Virgil Williams is nominated for an Academy Award for co-writing (with director Dee Rees) Mudbound, a sweeping, story (based on Hillary Jordan’s best-selling novel) about the relationship between two World War II veterans (Jason Mithell and Garrett Hedlund) and their experiences after returning to their homes in rural Mississippi.
Mudbound premiered at Sundance in 2017 to near-universal acclaim with many predicting a bounty of Academy Award nomination in its future. But then Netflix bought the film and, frankly, around the festival last year, those hopes soured. For whatever reason, a Netflix purchase still comes with a stigma that it can’t garner award nominations. The good news: Mudbound did score four nominations, including one for Virgil Williams. The not as good news: Mudbound somehow missed out on a Best Picture nomination and Dee Rees, who directed the hell out of this movie on limited time and a limited budget, also missed out on a Best Director nomination.
How an epic like Mudbound missed out on Best Picture is puzzling to a lot of people, and the prominent answer seems to just be Academy voters haven’t fully accepted Netflix’s strategy of extremely limited theatrical releases, followed closely by the film appearing on their streaming service. (In contrast, Amazon usually gives its awards-caliber films a more traditional release, then premieres the film on its streaming service much later.)
When I spoke to Williams — whose writing and producing credits include work on shows like E.R. and 24 — what started as more of a congratulatory interview became more of a discussion about the future of media. (At one point Williams mentioned that he’s going to be “a dinosaur” soon, I corrected him that he will be an “Oscar-nominated dinosaur,” a title he seemed to enjoy.) But a movie like Mudbound will be looked back on as the kind of film that changed the way we watch Oscar-nominated movies. And also that it’s a shame that Mudbound had to sacrifice sure-fire nominations so that it could be the movie that changes everything. In the future, the chances are this will no longer be an issue for a movie like Mudbound, but as Williams explains, right now, this is their reality.
Maybe weird is the wrong word, but it’s great you and Dee Rees were nominated for the script, but at the same time weird that you’re wondering what happened with Best Picture.
Well, weird is absolutely the right word. If this felt normal, I think I would be weird. And yes, I was shocked by that. I know that there are ten slots and there’s only nine films nominated. But it was shocking for the script to get nominated, for the cinematography to get nominated, and the film not to get nominated, absolutely. And a lot shocking that Dee didn’t get a nod for director.
When I saw this at Sundance last year, it felt like there was no doubt…
Oh, you saw it Sundance?
Netflix has the ability to do these great things, and for some reason with movies there’s still a stigma. Obviously, you know much more about this than I do…
“Yes, and” to everything that you just said. Everything you just said is dead-on. Plus, I think there’s ups and downs, but I actually see way more ups than downs, because really the only downs that I see is the sort of resistance to their methodologies, call it. And the ups for me is I come from a generation… For instance, I’ve never seen Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen. Now, a lot of people go, “Oh, God, you’re missing out, Virg. Man.” And I’m sure I am. But here’s the flip side of it for me. I grew up in a generation where I could watch Lawrence of Arabia 87 times, you know? Or any movie 87 times. Part of the reason I became a writer is I can recite certain movies, I’ve seen them so many times. And so what I may have sort of lost in screen size I got in volume and for me that’s much more valuable. The fact that Mudbound is still running and has an indefinite run on Netflix, that’s cool to me. And if you do want to see it in the theater, you could have found it. If you’re sort of a cinephile and you live in a major city, you could’ve found it.
And again, the downside is, I don’t understand the resistance. I don’t understand why there’s this sort of bias towards that release strategy. I really don’t get it, because if you’re under the age of 25, you don’t even watch a regular TV most of the time and if you do you may be streaming whatever you’re watching. So it’s just the way that it is now.
So I love Ted Sarandos for what he did for this movie, because nobody wanted this movie. Everybody was scared of this movie. From the time the book found me to the time it aired and had that glorious screening at Sundance, people were scared, you know? I think people are scared of it still, even when they see it, because it’s so brutal and so honest. Because it’s unflinching. So I understand why people go, “Oh my God, Call Me By Your Name is the best movie ever,” and Mudbound‘s sort of a second place to that. Because Call Me By Your Name is this beautiful love story with very little brutality, and we’re very sort of in-your-face.
Sure, but the argument I would say to that is there have been brutal movies that have won Best Picture in the last five years.
Yeah, you’re right.
