They are not accustomed to the spotlight. They worry about sounding pretentious, banal or boring. They wonder if they're rambling. They think to talk about themselves makes them feel sound "egotistical." They would much rather shower praise on the costume designers, gaffers and crew members who they seem to think really deserve all the credit.
They are unsung heroes.
"Chicago," "Gangs of New York," "The Hours," "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and "The Pianist" would have been made without Zane Weiner, Maria Djurkovic, Celestia Fox, John DeLuca and Joe Reidy, but the movies wouldn't have been quite the same. Here's a look at five off-screen talents who helped bring those best picture nominees to life.
Unit production manager
"The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"
In November 1999, Weiner met Peter Jackson for the first time when he flew to New Zealand and began work on "The Lord of the Rings." For the next year and a half, Weiner, a former Broadway musical stage manager, endured wind, rain, sludge, devoting 18-hour days to a single task: making sure the director could move efficiently through the far-flung production.
"I was brought over to stick with the main unit -- Pete's unit," says Weiner. "My job was to make sure that what Pete needed was there when he needed it."
To that end, Weiner made about 250 phone calls a day beginning at 3:30 a.m. "I'd go to the office for two hours, get to the set just a little earlier than the crew call to make sure everything was OK, and then most of the time I'd start making toast."
"The Kiwis had to have toast with everything," Weiner explains, using the nickname for New Zealanders. "So every morning there'd be a couple hundred people waiting for their toast. I started making toast early in the day to knock down the line. That's kind of what you do. You multitask."
As Jackson's troubleshooter, "I checked with the different department heads every day," Weiner says. "You stay with the director pretty much all day, taking care of the cast and the crew needs and always prepping for the next day.
"You're dealing with the art department, making sure the sets were ready, dealing with the 45 or so workshop people who were there trimming up the costumes, bringing in all the weapons and prosthetics. You're checking in with the art department, which built over 350 sets, and dealing all the departments to make sure their equipment was out of the mud and out of the wind."
His role model: Jackson, who apparently never met a remote location he didn't like. "One time," Weiner recounts, "I went to scout a location probably an hour drive from the closest town. This set was being built on top of a mountain that was in the middle of this huge valley that was surrounded by more mountains. The construction crew was up there working, and everything was lashed down with steel cables because the wind was blowing at about 150 kilometers [90 miles] an hour.
"I came back and Pete said, 'How'd you like it?' and I said, 'What the hell were you thinking when you picked that location?' But we shot there, and it's that big Rohan city in 'The Two Towers.' It looked great."
Djurkovic had just finished a five-month shoot in Bulgaria for Tim Blake Nelson's holocaust drama "The Grey Zone" when she got a call from her friend Stephen Daldry. "The day after I'd returned, Stephen rang me saying, 'Darling darling, I've got this script I want you to read.' " She did. "Three different characters, three different time periods, working with a director I really enjoyed -- it was obviously a designer's dream," says Djurkovic, who also designed "Billy Elliot" for Daldry.
Creating three distinct period looks -- the English countryside in 1925, suburban L.A. circa 1960 and modern-day Manhattan -- was a formidable task, but Djurkovic seems equally pleased with individual details that quietly weave the separate strands into a whole. "There's actually quite a lot that links the stories together," she says. For example, she points out that the curtains in Laura Brown's (Julianne Moore) house in the '50s story are made of the same fabric hanging in Rich's (Ed Harris) New York apartment. Her staff also crafted replicas of paintings by Virginia Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell, which were hung on the walls of Clarissa's (Meryl Streep) flat in New York. "Little tricks like that amuse me," Djurkovic says with a laugh. "I think it helped in a very subtle way to unite the three stories. Even though each period looks very different, these kinds of things tie them back together again."
Djurkovic admits to being something of a research junkie. Nicole Kidman's Virginia Woolf demonstrates penmanship painstakingly reenacted by a member of Djurkovic's art department, while the set of the famous author's study was furnished with facsimiles of book jackets that actually would have been in Woolf's library. Why bother with details most audience members won't even notice? "It's a world you're creating," Djurkovic explains. "I think the closer you get to that world, the more convincing it is to everybody. I know full well you're not going to see the title of every book jacket, but you never know where that close-up is going to land. I want to make sure everything is just right. I worry as much about the little things as about the big things. It's not like I'm just fussing around with safety pins. I fuss around with everything."
Djurkovic says the details embroidering each story are all aimed at serving the characters. "Laura Brown has this idealized home," says Djurkovic. "Everything is new and shiny. The kitchen is decked out with every gadget and lighting fixture that a modern California wife would have, that a husband would want to provide her with absolutely everything, but she is frustrated and unhappy. These stories are so much about people living in lives that they really shouldn't be living in, and that was very important to Stephen."
The road that led to Adrien Brody began with a traffic jam. Fox, whose casting credits include "An Ideal Husband," "Howards End" and "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," found herself in "American Idol" territory when 2,000 unknown performers auditioned for the title role in "The Pianist." They showed up after producers placed a newspaper ad in the Manchester Guardian inviting unknown actors to try out for a Roman Polanski film.
"Roman had this kind of theory that we might find someone unknown who was a musician or something, so we got into a sort of nightmare," Fox recalls. "Unfortunately, it got on the Internet and people flew in from all around the world. There were thousands of people but no more than half a dozen who were even remotely possible."
