Oscar season is in full swing, but what about offering awards to the unbelievable decades of persistence, ingenuity and overall struggle that went into many of these year-end films? We’ve come up with our own superlatives to recognize some of our favorite genesis stories. Just don’t dress for an actual event. Some of these tales are so unlikely that only Rod Sterling could emcee such a show.
Best Job Surviving Steven Spielberg’s Exit: Tie between American Sniper and Interstellar
While Spielberg bailed on these films, he shaped the tone and intelligence of each, say Sniper scribe Jason Hall and Interstellar cowriter Jonathan Nolan. Honorable mention goes to Exodus: Gods And Kings, which benefited when Spielberg exited a rival Moses epic.
Best Display of Physical Puberty: Boyhood
Most movies bridge adolescence and adulthood by casting multiple actors. Richard Linklater spent a dozen years on this personal film, making Time a star performer. Ethan Hawke realized the repercussions of such a long haul while filming the finale: “My last scene with Ellar Coltrane, he’s got a beard, I’m offering him a beer, we’re talking girls, he’s driving his own car,” Hawke says. “I realized that in the first scene I did with him, I was putting him in a car seat. I’ve never had an experience like that.”
Don Quixote Award: Unbroken’s Louis Zamperini & Matthew Baer
Zamperini’s unbeatable record? Waiting 57 years for a movie to be made of his unbelievable life. The Olympian and World War II hero sold his story to Universal after he returned to the U.S. from Japan. Tony Curtis was attached to star until the project fell apart over Spartacus. Baer rediscovered Zamperini’s story through a CBS documentary that aired during the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, when Zamperini carried the torch. Both men worked for free for the next decade-plus until Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken, reignited Universal and director Angelina Jolie. “If anybody understood patience it was the man who spent 47 days starving in a raft in the Pacific and two years being tortured in a Japanese POW camp,” Baer says in explaining why Zamperini didn’t give in. And Baer? “I never lost sight of how I felt the first time I watched that CBS documentary. There are many producers, but Louis picked me. I couldn’t give up.”
Best Job Finding Truth Through Tragedy: American Sniper scribe Jason Hall
Connected with Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle by hedge fund magnate Daniel Loeb, Hall proved his mettle to Kyle by brawling with several of his protective ranger buddies. Even then, Kyle was closed off. “You looked in his eyes and you could see his service had taken something drastic from him, a piece of his humanity,” Hall says. But the writer hung in there. The day after turning in a script based on Kyle’s memoir, he got news that Kyle had been murdered. Only after did Hall really find his movie. “Seven days later, his wife Taya called and said, ‘If you’re going to do this you’d better do it right, because this is going to play a part in how my kids remember their dad.’ ”
Growing up in a military family, Hall had seen how soldiers won’t share their horror stories. “What I learned from this is, if you want to know what a man is, don’t ask the man, ask his wife,” Hall says. “Taya gave me an emotional context. Chris was this tender guy who’d saved this woman and pulled her back from her depression. And she did the same for him—the voice on the phone, raising their children and keeping that marriage going through his four tours of duty.” Hall’s script changed 70%. “It went from being a war movie to a movie about war and its effect on this man,” he says. “It became the story of us, the United States, our emotional need to find justice in the world and protect it, risking everything to do it.” The result? Taya threw her arms around Hall after watching the film with a Navy SEAL pal of Kyle’s, who bluntly told Hall at the funeral that he’d kill him if the film didn’t honor his slain friend. “Taya cried on my shoulder and said, ‘I don’t know how you did it, but you brought my husband back to life.’ I looked at Chris’s SEAL friend and said, ‘Are we good?’ He said, ‘You’re good.’ These guys don’t say much, but when they do, you take it to heart.”
Most Accomplished Reach of Career Puberty: Channing Tatum
Originally, Bennett Miller tapped an unknown Tatum to play Mark Schultz, the Olympic gold-medal-winning wrestler taken under John DuPont’s wing. But the timing was off. “I sat with Bennett that first time and I could see he believed in this,” Tatum says. “I read that script and, if I’m being really honest, I didn’t get the movie.” By the time Foxcatcher’s funding cratered and came back years later, Tatum was not only a star, but a script-savvy producer. “It was probably a combination of us both going through seven years of life experience, but I reread the script and it made sense. I’d learned that life events are complicated and not cut and dry. They’re beautifully and horribly complicated. I got it.”
Best Beak: Steve Carell’s in Foxcatcher
Carell’s prosthetic nose was key in transforming him from amiable everyman to creepy oddball billionaire. “It took three hours every morning, and it was good still-time to reflect on John DuPont and carry me into each day,” Carell says. “It became a valuable part of my preparation.”
Honorable mention goes to Michael Keaton and his feathered Birdman alter ego.
Best Recovery from Being Kicked to the Curb by Leonardo DiCaprio and Warner Bros.: The Imitation Game
Alan Turing groupie Graham Moore’s script cracked the code of telling the WWII hero’s story—enough to land atop the 2011 Black List and wrangle a Warner Bros. deal. DiCaprio wanted to play Turing, who saved an estimated 14 million lives by shortening WWII by two years but was prosecuted and chemically castrated by British courts for being homosexual. Moore survived turnaround, persevered with producers Ido Ostrowsky, Nora Grossman and Teddy Schwarzman, and Harvey Weinstein bought the Oscar front-runner in a Berlinale bidding battle.
