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It’s Hard Out There To Make An Oscar Contender

It’s a minor miracle for any film to get made. A brief history of this year’s Best Picture nominees, from paper to screen.

1. “Argo”

2007
Wired magazine publishes an article by Joshua Bearman entitled “The Canadian Caper” about the declassified aspects of the 1979 Iranian rescue operation.

The piece is optioned by George Clooney’s production company.

Chris Terrio is brought on to adapt the article in a script and, after extensive research, delivers a first draft that is largely considered “ready to film.”

2008–2011
The completed script floats along for years in development hell, waiting for some impetus to move it forward.

2011
February
Ben Affleck, riding high from the critical acclaim of The Town, signs on as director.

June
After Affleck gives the lead to himself, Alan Arkin becomes first cast member to sign on, quickly followed by Brian Cranston, John Goodman, and the rest of the cast.

September
Shooting begins. After a series of Middle Eastern countries turn the production away in fear of upsetting Iran, Turkey is selected as the amenable nation that could most easily stand in. A lack of Farsi speakers on hand, however, creates a problem in filling all the extras’ roles and many of the film’s sequences, including the climactic airport scenes, must be shot in Los Angeles, where the large local Persian-exile community is eager to jump on board.

Affleck becomes obsessive about period and regional detail to the point of having an eyeglass designer re-create the giant ’70s frames worn by the actual houseguests.

2012
Argo premieres in September at the Toronto Film Festival to enormous enthusiasm, quickly becoming an Oscar favorite before fading in the race and then surging again.

After the premiere, Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador portrayed in the film, objects to a postscript at the end of the film’s original version, noting sarcastically that he’d felt Canada had received all the credit for the Americans’ escape. Affleck calls Taylor and promises, “If this bothers you, I’ll take it out.” The ironic coda was replaced by the much more somber “The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments.”

2. “Amour”

2009
Michael Haneke’s previous film The White Ribbon wins Cannes’ Palme d’or, the festival’s highest prize. Coming off the festival circuit, the director reflects on the slow degeneration of a beloved aunt and considers a film project based on the notion of not being able to help a loved one in decline. He spends months looking into the world of stroke victims, interviewing doctors and observing speech therapy.

2010
Haneke casts Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva in the leads, based on their work in the films of Bertolucci and Alain Renais, respectively. Coming off of his previous success, Haneke works with a tiny cast and crew in the most restricted of settings.

2011
Shooting begins in Paris on a soundstage where the couple’s entire apartment is meticulously reconstructed. The apartment set was so complete, Riva ultimately decided to live in it during the shoot, saving herself the tiring commute.

2011–12
After shooting wraps, the obssesive Haneke spends months in the editing bay, personally crafting the film.

2012
Amour premieres in Cannes, once again winning its director the top prize.

3. “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

2000
Dealing with the illness of her father, Florida panhandle native and playwriting student Lucy Alibar writes Juicy and Delicious, a one-act play about a boy named Hushpuppy who confronts the illness and death of his father, a man capable of enormous love but ­apparently ­incapable of putting that love into words.

2007
Alibar’s play is performed at The Tank in New York, where an old acquaintance, recent college graduate and aspiring filmmaker Behn Zeitlin, attends. Zeitlin persuades her to let him turn the play into a film.

2008
Visiting the New Orleans area, Zeitlin decides to relocate the project from its Florida setting to the Bayou, seeing its perilous post-Katrina condition as the perfect setting to illustrate “these roads that go all the way down to the bottom of America and what was at the end of them.” Zeitlin spends eight months on and off living in the area and studying its culture.

2009
Alibar and Zeitlin attend the Sundance labs in screenwriting, directing, and film music. They receive $7,500 in grants from the Annenberg Foundation to pursue the project.

2010
Zeitlin wins the 2010 Sundance/NHK International Filmmaker Award, which comes with a $10,000 cash prize as well as the pre-buy of Japanese broadcast rights, valued at $85,000.

