The Secrets Of Oscar Night

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Oscar night is all glitz, gowns and gongs, right? Well, kinda. But there’s a darker side to it all. The traffic jams stretching to the horizon, nerves so taut you could play the Deerhunter theme on them, the endless “thank-you’s” to lawyers/accountants/agents/mother-in-laws, the numberless incredible parties, the glory, the golden statuettes. Okay, maybe it’s not so bad. But what’s it really like at the Kodak Theater? Like Dorothy in Oz, Empire peeked behind the velvet curtain to find out what it feels like to experience Hollywood’s night of nights first hand. Here’s what seven Oscar veterans had to tell us...

Since joining Aardman Animations in 1985, Nick Park has won four Academy Awards and been nominated for a further two. His first win, a Best Animated Short Oscar for Creature Comforts in 1991, was followed by wins in the category for Wallace & Gromit In The Wrong Trousers (1994) and Wallace & Gromit In A Close Shave (1996). He also collected an Oscar for Best Animated Feature with Wallace & Gromit In The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit in 2006.

The first time I went to the Oscars, I beat myself! I came from nowhere, really, and suddenly had two films nominated in the same year. I had A Grand Day Out and Creature Comforts. There was only three in the category then. I was up against one of my college heroes, Bruno Bozzetto, who is an Italian animator. So I was very, very nervous. I was about 30, and I’d never been to LA before. I was showing the films in a short film festival out there and the people running that took me to the Oscars. They went against the grain and rented an open-top T-Bird, a very ‘50s car, and we turned up at the Oscars and everyone was going, 'Oh, that’s so cool to not have a black limo!' That’s when I had the big green bow tie on. I didn’t have a bow tie with me, I was going to buy one, and in the end I didn’t have time so I thought, this is animation so I can do something slightly cartoony. I didn’t realize how big it looked, actually. I didn’t realize it would get so much attention. It was in one paper in America being called a travesty of taste. I’ve never had anyone comment on what I wear before. But it became my trademark.

I remember being so nervous at that one. Suddenly you’re in a strange bubble where Dustin Hoffman walks past, or Sophia Loren, all these massive names you’d only ever heard of. I was thinking all the time, what am I doing here? I’d just made two plasticine films.

When they read out your name, you’re out of your own body, really. It’s so nerve-racking. At that moment, if you don’t win, that’s fine, because you don’t have to go up there. It’s afterwards, when you think, 'Oh well, ok'. The first time, I was so nervous that I couldn’t even feel my legs carrying me up there. You somehow automatically go up. You’re nervous in case you’re in such a delirium that you think you’ve heard your name when you haven’t really. All sorts of things go through your head. I wrote down a thank you list on one side of the ticket for Creature Comforts and for A Grand Day Out on the other side. I was scared I might flip it over to the wrong side! But somehow it comes to you to say the right thing. You’re too nervous to read anything, anyway.

Over the years, I’ve slowly started to relax a bit more. The fourth time I went there, that we won, was for Curse Of The Were-Rabbit in the feature film category. That puts you on a different level of acceptance. I didn’t feel higher, but everyone else had come down. You go to the nominees’ ball afterwards and you feel that if you have an Oscar in your hand, you can chat to anyone. I remember Tom Hanks coming up to me and saying, 'great speech' for the second time I won. I was leaning across and chatting to J-Lo and Spielberg and George Clooney came up to me and shook my hand. I felt that we were all the same, we were all just artists, trying to do what we do.

The London-born actress was a Best Supporting Actress nominee in 2005 for her performance as Hotel Rwanda's Tatiana Rusesabagina.

My most vivid memory was the nomination. Normally you get nominated for other awards and that hadn’t really happened to me, so it was quite a shock. I wasn’t standing by to do interviews like a lot of actors are - I was with my mum on Hampstead Heath. There’s so much going on between the nomination and the event, like picking what to wear, and I didn’t know much about fashion or designers so the American Vogue flew over with a photographer and reams of dresses. They turned up at my two-up, two-down in Muswell Hill in a big van and tried to crush everything into my tiny living room and do a photoshoot. I don’t know what they were expecting but it was very funny and a bit embarrassing.

