort of visibly aging on the horse as he rode across the battlefield, moved me enormously.”

The scene also gets to the heart of the sacrifices necessary to maintain the union. “One of the paradoxes of Abraham Lincoln,” Kushner says, “was that he was not a guy who took war lightly. And Grant, whom he trusted as he trusted no one else, developed a new kind of warfare that was incredibly bloody and horrible, and it is what what won the war, but at a human cost that no one had ever seen before. Lincoln suffered this very deeply, and I felt like this was a great moment to show that.”—Paul Brownfield

Life of Pi
David Magee used the scene in which Pi’s father schools him about the dangers of wild animals to trace the arc of the character.

David Magee | Life of Pi

In the novel Life of Pi, there is a scene in which Pi’s father illustrates to his boys that animals are dangerous by feeding a live goat to one of the tigers in the family zoo. Though that sequence did not make it into his adaptation, Magee says it became the inspiration for how to pinpoint a key moment in the film’s early dramatic structure—namely, the first time Pi meets Richard Parker, the tiger with whom he will later be adrift at sea.

“It’s handled very differently in the book and used to different effect, and it goes to the heart of what we were trying to accomplish in the adaptation,” Magee says. “In the book, a different tiger is fed the goat. It’s an incident that Pi recalls from his childhood, where the father takes the two boys in, and just to remind them how dangerous animals are, he demonstrates by feeding a goat to a tiger. And then he goes on in a somewhat comical scene to explain why every animal is dangerous in some way or the other, going from the tiger to the antelope who could spear you with his horns, to the turtle that snaps at you, and he works all the way down to a guinea pig. Pi thinks the guinea pig is a problem, too, and (the father) says, ‘No, the guinea pig is fine.’ So it’s meant as a comical scene and a reflection more on how animals are not adapted to life with humans. One of the challenges that we had in adapting the story was finding an evolution to Pi’s character, so that he was not just an infant traveling out on the waters with a tiger, having faith in God and having no reason to question why all of this was happening to him. It works beautifully for the novel because he could reflect on all sorts of aspects of spirituality in a bunch of episodes. But we needed to create an emotional narrative for that journey. And so very early on, Ang (Lee) and I talked about the possibility of turning this scene into the moment of his disillusionment as a child, the moment where he sees through some of the mythologies of childhood.”—Paul Brownfield

A key difference between the book and screenplay of Silver Linings Playbook is when in the story Pat Jr. figures out who wrote the letter he thinks is from his ex-wife.
A key difference between the book and screenplay of Silver Linings Playbook is when in the story Pat Jr. figures out who wrote the letter he thinks is from his ex-wife.

David O. Russell | Silver Linings Playbook

A book’s narrative has all the time in the world to lay out its plot points, but what was key for David O. Russell in adapting Matthew Quick’s novel Silver Linings Playbook was “creating a dramatic engine in the screenplay that propels the story into third act.” One of his key changes from book to script revolved around Pat Jr.’s discovery that his ex-wife Nikki never wrote him a letter—a gesture that he initially perceives as an opportunity to makeup. In the screenplay, Pat Jr. deduces on his own that Tiffany wrote the Nikki letter, while in the novel, Tiffany makes the big reveal to him. Russell deconstructs his reasons for making the change:

“In the book, he’s a completely delusional person who has lived in an institution for four years. God bless those people, but I don’t know them. I know from my own life, the one we portrayed was my son. I wanted to talk about that guy who is the whole motivation for this picture. He has a manner about him in the book that is different. I decided (along with Bradley Cooper) that he was a lucid guy who, like many bipolar people, when they’re not on their medication, they distort things and go into unrealistic expectations.”

“Pat Jr. learns about Tiffany writing the Nikki letters very late in the book. Tiffany hasn’t exchanged the letter yet. She holds it out until after the dance. So it was a big structural decision in the film to make the dance the climax of the movie and to make the letters the currency of their relationship and the barter at the heart of their intimacy.”

“The curtain opens on the third act where Tiffany and the parents are plotting to lie to Pat Jr. while he figures out on the porch the truth behind Nikki’s letter. You have to build your pressure into the canister of the movie. Not only is Pat Jr. getting the news that Nikki isn’t available, but he’s also realizing he’s been lied to. That’s humiliating to him. The shame can alone trigger a bipolar episode. In fact, he’s created the conditions where people have to tiptoe around him.”

“It all makes sense, the secrecy of the dance and the letters. There are so many people trying to help and supervise people like Pat Jr., that the dignity of their privacy and the dignity of them making decisions without telling anyone becomes extremely valuable to them. In fact, it’s the most important human dignity. So that was a decision we made—for Pat Jr. to figure out for himself (that Tiffany wrote the letters). He doesn’t tell anyone—not the audience or the characters—what he’s going to do. It’s a moment that he turns a corner and starts to own his own life.” —Anthony D’Alessandro

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

The Best Picture Contenders, Part 3

The last in a three-part series in which AwardsLine breaks down all nine of the best picture contenders.

Django Unchained didn't screen for the SAG nominating committee, which meant it was left off of one of the most respected Oscar-forecasting nomination lists.
Django Unchained didn’t screen for the SAG nominating committee, which meant it was left off of one of the most respected Oscar-forecasting nomination lists.

