The Gotham Awards kick off the awards season. “It’s first. You can’t do better than that,” Chaz Ebert told me on the red carpet Monday night at Cipriani Wall Street. “Life Itself,” a touching portrait of her late husband, renowned film critic Roger Ebert, was nominated for best documentary. (The glass trophy would go to “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’s doc about whistleblower Edward Snowden.)
READ: Winners of the 2014 Gotham Awards
Ms. Ebert is naturally exuberant and charming, as you would expect from her strong and dynamic presence in “Life Itself.” She reminisced that the last time she was at the Gotham’s was with her husband, “who was being honored, so it’s nice to come back tonight with a film about him that’s being honored.” She agreed there were not enough women directors and then enthused about “Selma,” which will be released Christmas. “I am over the moon that Ava DuVernay may be the first African-American woman nominated for a best director Oscar.”
The winners, presenters and nominees mostly sailed past me. I stared wistfully at Miles Teller, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore and Scarlett Johansson, who chatted with journalists farther up the line.
The ethereal Tilda Swinton, whose skin is as translucent as a butterfly’s wings, was out of reach. Her boyfriend, artist Sandro Koop, a tall, handsome man with a wispy beard, stood in a corner and smiled.
Occasionally, I made eye contact with a celebrity presenter or nominee or maybe said their name loudly enough and they would come closer.
Olivia Cheng, who stars as a concubine-warrior in “Marco Polo,” Netflix’s lavish production, was a guest of Netflix chief Ted Sarandos, who later received a special tribute. Every celebrity from Michael Keaton to Bennett Miller that evening gushed about how they hoped to work on a series with him.
READ: ‘Marco Polo’ Cast Talks Violence, Nudity & 13th Century Living
I asked Olivia about her preparation for the formidable fight scenes. “It entailed two months of stunt performing before even going to camera. We trained with world-class martial arts teams from China, North America, Japan. It was a lot of physical preparation, a lot of research into the world and the role.”
She also has to show a lot of skin. How comfortable was she? “I was just so focused on the athleticism in the scene, and I loved that the nudity was required so that people got a sense of how raw her circumstances are and the vulnerable physical position she was put into and what was required to overcome that.”
Macon Blair, nominated for breakthrough actor for the bloody, violent film, “Blue Ruin,” was a red carpet newbie. “I’ve never done anything like this before,” he told me, adding that his film, which had no famous stars, budget or ad campaign, found its audience mainly on Video on Demand. His next film, “Green Room,” which he just wrapped, has a bigger budget and stars Patrick Stewart as a “white Supremacist Nazi.” “It makes ‘Blue Ruin’ look like an ice cream sandwich,” he said. “It’s much more intense.“
At that moment, a kindly publicist brought over Laura Poitras, who nabbed best documentary honors from the New York Film Critics hours earlier for “Citizenfour.” She agreed the accolades from critics were wonderful, but she worried about her responsibility to her subjects. “We make stories about real issues and people take great risks, so it’s also always a strange thing to come from a world where you’re wondering whether or not everyone’s going to be okay.”
As for the film’s pacing, which resembles that of an espionage thriller, she explained, “That’s how the experience was to me. I received mysterious, strange emails out of the blue from somebody claiming to have secret information about the most secretive organization in the world, so it actually felt like a thriller. We tried to duplicate the experience, but of course, as filmmakers we used all of the editing and sound, those kind of devices.” She told me she was still in touch with Snowden, who she said was okay, still lived in Russia but was looking around for another country to give him asylum.
Richard Linklater, whose film “Boyhood” was named best feature by the New York Film Critics, was about to take his seat when I congratulated him on his win. “I’m just so happy for everybody who worked on the film. Over 400 people worked on the film, so if they’re happy, I’m happy. That’s your hope as a filmmaker, that the people who believe in it and put in all that time they’ll be glad they did, proud they did, and so every little good thing that happens is one more in that column.”