- LOS ANGELES
Chloé Zhao is among this year’s leading Oscar contenders as writer-director of Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures). Last month she earned Best Director honors from both the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics associations. In 2020, Nomadland also became the first film ever to garner the top prizes at the Toronto and Venice film festivals. Nomadland received the Venice Golden Lion and shortly thereafter the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto fest. The latter honor is often a harbinger of things to come at the Academy Awards. Over the past decade, the People’s Choice Award winner has gone on to earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination. In 2019, that was Jojo Rabbit. Earlier Green Book won at Toronto and wound up receiving the Academy Award for Best Picture. Among other People’s Choice Award winners taking the Best Picture Oscar were 12 Years a Slave, Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech.
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), the 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 where 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, underscoring Zhao’s feeling that while politics and media portray us as divided, the reality is that people naturally have and can embrace “a spirit of co-existence.” Getting the chance to delve into this helped satiate Zhao’s longstanding desire to as she says, “make a road movie,” an opportunity made richer by getting to work with McDormand “to create a character like Fern” who in turn was able to mesh, relate to and be at one with real-life nomads, bringing their lives to the fore, making for a remarkable performance.
All this, continued Zhao, was done to be true to Bruder’s book. “Jessica did an incredible job documenting and chronicling these lives,” assessed Zhao who too wanted to convey the ups and downs of a nomad existence that still, despite its share of melancholy, has its own life-affirming roots, with added inspiration coming from the desolate, beautiful plains, mountains and rivers of the Western U.S. Nomadland takes us to different worlds--these natural backdrops as well as inside people’s heads and hearts, most notably Fern’s inner self.
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 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.
Zhao said that among the prime challenges Nomadland posed to her as a filmmaker was creating the character of Fern, enabling McDormand to settle into “this real world with real people” in such a way that “we can naturally incorporate these interesting characters we run across without feeling forced.”
Another major challenge came in Zhao’s capacity as editor of Nomadland. She shared, “As an editor you have to figure out how to stay true to the sort of feeling of aimlessness that exists on the road, and at the same time not putting the audience to sleep. You need to capture transcience, the real feeling of what it’s like for people of that age existing on the road--how to be true to that and still have a story arc that will captivate an audience.”
Zhao said the experience of making Nomadland gave her a deeper appreciation of what people on the road go through on a daily basis. “We were filming for just four months but we find ourselves going to a place where you connect with people, then pack up and leave, and probably are never going to see them again. I was emotionally exhausted. The natural process of making the film helped us to heal as well. You may feel rootlessness but you also feel you’re part of something that never ends.”
Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari (A24) made a major splash at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, winning both the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the dramatic category. 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.
It’s a story in which each family member is heroic and resilient in his or her own way, all contributing to help the family survive and endure, shedding light on what really makes a home. Bringing this family to life is a brilliant ensemble cast in which parents Jacob and Monica are played, respectively, by Steven Yeun and Yeri Han, while their son David is portrayed by newcomer Alan S. Kim, daughter Anne by Noel Kate Cho, and grandma Soonja by South Korean acting legend Yuh-Jung Youn. Also integral to the story is a neighbor, handyman and farm helper Paul, a devout Pentecostal who speaks in tongues but also through the universal language of kindness. He is portrayed by Will Patton.
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.”
A couple of challenges stand out for Chung when he looks back on Minari (which incidentally is named after a peppery Korean herb), starting when he was writing it on spec. “I was writing it in the dark, I wasn’t sure if it would land anywhere. I’m writing about my family in a way and it can be boring when you talk about your family way too long. Talking about my family for two hours stands out to me as being the hardest. Then there were the limited time and resources--and within that having Alan, our seven-year-old actor (who portrayed David) on set for just six hours a day. He’s almost in every scene. So there was no room for error during 25 days of shooting. For me and everyone, we couldn’t make a mistake. You didn’t always have time to think some things through. It felt like we worked a lot on intuition. Lachlan’s (DP Milne) great experience helped. He’s experienced in working on features that have had difficult schedules.” And Chung was quick to credit the cast in dealing with that schedule. “That family feels so real. They (the actors) had to be so real with each other when we had the cameras rolling.”
