The David O. Russell-directed Black List screenplay became the second film since 1981 to be nominated in the four acting categories — undoubtedly in part due to Russell’s fluid directing style. The cast’s enthusiasm about the freedoms Russell afforded them shine through in every interview. Christian Bale, who portrays real-life con artist Melvin Weinberg, spoke about Russell’s approach in 2013:
“We were talking and radically changing a scene one day. The AD was saying, ‘Guys, we’ve got to film.’ We were like, ‘OK, let’s go improvise a whole lot but let’s get the basics of what you are looking for.’ I said to David, ‘You realize that this is going to change the plot greatly down track.’ David went, ‘Christian, I hate plots. I am all about character, that’s it.’ So that’s what it’s all about with David’s films. He is all about the characters. It makes for a really nice, vibrant look.”
[Spoilers] “It’s two-thirds scripted and one-third improvised,” Russell advised. “The improvisation is rarely people saying, ‘Just go do whatever you’re going to do.’ It just means that we’re rewriting it, making it better in the moment.” Scenes such as the bedroom fight between Bale and Jennifer Lawrence were improvised, while others (including the kiss between Lawrence and Adams) had been pitched, but remained unresolved until the actors offered input and brought it to life.
While filming Apollo 13, Tom Hanks got to experience the “Vomit Comit” — NASA’s KC-135 weightless trainer that prepares astronauts for zero gravity. The tables were turned on the actor during the making of Captain Phillips — based on the real-life story about an American cargo ship that was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009. Several of the stars playing the pirates, a group of non-professional actors, vomited on the Forrest Gump star during a take on a lifeboat. “Suddenly, they began vomiting, one after another… all over Tom! Because the space was so confined, he had nowhere to escape. He just sat there in shock, horrified at being covered in vomit,” ShowbizSpy reported. Taking it all in stride, the actor quietly went to his dressing room to shower and never said a peep. Hanks’ down-to-earth persona also came into play when the actors playing pirates were so delighted to meet him, they professed fandom immediately after the first take. Real-life Navy Corpsman Danielle Albert, who starred in the medical examination scene with Hanks, forgot her lines because she was so star struck — which Hanks was also good-natured about.
Dallas Buyers Club
The nearly 80-pound collective weight loss between stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto hogged the headlines during the promotion of Dallas Buyers Club, but some of the most interesting drama surrounding the making of the movie happened behind the scenes. Due to the controversial story about an AIDS patient (a homophobic cowboy) who smuggles unapproved, life-saving medication into Texas, Dallas Buyers Club struggled to secure financing when it was first pitched with Dennis Hopper directing and Woody Harrelson in McConaughey’s role. McConaughey revealed in an interview that the script was turned down 137 times by studios and financiers before it was given the green light. Even then, the film hit a wall when financing was pulled, leaving McConaughey and others to put up their own money in order to make things happen.
Hands down, the most remarkable part of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is the technology — but most audiences have no idea what an accomplishment it truly is. When theatergoers set eyes on James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009, they marveled at the seamless blend of CGI and live action. Gravity spent four years languishing in development hell, because the necessary technology didn’t even exist — until Cameron’s film arrived on scene. With Avatar, 60 percent of the movie consisted of CG. Gravity tops that, with 80 percent of the film created by CG. To recreate a realistic sense of light that mimicked the changes that happen in orbit (an entire day equals 90 minutes), the actors were filmed in a specially designed light box. The 20-by-10-foot cube lined with panels contained 1.8 million lights, all individually controlled. Star Sandra Bullock’s harness was too complicated to slip in and out of easily. She spent 9 to 10 hours per day inside the box, referred to as “Sandy’s Cage,” strapped to a rig with only a headset to communicate with the crew. Additionally, a complex twelve-wire puppeteering system moved the actors in a way to replicate zero gravity for close-up, live-action shots.
Reportedly, Spike Jonze employed some unorthodox methods to encourage his actors to socialize and create an emotional connection while making Her. He would “essentially lock [Amy Adams] and Joaquin Phoenix in a room together for an hour or two every other day, and make them talk to each other.” It worked, as the two actors formed a close friendship. During some of the movie’s intense emotional scenes, Adams, a trained singer, would belt out tunes from musicals in order to bring a little levity to the set. Phoenix used to join her, but the two became self-conscious when they realized Jonze was quietly filming them.
The use of black and white in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska puts the focus on the character-driven drama — a poetic road film that looks at aging, time, and familial relationships. Producer Albert Berger wanted the movie to have a “timeless, iconic look,” and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael believed black and white would also help highlight the vastness of the desolate Middle American landscape. Distributor Paramount Vantage had concerns about the approach. “The front office had major doubts because of money left on the table — that a black-and-white film seems ghettoized into being artsy-fartsy for the theatergoing viewers,” Payne revealed in an interview. “Eventually I said, ‘I’ll even give you a colored version for those specific TV outlets in Moldova and Sierra Leone and Laos or wherever.’ So I made a color version. I hope no one ever sees it.”
Stephen Frears and co-writer/star Steve Coogan worked closely with the real-life Philomena Lee and her daughter Jane Libberton for several years while crafting the true story of the Irish woman’s attempt to track down her son 50 years after he was taken from her as a baby and sold to an American couple. The filmmaker and writers wove many real-life details into the film, which is based on the 2011 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by British journalist Martin Sixsmith, including actual film footage of the Philomena’s son during several home move/flashback sequences. Dialogue was also pulled from conversations between Coogan and Lee for emotional emphasis.
12 Years a Slave
The making of 12 Years a Slave took a toll on its actors, due to the troubling subject matter and extreme scenes of rape and torture. The dark nature of the film overwhelmed star Michael Fassbender, who played despicable slave owner Edwin Epps. The actor passed out after a scene in which he rapes Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey. The movie also wore on Michael K. Williams, who played the rebellious slave named Robert. In an interview with Arsenio Hall, he revealed details about his emotional breakdown during one take.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Boasting the strangest set of facts is Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which recently set a record for the largest use of the F-word in a U.S. feature film. Profanity isn’t the only thing that ran rampant in the movie. The dramatization of drug use played a major part in portraying the life of the hard-partying Jordan Belfort — a convicted New York stockbroker who committed fraud on Wall Street during the 1990s. In order for Leonardo DiCaprio to make the drug scenes realistic, he was instructed by an “expert” according to an interview between Scorsese and Conan O’Brien. It’s a well-known fact that the director struggled with drug addiction early in his career, and Scorsese admits that he helped inform DiCaprio about Quaaludes during the making of the movie. Scorsese edited the hazy drug scenes quirkily on purpose, leaving continuity mistakes and choppiness intact. Fun fact: in the Quaaludes sequence, it took 70 takes for the crew to get a piece of ham to stick to DiCaprio’s face (using K-Y Jelly).