If you bet on every favorite in your office’s Oscar pool this year, you did quite well. It was a year of very few surprises, and stood in stark contrast to last year’s “wow finish” –to borrow a line from the movies. And yet those who won were very thoughtful about their craft–both above and below the line, especially when they were allowed to ruminate at greater length, backstage, about the paths that brought them there.
And while The Shape of Water was the night’s big winner, even if Get Out’s solo writing award seemed to almost carry equal weight in terms of popular reception, director Guillermo del Toro’s first Oscar-strewn effort didn’t really dominate in the below the line categories, where the rewards were fairly evenly spread around.
Phantom Thread, for example, won in the arena of its subject matter: Best Costume Design, And we asked design winner and frequent Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator, Mark Bridges what it was like to win an award for a story that was, in part, about the act of designing clothes. He allowed, “It was a little different than I usually do and it was kind of two levels.” One of those, of course, was what the characters wore in their “real” lives, and the other was what the main character, Daniel Day Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock made for his various customers and European princesses. “I’m thinking, like, hmm, a dark character, like Reynolds in London, who uses rich colors and sort of dark fabrics. What would a spring collection be for him? It was different and challenging, in a cool way for me,” added Bridges.
Another challenge was that Daniel Day Lewis “did not want to plan ahead what he was going to wear, so we created a closet for him, and Paul wanted him to choose daily what he would pull from his closet and wear it. So that was a new one for me, a little nerve wracking at first. But we all trust each other so much at this point, and the fact that I had been in on creating that wardrobe, I was fine with it.”
Lewis, of course, was in competition in the best acting category with Gary Oldman, for his Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Oldman would go on to win, thanks in part to convincing legendary Japanese makeup artist, Kazuhiro Tsuji to come out of retirement. “I left the film industry and Gary asked me to design this,” Tsiju said backstage. “And really everything came together and then great timing, and I met (co-winners) David (Malinowski) and Lucy (Sibbick) and they’re really special. It was a really special project because such great talent came to one show and we made an amazing film and I think we made history. So it’s really meaningful to me.” Indeed, Oldman has said that he wouldn’t have been able to take the role without him.
Blade Runner 2049 also grabbed a couple statues. Its win in the Best Visual Effects category might have skewed a bit toward the surprising, since War for the Planet of the Apes had won the VES Award in this category. But the film’s visuals were well-rewarded on Oscar night, as Cinematographer Roger Deakins ended a nominated-but-never-rewarded 8 time drought, going back as far as films like The Shawshank Redemption.
Backstage, Deakins went even further back, answering a question about his journey from film into digits with another memory instead: “One of the early films I did was Sid and Nancy, with Gary Oldman, and it’s so wonderful to be here tonight with Gary, to be in the same space. What can I say?”
He did say a little more, talking about following a movie that was part of our collective “film memory,” saying “I couldn’t light like Jordan (Cronenweth). I mean, I think what he did on Blade Runner was stunning, but I’m a different person, and I kind of see things slightly differently.” Deakins was also sure to thank the crew he’s worked with for “years and years, and I feel it’s recognition for their work, you know? I really do. I know they’re all watching in New York and London and Budapest, and I would like to have mentioned every one of them, because they were just vital–it’s just great for them.”
And it was pretty great for VFX Supe John Nelson and his own crew, who pulled that semi-surprise in beating Joe Letteri and Apes in that category. We asked Nelson what it was like to both honor the original, yet work with an expanded toolbox never available to the original film’s crew, who worked with a lot of miniatures, and incipient green screen technology.
“We knew what could be done,” he said, “but consciously, with (director) Denis Villeneuve and everyone on the film, we reined the effects back in because we felt too many films had been Blade Runner copies that turned the excess knob up to, like, 13, right? So we just turned everything, pulled it back and made it very analog and dirty and nothing like CG shiny and clean. Not in our movie, right?”
Things were arguably pretty analog and dirty in Dunkirk, too, which did well in BTL categories, winning both sound awards, and the editing statue.
Editor Lee Smith has been a long time collaborator with director Christopher Nolan, and was asked about the similarities in editing a historical war drama, versus a dreamscape like Inception. Smith noted they were more alike than you might think: “Chris does love to play with multiple timelines, and dream within a dream within a dream. And I might be in a dream now. I’m not sure. I feel like I’m in a dream. But yeah I think the editor’s job is to just simply keep the audience entertained, keep them understanding the plot, moving forward, and then hopefully you come out of it with a commercial success. And all of Chris’s films had been, and no small amount of credit goes to him.”
Nolan also got no small amount of credit from his sound team. One of the winning mixers, Gregg Landaker, noted of his announced retirement that Dunkirk “didn’t end my career, but I decided to put a period on it. And this was my 207th feature film, ninth nomination and fourth win for a soundtrack. My first was for Empire Strikes Back…But Chris has always encouraged me to reach further into our craft, to bring something completely different to the soundtrack that the audience would step up and notice.”
We asked how they wanted the audience to notice sounds on the overlapping timelines, many presumably made by the same devices and machines used in the original battle and evacuation. Sound editor/designer Richard King told us, “We used all the Spitfires, the bombs, guns, boats, but we wanted it to be an emotional experience. So it was all about investing the film in as much power, emotion and visceral feeling as we could, and we used every decibel we had available.”
Decibels of the melodic sort were evident in Alexandre Desplat’s win for The Shape of Water’s score–one of two below the line nods for the best picture winner. The other came for production design, and we asked winning designer Paul D. Austerberry about ways he combined both Cold War and institutional “looks”–which he noted were in deliberate contrast to the apartment inhabited by Sally Hawkins’ heroine, in her own award-nominated turn: “Guillermo and I talked about institutional architecture, and we chose Brutalist style which was very prevalent in ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. And the reason we wanted to do it, was for heavy contrast with the hard, harsh materials of the concrete and then we introduced that teal green color that was very important. It was very important to have that visual contrast between the two worlds, where she meets her lover and when she brings him back to that wonderful decrepit, but beautiful old apartment.”
To which set decorater Shane Vieau confirmed, “Guillermo knows what he wants visually… No one is more well read than that man. No one knows more about things…He’ll reference everything and give it to you, and then you can go with it.”
And the crew gives back. That was certainly the contention of Jordan Peele, when his Best Original Screenplay win basically stood in as an alternate “best picture” nod for Get Out, as he was asked backstage about the film’s long road to production, its meaning in the present historical moment, and working with his crew.
Of the latter, he remarked: “You know, it’s such a scrappy group, and when I mean scrappy, we made this movie in twenty-three days, for $4.5 million. I had people I shouldn’t have been able to afford do this movie because they believed in it, and they put their trust in my vision. My A.D., Gerard DiNardi, and his team worked miracles with the schedule we had and what we had to accomplish. Our wardrobe department, Nadine Haders, our costume designer, worked miracles…DP Toby Oliver and his department worked miracles…This is an independent film, and we sweated for it. I felt like I had the privilege of being a pirate captain with a swarthy group of real badasses. And I love them, and I’ll never forget a single one of them.”
Whereas Oscar 2018 may not have been the most unforgettable as a show itself, it did cement in place new cultural icons and ideas, certainly like the moment when Best Actress winner, Frances McDormand had all the Oscar nominated women stand up in the Dolby Theater, to take a bow.
Or as McDormand said backstage shortly after: “As you know, I don’t show up all the time. I only show up when I can and when I want to, but I was there at the Golden Globes and it’s almost like there was an arc that started there. It doesn’t end here…We actually started a conversation that will change something.”