Chung affirmed, “We gave it everything we had. By saying that, I just don’t mean the effort. I also mean the honesty, being real with the audience. That’s what we were all aspiring to do, to the point of being a little vulnerable with ourselves so we could show that humanity is universal.”
Promising Young Woman
Promising Young Woman (Focus Features), which marks the feature directorial debut of Emerald Fennell, has already started to realize its promise on the awards show circuit with Carey Mulligan named Best Actress and Fennell winning for Best Screenplay at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards.
Mulligan stars as Cassie, a medical school dropout whose once promising prospects have fallen off a cliff. She’s working at a coffee house and spends her free time either moping about or pretending to be blind drunk at nightclubs where she ultimately shames guys who try to take advantage of her seemingly impaired state. It’s an inexplicably strange double-life until we become privy to what made her quit med school, a despicable trauma suffered by her dear friend and fellow student, Nina, years ago. This genre-busting film plays at times like a dark comedy, a comic tragedy, a thriller, a psychological tale that perfectly dovetails with the #MeToo era, all the above and more.
Fennell--who first established herself as an actress spanning TV and features, and a writer (on such TV series as The Drifters and writer/producer on Killing Eve) before moving into the directorial ranks--explained simply, “I wanted to write a revenge movie, a classic revenge movie with a real person at the center of it.” She added that the vibe she wanted for it was to be as “strange and unlikely as that journey would feel if you were actually in it.”
Like Minari, Promising Young Woman made a big impact at last year’s Sundance fest. And while its release was also delayed during the pandemic, Promising Young Woman is now picking up awards season momentum. The stellar cast also includes Bo Burnham as Ryan, Cassie’s love interest, Alison Brie as a former school friend, Connie Britton as a med school dean, Laverne Cox as Cassie’s coffee house boss, and Alfred Molina as a deeply remorseful attorney.
At first, becoming a director seemed what Fennell described as “an enigmatic thing” but over time she began to develop an appetite for it. “I’ve written forever,” she said, noting that she wanted the chance to “really make something the way you want to make it, to direct your own material.”
Fennell said she was fortunate to be able to work with “incredible directors” in film and TV. She cited her experience acting on a BBC series, Call the Midwife, as providing an invaluable education, being able to observe different directors and DPs coming in for episodes and being able to do “a side-by-side comparison of what works, what doesn’t, what is time-saving, what isn’t, what corners you can cut and the ones you really can’t.”
This education served Fennell in good stead as she became “kind of obsessive about the details while also knowing you’ve got to make your days.”
She also knew first-hand the importance of selecting the right collaborators, among the prime examples on Promising Young Woman being cinematographer Benjamin Kracun, editor Frederic Thoraval and production designer Michael Perry. Fennell had worked, for instance, with Kracun about a year earlier on a commercial project, liked him and was drawn in particular to his work on Beat, for which he won a British Independent Film Award in 2019 for Best Cinematography. “He made that movie look spectacular,” assessed Fennell, who added, “I was a first-time film director in Los Angeles shooting my baby. I knew my DP was important, someone I could have an easy shorthand with. If your relationship with a DP isn’t easy, it slows everything down. Ben is a combination of being talented and great fun to be around. He could help me get the kind of performances I wanted and he could make the set itself a fun place to work, which is needed.”
Kracun was essential in making Promising Young Woman work within the confines of 23 shoot days. Also integral in that regard was producer Fiona Walsh Heinz who did an “amazing” job according to Fennell, noting, “We had no fat. We were up against it but she helped that still feel like a fun place to be in.” While the preparation had to be buttoned down, Fennell said they didn’t lose the rush of feeling “like you’re slightly flying by the seat of your pants.”
As for her biggest takeaway from Promising Young Woman, Fennell shared, “It sounds so cheesy but I just loved directing in a way that really surprised me. Locking my car in the parking lot to go film on the first day, I just loved it. I loved being part of a team. I’m proud and grateful of how everyone worked so hard. I immediately want to do it all over again.”
