Awards season is in full swing – all the various groups have named their nominees and we’re slowly working through the prestigious ceremonies on the long road to the Oscars on February 26th.
Looking at the nominations, it’s fair to say this probably the best all round year since 2011 (which brought classics such as The Social Network, True Grit, 127 Hours, Inception, Toy Story 3, Black Swan and Winter’s Bone, even if they were all beaten out by The King’s Speech). There’s a wide range of films in contention, from classic Oscar fare to audacious throwback passion projects, as well as a host of movies that seriously address last year’s “Oscars So White” controversy (it looks possible that three out of the four acting categories will actually go to people of color).
But it could have been a very different set of nominees. Had a few little things changed in the productions of the big movies, we could have had Emma Watson set to bag Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor as a much more open field, and some of the most dominant films long-forgotten releases from a decade ago.
Looking back at the development of 2017’s Oscar movies, here’s how they could have all worked differently. To qualify for this list, a film needs to have been nominated for an Oscar and during development undergone some major change that would have directly affected the category it’s been nominated in.
15. Paramount Wanted To Make Fences With Eddie Murphy
The production narrative of Fences is one of pure passion and love for the material. When Denzel Washington first came across August Wilson’s play he opted to perform it on Broadway, where he and co-star Viola Davis received rave reviews. It was only a few years later he came around to making it as a film, bringing across his stage co-stars and making a film that netted him two more Oscar noms (and could see him win Best Actor on the night, alongside Davis, who is a dead cert for Supporting Actress).
This wasn’t the first time a film based on the play had been mooted, however. Paramount had bought Wilson’s screenplay adaptation of his script and tried several times to get it off the ground, but could never make it work. One fabled version that Washington’s since joked about would be as an Eddie Murphy vehicle, something that could very have easily turned the comedian’s career around.
In the end, though, the big barrier for Paramount was the writer’s insistence on having a black director, something they really struggled with. Thankfully, Washington had the clout to carry it through.
14. Peter Berg Considered Directing Hell or High Water
Despite being the indie hit of Summer 2016, that Hell or High Water’s become such a notable Oscar movie is rather surprising. Not because it isn’t good or worthy – it’s in the upper quartile of the nominees – but because it’s the sort of film that so rarely gets noticed: a lean, intense thriller that doesn’t let its focused subtext get in the way of story.
The real selling point is the script, which topped the coveted Black List – the list of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays – in 2012. It was Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan’s work that first got Peter Berg – who produced the film – on board and at one point had him set to direct.
While with most of the examples we’ll look at there’s an element of curiosity to the alternate timeline versions of these films, it’s hard to say a Berg Hell or High Water would have worked out. The director has carved out a profitable niche making patriotic pictures where Mark Wahlberg plays a traditional American hero, and while Deepwater Horizon and Patriot’s Day are certainly good, it’s not an approach that Hell or High Water needed – can you imagine Wahlberg in Pine’s role really sticking it to Jeff Bridges? Shudder!
13. Hidden Figures Was Circled By Oprah and Viola Davis
The surprise late entrant in this year’s Oscar race was Hidden Figures, which appeared to have missed the hype train but emerged a box office juggernaut, something that likely helped bolster it to winning the Ensemble award at the Screen Actors Guild awards and earning three Oscar noms for Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actress.
Fitting of so much focus being on the performances, specifically Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe as three black female scientists at NASA, a key way the film was almost different was in the cast. Being such a powerful story, several other big actresses were linked to the roles during development, most prominently Oprah Winfrey and Viola Davis.
The bigger potential difference, however, lies in the script, which was originally going to follow the source book and focus more heavily on NASA and less on the three women’s home lives. This would obviously have given fewer purely character scenes, but it may have also altered the tone; the racism present in NASA is institutionalized, but what the characters get in the real world contrasts it with deep-set nastiness, highlighting the power of what these unsung heroes did.
12. Arrival Had Over 100 Alternate Titles
Arrival will go down in history as one of the finest sci-fi films of the decade, a masterful blending of big ideas and twisty narrative with an intimate, character-driven story that could only be told within these parameters. It could have easily gone down under a different name, however.
The film is based on the short story Story Of My Life, which not only is something of a spoiler but also (in director Denis Villeneuve’s own words) sounds like “a romantic comedy”. As a result, the production team worked through hundreds of different names before ending on the rather simple title.
The other big reason for the change, though, was that across several redrafts the narrative itself had changed. It’s not known what exactly this was, but it’s likely rooted in the linguistic focus – the book is much more concerned with the intricacies of the Heptapod language, whereas the film uses this more as background, with most of the development occurring in a mid-movie montage.
11. Martin Scorsese Considered Making Silence A 3D Epic
Moreso than any other Oscar 2017 film, Silence is the one you almost expect to have changed the most since it was first conceptualized; Martin Scorsese first became obsessed with Shūsaku Endō’s novel about Jesuit priests’ failed attempts to convert Japan to Christianity when making The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988 and was working on a screenplay for the better part of two decades.
