Backstage: Some 'Departed' attitude

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You could see Graham King shoot lasers out of his eyes at the reporter who suggested that "The Departed" might have been a lesser work from Martin Scorsese. King breathed deeply, then answered: "The only thing is that he's won his first Academy Award. ... Whatever he does, he puts his mark on it, and he did that on 'The Departed.' And there's no person that I've spoken to that hasn't enjoyed the value of this Marty Scorsese movie." In fact, for King, seeing Scorsese win his Oscar was more important than winning the award for best picture. "No one in this world loves film, respects film, like Marty. He's the king. I love him to bits," he said. King was asked about the producer credit controversy that dogged the movie. (Brad Grey was not deemed a producer in the Academy's eyes.) "The PGA makes the rules, and we all fill out the forms," King said, adding that Grey did a lot for the picture. "Their decision is their decision."

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The backstage crowd erupted into cheers when Martin Scorsese was named best director, and they erupted again when he entered the room. "It's an overwhelming, overwhelming moment," he said. "And best picture, that's a big surprise. I'm just used to not winning." Scorsese spent a lot of time being asked to contemplate the momentous win. "It's a good thing I didn't get it before. Maybe it would have changed the movies I made," he said. "I'm glad it went this way. When I saw the smile on (presenter) Steven's (Spielberg's) face, I knew something was up." He said he didn't look at the award as a career achievement award. "I do admire the career achievement awards. I saw Howard Hawks get one, and Alfred Hitchcock. But it's a different feeling having been chosen for the year." And being a real trooper, he also said, "The real winning for me is the making of the picture." He was overjoyed that his "three amigos" -- Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Spielberg -- were the ones who handed him his award. "We really worked together. It was really a private film school." And as far as that rumored prequel or sequel to "The Departed"? "It all depends on the script," he said. And what about Robert De Niro in it? "That would be a good idea."

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For weeks, "The Queen's" Helen Mirren was touted as a sure thing in the best actress category. Still, she herself never entertained thoughts of Oscar glory. "I didn't allow that thought. I didn't go there," she said. Going into the night, the film and theater veteran remained "quite calm." "It wasn't as though I didn't care," the thrice-nominated actress said. "I cared very much. I just felt very honored to be nominated in a year with such great roles for women." So, how does a very proper Brit plan to celebrate her Academy Award? "With a vodka gimlet," said Mirren, who is traveling with a large posse that includes her husband, director Taylor Hackford. With the win, Mirren joins a long list of British thespians who achieved the acting milestone. Still, many of her compatriots, including Peter O'Toole and Kate Winslet, left empty-handed. "I don't think I'm the only big winner (from England)," she said. "For us all to be here is amazing. It's wonderful, but it's not the most important thing. The recognition of film is getting more global, and I think that's an amazing thing."

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Best actor winner Forest Whitaker might have fielded the night's most bizarre question. "I know you're an operatic tenor, and is there a note that you can sing right now that represents how you feel?" He graciously declined. Whitaker did, however, talk about playing Idi Amin, a murderous dictator, and how he tried to find the man's core humanity. "I went to talk to his brothers and sisters, I tried to understand what happened to him as a child. ... You start out with a little child who is making choices and he slowly, slowly covers himself with darkness." Amin, while dark, wasn't "a character that was driving me crazy." Other characters, like that of drug-addled musician Charlie Parker in 1988's "Bird," were tougher. "Waking up with that kind of energy, that's tough. There are characters that I played that didn't want to live. And (Amin) did want to live." Whitaker said this year's Oscars, with its theme of diversity, was "an amazing statement on what's going on." "We have to be connected as a planet. Right now, we need that. We need to understand that this over here is connected to this over here. We have to pay attention. I affect you and you affect me." He also said he hoped that his win would bring positive attention to Uganda, which has a lot of beauty.

