A closer look at how the production, screenplay, score and more came together for this year's drama and comedy contenders, from 'The Shape of Water' to 'I, Tonya.'
Near the end of Call Me by Your Name, Elio (Timothee Chalamet) finds himself heartbroken after a whirlwind summer romance with his father's assistant (Armie Hammer). It's at this moment that his mostly quiet father (Michael Stuhlbarg) gives a powerful speech revealing his support of his gay son.
"I thought it was beautiful," says writer James Ivory of first reading the words in Andre Aciman's 2007 novel. "His father's broad-mindedness was a great thing and a rare thing."
Ivory had to cut down the speech for the film adaptation but was committed to keeping it in the script. "Toward the end of the film, you don't tend to want to have great long monologues because you're pretty much ready to finish up, but the way that he spoke to his son was so remarkable."
To play Amphibian Man in Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water, actor Doug Jones endured 65 shooting days of indignities. He spent endless hours soaking in an ice-cold water tank. He squatted on his haunches, his neck chained to a concrete block, while being cattle-prodded by a sadistic government agent (played by Michael Shannon). He wore a fish-man costume and headpiece that were so heavy they required four crewmen to hoist them onto him.
But for Jones, 53, the most brutal scene was the one del Toro shot in black-and-white while a 20-piece orchestra played waltz music on the soundstage. "I had to dance," he says. "And I'm not a dancer."
Over his two-decade career, del Toro has blended many genres. But planting a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers-style dream sequence into the middle of his Cold War-era sci-fi romance about a mute cleaning lady (Sally Hawkins) in a secret research facility who develops a crush on a captured fish-man creature is a stretch even for the Mexican auteur behind Pan's Labyrinth.
As it turns out, del Toro had been storyboarding something like this sequence — and imagining the movie around it — since he was 7 years old. That's when he first saw Creature From the Black Lagoon, the horror movie about a gilled man captured by scientists in the Amazonian jungle.
In late February, Steven Spielberg hit a wall. Six years after he had started work on period piece The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara — and just weeks before he was due to start filming in Italy — he couldn't find a boy to play the lead.
In need of distraction, he picked up a spec screenplay that his CAA agents had sent him, and fell in love. The Post (later briefly retitled The Papers) didn't just tell the story of The Washington Post's Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham, both of whom he knew; it also touched on one of the most relevant issues of the day: freedom of the press, and Graham's decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, at the risk of losing her family-owned newspaper. After mulling things over, Spielberg told his longtime production partner, Kristie Macosko Krieger, that he was going to shut down Mortara and immediately jump onto the other film, which he wanted in theaters by the end of the year.
"Everybody thought that I was off my rocker," he admits. "But the great thing about having these decades-long collaborations is that the whole scrimmage swung to the left and we seriously started to prioritize the bare necessities."
Christopher Nolan's World War II drama largely was filmed at Dunkirk beach, including the "mole" portion where soldiers were evacuated. But roughly two-thirds of the original mole is now gone, so production designer Nathan Crowley faced a huge logistical challenge in building at the site a 900-foot extension (the white portion, built from wood, one of the original materials and also something the production team could safely blow up), which held as many as 600 extras.
"It had to withstand the sea," says Crowley. "We had Dunkirk engineers put new foundations on the old foundation. It was quite a feat — there's a 21-foot tide. And with any bad weather, we couldn't take the barge out [to transport the materials]. It was nail-biting because we had a shoot day, but the English Channel is quite rough, and it was very cold. A lot of people were working in dry suits."
"I've wanted to say that to a priest for 20 years," says writer-director Martin McDonagh of the tirade that his protagonist, Mildred (Frances McDormand), goes on after a priest comes to her home to discourage her from keeping up a trio of billboards that call out local law enforcement for not finding her daughter's killer.
The speech, which accuses the priest of being complicit in the sins of the church's sex abuse scandal (after a warm-up rant about gang violence), is something McDonagh (who is half-Irish and was raised Catholic before "rejecting that in my teens") says he's thought about a lot over the years and has hinted at in his plays but never gone all in on until this speech (he wrote the role of Mildred for the Fox Searchlight film with McDormand in mind).
"When people defend the Catholic Church and say it wasn't all of them, that's probably very true, but if you look at them as a gang, as a group of men in power, then you can't say they're not guilty or culpable," he says.
Understandably, Tommy Wiseau, the enigmatic director, writer and star of The Room — a romantic drama that would eventually achieve so-bad-it's-great cult status after its 2003 release — wanted one of the world's most recognizable stars to play him in the movie about the making of his movie. Sadly, The Disaster Artist's budget wouldn't stretch to accommodate Johnny Depp.
