Along with Damon ('Manchester by the Sea') and Marshall ('Sully'), Darren Aronofsky ('Jackie'), Todd Black ('Fences'), Emma Tillinger Koskoff ('Silence') and Marc Platt ('La La Land') on Harrison Ford's role in 'Sully,' on-the-fly decisions that turned out to be spectacular and the challenges of their job: "I had typhoons, I had starving actors."
For Aronofsky, 47, better known as a director (Black Swan), producing Jackie marked a switch of roles, just as producing Manchester by the Sea was for movie star Matt Damon, 46. But one could say it was a change for many of these established professionals, several of whom had worked together before: Frank Marshall, 70 (Sully), produced the Bourne films with Damon, who also worked on The Departed with Emma Tillinger Koskoff, 44 (Silence). They were joined by Todd Black, 56 (Fences), and Marc Platt, 59 (La La Land, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk) in a conversation moderated by THR's Matthew Belloni and Stephen Galloway.
Is there any film you've made that you'd love to make again — not to make it better, but to see how someone else would handle it?
TODD BLACK That's a dangerous question.
FRANK MARSHALL I'd say almost every one. It would be so fascinating to see what each [different] director brought to that story. [And there are] a couple [of films] I wouldn't have even made. You made decisions along the way that are in the moment and are influenced by a lot of things, and our job as producers is to keep the momentum going, and you scramble around in a lot of different ways to get that done.
BLACK I find it painful to look back. In post, you watch your film 100 times, and if I'm watching HBO or Showtime and one of my movies comes on, I'll watch it for three minutes and move off it. It's very painful for me, because I see everything that didn't go right that I wanted to make better.
MARC PLATT I can't watch any film I've ever done. After the premiere is the last time I can see any film I've done.
EMMA TILLINGER KOSKOFF The only movie I can watch over and over again is The Departed.
BLACK That's 'cause Matt's here! (Laughter.)
KOSKOFF No, I promise you. I just love that movie. It's so complex and wild.
MATT DAMON But it's interesting: People don't have the experience of knowing what the movie could have been, right? When you're on the other side of it, that's all you live with — what it could have been. And it's almost hard to see what it is because you're wrapped up in what your own expectations were while you were making it.
MARSHALL Peter Bogdanovich once said to me: "There are three movies. There's the movie you write, the movie you shoot and the movie you cut. And each phase influences the next one."
BLACK You can really change massive things in a cutting room.
What decision did you make on the fly that turned out to be spectacular?
DARREN ARONOFSKY [On The Wrestler] every single shot working with Mickey Rourke, I had no idea what was going to happen because marks didn't exist, screen direction didn't exist and we had to just be improvisational the whole time. But I've done it the other way where everything was exactly like the storyboards.
MARSHALL On Raiders of the Lost Ark, we were in Tunisia. We had been shooting in 138-degree [heat] for six weeks; everybody was tired. We had three days left. And we were supposed to shoot this big fight between the whip and the sword through this marketplace in a Tunisian village. We had this pile of storyboards, and we had three days to shoot it, and it took the whole morning just to do three storyboards. It was really slow because when you're doing a big action sequence in another country, translating to the villagers and all the extras and everything else just took forever. So I went to Steven [Spielberg] at lunch, and I said, "Hmm, you know, it's going to take five days to do this." And Harrison [Ford] was at lunch with Steven. After I left, [Steven] talked to Harrison, and Harrison was not feeling well, and somehow somebody said, "I've got this gun. Why don't I just use that?" And Steven came to me after lunch and said, "Find a guy that can handle the sword and do all these fancy things with it." After lunch, we did three shots [of Ford casually shooting the swordsman], and we were two days ahead of schedule, and it's the biggest moment in the movie.
BLACK That happens when you have an actor so enmeshed in the role. Oftentimes, it does take the director and the actor being able to come up with that alone without anybody in the room.
DAMON There's a lot of crossover, though, in a lot of the jobs. We [Damon and Marshall] have done a bunch of movies together, but we were way behind schedule on The Bourne Identity. And Frank's a director, so he grabbed a camera and started shooting.
MARSHALL You're not supposed to be telling this! (Laughter.)
DAMON It's that whole concept of "whatever it takes."
