Notes On The Season: ‘Dark Waters’ Joins Oscar Race; ‘Joker’s’ Last Laugh; Tarantino Loves ‘Crawl’; How Scorsese Never Heard Of Ray Romano

Dark Waters
Mary Cybulski/Focus Features

A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.

Last Sunday, AMPAS President David Rubin said the Governors Awards was kicking off the season. This Sunday’s Hollywood Film Awards is claiming it is doing the same thing. That’s also what the Gotham Awards said when its nominees were announced several days ago. And don’t forget Deadline’s The Contenders London did it three weeks ago and continues the kickoff Saturday with The Contenders Los Angeles. No matter how you say it, the season officially has kicked off. 


Each week in October it seemed we got a brand-new contender that didn’t come out of a festival but instead is being premiered to a select group of SAG nominating committee members mixed with pundits and key media in order to make a splash outside of the fall festival circuit, particularly Toronto, Telluride, Venice, New York, London or the upcoming AFI Fest, which usually grabs the late-breaking stragglers. This month at least three major movies have decided to opt out of festivals, where you can get a moment but then get lost in the crowd, and go instead for these specialized first screenings in a Los Angeles theater followed by a Q&A. Bombshell, Lionsgate’s Fox News/Roger Ailes scandal movie with Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie, debuted a couple of weeks ago at Pacific Design Center with stars and filmmakers on stage before and after;

Pete Hammond/Deadline

Last week brought Sony’s Little Women and a DGA Theater screening that was overbooked, causing some invitees, including media, to be inadvertently shut out and miss the Greta Gerwig intro and the Q&A with her, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep and others. And then this Monday came the powerful and timely new whistleblower drama Dark Waters, which Focus Features chose to debut at Hollywood’s Harmony Gold theatre followed by a Q&A that I moderated with stars Mark Ruffalo and Tim Robbins and director Todd Haynes. Universal has decided to use this same strategy for Sam Mendes’ much-awaited 1917 in New York on November 23 and L.A. on the 24th, with multiple screenings and Q&As on those days in both cities.


The real-life subject of Dark Waters, Robert Bilott, also was part of the film’s Q&A. He is a Cincinnati lawyer for a firm representing DuPont, which was dumping toxic materials in a small West Virginia town and keeping it secret for years until Bilott took on the case against it on behalf of one farmer and created a national sensation and class action suit. Billot, who has been working on the case for more than 20 years and still generating multiple million-dollar settlements got the longest and loudest standing ovation from the SAG and media members that packed the theater that I can ever remember. It is an enormously powerful film with superb performances that quite frankly had been a well-kept secret until this week, largely due to the decision to forgo the fest circuit.

Dark Waters Focus Features

“We’re living in this really hard moment,” Ruffalo said. “We’re all fighting in some way or another. We see the degradation going on around us, and the degradation in our political debate as well, and I have been fighting on that level for many years. I wanted to take storytelling, instead of just being an actor and tell those stories of real people on the front lines, fighting for their lives every single day, people we never hear about, and this was a way to take my art form and be not political but human.”

For Bilott, having his story and fight told as a major motion picture is of incalculable value. “It started with one farmer,” he said. “We figured out it was in the entire community, and now we know this chemical was in water all over the country, all over the planet, and we now know it was in every living thing on the planet. We’re talking about contamination on a global scale we haven’t seen before, and this is still new to people. This has been going on and on, and you can see the forces we have been dealing with to get information out. I can’t say enough about the folks who worked on this film. I couldn’t have found a better person than Mark Ruffalo, with his passion on these kinds of issues, and bringing the story to light was just unbelievable. I can’t think of a better group of people to let people know that this happened, and it happened in the United States,” Bilott said.

‘Dark Waters’ Trailer: First Look At Todd Haynes’ Movie Starring Mark Ruffalo Surfaces

Opening November 22, Dark Waters is one of a growing number of movies being released this fall in time for the Oscar race that focus on the efforts of one person who fights the system against all odds to make a difference in people’s lives. There’s also Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) fighting for justice for wrongly convicted prisoners on death row in Just Mercy, and Senate staffer Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) spending five years to uncover lies and cover-ups regarding the CIA’s post-9/11 Detention and Interrogation Program in The Report.


Warner Bros.

Todd Phillips visited our Deadline studios Thursday to tape an upcoming edition of my video series Behind the Lens to talk about his massive hit, Joker, which is knocking on an astounding $900 million at the worldwide box office and still going strong. For a movie in the comic book genre (albeit a very different one), it is experiencing astounding holds every weekend at the box office, and one reason might be the fact that women seem to be discovering the movie. Phillips said his mother, in her mid-70s, reported that a lot of the ladies in her building in New York have been talking about Joker as the movie to see, completely unaware that she happens to have birthed its director (!). We talked about the reasons why the film’s audience is broadening out now, one month after the negative publicity it unfairly received pre-release when some on the Internet and beyond were suggesting it could cause violence and trigger lone gunmen to act out their frustrations.

Warner Bros. Pictures

“I think it was unfair. It was supposed to cause violence around the country in theaters, and what it ended up causing is people going to a set of stairs in the Bronx and dancing,” Phillips said. “That is ultmately what happened. Yes, I thought it was unfair. I thought it was kind of misleading. You would have people writing think pieces about this film, and in the think piece they would say, ‘I haven’t seen the movie, I don’t want to see the movie, I am not gonna see the movie, here’s why the movie is horrible.’ And then they would write a two-page think piece about it, which didn’t seem very thoughtful to me if you hadn’t seen the film. Ultimately, though, it just came down to letting the film speak for itself.” And that it has done. He pointed to Michael Moore’s eloquent defense of the movie in an article, among others who wrote about it after the attacks on it started. In terms of Joker, Phillips is having the last laugh, having won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. “That is single-handedly the biggest thing that has ever happened to me in my life,” he said. “I don’t think it can be surpassed. I understand the history, I understand what comes with winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. That was something, not only we did not expect, but we were in complete shock. It was amazing.”