It’d be different now I’m older but I felt like a rabbit in the headlights before in the run-up. I’d gone from doing bits and pieces in film and theatre and driving a battered car to going to the Academy Awards within a month. Everywhere you go there are actors and nominees - I went for a swim at The Four Seasons on the morning of the ceremony and my mum said she spotted Glenn Close in the pool. We were doing a lot of star-spotting! Then we all had breakfast together, before someone arrived to do make-up and hair, the dress came and my daughter went away to Don Cheadle’s house to play with his kids while we were at the ceremony. I couldn’t take it all in but having my family with me kept me grounded. Even if I found it quite overwhelming, they enjoyed it so much. They still talk about it!

You’re in the limo for hours, then you’re on the red carpet. I was basically in shock so I was really smiling - my whole face was aching afterwards. Everyone said it would be Cate Blanchett’s night so I was expecting her to win and the whole show went by really quickly after that. I didn’t have a speech prepared and I don’t know if that was wise on reflection. I remember thinking before it was read out: 'Maybe I should have...'. I was so sure I wouldn’t win. Then I thought, 'If I do win I’m just going to say nothing – what a missed opportunity', but the speeches I’ve always enjoyed are the ones where people just get up and say what’s in their heads.

After the ceremony we went to the Governors Ball for dinner, then onto the Vanity Fair party which was like being in a sardine can. I told my mum that I’d had enough and we went back to the hotel for a hot chocolate. It was one of biggest moments in my life but what I remember most from that time is how much I loved making the film I was nominated for. I’m totally privileged to have had that experience, but I haven’t watched the Oscars since. My mum is fixated though.

VFX supervisor Paul Franklin has been twice nominated for his work with Christopher Nolan. His first nomination came for Best Visual Effects with The Dark Knight in 2009. Two years later he won the same category for Inception.

After my first Oscars ceremony in 2009 I was standing in the lobby trying to work out how to get to the Governors Ball when someone stopped the lift for three ladies to get on. I looked across and it was Meryl Streep, Sophia Loren and Julianne Moore! Last year I spotted Eli Wallach, who’s an old man now, which was pretty special too. But the memory that sticks in my mind is the moment that they read out our names. Because all the technical nominees are at the back of the auditorium, we had to pretty much sprint to the stage and there’s this giant countdown clock showing how long you’ve got before you get hauled off with a giant shepherd’s crook, which is intimidating. I vividly remember shaking Jude Law’s hand and him saying “Well done!” with a big smile, and then being backstage where the previous presenters Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal came up and congratulated us, and then getting the ‘thumbs-up’ from Steven Spielberg and a cheer from Jane Fonda. That’s pretty hard to beat as a career highlight.

The BAFTAs red carpet is pretty impressive but at the Oscars it’s basically half of Hollywood Boulevard. You can get caught in a sea of limousines – every car on the road is a big black SUV or a black Lincoln Town Car, because there’s no-one else on the road at that point. The red carpet is divided down the middle: on one side are all the celebrities and press; and on the other side are all the people that no-one’s interested in - people like me. Even if you’re a nominee, if you’re in the technical categories you get packed off onto this other side, so the first thing you have to say is: “I have an interview with Empire magazine, they’re waiting for me,” and they let you onto the celebrity side. We didn’t know that the first time we went and once you’re on the other side you can’t get back over the barrier. The second time we made damn sure we were on the side with all the movie stars. It’s about the above-the-line - the stars. BAFTA is more of an egalitarian celebration of filmmaking, but Hollywood is all about glamour and glitz and you really have to muscle your way in there.

Once you’ve won, that Oscar is your golden ticket. We just had to wave it out of the limo door and everyone outside starts cheering and lets you in to any party. We went straight to the Vanity Fair party at the Sunset Tower, which looks like this sea of people in formal evening wear but then you suddenly realise that everybody is somebody. The first person to congratulate me was Elton John. After that I walked up to the Miramax party at the Chateau Marmont with one of the producers of The King’s Speech, swinging our Oscars while everyone was honking their horns. We were already in pre-production for The Dark Knight Rises and unfortunately Chris Nolan had called a production meeting for 10.30am the following morning. Working with Chris, you’re in a big family who’ve been together since Batman Begins and four or five of us had won the previous night. There were a lot of big headaches at that meeting!
A British film industry stalwart, Stephen Woolley produced The Crying Game, a Best Picture nominee in 1993.

