With the final voting about to begin for the Best Picture Oscar, Deadline looks at the challenges and the hard road for each of the nine finalists. First up was Awardsline cover film Get Out. Here are the rest of the films contending for Oscar’s top prize.
The exhilaration of each year’s crop of Best Picture nominees comes from the range of different movies that makes it across the line. Where else would Dunkirk and Call Me by Your Name—or any of the others—compete on equal footing?
If Luca Guadagnino’s ode to those youthful pangs of first love is this year’s smallest, quietest Best Picture hopeful, consider that it may not have been heard at all. When Guadagino first boarded the project he came on as a consultant, there to help producers Peter Spears and Howard Rosenman, and a different director, find locations in his native Italy. He toured the country with them, starting in Bordighera where the book is set.
That director dropped out, and Spears, finally, suggested perhaps James Ivory, who had adapted André Aciman’s delirious summer romance, should be the one to take the helm. By that point, the idea was that Ivory and Guadagnino would work on the script together, a collaboration that excited Guadagnino: it’s not often you get to work with a filmmaker whose career is so storied. But they couldn’t raise finance; financiers feared the octagenarian Ivory was too old to direct a film.
Guadagnino stepped up once more, with the notion that he could pair up with Ivory and direct the film together. “It was important to me to make this happen for James. I would have loved to see his version of the film,” Guadagino says. “We worked a lot. But nobody believed two filmmakers could make a movie together—unless they were brothers, or a pair to begin with.”
Guadagnino could be fast and nimble in a way Ivory wasn’t practiced in. He was used to tight shoots and compressed schedules, and that would be attractive to financiers. It soon became undeniable: if this movie was going to go ahead, Luca Guadagnino would have to direct it. “I believed in this project and I didn’t want to see it go,” he says. “That was the reason I did it. Everybody got paid nothing. We did it because we wanted to do it.”
As if ordained by fate, once that decision had been made, Call Me by Your Name was sailing. Eventually, the production would find itself in Crema, Guadagnino’s home town, and its American cast, including Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, discovered the vibe of an Italian movie set. “It’s just that much more relaxed and laid back,” Hammer says. “Waking up in the morning and squeezing apricot juice to drink. It was about slowing down and enjoying all of those little things.” —Joe Utichi
For Working Title partners Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, the desire to make a movie about Winston Churchill has burned for 20 years. Director Joe Wright had the same aspiration. But it wasn’t until Anthony McCarten’s script for Darkest Hour came in that it seemed possible. McCarten painted a picture of the career politician’s rise to prime minister, his refusal to bow to those in Parliament who favored a deal with Hitler, and his plan to evacuate English soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk. “I live in England and I never knew this story,” Fellner says. “I had no idea that, in the span of three weeks, Europe could have come crashing down in the way this story shows.”
The opportunity they saw was to dig into the psychology of the man in the middle of these momentous events. “There’s a big statue of Churchill in Parliament Square,” adds Fellner. “What Joe wanted to do was to take him down off that plinth and look at him straight in the eye, warts and all. His doubts, his depression, his fears, his family, his love, his drinking.”
But capturing every aspect of this complex figure demanded the right actor for the role. Fellner looked to his past. “My first film ever was Sid and Nancy, and it was Gary Oldman’s first film too,” he recalls. “He was taken by it and we then did an awful lot of work on the prosthetics and he had to get totally comfortable with the idea. Because after you have met Gary, you know he does not scream Winston Churchill physically when you meet him.”
Oldman tempted Kazuhiro Tsuji, famed make-up artist, out of retirement to help him disappear beneath Churchill’s iconic visage. And still, his mastery of capturing the essence of Churchill and projecting it through the makeup has turned him into this year’s Best Actor frontrunner.
Odd after all these years that Working Title, Wright, McCarten and Oldman weren’t the only ones who dug back into history to look at the heroic and unlikely Dunkirk evacuation executed by a small squadron of boats. Fellow Brit Christopher Nolan wound up telling that story from different perspectives, and there was room for both. Each film got six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture for both. —Mike Fleming Jr.
