Winter 2013

Curtain Raiser

The director of the opening short films for the Academy Awards explains what it's like asking George Clooney to kiss Billy Crystal, and other embarrasing moments.


GOOD FRIENDS: Miller (left) works on a scene in which George Clooney (right) kisses Crystal, copying a scene from The Descendants

When the DGA Quarterly asked me to write about my experience directing the opening films for the Academy Awards, I thought about my favorite bit with Billy Crystal in drag, leg raised like Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate, facing off against a young Dustin Hoffman. 

Dustin: “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?…I’m mixed up”
Billy: You’re mixed up? Baby, I’m in Anne Bancroft’s clothes and diggin’ it.

These opening films—I’ve done seven for the Oscars and as many for the MTV Movie Awards and a couple for the Emmys—move fast, they’re ideally under four minutes, and the directing and writing process largely converge. My crew and I grab pieces where we can, often stitching together what we’ve shot on various sets and locations. We find opportunities in the visuals and dialogue of films, then write our dialogue to use with the original films as the setup and sometimes the payoff as well. We reverse engineer our scripts to meet the opportunities the clips provide. And then we almost always push our luck and improvise.

A scene in last year’s opener played off of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. Billy is wearing 3-D glasses and he’s sitting with the characters from Hugo watching some movies when Tom Cruise crashes through an office window in character, rightfully confused as to how he ended up in this odd scene. I prepped Billy, and we discussed where and when the joke will land then moved on to some straight actor motivation. “Okay, after Tom crashes through the window, he’ll come up on you against the green screen, but it will actually be the cast of Hugo looking over your shoulder, and out that window will be Dubai—31 floors below. Got it?” Billy then made the 3-D idea funnier by grabbing Tom’s face and saying, “This 3-D is amazing!” Then we were all surprised when Billy flung himself out the window. He landed on stunt pads but it was still 10 feet off the ground (we had anticipated that a stunt man would do it). There are always surprises doing these Oscar opens.

FUN AND GAMES: Miller (center) directs a bit using the Lord of the Rings as Billy Crystal interacts with Jack Nicholson holding Gandalf's staff

This improvisational jump then became a transition from Mission: Impossible to Billy landing in a scene from Tin Tin. Thanks to so many technological innovations, we were able to actually embed him in Tin Tin’s animated backplates. This is a long way from Letterman piloting the bi-plane from The English Patient in 1997 where I simply rocked the camera and blew smoke around as he chanted the mantra from his stint as host: “Uma, Oprah.”

We are always operating on a limited budget, so for Tin Tin we couldn’t really fly our actor through the air, but we could move towards him. So in an old filmmaking trick, updated with new equipment, I used my Steadicam-Segway rig to “fly” towards a stationary Billy who hung by wires in the air. Not too many takes later we had great footage from a variety of angles that I would later composite into the animated world of Tin Tin. 

In earlier years, when I made openers without the help of screen shots from my iPad, studio screeners and other digital pre-visualizations, these short films were done purely analog. I did one for the MTV Movie Awards in which we recreated shot-by-shot a scene from A Few Good Men—but with The Brady Bunch. So Mrs. Brady (Florence Henderson) is cross-examining her son Greg (Barry Williams). All done in camera; no trickery. Directorially, matching the angles was the easy part; the fun began in matching the inflection of dialogue in a comic mash-up that accommodated all of our new dialogue. Florence studied Jack Nicholson’s performance for this and we found a new side to Carol Brady that hadn’t been seen before. 

Some of the best openings have evolved when we get the real actors to play the roles they are nominated for. For instance, last year, George Clooney recreated his role from The Descendants, walking across a hospital room and leaning over to kiss his comatose wife. The joke, of course, is that it’s a reveal—it’s not his wife, it’s Billy Crystal. I’m sure my experience as a director was crucial when I was able to tell George where his start mark was and then pointed out the guy in the bed he was going to kiss. 

Having directed a lot of episodic TV over the years, where the storyline is usually more coherent, these openers are a fun creative detour. When it comes to the openers, my talent as director—if any—is being able to match the shots and set up the joke so the technique doesn’t get in the way. And the great perk is getting to ask George to softly kiss Billy on the lips.  

Of course, it’s often technically more complicated than that, but when it works none of the cutting and pasting we’ve done matters. Most of my process begins in conversations with my longtime production designer, Dan Butts, who does exhaustive research on every aspect of the films we use.

In one opener, a scene from Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise kicks the bathroom wall, and in our clip, we see Billy on the other side of the room seemingly telling Tom what to do next. “Kick the wall—three times.” He did. When we shot it, Billy was actually interacting with a tennis ball on a c-stand and I was nearby playing Tom’s dialogue on tape deck (pre-MP3), and in the background you see every inch of the set Dan had constructed for the medium shot we needed. 

Obviously I’m not the director of any of the fine films we use, but it’s always a joy to see the positive response we get from the original directors and actors. Over the years, I’ve “borrowed” from the best for opening films. When we recreate these classic scenes, we all take the comedy very seriously. We painstakingly duplicate the sets, lighting style (thanks most recently to DP Michael Price), and match all of it as closely as possible. The joke is the point, but in a backhanded way I am always paying tribute to these great filmmakers. 

And it’s always seen as good fun. Otherwise, how could we get Jack Nicholson to appear in our version of The Lord of the Rings? I shot him on a set that consisted of only a few steps and half a wall. I had Jack (yes, I called him Jack) right where I wanted him—against a green screen. I held up the mighty Gandalf staff (which the film had loaned us). I wanted to be Peter Jackson and call out, “You are Gandalf!” But instead, I said to Jack, “Look at the red tennis ball—now the yellow.”

Funny Business

First-person columns written by directors about their humorous experiences working in features and television.

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