Oscar Nominees Discuss Direction, Editing, Production Design
Director Spike Lee (l) and actor Adam Driver on the set of "BlacKkKlansman" (photo by David Lee/courtesy of Focus Features)
Shedding light on "Roma," "Vice," "BlacKkKlansman," "Cold War," "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Black Panther"
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Three of this year’s five DGA Award nominees are also up for the Best Director Oscar: Alfonso Cuaron for Roma (Netflix), Spike Lee for BlacKkKlansman (Focus Features) and Adam McKay for Vice (Annapurna). Cuaron, Lee and McKay were all panelists at this past Saturday’s (2/2) Meet the Feature Nominees daytime DGA event moderated by director Jeremy Kagan. That evening Cuaron won the DGA Award.

SHOOT covered the Guild discussion session where some of the insights shared lead off this installment of The Road To Oscar series--which also includes our interview with Pawel Pawlikowski, nominated for a Best Director Oscar for Cold War (Amazon Studios) but not a DGA Award nominee. (The other Guild noms went to Bradley Cooper for A Star is Born, and Peter Farrelly for Green Book, while the remaining Best Director Oscar nominee this year is Yorgos Lanthimos for The Favourite, who was profiled in SHOOT’s Fall 2018 Directors Series.)

This part 14 of our Road To Oscar series also connects with Hank Corwin, ACE, John Ottman, ACE, and Barry Alexander Brown who are nominated for Best Editing Oscars for Vice, Bohemian Rhapsody (Twentieth Century Fox) and BlacKkKlansman, respectively. Ottman last week won the ACE Eddie Award for Best Edited Dramatic Feature.

And rounding out this week’s Road To Oscar coverage is production designer Hannah Beachler whose Academy Award nomination for Black Panther (Marvel Studios/Disney) made history.

In The Director’s Chair
At the Guild session, Lee discussed his two-week rehearsal for BlacKkKlansman, noting that blocking out scenes and having actors become more familiar with their lines were the least of what went on. Those two weeks were invaluable, he said, for actors John David Washington and Adam Driver “to get that vibe” with one another so that they “feel each other’s energy”--and ultimately the audience does as well.

BlacKkKlansman takes us back to the early 1970s to tell the true story of Ron Stallworth (portrayed by Washington) who becomes the first African-American detective on the Colorado Springs Police Department, but his arrival is greeted with skepticism and open hostility by the department’s rank and file. Undaunted, Stallworth resolves to make a name for himself and a positive difference in his community. He sets out on a dangerous pursuit—to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. Posing as a racist extremist, Stallworth contacts the group and soon finds himself invited into its inner circle. He even cultivates a relationship over the phone with the Klan’s Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace), who praises Stallworth’s commitment to the advancement of White America. With the undercover investigation growing ever more complex, detective colleague Flip Zimmerman (Driver) poses as Stallworth in face-to-face meetings with members of the hate group, gaining insider’s knowledge of a deadly plot. Together, Stallworth and Zimmerman successfully take on the KKK which aims to sanitize its violent rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream. 

Asked by moderator Kagan about the casting of Grace as Duke, Lee recalled that he hadn’t at all thought of the actor for that role. However, they share the same agent, Toni Howard of ICM. Howard asked Lee to let Grace read for the part, a request that the venerable agent hadn’t made of the director before. Lee consented and Grace was brilliant in the audition. Lee noted that Duke was “not an easy role,” citing death threats that Grace received as a result and the task of “having to dig into that hate” to accurately portray the KKK Grand Wizard.

Lee observed generally that actors have a tough go of it, referring to the constant rejection they have to endure in their pursuit of work. “You don’t get the part again and again,” he said, relating that with so much rejection, it’s “amazing they’re not crazier than they are.”

Cooper said that as an actor he auditioned thousand of times before finally landing a part, on Sex and the City. Cooper added that he even read for Lee years ago, remembering that the director treated him well and was quite “sweet,” even though he didn’t get the part. Lee was surprised that Cooper had read for him, jumping out of his chair and laughing about it now, years later, finding that out.

Queried about casting children--as he did for Roma--Cuaron responded, “I don’t believe in directing kids. I don’t give them a screenplay.” Cuaron explained that if you direct children too much, you “take away” what makes them “amazing.” He is not enamored with a kid delivering a performance beyond his or her years. “I want kids to be kids on screen.”