Few films opening in the busy summer season, that go on to gross more than half a billion dollars at the global box office, trouble Academy voters come year’s end. But Dunkirk is not like most films. Christopher Nolan had been making utterly unique blockbusters ever since his Hollywood debut, Memento, put him on the map. He helped reinvigorate the superhero genre with his run on the Batman movies, and followed The Dark Knight with Inception, a wholly original epic that became another rare summer movie to score a Best Picture nomination.
But what does it take to inspire a cross-generational complement of filmgoers toward a story about the British evacuation from Dunkirk—a slice of history unfamiliar to audiences better adjusted to supercharged genre movies? Start with a director who has become a brand as powerful as Marvel, DC and Star Wars, and his obsessive interest in capturing the visceral scale of one of the most complex military maneuvers in world history. Start, too, with Nolan’s particular disregard for the received wisdom of what audiences want to see. “We definitely thought this would be the one that killed us,” says Emma Thomas, Nolan’s partner and producer who has worked with him since the earliest days. “This seemed like such an unlikely thing. But then, if you look at any of the nominees this year, they don’t look like obvious movies to make, necessarily.”
For Thomas and Nolan, rigging their boat to ride up the river in search of Colonel Kurtz is the only way to fly. With Dunkirk, that meant an arduous shoot on open seas, capturing the action practically and favoring 35mm and IMAX film to come as close to placing the audience on those beaches as will ever be possible. “Chris’s idea from the very beginning was not really to make it a war film,” Thomas says. “It was to make it a thriller and a suspense story; a survival story. It’s something you wouldn’t expect.”
Dunkirk offers a comprehensive look at the confusion of evacuating so many troops from such a thin sliver of beach. The production challenge was immense. Thomas says Nolan, who produces his films with her too, understands those challenges better than anyone. Still, when he hands her a new script, she reads it “with a large glass of red wine,” she jokes.
There’s also, now, the pressure of an unbroken run of successes. For Nolan and Thomas, it’s because they take these kinds of risks that audiences are engaged to see what they create; cinemagoers are crying out for bravery and originality, of that they’re sure. “We definitely feel the pressure of the streak,” Thomas says. “It has been an incredible run, and I would certainly feel a lot less worried about the next one if we would have taken the safe bet. But when you have an opportunity to push boundaries, you have to grab it.” —Joe Utichi
What would the movie Boyhood be like for a girl? It’s not often that we see female coming-of-age stories, and that’s exactly why actress-turned-filmmaker Greta Gerwig created Lady Bird—a personal story, though not an autobiographical one—about a high school girl just like the Frances Ha actress, who went to Catholic School in Sacramento, CA, and hungered for the liberties and artistic greatness of a Northeast college.
What transpired was a mother-daughter comedy about the push and pull of teenage angst, with plenty of heartfelt moments: a mother’s doubts about her daughter’s ambitions, a girl jamming the bathroom door for some privacy, their bickering in public, and their immediate surrender when the other finds a great dress in a thrift store.
“It’s those little storytelling moments, it’s just that quality of precision that I look for and like,” says Gerwig about her inspirations. In creating a young girl who changes her facets depending on who she is with— best friend, rich friend, head nun or mom— Gerwig wasn’t sure she nailed the character. Then Brooklyn and Atonement Oscar-nominated actress Saoirse Ronan read for the part, and “she started to bring her to life. Lady Bird was really this collaboration between the two of us. That character would not be that character if not for her,” says Gerwig.
Producer Scott Rudin was key in finding financing with IAC as well as connecting Gerwig with three-time Roseanne Emmy winner Laurie Metcalf to play the grounded, working class mom. A24 took global rights last July.
