In the Kodak Theatre days before the Oscars on Sunday, everyone's a winner. Don Cheadle takes best actor and so does Jamie Foxx; Cate Blanchett accepts best supporting actress and so does Sophie Okonedo. The winners hug their colleagues and give touching speeches that never go over the 45-second limit.
In the house, the light is varying degrees of dim, and men with cameras hitched to their shoulders move like ninjas over and around seats practicing their shots. Sunshine is a happy rumor, reported by security personnel and press guides, or stagehands who leave the building for their lunch break. Stage managers pace, nodding into their headsets; occasionally someone shouts to assistants hunched over laptops and crumpled bags of Cheetos.
On stage, an actor standing in for host Chris Rock, tries to do the Chris Rock hands, the Chris Rock arms. From one angle and another, the designer considers and reconsiders his elaborate set while trophy models glide by like dryads.
Backstage musicians haul cellos and drum kits through the halls; a boxed harp leans against the wall like a forgotten sarcophagus. One stagehand steams hundreds of yards of gold fabric drapery into shimmering stillness, while others maneuver huge Plexiglas plates through crowds of people talking endlessly into walkie-talkies and cellphones. Everyone pauses for a moment to take in the black-lacquer and rose silk vision that is the green room. Nearby is a refrigerator stuffed with milk and juice to which someone has taped a sign. "Clear Out by Sunday," it reads.
And this is, of course, the whole point.
From Wednesday until hours before show time, many of the 1,600-member production staff behind the 77th Annual Academy Awards will be in the Kodak Theatre from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. Some have even taken up temporary residence in the nearby Renaissance Hotel. The atmosphere is collegial, calm and confident -- these are people who have done hundreds of awards shows -- but it is never relaxed. "It seems like we have a lot of time to do this," says Louis J. Horvitz, the show's director. "But we really don't."
Horvitz is most often found in "the truck," a small trailer parked in the loading dock that is the heart of the operation. From the outside, it has the beige, benign air of an extension classroom, except for the rainbow assortment of wires snaking through a nearby window.
Inside it looks more like NASA. Flanked by assistants, as well as the lighting director, Horvitz sits in front of 65 monitors, snapping his fingers in rhythm to the shots he's looking for.
"Give me Don Cheadle," snap, "give me the 'Aviator' group," snap, "give me Kate Winslet," snap, pause, repeat, "give me Kate Winslet.... OK, people we are going to have to find her sooner."
With his broad shoulders, black-rimmed specs and deeply authoritative voice, Horvitz is clearly the man in charge. This is his ninth turn directing the Oscars (he has won three Emmys for previous shows) and the people who fill the house, with their scripts and walkie-talkies, are his team, each one, down to the trophy model, chosen and/or approved by Horvitz.
"I've worked with some of these camera guys for 35 years," he says. "They know what I want."
What he wants is a rehearsal that is as close to the show as possible, down to the envelopes, which are the same as those used on Oscar night. The actual presenters won't be in until Saturday and then they are scheduled tight and fast. Saturday belongs to Danette Herman, the executive in charge of talent. Like Horvitz, Herman has worked countless awards shows, including the Oscars, and her role is to get the brightest stars she can to participate in the show, and once she's got them, to make sure nothing and no one dims their experience of the Oscars.
"Fifteen minutes," she says, and while her smile is warm beneath a mass of red hair, it is clear that she means it. "We don't want anyone having to wait around."
To make that possible, Horvitz and his team must have all the camera work figured out ahead of time. Hence the two dozen stand-ins, local SAG and AFTRA members whom Horvitz calls his "second team."
"A lot of people think stand-ins are just for lighting," he says. "But I expect my second team to know their parts, to read the trades, to see the movies, to figure out what the winners might actually do or say, and then do it."
And if they don't, well, when the actor "playing" "Ray" director Taylor Hackford walked right past Jamie Foxx's seat on his way to accept his "award," Horvitz made it eminently clear that this was not acceptable. "No way would Taylor Hackford walk right past Jamie Foxx," Horvitz says. "So I want the actor to stop and say something, shake his hand, whatever. I want a reaction."
It is easy to pick out the trophy models from the rest of the stand-ins. There are three this year, chosen by Horvitz from hundreds of model agency head shots and dozens of interviews, and each are requisitely beautiful and approximately 11 feet tall. OK, in stocking feet Amy Mueller and Jeanene Fox are 6 feet tall, and Donna Feldman a mere 5-10.
