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Halfway to the Oscars: Quebec directors react to making shortlists


You know your day can only get better when you start off by getting run over by an Uber Eats bicycle.

Montrealer Theodore Ushev was out for his morning jog Monday in Paris when the incident occurred. He emerged relatively unscathed, and by evening his NFB-produced film The Physics of Sorrow had been shortlisted in the Oscar category of best animated short.

“I still cannot realize if it’s real or not,” he said, reached on his cellphone shortly after the news broke. It was past midnight for Ushev, but he had already written off sleeping.

Fellow Montrealer Meryam Joobeur was in her family’s hometown, Seyada, Tunisia, when she learned her film Brotherhood had made the shortlist for best live action short. She, too, was having trouble processing her good fortune.

“It’s really surreal,” Joobeur said. “I feel like the whole journey of this film is very surreal. When I was making the film, my only intention was to be able to show it to the community who helped make it. I didn’t think about how it would impact others. The fact that it has gone this far is pretty crazy, to tell you the truth.”

Ushev and Joobeur are now halfway to the Oscars. The Physics of Sorrow and Brotherhood were culled from pools of 92 films and 191 films, respectively, to reach their respective 10-title shortlists. Each now has a 50-50 chance of ending up in the group of five nominees in their respective categories.

Ushev has been here before. His eight-minute film Blind Vaysha was nominated for an Oscar in 2016.

“That year, we lost to Pixar,” he said. “Luckily this year Pixar didn’t make it, so we are going to lose to someone else.”

Jokes aside, his previous Oscar experience didn’t make the wait any easier.

“This year, I felt like it was much more difficult, because this film is much more personal,” Ushev said.

 

A brooding exploration of love, loss and the meaning of home, The Physics of Sorrow is the first animated film made using the encaustic painting technique. Ushev, a Bulgarian immigrant who came to Quebec in 1999, says it’s dedicated to his father, who died in December 2018.

Fittingly, he recruited another father-son team for the project. The filmmaker convinced Rossif Sutherland to lend his striking baritone to the film, and Sutherland in turn convinced his father, Donald, to contribute a secondary voice-over.

 

Launched at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, The Physics of Sorrow has been racking up the accolades since.

“Up to now, it has won 16 (festival) prizes in only three months,” Ushev said. “It’s going extremely well.”

There’s still a way to go before the Oscar nominations are announced Jan. 13, and Ushev isn’t getting ahead of himself.

“No one knows what’s going to happen,” he said, “but I’ll be very happy if we end up speaking again in a month.”

Monday was a doubly good day for Joobeur. Just a few hours before the Oscar shortlist announcements, Quebec funding agency SODEC announced that her feature film Motherhood was among the new projects it had chosen to support.

Joobeur was in Tunisia doing research for the Motherhood, which is based on Brotherhood’s dramatic tale of a Muslim couple in the Tunisian countryside who must adapt to the return of one of their sons from fighting in Syria.

 

The film has screened at 150 festivals in 48 countries, winning 63 prizes since its premiere at TIFF in September, 2018, where it was named best Canadian short.

For Joobeur, all the accolades are confirmation that she’s on the right path.

“Going into Brotherhood, I decided to change my way of approaching filmmaking,” she said. “I decided to listen to my instincts, to let go of any pressures I had regarding success or festival acceptance, and just enjoy the process.”

It’s potentially the second straight Oscar nomination for Brotherhood co-producer Maria Gracia Turgeon, who also produced Jeremy Comte’s Fauve, one of two Quebec films nominated for best live action short at the 2019 Academy Awards.

“Firstly, it’s due to the fact that both Fauve and Brotherhood are wonderful films,” said Turgeon, who is also working with Joobeur on Motherhood.

The two spoke Monday night.

“It’s a lot of excitement,” Turgeon said. “We were trying not to think about it, and to say it probably won’t happen so we didn’t have expectations. But when the news finally comes, it’s hard not to be excited.”

There is one other NFB co-produced film in the animated short category: Portuguese filmmaker Regina Pessoa’s Uncle Thomas: Accounting for the Days.

Montrealer Paul Cadieux, of Filmoption International, also had cause to celebrate, as Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche’s film Advocate, a film he co-produced about Israeli human rights lawyer Lea Tsemel, was shortlisted for best documentary feature.

The 92nd Academy Awards take place Feb. 9.

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Ed Harris as Atticus Finch: Actor talks making “To Kill a Mockingbird” role his own, working with new cast


Four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris is taking on the cherished and challenging role of Atticus Finch in the Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The actor, known from “Apollo 13” and HBO’s “Westworld,” spoke with CBS News contributor Jamie Wax at the Schubert Theater about making the role his own.

When Harries got a phone message from producer Scott Rudin asking if he wanted to play Atticus, his heart started going “boom, boom, boom,” he said.  

“You read the play and (Aaron) Sorkin’s take on it, and it’s so different in the terms of who this man is and what he’s dealing with and how he is trying to maintain his sense of goodness and tolerance … in this world of hate and prejudice,” Harris said.

“It’s a little more flawed and tortured than we’re used to with Atticus,” Wax said.

“Definitely,” Harris said. “Which I was glad of because you don’t feel obligated to play this kind of perfect man.”

The story “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one many know well: Finch, a small-town lawyer, puts his family and reputation on the line to defend a black man in 1930s Alabama. The character has long been recognized for his strong morals and courage.

The role as adapted by Sorkin was formerly played by actor Jeff Daniels, earning him a Tony nomination. Harris chose not to see the production before stepping into the part.

“I didn’t want to be influenced by it,” he said. “It’s such an individual kind of experience to portray any given character.”

Director Bartlett Sher has full confidence in Harris. “Ed will be able to take a completely different take on it. … It’s just as rich, just as moving,” he said the night of Daniels’ final curtain call.

Beyond Daniels, there’s another Atticus performance that looms large for Harris: Gregory Peck in the 1962 film.

“It was in my head for a little while, but it really has disappeared,” Harris said. “When I read the script, I said, my main job is to be as much myself as Atticus as I can be.” 

He isn’t alone stepping into big shoes as this production approaches its second year. He’s part of a slew of new cast members joining the show this month, including the actors playing Tom Robinson, Jem and Scout Finch, and Dill Harris.

“We understand the responsibility of coming into the building and the responsibility of the show that we’ve been handed,” said Kyle Scatliffe, who plays Tom Robinson.

That responsibility has been made easier with Harris’ leadership. “Ed has been phenomenal just to watch and to be a collaborator with,” said Nick Robinson, who plays Jem Finch. He said it’s been “a treat” to see the way Harris works. 

“He’s such a generous scene partner and just so giving and really hard on himself, too,” said Nina Grollman, who plays Scout Finch.

The admiration is mutual. “I really love them,” Harris said. “They’re really great. I love working with them.”

With over 40 years of experience both on the stage and in front of the camera, the actor knows those are the qualities needed when stepping into the theater.

“It’s all about your relationships with people at this very moment, right on stage, at this time,” he said. “If I’m not breathing and if I’m not inhabiting this space right now at this very moment, then I’m full of sh– and I don’t want to do that.”

For Harris, the hope is that inhabiting this character for a new generation shines a light on the themes of Harper Lee’s story that goes beyond those who are already familiar with it.

“If it can help open anybody up to the world and to life and to being more generous and more open and more loving, then we’ve achieved something,” he said. 



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