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More Key Pre-Oscar Wins, Grilling Redford, Oscar Writers and Dern in Santa Barbara

More Key Pre-Oscar Wins, Grilling Redford, Oscar Writers and Dern in Santa Barbara

This pre-awards weekend veered toward the 70s as Robert Redford and Bruce Dern were tributed at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Martin Scorsese was honored by the Art Directors Guild and screenwriter Robert Towne was feted by the USC Scripter Awards. 

This pre-Oscar weekend also brought Friday’s editors ACE Eddie Awards in Los Angeles, which went to “Captain Phillips” for drama, likely Oscar-winner “American Hustle” for comedy, and Oscar frontrunners “20 Feet from Stardom” for documentary and “Frozen” for animation. 

“Frozen” director Jennifer Lee, in Santa Barbara for Saturday’s directors’ panel, was delighted because the editing on the complex musical film involved challenging timing, she said. She and co-director Chris Buck are almost through with their “Frozen” long-distance marathon as they head into the final Oscar stretch and finalize various versions of the movie for DVD, Blu-ray, television, etc. They are expected to take home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Saturday’s Art Directors Guild Awards went to “Gravity” for fantasy, “Her” for contemporary and “The Great Gatsby” for period feature, the likeliest Oscar winner, but it’s a close race. “How does one separate cinema from production design?” asked Scorsese, who was honored at the ADG Awards. “You can’t.” Scorsese and “Wolf of Wall Street” production designer Bob Shaw will be working on a television pilot soon. Veteran production designer and cinema virtuoso Rick Carter talked dropping acid in the 70s as he accepted his lifetime ADG Award. .

Saturday drew another crowd to the USC Scripter Awards, which are given to both the original writer and the adapting screenwriter and often predict the Adapted Screenplay Oscar. John Ridley graciously accepted the award, breaking into tears as he thanked the long-deceased Solomon Northup for “12 Years a Slave.” While “Captain Phillips” won the Writers Guild award, neither “Philomena” nor “12 Years a Slave” was eligible.

Two 77-year-old athlete-turned-actors recalled the 70s at Santa Barbara tributes. Redford showed up at State Street’s Arlington Theater for his grilling by Leonard Maltin even though he didn’t land an Oscar nomination for “All is Lost,” followed on Saturday night by fellow 77-year-old Dern, an Oscar nominee for “Nebraska” (who drew half a house filling in for non-nominee Emma Thompson, who preferred to stay in London). Santa Barbara Fest award-winners are here.

Robert Redford grew up in a tough L.A. neighborhood, never did well in school, lost his U of Colorado baseball scholarship for drinking, worked on an oil refinery which funded a tour of Europe, where he studied art and paid for a room or meals by doing street portraits, “American in Paris”-style. Redford says he always had an outlaw sensibility and identified with his role as the Sundance Kid in Butch Cassidy, which turned him into a movie star. Paul Newman was supposed to play that role in William Goldman’s script for “The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy,” but director George Roy HIll and Newman fought for Redford against the studio and Newman as the movie star got top billing in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

Redford is still proud of the long and painstaking process of convincing Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to cooperate and give him the rights to their book “All the President’s Men” before they finished it. He kept calling Woodward until he finally picked up the phone and agreed to meet with him–the phone was tapped. Redford nailed seemingly boring Woodward role when he figured out that Woodward used his boring facade as a ruse to snare unwitting quarry. 

When Redford costarred with Dern and Mia Farrow in “The Great Gatsby,” Robert Evans originally wanted girlfriend Ali MacGraw to play Daisy Buchanan. Redford remembered wondering if the studio ever read the book, and told a moving story about inviting the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Buchanan to the premiere. She refused to go, citing Fitzgerald, who would not want her to attend.

Frustrated by the limitations of being an actor, Redford won an Oscar for his directing debut on the family drama “Ordinary People,” and knew what he wanted for the movie–and why Mary Tyler Moore was the right counterintuitive casting for the mother. But he didn’t know camera language. So he sketched what he wanted for each shot, and always does his own storyboards.
He was delighted to return to his acting roots when “Margin Call” writer-director J.C. Chandor became the first Sundance alum to ask him to star in his next movie. He welcomed the mental and physical challenge of fighting the elements in virtually silent “All is Lost.”  “It was physically very difficult,” he said, “but I thought, ‘At this point in my life, let’s see what I can do.'” Now he’s got a key role in Marvel’s next “Captain America.”

The annual “It Starts with the Script” panel where I grill many of the writing Oscar nominees is my favorite moderating duty. 