Best Deflection by Shoulder Shrug: IFC Film’s Jonathan Sehring
Sehring employed the move at annual budget meetings for 12 years when bean counters, scrutinizing the Boyhood line item, demanded to know when it would show return on investment. “The finance guys killed me on it, year in and year out,” Sehring says.
Best Example that Cold Submissions Aren’t Futile: Foxcatcher
For legal reasons, most Hollywood people won’t look when handed a movie script by a stranger. Bennett Miller was signing Capote DVDs at Tower Records when Tom Heller handed him an envelope and said, ‘Here’s your next film.’ Miller: “A month later, I came across it and said, ‘What’s this?’ It was such a peculiar, weird story that felt familiar. When you can’t let go of a true story, for me it means that story is bigger than its elements, it has the quality of metaphor.” Heller is an exec producer on the film. This should embolden every wannabe in a service job, right down to the mechanic who hands over a grease-covered script after fixing a dealmaker’s car.
Best Summation of Middle Earth Navigation: Ken Kamins
Kamins is Peter Jackson’s agent-turned-manager, who guided the filmmaker through Middle Earth and produced The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies. “The journey goes back 19 years to 1995, when Peter and Fran Walsh had a deal at Miramax and wanted to do The Hobbit,” Kamins says. “Saul Zaentz turned down every offer, but Harvey Weinstein bailed him out on The English Patient and got the rights. The Hobbit would be one movie, Lord of the Rings two. But MGM management at the time wasn’t selling, and Harvey said, ‘Put The Hobbit aside and do Lord of the Rings.’ ”
When Disney would only bankroll a single film, Weinstein gave Kamins three weeks to set it elsewhere. (New Line’s) Bob Shaye empowered LOTR, but made The Hobbit hard by refusing to work with Jackson again. MGM’s Harry Sloan stepped in before Shaye could lock in Sam Raimi and lock out Jackson. “Harry insisting Bob see this out with Peter and Fran was the beginning of the impetus for rapprochement,” Kamins adds. Guillermo del Toro cowrote two scripts to direct, then left while MGM was frozen in bankruptcy. Jackson took over, two movies became three, incorporating Tolkien’s writing on how he planned to turn The Hobbit from a children’s fable into a WWII metaphor. After a six-week convalescence for Jackson’s perforated ulcer, the rest is history. “I just watched the movie, and this history flashed through my mind, and all the ways over 19 years this could have fallen over so easily,” Kamins says. “Something in the DNA of this title demanded the drama, and this struggle informed these six movies.”
Best Example of Art Imitating Life: Patricia Arquette
“My son was 12 when Boyhood started, but I was a single mom at 20 years old,” Arquette says. “All my friends were going out and hanging out and partying and talking about boys. I had to go and feed a baby and change diapers and hustle to make money. My son has a gentle, sensitive nature much like Ellar, so how could my own life not have influenced my performance?” She gets props for lack of vanity in allowing herself to age naturally. Says costar Hawke: “When we finally saw the movie, and I watched the years pass, I leaned over to Patricia and said, ‘They grow up. We age.’”
Best Score (Settling): Birdman
Birdman cowriter Alexander Dinelaris Jr.’s playwright career inspired the fantasy scene in which a top critic reveals herself as a serpent-like guardian against hacks with Broadway ambitions and Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson eviscerates her and her critic ilk. Dinelaris acknowledges this was a fantasy reprisal for a bad review but would go no further. “I am still a working playwright,” he reasons.
Most Resourceful in Overcoming Obstacles That Set Martin Luther King Jr. Free: Ava DuVernay
The indie director found a way to finally make a film about the most important civil rights advocate in 20th century America, taking over Selma after Lee Daniels’ star-studded version imploded, with David Oyelowo the last man standing. Past films on MLK were hamstrung because confidantes such as Andrew Young bashed depictions of the leader’s alleged infidelities, and because MLK’s estate had a stranglehold on his copyrighted speeches. DuVernay and writer Paul Webb boiled down the infidelities to one touching exchange between King and his wife Coretta, and rewrote his Selma-era speeches to keep the fire and brimstone—but break the copyright shackles. “Though our film was unsanctioned, Andrew (Young) saw the movie and said, ‘You knocked it out of the park. You did it, kid,’ ” DuVernay says. “He had been through so many promises someone would make a movie . . . That meant the world to me.”
Most Tim Burton-esque Backstory: Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
The story of Margaret and Walter Keane and her kitschy Big Eyes paintings revealed itself to the Ed Wood scribes this way, per Alexander: “Larry and I were working on a sci-fi movie about a planet of higher intelligence that gets destroyed by Earth pop culture debris. We looked for things to go with MC Hammer albums and disco balls and flipped through The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste to find random things we could put on this planet. The Keanes just grabbed me. This was the one we had to direct.” Big Eyes haunted them over a lean decade, as cast (Reese Witherspoon’s pending stork visit killed one version)and funding (one source proved to be a Nigerian email scam) fell through. The duo finally showed the script to Ed Wood helmer Tim Burton.
“It’s what they excel at, their strongest work is finding weird real stories, torn from headlines you never read,” Burton says.
The writers insist the hardship caused them to boil down the story to its essence. “When Tim was prepping, we questioned why we cut so much,” Karaszewski says. “We sent him everything, he read it and said, ‘Nah, we’re good.’ It was right that we’d stripped the script down to become the cheapest film Tim made since Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. It cost less than Ed Wood, and looks completely like a Tim Burton film.”