Oscar Nominees Shed Light On "Joker," "Parasite," "Les Misérables," "1917," "American Factory," "Jojo Rabbit"
Director Todd Phillips (l) and cinematographer Lawrence Sher, ASC on the set of "Joker" (photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)
Director, cinematographer and editor perspectives on varied films

Todd Phillips, speaking after a screening of Joker (Warner Bros.) last week in Hollywood, noted that he didn’t view its 11 Oscar nominations as somehow vindicating in light of the earlier criticism the film received in some circles for its violent content. Garnering the most nominations of any movie this year--including Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay (with Scott Silver) for Phillips--was simply “thrilling and exciting,” affirmed the filmmaker, adding that any “vindication,” if that’s the right word, came months before with the overwhelming response of audiences worldwide, not just in terms of box office but the feedback he got as people were moved by the issues of mental illness, stigmas attached to those who have problems, and the alienation and loneliness felt in society.

The empathic power of cinema, its ability to get us to notice people who might otherwise feel unseen, resonates for Phillips, as it has for viewers in the U.S. and internationally. Phillips paraphrased a saying relative to both the critical acclaim and initial backlash that Joker has experienced. He noted that art can at times be meant to comfort the disturbed and conversely to disturb the comfortable. Joker has done that in some respects, led by an inspired performance from Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a socially awkward loner who evolves into the Joker. The film is a character study not only of Fleck but his environment--a dysfunctional, decaying Gotham City, patterned in some respects after a 1980s’ NYC. It’s a world of despair, alienation and bullying, impacting Fleck’s psyche while shedding light on how the Joker came to be, evoking empathy for him at times.

Besides Phillips’ trio of nominations, Joker is also up for Oscars spanning Best Lead Actor (Phoenix), Cinematography (Lawrence Sher, ASC), Costume Design (Mark Bridges), Film Editing (Jeff Groth), Original Score (Hildur Guðnadóttir), Makeup and Hairstyling (Nicki Lederman, Kay Georgiou), Sound Editing (Alan Robert Murray) and Sound Mixing (Tom Ozanich, Dean Zuipancic, Tod Maitland). If Guðnadóttir wins, she would become to first woman to do so since Anne Dudley scored for The Full Monty in 1998.

Phillips shares the Best Picture nom for Joker with producers Bradley Cooper and Emma Tillinger Koskoff. The latter is nominated twice this year for Best Picture, having also served as a producer on The Irishman, continuing her collaborative relationship with director Martin Scorsese. She now has three Best Picture Oscar nods, the first coming in 2014 for Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.

Joker marked the first time Phillips had teamed with Koskoff who helped him in myriad ways to help realize his vision for the film, including by assembling an “A-plus crew of New York talent. They came to work on the movie because of Emma.” Phillips stated matter of factly, explaining that Koskoff “runs New York City” given her roots there with Scorsese.

Bong Joon Ho, Ladj Ly
A Golden Globes-themed event, the Foreign-Language Nominees Seminar presented earlier this month in Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the American Cinematheque, shed light on a number of Oscar nominees, including writers-directors Bong Joon Ho and Ladj Ly. Bong’s Parasite (Neon) won the Golden Globe Award for best foreign language film, an honor for which Ly’s Les Misérables (Amazon Original) was nominated. On the Oscars front, Les Misérables (from France) is nominated for Best International Feature Film while Parasite (South Korea) is up for that distinction as well as five other Academy Awards--Best Picture, Director, Film Editing (Jinmo Yang), Production Design (production designer Lee Ha Jun, set decorator Cho Won Woo) and Original Screenplay.

