There can only be one winner, but each of the Best Picture nominees overcame creative, financial and logistical hurdles to get this close to the finish line. Here are their war stories.
Fifty years ago, the phrase ‘Black Panther’ carried more political baggage than it does today, immediately summoning up images of a militant African-American revolutionary, named after by the controversial civil rights party founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California, in 1966. Created by Stan Lee in a bid to deliver the world’s first non-stereotype black superhero, the comic book of the same name materialized around the same time. Unusually, The Black Panther wasn’t an alter ego—it was the formal title for T’Challa, King of Wakanda—but Lee described the overlapping of names as “a strange coincidence”, adding that “maybe if I had it to do over again, I’d have given him another name”. The sensitive politics of the next two decades might explain why the character lay dormant as a movie property until 1992, when Wesley Snipes began work on the concept, eventually securing support from Columbia in 1994.
Directors John Singleton and Mario Van Peebles showed interest, but the project stalled, only to be resurrected by Marvel Studios in 2005, when then-CEO Avi Arad announced it as one of ten new films on the company’s slate. This time development moved forward at a faster pace: a script was commissioned in 2011, and by 2013, elements of the story began to appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the character, played by Chadwick Boseman, debuting in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. Ava DuVernay was briefly attached, then F. Gary Gray, and finally Creed director Ryan Coogler agreed to take the helm. Marvel President Kevin Feige acknowledges that it was a slow but sure process, and defends the timescale. “The only way we ever wanted to do this project was the right way,” he says, “and that meant finding a filmmaker who had something personal to say, who had a vision and could take this character into another arena, and showcase the power of representation on a canvas of this size.” —Damon Wise
When Jordan Peele pitched Spike Lee on the story that would become BlacKkKlansman, and lead to the iconic filmmaker’s first Oscar nomination for directing, Lee was sure he was making it up. “It was one of the greatest pitches ever,” Lee recalls. “Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan. That’s high concept. I said, ‘I’ve seen this a million times, it’s the Dave Chappelle skit.’ He went, ‘Nah, nah, this is real.’”
And real it is, even though Lee’s film bends the truth here and there to offer an engine to a story that seizes on the rhetorical parallels with the violence in Charlottesville last year, takes a sideways glance at the legacy of DW Griffith and Gone with the Wind, and revels in its 1970s setting to play on the tropes of Blaxploitation movies. Ron Stallworth, a black police officer in Colorado Springs, really did infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. And really did interact with one-time Grand Wizard David Duke.
Lee turned to an old collaborator to play Stallworth. John David Washington was six years old when he was given a line in Lee’s Malcolm X. Reunited for BlacKkKlansman, Lee kept Washington away from the real Stallworth until the table read, determined that he find his own version of the character in prep. “It was my thinking that he would meet Ron and want to walk like him, talk like him,” Lee says. “It wasn’t like Malcolm X. No one knew who Ron Stallworth was, and that gives you freedom.”
Lee casts aside criticism of the film’s forthright allusions to current politics. “These are dangerous times. The film had to end the way it did,” he says, with footage of the Charlottesville rally and a tribute to Heather Hayer, who was murdered there.
And it took the commitment of all of his collaborators, including nominee Adam Driver and the iconic Harry Belafonte—a key player in the Civil Rights Movement—to fully realize it. “This film, the teamwork was amazing. We were like the Golden State Warriors, or the New York Knicks. We didn’t have to sit around saying, ‘Oh this is such an important film and we have to…’ It wasn’t even discussed. Everybody knew what we had to do.” —Joe Utichi
Bohemian Rhapsody is the miracle Oscar nominee this year. Typically when a production is mired with on-set problems, its doom is inevitable, but in the year-plus wake of director Bryan Singer’s firing, Bohemian Rhapsody has had immense luck, with the producers determined to buck sour Singer headlines, after he clashed with Oscar nominated star Rami Malek. Graham King shepherded Bohemian Rhapsody for eight years, and nothing was going to stop it now.
Sacha Baron Cohen expressed interest in the project early on, but dismissed it when King opted against a warts-and-all biopic.
Then King’s partner had a sense that Emmy-winning Mr. Robot star Rami Malek could do the trick, and indeed he did, with a dedication that went to masochistic measures.
“I told Graham King if he gave me this role, I’d bleed for it, and he showed me a picture of blood on the piano keys after the final day of our Live Aid shoot,” Malek says.
