2014 Oscar Highlights

On the eve of the 2014 Oscars ceremony, we look at some of the nominated projects and revisit highlights of conversations with several of the nominees for this year’s golden statuette.

Last year was an exceptionally strong year for movies, and we sat down for chats with several members of the "class of 2014" Academy Award nominees.

One of the films that challenged conventional wisdom that Hollywood ignores stories about older people was Nebraska, which garnered six Oscar nods, including a best actor nomination for Bruce Dern. The acting vet, who portrays a feisty family patriarch that thinks he's become a millionaire, has a fascinating personal history, which he shared during his visit.

12 Years a Slave is one of 2013's most acclaimed movies. So, it wasn't surprising that Chiwetel Ejiofor—who plays the lead role of Solomon Northrup in the fact-based film—would earn a best actor Oscar nomination. The same goes for director Steve McQueen. Both Brits have already taken home the BAFTA—the UK's equivalent of the Academy Award—and the film itself, about one man's fight for survival and freedom, picked up the top film honor across the pond and is nominated for nine Academy Awards.

Two young actors were singled out for their very first big-screen performances: Lupito Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave and Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips. They each earned best supporting acting nominations after being cast in their respective films over hundreds of others who auditioned for their roles.

Their fans know them for their acting chops, but Steven Coogan, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke also wrote roles for themselves and were all nominated in the best adapted screenplay category. Coogan, known in large part for his comedic roles, turns to drama in Philomena, the true story of one mother’s search for her lost son. Delpy and Hawke penned the script for the third installment of their romance series, Before Midnight.

Finally, we celebrate two Oscar-nominated documentaries. Journalist Jeremy Scahill's Dirty Wars tackles the issue of drone warfare. And, 20 Feet from Stardom, from Morgan Neville, Gil Friesen and Caitrin Rogers, puts a spotlight on backup singers whose brilliant voices make all the difference. Two of the featured singers, Darlene Love and Merry Clayton, joined us for a lively discussion.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Hollywood is often criticized for ignoring stories about older people. But this year, there are two films that challenge that conventional wisdom, “Philomena” which stars Judi Dench and is nominated for four awards and, of course, “Nebraska” with its six nominations including Best Picture and a nomination for Bruce Dern.

36 years after his first acting nomination for “Coming Home,” Dern has a fascinating personal story. He came from a very wealthy and privileged family and, as a boy, knew Eleanor Roosevelt. He also grew up with a two-time presidential candidate and later U.N. Ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, as a family friend.

[Clip]

Tavis: I’m trying to get a sense then, Mr. Dern, of how – my word, not yours – how you’re being a contrarian all these years has impacted the roles that you’ve played, the things that you have done and have not done as an actor.

Bruce Dern: Basically, rebellion from inside against what I was brought up to think that that was cool. Well, it wasn’t cool, number two. Number two, Adlai was very, very open-minded compared to the people in my house, you know. And he was the one with ideas that I thought were really interesting.

You know, in 1948 when he quit the law firm to become governor, then four years later, he runs for president, I’ll tell you an interesting thing I’ve never said on the air. In 1952, he ran for president. Then he ran again in ’56.

In 1959 when he was about to be asked to, number one, help the Kennedy family and, number two, go to the U.N., he came to see me in this play, “Sweet Bird of Youth” which was Tennessee Williams’ play Mr. Kazan directed. We went out to supper and I said, “Can I ask you a question? When you ran in ’52, what was that like?”

He said, “Well, you know, Bruce, I felt in 1952 I came on on top of a fairly white horse, but I ran against a guy that couldn’t be beat. He won the war, he was forthright, he was God-fearing, he was a good golfer, he was a wonderful politician and he was a forthright honest man, and deep down, no one to mess with.”

Then in ’56, he said, “Well, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it again in ’56, but I went ahead and did it.” I said, “And what was the difference?”

He reached across the table, grabbed my wrist like that got tears in his eyes and he said to me, “The difference is when I came in in ’56, somehow that horse was a lot grayer and I realized I was in the wrong place.”