But, like you said, with Netflix there’s still a resistance.
On the flip side of it, this movie has been such a blessing for me personally and I think for a lot of people. We got four nominations! Like, it’s Netflix. We have four legitimate nominations for Netflix.
Right. And Mudbound is going to pave the way for so much more in the future.
Sorry I’m harping on the Netflix thing…
No, dude. I feel your pain.
Well, I think you feel it a lot more. I’m just an observer of things.
I’ll tell you what, the script getting nominated and Rachel Morrison getting nominated [for cinematography] and Mary J. Blige getting nominated is a great salve for that.
And Dee Rees directed the hell out of this movie and should have been recognized.
Dude, in 29 days! In 29 days, on $10 million.
And it doesn’t look like a $10 million movie.
No. No, it looks like a $50 million movie. It’s unreal. And you don’t need to know anything about production to know that that’s crazy, 29 days. It’s insane.
How soon does this all change?
I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine. I really don’t know. I think only time can answer that question. But it’s changing. I mean, like we just talked about, we put a dent in that, and I think that now the door can be legitimately kicked down. I really do, I believe that. And you’re not going to stop change. I mean, if you can’t stop it, you will eventually have to acquiesce, because it’s happening. We’ve been talking about it for 20 minutes. It’s happening and there’s nothing that you can do to stop streaming. I mean, kids and teenagers and millennials are on their iPads and on their phones. That’s how they consume content.
Right, but it’s only content people seek out. I think it’s harder to get something in front of someone who might not have otherwise sought it out.
Well, that’s part of the wave. And you’ve got all these young writers and there are, what, 400 scripted shows that are happening right now? When I was on the come up, that did not exist. There were three networks and a couple cable possibilities where you didn’t want to go because you weren’t going to make any money. So you’ve got all these beautiful young voices all over the place: I mean people like Lena Waithe and Justin Simien; these voices you would never, ever, ever hear. The other side of that sword is that it might get lost in the shuffle because there’s so much. No one may ever see it.
Right, it’s impossible to keep up. And I don’t know how this ends.
I think as long as it stays profitable, as long as people can make money off of it somehow, it’ll keep going. Everything eventually, all bubbles pop. I don’t think it’s limitless. I have no idea what that looks like or when that will happen, but it can’t go on. It’s just sort of the law of economics, and I don’t know anything about economics, but it seems logical to me that you can’t sustain that. And who knows? But it’s fascinating to watch and it’s a great time to be a writer because your shit could get on the air. I mean, people are going to see your stuff. Even if you’re just a YouTuber – just a YouTuber; those guys make a lot of money – but if you have the ability, it’s just what’s happening now. You can go out with a camera…
I mean, people like Steven Soderbergh are now just using their phones to make movies.
Yeah. Fuck it. The quality’s great, I can manipulate it any way I need to. Like, why not? Why not? So I think that in five to ten years, it’ll be super, super, super interesting. You know, when I’m a dinosaur and things are moving…
I believe the title will be “Oscar-nominated dinosaur.”
Oscar-nominated dinosaur! Exactly. I love that. I should put that on my Twitter page, “Oscar-nominated dinosaur.”
Don’t sell yourself short. You’ll never lose that title as long as you live.
I’m keeping that shit. You have to fight me for that title.
You can put “Oscar-nominated” before anything now.
I’m still not used to it, but I like “Oscar-nominated dinosaur.” That’s the best one so far.
So last year at Sundance the big talk was Mudbound going to Netflix. This year the most buzzed about film, The Tale, was bought by HBO and probably won’t even get a theatrical release or qualify for the Oscars. The line is completely blurred…
That’s fascinating. That’s kind of a bummer. For the filmmakers, I mean. For the filmmakers, that’s kind of a bummer. They won’t even do like a qualifying run, like a little qualifying theatrical release?
Not that anyone is aware of yet.
That’s fascinating that that’s happening. Yeah, the line is blurring and the artists are blurring it too, by the way. It’s not just the corporations. You have artists sort of cross-pollinating all over the place. I mean, everybody’s trying to get a TV show now. I’m like one of the only TV people that’s trying to get a movie.
So you’ve experienced it this year with Mudbound blurring those lines. So what’s the answer? What the future?
I don’t know. I think if we find it, we should not tell anybody. You call me, I’ll call you, and we’ll get fucking rich.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.