Producing the Oscars during a normal year is one of Hollywood’s most thankless jobs. It involves handing out 24 awards, while pleasing nervous nominees in the theater, distracted audiences at home and ratings-weary TV executives. This year’s Oscar producers, Jesse Collins, Stacey Sher and Steven Soderbergh, are adding the complexity of COVID-19 to the task. The producers spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on April 10 about their evolving plans for the Academy’s big night, which will unfold at L.A.’s Union Station on April 25.
Have you started building the Oscars stage at Union Station yet?
STEVEN SODERBERGH: We loaded in last week. The sets are being built now and it’s going around the clock. We will be there, that’s for sure. The question is who else will be there with us?
What’s the biggest logistical challenge?
JESSE COLLINS: Working out the train schedule. Once we got that sorted, it’s easy.
STACEY SHER: He’s kidding. We’re not making any changes to the train schedule at all and we’re not shutting down anything having to do with the trains.
SODERBERGH: Building a set inside Union Station is obviously a challenge, but not one that anybody on this production hasn’t faced before. The biggest logistical challenge for the whole show is figuring out how to incorporate the people who can’t be in Union Station in a way that is consistent with our very rigorous and specific aesthetic approach to the show. We want the whole show to feel of a piece and if we are going to pull people in remotely we want the kind of control over that that you would have if you were making a movie. And that’s been the hardest part.
What percentage of your nominees and guests will be in L.A. versus some of the other locations?
SODERBERGH: That’s evolving. Literally, last night. We have a new list today that’s different from the one we’ll wake up with tomorrow. We’re nearing the fail-safe point where that ratio is going to have to lock, but it’s still fluid. We had to make a very serious pivot this morning about how we’re approaching an aspect of the show. Somebody had an idea that started with the words, “What if” and we all went, “That’s better, let’s do that” and that set in motion a whole new flurry of activity. This thing is a fucking bronco and it will be right up until show time. It’s just sort of relentless.
Jesse, having produced the Grammys, what did you learn from that show that’s helpful for you putting together the Oscars?
COLLINS: The biggest takeaway was the sense of community amongst the artists. Everybody loved being in a room watching others perform. You could tell that everyone is tired of being in their house and everybody wanted to see Harry [Styles] in person or they wanted to see Bruno [Mars]. That sense of community is something that we’re driving towards with this show.
You talked about having a show that coheres visually. How does that work when you’ll have nominees participating from venues in Europe?
SODERBERGH: We can control the surroundings and make sure, in the case of London, we can have elements within that space that tie you to Union Station. We’re working to make sure that each of those remotes have some direct sort of visual correlation to what we’re doing or at least contribute to the movie-like feel of what we’re doing in terms of where they will be. We’ve taken the position that the Oscars can be like a Biennale or a Met Ball and have a different aesthetic each year and have somebody come in and really do an artistic rebuild each year so that 10 years in the future you go, “Oh that was the year so and so did it,” or “Remember when they did the Versailles theme?” Although, I feel like there’s Versailles in every show. We’re shooting a three hour film at Union Station with the prep 90 minutes before and an hour long debrief afterwards, but our whole approach is to treat it like a movie shoot in every particular.
SHER: In that way it also becomes a look into the very specific way we got our community back to work safely. Steven worked with the DGA to create the Safe Way Forward with two of our doctor epidemiologists from Contagion. That allowed our community to go back to work safely with less than a 1 percent infection rate. We’re taking that and showing people how we did it.
What went into the decision about whether to have a host?
SODERBERGH: We debated it. We weren’t philosophically opposed to it but as the show began to take shape, it felt like it would be better served if each act was approached as a discreet storytelling chapter and you have a guide for each of those chapters.
By “guide for each of those chapters,” do you mean someone who is a presenter-plus? Not a host for the whole show?
SODERBERGH: Yeah, they have a lot more to do here than a typical presenter situation. They have an act of the show, it’s their act and they’re out there telling these stories. Very personal stories about each of these nominees and each of these films. The interview process that we put all the nominees through has been intensive, fascinating and incredibly worthwhile to tease out these backstories of these projects and these people. Because the three of us, not born in L.A., no connections to the entertainment industry at all, we just had a passion and that’s most of the people in that room actually. We want to dispel this myth that L.A. and New York are where everybody in the entertainment industry came from.