Parasite introduces us to the Park and Kim families. The former clan is affluent and resides in a magnificent house. On the flip side we have the Kim family who live by the seat of their pants, stealing wi-fi and hustling to exist and subsist. In a scheme hatched up by college-aged Ki-woo, the Kim children install themselves as tutor and art therapist to the Parks. The Kim patriarch and matriarch become the Parks’ chauffeur and cook/housekeeper, respectively. The Parks do not know that their new trusted support team is from the same family. A symbiotic relationship forms between the two clans but then two third parties, the Parks’ former housekeeper and her husband emerge, threatening to destroy the fragile ecosystem between the Kims and the Parks. This story of class struggle and the widening gap between the rich and the poor at some points plays out like a comedic caper as the Kims are almost lovable con artists. But the comedy turns dramatic and more deeply poignant as a new reality sets in, making for a unique mix of the hilarious and the heart-wrenching.

Speaking through an English-language translator and occasionally speaking English himself, Bong told the Egyptian Theatre audience that the film’s marketing team had a difficult time in terms of defining Parasite. Was it a comedy or a drama? “They would ask me what genre” the film was” and Bong’s response was “I don’t know.” He quipped that “the comment that pleases me the most” is that “the genre is me, myself.”

As for who he is, Bong said he isn’t a sociologist delving into issues but rather a filmmaker. “I never intend to pour socio-political messages into my films. I don’t want to wave that political flag over everyone.” As a filmmaker, though, he sees his job as promoting  “understanding of the human condition. In that sense film naturally extends to carrying socio-political messages even though that is not my goal in the first place.”

Bong said that his goal is for an audience to be entertained in the theater by a film. But when they get home and take a shower, they “find bleeding wounds on their body and they don’t know where they came from.”

While streamers like Netflix, for whom he earlier made Okja, have been fertile ground for amazing films, Bong thinks the in-theater cinematic experience is special--not just for the shared joy of watching a movie with others but because the theater is “the only place where the audience can’t press the stop button.” In that a director tries to craft a storytelling rhythm over two-plus hours, the theater experience can best “preserve that sense of rhythm from beginning to end.”

Meanwhile Ly’s Les Misérables takes us to the housing projects known as Les Bosquets, which became ground zero in the Paris riots of 2005. Ly is from the projects and his narrative film--which he co-wrote with Alexis Manenti and Giordano Cederlini)--captures what the director describes (through an English-language translator) “the misery” that continues there today. As a filmmaker, he intends to stay true to his roots, noting that he’s had overtures from Hollywood. But Ly explained that he wasn’t one of those young directors who dreamt of making films in Hollywood. Instead he wants to retain his creative independence and remain “steadfast” to his “geographical area” in terms of getting those stories out to the world and shining a light on injustice.

At the same time, Ly is reaching out to the youth in those housing projects, creating a training program for budding filmmakers there. He also hopes to create another such school in Africa to combat a film industry that is “very elitist” and which very much needs to open up opportunities to disenfranchised voices.

Ly noted that Les Misérables is part of a trilogy as he plans to make two more movies about the projects neighborhood, hearkening back to earlier periods of time there. 

A little more than a week after this Golden Globes-related seminar, Ly earned his first Oscar nod. He issued a statement which read: “I would like to say MERCI to the Academy.  I always dreamt to say this sentence one day! Thank you to all of you who voted for international movies and for France and for us.  We are all MISERABLES in the sense that we are all immigrants.  But we can all do the revolution; I am doing it with my camera.  I believe in the power of cinema as a tool to challenge the politics and even sometimes to inspire revolution and above all bring real lasting changes.  Walt Disney had a saying: ‘All our dreams can come true . . . if we have the courage to pursue them.’  We had a dream and now it’s time to make it true. THE MISERABLES need you, the world needs you to continue to have dreams ... that’s also what we call the magic of cinema!  Be ready THE MISERABLES are coming to Hollywood.”

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC
Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, is a 15-time Best Cinematography Oscar nominee, winning the honor in 2018 for Blade Runner 2049. He has 16 career ASC Award nominations, having won four times--for The Shawshank Redemption, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Skyfall, and Blade Runner 2049.