Django Unchained

What the Academy says:  5 nominations (Picture: Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin, Pilar Savone; Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz; Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino; Cinematography: Robert Richardson; Sound Editing: Wylie Stateman)

What the public says: $147.5M domestic boxoffice; $111.5M international (as of Feb. 1)

What Pete Hammond says: Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti-western homage was a Christmas Day release and struggled just to meet its late-year release date. That means its five nominations including best picture are an impressive feat considering many members probably didn’t get a chance to see it because of the earlier voting schedule. It just shows the love for all things Tarantino, as this is the third film for which the director has seen a best picture nom. Although unlike Inglourious Basterds and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino didn’t earn a best director nomination this year. However, along with Michael Haneke for Amour, he’s a frontrunner for original screenplay for this wild and somewhat controversial mashup of cowboys and slaves. It has little chance to prevail as best picture, but because it’s now certified as Tarantino’s biggest boxoffice hit to date, that probably doesn’t matter.

What other awards say: 2 Golden Globes for supporting actor Christoph Waltz and Tarantino’s screenplay, 1 CCMA win for original screenplay, 5 BAFTA noms, and a PGA nom.

What the critics say: “What Tarantino has is an appreciation for gut-level exploitation film appeal, combined with an artist’s desire to transform that gut element with something higher, better, more daring. His films challenge taboos in our society in the most direct possible way, and at the same time, add an element of parody or satire… The film is often beautiful to regard. Tarantino’s Southern plantations are flatlands in spring, cloud-covered, with groups of slaves standing as figures in a landscape.”—Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times

What the producer says: “When Quentin made Reservoir Dogs, he realized that some people didn’t know they were allowed to laugh. When he made Pulp Fiction, Quentin said he needed to let the audience in on the joke,” explains Stacey Sher. “That’s the reason why humor is a part of his work, because that’s how you can take the dramatic underpinnings of everything that he’s doing that are profound and emotional and that take you on the journey. There’s always romance in Quentin’s films, whether it’s unrequited like Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega or even cartoony like Pumpkin and Honey Bunny in Pulp Fiction, and ultimately all of the stuff that has been subtexted in his movies, in these great love stories, is text in Django’s quest to find his Broomhilda. So he mixes these things. These are the colors in his tool kit. They’re sophisticated, they’re surprising and allow you to go on his journey that includes things that are rough.”

What the filmmaker says: “I was never stirred by how much I put the N-word in my script,” Tarantino said at this year’s Golden Globes. “If someone out there is saying I use it more in my movie than it was used in the Antebellum South, well, feel free to make that case. But no one is making that case. They’re saying I should lie, whitewash and massage (my script), and I don’t do that when it comes to my characters. I’m more concerned about the slavery in America: The drug laws that put more blacks in jail than they did in the ’70s, the prisoners that are traded back and forth between public and private prisons — that’s straight-up slavery.”

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.

Zero Dark Thirty

What the Academy says:  5 nominations (Picture: Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow, Megan Ellison; Lead Actress: Jessica Chastain; Original screenplay: Mark Boal; Film Editing: William Goldenberg, Dylan Tichenor; Sound Editing: Paul N.J. Ottosson)

What the public says: $71.8M domestic boxoffice; $7.7M international (as of Feb. 1)

What Pete Hammond says: When Zero Dark Thirty started the season off by winning one major critics award after another, it appeared that it could have unstoppable momentum all the way to the Academy Awards. After all, this film was the followup project for the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker team of director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. And Sony Pictures had a strong release plan, opening it slowly, building awards and word of mouth, and then going wide the day after Oscar nominations. Unfortunately, controversy reared its ugly head with a trio of powerful U.S. senators and the acting head of the CIA all criticizing the film for its depiction of torture as a device used to ultimately capture and kill Osama bin Laden. The studio and the filmmakers were slow to respond and defend their film, although they eventually did come out swinging. Then the Academy’s director’s branch, as they did with Ben Affleck and Tom Hooper, surprisingly snubbed Bigelow, who was thought to be a certain nominee for her remarkable work. Although the film got five key nominations, its momentum from the critics awards slowed. Though star Jessica Chastain won at the Globes and Critics Choice, and the boxoffice was extremely strong when it finally went wide, its inevitability as a major best picture threat seemed questionable. But it is a crazy year, and another chapter might still be written for Zero Dark Thirty, especially if voters feel big government is trying to roll over artists.

What other awards say: 5 BAFTA noms, 2 CCMAs for best actress Chastain and film editing, 1 Golden Globe win for Chastain, , as well as DGA, and WGA noms.

What the critics say: Zero Dark Thirty is a puzzle that keeps changing and re-forming; we’re held by fleeting references, by the workings of Maya’s calculations. Bigelow and the cinematographer, Greig Fraser, make fluid but firm use of a handheld camera, without excessive agitation, so that you feel pitched into the middle of things but also see clearly what you need to see. A sequence in which a Jordanian who may provide access to bin Laden approaches an American military installation is drawn out to a level of almost unendurable suspense. Two unexpected bomb explosions throw you back in your seat; they have a ferocious power that makes most movie explosions feel like a mere perturbation of digits.”—David Denby, The New Yorker

What the producer says: “I didn’t want to play fast and loose with history,” says Boal, “and I wanted to track as closely as I could with what was known of the intelligence hunt and hopefully bring together all these disparate pieces of information. But you’re compressing 10 years into two hours, so that’s where all the normal things that movies do to compress time were things that I did, and you’re also trying to dramatize events to tell a story most effectively. That doesn’t mean the events aren’t true, it just means you’re making them as dramatic as you possibly can.”

