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Nightmare on Mulberry Street: An Interview with Writer-Director Jim Mickle & Co-Writer/Actor Nick Damici

“It’s a neighborhood movie,” says Jim Mickle, director of Mulberry Street.

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Nightmare on Mulberry Street: An Interview with Writer-Director Jim Mickle & Co-Writer/Actor Nick Damici

“It’s a neighborhood movie,” says Jim Mickle, director of Mulberry Street. This gritty NYC horror film, set in a rickety apartment building on the lower east side, places its emphasis on the diverse, resilient locals who live there. Some of them have been tenants all their lives, and they all form a funny, wisecracking community of oddballs. There’s Charlie (Larry Medich), the old guy who lives upstairs with his portable respirator, and Clutch (Nick Damici, who co-wrote the script with Mickle), a gruff but neighborly ex-boxer who has an unspoken affection for his upstairs neighbor, Kay (Bo Corre), a foreign woman who works at the bar down the street. Meanwhile, Clutch’s daughter (Kim Blair) just got back into the city and is making her way from Harlem to the downtown area. They aren’t caricatures, but lived-in, believable individuals—perhaps because they were based on some actual people that live upstairs from Dimici.

Gentrification is taking its toll on these working class New Yorkers, and eviction notices have gone around so the characters are already in a state of nervous anticipation. Mulberry Street allows us time to get to know these people and their daily struggles. When the monsters appear, it’s a lethal problem on top of everything else they have to deal with as hard-boiled urbanites. Set within a 24-hour period, Mulberry Street is unrelenting. A rapidly spreading infection is transforming humans into freaky rat creatures, and as the streets are taken over, our heroes hole up Night of the Living Dead style. But in much the same way the neighborhood is dying, the menace is breaking down the doorways and dragging their neighbors off into the night.

On an ultra-low budget, Mulberry Street has tremendous ingenuity suggesting a city under siege, with helicopters, police cars and barricades holding back the frightened masses. The monsters themselves are freaky-looking, slimy and matted in filthy hair, as jittery and quick as crack addicts. But the heart of the movie lies in its love for the denizens of the lower east side, a group that is rapidly disappearing from the Big Apple. The DVD of Mulberry Street has some fascinating extras (FX tests and storyboards drawn by Mickle), but no feature length commentary. The House Next Door wanted to catch a few stories from Damici and Mickle, and also hopefully inspire horror fans to seek out this creepy low budget gem.

Jim, before this, you’ve been a grip and electric, and a storyboard artist. Did you go to film school?

Jim Mickle: I went to NYU and graduated in 2002. Even when I was in school, I got a ton of jobs as a storyboard artist to the point where I almost dropped off to do that. Luckily, I stayed on because September 11th happened right before I graduated and dried up every indie in the city. That was where I was making connections, but all of those movies were erased for two or three years. I became a PA for probably a year on a Jennifer Lopez movie, Spider-Man 2, so many movies, then I started getting grip work for a year. NYU sends you out the door with this feeling like, “Go make your first feature!” On graduation day, Marcia Gay Harden spoke, saying spread your wings, and then you have to go out an experience the frustration of the real world. The hard part is the transition. The minute you start taking on some other career, it’s over. Even if you’re completely broke you have to keep one foot in just to stay involved in the business.

Almost every movie I worked on before was a first time director. It’s the worst. They’re rich, they never went to film school, they never did anything and have no idea, just blowing their money on some vanity project. It was so frustrating being a grip on those films, because it was like sending a ship out to sea and the captain of the ship had never been out on a boat before. I still felt like, “What the fuck am I doing?” on Mulberry Street, but at least you have a sense of lighting, or why something is taking so long, or whether it is taking too long. All the things that usually trip people up got me too, but at least I could say, “All right, I’ve been in this situation before. Here’s how we can deal with it.”

How did you guys meet, and what led to your collaboration on Mulberry Street?

