The Oscars has people talking in a way the ceremony has not been able to in years. Unfortunately, it is not so much about the moving acceptance speeches or elaborate production numbers but an ugly incident, in which Oscar nominee (and eventual winner) Will Smith slapped presented Chris Rock after the latter had directed a not very tasteful joke at Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
In an interview with Deadline, Rob Mills EVP, Unscripted and Alternative Entertainment, Walt Disney Television, discussed the incident, giving Deadline a behind-the-scenes look at the bombshell incident and its aftermath from his vintage point, overseeing the live ceremony from the control truck.
Mills also spoke of the other controversy, the decision to pre-tape eight below-the-line categories and use edited down versions in the telecast, gave his assessment of the show, the hosts and that PCR skit as well as getting Megan Thee Stallion to perform in “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and West Side Story‘s Rachel Zegler to present after she told a fan a week prior that she had not been invited to the Oscars.
The executive also revealed whether Beyoncé’s rousing opening number was live or pre-recorded and whether the 007 tribute was supposed to include former Bonds. He also addressed speculation whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had been invited, something Oscar winner Sean Penn had lobbied for, as well as the choice of Toto’s ‘Africa’ as a walk-on song for Black presenters HER and Daniel Kaluuya, which drew social media backlash. Mills also shared his hopes to have a host again next year, leaving the memory of host-less Oscars behind.
DEADLINE: What was the reaction inside the truck when that slap happened?
MILLS: It went from obviously thinking that this was planned or they are gonna do something —
which I think Chris may have thought it was more comical at first — and then, the moment we heard Chris say “Will Smith slapped the sh*t out of me”, it was really the fact that he said ‘sh*t’ because obviously Chris Rock knows that’s not what you do with broadcast standards, that’s when you realized, oh no this is real. That’s when it turned to, OK, this is actually happening now.
DEADLINE: What about the decision to bleep out the entire exchange between Smith and Rock vs. just the expletives?
MILLS: I can’t speak for broadcast standards, they are the ones with their finger on the button but I think obviously their thought is, it’s better to overcompensate rather than let anything go through
DEADLINE: Was that particular joke, about GI Jane, part of Chris Rock’s routine during rehearsal?
MILLS: I don’t know. I did not see Chris rehearse. I did not see the joke in prompter so my sense is that it wasn’t but I don’t know for sure.
DEADLINE: Is there any way this could’ve been prevented in your opinion? Questions were asked about where security was, but it was also a Hollywood superstar jumping on stage, not a streaker, for example.
MILLS: That’s exactly right. It was very different. When things happen on live TV — I remember Ryan Lochte [on Dancing with the Stars], there were some people who protested and I think even jumped on, and of course you are ready immediately, even though it was unexpected.
That is very different than Will Smith. You also have to remember, this is a situation I couldn’t even tell you what the odds are. The fact that this happened with somebody who was also the presumed Best Actor winner, you just didn’t know what to do in the moment other than keep the show going.
DEADLINE: The set design was unusual this year, closer to last year’s show at Grand Central and the Globes and SAG Awards with tables next to the stage without the traditional long walk and a set of stairs to get to the stage. Did the incident make you rethink the set design or do you think it was still better having nominees so intimately close to the stage?
MILLS: I really think some of it came down to how many people we can have in the room, some of it just being in a pandemic. But I also think, yes the intimacy of it and the feeling that was a more sort of like a lounge was great. I don’t know that, again, because he is Will Smith, if he had been walking up, nobody would’ve said, we have to stop him, I think at that point nobody knew he would go up and do what he did.
DEADLINE: How did you continue to operate and keep the show moving after the incident? How was being in the truck during the commercial break that followed and for the rest of the ceremony? Is it all a blur?
MILLS: No. It was just, we still have several awards to give out. Had it been pre-taped, everything would’ve stopped down and we would’ve had time to process this and figure out what do we do going forward. Here, you didn’t have that luxury. We were getting reports in the control truck that Denzel Washington and Tyler Perry, people coming up to go check on everything and see what they could do. Obviously there was concern for all parties. For us it was about, OK let’s keep the show going.
DEADLINE: What about the decision to let Will Smith talk at great length after he won and not cut off his acceptance speech?
MILLS: It was roughly 40 minutes after something like this had happened where there was a lot of emotions. I think you definitely don’t want to cut Will off before you hear everything has to say.
DEADLINE: While most of the attention has been on the Will Smith incident, let’s talk about the other controversy which dominated the Oscar conversation leading into the ceremony. What is your assessment of the decision to pre-tape the eight categories? It received backlash, and the show still ran long, for 3 hours 40 min. Do you think it was beneficial?
