The Oscars’ Best Picture award is often regarded as the height of theatrical achievement. Every year, the Academy nominates nine finalists for this award. While the spotlight this year was given to a dramatic win for Moonlight, each of the nine films has battled creative, financial and logistical obstacles to get this close to the finish line. Here are some of their stories.
Moonlight began as a play script originally titled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, written by Tarell McCraney in 2003 when he was graduating from Chicago’s DePaul University. The project, a coming-of-age semi-autobiographical piece written to cope with his mother’s death from AIDS. Although never fully produced to become the play that McCraney imagined it to be, the script was picked up a decade later by Barry Jenkins at Borscht arts collective in Miami.
Jenkins had already been on the hunt for inspiration for his next film, following his debut feature film Medicine for Melancholy (released in 2008), and with the support of producer, Adele Romanski, they came to a common goal of producing a low-budget “cinematic and personal” film . After reading McCraney’s work, Jenkins found pieces of his own childhood in the script, as both men had grown up in the same inner-city neighborhood of Liberty City, Miami, with mothers struggling through the crack epidemic of the ‘80s and ‘90s. When both playwright and director formally came together to collaborate for the film, they decided to rewrite the original piece, splitting it up into three chapters that would encompass the journey of the main character, Chiron, as he dealt with coming to terms with his sexuality and his mother’s drug abuse.
The resulting screenplay was made up of characters taken from fragments of both Jenkins’ and McCraney’s lives. The incarnation of an unlikely father-figure to Chiron appears in Juan, a character who was based on the father of McCraney’s half-brother, who much like Juan to Chiron, played a significant role in shaping McCraney’s character. Paula, Chiron’s mother, was a mixture of both Jenkins’ and McCraney’s mothers, and was thus depicted as something much more dynamic than just a two-dimensional caricature of a crack-addicted black woman throughout the film.In fact, when Naomie Harris was approached by a producer to play the role of Paula, she declined, reluctant to play a negative stereotype of black women. However, she was immediately won over by Jenkins’s clarification that the character was a reflection of his and McCraney’s mothers, something that they both were emotionally invested in.
Filming began in early October of 2015 in Liberty Square, Miami, Florida. To Jenkins, the set locations were incredibly important in providing an authentic ambiance to the film, and he made an effort to film in locations where he had once lived. The pastel hues of the run-down housing projects worked perfectly with the blue-toned theme of the movie. Also, since the project was relatively low-budget, an indie film through and through, actors and actresses would sometimes complete their scenes within days or weeks. This did little to hinder the filming process, and was actually a crucial component in providing the dynamic of the film. Jenkins had always wanted to ensure that the three actors playing their respective main characters of Chiron and Kevin should never meet on set, as this could have had run the risk of actors adopting mannerisms of the other actors .
Moonlight has received a unanimous positive critical response, with a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 99% rating on Metacritic. Moonlight not only took home the Best Picture award this year, but was also nominated for seven other awards, winning three in total. The Golden Globes recently hailed Moonlight as Best Dramatic Picture, and Jenkins made history as the first ever black person to be nominated for the Best Director and Best Picture awards in the same year. When asked to address the movie’s enormous success, Jenkins expressed to the Los Angeles Times that “we didn’t make the movie with any expectations” .
French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve had always wanted to direct a sci-fi film. He just never thought Arrival would be the one to hit the big screen.
Arrival was not an original idea, but rather a film adaptation of Story of Your Life, a 1998 short story written by Ted Chiang. When Villeneuve first encountered the story, he didn’t think there was enough dramatic substance for a film production. “The short story is more intellectual, in a good way,” Villeneuve says of Chiang’s work. “It’s more about language and not your political problems. It was a very powerful idea but there was no dramatic structure” .Enter screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who devised a script which both maintained the timeline-based language and incorporated the “dramatic factors” that Villeneuve wanted. In pre-production, Villeneuve remembers going through hundreds of titles since Story of Your Life “sounded like a romantic comedy” . The final title Arrival was actually the first that his team had suggested. Originally, the script included a different ending, one that involved space travel. This ending was scrapped after the team watched Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and realized that their ending “didn’t quite work” .
Producers Dan Levine and Dan Cohen first came to Villeneuve when the director was working on Prisoners. After Levine and Cohen polished up the final script, they began to search for a cast. Jeremy Renner was the first to join, before being followed by Forest Whitaker and Amy Adams.