What the filmmaker says: “It’s not just the modern military genre (I’m attracted to), but also it’s the topicality that I find really riveting and galvanizing,” Bigelow says. “(Boal) was certainly reporting this story as it was unfolding, and there’s a kind of urgency and timeliness to that. And at the same time, I think we both felt a responsibility to tell it in a certain way, to tell it responsibly and to be faithful to the research.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild went against all of the rules of filmmaking, but the risks paid off for first-time feature director Benh Zeitlin.
Beasts of the Southern Wild went against all of the rules of filmmaking, but the risks paid off for first-time feature director Benh Zeitlin.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

What the Academy says: 4 nominations (Picture: Dan Janvey, Josh Penn, Michael Gottwald; Directing: Benh Zeitlin; Lead Actress: Quvenzhané Wallis; Adapted Screenplay: Lucy Alibar, Behn Zeitlin)

What the public says: $11.7M domestic boxoffice

What Pete Hammond says: This is definitely the little indie movie that could. Debuting only a year ago at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize, few would have guessed that it would become such a major Oscar player just one year later with nominations for best picture, adapted screenplay, director, and lead actress for its 9-year-old star, Quvenzhané Wallis. It is clearly a Cinderella story for this unusual film and a feather in the cap for Sundance as well as Fox Searchlight, which picked up the film and ran with it. As the only best picture nominee to come from the first nine months of the year, it also stands out as the beneficiary of a passionate support base in the Academy. However, like last year’s Searchlight nominee, The Tree of Life, the love probably stops with the nomination, but it could triumph the day before at the Independent Spirit Awards.

What other awards say: 4 Cannes Film Festival awards (FIPRESCI Prize, Golden Camera, Prix Regards Jeune, and Ecumenical Jury), 2 Sundance Film Festival wins (cinematography, Grand Jury Prize), 4 Indie Spirit noms, 1 CCMA win for Wallis as best young actor/actress, and 1 BAFTA nom for adapted screenplay.

What the critics say: “Played by Quvenzhané Wallis, an untrained sprite who holds the camera’s attention with a charismatic poise that might make grownup movie stars weep in envy, Hushpuppy is an American original, a rambunctious blend of individualism and fellow feeling. In other words, she is the inheritor of a proud literary and artistic tradition, following along a crooked path traveled by Huckleberry Finn, Scout Finch, Eloise (of the Plaza), Elliott (from E.T.), and other brave, wild, imaginary children. These young heroes allow us, vicariously, to assert our innocence and to accept our inevitable disillusionment when the world falls short of our ideals and expectations.”—A.O. Scott, The New York Times

What the producer says: “The premise was a challenge from the get-go, and we weren’t backed by a major studio. We made it with Cinereach, a nonprofit that is challenging the world with the movies they’re putting out. We went in saying, ‘We want to make a movie with a 6-year-old who’s never acted before and put her opposite someone who’s never acted before.’ And Cinereach said, ‘Yes, that’s the miracle of the movie,’ ” says Gottwald.

What the filmmaker says: “When we shot the last scene between Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry,” says Zeitlin, “when both actors had to cry—they were first-time actors, so they didn’t have years of training to know how to just switch on the waterworks, so we all had to work together at that moment to make it happen. And then I was crying, the cameraman was crying, the boom operator was crying, the producers were crying—we all put ourselves in the mindset of losing a parent, and when I got the take, it was that moment where I knew we had gotten the film.”

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.

Cinematographers On Their Awards Season Hopefuls

Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of AwardsLine.

Don’t write that obituary for film just yet. The traditional moviemaking format remains a vital tool for the top cinematographers in the field, even as digital technology improves and offers exciting possibilities for the future.

AwardsLine caught up with the men who shot some of the year’s top contenders to talk about how they shot their current films, working with the top directors in the field, and how to make it all come together in the end.

Taking part in our mock roundtable are Mihai Malaimare Jr., who used large-format 65mm film to shoot the majority of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master; Claudio Miranda, who shot the sole digital and 3D picture of this bunch, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi; Wally Pfister, who mixed IMAX and 35mm in wrapping up Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy on The Dark Knight Rises; Rodrigo Prieto, who stitched together multiple formats for Ben Affleck’s Argo; Ben Richardson, who relied on 16mm to capture the Beasts of the Southern Wild for Benh Zeitlin; and Robert Richardson, who reunited with filmophile Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained.

Rodrigo Prieto stitched together multiple formats to create the look of Argo.
Rodrigo Prieto stitched together multiple formats to create the look of Argo.

AWARDSLINE: How did you go about choosing cameras and formats for your current projects?

RODRIGO PRIETO: We wanted to differentiate the different segments of the film. We were going to intercut and wanted as soon as you saw an image, say, in Tehran that you would know that’s where you are just by the texture of the image, especially because we were shooting in very different locations.