MILLS: You never know if something is going to work until you try it. I certainly have to really thank [AMPAS leaders] Dawn Hudson and David Rubin who really had to hang in there when people were decrying this decision. And to their credit, they really stood firm on trying this.
I think, like everything with this show, we will have the post-mortem and look and see what worked and what didn’t. I think had it been a complete catastrophe, we would’ve heard that loud and clear this morning. I don’t think we heard that this morning, I think we heard there were some things that were good, there were other things that could’ve been done better, and I think we need to look at all of that and assess what this looks like going forward, next year, whether we bring it back, what it looks like.
And I think we will look at everything. We are not immune to the fact that people are sensitive to it and this is a night, unlike other awards shows, that celebrates the entire craft of movie making. We want to respect that but also make sure it leads to a great show, so we will look at all of those things and figure what it look like in next year’s show.
DEADLINE: Was it a nod to the below-the-line talent affected to have the pre-taped hair and makeup category at the very end, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen? Was that prime placement also a curse and the reason to dramatically cut down winner Linda Dowds’ speech, because you were running out of time? It was a great speech.
MILLS: Yes, I would agree. I don’t know that it was specifically saved for a certain part of the show – I think everything was parsed out because we had those eight awards and where they were but I think, to your point: we have to look at every speech and make sure… It was certainly important to have every nominee’s name read and their work seen on the show which we did well. And we have to look and see if the speeches were cut, did we get to the heart of them and if we didn’t, how do we avoid doing that in the future.
DEADLINE: Controversies aside, what did you think of the show as a whole?
MILLS: I thought it was really good. We will get everything, and you start thinking OK, what was good, what worked, what we could do better looking towards next year. But I thought, for the most part, we hit more than we didn’t hit the mark. It was certainly a great year to celebrate a fantastic crop of movies. I thought the intangibles, Ariana DeBose and Troy Kotsur’s speeches were absolutely the reason why you watch the Oscars, because it is that triumph of the human spirit. I thought they were fantastic but juxtaposed with that was also a celebration of movies that we’ve loved. I was so happy that we were able to do a tribute to The Godfather on its 50th anniversary.
I thought the musical performances were great. I thought the reunions that we had given out certain awards were fantastic. I also thought that the fact that this was really Will Packer and his producing partner Shayla [Cowan] to make In Memoriam more a celebration of life, for me it was really fantastic and something I hope we lean into more going forward.
DEADLINE: How did you think Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall did as hosts?
MILLS: I thought they were fantastic. Having no host for the last three years is not something we set out to do. A lot of people now think hosting the Oscars is just not worth it because two minutes in, you will get lambasted on social media. You can’t please everybody and sometimes it’s impossible to please anybody.
I thought all three of them, they delivered what a classic Oscars host should which is, it was really fun,
they took some jabs but nothing that was too egregious that people were really upset. What was great is that they all had different things to bring and they complemented each other. It was really the case of the sum being greater than the parts
I think each of them could’ve hosted the show individually but together they were great, they could play off each other, they knew that, and I just can’t say enough how great it was to have a host again.
DEADLINE: What about Regina Hall’s PCR test and pat-down skit? It was met with mixed reaction.
MILLS: Like I said, I think it’s impossible for anybody to do anything without having a mixed reaction. I just thought it was great, Regina really wanted to lean into the fact, you heard her say at the beginning, she was single. I thought it was really funny and you’ve got some of the most beautiful men in the world there, why not have some fun at their expense? She’s got good taste.
DEADLINE: Amy Schumer’s reaction to the Will Smith incident. How did that come about?
MILLS: I wasn’t there, I was in the production truck. Obviously she knew she had to say something and came up with that which I thought was great, and I think it was the perfect reaction. If you look at any great Oscar hosts I think it’s something similar to the way Billy Crystal would’ve reacted.
DEADLINE: The music performances were not announced until a few days before the telecast. Why was that? Did you not lock them in until late?
MILLS: No, I think we had a sense that everybody was going to be there but as you saw, they were all ambitious in their own way, especially Beyonce so it was making sure we could implement the vision of all the different artists, and it was great. I think the breadth and the fact that two of the biggest pop stars, a country icon, a brand new star when you watched ‘Dos Oruguitas’ and a celebration of the biggest song of the year was fantastic that we were able to run.
DEADLINE: When did you decide to include the non-nominated “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” — was it when one of the nominated acts, Van Morrison, said they could not come or was it something you had already planned?
MILLS: No, right around January, you could see something was happening with that movie and that soundtrack when it started streaming on Disney+. You could see, wow this song has a chance to be No.1 on Billboard. When you have the song of a movie that is a No.1 smash on Billboard, you have to implement that on the show. Similar to when we had Bohemian Rhapsody in contention, you have got one of the all-time iconic rock bands [Queen], how do you not have that on the show.
