Each of this year’s Best Picture nominees has survived a journey to cross the finish line, before earning the Academy’s consideration. Here’s how they came together.
Playwright Florian Zeller’s The Father enjoyed several award-winning runs on the stage before it made its evolution to film, but first-time feature film director Zeller had long been imagining moving his unnerving story of a man sliding into dementia to the big screen.
“For years I was dreaming about making that film. I would say it was a profound desire,” he says. Partly what drove him was the response to the play. “That play has been staged in many countries, and I was surprised and profoundly moved to see that everywhere, the response of the audience was always the same. They were always waiting for us after every performance, just to share their own stories.”
Zeller felt that the medium of film would bring even more dimension to the story. “Something could be done, only thanks to the cinema, something that was not possible on stage,” he says, “and it was to experience subjectively what it means to lose your bearings.” He plotted to constantly discombobulate the viewer with a subtly shifting environment. “Step-by-step, as subtle as possible, always in the background, things are changing.”
Zeller knew he wanted Anthony Hopkins in the lead role, but as a first-time director, it was a long shot. He was so determined he re-named his lead character Anthony. “The face I had in mind was Anthony’s.” Fortunately, upon meeting Zeller, Hopkins was intrigued by the role and agreed. “He was amazingly generous,” Zeller says. “I think he’s really humble and brave. He’s 83 now. He knew that it was not an easy task to take. Trying to do something he hasn’t done yet, trying to be pure emotion and this vulnerability, it was something that he hasn’t explored yet, cinematically talking.”
With Olivia Colman as Anthony’s daughter Anne, Zeller added another dementia-inspired twist by suddenly switching Colman for Olivia Williams. “I had this idea: If it was another actress, what would happen?”
Zeller says. “The film adaptation was the opportunity to try to find a translation of this confusion, but in a very cinematic way.” —Antonia Blyth
The story of William O’Neal, an African American career criminal blackmailed by the FBI in 1969 into infiltrating the court of charismatic Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton, is not well documented, and bringing it to the screen came at a great price to director Shaka King—literally. It took a lot of hunting through out-of-print books to piece together a story that is still riddled with question marks. “The amount of several-hundred-dollar books that I bought,” King recalls, “just because this history isn’t widely covered. It’s intentionally kept from us.”
Indeed, Daniel Kaluuya was surprised in his research for the role of Hampton. “When I saw the date when he was born and the date he was assassinated, I was like, ‘That can’t be right.’ Not only did they assassinate him at 21, he’d made it to Chairman by 21, and that blew my mind.”
A slightly harder job went to Lakeith Stanfield, who found only a 1989 TV interview with O’Neal, some court transcripts and a few anecdotal remarks from people who knew him. “It was so hidden by the FBI,” he says. He based his performance on O’Neal’s revelation that he felt “bad” and “angry” about Hampton’s fate.
“He felt he didn’t have a choice,” Stanfield says. “He had to continue to do this or else he faced dire consequences.”
King next had to negotiate with Fred Hampton’s son and widow. “Fred Hampton Jr. was on set nearly 90% of the time,” King says. “He’d read the script a million times… But it’s very different reading something and then being on set watching it unfold. There would be things in the moment that he hadn’t considered that he would now be confronted with and it would really push us to change course. Sometimes we could accommodate. Sometimes we couldn’t. Sometimes it made scenes better.”—Damon Wise
Trust David Fincher to turn to Netflix to finally deliver Mank, his long-gestating project that was so much about the glory days of Old Hollywood that it would be shot in black and white, using production techniques of the 1930s, and with sound design that echoed the movie palaces of the era. This is the director, after all, who snuck Fight Club’s anti-corporate ideals past Rupert Murdoch, and woke the world up to the lawlessness of Silicon Valley’s club of billionaires with The Social Network. Where better for a provocateur to indulge in cinema history than at a streamer that has been accused of plotting its death?
Of course, it’s no small wonder that Netflix hopped aboard; after all, they’ve gone out of their way to silence doubters by backing strong work from top flight directors in the past, greenlighting projects traditional studios have considered too risky to back. That was the case with Mank, which had been in the ether since as far back as Fincher’s feature debut, Alien3, as a script developed by his father. It had been a passion project for Jack Fincher, who died in 2003, and yet the younger Fincher admits that what drew him to the tale was not the debate about the authorship of Citizen Kane which lies at the heart of the film. “I’m still not interested in a posthumous credit arbitration,” he says. “I’m still not interested in the idea of the villainous position of [Orson] Welles.”