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Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" already had scored three Oscars before the best foreign-language film was announced, but though the lavish fairy tale looked unstoppable, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck walked away with the statuette for "The Lives of Others," his drama about East German secret police. "Guillermo, I think he deserves every one of those awards. He is a genius," Henckel von Donnersmarck said. "I talked to him before the awards, and we both said, 'I'll be happy for you if you win.' I'm sad for Guillermo, but not that sad." When asked whether he sees similarities between the early 1980s East German secret police and the Bush-Cheney administration, the German helmer hesitated. "I see where you're going, and I wonder what the Stasi could have done with the technology they have today," he said. "But if we were really in 1984 in East Berlin, and you asked that question, I would call you tomorrow, and you wouldn't be around." Instead, Henckel von Donnersmarck said he takes comfort in the free press. "We have freedom of speech," he said. "There will always be abuse of power, but as long as we can speak up about it, I'm OK with that."

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Perhaps Alan Arkin's victory at bowling during rehearsals for "Little Miss Sunshine" was a sign of things to come. But the veteran actor, who won his first Oscar after last being nominated 38 years ago for "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," is not about winning. "I feel in a sense like a hypocrite," Arkin said. "I don't believe in competition among artists." The real reason he received the award, Arkin believes, is his age, which is 72. "Everyone thinks I'm going to keel over in a few years," he joked. The actor, who played the curmudgeonly grandfather in the picture, had nothing but good things to say about "Sunshine." From working with "the lovely, delightful, charming" Abigail Breslin, to being locked into the yellow VW bus for hours with the cast, it was all about being a team player. "My main concern is what the entity is going to be like. The part is important to me, but I want to know what the film is about, who the other actors are." The most important question for Arkin was how the cast could hop into the moving bus. "We started at a slow speed and kept increasing it until we knew we'd have to hire stunt people we couldn't afford and the production couldn't afford to lose us."

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"American Idol" loser-turned-Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson has perfected the art of backstage commentary. She was honored just to be nominated for her supporting role as Effie in "Dreamgirls." While disappointed that co-star Eddie Murphy didn't win for his role as James "Thunder" Early, "We're all winners, just for being nominated," she said. But an air of confidence permeated her backstage talk. She shut down reporters who asked about rumored on-set catfighting, and she was comfortable enough to discuss her new house in Chicago. "I'll put my Oscar next to my Golden Globe, my SAG Award and my BAFTA Award," she joked. But she's not big enough to forget her roots. Hudson expressed thanks for "Idol" and said she plans to continue to sing in her church choir in Chicago. "It's my reality. It keeps me grounded," she said. Hudson believes that she has her grandma's voice. Her grandmother never performed professionally, opting to lead more than 100 solos in the church choir. "It's my duty and goal to do this for her," Hudson said. "It's my goal for the world to hear her voice."

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It was an emotional night for Sherry Lansing, the recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Confronted with two surprises during the presentation of her award, Lansing was overjoyed that Tom Cruise was her presenter, and seeing a photo of her mother in the video she watched for the first time with the rest of the world brought her to tears. "I was a wreck by the time I got to the stage," she said. When asked what career advice Lansing would give her friend Cruise, Lansing replied: "I don't think Tom Cruise needs any career advice. He's singularly the best actor and the best producer I've worked with in my career." She added: "Now he has a studio, and within the next five years he will be here, winning an Oscar, and not just for acting but for producing and directing as well. I'm close friends with Sumner (Redstone). But I have no idea what went on (with them) other than what I read in the paper." Lansing is filling her days working as a philanthropist, leaving the inner workings of Hollywood behind. "There is a season for everything," Lansing said. "As I turned 60, my desire to give back became stronger than my desire to make movies. I'm 62 now, and this is the happiest time of my life." Lansing now knows more about stem cell research then the movie business, she said, reiterating that there is life after the movies.

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Michael Arndt was the quintessential screenwriter when he put the words on paper that became "Little Miss Sunshine" -- the words that earned him an Oscar for best original screenplay. Holed up in his apartment, unemployed and writing alone, Arndt described the process as "boring and depressing" at times. He says the actors of "Sunshine" saved his life. "A writer's work is only as good as the people who he collaborates with," Arndt said. "I wrote very demanding roles and we had this amazing cast, and the movie wouldn't have worked without them. They did such an amazing job; making them three-dimensional really saved my life." Flash forward a few years, and Arndt is living a life that's anything but boring. Working for Pixar Animation Studios in the Bay Area, he is surrounded by a group of creative people putting together the script for "Toy Story 3." "I've discovered that one of the great pleasures in life is being in a room of really smart people," Arndt said. "I've had the good fortune now to be at Pixar for one and a half years." And going back to work at Pixar is sure to be filled with plenty of teasing. "I've been joking with my family that only at Pixar is getting an Oscar nomination not a big deal. They've already won so many anyway." Arndt does not believe the Oscar will create added pressure for his future work. "I was determined with 'Sunshine' to write the best screenplay that I could make," Arndt said. "I have to please myself before I please anyone else. I was pleased with 'Sunshine' when I submitted it. I won't submit another script unless I'm happy with it."

