Director Troy Miller on His Celebrated Oscar Intro -- and Why You Should Lay Off James Franco

One of the few (if not the only) widely held highlights of Oscar night arrived at the beginning: The short film featuring hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco bouncing from dream to dream, Inception-style, eventually burrowing into Alec Baldwin's subconscious and inhabiting sequences from Best Picture nominees like True Grit, The Fighter, The King's Speech and Inception itself. The film set a near-perfect tone for light irony and even lighter hosts that the show would not sustain, but at least we have filmmaker Troy Miller to thank in part for getting the broadcast off on the right foot.

The writer-producer-director (pictured above right with Franco, Hathaway and writer Jordan Rubin) phoned this afternoon to chat about his latest work, the art of reverse-engineering comedy, and how his short's success might have slightly worked against his stars as hosts -- oh, and by the way, maybe lighten up on the Franco kid.

Thanks much for the call. I imagine you're in recuperation mode today?

Yeah, a little bit. It's kind of like after the storm comes through, we're kind of righting ourselves, cleaning everything up.

Where did the idea for the opening come from?

I think it probably cam from [producers] Don Mischer and Bruce Cohen. I've done about six of these, and maybe 10 MTV Movie Awards as well. I've kind of been the guy for the Oscars who comes in and does these things -- specifically with Billy, who's the guy who started it for the Academy Awards.

With Billy?

Yeah, Billy Crystal.

Oh, Billy. Sorry. Duh.

And that was based on what we'd done at the MTV Movie Awards in the few years previous. But this was just Bruce and Don wanting to get out there in a controlled situation and get some big jokes right away so the hosts can walk out to a welcoming crowd.

Going all the way back, how does one get this job in the first place?

I kind of made it. Years ago, back in the mid-'90s or early '90s, Joel Hodgson, Joel Gallen and I were doing the MTV Movie Awards, and we had this idea: How could we take the Brady Bunch and put them into films? And so it became A Few Good Men done with the Brady Bunch. And that evolved. I think we did Twister with Janeane Garofalo and Ben Stiller, and Billy saw that. We said, "Wow, we can blow it out even more with Billy Crystal" -- who really brought it to the forefront with the Academy Awards. And since then, you've seen it on so many other awards, it's become a mainstay.

Ultimately I think it just started in my living room with Joel Hodgson and I riffing on these actors and what we could do. I was such a fan of Steve Martin in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, and I think between that and Woody Allen's Zelig, all of us have a debt going back to those guys. They had really been able to repurpose film footage for comedy's sake.

Back to this year: There was a lot of talk before the show about this being a "younger" or "hipper" Oscars. Was that also part of your mandate in making the short?

Yeah. As your editing jokes and trying to get to a faster pace, certainly you are trying to go for... They keep saying "younger, hipper" demo, but ultimately you kind of, in a weird way, rule it out. It's the Oscars! It's the Academy Awards. There's a certain level of stature that you're going to have. We're not doing too many lowbrow jokes, we're not doing too many lowbrow jokes. We're maybe keeping it more centered. And I think that's for the show as a whole; that's how they wrote it. It's still younger than in the past from a joke standpoint, but you're kind of chained to the Oscar audience -- the people in the crowd, what their expectations are. It's still kind of conservative, I think.

What was the discussion like regarding which films were included and which were left out?

I think you go for the movies that the audience has an automatic recognition with. That's a lot of it from a writing standpoint: the jokes are done for us because those movies represent the set up and what we're doing is the payoff. You're kind of reverse engineering it. In True Grit, when Jeff Bridges says, "Much obliged," we had him responding to Franco saying, "I loved you in Tron." So you reverse engineer that joke, and that's what you have. Winter's Bone would have been great, and Toy Story 3... But you get to a certain point where you run out of screentime and jokes. This particular shot we have is well-known, identifiable, and it fits with our little B-story that carries it along.

What happened with the Grease clip that was cut? Was that originally part of this short?

Yeah, we were going to do it with more of those kinds of scenes, and then it just got shorter and shorter. The thing about Grease -- and at the end of the day it was probably my choice as much as anybody's to take it out -- was that tonally it didn't quite fit, and the runtime was getting past five minutes -- which, for an opening, even at that point, is too long. But I think it stands alone as a nice piece, and I'm happy the Academy has released it and people can still enjoy it. It just didn't seem to fit, wherein Back to the Future -- because we're still intercutting footage and we're still in James' and Anne's dreams as it were -- I think it's more appropriate.

How and when did Morgan Freeman and Alec Baldwin enter the picture?

Well, that was scheduling. Bruce was great about getting us cast and supporting that, and he was able to get both those guys. Morgan shot all greenscreen; he was never there when the other actors were there. I guess he was in the elevator he was there, but for the other greenscreen [shots], he and Alec weren't there at the same time.

They weren't?

No. I comped those guys together. Alec was getting his Walk of Fame Star, so he had to fly into L.A. We went right from Hollywood Boulevard over to this little stage we rented, just so it was closeby. We did him for an hour, and he does his thing... He's just brilliant. We had three great jokes, and he added three more great jokes. And he was in and out in, you know, minutes. You wanted a funny past host, and he was the logical choice. We wanted to go into his brain!

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  • Alex says:

    Celebrated by who? That clip was also crap: Unfunny and unoriginal. What's wrong with just getting Jon Stewart? At least the guy understands what being a host means. And Franco is a primadonna THIS close of becoming the next Joaquin Phoenix.

  • All right, well trust me, you're in the minority. Not wrong, just in the minority.
    And I hear you about Franco, though let's be realistic: Charlie Sheen has dibs on being the next Joaquin Phoenix

  • Jeff says:

    Um, everyone at the party I was at agreed that was the worst one of those opening "host going through nominated movies" videos the Oscars has ever done. The transitions going from one film to the next were horrid, the jokes were not funny and they are going through nominated films and then for some reason Back To The Future is in there at the end? When they meet up again with Alec Baldwin (first of all they never get any real sort of "advice" that they can then use throughout or call back in the actual show, which was the "mission" premise of the opening video) they talk about how strange the setting they are in is but never actually show what that setting is or why they are making "jokes" about it. I assume the setting was the Grease bit that got cut, but if you are going to cut the bit your actors are now making jokes about please also cut the jokes that don't pay off now.
    If people are really saying that video was a bright spot in the show (and I have not met one person who liked it) they must have just liked that it was fast and light, unlike the rest of the show which was dull and dragged.
    They have done those videos well in the past with Billy Crystal and Jon Stewart and I seem to remember a good video segment last year with Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin...but this years it honestly felt like they have made too many of them and run out of ideas. Poorly constructed, is my opinion.

  • Panama says:

    I don't usually comment but I gotta jump in. People DID like the opening. I thought it was hilarious. Anne Hathaway and James Franco were really freaking funny in it. The rest of the show? Snoozeville.

  • Rj Patterson says:

    The opening was great! So was their Autotune segment - unless you were at a party only half paying attention. It looked like the actors were shot when they shot the actual movie and it's did it's job because Anne and James were funny and look liked friends. Too bad about Will Arnett not making the show.

  • Liz F. says:

    We watched the open 3 times in a row - and it made perfect sense - you just have to listen to the dialogue. I don't even remember a story in the past opens. And it was funny. Loved Franco as the Bearman!