Pete Hammond’s Notes On The Season: Irwin Winkler Breaks ‘Silence’; Oscar Winner Delays Assange Docu; Helen Mirren Rides Drone Into Race

Pete Hammond

A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.

“This is Marty’s best movie,” Silence producer Irwin Winkler told me when I ran into him at the Motion Picture Television Fund’s 95th anniversary event. Sure, he is high on the film because he produced it, but keep in mind this is also the man who also produced Scorsese classics Raging Bull and Goodfellas, so this kind of praise is not to be taken lightly. His wife Margo concurred that the movie is a stunner.

Scorsese has been editing it, and when last I spoke to executive producer Ken Kao a few weeks ago it was a little more than three hours long. When we spoke, Winkler said it has been tightened currently to 2 hours and 39 minutes. Paramount has set a limited release for December 23, going wider with hoped-for Oscar nominations in January. Can’t wait for this one.

The 17th century-set film about two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan where Catholicism has been banned stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson. Garfield, who won a standing ovation last Friday at a SAG Foundation Q&A after a screening of his other fall juggernaut, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridgetold me making Silence was a “wild ride.” Garfield said he saw it when it was at about 2 hours and 50 minutes but added he didn’t want to see it end. He described the difference between working for the two Oscar-winning directors as both great experiences — but different as night and day.

“Mel likes to mess around with different takes. He keeps the set light; he likes to keep everyone light,” Garfield told me. “I like to do more focus, and he pissed me off so much and we’d just laugh about it because he knew what he was doing. Whereas Mr. Scorsese creates this kind of sacred circle on the set always, this invisible circle. He requires absolute silence (no pun), which is gorgeous and also terrifying because then you know there is something sacred happening, there’s like a ritual you are about to perform and anything can happen within this circle. Both methods work.

“I do believe they are both masters of the craft, and as an actor in a directors medium I would struggle to go to work if I were not fully entrusting myself to my leader, to the person who is in the directors chair,” he added. “It was a total privilege as an actor to work with two such supremely confident artists that are confident enough to trust you with your instincts about character and what you are doing.”

Could Garfield be a Best Actor contender this year for one or the other? I can tell you based on two viewings so far of Hacksaw Ridge he is definitely in the race, with Silence still to be seen and adding to a very big year for Garfield.

PARAMOUNT SET TO STORM OSCARS

As for Paramount, that studio that has been suffering through a tough year with some box office busts and disappointments recently — as well as boardroom drama and executive upheaval with Rob Moore’s recent exit — is holding what on paper at least looks to be the hottest hand among studios this Oscar season. It has five legitimate contenders: Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins; Robert Zemeckis’ World War II love story Allied, with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard; Amy Adams brilliant in Denis Villeneuve’s cerebral sci-fi drama Arrival; the Denzel Washington-directed and -starring screen adaptation of his and Viola Davis’ Tony winning turns in Fences, set to go wide on Christmas Day; and as the aforementioned Silence. 

Paramount’s awards brain-trust has already been working it, coming up with innovative ways of  getting Oscar voters to see these films. For Florence they held packed 11 AM Friday morning screenings at UTA during the summer, followed by a Nate’ N Al’s lunch. For Arrival, they have done the same thing at the Soho House (the last one happening today), as well as special hosted-evening screenings followed by a supper and mingling with Adams and filmmakers at various locations, including a well-attended event at a private residence with a very large screening room, and one next week at WME hosted by Steve Carell. Yesterday they did what I think was the first LA screening of Allied on the lot, followed by a lunch for some invited Academy members in the studio’s executive dining room. A similar strategy was used last season when they invited select voters to The Big Short well ahead of its press screenings and AFI Fest premiere.

HELEN MIRREN HOPING VOTERS REMEMBER EYE IN THE SKY

While that Allied screening was happening at Paramount, Bleecker Street was trying to lure Oscar voters to Soho House with a screening and lunch for its March release Eye In The Sky with co-star Helen Mirren, director Gavin Hood and producer Ged Doherty. The latter is partnered in one of the film’s production companies, Raindog, with Colin Firth, who is also one of the credited producers (the pair also have the upcoming Focus release Loving in the race this year). The riveting movie — one of the best-acted and -directed films of the year — was just recently overtaken as the No. 1-grossing independent release of 2016 by Hell Or High Water, but with $20 million to show for its spring opening, that is pretty impressive.

“I was just hoping we would get to $5 million,” Hood told me about the film Bleecker Street picked up out of the 2015 Toronto Film Festival. The movie, which details the planning and execution of a drone attack on a suspected terrorist target, will be campaigning its cast as an ensemble as well as in supporting categories including the late Alan Rickman, who has drawn some early supporting actor buzz for one of his final works. Doherty revealed to me they are in the planning stages of doing tribute events in London, New York and Los Angeles for Rickman, which should bring attention to his performance and a possible posthumous Oscar bid.

Mirren hadn’t heard about that plan when I spoke with her at the lunch but had high praise for the actor she said everyone loved; they actually didn’t share any scenes together due to structure of the film. She plays a tough-as-nails commander in the movie who is determined to see the drone attack succeed despite the moral questions that arise. Her role was actually written for a man, but Hood came up with the idea to change it to a woman which really gives the film a more unique edge than making it a male-driven war flick.

