- LOS ANGELES
While director Lee Daniels firmly asserts that The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Hulu) is not a biopic, he hopes that the experience of delving into the late, great jazz singer’s life will translate into a rewrite of his own biography, reflecting a new found commitment to stand up for what’s right as a person and an artist.
Daniels’ film focuses on the federal government’s persecution of Holiday for performing “Strange Fruit,” a song about Black people being lynched. The lyrics of “Strange Fruit” are poignant and haunting, even more so when crooned by a virtuoso known for bringing every composition to eloquent life.
Holiday first sung the ballad in 1939 all the way through 1959, the year she died at the age of 44. The lyrics read in part:
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather
For the wind to suck
For the sun to rot
For the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop”
The U.S. government made every effort to stop Holiday from singing “Strange Fruit,” including planting drugs on her when she was trying to quit her addiction.
Daniels had long wanted to make a film about Holiday, sparked by having as a teenager seen Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross as the great Lady Day. Daniels recalled that 1972 movie’s impact on him in that it marked the first time he saw a Black couple in love on the big screen. He was swept away by the Harlem setting, the fashion, the music. More than looking to tell Holiday’s story, Daniels said that Lady Sings the Blues inspired him to be a filmmaker, fueling his desire to tell stories that made people feel the way he felt that fateful day he saw that Sidney J. Furie-directed film.
Finally, decades later the stars aligned when Daniels read a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning Suzan-Lori Parks, based in part on Johann Hari’s book “Chasing the Scream.” The story carried a revelation for Daniels--that Holiday through “Strange Fruit” and her commitment to continue performing it played an important role in the civil rights movement.
Being a Black woman, battling addiction and persecution, Holiday didn’t take the easy way out. She felt a responsibility to sing “Strange Fruit.” With recent events, most notably the killing of George Floyd, Daniels said, “It’s time to take the blinders off. If Billie could do what she did, then I could stand up too. You can’t sit by. Billie was a warrior.” Daniels added that Holiday’s life “teaches everybody to stand up and do the right thing when it comes to atrocities happening in America.”
At the same time, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a love story. Grammy-nominated singer Andra Day, who had never starred in a movie before, portrays Holiday. Trevante Rhodes plays Jimmy Fletcher, an FBI agent who kept her under surveillance and was tasked with preventing her from performing “Strange Fruit,” even if it meant getting the singer unjustly thrown into prison . A Black man, Fletcher was chosen to infiltrate Holiday’s inner circle. But as he starts to see who Holiday is, he falls in love with her.
Day gives a stirring performance which has her in this season’s Oscar conversation. She marks another prime example of Daniels’ acumen and affinity for identifying and nurturing new talent for the big screen, as he did with Gabourey Sidibe who ended up with a Best Lead Actress Oscar nomination in 2010 for Precious, one of six nods that film earned, including two (Best Picture, Best Director) for Daniels. Precious also garnered Daniels a DGA Award nomination.
Daniels is at a loss for words when asked to explain his success with new acting talent. The director feels he builds a trust with them, which is essential. But defining how he attains that trust is elusive. He only offers that when an actor does well, he lets them know--the same for when they come up short. He conjectures that this simple honesty may help build such a trust. Whatever the case, he’s grateful to form a bond with his acting ensemble.
Daniels is also buoyed by his bond with varied artisans including cinematographer Andrew Dunn, BSC, production designer Daniel T. Durrance, costume designer Paolo Nieddu, editor Jay Rabinowitz and hair stylist Charles Gregory. Daniels has a track record with Dunn, Durrance and Nieddu while Rabinowitz and Gregory were first-time collaborators with the director on The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
Daniels said of Dunn, “He has helped me in ways I don’t even know how to articulate. We have a shorthand.” That shorthand has been crafted on such efforts as Precious, The Butler and the pilot for the Daniels-created TV series Empire. “I’m a rare bird because I have shot everything on film,” related Daniels. “I’m told that many directors don’t shoot their movies on film anymore. But I knew the look I wanted for this (The United States vs. Billie Holiday) to transport us back in time. I don’t think you can do that without using film.”
