One could write about the just-concluded Oscars from a Below the Line standpoint — the lack of La La Land tsunami, for example, and the interesting spread of awards — or from an Above the Line vantage, talking about the remarkable Mahershala Ali being the first Muslim actor to ever win an Oscar, for example, but really, there’s only one story in 2017 Academy Awards reporting now. And that came in what Moonlight’s director, Barry Jenkins, called the most “insane” “last 20 minutes of my life.”
By which he meant the 20 minutes leading up his appearing backstage to ruminate further on Moonlight’s unlikely rise, and of course, the Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, and how they were given the wrong card in the right envelope — or perhaps it was the wrong envelope, too — when it came time to announce Best Picture.
But it was backstage, where an entire “alternate Oscars” unfolds in front of the press, that you got that same sense of what the New Yorker, early Monday morning, called “the relaxed preëmptive lunch that the nominees attend in normal clothes, which are clearly more fun to be at than the Oscars themselves.”
It’s not that the press room is necessarily more fun than the actual televised awards — you can miss wrong cards in front-of-house envelopes being corrected live, for example — but it’s that you’re neither distracted by candy falling from the ceiling, nor watching various recipients insistently cut off by the orchestra. Plus, once they’ve got all their main thanking out of the way, they are free to come backstage and muse a little more deeply about their art.
That same New Yorker piece referred to the ceremony being “shambolic,” as in “shambles,” meaning now-infamous bait-and-switch of the best picture, but the word has its roots in “symbol,” too. And the evening also seemed to symbolize quite a bit.
You could see it in the full range of passions and insights that animated actress Viola Davis, for example, or just how gracious both the filmmakers from La La Land and Moonlight were to each other, even more so backstage, now that their films are permanently entangled in the historic mix-up.
One could also sense early on that Oscar held some surprises that night: Suicide Squad, for example, beat both expected winners in its category of three, to take home the Makeup and Hairstyling Award. Alessandro Bertolazzi, part of the winning trio, declared “I’m an immigrant. I come from Italy. I work around the world and this is for all the immigrants, for the immigrants.”
Coming early in the evening, after a lot of blue pro-ACLU ribbons were spotted on the red carpet, and after a few Jimmy Kimmel quips about the awards being broadcast to an international audience that now likely hates us, one wondered if this was going to be a particularly charged Oscars, in such a politically poisoned time. But it wasn’t — the personal statements were handled with dignity, and often, in the cases of films like Moonlight, the story of a young, gay African-American boy growing up on the outskirts of Miami, via the awards themselves.
And there was also room — at least backstage — for the winners to talk about what pursuing their craft has meant to them. Colleen Atwood, another surprise winner for her costume design on Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, said she was “shocked” to find hers was the first Academy Award for the entire Harry Potter franchise. But she allowed as to how much fun it was to marry the film’s Jazz Age setting — “an amazing time of new dreams for everyone” — to the wizarding world of the story: “the ’20s is a great period to sort of tweak into magic, because there’s a lot of ‑‑ it’s very kind of, in a sense, graphic so you can take sort of a cloche hat from the ’20s and do a little twist at the top and can become a wizarding kind of hat without being obvious, like witches’ hats, so it was a great challenge, and a great amount of fun.”
Others waxing on their craft included winning editor John Gilbert for Hacksaw Ridge. We asked him what it was like to work on a war picture for a war, like WWII, for which a nonfiction visual record already exists. He answered that for him personally, Saving Private Ryan was his “experience” of that war, so “I didn’t have a practical record. So I looked at that as a kind of a reference. And we had various servicemen come by, and they said it was like being in battle. They gave us some feedback and said what we were doing was very real and immersive as far as being in a battle, so you know, we took that as positive feedback. I mean, no one wants to go through what those guys went through, so we wanted to create something that was a hell. And to some extent you’ve got to use your imagination and make it as hellish as you can.”