DEADLINE: Megan Thee Stallion was a surprise addition to “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” How did that come about and how did you keep it under wraps?
MILLS: It was kept under wraps beautifully, but that was Will Packer and Shayla, they had gone and arranged that. It was amazing that it was kept a secret really up until the show.
DEADLINE: Was Beyoncé’s opening performance live or was it pre-taped? It was certainly very elaborate.
MILLS: It was pre-taped. I think that as you can see, Beyonce clearly had a really amazing vision for that song, and I think it was just making sure nothing was left to chance.
DEADLINE: Do you know how Toto’s ‘Africa’ was chosen as a walk-on song for HER and Daniel Kaluuya and what was the thinking behind it?
MILLS: I don’t know how DJ D-Nice made his choices. We knew he would be opening the show, we did not know how if he was making his song choices and how that came to be.
DEADLINE: Rachel Zegler, how did she get from a watcher at home to presenter within a couple of days?
MILLS: I don’t know why she was not coming to the show in the first place, whether it was a filming conflict or something else, but clearly once everyone was aware she wasn’t coming, we had to remedy that immediately, and it was great to not only have her in the audience but also have her as a presenter.
DEADLINE: Can you talk about the decision to stay away from the war in Ukraine beyond the brief on-screen message. Did you try to get Zelensky?
MILLS: Those conversations may have been happening but if they were, they were way above my pay grade, I wish I could speak more to it but I can’t knowledgeably so I don’t want to touch that.
DEADLINE: Besides obviously the slap, what were the most memorable moments of the ceremony for you personally?
MILLS: Like I said I thought that the decision in a year we lost so many icons and people who are touchstones for all of us so to make In Memoriam really feel like a celebration of life, I thought that was fantastic. I loved leaning into reunions and seeing casts together again, you could see how people were really excited to see that. I think 1972 was a landmark year in movies, not just The Godfather but I was glad that we also were able to work in Cabaret, which also won major awards there and to see Liza Minnelli at the end, I thought those things were great.
And the intangibles were the speeches. I know that it was hard not to think about the incident with Will and Chris after that happened but please, if you didn’t give it your full attention, watch the speeches from Jessica Chastain and Jane Campion and the entire team from Coda, they were amazing speeches and Questlove too.
Movies, they are always there for us in good times and in bad times and I think the Oscars this year was about things that have touched us our whole lives, things that are going to be important for us in the next 50 years, hopefully.
DEADLINE: You mentioned reunions. You have done those sporadically in the past at the Oscars, obviously the big Bonnie and Clyde one in 2017. Why did you decide to lean so heavily into them this year with four? Was your decision influenced by the success of the Romy and Michelle reunion at the SAG Awards?
MILLS: It’s certainly something I love to see every year and I absolutely talk about it and usually the producers loved it as well, Will was no exception. He really wanted to lean into it and looked at things we were celebrating. I think sometimes you look at things, I remember Lady Gaga do a Sound of Music musical tribute several years back, and obviously you can’t have 50 years of The Godfather and not acknowledge it at the Academy, and like Bonnie and Clyde you mentioned. But I think it’s also important for a lot of people, White Men Can’t Jump means a lot to them, obviously Pulp Fiction means a lot to them. I think at looking movies, Romy and Michelle, for me that was obviously an amazing moment. I hope what this will do looking forward now is what are movies that maybe didn’t even get mentioned at the Academy Awards the year they were released, but how can we celebrate them now when they’re having big anniversaries.
DEADLINE: There was expectation that the 007 franchise tribute would feature a reunion. Did you try to get former Bonds to make a joint appearance?
MILLS: I think it was sort of talked about and Will, again, to his credit, really, he had some ideas for things and really wanted to lean into them and one was sort of having, when certain things that would be expected like a Bond tribute, to have the unexpected married with the expected and I think here he loved the idea of somebody who was the best in class in his profession, which was spying, being feted by the best in their class, which was surfing, snowboarding and skateboarding.
DEADLINE: Ahead of the detailed Oscars postmortem, what things do you think you are going to do differently next year?
MILLS: I don’t know if it’s doing differently, I know we’re going to want a host next year so figuring that out, and I think figuring out what anniversaries are coming up, so what great reunions and tributes can we do, and beyond that watching a lot of movies this year and seeing what’s going to figure in the race and excited that a lot of, I think there’s some great movies that are going to be released this year so I’m excited to see who’s going to have their moment next year.
DEADLINE: Is the pre-taping of categories here to stay?
MILLS: Like I said, we will do a postmortem and we’ll get that and see what worked, what didn’t. … Whatever we do next year should be an improvement, whatever decision we make.