Oscar Producers: Chris Rock "Knew He Had to Address the Racial Climate in Hollywood"

Reginald Hudlin and David Hill discuss how the show evolved, who's responsible for that Stacey Dash appearance, how well they think the new thank-you scrawl worked and orchestrating Vice President Joe Biden's visit.

As first-time producers of the Academy Awards, Reginald Hudlin and David Hill couldn’t have picked a more challenging year to head up the show.

Working with host Chris Rock, they faced the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that threatened to overshadow the ceremony itself. Instead of ignoring that, though, Rock devoted his opening monologue to tackling the issue of diversity, or the lack of it, in Hollywood — head-on. In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, the two producers talked about how the show evolved, the introduction of the thank-you crawl and that visit by Vice President Joe Biden.

You must have been thinking of themes for the show before the nominations were announced. Once the nominations were revealed and the controversy ignited, did that end up dictating the show’s theme?

David Hill: No, we weren’t thinking of a theme. We just wanted to present film in the best possible light. Reggie had a line right at the get-go, he said, “I want this to be a cathedral of cinema.” And that was kind of the way we took it.

Reginald Hudlin: Obviously, when you don’t know the nominees, you don’t know if there’s a pattern to the movies that are nominated. You go, “What are the Oscars?” Well, the Oscars represent an elegance and an opulence that we associate with the golden era of Hollywood — whatever that is in our heads. We knew we wanted a fast-paced show, of course. We wanted to present all the categories, not just the acting categories, in ways that were really engaging to the audience and respectful to all those branches of the Academy. We knew we wanted laughs, and we knew we wanted sincere, touching moments, so that was part of our shopping list going in. And we started our structure based on that, and as the nominations came in, that really more affected Chris, because Chris as the guy who comes out and does the monologue has to not only sum up the year in film as represented by the nominations but also capture the cultural zeitgeist. Even though he’d gotten to work, he knew he had to address the racial climate in Hollywood in a very direct way. So he got to work on that, but it didn’t affect the show structure as much as it affected his humor.

Hill: I think one of the reasons people loved the show was Chris, because Chris was not only obviously comfortable in one of the toughest jobs in showbiz in the world, he was actively enjoying it. And that enjoyment infused the entire show with that joie de vivre, which just made it move. When you looked at his face when he was doing the bit with the Girl Scout cookies, he was having the time of his life, because he knew his daughters were in New York watching, and they were going, “Hey, dad, that’s cool.” I think we got lightning in a bottle because of Chris, not only with his wonderful social commentary and the way he does it, but even with his physical presence and the way his face lit up when we came to him. That was a fantastic spirit through the entire show.

How much did ABC know about what was going to happen on the show?

Hill: Everything. ABC had their S&P people and Robert Mills, their head of specials, there every moment of every day.

Were they nervous at all about the direction Chris was going in?

Hill: Chris is a grown-up. Questions like that astound us. Chris is one of the smartest comedians working in the world. He has this wonderfully acerbic, social observational humor. He understands the world. He has an amazing vocabulary and is able to paint verbal pictures. And he knows who he is playing to. His personality last night was a large part of the success of the show.

Beyond the monologue itself, you also dealt with the diversity issue in some of the comedy bits like the movie parodies. Why did you decide to continue in that direction?

Hudlin: Well, it was funny.

Hill: Most comedy on television isn’t funny. It’s funny with a laugh track. And what we got from Chris and two incredible writers in Chuck Sklar and Jon Macks was solid-gold, laugh-out-loud funny, and when that comes through — and we’re just the prospectors by the banks of the stream looking for chunks of shining metal — when we saw them we pounced on them and grabbed them.

How about the bit with black conservative Stacey Dash. A lot of people were puzzled by that.

Hudlin: That was Chris’ idea. He was very enthusiastic about it. Some people have characterized it as a black Twitter joke.

Hill: It was a social media moment, among many social media moments, and it was designed as a social media moment. We were absolutely thrilled with a couple of things in the ratings, which was that social media was up 20 percent over last year.

Hudlin: Chris knew that would catch fire on social media platforms, and it did. It was an explosive reaction.

The flip side of that was the more family-friendly bit with the Girl Scouts selling cookies. Did you really raise $65,000? I thought celebrities never carried cash.

Hudlin: Chris just wanted it done by hook or crook. But it came from a very sincere place. Chris’ daughters really are in the Girl Scouts. He said, “Wait a moment, why don’t I just put that in the show?”

Hill: It came from a proper family moment, and it had a comedic payoff. There’s no way that [the $65,000 total] was it, it was part of a comedy bit, and I don’t think anyone saw it as anything but.

Hudlin: And the great thing, I know from talking to my family who was in the audience, everyone was very grateful to get those cookies. My son and daughter were handing them out to all the celebrities sitting around them, they were cutting deals with Mindy Kaling and several superheroes. I think there was a moment at the end when the Oscar winners came out on stage, when Chris is holding a box of cookies and Morgan Freeman reaches over and snags a few out of the box. And everyone now wants Girl Scout cookies more than ever, so I predict their numbers will be up.

