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Behind the scenes of the Oscar nominations

Spending the night with the best kept secret in Hollywood
/ Source: The Associated Press

The two copy repairmen contaminated themselves by getting off an elevator on the wrong floor. They would have to be questioned — and possibly quarantined.

What could they have picked up by walking onto the busy fifth floor, instead of the deserted sixth, at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences headquarters?

Details about the movie industry’s biggest secrets — the Oscar nominations — eight hours before actress Sigourney Weaver would read them to the world.

Learning that Johnny Depp had hooked a lead actor nomination for “Pirates of the Caribbean,” or that “The Lord of the Rings” ruled with a leading 11 bids, would have required the repairmen to remain in the locked-down building until the next morning — with no way to call home.

“I’m declaring them ‘dirty,”’ Academy media coordinator Leslie Unger told security through her walkie talkie.

But around 11 p.m., they lucked out. Academy officials determined the copy guys knew nothing, so they were free to go.

Although she was overruled, Unger seemed satisfied. “I guess someone determined that they were clean,” she said.

Preparing for the big dayMeanwhile, the mood overnight on the secluded fifth floor was festive. Fueled by coffee and adrenaline, it combined the sleep-deprived giddiness of a slumber party with the intensity of a college cram session.

“If you work here, this is almost as good as it gets,” said Bruce Davis, the Academy’s executive director. “For a couple of hours, you know stuff that nobody else in the world knows — and it’s fun stuff to know.”

The evening got rolling around 9 p.m. when dark-suited accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers arrived and made their way through security — guards at every entrance and inside every elevator.

The accountants turned over the voting results to Davis and his crew, who then raced to prepare Web sites, assemble press kits and set up the live telecast for the 5:38 a.m. announcements from the building’s second-floor theater.

But first there was about 15 minutes to satisfy personal curiosity.

Tech workers, publicists, archivists and Academy executives all grabbed for the box of papers detailing the contenders. It was like the Oscar version of Christmas morning, with lots of rustling paper followed by oohs, ahhs and a few groans.

Even Oscar people like to second-guess the Oscars.

“These people all love movies,” said Davis. “They have favorites they’re rooting for, and there are surprises you just didn’t see coming.”

Davis spent much of the evening in a skull session assembling trivia about nominees, bouncing ideas around a group that included awards coordinator Patrick Stockstill and executive administrator Ric Robertson.

Weaver rises early to make the announcementAbout 4 a.m., Weaver, a three-time Oscar nominee, arrived to prepare for her presentation.

The actress and co-presenter Frank Pierson, the Academy’s president, rehearsed in a private meeting room, debating whether “Monster” lead actress Charlize Theron pronounced her last name ‘There-unn’ or ‘Thur-ron.” (They settled on the former.)

By 4:30 a.m., scores of assembled journalists and studio publicists were cleared from the theater. Microphones were disconnected and cameras shrouded while Weaver and Pierson rehearsed twice more.

Oscar telecast director Louis Horvitz said the announcement is always very spare. No jokes or banter, just a brief greeting and then on to the names. “It’s pretty much, ‘Here we are, let’s get to it,”’ he said.

At 5:38 a.m., they did.

The group returned and Weaver and Pierson approached the podium, flanked by four gigantic Oscar statues on the stage.

“Good morning everyone,” Weaver said. “And hold onto your hats.”