When asked which was the crucial most pivotal scene in his movie, studio writing pro Eric Warren Singer (“The International”) answered the microwave scene in “American Hustle,” which was one of the first he wrote in his script developed at Columbia –a rare original that he was able to write free from interference because the studio no longer wanted the one they had originally assigned and paid him to do. When the studio saw the script they jumped enthusiastically on board and brought in David O. Russell. At which point Singer had to let the script go. The scene evolved and literally exploded as Russell expanded it with Jennifer Lawrence as Long Island housewife Rosalyn. Singer never writes with a specific actor in mind, nor did he have an age in mind for that character.

Experienced novelist and TV and screen writer John Ridley (“U-Turn,” “Red Tails”) cited the soap/whipping scene with Patsy in “12 Years a Slave,” praising the way director Steve McQueen, D.P. Sean Bobbit and actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o laid out and delivered the final result.

Brit TV veteran Jeff Pope explained that adapting Martin Sexsmith’s third-person non-fiction book about Philomena Lee’s adoption saga was more difficult than it might seem as he and producer-writer-star Steve Coogan created a two-hander based on Philomena (Judi Dench) and journalist Sexsmith (Steve Coogan). Pope controlled the computer while Coogan paced the room acting out all the characters. Pope’s climactic scene involved Sexsmith losing it with the Catholic nun who kept valuable information from Lee, while she found him, calmed him down and expressed forgiveness. That denouement did not come easily. 

Seattle TV sketch writer Bob Nelson (“Almost Live!”), who was hilarious on the panel, landed an Oscar nomination for his first screenplay, “Nebraska,” which was written as a longer audition piece to get more work. Based on many of his relatives from Nebraska where he’d return for summer visits, the script was easier for him to write funny than serious. Nonetheless for him the most crucial scene was the one where Woody (Bruce Dern) returns to his abandoned childhood home and walks through the rooms where he grew up. Nelson kept cutting it, but so did director Alexander Payne, who agreed more than a decade ago to direct the film but warned Nelson that he might have to wait for a while. Nelson is writing “The Tribe” with fellow Seattle TV vet Joel McHale, and threatens to write a movie based on more of his relatives. 

Craig Borten detailed the 20-year production nightmare that started with him feeling compelled to track down and interview in Texas straight one-time homophobe AIDs activist Ron Woodruff a few months before he died; those tapes became the basis for “Dallas  Buyers Club.” The movie picked up various producers and directors and actors along the way, including Marc Forster and Brad Pitt at Universal, before it reverted back to the original writers (including partner Melisa Wallack). They found and lost various investors before the straitened version, a $4 million movie, got made with director Jean-Marc Vallee and two emaciated actors, Oscar frontrunners Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. One key scene was Woodruff’s discovery that he’s contracted the AIDs virus. Borten drew laughter with his story of visiting McConaughey’s Malibu mansion and eating a tiny portion of salmon with a glass of water and working on the actor’s detailed notes all afternoon, “starving,” he said.

Saturday brought a charming Bruce Dern, recounting his training first as a Chicago runner and would-be Olympian, followed by the New York’s Actor’s Studio. “Because I ran, I knew it was an endurance contest,” said Dern, who landed the best role of his career at 77 in “Nebraska.”

His first day at Martin Landau’s famed acting class in Los Angeles, where he arrived Memorial Day 1961, he met Harry Dean Stanton and lifelong friend Jack Nicholson, who he worked with on several Roger Corman movies. “Nicholson is my guy,” says Dern, “the first one I showed the movie [“Nebraska”] to. Every time I’ve won anything, Jack sent me a bottle of gold champagne.”

The young actor started out working in television with Bette Davis and a misbehaving Joan Crawford, who was replaced by Olivia De Havilland. Dern does a great legs-crossed imitation of smoker Davis, who played his mother on “Gunsmoke.”

Dern would never blow up the Super Bowl again in movie, as he did in John Frankenheimer’s “Black Sunday,” because someone might copycat it. Dern co-starred with Redford in “The Great Gatsby,” and said,”Nebraska wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for Sundance.” He praised Redford for “creating it out of his brain.”

He recalled asking “Silent Running” director Douglas Trumbull for permission to take a day to kill John Wayne for the first time in a western, in “The Cowboys.” “They’re going to hate you for this,” said Wayne, who got good and drunk that day.

Finally Dern is happy that the phone is ringing again. After Cannes, he says, “I would have settled for a few days on a CSI.” Accepting his award from Diane Lane, he wished that this actress would get lucky and land a part that would showcase her acting skills –the way “Nebraska” did his. 

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