There can only be one winner, but each of the Best Picture nominees overcame creative, financial and logistical hurdles to get this close to the finish line. Here are their war stories.
When Ted Chiang’s sci-fi Story of Your Life first came across Denis Villeneuve’s desk, it wasn’t an immediate choice for the big screen “The short story is more intellectual, in a good way,” Villeneuve says of Chiang’s work. “It’s more about language and not your political problems. It was a very powerful idea but there was no dramatic structure. There was one for a short story, but not for a movie.”
Fortunately, Eric Heisserer’s screenwriting brought an elegant solution: a clever use of timeline-created tension in this tale of alien invasion and interplanetary race relations, a mysterious love story between Amy Adams’ and Jeremy Renner’s characters, and a very smart twist.
In pre-production for Arrival, Villeneuve was faced with more hurdles, not least of which was the issue of creating an entire language for the alien characters. “To create a life form and to create a language,” he says, “I realized quickly how difficult it was. It was a big challenge. For the language, I wanted to have specific qualities. My production designer, Patrice Vermette, worked with the help of an artist, Martine Bertrand. They came with this idea that I deeply loved, and Patrice deeply loved the idea to an extreme, where we had a dictionary.”
Sound designer Dave Whitehead worked to create the unearthly sounds of the alien language while supervising sound editor Sylvain Bellemare worked on the spaceship noises. Cinematographer Bradford Young—and in post-production, editor Joe Walker—worked with Villeneuve to create the aesthetic. Vermette helped design the spaceship, while VFX supervisor Louis Morin worked on the design of the ship and aliens with artist Carlos Huante.
Unusually, Villeneuve involved composer Johann Johannsson from the beginning. “Even before I started to shoot,” Villeneuve says. “It’s like a dance between me and Johann to arrive at the end of something that feels married together, not music on top of images.” —Antonia Blyth
After one rainy day in Seattle spent with August Wilson in the hopes he might write a star vehicle for him, Denzel Washington might have seemed destined to become the one to finally bring the playwright’s work to a movie screen. It is never that easy.
“I remember he just smoked cigarette after cigarette, like he was from another era,” Washington recalls. “It was kind of awkward, like, ‘What am I there for really?’ I don’t want to say, ‘Hey, can you write something for me?’ And he wasn’t saying, ‘I’m writing something for you.’”
He did tell Washington his secret, in creating well-worn characters who reflected the African-American experience through the decades. “‘Well, I just shut down the house and lock all the windows and doors, and I listen to the characters and I write down what they say,’” Washington remembers Wilson telling him. “I wanted to say, ‘You got some of their numbers?’”
His turn came years later, when producer Scott Rudin sent Washington the Fences film screenplay Wilson had written. While Troy Maxson reminded him of the quiet, blue-collar struggles of his own father, Washington needed to hear the character’s voices on stage as they were originally written.
A sold-out run and three Tonys later, Washington brought his castmates—including Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson and Russell Hornsby—whose stage repetition allowed them to wear their characters like a second skin, along for the feature film. The challenge became expanding Wilson’s world beyond a single stage, but Washington didn’t stray that far, insisting on shooting the film in the playwright’s Hill District hometown near Pittsburgh. —Mike Fleming Jr.
A prize for longest road traveled by a Best Picture nominee would surely belong to Hacksaw Ridge. While the clock on this project started in 2001—when producer David Permut introduced Bill Mechanic to Terry Benedict, the filmmaker behind a documentary about Medal of Honor-winning conscientious objector Desmond Doss—Doss had spent decades spurning Hollywood offers from Darryl Zanuck, and one from producer Hal Wallis and actor Audie Murphy. A humble Seventh-day Adventist, Doss didn’t want credit for his impossible WWII heroism, but when he turned 80 he left the decision to his church.
Mechanic persuaded them, but bumps loomed ahead. That included an initial pass by Mel Gibson, before the collision of a man of peace in an extremely violent battleground prompted the Oscar winner to make Hacksaw Ridge his comeback vehicle as director.
Financing fell through from Walden Media, because Gibson’s depiction would be R-rated. The filmmakers put it back together on a shoestring budget made possible by Australian incentives.
And while many true stories embellish heroism, Mechanic says they had to underplay Doss’s exploits—that even included dodging bullets to hang that cargo net off the ridge. When Doss (Andrew Garfield) took shrapnel from a grenade, he gave up an easy ride on the stretcher upon seeing another injured man, whose injuries he treated. Doss then was shot in the arm, fixed a gunstock as a splint, crawled some and waited five hours for rescue. So it’s not true Doss never touched a gun, but that wasn’t why the scene wasn’t included. “It was like, holy cow, would anyone believe this?” says Mechanic. —Mike Fleming Jr.
