Come March 2, the great and good of Hollywood will gather at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater to celebrate the best of each other’s work over four hours of retina-melting glamour. Champagne will be quaffed, backs will be patted and at some point, Jennifer Lawrence will fall over. The most prized gong – Best Picture – will go to one of nine worthy contenders. Amid all the lovely dresses and tuxedos, it’s easy to forget what went into making them. Allow us to take you behind the scenes...
A slight favourite for this year’s big prizes, including Best Picture and Best Director and Cinematographer Who Looks Most Like A Male Model (check out its Aragorn–looking DP Linus Sandgren here), American Hustle had a rapid, improv-heavy Massachusetts shoot in early 2013. Director David O. Russell explains that the filming style “made things feel more alive and not what [Robert De Niro] called ‘bedroom perfect’,” and that looseness translated into four Oscar-nominated performances. True fact: Christian Bale has now gained and lost the equivalent of three London buses in weight during his film career.
Spike Jonze’s sci-fi-romance-kinda-IT-drama may be the least-backed horse in this category, but it’s one heck of a good-looking nag. With Megan Ellison’s money behind it – the arthouse benefactor’s Annapurna Pictures has an astonishing 25 Oscar nods to show for its eight films to date – Her is a stronger candidate in the production design bracket. Jonze’s long-time designer Keith ‘K. K.’ Barrett helped create a car-free utopia in Shanghai and L.A. for Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) to patrol. “In Pudong (pictured), they have these elevated walkways so you can go from building to building without ever having to cross an intersection,” Barrett told the New York Times. “Already, that gave us a bit of a future slant, feeling like we’re comfortable pedestrians within the urban grid.”
Shot in Louisiana during the heat of summer – and Louisiana’s summer is 108-degrees hot – 12 Years A Slave is sticky with historical verisimilitude. The crew decamped from New Orleans to the 180-year old St. Joseph and Felicity sugar plantations, perched on the banks of the Mississippi, to recreate Solomon Northup’s years at the yoke. “Being in Louisiana was so helpful because you’re surrounded by oaks that existed when Solomon and Patsey existed”, McQueen’s fellow nominee Lupita Nyong'o tells Empire, “and there you are, taking shade under their branches and realising what they went through.”
An early Oscar favourite whose star has waned of late, Captain Phillips had its skipper Paul Greengrass doing what he does best and juicing a true-life tale with nerve-frying realism. He kept his lead, Tom Hanks, and his Somali-American co-stars apart – the actors met for the first time when it came time to shoot the bridge-storming scene – and persuaded the US Navy to organise a training exercise off the coast of Virginia for its beefy action sequences. The taut lifeboat scenes, explains cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, brought out the true pro in its star: “Tom was always in the lifeboat when we were prepping and shooting. He didn’t play the big star. He had good sea legs, I’ve got to say.”
Not just a parable of prejudice and compassion, Dallas Buyers Club is a case study in the fiddly business of getting a ‘difficult’ film made in Hollywood. It may seem like Oscar destiny for Matthew McConaughey now, but the project was once the exclusive preserve of one William Bradley Pitt. His director of choice was Marc Forster – World War Z awaited that pair – before Ron Woodroof’s AIDS memoir fell into the lap of Ryan Gosling and his Lars And The Real Girl director Craig Gillespie. They couldn’t make it work either and Jean-Marc Vallée (pictured righ) took the reins. The eventual 25-day shoot required few lighting set-ups, long takes and minimal rehearsals, none of which hurt McConaughey and co-star Jared Leto’s performances.
Alexander Payne gives direction to Will Forte next to the art deco Greyhound station in Billings, Montana, while Bruce Dern looks on (well, off). To get the go-ahead, Payne had been handed a studio shortlist rumoured to have included names like Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall and his old About Schmidt mucker Jack Nicholson. After some horse-trading with Paramount – $10m was shorn from the budget – the green light to cast Dern in the lead role and release the film in black-and-white. A coloured version exists for overseas TV distribution, but, Payne confessed to The Canadian Press, “I hope no one ever sees it.”
The Philomena story began with BBC journo Martin Sixsmith’s The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee being sold, sight-unseen, to Steve Coogan. The actor/producer soon had Judi Dench’s name jotted down in his Philofax to play the former nun, but he had a tougher time persuading Stephen Frears to take the gig. “He was intrigued by the story, but kept us waiting for a while,” remembers co-producer Gabrielle Tana. The director recalled the real Philomena's visit to its Roscrea Convent scenes, shot at Harefield House. “'I told her, you shouldn’t be here – you must have spent all your life trying to stay away from this place,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “But she’s magnificent. When you meet her, you have no sense of this tragedy in her life. Judi’s character in the film is a woman who has retained her faith – and so has Philomena.”
“America was a land of opportunity, but I don’t recall it ever being a place where the goal was to get rich, and only to get rich, ” muses Martin Scorsese of his Wolf Of Wall Street’s cocaine-and-crooks world. The task of depicting all that conspicuous consumption fell to Sopranos production designer Bob Shaw. For Jordan Belfort’s mansion (pictured), Shaw merely added a few gaudy touches to a Brookville, New York house so vast that he, his director and location scout got lost on their first visit. He has a theory as to why the owners let Scorsese and co. into their contemporary Xanadu. “I think in this case, they had teenage daughters”, he told Architectural Digest, “[and they] said, 'We will just die if you don’t let Leonardo DiCaprio film at our house.'”
While we’re still convinced Gravity was made using magic, VFX supervisor Tim Webber tells its making-of story differently. “The first big decision was to make it so much in CG, and that was a very risky, difficult decision to make,” explains one of Empire’s Unsung Heroes of 2013. “But that had to be made first, because initially that wasn't the intention.” Practical effects deemed insufficient to visually represent the film’s zero gravity environment, Gravity’s VFX team went to work. Four years on and they’re Oscar favourites so hot they’ll need to wear tinfoil on March 2. Getting all of them up on stage would be tricky, however – Webber and Alfonso Cuarón oversaw a total complement of 470 VFX bods.