Just a little over a month before Hollywood came to a screeching halt in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, about 3,000 people crowded into the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood for the 92nd Academy Awards.
“There were inklings of the virus because people started to hear about it, but what we’ve seen happen certainly wasn’t on our radar,” Stephanie Allain, who produced the Oscars with Lynette Howell Taylor, told Variety on Monday afternoon. “I’m sure people might have had it at the Oscars.”
In fact, Hollywood’s last red carpet premiere for Disney’s “Mulan” wasn’t for another full month. While there were bottles of hand sanitizer available for guests and some people wore masks and gloves to the event, Hollywood was shut down later that week.
“Honestly, is feels like we were in completely different time making the Oscars,” Taylor said.
And then she adds while shaking her head, “Imagine if the Oscars were in March or April. I don’t know what we would have done.”
What they did pre-pandemic shutdown was create a show that has earned nine Emmy nominations, including one for outstanding live variety special. “The number of nominations is really the highlight for us that we can celebrate everybody else and their work and the key people that really make the show what the show is and are deeply creative,” Taylor said.
Allain and Taylor were named producers of the Oscars in November. By the time nominations were announced in January, they had just four weeks to finalize their plans. “[Oscars director] Glenn Weiss said it the best,” Taylor said. “He said the run-up to the show is like going up the roller coaster and then the day of the show is the ride. The adrenaline is so intense.”
“The build up is so intense and then it’s live theater on live television and in front of all your peers, all the people you respect, in front of all the people you revered for your whole life, you just don’t want to f— it up,” she said.
The Oscars were hostless for the second year in a row. Allain and Taylor preferred it that way. “Our motto for the show was really just joy and celebration,” Taylor said. “We said it from the minute we met each other, we did not want to make a snarky show. We wanted to make something that was genuinely about love and appreciation of cinema.”
Allain added, “One of our guiding principles that we both agreed on from the get go, having both worked in theater, is we wanted it to feel like it was a theatrical experience. At one point, we wanted to eliminate the voice of God until we realized we just couldn’t.”
The show opened with a performance by Janelle Monáe that included nods to films that were nominated, but also movies that didn’t make it onto the ballot. “Our mission was to show how much good work happened,” Allain said. “We wanted to celebrate all of it.”
One of their hardest tasks was keeping the surprise Eminem performance under wraps. Very few people knew about the plans and even during a run through the night before with Academy governors in attendance, they staged a fake “Saturday Night Fever” number in place of the rapper’s spot in the show. “They thought we had lost our minds,” Allain said. “They were texting [Academy president] David Rubin being like, ‘What’s happening here?’ David obviously knew so he wasn’t worried about this three-minute tribute to ‘Saturday Night Fever.’”
Like so many Oscar producers before them, they tried to get Gene Hackman to present, but the legendary actor once again turned down the invitation. “We also invited people who turned in great performances, but weren’t nominated, but it’s hard to show up to a party that didn’t put you on the list,” Allain said.
The day before the big show, Tom Hanks whispered to Taylor during rehearsals, “You know, this is the most thankless job in Hollywood.”
Maybe so, but Taylor and Allain have no regrets. “We had a blast doing it,” Taylor said. “We’re really proud of the show.”
Ask if there’s something they would have done differently, Allain and Taylor answered in unison, “Made it shorter.” The ceremony clocked in at three hours and 32 minutes. “There were probably little things here and there that could have cut some time, but we also decided never to play anyone off during their acceptance speeches,” Allain said. “Even though, we warned people that we would, we didn’t. This is potentially the biggest moment in someone’s life and to get played off in that sort of embarrassing way wasn’t part of our joy and celebration motto. We just couldn’t do it.” The band accidentally started, but then stopped playing off the producers of “Parasite” after the film won best picture because it seemed like they were done with their acceptance speeches.
What words of advice do they have for next year’s producers, who may find themselves producing a virtual Oscars? “I don’t know,” Taylor said. “I don’t envy the people that have to come up with that show.”