As the old saying goes, you’re as good as your last picture, and in the case of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, he was in fantastic shape coming off drug war noir Sicario. That film went from being a buzzed about title at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival to a three-time Oscar nominated pic. As such, Sheridan’s second script, the revisionist western Hell or High Water, sped from page to screen quite rapidly.
After approaching Peter Berg to produce, Sheridan found the script in a financiers’ bidding war, which Sidney Kimmel won since he agreed to shoot the original draft. OddLot Entertainment jumped in to co-finance. Ultimately the production settled on Scottish filmmaker David Mackenzie, a guy who delivered a 1970s visual sensibility to Hell or High Water’s heist scenes; the filmmaker having adored such crime pics as Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick.
Says Sheridan about why Mackenzie was the right guy: “He’s an unsentimental director, and he’s patient with the camera in a way that doesn’t feel slow. There were important moments in the script that could be overly sentimental, such as between Marcus and Alberto’s friendship, and when Toby meets his ex-wife, or goes to sit with his son. There’s a lot of landmines, and David effortlessly stepped around them.”
One of Sheridan’s inspirations sparked from his federal marshal uncle who kicked down doors right up until his last day of the job before retirement, much like Jeff Bridges’ Marcus. But another nuance which makes Hell or High Water more than just a white hat-black hat bank heist story about two brothers on the lam are its side characters, which Sheridan paints: middle-class working folk weathering a post-recession U.S. While driving through the deserts of West Texas, Sheridan noticed a litter of banks in an area where few cops were on duty. “I worked through in my mind the cycle of poverty: robbing the people who legally robbed from you. I watched as the recession hit, and there was anger, and I allowed that to manifest.” —Anthony D’Alessandro
Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures, about the black women mathematicians in the 1960s that helped turn the space race into a sprint, was published in September. Before the end of the year, Ted Melfi’s feature adaptation had hit theaters. His movie hadn’t come together in three months—nothing is quite that easy—but there was something so undeniable about the story Shetterly had unearthed that, when producer Donna Gigliotti was handed a 55-page proposal in 2015, she couldn’t stop thinking about it.
She showed it to Whoopi Goldberg, who emailed her almost immediately: “YOU MUST MAKE THIS MOVIE.” Like Gigliotti, Goldberg knew nothing of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughn and the army of “computors” at NASA who did the calculations necessary to send humankind into orbit. Gigliotti turned to Allison Schroeder to put together a draft. Schroeder had never written a project of this scale before, but she told the producer she was “born to write this screenplay”. She was a NASA brat, after all, with her parents and her grandmother all working at the agency. She studied math and engineering at Stanford and interned at NASA. “I got [Schroeder and Shetterly] together and facts and figures were flying back and forth between them,” Gigliotti recalls.
Melfi had made his last movie with Peter Chernin and Jenno Topping of Chernin Entertainment, and all three “kind of went nuts for it” when it was brought to them. Says Topping, “you just couldn’t believe this was a story you didn’t know about.” Pharrell Williams boarded the project as a producer too, similarly inspired, and by the end had contributed an entire soundtrack of original music.
Movies rarely get such an easy ride to the screen, but then, how often do filmmakers get to introduce the world to stories like this, of history-defining events that were somehow lost to history? The women of Hidden Figures deserved their podium—and they finally got it. —Joe Utichi
Write about what you love, not what works, right? Which is what filmmaker Damien Chazelle and musician pal Justin Hurwitz did, plying their adoration for yesteryear Jacques Demy musicals into what would become a cinematic love letter to Los Angeles, despite the classic MGM musical style they cherished going the way of the dinosaur.
They began cracking La La Land while the project was at Focus Features in 2011, where they met their producers Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz. Focus didn’t greenlight the project, but the rights reverted back to the team.
Peddling La La Land around town ensued, with Chazelle explaining, “There wasn’t a lot of excitement in the room when we initially pitched it. Here we are with an original musical, one that incorporates jazz, and a love story where the protagonists may not wind up together; everything was a further death knell. But the fact that there haven’t been any in a while was part of the appeal.”
Whiplash, in all its Sundance and Oscar glory, occurred next for Chazelle, providing him with the momentum to drum up interest in La La Land. Lionsgate movie chiefs Erik Feig and Patrick Wachsberger were fans of French New Wave musicals and old Hollywood tuners, which gave the distributor the edge in winning the project.
Though Emma Watson and Miles Teller were attached at greenlight, they would ultimately depart: she for personal reasons and Teller over negotiations going south. Enter Emma Stone, fresh off her Broadway debut in Cabaret. Meanwhile, Chazelle was meeting with Ryan Gosling, Stone’s co-star from two previous Warner Bros. films (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad). After hearing the music, Gosling knew he was the jazz pianist.