MIHAI MALAIMARE JR.: From the first meeting we had, we were discussing using a larger format for The Master. The reason is when you think about iconic images from that period, like from the ’30s and right after World War II, you are mainly thinking of large-format still photography. We started with VistaVision, but because the difference wasn’t that big from 35mm to VistaVision, we switched to the next bigger format which was 65mm, and that was giving us kind of the feeling that we wanted.

CLAUDIO MIRANDA: Ang (Lee) was really interested in 3D. He said, “I’ve been really interested in 3D for almost 10 years now. Even before Avatar, I really wanted to see how to bring a new language to cinema.” It had to be digital, because with 3D it had to be really precise.

WALLY PFISTER: Chris (Nolan) sat back and said, “Here’s the deal: This film will stand on its own, but we are wrapping up a trilogy.” We had discussions early on about shooting in IMAX, and I said, “Dude, we should shoot the whole movie in IMAX.” But we pushed up against the limitations of IMAX, which is you can’t record synched sound with an IMAX camera—they’re just too noisy.

BEN RICHARDSON: We instinctively knew that the only viable way for our budget and to get the kind of imagery we wanted was to go to 16mm. The great thing about a 16mm camera, obviously, is that as long as you have a couple batteries and a roll of film and a changing tent, you can keep shooting.

Wally Pfister mixed IMAX and 35mm for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises.
Wally Pfister mixed IMAX and 35mm for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.

AWARDSLINE: Was it a challenge to make different formats work as a cohesive whole when cut together?

PFISTER: We go through a bit of analysis for what makes sense for that story. The obvious reason for shooting IMAX is because you want to put something spectacular on the screen that’s going to have a visceral impact on the audience. In other circumstances, Chris wants the camera to have a more of a looser, documentary feel. So you use different tools and different formats and different methods to convey the story in different ways.

PRIETO: Once we started testing all these different things, I projected them next to each other, and we saw that the looks were apparent and were visible, but we didn’t feel it was jarring, given that it was all the same aspect ratio. Also, the story has this drive to it that helps it all come together.

AWARDSLINE: How important is having an established relationship with a director versus working with someone you’ve not worked with before?

ROBERT RICHARDSON: I think having an established relationship with a director is unbeatable. The shorthand that comes from a relationship that is longstanding, especially when both sides of the party are respectful of each other, is a tremendous benefit. I’m not opposed to working with a new director, but you do have to approach it differently because you don’t know each other yet. You tend to be a little more cautious.

MIRANDA: You definitely have to figure out where directors will let you go or not let you go, and it’s all about establishing that kind of communication. With Ang, we just talked back and forth about how we feel about lighting, and he let me go a lot.

BEN RICHARDSON: Working with a director I maybe knew less well, we might have had to cover a lot of ground to find the common ground. But I think we had a fairly solid understanding of each other’s wishes off the bat, so our daily conversations in terms of shot lists and shot planning were very much in the realm of an established aesthetic that we both understood.

Robert Richardson on the set of Django Unchained.
Robert Richardson on the set of Django Unchained.

AWARDSLINE: How did you approach environment and character on your film? Did you see them as separate elements or two parts of a whole?

PRIETO: On Argo, the environment plays a very important role because every situation the characters are in is based on where they are. These environments really affect the characters’ behavior and their emotional states very much in this film. I really tried to support and enhance the sense of this environment and how it’s affecting them.

BEN RICHARDSON: In terms of the environments, we didn’t so much storyboard as follow a shot list. We would go in with a sense of what we needed to achieve, but we would primarily allow the locations and the environments we found to dictate the way certain scenes could feel or could behave.

AWARDSLINE: Give one example or scene that demonstrates how cinematography was used to tell the story.

MIRANDA: I feel like the golden light is kind of a serene moment. He’s throwing this can in the air, and just the way it was captured—we shot it as a very wide shot—and he realizes that in the large ocean this is a really futile idea, and he gets really reflective. He has a little peek at the tiger, and they have a little eye connect. I feel like that was a pretty cinematic moment.

PRIETO: The one that came to my mind is when the houseguests are at the bazaar. I think the cinematography there was using the light to express this feeling of vulnerability, of being scared, and they’re overexposed—the light was several stops overexposed.

AWARDSLINE: With so many digital environments used in movies today, how do you collaborate with the digital artists who are doing everything from effects and environments to color grading?

BEN RICHARDSON: If we had been able to, we might have gone as far as trying to find a way to do a photochemical finish. So it was very important to me that that sort of photochemical feel be preserved all the way through, and I worked very closely with our DI (digital intermediary) house to do a workflow that basically emulated the way you did a traditional answer print. In regards to the visual effects, I had been a key part from the beginning in terms of figuring out how we were going to do those scenes with the beasts. I was very much in touch with Benh (Zeitlin) and the visual effects supervisor as we worked on that stuff because to me that really was the fantasy high point of the film.

PFISTER: As cinematographers, we light in a very—at least I do—visceral, gut kind of fashion, like I’m throwing paints on a canvas. The visual effects guys, they analyze lighting, and they try to re-create it, so it’s much more of a technical process for them, but they’re really starting to understand it now. Their work has gotten better and better, so for me it’s just looking at the end and commenting on whether it’s matching or not.