‘Joker’ Review: Joaquin Phoenix Kills It In Dark, Timely DC Origin Movie That Is No Laughing Matter – Venice Film Festival


Sitting on a panel at the Academy the other night, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel for their film The Irishman, which opens today. Also joining us were two of their co-stars who largely are known as stand-up comedians and now are onscreen with certifiable legends: Ray Romano, who plays mob lawyer Bill Bufalino, and Sebastian Maniscalco, who plays mobster Joey Gallo. Both still were trying to take in the fact that they are in this movie.

“It was surreal and frightening, but I had a thrill at the same time,” Romano said. “I mean, it’s still kind of unbelievable to me, and this is not the first time I’ve worked with Martin Scorsese because I was on Vinyl, and he did Vinyl. And that’s how I got in the door. I put myself on tape and we sent the tape to Marty, and the comment we got back was he likes what he sees, and he’s never heard of him before. Yeah. And my agent said, ‘Oh, so he’s never seen the TV show? (Everybody Loves Raymond). He says, ‘No, he’s never heard of him before,’ and so that ended up being a blessing because he hadn’t seen me do nine years of that character on TV, and he was able to see that I was right for this role. So like I cast for Vinyl and then for this, he just gave me this part, so I didn’t have to go on tape, so he didn’t see me audition, which scared the hell out of me because how does he know I can do it? I don’t know if I could play this role, so it was all very frightening, but I mean, if you do work for him, you find out how comfortable he makes you feel and how open he is and it was just a dream come true, yeah.”

As for Maniscalco, he couldn’t even believe he was sitting on this panel, much less in the movie. “Listen, for me not doing a lot of acting in my life and then to be put into this scenario on my first day of shooting with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, I was shitting my pants,” he said. “I don’t know how to behave on the set. I mean, a lot of people go, ‘Oh, you know you’re a comedian, were you cracking jokes in between, you know when Scorsese said cut, were you like talking to De Niro.’ I said, ‘I didn’t talk at all.’ But the only thing he did say is he looked at my tie, and he goes, ‘Your tie, this is wrong’, and right there I thought I’m going to get fired. But he adjusted my tie. I just didn’t speak unless spoken to. I was just happy to be there, and I learned a lot. I mean, listen, I grew up with all these guys including Mr. Romano, fellow comedian, for me to be a part of this, I was just like super, super excited and was just really taking it all in. And you know in life sometimes you wonder, ‘Should I be here and should this be happening?’ and then it happens, and then you’re like, ‘Yes, you know what, I should be here,’ and this experience I’ve had, I didn’t have a lot of confidence going into this because it’s very new to me, but then when it started I’m like, ‘Yrah, there’s a reason I’m here, and just really a privilege to be a part of this whole thing.'”

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The big event in the past week was the Governors Awards last Sunday night, which I covered for Deadline in all the detail of who was honored and what they said. However that is just half of what this event has become over the years since the Academy decided to split off awarding honorary Oscars into a non-televised private event that kind of reminds you of what industry events and the Academy Awards must have been like in the good old days. Certainly this one draws the crème de la crème of each awards season, with stars and filmmakers flying in to be part of it as being seen here is considered very important for a nascent Oscar campaign. If you work the room before and after the main event you can always pick up interesting tidbits. Dakota Johnson, there with her Peanut Butter Falcon co-stars, told me she plans to do a movie for Elaine May, a recent Tony winner who is getting behind the camera again at age 86 to direct Johnson in a movie called Crackpot. 


I also had a fun talk with Quentin Tarantino, who was one of the earlier arrivals. He said the idea for the current enhanced release of his summer smash Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was really based on how the film has been shown at his L.A. theater, the New Beverly, rather than doing anything drastically different to the cut that promises to land him in the Oscar race again. His film aside, Tarantino told me that, as incredible as he says it might sound, he thinks his favorite film so far this year just might be — wait for it — Crawl. That’s right, the alligators-in-a-hurricane movie directed by Alexandre Aja that Paramount released a couple of weeks before QT’s movie came out in July. Tarantino says it impressed him in every way, in terms of pure filmmaking. Will this be enough praise to get Paramount to launch an Oscar campaign for it? Don’t hold your breath. But I have to agree that when I finally caught up with Crawl post-release (the studio hid it from critics), I was on the edge of my seat. It is full of exceptional craft for the horror genre.

Many thanks to Apple for inviting us to sit at their table with, among others, director-writer George Nolfi and Nia Long, one of his stars from The Banker, a terrific new film starring Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Mackie that represents Apple’s first big swing in the movie business and has landed the closing-night slot at the upcoming AFI Fest. In my opinion, if Apple can get it seen, The Banker could be this year’s Green Book, and even happens to be set in the same era. I showed it for my KCET Cinema Series this week, and the crowd loved it. It’s an almost Pygmalion-like story about two black entrepreneurs who have to hire a young working-class white man (Nicholas Hoult) to pretend to be the head of their business empire while they pull the strings and are forced to pose as a janitor and chauffeur. It’s definitely one to see and a 100% true story.

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