Tom Shoval, My night at the Oscars

Tom Shoval

My night at the Oscars

April 2015 - Tom Shoval, 2014-2015 Film Protégé

Israeli film-maker Tom Shoval already felt like a winner after Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the director of Birdman, selected him as this year’s protégé in film. Then Shoval and his collaborators received an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short -- and he got to share the excitement of Birdman’s triumph at the Oscars.

By Tom Shoval

It’s two days to the Oscars. The short film Aya, which I co-wrote with its directors, Michal Brezis and Oded Binnun, is among the five nominees for Best Live Action Short Film. That sentence still amazes me, and I can’t bring myself to write it without checking again to make sure it is true. This is a thrilling event for many reasons – this small, intimate film has touched many people in Israel and around the world, and has made it to a peak of acclaim that only few can reach. I’m very excited. Even when I try to “keep things in perspective,” the rush and buzz surrounding this award reminds me that, when it comes to the Oscars, there is no “right perspective”.

This past week of my life feels like a chapter torn out of a paperback you buy at the airport. Unrelated to the Oscars, yet juxtaposed with the show, I was chosen by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the director of Birdman, to be his protégé.

On a peak
So before I come to the City of Angels, I find myself on a stunning, frozen peak in the Rockies, where Iñárritu’s new film is being shot. I’ve visited the set several times already, and honestly, it’s like nothing I’ve experienced in my short time in the world of film.

Here I am, on location, speechless. Iñárritu and Lubezki let me in on their film-making process, and I ask myself if this isn’t the greatest award one could hope to win in this art form. It’s two days to the Oscars, and Iñárritu, whose film is up for eight Academy Awards, invites me to join him on his flight to Los Angeles. Besides being a great director, he is an exceptionally warm and generous man. I find myself on a private plane with Lubezki and Iñárritu. I can’t help but pinch myself, especially when I’m asking these esteemed men for advice on good tuxedo rental stores. I’m on cloud nine, and it has nothing to do with the plane.

On the couch
We land in LA, and I hand over my passport. For some reason the security check is taking longer than usual, and I can see reality crashing down on me. I start imagining that I’ll watch the Oscars as usual, on TV. I’m asked to wait, while Iñárritu’s passport is taken away. There’s some problem with his as well, and I’m already imagining the two of us sitting on my parents’ couch in my hometown of Petach Tikva, in Israel; the local time will be 4 am, and we’ll share a blanket and laugh at my father’s jokes. Not too bad, after all.

Of course, the problem is resolved soon enough, and I arrive at the home of my good friend Oren Shai. Oren is a director too, and living his own dream. He has just finished work on his feature-length American film, The Frontier, which is premiering at the prestigious SXSW Film Festival in Austin [Texas]. He and I used to make amateur genre films on our Super VHS cameras.

Oded and Michal, my co-writers and directors on Aya, have been in Los Angeles for the past two weeks, participating in ceremonies, having their pictures taken and being interviewed, along with Yaël Abecassis and Hillel Roseman, the film’s producers, and Sarah Adler and Ulrich Thomsen, the film’s wonderful cast. I’m on my way to join them when I remember a song by Blur that best captures the way I feel: it’s like watching the world spin gently out of time.

Mr. Tuxedo
On Saturday morning I drive to Santa Monica, to a store called Mr. Tuxedo. To be honest, I expected a luxury store with the very latest in tuxedo fashions. Haute couture. But the store looks like your standard mall store, and the selection of tuxedos is pretty limited. They basically have one cut for all sizes, which you can personalize with small touches such as the shape of the buttons and the colour of the pocket square. I go for the classic tuxedo look. Two hours later, I find myself in producer Abecassis’s hotel room. The entire creative team behind Aya, led by Michal and Oded, is getting ready to move out, as if this were a military operation in which we will vanquish our enemies with our secret weapon, our suits and eveningwear. The truth – and I say this without a hint of sarcasm – is that it is very moving to see everybody in their fancy clothes, on their way out to a grand, unforgettable ball. The fact that the film brought us this far is beyond exciting.

The red carpet
Los Angeles is entirely blocked off. There’s one road to the Oscars, which are held in the Dolby Theatre, and we’re on it. When we reach the door we’re checked by security in every possible way, and then we enter a large tent. Just before the tent, we see the crowd gathered at the side of the road, cheering everybody on.

