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Last week, I found myself awake in the wee morning hours, anxiously Googling things like “what to wear to cover a movie premiere” and “red carpet question ideas.”
Katie Van Syckle, a senior staff editor for The New York Times, had messaged me earlier that day with two questions: Was I free the following evening, and if so, would I be up for covering the New York premiere of “The Whale,” the director Darren Aronofsky’s somber new film about a reclusive gay man with severe obesity, for the Styles desk?
The resulting article, which was published online last week, was the first in a new Styles column called Quick Question, which takes readers behind the scenes at red carpets, gala dinners and other star-studded events.
In addition to my day job at The Times as a senior staff editor on the Flexible Editing desk, a pool of 18 or so general editors who edit copy from across the newsroom, I’m a frequent contributor to The Times’s Culture desk. Still, I’d never been to a party in New York quite like this one — and I had certainly never covered one.
I accepted and asked Katie: What should I wear? How much time would I have to talk to each person? How long should I stay at the after party?
Katie, who has covered at least a hundred of these events over her career, patiently answered all of them: “a look,” around three minutes each and until I’d captured the scene. She also added a bit of her own advice: Have three sharp questions ready to fire, plus a backup.
After doing some research about the film, which is likely to win its star, Brendan Fraser, his first Oscar, I brainstormed a few: What did the movie’s cast and creators think was the value of films that challenged and pushed audiences in an age of Marvel ubiquity and sequel fatigue? Should the Oscars follow in the steps of the previous night’s Gotham Awards, whose acting prize categories are gender neutral?
I Googled photos of the film’s cast and creators so that I’d quickly recognize them and finally, around 3 a.m., fell asleep.
The next afternoon, I learned that I might have overprepared when something called a face sheet — a list of expected attendees with their roles and headshots, typically provided to reporters for premieres — arrived in my inbox from A24, the movie and television studio hosting the event. I also landed on an outfit: a black dress coat, green turtleneck sweater dress, black leggings and black heeled boots.
Then: go time. I arrived at Alice Tully Hall at 6 p.m. for a 6:15 p.m. carpet — which was ocean blue, not red — and took my place among the reporters and the corresponding line of laminated cards on the floor: Variety, Letterboxd, W Magazine, and mine, The New York Times.
The first to arrive of those on my “to interview” list was Samuel D. Hunter, the screenwriter. As he made his way down the carpet, stopping to pose for photos, I knew I would have limited time, but I was ready.
“What was your own first experience with heartbreak, and what did you do?” I unexpectedly burst out when he got to me, without so much as a word of hello. “OK, then!” he said. I winced.
Then I spotted Mr. Fraser. At 6 feet 2 inches, he towered over me — and caught me off guard by asking my name. After striking out on my first two questions (“That’s personal, so I’m not going to answer it,” he said to the heartbreak one, and “That’s interesting, I’ll have to think about it,” his response to combining the Oscars acting categories), I struck gold with my third: What had enticed him to take on such a physically and emotionally draining role? His answer, which lasted nearly two minutes, was the longest in my article.
After the screening, I took the subway to the after party at La Grande Boucherie, an upscale French brasserie on West 53rd Street, where actors, producers and other celebrities mingled.
I immediately spotted the comedian Jim Gaffigan, clutching a glass of wine as he stood talking to a man by a large Christmas tree. I hovered nearby, waiting for them to finish their conversation, but after five minutes, it became clear I was going to have to interrupt.
Like Mr. Fraser, Mr. Gaffigan, who was not involved in the film, began by asking me a question: What had I thought of the film? (I redirected the question back to him; I generally refrain from offering opinions on work I report on.)
This was not in my party playbook. But party reporting is a conversation, a verbal give and take — unlike, say, a feature interview of a lead actor. I could ask most anything, trivial or considered, without the pressure of a ticking clock.
On the subway ride home around 11:15 p.m., I outlined my article on a blank page in my notebook. I could check the exact quotes later against the recordings on my phone, but I wanted to sketch my story while I still remembered the gist of what people had said.
As much as I’d tried to prepare in advance, I realized that reporting for this kind of event should be somewhat off the cuff. I wasn’t reading from a list of questions, and I had to be quick on my feet. The article, and the column, aim to capture that spirit.