And then he grabbed my arm as hard as he could and he said, “I want you to do me a favor. I don’t ever want you to vote for that office until you see somebody on a white horse.” And I never voted for a president until I felt Obama had a dream and might pull it off. And that’s the first time I ever voted for a president.

[Clip]

Tavis: “12 Years a Slave” is one of the most acclaimed movies from last year. The film earned 9 nominations. Among those being singled out, screenwriter John Ridley, supporting actor Michael Fassbender, supporting actress Lupito Nyong’o, director Steve McQueen and, of course, best actor Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Did you immediately know that you absolutely wanted to sink your teeth into this? Or was there a moment of hesitation or equivocation or intimidation? I mean, you’re a fine actor. You tell me, but I’m just trying to get a sense of how you responded when you first saw the material.

Chiwetel Ejiofor: I was intimidated by it. Yeah, I was intimidated by it. And I really felt the weight of the responsibility of it, you know. I’d never seen a story from inside the experience before. I’d never seen a film from inside the slave experienced in this way.

I suppose you come to the point where you think that there’s just not going to be a film that’s inside this experience because the kind of received information is always, well, it’s too difficult to make, it’s too difficult to finance. If you talk about slavery, you have to talk about it sort of from some angle that’s a little more oblique.

You know, you can’t just confront it head-on from the perspective of somebody who went through the experience. So when I recognized that Steve was going to make this film, I realized that it was really an opportunity to do something that really hadn’t been done before.

And my first feelings were, you know, feeling the weight of that responsibility and then feeling the self-doubt of that and not wanting to be the guy – I would have to always look back on the experience and question whether I was the guy to do that. You know what I mean?

So I felt all those things. Those were the questions in my head and that’s why I just sort of needed a moment of pause once Steve had asked me about it, and then I went back to the book.

And when I went back to the book, you know, something happened when I read the book that time because I just felt that it’s a reflection on a man’s life. It’s a sober reflection on this man’s life and he writes about it in such an eloquent, poetic, beautiful, humble way about his experiences.

And I realized, I think, then that I didn’t have to worry about the weight of it or the sort of geopolitical, racial consciousness of the history of slavery and so on. But I just had to think about Solomon Northup and his journey and what he went through and trying to connect to him and his story.

Tavis: What’s your sense at the moment, at least, of the response to the film? It’s generated all kinds of conversation. Is it what you thought might happen when you got this thing done?

Steve McQueen: To some extent, yes. I really wanted to put the debate on the map as such because it’s one of those strange situations that, you know, when you walk out the door and you see the effect of slavery in everyday life, but no one focuses on it. It seems like people in general just turned a blind eye to it because it’s easy to do so.

I wanted sort of to hold the camera up and point it in a direction of look at this, look at this, just to sort of, you know, prod or remind people or to sort of cause a debate in some way. I think, for me, that’s what art’s all about. Art is about trying to put something into society which causes debate, at least for me.

Tavis: Is there a point at which for a story that is this true and this wrong and, to use your phrase, Steve, this tension-filled, is there a point at which you run the risk – and I’m glad you did it the way you did, so I’m not critiquing. I’m just asking a question.

McQueen: Sure.

Tavis: Is there a point at which you make it too difficult for the audience to swallow?

McQueen: No. You balance it. You have to balance it. In the whole film, I think there’s about five, possibly six, I think five sequences of actual physical violence in the movie which is two hours.

Tavis: Which you didn’t tone down, though.

McQueen: No, I didn’t tone it down.

Tavis: You didn’t tone that at all, did you?

McQueen: As far as events, I mean, you could imagine you see a thriller. I mean, someone with a gun shooting someone in the head every five seconds. So, you know, this is very tamed down to some extent. But it is a film about slavery. Now in order to make a film about slavery, one has to make a film about slavery or not.

I mean, how were people kept in servitude for 100 years? They did it through these kind of methods which you have to explain. Otherwise, you know, people won’t understand why we’re making the film. You know, we have to tell the truth. Otherwise, there’s no point.

