Notes On The Season: Laura Dern Tribute, Tarantino’s Screenwriting Advice, Joaquin Phoenix Leaves SAG Awards For Pig Vigil


A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.

Just a little more than two weeks to go until the big night on February 9, and a key moment will happen Saturday when the winner of the all-too-Oscar-predictive DGA Award will be announced at the Ritz Carlton in downtown Los Angeles. If it is Sam Mendes for 1917, it will likely cap a huge night for that film as cinematographer Roger Deakins is expected to win handily at the ASC Awards ceremony across town at the same time.  A win would make him and the picture instant frontrunners for the Oscar.

On the other hand, if it is Parasite’s Bong Joon-Ho it will immediately spark comparisons to last year, when another Foreign Language film, Roma, won for its director Alfonso Cuarón (who returns to present the prize tomorrow), but it won’t instantly make Parasite a slam dunk for the Best Picture Oscar. Roma, after all, eventually lost to Green Book. It would, however, make Bong the frontrunner for the Best Director Oscar that Cuarón also went on to win; only seven times since the award’s inception in 1949 has the DGA winner differed from the eventual Oscar Directing winner.

If it is Quentin Tarantino for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it will put that film back in the game big time after losses at the PGA (which went to 1917) and for the SAG cast award (which went to Parasite). If it is Taika Waititi for Jojo Rabbit, it will throw the whole race into chaos since he is the one DGA nominee this year not also nominated for the Oscar for Best Director. That wouldn’t be unprecedented as it has happened a few times in the past where the DGA winner was not even nominated for an Oscar in the category including Steven Spielberg for The Color Purple, Ron Howard for Apollo 13, and Ben Affleck for Argo.  However Waititi isn’t nearly as well known as that trio so it would be a shocker and certainly boost Jojo’s chances in Best Picture.


If it is Martin Scorsese for The Irishman, it will immediately revive that Netflix film’s chances after having a bad run at the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, SAG and PGA awards. Scorsese is beloved and has been nominated 12 times at DGA, winning three (for The Departed in movies, and an episode of Boardwalk Empire in TV, as well as the 2003 Life Achievement Award). If he does win, he won’t be there as reps for the director say he is staying in New York for personal reasons but will participate via Skype for a symposium with the other nominees Saturday morning, and tape an acceptance for his medallion that is given for the nomination. Al Pacino and Joe Pesci (the latter otherwise absent on the circuit this entire season) will present to Scorsese.


With Iowa kicking off the 2020 presidential primary season, at least one studio head compares the Oscar race to the same thing. When I ran into Sony Pictures chief Tom Rothman at the beginning of the PGA Awards last Saturday night, he had a realistic spin on just what all these endless awards from critics and guilds actually mean to the final result. “Right now this is like the primaries. There will be a lot of different results, but go inside (the PGA Awards) and tell me how many Academy voters you see there,”  he said, indicating that it isn’t always the same result for the Oscars that it is at critics and guild soirees. He said this tellingly before his two PGA nominees — Once Upon a Time in Hollywood  and Little Women — lost to 1917 at the PGA and then the next night to Parasite in the SAG Outstanding Cast award many predicted would go to his Tarantino film, which conversely had picked up Best Picture prizes at the sometime predictive Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards. “I think no matter what happens this will all be going right up to the opening of that final envelope for Best Picture. No one will be able to tell you what is actually going to win this year.”

Pete Hammond/Deadline

Sony by the way has the most unusual, and quite impressive, ad strategy for Phase 2 in the Oscar campaign. I complimented Rothman on a full-page ad I had seen in the Los Angeles Times that simply featured a picture of Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate smiling in front of the Bruin Theatre, with the caption saying “Because You Love Movies, then “For Your Consideration” and the name of the film and Tarantino. I pointed out that there was no mention of its 10 Oscar nominations or any other wins in the season, a highly unusual move. Every other contender is blatantly pushing the numbers of nominations they have, and that is almost always the case. Not for this film. “And you are going to see more like it coming up,” Rothman said smiling, without further comment on the strategy.

