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Oscars: Behind the scenes on the opening film montage

February 28, 2011 |  2:49 pm

Oscar co-hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco kicked things off in high syle at the Oscar ceremony on Sunday with a movie montage that used "Inception" as a framework to edit the duo into scenes from some of the best picture nominees, including "The Social Network" and "True Grit."

Director Troy Miller has been making these opening montages for the Oscars since Billy Crystal killed with his when he hosted in 1997. This year marked Miller's sixth such film for the academy (he did them previously for the MTV Movie Awards). The director talked to us about his secrets for putting these short films together and why "127 Hours" wasn't in the mix.

Where do you watch your film during the show? Out with the audience?

I was in the house. Up, house left listening to it. It’s this thing where you want it to be great for the Oscar audience as well as the home audience. You have to check the stereo mix that projects in the house as well as the 5.1 mix that goes home, the color quality. You get so close to it that when you hear laughs you remember, “Oh yeah, it’s a comedy!”

It was surprising that “127 Hours” wasn’t in the montage. Was it ever part of it?

It was part of it and I kind of regret that we didn’t do it. Because it’s such a great movie and James was in it. Besides the logical joke of being stuck under a rock, I think it just got away from us with all the other films. In the opening “Inception” gag with the explosions, we had a lot of really funny jokes and set pieces that could have gone in there, but with timing, there were a lot of films we couldn’t cover, like “Toy Story 3” and “Winter’s Bone” and other things that were in early drafts.

Miller1This is the sixth one you’ve done for the Oscars. Do you have it down to a fine science by now?

You have shortcuts. I’ve done it years before for the MTV Movie Awards too, back in the day. We did the Brady Bunch doing “A Few Good Men.” That led to Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo, where I intercut them into “Twister” and “Jurassic Park.” You find tricks for matching eyelines and the film footage. Nowadays, with digital, it’s a lot easier than it used to be. It’s more about trying to get a good film scene, like in “True Grit,” [head Oscar writer] Jordan Rubin and I found these great shots that we could intercut Anne and James in a two shot. You get enough of a response from the film clip, we can just keep riffing and keep adding more jokes. It’s more about finding the coverage that you can crosscut. The technique is pretty straightforward. We use a green screen and this company, Gunslinger Digital Effects. Brilliant guys. You give it all to them and they make it all work out.

The idea of cutting the host into the nominated movies seems to have really taken hold as an opener. It's everywhere these days.

It was definitely odd doing it without Billy Crystal. It was pioneered in “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” with Carl Reiner and Steve Martin, but Billy brought it to the forefront. It was really his pace, his jokes really made it. But now, it’s on the People’s Choice Awards, the MTV Movie Awards does it regularly and I don’t even direct all those. You even see it in commercials. I think we started it, definitely back in the MTV Movie Awards days, but Billy made it huge. It’s become this new form of comedy and the better and faster technology gets -- you can do it in iMovie now. And people are.

Do you have to keep changing the way you do these movie montages to keep them fresh?

Definitely. That’s why this year  we put “Grease” into it, to recreate a whole scene. I ended up cutting it for tonal reasons as well as running time. For good or for bad. Not sure if I made the right choice or not. We evolved the segment out of not just intercutting with the great movies but actually doing an original scene. There’s a video of it online with the great dance we did with James and Anne, but it ran a little over a minute and made things run a little too long.  I think maybe next year people will see there’s so many things you can do now with set extensions and joke-wise. With the AutoTune segment on the Oscars, that’s another way to crosscut what would be a dramatic moment into a hilarious moment.

How early do they bring you in and how long does it take to make these films?

Normally, they bring me in as soon as they get the idea they want to do that. My company, Dakota Films, does a lot of that and there aren’t a lot of people who can get in and do it on the budget. The budget is fairly minimal. So we use our crews from our other shows and use my friends and no one really gets paid. It’s the short film everybody wants to make, though. It’s why you’re in the business. So you work on it when you have time for the first two or three weeks and then it heats up and we shot this two weeks ago, each one of the actors at a different time in a lot of cases. Alec Baldwin, for example, was going to be in town getting his star on the Walk of Fame. So we found a stage nearby and we had him come in for two hours and shot all the stuff with him. Get them when you can and have your stuff worked out. It’s pretty mapped out, so you’re mainly giving yourself a form for comedy. Once we get them in the right position, we can throw jokes at it.

It seems like such a jigsaw puzzle to start putting one of these together. Do you sit down with your team as a group to watch all the movies?

Together and individually. In the past, Billy had it down to a science with he and his guys. And in this case, probably Jordan Rubin, who ran the writing staff, they looked at films and I would look at them and we’d pick out the pivotal moment, the moment that everyone knows from the trailers. You’re looking for a memorable moment. When you see “The Fighter” and you see Mark [Wahlberg] fighting with his trainer, you know it’s the set-up. And all I have to do is supply a payoff. So we had an early draft of that scene in all the trailers, so I just needed to come up with a visual that would get me to the payoff as quickly as possible. You just want to get as many jokes through as possible.

You must be a topnotch mimic of film style at this point.

It’s interesting. I created this system, back in the days before we had computers doing live comps, I would get bootleg VHS tapes and line them up on the monitor and draw on the monitor with a sharpie and line up my actors and eyeball it. Now we have an effects bay on stage and you’re doing rough comps as you’re shooting. A lot of it's laid out but it starts with my DP Michael Price and we set up a giant board with still photos from the films that becomes my shot list. You improvise from there. With "The Fighter," we built half that set. It’s not a green screen.

What was the first year you did it for the Oscars?

That was 1996 and it had the famous Uma-Oprah, David Letterman crashing the plane in “The English Patient.” We also did “Fargo” in 1996. That’s my favorite moment in all of them. We did “True Grit” this year, which I pushed hard for. The Coen brothers are the reason I’m a director. Being able to cross-cut to their work is this weird, visceral satisfaction by working with these other directors indirectly. I guess I’m copying their work, but also paying tribute to how great it is.

Related:

Television review: Anne Hathaway and James Franco play it safe

Oscars ceremony was one of the shortest in recent times

The British are coming? Decoding the 'King's Speech' win

Big Picture: The triumph of Hollywood conservative values

--Patrick Kevin Day

Photo: From left, writer Jordan Rubin, director Troy Miller, hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway. Dakota Films

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