What does it take to be a successful producer? Which skill most helps?
PLATT Taste is one and the ability to recognize what might be a good story. The most significant thing is then marrying that story to the right storyteller. Getting a movie made — the navigating of how you make a movie — is way easier than picking who the filmmaker is. And then it's about understanding the vision of what the movie is and making sure everybody on the team is making the same film.
Marc, how did your producer skills play out on La La Land?
PLATT I had a very strong, opinionated, lovely young filmmaker, Damien Chazelle, and it was about protecting [his] vision when I saw it veer off. And then it was about helping him work with movie stars. He had never really worked on that level before. There are some actors who have very strong points of view, and they bring that to the table. And so it was giving him the confidence, being the bridge among the four of us, my two actors and Damien, when I needed to be.
Darren, originally you were going to direct Jackie. Why didn't you?
ARONOFSKY It's all a weird timing thing when it comes to films. Natalie [Portman] was at the right point, but it wasn't time yet for me and Natalie to work together again [after Black Swan]. Pablo Larrain, who directed Jackie, talks about [how] it was really strange when he got a phone call from me that I wanted a Chilean director to do this great American story. You've got to cast the right director first.
Emma, you were cast as producer by Martin Scorsese. What does the producer bring to him?
KOSKOFF Specifically, with Silence, this film that he's lived with for nearly three decades, it was just giving him the time and the tranquility and safety to execute what he needed to do. And we were shooting in very difficult conditions. It was a brutal, brutal odyssey for all involved. We were over in Taiwan, we were [filming] exteriors every day. We had locations that were sometimes two hours away. Mountains, valleys, fog, mud, inclement weather. I think what I was able to do was to keep the calm because we were under great financial pressure, and we didn't have the luxury of calling back home and saying, "Sorry, we're five days behind, we need some more dough."
DAMON [On] other movies, Marty has always got leeway because he's Marty. You know what I mean?
KOSKOFF Totally. I saw a different Marty. I saw a Marty that listened when I said: "We've got to drop shots. I know it looks better in the sun, but we've got to do what we've got to do with this weather. We'll fix it in post."
PLATT That's my favorite line! (Laughter.)
MARSHALL You can do it now, though. That's the difference.
KOSKOFF And he never left the set. Granted, he'd have to hike up a mountain and then go into a little tent.
DAMON You planned it that way, just to make sure that he didn't leave.
Matt, weren't you going to act in Manchester by the Sea?
DAMON I was going to direct it. You talk about those seismic decisions that you make. The smartest thing I did as a producer was replacing myself. But it was really clear once I read the first draft, which was a long 150 or so pages. Everything that's in the movie was in that first draft, and then [writer-director Kenneth Lonergan] took about 30 pages off it. It just was clearly a Kenny Lonergan movie. And I said, "Look, I'll play the role, and you direct it." And he'd had a horrible experience on Margaret — not creatively but with the subsequent litigation and all that stuff that really robbed him of years of his creative life. And suddenly there was this great screenplay that he'd written, [and] it was like, "Wait a minute: You just direct this; you're going to get your movie career back and be the director that everybody knows that you are, and I'll play the role." And so we got it set up at Odd Lot, [but] I had The Martian starting. Our preproduction kept collapsing until we were down to five weeks of preproduction. And [producer] Chris [Moore] and I got on the phone, and we punted. I looked at my schedule, and my dance card had filled up as an actor, and I said, "Well, I'm free in two years." And I said, "I will give it up to Casey [Affleck], and he is the only person. But if not, we'll do it in two years when my schedule clears up."
Was it hard to set up?
DAMON Nobody wants to make any of these movies anymore. And particularly this movie, which is about grief. And we got shut down everywhere until we found Kimberly Steward. This is the first movie she's produced. She bankrolled the whole thing — and thank God for people like her. She made a massive bet on her taste.
BLACK Can you text me her number? (Laughter.)
DAMON Believe me, I said to her, "Your phone is not going to stop ringing."
Are you ever going to direct?
DAMON Yes, I am. It's funny, I was going to direct this, and [John] Krasinski and I wrote Promised Land, and I couldn't direct that. Gus [Van Sant] came in and directed it. And so I keep giving away these good directing jobs. But I am definitely going to direct at some point.