Nick Damici: A friend of mine, this teacher at NYU, asked me if I’d be interested in doing a student thesis film called Mickey Lee in 2001. It was like an after-school special with me as a crazy school bus driver and thirty little kids. I went up to Connecticut and did that for two weeks. Jim was a friend of the director, and was working on it too. It was a great shoot—we’re staying in cabins, and every night we’d have drinks by the campfire. The guy who owned that property was crazy, which [got] Jim and I talking about doing a movie there. I wrote a script off that called The Phlebottomizer. We filmed a trailer for that with Victor Argo, but it never came to fruition. We kicked around other ideas over the years, until finally Jim called me up while working on a small, low-budget movie. He said, “Y’know, man, we can do this.”

Mickle: It was a film being made for very little money by a couple of people working at Manhattan Theater Source. They owned all the equipment. One of them was the sound guy, one was the director of photography, one was the director, and they were all actors. They said, “We already have everything. Let’s just make this movie ourselves.” They were having more fun than I had ever seen on a movie set, so instead of going for the big break and waiting for the big money to arrive, let’s just do something very simple, in one or two locations. I was on that shoot for a week, and by the time I came back Nick already had half the script written.

Damici: I wrote a zombie script called Dead of Night, which we were gonna do as a back-to-the-roots throwback horror movie in Pennsylvania.

Mickle: It was all night exteriors, snow, zombies—and we were trying to figure out how we could even afford to bring people out there, putting them up in hotels. That alone came out to $40,000. On top of that is food and gas. We realized we didn’t have the budget. So I thought, “Well, there goes that idea.” Nick came back to me a week later, though, and said, “Y’know, we could still do it. But we shoot it right here.”

Damici: My buddy Tim House, who plays the super in Mulberry Street and is our main producer, money-wise, said he thought he could come up with maybe ten grand. I said, “The only way we can do this is if we shoot the whole movie in my kitchen.” Literally, that was the original idea. These people are in their apartment, and crazy shit is happening out in the street. From there, it grew, and we ended up using the neighborhood. The brunt of it was using this building and the kitchen. We took that script and reworked it into Mulberry Street.

Mickle: It started off in the first couple drafts as a straightforward zombie movie, where a rat bite starts spreading the infection. At some point, it became obvious that we could make them into these rat zombies, rat creatures, rat-zoids—I’ve seen every description of these things online. It seemed a good twist, and allowed us to do our own thing.

Damici: It was interesting how the creatures became less important. It became more about the story, and people surviving this disaster.

Mickle: It’s cool to see the reaction to that. Some people get that and embrace that, and some people refuse. “That’s not how I like my horror movies! Don’t even try it!” When we first finished Mulberry Street, we had seen it so many times that we didn’t know if it was good or bad. But regardless, I was glad that we were trying something different. I’m a horror fan and the thing I hate recently is that so many movies are remakes that do the same shit over and over again.

Did the characters evolve along with the premise?

Damici: All of the characters pretty much changed. I’ve lived in this building for fifteen years now. The two brothers were based on these two old guys who lived upstairs. Charlie’s still up there and we see him every day. Frank was his brother. Died of emphysema. The hospital bed my father was in [playing the fictional Charlie in the film]—we borrowed it from [the real] Charlie. He still had it. [The character] Coco was based on this guy Tom who was here when I moved in—a transvestite and a crack addict, crazy out of his mind, bringing homeless guys to his place. Finally he got thrown out, then he died of a heart attack not long after. A lot of the characters were brought in from the reality of the apartment building.

Mickle: The archetypes stayed from the Pennsylvania script. That was more Night of the Living Dead, with the characters you expect to see in the zombie movie. Bringing it here, we found people in real life who made interesting characters in this situation.

Damici: Kay was originally going to be a New York character, but I knew this actress Bo Corre [originally from Sweden]. This movie is such a New York piece, and there are so many foreigners here now. I ran into her one afternoon—she was working at a flower shop and I haven’t seen her in ages. We talked for a few minutes, and when I got back home I said to myself, “Woah, she could play Kay!” I ran right back out and said, “Hey Bo! Read this script!” The other actors are good friends of mine, like Timmy and Larry Fleischman, and we’ve done stuff together.

Mickle: Nick’s dad played the old guy, Charlie.

Damici: That was a no-brainer for me. I didn’t know if he could do it physically, since in the past couple years he had two triple-bypasses. But I asked him and he said, “Yeah.”

He had never acted in a movie before, but you must have known that he’s such a character.