The most difficult challenge that the production team faced was creating an entirely new language. Since the film revolved around the traits of the alien language, Villeneuve wanted the enunciation and the symbols to be perfect. Sound designers Dave Whitehead and Sylvain Bellemare as well as phonetics expert Morgan Sonderegger worked to create the unearthly sounds of the alien language. Artist Martine Bertrand designed the symbols for the language, using elements described by the original story. Stephen Wolfram, known for his work in computer science and mathematics, and three linguists from McGill University were consulted to help the team analyze the script that would provide the basis for the alien language in Arrival. Bellemare’s work earned her the Academy award for Best Sound Editing.
Arrival highlights the powerful ability of language and conveys why brutality may not be the best course of action. It shows us why peace, even amongst interplanetary beings, should always be pursued. Arrival has received eight Oscars nominations, nine British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs) nominations, as well as two Golden Globe nominations.
The script for Fences was not created by a young and aspiring screenwriter. Rather, it was the last wish of a 60-year-old playwright, created in the hopes that his message would reach the big screen. It was a 22-year-old-wish. Ever since August Wilson had written the play Fences in 1983, he had wanted to adapt the production into a film. But the process wasn’t so simple.
There had been previous attempts to bring Fences to the big screen, but they were fruitless, partly due to Wilson’s insistence on an African-American director. After one rainy day in Seattle spent with August Wilson in the hopes he might write a star vehicle for him, Denzel Washington seemed destined to become the one to finally bring the playwright’s work to a movie screen.
Producer Scott Rudin was the first to revive Fences, not as a movie, but as another Broadway play. Rudin wrote the play and cast both Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Six years later, it was again Rudin who insisted on writing a screen adaptation for Fences. He had screenwriter Tony Kushner edit and add to Wilson’s 2005 draft. When all the preparations had been finished, Rudin called both Washington and Davis, asking if they would reprise their roles from the 2010 revival. Washington not only starred in the play as main character Troy Maxson, but also directed it.It seemed that Washington was adamant on dedicating the film to August Wilson. Producer Todd Black explained how Washington believed they should place heavy emphasis on August Wilson’s message. “What Denzel said to me, to Scott, to all the actors, the cinematographer, and the production designer was, ‘Don’t make any decision without August Wilson’s words leading you to make that decision,’” noted Black. “Whatever you do, let the words inform your decision first. That’s what we all had to abide by” .
A sold-out run and three Tony Awards later, Washington brought his castmates—including Davis, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson and Russell Hornsby—whose stage repetition allowed them to wear their characters like a second skin, along for the feature film. The challenge became expanding Wilson’s world beyond a single stage, but Washington didn’t stray too far, insisting on shooting the film in the playwright’s Hill District hometown near Pittsburgh.
If August Wilson’s wish was for the message of Fences to be heard around the world, his wish has certainly been granted. The critically acclaimed film has already grossed over $55 million. It has also received four Oscars nominations (winning one), one BAFTA nomination, and two Golden Globe nominations. Viola Davis was nominated for the BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Academy award for Best Supporting Actress and she won all three.
The extraordinary yet true story of conscientious objector Desmond T. Doss, who saved 75 men in Okinawa during the bloodiest battle of WWII, Hacksaw Ridge was initially conceived by producers David Permut, Bill Mechanic, and Terry Benedict in 2001. Benedict had previously produced a documentary about Desmond Doss in 2004, called The Conscious Objector.
The movie was stuck in “development hell” for 14 years as Doss rejected numerous offers from different producers, including war hero Audie Murphy and Hal B. Wallis, the producer of Casablanca. Doss rejected the offers because he did not want to receive recognition for his actions while other soldiers remained unacknowledged. Bill Mechanic acquired the rights to the film after Doss’ passing in 2006. He approached Oscar-winning director Mel Gibson and wanted him to create a proper tribute to Doss. Gibson initially refused, but finally agreed after nearly a decade. In November 2014, Andrew Garfield was announced as the lead role (Desmond Doss). Teresa Palmer auditioned via phone, wanting the role badly, and was chosen to play the lead female role of Doss’s wife, Dorothy Schutte.
