“Nope” was made in the grandest traditions of Hollywood. Jordan Peele, probably more so than any other studio director today, is a commercial filmmaker with a great deal to say about our world, but is able to successfully embed intellectual complexity into the sharp clarity of a well made, well told piece of entertainment that keeps the audience on the edge of its seats. “Nope” was commercially successful, well reviewed, regarded as a real piece of cinema made by a serious director, with A-list artisans and impeccable craft. It’s a film you’d expect to be embraced the by the Oscar craft branches.
While visually and aurally striking, there’s nothing flashy, look-at-me about the filmmaking of “Nope.” Despite its technical innovations (more later), it’s classical filmmaking at its best. Peele strove to create a spectacle — and not that modern, flat, green-screen version of spectacle, with its eyeball numbing wash cycle of effects polluting a majority of our cineplex screens. No, Peele’s carefully composed precision, his turning the landscape into his stage, is more Lean-meets-Spielberg. Instead of a mechanical shark in the ocean, he hid the UFO in John Ford’s territory, hovering just above the story developing below, and building toward a third act reveal and climatic standoff. It’s the type of grand scale epic made with intelligence, restraint, and craft that Hollywood once strove to make, and loves to honor the rare chance it still gets the opportunity.
And yet “Nope” was shut out across the board, above-and-below-the-line, by the Academy Tuesday. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, composer Michael Abels, and the visual effects team led by supervisor Guillaume Rocheron didn’t get a nomination; Johnnie Burn’s sound team didn’t even get on the field, having failed to make the shortlist last month. If this is the type of filmmaking the Academy likes to reward, why was the “Nope” crafts team ignored?
Did they campaign? Yes, Universal did spend money and campaign for “Nope,” with the extremely busy Peele himself getting out and supporting (full-throated, in a way that doesn’t come natural to the increasingly reserved former comedian) his department heads.
Was it racial? I’m a middle-age white guy, whose #OscarsSoWhite radar might not be as finely tuned as others, but I don’t think the bias in this particular case was racial (or at least, that doesn’t fully explain it). Three of the “Nope” artisans who were best positioned for nominations are middle-age white guys, who are well established and regarded within their respective branches. And Tuesday, the craft branches did nominate, once again, both white and Black artisans behind another Black-led genre film, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (although, it’s a little disappointing production designer Hannah Beachler, who won for the first “Black Panther,” was passed over).
Is there a bias against genre? As seen with the four craft nominations “Top Gun: Maverick” received, and its apparent frontrunner status in the Best Editing and Sound categories, the craft branches are not necessarily genre-averse – although cinematographer Claudio Miranda not getting a nod was a surprise, and does mirror a continued shift toward arthouse as that branch’s membership expanded in recent years. Bottom line: How the Academy treats genre can vary year-to-year, and branch-to-branch.
More important is that not all genres are the same in the eyes of the Academy. As we saw with Peele’s Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay for “Get Out,” the Academy will begrudgingly (and sparingly) recognize a “serious” horror film when delivered in digestible fashion. Horror has actually managed to squeeze out a handful of Best Acting victories, including the Natalie Portman-led “Black Swan,” which rode a Cassevettes-meets-ballet-meets-Polanski arthouse vibe out of the horror ghetto. Below-the-line recognition for horror is virtually non-existent, and often reserved only for makeup — the one category in which the demands of the horror genre has, more often than with other crafts, consistently attracted top-of-the-field talent.
And there’s the rub.
In talking to filmmakers, it’s clear the perception among top professionals (many of whom are Oscar voters) is that horror is still rooted in the realm of the B-movie. It’s a 90-year history that stretches through to today’s variation, with horror producers relying on Canadian government co-productions, or, like Jason Blum did for “Get Out,” exploiting U.S. labor unions’ low-budget agreements to keep production costs indie-movie low (and potential backend profits exorbitant).
This is a sharp contrast to the modern action-fantasy films, like “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Wakanda Forever,” which are the last remaining A-movies Hollywood still consistently makes, and that have the well-deserved reputation for giving departments the resources, time, and pay that reflects a respect for their craft. As a working professional, there’s a connotation to working in horror that it is a different league of filmmaking, and one they have avoided, or climbed out of.
What’s galling about this mindset is, well, the history of cinema, in which so much of the most innovative, evocative, expressionistic filmmaking — and in some cases the backbone of Hollywood craft itself — stems from those B-movie, and yes, horror roots.
But what’s just plain stupid about this is there is nothing B-movie about the production values of “Nope,” in which Peele had created enormous filmmaking challenges, recruited a hand-picked A-team, and gave them the time, direction, and studio resources to not only solve, but deliver one of the most tightly wound, elegantly crafted Hollywood films in years.