Damici: Oh yeah. 20 years as a bartender…I knew he’d be fine. He’s very photogenic, so I figured once he relaxed, he’d be fine. I thought he stole the movie.

Mickle: He caught on really quick. The first take or two he was nervous, but then he realized he should just be himself. By the end, he was rocking.

How did you guys collaborate on the script? What was the back-and-forth between you both, and the different strengths you bring to it?

Mickle: That was all Nick. He did all the writing on Mulberry Street.

Damici: No, no, we’ve developed a system. I used to write with Victor Argo all the time. He could never put anything down on paper, but I would write and it was like having an editor there, or whatever you want to call it. Jim and I have taken it a bit further than that. I have the ability to pound shit out, and I don’t have an ego about what’s on the page. If you want to change it, we change it. Bang, and then we keep going. We went through 45 drafts.

How did you handle the horror element? When you have rat people scuttling around, how do you make it scary—not funny?

Mickle: For a long time, I was drawing sketches to figure out what these creatures look like. When you’re making a zombie movie, you have to find a way to make them look or seem different if you want to be relevant. I started sketching rat ears and noses on them, and at first they looked goofy. But if you darken them and do silhouettes, it becomes moody. My biggest gripe with Signs is that up until it showed the aliens, it was like a Hitchcock movie. The minute they showed it, all the tension was drained. I always hated that moment.

Damici: Least scary aliens I’ve ever seen! Any alien I can beat to death with a baseball bat, hey—if that’s all I gotta do, we’re safe.

Mickle: We kept our monsters in the shadows, mostly suggested. Besides, if you have good actors who can really look scared you can play scenes off of their reaction more than trying to scare the audience with showing the monsters. Our main aesthetic throughout was keeping it realistic and character-driven.

You got some amazing footage during the Fourth of July and a parade up in Harlem, where you create the illusion of a city under siege with all the barricades, police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, helicopters and crowds. It gave you immediate production value, and with sound design it felt tense and scary. But I’d like to talk about some of your other footage in and around NYC. How much was serendipity and how much was planned?

Mickle: A lot of it was serendipity and patience. We shot almost 80 hours of footage, budgeting for four or five days with just me, a cameraman and the actors to get whatever else we needed. The inflatable rat you see in the beginning—we chased it all around the city. Q104.3 announces in the morning where the union rat is, and always by the time we showed up they had taken it down. We also have a lot of shots looking up, which is good for a horror movie anyway—but it helped us if we were shooting on a Friday night, which is so busy downtown with people everywhere. If the camera is looking up, the city seems empty. That, combined with some great sound design like creepy wind, goes a long way towards creating the illusion.

You have scenes with Clutch’s daughter Casey (Kim Blair) walking through Central Park on her way downtown. I heard about how you got shots of the empty playground during the day, catching that right before it was about to rain. But it is always so busy there. How were you able to piece together that sequence?

Mickle: That was almost completely made up as we went along. We shot two days with Kim after principal photography. By that time, we were completely exhausted. I only had some loose storyboards and ideas, and knew we’d figure it out as we went along. We lucked out by going through the park and stealing pieces of footage. It’s the kind of thing where if you were able to look one inch to the right, you’d see people running around.

Kim Blair perhaps has the most challenging role. Everyone else has a chance to play with dialogue and scenes, but she has to basically walk through the city and react to what’s happening. It’s amazing, because she’s probably the second most important character in the movie, and yet for three-quarters of the movie she has no dialogue. How did you find her?

Mickle: She was my first girlfriend in college. She’s great. When we did the trailer for The Phlebotomizer, we had a couple of other actresses lined up. They fell through, so I called Kim at the last minute, wondering if this was going to be weird. Literally, we were there with our cameras ready to go. I called her up and asked if she could come do this thing, and she said she was going to leave town, but we sounded desperate so she said yes. She’s so good in that, and her chemistry with Nick was amazing. So many actresses who are touted as the next big thing have no depth, no real understanding of anything, and here’s a girl with amazing presence. There’s no way to shoot her where she looks bad. Light always seems to hit her in the right way. She’s amazingly well trained, and has a background in the theater, so casting her was a no-brainer. We knew we had Kim, and these other great actors, and just figured out a way to write them into the script.

