When the good news hit early on Tuesday, Montreal director Denis Villeneuve and representatives for the film Incendies were huddled over a nervous pancake breakfast at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.
Villeneuve had been up all night. Producer Luc Déry felt lucky to have caught two and a half hours of sleep. Then the Oscar nominees were announced, and they broke into an ecstatic cheer: Incendies, Canada's official entry for an Academy Award for best foreign-language film, was nominated.
Later that morning, 43-year-old Villeneuve, whose last feature was the Genie Award-winning Polytechnique, said he still felt lost in the rush of adrenaline. He and the producers of Incendies hadn't made many plans beyond yesterday's nomination announcement. They didn't want to jinx their chances, said producer Luc Déry.
Now their next few weeks will be tightly scheduled by distributor Sony Pictures Classics, as screenings are held for academy members around the world and ballots are cast.
Villeneuve noted that the Oscars have been a dream since he was a child. But even after his film, about the turmoil of a family caught within war in the Middle East, received accolades at the Venice International Film Festival in early autumn, the nomination was never a shoo-in, Villeneuve said.
Déry agrees. It was a slowly building process: "We screened the film in Venice, it was very well received there. We sold the film to a very good Italian distributor right there in Venice. And then I guess the talk about maybe being in the mix [for an Oscar]started in Telluride," the Colorado film festival in mid-September, he said.
Some distributors had come on board because they felt the film was Oscar calibre. But it was Incendies's U.S. distribution deal with Sony Pictures Classics (signed during the Toronto International Film Festival) that really helped give the film a higher profile.
"When the film first screened for the academy members in L.A. in early October, the buzz was quite good," Déry said. "When the 65 entries from all the different countries were announced, people in Hollywood started to speculate. And we were very often mentioned as being one of 10 or 12 films to be in the five [final nominees]"
Although he hasn't had a chance to see the other nominated films, Villeneuve noted Biutiful by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu as particularly strong competition.
Incendies was a highly charged project from the start, added Déry. In adapting Wajdi Mouawad's much-acclaimed play, "Denis's point of view on the story, right off the bat, was to never mention any specific countries, specific parties. Make it as universal as possible."
Although based on the conflicts in Lebanon, "Denis's point of view doesn't take sides. It's about reconciliation. It's about forgiveness. And because of that, I think most of the risk was averted. In the end, when we saw the finished film, we were happy with the fact that people would concentrate more on the universal message of the film and not the politics of it."
Canadian films have had a long reputation at the Oscars, particularly documentaries and shorts, but the foreign-language category has largely been dominated by director Denys Arcand. He won for his 2003 feature The Barbarian Invasions and was nominated for his 1986 film The Decline of the American Empire and 1989's Jesus of Montreal. Because of a rule change which now allows a film to be submitted which isn't in a country's official language, Deepa Mehta's 2005 Water, in Hindi, was Canada's first non-francophone film to be nominated in the best foreign-language-film category.