More important than the picture being inspired by Gerwig’s life, setting Lady Bird in Sacramento was crucial given the pic’s mythology of dreamers. “The quality of lost dreams and the people who haven’t lost them yet; California has lost dreams,” explains Gerwig, “Sacramento does too because of the Gold Rush.”
“When we were figuring out how to shoot the movie, I was asked if I could write it for a different city because of tax breaks; that it was cheaper to shoot in Ohio,” she adds.
“I don’t know the mythology of Ohio. This is a California story in its bones.” —Anthony D’Alessandro
You could say it all started in bed. While Paul Thomas Anderson had the impulse to make a relationship movie with Phantom Thread, the filmmaker—much like his couturier protagonist Reynolds Woodcock—found himself in bed, sick. “And my better half [Maya Rudolph] looked at me with love and affection that I hadn’t seen in a long time,” Anderson told fellow director Rian Johnson in a recent podcast interview about the spark for his British period drama.
A confluence of ideas fueled Anderson’s Phantom Thread: his love for 1950 gothic romance films, the desire to team with Daniel Day-Lewis again, and to have him play an Englishman. Anderson had a story that was in search of characters, and realizing that Phantom Thread would revolve around a man and two women, the filmmaker also found inspiration in Spanish fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, a man who led a monastic life, and put his work ahead of his needs. Phantom Thread tells the story of British fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, whose 1950s heyday of dressing celebrities and dignitaries ascends to another level after he meets Alma, a waitress who promptly becomes his muse. Love, essentially, upsets life.
As Anderson drafted the screenplay, he would feed pages to Day-Lewis for input. In fact, it was Day-Lewis who came up with his character’s name. Day-Lewis threw himself into the part, learning how to sew—literally 100 button holes—so that he’d look like a natural fashion designer.
“You don’t go to work with Daniel Day-Lewis, you go to work with whoever his character is,” Anderson says.
Halfway through writing, Anderson and Day-Lewis spoke about the actresses they should cast. Anderson enjoyed Lesley Manville’s work from Mike Leigh’s canon. Meanwhile, Luxembourg-born actress Vicky Krieps sent in an audition tape which wowed Anderson so much, he called her in to read with Day-Lewis.
But perhaps the biggest question that Anderson has faced while promoting Phantom Thread is whether he’s responsible for causing Day-Lewis to retire from acting. “I suppose it suggests either he had such a good time doing it that he didn’t want to bother to top the experience,” he told Jimmy Kimmel recently. “Or the other thing.”
Still, there’s hope. “I’m going to wait a little while before I try to talk him into something else.” —Anthony D’Alessandro
As Hollywood reeled from an envelope mix-up that saw the wrong film announced as Best Picture at last year’s Oscars, first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah was experiencing perhaps the quickest ascendancy ever in Hollywood. On the previous Friday afternoon she had got her script for The Post to producer (and former Sony chief) Amy Pascal, and by the evening she had landed a deal. Before the weekend was over, Steven Spielberg was committed to directing it, with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep set to star. Less than a year later, the movie was in the can, ready in time for awards season, where it competes for Best Picture and Best Actress.
How does something like this happen? Chalk it up to Spielberg’s bad luck trying to find the right kid for another project he was developing, and an opportune moment of timing on Pascal’s part, tipped off by Spielberg’s regular producer Kristie Macosko Krieger. “I didn’t think to give it to Steven because I knew he was doing a different movie,” Pascal says. “But I gave it to Kristie because I knew she would like it.”
Pascal was right. “This had a relationship I had never seen in a movie, the one between Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham, and I told Steven he just had to read it,” Macosko Krieger said. “He was in.”
Hannah was soon joined by Oscar-winning Spotlight co-writer Josh Singer for a second pass of the script. “Liz’s script is as good a first script as you’ll find, but we had two months before production. Josh knew journalism, and Steven wanted the Pentagon Papers to be a character in the movie,” Pascal said. Hannah’s grasp of Kay Graham’s path from “mouse to lion”, as Pascal puts it, was the secret ingredient that charged Streep’s performance toward an Oscar nom, and it made The Post incredibly timely.
