March 18, 2010
A magical red carpet ride
Walking down Xenia Avenue in early spring, particularly after such a tough February, is much kinder to the soul than driving through Los Angeles traffic, or walking a red carpet. We’re glad to be home from our Oscar adventure, grateful to our beloved hometown for all the support. We heard the Little Art was packed. Friends and neighbors have been asking what it was like. I’ll do my best to answer that question here.
We flew to L.A. on the Wednesday before Oscar Sunday. From that point on, every day had two or three receptions, screenings, luncheons, parties and/or panel discussions about the nominated films.
The first was that night, at the Academy itself. That was our initial exposure to the legions of media who follow the Oscars. We got to meet and hang out with our co-nominees in the Best Short Documentary category, who were pretty much all wonderful people. The Polish filmmakers of Rabbit a la Berlin showed a quick wit, confessing to one audience that they had not yet screened their documentary for the rabbits. It was great to see our friends Daniel Junge and Henry Ansbacher, who made The Last Campaign of Booth Gardner. We had first worked with Daniel and Henry in Denver, during the filming of Convention, the documentary about the historic Obama Democratic convention. They are committed, driven guys, having also made They Killed Sister Dorothy, about the murder of activist nun and Dayton native, Sister Dorothy Stang. We got to meet Roger Ross Williams, director of Music by Prudence, who immediately seemed like a kind and thoughtful filmmaker. Veteran documentarian Jon Alpert, who made China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of a Sichuan Province, rounded out the group.
Flanked by two huge Oscar statues, we all took to the stage for a discussion of our work, led by the amazing filmmaker Barbara Kopple. All of the documentary makers, including the five nominees for feature doc, were very comradely. There was no sense of competition. And everyone knew that this was a very excellent year for documentaries.
One of the fun parts of this cascade of events was getting the chance to hang out with Yellow Springs native Jennifer Sharp, who is forging quite a career for herself. Jen has already directed three films, and won awards for her screenwriting. She also truly knows how to work an event, and she took a firm hand with us, navigating us down press-lines, helping us look less like bewildered out-of-towners.
On Thursday night, Julia and her former WSU student Nichol Simmons, now also a director, attended the “Women and the Oscars” party, a very swanky affair at the home of a major Hollywood producer and his wife. They were impressed by the lush gardens, the great food, and the first of many celebrity sightings: Gabourey Sidibe, nominated for best actress for Precious. Julia and Nichol chatted with her and other female nominees. Then it was onward to the mayor of Los Angeles’ party, where we scratched our heads as Mel Gibson delivered a mostly incomprehensible speech.
On Friday afternoon, four autoworkers featured in The Last Truck — Popeye, Kim, Kate and Kathy — arrived from Dayton. They checked in to the super-fancy Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. Upon entering their rooms, they each saw pillows with their initials embroidered on the cases. (They got to keep the cases, but not the pillows.) While Kate and Kathy took to the streets of Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive, Kim and Popeye joined us at a reunion for former Wright State film students. It was great to reconnect with so many friends, and to see so many formerly-scruffy slacker kids now doing quite well. Former Yellow Springers Georgiana Gomez and Julie Jenkins were there, and generously offered the 20-plus people a moving champagne toast.
Our daughter, Lela, arrived late Friday, looking lovely. Our tireless assistant for the whole year of making the film, WSU graduate Ben Garchar, also joined us to attend the Oscar ceremony.
Saturday morning, the International Documentary Association held screenings of the nominated short docs at the Writer’s Guild of America headquarters, in a very large, packed auditorium. We all got to watch the very moving Music By Prudence and immediately sensed it could easily be the winner. We also saw for the first time the tensions between director Roger Ross Williams and his former producer Elinor Burkett, conflicts which would later erupt at the Oscars in Burkett’s Kanye-moment.
Having all survived another Ohio winter, we reveled in the 65-degree weather and bursts of sunshine. Our group drove out to the Santa Monica pier, where we walked on the beach. Even on a gray and chilly day, we were calmed by the majesty of the Pacific and mountains curving up the coast.
We needed calm, in fact, as Saturday night brought us to a big, packed party at the Peninsula Hotel, sponsored by HBO. None of us were quite sure how to dress, and we represented a range of attire, from fine dresses to Popeye’s blue-jean jacket. The four former Moraine assembly workers talked to a ton of people, and it was fun when the president of all of HBO arrived and the first person he asked to meet was Popeye.
Sunday morning, batting butterflies, Julia and I drove from our friend’s house in the Silver Lake neighborhood of L.A., where we were staying, over to the Peninsula, where we’d all get dressed and get ready to head over to the Kodak Theater for the big show. Hours were poured into make-up, hair, jewelry. Once we were all dressed and assembled, we took a few pictures, and packed into a big stretch limo. It took almost an hour to navigate the super-high security around the Kodak Theater: concrete barriers, 12-foot-high chain link fences. Crowds were pressing against the fences, and when Kim Clay rolled his window down and waved at everyone, a big cheer went up.