Nieddu worked with Daniels on Empire and brought his sensibilities to creating Holiday’s fashion primarily in the 1940s and ‘50s. Nieddu designed 50-plus costumes for Day, using vintage photos as reference points and coordinating efforts with Prada.
Production designer Durrance, who had teamed with Daniels on The Paperboy, brought a deft touch to Holiday’s physical surroundings, developing a color palette in sync with that of costume designer Nieddu. Durrance also collaborated with DP Dunn, particularly on how the lighting would interact with sets and costumes. Durrance and supervising art director Felix Lariviere also did justice to the rich world of design that marked Holiday’s jazz circles--reflected in bold textures, graphics and architecture. Durrance also plied his craft to an Alabama backwoods set where Holiday witnesses the aftermath of a lynching, the beginning of a traveling shot and sequence that winds up on stage with her singing “Strange Fruit.”
Daniels was first drawn to editor Rabinowitz’s work on Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. The director said of Rabinowitz, “I can’t say enough positive things about him. He’s part therapist. He talks you off the ledge when you think the movie is not good. It takes him a minute to get to what it is that I’m trying to articulate in a scene.”
Daniels also praised Rabinowitz for admitting what he does not know. “I’ve worked with white editors who don’t understand the nuances of the African-American experience,” said Daniels who in this vein pointed out that Rabinowitz “understood that he did not understand. That’s the beauty of him.” Thus they worked together to do justice to all aspects of the story. “He jumped off the cliff with me--with blind faith,” shared Daniels.
Making an everlasting artistic impression on Daniels was hair stylist Gregory. “He was brilliant, revered as a Black hair person. He made the wigs for everybody, including Andra. His work is so pristine.”
Sadly Daniels’ first collaboration with Gregory turned out to be his last. Gregory passed away last year from COVID-19 at the age of 68.
The Midnight Sky
Director/producer/actor George Clooney and his long-time producing colleague Grant Heslov were among those on a Zoom press session for The Midnight Sky (Netflix) for which Mark L. Smith wrote the screenplay, an adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel titled “Good Morning, Midnight.” The Midnight Sky stars Clooney as an astrophysicist with terminal cancer living at the Barbeau Observatory in the Arctic Circle in the year 2049. Earth is at its last ebb and seemingly all that remains are two inhabitants, Clooney and a surprise stowaway resident he discovers, a girl who doesn’t speak (Caoilinn Springall). He tries to contact a group of evacuees so that they will return and pick her up but to no avail. He and the youngster then trek the brutal Arctic wild to get to a station with a more powerful communications signal. There he ultimately is able to connect with the crew of a space expedition returning from a Jupiter moon. That crew (David Oyelowo, Felicity Jones, Tiffany Boone, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler) had up to that point been unaware of what has happened to their home planet.
The Midnight Sky adroitly tells these two stories--one set in the cosmos, the other in the unforgiving Arctic--while intimately connecting them with a shared humanity that brings empathy and a deep pathos which are uncharacteristic generally of the apocalyptic sci-fi drama genre.
Heslov recollected that Netflix sent him and Clooney the script, envisioning that Clooney would direct and star in the film. As they were reading the screenplay, Heslov said that he and Clooney would phone each other, comparing notes. “We connected to this material. It’s a beautiful story,” assessed Heslov.
While the visual effects and production design challenges were daunting, “the biggest curveball” according to Heslov came a week or two before shooting when Jones informed them she was pregnant. The original plan was to shoot around the pregnancy and not have her character expectant in the film. But shortly into that process, Heslov said they realized it wasn’t working. It was too difficult to be pregnant and play not being pregnant, he observed. Embracing her pregnancy brought an extra dimension to the story, making it much more powerful.