Starting over, Fox found the face she'd been looking for in a most unusual place: the cutting-room floor. "I was going to cast a film for Terrence Malick so I thought I'd better watch 'Thin Red Line' again. Adrien's whole story line was cut out, but what remained at the end of the tape, which was like a DVD, was this interview with him. Watching that made me think about 'The Pianist.' "
Fox had studied photographs of real-life "pianist" Wladyslaw Szpilman when she read his memoir. "Adrian doesn't look a bit like Szpilman, except for those very fine features and the cheekbones," she notes. "But I had a very strong image of this character. I rang Roman and said, 'Look, I know you don't want an American, but there's this guy and you've just got to meet him.' "
Fox, who met Brody in person for the first time only last month at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards in London, wanted Brody and her other casting choices to embody Polanski's own memories of the events represented in the film. "There were certain photographs, certain Jewish leaders in the ghetto that Roman would show me and talk about, whom he obviously felt very deeply about. I suspect they were people he was remembering."
Choreographic supervisor and second unit director
Queen Latifah called him "Coach," but DeLuca wasn't quite sure how his official title should read on "Chicago's" closing credit crawl. "See, that's the strange thing," he says. "When people ask me what I did for 'Chicago,' I just like to say, 'I worked on the movie.' "
To be more precise: At the behest of his life partner, director-choreographer Rob Marshall, DeLuca screened dozens of videotape auditions and vetted cinematographer Dion Beebe during preproduction; he directed second-unit work (scenes not directly involving the main actors) during the Toronto shoot; in post-production he helped cut the film, working backward from Reel 7 while Marshall edited from the beginning; he supervised foley and other sound effects added during post-production.
But most important, DeLuca transformed a cast of dramatic actors into dancin' machines.
"The thing I hope I'm smart at is working from the person," says DeLuca, who started out as a hoofer in "A Chorus Line" and later danced for his hero Bob Fosse in "Dancin'."
"I look at you and watch you and take you in and try things on your body and see what looks best on you, as opposed to the not so savvy approach, which happens all the time, where you give somebody [moves] that wouldn't look good on them."
DeLuca had earlier proved his gift for coaxing musical comedy schmaltz from serious actors. He'd coached Natasha Richardson in Marshall and Sam Mendes' revival of "Cabaret" and restaged the blocking for Donna Murphy in a revival of "The King and I." Both actresses won Tony Awards for their performances
Divvying up rehearsals with dance coaches Cynthia Onrubia, Joey Pizzi and Denise Faye, DeLuca went to work tailoring Marshall's choreography for Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah and John C. Reilly.
"I spent forever on numbers you wouldn't even think were choreographed," he says. "Like 'Funny Honey,' where Roxie's on the piano. That is not what people think of as quote-unquote choreography, but it certainly is. Every look, every gesture, every minute of that performance was really timed out and shaped after I'd seen what worked best on Renee.
"It was the same with 'When You're Good to Mama.' Latifah and I worked many hours just drilling her with the fan [movements]. A musical is so structured and so rhythmic, every little step needs to be set, and then it comes off like she's free and having a great time."
First assistant director
"Gangs of New York"
"Unofficially, I'm [Martin] Scorsese's right-hand man," says Joe Reidy. He's served in that capacity for nine films including "The Color of Money," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "New York Stories," "GoodFellas," "The Age of Innocence," "Cape Fear" and "Bringing Out the Dead."
Still, "Gangs of New York" required from Reidy an unprecedented commitment to the famously meticulous director. "I always wanted to do an epic," says Reidy, who spent 2 1/2 years on the project. "I'd done some very large films for Oliver Stone, but this was different: period costumes, animals, warfare, everything on a really grand scale, and then having to reproduce New York City -- that's a big challenge."
Functioning as a kind of stage manager for Scorsese, Reidy orchestrated crowd scenes and protected his director from a daily barrage of minutiae. To illustrate the point, Reidy rattles off his to-do list for the knife scene in "Gangs" featuring Daniel Day-Lewis' Bill the Butcher character. "I coordinated knife-throwing lessons for Daniel and tested the special effects to make sure the knives were working. Who are the women who are going to be in the cages? They had to be cast; how do we get them in there? How does Bill the Butcher punish Amsterdam without hurting him, because there's safety issues? When do we bring in the dummy? What's the amount of blood we're using? It takes place at a Chinese theater, so we had a Chinese opera advisor helping cast the people and select the music. All of those elements had to be organized, coordinated and rehearsed."
With cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, Reidy executed shots that Scorsese had mapped out in advance. "I have a visual and verbal shorthand with Scorsese, which has come over years of being with him and listening to him," he says. "Scorsese made a very detailed list of camera angles and action for each scene, and then he'd download it to me and Michael. We have a feel for how Scorsese likes a camera to move and how he likes his shots to look. Our job was to free him up so he could spend his time with the actors in a relaxed way. Everything else should be taken care of."
"Gangs' " shooting schedule at the massive Cinecitta Studios in Rome stretched from six months to eight, while the original $84-million budget grew to at least $97 million. "As the A.D., I have to move things along and keep the movie on schedule," Reidy says. "But for Scorsese, it's always about getting the details right. We can't move any faster than getting it right. I have divided loyalties -- no," Reidy corrects himself. "My loyalty is always to the director and his vision."