Jim, as a grip and electric or even as a storyboard artist working on other people’s films, you’re able to make a living but nevertheless it’s tough to not work when you’re a freelancer. You’re not earning vacation pay or anything. Obviously commitment goes a long way but what enabled you to give three and a half weeks of your life to shoot Mulberry Street.

Mickle: Complete serendipity. I got a call to edit a commercial that paid decently and enabled me to purchase a G5, which is what we did everything for Mulberry Street on. I hooked up with a financial company that considered me their in-house video guy, so I’d shoot for them and use their DVX-100 for B-unit stuff. I lucked out, doing a couple of editing jobs for three months, saving up, and setting a deadline where we would absolutely be shooting by [a certain] date. That’s it. The money wasn’t much, but it got us to the wrap day, and it took us a year to edit. I’d literally spend time cutting a corporate video, hitting render, then skipping over to cut a scene on Mulberry Street, hitting render, and going back and forth. That’s what enabled me to keep making our film during that time. It was just luck. As soon as we finished the movie, they were like, “Oh, you made a movie? You don’t need us anymore!” They went away and I spent six months last year without getting a single job.

Let’s talk about your director of photography, Ryan Samul. Many DP’s on low budget jobs can be really difficult. If they have a million dollars, or even one hundred thousand dollars, it’s not enough—and it’s never enough. You were working with much less to make Mulberry Street. What was the dynamic between you and Ryan, and was he cool with running and gunning?

Mickle: He had moments where, as anyone would have, he would get frustrated. In retrospect, you wonder how he wasn’t freaking out every day. We had worked with a guy named Jason Velez, the key grip, who owns his own lighting truck, and we were lucky enough to be able to come in and borrow a few lights from him. Those were the only movie lights we had. The style of the movie was built on what we were readily able to get: china balls and fluorescent lights from home depot that we could rig into a battery. This is the kind of movie we were going to make, it set the tone, and we embraced that.

Those things have an integrity and beauty all their own. If you watch John Cassavetes films, they aren’t necessarily pretty, but there is an intense, scrappy, raw sense of reality to them. Mulberry Street is a beautifully shot film, and I think it’s because of that tone. Also, Ryan Samul has a good eye.

Damici: One great story about Samul, among the many: There’s a scene where Charlie goes out into the hallway. “I can’t hear! I’m gonna go see what he wants!” Frank shouts not to go out in the hallway. Boom, he goes out and the rats are there, and he slams the door shut. The crew’s all there, looking to Samul, saying, “You’re the DP—where’s the camera gonna be?” He runs over to the door with duct tape, and tapes the camera to the door and walks away, saying, “There it is.” You see the result.

Mickle: I saw that shot on his reel.

Damici: The other story is we wrapped shooting the apartment, second time in. We’d taken two weeks off, came back and shot here again. It’s all done, we are wrapped, done, over! I got the equipment in the front room. My apartment’s a fucking mess. “Let’s go to the bar and have a beer, man!” It’s a gorgeous summer night, and we’re crossing Houston Street. We see this beautiful full moon. Me, Jim and Samul stop in the middle of the street. I look up and say, “Ryan, look at that fuckin’ moon…!” I turn and see he’s running back towards the apartment to get the camera and shoot it. That’s total commitment, and the shot’s there in the film. But he’s crazy, too—running up and down that rickety fire escape for those shots at the end of the movie. He scared the shit out of me.

But your actors were running up there, too.

Damici: Anything we were doing, he did ten times more—with a camera in his hand! Jumping across to the other roof to get the shot. His instincts were great. We did shots in this alley, got thrown out, had no electricity, and Samul got it lit with truck lights and flash boards. He was always saying, “We can do that!” That’s what he really likes to do.