When that opportunity comes, though, Fennell would like “to loosen things up, have a little more time to play, a bit more space to work in.”
Promising Young Woman is not Fennell’s first project to score recognition at Sundance. Back in 2019, she directed Careful How You Go which was in the running for the Short Film Grand Jury Prize.
Fennell also has two primetime Emmy nominations to her credit, one for drama series writing, the other for Outstanding Drama Series--both for Killing Eve in 2019.
One Night in Miami
Based on the stage play by Kemp Powers who also penned the screenplay, One Night in Miami (Amazon Studios) relates a fictional account of four high-profile Black Americans together in a hotel room in 1964 the night after a 22-year-old Cassius Clay (portrayed by Eli Goree) won the heavyweight boxing title with a stunning knockout of Sonny Liston. Clay, who would later change his name to Muhammad Ali, joins Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Hall of Fame football player and actor Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) to discuss racial injustice and how they could use their celebrity to better society. Regina King, a Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner in 2019 for If Beale Street Could Talk, makes her theatrical feature directing debut with One Night in Miami. She has numerous TV series to her directorial credit (including episodes of Insecure, Shameless and This Is Us) and is on the commercialmaking/branded content directing roster of Independent Media. King is a four-time primetime Emmy winner for her acting--three for American Crime and the most recent coming in 2020 for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series for Watchmen.
SHOOT connected with cinematographer Tami Reiker, ASC, who lensed One Night in Miami. Reiker’s work spans features and TV. On the former score, she shot High Art which was nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography. And on the TV front, Reiker won the ASC Award for the pilot episode of Carnivàle.
Regarding her experience on One Night in Miami, Reiker described King as “a force of nature, very much an actor’s director. We were connected at the hip for the entire prep and shooting. She wanted a rich, saturated film full of color. The challenge is we were turning a talky stage play into a dynamic film--with the majority of that film taking place in one room.”
While being in that setting can be claustrophobic, it didn’t prevent Reiker from making the situation cinematic as she and King worked closely with production designer Barry Robison to create a hotel room set in New Orleans that was true to the design of the original hotel depicted at that time. With actors free to move about according to where the dialogue took them, Reiker had operators with either handheld cameras or with cameras on extended 12-foot jib arms capturing the action. The jib arms enabled the operators to move and float between characters, bringing a visual dynamic that engagingly shot their performances. Akin to boxer Ali’s “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” description of himself in the ring, the camera floated in and around masterful acting performances covering in select scenes anywhere from 10 to 15 pages of wall-to-wall dialogue at a time.
Reiker deployed the ARRI Alexa 65, opting for Prime DNA lenses for softness that was further enhanced with use of the Bronze Glimmerglass #1 filter. All this served to deliver a filmic look for One Night in Miami. Reiker gravitated to the Alexa 65 in that she had recently come off of a positive experience with the camera on director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard.
Certain scenes had the characters escape the hotel room whether it be to a local bar, a pay phone, a rooftop or a flashback to a particularly poignant, stirring Cooke performance in a ballroom. Of the latter, Reiker recalled, “Because it was a memory, the saturation was even greater, the colors more vibrant. Everything took on more color, hue and glow. Leslie’s performance as Sam was incredible.”
For Reiker, director King and those performances stood out as “the most powerful” parts of her experience on One Night in Miami. The DP noted, for example, that actor Ben-Adir’s dedication to craft in capturing Malcolm X was inspiring. “Watching him rehearse, the accent, his staying in character with the amount of lines he had raised the bar for everybody,” shared Reiker. “The whole crew was dedicated to telling this story.”
Writer Powers, incidentally, is in this season’s Oscar conversation for not only One Night in Miami but also as co-director of Pixar’s Soul.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin--a three-time Oscar nominated screenwriter, winning for The Social Network in 2011--The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix) is based on the 1969 trial of seven defendants charged by the federal government with conspiracy and more, arising from anti-Vietnam War protests which turned violent as demonstrators clashed with police during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Addressing such issues as police brutality and social justice, The Trial of the Chicago 7 has become all the more relevant in today’s society as protesters gathered across the country in 2020 after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Floyd died while in the custody of a police officer whose knee was on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd was handcuffed face down in the street, pleading that he couldn’t breathe.