A five-month shoot begins in March. The film is cast with locals — including Dwight Henry, who was discovered working at a bakery he co-owned across the street from production headquarters. Henry reads for the part just to be “friendly” to patrons of his shop. Later, however, when Zeitlin decides to cast him, Henry has moved his bakery and can’t be found. When he is told they want him for the role, Henry replies he had “just opened up a new business. I can’t just close my doors and walk away from a business I worked so hard to build.” Eventually — with the help of Zeitlin’s accounting team — he is persuaded to come aboard.

Then-5-year-old Quevenzhané Wallis lies about her age to get into an open call for girls ages 6 through 9.

During the shoot, Zeitlin and other members of the crew live in a trailer placed in a friend of the production’s backyard.

The shoot was in progress when the BP Oil spill occurred, causing the government to shut down coastal areas where the crew is filming and the team to scramble for their shots.

Lacking the funds to use CGI effects to create the aurochs sequences, the crew adopts a week-and-a-half-old pig and trains it from its very first days to follow commands in ways grown pigs would never accept.

2012
Debuts at the Sundance Festival in January. Beasts is the festival’s immediate sensation, getting snatched up for distribution by Fox Searchlight instantly.

The film is released in theaters in July to ecstatic reviews, although ultimately failing to become a major breakthrough at the box office.

4. “Django Unchained”

2007–2010
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino is inspired silmultaneously to write a film about a slave who becomes a bounty hunter — whom he describes as “the sixth slave from the seventh on a chain gang line” — and to film a spaghetti Western and began speaking of his “Southern” film in interviews. The idea formed as he worked on a book project about Sergio Corbucci, the great spaghetti Western director, whose 1966 film Django was a not-very-subtle inspiration.

Tarantino shares the script with actor Christoph Waltz, who had starred in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds as he was writing it, and the actor immediately becomes involved in its development.

2011
Tarantino turns in a script in April to the Weinsteins.

The title role is intended for Will Smith, but the actor, then in the midst of shooting Men in Black 3, backs out due to time commitments. Jamie Foxx signs on, followed quickly by Samuel Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio. Casting of smaller characters becomes a revolving door, with Joseph Gordon Levitt, Sasha Baron Cohen, and Jonah Hill all originally set to take parts and then exiting the production due to scheduling conflicts. Hill would eventually appear in a cameo role.

2012
The film goes into a whirlwind of production, with cameras rolling just months after the script is delivered. The 130-day shoot takes the crew from “Simi Valley, to the Alabama Hills, to the frozen Grand Tetons, to the swamps and plantations of New Orleans and back to Simi Valley,” ( tweets producer Stacey Sher.

Wrapping in July, Tarantino has just five months to deliver a completed version of the epic film in order to meet the Weinstein’s immovable Dec. 25 release date, a rushed job further excerbated by the fact that Tarantino’s editor, Sally Mencke, had died since his last film.

The quick edit leads to, among other changes, the scrapping of a Frank Ocean song written for the film.

The film opens to largely positive reviews but comes under attack for its heavy use of the “n” word and depiction of slavery from some, including, most vocally, director Spike Lee.

5. “Les Miserables”

1988
A rush to bring the blockbuster mega-musicals of the 1980s to the screen leads to an announcement of a Les Mis film project, helmed by director Alan Parker.

1989
Parker exits the Les Mis project (he will ultimately take the wheel on another mega-musical of the era, Evita) and is replaced by Bruce Beresford, riding high from the success of Driving Miss Daisy.

1991–2010
The production never takes hold, and the film floats through two decades of development hell with periodic annoucements by the stage producer Cameron MacIntosh that a screen version is imminent.

2011
Coming off the success of The King’s Speech, director Tom Hooper signs on, and his involvement at last propels the film forward into a sudden frenzy of development and casting activity.

Robert Downey Jr. and Sean Penn are initially discussed for the Valjean and Javert roles before the signing of Hugh Jackman in June. Russell Crowe comes aboard in July after Paul Bettany is considered for the part, followed by Anne Hathaway. Taylor Swift, Evan Rachel Wood, and Scarlett Johansson were rumored to have looked at the Eponine part — which sparked the liveliest casting rumors, as seemingly every young actress and singer on Earth was floated.