Editor John Ottman gets proper credit here with his first Oscar nomination, working with the producers to hammer an impressive first cut, before Dexter Fletcher stepped in for Singer to finish a handful of scenes. While a director always gets credit for a final cut, Bohemian Rhapsody is an example this season that there’s no ‘I’ in team.
The press has repeatedly asked the production team for their thoughts on Singer in the wake of the film’s success, especially on Golden Globes night when it won for Best Motion Picture, Drama and Best Actor.
King waved off the question, but Malek answered, “There was only one thing we needed to do: celebrate Freddie Mercury. He is a marvel. Nothing was going to compromise us. We’re giving him the love, celebration and adulation he deserves.” —Anthony D’Alessandro
It took two decades for Deborah Davis’s script for The Favourite to make it to screen. A searing three-hander based on the true history of the British Queen Anne and the two women who fought for her affections, Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham, it was a tough sell even for a market in Britain that specializes in costume drama. A film in which three women rule the roost over their male counterparts, fall in love—and graphic lust—with one another and scheme their way to dominance? Whatever to make of that?
But Davis knew she had something groundbreaking, and producers Ceci Dempsey, Lee Magiday and Ed Guiney weren’t prepared to let the project go without a fight. In an inspired move, they showed the script to Yorgos Lanthimos, whose twisted and unique earlier features, including Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer seemed like an odd fit for a story based in true history. And yet, working on the script with Australian writer Tony McNamara, Lanthimos found a lens on the story through his own fascination with the more awkward aspects of human interaction.
“I was intrigued in trying to create these three very complicated and complex characters for women, and work with three great actresses,” Lanthimos says. “It was in my mind thinking you never see that: three female strong leads.”
For Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, the three actresses cast in these roles, all of whom picked up Oscar nominations, it was just as enticing a prospect. Lanthimos started them off with an unconventional rehearsal period, challenging them to play trust exercises, tie themselves up in knots and say one another’s lines.
“It’s strange and not strange,” Stone notes. “By the end, I think one of the most effective aspects of it was that we all felt very, very close to each other. We all touched each other, embarrassed ourselves in front of one another, and became more reliant on one another.” —Joe Utichi
Nick Vallelonga had been carrying the story for Green Book in his head ever since he was five years old, and yet it was not until his 50s that he was able to see his dream become a reality. The plot came directly from a period of his father’s life, when, in the early ’60s, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga was hired by an African-American classical pianist named Don Shirley to be his driver and bodyguard during a potentially dangerous concert tour of the racially segregated southern states. “Even as a child, it struck me as something you’d see in a movie,” says Vallelonga. There was only only one problem: even though both subjects gave him their blessing, they also made Vallelonga give his word that the film would not be made in their lifetimes. After Tony and Don passed in 2013, within just three months of the other, Vallelonga began to map out this extraordinary road trip.
To help shape the script, Vallelonga turned to writer/actor Brian Currie. Then, two years later, during a chance encounter, Currie outlined the project to Peter Farrelly, and the idea stuck. “Home run!” exclaimed Farrelly. Together, all three began shaping the production, which passed through Focus Features and Participant Media before landing at Universal, with Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali as the leads. The result was Farrelly’s first non-comedy outside of the long-running partnership with his brother Bobby. “People had asked me over the years, ‘Do you think you’ll ever do a drama?’” Farrelly says. “And my answer was, ‘Sure, when it happens,’ because I never really planned. I probably should have, by the way, because I look at Rob Reiner’s career, and he was so smart. He did Spinal Tap, and then he did The Sure Thing, and then he goes off to do Stand by Me and A Few Good Men. He showed he could do everything. But we were just doing what came into our universe next, and we never really planned it. I didn’t plan this, but finally this dropped into my lap—I heard the story, and I thought, I gotta make this.” —Damon Wise
Alfonso Cuarón’s ode to his childhood in Mexico City, and in particular the domestic worker who helped made him, Roma was non-negotiable. “I had to do the film,” he says. “I told Carlos, my brother, ‘I don’t know if anybody is going to care about or like this movie. I have to do it because it’s something I need to do.’”
The notion started to form more than a decade ago, as Cuarón finished up 2006’s Children of Men. But there had been threads drawn from his youth in other projects—in his heralded Y Tu Mamá También, a voiceover for Diego Luna’s character tells a backstory that isn’t far off from Cuarón’s own—and he felt driven by a desire to tap more directly into that past.
