Academy Award Perspectives: From Contenders To Nominees
Lee Isaac Chung (r) directs Will Patton (center) and Steven Yeun on the set of "Minari" (photo courtesy of A24)
A look back at our latest round of Road To Oscar Series feature stories

As in years past, a healthy percentage of those SHOOT interviewed relatively early on for its The Road To Oscar Series of feature stories--as well as our Cinematographers & Cameras Series--went on to land nominations. For example, three of the five Best Director nominees shared their insights well before last month’s announcement of Academy Award nominations--as did four of the five DPs in the running for Best Cinematography, and three of the five nominees who ended up making the cut for the Best Film Editing honor.

SHOOT looks back on the feedback we received from several of those and other artisans. In a separate piece--in our coverage centered on the historic accomplishments of women directors this awards season (see here)--SHOOT revisited our Road interviews with director nominees Chloe Zhao for Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures) and Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman (Focus Features). Zhao set a record for most Oscar nods for a woman in a single year. She scored four nominations, the others being for Best Editing, Adapted Screenplay and as a producer for Best Picture. Meanwhile Fennell garnered three nods, the other two being for Original Screenplay, and Best Picture as a producer.

The remaining director whom SHOOT connected with some months back was Lee Isaac Chung who has since earned his first career Oscar nominations--for Best Director and Original Screenplay on the strength of Minari (A24). Chung reflected on Minari, an American production with dialogue mostly in Korean. Minari is deeply personal for Chung in that the story is inspired by memories of his childhood. We are introduced to a Korean-American family that moves to rural Arkansas, a father’s dream to start a small farm there, the struggle of immigrants in a new land strange to them, and a boy’s touching, tender and charmingly comic relationship with his loving, at times foul-mouthed grandmother who moves in to help. While not a factual representation of his own experiences, Chung’s story was crafted to reflect the spirit of those experiences, taking us on a unique empathetic journey of a family in search of its own American Dream.

Chung observed that another “family” key to the film consisted of the production and post artists who came together with a sense of purpose. Like the film’s protagonists, each member of this production family contributed, he said, in heroic fashion within a limited budget and time. The film was produced by Plan B, the company in which Brad Pitt is a partner/EP. Chung credited Plan B producer Christina Oh with helping to assemble the production family behind Minari. “I had been doing more arthouse films and was looking to Christina to help navigate my pulling off this film,” shared Chung. Oh brought in artisans for Chung to consider and whom he wound up embracing, including cinematographer Lachlan Milne, editor Harry Yoon, composer Emile Mosseri and production designer Yong Ok Lee. Mosseri, for instance, had worked with Oh on Plan B’s acclaimed The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

Chung said he struck up an instant rapport with Milne, Mosseri, Lee and Yoon, feeling a creative kinship to each. In retrospect, he observed that the feeling of family among them helped them all better tell the story of the immigrant family in the film. For example, Chung said of editor Yoon, “I could tell from our first meeting how much of the script he had already digested and the details he understood. I had a trust in him to tell me about things that weren’t working, what was working. When I came back from the shoot, a week later he told me he was going to show me a cut of the film. ‘You will probably hate it. No director ever likes it,’ he said. Once I saw it, I saw that Harry’s instincts for the story and how to maneuver certain problem moments I had on set were so sophisticated. I could see we had a film there. I felt no sadness or depression. I had a good sleep after that. We had lots of conversations and had a good time working together. We had a good way of really talking things through and figuring out the story together. There is no movie without him.”

Minari received six Oscar nominations--the others being for Best Picture, Original Score, Leading Actor (Steven Yeun) and Supporting Actress (Yuh-Jung Youn).

Phedon Papamichael, ASC, GSC picked up his second career Best Cinematography nomination for The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix), written and directed by Aaron Sorkin.

Papamichael enjoyed collaborating with Sorkin whom he described as being very much about “language, the words on the page, pacing, the rhythm of the work” and the acting craft, giving the cinematographer the opportunity to capture the visuals in cadence with the dialogue and performances. Papamichael was drawn to Sorkin’s script. “It was a page turner with overlapping dialogue. The DP’s challenge was to “break the monotony” of a drama in which more than 60 percent of the movie takes place in a courtroom. Papamichael in part was able to successfully do this by visually reflecting the tone and tenor of each character and scene. For example in terms of lighting there is “almost an angelic glowing” as Hayden reads out the names of soldiers killed in Vietnam. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 tallied six nominations--the balance being for Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Sacha Baron Cohen), Original Song (“Hear My Voice) and Film Editing.

