Oscars: How 5 Foreign Language Films Made Their Journey

10:30 AM 2/19/2016

by Marc Bernardin, Mia Galuppo , Gregg Kilday , and Alex Ritman

Getting a film made in Hollywood is tough (an Oscar contender all the more so), but for the nominated foreign contenders — two of which have put their home nation in the race for the first time — the path to a nomination was a global obstacle course of financing, casting and even deadly wild animals.

  • A War

    Denmark

    Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

    FINDING THE ANGLE "The war in Afghanistan is the first war that Denmark fought since the Second World War," says director Tobias Lindholm, 38. "In the Second World War, we fought for four hours against the Germans before we gave up. As you can imagine, the Afghanistan war defined my generation more than any­thing. And I knew there was a story to be told about the Danish involvement; I just couldn't find my way into that story." An article about an officer going on his third tour, who was more afraid of get­ting prosecuted as a war criminal when he got back home than getting killed in battle, sparked the filmmaker. "Right then, I knew that was a story I hadn't seen before," he says.

    MONEY TRAIL "Because we're such a small nation, we don't have a commercial movie market here," says Lindholm. "We have the Danish film institute that subsidizes Danish film productions. I always try to write to a budget so that I know I can finance it by this more-or-less free mon­ey, which means that I can maintain total creative freedom. And luckily, StudioCanal came in at the script stage and bought world rights to the film and helped us produce it."

    FIGHTING TO MAKE WAR The production was rife with problems, from not having bullets — pretty essential in a war film — to not having a camp for production in southern Turkey. "UNESCO hadn't arrived yet," says Lindholm. "It was very stressful. I knew that Istanbul was very much like the rest of Europe. But I have to say that going into the countryside — south near the Syrian border — we had a lot of trouble shooting out there. The infrastructure just isn't built for filmmaking. Luckily, the soldiers that are acting in the film, they were very loyal and they understood. All the time when I thought, 'We are now free of problems,' a new problem would arise. I thought a lot about Lost in La Mancha [a 2002 documentary about a doomed feature adaptation of Don Quixote]."

    GOLDEN MOMENT Three films were vying to be Denmark's Oscar submission. "I found out two days before we were actually picked as the Danish nominee that there was a pretty good chance that it would happen," says Lindholm. "Since then we've been campaigning quite a lot. It's a great honor to be nominated. It's an even greater honor to have a larger audience."

    CELEBRATE GOOD TIMES The actors who played sol­diers in A War are flying in for the Oscar ceremony. "As soon as the show's done and we're done with the things we need to do, we're going to get in a car and drive and celebrate with them," says Lindholm. "These guys were 20 to 21 years old when they went to Afghanistan. Their courage to tell that story has helped create a film that's now Oscar-nominated. That's worth a celebration."

    VITAL STATS
    • Foreign title: Krigen
    • Distributor: Magnolia
    • Release date: Feb. 12
    • Notable festival appearances: Venice
    • Where to watch: Opens Feb. 12 at the Laemmle Royal in L.A. and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York
    • Top awards and noms: N/A

  • Embrace of the Serpent

    Colombia

    Courtesy of Andrés Córdoba/Oscilloscope Laboratories

    WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE "We had about seven weeks of pre­production," says director Ciro Guerra, 35, of prep­ping to shoot Embrace of the Serpent in the Amazon rain forest. "First we had to choose a crew that wouldn't bail on us. Then we just had to prepare for the worst." One such preparation involved the serpents mentioned in the title of the film, which are abundant in the Amazon basin. "We had to have antidotes for the possible snake poison, and everyone needed to get vaccines." Guerra says the crew spotted a variety of jungle wildlife, both dangerous and benign, but everyone emerged from the production unscathed. "We didn't have any accidents or disease, and we didn't have any attacks, and no one was bitten or hit by anything," he says. As an extra precautionary measure, a shaman from one of the local tribes would perform ceremonies asking the jungle for help in keeping the cast and crew safe.

    COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS Of making initial contact with the indigenous tribes that would be featured in the film, Guerra explains: "We had the fortune of working with an anthropologist friend who had worked with them before. So there was already a level of confidence, and the main thing with them was to just be transparent. If they did not give us their permission, the film would not have been possible. When they gave us permission, our producer started crying."