You're going to do the next Bourne?
DAMON The septuagenarian one.
MARSHALL Yeah, we all have canes.
DAMON Bourne with a walker.
Is another Bourne in the works?
DAMON Not right now. Those things are a massive undertaking. We started shooting that in September and finished in March. It's just big, with a massive second unit.
Todd, you've worked a lot with another actor turned director, Denzel Washington.
BLACK Scott Rudin, who is my partner on [Fences], had given Denzel the screenplay that August Wilson wrote before he did the play. It was the only screenplay that Wilson wrote, of all of his plays. And Denzel at that time — this was six or seven years ago — said, "I don't know that I'm ready to direct yet, but let me read the play." And he read the play and did the play with Viola [Davis]. Then when we were making Magnificent Seven in the 124-degree heat in Baton Rouge, he said, "Now I think I'm ready emotionally to take it on." Paramount had had the rights to it 20-something years ago. Eddie Murphy was going to do it, actually. And so we met with the Paramount people, and they said yes.
Frank, how did you develop the script for Sully? The whole marketing campaign was: "This is not the story you know."
MARSHALL This goes back to Harrison [Ford, who] was at a dinner at the White House, an aviation dinner, and there were all of these aviation heroes, and one of them was Sully [Chesley Sullenberger]. This was six or seven years ago. And Sully was talking to Harrison and said: "I wrote a book. What do I do with it? Is it a movie?" And Harrison said, "I don't know, but here, call my friend Frank." And he gave Sully my phone number, and that's how this all started.
MARSHALL So I got this call, and I went to the publisher in Beverly Hills, and there's Sully, and I'm awed by this man, and he trusted Harrison and he trusted me, and he said, "OK, I'm going to give you the rights." But it was at a time when the development side of the studios kind of went away. And I was meeting the next week with Alynn Stewart, who was a producer who had started this new company that developed scripts. I had this book, and I handed it to her [and partner] Kipp [Nelson], and they loved it, but we didn't know where the conflict was. So we went up and met Sully at his house and said, "Did anything else happen along the way?" And he started telling this story about a long, protracted series of hearings, and how he was in New York and he couldn't get home and how he kind of went into post-traumatic stress when everybody was saying: "You're a hero." And we thought, "Whoa, there's something we could develop."
Did Harrison ever think of starring?
MARSHALL I don't think so. I asked him, of course. But no. I think Harrison wanted to just give us the gift of the story. Then we went to every studio and cable [network]. This is the junior executives who read the scripts, and there is a system, and we would get a little heat in the lower levels, but everyone in town passed.
BLACK That's a very common story, by the way. We all have our fantastic pieces of material, and they take — how many years was that?
DAMON But from when Clint [Eastwood] said he wanted to do it, how long did that take?
MARSHALL About two weeks. (Laughter.)
DAMON We were shooting the Bourne movie, and Frank goes, "Clint wants to do it."
MARSHALL I said: "We're shooting. Can you wait till January?" He said, "No, I want to go in September." "Oh, OK." And when Clint says he wants to go —
DAMON It's turbocharged.
Do you all still like producing?
ARONOFSKY It's really hard to bring that good material [to the screen]. My favorite saying is, "The more people say no, it means you're doing something right."
PLATT I still love it. I love it.
You were an executive for years. Did that help you as a producer?
PLATT I started as a lawyer for [agent] Sam Cohn. And I learned from Sam how to produce. He was that old-fashioned agent for his clients, made mountains move. But being an executive helped. I understand the vernacular, the sensibility of the studio. I also know when I'm being spun.
Darren, as a producer, did you have trouble not editing Jackie?
ARONOFSKY Pablo is really a master. [But he] is definitely more experimental — and it's weird to call myself a little bit more traditional Hollywood. I'd say, "You know, if we want to make it more commercial …" And he wanted to reach out, [though] he kept making snide jokes about it. I was like, "It's me! I'm not really the most commercial guy in the world."
People say this is a golden age for TV. What kind of era is it for film?
PLATT Part of the challenge is, how do you keep people coming into the theaters? And it's challenging because the world is reduced to 140 characters, and we market films by how we can reduce it down, which means we have to have a brand. The kind of movies that are just about passion and emotion are more challenging.