Indeed I have, with other scenes from the film featuring stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt accompanied by that line: “Because You Love Movies.” It is clearly a campaign designed to bring up warm feelings we had watching Tarantino’s love letter to L.A. and the industry. Whether it works or not, and I think it does, it certainly stands out from the crowd. It reminds me of a similar tactic that 12 Years a Slave had in its successful Phase 2 campaign. They simply used two words: “It’s Time,” and it proved to be true in that case.


At this week’s lively Final Draft Awards ceremony that took place at Paramount Studios, Final Draft Hall of Fame inductee Tarantino handed out some pretty good advice to the many aspiring writers that made up the bulk of the audience. He said he was talking to a couple of very big studio executives recently and they told him something surprising about their interactions with writers and what they really would like to get but rarely do these days — a spec script.

“Instead, they said a lot of writers now try to get into the writers room on a TV show. But I am talking to huge executives and they are looking for that spec script and they aren’t finding them, writers aren’t writing them. They are trying to get jobs,” Tarantino said, urging the audience to get more personal. “You’ve got to get a sense of our voices, of what we had to offer. What made it was your voice. If you want to go into your bedroom and lock the door and write the screenplay they will read it. I think that is what they call an opportunity in the marketplace!”

Tarantino was clearly having a great time at this show as he revealed his own trajectory of getting into the industry.

Final Draft

“When I first tried to start writing, I was 13, and tried to write a script for an ABC Afterschool Special. I didn’t get too far. Then, in 1977, I tried  my first screenplay feature. I had just seen Smokey and the Bandit and decided to write a ripoff called Captain Peachfuzz and the Anchovy Bandits. I got to page 27.  The next one was a ripoff of one of my heroes, Sylvester Stallone. I had just seen his Paradise Alley and I called it Brooklyn BR. I got to page 35 on that one. And these were all handwritten pages. You couldn’t read it. Punctuation was more of an idea. That was my writing career for about 12 years. I never showed them to anybody. Then I saw another movie and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

“Then I was working at [Manhattan Beach video store] Video Archives, and wrote the first script that I got all the way through, and that was True Romance. All those other scripts were kind of like a first draft for True Romance,” he said. He then introduced Roger Avary, who was sitting in the audience. He and Roger both worked at Video Archives and won an Oscar together for Pulp Fiction. “Roger was first person to ever read True Romance, the handwritten version. It looked like the Unabomber’s manifesto with a rubber band holding it together. It was a lot longer…Roger typed it up for me. If he hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you tonight!”

Veteran writer-director Walter Hill introduced Tarantino “with admiration and, as Oscar Wilde said, jealousy...Quentin’s success as a filmmaker is inextricably bound up with his career as a writer and his refusal to rewrite other writers and to allow himself to be rewritten. His screenplays never pander to easy sentimentality. As we say in the action trade, the jokes are funny but the bullets are real.”

Tarantino in turn praised Hill, and particularly a movie I also love called Hard Times that was the first script of Hill’s that he also directed. It was the late ’70s and was only the third screenplay the then 15-year-old-or-so Tarantino had ever read. “When I read it then I could see what a movie could be. It wasn’t just description, it was prose, but prose that was appropriate for a screenplay.  It was written for me, the reader. When it was over, I put it down and I saw the movie, I saw the movie,” he said with genuine heartfelt praise. “I try to do the same. I do believe screenplays are meant to be read, maybe in my case to a fault. But it is all about the emotional experience that you have reading a script, that you get caught up in it, that you see the movie. People who read my scripts don’t have to guess if they are going to like the movie or not like the movie. It is right there. If I cast it well it is gonna be good. Or if you don’t like it it won’t be, but it is there.”

Final Draft

How ironic that the two honorees for films at the 15th annual Final Draft Awards were Tarantino and The Farewell’s Lulu Wang, because neither was eligible for their films this year to be nominated for a WGA Award since they didn’t make their movies under the guild’s basic agreement (QT isn’t a member, and never does). This more than made up for their absence next week at WGA.