MIRANDA: I stayed involved in the DI. Bill Westenhofer, who did the visual effects, was there. Even the editor was there, and he was very involved in the 3D because he had made a lot of choices in the Avid for 3D placement and staging and correcting.

AWARDSLINE: What makes your job easier? What makes it harder?

ROBERT RICHARDSON: The most difficult thing would be to have a script that hasn’t yet solidified. To work with something that is in fluctuation continually can be a horror show.

PFISTER: What makes my job easy is working hard. The hardest part of the job is really if people around you are not working as hard as they should be.

AWARDSLINE: What is the most exciting development in the field? What has you most excited about the future of cinematography?

ROBERT RICHARDSON: I’m excited by the movement toward digital cinematography. I think it’s opening up opportunities for a re-evaluation of lighting, and I don’t mean in the sense that it looks like a reality show, but you can work at lower levels.

MALAIMARE JR.: I think this is a really interesting moment because you can still shoot on film for projects that you think will work on the format or you can shoot digital. What’s even more interesting is the fact that you can find really cheap digital cameras—that doesn’t necessarily help the cinematography, but it helps the audience because they are going through a self-training process. The audience is getting more aware of what capturing or creating an image can be and, of course, they have higher expectations because of that.

Composers Zeitlin And Romer On Scoring Beasts

David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of AwardsLine.

Convincingly relating a child’s sense of wonder in a movie for grownups is never easy. But Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer managed it handily in the music for Beasts of the Southern Wild, which Zeitlin also directed and cowrote.

Set in the wetlands of the deep South immediately before a major storm (presumably Hurricane Katrina), the film combines expected musical choices—country fiddle, accordion—with some unconventional ones—celesta and pop-music beats—to create a satisfying gumbo rich in character, mood, and atmosphere.

“I think the world looks down on these places,” Zeitlin says of his film’s setting. “I wanted to make this film about why people stay, about how beautiful and how much freedom there is in this culture. I want audiences to understand that places like this have found freedom and joy, and the music takes you there.”

To convey that sense Zeitlin and Romer used music of indigenous Cajun bands, especially the celebrated Balfa Brothers, but they also didn’t shy from incorporating other elements from their eclectic playbook. “Me and Dan have diverse taste,” Zeitlin explains. “We listen to a lot of Rachmaninoff and Michael Nyman. We both write pop music. Kate Bush was a big influence on us, also Beyoncé and Rihanna.”

Their big challenge was creating a sound that simultaneously incorporated a sense of place with a child’s sense of self. “Our star (Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy) is 6 years old, and modern pop music is what she loves,” Zeitlin says. “We wanted the score to have an indigenous texture, but also have kick-you-in-the-face energy that modern pop music is so good at, and we wanted to find a bridge to all those things.”

They found it toward the beginning of the film, as a parade makes its way through the area affectionately known as the Bathtub in the movie. The scene culminates in a fireworks celebration that also serves as the film’s title sequence. “That was pretty much the first idea we had when we sat down,” Romer recalls. “Benh wrote me that there would be a Cajun band early on. He asked what musicians should be there at the shoot. We talked about two violins and a guitar. We wanted a Cajun band playing in the scene, but then something else is playing in Hushpuppy’s head. We wanted Hushpuppy to augment the live music in her brain. To the rest of the world, it’s just a Cajun band, but in her head it’s reharmonized and orchestrated.”

The pair got the Lost Bayou Ramblers to play Balfa Brothers songs, including “Balfa Waltz” (or “Valse de Balfa”). “When I listened to that song, I realized we can do so much with it because it’s basically only one chord,” Romer says. “We can completely reharmonize this. We can add cellos or whatever. It just worked out perfectly. That was our first big idea together. The fireworks sequence is the big takeoff, blending the traditional music with the Bathtub anthem. The full anthem doesn’t come back until the credits, though it does come back in smaller bits in between.”

For Zeitlin, that cue was the movie in nutshell. “The purpose was to make you fall in love with this town and culture in a very short period of time,” he said. “We had to sell audiences on this place that they might normally be afraid of. And music was a key to making that happen. This world may look reckless or dangerous, but for Hushpuppy it’s what she loves more than anything else in the world.”

Wallis Of Beasts Reflects On Her First Acting Role

Looking back at her audition for the lead role of Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, Quvenzhané Wallis is able to put it all in perspective. “If you are a 5-year-old, you just go ahead and try something,” she observes. “You don’t think about it. You are just a little kid.”

Of course, she’s older and wiser now. She’s 9.

Today, Wallis, pretty in pink sequins and skinny jeans, is offering this thoughtful career overview in the elegant lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. Her mom, Qulyndreia Wallis, is seated on a nearby sofa, but young Wallis fields questions about her first acting role all by herself.

In a way, however, both of Quvenzhané’s parents are with her every time someone speaks her unusual first name (pronounced Kwe-VAWN-zhan-ay). The first part combines elements of her teacher mother’s first name, Qulyndreia, and her truck driver father’s first name, Venjie. Her mother says that Zhané is the Swahili word for “fairy,” although no direct translation can be found on an Internet search. Qulyndreia Wallis says her own name means “to you with love.” The rest of the kids include Venjie Jr., 15; brother Vejon, 13; and sister Qunyquekya, 19.