BLACK Whenever I hear people say it's so tough — it's always been tough. I don't think it's any tougher. You can easily get hung up with the tough, and you have to get over that.
MARSHALL On the flip side, there is a lot of opportunity now for some of those projects that you couldn't get made on the big screen.
DAMON Amazon [which bought Manchester by the Sea] was a huge thing for us. They're looking to brand themselves with these prestige projects, so they're really going to get behind it in a way a traditional marketing campaign couldn't, because our budget is $8 million. So I mean, how much were you really going to dump into P&A [prints and advertising] on a movie like that? And people's viewing habits are changing. People are starting to catch on to the fact that you can go to an Amazon and see some of the best films of the year there.
What has been your best day and your worst day as a producer?
KOSKOFF My best day was the final wrap on Silence.
And the worst day was all the others?
KOSKOFF Correct. (Laughter.) I lost 20 pounds. I was brought to my knees daily. I had typhoons, I had starving actors.
MARSHALL The best and the worst day is the last day because you've been with a couple hundred people in the trenches 24/7, and you're a family. And you always say, "Hey, we'll have dinner," and for 10 years you never see that person.
PLATT At the end of La La Land, the last day, we're done, the sun is literally going behind the horizon, and Damien Chazelle has a camera in his hand. He said, "We can get another shot and another shot ..." And what I realized was, he couldn't put the camera down. He was too sad. And it got pitch black. We were in Pasadena. And I walked up to him and I said, "You have to put the camera down." And I gently took the camera from him, and he had the saddest look.
BLACK Last days can often be bittersweet and wonderful.
DAMON The best day [on Manchester] was when we went to Sundance and screened the movie, and I was sitting there with my wife and Mat Rosengart, who is Kenny Lonergan's lawyer — and the last time I'd seen Mat, he was deposing me [in the legal battle over Margaret]. So I'm sitting there, and I look up and it's Mat. And he goes, "It is really good to see you here." And I said, "It's really good to see you here." And then we screened the movie and it was a huge triumph, and everything was right with the Force again.
Do you all remember the first — or worst — job you had?
MARSHALL Dishwasher. In Aspen. My hands were frozen every night when I went home. They were raw. It's so cold.
DAMON I had to hand out fliers on the street to get people to come in and buy women's dance shoes, half off. All my friends were walking by. It was horrible. Just embarrassing.
ARONOFSKY I drove a car service in south Brooklyn, where I grew up, did the midnight shift. But it was great — driving guys to pick up their heroin.
KOSKOFF I was a hostess in a restaurant for two days, and then became a PA and never looked back.
ARONOFSKY And the PA was the worst job?
KOSKOFF It was heaven compared to hostessing.
You're on a plane, and it's sinking rapidly. What one film would you want on that desert island?
ARONOFSKY Time Bandits. I love the fantasy of it. I can remember when [director Terry] Gilliam first had God appear and chase them all down that dark passageway. And I think [there are] probably lots of different layers and levels to think about.
KOSKOFF One of those movies that I was drawn to as a child was [Mike Nichols'] Silkwood. I love dramas based on real-life events, and I always was captivated by the acting in that movie and the story.
Did you ever meet Mike Nichols?
KOSKOFF Actually, I grew up with his son, Max. He was always so sweet and lovely. And just to see his body of work, it's amazing.
DAMON I'm afraid I'm going to give the least exciting answer and the most obvious one, which is The Godfather: Part II.
Not the original?
DAMON No, no. I remember when we did The Departed, I asked Marty, "Marty, Godfather I or II?" And he goes, "Two! " And I go, "OK, why?" He goes, "He had more money!" (Laughter.)
BLACK One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It encapsulated drama and pain and comedy all at the same time and was ultimately both a tragic and inspiring story.
MARSHALL I'd have to say The Wizard of Oz. If I'm going to have to watch something over and over on an island, it just has everything for me, and it was a movie I watched a lot when I was growing up. I'd maybe hope I would wake up and not be on the desert island, just in Kansas.
Tune in to the full roundtable when it airs on SundanceTV Feb. 5, 2017.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.