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The winner for best adapted screenplay, William Monahan, doesn't take lightly any suggestion of people messing with his script for "The Departed." He even said it: "I was (on location), I was going to give them hell if there was going to be a lot of improv." So when one reporter kept asking him about any actual improv, he snapped. "It was a written script," he hissed. "Yeah? Thanks." The reporter shrank back.

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Although Aussie director George Miller cut his teeth on such live-action films as the Mad Max trilogy, he took home his first Oscar for helming the animated penguin feature "Happy Feet." "My whole life I did live action, and I never thought I'd be holding an Oscar for an animated movie," the four-time nominee said. "It feels really nice. And it was given to me by Cameron Diaz." The line between animated and live-action filmmaking is blurring, Miller said. "There's a convergence between animation and regular visual effects movies. I'm very happy to be a part of it," he said. "I think every live-action director has to take into effect animation now. The Jim Camerons, the (Steven) Spielbergs, the Peter Jacksons, the (Robert) Zemeckises, they're all into it." And even more impressive to Miller, 61: He gets to interface with the industry's youths. "Everyone on 'Happy Feet' was 26," he said. "I'm an old fart, and working with them was great."

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Even though Vice President Al Gore continually denied any interest in running for president again, the idea wouldn't die. Called Mr. President twice by the press corps backstage after "An Inconvenient Truth" won best documentary feature, and with "Truth" producer Laurie David alluding that perhaps another Democratic candidate would enter the race, the idea of Gore resurrecting a campaign didn't seem out of the realm of possibility. Nevertheless, Gore said unequivocally: "I do not have plans to run for office again. There is a different campaign I plan to continue: successfully solving the climate crisis." Although Gore discussed how important it is that the climate crisis be solved as a bipartisan effort, the most exciting moment came when the "Truth" team was backstage to see Melissa Etheridge win best original song for "I Need to Wake Up," from "Truth." The entire team -- including Gore, David, director Davis Guggenheim and producers Lawrence Bender, Scott Burns and Lesley Chilcott -- hugged and patted one another on the back as Etheridge proclaimed her love onstage for Gore and his efforts to make everyone green. Guggenheim -- the son of documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim, who won three Oscars for documentary shorts -- said his father taught him everything he knows about filmmaking. "When I started this project, I needed to figure out how to turn a slide show into a film," he said. "I went back to what my father said: Every movie is personal, no matter what it is. So telling Al's story about learning about global warming and fighting to tell this story for 30 years was stealing a page from my father's playbook."

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Martin Scorsese might have been long overdue for an Oscar, but his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker is becoming an Academy favorite, winning her third statuette, this one for her work on "The Departed." The veteran editor, whose relationship with Scorsese dates back to their New York University days, said she has learned a great deal from their union. "It's a little hard to pin it down, but he taught me to be truthful, to be brave and to never give up fighting for what you believe in," said Schoonmaker, who also earned Oscars for Scorsese's "Raging Bull" and "The Aviator." Despite being a master of the craft, she said "Departed" posed its own challenges. "It was a remake of a thriller," Schoonmaker said. "And it was the first time I had done a thriller."