Wang and the New Voice TV winner, Pose’s Steven Canals, also made the kind of meaningful and inspiring speeches you don’t often hear at awards shows these days where winners tend to list off a lot of people to thank. Bong was also there as a presenter to Wang, and he charmingly recounted his beginnings as a writer in using Final Draft and experiencing nightmares. He first used it in 2011 when he was writing his first English-language film, Snowpiercer. “You are great teachers I have to say. I was a huge fan of Lulu Wang’s film. And to be sitting on the same aisle as Quentin Tarantino is a huge honor. I analyzed Reservoir Dogs to death,” he laughed.



If there is a surefire winner for the Oscars this year, then it is clearly hometown favorite Laura Dern for Supporting Actress in Marriage Story. Add to that her warm performance in another current film and Oscar nominee, Little Women, plus her recent Emmy-winning work on Big Little Lies, and you can see she is clearly on a roll. Dern’s already won numerous awards this season including the Golden Globe, SAG, Critics’ Choice, New York Film Critics Circle, NYFCC, National Society of Film Critics and on and on. I was so happy to return to the Santa Barbara Film Festival this week to host her well-deserved tribute as the recipient of its Cinema Vanguard Award. In front of a nearly completely packed Arlington Theatre, I took her through each phase of her life and career and we had a rollicking good time doing it. She is a real trouper. Of course, how many stars can you really say were literally born to be in this business. She was actually conceived on the movie set of the 1966 biker flick The Wild Angels, in which her future parents Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern had supporting roles. As I said in Santa Barbara, it gives new meaning when they call “Action!”

Dern had my dream childhood, shuttling between movie sets, most memorably one summer when she was about 7 and visited her mom shooting Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and her dad’s movie Family Plot which became the last film Alfred Hitchcock ever made. Speaking of “Action,” she recalled hearing Hitchcock instead saying to his actors before each shot, “Please entertain me.” Gotta love Hitch. She actually got her first big movie break in an uncredited role in Alice as the girl sitting at the counter eating ice cream. She had to do it for 17 takes and finally Scorsese said she was so consistent that one day she would definitely be an actress. Of course. She was born to be.

Listening to her describe her work with David Lynch, Steven Spielberg (she’s going to return to Jurassic Park this year, she said), Alexander Payne and many more all the way up to Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach this year was a lot of fun, and to quote the name of a TV series in which she once starred, full of “Enlightenment.” Netflix’s Ted Sarandos presented Dern with her award. Thanks SBIFF CEO Roger Durling for asking me back every year; he says it has been about 16 years so far. It’s always a highlight for me.


Los Angeles Animal Save

After last Sunday night’s SAG Awards, most of the winners and even the losers headed straight to the after-party at the Shrine, or others such as the lively affair Netflix held at Sunset Tower. Not Joaquin Phoenix, however, at least not for long. After winning Outstanding Lead Actor for his role in Joker as he has done at awards shows every Sunday this month, he had other business to attend to and didn’t even bother to change out of his tux to travel to a local slaughterhouse to offer comfort to pigs who were about to be killed. It was like a scene out Bong’s Okja except it was the real thing.

“Most people don’t really know of the torture and murder in the meat and dairy industry. I’ve seen it for what it is, so I have to be here,” the actor told vlogger Jane Velez-Mitchell. “We have moral obligations to talk about it and expose it for what it really is. We are so indoctrinated with these happy images of animals on farms, on the covers of meat containers, at restaurants, and it’s a lie. I think people need to know the truth and we have an obligation to do that.” Phoenix may be the first actor in history to win a major acting award and head straight to a slaughterhouse in his tux.

Apparently Phoenix is a regular for the vigils Los Angeles Animal Save holds outside Farmer John in Vernon, CA. A PR rep says that as trucks carrying pigs idle at the gates, Phoenix and other activists provide water and compassion in their final moments. This act of bearing witness at peaceful vigils takes place worldwide through The Animal Save Movement’s global network of over 700 grassroots groups, of which LA Animal Save is the biggest.

While very busy collecting award after award for Joker, Phoenix has been trying to make a real life impact in other ways including successfully convincing organizers of such shows as the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice and SAG to serve only plant-based food at their ceremonies, and also even joining Jane Fonda in getting arrested in Washington D.C. in one of her fire drill Fridays urging action on climate change.

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