Each of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees has survived a journey to cross the finish line, before earning the Academy’s consideration. Here’s how they came together.
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Writer-director Kenneth Branagh began work on Belfast at the beginning of 2020, but the story itself has been growing for 50 years. “The desire to write something about Belfast had been with me ever since I left the place,” says Branagh, “but it was definitely enhanced by the idea of the lockdown. There was much more introspection at the beginning of this period.”
In casting his family, Branagh’s goal was to cast people who understood the culture of Belfast. “I admired Jamie Dornan very much for his work on The Fall,” he says, “he’s from just outside Belfast. Ciarán Hinds was brought up a half a mile from where I lived, he was about 16 when the Troubles happened. Caitríona Balfe came from a border town called Monaghan, so she really saw the tension between Catholics and Protestants up close. And then Judi Dench, I discovered, had a much more extensive Irish background than I realized. She had Belfast relatives who visited her when she was young, so she had the accent in her head from her favorite uncle.”
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The most important casting choice was for Buddy, a young version of Branagh that needed to be able to keep up with the rest of the cast. “They all have this sort of firecracker quality,” he says, “and I think Jude Hill picked that up when he joined. The main reason I cast him was that he’s a phenomenal listener. He can hold the screen responding and reacting, and that was going to be half of his performance, just us watching other people’s words affect somebody whose life is being written on the page of their face.”
Even with the cast all but set, Branagh was met with some difficulty in getting the film financed. “When we shopped the movie around, we got tremendous response to the screenplay,” he says. “But it was very difficult to get people to understand how we would manage to find something lighter in such a dark situation.” Still, he knew this was the best way to tell his story. “It was clearly a tough sell on the page, but it was something you had to see to understand, this very gallows-humor quality in the Irish, which is ‘Well, what else are you going to do?’” — Ryan Fleming
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When CODA writer-director Siân Heder was first approached by the film’s producers Patrick Wachsberger and Philippe Rousselet, they explained their plan to remake a French film, La famille bélier, for an American audience, with financing from Pathé. The comedic drama tells the story of a deaf family and their daughter, a hearing CODA (child of deaf adults) who serves as their interpreter in life and at work.
“There was an opportunity to set it in a world that I knew really well. I grew up in Boston, and I knew the fishing community there a little bit,” Heder says. “I was very excited to tell a story about a family that we normally don’t get to see on screen.”
From the start she knew it was vital to have deaf collaborators both in front of and behind the camera. Oscar’s first deaf recipient, Marlee Matlin, was cast with deaf actors Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant. Ruby, the CODA herself, is played by breakout Emilia Jones. Like Jones, Heder made the effort to learn American Sign Language (ASL). Says Kotsur: “It’s not often where you see directors that really take the time to learn sign language.”
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Heder also had two “ASL masters” on hand, Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti, who helped her adapt the script. “ASL is not translated as English. It’s its own language entirely, [with] its own grammar, syntax and a culture that goes along with it,” Heder explains.
She also needed visual help. “It was so helpful to have Ann and Alexandria there to go, ‘No deaf family is putting their couch here,’ and ‘You need to kind of really think about deaf spaces and how they work, and it’s different from how a hearing family would set up their living room.’”
After CODA’s Sundance premiere, Apple acquired it for a record $25 million-plus, releasing it in theaters and on Apple TV+ on Aug. 13. And recently, the cast made SAG history as the first deaf ensemble to win, with Kotsur becoming the first deaf actor to win an individual prize. — Antonia Blyth
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Don’t Look Up
How do you assemble the most illustrious star cast in memory for an allegory about climate change? For Adam McKay, it was cloaking the passion project of the Hollywood elite in a madcap satire surrounding an extinction event, a comet hurtling to earth, with six months for leaders to figure it out and save the planet. Don’t Look Up lacerates polarized politics, social media messaging and the influence of tech giants getting in the way of sound logic and stems from McKay’s own anxieties around the response to climate change. The biggest stars responded.
“First in the door was Jennifer Lawrence,” McKay says. “And then as every director imagines, you have the President in your movie, and you have to go to Meryl Streep. I just never imagined she would say yes, and once you get Meryl Streep… A lot of actors said they’d been waiting for a project like this, with how crazy the world has been. Meryl was in, then Cate Blanchett. Tyler Perry. Then Jonah Hill. All along, I was having conversations with Leo.”