The Chicago 7’s cast included Jeremy Strong and Sacha Baron-Cohen, respectively, as revolutionary counterculture activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis as Alex Sharp (Hayden and Sharp were members of Students for a Democratic Society), John Carroll Lynch as conscientious objector David Dellinger, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as lead prosecutor Richard Schultz, Mark Rylance as defense attorney William Kunstler, Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman, and John Doman as Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell.
Sorkin made his feature directorial debut with Molly’s Game. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is his second turn as a director.
Alan Baumgarten, ACE served as one of three editors on Molly’s Game. He edited solo on The Trial of the Chicago 7. Baumgarten too is an Oscar nominee, earning that distinction in 2014 as one of three editors on director David O. Russell’s American Hustle.
Baumgarten said he was drawn to The Trial of the Chicago 7 by his penchant for dramatic historical stories and the opportunity to again team with Sorkin. On the latter score, Baumgarten noted that working with a world-class writer such as Sorkin, whose stories are so well structured, is of great help to an editor. Baumgarten related, “With Aaron being a writer and director, there’s a singularity of vision. I love working with writer-directors. Aaron is very specific in script, structure, time periods. It’s a huge advantage right out of the gate to have that structure laid out so well. At the same time you can explore and experiment with the foundation already clearly there.”
The Trial of the Chicago 7 had been gestating for some time, on and off again as a project over the years before finally getting the go-ahead. Thus, noted Baumgarten, “the script had been in his (Sorkin’s) head for quite some time. He had long known what he was going for and had a confidence in clarity of tone and specificity of performances.”
That confidence was also advanced by Sorkin’s experience of having directed previously. This time around, observed Baumgarten, the scope of what Sorkin tackled increased, with a scale entailing riot sequences, mass protests and chaos, “unlike anything he had done before.” Sorkin, continued Baumgarten, “was stretched in so many ways” by Chicago 7 with a mix of great scale, action scenes, courtroom drama and dialogue very much up his alley.”
Baumgarten also had the benefit of having worked with Sorkin before. “I knew I could get to where he wanted to go. I had a sense of what he would prefer. We worked very closely together. He trusts me to put everything together and present it to him. We then refine it methodically.”
For Baumgarten working with Sorkin’s “wonderfully written dialogue” is a treat. Perhaps the biggest creative challenge posed to him by The Trial of the Chicago 7, said the editor, is “fine tuning and navigating the different tone in terms of comedy within the story. We have very serious and important ideas from these characters but we also have to find places to let levity break up some of that, to make for a more engaging experience watching this film so that viewers aren’t getting hit over the head with one level of storytelling.”
The COVID-19 pandemic also altered postproduction plans.
“We ended up working the last four to five months from home,” said Baumgarten. “We were able to get through the director’s cut in person, which was fantastic. We finished the 10-week directors cut in March right when we had to shut down the editing room and move the Avid systems to our houses. As I continued to do fine cutting, I would post sequences for Aaron and then we would chat on the phone or via email or Zoom calls about the work, the changes, and to just keep working forward that way. We went to Warner Bros. for the sound mix, and for the color timing we went to EFILM. Aaron was involved in all of that as well but he let me get things close and then he would come for reviews and give notes, and we would finish that way.”
Baumgarten also cited the contributions of Christine Kim, his first assistant who was promoted to additional editor for The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Relative to his biggest takeaway from The Trial of the Chicago 7, Baumgarten observed, “I think the film shines a light on the importance of free speech, dissent and peaceful protest. It’s crucial these rights be protected to ensure peace and fairness in our democracy. My hope is that while the film shows this from 50 years ago, we can still learn from it today.”