Mickle: Ryan and I worked on Trans-America together. At the end of the day, we’re doing a close-up of someone standing in the yard. The DP says, “All right, put up a 20x silk.” Just to give you an idea, this is the biggest pain in the ass to rig. It takes four or five people to put up. This was our last shot of the day, and did we really need to do this for this girl’s close-up? Ryan and I spent so many days together like that, griping, “You don’t need this. Why?” I think he has a good understanding of being on the other end of that, in terms of knowing what not to ask for. Half of the shoot on Mulberry Street, we had no grips. It was just Ryan running around doing lights and coming back to the camera. On the days he brought people on, he thought of the easiest ways to do it. When everybody’s working for free, you don’t want to kill anybody. Another thing he did that was brilliant was lighting for 360 degrees. We knew we’d never have the time to light Nick perfectly here, then light the other person perfectly for the next shot. We were able to move very fast. I remember Ron Brice, who played Coco, would finish his scene and walk off, but immediately we’d be back on him saying we’re ready again. He’d be like, “Are you kidding me?” He said later that sometimes it was moving so fast that he wasn’t used to it. But hats off to Samul for that. He’s the guy that should make it—he’s done a couple million-dollar films since then.

What was your experience shooting at the bar where Kay works, Tom & Jerry’s? Filming in any bar in Manhattan is tough, because you have a limited amount of time.

Damici: We shot sometimes when they were open, and stayed into the morning blocking out the sun when we’re shooting crazy stuff. It would be seven o’clock in the morning, broad daylight, when we’d shoot scenes with rats attacking people there.

Mickle: We’d come in at midnight or two shooting stuff on the side, or in the basement, and the minute the bar closed, we’d go to work. A couple of times we had extras, but that was the bane of the shoot. Twenty-five people would be scheduled to arrive, and six would show up. When we tried to use real bar patrons, after one shot, they’d be ready to go home. I’d be like, “No, we need you the whole night!” Every scene in the bar is desperately trying to shoot around the fact that nobody was there, and it was a constant struggle. I think the music and confusion of it makes it work.
Damici: The bar stuff works for me, but mainly because we deliver with Big John (John Hoyt). He’s a real guy, works security at a strip club over on 11th Avenue, so he’s been around and knew what he had to do. When the rats are attacking and he comes in beating them down with the frying pan, wielding it like a ping-pong paddle, especially in that last shot where he backhands one of them.

Mickle: Originally, we had a bat with nails driven into it. Then I saw a really cool movie called Of Unknown Origin starring Peter Weller, where he’s going crazy thinking there’s a giant rat in his apartment, and he grabs a bat and starts driving nails into it, so it was already done. We looked around and found this special effects company out in Los Angeles, which sells you the real thing and a foam version of it. Like, you can buy a pipe wrench, or a frying pan…I was excited by all the things we could get. We were inspired the beginning of Irreversible, where they bash in the dude’s head with the fire extinguisher. It’s the sound of that blunt object hitting the face, and being able to see it and not cut away. So he’s smacking people in the face with a rubber frying pan, and we didn’t have to cut.

Damici: The unsung heroes are the stunt guys, man. Adam Morrow and Steve Bodi.

From the script stage, were you aware how downbeat and melancholy the movie would feel? This becomes very intense for the viewer, because you get attached to these characters and many of them don’t survive.

Damici: From the very beginning…

Mickle: We had a moment where [a main character] gets ripped out of a car, and it’s such an unexpected moment. One of the best things about Nick as a writer is he’s not afraid to throw out the craziest ideas. Sometimes you’re like, “I don’t know, man.” But two-thirds of the time, it’s a great idea. Great films like Alien kill off major characters early, just when you think you know what direction the movie’s going.

Damici: We said right from the very beginning, “Everybody dies.” Some people make it, because I didn’t want to have the cliché where every single person gets killed. But we made a choice. It’s not a happy movie.

One of the things I loved about the 1970s Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Donald Sutherland are all these great scenes, like when he tells the joke about General Rommel, or chopping vegetables in the kitchen with Brooke Adams. You see these very human moments that will be taken away from us when the pod people take over. Mulberry Street also has its characters living through what we associate with New York, and a certain lifestyle of the Lower East Side, where everyone living in the same apartment building, they know and take care of each other. When everyone is dying, it got me reflecting on what is actually being lost in our city nowadays. Was this something you hoped to achieve, or did it naturally happen while making the movie?