    LOCAL EFFORT Embrace of the Serpent is the first Colombian film to feature an indigenous pro­tagonist. "All of the indigenous people in the film are portrayed by real indigenous people native to the Amazon," says Guerra. "All of our casting was done during preproduction. All of the extras are indigenous people, and they were also a part of the crew, working in the wardrobe department and the dressing department."

    PUSHING BOUNDARIES Guerra is gratified by the success of the film — a co-production among Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina — and what it means for Latin American filmmaking. "You always hope that your films are seen by the widest audience possible, but the distribution is getting harder and harder every time," he says. Each of Guerra's three feature films have been chosen to represent Colombia in the foreign-language film Oscar race, but this was the first to get nominated. "But [this film] applies to the saying that, 'No one knows anything in the end.' Who would have thought that a black-and-white film, in an Amazonian language, could make it out of all the entries from Colombia? It is a boost of confidence. A lot of people here hold out believing in Colombian filmmakers and a number of those people are becoming champions in Colombian cinema."

    VITAL STATS
    • Foreign title: El Abrazo de la Serpiente
    • Distributor: Oscilloscope Pictures
    • Release date: Feb. 17
    • Notable festival appearances: Cannes, TIFF, AFI Fest, Sundance
    • Where to watch: Opens Feb. 17 at Film Forum in New York and Feb. 19 at the Landmark Nuart Theatre in L.A.
    • Top awards and noms: Spirit nomination

  • Mustang

    France

    SEXUAL AWAKENING "Even before I started to think about making a film, I was curious about the question of what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a woman in Turkey," says 37-year-old director Deniz Gamze Erguven, who saw parallels between the life of Marilyn Monroe and the sexualization of women in Turkey. "[Monroe] had lamented that she was being permanently sexualized. There was something about her experience that resonated."

    SEARCHING FOR SISTERS "For me, the main character of the film is actually one character with five heads — it was really so complicated to have all those inner equilibriums that had to coexist. And they had to look alike," Erguven says of the five sisters portrayed in the film. "In the beginning, I had heard that for Beasts of the Southern Wild they saw 4,000 girls in casting. And I was thinking that we were going to see more than five times that figure. But it wasn't that bad. The casting director saw thousands, but I saw hun­dreds. After months of trying different combinations, it clicked. It was literally a body with five heads. And it was beau­tiful to see."

    COURTING CHAOS Mustang's original pro­ducer dropped out three weeks before shooting was set to begin. "That was the moment where we were a hair away from not doing anything," says Erguven. "[The producer] had never properly budgeted the film. She had never had a first AD make a shooting schedule until just before shooting, and there was a freak-out because we were underfinanced by more than a third of the eventual bud­get [€1.3 million]. There were three days of complete freefall. And a lot of funding was contingent on a certain time period. If we had to shoot the next year, we wouldn't have the money … and the girls [we had cast] would've grown up."

    FROM CANNES TO OSCAR Erguven previously had been to Cannes with her short film, 2006's A Drop of Water. "We were proud as roosters," she says of her feelings at the time. "My mother came, then we just went back home. This time I was making jokes: 'We're going to show [Mustang] on Tuesday, do press on Wednesday, and by Thursday, we'll be has-beens.' But Thursday never came. That first night of the screening we had a party, and the whole evening was about discussing [the film] with distributors around the world. Nobody told me the film was sold everywhere. And it was becoming bigger and wider. That night, I met Daniel [Battsek] and people from Cohen Media and they told us they loved the film, they wanted to release it in the U.S. … in a way that will position it to be considered for the Oscars."

    VITAL STATS
    • Foreign title: Belleza Salvaje
    • Distributor: Cohen Media Group
    • Release date: Nov. 20
    • Domestic box office: $583K
    • Notable festival appearances: Cannes, Venice, TIFF, Busan, AFI Fest
    • Where to watch: Currently screening at the Laemmle Music Hall in L.A. and the IFC Center in New York.
    • Top awards and noms: Globe and Spirit noms

  • Son of Saul

    Hungary

    Courtesy of The Toronto International Film Festival

    MOMENT OF INSPIRATION Laszlo Nemes was working as an assistant director on fellow Hungarian Bela Tarr's The Man From London in 2005 when on a day off he wandered into a bookstore in Bastia, France, and discovered a volume published by the Shoah Memorial titled Voices From Beneath the Ashes — a collection of testimonies written by the Sonderkommando, the Jewish prisoners who were forced to work in the Nazi death camps. "I was transported to the very present of the Holocaust and the very heart of the extermination machine — it was so powerful. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to make a film about one member of the Sonderkommando," says Nemes, 38, who made his feature directorial debut with Son of Saul.

