From 'Ford v Ferrari' to 'Jojo Rabbit': How 10 Award Contenders Depicted Real Stories Onscreen

12:30 PM 1/5/2020

by Carita Rizzo

The Hollywood Reporter explores how the actors, directors and crafts experts from top contenders made realness a reality, whether telling a story about a flashy, iconic singer, the intense horrors of World War I, the adrenaline-pumping speed of a race, or the darkness of death row.

10 Award Contenders Depicted Real Stories - H 2019
Courtesy of TriStar Pictures; Focus Features; Twentieth Century Fox Film; Paramount Pictures

  • '1917'

    In depicting war and the devastating loss of lives, filmmakers are aware of the extra care they have to take in their portrayal of events. “This isn’t a story. This is these guys’ actual day-to-day, how they experienced bombardments and attacks, wanting to go home and losing friends,” says editor Lee Smith, who with director Sam Mendes and DP Roger Deakins is responsible for creating the illusion of a two-hour, single-shot glimpse into the horrors of World War I. While there were about a million technical reasons no one should attempt crafting a one-take feature film, there was one overwhelming reason to try: "The one-shot idea immerses you in [the story] and doesn’t let you out," says Smith. With no second unit and no coverage to hide miscalculations, the only way to adjust for a take that wasn’t working from an editing perspective was to reshoot it. "I was making the movie in sequence. If there was a problem, you had to speak up very quickly, because there’s no going back," he says. "There were scenes where I wasn’t comfortable with what the camera was doing. As I said to Sam, if I’m feeling that I should cut, the scene has a problem. The great thing with Sam is he always had a willingness to listen to any issues, and was happy to make adjustments." Before Smith set foot in the editing bay, he threw himself into books and films from the era to get an understanding of what it was like to be in the trenches. "Being as accurate as you can is integral to transporting an audience to that moment in history,” he says. “Emotion is only earned through it being real, with great performances and a good script and direction. This is a very emotional film, and it doesn’t go hunting for emotion; it earns it."

  • 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood'

    In what most would consider an implausible scene in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) and Esquire writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) step onto the New York subway, only to have the entire train car spontaneously break into the theme song of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. "That’s the scene that, if you wrote it, would be too cheesy," says director Marielle Heller. "It could only be in the movie because it was real." A film about one of the most recognizable men in American culture, Heller knew going in, would have to stay not just close to the truth, but thesis-level accurate. “Anything that was from the Neighborhood, we wanted to do right, and that meant every detail,” she says. This meant filming the show segments in its original studio, on the same set, using the exact same camera models for the time period, even re-creating the furniture out of the same — often discontinued — materials used on the show. “It felt like we were walking on sacred ground,” says Heller. "Whether you believe in that kind of thing or not, I think it sets a tone. It makes you feel connected to the original person, and we had a million things that made us feel connected to the original program.” With the stage set to perfection, the one area where Heller knew she didn’t require imitation was in Hanks’ performance. "I said to him, ‘For me, it’s all going to be about the emotional truth,'" says Heller. "I’m not interested in making movies about real people where you’re spending the whole time picking apart the differences or the similarities. I think that does a disservice to the audience because then they can’t just get lost in the story. What we need to be doing is feeling their experience."

  • 'Clemency'

    For Alfre Woodard, playing a death row prison warden in Neon’s Clemency was a challenge she rushed toward. "The journey I knew I had to take was further than I’ve ever gone from my life," says the actress, a longtime pro-Africa and LGBTQ activist. "And I have spent time around some dire situations." When lives are in the balance, says Woodard, it demands that you, as a performer, are authentic and specific. “I had to go to prison. I had to meet wardens and spend time with them and have meals with them, to be able to know how they looked out of their eyes." Asked to play the woman in charge of a prison, Woodard initially didn’t know they existed. Through director Chinonye Chukwu, who has taught screenwriting to incarcerated women in Ohio, Woodard was able to meet with three female wardens. "They come to it from professions like mental health and social work, and are compassionate because they deal with it professionally as opposed to emotionally,” says Woodard. “They cannot blanch in the face of horror. They have to be able to get everybody through without panic." Woodard also sat down with two condemned men, an experience she calls the most humbling of her life, as well as a warden who has put more people through the execution process than anyone in the U.S. “The horror of it is how mundane it is,” says Woodard. "When people say it’s tough to watch, it’s because there is no release, there is no dramatic fanfare, just this sadness of a ritualistic murder committed in a land of faith that seeks to appease the hearts of people who have lost a loved one." Once her research was completed, translating it to the screen was no longer a challenge. "I had inhaled and adored all of them, so much so that I couldn’t stop spontaneously weeping for the month before we got to set," says Woodard. "By the time I got there, all I had to do is keep my focus."