Damici: It was essentially planned. We knew things would not work out okay, and the heroes were not going to win. Night of the Living Dead wouldn’t have the same impact if the hero lived. That’s our future, if we don’t change something. This world is gone, though. We were cheating by saying that way of life still exists now. I remember the real Charlie and Frank. I’d carry that old guy up the stairs when he was sick; he weighed one hundred and twenty pounds. He’d make jokes about feeling like a baby, and he’d make me stay in his apartment and have a shot of vodka with him. We had to nail it to those real estate motherfuckers, to say they’re killing the entire character of the city.

Mickle: We wanted to capture that inevitable sense of New York right now. The neighborhood is changing.

Is that one of the reasons you called the film Mulberry Street and not Attack of the Rat Monsters?

Mickle: We had to fight tooth and nail to hold on to that title. Lions Gate didn’t want to change it, but when we were sending it to festivals, our reps kept telling us this wouldn’t fly and nobody would be into it. They didn’t think we were capitalizing on the heat around horror movies.

Damici: You have to deliver on a title like Rat Zombies on Mulberry Street, but it wasn’t that movie.

Mickle: Ultimately, more than a horror movie, it’s a neighborhood movie.

Damici: The death of a neighborhood, slowly but surely…

You had an excellent festival run showing at Fant-Asia in Montreal, Sitges, South by Southwest and Tribeca—and then you had a nationwide theatrical run through After Dark Horrorfest. How did that come about?

Mickle: I have no idea! (laughs) We had our world premiere in Stockholm, then South by Southwest where everyone almost unanimously turned us down and had nasty things to say about it.

Damici: Our sound was fucked at that festival because of some technical bullshit.

Mickle: Ti West’s movie Trigger Man has the same problem, where something was wrong with the speakers. We wondered if our film would never see the light of day, but in European horror festivals, people were eating it up. During Tribeca, supposedly Lions Gate saw it again. We were able to sell to Lions Gate, and weren’t sure how they negotiated it with After Dark Horrorfest, but I never knew anything about that until I randomly went to the Fangoria Web site. While we weren’t involved in that process at all, certainly we embraced it. Our little $60,000 DV-movie would be on 350 screens, a theatrical release, and a big push.

Damici: I remember taking my father to the theater, seeing the premiere on 42nd Street. The guy’s never acted before, he’s 78 years old, and here he is sitting there watching Mulberry Street on the big screen, larger than life. That was the best part for me.

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actor

Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

We’ve reached the halfway point of our rolling Oscar prediction coverage, and I think I speak on behalf of Ed and myself when I say we’re already absolutely spent. Yes, we still have some major rounds of mental gymnastics to undergo for best picture, which most people believe can be won by no fewer than three and as many as six films, and a few other races feel ripe for an upset (we’ve got all eyes on both screenplay categories). But nowhere does the fatigue of even an accelerated Oscar season feel most evident than it does in the acting categories, which at an increasing rate seem to be nailed down even before the Golden Globe and SAG award winners are announced each year.

Yes, we still have the image of Glenn Close nodding and grimly grinning while resignedly slumped over in her front-row chair at the Oscar ceremony last year imprinted in our memory bank, but that universe-disrupting exception only proved the rule. And it’s a rule that, incidentally, is only rivaled in rigidity by what Ed mentioned last week when predicting Renée Zellweger at the beginning of this year’s marathon: “There’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals.”

Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, who’s going to win the Oscar, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual. Sure, he’s up against Adam Driver playing a thinly veiled version of director Noah Baumbach in Marriage Story, and Antonio Banderas playing a thinly veiled version of director Pedro Almodóvar in Pain and Glory, and Jonathan Pryce playing a thinly veiled version of the faultless, approachable, non-slappy Pope Francis that director Fernando Meirelles sells to the world in The Two Popes. But none of them are in the same class of mimicry-first winners as Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, and Eddie Redmayne.

Add to that the fact that the historically prickly Phoenix has proven himself capable this Oscar season of not only directing his pugilism at worthy causes (being arrested alongside Jane Fonda protesting climate change enablers, comforting slaughterhouse pigs), but also coming off as a genuinely effusive member of the acting community, as when he spent his speech time at the SAG awards paying tribute to his co-nominees and, then, Heath Ledger. He’d have the award even if he wasn’t playing Joker’s real-life version of Donald Trump.

Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Could Win: Adam Driver, Marriage Story

Should Win: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short

Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.

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Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Photo: Grain Media

Our track record here is spotty, but we’re on a roll, having correctly guessed the winner three years in a row. Just as every film up for the documentary feature prize grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war, every one nominated for best documentary short concerns the aftermath of trauma. And this category’s history tells us that academy members are quite keen on a certain angle on the process of coping with trauma, which is implicit even in the titles of the films that won here but whose chances we underestimated, such as Mighty Times: The Children’s March and A Note of Triumph.

There isn’t a single dud in this bunch, but a few feel only half-formed. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s St. Louis Superman, which earned MTV its first Oscar nod, concerns Ferguson activist and battle rapper Bruce Franks Jr. and his efforts to pass a bill recognizing youth violence as a public health crisis after being sworn into the Missouri House of Representatives. A powerful sequence set during a rap battle gives us a complete picture of how the trauma of his younger brother’s death—and, simply, living while black—has come to shape Franks’s politics, but if the short successfully attests to his accomplishments against all odds, it remains conspicuously tight-lipped about his home life and has a final title credits sequence tell us about his future in government that we wished it had actually processed on screen.

John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s gripping Life Overtakes Me, the only short in this category with Netflix’s muscle behind it, feels as if it could benefit from simply reporting on a relatively unknown matter: the dissociative condition known as resignation syndrome, a response to the trauma of refugee limbo that has been predominantly observed in children from the Balkans now living in Sweden with their families. The filmmakers vigilantly depict the day-to-day routines of parents struggling to feed their comatose children and keep their limbs as lithe as possible. But the short doesn’t offer enough context about the struggles that brought these families to Sweden and, like St. Louis Superman, it has one read a little too much between the lines, sometimes literally so, as information relating to the asylum process and evolving opinions about resignation syndrome is largely conveyed via on-screen text.

Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam’s In the Absence plays out like a ghost story, and it’s much less withholding than both St. Louis Superman and Life Overtakes Me. Concerning the 2014 MV Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, this hauntingly cool-headed short doesn’t lack for astonishing footage of the incident, some of it pulled from the phones of those who were aboard the ship; the shots of the protests that followed the incident, as well as the talking-head interviews from the families of the deceased, are no less harrowing. The filmmakers are ferocious in their condemnation of the various failures of communication that led to the deaths of hundreds aboard the ship, and one deserved target of their contempt is South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-hye. Still, if we have any reservations about our favorite short in this category, it’s over the way it risks leaving some with the impression that the Sewol disaster was largely responsible for the disgraced politico’s downfall.

Now, for those who couldn’t read between the lines of this post’s first paragraph: Bet against a message of hope, as we did in the past when we didn’t rally behind Music by Prudence and Strangers No More, and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool. As such, In the Absence faces stiff competition from Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt’s touching but somewhat featherweight Walk Run Cha-Cha, about a young man and woman who, 40 years after being separated during the Vietnam War, and especially Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva’s Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), which, spite of its cloying score, chronicles a resistance in a language that will be impossible for most to resist.

Learning to Skate in a Warzone tells the story of a school in Kabul that teaches young girls to skateboard and, by extension, take on the patriarchy. “I don’t want to grow up so I can skate forever,” one girl says at one point. Hopeful words, yes, but we can see their melancholic roots. The filmmakers may not have bombard us with images of violence, but you don’t walk away from this short without understanding the risk of simply seeing that girl’s face speaking those words, in a country where so many girls are destined to become prisoners in their own homes, and are more prone than boys to be the victims of terrorism.

Will Win: Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Could Win: In the Absence

Should Win: In the Absence

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short

It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.

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Brotherhood
Photo: Cinétéléfilms

If last year’s slate in this category reflected, as Ed pointed out, children in peril as the “fetish du jour” for the academy’s shorts committee, the trend certainly didn’t carry over into this year, with only one nominated film dealing with such subject matter. That said, it’s characteristic of this particular category’s history in that it’s among the most galling, sermonizing screeds nominated for any Academy Award this year.

