Interviews by AwardsLine Editor Christy Grosz and Deputy Editor Anna Lisa Raya.
Here are some of this year’s lesser-known Oscar nominees, whose skills helped make the director’s and actors’ visions come to life. Without their research, technical mastery, or their ability to translate a story into melodies or visual effects, there would be none of the groundbreaking, iconic, historically significant films we’ve seen this past year. These are the real players who toiled in front of and behind the camera to make the 2013 Oscar season one of the best in recent memory.
Julie Delpy, Adapted Screenplay, Before Midnight
AwardsLine: What was the biggest challenge in writing and acting the 14-minute-long opening take?
Delpy: If we were able to do that as an improvised scene, we’d be geniuses. And we’re not geniuses. We work really hard at making it seem flawless, especially writing backstory stuff without seeming on the nose or expository. It’s the hardest part. How do you make it seem like we’re just having a conversation when we’re actually setting up the entire rest of the film, explaining what happened in the past nine years?
AwardsLine: How hard is it to write characters that are so well known?
Delpy: This was a scarier film to write because unlike the second film where (Delpy’s character Celine and Jesse, played by Ethan Hawke) meet again—and it’s sweet and exciting—this one is about being with that person. It’s not as romantic a concept. How far do you go with making the character real and not necessarily likable at times?
AwardsLine: How do you keep Celine and Jesse consistent across the three films?
Delpy: What we do for the period before we write is just think of what happens and their backstory. We watch the previous films. We do our homework, basically.
AwardsLine: How does it feel to be nominated a second time?
Delpy: I’m very surprised we’re Oscar nominees. Luckily, we had the nomination before so maybe it reminded people how much work these screenplays are.
AwardsLine: What was the concept you worked with for the battle scenes?
Koyama: We were trying to emphasize the chaos and confusion of what a modern battle is about. There are a lot of odd radio sounds mixed in with the track. (Director) Peter Berg’s concept of the film was to make the audience feel like they are part of the SEAL team. So we emulated the radio communications going between the guys and mixed that in with all the battle sounds.
AwardsLine: What kind of research did you do for the film?
Borders: I tried to get a soldier’s point of view on the sounds of war. There’s a part in the book where Marcus Luttrell puts his gun down and puts his hands over his ears because he couldn’t take the sound anymore. And that’s a real heavy thought. In the scene where all the boys are hiding between the rocks, there is this barrage of gunfire coming at them. It’s not so much about the guns, it’s the bullets that hit the rocks, and then the rocks split into this shrapnel that is just cutting them to pieces. That’s one scene where our research into the sounds of war really helped.
AwardsLine: This is the first Oscar nomination for both of you. What has the experience been like so far?
Borders: The most wonderful and surprising thing about it was that of the first phone calls that I got, they were almost all from fellow nominees in my category. I don’t feel like I’m in a competition at all. I just feel like I’m among my peers.
Koyama: (Sound mixing) is a small community, and I was just amazed how much support and warmth I received after the nomination.
AwardsLine: At what point did you get involved with this movie?
Ray: I watched (the real events) on CNN like everybody else. I didn’t know it was a movie until (Captain Richard Phillips) was rescued. I didn’t pursue it until I heard that Sony was going to option the life rights. It was an open writing assignment. You never get this kind of story—one that has the beats of an action movie, has huge politics to it, great characters and a satisfying resolution. I was lucky I got it.
AwardsLine: How did you envision the movie version?
Ray: From the beginning, I felt it was a story about two captains. We see where they live. They get dressed for work and off they go. They’re just in very different parts of the world. One is very much a part of the global economy; one is not at all a part of the global economy. And they’re on this collision course. This ultimately was going to be an examination of leadership. Every scene between (Captain Phillips, played by Tom Hanks, and Muse, played by Barkhad Abdi) is always about them trying to one-up each other and gain some sort of foothold. That’s what the movie is.
AwardsLine: How did you prepare to play the role of Muse?
Abdi: I went through a month and a half of training. I had to learn how to swim, how to stand on the skiff so I didn’t fall. We’d wake up every morning at 8 o’clock, and then it was swimming, weapons, climbing, fighting, stunts. I didn’t get any practice on the lines. My first big scene that I had lines was also the first time I’d seen Tom Hanks (in person), so that was nerve-wracking. I had to let go and use a lot of imagination and become the character as much as possible. Paul (Greengrass) would give me a lot of details.
AwardsLine: You’re in almost every scene in the movie. What were most days on set like for you?
Abdi: We had very long days. Sometimes we would do long weeks, six days. You know, the time would go; it would just fly. We might spend the whole first half of the day preparing, rehearsing, understanding what we’re doing, agreeing on it. Then we’d go to lunch and come back and the second half would be a couple of takes.
AwardsLine: What did you learn from making this movie?
Abdi: I didn’t look at myself as an actor before. I didn’t know I could do a lot of stuff that I’ve done in the film. In ways, I was insecure, but looking back now, I’m glad that I challenged myself. Nothing worth having comes easy.
AwardsLine: A conversation on a plane with a Justice Department attorney about 15 years ago led to this script. How did it finally make it to the screen?
Singer: I wanted to write it for myself to direct, but I just filed it away. Right after I made (2009’s) The International, I sold another movie to Sony (Damascus Gate), and it was a thriller that took place in the Middle East. At the time, all of these thrillers that were set in the Middle East were coming out and crashing and burning. It became clear that no matter how good of a script I wrote for Sony, there was no way they were going to make the movie. I didn’t want to write a movie to be shelved, so about three months in, I went to my producers and the studio and said, “We all know you’re not going to make this movie. Why don’t we switch it out for something else?” I pulled out this idea of doing a movie set against the backdrop of ABSCAM.
AwardsLine: Ben Affleck was set to direct, but eventually David O. Russell came onboard. What kind of discussions did he have with you before he started his rewrite?
Singer: The discussions had to do with me bringing him into the world, walking him through the characters, talking about how to let go of the structure that was laid down in my draft and breaking away from that. And part of it was literally breaking scenes. He would take things that I did and put them in his blender and pay them off in these David O. Russell ways. So it worked out really beautifully.
AwardsLine: What has the awards circuit been like for you so far?
Singer: It’s completely surreal. You have this bubble of attention and love, so it’s exciting and gratifying that people are recognizing a film you’ve worked on. I’ve been on deadline, so a lot of it has been disruptive in trying to get any real work done. But it’s been an incredible ride, and I feel privileged to be able to take it.
AwardsLine: How did you start thinking about the music for this film?
Desplat: I think like many movies of Stephen Frears, the mood (in Philomena) is bittersweet. When I first saw the film, I was alone in the editing room, and good that I was alone, because I could be emotional by myself. By having that heartbreaking melody (from the fairground scene in the beginning), it keeps it possible to engage and stay on both sides of the story, the comedy and the drama. I always try in movies to not overwhelm the audience with telling them what to feel, what to think.
AwardsLine: This is your sixth Oscar nomination. Is there still room to learn?
Desplat: Unfortunately, there is. First of all, you always doubt when you start. So there’s this shyness that you have when you explain to producers and directors what you have in mind, which they may not like. And then there’s the musical process, which is also difficult. Even though I have obsessions about the type of melodies that I like, the harmonies I’ve used or the orchestration that I use, I try to define a sound for a film. In Philomena, I wanted to find a sound that would reflect the fairground without using a fairground organ, which we use at the beginning. So I assembled instruments that I’ve never assembled before, like silver recorders, electric guitar, a string playing a harmonic sound, and you never know before you’re conducting if it will be fine. You can guess because you’re trained, and your craft has improved your knowledge, but you never know if it will be right.