The first concerted attempt to get it made was in the late-2000s, with Daniel Day-Lewis, Benicio del Toro, and Gael García Bernal in talks to star (presumably as Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver’s parts respectively), and it later reappeared in the early-2010s with the plan being to make it a 3D spectacle.
The eventual movie is more classical and very pure to the ethos that first drew Scorsese to the book, and possibly as a result failed to connect with the Academy like the director’s other recent works. It’s possibly the earlier versions could have fared better – that original cast may have got more acting attention and a period 3D epic would have helped its run at Best Cinematography (the one nomination it did get) – but it’s probably better Scorsese didn’t hamper his vision.
10. Manchester by the Sea Was Meant To Be Directed By And Star Matt Damon
Manchester by the Sea is the Sundance darling done good of this year’s Oscars. It first premiered to rave reviews at the festival in January 2016 and has ridden a wave of depressed hype to land six Oscar nominations, and could quite possibly pick up Best Actor for Casey Affleck and Best Original Screenplay for Kenneth Lonergan (although they face stiff competition from Fences and La La Land respectively).
As it was conceived, however, much of the awards buzz would have been around Matt Damon – he was originally set to produce, direct and star in the film, which was indented to be a way to get more eyes on Lonergan screenwriting abilities, who had hit a knock after directing Margaret.
However, Damon’s busy schedule saw him having to keep stepping back. First he handed the reins over to Lonergran, but then had to pass on performing, giving the role to childhood friend Casey Affleck. Damon’s still a producer though, so doesn’t miss out on praise completely.
9. Darren Aronofsky Was Going To Make Jackie With Rachel Weisz
Jackie isn’t your standard biopic, which is quite possibly why its Oscar attention has focused almost entirely on Natalie Portman’s stunning performance as the widowed first lady. The movie itself is a dream-like art piece, sneaking non-chronologically through the aftermath of JFK’s assassination, but Portman grounds it, presenting the grief and guilt against a backdrop of forced legacy. It is, clearly, a film from Pablo Larraín, who is as much about mood and putting you in the character’s heads as he is telling a story – something that powers actors but can put off more mainstream attention.
Things may have been different had Darren Aronofsky directed. The Black Swan filmmaker was set to direct a version with Rachel Weisz you can presume would have been more narrative-focused, but when the real-life couple broke up so too did the project. Aronofsky eventually came back as producer and was instrumental in gettingLarraín to sign on.
Things would have been even more different had the original direction gone ahead – Noah Oppenheim’s script was at first going to be done as a HBO miniseries produced by Steven Spielberg, who at one point considered directing the film when Aronofsky first stepped down.
8. Zootopia Started As A Spy Spoof With Nick The Lead
Animated movies change a lot during production. The most famous recent example is Frozen, which originally had Elsa as the villain and thus a much simpler narrative drive.
Zootopia didn’t make as big a character change, but it did still undergo some major restructuring. The starting point for the film wasn’t the police procedural-cum-racial allegory that’s set to win Best Animated Feature, but instead a spy parody; the film would follow Jason Bateman’s character (eventually Nick Wilde) on an international espionage mission. However, as they developed the world, the writers and artists decided to lean more in that direction, honing in on the idea of an anthropomorphized city.
The big switch, however, was in who should lead; for a long time Judy Hopps was going to be the sidekick to Nick, and the film only found it’s real weight when they made the switch and focused on the rookie in the big city. This led to several characters roles being altered, such as Nate Torrence’s Clawhauser, who went from being Nick’s best buddy to a simple desk sergeant.
7. Moana Was Going To Lean More Heavily Into Gender Politics
Unlike Zootopia, the core idea of Moana – an exploration of Polynesian mythology, specifically demi-God Maui – was present from the very start and remained a dominant presence throughout production.
The big differences here come in the journey of the eponymous heroine. The plan originally with Moana was to have her arc have a more feminist slant. At first, she had five elder brothers, highlighting a weaker position in the community and having that dominate her arc. Obviously this was dropped, with her position as a princess not that remarked on and there notably not a love interest in sight in the finished film.
The decision to move away from this allowed for the film to keep the focus on the culture, but also makes it stand out in modern Disney – the overt challenging of gender roles was already a major part of Frozen, so doing it again her risked making a restictive (if post-modern) Princess formula.
6. There Were Doubts Around Two Of Moonlight’s Key Cast
Once a dark horse, Moonlight has become an Oscar favorite (and probably the film with the best chance of beating La La Land for Best Picture on the night). Interestingly, despite being in development for the better part of a decade, Barry Jenkins chronicle of a gay, black teen growing up against the backdrop of drug culture in Miami didn’t have any major narrative changes made through its protracted development – Jenkins wrote several versions of the screenplay, but the core structural ideas were present from the start and the main barrier was always funding.
Casting was a different story, with several moments of doubt along the way – the director was uncertain about Trevante Rhodes, who was cast to play the adult Chiron (the character is played by different actors) until he blew everyone away after a single day of filming.
