Correction Appended: An earlier version of this article said Kurt Luedtke attended Cranbrook-Kingswood High School.
When the 83rd installment of the Academy Awards airs on Sunday, viewers will be greeted by some familiar sights — a scarlet carpet, tough-to-open envelopes, sappy acceptance speeches and rude interruption music — the essential ingredients for the film industry’s night of top honors. On TV, the ritualistic practices of the event seem to remain static over time, giving at-home audiences a general idea of what to expect from year to year. So it can be easy to forget that all the nominees have a story — a “road to the Oscars,” if you will.
Whether winning their own award or reporting on the ceremony, University alumni John Nelson and Katie Cwayna and former University Law School student Kurt Luedtke sustain more of a personal connection to the Academy Awards than most people. Their experiences provide a unique look into the lives of Oscar winners as well as the behind-the-scenes aspects of an eventful week in Los Angeles.
Early mornings in L.A.
It only seems logical that a person who could potentially be in the running for an Academy Award would vigilantly wait for nominations to be announced. But John Nelson, a 1976 University alum, is normally too tired for anxious anticipation.
“They announce the nominations at 5:30 a.m. L.A. time to make the 8:30 a.m. news in (New York),” Nelson wrote in an e-mail interview. “If you live in L.A. and get nominated, the phone wakes you up with people saying congrats.”
Nelson has been woken up in this manner on three occasions: when he received nominations in the Best Visual Effects category for “Gladiator,” “I, Robot” and “Iron Man.”
Former “Good Morning America” segment producer Katie Cwayna, a 2007 University alum, was similarly affected by this time gap between the East and West Coast. Last year, the morning show was broadcasted live in L.A. on the Friday before and Monday following the Academy Awards ceremony.
Cwayna — who majored in Communication Studies while at the University — noted that, though many people were excited to hear she was covering the event, the experience was grueling.
“As much as it was fun, I was exhausted and not sleeping and writing scripts and revising scripts through all hours of the night,” she said.
I’d like to thank the Academy
What happens on TV does not tell the whole story.
When the sun goes down on the day of the Oscars, Nelson said being a nominee becomes considerably more nerve-wracking than one might expect.
“You are pretty much scared shitless until you know if you’ve won or not,” he explained. “After that you are either very happy or a little depressed.”
Two-time nominee Kurt Luedtke felt this tension so much that he found it necessary to leave his seat and smoke a cigarette, almost missing the presentation of his award.
“According to the program, the Adapted Screenplay award was several presentations away,” he wrote in an e-mail interview. “I went out for a cigarette (and) eventually returned to an agitated wife who told me they’d changed the order of things and Adapted Screenplay was now.”
Luedtke had barely sat down when he was announced as the winner of the category for writing “Out of Africa.”
Both Luedtke and Nelson were shocked by the response they received immediately after winning an Academy Award, claiming the celebrity and press attention was somewhat overwhelming.
“The first eight rows are where the movie stars are seated, and that section’s lit for television,” Luedtke wrote. “When you’re accepting, you’re looking down at, and seeing very clearly, a dozen or 20 of the most recognizable people in the world who are, for some reason, looking up at you.”
The press room, photographers and poster signing after winners are ushered backstage make for a surreal moment, according to Nelson. This kind of pressure is something that he rarely experiences, and he believes the Academy takes steps to put the crowd at ease.
“I think once you go through it, you realize why it is very important to have someone funny hosting the event.” he wrote. “The humor relaxes people who are really, really nervous.”
Once he had the infamous golden statue in hand, Luedtke claimed that expressing gratitude to a laundry list of people was harder than it looked.
“Delivering my carefully rehearsed ‘Out of Africa’ acceptance, I entirely forgot the part acknowledging the director,” he confessed.
Luedtke later found out that “Out of Africa” director Sydney Pollack asked his wife, “You think Kurt’s speech was a little short?” after this blunder.
Nelson’s speech for his “Gladiator” win, on the other hand, would forever be remembered by the inclusion of a person rather than an exclusion.
His father turned 86 years old the day he won and was fatally ill with cancer.
“I ended my allotted 30 seconds with, ‘Thanks to my mom in heaven and my dad and family back in Detroit. Happy birthday, Dad. I love you,’ ” he wrote. “I brought the Oscar home and showed him it. He thought it was beautiful, and the next week he passed on.”
Touching storylines are not the only aspects of the ceremony that go unnoticed by the TV-viewing audience. The Oscars have some surprises that are concealed by the network airing the show.
“What most surprised me was that plenty of people attend the Academy Awards who aren’t Academy members,” Luedtke explained. “The advertisers get free tickets, I was told, and they wind up in the strangest hands.”
One pair of tickets was auctioned off at a fundraiser Luedtke attended for Cranbrook Educational Community in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. He believes the tickets arrived there via General Motors, which runs commercials during the broadcast.
Some of the seats are also filled by hired help.
“What most surprised (my wife) was that the show hires high school kids to dress up in their prom clothes to fill the seats for the cameras when ticketholders like me are wandering around elsewhere,” Luedtke continued.
The weight of the hardware was also unexpected.
“The Oscars are heavy, heavier than you’d think,” he wrote. “I’m surprised more winners don’t drop them.”
Additionally, the nightlife after the ceremony is only briefly alluded to on TV. In reality, the party scene is vast and continues into the wee hours of the morning. According to Luedtke, lugging around that heavy gold statue commands a sizable amount of respect around town.
“En route to the Academy Governors Ball, we got caught in traffic, left our limo, got lost and wound up outside the rear entrance of the Beverly Wilshire ballroom,” he explained.
But all Luedtke had to do was flash the figurine to gain admittance to the festivities.
According to Cwayna, the ceremony acts as the formal centerpiece for a week-long celebration throughout Los Angeles. The movie capital of the world is taken over by parties, promotional events and other festivities that extend the excitement around the Oscars well beyond its allotted TV time slot.
Lounges and gifting suites at the event provide a constant source of excitement as brands promote themselves with giveaways.
“It’s more than just, ‘Who’s going to win Best Actor?’ ” Cwayna said.
Reaching for the gold man
The Oscars might be one whirlwind of a week, but nominees don’t arrive in L.A. without first doing some old-fashioned hard work.
Nelson’s road to the Academy Awards ran straight through Ann Arbor, as he graduated from the University with a bachelor’s degree in General Studies.
“I got a good education in making films with limited resources,” he explained. “Teachers like (Screen Arts & Cultures Prof.) Frank Beaver taught us how to be inventive with what we had and encouraged us to take chances. We had less courses in film production or scriptwriting than the programs at USC or NYU, but we have put many people in the industry just the same. We learned how to improvise to succeed.”
At the time, the vast resources available for students within the Department of Screen Arts & Cultures were not available. In fact, the SAC department wasn’t founded until recently, so aspiring filmmakers had to look elsewhere to get an education.
As for the next generation of moviemakers, Nelson encourages an emphasis on narrative over technical extravagance, despite being a visual effects supervisor himself.
“Learn technique, but know that the creative part of filmmaking that tells the story will always be more important than the technical thing that looks cool or is new,” he wrote.
Luedtke expressed a similar sentiment, but had a more brash way of saying it.
“Get off your ass and research your story, its period and setting, and your characters’ lives,” he said.
The Oscars mean something different to everyone, and despite its annual appearance on TV, the show is always producing heart-wrenching and hilarious stories and unforgettable moments.
Though he admits winning the award was a nice piece of recognition, Luedtke wrote that “getting the movie made was the high point.”
Nelson, however, can hardly put into words what the little gold man means to him: “It ranks up there with my wedding day and the birth of my son.”