  • 'Harriet'

    Although the film Harriet takes its fair share of creative license, by way of characters that act as catalysts for Harriet Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) to journey from slave to famed abolitionist, there were aspects of the Underground Railroad conductor’s story that director Kasi Lemmons felt weren’t up for negotiation. "The things that became very important to me were the backstory of her family, her hiring a lawyer to try to free herself, and her visions," says Lemmons."I wanted people to google it, frankly. It’s a really easy google." To make sure the American icon and those surrounding her were represented correctly, Lemmons used Tubman biographies, books on the Underground Railroad and slave narratives to get the texture of the time and the dialogue right. She also relied on several consultants, with a Tubman scholar, Kate Clifford Larson, chief among them. “There were things that Kate felt very strongly that we should not misrepresent, like the amount of money that was offered as a reward for Harriet — not to overly inflate numbers like that," says Lemmons. “And in an earlier draft, I had William Still [Leslie Odom Jr.] directing Harriet as to what her route would be, and Kate said, ‘No, no. Harriet made her own rules, nobody told her what to do.'" But there was no need to embellish Tubman’s leadership qualities — including the line, "I’ve heard their sighs, I’ve seen their tears, and I would give every last drop of blood in my veins to free them.” Says Lemmons, “She was a performer, and Harriet would actually do a one-woman show, performing her story, for abolitionists to raise money for the Underground Railroad." Adds the director, "She grew to be a quite celebrated character, even though they wouldn’t always name her because that was dangerous. But she participated in her own fame and told her own story.”

  • 'Ford v Ferrari'

    The biggest wish an editor has when assembling a car race scene? “You hope they drive fast enough,” says editor Michael McCusker, who along with longtime collaborator Andrew Buckland made sure that the legendary racing action in Fox’s Ford v Ferrari translated from the track to the screen. Almost all the scenes consist of practical stunts involving the real actors instead of stunt drivers, mixed with greenscreen footage, and the challenge McCusker and Buckland faced was a need for speed. "They weren’t racing the actual cars, nor were they racing with the original engines, so just by default they weren’t really racing at 200 miles an hour," says McCusker. "Add to that safety precautions, and they were oftentimes racing at two-thirds or half speed. We had to figure out ways through editorial tricks to really sell the speed." This was achieved, in part, by accelerating the footage in post and adding weather elements that trick the eye. "Most of the rain is additives," reveals McCusker. "The interactive rain adds an enormous amount of speed just because we’re able to control how fast it’s moving past the car." Shunning overhead shots of the races, director James Mangold’s biggest priority was giving the viewers a firsthand experience of being inside the cockpit. “If he could have Smell-O-Vision, he would have," McCusker says with a laugh. But Mangold also wanted each race to reflect what was going on storywise. "The challenge was finding the right balance between the drama and the racing," says Buckland. “The races become more than just watching cars zoom around the track — you’re actually invested in the outcome."

  • 'Jojo Rabbit'

    When creating a film set during World War II, for which blueprints exist for nearly every detail, does a film’s satirical slant change the importance of historical accuracy? “It’s a tricky question, because World War II, as we know it, has the message of horror, but in this movie the intention was the sentiment of 'How can someone change their heart and mind?'" says costume designer Mayes Rubeo. "It’s not your typical World War II movie, that’s for sure." As seen through the eyes of 10-year-old "Jojo" Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), reality takes on a unique tint. “The uniforms are more colorful, because when you remember things from your childhood, you remember flashes of color," she says. The flamboyant modifications worn by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) aside, the Nazi uniforms are accurate replicas of the original designs, combining custom-made pieces with borrowed vintage items sourced from costume houses and collections throughout Europe. Scarlett Johansson’s fashionable wardrobe, inspired by French-Ukrainian artist Sonia Delaunay, is a curation of clothes from costume houses and period clothing, created by Rubeo’s team from fabric made in the '40s. Rubeo also made sure that, to reflect an era when new clothes and accessories were hard to come by, there were pieces that came across as cherished. "I was going to make every item they wear not pristine but treasured," she says, pointing to rusted belts and uniform pants that seem slightly outgrown. "The clothes looked worn and loved. I think imperfection is good." The importance of authentic period costume should not be underestimated, she adds. “I wish I could have a camera in my fitting room,” she says. "They come in as one person and leave transformed into the character. You can see the transformation, right there, on their faces."

  • 'Just Mercy'

    As someone well aware of Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson’s mission to exonerate innocent death row prisoners, Just Mercy production designer Sharon Seymour felt a great responsibility in bringing the story of his life’s work to the screen. “Bryan is such a truthful, genuine person," she says of the attorney played by Michael B. Jordan in the film. "None of us wanted to do something that wouldn’t do him proud." To accurately depict Holman Correctional Facility, where one of Stevenson’s first clients, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), spent six years on death row, beginning in 1988, Seymour constructed replicas of its prison cells using, in part, the visual record provided by a 1992 60 Minutes segment. “We really wanted to do justice to it, and the only way we could was to build it," says Seymour, who re-created 10 claustrophobic cells on a soundstage. "[Director Destin Daniel Cretton] and the DP, Brett Pawlak, did not want to break the sense of the tight spaces and the fact that this is how men live," the production designer explains, adding, "Our doors all operated automatically, so we could disable them. To go in and have a door automatically close behind you — and you can’t control getting out — there’s a definite vibe to that." Seymour found it challenging to duplicate "Yellow Mama," the electric chair used in Alabama from 1927 to 2002. “When we were researching it, which is what I think happens within the world of the people who carry out executions, you’re able to be detached. It’s your job and you’re working out how to do your job,” says Seymour. “Then when it all comes together on the shooting day and you’re actually showing people what it’s like for someone to go to their death in that chair, it’s extremely emotional. It was for me.”