Tavis: Two young actors involved in telling the truth as director Steve McQueen just put it were singled out for their very first screen performances, Lupito Nyong’o in “12 Years a Slave” and Barkhad Abdi in “Captain Phillips.” Each earned best supporting acting nominations after being cast in their respective films over the hundreds of others who auditioned for those roles.

[Clip]

Tavis: I was saying to Barkhad that he must hear this all the time. And he said, indeed, everywhere he goes, people walk up to him and what do they say?

Barkhad Abdi: “I’m the captain now” [laugh].

Tavis: It’s a great line. One of the best lines in the movie. “Look at me, look at me. I’m the captain now.” It’s a great film, great line. Everybody loved it.

Abdi: Thank you.

Tavis: I don’t want to color this question too much. I want to sit back and let you tell me the story. So take me back to Minneapolis where you live.

Abdi: Okay.

Tavis: How did you hear about the open casting call? What happens? Just tell me the whole story of how you first heard about this and ended up hanging out with Tom Hanks. Just tell me the whole story.

Abdi: Yeah. So I’m at my friend’s house and we’re just hanging out and we were watching TV and a commercial came on. Tom Hanks, casting call film coming to my neighborhood like two days after that day. So I was like I’m going. You know, I thought about it and I went there. There was a huge crowd that was there, more than 700 people, maybe about 1,000.

I was there and at first, you know, you just fill out the paper, write your name and they asked me just simple questions and they assigned me to a character, Muse, and they give me part of a script to study and come back. So I came back the next day and I auditioned the first time.

And then we had to be in groups of four for the audition. There I found three of my buddies there. We live in the same neighborhood and, you know, we’re almost like brothers. After we found out we each had different characters, we decided to form our own group and we auditioned that day and it wasn’t that good.

But we went home, we practiced, we came back and we auditioned more. Then we had two weeks of silence after like four auditions with the group. Two weeks of silence, like we didn’t know if we got the part or not.

After that, we got a phone call from Francine Maisler, the casting director, and she told us that Paul Greengrass wants to meet us in L.A. So all four of us came to L.A. and we met the director, Paul Greengrass. That’s when he told us we got the part.

Tavis: So the group of – all four of you got hired?

Abdi: All four of us, yep.

Tavis: Man! See, that part of the story, I didn’t know. So you go to the casting call, just happened to run into your buddies and you all had different parts. So you all just start rehearsing together and Paul Greengrass hired all four of you.

Abdi: All four of us.

[Clip]

Tavis: For those who have not heard, you’ve been a little bit of everywhere these days as you should be for a film this wonderful. For those who’ve not heard the story of how this came to be, take me back one more time and tell me where you were and how this role came your way.

Lupito Nyong’o: So I was just about to graduate from the Yale School of Drama and my manager received the script for Garret Hillahunt whom she represents and who plays Armsby in the movie and she thought I’d be good for Patsey.

So she had me on tape in New York and then it just so happened I was going to be in L.A. a week later for our Yale showcase there. So she had the casting office come in to see my work.

And then Francine Maisler, the casting director, invited me in to work with her. She put me through a one-hour very grueling audition. Then about two weeks later, I was invited down to Louisiana to audition with Steve. So it was three auditions in three different states.

Tavis: When you saw Patsey on the page for the first time, what did you think?

Nyong’o: I was heartbroken when I read her story and I felt a deep sense of sympathy. I felt so sorry for her and I realized then that I had a lot of work to do in order to be able to actually play her because seeing someone sympathetically is a judgment of their situation rather than an advocacy for where they are and what they’re fighting for. So I had my work cut out for me.

But I had a gut reaction to her. There was something that I understood in my gut that I didn’t understand in my head. And I know that’s something that actors have spoken of in the past with certain roles. I was just excited to feel that, you know, and not understand it and to then go about trying to find how to play her and understand her in other ways as well.