2012
Production begins in March, shooting around England. The film utilizes the unusual, possibly unprecedented musical device of filming the actors singing on location without orchestral backing.

Both Jackman and Hathaway approach near starvation, losing vast amounts of weight to achieve their consumptive appearance. Jackman goes on a “non-liquid” diet as a trick to achieve sunken eyes and cheeks.

To create the barricades of the climactic sequence, production designers spend a month searching for the right antique wood pieces before stumbling on a junkyard filled with the stuff.

The film premieres in December to cheers and some jeers for the overripe aspects of the final product as well as Russell Crowe’s clear difficulty carrying his songs.

6. “Life of Pi”

2001
After being rejected by five publishers, the novel by Yann Martel is published and wins the Booker prize.

2003
Rights to the novel are acquired by Fox 2000’s Elizabeth Gabler, despite concerns that the fantastical story line is “unfilmable.”

2004–2008
A who’s who of international directing talent — including M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuaron, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet — is attached with the film, then they depart.

2009
Ang Lee signs on to direct, despite initial qualms that he “didn’t see it as a movie.”

2010
Lee signs unknown 17-year-old Indian actor Suraj Sharma to the lead.

Fox halts the project after concerns about its $70 million budget. Lee races back to Los Angeles from Taiwan, where he is on location scouting, and shows the studio executives clips from Sharma’s audition as well as a “luminous previsualization” of the shipwreck scene. The studio is sufficiently impressed to turn the spigots back on.

2011–12
Tobey Maguire signs on to play the writer in the bookend pieces of the film, then departs. Lee later says he feels the Western star’s presence would clash with the international cast, a concern that didn’t apply, apparently, to the presence of Gérard Depardieu, who appeared in a small role.

Shooting begins in India and Canada, with the boat scenes filmed in “the world’s largest self-generating wave tank ever designed and built for a motion picture.” Sharma spent weeks in the tank, starving himself, fighting the machine-generated waves, and speaking to the blank space in the lifeboat where a CGI-generated tiger would be inserted in post-production. Lee asks the crew not to speak to Sharma for a full two months to reinforce his sense of isolation. The young actor would later say he felt he was “going insane.”

In November 2012, the film is released.

7. “Lincoln”

1999
At a dinner party, Doris Kearns Goodwin tells Steven Spielberg that she has just started work on a book about Lincoln’s cabinet. Before dinner is over, Spielberg has demanded and been given an option on the book — of which not a page has yet been written.

2001
Screenwriter John Logan is hired to hired to write a script. His script revolves around the president’s relationship with Frederick Douglas.

Tom Hanks is widely mentioned as the favorite to play the lead.

2004
Spielberg offers Daniel Day-Lewis the title role, but after reading the script he turns it down.

2005
Liam Neeson is cast in the title role.

Screenwriter Paul Webb is hired for to write a new draft and turns in a sweeping drama of the Civil War, set over the course of years, replete with massive battle scenes.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book is published.

2006–2010
Playwright Tony Kushner, with whom Spielberg had worked on Munich, is brought aboard to write a new script. After immersing himself in the history of the era, he delivers his own sweeping 500-page draft. He spends two years trying to trim it down until one day he receives a call from Spielberg, suggesting they focus the entire script around the 70-page page segment Kushner had written describing the battle to pass the 13th Amendment.

2010
Liam Neeson departs from the project, saying he is now too old to play Lincoln.

Spielberg wants to try again with Daniel Day-Lewis but is unable to reach him to try to have him reconsider based on the new script. Over dinner, Spielberg tells Leonardo DiCaprio of his struggle to win back Lewis. The next day, DiCaprio calls Spielberg and gives him DDL’s cell phone number, saying, “He is expecting to hear from you.” Lewis reads the script and agrees to take the part, but says he needs a year before he can begin.