Of course, you also have to use your imagination for things for which there is no actual recorded experience — at least not yet — such as an encounter with an alien species. We asked Sylvain Bellemare about the challenge of “otherworldly” sounds after his sound editing win for Arrival, and he allowed that “sound is really at the level of creating something that does not exist, even in the naturalistic movies. Sometimes you have to take that kind of reflection. I think sound is one of the most abstract things for us. You know, we are much better with our eyes than with our ears… it’s a very, very complex question. I think I will have a conversation with you after because it’s so long.”
Alas, the Academy tends to be tightfisted when inviting press to the Governors’ Ball afterwards, so the promised chat never happened. But then Bellemare’s auditory counterparts took to the stage, also for Hacksaw Ridge, in the sound mixing category, ending a statue drought for Kevin O’Connell, who had been nominated 21 times previously, going back to Terms of Endearment. He was there with his three other counterparts, a couple of whom allowed they’d grown up learning to sound mix by watching — listening — to his work. O’Connell himself later said that he thought “Los Angeles is one of the greatest cities in the entire world and I’ve been to a lot of them. It’s what we do. We make movies here. We watch movies here. I think it’s an incredible city and I’m very proud to be part of it.”
Which could have almost made him a crafts winner for La La Land. When David Wasco won best production design for the that film, along with set decorator and spouse Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, we mentioned he was “standing in for a lot of below‑the‑line work” on the movie, which hadn’t won anything up to that point. In talking about the contributions of other departments to the film’s pastel-laden and dream-hued look, he said “I think in the case with this movie, [director] Damien [Chazelle] was able to articulate what he wanted, and he had a strong interest in the art department, but early on he had all of the departments ‑‑ costume, camera, art, props ‑‑ together so that we can talk about what his vision was. So it was one of those kind of perfect storms where everybody was on the same page making his movie.” As for L.A. itself, “we live here, and we love this city. And there is a deep history, contrary to what people think about this city as being a young city. There is a deep history [and] we have a passion for the diverse architecture throughout [it] that we share with Damien.”
Similarly, when Linus Sandgren won his statue for the same City of Angels love letter, he commented that the city is “a really beautiful, interesting mix of, you know, the urban gritty city and the beauty of the nature, you know. It’s really an incredible mix.”
But of course, much of what’s filmed in L.A. is called upon to not look like L.A. Like Disney’s Jungle Book, which replicated its VES win with a Visual Effects award on Oscar night. We asked Rob Legato — winning with Dan Lemmon, Adam Valdez, and Andrew R. Jones — what the win meant in an age where nearly anything can be rendered, and animated films (like Kubo and the Two Strings) get vfx nominations. How do you create the jungle’s own “incredible mix” when you’re filming off the 110 Freeway?
His answer was to keep things less than perfect: “Well, one of them is a complete observance of nature and what nature gives you by accident, not by design… we’ve pioneered or used a sort of virtual way of shooting where we feel like we are live‑action cameramen again where you pick up a camera, you move it around, you make choices that are based on real time input. And you then start making dailies and the dailies then get edited with an editor with the same type of material they would have if they shot a live‑action film. And then we infused every chance we had to remind the audience they were watching a real movie. Sometimes things went out of focus. Sometimes the camera shook when something got too close to it. So observing very keenly the physical world and then embracing the mistakes that we’ve grown to live with in a live‑action movie, we incorporated those in there and actually cherished them as opposed to try to fix them as we often try to do in a live‑action movie.”
So on a night where a memorable mistake may now remain cherished in Oscar lore, it remained a less rote, and more surprising show than predicted, all the way through. And not only for the single most obvious reason. As Davis summed up backstage: “I can’t believe my life… You know, I grew up in apartments that were condemned and rat‑infested, and I just always sort of wanted to be somebody. And I just wanted to be good at something. And so this is sort of like the miracle of God, of dreaming big and just hoping that it sticks and it lands, and it did. Who knew?”
Who knew, indeed, that the Oscars had such an interestingly balanced award night them? Shambolic or otherwise.