The battle to produce the film was not over yet, as the film’s R-rated script made it hard to find sponsors after Warden Media dropped out. With a budget of $40 million, the production team faced financial challenges. In the end, Hacksaw Ridge became an international co-production with Australia in order to receive Australian government subsidies. Mel Gibson’s early years in Australia, coupled with most of the cast being Australian, helped the film qualify for government incentives.The filmmakers aimed for maximum historical accuracy since they were marketing the film as being “a true story,” rather than just being “based on a true story”. One of the primary reasons Doss had turned down offers was because he was wary of his life and values being portrayed in an inaccurate or sensational manner. The film does change some details of Doss’ early life, as well as opting to not mention his participation in the battles of Guam and Leyte. It leaves the impression that Doss’ actions in Okinawa lasted a few days rather than a week. While producer David Permut stated that the filmmakers took great care in maintaining the integrity of the story, Mechanic claimed that Doss’ accomplishments were actually underplayed in the film.
Targeted to be Mel Gibson’s returning film after Apocalypto (2006), the world premiere of Hacksaw Ridge occurred on September 4, 2016, at the 73rd Venice Film Festival, where it received a 10-minute standing ovation. The film was released in Australia on November 3, 2016, by Icon Film Distribution, and in the United States on November 4, 2016, by Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment. It was released by Bliss Media in China in November, and in the United Kingdom in 2017, with IM Global handling international sales.
As of 23 January 2017, Hacksaw Ridge has grossed $66.4 million in the United States and Canada, and $97.7 million in other countries, for a worldwide total of $164.1 million against a production budget of $40 million. The film was expected to play very well among faith-based, Midwest, and Southern audiences. It made $5.2 million on its first day and $15.2 million in its opening weekend, finishing third at the box office. The debut was on par with the $15 million opening of Gibson’s last directorial effort, Apocalypto, in 2006.
Hacksaw Ridge won Best Editing and was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Adapted Screenplay at the BAFTAs. The film won Best Action Movie and Best Actor in an Action Movie and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Editing at the Critics’ Choice Awards. The film received three nominations at the Golden Globe Awards, including Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama, and Best Director. Additionally, Hacksaw Ridge took home two Academy Awards for Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing.
Hell or High Water
In April of 2012, Deadline reported that Sidney Kimmel Entertainment had acquired a speculative screenplay from Sons of Anarchy actor Taylor Sheridan (the script went on to win the honour of being the best Black List script of 2012). Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, which won the bidding war over Endgame Entertainment and Focus Features, also announced that it would finance and produce the movie with Peter Berg and Film 44. While the script was originally known as Comancheria, a standee at Las Vegas CinemaCon 2016 announced that the project would now be known as Hell or High Water, and would be directed by David Mackenzie. Later, CBS acquired US rights to the film, announcing it would be developed by SKE and Film 44 and co-produced and financed by OddLot Entertainment.
In an interview with Deadline, Mackenzie explained what propelled him to join the project: “Taylor’s script was love at first sight. I loved the way it moved, the sense of place and people and its connection to the great movies of the 1970s that I really loved. But it also felt like it was a snapshot of contemporary America with resonance of the past, a slightly poetic song to the change of the Old West. I wasn’t trying to be an outsider, but an amateur American. I wanted to embrace and respect this world we were trying to represent” .The neo-Western crime thriller premiered in May 2016, at the Cannes Film Festival. The film started as a limited release on 16 August 2017 in America, and expanded three days later, before its wide release on August 26. It would later open in the United Kingdom and Ireland in September, and in New Zealand in October.
Hell or High Water, which takes place in West Texas, was filmed throughout Eastern New Mexico, though principal photography took place in Clovis, New Mexico. The setting sets the tone for the film, which follows two brothers (played by Chris Pine and Ben Forster) who stage a series of robberies to save their family ranch from foreclosure. Following two successful (albeit, flawed) robberies, but still lacking the money they need, the brothers head off for yet another, while trying to keep Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) off their tails. It was while driving through the remote deserts of West Texas that screenwriter Taylor Sheridan noticed a cluster of banks and began to understand the anger of those afflicted by the economic recession and their motivation for robbing these banks that were ‘legally robbing’ them. As Sheridan, who himself made a cameo as a cowboy in the film, says, “there was anger, and I allowed that to manifest” .
Following its release, the film received widespread critical acclaim. Seen as a successful revitalization of the Western film genre, it garnered largely positive reviews, including an impressive 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The accolades have already translated into awards—the film has received three BAFTA nominations, six Critics Choice nominations, three Golden Globes nominations, and four Academy Award nominations. Ranking among the highest-grossing limited release films of the summer, Hell or High Water grossed $27 million in North America and $5.3 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $32.3 million, against a $12 million budget.