As for its awards prospects, Mirren did interviews and a SAG screening Thursday as well. “You have to get out a bit for a movie that opens so early in the year just to remind people it is there, especially with all the other films opening in the fall,” she said. She’s had experience in that regard: Even though her 2015 indie hit Woman In Gold opened in April of that year, she managed to buck the odds and landed a lead actress SAG nomination. Hopefully her terrific performance in Eye In The Sky stays in the conversation.

Mirren talked about the extraordinary drone technology that only keeps improving even since the film opened. She told of ISIS using store-bought drones and weaponizing them. Scary thought. Hood and Doherty showed me photos of new “mosquito” drones that can even outperform the spy “bird” drone featured in their film. The tiny bug-like device can carry lethal weapons without being detected and zero directly on a target rather just serving as an advance team for drone pilots. Hood talked about “swarms of drones” which can work in concert with each other. Sounds like it could be a modern-day version of Hitchcock’s The Birds. Welcome to the 21st century.

LAURA POITRAS DELAYS JULIAN ASSANGE DOCUMENTARY

Despite Risk‘s high-profile launch last May in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival and its resulting 100% Fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes (based only on 11 reviews though), Oscar-winning director Laura Poitras has decided to delay her Julian Assange documentary until sometime in 2017 at the earliest due to what she described as ever-changing developments in the Assange story. So don’t look for it qualifying for this year’s Academy Awards.

Although she won the Oscar for the near-universally praised 2014 docu Citizenfour, which detailed her secret encounter with Edward Snowden and his release of top-secret material on NSA spying activities, her movie on Assange, which presented a sympathetic portrayal, has become  challenging. That Cannes screening has now proven to be just a work in progress, with more to come depending on how the Assange story plays out. Of course he is currently making almost daily headlines with WikiLeaks document dumps that appear to be aimed at upending the U.S. Presidential election — and not in a good way for Hillary Clinton.  The U.S. government formally suspects Russian hackers as being behind the operation, in concert with Assange’s group.

Poitras, who is played by Oscar winner Melissa Leo in Oliver Stone’s current theatrical film Snowden, recently told me she had not seen, nor had been invited to, any screening of Snowden, and had little desire to see it. “I am certainly not going to pay to see it, ” she said, adding she is not a fan of Stone. I told her she is already a part of Oscar history as the first female Oscar-winning director to be played by an Oscar-winning actress directing that Oscar-winning movie. Good trivia, even if she still doesn’t care apparently about ever seeing that movie.

I ran into Poitras at a recent lunch celebrating her new venture Field Of Vision, which was launched at last year’s New York Film Festival by her, filmmaker A.J. Schnack and producer Charlotte Cook to promote and encourage filmmakers, particularly those making nonfiction shorts. Poitras told the crowd, many of them members of the Academy’s documentary branch, that the purpose of the new venture is to fill a need for documentarians to have a space to work faster than they are able to do with long-form feature-length films, and also filling a need in the news space where they need more videos but where news operations may not have the expertise or money to do it.

“We are trying to thread a needle between those two spaces of doing films that are contemporary but are also storytelling, that if you look at them in five years from now they still hold up as films,” she said. Ironically, that seems to be exactly what she is trying to do with the Assange project by trying to outrun her subject’s ever-changing narrative.

MOTION PICTURE ACADEMY STRIKES VICTORY FOR DIVERSITY

Hit on all sides for the past two years by the #OscarsSoWhite campaign detailing the lack of diversity in the Oscars and the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Academy for a second consecutive year has done something to encourage diversity that doesn’t nearly get the attention it deserves. I was very happy again this year to participate in the Academy’s Careers In Film summit last weekend. The event takes over a full day at the org’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills and is filled with mostly minority high school and college students from the Los Angeles area who are aiming for a career in the industry. Several professionals sit on panels and give the 411 to the kids while encouraging their dreams. This, folks, is diversity in action.

I moderated a panel titled The Reps: The Dream Team which included CAA agent Jelani Johnson, WME agent Phillip Sun, manager Jerome Martin, entertainment attorney Gordon Bobb and publicist Tony Angellotti. The eager and attentive packed audience was rapt in learning the ins and outs of  breaking into the business. The whole day was live-streamed around the world on Oscars.org, and the Academy will stage a London version November 11. The other panels included Above The Line Jobs, Pre-Production And Production, Post Production, Music In Film, and Animation.

Good job, Academy.

OSCAR GETS BARBECUED

Finally, there is another Academy tie-in in the current Geffen Playhouse production of the hit New York play Barbecue. Run, don’t walk this weekend if you are in L.A. to this show’s final performances — it is not only hilarious, it is one of the more clever plays I have seen in a long time. And yes, a large and authentic Oscar statue is part of the production design. To say how it got there would be to give away the twists and turns this terrific play takes. It was written by Robert O’Hara and staged by Colman Domingo, who currently co-stars in The Birth Of A Nation. The truly great (and game) cast includes Yvette Cason, Dale Dickey, Omar J. Dorsey, Frances Fisher, Kimberly  Hebert Gregory, Travis Johns, Elyse Mirto, Maya Lynne Robinson, Heather Alicia Simms and Rebecca Wisocky. Kudos to all. Suffice to say that among many other delights on display is a delicious send-up of the Oscars, but I will say no more. Priceless stuff.

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