How did Vice President Biden’s appearance come about? How much did it complicate security for you?

Hill: As soon as we heard the Vice President was very involved in the sexual assault problem, and the song ["Til It Happens to You" from the documentary about campus rape, The Hunting Ground] was nominated, we felt it was going to elevate the cause. As fathers of daughters, both of us, it’s something we care deeply about, so we embraced it 100 percent. The problems in dealing with any presidential or vice presidential visit is inevitably logistics, and our security team — and the Oscars are one of the highest-rated security events in the world — worked with the Secret Service very, very well. The Vice President arrived and was whisked away into a dressing room until he appeared on stage. [His wife] Dr. Biden was seated, but she was relatively anonymous. What was incredible was when the Vice President walked into the hall and he got a standing O. It was pretty cool.

Who extended the invitation to him?

Hill: It was a conversation with Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy, I would imagine. She was the one who told us.

And then he joined the audience?

Hill: Yes he did.

Hudlin. And he hung out afterwards. He’s obviously a beloved figure in this town. I saw him chatting with Wolfgang Puck and his wife afterwards. And who wouldn’t? Everyone wants all those delicious chicken pot pies. But what was great about it was that it gave the proper framing to a very serious issue, and Lady Gaga’s performance was extraordinary. She gave a lot of people goosebumps in that room.

Hill: It worked really, really well. Working with Lady Gaga was a huge experience for both of us. She’s going to be this generation’s Barbra Streisand. I don’t think there’s a shadow of a doubt about it. She is absolutely focused, and she’s talented, and she’s really, really whip-smart.

How about the thank-you crawl across the bottom of the screen that you introduced this year. Do you think it worked?

Hill: We always felt it was a three-year deal. The big problem as we see it, having had a very minor post-mortem about it, was that the room couldn’t see it. So what happened was people repeated what they’d said in the thank-you scroll. We both think it’s going to take two to three years before people realize the power they are being given. They are clearly being given 45 seconds to say what’s on their minds, without going through a laundry list of names. And in terms of the fact that everyone embraced it. We got a thank-you scroll from 95 or 96 percent of the participants. I think what it’s going to do if it remains a part of the show moving forward, it’s going to be a renaissance of the Oscars, where people actually get to say what’s in their heart, without having to rattle through a list of names.

Hudlin: One of the things I think it did, at least for this year, it helped organize people’s thoughts. Because they were forced to make a list beforehand, overall folks were more succinct and were more collected than usual.

What other technical things did you do that might have not been as apparent to the audience?

Hill: We worked so long on the crafts awards, the choreography of that between Derek McLane, the fabled Broadway set designer, and Cindy Hauser, who did the screens, worked perfectly. And we had an incredible stage crew, because that was really tough to do.

Hudlin: The factoids that appeared under the presenters, people really enjoyed, because there is so much great information now. Oh, right, Whoopi Goldberg won her Oscar 25 years ago. Henry Cavill is the fifth actor to play Superman. I love that kind of information, myself.

Hill: Everyone loves trivia.

Hudlin: So why not share it with the audience? That’s what people are whispering over the country anyway, so why not introduce it into the show?

Hill: It is an awards show. There are 24 awards, 24 speeches, 24 packages. But we spent a huge amount of time in the edit suite preparing the nomination packages to make sure every clip was precise and told the story. We went back and re-edited the 30-second promos for all the nominated films. We didn’t just take the promo that the studio put out, we re-voiced it, rethought it. You never heard David Bowie on a Martian trailer, but that’s what we did, because we needed to sell the movies to an audience who in all probability hadn’t seen them. So in terms of the thought and creativity that went into the editing — it’s like the audio section. It’s the first time the audio section has been presented with sounds. We didn’t put music over it, it was the sound by the guys who had done it. There’s 144 elements in the show. Everyone of those had to be thought through, structured, arranged, sent back for another take. It is an unbelievably complex show to get right and I think we came pretty close to that last night.

How difficult was it lining up presenters this year?

Hudlin: It’s always tricky. There are some people who say, well, I don’t have a movie this year, I’m not interested in presenting. We felt very proud of the lineup of presenters we had. I think, for example, Louis C.K.’s speech for best short documentary was the best introductory speech ever in the history of that category, and I don’t think it will ever be topped.

Hill: (Laughing) And the minions’ speech for best short animated film will never be topped.

Will you be producing the show next year?

Hill: Too early to say for me.

Hudlin: I’m going off to shoot a movie this spring.

Hill: I’m going back to do American Idol.

Hudlin: We need to take a nap, and then focus on our day jobs.

Hill: And reintroduce ourselves to our families.

David, how would you compare producing the Oscars to the big sports events you’ve overseen?

Hill: The great thing about live is you’re working without a net, and you therefore have to have in the back of your mind three escape routes if things go wrong. The other part, if something does go wrong, you never let the audience see it. We had one of the world’s best directors in Glenn Weiss and an all-star crew. It’s planning, planning, planning, and we rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed. What you saw last night was a show that both Reginald and I are very proud to have on our résumé