In 2015, producer Donna Gigliotti stumbled upon the non-fiction book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, and decided that the compelling story of three African-American female mathematicians helping America win the Space Race was worth sharing. Allison Schroeder was eager to script the film, as her grandparents had worked at NASA, and she had interned there as a teenager.
Fox 2000 acquired film rights, and director Theodore Melfi revised Schroeder’s script to balance the narratives of all three main characters. Special care was given to ensure that the home lives and careers of the three protagonists were highlighted equally in the film—after all, the movie was especially poignant because it was able to showcase the struggles of the black woman in both the workplace, and at home.
Principal photography for the project commenced in March 2016. To realistically portray the work of those at NASA, the film was shot in Atlanta, at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics at the Dobbins Air Reserve base, and the Morehouse College. Minute details were included in scenery to depict the Langley Research Center accurately: the trees, the lampposts, and even the sizes of the parking lots. Even today, Langley remains a key component of NASA’s operations; however, for financial and security reasons, the film was shot at its makeshift location in Georgia.Cooperation with NASA was key to ensure the film’s success. The production crew continually liaised with a select team at the space agency to maintain historical accuracy. NASA was keen on assisting with the project because it wanted to emphasize that the agency seeks people with talent, regardless of race or gender. The result is a gripping film which is as accurate as it is cinematic.
Hidden Figures received positive reviews from critics, and even outperformed Star Wars: Rogue One at the box office on its opening weekend. It won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, received two nominations at the Golden Globes, and three at the Critics Choice Awards. Historians and critics alike appreciate the film for its realistic dramatization.
Ultimately, Hidden Figures eloquently empowers everyone: it shows that people from all walks of life can be appreciated for their full capabilities, rather than their appearances. It inspires children—in particular, young girls of colour—to go into the sciences. It reminds us that there is scope for change, and that with effort, society’s antiquated beliefs will gradually slip away. It highlights how far we have progressed, but also how far we must still go.
La La Land
It would be fairly accurate to say that director Damien Chazelle embodied La La Land’s message of “write what you love, not what works” when creating the first draft for the critically acclaimed film. Chazelle, and screenwriter Justin Hurwitz, absolutely adored the work of Jacques Demy, a 17th century director who had expertise in musical films. It’s no surprise that the duo incorporated the same spirited, amusing, and tap-dancing elements into La La Land, a movie which would turn out to be a musical and romantic masterpiece.The idea for La La Land began at Focus Features in 2011, when Chazelle and Hurwitz presented the original script to producers Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz. Though Chazelle knew that he was stepping into a genre territory that hadn’t been touched in several decades, he was unfazed: “The fact that there haven’t been any in awhile was part of the appeal,” he claimed. Neither Horwitz nor Berger immediately gave the greenlight to the project, as Chazelle explained, “There wasn’t a lot of excitement in the room when we originally pitched it” .
But Chazelle didn’t give up on his idea. He used his Oscars-nominated production Whiplash as momentum to drum up interest for his new project. La La Land had distributors lined up with offers to fund Chazelle’s $20-million-dollar project. Chazelle and his team ended up giving the distribution rights to Lionsgate. Little did they know, the corporation’s gamble would give Lionsgate its first potential Best Picture win in 11 years.
Mia and Sebastian’s (the main characters’) roles were originally held by Emma Watson and Miles Teller. Though both Watson and Teller had connections to Chazelle, they each left for their own personal reasons. Enter Emma Stone, fresh off of her broadway performance of Cabaret, and Ryan Gosling, who had worked with Stone in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad. The pair instantly clicked, and Chazelle was amazed by their synergy. “They have incredible chemistry because they are phenomenal actors,” remarked Chazelle, “They also like each other in real life and help each other in real life” .
La La Land received 14 nominations for this year’s Oscars, following a record-breaking seven wins at the Golden Globes as well as 11 nominations and five wins at the BAFTAs.
In 2013, director Garth Davis read Saroo Brierley’s auto-biographical story A Long Way Home, and became interested in creating a movie based off his life story. The narrative of a 5-year old Indian boy getting lost at a railway station in Madhya Pradesh, being adopted 5000 miles away in Australia, and then years later searching for his birth mother with the help of Google Earth was compelling and captivating.