There’s a lot of Cuaron’s feelings as a kid reflected in Roma which introduces us to Cleo (portrayed by Yalitza Aparacio), a young domestic worker for a family in Mexico City’s middle-class Roma neighborhood. Delivering an artful love letter to the women who raised him, Cuarón draws on his own childhood to create a stirringly emotional portrait of domestic strife and social hierarchy in the midst of Mexico’s political turmoil in the 1970s.

Cuaron is nominated for Oscars as producer (Best Picture for Roma), director, writer and cinematographer, making him just the sixth person ever to earn four Oscar nominations for the same film. The first to turn this trick was Orson Welles in 1942 (producing, directing, acting and writing) for Citizen Kane; Warren Beatty in 1979 for producing, directing, acting and writing Heaven Can Wait; composer Alan Menken in 1992 for his score and three songs for Beauty and the Beast; and Joel and Ethan Coen in 2008 for producing, directing, writing and editing No Country for Old Men.

The four nods for Roma bring Cuaron’s career total to 10--the others being for Y tu mama tambien for Best Original Screenplay in 2003, Best Adapted Screenplay and Editing for Children of Men in 2007, and Best Picture, Best Editing and Best Director in 2014 for Gravity. He won the directing and editing Oscars for Gravity.

McKay screened for the DGA audience a pivotal scene from Vice, which delves into Dick and Lynne Cheney (portrayed by Christian Bale and Amy Adams), a power couple whose power reached the summit with his election to Vice President. McKay’s selected scene has Dick Cheney meeting with then Texas Governor George W. Bush, a frontrunner for the U.S. presidency. Their talk set the stage for Cheney becoming head of the search for Bush’s VP. As we now know, Cheney ultimately found himself to be the most qualified to serve as Bush’s running mate. 

McKay said the scene was important on several fronts, perhaps the most notable being that it was the closest the camera would come in on the Cheney. The director explained that this scene was thus the litmus test for him and cinematographer Greig Fraser, ASC, ACS as to whether the makeup designed by Greg Cannom (an Oscar nominee for Vice) would hold up.

The scene also reflected, said McKay, certain real pieces of dialogue that couldn’t be compromised--like Cheney’s reference to what is historically the popularity of a wartime U.S. President, and Bush having the fallback aspiration of being Major League Baseball commissioner if he didn’t become Commander and Chief. McKay said he and his actors are advocates of improvisation but he had to make sure up front in this and other scenes not to improvise on key points of history and accurate dialogue that had to be protected and preserved. McKay affirmed that he needed to know “where I can and can’t improvise.”

But there were things McKay couldn’t anticipate--most prominently that what he envisioned for Vice would be surpassed on some fronts by real-world events that happened as he was in the throes of making the film. The director thought he would be chronicling eight years (Bush’s two terms) that were “extreme, terrifying and dark”--but then 2016 happened, a reference to Donald Trump’s election which in some respects has put us in even more extreme, terrifying and dark times, said McKay. “Reality caught up with us and passed us in some ways,” noted McKay.

McKay’s Oscar noms for Vice are for Best Picture (as a producer) and Best Director. He has four career Oscar nods--the first two coming for The Big Short in 2016, for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. For the latter he and Charles Randolph won an Academy Award.

Pawel Pawlikowski
In 2015, director/writer Pawlikowski saw his film Ida win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Now his Cold War has been nominated for the same honor--and two more Oscars, Best Director and Best Cinematography (for Lukasz Zal, PSC).
Of his directorial nod, Pawlikowski said, “It’s an incredible honor to be involved amid this group of filmmakers, and I’m so grateful to the Academy.”

In the big picture, Pawlikowski related, “Sharing this very personal film with the world over the last year has been an unforgettable journey. I couldn’t have done it without my producers Tanya Seghatchian and Ewa Puszczynska, my luminous star Joanna Kulig, as well as the support of Amazon Studios, which brought this film to the U.S. And a special congratulations to Lukasz Zal whose brilliant lighting brought the film to life.”