I remember it very vividly. It was sort of surreal and it was both exciting and wonderfully dazzling, and also strangely disappointing. You’re just in a room, like any other awards. The theatre was just like any other theatre. It’s a TV show, really. As soon as you go to the loo, they have paid people to come and sit down in your seat so when the camera turns on the audience, it’s always full. That aspect of it is strange, it’s not something you’re prepared for.

It was thrilling and amazing for that. I did get to meet Walter Matthau, one of my all-time heroes. That blew me away. I remember it with a great deal of fondness. Even the Globes in those days was a minor affair. It wasn’t quite as full-on as the Oscars. Everything else was pretty enclosed and pretty industry and not as showbiz as the Oscars. You do literally sit a row away from Jack Nicholson. You do literally get in a lift with Jane Fonda – you can tell how dated I am! Now they’d be getting in a lift with Jennifer Aniston or something, but in those days it was still the old, traditional, big stars. What’s great about the Oscars and the BAFTAs and all awards is that you do tend to come away, having made a few friends and having a few words of wisdom handed down to you.

We’d met Clint Eastwood, who was nominated for Unforgiven, quite a few times at the other events. He had kindly come over to our table on quite a few occasions because he was a big fan of The Crying Game. He had often hung out with us on the underdog table where all the shabby Europeans were sitting, rather than sit on the corporate table. It was a lot of fun and utterly thrilling to hang out with Clint Eastwood. And when we were going, I got stuck on the red carpet with him and said, “I feel that any minute now, someone’s going to tap me on the shoulder and tell me to go home” and he said, “No, no, no, you’re not the outsider here. I’m the outsider and have been my entire career”. Basically, he was a TV actor in Rawhide and he was supposed to be a male pin-up and then went off to do Spaghetti Westerns. Now we think of that as a pretty nice term, but in those days it was a term of insult. Then, of course, he came back to Hollywood and made Dirty Harry and got lambasted by the left and everyone for being a right-wing fascist. The poor guy, he said, “If anyone’s going to get thrown out of the Oscars, it’s me!” That really relaxed me, that he would say that to me.

In fact, even losing wasn’t such a huge pain, because we lost to Clint. When the camera pans on my face during the nominations, there I am with a huge, beaming smile, because Jack Nicholson was presenting it. And if it had been my name in the envelope, there’s no way he would have said it. There is only one name he knows to say, and that’s Clint Eastwood! So as soon as he said “Clint Eastwood”, this huge relief came over me. It’s great to come second to Clint. That’s my maxim for life, actually.

But, that aside, the whole night was full of people getting so pissed off that they didn’t win! People are so competitive. When each film wins, you know that that’s four films that have lost, and more importantly, you have agents and PR people and accountants and managers and your partner and your mum and dad and friends have come to see you win an Oscar, and when you don’t win, by the end of the evening, 80 per cent of the audience is really pissed off. “That was your Oscar, what happened? You got robbed!” So you’re kind of in an audience, at the end, that is not the friendliest crowd. It’s not as bad as a Leeds United-Chelsea game, but watch out whose toes you tread on, as they could explode.

But it was great fun. I loved every minute of it. They took the piss out of The Crying Game the whole time. I remember vividly when we released the film in the UK, I had written a producer’s letter to the critics saying, please do not reveal the twist of the movie. In America, that really took on. Critics made a point of saying, you must not reveal this, and it was incredibly dramatic. “When you know what the twist is, you will be freaked out!” It just got out of hand. So on stage, Billy Crystal made a point of, in his opening number, miming a whole thing about a woman who may have had something else between her legs. And then he did reveal the twist, and continued to do it throughout the evening, and that was really fun. Being ridiculed by Billy Crystal? Doesn’t get any better. I was introduced once at the Spurs-Arsenal game in the centre circle at half-time, because I’m a big Spurs fan, and as we were leaving, the Arsenal fans were singing, “Who the fucking hell are you?” And that’s one of the highlights of my life, along with being ridiculed by Billy Crystal and coming second to Clint Eastwood.
Long-time Ken Loach and Paul Greengrass collaborator, Barry Ackroyd was nominated for Best Cinematography on Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker in 2010.