By the time Garth Davis had read Brierley’s story, Hollywood scouts were already on the market, searching for Brierley in hopes of procuring the rights to a film about his life. Davis was a bit of an underdog in the race—he had never produced a full-length film before, and had mainly worked on TV commercials. However, Davis had one advantage: unlike the other American producers vying for film rights, Davis is Australian. He intended to film Lion in Australia, and stay true to the story, whereas the other contenders wanted to send Saroo to America. Davis therefore secured rights to the story in May 2013, and was able to shape it into the award-winning film it is today.From the onset, Australian screenwriter Luke Davies knew that it would be difficult to adapt a book which is primarily about an online search. Depicting screens on a screen is a cinema taboo, and Davies acknowledged that the story was unique because the protagonist’s relationship with technology was representative of his emotional drive to find his lost mother and discover his true identity. Portraying this on film, however, proved to be a challenge; it took him seventeen months to draft the film’s script.
Davis wanted just the right actors to depict the characters in the story. He spent four months in India, auditioning two thousand boys to find the perfect one to play the role of 5-year-old Saroo—ultimately, he decided on Sunny Pawar, a boy from a working-class Indian family. Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel were selected for the lead roles in 2014; Patel went through a grueling, six-hour audition before being assigned his part, and Kidman was drawn to her role of Saroo’s adoptive mother because she is an adoptive mother herself.
Filming began in 2015, in Kolkata, India and later moved to Melbourne and Hobart in Australia. Davis notably fought to get the busiest bridge in Kolkata, Howrah Bridge, shut down for a day to allow for filming.
The film premiered at TIFF in 2016, where La La Land and Moonlight received most of the hype. Lion had a very small pre-debut fan following. After its premiere, however, it became a surprise hit. It received generally positive reviews, and Patel’s and Kidman’s performances were praised. It received six nominations at the Oscars, five at the BAFTAs, six at the Critic’s Choice awards, and four at the Golden Globes.
Manchester by the Sea
This was supposed to be the movie that featured The Office’s John Krasinski, as well as the directorial debut of Matt Damon. The end product had neither. The film’s most marketable aspects had all pulled out due to scheduling issues, leaving writer Kenneth Lonergan with an uphill battle to shoot and produce Manchester By The Sea.
The film was initially conceived in 2011, in the midst of a lawsuit for Lonergan’s previous film, Margaret. Lonergan did not agree with the edited final length of the film. Damon, who had a part in Margaret, was worried about Lonergan’s “horrible limbo.” Damon visited the director and pitched an idea to him: a dark and heart-wrenching story about a handyman who was given custody of his dead brother’s son. The story was supposed to be agonizing and relatable, two adjectives that were much too familiar for Lonergan. “There’s this perception that I was sitting at home in a depression,” says Lonergan. “I probably was. But I was also sitting at home in a depression when I was 25 years old. I’m always sitting at home in a depression” .In a way, you couldn’t have scripted Lonergan’s comeback any better. His first movie since Margaret, and the film revolves around familial tragedies, a throwback to his very first production: You Can Count On Me. Lonergan ended up both writing and directing the film. After picking Casey Affleck (who had co-starred in Lonergan’s 2002 play This is our Youth) to play main character Lee Chandler, most of the preparations were finished.
Even then, there were plenty of hurdles for the indie film. Financing became a problem for Lonergan, especially after the departure of Matt Damon. Producer Kimberly Steward eventually offered Lonergan a $8.5 million dollar budget, and everything else fell into place quite nicely. To avoid the editing problems that Lonergan had faced with Margaret, it was agreed that Matt Damon would have the final say in the production. “No question there was a rough time with all that went wrong with Margaret,” says Lonergan, “This has obviously been free of those troubles, so that’s great” .
Manchester By The Sea is a tale of redemption and loss. That is what the film portrays so beautifully: a series of difficult conversations we would rather avoid, about death, family and responsibility. The film shows that the conversations that truly matter are with the people we love, once loved, or will learn to love someday.
At the Sundance Film Festival, Manchester By The Sea garnered a lot of attention, resulting in fierce bidding. Amazon ultimately won with a $10-million-dollar offer. Since then, the film has received six Oscars nominations, five Golden Globe nominations, and six nominations at the BAFTAs. The film specifically won Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay, given to the film with the best storyline and dialogue, as well as Best Actor. The road to success for Manchester By The Sea has certainly been a long one. While the film has not been widely popular, it is as powerful as all the other nominees this year. As Casey Affleck puts it: “A story well told can still find an audience, without big stars or big spectacle” .