Will those interviews be incorporated into the show?
SODERBERGH: Only from a writing standpoint. There were some common questions before the questions got specific to their category and we’ve created some really fun montages of 20 different people answering the same question and they’re terrific. We’re looking for places to use those, maybe in the pre-show, maybe as bumpers, absolutely as social media, but it was more for the writers to have material to work with. And let’s be honest there are categories that are under siege. There’s a sense of, “Well why can’t we just have the people that are known by name publicly or faces are known by publicly get awards and do everything else in another broadcast or another context?” And we’ve taken it upon ourselves to show that all these people are equal and we’re giving them equal time and equal attention. We’ve mixed up the sequencing of the awards in a way that is hopefully surprising.
What do you expect in terms of your running time?
COLLINS: Three hours. Something that we’ve been working on from day one is to really give the show pace, to really keep it entertaining, keep it different, keep it to where it doesn’t fall into a pattern where you feel like I can just look up the winners on Twitter, I don’t need to see how it happened. We really want you to fall into the experience of the show and hopefully that will hold people and we will end it sharply at three.
Isn’t the age-old dilemma incorporating all these categories while hitting that running time? How will you do that?
SODERBERGH: It’s more when the show digresses into pieces that aren’t directly connected either to the movies that have been nominated or the nominees that are in the room. We stay on point from beginning to end and not to out the network but this is just the structure of how these shows work. When people say, “Why does it have to be three hours?” We’re told to make it three hours. We don’t want it to be more than three hours and the network doesn’t want it to be less than three hours. It’s built as a three-hour show. That means at least two hours and 15 minutes of actual show, but we’re hoping to just fill it and also to make room for people to speak. That is what the show is about. Ultimately, it’s been my personal view that the speeches are not the problem and so we’re going to test that theory this year.
So are you allocating more time for the speeches than in the past?
Is the thing that is not in this show all of the original songs being performed? What are you taking out in order to accomplish the things that you’re laying out?
COLLINS: There’s definitely some things that have typically been in Oscars that are not in this show, but the big difference is the approach. Not trying to do too much, be all things. Sometimes it’s like, “We got to do that and this and that,” and you wind up with a mess because you’re not targeted. We came up with an underlying principle from the beginning that we were very fortunate that AMPAS and ABC were on board with from the beginning. If it didn’t fit into that it was very easy to decide that it didn’t fit into the show. Because we’re in a new venue, because we’re in this situation, it allows us to blow up structure and do awards in different ways and to Steven’s point change the sequencing. Then you find that, “Oh my God, look, there’s time.”
SODERBERGH: Some of that is still evolving as we speak. There are at least three things that typically would be in the show that are going to be in the pre-show and there will probably be more.
Is the In Memoriam still in the show?
One of the things that hosts can be helpful with is setting the tone. How are you approaching tone this year? On the one hand, we’re all really ready for some fun. On the other hand, the Oscars usually acknowledge the outside world, which this year has the pandemic and racial violence and so many things which are heavy. How are your writers tackling these things?
SHER: There are two things that AMPAS did right at the beginning of when we got involved that addressed that head on and they’re two [Jean] Hersholt [Humanitarian] Awards that we’re giving out this year, to Tyler Perry and the Motion Picture Television Fund.
SODERBERGH: And when you look at the subject matter of the films themselves, it’s there. If we amplify the films themselves that message comes through and we don’t feel the need to piggyback on what they’re trying to say. We just want to present a really open and elegant space for the films to speak and the tone will be different. I think it’ll be joyous. I know there are going to be laughs — there’s some writing that is truly witty and sincere, but we want you to leave your snark at the door. That was part of the reason for the tagline, “Bring Your Movie Love.” That’s an innocent request to show up with an open heart and not to be cynical.
Bill Maher joked that the Oscars should be hosted by the sad face emoji, because of the tenor of the films. While celebrating these nominees, how do you grapple with the fact that most of them are really serious in their subject matter?