The Hurt Locker versus Avatar was a good story at the Oscars that year. Kathryn Bigelow and Jim Cameron had been partners so there was some intrigue in that, and we were the smallest grossing film to have won an Oscar. My wife and I sat pretty close to the stage next to Sigourney Weaver, who I think I called ‘Joanne’ - I’m not very good with faces and names - and when the moment came and they gave the cinematography award to Mauro Fiore for Avatar she looked at me and said: 'What! It was an animation! Only 25 per cent of it was film.' She was very nice about it. To be honest, I don’t think The Hurt Locker was the best cinematography that year - White Ribbon should have won; it was a fantastic piece of work - but it was good enough to win us six Oscars. It was great that we got ourselves in the position to win so many awards, against the might of all the other films and without the publicity. After all, The Hurt Locker only screened in four cinemas in New York when it was released the previous June.

The invitation say that you have to be at the theatre for 3.30pm and we arrived early because there was no traffic and went inside where you have to buy yourself a glass of champagne. It’s not like the BAFTAs; you genuinely have to buy your own drink. I didn’t actually have any cash on me, so I had to get someone to buy one for me. The really weird thing is during the commercial breaks. Everyone gets up and goes for a drink and then these people will come and sit in for you. I found that very strange. They’re all actors or wannabe actors and they look like they belong there.Instead of goodie bags they have gifting suites where you find out who’s giving stuff away, phone them up and tell them you’re a nominee and that you’re coming round. I really hate all those things, to be honest. So many of these people have so much money, they really don’t need the gifts. I’m just like the rest of the crew to be honest – it’s great to go get an award, but I’ve never done stuff like this to win one. I do it because I love making films.

When you’re someone who’s usually behind the camera it’s a lot different being in front of it. I wonder how Meryl Streep must feel, she’s been nominated about 15 times! She’s had the experience; I haven’t. I didn’t even have a speech ready - I had no idea what I was going to say. It was kind of a relief not to be called up as Best Cinematographer, but when we won Best Film Anthony Mackie picked me up and threw me on stage, so I was up there with Tom Hanks and the other actors, and the writer, Mark Boal. It was quite special. We then jumped into our limo and headed to the Vanity Fair party but when we got there my wife and I looked at each other and decided just to go back to the hotel and finish a bottle of champagne instead. It’s all a bit too much. By then it was long gone – the film had been two years before – and I was about to start on Coriolanus the following Monday in Belgrade, so I was ready to move on.
Since kick-starting her film career costuming for Derek Jarman, Sandy Powell has gone on to score ten Oscar nominations for Best Costume Design. Her first win, for Shakespeare In Love in 1999, was followed by further successes with The Aviator (2005) and The Young Victoria (2010). This year she's nominated for her work on Martin Scorsese's Hugo.

My clearest Oscar memory was when I won for the first time with Shakespeare In Love. I still don’t remember how I got to the stage - it was an out-of-body experience. Suddenly you’re up there and everyone’s looking at you! It’s terrifying but it’s also unreal - almost like it’s not really you up there so it doesn’t matter. After ten nominations I know what to expect now... the red-carpet and the fans with banners and the buzz of excitement and nerves, but don’t get me wrong, just because you know the route from the hotel to the theatre, it doesn’t make it any less exciting. It’s still a thrill to be a part of it. I still look around and think 'Look who I’m standing next to!' and once you’re in the back of that car you have that feeling in the pit of your stomach and your heart is beating really fast. It’s nerve-racking, but as soon as it’s over there’s a huge sense of relief, whether or not you’ve won.