Meanwhile Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, garnered his first Best Cinematography Oscar nomination for his first narrative feature, director David Fincher’s Mank (Netflix). The period piece was shot digitally in black and white, which prompted contradictory feelings in Messerschmidt. “I was romanced and seduced by the idea of shooting black and white, and at the same time intimidated by that prospect,” he said, explaining that the potential pitfall was that becoming so enamored in black-and-white noir rapture could distract from the story. He didn’t want to fall into the trap of the movie becoming what he described as “a parody of black-and-white cinema.” Thus he had to walk a fine line, being stylistically aware of what black and white could bring to the narrative while not undermining that narrative by deploying a photographic approach too preoccupied with black and white artistry.

Initially part of Messerschmidt was enthused over the chance to delve into noir lighting. But he quickly realized that the movie was “much more varied than that. It’s not a noir film. It would not have been appropriate to take that approach in totality.”

Relative to what he walks away with first and foremost from his experience on Mank, Messerschmidt offered, “Mank arguably has one of the most talented casts I’ve had the opportunity to work with. To participate in a storytelling process with them and David was a dream for me. It gave me a new perspective on the craft of acting and how David brings that out by working in a specific and nuanced way.”

Mank led the overall Oscar tally this year with 10 nominations--Best Picture, Director, Leading Actor (Gary Oldman), Supporting Actress (Amanda Seyfried), Costume Design (Trish Summerville), Original Score (Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross), Sound (Ren Klyce, et al), Production Design (production designer Donald Graham Burt, set decorator Jan Pascale) and Makeup & Hairstyling.

Another Road To Oscar contender turned nominee is cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, ASC who too scored his first Oscar nomination, which came for News of the World (Universal Pictures). The film marked the first collaboration between him and director Paul Greengrass. It also was the first Western for both.

Wolski was drawn to working with Greengrass, seeing a potential mesh of styles and orientations that appealed to him creatively. Wolski observed that he is known for working with such directors as Ridley Scott (The Martian, All The Money in the World, Prometheus, Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Counselor, Alien: Covenant), Gore Verbinski (The Mexican, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), and the late, great Tony Scott (The Fan, Crimson Tide which earned Wolski an ASC Award nomination)--all associated with a stylized, commercial and grand approach to cinema. 

Greengrass by contrast comes from a documentary approach to filmmaking. Wolski said he was intrigued by the prospect of combining those distinctly different worlds in News of the World. As for how Greengrass’ world affected him, Wolski observed, “Maybe I quieted down the camera a little more, was less hectic.” 

While he enjoyed capturing the feel of a Western, Wolski related that his priority was to do justice to the project as a character study.

The fourth DP SHOOT connected with “back in the day” before he too, like Messerschmidt and Wolski, became a first-time Oscar nominee was Joshua James Richards who reflected a bit on Nomadland.

Richards found it hard to take credit for a film like Nomadland which is so unconventional, with the creative orientation being to lens “the world as we kind of find it; heightened naturalism it isn’t.” He said that among the main challenges posed to him by Nomadland was following actress Frances McDormand (who portrays Fern) “in this real world with real people who truly live this life--and having her and them come together so that it feels completely seamless.

These real people, including the elderly and homeless, are overlooked by society. Richards’ camera explores their lives and brings them to the fore but in a way that’s not purely observational. It also feels poetic in a sense as Richards related, “We get in their shoes and skins.”

Filmed over four months on location in Arizona, Nevada, California, Nebraska and South Dakota, Nomadland takes us into communities where Fern’s encounters at times show how we can make brief friendships that manage to last within us for a lifetime, like her bond with Swankie who has terminal cancer yet feels fulfillment in life through nature. A touching memorial service that Swankie requested reflects that resonance.

Richards explained that when he and Zhao enter a world or community of people, they don’t do so as filmmakers. “We come in as people first and foremost,” he stressed. “The filmmaking approach stems from that. It’s more humanistic. We don’t want to trample these people’s lives. We want the viewers to feel that they are having an experience with these people and that a connection has been made.”

The DP, who also served as production designer on the film, continued, “Chloé makes her films based on the art of listening. Too often filmmakers come in with something to say. Her work instead creates empathy.” Furthermore, related Richards, Zhao is open to discovering what the film is “as we go along.”

Nomadland received six Oscar nominations, the others being the four for Zhao and Best Leading Actress for McDormand.

Film editing & sound
Our Road To Oscar coverage spanned three editors who wound up Academy Award nominees--Zhao, Alan Baumgarten, ACE for The Trial of the Chicago 7, and Mikkel E.G. Nielsen for Sound of Metal (Amazon Studios).

Sound of Metal totaled six Oscar nominations, the other five being Best Picture, Original Screenplay (director Darius Marder, Abraham Marder, Derek Cianfrance), Leading Actor (Riz Ahmed), Supporting Actor (Paul Raci) and Sound (Nicolas Becker et al). Sound designer Becker was also interviewed early on for SHOOT’s The Road To Oscar Series.

Nielsen found himself flying back and forth between the picture cut in Denmark (with director Darius Marder) and the sound design in France (with Becker) to ensure that sound and picture were in sync to create the immersive experience they were striving to attain.