  • 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'

    In bringing to the screen the story of two childhood friends set against the backdrop of a gentrifying San Francisco, cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra formed his visuals by delving into the minds and memories of director Joe Talbot and star Jimmie Fails. “Their roots in San Francisco are deep,” says Newport-Berra. “I felt a lot of responsibility to honor the city and the people this film is about, and it was through walking the city with them and hearing their stories about the city that I developed my own perspective on how I wanted to shoot it." To create a valentine to modern-day San Francisco that accurately depicts its versatile geography, iconic landmarks and transformation, Newport-Berra decided that heightened visuals were the way to go. "The film is magical and surreal," he says. “I think that a conceptual portrayal of the city is actually more accurate than the photo-realistic portrayal of the city." Scope and breadth is established through long tracking shots and long-lens zoom shots of the main characters continuously moving through neighborhoods like Hunters Point and the Mission District. “Jimmie and Mont [played by Jonathan Majors] are like lone frontiersmen in this new world, and they’re constantly trying to find their place in the city. It was important that we felt that movement, and what that does is it makes the city feel interconnected. While it’s all these different neighborhoods, it’s one city,” he says. The A24 film culminates in an unambiguous symbol of the city, juxtaposed visually with one man’s struggle to progress. “The Golden Gate Bridge at the end of it was a no-brainer. It was definitely important to have that iconography because the whole film has a very symbolic tone. It’s tragic and beautiful, and that ending leaves us with a point of discussion," says Newport-Berra. "We wanted to acknowledge that what’s happening in San Francisco is complicated. It’s a love letter and a breakup letter at the same time. That’s what makes it so bittersweet."

  • 'Motherless Brooklyn'

    The last thing director of photography Dick Pope wanted to evoke in Edward Norton’s neo-noir crime thriller Motherless Brooklyn was nostalgia. “I looked at hardly any noir films," says the English cinematographer, whose beginnings are in documentary filmmaking. “I didn’t want the film to be like that. I wanted it to be more like New York would have been for people who lived there, fresh and contemporary. For anybody living there or visiting, it’s the most cutting-edge city in the world." Pope’s visuals were inspired by photographers from the era, such as Saul Leiter, Vivian Maier, Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, along with uncredited press photography. “The photographs are all rich in quirky detail and keep the film grounded in reality. In the scene at Penn Station, there is a woman sitting there smoking, on some suitcases, as we pass by, and there’s a couple — he’s a serviceman and she’s obviously his lover or wife — and they’re kissing. That’s from a photograph from that era," says Pope. “The [photographs] were also a great source of inspiration in the way that I approached the lighting of it when we re-created [Penn Station] — and we did re-create it with CGI.” Nothing about the winter shoot was uncomplicated, says the DP, from freezing temperatures to limited exteriors and more than 600 effects shots that cleaned up modern elements that inevitably sneak into the frame. “We were very careful in what we pointed the camera at, but we also shot in wonderful interiors like the beautiful period swimming pool [at Hansborough Recreation Center in East Harlem] and many institutions and period buildings like the New York Public Library and City Hall,” says Pope. “New York’s got the most fantastic infrastructure for helping film crews, and they really extend themselves to make it work for you.”

  • 'Rocketman'

    Bringing a living legend to the screen can be nerve-racking, but?for Welsh actor Taron Egerton, some of the pressure of portraying Elton John was reduced by his and director Dexter Fletcher’s approach to the film. "Because it’s more of a first-person telling of the story, it was more important that it felt deeply personal than for it to feel like a really accurate impersonation of Elton John," says Egerton, who describes John’s essence as an appetite for the extreme in terms of his theatricality and his ability to feel both love and injustice. “That’s maybe why I was a good person to play him. I have the capacity to feel things in quite extreme ways.” To nail some of the physical aspects of the singer, Egerton spent time familiarizing himself with the piano, with the help of performance coach Michael Roberts. “The piano is such an intrinsic part of who he is, as a performer and a musician, that it was important that I become as comfortable with the instrument as I could, so that at the very least, it would look like my hands are moving in the right places," he says. “He has quite small hands for a piano player, and that conditions the way he plays. And there are remnants of his very formal classical training that you can see in his piano playing. These are the things you try to adopt, but mainly I wanted to just feel free." Egerton formed a close friendship with the artist, who also served as a producer on the film, but John did not come to the set nor intervene in Egerton’s portrayal of him. “I think he’s got the wisdom to know that you’ve got to allow the room to be creative," says the actor. "He was there, as a support and the resource that I needed, and his encouragement and his patronage meant the?world."

    This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.