"The stage has a lot of verticals," Horvitz says. "I wanted them to be very tall and thin so in the wide shots, they blend in and become almost architecturally pleasing."
The three, all first-timers, are at rehearsals from 8 in the morning until 11 at night. It is their job to carry the trophies onto the stage, show the presenters where to stand during the winner's speech, and then get winners and the presenters offstage as gracefully and quickly as possible. "We want the winners to experience the whole wonderful moment," Horvitz says, "but we also want them off the stage in time."
Getting people off the stage, especially winners dazed and disoriented by joy and adrenaline, requires a fair amount of finesse.
"You don't want to grab them, or even really touch them," says Steffanee Leaming, a veteran trophy model, "because that's offensive. Maybe a slight pressure on the elbow or shoulder if they're really heading in the wrong direction. But sometimes," she says, "you have to let them go the wrong way -- you are not going to chase a winner down the stairs."
Sweet-voiced and crowned with a cascade of blond ringlets, Leaming is something of a doyenne of trophy models and stand-ins during the rehearsals. She is married to Horvitz, who met her in 1993 when he hired her as a trophy model. Although she never did the Oscars, Leaming spent a few years working at various awards shows, mostly with Horvitz, and has worked with him on the Oscars since. This year she is acting as a stand-in and a rehearsal announcer.
"Every year it is just as exciting," she says, "and every year I get just as nervous."
Wending around and through the stand-ins, models and ambient crew members are six men with cameras on their shoulders, each with a technician behind them, carrying a power cord. "They say you should always be smarter than your instrument," says utility assistant William Menees with a laugh. "That's why they gave me wire."
With 20 years in the business, Kris Wilson says he is the junior member of the group. They all learned their craft -- the seemingly impossible ballet of getting a camera lens inches from a nominee's face without touching anyone -- on the job; most, like Horvitz, have backgrounds in music event shows.
"After a few years," Wilson says, "you're either good at it or you aren't."
Producer Gil Cates makes it a point to come out into the theater a few times a day to put in some face time with the crew. Otherwise, he's in his office, on the phone, talking to nominees and presenters -- when the talent arrives on Saturday, they each spend some time with Cates, who is a warm and reassuring presence.
This year especially, he has had to use both. A change in the show's format means that 10 categories will not be awarded in the traditional manner and many nominees were anxious and upset. To assuage their fears, Cates held a special rehearsal for those involved.
"I try to explain that walking down the aisle is not what it's about, winning the award is what it's about," he says. "The changes are for the good of the show. But we'll see. If after the show there are more nays than yeas, we won't do it again."
Next door, associate producer Michael Seligman is also glued to the phone. On his wall is a daily report from the California Weather and Earth Source with a note from the meteorologist assuring him that things are looking good for Sunday.
But there have been calls from artists concerned about which film clips are being used, calls from sponsors who suddenly want to use their announcers in the "brought to you by" billboards (they can't), and a technical difficulty involving a huge window to be used in a musical number that, having had to be sent out for repairs, doesn't quite fit in the set. Yet.
"My father once asked me what I did for a living," Seligman says. "I told him, something goes wrong, everyone calls me."
The calls to Seligman regarding the film clips are among the reasons Chuck Workman is present at the rehearsals, sitting at Cates' jerry-rigged desk in the middle of the red plush chairs. Workman, who won an Oscar for best live-action short in 1987, is the man behind the montage. This is his 16th Oscar ceremony; over the years, he has created shorts for the show -- from a montage of clips showcasing comedy to a series of interviews with stars about what they did after they won. Workman's montage, which will open the show, is going to be "a little different."
Which is why he is here at rehearsals. Many things about this year's show are secret -- including the presenter for best director, who is referred to even during rehearsals as "special guest presenter" -- and Workman's film is one of them. "Let's just say the unknown secret film involves something that happens during the show," he says.
Like Cates and Horvitz, Workman is always trying to balance the new and surprising with the traditional.
"You have to do something fresh," he says, "or else you just have 'Attica, Attica,' and the airport scene from 'Casablanca.' Not that you won't see those this year," he adds hastily, "but in a very different way."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times