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"I think the Oscars are like a gay holiday," said Melissa Etheridge, who kissed her wife -- on camera, in front of the entire world -- when she won. The kiss was something she had discussed with partner Tammy Lynn Michaels. "I'm not one to kiss my partner in public for sensationalism," Etheridge said, but she explained that Michaels was instrumental in her writing "I Need to Wake Up," from "An Inconvenient Truth," which won for best original song. When Etheridge was overwhelmed, it was Michaels who kept her grounded by telling her to "write what you feel." But most importantly, "I was kissing her because you kiss your loved one when you win the Oscar." Etheridge said she found her win especially meaningful because Ellen DeGeneres, also a lesbian, was hosting. "It's a real mix of real diversity tonight. It's part of the world. ... I'm so proud of Ellen. This is truly something she has wanted to do for her entire life. It's so fun to be invited to this when she is hosting. And she's doing a fabulous job." Etheridge surmised that "Dreamgirls" -- which she called "what music and movies is all about" -- might have contributed to her win because three of its songs were nominated. "If it hadn't been for their three songs, you might be talking to a different person right now." The statuette that she clutched, by the way, was going to her bedroom. "This is the only naked man that will ever be in my bedroom."

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With the international nature of this year's Oscars, the backstage press area was a cornucopia of languages. Half the questions were from the foreign press in town to celebrate their countrymen. Usually the winners were bilingual, but it might not be long before translator headsets a la the United Nations will be needed. In the case of honorary winner Ennio Morricone, there was a translator, but in practice, it was the classic case where the reporter asks a question, the Oscar winner speaks volumes, and the translator sums it up in three lines. When it came to Celine Dion singing the song for Morricone, the composer said he didn't ask her to do it but rather the Academy did because she had recorded an album featuring his songs. Morricone said that earlier in the show, Dion came up to him and said she wasn't sure if she was capable because she was quite moved. Morricone said he doesn't have a favorite score no matter how many times he's been asked that question. "It's like asking a father if he has a favorite child, so I never answer that question. So what I'll say is the answer is, 'From a very good film,' " he said in Italian.

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On a night boasting numerous Spanish-speaking winners, "Babel" composer and Argentina native Gustavo Santaolalla explained the nuances of the Latin American label. "It's sort of like your block, your home and your neighborhood," said Santaolalla, who also won last year for his "Brokeback Mountain" score. "Argentina is my home, but I've always felt Latin American my whole life." While he represents the many shades of Latin America, he also bridged the gaps in "Babel's" globe-spanning story lines. "The challenge is we wanted to make it global, but we didn't want it to sound like a National Geographic documentary," he said. "I worked with lots of different instruments, but I found my (answer) with an instrument called the oud." An ancestor of the lute, the oud traces its roots to Arabia. "With the oud, we found a connection between the Morocco story line and the Mexican story line," he said.

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Milena Canonero, winner of best achievement in costume design for her work in Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette," has been nominated by the Academy eight times, winning her first Oscar for Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" (1975) and again for "Chariots of Fire" (1981). Canonero dedicated her award to Kubrick, saying she would be nothing without him. "He put me there," she said. "To have his support, to have the opportunity to work with a master like him, is a great gift." Regarding "Marie Antoinette," Canonero was up against time and budget constraints. "It was at times very stressful, but Sofia was extremely nice and available, and she gave me a lot of input with her vision," she said. "Her vision was poetic and helped me go in the right direction. ... The director's vision is the most important thing in the movie."

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Just as "Pan's Labyrinth" cinematographer Guillermo Navarro addressed reporters backstage about his Oscar win, he learned that the film had lost in the foreign-language film race to Germany's "The Lives of Others." "We feel that we did a very, very powerful movie, and we are mega-proud of it," he said. "So I was hoping for (it to win best foreign-language film). I was really, really hoping for that." So, instead of celebrating his individual achievement, Navarro felt bittersweet. "I agree that the German movie is a very good movie," he said. "Don't get me wrong."

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After earning the first of "Pan's Labyrinth's" three Oscars, art direction winners Eugenio Caballero and Pilar Revuelta speculated about the film's popularity. "In this cruel world right now, it is important to give a chance to fantasy," said Caballero, who nabbed the Oscar with his first nomination. "I think it's a movie about hope. That's why it has been a lucky year for us." For Revuelta, who also took home a statuette on her first try, the movie demonstrated the power of pan-Hispanic coalition. "It's good that it was a collaboration between Spanish people and Mexican people," said Revuelta, who took most of the backstage questions in Spanish.