Deakins recently scored Oscar and ASC nods number 15 and 16, respectively, for 1917 (Universal), which has received a total of 10 Academy Award nominations--the others being for Best Picture, Director (Sam Mendes), Makeup and Hairstyling (Naomi Donne, Tristan Versluis, Rebecca Cole), Original Score (Thomas Newman), Production Design (production designer Dennis Gassner, set decorator Lee Sandales), Sound Editing (Oliver Tarney, Rachael Tate), Sound Mixing (Mark Taylor, Stuart Wilson), Visual Effects (Guillaume Rocheron, Greg Butler, Dominic Tuohy) and Original Screenplay (Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns).

1917 takes us into the throes of World War I where two British soldiers--Lance Corporals Schofield (portrayed by George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman)--are given a daunting mission. In a race against time, they must cross enemy lines to deliver a message to a huge battalion of their comrades who are unknowingly walking into a German trap. Some 1,600 soldiers will die, including Blake’s older brother, if they aren’t warned of the ambush. The story was inspired by the remembrances of filmmaker Mendes’ grandfather. 1917 follows Schofield and Blake on their perilous journey--but the following takes an ambitious creative and technical turn as the movie appears as if it were shot in one seamless take. Actually the longest continuous shot is about seven or eight minutes but the imagery captured by Deakins was stitched together by editor Lee Smith who manages to conceal dozens of cuts.

The sense of watching what seems to be one continuous take helps viewers to feel every footstep and breath taken by Schofield and Blake on their mission.

Deakins said his biggest concern relative to realizing Mendes’ vision was the weather which had to provide consistent cloud cover to help attain the desired effect. While the other logistics were detailed, they entailed variables that could be controlled. “Once Sam and I kind of figured out what we wanted to do with the camera, how it was going to move, the locations, we worked out with Dennis (production designer Gassner) the sets (to be constructed) and the distances,” related Deakins. Months of rehearsal and blocking went into the film, the fourth on which Deakins and Mendes have collaborated. 

Deakins reflected on the wide range of work he has done with Mendes, using the first and fourth films as bookends--Jarhead and 1917, respectively. (They had also teamed on Revolutionary Road and Skyfall). “The methodology (on Jarhead and 1917) couldn’t have been more different,” said Deakins. “On Jarhead, we talked about the images, didn’t storyboard them. We worked out the shots with the actors. We shot everything handheld. We shot as the actors rehearsed. The look of the film evolved as we were doing it.”

By contrast for 1917, continued Deakins, “We had to work out what the shot was way in advance of the shoot. We had to know what the shot was before Dennis could start digging trenches, building the farmhouse, the destroyed town or anything, what the distances where, the angle we needed for the camera.”

In terms of working with editor Smith, the key was his choice of takes along with Mendes. “We had to match the next session to the chosen take,” explained Deakins. “The matching was the most important thing....Sam making the choices with Lee on a chosen take often had to be done at the end of the day, overnight or a couple of times on the day of the shoot. We would get the chosen take, look at it, where the cut was going to be and set that up with the actors and camera on set. We’d rehearse that and get as close to the chosen take as possible.”

For 1917 Deakins went with the ARRI Alexa Mini LF, the full-frame version of the ARRI Alexa Mini. “When I first talked with Sam about the project, he suggested a camera with slightly more resolution than what we shot Skyfall with,’ recalled Deakins. But when he began reviewing reference material from World War I, particularly still photos, Deakins felt that look would be better replicated with a larger format camera. Deakins and his working compatriot and wife Jane approached ARRI in that at the time there wasn’t such a large format Alexa. They asked ARRI about possibly making a Mini version of the LF, and the manufacturer consented to make three prototypes. This technology evolved into the camera that Deakins deployed on 1917. He used the camera in tandem with ARRI Signature Primes. Deakins assessed that he was able to get the look of what you see in a still photograph, helping to capture the World War I era story.

As for his ASC nomination and all the Oscar nods for 1917, Deakins said they are “a tribute to everyone who worked on the film.” He hopes the attention will simply help 1917 find a larger audience, giving them a sense of what people endured during World War I, a subject matter not dealt with very much in the movies.