Instead, what drew him was the aspect of the story that was about change. “[Herman J. Mankiewicz] could sign a contract,” Fincher says. “He was a grown man; he knew what he was doing. But he’d happily written and disappeared into the wings many, many times before, and on this one, he didn’t. That was interesting to me. I was fascinated by the notion of a guy who is on record so many times decrying the shallowness and hopelessness of cinema finally saying, ‘Wait a minute. I want this one on my headstone.’” —Joe Utichi
In January 2020, Lee Isaac Chung premiered Minari, his first feature since 2012, at Sundance. The story follows a Korean American family that uproots from metropolitan Los Angeles to a small Arkansas town where they start a farm. Starring Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Yuh-Jung Youn, Alan S. Kim and Noel Kate Cho, the drama provides a stunning portrait of the American dream, and immediately garnered buzz at the Park City festival. Fast forward to 2021 and six Oscar nominations later, and the film’s shine has not dulled at all in the year since its debut.
The idea for Minari initially came to Chung in 2013, when his daughter was born and his family moved to Los Angeles. He found he had the desire to tell a more personal story about what it was like to be a father, but it wasn’t until 2018 that he started to put this down on paper.
“This is a story that has always been with me and in my mind and in my heart,” he says. “The work of it was interesting in trying to birth it into a film — to get it away from my own personal experiences and memory toward something that works as a film.”
The screenplay was however loosely based on Chung’s life—something that gave him “a lot of apprehension about whether I was doing some kind of injustice to my parents.” But ultimately, his cast and crew eased those concerns as the project took on its own resonance.
“I think he really left a lot of space for us to imbue our own things,” Yeun says of playing the lead role of Jacob. “I appreciated that Isaac didn’t really express to me his worry about it. If anything, he really always supported me through my fears about approaching a character I think a lot of Asian Americans and specifically Korean Americans have an idea of what is on their minds.”
With the recent surge of violence against Asians, this film feels more important than ever. “I hope that what we are putting forward with this film is that we are not an issue. We are human beings first and foremost,” Chung says. —Dino-Ray Ramos
Frances McDormand was at the Toronto Film Festival promoting Three Billboards when she saw a film that stopped her in her tracks. Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, the director’s second feature, struck her as exactly the kind of indie spirited production she wanted to be involved in. Zhao had cast a real young cowboy, recovering from a traumatic brain injury, to fictionalize his own story on camera, an approach that blended documentary with narrative fiction in ways that sparked McDormand to track Zhao down.
A few months later, at the Independent Spirit Awards, they each received prizes for their respective films, and used their speeches to announce how excited they were to work together. McDormand and producer Peter Spears had identified a non-fiction book, Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, that seemed like the perfect fit of director, star, and material, and Zhao got to work crafting a fictional lead—McDormand’s Fern— from the real stories about people who had given up settlement for life on the road.
As chance would have it, Zhao had already been building her own RV when the project beckoned. Into the script she incorporated many of the book’s real characters, charging them all to play themselves in the resulting film, to tell their life stories for the camera. Some had hit the road by choice. Others still had seen no alternative in an increasingly suffocating economy. And with a nimble shoot that slipped in and out of the Nomad communities with little fanfare, Zhao was very often able to place McDormand in that world without alerting the real Nomads to the Oscar winner in their midst.
But even the professional actors in Nomadland’s cast didn’t get away with hiding behind characters entirely. McDormand’s real life crept into the Fern Zhao constructed, and co-star David Strathairn blurred the lines between art and life to such a degree that his own son, Tay, was cast to play his son in the film. —Joe Utichi
Writer and first-time director Emerald Fennell came up with the idea for this twisty tale of a woman avenging sexual assault before the #MeToo movement began in earnest. It came up “like a hairball”, she says. “It probably came out because it’s something that I find incredibly troubling and I wanted to talk about.”
Key to getting the film made was both casting Carey Mulligan in the lead role of Cassie, and the early backing Fennell found in Margot Robbie and Josey McNamara’s production company LuckyChap. But first, Fennell crafted her script alongside a mental soundtrack.
“I don’t write at all until the end when it’s done,” she says. “When it is I’ll transcribe it, and it takes not very long. The real bulk of the work is done entirely in my head, entirely with music.”