Cuarón teamed up with Participant Media, who greenlit the $15 million the filmmaker needed; a tall order for a film that he knew he had to shoot primarily in Spanish, and in black-and-white. But so slavish was his desire to draw all this from his own very specific memories that Participant CEO David Linde would become one of the first and last people to ever see a script during production. He had intended to tap Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot the film, but ‘Chivo’ was unavailable when the dates finally set, and so Cuarón served as his own DP. He instructed his heads of department directly to get the details exactly as he saw them, rather than have them riff on the script. He gave his actors only what they needed for the scenes they shot, and then, only moments before they shot them. In the film’s lead, Cuarón found Yalitza Aparicio after an exhaustive search of Mexico. She was training to be a teacher when she heard about the audition. She is now an Oscar nominee.
Still, it was only after the process was completed that Cuarón understood the real challenge of Roma. With no stars, his black-and-white, Spanish-language opus was not built for the current realities of global theatrical distribution. Netflix came on board in April, when the film was looking set to debut at Cannes, and the controversy surrounding the streamer’s stance on theatrical put paid to a slot at the festival. It later debuted at Venice. But Cuarón is determined Netflix was the right home. “Our viewing habits are changing,” he says. “The challenge is now, how we can adapt ourselves, but present something that you believe is amazing and great cinema? It’s not so much about, ‘Let’s impose this kind of cinema on audiences.’ It’s also the conversation with them about how they want to watch.” —Joe Utichi
A Star Is Born
It’s hard to overstate the difficulty of shooting on stage in the middle of a music festival. Yet the cast and crew of A Star Is Born pulled off exactly that, with only a four-minute window for director and star Bradley Cooper to perform.
Serendipitously, it worked out thanks to the star of the film’s 1976 version. Kris Kristofferson happened to be playing Glastonbury on the planned shoot day, and offered a window of time in his own set.
“Bradley jumps on stage,” producer Lynette Howell Taylor recalls, “and says, ‘Hi, I’m Bradley Cooper. I’m here to perform a song from A Star Is Born, but you won’t be able to hear it. Please just look like you’re excited.’” With his vocal feed cut, only the front few rows could hear some of what Cooper sang. “We didn’t want the music to leak out.”
“There were many minutes along the way where we were running and gunning,” adds producer Bill Gerber, “But that one in particular wasn’t just a logistical threat, it was also incredible for Bradley to go from playing in controlled situations to all of a sudden literally singing live in front of 80,000 people.”
Gerber had been on the project since its early days, when, before timing got in the way, Clint Eastwood had been set to direct, with Beyoncé in the Lady Gaga role. Casting Gaga was initially a stretch for Warner Bros., Gerber says. “Even though Bradley and I were really blown away by the chemistry, the studio still wasn’t 100% sure. But to their credit, they said, ‘Do a test, spend what you have to spend, and let’s see.’”
During that test, Gerber saw the magic happen. “Bradley picked her up, and they walked out the doors of her house onto her lawn, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean. They looked at each other and it was undeniably brilliant. I thought, well, there’s our Gone with the Wind moment.” And the rest, of course, is history. —Antonia Blyth
Adam McKay probably wouldn’t have made Vice, his irreverent biopic of former Vice President Dick Cheney, if he hadn’t fallen ill for a couple of weeks at the end of 2015. The director had recently finished up The Big Short, an arch look at the financial crisis of 2008, and followed it immediately with a worldwide publicity tour, then a punishing awards season schedule. The net result was that McKay got sick, and while he was shivering with a particularly evil flu, he looked up at his bookshelves. “People give you books through the years,” McKay told the ACLU, “and you just shove them up there and don’t really think about them. And there was one about Dick Cheney, and it kind of struck me, like, ‘Wow, the book of history is about to close on that guy.’ I mean, you don’t really hear his name mentioned that much anymore, and you don’t hear [George] W. Bush’s name really mentioned, but, holy cow, those were a rough eight years.”
McKay started reading the book and found he couldn’t put it down. “I was amazed by what a large, epic American tale Cheney’s life story is—how far back it reaches, how many monumental moments in history he was around for. He had this Zelig-like presence in the ’70s through the ’80s. And then of course, I was amazed by how brilliant he was at manipulating the system.” The final impetus to tell Cheney’s story came in 2016. “Somewhere along that line,” recalled McKay, “Donald Trump got elected, and all of a sudden we started hearing people say, ‘Hey, I kinda miss George W. Bush. He wasn’t that bad, him and Cheney.’ And I really felt like I had to make the movie. I was like, ‘This is crazy that people are saying this.’ And that was it. We were off to the races.” —Damon Wise
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