That charmed track screeched to a halt when Covid hit. But the denial, the blame, the partisanship anti-vaxxers and mask wearing so reflected the Don’t Look Up script that it only became more desirable. “The basic conceit of the movie held,” McKay says. “Everyone had the same reaction I had. ‘We’ve got to make this movie now more than ever.’”
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The delay allowed DiCaprio to commit, with Mark Rylance, Ariana Grande and Timothée Chalamet also aboard.
“I’d always wanted to do a film about this subject matter,” DiCaprio says. “It is incredibly hard to tackle the climate crisis in a two- or three-hour format. Adam cracked the code with this idea of it becoming a comet, and have society and the media and people make it a partisan issue. At the end of the day, doing a movie about this subject matter at this time, there are very few movies historically like that. [Reading the script] I was thinking of The Great Dictator, Network and Dr. Strangelove.”
DiCaprio figures the world has nine years rather than six months to straighten out the climate crisis. Aside from the four Oscar noms including Best Picture, Don’t Look Up became Netflix’s most watched movie globally, itself a victory. And, perhaps, a step in a hopeful direction. — Mike Fleming Jr.
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Drive My Car
Since his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing in 1979, Haruki Murakami has become not only one of the most popular authors in his native Japan but in the world too: his work has published in more than 50 languages, and last year he was rumored to have been nominated—for the 16th time—for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Surprisingly, few of his novels have been adapted for the big screen, but his short stories have proven to be rich pickings. Following Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 arthouse hit Burning, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car premiered in Cannes last year and instantly became a critical favorite, motoring straight to awards season and four Oscar nominations.
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Initially, Hamaguchi was asked to look at a different story from Murakami’s 2014 collection Men Without Women, but his eye was drawn to Drive My Car, in which a widowed actor is forced to hire a driver when his license is revoked. “In Japanese, the story is only 50 pages long,” says Hamaguchi, “and it really wasn’t enough material to make a feature film. The short story ends abruptly, too, and I felt like I needed to take that story somewhere beyond where it ends on the page. I reread the other stories, and there were two I felt I could incorporate into the same storyline.
Taking story elements (but not plot points) from Scheherazade and Kino, Hamaguchi developed the script for Drive My Car in the space of two years. At the same time, he was working on a separate project, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, which premiered under strict Covid protocols at the 2021 Berlinale. The first cut came in at 200 minutes, but the panic-stricken director snipped it down to 180. “I was willing to cut more,” he says, “because producers are the ones taking on the financial risk of making a film. But they agreed with me: the story was fully complete with the three-hour runtime. I was so grateful to be able to work with the producers who really understood me and saw that Drive My Car could not be a minute shorter.” — Damon Wise
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History was the greatest obstacle for Denis Villeneuve as he set out to realize his dream of adapting Frank Herbert’s Dune for the big screen. After all, 1984’s David Lynch version had struggled under the weight of the world building and Lynch himself had warred with his producers, delivering an end result that found only a cult fanbase. An earlier attempt by Alejandro Jodorowsky to adapt the novel into a 10-hour feature had never got to set after an expensive development process. Many considered it unfilmable. But Villeneuve remembers coming out of the theater from seeing Lynch’s version. “I told myself somebody will do it in the future again,” he says.
He never thought it would be him, but when a journalist asked him in an interview what his dream project would be, there was no other answer. By chance, the interview caught the eye of producer Mary Parent, then at Legendary Pictures, who had acquired the rights. “It never happened like this before and it probably never will again,” she says.
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What Villeneuve eventually achieved with Dune can be considered comfortably definitive, to the degree that his is the name most cited as the one unjustly missing from this year’s Best Director nominations. But where Peter Jackson had been able to mount a trilogy of Lord of the Rings films to shoot back-to-back towards the end of the last century, it was a mark of how much blockbuster cinema has changed when Villeneuve didn’t receive a greenlight for a second chapter until after the movie had opened in theaters.
And Dune’s theatrical release was thrown into doubt when Warner Bros. announced that its 2021 slate would launch on HBO Max day-and-date with theatrical, owing to the pandemic. Villeneuve, a proponent of the theatrical experience, was disheartened. “There’s a level of engagement to a theatrical release,” he says. “If you’re at home watching it on your computer, you are less committed to the experience.”