SHER: They’re also really beautiful. What’s serious or depressing to Bill Maher might be enriching and beautiful to me, or enlightening or inspiring to somebody else.
SODERBERGH: It’s one year. So to assume that that is sort of a secular change in what films are going to be nominated is unfounded. It was 2020, these are terrific movies and we’re leaning into that. That’s a discussion that’s just not interesting to me.
COLLINS: It would be bad to try to force some kind of comedy around a serious film because we think the viewer can’t handle the seriousness of it. We’re trying to do a very honest show. One of the things I’m most excited about is that I don’t feel that anything is forced, there are no pairings of two people that met backstage in the green room and have to walk out and pretend to be best friends and talk about their outfits. It all is very grounded and real which is where we are right now that’s what we want.
What expectations does ABC have about ratings?
SHER: They haven’t talked to us about it and we’re not thinking about it.
SODERBERGH: We’re worrying about things that we can control and that’s not on that list. We’re just making something that we would want to see, that we would think is a good show, because if you’re doing anything other than that, you’re second guessing and you’re lost. We want the nominees to have a special night and we want the winners to have the opportunity to stand up in a room, be handed an Oscar and have that moment. Even though it’s been an incredibly challenging year, we didn’t want to cheat them out of that experience. So we have tried to reverse engineer the whole show to them being able to stand up in front of their peers and hold that Oscar and say something. That’s why several million dollars are going into just making sure that that’s achievable in a safe fashion. It’s a huge part of the budget.
Are there things you’ve seen from other award shows during this period that you definitely don’t want to replicate?
COLLINS: The viewer, after going through a year of these COVID shows, is expecting something different. For many years, award shows were in a pattern and COVID has shook that up for better or for worse. The shows that have embraced that and said, “Oh let’s take this opportunity to do something different” have really worked and the three of us, our first meeting, Steven had this manifesto that just showed from the beginning there was no intent to do anything but break the mold.
SODERBERGH: This is a live show, this is not about perfection, it’s about intention, it’s about energy. If we have what we think is a really good idea and we execute that at 75 or 80 percent level, that’s better than 100 percent of a mediocre, old idea. We’re going with energy and emotion, we’re prepared, we’re doing our homework, but as Jesse said the key is just to tee it up so that the winners have been guided down this velvet lined chute onto that stage and really step into the moment and say something extraordinary.
Is there going to be some approximation of a red carpet at the train station?
SHER: The pre-show is much more if you pull back the curtain to the nominees’ luncheon and everyone got to go and that’s the vibe we’re going for there.
SODERBERGH: We’ll be set up in the two courtyard exteriors at Union Station. The idea is to use the pre-show to contextualize and frame up the show by both the way people are interacting, what they’re talking about, and the sense of community. Having been to a nominees’ luncheon, that was the best part of the whole process, and we really want to re-create that for the nominees and the fact that it’s going to be just them and their guests. We set it up so that they’re going to be loose, they’re going to be happy and if they get to say something, that they’ll be inspired.
How are people supposed to dress for this Oscars?
SODERBERGH: We basically said there’s no such thing as too formal, if you want to go full on then do it, but in our minds there is such a thing as too casual.
SODERBERGH: They’ll have them. They’ll be provided them.
Will they need to wear them?
SHER: We don’t know. We answer to a higher authority.
What are you most worried about?
SHER: When we started out this process all of Europe weren’t Level Four countries and we were hoping everybody was going to be able to be here. We’re not worried, we’re preparing, and we’re pivoting. There will reach a point where there’s a limited amount of things we can do.
SODERBERGH: I don’t think any of us worry. It’s about focus. Right now it’s all about the writing. That is what we are focused on most intensely right now is making sure the writing is in keeping with the overall theme of the show, feel of the show, the tone of the show.
Steven, what would the Sex, Lies and Videotape version of you think of you producing the Oscars?
SODERBERGH: The first question that that younger self would ask is, “Does he have creative control?” That would be the only question.
SODERBERGH: Yes. We wouldn’t have said yes otherwise.
Will you guys be back to produce next year’s Oscars?
SODERBERGH: Not me.
COLLINS: The deal’s a oner, there’s no options on it. We have to see.