You know, being thrown into this role with this group of people was a very intimidating thing and I suffered from a lot of self-doubt. In fact, I thought that Steve was going to call me and fire or just tell me that he’d made a mistake in calling me in the first place.

So it was about finding the confidence and the comfort in the discomfort and just being present every day. So not being overwhelmed, finding a way to not be overwhelmed with the entire magnitude of the project, but just the day to day. What can I do today to prepare for Patsey?

And that’s what got me through, really. And that quality is something that I think is keeping me alive this award season as well. Just being in the present moment and letting the future worry about itself because it’s still coming.

Tavis: Critics and the general public alike often overlook the importance of screenplays. But it’s impossible to make a good movie without a good script. This year, three actors rose for themselves and, in the process, were nominated in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay.

[Clip]

Tavis: For those who have seen this – and almost everybody has now as the Academy Awards are approaching. For those who have seen it, they understand your point when you say there is some humor in it because at first glance it’s not a funny story.

Steve Coogan: No.

Tavis: So how did you – I mean, you’re a comedian, so you’re good at this. But how did you find the humor in this story?

Coogan: Well, I mean, first of all, you’re absolutely right. Whenever I told people the story, I’d say it’s about this woman searching for her son and there’s like a lot of tragedy in it. People would say, well, that sounds really depressing. Who would want to go and see that film? So I thought, well, I’ve got to make this film funny.

And I met Philomena, the real Philomena, and Martin Sixsmith who I play in the movie and I talked to them and I realized they’re very different characters. Martin is an intellectual and Philomena is this blue collar retired Irish nurse. So when you have two people so different, you just bang them into each other and you can find the humor there.

But it was very important to have comedy in it because, when you’ve got such a heavy subject matter, you don’t want people to – I didn’t want people to leave the cinema feeling depressed or down. I wanted them somehow, even though the story has a tragic element, I wanted people to leave the cinema feeling somehow positive.

And also it’s dealing with a difficult subject matter. It deals with religion and Catholicism and there are some criticisms in there. And people get very touchy when you criticize their religion. You’ve got to be very careful. So I knew that, if I could make people laugh, then people would relax a little. They’re not so scared about talking about these difficult subjects.

[Clip]

Tavis: First scene, like 14. I’ll put on my stopwatch. It’s like 14 minutes long.

Ethan Hawke: It’s about 14 minutes long, yeah.

Tavis: I mean, just talk to me about the reason for doing that, why you think it works. That’s a long opening scene, but it works, I mean, obviously.

Hawke: We rehearsed this take. You know, it was probably 21 pages of dialog. We’re driving a car. It’s about 20 miles of road that has to be blocked off in this whole crazy take. You know, there’s two other people in the scene. So the kids are asleep in the car.

When you’re young, you’re always talking and, you know, you’re with a woman and she’s with you and you’re philosophizing. Well, what’s gonna happen? As you get older, those moments of just whimsy, just chatting, are harder to find.

That was the germ that started the screenplay. It’s like, well, where are they driving? What are they talking about? What’s on their mind? So we thought this is the way to open the movie. Just dive right in and be in the car with them. I think it works.

Tavis: It does work. That’s a lot of dialogue…

Hawke: It is.

Tavis: …to remember.

Hawke: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah.

Hawke: Julie and I always joke that, when we work on these movies, we feel like there’s about – all we seem to do is run lines. You know, at dinner we run lines. On our way to set, we run – when you have 21 pages you’re supposed to try to get in one take, you run the lines a lot.

Tavis: I recall having this conversation with Ethan about how stunned I was – and stunned is the right word – in that opening scene that goes on for like forever.

Julie Delpy: Yeah, that 14-minute take in the car.

Tavis: That 14-minute take straight through with all of that dialogue. And everything is scripted in terms of the…

Delpy: Everything. Every word, every overlapping, you know. Because in real life when you speak with each other, you overlap each other. So you can’t fake that, especially when you have no cut. I mean, in a regular film when you want people to overlap, you cut it that way. You know, it’s mixing and editing. Here it’s one shot with the two of us, so we have to rehearse it and define all those things.