During Oscar season, covering craft, we are pitched a number of filmmaking narratives, story hooks that smart awards publicists believe will resonate and cut through to get nominations. That was hardly necessary with “Nope.” The day my colleagues and I saw the film, we started texting each other, “How the hell did Hoyte do that?”
We live in a cinematic-era plagued by bad nighttime cinematography. This week at Sundance those filmmakers who embraced the low-light capabilities and limitations of a small Sony camera will have been far better served than the parade of poorly lit nighttime exteriors currently on our TVs and big screens (there’s one streamer that should honestly just ban nighttime exterior scenes when developing its scripted series). And yet here’s Peele, basing a movie on staring into an un-lightable Western landscape at night, through the wide-angle microscope of an IMAX camera, capturing that sense of vastness that comes from being under an evening Big Sky, and seeing with enough detail that a sound effect can cue the viewer’s eye, for a split second, to catch a UFO darting between clouds.
With “Nope,” Hoyte van Hoytema solved a technical problem that’s plagued Hollywood for 70 years, perfecting a two-camera rig system that allowed day-for-night shooting, but with the ability to control the balance of contrast, exposure, and color to properly simulate night. He created a stunning, evocative ocean canvas of night sky for Peele’s Jaws (the otherworldly predator nicknamed “Jean Jacket”) to roam and wreak havoc in. And yet, van Hoytema’s photography isn’t even the most impressive technical aspect of “Nope.”
With the exception of what Alfonso Cuaron’s sound team pulled off in “Roma,” never has Dolby Atmos been used as powerfully as it is in “Nope.” Sure it’s impressive how modern theater sound tech has been used by big films — a fighter jet zooming over head, your butt vibrating as a bomb goes off, and that uncanny way you hear the water splash over your right shoulder while soaring right above the ocean — but regardless of which of the five excellent nominees wins the Best Sound Oscar on March 12, it won’t hold a candle to Johnnie Burn’s masterwork.
In “Nope,” sound is the image. It’s what we can’t see. It’s the way the out-of-frame UFO affects the air and swirls the wind. Burn doesn’t just liberate Peele and Hoytema’s camera by so often carrying the story detail or information with incredible clarity. By activating the space outside the frame — and via Atmos, the 360-space around the viewer — we are immersed in large-format spectacle told through sound. It’s here that the “Roma” analogies are apt, specifically in the way the sound design creates a sense of movement through space, and the emotional responses that immersion elicits. As he did in “Under the Skin,” Burns creates eerie textured atmospheres that are earthly, but with sense of the beyond. Rather than jump scares, sound is our mounting sense of fear, which gets handed off, back-and-forth, in perfect harmony with Abels’ score — which, while fantastic, is not a traditional Oscar piece (although, if you can figure out a recent pattern in the music branch’s tastes, please share) and was always a long shot for a nomination.
But it is hard to look at the five visual effects nominees and wonder why Rocheron’s work was excluded. Jean Jacket is an amazing piece of art: A creation that first appears like a flying saucer, but reveals itself to be an animal. Whatever the backstory (which was detailed, but not public) Peele wove for this species, Rocheron brought its fully realized version to life, moving in a way that is organic to the environment and screen, and evolving into something that is somehow both beautiful (like origami mixed with a jellyfish) and absolutely terrifying by the third act.
For Jean Jacket alone, Rocheron’s team deserved the nomination, but it also deserved one for the way it supported the photography, much like the basis for the VFX nod for “Top Gun: Maverick.” If so much of the first half of “Nope” is about what you can’t see, it’s Rocheron who painted the clouds onto Hoytema’s sky to hide the UFO and give the landscape detail. And unlike “Top Gun: Maverick,” Rocheron did the work of breaking down these hidden contributions so his colleagues and the larger filmmaking world could understand the craft involved. My colleague Bill Desowitz, the best Oscar craft handicapper in the business, walked away from this year’s VFX bake-off with the sense Rocheron’s presentation likely landed him a nomination. But what Bill may have underestimated is just how blinded Hollywood professionals are by horror.
Cinephiles roll their eyes at the concept of “elevated” horror, this idea that some horror films have the subtext that the monster is us, society, and other films are just mindless slasher flicks and creature features — when historically the genre was tackling societal subtext almost a century before “Get Out.” I’m one of those who rolls their eyes, but for professional filmmakers who not only disregard the history of the genre, but allow their ignorance to taint when a studio and director “elevate” a horror film to traditional Oscar-worthy craft status… I have more than an eye roll.