Close friends, family, and her Beasts colleagues call her “Nazie,” but her mother doesn’t like to see it in the press because “I feel that if it’s out there so much, they drop Quvenzhané because it’s easy to go to Nazie.”

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

On the Oscar campaign trail to promote Beasts, Wallis, who loves math and hates writing, often finds herself far away from her life as a fourth-grader in Houma, LA, about 50 miles outside of New Orleans. The Big Easy is the home of Court 13 Productions and independent filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, director of Beasts, his first feature. Beasts—inspired by Zeitlin’s short film Glory of the Sea and based on Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious —premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize.

Oscar is buzzing—and already Wallis, who plays a brave little girl trying to save her ailing father, her close-knit bayou community, and herself during a violent hurricane, has picked up the Hollywood Awards’ New Hollywood Award.

After one movie, the Quvenzhané Wallis Acting Method remains pretty simple (in fact, some pros would do well to take notes): Director Zeitlin, she says, would tell her: “This is what you really need to be focused (on); you need to listen to this, you don’t have to listen to that. There was important stuff and not-important stuff. And then try it twice. And then do the real one about five times.”

Zeitlin says the key to coaxing Wallis into playing the film’s harrowing storm scenes was to make the whole thing feel like a game. “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,” Zeitlin explains.

Getting the part was a game to her, too. “My mom’s friend called and said they were having auditions for 6- to 9-year-olds,” Wallis recounts. “My mom said, ‘She’s too young,’ and then she just hung up the phone and said, ‘Do you want to go to auditions?’ So we just tried it, and it worked. Because when you are a little kid you are bored all the time, and it’s like, OK, let’s go! It’s kind of good to do things while you’re young,’’ she adds, very seriously.

And what’s it like to watch the movie now? ‘’It’s kind of weird, because you see a bigger you,’’ she muses. ‘’And then you look at yourself, and you think, ‘Why am I so much smaller than the real one up there?’ And then you look at yourself and go, ‘Wait, I’m the real one!’ ’’

Wallis is equally enthusiastic about her fellow castmates, except one: The pig. She’s not talking about the cute, 20- to 30-pound potbellied pigs that were made up to look like the herd of giant prehistoric Aurochs that plague Hushpuppy’s dreams. No, this was a very large Vietnamese potbellied pig owned by Zeitlin, part of the menagerie of critters on Hushpuppy’s property. The pig plays himself in the movie.

The hardest thing was “when I had to touch the pig. I wouldn’t do that because he was Big. Black. Hairy. And. Different,” she says, pausing dramatically between each word. “It was so big, and I was so small, and I knew what it could do to me.” During filming, however, she came to love the pig, and would actually ride him around the set (she explains that now she’s too grown up for that). “We got to be best friends,” she says.

The only thing Wallis doesn’t have much to say about is her future acting career. “Um, I don’t know, really,” she offers shyly. That’s when Mom jumps in. “We just stumbled upon the industry with the blessing that’s been given us,” Qulyndreia Wallis says. “She had no clue what an Oscar was. I take her, and I show her and say, ‘This is what they’re talking about.’ ” She waves a hand at the posh surroundings of the Four Seasons. “All this is nice, but we have to stay focused on reality.”

Q&A: Dwight Henry From Beasts of the Southern Wild

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor.

A 20-minute phone interview with Dwight Henry—better known to his New Orleans neighbors as “Mr. Henry”—seems wrong, somehow. A conversation with Henry should be long and slow and surrounded by the luscious comfort-food smells at his restaurant, The Buttermilk Drop Bakery Café. You need a strong cup of coffee and maybe a couple of the house specialty doughnut nuggets. What’s your hurry, Hollywood?

Mr. Henry, 45, is telling the story of how a baker with no acting experience landed a leading role in a surprise-hit independent movie called Beasts of the Southern Wild, the story of little girl Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Henry), struggling to preserve their life and their bayou land in a Katrina-strength hurricane. That little film is certainly gaining the attention of some Oscar voters, and this Southern gentleman is going to let the tale unfold at his own pace, in his own way.

Dwight Henry waves to the crowds at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

AWARDSLINE: So you had no acting experience before this?

DWIGHT HENRY: None before. It’s just some sort of natural ability. The guys from Core 13 [Ed. note: the New Orleans-based production company behind the movie], they seen some sort of natural, magical, mystical abilities in me.

AWARDSLINE: How did they discover you?

HENRY: I own a bakery. When I first actually met them, I owned a bakery called Henry’s Bakery, right across from the actual studio where they used to do the auditions at. And a lot of the guys in the company used to come over to the bakery and get breakfast and buy doughnuts. And then one day, (producer) Michael Gottwald came in there and said, “Mr. Henry, can I put these flyers in your bakery?” And I said: “Yeah, that’s cool.” And the flyers read: “If anybody wants to audition for this upcoming feature film, just pull a number and give us a call.”