Finally, as he preps the second chapter, Villeneuve can afford to be circumspect about the road to get here. “Nobody wanted the journey to end,” he says. “It would have needed a catastrophic opening to end that journey, I think. But until the light goes green, you really don’t know what can happen.” — Joe Utichi
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The phrase “spec script” takes on a whole new meaning in King Richard, which sees Will Smith playing Richard Williams, the Compton-based father of tennis champions Venus and Serena. When his daughters were just 4 years old, Williams drew up a 78-page plan for them after watching the 1980 French Open on TV and witnessing 25-year-old Romanian Virginia Ruzici win $40,000. The Williams sisters, of course, have gone on to become two of the greatest female players in tennis history, even though there was nothing in the family history to suggest an aptitude for tennis on such an astonishing scale.
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Williams’ regimen was hardcore, and he invoked the girls’ deprived background to drive them forward. “The ghetto will make you rough,” he said. “It’ll make you tough, it’ll make you strong.” Which sounds like an obvious basis for an approved, rose-tinted Hollywood film, but, surprisingly, screenwriter Zach Baylin went in cold, having been commissioned by producers Tim and Trevor White. “I initially wrote the script based on research that I did without contacting the family,” he says. “[But] once we had a finished script, that we took it to the family and got their involvement … the little nuances of their lives really helped bring out the authenticity and the intimacy in the story.”
After it premiered at Telluride, the film immediately created buzz for Smith, landing him his third Oscar nomination after The Pursuit of Happyness (2007) and Ali (2002) for a nuanced performance of a character whose ambition comes with cost. “We see Richard throughout the film, sort of getting in his own way,” Reinaldo Marcus Green says. “I think it’s important to see the three-dimensional character that you see in Richard Williams; we were not trying to sugar-coat any of the issues that he may have had.” — Damon Wise
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After Phantom Thread in 2017, Paul Thomas Anderson went AWOL, until the tail end of 2020, when reports began to surface of a mysterious project known as Soggy Bottom that was shooting in the San Fernando Valley. It seemed like an impulse project, but in fact the story had been brewing in his mind for over 20 years. It was a simple enough concept — “What happens when an eighth-grader asks a grown woman out for a date and she actually turns up to it?” — and a promising premise for a screwball comedy.
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Since the idea first came to him, the director had become friends with Jonathan Demme’s producer Gary Goetzman, whose wild tales of his life as a precocious youth proved to be a goldmine of inspiration, from his time as a child actor to a bizarre stretch as a teen entrepreneur selling waterbeds and buying pinball machines. At the same time, Anderson had developed a working bond with the family band Haim, and it was while shooting some footage for their stage show at Coachella in 2018—where they opened for Beyoncé—that he had the idea of casting their younger sister Alana. “The baby of the family is always an interesting role,” he notes. “They’re fighting for survival.”
The addition of Cooper Hoffman, son of the late PTA favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman, seemed to be an obvious move, but, surprisingly, Anderson came to him late in the casting process after a procession of young career actors were deemed too slick. Hoffman fit seamlessly into the jigsaw puzzle that Anderson was assembling in his mind, which became an early ’70s-set oddball romance that takes its title from a long-defunct LA record store. Anderson has been accused of peddling nostalgia, but he takes it in his stride. “Nostalgia,” he says, “is the feeling that allows us to forget the difficulties.” — Damon Wise
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The Power of the Dog
When Jane Campion first read Thomas Savage’s 1967 book The Power of the Dog — the based-on-a-true-story take of a gay rancher in Montana — she was immediately captivated.
Producer Tanya Seghatchian says Campion “found that it started to haunt her, and then she looked into whether or not the rights were available.”
But the timing was down to the wire since the rights were just about to be sold to someone else. “After a brief meeting [Savage said], ‘You can have it if you want.’ “I think that’s part of the charm of Jane Campion: If you’re with her you will fall under her spell immediately and you can’t see the world the same way after that.”
By May 2019, the film was one of the buzz titles at the Cannes market and Netflix acquired near-global rights.
Although the story is set in Montana, the cast — Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee — decamped to Campion’s home country of New Zealand for the shoot. “It’s a kind of serendipity that Jane read this book,” Cinematographer Ari Wegner says, citing New Zealand as “an incredible match for Montana.”