Elaborating on producers Seghatchian and Puszczynska, Pawlikowski said, “They know how scenes work and how I work to really hand-make a film. It’s unusual. On the set, I won’t do coverage. I try to shoot most scenes from one angle with the best possible framing, lighting and performance. Coverage is reassuring to most producers. But Tanya and Ewa give me freedom. There’s nothing worse than shooting mediocre scenes, cutting and not using footage that was just there for coverage. Tanya and Ewa also do a great job of putting the budget together--getting the financiers for a film that’s black and white, with actors unknown to much of the world. They are intelligent people, dedicated to the story and the film.”

Puszczynska’s track record with Pawlikowski includes producing Ida. Seghatchian too produced a prior Pawlikowski film, the BAFTA Award-winning My Summer of Love--and independent of that, such mainstream commercial hits as the first four Harry Potter films. She was also an EP on Netflix’s Emmy-winning series, The Crown.

As for cinematographer Zal, Pawlikowski gave him his big break on Ida. Zal was a camera operator when DP Ryszard Lenczewski fell ill. Pawlikowski elevated Zal, marking his feature cinematography debut, earning ASC Award and Oscar nominations in the process.

Now for Cold War, Zal is again nominated for an ASC Award and a Best Cinematography Oscar. Pawlikowski said of Zal, “We worked very closely on the imagery and style (of Cold War). His lighting and energy to tell a story visually is inspiring. He was able to marry what’s great about cinema with a complicated story. His strong cinematic scenes succinctly and eloquently tell a story.”

Cold War underscored for Pawlikowski “the importance of working with artists who are talented but also good people. I had great collaborators who were pleasant to be with, to spend time with, who were not in it for the money or greater glory but rather subservient to the film, to serve the film and the story.”

Hank Corwin, ACE
Before becoming an accomplished features editor--now with a couple of Best Editing Oscar nominations to his credit--Corwin was--and still is--an accomplished editor of commercials. In fact at press time via his Lost Planet studio, Corwin was in the midst of cutting a Chevy spot directed by Jake Scott of RSA Films.

Corwin observed that his commercialmaking exploits have informed his feature work. “I feel like it’s been a great advantage, giving me a new, different way to look at film. Commercials didn’t show me one way to do things. Instead they showed me all things were possible. You could blend stock footage with new original narrative material and make something greater than the sum of its parts. I did that on JFK. I was able to incorporate so much of what I did in commercials to JFK.”

From contributing to JFK, Corwin went on to edit other Oliver Stone films, including Natural Born Killers and Nixon. Corwin then edited the Robert Redford-directed The Horse Whisperer, for which he shared an ACE Eddie Award nomination with Tom Rolf and Freeman A. Davies. Corwin’s next career Eddie nod came 17 years later for McKay’s The Big Short and then another last month for Vice. Corwin’s alluded to pair of Oscar nominations were for The Big Short and Vice, as were his two BAFTA Film Award noms for Best Editing.

The collaboration with McKay has indeed proven to be special, one which Corwin entered into with some apprehension. “Adam asked me to work on The Big Short and I was a little concerned because he comes from an improv comedy background. I had no such comedy experience. Somehow, we hit it off. I started cutting and he let me go to town. That’s basically how we got to know each other. I think the mark of a good editor/director relationship is when you feel safe, when there’s trust on both sides. Adam is amazing. He writes these incredible scripts and I don’t have to ask for permission to do what I do. It’s such a wonderful gift.” 

Corwin noted that there’s “a third spoke in the wheel,” composer Nicholas Britell, a two-time Oscar nominee for Best Original Score--on the strength of the Barry Jenkins-directed films Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. Britell teamed with McKay and Corwin on both The Big Short and Vice. “I’ll show Nick some dailies, we’ll talk, discuss the emotion of the piece, where we want to go. He’d counter where I want to go at times, and we’ll have long discussions with Adam. We’ll come up with things. Nick and I will go back and forth, like a couple of jazz musicians who are sort of riffing.”

Corwin values these collaborative relationships and how they impact him--a dynamic which brings us back to how he was influenced by a trio of commercial editors. “I used to make my own experimental films, did work for MTV years and years ago. I remember seeing the work of two commercial editors who were in California while I was sitting in New York, freezing. They were Larry Bridges (of Red Car) and Jim Edwards (of Ace & Edie). I remember seeing a Michelob spot Larry cut for Joe Pytka (“The Night Belongs to Michelob”), with a Phil Collins track. It rocked my world. Larry and Jim showed what could be done with 30 or 60 seconds, how to create a feeling. At the time people in film weren’t working that way; they were all instead very formal and linear. These two guys sort of opened the door for me creatively. Another commercial editor who influenced me greatly was a guy I worked for, Jerry Bender (Bender Editorial). He was a much more conventional editor but he was fantastic and fearless.”

