Simon Chinn: ‘We didn’t fluff our lines’

The producer of Man on Wire recounts his night at the Oscars
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The Independent Culture

Before the ceremony, the director, James Marsh, and I were getting increasingly nervous. Although Man on Wire had been considered the front runner for quite a long time, as you approach an event like the Oscars you really don’t want to be thinking you’re going to win it.

The day before, we won at the Independent Spirit Awards at a very much more informal event down on the beach in Santa Monica, but neither of us had anything prepared and we slightly fluffed our acceptance speech. We were really, really annoyed with ourselves afterwards, so we got our heads together and came up with a plan of what we would do if we won.

The ceremony itself was both intense and tense. For a start, the air conditioning was really strong so my wife was absolutely freezing, and our three-month-old baby hadn’t been taking his bottle. So there was a certain amount of panic, which I found rather useful because it helped me keep my feet on the ground.

We were sitting among all of the other documentary nominees, so there was Werner Herzog in the seat in front and the team from Trouble the Water sitting behind, and I’m sure they were all as keen to win as we were. It was a weird occasion, because every 10 minutes or so there was a commercial break and people would leave their seats and start milling around: suddenly you’d be sitting beside someone you’d never met before.

During one of these breaks one of the people from the Academy moved Werner Herzog so he was sitting in an aisle seat. Then another one came up behind us and started talking to the Trouble the Water team quite intensely, telling them what the protocol would be if they won.

At that point, James leant across to me and said: “I think we’ve lost it. Brace yourself for disappointment.” We both had a very serious moment where we were both convinced that we’d lost, but I thought: “That’s all right – an Oscar nomination’s not bad.”

When they finally announced we’d won, it was much more enjoyable and less daunting than I thought it was going to be. It’s your moment, and you’re maybe never going to get it again. Everyone in the room – except from a few people I guess – is cheering for you. It’s pretty extraordinary, I have to say.

More than anything, I was relieved we didn’t fluff our lines up there, because you’re only given 45 seconds, and there’s a clock on the teleprompter that counts down and then flashes at you, saying: “Please wrap up!” So I’m glad it all worked out.

We had persuaded the Academy to agree that if we did win, the high-wire artist himself, Philippe Petit, would come up on stage with us – a big breach of protocol, I think it’s only happened a couple of times. He was keen to be up there, and I think everyone was keen to have him. After all, the film celebrates him: it’s a documentary and he’s very much the star. It would have seemed very peculiar to accept the award without him, so I think it was the right thing to do. Philippe is also a brilliant performer, which James and I are not. He’s brilliant at seizing the moment and knowing what to do with it. Apparently he had borrowed Woody Allen’s Oscar to see if he could balance it, and then went away and worked out the dimensions and weight to make his own replica so he could practise. I had absolutely no idea of this until he did it, but it was great.

It was nice that for once a documentary could provide a little bit of razzmatazz and life the proceedings, because it’s normally seen as quite a “worthy” category. Normally it gets cut out of the Oscar highlights, but hopefully this year it won’t, thanks to Philippe.

Afterwards, we went to the official Oscars after party, which was a bit like being on safari due to the amount of celebrity sightings: “Ooh, there’s Jennifer Aniston… there’s Brad Pitt.” It was very elegant, lots of fine wine and big stars… all rather lovely. From there we went to the Vanity Fair party at the Sunset Tower Hotel, which was totally surreal, because every time you turned your head you’d see another huge A-lister. It was very strictly policed, but the film’s sales rep, Josh Braun, wanted to come along to see if he could get in – so I gave him the Oscar to walk in with.

I spent most of the evening hanging out with Sacha Baron Cohen and Seth Rogen, who were both huge fans of the film, particularly Sacha, who was absolutely delightful and thrilled to meet Philippe. I also got my picture taken with Sean Penn, which was cool. In the end, I got to bed about three.