The limo dropped us off at the entrance to the red carpet. We walked through metal detectors and row after row of security until we emerged from behind a red velvet curtain to see stretching out before us a football-field long wall of video cameras, bright lights and reporters wielding microphones. We gulped. This was the legendary red carpet.
Leading up to this moment, we had all discussed our mission: to talk about the job situation in Dayton and the midwest. So many people here are skilled and hungry for work, and we all knew this would be our prime opportunity and responsibility, to tell the world media. We took a step on the red carpet, turned nervously to the first cameras, and started talking. We were all nervous at first, but pretty soon, we found our footing. The questions that came at us were typical: What’s it like to be in Hollywood? Which movie star are you hoping to meet? But we were all ready to flip these questions. We all replied with responses that began “Well, it’s cool to be here, but we’re really here to talk about what’s going on back home.” The former autoworkers from the film were just magnificent. Interview after interview, for almost 90 minutes, they kept the focus on jobs. CNN did an eight-minute interview with the workers — an eternity at this kind of event. The reporter had seen the film, and she had real questions for the team.
The concentration it all took was enormous. Believe me, it’s hard to keep talking about the need for jobs in Dayton when Mo’Nique and Mariah Carey are right behind you.
Once we had walked the entire red carpet, we relaxed — the hard part was over. We then walked back to the start of the red carpet, and walked it again, trying to get in the background of the TV GUIDE Channel and E! so friends back home could possibly see us.
We then walked through the grand entrance to the Kodak, with its 10-foot golden Oscars, and photos from many past Best Picture winners. Flutes of classy champagne were offered to all as they entered.
Inside, most everyone was milling about in the lobbies of the multiple floors of the Kodak Theater, drinking and eating tiny hors d’oeuvres. The butterflies in our bellies mounted a second attack, and we realized we should get out of the crowd. So we went into the big, mostly empty auditorium, about the size of the Schuster Center but with five balconies, and took our seats. We were on the floor, but not up front. Oddly, the nominees for Best Short Documentary don’t get front row seats. Perhaps we are just too glamorous, and the Academy doesn’t want George Clooney to feel bad.
We were sitting there alone, when an elderly couple entered from the back, moving slowly. They sat down, about 10 rows back, and we looked over our shoulders to see it was Mr. and Mrs. Mickey Rooney. Popeye turned to us and said, “Excuse me for a second.” He walked over to Mickey, knelt down and introduced himself, saying what an honor it was to meet this legend. They talked for almost five minutes.
The ceremony began, and we were comforted to be sitting amidst all of our fellow nominees for Short Doc. Just behind us was Roger Ross Williams, his lovely 87-year-old mother and Elinor Burkett from Music By Prudence. We all nervously waited and watched the first few awards bestowed. At one of the commercial breaks, I couldn’t quite sit still any more. I got up in the aisle and started anxiously bouncing up and down. Roger came over to me, and in a wordless gesture of solidarity and kindness, put an arm around me and gave me a hug. A little while later, I leaned over to Roger’s mother and said, “Your son is a really good guy. I wish you good luck tonight.” She looked back at me and said “Everything is going to be all right.” Julia asked young Roger if he had prepared a speech. He said he had not, he did not think his film would win. So she said, “Honey, get writing. It could be you up there for sure.”
They finally announced our category, and when they called it for Music By Prudence, we felt a rush of emotions. We were happy for Roger, and of course a bit crushed. When we got the nomination, we didn’t think we were going to win. But as the ceremony had approached, so many people had started to tell us they thought and believed we would win that, despite our best efforts, it kind of started creeping in. Yet it’s hard to feel bad losing to such a nice guy, or such a beautiful film.
As the evening wound on, we finally started relaxing. The pressure was off, and we enjoyed moments like Mariah Carey telling our kid Lela she liked her dress, or Kim Clay, from our film, talking to Oprah, who knew about The Last Truck. Julia got to do a close brush-by of Jeff Bridges’ table, and we can report that he’s one of the few movie stars who is actually hotter in person than he is on screen. Kate got her photo with the amazing Gabby Sidibe from Precious. Kim talked to Woody Harrelson, who grew up in Lebanon, Ohio, about Dayton and Moraine. And my favorite moment, I ran into my old friend Andy Hignite at the Governor’s Ball. Andy grew up in Xenia, and we had been WSU students together in the early ’80s. We’d shot 16mm in all kinds of inadvisable and dubious circumstances, kids who didn’t know better. And here we were in tuxedos at the Oscars.
Late that night, Julia and I finally made it back to Silver Lake, to our friends David and Maryann’s house. We dragged ourselves into our little room, and propped up on our pillows there was a bright, multi-colored picture, drawn by our host’s older daughter, Leah. On it was a golden Oscar, and our names, and the words “It’s an honor just to be nominated, and we all love you.” Bone-tired and weary, we smiled, and looked forward to heading home.