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Once the location was set, Campion and Wegner worked with VFX supervisor Jay Hawkins to figure out the rock formation that gives the film its name, while costume designer Kirsty Cameron and production designer Grant Major developed the color palette. Meanwhile, interiors were built on an Auckland soundstage.
Then Covid nearly derailed the film. It “came in like a hurricane, so fast, and just shut us down,” Campion says. “I didn’t really know at that point that the film would ever be finished.” Ultimately, she used the break to the film’s advantage, changing and sharpening the ending.
In the edit, Campion worked for the first time with Peter Sciberras, whom she says taught her “an amazing amount of what you can do technically.” The experience was intense. “I think even now we love each other. It was one of those love affairs that’s not a love affair of course, but of different minds, if you like. It’s really hard to say with editing what is happening, but you have to stay so nimble and so intuitive to what’s going on. You can have your plan, but usually you find out that doesn’t work.” — Antonia Blyth
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It should have been plain sailing for returning Oscar champion Guillermo del Toro, whose film The Shape of Water pulled off a Best Picture triumph in 2018. The master auteur won Best Director, too, and Searchlight Pictures eagerly reteamed with him for his follow-up, Nightmare Alley, which started its shoot in the early days of 2020.
After his success, the path ahead was clear. Crews were in Toronto busily constructing a giant carnival set as del Toro’s main unit got started shooting the back half of his screenplay, on set and on location in nearby Buffalo. And then the pandemic hit, work stopped, and del Toro was left to wonder if he’d even be able to get back into production.
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Still, he was determined to make the best of the situation. “The material lived with us for those months [of shutdown], which clarified a lot of things,” del Toro says. The film, adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s noir novel, tells the story of a drifter whose quest for money and power comes at the expense of the people who cross his path. And as del Toro was able to edit what he shot during the break, he was able to re-envision how he would introduce Stanton Carlisle, played by Bradley Cooper, as he stumbles upon the carnival world in the film’s opening scenes.
“If anything is halted, you have to hope that fire inside of you — the creative fire to invest the time in the work — is burning bright,” Cooper says. “If you’re not careful it can go out. Luckily for all of us, that fire came back even brighter during the hiatus, because of everything we went through in order to make this movie.”
“The partnership between a director and actor when you’re working with a character like Stan is that you’re living and breathing the same air for 99.9 percent of the day,” del Toro adds. “For six months, we introspected that character. We’re looking at him on the screen, refining, recutting. You have time to change your choices in the editorial room. And then you come back with a different understanding.” — Joe Utichi
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West Side Story
Though the 1961 studio version of West Side Story is considered to be an iconic classic for the ages, it took director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner’s modern-day vision to reinterpret the musical into a diverse and inclusive piece of art fit for a whole new generation.
Ever since Spielberg was 10 years old, the Broadway cast album of West Side Story has played an influential role in his appreciation of the musical genre both on stage and on screen. But in his long prestigious career, Spielberg has surprisingly felt that he was never ready to approach a music-based production for the screen.
It wasn’t until 2017 when he reached out to long-time collaborator and Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner about not only adapting the 1957 stage version of West Side Story but expanding on the storyline by deepening the characters and making it culturally authentic, that Spielberg gained the confidence to take on this quintessential musical.
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The biggest change came with the Sharks. Spielberg found an exciting cast of Puerto Rican actors (Rachel Zegler, Josh Andrés Rivera, Ariana DeBose), and Spanish language filtered into their everyday conversations, creating an immigrant community proud of its heritage, but still trying to fit into the American dream. It’s a dream that conflicts with the Jets, the Polish street gang that is struggling to keep their neighborhood from these new arrivals, setting up an underlying tension of xenophobia and racism that the original version never thought of taking on.
Spielberg also found ways to reimagine dance set pieces, giving the film a grittier and more realistic feel. Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kamiński found working on this film completely different from his other experiences with the director. “The scope of the movie was pretty big,” Kamiński says. “The biggest surprise was how generous the cast was, the young kids. There was no competition, no jealousy. There was just great camaraderie among them and love. We become possessed by the whole process to do our best.”
The end result has not only given West Side Story a fresh, meaningful take, but also seven nominations celebrating Spielberg finally making the musical of his childhood dreams. — Stevie Wong
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