Clooney also appreciated the efforts of long-time collaborator, production designer Jim Bissell, on all fronts, including his creating a sonogram-like machine overnight to support the revised pregnancy aspect of the storyline. More importantly, noted Clooney, Bissell gave him and the entire cast set pieces that they could “live and be in,” facilitating their performances.
Clooney was impressed with one actor in particular, the seven-year-old Springall. “She saved the day in a way,” he observed. By being such a good actor, she, estimated Clooney, “saved us four or five days of shooting. Everything with her was one or two takes.” Clooney thus quipped that he could then in turn “go to the other actors” and remind them that a seven-year-old cast member did it in one take.
Springall’s stellar performance was all the more important given the constraints on shooting. As a minor, Springall had limitations on how many hours she could be lensed each day. Add to that the brutal cold of Iceland where it would get light at 10:30 or 11 in the morning and dark by 3:30 or 4 pm, and the squeeze on prime shooting time was profound, noted Clooney.
Clooney additionally cited the yeoman work done by the film’s visual effects team headed by VFX supervisor Matt Kasmir. Among the many visual aspirations realized were hologram-like scenes in which the spaceship inhabitants would interact with their memories of loved ones on Earth to bring a sense of family and friends on board. Clooney said that Kasmir and his effects contingent along with cinematographer Martin Ruhe, ASC took that ball and ran with it, their only instruction being to create something akin to, described Clooney, “VR without the goggles” so that the spaceship crew members and the audience itself could feel like they were in the center of a comforting experience.
The effects ensemble also brought a strangely poetic feel to the horror of people together aboard a spaceship for years suddenly seeing one of their colleagues dying right before their eyes. During the spacewalk, Maya (played by Boone) is wounded when a meteor shower hits. She manages to get back inside the spaceship and neither she nor her crewmates realize the extent of her injury until her helmet is taken off. Blood then floats about in zero gravity, making for a horrific sight that at the same time plays out like what Clooney described as “a ballet” of blood. During the shoot the actors had nothing to perform off of, having to pretend that the blood droplets were all about. Clooney said he and Heslov had to take a leap of faith that Kasmir and his compatriots could pull off this effect--thankfully they did.
Clooney related that his cast and crew--including Ruhe, Kasmir and Bissell--had to work together “like an orchestra” to bring The Midnight Sky to fruition.
Speaking of orchestras, Clooney turned to maestro composer Alexandre Desplat to score The Midnight Sky. The recipient of 11 Oscar nominations--winning twice, for The Grand Budapest Hotel in 2015 and The Shape of Water in 2018--Desplat had to piece together orchestral performances for The Midnight Sky. Clooney noted that due to COVID-19 restrictions, just 15 musicians could perform together at a time. “Bit by bit, he (Desplat) put it all together,” said Clooney who also is a two-time Oscar winner, for Best Picture (as a producer of Argo) in 2013 and Best Supporting Actor (Syriana) in 2006. Clooney has a total of six Academy Award nominations thus far, including Best Director and Best Original Screenplay nods for Good Night, and Good Luck in 2006.
News of the World
Writer-director Paul Greengrass--appearing as part of a Zoom press conference to promote News of the World (Universal Pictures)--observed that this film marks a progression in relation to his prior feature, 22 July, which tells the true story of Norway’s deadliest terrorist attack and the events that followed. On July 22, 2011, 77 people were killed when a far-right extremist, Anders Behring Breivik, detonated a car bomb in Oslo before traveling to the island of Utoya to carry out a mass shooting less than a couple of hours later at a leadership camp for teens. 22 July focused in particular on one survivor’s arduous physical and emotional journey to recovery.
Whereas 22 July delves into the darkness triggered by the rise of right-wing extremist violence, News of the World, observed Greengrass, puts us on the road to healing in the aftermath of tragedy, underscoring what can emerge after great divisiveness, in this case during the post-Civil War era. The Civil War left us with 600,000 dead and assorted communities shattered. The rift in America was greater than ever before and it’s at that point in News of the World that two people from different worlds and generations are thrown together.
