While they’ve long earned the respect of the film industry for producing such blockbusters as the first two “Harry Potter” movies, getting a Best Picture Oscar nomination does come with some unique privileges for Chris Columbus and Michael Barnathan — like going to Academy Awards and feeling like you actually belong.
“I’ve been a member of the Academy for about 20 years and in the past my wife would ask, ‘Are you going to get tickets to the awards?’ And I would say, ‘No, I’m going to wait to see if I get nominated.’ There was a point where I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll be dead before I’m nominated,” Columbus said with a laugh in a recent interview. “So the reality of it is so exciting — and I think I speak for both Michael and myself about this — is that we both feel like kids in a candy store now. Truly, I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling.”
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Columbus and Barnathan, who share the nomination with fellow producer Brunson Green, got a little taste of Oscar prestige recently with the annual Oscar Nominees Luncheon in Los Angeles. Barnathan, who has produced films with Columbus since 1995, admitted the nomination still feels a bit surreal.
“It was so exciting to walk into the room and see all these people, and then there’s the big, giant statue of the Oscar and it was like, ‘What are we doing here? Who invited us?'” Barnathan enthused.
A Civil Rights-era drama about an aspiring young writer who defies social norms by writing a book that gives voice to a group of African-American maids about the treatment they receive by their white employers, “The Help” is up for three other Oscars, including Best Actress for Viola Davis, and Best Supporting Actress for Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain.
The nominations top off a flurry of awards recognition the film has received over the past few months, including multiple acting nominations and wins for Davis, Spencer and Chastain, Best Picture nominations from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Golden Globes, BAFTAs and the Producers Guild of America, and a win for Best Acting Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
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Predominantly known for producing family-oriented films, Columbus said his and Barnathan’s intentions were quite different at the beginning of their partnership — and “The Help” has finally helped them reach their goal.
“Ironically, we started our company because we had both seen ‘Schindler’s List’ and we said, ‘Boy, we’d like to make movies like that,'” Columbus recalled. “Now, I’m not comparing ‘The Help’ to ‘Schindler’s List,’ I’m just saying we’ve finally gotten to a place where we made a movie that feels like it’s about something and is socially relevant, yet at the same time reached an audience, which is the most exciting part about it.”
“It has sort of reinvigorated our approach to the types of films that we initially set out to do,” Columbus added. “It made us believe we can do those types of films that are in today’s marketplace. It’s not that we’ll stop doing family-oriented material. It just that it’s opened our eyes in a big way. You have a sense that anything is possible.”
Better yet, Barnathan added, is the dialogue the film has generated.
“It is so satisfying in so many ways to be here, with people talking about it and appreciating it the way they have been,” Barnathan said. “People are talking about race and issues that just come out of watching the movie. That’s as satisfying as anything.”
Columbus said perhaps the only thing that could top off the excitement they’ve experienced with the film’s Oscar nominations would be the inclusion of writer-director Tate Taylor in the mix. Stunned that Taylor didn’t at least land a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination (based on bestselling novel by his lifelong friend Kathryn Stockett), Columbus feels the filmmaker was just as deserving of a Best Director nomination.
“How do you not give the guy a Best Director nomination when the primary thing that’s going on on-screen are these amazing performances? They’re all brilliant and they’re all motivated by the director, Columbus observed. “Those performances exist because the actresses are great, but they are also performances are shaped by the director. That’s frustrating, but at the same time, the fact that those performances keep getting nominated is testament to his ability as a director.”
Awards recognition for Taylor or not, Barnathan said he and Columbus couldn’t be any happier with the way “The Help” turned out, and are proud that they had faith in the writer-director as well as principal members of the cast.
“I think what was most satisfying is that we believed in the story and believed in Tate as a director,” Barnathan said. “We believed in Octavia when nobody else really did. She was around as an actress, but the agents were going ‘Octavia who?’ But Chris and I and our other partner, Mark Radcliffe, we fell back on our instinct. We felt it seemed so right on a gut level and DreamWorks and (executive producer) Steven Spielberg supported that. They didn’t push us to get a star. They said, ‘Go with your gut.’
And because of what’s happened with “The Help,” you can count on the filmmakers going with their gut again. Call it a second helping — and a lot more where that came from.
“The film has me not so quick to turn away things because I thought the material was too hard to make,” Barnathan said. “We’re looking at things now that are so interesting: parts of history that have been passed over. There are amazing stories that now seem like they have a possibility to be made and to be seen by a lot of people.”