Spielberg spends the year refining and reworking the script with Kushner.

2011
Shooting begins in Virginia. For the first time in his career, Spielberg addresses the cast by their character’s names in between takes. He bans newspapers and any other sign of the contemporary world from the set in order to preserve a pristine sense of the era.

2012
Spielberg asks Fox not to release the film until after the election so Lincoln’s story will not become a “political football” in the campaign season. It opens the week after the election, debuting on Nov. 9 to largely favorable reviews.

8. “Silver Linings Playbook”

2007
Silver Linings Playbook is published as a novel by Matthew Quick. The rights are quickly purchased by the producing team of Sidney Pollack and Anthony Minghella and set up with the Weinsteins. Pollack, however, has trouble adapting the difficult characters to the screen and speaks with David O. Russell, a man well at home with difficult characters, about the project.

2009
Following the death of both Pollack and Minghella within months of each other, the Weinstein company turns to David O. Russell to make the film. Russell is drawn to the material by his journey as the father of an autistic son. Nonetheless, the mercurial director estimates he goes through more than 20 drafts searching for the story.

Russell puts the project aside to make The Fighter.

2010
Russell would later claim “I wrote it for Vince Vaughn. And Zooey Deschanel.” However, after neither of these stars comes aboard, Russell plans to make the film with Fighter star Mark Wahlberg in the lead. Wahlberg, though, chooses to shoot the action thriller Contraband instead.

The picture is announced as a “go,” set to star Bradley Cooper and Anne Hathaway in the leads.

2011
Casting chaos consumes much of the year. Anne Hathaway drops out when Dark Knight shooting drags on. A parade of actresses are considered for her part, including Olivia Wilde and Angelina Jolie. Russell is initally opposed to using Jennifer Lawrence, but finally warms up to her. Robert DeNiro, Jackie Weaver, and the rest of the supporting cast fall into place.

The film is shot over 33 days in Russell’s trademark agressive style, which consists, according to the film’s actors, of Russell standing just off camera and shouting directions at the actors as they film.

2012
Premieres at Toronto Film Festival. Along with Argo, it is the festival’s major sensation and talked about as an Oscar contender.

The film debuts at the box office in November to mostly rave reviews, but a slow-growing platformed release deprives it of the instant-knockout feeling it seemed destined for. Despite eventually earning an extremely solid $100 million over the course of four months, the momentum is lost and its contender talk fades.

9. “Zero Dark Thirty”

2010
Ater winning the Oscar for Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal decide to make a film about the battle of Tora Bora and how bin Laden got away, and begin research on the project.

2011
When bin Laden is killed in Pakistan, Bigelow and Boal abandon their Tora Bora project and decide to make a film about his capture.

Meanwhile, the CIA begins an active campaign to woo the filmmakers, hoping to bring their side of the story to the screen.

After sorting through reams of research, Boal is stuck trying to find a human perspective through which to tell the story until he learns of one shadowy operative at the CIA. “Somebody mentioned to me that there had been a woman in the CIA who had been forward deployed to Afghanistan to identify bin Laden’s body,” he would later say. “She played an important role in following the lead and agitating for it and she was one of the targeters who was on the team, and was given credit for a lot of the work. I thought, ‘Okay, that’s potentially a way in.’”

2012
Shooting in India is disrupted by protestors upset that their country is being used to portray the hated enemy Pakistan.

In May, the right is further alarmed by reports that the White House has been feeding Bigelow information about its role in the bin Laden hunt in an election year. The Atlantic asks, “Is Harvey Weinstein planning an October suprise for Obama?”

News about the film brings protests from the right. Congressman Peter King asks the Office of the Inspector General at Defense to investigate whether Bigelow and Boal — in preparation for the script — received classified information regarding bin Laden’s death. Bigelow denies she is making an Obama campaign ad.

After a tight lid being kept on the film, it is released in December. It is the best-reviewed film of the year but immediately sparks outcry, this time from the left and from members of Congress who consider the film a justification for torture.

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