Steven Bognar
Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert--who teamed to produce, direct and shoot American Factory (Netflix, Higher Ground), just nominated for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar--both have Academy Award pedigrees. Reichert has four career Oscar nominations--the previous three being for the feature documentaries Union Maids in 1978 and Seeing Red in 1984, and the short subject doc. The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant in 2010. Bognar meanwhile has two career Oscar nods, the first being for The Last Truck.

While Bognar’s two nominations are 10 years apart, they are inextricably linked. The Last Truck delved into the closure of a General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio. Fast forward to American Factory, a film which centers on the Chinese company that took over that GM venue, opening an auto glass factory there. “They are sister films to each other,” observed Bognar who described The Last Truck as “almost like the prequel to American Factory. The same community is impacted by both the loss of those good jobs 10 years ago, and the hope and anticipation created by the promise of the Chinese factory.”

Bognar and Reichert were initially interested in Fuyao Glass, which replaced the abandoned GM plant, as a story about culture clash as Chinese and American workers, and U.S. and Far East-rooted management and business philosophies try to successfully co-exist. But the film evolved into something beyond that, extending into areas such as workers rights, globalization and automation.

In fact, American Factory helps to nurture a deeper understanding of globalization by putting a human face on it, sharing the perspectives of workers, management, and the ripple effects on the local community. Bognar said that among the prime challenges the documentary posed to him and Reichert was “trying to encompass a lot of points of view and still keep the movie elegant and the storytelling flowing. We had to articulate the feelings and work of not just blue collar Americans but blue collar Chinese folks as well who came over to Ohio and wouldn’t be able to see their kids for two years. We had to get the perspectives of American management and Chinese management as we kept filming. We tried to reflect all these points of view fairly and accurately in the movie.”

Bognar credited editor Lindsay Utz with helping to bring this all together. Her work on American Factory recently earned her an ACE Eddie Award nomination for best feature documentary editing.

As for the nature of his and Reichert’s working process, Bognar related, “We both kind of do everything. Her narrative instincts are sharper than mine. I shoot a little more. But we both do everything. We both shoot. We are both in on the edit. We confer on everything. There’s a telepathy between us after working together for 20-plus years.”

Still, there’s always room for new wrinkles--and a prominent one surfaced upon the debut of American Factory at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. “We went to Sundance with Participant Media,” recalled Bognar. “It’s a great honor to get accepted to Sundance. You never know how your movie is going to land. Will it make a splash? Will it be a boulder or just a pebble splashing in the pond?”

Well, it turned out to be the figurative boulder as not only was the film well received at Sundance but it was bought at the fest by Netflix and Higher Ground, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s production company. When they heard of the Obamas’ interest in the film, Bognar said that his and Reichert’s “jaws dropped.” The filmmakers immediately saw the Obamas’ involvement as helping American Factory to find a substantive audience. 

In addition to Netflix’s streaming reach worldwide--some 190 countries spanning 27 different languages--and theater exhibition, all further propelled by what Bognar called “the rocket fuel” of Higher Ground generating greater viewer interest, American Factory is enjoying another less heralded yet important grass-roots platform of exposure. Bognar noted that he and Reichert were drawn to Netflix’s community screening program. Netflix facilitates access to documentary fare with community screenings for educational purposes--as long as admission to one-time screenings is offered free of charge to residents, or to students as part of a curriculum. For example, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, a documentary about the injustice of mass incarceration, has had more than 1,000 community screenings across the U.S. Digital files of a documentary can be accessed, enabling screenings in a church basement, a union hall, community center or other local venue. While he doesn’t have an exact count on the number of such screenings for American Factory, Bognar said the number is significant.