I used to stare at the flyer every day, being in the bakery, and I’d watch people pull a number, and jokingly I said, “One day, Mike, I’m going to come over there and audition for you. “ But time went by; I never had time.

Then me and Michael Gottwald, we were sitting in the bakery, and I said, “Michael, I’ve got some time, I’m going to come over.” He said, “All right!” So I went over there; he had a script for me. We sat down, and he interviewed me on camera. I talked about my whole life—how I stayed back after Katrina, and talked about family. I didn’t expect to get the part; I was just going over there, being friendly like I am. So they called me back about two weeks later: “Mr. Henry, Mr. (Benh) Zeitlin, our director, he loved what he seen in the reading, and he wants you to do another read.” I said, “Hey, Michael, that’s a callback—when you get a callback in this industry, it’s serious!”

AWARDSLINE: What happened then?

HENRY: I went in and did another read, (then) I went back to the bakery like nothing happened again. So it was about a month and half, two months—I had moved my business from across the street where the studio was to across town, to a bigger location. The neighbors told me (that) they were asking, “Where’s Mr. Henry?” They wanted to give me the part, but nobody couldn’t find me.

Two days after I opened up my new location, Michael Gottwald walks in through the door and says, “Mr. Henry, we’ve been looking at you for a month now to give you the part.” I was overwhelmed, ecstatic, glad, grateful—but I couldn’t take it, because I had just opened up my business two days ago. I had to turn them down for the part because I had worked so hard to build this business to pass down to my kids, and I just couldn’t see myself sacrificing my children, who I love more than anything in the world, for a possible movie career for myself.

To make a long story short, I turned them down three times, but they believed in me, and eventually I was able to work things out.

AWARDSLINE: It must have been a surprise to get anything, much less a lead role.

HENRY: Never in a million years that I thought that I would get the lead part in a feature film. But Mr. Zeitlin thought I was so perfect for the part. If you brought in someone from Hollywood or New York, (the actor would have) heard about what a storm is, but never been in a storm, never been in a flood, never experienced 130-mile-per-hour winds coming at you, with your roof flying off. It makes us tougher. Some people on the outside, they don’t understand why when a storm’s coming, we’ll throw a party in the middle of a storm. We’ve got a Category 5 storm coming, and people throwing a party.

AWARDSLINE: Your co-star, Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only 6 at the time, also had no acting experience. What was it like working with her?

HENRY: It was great, we developed a bond, and I have a daughter her age. We’ve endured a press tour; we’ve been all over the country together. We do interviews together, she actually called me Daddy, and I really look at her like she’s my daughter now. [Ed. note: Henry’s real family includes a 10-year-old daughter; three sons aged 3, 5, and 17, and wife Carmell Anderson Henry, a lab technician].

AWARDSLINE: Do you plan to continue acting?

HENRY: Yes, I’m back at the bakery, but I do plan to continue acting, yes. I did Beasts, and after that I did Twelve Years a Slave (directed by) Steve McQueen. That’s it for right now. I’ve been going to places that I never dreamed I’d be going. But the one thing about New Orleans, compared to every major city in the world, the one thing I appreciate when I come home is the food.

AWARDSLINE: What does your success mean to you?

HENRY: Hollywood is the glamour life, everything is peachy, but if you go on the other side of that water from Hollywood, across the ocean, they have people who don’t even know what running water is. We take a bottle of water, take one sip of it, and just throw it away. I’ve always hoped if I ever hit the lottery and win $100 million dollars, I am going to be a philanthropist and give it all away. I would get more joy from that.

Behind The Scenes On Beasts Of The Southern Wild

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of AwardsLine.

It’s not that independent filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, 30, and his team at Court 13 Productions had nothing to lose when they set out to produce Beasts of the Southern Wild, Zeitlin’s first feature film. But with a miniscule budget somewhere between $1.5 million and $1.8 million, they could afford to take a few more risks than a Hollywood producer hoping to turn a profit on a $200 million action film.

On the risky side: Casting two Louisiana locals with zero acting experience in the lead roles—one a 6-year-old—and dressing up a crew of little pot-bellied pigs to represent a herd of giant prehistoric Aurochs. These boar-like beasts bedevil the imagination of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), an independent little girl in white rubber boots who defies nature to try to save her ailing father (portrayed by Dwight Henry, a baker and restaurateur in real life) and her bayou home during a raging Katrina-like storm. (“They are about the cutest thing in the world when you see them live,” Zeitlin says of the little porkers).

And as Oscar season approaches, the odds makers are already betting that the modestly-budgeted film—which has earned just over $11 million since its theatrical release in June—could gain voters’ attention. However, the decision to cast nonunion actors has proved problematic for one stop on the awards trail: It has been ruled ineligible for the Screen Actors Guild Awards because is does not adhere to the terms of SAG-AFTRA’s Low Budget Feature Agreement, which requires the use of professional actors. Nevertheless, the buzz still seems to be with Beasts.

Inspired by Zeitlin’s short Glory of the Sea and based on Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious, the film premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize. At Sundance, Fox Searchlight Pictures snapped up the film for distribution. One of the film’s executive producers, Michael Raisler, would not name names when asked who competed for the distribution rights (Harvey Weinstein, anyone?). But he confirmed that “pretty much everybody at some point” tried to make a deal at Sundance to distribute Beasts.