Adapted from the Tony Award-nominated Broadway musical of the same name, The Prom (Netflix), directed and produced by Ryan Murphy, tells the tale of Broadway stars (portrayed by Meryl Streep, James Corden and Nicole Kidman) whose sputtering careers need a jump start. With Streep’s and Corden’s characters fresh off a Great White Way flop, they and two others whose careers are on the outs (played by Kidman and Andrew Rannells) reason that attaching themselves to a cause will give the illusion of altruism and in turn benefit them professionally. The cause they find takes them to a small Indiana town where an independent-minded lass (played by newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) is banned from the high school prom because she wants to go with her girlfriend (Ariana Debose).
Our self-obsessed theater stars jump on the gay rights bandwagon, with proponents and opponents alike singing and dancing in a fun-filled ride that at the same time--in classic Hollywood musical fashion--raises awareness of intolerance and brings people together. The cast also includes Keegan-Michael Key, and Kerry Washington.
The Prom marks the feature debut of Jamie Walker McCall as a production designer. Her prior movie credits were as an art director. She is a long-time collaborator of Murphy, having first established herself as an art director on such shows as Feud: Bette and Joan and American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, both of which earned Excellence in Production Design Award nominations (in 2018 and ‘19, respectively) from the Art Directors Guild for McCall. Feud: Bette and Joan also earned art director McCall a primetime Emmy nomination in 2017 for Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Period Program. Judy Becker served as production designer on the nominated Feud and American Crime Story episodes.
In that Murphy often promotes from within, when he asked Becker to take on the pilot for Pose, McCall was upped to production designer on the remaining episodes of American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. From there McCall went on to production design Pose after the series pilot had been done by Becker. Next McCall served as production designer on The Politician, another Murphy series. Murphy then tabbed McCall for The Prom.
Diversifying into feature filmmaking as production designer on The Prom entailed “not much of a learning curve,” observed McCall. “Ryan’s TV shows are very large in scale with very high production value,” she explained, making the move to a high-profile feature not that big a transition. The big difference, she observed, is that with a feature “I only have one story to work on over six months” whereas a Murphy limited series can be “six different stories I’m working on over the same time span.”
While much of the movie’s storyline is set in Indiana, its opening places us smack dab in the heart of the Broadway theater district in New York City. We see the opening night of an ill-fated musical based on Eleanor Roosevelt and are introduced to its stars played by Streep and Corden. Felled by bad reviews, they seek refuge across the street from the theater at Sardi’s where they meet Kidman and Rannells’ character, an out-of-work actor who’s now a bartender. A pair of musical numbers on Broadway and then at Sardi’s sets the tone amidst the dazzle and bright lights of the Great White Way--perhaps the biggest challenge that The Prom posed to McCall who had to recreate all this on a four-acre lot in downtown Los Angeles.
A high-energy bustling district of light bulbs and theater marquees along with Sardi’s were built, designed by McCall who related that she “combined a bunch of different Broadway streets” to get the desired effect, picking the best marquees and signs to get “the most bang for our buck visually.” Assorted details were done justice to, right down to steam coming up from manholes.
“We had to pay the proper homage to Sardi’s and the Broadway streets,” said McCall. In the case of Sardi’s she took some liberties so that the interior lent itself better to a giant musical number but always kept in mind being true to the spirit of the place which is “so close to everyone’s heart on Broadway.”
McCall credited her team for being instrumental in bringing The Prom to life, including art directors Sarah Delucchi, Adam Rowe and Sammi Wallschlaeger, and set decorator Gene Serdena. McCall had worked with Rowe years back on House and then American Crime Story. She sought him out for The Prom given his acumen in TV and live theater, two areas he combined masterfully in his Emmy-winning turn on Rent: Live. He brought a blend of skills and knowledge of live theater that proved invaluable.
McCall also valued the collaborative openness of storyteller Murphy and cinematographer Matt Libatique, ASC as they teamed to work out color blocking and lighting elements which were integral to customizing the production design approach.
Also spurring on everyone, continued McCall, was a sense of purpose relative to conveying a message of tolerance, love and empathy. She’s felt that in a special way through her involvement in Pose and The Prom, noting that these shows “reach people who need hope. Love is love.”
This is the third 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.