Basically, the editing is done in rehearsal and in the writing process and in the acting. So it’s very, very tricky, very, very tricky. I mean, it’s like this of a bull. I mean, like it’s almost impossible. And actually we worked for two days on that scene and we finally got one good take and that’s it. I mean, the film was shot in 15 days, so it’s very intense.

You know, we were very lucky to even – I mean, these films are like little miracles for me because it’s like it works, but basically it could not work. You know what I mean? It’s like just at the razor’s edge or something. I don’t know how you say that. But like it could basically be a disaster, but it’s not. Like we succeeded in doing it like barely [laughs].

Tavis: It helps when you have two good thespians who are doing the scene. I mean, everybody couldn’t have pulled that off.

We’ll close tonight by celebrating two excellent documentaries nominated this year. “Dirty Wars” from journalist Jeremy Scahill which tackles the issue of drone warfare, and then the delightful “20 Feet From Stardom” directed by Morgan Neville which celebrates those backup singers whose brilliant voices make all the difference.

[Clip]

Tavis: I have to imagine that we’re creating a lot of enemies around the world starting with the family of these victims who we, you know, kill with these drones who, as you said earlier, you can’t surrender to a drone.

Jeremy Scahill: There’s gonna be blowback, I mean, you know, if we don’t examine the impact of our policies at our own peril. I mean, I think the worst thing that we could do right now is to give people a legitimate reason to want to kill or harm Americans.

As an American, I fear for our future. 9/11 was not about people hating our McDonalds. There were reasons why 9/11 happened and part of it had to do with our foreign policy and people may be controversial to say that. Our foreign policy will cause blowback and that’s my biggest fear.

[Clip]

Tavis: I knew a little bit about the story of both of you. And, of course, I’ve heard your music and loved it and enjoyed it for years. But when I saw this documentary, it reminded me of that old adage that we all love that people see your glory, but they don’t know the back story.

Darlene Love: That’s right.

Merry Clayton: Yes.

Tavis: And when I saw the back story, I don’t have a language to describe how turned on I was by this documentary. Let me just start by asking, Darlene, what you thought of it when you saw it finally done. You lived the life. What did you think of the documentary?

Love: Well, you know what? When I first saw it, I cried. Talking about it and seeing it is two complete different things. And when they told the story about while I was out of work and what I did to come back to this business, I was so touched.

You know, when you’re living it, I don’t think it’s as bad as when you tell it and then when you see it on screen. And they did such an unbelievable job. I mean, they really dug deep and found some stuff I didn’t even know existed [laughs].

Tavis: Before you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you had cut a bunch of records, a bunch of hit records, but you found yourself cleaning peoples’ houses. At that point or any other point – and I’m coming to you with the same question, Mary.

But at that point or any other point, have you ever thought about just completely – I don’t want to say giving up, but just getting out of the business? Because both of you have had some ups and downs in this business. You ever thought about just getting out?

Love: Yep.

Tavis: Yeah?

Love: I did, but you know what? I kept reminding myself you have a gift. It’s a gift. You don’t throw gifts away. You know, especially beautiful gifts.

Tavis: Mary, you thought about giving up at some point?

Clayton: No. I’m too stubborn to give up. I’ve got too much – I remember things that were told to me by my godmother, Della Reese, you know. Della would always say to me – ’cause I lost my mother when I was 18 or 19 years old. Della always mentored me and she would always say to me, “You better gather yourself.” I’d say, Momma, you know what? I’m about sick of this. There’s no work, there are no sessions coming in, there’s no this and there’s no that.

She’d say, “But, oh, there’s God. And God will take you through whatever you need to go through. Everything that Eva Clayton put in you, it’s gonna come up when you need it.” And it always came up, you know, in my spirit. You know, it’s like who do you think you are? What do you mean, you’re gonna give up? You can’t. You got a gift.

Tavis: That’s our look at some of the excellent projects and people who are nominated for this year’s 86th Academy Awards. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: March 3, 2014 at 2:14 pm