Corwin strives to avoid artifice, looking to capture moments--an approach which he applied to Vice, mitigating against what can be the pitfalls of biopics. “A great deal about Dick Cheney has been documented and vetted. It’s what you don’t really know that makes the difference. To make a film compelling, it has to have human moments, cultural moments. I looked for moments where either Christian or Amy were engaged in living, in being human. There’s a scene where Colin Powell has just spoken at the United Nations, described as one of the most painful moments in his life. We went to a cut of Cheney and his family having an outdoor dinner and talking about the relative merits of American Idol. It’s something everyone can relate to on some level--just like you can relate to Cheney being a little clumsy with his grandkids. He’s actually very sweet. He’s funny in the way he’s not fun or funny with them. You get the heart of the character. Instead of a dramatic arc where you show somebody changing, I look for more real human moments which come together to create a character. Trying to find those moments can be very demanding.”

Finding those moments in The Big Short and Vice has yielded two Best Editing Oscar nominations. Vice is nominated for a total of eight Academy Awards, including for Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay (both for McKay), Lead Actor (Bale), Supporting Actress (Adams) and Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush).

Corwin said that receiving an Oscar nomination “doesn’t get old...It’s a kick in the head but means so much more than that. It’s fantastic until your next project when you’re back at square one again.”

Corwin attributes the success of Vice in large measure to McKay, noting that he doesn’t have a trace of the narcissism that characterizes a great many directors/auteurs. “Adam is completely selfless,” assessed Corwin. “For him, it’s really about the work.” 

It’s that attitude and spirit of selflessness that is perhaps Corwin’s biggest takeaway from his experience on Vice. “It’s the hardest movie I ever cut. I had to let go of a few scenes we loved. You hear this all the time. You have to let go of your darlings. It’s a lesson in selflessness and stripping away egotistical narcissism, I learned on this film that giving up certain things made the whole movie better.” 

Barry Alexander Brown
Brown is no stranger to an Oscar nomination--even though his Best Editing nod for BlacKkKlansman is his first in the filmmaking discipline for which he’s best known. This is Brown’s second Academy Award nom; the first came way back in 1980 for Best Feature Documentary on the basis of The War At Home which Brown produced and co-directed.

“I do this every 39 years,” quipped Brown whose only quibble with an Oscar nomination drought is the one experienced by filmmaker Lee. BlacKkKlansman marks Lee’s first Best Director Oscar nomination. “Outrageous,” assessed Brown, noting that such recognition is long overdue. “Spike has had such an enormous influence on the world of cinema.” Lee garnered a total of three Academy Award nods for BlacKkKlansman--the other two being for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Lee’s first Academy Award nod came in 1990 for his Do the Right Thing screenplay. He was again nominated in 1998 for Best Feature Documentary on the strength of 4 Little Girls. And in 2016, Lee received an Honorary Oscar for his contributions to filmmaking.

Brown has been a part of those many contributions. He and Lee have been collaborating for 37 of those 39 years between Oscars for Brown. “I knew Spike when he was in film school. We had so much to learn in terms of what kind of filmmakers we would be, the stories we were interested in telling, and how we would tall them. We learned together--on School Daze, Do the Right Thing. Editing for him has been a joy. We grew as friends because we recognized something similar in the way we thought about movies. There came to be a shorthand between us--developed by the intense work we did together early on while trying to figure out what we were doing.”

Clearly, they’ve figured out a great deal over the years as reflected in BlacKkKlansman, which received a six-minute standing ovation after its world premiere screening at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Since then, accolades have streamed in, including a total of six Academy Award nominations.

Brown said his biggest takeaway from BlacKkKlansman is a reaffirmation of what Lee has done with him perennially. “Spike is going to push you. He’s done it with me all the time, including with BlacKkKlansman. He’s always pushing you to think differently, to not hold onto ways you feel comfortable with. He challenges you as a storyteller.”

