Aplomb behind the noms

A look at some contenders' unsung pros

You won’t hear their names called at the Kodak, but without these pros, this year’s contenders couldn’t have hit their marks.

DR. RICHARD HANSEN: ‘”APOCALYPTO”
Consultant

Mel Gibson might not have even made “Apocalypto” without some prodding from Dr. Richard Hansen — inadvertent prodding, that is.

An archaeologist at Idaho State U., Hansen is an expert on Mayan civilization, specializing in the combination of anthropology and environmental science. He appeared in the National Geographic docu “Dawn of the Maya.”

“Gibson called me out of the blue because he saw the film, and he liked some of the story.” So the helmer invited Hansen to Santa Monica, where “what was going to be an hour meeting turned out to be nine hours.”

What was so interesting to Gibson about the Maya? “Conspicuous consumption,” Hansen says. The Maya burned entire forests, Hansen notes, to make quicklime plaster, which was slathered in thick layers on floors and walls. The thick layers of lime cement had one point: to impress others with their cost. In other words, he says, the Maya wasted their resources “because they could.”

Soon Hansen found himself jetting back and forth to vet the “Apocalypto” designs, including sets, costumes, tattoos and jewelry. “I made sure of the right colors, the right forms, that were consistent with the archaeological data,” he explains.

He also made sure what was seen on the screen reflected the archaeological record, or at least didn’t contradict it.

For the most part, he is happy with the result, though there are some details of the costumes that he argued against and he wishes the significance of the Mayans’ limestone industry had been better explained.

Even the infamous jaguar bite-to-the-face scene was vetted, he says. “The jaguar preys on the peccary, and the peccary has huge canines, and a cat can be slashed to pieces with those canines. So the jaguar has to crush the skull. That was another piece of information we contributed.”

— David S. Cohen

GENO HART: “LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE”
Transportation coordinator

“Little Miss Sunshine’s” yellow 1970s-vintage Volkswagen bus didn’t get onstage with the rest of the cast, even if many people consider it a character in the film.

“When it starts talking on camera it becomes a character,” says veteran transportation coordinator Geno Hart, who had the job of securing the pic’s centerpiece set. (On West Coast shoots, on-camera vehicles are the purview of the transportation department; on the East Coast they’re considered props.)

In fact Hart had to provide five buses: One with an automatic transmission for exterior shots of Greg Kinnear driving, one with a stick shift for interiors, one with removable sides and roof and two for stunts.

“Because they’re older, you just have to have extra vehicles in case something quits or stalls,” says Hart. Indeed, when they sent three to Arizona for second-unit shooting in 123-degree heat, “We needed all three, because one would quit and not want to play anymore.”

With a limited budget, Hart had to get five vans for what he’d normally pay for three. “We found one that didn’t run so good that we could cut the sides off of,” he says.

He also credits a vendor he works with who’s expert at making the vehicles look identical.

“He did everything from the emblems to the color of the two-tone seats to the color of the headliner,” says Hart.

“After we got the five vans on set, it was a lot of fun,” Hart says, praising the crew with making it all work. “You can’t do a movie that comes out this good without a strong team effort.”

— David S. Cohen

LINDA KAI: “LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA”
Key assistant location manager

Much of the action of “Letters From Iwo Jima” takes place inside Japanese tunnels on the Pacific island.

Standing in for those tunnels were a honeycomb of abandoned mines at Odessa Canyon, near Calico Ghost Town in California’s Inland Empire. The location proved critical, explains key assistant location manager Linda Kai, who was tasked with getting permits for the mines and getting them prepped for shooting.

“It was the closest, biggest access that we had to caves. Time is money, we’re thinking about mileage; everybody’s a union employee.”

Location manager Steve Beimler found the caves, but it was Kai who was sent to the town of Barstow to make it all work, a huge job that had to be accomplished in just three to four weeks.

Odessa Canyon is federal land, designated for public use but not for film shoots, so Kai needed permits from the Bureau of Land Management.

“In production, we move very quickly,” she says, “but when you’re working with a federal agency, it can be a big, lumbering beast.”

The BLM came through, but insisted the historic mines be protected. Trash had to be removed while period artifacts had to be left in place. Then bridges and pathways had to be built for safety before prep for shooting could start.

Kai also juggled conflicts with migratory birds, tortoise habitat and even jeep clubs. She also had to arrange for breathing masks to protect cast and crew from the fine silica dust in the mines.

In the end, though, some 85% of the underground scenes in the film were shot in the mines rather than on a stage.

“It was closest to home and happened to work the very best,” Kai says.

— David S. Cohen

ALAN MACDONALD: “THE QUEEN”
Production designer

Queen Elizabeth was an easier target than “The Queen” would have you believe.

While the movie tried to present an even-handed view of the royal family’s reaction to Diana’s death, production designer Alan Macdonald found his own task to be less a matter of accurately recreating the queen’s quarters than improving on reality in a credible way.

“From my research, I found their taste slightly — well, it looks like a sort of themed hotel from the 1970s, if you ask me,” Macdonald says of Balmoral. Photos of the castle interior revealed heavy plaid designs and row upon row of mounted stags’ heads. “It’s very garish. I was more interested in re-creating the ambiance of the house, making it slightly more tasteful and pulling back on tartanmania.”

A literal facsimile might have look farcical to audiences, as if the filmmakers were poking fun when they were actually trying to be accurate. And the script was edgy enough to complicate his job as it was.

“We had great difficulty finding locations for this film to shoot in,” he says. The region is filled with Scottish Baronial-style estates, “but as you can imagine, many of these houses are owned by friends of the royal family. They would invite us in to look at their houses, and as soon as they got wind of what the film was about, the doors were shut.”

In the end, he found three “slightly run-down houses,” which permitted him to fashion their long-since-renovated interiors to look as a more style-conscious queen’s rooms might.

— Peter Debruge

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