News of the World centers on the relationship and the deep bond that is formed over time between Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (portrayed by Tom Hanks), a Confederacy veteran, whose profession is that of a non-fiction storyteller, moving from town to town, sharing the news of presidents and queens, glorious feuds, devastating catastrophes and gripping adventures from the far reaches of the globe. As he travels in the backwoods to reach his next town hall gig where he will regale attendees with stirring stories directly from the pages of newspapers, Kidd crosses paths with a stranded Johanna (portrayed by Helena Zengel), a 10-year old taken by the Kiowa native tribe six years earlier (after the murder of her parents) and raised as one of their own. Johanna, hostile to a world she’s never experienced and dealing with the trauma of being ripped away from two families, is being returned to her biological aunt and uncle against her will. Kidd agrees to deliver the child where the law says she belongs. As they travel hundreds of miles into the unforgiving wilderness, the two face tremendous challenges of both human and natural forces as they search for a place that either can call home.
Going into News of the World, Greengrass--who teamed with Luke Davies to write the screenplay based on the best-selling novel by Paulette Jiles--knew that he had the consummate actor in Hanks whom he had worked with earlier on Captain Phillips, which earned six Oscar nominations in 2014 including for Best Picture. However cause for trepidation, acknowledged Greengrass, was figuring out who would play Johanna, a character who didn’t speak English. “When you are starting a film, you always have a sense of what your number one big problem is going to be,” said Greengrass who was advised to check out the performance of Zengel in System Crasher. “Helena was superb in it,” assessed Greengrass who then met her and pretty much immediately knew he had found his Johanna. “It was the easiest casting decision ever.”
Greengrass still had some concerns over the prospect of “a little girl on a big film set.” But once he saw her at work, he was “never worried again. She was fantastic from first to last.” Greengrass recalled Hanks telling him after a couple of takes with Zengel, “she is absolutely superb.”
Hanks and Zengel are at the center of News of the World, Greengrass’ initial foray into westerns. Diving into that genre for the first time, Greengrass looked back on the work of maestro western filmmaker John Ford. Greengrass saw “echoes of The Searchers” in News of the World, not about the man’s quest to find the girl but what happens when the man takes the girl back to wherever home is. Greengrass described News of the World as bringing classical western sensibilities to an intimate drama about identity--”who we are and who we want to be”--that is “played out against an inhospitable landscape.” The relationship between a lonely news reader and a girl grappling with loss and a desire to find family and a home carries relevance today.
The occupation of traveling news reader, continued Greengrass, is “part of the fabric of America.” He observed, “We’re the storytelling animal,” valuing “the shared experience of story.” It underscores the need to find the truth, which Greengrass finds inspiring during today’s divisive, alternate facts time. As we emerge from the darkness of COVID-19, Greengrass hopes that “truth will be proven to be the truth” and we will make strides to “recover our balance and equilibrium” just like the meandering news reader did through his kindness and caring for a girl who like him had been lost.
While News of the World is part of this season’s Oscar banter, Greengrass is no stranger to such recognition. He was nominated for the Best Director Oscar in 2007 for United 93. He earned a DGA Award nom in 2014 for Captain Phillips.
Joshua James Richards served in two capacities on writer-director Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures)--cinematographer and production designer. Thus far this awards season he has gained widespread recognition in the former role, nominated for a Best Cinematography Film Independent Spirit Award, and winning best lensing honors from the National Board of Review, the National Society of Film Critics Awards, and the New York Film Critics Online Awards. His work on Nomadland also won the Camerimage Golden Frog.
Based on Jessica Bruder’s book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century” with Zhao penning the adapted screenplay, the film Nomadland introduces us to Fern (portrayed by two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand), an independent spirit who after the economic collapse of a small company town in Nevada packs her van and sets off on the road as a modern-day nomad, encountering unique places in rural America and even more unique varied characters including many played by real people (a staple of Zhao’s filmmaking up to this point), a key exception being actor David Strathairn who emerges as a friend and a subdued potential love interest.