But when James Franco instead was suggested (by Greg Sestero, a star of the original who is played by Dave Franco in the film), Wiseau wasn't put off, curiously thanks to Nicolas Cage's critically panned directorial debut. "For some reason, not a lot of people have seen Sonny," admits Wiseau. But it was Franco's performance in Cage's 2003 crime thriller that convinced Wiseau that the 127 Hours star had what it took to don his long (bottle-enhanced) black locks. “So I told him, you can play me because you already have all the tools,” he says. And the decision paid off. "He has a lot of skills as an actor," says Wiseau. "So I think he performed pretty well portraying me based on what I know about myself!"
Michael Abels' journey to scoring Get Out began with a phone call from Blumhouse producer Phillip Dawe — a call Abels sent straight to voicemail.
"It's L.A. You don't pick up calls from strange numbers," says Abels, who, while known for his genre-bending orchestral works, hadn't scored a film since his student days at USC. His day job, which he still has, is music director of New Roads School in Santa Monica.
Dawe told Abels that director Jordan Peele had found Abels' orchestral work "Urban Legends" on the internet and wanted to send him the screenplay.
“The script I read was about 90 percent of what you see in the finished film,” he says. “It was just one of a kind. And I thought, I’ve lived in this town long enough to know that a great script does not always a great movie make. And who’s to know how it will turn out, but there’s never been anything like this and I would love to be a part of it.”
If the real P.T. Barnum — half-bald, portly and stodgy — were alive today, no doubt he would be thrilled with actor Hugh Jackman as his cinematic counterpart. Fortunately for viewers, The Greatest Showman is "inspired by" and not an actual period-perfect biopic.
Director Michael Gracey, the creative genius behind the contemporary musical that celebrates the larger than life visionary who literally invented "showbiz," designed the film with a "heightened theatrical reality" in mind. Influenced by childhood favorites West Side Story, Sound of Music and Mary Poppins along with Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, he was particularly inspired by Terry Gilliam’s work on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The Aussie director notes, "Everything he does has this theatricality to it — the miniatures, textures and wardrobes — and l love that heightened feel as it speaks to the storybook worlds I wanted to create as opposed to trying to emulate reality. This is really important in a musical when you have people breaking into song."
Christmas Eve, she was at the rink. New Year's Eve, she was at the rink. The day before her wedding to producer Tom Ackerley, she was at the rink.
For five months, Margot Robbie spent four hours a day, five days a week, learning to ice skate, becoming obsessed with the sport. "I was honestly terrified that I wouldn't be able to pull it off," says the 27-year-old Australian actress. "We were just a few weeks from shooting, and I was still struggling to find my outside edges. I just thought I was never going to get them, and then, one day, it just clicked."
In I, Tonya, Robbie plays the most notorious figure in figure skating history, Tonya Harding, the young ice queen from Portland, Oregon, who became a tabloid sensation when her rival at the 1991 World Championships, Nancy Kerrigan, was forced out of the competition after getting whacked on the knee with a baton. It became the most scandalous act of sabotage in the history of the sport.
"I was grateful we had the freedom to go as far with these characters as we did," says Robbie of the skating enemies. "If anyone had invented them, I think they would have been tempted to be more subtle. But real life isn't subtle — real life is crazier than what we see in films."
For her directorial debut, Greta Gerwig decided to write something simple and personal: an intimate, semiautobiographical slice of life centering on the day-to-day travails of a bored 17-year-old Catholic school girl growing up in suburban Sacramento, California, at the turn of the 21st century.
Her first draft of what was then called Mothers and Daughters ran 350 pages. "I tend to overwrite," Gerwig understates. "I'm not one of those people who say, 'I wrote a script in two weeks!' "
For the better part of the past decade, Gerwig has been the actress muse to a generation of hipster filmmakers — the naturalistic young auteurs who've led the mumblecore movement — starring in Noah Baumbach movies (Frances Ha, Greenberg, Mistress America), Joe Swanberg films (LOL, Nights and Weekends, Hannah Takes the Stairs) and a slew of other indies (Mike Mills' 20th Century Women, Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress). If it was made during the Obama era, had a low budget, was shot in Brooklyn and focused on a bunch of hard-to-hear 20-somethings involved in a barely detectable plotline, chances are Gerwig had a part in it. Says Gerwig, "I was getting my 10,000 hours or whatever Malcolm Gladwell says that you need." But now, at 34, the actress is attempting that most challenging of cinematic transformations: becoming her own muse.