Unlike such previously slated diatribes as That Wasn’t Me or One Day, however, Bryan Buckley’s Saria is explicitly a recreation of a real-life tragedy, a 2017 fire that killed 41 girls in a Guatemalan orphanage, potentially sparked by one of the girls in an act of political protest against their gorgonesque caretakers. That the entire episode touches on just about everything wrong with the world today means it can’t be fully counted out. But it’d be a lot easier to get in the filmmakers’ corner if it didn’t so strongly feel as though they turned the slow-crawling death toll into a bizarre sort of victory lap in the final credits reel. And Oscar voters haven’t been too tacit lately about their aversion of tough messages being shoved down their throats.

Among other nominees with seemingly very little chance at winning, Delphine Girard’s A Sister gave us major déjà vu, and not only from its narrative echoes of recent short Oscar winners The Phone Call and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. A well-made exercise in escalating alarm in miniature, this Belgian thriller centers around an emergency operator (Veerle Baetens) who quickly and professionally ascertains the coded cry for help from a caller (Selma Alaoui) being held hostage in the car of a dangerously irrational man (Guillaume Duhesme). Confidently but abstractly directed, the film joins a very long line of Eurocentric thrillers about domestic violence nominated in this category, including Miracle Fish, Just Before Losing Everything, Everything Will Be Okay, and DeKalb Elementary. And if these sorts of films always seem to get nominated, they also never win.

So what does? At this point, this category has a long-ish history of rewarding candidates that are either the only English-language nominee, the most hipster-friendly ironic in nature, or both (Stutterer and Curfew, to name two examples of having those bases covered). This year that sets up a battle between Yves Piat’s Nefta Football Club and Marshall Curry’s The Neighbor’s Window. The former has all the makings of a winner for most of its running time. In it, a pair of brothers (Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari) in Tunisia find a drug mule—an actual mule, that is—wandering around because the pink headphones his handlers (Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah) placed on him are playing not Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which would cue the trained animal to return home, but Cheik Hadel. One of the two boys recognizes the mule’s stash for what it is, but the other one presumes it’s laundry detergent, rubbing enough on his tongue that he really should spend the rest of the short tripping balls. The EC Comics-reminiscent twist ensures that the short is never less than glibly cavalier toward geopolitical readings but also comes off like a damp squib compared to the declarative setup.

Similarly anecdotal, The Neighbor’s Window is a schematic empathy fable in Rear Window drag about a ennui-ridden, middle-aged mother (Maria Dizzia) of three captivated by the twentysomething couple (Juliana Canfield and Bret Lada) living in the building across the way. While the short’s milieu offers every opportunity to lean right into the brand of snarky irony that this category favors—the woman’s voyeurism is kicked off when she and her husband (Greg Keller) spy on the younger couple fucking in full view of the rest of the neighborhood—the film remains almost doggedly like a “we all want what we cannot have” teleplay updated for Gen Xers. Still, in that it validates the struggles of the world’s haves, it’s very much in play.

But we’re tempting fate and picking Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood as the spoiler. It centers around a Tunisian patriarch (Mohamed Grayaâ) whose oldest son (Malek Mechergui) comes back after years spent in Syria, with a new wife (Salha Nasraoui) whose face-hiding niqāb all but confirms the father’s suspicion that the son has been recruited by ISIS. It’s a minor miracle that the film doesn’t come off as one big finger wag, in part because it comes at the whole “world is going to hell in a handbasket” angle by highlighting mankind’s universal failure to communicate. Equally miraculous is that its shock finale doesn’t resonate as a hectoring “gotcha,” but instead as a proper outgrowth of its reactionary main character’s failure to live up to his own, presumably, liberal identification. Post-Green Book, it never hurts to let this academy feel as though, unlike Brotherhood’s doomed father, they’re just liberal enough.

Will Win: Brotherhood

Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window

Should Win: Brotherhood

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.

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Memorable
Photo: Vivement Lundi

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”

One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.

At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.

Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.

Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.

Will Win: Memorable

Could Win: Hair Love

Should Win: Memorable

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.

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Ford v. Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.

Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.

From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.

One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, and, in fact, a Star Wars film has never won a competitive award for sound editing. Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.

Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.

On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.

Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.

Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.

When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.

Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from its wounded mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling

There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.

While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

Will Win: Joker

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.

Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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