    UNCONVENTIONAL CASTING CHOICE On what he calls "an intuition," Nemes invited Geza Rohrig, a Hungary-born poet who now lives in Brooklyn, to audition for the movie, originally expecting to offer his friend a supporting role. Instead, during the course of two weeks, he decided Rohrig should play Saul, even though Rohrig hadn't worked in film since appearing in two Hungarian movies during the late 1980s. "For me, he had this sort of obsessive quality," explains Nemes. "A man with many layers, someone who is both ordinary and extraordinary." Rohrig, who as a teenager in Budapest played in an underground punk band (after being kicked out of high school for anti-Communist activities), was up for the challenge. "I'm not the kind of guy who has stage fright," he says with a laugh, adding, "I could see from the script that Laszlo defied the dangers of a movie about Auschwitz exactly the way I would have done it — we were on the same wavelength. The script was very well written. Even the sounds and the reduced visual accessibility, I knew from the script, would make the viewer's experience easier on one hand because you would not have to confront some of the horrors. But on the other hand, it makes that experience much harder because it is left to your imagination."

    REACTIONS THAT TOUCHED NEMES THE MOST Nemes himself became a hot commodity after his film won the grand jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered. He immediately was courted by Hollywood agencies and ultimately signed with UTA. But what he has found most gratifying are "some very personal responses to the film, from people who were sometimes survivors themselves but who were reluctant to see the film," he says. "But they eventually saw it and thanked me. They said they didn't expect this film. In a way, the film gave a voice to something that couldn't be communicated with words. For me, it was very touching to have this kind of approach from people who had a more direct relationship to the Holocaust."

    VITAL STATS
    Foreign title: Saul Fia
    Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
    Release date: Dec. 18
    Domestic box office: $874K
    Notable festival appearances: Cannes, Telluride, TIFF, NYFF
    Where to watch: Currently screening at The Landmark in L.A.
    Top awards and noms: Golden Globe and NBR wins; Spirit nomination

  • Theeb

    Jordan

    IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUCCEED Director Naji Abu Nowar, 34, admits his first attempt at writing a "Bedouin Western" over a decade ago perhaps leaned a little too heavily on his filmmaking hero, Sergio Leone. "It was basically a complete rip-off. … There was even a character called Ugly," he laughs. "It was terrible, and no one shall ever see that script; it's in my basement somewhere." Having abandoned the project, the U.K.-born (to a Jordanian military family) Nowar went off to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in order to "learn how to be a proper writer, instead of a con-artist copy-and-paste writer." He returned to Theeb again around 2009 when Bassel Ghandour, who would co-write and produce the film, came back to Jordan from USC and wanted to make a short pic about two young Bedouin boys on a hunting trip that goes wrong. "So I asked if I could collaborate with him, and then we started in earnest," says Nowar.

    ON THE MONEY "People used to laugh at us," says Nowar of the initial attempts to find financing. Jordanian films "aren't very sexy" to the European or Middle Eastern film funds. After several failed attempts, the Theeb team decided they couldn't wait any longer. "I just said, 'Look, let's not write a script and then go out and ask people for permission so we can get their stupid funds. Let's just go out and do it, tell people that we'll begin the writing process and will then shoot on 5Ds or mobile phones if we have to,' " the director says. "And that was a very liberating thing." But the financing slowly start to trickle in, first from Abu Dhabi's Sanad fund, which helped get things going. "We eventually went from thinking we were going to shoot on 5Ds to raising enough to shoot on film and work with an amazing crew."

    ROYAL NOTICE "Literally the whole country has gone nuts," says Nowar of Jordan's first Oscar nomination. "There were journalists calling up my producers going, 'We know he's in the country. You can't hide him, his cousin says he's still here!' " But alongside the messages of support that have been sailing in from across the whole Middle East, there also have been a few royal endorsements. "The queen [Rania] tweeted us, and there were congratulations passed from the king. It's insane!"

    VITAL STATS
    Foreign title: A Sivatagon At
    Distributor: Film Movement
    Release date: Nov.6
    Domestic box office: $231K
    Notable festival appearances: Venice, London, TIFF
    Where to watch: Currently screening at the Laemmle Music Hall in L.A.
    Top awards and noms: BAFTA nom

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