Behind the Scenes with an Oscars Show Writer With the Oscars days away, Melissa Block chats with writer Bruce Vilanch, who has been on the Academy Awards staff for 20 years. The host, Jon Stewart, has his own writers from Comedy Central furiously working on his material. But other writers are coming up with copy for the presenters — and will be rewriting as the show goes along.
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Behind the Scenes with an Oscars Show Writer

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Behind the Scenes with an Oscars Show Writer

Behind the Scenes with an Oscars Show Writer

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That Oscar audience will be watching Jon Stewart host the show. He's got his own group of writers from Comedy Central, furiously working on his material. There's also a handful of other writers coming up with copy for the presenters, about just what costume designers and sound effects editors do for movies.

Among that sweaty throng is Bruce Vilanch, an Oscar writer for almost 20 years now. His responsibility?

Mr. BRUCE VILANCH (Writer): Everything but what the host is doing to start with, which means everything the presenters say - all of those speeches. Basically, everything on the show with the exception of the acceptance speeches, which usually give us fuel for whatever we're going to rewrite during the show.

BLOCK: Oh, because you're rewriting as it goes along?

Mr. VILANCH: Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, here we have Michael Moore nominated for "Sicko," and you'll never know what Michael's going to do if he wins. He may go up there and say something which will set the tone for the rest of the evening.

BLOCK: And where are you doing that sort of onsite writing as the show is on?

Mr. VILANCH: We are in the wings. Well, we have a writing room, which is right off stage. But literally, in the wings, Jon Stewart has a tent stocked with food - very important; the writers must be fed - and a television set and a phone that goes to the control room so we can tell them what we have in mind if we want to put something in the teleprompter for the next segment.

But basically, we watch the show like everybody else and react to it as we go along and start rewriting.

BLOCK: So you guys are all sitting around that table in the tent, tell me what happens when you're rejiggering(ph) something and the…

Mr. VILANCH: Well, if something happens, everybody begins to chat. Well, oh, you got to talk about that. You can't let that one go by. First, you hav to see when the host comes back out on stage. I mean, there is times when he may be off stage for 20 minutes. And it wouldn't really profit him to come back after 20 minutes and ask the audience to remember something's that happened unless it was something really incendiary and terrific.

So, generally, it's going to be - they're going to be onstage within a few minutes or whatever. We have just seen - people just start shouting out the comments you can make. It's kind of like the floor of the commodities exchange, you know, people going, pig bellies…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VILANCH: …more of these.

BLOCK: Are you guys wearing tuxedoes, too?

Mr. VILANCH: Yeah. A lot of them are wearing tuxedoes. The stagehands, of course, are all wearing tuxedoes because if they are caught on camera, they have to look formal. If the writers are caught on camera, that means something has gone horribly wrong because we're not supposed to be seen ever.

BLOCK: Right.

You know, I have to say, I watch the Oscars every year, and I'm always stunned that these are people who act for a living, they read lines for a living, and so many of them seem to be completely unable to get up on a stage and make this sort of boiler-plate language they have read sound convincing. And a lot of them just really can't do it. Why is that?

Mr. VILANCH: Well, you know, most movie stars did not take oral interpretation class. They are accustomed to working in a character on a set to a camera without an audience. So when you throw them on stage with a live audience, and a television audience and no character to play, they're kind of lost.

The ones who know what they're doing are the ones who have had some kind of stage experience. I mean, I used to say Shirley MacLaine was the best because not only knows who she is when she gets out on stage, she knows who she was.

BLOCK: In another life?

Mr. VILANCH: Exactly, yes. So she's really got the whole thing figured. There are some actors who're just incredibly well poised in and of themselves, they're generally British.

BLOCK: I was going to say, the Brits really do - they have it all over on us.

Mr. VILANCH: The Brits also - most of them come from stage. So Helen Mirren comes out even though she's not playing Queen Elizabeth. Helen Mirren is just good enough on stage as Helen Mirren. And she will be there, of course. She will be presenting the best actor award.

BLOCK: Well, Bruce Vilanch, thanks for talking to us about Hollywood's biggest night.

Mr. VILANCH: Daily(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VILANCH: And what are you wearing?

BLOCK: Pajamas, no doubt.

Mr. VILANCH: I, you know, I don't know yet. I had Dolce&Gabbana are fighting each other to see who designs my outfit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VILANCH: I hate to drive a wedge between them, but it must be done.

BLOCK: It must be done.


BLOCK: Well, have fun.

Mr. VILANCH: Okay.

BLOCK: Veteran Oscar writer Bruce Vilanch.

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