Producing the Academy Awards Show

It takes more than movie stars and a celebrity host to put on the Oscars ceremony, which will take place Sunday night. We went backstage at the Oscars with producer Laura Ziskin and her crew.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We are just five days away from the Academy Awards. And as you can imagine, workers are putting the finishing touches on the film industry's biggest night.

NPR's Kim Masters got a behind-the-scenes look at the preparations, and she has this report.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

KIM MASTERS: The lobby of the Kodak Theater in Hollywood is filled with rows of chairs. Gathered here is the group that will mount a show that is still -despite slipping ratings - one of the most watched programs of the year. Seated in a dais is an assortment of the show's key behind-the-scenes players, including the producer.

Ms. LAURA ZISKIN (Producer, 79th Academy Awards): Hi, I'm Laura Ziskin. I'm so happy to see all of you. (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of applause)

MASTERS: Laura Ziskin is a diminutive woman whose day job is producing "Spiderman 3". She's run the "Academy Awards" show once before in 2002.

Ms. ZISKIN: Blastoff is actually in, I think, 20 days. Scary.

MASTERS: A microphone is handed along the rows, so that members of this eclectic team can introduce themselves and say how many times they've worked on the show.

Mr. DAVE BOONE (Writer): Dave Boone, one of the writers - 7th-year, three Billy's, two Whoopis and one Steve.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JOANIE PAIGE(ph)(Nurse): Joanie Paige, I'm one of the nurses. And this is my 13th year.

Mr. JOHN BORJA (Seat-Filler Supervisor, 79th Academy Awards): John Borja. This is my 8th year as a seat-filler supervisor, but my 25th-plus year for the awards.

MASTERS: In case you are wondering, a seat-filler's job is to make sure that when the camera pans, there are no empty spots in the audience. If you visit the restroom during the broadcast, a seat-filler takes your place until you return. The veteran in the crowd appears to be a gentleman with a trimmed white beard, round glasses and a black stocking cap.

Mr. RET TURNER (Costume Supervisor, 79th Academy Awards): Ret Turner, costume supervisor. My first year was 1953, somebody figure the math.

(Soundbite of laughter, applause)

MASTERS: During a break, Turner explains his job. On awards night, he comes equipped with extra ties, cufflinks, collar stays and a few dozen pairs of shoes in case someone breaks a heel on the red carpet. Another common problem: rips that result when a trains that trail behind those designer gowns get stepped on.

Mr. TURNER: One lady a couple of years ago insisted that she didn't want us to sew the hem back in her dress. She wanted it duct taped in. So in her $10,000 Armani gown, we used duct tape to put it up.

MASTERS: Obviously, Turner has seen many fashions come and go over the years. We asked him about the biggest change in the show.

Mr. TURNER: Well, in - pardon the expression - the old days, we used to be a regular production show: singing and dancing with chorus people. And we really don't do that anymore. Generally, it's a star singing whatever song is nominated, rather than 30 dancers.

MASTERS: You miss that?

Mr. TURNER: I do. But I don't know if I can do 30 dancers anymore.

MASTERS: Bruce Vilanch is also here. He's been head writer for 18 years.

Have you started writing?

Mr. BRUCE VILANCH (Writer): Oh yeah. We've been writing for a while. You can't really do the heavy, heavy writing until the nominations are announced, and then you know what kind of a year you're dealing with. I mean, I didn't realize until the nominations that we we're going to have to find Iwo Jima jokes. And believe me, they are thin on the ground.

MASTERS: Vilanch has been meeting with first-time host Ellen DeGeneres. Some of his coaching sounds a bit daunting.

Mr. VILANCH: What I keep reminding the host is that as the evening wears on, the room fills up with losers. For every winner, there are four losers, and those people are bitter. And they don't want to hear your jokes. You are an obstacle between them and the bar, or them and the agents they're going to fire.

MASTERS: Vilanch and his writers keep toiling even while the show is live on the air. He remembers when documentarian Michael Moore was audibly booed by stage hounds after he denounced President Bush just days after the invasion of Iraq. Comedian Steve Martin was in the wings, waiting to take the stage.

Mr. VILANCH: And you see, well, we got to deal with this. So while Michael Moore was making his speech, we were busy throwing jokes at him. And we had some very good people back there. Dave Barry was back there and Rita Rudner was back there. I mean, we were all shouting and screaming. And so, finally, Steve went on afterwards and said it was so nice backstage. The teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo.

MASTERS: After the production meeting breaks, producer Laura Ziskin takes us into the theater, which will be closed until Oscar night.

Unidentified Man: All right, here. Let's try it again. Everbody coming in…

MASTERS: Crewmembers and shorts are already hard at work. One wields a heavy drill - another, a set of blueprints.

Ms. ZISKIN: So this will be transformed into a beautiful, very glamorous, very kind of old-Hollywood look. That's what I like. I don't like any modern things that look like rocket ships or things like that.

MASTERS: Ziskin is working fast. This year, she had less than four weeks between nominations and the telecast. That makes for a tough deadline, but of course, the show will go on. And Ziskin says it's a producer's dream to have a cast made up of the world's biggest stars, even if it's just for one night.

Kim Masters, NPR News.

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