Sound of Metal features a tour de force performance by Ahmed as Ruben, a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing. Rather than focus solely on the character’s isolation as a result, Director Marder also shows the support and belonging that can be found in the deaf community. During the course of the film, Ahmed’s character loses his identity, then finds a new one only to struggle with trying to regain his original lifestyle before experiencing a defining self-realization.

Though director/co-writer Marder tells this story from his perspective as a member of the hearing world, he has family experience in deafness. His grandmother was late-deafened, meaning she grew up hearing, then became deaf as an adult. She was a cinephile who lost film as a result but fought for open captioning. Marder dedicated Sound of Metal to his grandmother, Dorothy Marder, a Jewish gay woman who was accustomed to breaking through barriers. Darius and his brother wrote the screenplay for Sound of Metal which the director described as “a film about identity” and “what that means on many levels,” particularly “what it means when those identities are challenged” and how one responds--specifically the character of Ruben who loses his hearing and along with it music, his lover (Lou, portrayed by Olivia Cooke) and life on the road.

Ruben, a former drug addict who’s been sober for several years, goes to a community house for the deaf, learns sign language and over time becomes part of the deaf community. Marder views Sound of Metal as not necessarily “a representation of deaf culture” but rather for the hearing world “an invitation to deaf culture,” which if accepted helps viewers to better see our shared humanity while dispelling misnomers about--and removing stigmas from--being deaf.

Raci portrays Joe, who runs the deaf community house. Raci in real life is a hearing child of deaf adults, and an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. He noted that this film helps to open up eyes and ears to what the deaf community is about.

Doing justice to these and the other performances in the film was a priority for Nielsen and Becker. The sound maestro provided Nielsen with a complete sound library sorted by sequence/places/moods/effects, and spanning sound effects, audio atmospheres, sound design and musical textures. Nielsen in turn provided Becker with several editing options each time they got together to sonically work on a scene in order to help find the best balance between a normal hearing and a deaf perspective.

Nielsen also had to make sure not just faces but bodies were visible to accommodate sign language and lip reading, which became integral to many of the acting performances. Nielsen credited Marder with affording him needed creative latitude. 

“Darius is ambitious and extremely open to trying new things which is a gift,” assessed Nielsen. “He had worked as an editor before so he knew it would be okay for me to take a side turn and spend a couple of days exploring options, considering what this or that would add to the characters.”

Marder cited Becker’s “incredible deep practice of capturing at most the natural sound of he world,” deploying multi-directional microphones that facilitate a deeper appreciation of what we hear but perhaps take for granted. Marder related that Becker’s work helps to “lend an almost 3-dimensional hyper naturalism that we ended up celebrating in the movie in a way that brought your attention to the hyper-natural sounds almost as a meditation of what we ignore in general.”

Becker’s character-driven soundscape adds layers of atmosphere to reflect what a person feels when losing his hearing. Viewers sonically gain a sense of Ruben’s mental and emotional state throughout the story, complementing Ahmed’s on-screen performance. Thinking out of the box, Becker put mics in assorted places, including underwater and on Ahmed, even capturing the sound of his eyelids closing. Recordings were made of a high-voltage transformer that depicts the hard driving soundscape that Ruben once heard only to have it gradually distort and disappear.

Becker indeed went to great lengths to get inside Ruben’s head and ears. The sound editor even simulated the sonic sensation Ruben felt when touching the drums, adding those vibrations to the mosaic.  Becker placed a contact mic on Ahmed’s chest to record breathing and get a handle on the rhythms of his body. “You can start to hear your blood pressure,” said Becker. “That’s the experience of silence when you can hear how your body sounds. It’s a crazy inner experience.”

Nielsen too did whatever he could to get inside Ruben’s mind. “We even experimented multiple times with the edit as a silent movie, to be able to understand or feel what it was like for Ruben,” noted Nielsen who added that Becker gave him “internal sounds” to work with. “The film had to work with and without sound somehow,” said Nielsen. For the audience, in those instances when Ruben is using mostly sign language, subtitles appear.

Later in the film when Ruben regains some semblance of his hearing through cochlear implants, that new kind of perception is captured for the audience. It does not sound like natural hearing. Nielsen described the implants as delivering a metal, digital sound.

Nielsen found himself more aware of sound and silence, having attended a “sound camp” that Becker devised for him and Marder. The camp was designed to help the filmmakers explore the nature of sound and deafness subjectively, gaining a first-hand feel for Ruben’s sonic perspective. “You have method acting. This was method editing,” quipped Nielsen. “We got to experience loss of sound for ourselves.”

Caviar, a production company known for its long-form (features, TV) and short-form endeavors (commercialmaking, branded content, music videos), produced Sound of Metal. Darius Marder is on Caviar’s commercial directors’ roster. Furthermore, Zhao is also on that Caviar roster.

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