Getting The Post completed in less than a year wasn’t easy. Once Spielberg had committed and Fox had agreed to pay for the movie, it was clear that the film would be released within that calendar year. Still, “Steven can do amazing things when he puts his mind to it,” Macosko Krieger says. Adds Pascal: “I bet John Ford, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks and all those guys made movies at that pace all the time.” —Mike Fleming Jr.
Guillermo del Toro’s love of monsters and the macabre started when he was a kid, at home in Guadalajara, Mexico. But he may have swung the hammer blow for their social acceptability this year with The Shape of Water, which has charged to a not-so-unlucky 13 Oscar nominations.
The film has been more than 20 years in the making, starting with a vague idea del Toro had, about an amphibian creature that falls in love with a human. But del Toro knows the rocky road of Hollywood better than many. There’s even a Wikipedia entry dedicated to “Guillermo del Toro’s unrealized projects”. “I do contemplate how many times you can give your blood to this particular brother, which is cinema,” he says. “In my case, I have bled quite a lot.”
He found the spark that would light The Shape of Water when his Trollhunters collaborator Daniel Kraus shared a similar idea, with a few extra titbits of setup; the movie would take place in a secret government lab, the woman would be a janitor. Del Toro loved the notion that a lowly cleaner—the bottom rung of the bottom ladder—might be the one to free this aquatic God. Ideas flowed freely from there—like setting it in the 1960s, as man struggled to reach the stars and as America fought the Cold War. It would be a film about—and for—outsiders; the marginalized and disenfranchised. A movie for today’s America.
Fox Searchlight took the bait, but only to the tune of $19.5 million; the shoot for The Shape of Water was arduous, as del Toro injected his own salary back into production to buy himself the shots he needed. At times, nerves frayed and tensions were hard to shake, but del Toro’s secret weapon was a cast and crew who believed in what he was trying to do, and they carried one another across the line. When the film finally unspooled at this year’s Venice Film Festival, the reaction from the crowd drew tears from del Toro. “That screening in Venice was one of my favorite nights in a 25-year career,” he says. “And I’ve felt the same way in screening after screening. It doesn’t go away. It never goes away.” —Joe Utichi
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Martin McDonagh takes a sanguine view of the many complications inherent in writing, raising finance and directing major motion pictures. Formulas are “f*cking boring”, script notes are verboten, and when you work with someone who tries to push you around, you just don’t do it again. So by the time he reached this, his third feature, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh had largely figured his way through the Hollywood labyrinth. The secret? “You kind of have to stick to a budget that’s not like low-low, but also not so high that the future of the company is riding on it,” he says.
It helps, too, that the script comes from McDonagh, a playwright-turned-filmmaker who has been described as one of the greatest of his generation. Three Billboards, which tells of a mother who turns to banner advertising to expose the inaction of the local police force in the investigation of her daughter’s rape and murder, also attracted a few of McDonagh’s frequent collaborators, like Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson. But it was the casting of Frances McDormand that made the project a no-brainer for British production house Film4, and Fox Searchlight. McDormand was a fan of her fellow McD, and she had, years ago, begged him to send her a part she could play.
McDonagh cops to some friction, in the early days on set, with his headstrong lead. “It was Frances’s first time with me,” he says, “so all of her choices about her integrity as an actress, and about the character, created a teeny, tiny little bit of—in the early days—discussions, shall we say.” Over the course of the shoot, though, the pair found their rhythm, and now, “she’s family.” Its why he likes his little rep company of performers. “Because with each one, it’s mates and it’s a new part with a new character. You don’t have that ‘first day of school’ thing.”
The result of their collaboration is at turns angry, hilarious, heartfelt and tender. The Audience Award followed the film’s early rollout at Toronto Film Festival, and McDormand won the Globe for her performance. With seven Oscar nominations this year, Three Billboards stands tall. —Joe Utichi
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