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How Nominees Directed Their Way Onto the Oscar Ballot

Even for the most experienced filmmaker, every movie offers challenges and surprises that can alter a production’s trajectory and change the director’s approach to his film in unexpected ways. We asked this year’s Oscar directing nominees about the obstacles that cropped up while getting their films across the finish line.

Biggest challenge as a director on this film:

Alfonso Cuaron, “Roma”: “When Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuaron’s longtime cinematographer] couldn’t do the film. He warned me for weeks that he wasn’t going to be available and I refused to listen to him.”

Yorgos Lanthimos, “The Favourite”: “It was a period film and I’d never done one of those. I didn’t realize the practical complications and difficulties when you’re trying to maintain a sense of period.”

Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman”: “The editing room. Luckily I had my long-time editor Barry Alexander Brown [also Oscar-nominated]. We got into the editing room and had to find the balance between the humor and the serious subject matter.”

Adam McKay, “Vice”: “Stylistically, this film was a leap. It was like riding a bucking bronco, trying to track five or six decades, with the changes in makeup and clothes and furniture.”

Pawel Pawlikowski, “Cold War”: “The challenge was how to cover all the years and locations the film does without going through and explaining things, like how history works.”

How it was overcome:

Cuaron: “I think that, subconsciously, as I was trying to get Chivo to do it, I was saying to myself, ‘If he can’t do it, I’ll do it myself.’ And so I did. I’m really grateful how the crew stepped up.”

Lanthimos: “Fortunately, I was working with all these great actors. They came in very well-prepared. That enabled our relationship to grow, along with our trust for each other.”

Lee: “You just got to work it out in the editing room.”

McKay: “We used a style that allowed us to break some rules. And I didn’t mind if it was a little laugh-heavy, because that’s part of my style.”

Pawlikowski: “You do it with images, visually. That’s the only way to do it and not waste time. I like my story and characters to come from situations in their life and relationships. That’s how it becomes universal.”

Key moment in this production:

Cuaron: “Meeting Yalitza [Aparicio, the film’s star]. I had scouted locations, spent time finding costumes and furniture from the period. But when I met her, I knew I could make my film.”

Lanthimos: “We had three weeks of rehearsal before production, which is very unusual in cinema. That was very useful and helpful. It armed us with a lot of confidence. It enabled us to find joy in filming, and freedom. The actors felt free to try things and weren’t afraid to fail.”

Lee: “The day Harry Belafonte filmed his piece. We saved it for the last day. The day before, I told the cast and crew, ‘You’ve got to come tomorrow dressed like you’re going to church.’”

McKay: “Getting the make-up right — because if you don’t get the make-up right, you look ridiculous. We had Greg Cannom [Oscar winner for both “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”], but the early tests weren’t working very well. But I knew it was a process. We worked and worked on it, and were getting close to shooting when we finally got a good test — and Christian said he liked it, but he wanted a couple of changes. So we didn’t finalize it until a week or two before we started production. In fact, we were talking about how we could push the schedule if we didn’t get it right. There were definitely safety-valve discussions. I was actually a little sick.”

Pawlikowski: “It was when we were recording the music for the film and putting it to the film. I realized how powerful it was; I was deeply moved by the music. To hear it performed and put to the images, I realized what power that is.”

Biggest surprise:

Cuaron: “The reaction to the film. I made this film almost out of a need I had. But I didn’t know if something so specific — if anybody would connect with it. But then the reaction at [the Venice Film Festival] was so positive. And now we’re seeing the same reaction from audiences in places as diverse as the United States and Japan and Mexico.”

Lanthimos: “That it was such a delightful experience with the actors on the set, particularly seeing the fun they had with the roles and how they bonded. You can’t take such things for granted. It was incredible to watch.”

Lee: “Nobody knew Belafonte was in it, up until he walked on the set. People stopped in their tracks. At that exact moment, I said, ‘This film is going to be a hit.’”

McKay: “I knew Christian Bale would be great, but I didn’t know he’d be that great. I mean, this is one of the great performances. I knew it would be good — I wouldn’t have made the film without him. Even still, when we were on the set and he was working, there were days I’d get chills — and then I’d catch the eye of other people on the crew and we’d exchange this look, like, ‘Holy God, are you watching this?’”

Pawlikowski: “That everything fell into place as easily as it did. You have films where everything clicks and you just can’t put your foot wrong. When those kinds of moments happen, you have to pay attention to them. When that happened, I knew I was onto something good.”

What this nomination means to you:

Cuaron: “It’s very significant because this is a film that was done in Mexico. It’s a story that’s very close to me, about a person I loved dearly. It means that it’s been embraced.”

Lanthimos: “It brings me joy and a sense of possibility. I’m proud because so many people were recognized. It makes me very happy.”

Lee: “Timing is everything. You’ve got to catch lightning in a bottle.”

McKay: “It’s a nice affirmation from other directors; that means a lot that other filmmakers support the film, because it was a leap, stylistically.”

Pawlikowski: “It’s fantastic being noticed by the American Academy. It’s great to be in this good company with great directors.”

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