OSCARS Q&A: 'Philomena's Steve Coogan, '12 Years' Joe Walker, 'Gravity's David Heyman & Andy Nicholson And More

Interviews by AwardsLine Editor Christy Grosz and Deputy Editor Anna Lisa Raya.

Their faces aren’t all recognizable, but these Oscar nominees were crucial elements in bringing some of AwardsLinethe season’s best films to the big screen. From putting the financial elements in place for a visionary director, to leading a team of visual-effects artists who create fantastical digital characters, to painstakingly re-creating the gunfire that will immerse actors—and the audience—into a picture, this is a formidable group. Without their technical mastery and creative perspective, this groundbreaking year in cinema would look a whole lot different.

Steve Coogan, Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture, Philomena

philomenaAwardsLine: You first heard about Philomena Lee’s plight from an article in The Guardian. Is it true you didn’t think of writing the script?
Coogan: I was toying with maybe directing (Philomena) or maybe not. I wasn’t even thinking of writing it. When I first read (the article), I was with my girlfriend and I started crying. I said, “I really would love to do something with that.” (My girlfriend) said, “Actually this could make a really good film.” I said, “But I don’t know how to do that. I don’t do dramas. I do comedy. I don’t know that world. No one takes me seriously in that world. What’s the point?” She said, “Tell Gaby (Tana, Coogan’s producing partner). Gaby said, “(The idea) sounds great. Do you want me to co-produce it with you?” I thought, OK. Then I started telling people how I thought the writers should write it. Gaby took me to see Christine Langan at BBC Films, who said, “You should write (the film) yourself.” And I was like, “I don’t do that. That’s kind of grownup, serious writing.” Then she said, “You just need a good co-writer.” And she introduced me to Jeff Pope.

AwardsLine: What were some of the challenges with the script?
Coogan: We were very careful not to have (Lee’s character) be over eloquent. I don’t like it when characters’ dialogue is over articulate. (Lee) expresses herself in simple words, but there is real depth to them, and that really mattered to me. I knew people like that. I had experience with people like that.

Joe Walker, Film Editing, 12 Years A Slave

12 Years A SlaveAwardsLine: What was the biggest challenge in editing 12 Years a Slave?
Walker: To break up the timeline. The first assembly followed the script and the book in chronological order. It felt like one terrible thing after another. (The challenge) was compressing the story and delivering an interesting, fascinating ride for the audience. We got there by being freer with the order of events. (Time) creates pace and tension, and that was the journey we took the film on.

AwardsLine: What was the toughest scene to edit?
Walker: We were in Amsterdam working on the steamboat sequence. Before we hit on the final flashback structure of the whole film, the sequence was taking too long, and we were keen to get Solomon (Northup) down to Louisiana. It was great stuff on the boat, and they’d spent a fortune building and rigging it, but we couldn’t work out an approach to it in the film. That day was my birthday, and we ended up in one of those “coffee bars” in Amsterdam. Steve (McQueen) was probably tucked up in bed by this time. (My assistant) ordered some super-strength weed—peppermint tea is usually about my level—and I got really stoned. After staggering home, I spent an agonizing night with the sound of a piece of music by Louis Andriessen and the hellish images of the steamboat paddles and the slaves’ faces swirling around. (When) I got in to work, I asked to play around with the sequence against the Andriessen (temp track). Although Steve had his own agenda for the day, he let me play with the sequence the whole morning. He’s just an expert at encouraging flow when it happens. It was exhilarating, and we cracked the pace and tone of the scene. It’s partly by getting completely wrecked, and trying some music, and trying a different approach to cutting the scene that saved it.

David Heyman, Best Picture, Gravity

GravityAwardsLine: You worked with Alfonso Cuaron before on Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban. What was different about working with him on Gravity?
Heyman: With Potter, he took a world that had already been conceived and reworked it in such a way that nobody really noticed. With Gravity, he was working within a more naturalistic space. With the way that Alfonso wanted to shoot it—(using) these long, extended takes—you couldn’t mask anything. Three shots in this film take 30 minutes. There’s no hiding.

AwardsLine: What was the budgeting process like for this film?
Heyman: There was a long R&D process before we shot a frame. So Warner Bros. took a big leap because we didn’t know if it was going to work. They were very supportive—it’s a budget and it shifts and changes and things get cut and somehow you have to manage it. Visual effects are always a little bit of a leap into the unknown. It’s funny, some of the best ideas emerge from budget limitations. In the third Harry Potter, there’s a scene where the children are eating sweets and they turn into animals, and we always thought about doing that digitally. (But) we just didn’t have the money. Alfonso decided to have them behave like the animals they’d become, and it was so much better.

AwardsLine: What keeps the job of producing consistently interesting for you after so many films?
Heyman: It’s the belief that you can make something really extraordinary. That’s not the case with every film you work on, but it’s certainly the case in the beginning. Alfonso’s one of those directors that you know you’re going to be a part of something decent. He’s willing to fail, and to be with someone who’s willing to fail—he won’t fail.