Beasts also made a well-received international debut at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it took the Camera d’Or award, and has won stellar reviews nationwide. All this is heady stuff for Zeitlin, who has a hard time thinking about his career from a commercial perspective. “Making films has always been like a burst of energy. It’s never been something that is kind of calculated,” he says. “I never sat down to think, ‘Well, (here’s what I should do) to make it in the directing game.’ It’s just a story that takes hold of you at a certain time, and you follow that impulse.”

In this case, the impulse came from his longtime friend Alibar, whose Juicy and Delicious tells the story of a 10-year-old Southern boy with a dying father, who believes his father’s death will coincide with the end of the world. The boy in the play is also pursued by the Aurochs. Alibar, who attended playwright’s camp with Zeitlin at age 13, based the play on her own experience during her own father’s illness, but chose a boy character in order to be able to distance herself from the story while writing it.

Alibar, who cowrote the script with Zeitlin (her first screenwriting effort), was a struggling young adult, not a kid, when her father developed heart problems, but her reaction was not unlike that of an angry child. “I was in New York, working two bartending jobs and a waitressing job,” says Florida-panhandle native Alibar, adding that her father has since recovered. “I’m from the Southern Baptist tradition, and you’re not supposed to feel anger when you lose somebody. When somebody dies, you are supposed to rejoice that they are going to God. I wasn’t feeling any of that. I was feeling these really angry, ugly feelings. So I wrote Hushpuppy as a boy so I could really write about what I was feeling without it being so confessional.”

During the audition process, Zeitlin and Alibar were looking to cast a girl, but remained open to the possibility that the right Hushpuppy might be of any race, either sex, and older or younger than the Hushpuppy of the play. “I guess it’s like having a baby, you don’t get to choose,” Alibar jokes. But it was Wallis, age 5 at the time of the audition, who won their hearts, despite their reservations about relying on someone so young to carry the movie.

Alibar’s story was thrown into the blender with Zeitlin’s concept for Glory of the Sea, shot in Louisiana from 2006-08. A trailer for the short film describes it as “eleven strangers who set sail to find their loved ones at the bottom of the sea” in an atmosphere very much like the Bathtub, the name for the fictional bayou area depicted in Beasts. “The idea was to make a film in which holdouts and survivors were the heroes,” Zeitlin says. “To make a film that celebrates the kind of resilient characters that were refusing to be pushed off their land.” Along with writing and directing, Zeitlin also cowrote the music with Dan Romer.

Producing the short film led Zeitlin to move to New Orleans permanently and make the city the home of Court 13. “It was never my intention that I was going to stay, but at that moment in 2008 that it was dawning on me that I was going to stay, the early idea for Beasts began to coalesce,” Zeitlin explains. Like Alibar, an unfortunate life experience further refined his focus.
“In the year that this was getting written, I had been in a car accident, and I had gone back to New York to recover (wondering whether) I was going to walk again and stuff,” he says. “And I remember I was home when (hurricanes) Gustav and Ike hit.

“I was watching the coverage and seeing this whole way in which people were being portrayed for staying, for riding out those storms,” Zeitlin continues. “This came out of wanting to tell a story from the perspective of the people that were staying, rather than how they were perceived. It wasn’t about Katrina as much as it was about the area, imagining what it’s going to be like to live under this constant threat of storms every couple of years.”

Zeitlin recovered from the accident and set about working to create Beasts. Gathering the financing required going to a lot of different sources, resulting in an extremely long list of producers. The film is a Cinereach and Court 13 Production in association with Journey Pictures. Cinereach, a young nonprofit foundation that provides filmmaking grants as well as producing and financing films, provided the bulk of the funding, supported by grants from Sundance and the San Francisco Film Institute, as well as various in-kind donations.

Zeitlin hopes Academy recognition for Beasts of the Southern Wild will lead to more films with low budgets and high aspirations. “There’s really no place for this type of film in the world right now,” he says. “Hopefully, it will have a ripple effect where it will allow regional films to get made, and also give us the leverage we need to continue doing this kind of work.”

Concludes Zeitlin, “If you make a film for $150 million, it can’t fail, so it has to be safe. E.T. was made for $10 million. When you look back at even Hollywood movies that were really risky, the films that are true classics and stand the test of time, almost all of them are made for a fraction of these behemoth blockbusters, and they are more daring in their storytelling.”

Watch: Beasts of the Southern Wild filmmakers talk Quvenzhané Wallis

Quvenzhané Wallis

EXCLUSIVE: In this clip, which was first seen at The Hollywood Awards prior to Quvenzhané Wallis collecting her New Hollywood kudo, the creators of Beasts of the Southern Wild discuss how the six-year old actress’ precociousness took the film to another level in her role as Hushpuppy, the Louisiana swampland heroine who battles tides and mythical creatures. Should Wallis, now nine years old, earn a best actress Oscar nod, she will easily become the youngest nominee since Keisha Castle-Hughes, who at 13 years old was recognized for her leading work in 2003’s Whale Rider. And for all those Oscar stat keepers out there, Shirley Temple was never nominated in the actress category, rather she received the honorary Juvenile Award at six years old in 1935.

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