Brown cited as an example the juxtaposition of two scenes to make one sequence in BlacKkKlansman--Harry Belafonte recounting for a contemporary audience a white mob’s brutalization of a young black man in Texas in 1915, interspersed with the current movie storyline which takes us to a KKK dinner where members are being inducted into the Klan, the families beaming with pride and celebratory joy. “The challenge was to constantly weave in and out yet create an emotional feeling like it’s one thing—not two disparate, unrelated events. Tying the two together carried an emotional resonance,” observed Brown

As for what’s next, Brown’s valued relationship with Lee is taking a new turn. At press time, Brown was in pre-pro on a feature film, Son of the South, which he is directing. Brown also wrote the script based partly on the autobiography of Bob Zellner who grew up as the son of a minister and the grandson of a KKK member. Zellner went on to become an influential member of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, jailed multiple times for acts of civil disobedience. Production of Son of the South is scheduled to begin next month in Montgomery, Alabama. Director Brown’s support team includes executive producer Lee.

John Ottman, ACE
Bohemian Rhapsody earned Ottman his first career Oscar nomination. The film is a departure from Ottman’s working norm--which usually has him serving as both editor and composer, a dual role he filled on X-Men: Apocalypse, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Jack the Giant Slayer, among other features.

But for Bohemian Rhapsody, Ottman was simply the editor, relying on the music of Queen as a driving force. Ottman had the opportunity to work with and manipulate that treasure trove of music to underscore many of the movie’s sequences. 

In light of Ottman’s musical chops, people often have what he described as “the misconception that I let the music inform the film as an editor. It’s actually the opposite. When I’m cutting a film, I’m thinking first about the story and the drama. I don’t even temp the film with music until we put it all together. This one (Bohemian Rhapsody) was different, though. We had to temp it with music because the story was about the music.”

For Ottman, the inherent biopic challenge of Bohemian Rhapsody loomed large. “To boil someone’s life down to two hours is always a challenge. This was not only about someone’s life but also a band, a celebration of the music--and so we had to serve all three. It had to be entertaining and celebratory throughout. At the same time, we didn’t want to shortchange Freddie Mercury’s life and some of the demons in his closet.”

Besides Queen’s music, Ottman had another major asset to tap into for Bohemian Rhapsody. “It’s extremely inspiring when you start a movie as an editor and you know the cast is right (including the Best Leading Actor Oscar-nominated Rami Malek for his performance as Mercury). No one was miscast in this film. When I know the casting is correct, that there’s a symbiosis among the actors, it inspires me to do fun things editorially with them. It frees me up to concentrate on all sorts of other possibilities.”

Ottman affirmed his is “profoundly honored” by his Oscar nomination. “Working on this film has been a tremendous experience in paying proper tribute to the legend of Queen. I am thrilled the film has become such a phenomenon and am grateful to the Academy for recognizing our work.”

Bohemian Rhapsody garnered a total of five Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing.

Hannah Beachler
Black Panther (Marvel Studios/Disney) has yielded two historic achievements for production designer Beachler, the latest being her becoming the first African American to be nominated for a Best Production Design Oscar.

While she never dreamed such a milestone would be within her reach, Beachler was exceedingly aware of another important potential accomplishment well before she got the opportunity to work on Black Panther. “Marvel up to that point hadn’t had a female production designer on a film. I would be the first to break that barrier if I got the job. That was on my mind, to do something that would open the door for others, to show that a woman can do a superhero film.” 

She felt the weight of that responsibility. “I thought I can’t stop, I can’t fail. I have to go on no matter what challenges are presented, to let my creativity come through, to let Ryan (director Coogler) and his vision come through. I felt a lot of pressure for a year but I had the benefit of great support from Ryan, Victoria Alonso (EVP, production, for Marvel) and a great crew.”

Coogler has been a mentor to and valued collaborator of Beachler whose filmography also includes his films Fruitvale Station and Creed. Among her other notable credits is director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, the Best Picture Oscar winner in 2017.

Black Panther is now up for seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Beachler views the film’s success as the impetus for an “exhilarating and humbling opportunity to reach out to the next generation, to girls and young women, girls and young women of color,” encouraging their career aspirations.

As for her biggest takeaway or lessons learned from her experience on Black Panther, Beachler simply said the film proves “I can do it. I can do anything. This experience has given me that confidence.”

That’s also the lesson she hopes to impart to the next generation of females, instilling the feeling in them and people of color that “they can do it.”

This is the 14th of a multi-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. The 91st Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 24, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif.,and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network.  The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

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