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'Dear Diary': How It Got an Oscar Nod

Movies: The film isn't the usual live-action short nominee--it began as a TV pilot and had a budget of more than $1 million.

March 22, 1997|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a television pilot, "Dear Diary" never made it to prime time. As a film, however, it is up for an Academy Award.

The irony is not lost on writer-director David Frankel, who saw his 22-minute urban comedy turned down by ABC only to then see it nominated for best live-action short film by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

"We're probably the first TV pilot ever to get nominated [for an Oscar], and I wouldn't be surprised that we're the last," Frankel said.

"Dear Diary" revolves around a New York magazine art director (Bebe Neuwirth), married and the mother of two, who, having just turned 40, decides to record the events of her day in a journal. The scenes come at a frenetic pace, with images flashing to life on the screen as Neuwirth narrates her diary entries.

Frankel said he fully understands why ABC didn't pick up "Dear Diary" as a half-hour comedy series. When Frankel first viewed the rough cut in the editing room, he turned to his producer, Barry Jossen, and said: "Barry, they are never going to put this one on."

"What we made," Frankel said in hindsight, "was a short film intimidating to any sane network programming executive."

A product of DreamWorks SKG, "Dear Diary" is not your average short film. It cost between $1 million and $2 million and used 44 sets and a crew of 75.

By comparison, one of the Oscar-nominated films competing against "Dear Diary" at Monday night's 69th annual Academy Awards is "De Tripas, Corazon," which was made on a budget of only $45,000.

"Everybody would love to have a big budget," said its writer-director, Antonio Urrutia, whose 18-minute movie tells the story of two young boys and their first sexual encounter with a prostitute in a Mexican village.

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"We shot it in about nine days," added Urrutia, who makes his own brand of tequila on the side. "We did it with a lot of love. Nobody charged one cent for work. Not me or the photographer. It was just a school project with a lot of love."

It was entered in more than two dozen international film festivals and was ultimately selected by the Mexican Film Institute as an Oscar nominee.

"Everybody would love to work with a big budget," Urrutia added, "but we are very happy with our job. It's full of heart. We don't believe that being 25 or 26 times more expensive than our film means it's 25 or 26 times better than ours. We are one of five short films that have been nominated. We have a 20% chance [of winning]. We are happy with that."

Also vying for the Oscar for best live-action short film are "Ernst & Ernst" by Kim Magnusson and Anders Thomas Jensen, "Esposados" by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo and "Wordless" by Bernadette Carranza and Antonello De Leo.

In the case of "Dear Diary," Frankel deliberately set out to make an ambitious, single-camera TV comedy without a laugh track or live audience.

A comedy writer and director who made TV sitcoms before making his feature film directorial debut with Disney's "Miami Rhapsody" in 1995, Frankel said he was encouraged to write a spec TV pilot by former Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had moved to DreamWorks.

Frankel said he got the inspiration for "Dear Diary" from having kept a journal while traveling around the world.

"I thought it was nice to have a record of things in your life," he said. For his main character's career, he turned to his sister, who is an art director with a New York magazine.

Frankel said he wanted a sophisticated television series for "someone who thought like me." He wanted "a hybrid between a traditional comedy about a family focusing, in this case, on a mother and family, and cross that with an anthology film show, a show where each episode stands alone."

Jossen, who now heads TV production at DreamWorks, said the number of scenes and characters forced the filmmakers to approach the shoot as if it were a "precision bombing of Baghdad during the Gulf War." Scenes were shot throughout New York City, from the meatpacking district and Barneys to a $4-million condo on the Upper West Side.

At one point, Neuwirth's character imagines what it would be like to get hit by a bus. That led to one of the more macabre moments in the shoot, when Frankel went to the Bellevue Hospital's morgue and filmed a stand-in lying on a palette while real corpses were being shoved in the other side.

When it was completed in the editing room, everyone clapped, but Frankel said what they had made was really a short film.

"The big problem a network faces is: 'What the hell do we put it with?' I know that in the year since we made it, we've had lots of fans over there [at ABC], but they wanted to know, do you put it with 'Home Improvement' or 'Spin City'? They said, 'If there was some other compatible show for an hour or a night, maybe we could find a slot.' "

After receiving the news from ABC, Jossen said he discussed the idea of entering the pilot in film festivals and received Katzenberg's blessing. But by the time the completed master had been transferred to 35-millimeter film, most of the key film festivals were over.

Because academy rules dictate that a nomination must be either shown at a film festival or released theatrically to qualify for the Oscars, Jossen and Frankel decided to book the film into the AMC theater in Century City on Dec. 13, where it would play with "Shine."

But the filmmakers noticed to their dismay that short films actually had to be released on or before Nov. 30, so they hurriedly booked the movie for Thanksgiving weekend, just as the deadline was about to expire.

Frankel, who lives in Miami, said it was a "thrill of a lifetime" when he heard his film had been nominated for an Oscar.

"There's no question this was a fluke," he said.

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