We meet older transient Americans living on the road in vans and recreational vehicles, taking on seasonal work when and where they can find it such as an Amazon processing plant. There Fern has a regular Xmas-time gig. We experience both a sense of community and loneliness on the road, a dichotomy that is even present in Fern’s van which carries feelings of isolation yet at the same time reflects an appreciation of a place to call home. There’s a beauty and simplicity to the nomad existence, in some respects showing that there’s a shared humanity when you strip life down to surviving with limited resources while trying to connect with and help others--no matter how momentary or transitory those relationships may turn out to be. Some folks carry the weight of grief and loss yet there’s a resilience that unites them all. There are many quiet, understated moments yet cumulatively they become substantive.
Richards went primarily with ARRI’s Alexa Mini, a camera which he paired with wide Ultra Prime lenses for Nomadland. The lenses worked well in lower light conditions while also helping Richards capture the vast expanses and beauty of rural America. He also occasionally deployed the ARRI Amira handheld camera for select sequences. Richards’ cinematography on Nomadland ranges from close-ups that reveal these varied characters to wide shots that lend a sense of scope, place and natural beauty. His production design includes the world of Fern’s van in which he organically built the feeling he was after. Serving in the dual role of DP and production designer seems natural to Richards, though this is the first time he’s been credited on the production design side. For him, the two disciplines are linked. “You can blend roles, do things the way you want them to be done...You cannot have good cinematography without good production design,” he observed.
As for his approach to production design, Richards remarked that if a setting “doesn’t look completely real and lived in, it stands out like a sore thumb. I like to get in there, get my hands dirty, go with an unpredictable organic approach.”
Richards finds 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 McDormand “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/production designer 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.”
Zhao and Richards--who went to film school together at NYU and teamed on the features The Rider and Songs My Brothers Taught Me--saw, he said, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times as a point of reference for Nomadland. “There are weird parallels to that film. Modern Times was released during a troubling time in America. People gravitated to that movie in a similar way they are to Nomadland today. Individuals who find themselves in destitute situations, engulfed by these corporate entities, somehow find something by forming these connections with people on the road.”
The real people in Nomadland share of themselves, observed Richards. “They are the experts of their own experience. That’s very valuable. If you can capture that experience, you can tell their stories. Experience is something really powerful.”
The aforementioned Best Cinematography Spirit Award nomination recently secured by Richards for Nomadland continues a mini-tradition for him on Zhao-directed films. He also garnered Spirit nods in 2016 for lensing Songs My Brothers Taught Me and two years later for The Rider.
Sound of Metal
For his sound design on Sound of Metal (Amazon Studios), Nicolas Becker was recently nominated for Technical Achievement of the Year in the London Critics Circle Film Awards competition. He and editor Mikkel E.G. Nielsen worked together to build an immersive experience.
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 experience they were striving to attain.
Directed and co-written by Marder, Sound of Metal features a tour de force performance by Riz Ahmed as Ruben, a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing. Rather than focus solely on the character’s isolation as a result, 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 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 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.
Paul 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.
Ahmed and Raci are nominated for Best Male Lead and Best Supporting Male acting honors, respectively, at the Film Independent Spirit Awards. Ahmed has already won Best Actor distinction from such competitions as the Gotham Awards, the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. Raci has earned Best Supporting Actor wins from the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics Awards.
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.”
Find your passion and pursue it. That’s key to the meaning of life, to leading a meaningful life--or is it? Unlocking that mystery with which we all grapple is at the heart of Soul (Disney, Pixar), an animated feature from director Pete Docter and co-director Kemp Powers. Teaming with Docter and Powers to pen Soul was Mike Jones, a Hollywood screenwriter who connected with Pixar back in 2013 and came on staff four years later as sr. story and creative artist. During his Pixar tenure thus far, Jones has had a hand in the development and creation of Toy Story 4, Incredibles 2 and Coco, among other films. However, Soul is the first Pixar feature in which he’s credited as a writer, marking a new chapter for him at the studio. He has also since teamed with Jesse Andrews to write the upcoming Pixar film, Luca.
