Oscar Show Producers Reveal Secrets Behind Meryl's Selfie and That Pizza Order

3:52 PM PST 03/03/2014 by Gregg Kilday
AP Images
Neil Meron and Craig Zadan

Producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan also found a way to help the Academy acknowledge Sarah Jones, the camera operator whose death has raised the issue of set safety, in the broadcast, which was greeted with an uptick in ratings.

Meryl Streep got an advance warning that Ellen DeGeneres would be coming into the audience during Sunday night's Oscar show, but had no idea she'd be asked to take a selfie. There were even more pizzas backstage, where stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Will Smith could be spotted helping themselves to the pies. And it was the show's producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who, responding to a request from the Academy, suggested a way that Sarah Jones, the camera operator who died in the Midnight Rider train accident Feb. 20, could be remembered with an on-air notice at the end of the "In Memoriam" section

Those are a few of the behind-the-scenes details that Zadan and Meron recounted as they looked back on the second Academy Awards broadcast they have produced in the last two years. According to the preliminary figures, the show averaged 43 million viewers, up six percent from last year. Although the two had been up late rehearsing Saturday night and report they got just about two hours sleep before launching into final preparations Sunday, Zadan said, "The good news is it was worth it. It had a happy ending because we got to do a show we loved doing and the ratings came through as we hoped they would."

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They credited DeGeneres for setting the tone of the show. Said Meron, "One of the reasons that we so wanted Ellen to host the show is because she is hysterically and brilliantly funny and she also is warm. We wanted the show to be infused with her spirit and we feel it was very successful in doing that."

Before the awards, the producers revealed, DeGeneres had told a couple of  stars like Streep that she'd be coming into the audience to play with them. "But nobody really knew anything," Zadan said. "A couple of people knew Ellen was going to come out and talk to them. Meryl said, ‘Great, let’s have fun.' But it was all improvised to a degree. When Ellen was planning the selfie, she thought it would be Meryl, and maybe Julia [Roberts]. I don't think she anticipated that all those stars would get out of their seats and surround them." In fact, in rehearsal, with DeGeneres' writers sitting in for the stars, the bit was blocked out on the assumption that Streep would take the shot, although ultimately Bradley Cooper volunteered.

DeGeneres also masterminded the pizza boy gag. "When Ellen said she wanted to do it, we said we’d hire an actor, but she said, 'No, no, no. You’re not hiring an actor. I want a real pizza delivery
person,' " Zadan revealed. "We said that the FBI would have to do a background check. She said, 'I don’t care. I want it to be real. I want this guy to walk in and not know he's going to the Academy Awards.' "

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To set up the bit, an order for 20 pies, ostensibly for the show's writers, was placed with Big Mama’s and Papa’s Pizzeria in Hollywood. To ensure the pizzas wouldn't arrive cold, the show had warming ovens ready in the wings. Although the producers weren’t sure the celebrity crowd, dressed in its finest, would reach out for pizza, DeGeneres reassured them, "Trust me. When you sit there for four hours, you are so hungry. They are going to eat the pizza, I promise you." And she was right.

In fact, backstage in the green room, the extra pizzas were happily consumed by the likes of Lawrence, Jennifer Garner, Jessica Biel and Will and Jada Smith.

Were there any complaints from Pepsi, one of the show’s sponsors, that the pizza boxes carried Coke logos? "We have not heard any complaints like that," Meron said.

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In the days leading up to the show, the producers did have to jettison some of the segments they were planning in the interests of time. They had teased that The Amazing Spider-Man's Andrew Garfield would make an appearance, possibly in connection with the superheroes montage. And they also had blocked out a big musical number that would have featured a lot of stars.

They declined to discuss the specific details of what they had been planning, but Zadan explained, "We had a long list of things that we wanted to do on the show. But when you're dealing with a live broadcast, you have no idea what's going to work, what's not going to work, what's going overtime. So there was an assortment of things that we cut because creatively they just didn’t come together."

The show did find time for musical numbers by U2, Pink, Pharrell Williams, Karen O, Idina Menzel and Bette Midler. "We got very lucky this year in terms of the nominated songs being great songs that we thought would bring a lot of musical diversity to the show," Meron said. "So we just decided we would go for it and give them their place to shine. And when you look at the fabric of the show, it seemed like a pretty damn entertaining evening -- and it’s all Oscar and movie-related."

One challenge arose late in planning. Last-minute deaths, like that of comedy legend Harold Ramis, were worked into the "In Memoriam" section. But during the course of the week before the show, a grass-roots movement began calling the Academy and the show’s producers to include mention of Jones, whose death has become a flash point for those demanding more attention be paid to set safety. While the decision about who is included in the annual tribute is made by an Academy committee, and not the show's producers, the producers did suggest to the Academy a way to include Jones.

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"The Academy came to us and said, ‘We have this situation and we need to figure it out.’ The 'In Memorium' reel was closed. We had locked up all the film clips and we were done," Zadan explained. "We met with our team and said, 'How can we accommodate this?' We decided to create a card at the end of the sequence that looked exactly graphically like the 'In Memoriam' sequence. We tried it and thought it looked graphically really pleasing and respectful. We showed it to the Academy and they said, ‘Perfect.' It also directed everyone to Oscars.com, where they can find a complete 'In Memoriam' listing," he added.

So are the two producers, who next shift their attention to producing the live musical version of Peter Pan that NBC will air in December, game for producing a third Oscar show next year?

Responded Meron, "How about just enjoying today?"

Watch footage of the selfie below.

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