Louisiana-based films shine as the Oscars roll out the red carpet

February 27, 2014

We’d like to thank the Academy

The Louisiana film industry has never had so many horses in the race for Oscar gold. Two New Orleans area-shot films, “12 Years a Slave” and “Dallas Buyers Club,” have 15 Academy Award nominations between them.

“Both films deserve all the accolades they’ve been getting,” John Desplas, New Orleans Film Festival artistic director, said ahead of Sunday night’s “86th Annual Academy Awards,” which features Metairie native Ellen DeGeneres as host.

“12 Years a Slave,” a wrenching drama based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir about his enslavement on Louisiana plantations, served as the New Orleans Film Festival’s opening night event in October. It has nine Oscar nominations.

“Whether ‘12 Years a Slave’ wins the best picture Oscar or not,” Desplas said, “most critics and moviegoers agree that it’s probably the best film of the year.”

Desplas sees a very practical reason why Louisiana-made films are getting more awards attention and critical acclaim.

“There’s nothing mystical about it,” he said. “More films are being made here. The odds go up, especially because it’s financially advantageous to shoot here, that filmmakers who are known for more than just grinding out product will end up making their films here.”

“Louisiana has been well represented in the past,” said Christopher Stelly, executive director of entertainment at Louisiana Economic Development, “with such films as ‘Ray,’ ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ and ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild.’ This latest round of nominations and winners simply solidifies the fact that great, artistic and creative productions are calling Louisiana home.”

Prior to the movie awards season’s finale Sunday, “12 Years a Slave” won the best film award at the British Academy Film Awards and a Golden Globe for best film drama. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who portrays Northup, won the British Academy Award for best actor.

Dan Ireland, a Los Angeles-based film director who’s also artistic director for the Baton Rouge-based Louisiana International Film Festival, is rooting for “12 Years a Slave.”

“I’ve rarely been left speechless at the end of a film,” Ireland said. “But I was blown away, as was everyone around me in the packed theater where I saw ‘12 Years’ opening weekend in L.A. When a film has the power to affect people like that, it’s really special.”

“Dallas Buyers Club,” the made-in-New Orleans AIDS drama starring Matthew McConaughey, has six Oscar nominations. McConaughey and his co-star, Jared Leto, following their Golden Globe wins in January, are frontrunners for best actor and best supporting actor Oscar wins respectively.

Indicating the quality of film crews in Louisiana, “Dallas Buyers Club” nominations include the New Orleans-based Robin Mathews’ nomination in the best make-up and hairstyling category. Mathews’ work for the film won the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild’s best period and/or character makeup honor two weeks ago.

“Everyone in Louisiana should feel proud that their state has produced two best picture nominees two years in a row,” said Patrick Mulhearn, executive director of Celtic Studios, the 30-acre film production facility in Baton Rouge that has been home to two “Twilight Saga” movies, “Battle: Los Angeles” and HBO’s “True Blood.”

“Personally, I’m not surprised,” Mulhearn said of this year’s many Louisiana-connected nominations. “The quantity of productions we have experienced over the past decade is creating seasoned local crews and developing on-screen talent. Practice makes perfect for a workforce. Our workforce has had enough practice to consistently turn out a quality product.”

Chesley Heymsfield, executive director of LIFF, also noted the depth of talent in Louisiana.

“There’s a lot of local talent in many of these films that are nominated,” she said.

Ireland has first-hand experience at making a movie in New Orleans, 2008’s Harry Connick Jr.-starring television drama, “Living Proof.” A film as well crafted as “12 Years a Slave,” he said, “couldn’t have been done without people who really, really cared. That’s everyone on the crew, at least three-quarters of which was from Louisiana. It’s something to be proud of.”

Native New Orleans talent is also part of the Oscar-nominated documentary, “20 Feet from Stardom,” via former Gert Town resident Merry Clayton. LIFF screened “20 Feet from Stardom” at the Joy Theater in New Orleans last year with Clayton in attendance.

“I love that film,” Ireland said. “I haven’t seen anything so spiritually rousing. It’s going to win.”

This year’s 15 Oscar nominations for Louisiana productions follow last year’s best picture nominations for Quentin Tarantino’s New Orleans-filmed “Django Unchained” and, a film drenched in Louisiana talent behind and in front of the cameras, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” directed by the New Orleans-based Benh Zeitlin.

The state played a role, too, in the 2012 Oscars ceremony when “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” produced by Shreveport’s Moonbot Studios, won the Oscar for best animated short film.

“Louisiana is a great place to make a movie,” Ireland said. “If ‘12 Years’ does win, it’s going to bring more people to Louisiana. But there are already so many movie people there that you’d think it’s Hollywood in the South.”