Joe Letteri, Visual Effects, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Hobbit 2 box officeAwardsLine: Is there a scene in the film that required a lot more technology than the others?
Letteri: The scene of the barrel chase was the most difficult, because in addition to moving all that water, we had digital doubles of our dwarves in barrels inside the water. Then we had them fighting and dwarves jumping into the water. It got to be this really complicated series of simulations that have to happen step by step to make sure that everything integrated.

AwardsLine: How did you use motion capture in creating Smaug the dragon?
Letteri: When you animate a dragon like Smaug, there’s almost no way to translate directly what Benedict (Cumberbatch, who voices Smaug) is doing. His center of gravity is in a different place, and his shoulder and neck are all built differently. We captured it anyway because it’s great reference. The body language gives you a lot of information about the emotions that are passing between the characters.

AwardsLine: Was there anything that took you by surprise during production?
Letteri: There was one scene, where we did the forges, that came to us quite late in the process. It was a fairly complicated scene to get the cameras working to frame up all the action between Thorin and Smaug, because you were in close and there was a lot of action happening with the dragon thrashing around. So Peter (Jackson) decided to just get in there and kind of shoot it himself. We have the virtual-camera technology that we had developed for Avatar and The Adventures of Tintin, so Peter’s quite familiar with working that way. The technology’s always ready, and when he decided that’s what he wanted to do for this particular scene, we were able to set it up for him and he just jumped in and did it.

Phedon Papamichael, Cinematography, Nebraska

Nebraska film stillAwardsLine: What were your first discussions with Alexander Payne like about shooting in black and white?
Papamichael: He first talked to me about it on Sideways. He said, “I have this small movie in my home state, and I want to make it in black and white.” This was 10 years ago, so in Alexander’s mind and my conception, it was always black and white. He picked me up in Billings one day and he said, “I just want to drive the actual route with you and make sure you get an impression of the land.” I took a black-and-white still camera with me, and I started collecting images and taking in the vastness of everything. I tested black-and-white film stock. I tested color stock. I tested an Alexa camera.

AwardsLine: Was there ever a concern you’d have to shoot the movie in color?
Papamichael: Well, of course the studio said, “We do need a color deliverable.” I had to decide between color film stock and the Alexa. Ultimately, I chose the Alexa because it had some other practical advantages. I was able to achieve in the test results a look that I thought was very hard to distinguish from actual black-and-white stock. I added film grain. I matched textures and contrast levels. Haskell Wexler, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer who shot Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, called me at home to ask me what film stock I used. I knew then we had done something right.

Andy Nicholson Production Design, Gravity

AwardsLine: This is your first Oscar nomination. What does it mean to you?
Nicholson: On Gravity, I’m most proud of the way that we had to solve problems. It happens all the time in every film, but it’s just in little ways. On this film, it was in massive ways. Everything about my department’s output was radically different because we were mostly dealing with people who would be creating in a virtual environment. I wouldn’t have the luxury of being able to walk onto a set with a painter or plasterer for the majority of the sets in the film. We’d be giving information to people who would be working six months after I was done. The way to get around that is you just make sure people have 300% more information than they needed. Don’t just give them photographs. Don’t just give them videos. Give them a piece of that object and say, “This is what it is.” It was about texture and finish.

AwardsLine: To what lengths did you go to find particular objects?
Nicholson: I’ve been quoted as saying that I did my research through eBay. Not entirely, but if you can buy a piece of Russian parachute strap from an enthusiast website, you can go up to (an animator) and say, “Here you are,” and they freak. Then you get people excited about (what you’re doing), and once you get them excited, they get it right.

Wylie Stateman, Sound Editing, Lone Survivor

Lone-Survivor-MovieAwardsLine: At what point did your work start on the film?
Stateman: We had a fairly unique opportunity in that the post supervisor asked us to get onboard during the preproduction process, and we made the sound of live gunfire, bullets ricocheting and fracturing off of rocks, and mortar rounds both being fired and incoming. We sampled them onto a device where Pete (Berg) could actually, at the push of a single button, trigger any one of these sounds. He was able to, sitting with the actors doing table reads, give them a sense of what it might sound like to be in a position to accommodate live fire rounds as they’re performing their lines, developing their teamwork and their survival techniques. And that is really what this film is about.
We also went and recorded the CH-47 helicopters. We wanted you to be inside that helicopter and really get comfortable being inside of it, so that when it crashes, you’re going down in that machine sonically.

AwardsLine: Was there a scene that was more difficult than most?
Stateman: The film isn’t really about the difficulty in any one scene. It’s really about a hyper-perspective and that is putting the audience in this experience. You’re much too close to it for comfort.

AwardsLine: This is your seventh Oscar nomination during your career. Does it ever get routine for you?
Stateman: Every film is an opportunity to see the world anew. It is that fresh look that makes this kind of work so interesting. I’m very proud to be an artist who’s been nominated once per decade in the last four decades, which is crazy. I come from a small town where I thought Hollywood was in Florida. To be working at this level and be honored as a nominee, for me, is truly a gift.

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