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David Marti and Montse Ribe, the winners for best achievement in makeup, are longtime partners in special effects and makeup. While their nod for "Pan's Labyrinth" marks their first Academy Award, they have been nominated for numerous Goyas and BAFTAs for achievement in special effects. The duo answered most of their questions in Spanish, but they did discuss in English the moment when they first discovered that Guillermo del Toro's script for "Labyrinth" was special. "It was in a restaurant," Marti said. "With Guillermo, it's always in a restaurant. He told us about 'Pan,' and we thought it was amazing, and we wanted to be part of it."

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Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman, longtime collaborators of Clint Eastwood, were sound editors for "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima" -- and were nominated twice in the same category for their work on the two films. While they didn't see "Letters" until they already had finished "Flags," the pair clearly distinguished between the works. " 'Flags' had immense size to it, while 'Letters' was much more claustrophobic, living inside those caves with the threat always on the outside," said Murray, whose father served at the Battle of Iwo Jima. "We tried like crazy to make it feel that it was pretty scary. We were scared."

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John Knoll, Hal Hickel, Charles Gibson and Allen Hall, winners for their visual effects work on "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," might have become Oscar holders, but it looks like they'll have no time to enjoy that state. Some of the group already have a meeting with the film's director, Gore Verbinski, today as they tackle a huge battle scene for the next film of the franchise, "At World's End." The quartet disclosed that the new movie will be bigger than what has come before -- and different: "We're not doing more of the same," Gibson said. "We're going to be doing a lot of invention for this one. We're doing 2,000 shots, which was the amount of shots of ('Pirates') one and two combined."

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Could a little rivalry have been revealed in the sound mixing world? Things turned weird when the winners in that category -- Willie Burton, Bob Beemer and Michael Minkler for "Dreamgirls" -- were onstage in the press room. A question was thrown to the trio about what advice they had for Kevin O'Connell, a nominee for "Apocalypto" who now has been nominated 19 times without a win. While Burton and Beemer had conciliatory things to say -- "Hang in there, Kevin, you'll get your chance," Burton said -- Minkler's words were the opposite. "I think Kevin should go away with 19 nominations," he said without cracking a smile. "We work really hard, and if we stumble upon an award, we are so grateful. I have to wonder ... Kevin is an OK mixer, but he should take up another line of work." He exited the stage leaving people wondering whether he was serious.

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When Ari Sandel directed "West Bank Story" as his master's thesis film, he never envisioned winning an Oscar for best live-action short. "My dream was to take it to Sundance," the USC graduate said. "The rest is all incredible." Although Sandel doesn't expect the comedic take on the volatile region to change the world, he will take credit for changing a few minds. "I wanted to make it even-handed," he said. "I wanted Jews watching it to like the Arab characters, and I wanted Arabs watching it to like the Jewish characters." In fact, Sandel found the response to "West Bank" to be overwhelmingly positive from both sides of the divide. After receiving letters and e-mails from the film's fans, he promised that he would tell reporters, "There are people on both sides who want peace."

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For Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon, the process of making the winning documentary short "The Blood of Yingzhou District" was painstaking. The docu, which centers on the fate of Chinese orphans whose parents died of AIDS, involved a lot of difficult decisions. "It was a very emotional journey," said Yang, who described the Chinese culture as very closed, unable to talk about personal feelings. "In the editing room, we had a very hard time. We had many shouting matches about what to let go and what to put in." The filmmaking duo will continue working on public service work in China. According to Lennon, the two want to work on getting anti-stigma messages out to viewers in China. "We want to push forward and do more of that work," Lennon said. Although he added, "The atmosphere in China and its relationship to AIDS has changed enormously in the last four years. They have become much more active, open and transparent. We are working with the Chinese ministry of health, and I think it will continue."

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Torrill Kove beat such studio heavy-hitters as Pixar, Buena Vista and Blue Sky Studios for her animated short win for "The Danish Poet," and she isn't going to join their club anytime soon. Kove said she spent most of her week in Los Angeles meeting other animators, not thinking about joining a studio or jumping into the feature business. "I'm still attached to the short-film format, and I'm going to do that for a while longer." She said she is grateful to the Academy for keeping her category alive. "(Animated-short filmmakers are) an inclusive community, but it is a little bit insular, and to have the Academy recognize this form every year is really wonderful."
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