Soul introduces us to Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle-school band teacher who has a passion for jazz. He has landed a dream gig to perform as a jazz pianist on stage with one of his idols when fate takes a seemingly cruel hand as an accident seemingly ends his life on this world and thrusts him into a strange land between Earth and the afterlife. He winds up arriving in some sort of before-life destination where new souls are imbued with their passions, interests and personalities before they ever embark on living as people on Earth. In this place, Joe is mistaken for a would-be mentor who’s randomly assigned to a precocious soul mate named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey). While Joe wants to get back to Earth and re-inhabit his body which is on life support, 22 has no desire to get a life. She would rather stay in the Great Before. Joe and 22 eventually get to Earth in one form or another, finding themselves on a fun, sobering, existential, fantastical journey to find purpose, happiness and life fulfillment.
For Jones the writing challenge for him, Docter and Powers was “trying to figure out how to get this heady concept out there without feeling like we were preaching to people or over-intellectualizing.” Soul, assessed Jones, was perhaps “the most adult movie we (Pixar) have done for kids.” Jones said that he was helped immeasurably by Powers and Docter, citing the latter’s constant striving to make the story “more clear” and repeatedly asking “where’s the entertainment in it,” all towards the goal of making the film “a fantastic experience” for audiences.
The collaborative dynamic ran deep as Jones recalled that Powers would rewrite his scenes, he’d rewrite Powers’, Docter would chime in. “There were no scenes we all didn’t touch,” related Jones.
There’s a particular scene where Joe comes to a profound realization of what makes life matter. That it’s more than just a single passion such as jazz. It’s all the smaller moments, life itself that makes for a gratifying existence. For Jones, this scene didn’t come together until he had a personal epiphany. Two years into the project, he flew to Texas to be with his dying father. Jones shared that luckily he was there holding his dad’s hand during the last moments of his life. It got Jones to wonder what his dad was thinking about at that time. “Is he thinking about his successes, regrets, things he didn’t do? Is he happy to be holding my hand? What would be important for me if I were in his place.” That planted a seed from which a scene started to evolve, a moment when Joe takes the memory of his adventure with 22, the memories of his life, and starts to understand what it means to lead a fulfilled life. “It was a hard scene we had trouble writing. It came from a painful, sad moment,” shared Jones who noted that the scene--brought to life by the animators, Jon Batiste’s piano, the story artists, the full Pixar ensemble--still brings tears to his eyes.
For Jones, the biggest takeaway from his experience on Soul centers on collaborating with and learning from others. “For the majority of my career (before Pixar) I had been kind of a solo writer.” Sometimes that works, sometimes it falls short, he observed. At Pixar, though, “you are making a movie with a bunch of people. The right mixture of those people can make something astounding.”
Jones continued, “All of us are going toward this goal in the distance that maybe none of us could fully see. We are still wonderfully surprised at how beautiful the movie is but we didn’t know exactly where we were going. We all held each other’s hand and just kept going, to get the right mix, to see what the destination could be.” Experiencing “the collaborative nature of Pixar,” affirmed Jones, has been “incredibly moving.”
That nature has yielded a string of Academy Awards for Pixar. And among the key players on Soul with an Oscar pedigree are Docter (a two-time Best Animated Feature winner for Inside Out and Up), producer Dana Murray (an Oscar nominee for the Pixar short Lou), and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (Oscar winners for The Social Network). Additionally co-director Powers is in the current awards season conversation not only for Soul but also for One Night in Miami for which he wrote the stage play and then the feature film screenplay.
This is the eighth installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 93rd Academy Awards will be announced on Monday, March 15, 2021. The 93rd Oscars will be held on Sunday, April 25, 2021.