That music included such kitschy throwback anthems as Paris Hilton’s “Love is Blind”, Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and “Angel of the Morning” by Juice Newton.
LuckyChap were smitten with the results. “I feel like Emerald had an incredibly clever approach in luring us, especially those of us who grew up in the ’90s, into nostalgic territory,” Robbie says.
Mulligan also found herself instantly drawn. “For ages before this film came along, people were like, ‘What part do you want? What have you not done that you want to do?” she says. “And I couldn’t describe what it was… When this came along I was like, ‘Oh, it’s that. That’s what I want to do.’”
On a small budget, a heavily-pregnant Fennell decamped from her native London to LA for a lightning-fast 23-day shoot. “It was all over L.A., it was wherever we could beg, borrow and steal places,” she says. “Thank God that it was such a kick-bollock-scramble and we had such a short shooting time, because I think if we’d had any longer I’d have been forced to think about the enormity of it and how terrified I was.” —Antonia Blyth
If proof were ever needed that making movies is no walk in the park, Sound of Metal could be the perfect exemplar. Director Darius Marder nurtured the story he pulled together with Derek Cianfrance, with whom he’d worked on the screenplay for The Place Beyond the Pines, for more than a decade, shaping the screenplay with his brother Abraham Marder. And as he did, the film’s tale about a heavy metal drummer who struggles with hearing loss took on a life of its own, itself shaped by the deaf community Marder consulted to ensure authenticity and representation.
But the path wasn’t easy. Actors came and went before he found Riz Ahmed and Paul Raci, who are both nominated alongside him, as well as Olivia Cooke and Mathieu Almaric for key roles. And among the many finance wobbles in the development process, the project was on the eve of shooting when the money fell out yet again. However, with the support of Caviar’s Sacha Ben Harroche and Bert Hamelinck, who say their niche is in producing work nobody else wants to touch, Sound of Metal did make it into production, and the experience of shooting it transformed all who took part. “What Darius was offering was a unique experience,” says Ahmed. “You have to learn to play the drums in seven months, you have to learn American Sign Language, you have to do something that’s emotionally going to ask you to dig deeper than anything you’ve done before. It was like, ‘Where do I sign?’ That’s what I was looking for.”
The film arrived for its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2019 without a distributor, but before the festival was over Amazon Studios prevailed in a fierce bidding war, setting the film on its final course toward Oscar night. After so much struggle, says Marder, the six Oscar nominations for his film feel like “the greatest gift.” The team he eventually assembled, he says, deepen his connection to a dream he’d held for so many years. “After going through this process that I’ve been through on this movie, and feeling it, living it, and dealing with all the hurt it put me through along the way, these guys are the people that put their faith in me—real faith—and put their everything into this movie without any proof of concept. To see these guys recognized, it just fills my heart. They really walked the walk, and that was amazing to me.” —Joe Utichi
Few Best Picture nominees have had a longer road than The Trial of the Chicago 7. But, perhaps surprisingly, Aaron Sorkin credits Donald Trump for breaking the film’s 14-year log-jam.
“He would have rallies, there would be a protester or two, and Trump would get nostalgic about the old days, when we would carry that guy out on a stretcher. That is what made Steven [Spielberg] say, ‘The time to make this movie is now.’”
Back in 2006, Sorkin was summoned by Spielberg. “He told me he wanted to make a movie about the Chicago 7. I said, ‘Great, I’m in.’ I left his house, called my father and asked who the Chicago 7 were.”
Sorkin then wrote 32 drafts for Spielberg and Paul Greengrass. But it was at a dinner in London that the latter helped Sorkin find the movie’s core. Sorkin told Greengrass, “There are these two guys, brothers basically, who plainly can’t stand each other and one thinks the other is harming the cause.” And Greengrass said, “Write about the brothers.”
They were Abbie Hoffman, played by the Oscar-nominated Sacha Baron Cohen, and Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden.
Sorkin didn’t consider directing until Spielberg told him to stop rewriting and just do it. “Screenplays are never really finished, they’re confiscated,” he says. Then, Paramount, Cross Creek and finally Netflix got the film out during the pandemic. And Sorkin believes it was destiny.
“Chicago 7 has never played to an audience,” he says. “I understand why and can live with it. The last thing Steven said when I left his house in 2006 was, ‘It would be great if we could release this before the election.’ He was talking about the 2008 election, but he didn’t specify. So, I feel like I delivered the picture right on time.” —Mike Fleming Jr.