In terms of lessons learned from his experience on American Factory, Bognar shared that he and Reichert got to meet “so many amazing people who are trying to make a decent life for themselves, family and kids through hard, honorable work. A huge takeaway for us was that working people around the world--it’s true if you’re from Ohio or China--are under more pressure. It’s harder and harder to achieve a decent living because everyone is getting squeezed. Global economic pressures to maximize every inch of profit that’s possible is not leading to a decent life for millions and millions of people. It’s not sustainable and it’s not right.”

Regarding what’s next for Bognar and Reichert, they have a feature documentary slated to premiere at the SXSW fest in March--9to5: The Story of A Movement. The film takes us to the 1970s when American secretaries took to the streets, fed up with on-the-job abuse. They created a movement called 9to5, which later inspired Jane Fonda to make a movie and Dolly Parton to write a song. This is the untold story of the secretaries’ initiative.

Tom Eagles
Last week, Tom Eagles won the ACE Edie Award for best edited comedy feature on the strength of his work on Jojo Rabbit (Fox Searchlight). That was Eagles’ first Eddie win and nomination, and he is also a first-time Oscar nominee for that film, which was directed and written by Taika Waititi. Jojo Rabbit received six Oscar nods, the other five being for Best Picture, Director, Costume Design (Mayes C. Rubeo), Production Design (production designer Ra Vincent, set decorator Nora Sopkova) and Adapted Screenplay.

A coming-of-age satiric hybrid comedy-drama, Jojo Rabbit centers on a 10-year-old boy--the title character (Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, portrayed by Roman Griffin Davis)--growing up in World War II Germany. His imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler, a strangely inspired rendition of whom is played by Waititi. The lad lives with his mom (Rosie Betzler, played by Scarlett Johansson) and for a time unknowingly with a Jewish girl (Elsa Korr, portrayed by Thomasin McKenzie) who is hiding in the attic to escape Nazi persecution. When Jojo discovers and gets to know her, he begins questioning what he’s been told about Jews--and for that matter, the world.

Eagles said the biggest creative challenge posed by Jojo Rabbit to him as an editor was “balancing the comedic aspect of the film with the truly dramatic.” At times he took a “slow motion” journey from comedy to heartfelt emotional drama, making sure all those elements stayed in play during the course of telling the story. On occasion, though, the juxtaposition was jarring as when Jojo and his mom, when the movie is seemingly in the midst of madcap comedy, walk into the town square to find corpses hanging for all to see.

Making the daunting task of blending comedy and drama a bit easier was Eagles’ longstanding collaborative relationship with Waititi, including when he was one of the editors on Hunt For The Wilderpeople, which premiered at Sundance and became the highest grossing film in New Zealand. Eagles and Waititi also teamed on the critically acclaimed vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows with co-director Jemaine Clement. That film became a cult classic, spawning two TV spinoffs--FX’s What We Do In The Shadows, and Wellington Paranormal, both of which Eagles was involved in. Eagles has also cut TV commercials directed by Waititi (who’s with production house Hungry Man for spots and branded content).

Eagles recalled Waititi first talking to him about “an Adolf Hitler comedy” back in 2008 or 2009. “I was a little bit taken aback but knew that if anyone could pull it off, it would be Taika.” Over the years, Eagles said he and Waititi have developed a simpatico rapport and a communications shorthand. The editor feels in tune with Waititi’s “unique sensibility” and they share an affinity for constantly experimenting and trying out new ideas.

Beyond his work with Waititi, Eagles has edited such film festival entries as Jackie van Beek’s The Inland Road (Berlin Film Festival), Netflix’s The Breaker Uppers (SXSW) and Roseanne Liang’s Do No Harm (Sundance). On the TV side, Eagles has cut Starz’s Spartacus and Sam Raimi’s reboot of Ash vs. Evil Dead.

Perhaps most surreal to Eagles about his Oscar nomination for Jojo Rabbit is being grouped with such esteemed fellow editors, one in particular. He affirmed, “For a boy from New Zealand to be nominated in the company of the likes of Thelma Schoonmaker (for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman) is a dream come true.”

This is the 15th of a 16-part series. The 92nd Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 9, 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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