What It Feels Like To Direct The Oscars

A behind-the-scenes look at the world’s biggest awards show

As we gear up for the Oscars on February 26th, we’re sharing an exclusive look behind-the-scenes through our “Making of the Oscars” series. In this post, the show’s director Glenn Weiss discusses his favorite part about live TV, what makes a good acceptance speech and what’s so special about the day before the show.

You’ve directed the Tony Awards, the Emmys and the American Music Awards, to name a few. What’s different about the Oscars?

The intensity. This particular show is under a magnifying glass like no other. Everything is very much a topic of water cooler talk, not just the next day but for a long time to come.

The size and scale of the Oscars make it what it is, which is the granddaddy of them all.

Last year was your first time directing the show. What was that experience like?

It was great. I had a wonderful time doing it.

What makes an awards show such a roller coaster for the viewers — and especially for me as a director — is the intangible, the unknown.

That manifests itself mostly in acceptance speeches.

We don’t know who the winner is, but we also don’t know what they’re going to say. There’s a difference between somebody who’s truly shocked and blown away and somebody who’s prepared.

For every winner that comes up here, we’re taken in a different direction and maybe a different emotional roller coaster. For me, that’s a wonderful part of the journey — being able to adapt and roll with every acceptance speech that comes, and to react accordingly.

How do you cater to both the live crowd and viewers at home?

The Oscars are a television show for millions of people to see, but it’s also dependent on the thousands in the theater to give it the right energy.

In my mind, it’s not an either/or.

I have to do something that’s going to entertain the millions who watch at home, but by the same token, I don’t want to lose the people in the house who can make it feel emotionally great or not.

In my execution, and in my point of view, the live house audience is a really, really important player to a show, especially when the show is on the longer side. As it goes later into the night, you can lose them.

The audience in the room needs to be engaged and entertained for us to keep the energy we’d like to have.

How do you keep the show running on time?

We know roughly how long presenter copy is going to go and we know exactly how long tapes are going to play. The intangible is how long it takes someone to get to the stage and what they do with that time.

We always hope the winners earlier in the show are considerate enough to think about other folks who are coming later. Because it all has to fit and we want to be as respectful as possible.

The added element of being able to thank someone that you forgot backstage and have it posted online [through the Oscars All-Access Thank You Cam] is great for nominees because they know that even if they forget to mention someone, there’s an avenue for them to thank those people.

In my years of awards show experience, it’s the acceptance speeches of people who speak from the heart, people who viewers at home get to know a bit more because they’re being real and being emotional, that resonate most.

Reading a list of names, as nice as that is to acknowledge people, doesn’t convey the emotion of the moment. Seeing Roberto Benigni’s reaction to his name being called and climbing on the seats, or seeing Jack Palance leave the mic to do push ups, or hearing Tom Hanks or Halle Berry’s very emotional speeches about what they are feeling at that moment are just some examples of speeches that are more likely to have the audience connect with… those are the moments that stand out to me.

Glenn Weiss during rehearsals for the 88th Oscars.

How do you prepare for the Oscars?

My work on this year’s show began in late October with the design process. We worked with the producers [Michael DeLuca and Jennifer Todd] and the designer [Derek McLane] on set design and, from there, on building the rest of the show.

Everything starts with what we make the Dolby Theatre look like that night. From there, we work with the producers on the overall flow of the show: what is on tape, what is live; are we doing this as a tribute, are we doing this as a clip; those kinds of decisions.

There are a lot of awards, too, so it’s about balancing expectations between creative choices and knowing time constraints.

In everything I do, collaboration is king—I’m simply a believer in that. Mounting something of this proportion is a huge team effort.

What’s Oscar Week like?

As we get closer to the show, things really ramp up. The crew spends the week taking apart the entire show, scene by scene, so that we know, for example, if we’re coming to Award #4, the wall moves upstage, the presenter comes from stage left, the nominees are seated here, here and here.

The week that leads up to it is really fun for us, but if you’re on the outside, it might feel like watching paint dry.

It’s a slow process, but as part of that process, everybody gets in tune with the roadmap of where we’re going. It’s a great creative collaboration, and as we see things play out onstage, input from the crew involving their area of expertise is taken into account and helps refine our planning.

It all makes the show better.

My take on directing—and life—is that if you’re smart enough to listen to those around you, you’ll look really good.

What’s unique about the Saturday rehearsal?

On the day before the show, most, if not all, of our talent will come through and run their segment. It’s a great time to work through the segments they’re doing and make sure they’re comfortable.

What’s unique to the Oscars is getting all the talent to come through on that day — it creates an electric feeling in the room. It’s nice to have A-list talent be a part of it, working with you on everything: where they’re coming from, where they’re going, what the set looks like behind them, the words they say, down to where the nominees are seated.

On some shows, you don’t have that kind of day where everybody comes through, and sometimes it shows.

When is your job done?

That moment when I say, “Fade to black,” after the final credit.

This is an adrenaline-based job, and you never let your guard down the entire time you’re on the air. There’s no escaping that we’re live, and any number of things can go wrong.

It’s like walking a tightrope, but I love it.


Look out for new “Making of the Oscars” posts leading up to the 89th Academy Awards on February 26, 2017.