The biggest ways it was almost different, though, came from the headline cast. Most shockingly given the awards, Jenkins wasn’t sure about Mahershala Ali as drug dealer Juan based on his turn as money manipulator Remy Denton in House of Cards until he met the actor. On the flipside, Naomie Harris wasn’t keen on playing a drug addict, only coming around when Jenkins explained the personal side of the role to her. Even after signing on, Harris almost missed out on the role due to visa issues, shooting her decade-spanning part in three days.
5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Had Over Half Its CGI Added At The Last Minute
That Rogue One was almost a very different film is well documented – extensive reshoots completely altered the third act and vastly widened the scope – but here we’re going to talk about just the elements that pertain to the Oscars.
The film has been nominated for Best Sound Mixing (a classic Star Wars category) and Best Visual Effects. The latter is particularly interesting – the film had its number of VFX shots almost trebled by the reshoots from 600 to nearly 1,700. This is conventionally viewed to have led to a major expansion of the show-stopping space battle – think the Hammerhead-meets-Star-Destroyer-meets-other-Star-Destroyer-meets-shield-gate beat – something that greatly effects the scale and weight of the ending.
Of course, the more daring effects element was a part of the movie from before then – Peter Cushing’s digital resurrection to play a supporting role chief among them. It’s quite possible the film would have still got nominated on that audacious (if controversial) choice alone, but the expanded scope definitely made it more of a package.
4. Joaquin Phoenix Was Considered For Michael Shannon’s Nocturnal Animals Role
Nocturnal Animals‘ awards journey has been a rather odd one. In a different year it could have been a contender for anything from Director to Best Actress to Best Original Screenplay, but Tom Ford’s dream-like dissection of why we tell stories and the effect they have on us through the vestige of a broken marriage and a revenge story-within-a-story has instead sat on the peripheries.
The weirdest thing about the awards attention it has got is the lack of consistency. Aaron Taylor-Johnson actually won Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes for his psychotic criminal within the in-universe book, beating out Mahershala Ali in a major shock, yet at the Oscars it was Michael Shannon who got a nod for the grizzled, no-nonsense cop hunting him down.
That chance could have gone to Joaquin Phoenix, however. Back in the early days of development, the actor was linked to the project and, given how stars Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal had already signed on, it was presumably to play Bobby Andes. It’s hard to imagine him doing it any better though.
3. The Studio Wanted To Make Hacksaw Ridge PG-13
There’s a danger with “almost too good to be true” real event films that they wind up simply dramatizing the Wikipedia page rather than telling an exciting story. This could have been very ture of Desmond T. Doss, the pacifist soldier at the heart of Hacksaw Ridge. Thankfully, Mel Gibson (of all people) brings enough directorial heft to the action and justification for Andrew Garfield’s extreme faith to make it something more.
Earlier attempts probably wouldn’t have been as successful (the film was a box office hit and has six Oscar noms). The original plan was to do a documentary exploring Doss’ full life from his own stories, elements of which remain in the film’s post-drama talking heads (it was canned after his death in 2006), although it’s what came after that’s questionable.
A film was on the cards ever since Doss gave up the rights to his story in 2001, but holder Walden Media was insistent it be a PG-13 affair. While that’s understandable given the anti-war angle, it would completely rob the film of its horrific contrast and definitely wouldn’t have attracted a visceral filmmaker such as Gibson. Thankfully, Walden eventually gave the rights back to original holder Bill Mechanic, who eventually convinced Gibson to sign on.
2. Elle Was Planned To Be An English-Language Film Set In America
Paul Verhoeven’s Elle has become one of the rare films to break through the foreign language restrictions and get a major nomination – Isabelle Huppert even earned a nomination for Best Actress.
She wasn’t the director’s first choice, though; through the development process, Verhoeven considered a wide range of actresses including Charlize Theron, Julianne Moore, Sharon Stone, Marion Cotillard, Diane Lane, Carice van Houten and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Now there’s one big difference between most of those actors and Huppert: bar Cotillard, they’re all American. And that’s because the original plan for the rape victim revenge film was for it to be set in Chicago. Things only changed because the incredibly charged subject matter made getting a star or financing nigh-on impossible.
1. Emma Watson And Miles Teller Were In Talks To Star In La La Land
La La Land is set to be the big winner at this year’s Oscars, to the point where the question isn’t “Will it win Best Picture?” but “Will it match the all-time number of wins?” Picture certainly seems like a lock at this point, as well as Director for Chazelle. Also a safe-ish bet is Emma Stone walking away with two golden baldies at the end of the night – one for Actress and one for performing whichever song takes home the prize.
Emma Watson must be kicking herself for that – she was originally set to star as Mia before the film conflicted with her commitments to Beauty and the Beast (that Disney live-action remake is destined to be a smash, so at least there’s some consolation). She was going to star opposite Chazelle’s Whiplash star Miles Teller, who left the project after contract negotiations fell apart. Their departure didn’t just change the masthead, but also Chazelle’s approach – when finding replacements, the director made Mia and Seb older, adding to the film’s melancholy.
That’s not the only big difference between the planned La La Land and the finished film. The screenplay features several short elements that were cut, including a final shot where the camera pans over the City of Stars.