Behind the Scenes of the 2021 Best Picture Nominees

In a year when theaters were largely closed, it has been a strange path to the Oscars on Sunday. Along the way, I spoke to the directors of the season’s most acclaimed films about key moments from their work. Below are clips and commentary from all but one of this year’s best picture nominees (David Fincher, the director of the Netflix feature “Mank,” declined to be interviewed for the series.)

The takeaway: A film about a heartbreaking issue can be approached in unconventional ways.

To tell the story of a man suffering from dementia, the director Florian Zeller plunged the audience into the experience. This scene operates on one level like a puzzle that needs to be solved. It begins in a somewhat routine way but builds to a moment when the father (Anthony Hopkins), as well as the audience, is thrown off balance.

“What I tried to do in ‘The Father’ is to put the audience in a unique position,” Zeller said, “as if they were, in a way, in the main character’s head. And as a viewer, we have to question everything we are seeing.”

The takeaway: An interrogation can continue after the questions end.

In this 1960s-set drama, Lakeith Stanfield plays Bill O’Neal, a young man who is initially caught using a fake F.B.I. badge to aid him in stealing a car. But when O’Neal is interrogated by an agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), he comes to be seen as informant material. The director Shaka King spoke about the importance of the scene in shaping the overall plot. A few questions solidify O’Neal’s character in the eyes of the F.B.I., and he becomes just the right vessel to collect intelligence about the Chicago Black Panther Party.

The takeaway: How you begin a film sets the tone for the entire feature.

The opening scene of “Minari,” Lee Isaac Chung’s intimate drama about a Korean family making a new home in rural Arkansas, sets up the movie to follow. The Yi family arrives at the largely empty house, a trailer in a field. Chung said that the scene was in his mind when he first began writing the screenplay and that the story would grow from there, a hopeful emptiness that would be filled in.

“That’s why it starts off at a house where it’s not really furnished,” he said. The filmmaker aimed to convey this new start in the faces and reactions of each family member, and used the scene as a template for how he would explore their emotions throughout.

The takeaway: Nature can be a great tool to explore a character who feels lost.

In Chloé Zhao’s drama, Frances McDormand plays a widow, Fern, who sets out for a life on the road when her economic situation becomes dire during the recession.

In one scene, she has taken a job in the Badlands of South Dakota and explores the park’s rocky environs. Zhao spoke about how she wanted to make these moments feel improvised even though the dialogue was scripted, and how she worked with McDormand to get at both a sense of wonder and uncertainty in Fern’s character.

“She’s exploring,” Zhao said, “but she’s also lost at the same time.”

The takeaway: The words “nice guy” can very much be open to interpretation.

Two people wind up in a close encounter in this scene from Emerald Fennell’s film, but the moment is far from romantic. The awkward Neil (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) has picked up Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) and taken her to his apartment. He thinks she is drunk. She very much is not. A confrontation ensues, and Neil is forced to reckon with his actions and his perceptions of appropriate behavior. Fennell said she wanted to take the kind of scene you would often see in romantic comedies and subvert it, intentionally casting Mintz-Plasse of “Superbad” fame.

“The nerdy nice guy who’s not very confident with women, who’s maybe struggling to write his first novel,” she said, “is maybe using alcohol as a cover for slightly more nefarious activities.”

The takeaway: A dramatic courtroom scene can sometimes play in whispers, rather than raised voices.

In this 1960s period drama based on the notorious trial of antiwar activists, gavels bang and tensions run high. But at times, a lowering of the temperature is the most effective way to go. That happens during the testimony of Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen). In this video, the writer-director Aaron Sorkin explained why he went in a quieter, more straightforward direction, and why all eyes were on Cohen in interpreting its tone in his performance.

The takeaway: Making a soundscape for a movie about a musician losing his hearing involves artistry.

In this drama from Darius Marder, Riz Ahmed plays Ruben, a punk-metal drummer whose capacity to hear begins to fade. The movie puts us in the character’s aural perspective through the course of this process. This scene shows a moment when Ruben’s hearing begins to diminish. He’s setting up the merchandise table with his bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), when a high-pitched ringing occurs.

I spoke further with the director and his sound designer, Nicolas Becker, about the inventive ways they created various elements of sound to immerse audiences in Ruben’s journey. Read more here.

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