“The drunker we got, the more passionate Damien got about making movies that you couldn’t watch on your phone,” Gosling recalls about his first talk with the filmmaker about La La Land over drinks. “He wanted to make films that people would want to go see in a theatre, with an audience.” —Anthony D’Alessandro
UK/Aussie producing duo Iain Canning and Emile Sherman were at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival screening their Jane Campion TV series Top of the Lake when they became aware of a “very hot story” popping out of Australia. Indeed, Vanity Fair had recently published an article about Saroo Brierley, the Indian-born Australian man who, at the age of five, was separated from his family in India, adopted by an Australian couple and later used Google Earth to reunite with his birth mother deep in the heart of India.
“There were a whole lot of people meeting Saroo and his reps to talk about making a film version of his story,” recalls Canning. “Emile knew he had to get back to Sydney.” But it wasn’t just Saroo who they had to persuade—the See-Saw Films founders, who were behind titles such as The King’s Speech and Macbeth, had to convince Saroo’s entire family to trust them.
It didn’t take long before the family were on board, and See-Saw Films moved quickly into development, attaching Top of the Lake helmer Garth Davis to the project. “We wanted the film to be made as lively and quickly as possible because we wanted to be the first to make it a cinematic experience,” notes Canning.
Not only were they attracted to the sense of originality in the story but, being a UK/Australian outfit, the prospect of shooting in the rugged wilderness of Tasmania, and the vibrant chaos of India, was hugely appealing. “We saw that in some ways Saroo was very landlocked with his experience in his Indian village as a child, and then he’s adopted by Australian parents and moved to Tasmania where he’s pretty much on the edge of the Earth.”
And Nicole Kidman’s involvement may have been in the stars. Whilst researching, they stumbled upon an interview with Sue Brierley, Saroo’s earnest adoptive mother, on Australia’s 60 Minutes. When asked who she would like to play her in a film version of the story, Brierley said Nicole Kidman. “She’s got very powerful visions, Sue,” says Canning. —Diana Lodderhose
Like many of the most important works, Moonlight shone only after all hope appeared to have been spent. Writer/director Barry Jenkins had earned some kudos for his debut feature—2008’s Medicine for Melancholy—but it never led to the career as a filmmaker he had hoped for. Years later, after he’d turned his attention to making a living in other ways, his former Florida State film school classmate Adele Romanski sat him down and told him she wanted to produce a movie for him to direct. They kicked around ideas, with Jenkins demurring from one he felt would be too close and personal to his youth in the Miami projects, struggling with a drug-addicted mother.
That film, surprisingly, was not Moonlight. In fact, Jenkins didn’t immediately notice how closely playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s tale mirrored his own, perhaps because the lead of his unproduced play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, was primarily struggling to understand his emerging homosexuality in a world determined to shun him for it; Jenkins is straight. “Maybe it was good it came about that way,” Jenkins says, “because it allowed me to remove this block I’d had, that I didn’t want to make a movie about myself.”
Jenkins wrote the screenplay in a flash in Belgium; felt it pour out of him. Not long after, he went to Telluride, where he worked as a programmer, and moderated a Q&A for 12 Years a Slave. It was there he reconnected with producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, who asked him what he was working on. When he sent them the script, “It was one of the most astonishing things I’d ever read,” Kleiner says. “I thought it was so complete.”
The project came together with A24, the upstart distributor looking to move into production after releasing films like Room and Ex Machina. Of the fevered 25-day shoot, Jenkins admits, “it was this fresh, open wound of an experience. It took us to places that I guess we should have seen coming, but none of us realized how intensely personal it was going to be in the making of it.” —Joe Utichi
Manchester By The Sea
How hard should it be to get made the directorial debut of Matt Damon, with John Krasinski starring in a solid drama they hatched together and got Kenny Lonergan to script? A bit harder, when Krasinski heads off to make direct a movie of his own and Damon has to bow out behind the camera but pledges to star if Lonergan takes the reins. And even harder still when Damon’s schedule on The Martian pulled him out of everything but producing, and Casey Affleck was suddenly plucked to play the hollow shell of a janitor who returns home to bury his brother and deal with his nephew’s custody situation. Those were just some of the obstacles that faced Manchester By The Sea, and to a man, each of those players say the adversity couldn’t have worked better for the finished product, this searing gut punch of a drama that got on Oscar’s radar after its January 2016 Sundance premiere and stayed there.
“From the moment this movie finally came together, there was a feeling there were people who loved and appreciated certain qualities it had, but that it would never find an audience,” says Affleck. “That was true when we were out trying to find the money to make it, through even Sundance, where there was praise for the quality of the movie, but no sense that it was going to be some blockbuster. That has really been one of the best parts of this whole thing; some vindication of good storytelling. From the very first movie I did, people were saying, ‘Small movies are dead. It’s over.’ I remember hearing that conversation on To Die For, and not being sure what it meant. Some 25 years later, they’re still saying that. It’s not true; a story well told can still find an audience, without big stars or big spectacle.” —Mike Fleming Jr