The nominees’ luncheon is just good fun. This year I sat next to John Bailey, the cinematographer, and Bérénice Bejo from The Artist – it was a really mixed table and that’s what made it great. It’s completely relaxed, there’s no competition. It’s a laugh because no-one’s winning anything that night. And then you have the school-photo aspect of it which is funny.

My advice to first-time nominees is to make sure you eat before you go. It’s a long evening. You’re chasing canapés all night so take a snack in the car and a sensible pair of heels. The goodie bags? Well, you don’t get goodie bags at the Oscars if you’re only a nominee. I’m not sure whether actors do but I sure didn’t. Maybe I’ll have to steal one this year! My plan after the ceremony this year is to head to the Governors Ball like everyone else. They’ve changed it from a sitdown dinner to a cocktail event which will make for a better night - you can go and chat to whoever you want. You never feel like eating anything anyway.

You’re not at the Oscars for the networking aspect of it. I’m sure people do network but I certainly haven’t been involved in it. You’re there for the competition and for the partying and socialising. I don’t think it’s on anybody’s mind though really, everyone’s just concerned about making it through the night.
British sound editor Jon Midgley received his first Oscar nomination in 2000. That Best Sound nod for Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace was followed by a nomination for Best Achievement In Sound Mixing for The King’s Speech in 2011. Hugo, for which he's received another Sound Mixing nod, represents his third trip to the Kodak Theater.

I hope I don’t win. Personally I think it’s the kiss of death. Looking for work is much harder – I’m going to get in trouble saying this – because people think that they can’t afford you once you’ve got an Oscar. It’s a mixed blessing, basically. Now I should make this clear: it’s not the same for American productions. They’re all quite starry-eyed about it all, and they want to bring in an Oscar winner or an Oscar nominee for their films, but English productions need to save money and they’ll look for the lowest common denominator.

It’s probably helpful for actors. Although, poor Colin Firth, I remember him turning around to me at 2011's Oscars and saying, 'Well I haven’t done any work for nine months now.' After The King’s Speech he had to push it everywhere and then he did a week on Tinker Tailor, so by the time the Oscars came around he hadn’t worked since we finished the film. But for technicians, they’re a different beast.

You've got to remember, with the Oscars, sound people will vote for the shortlist, then the whole of the Academy will vote for the final winner, whereas with the BAFTAs it’s the other way around. I’m not saying which is right or wrong, but it puts a slant on things.

As for what voters look for in sound mixing, it’s very hard to say. It’s like when The Artist got nominated – there’s the odd bit of dialogue, an odd bit of background noise, but it’s mainly music. How can you judge that against The King’s Speech last year which was pretty much all dialogue? How do you compare Inception's budget of God-knows-what with The King’s Speech? It’s such a difficult situation. In an ideal world it should just be your colleagues who vote for it, the people who genuinely know what they’re talking about – but it doesn’t happen that way.

Then there's the ceremony itself. They try to get us technical people in earlier than the big stars, because the traffic jams in LA are ridiculous. So you get there hours before the ceremony starts and you’re drinking champagne while George Clooney and so on are being interviewed over and over, making it very, very, very slow – my wife twiddles her thumbs for most of the time. The best thing we got out of last year’s trip were the Virgin pyjamas they give out in Upper Class – she still wears them, actually. As for the actual Oscars, there are no freebies for nominees of my ilk. There are plenty of freebies for Helena Bonham Carter and people like that, they wander into gifting suites and pick up a bunch of iPads and so on, whereas we can only borrow some things, but have to give them back later.

Our non-film friends always say how glamorous the ceremony must be, but it’s actually quite hard work. I’m incredibly bad at hobnobbing. Other people are brilliant at it, but I’m just not. Last year, I think we did 12 parties in three days, then I flew home, had 24 hours in my house before flying out to Budapest to do 47 Ronin, and after that I was ill on antibiotics for about two weeks. So it is hard work, but there’s a lot of camaraderie between nominees. Even though you’re nominated more than a year and a half after the film has wrapped and you haven’t seen each other since then, you just get back into the groove and have a good time. But if you could watch it on the telly in bed with a bottle of wine, I think that’s probably the best way of seeing it.