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Movies are by their nature larger than life. What you see on screen seems effortless, almost like magic, so you can forget the scores of people, from grips and gaffers to studio heads, that make the finished product possible.
But the stories of the people who created these acclaimed works are just as fascinating and inspiring as the ones we see in theaters, ranging from partnerships between newfound friends, finally getting to yes after years of hard work and the remarkable work ethics of idiosyncratic minds.
Read on for seven stories from this year’s Oscar contenders to inspire you in the pursuit of your dream.
Moonlight: Kindred spirits become collaborators.
This best picture nominee is a story very personal to its creators. The film, directed by Barry Jenkins and based upon the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, follows Chiron, a young African-American boy coming of age in Miami, navigating his family, both found and biological, and his sexuality.
Jenkins, 37, and McCraney, 36, are both from Liberty City, the neighborhood in Miami where the film is set, and had mothers who dealt with addiction during their childhoods, like Chiron does in the film.
Though the pair were close in age and geography — they went to the same elementary and middle schools — they had never met before collaborating on this semi-biographical piece of work that has so resonated with audiences.
La La Land: Perseverance pays off.
Though La La Land has achieved critical acclaim and had a record setting evening at the Golden Globes with seven wins, director Damien Chazelle had a tough time convincing others of the viability of his vision. It took six years for the love letter to old school Hollywood cinema to get from script to screen.
Chazelle told New York Magazine that he believed he ultimately made the movie at the right time in his career. “I look back now and think I caught a lucky break. I probably wasn’t ready to do the movie until I did it and, initially, I was a little naive about the resources we needed for the movie.”
He said that waiting for the right studio and right cast and crew made all the difference. “It boiled down to just this one place … that was willing to give us the resources we needed and take the gamble.”
Hidden Figures: An inspiring tale that actually inspires.
The film stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae as real life NASA trailblazers Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, whose work made it possible for John Glenn to become the first American in orbit.
The film has not only put a long deserved spotlight on the team of African-American women who literally charted the course that would eventually put man on the moon, but it has also inspired many young women to pursue interests in STEM.
For example, 13-year-old Taylor Richardson, a Florida teen who wants to have a career in the space program, launched a GoFundMe page to raise money to buy 175 tickets for other girls to see the movie after attending a Hidden Figures event at the White House in December.
Fences: Work finds new audiences, and newfound life after death.
In 2005, acclaimed playwright August Wilson died at 60 after a battle with cancer, but he left a staggering body of work behind. Wilson is the author of The Pittsburgh Cycle, 10 plays set in each decade of the 20th century depicting the lives of African Americans.
In 1987, Wilson won both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize for Fences, and it was optioned to be a film. After languishing in development for three decades, it is now being seen on the big screen with Oscar nominations for Best Actor (Denzel Washington pulled double duty as the film’s director), Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.
Moana: A successful side hustle.
Talk about hustle. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the musical juggernaut that is Hamilton, has a work ethic that is on a level all its own.
If you’re wondering how he had the time to write an Oscar-nominated song in between landing a MacArthur Genius grant and winning Grammy and Tony Awards, it’s because he was working with Disney on Moana before Hamilton even started and went back and forth between the projects while he was still in the title role on Broadway.
He told Deadline that it worked as well as it did because the projects stimulated different parts of his creativity.
“I have been working on this movie since before Hamilton happened, you know? I got the job about six months before we started rehearsals. No, seven and a half months before we started at the Public, and so, it’s been my ocean of calm throughout the Hamilton phenomenon, you know? I’m not going to hang out with celebrities, I’m not going to parties. I have two songs due for Moana next week, and I’m going to go and spend some time with Maui and Moana in the ocean, in my mind.”
Lion: An unbelievable true story.
This film is based on the life of Saroo Brierley, an Indian-Australian businessman who used technology to find his way home.
Adopted as a young boy after getting lost and separated from his family in India, as a young man, Brierley used Google Maps to jog his memory, ultimately reuniting with his birth mother, who stayed in the same town where he was born.
In an interview with 60 Minutes in December, Brierley described what it was like to meet his mother for the first time. “It was amazing because here I am, determined to find my hometown and my family from one side of the world, oceans apart, and here’s my birth mother sitting there and waiting because she knew that one day her son would come back. And I’m so glad that she did.”
Arrival: Hard work does pay off.
In Arrival, Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, an expert linguist tasked with communicating with aliens who land on Earth, to figure out what they want before their presence kickstarts World War III.
The film is nominated for best picture and Eric Heisserer is nominated for adapting Ted Chiang’s short story, The Story of Your Life. But to get to that Academy Award nominated script, Heisserer had to do a lot of rewrites.
He told Vox, “I didn’t realize that I’d have to go through 100 drafts beyond that, but it was all additive. This is one of the rare experiences that I’ve had where every iteration in the script was a better version than the last. So often you go down the wrong road and have to back up and try again.”