Our tickets are checked again in the tent, and we go through more security before walking the red carpet. I look around me, and it seems that everybody rented their tuxedos from Mr. Tuxedo, and everyone chose the same classic look. This troubles me for about a second, because everything going on around us is too chaotic to dwell on any one detail.

People walking down the red carpet take their sweet time, drag their feet, even stop along the way, all to further validate their 15 minutes of fame. Security guards stand on the carpet and yell at everyone to keep it moving, but no one heeds their orders, so the expressions around us feature an odd and funny combination of self-importance and fright all at once.

A line forms on the way to the photographers. The red carpet staff leads every person to the photography area, where each bathes in the flashlights for a good five minutes. Security guards try to draw people’s attention away and lure them in with free champagne at the entrance, but everyone stands in line and absurdly passes on the comfort of the entranceway in favour of the cameras. The Aya team reaches the photographers too. No matter how you look at it, it’s thrilling to feel the bolts of flashlights shoot out at you, and to hear the photographers shouting for you to look in their direction. Sharing this moment together added a layer of emotion to the odd mise-en-scène and melted away all cynicism.

© Photo courtesy of Tom Shoval

© Photo courtesy of Tom Shoval

Chance encounters

An hour later we were at the entrance to the theatre. It’s about a five-minute walk, but at the Oscars, you move at the speed of fossilization. At the entrance you meet all the people who are about to share this event. At this point, you realize that a barrier has been broken. We are surrounded by all the celebrities of the world and their families, and they are just as relaxed and excited as you are. And then you’re making small talk with people you’ve only seen on the big screen. I’m talking to Pawel Pawlikowski, the director of Ida, and to Ewa Puszczynska, one of its producers; they will shortly win the Oscar for best foreign language film. This is followed by chance encounters with Ethan Hawke and with Common.
I notice Marion Cotillard, and I walk over to express my admiration for James Gray’s The Immigrant and the Dardenne brothers’ film [Two Days, One Night], and to congratulate her on her acting. She thanks me with her typical grace. We talk about films for 10 minutes while she ashes her slim cigarette into the palm of her hand.

I stand in line for the bathroom behind Edward Norton, and then we’re heading into the theatre. The Aya team takes its seats and the ceremony begins. There’s no need for descriptions here, because most of you were probably watching. A sense of invigorating tension and expectation envelops us. I’m doubly thrilled, both for our film Aya and for Alejandro’s Birdman.

While the viewers at home watch commercials, we stare at an empty stage. Some people tire of staring and trickle out during the breaks to grab a drink or stretch their legs. If they are late to return, a stranger will sit in for them. These seat-fillers are devoted to their jobs, and if the camera hovers above them, they make sure to sneak a familiar smile your way.

The time comes to announce the winner in the short film category. Our excitement peaks. We’re not the favorite to win, and we know that, but we have faith. It doesn’t happen. The British film wins. We applaud for them, and the director speaks exuberantly on stage. The tension dissipates, and now there are three hours left to the show, no big deal. This is when my ears open up, and I can listen to what’s going on around me, and even get a joke here or there.

Bathed in flashlights
By the time the final hour rolls around, you realize the breaks are going to get longer and more exhausting. But somehow it’s all so festive and bathed in flashlights, you are blinded all the way to your subconscious. As the last awards are announced, I am tense again, but this time it’s a victory: my mentor Alejandro G. Iñárritu “sweeps the board”, taking the important awards for screenplay, directing and best film. I am thrilled for him.

The show is over, and some head off to the traditional Governors Ball. I head to the bathroom, but the line is long so I set off to find another one. That’s when I walk down a narrow hallway where Naomi Watts, Felicity Jones and Emma Stone sit on a bench, holding an Oscar statue made of Lego bricks. I pull out my cellphone, a skilled hunter of selfies, but its battery is long dead. They look at me, and I look at them. It’s silent for a moment, and then we all laugh. It turns out they forgot their invitations to the ball, and now they have to wait to be taken in through the back door. I tell them I’m surprised to hear they’re not immune to security, and wonder if the reason they’ve been left out is because the guards noticed their Oscar is made of Lego. They smile at me politely, thanking me for my lame joke.

Emma looks at me with her big eyes and adds, “Don’t you know? It’s Hollywood, baby. Everybody needs a ticket.”