Inside the Interview Room of the 90th Academy Awards
The Academy was celebrating its 90th year of honoring movie excellence, and while Sasha Stone was in a balcony seat watching the actual ceremony I was blessed to cover the Interview Room for the third year in a row.
There’s nothing more exciting than arriving on Hollywood on Oscar Sunday morning. Not a single suspicious character is in sight — nobody touting a free hug, no ersatz Wolverine charging a few hundred for a photo. No one is handing me their latest self-recorded CD. The Dolby Theater was protected by a level of security ordinarily only afforded to a president or pseudo president. The famous street artist who goes by the name of Plastic Jesus did make his annual appearance. This year his work was placed at the end of Hollywood Blvd, a piece called Casting Couch depicting a Harvey Weinstein lookalike. Hollywood’s transformation for the 90th Academy Awards was well and truly underway.
On the red carpet, crews and reporters had been glammed up since the early hours to cover the biggest night of the year. Credentialed press are allowed to walk the red carpet, take selfies, photos and report. I tried recording a video but gave up after ten takes of trying to explain what was going on amid the melee. Bleacher seats, cables, news crews, trains, gowns, dazzle and glam was everywhere and this was even before the Oscar-nominated stars had even made an appearance.
Gliding past all the inspection points, my first stop was the Interview Room itself where I do a quick tech check, reassuring myself that the internet is all set for tweeting up a storm. Once my connection was set up, it was off to change into my dress for the ceremony and take a quick walk down the red carpet and soak up the rarified atmosphere. Soak it up I did.
There’s a electric vibe when one walks down that carpet. I feel like a kid in Disneyland looking around for the first time, marveling at so many fantasies made manifest. I manage not to step on the trains of gowns or the cables of gaffers, and try not to walk in front of every camera that was broadcasting live around the world. This was it. In a few hours we would know which film would take the top prizes. We would all that know Del Toro and The Shape of Water scooped Best Director and Best Picture. But as I eavesdropped up and down the carpet listening to people murmuring their predictions, I kept hearing two words: Get Out. Alas, the only Oscar the film received was for Best Original Screenplay, but Jordan Peele made the most it.
It was almost time to head back up to the Interview Room. Professional tip, don’t plan to breeze in at 1:25 when you’re told the doors open at 1:30. You will be faced with a snaking line that goes on forever as security screens bags and ensures only credentialed press are in the room where the backdstage action happens, where all the winners come through after posing for official photos to face the press from around the world.
Mark Bridges who won Best Costume Design for Phantom Thread talked about working with Paul Thomas Anderson on a film of such singular nature. “I always am excited when Paul calls because, as you know, over 22 years we’ve done everything from porn stars, to oil drilling, to hippie detectives. You know, so this is just another one of the bag of tricks that Paul has. There is a little bit of a pressure… Will I be able to do justice to the era? And, of course, working with Daniel, you up your game. I proceeded with the research the way we always do and just try to tell a story. And then, we had the luxury of working in London, too, where there are makers and fabrics and access to Europe that we don’t have here.”
Insider sidenote: When you’re in the press room you are assigned a number, almost like a paddle at an auction. Each time you want to ask a question, you raise your number card and hope you get noticed. One thing I do love is asking the craft questions. This time around, I wall called upon to ask Mark Bridges, Alexandre Desplat, and Roger Deakins questions. Our own Marshall Flores sent me a question to ask Lee Smith about editing that climatic scene in Dunkirk to create such an emotional impact. I raised my number and was chosen.
Smith’s answer: “Well, that was a very interesting scene. It was one of the few scenes that we slid in a timeline as we were editing and testing the film, because we were setting up this continuous suspense, you know, breathlessness to the film. And what I was always worried about was someone would actually pass out watching the movie. So we had this emotional cannon to fire, and we had to find exactly the right moment to fire that cannon. And we tried it earlier, later in the timeline, and it took many, many versions of the film until we actually hit what affected, I guess, Chris and I the most from an emotional standpoint, and that’s where it sits in the film now.”
Best Original Song winners Robert and Kristen Lopez elaborated on Robert’s dedication of his second Academy Award win to his late mother. “My mother passed away in August of this year, Kathy Lopez. She was the main force in my childhood who encouraged me to play the piano and to write music and to go for my dream. And she pushed me as hard as she could.” Lopez continued, “The song is about leaving the people you love, and that’s what happened to me this year. She was taken from us, and so this song became an expression of that. It was already written. It wasn’t about her, but we sang it at her funeral and it was very helpful for me in healing.” Lopez also talked about being an immigrant and how he hoped his success would influence people. “If our success can help someone pursue their dream, I know that examples play a huge role and I want to encourage every brown kid to pursue their dream just like my mom did for me.”
Next up was Oscar winner Jordan Peele. (Doesn’t it feel good to type, read and say that? Say it aloud. It’s great.) Peele was asked about how important the Oscar was to him, said, “You know, I didn’t know how important this was. I always wanted this, but the campaign is growing, and there are times where I questioned what is it all about. You’re watching your last jump shot for a year, and as an artist that doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel right to be complacent and to feel like I’ve done anything too special to reward myself.” He continued. “When the nominations for this came together, I had this amazing feeling of looking at the 12‑year‑old that had this burning in my guts for this type of validation. I instantly realized that an award like this is much bigger than me. This is about paying it forward to the young people who might not believe that they could achieve the highest honor in whatever craft they want to push toward. You’re not a failure if you don’t get this, but I almost didn’t do it, because I didn’t believe that there was a place for me. Whoopi Goldberg and her acceptance speech for best supporting actress for Ghost was a huge inspiration for me. And when I got nominated, one of the first things I did was reach out and call her and thank her for telling young people who maybe doubted themselves if they can do it. So I hope that this does the same and inspires more people to use their voices.”
Three Billboards Sam Rockwell talked about how inspiring Philip Seymour Hoffman was to his career. Sebastian Lelio who won for Best Foreign Language film talked about the importance of the Oscar for A Fantastic Woman. “It is a film that managed to continue the necessary and urgent conversation. It’s been a long struggle to have Chile acknowledge the existence of transgender people. We are facing a new government that is conservative, and I hope this helps bring relevance to a matter that’s urgent.”
If you missed Frances McDormand’s speech, take a moment to watch as she explains “Inclusion rider.”
As the winners come into the press room near the end of evening, it begins to feel like a parade of icons. It’s always just as exciting as the first time. Even in my third year, it never fails to thrill me. Here’s to sharing our next new awards season together, the season that starts right now.