Oscars: In-Depth Discussions With Producers of the 9 Best Picture Nominees

11:10 AM 2/14/2017

by THR Staff

The contenders for best picture venture from a futuristic spacecraft back to World War II, yet each has a powerful link to the conflicts and hopes of today.

'Hacksaw Ridge' and 'Moonlight'
'Hacksaw Ridge' and 'Moonlight'
Courtesy of Lionsgate; Courtesy of A24

  • Arrival

    Paramount

    Courtesy of Jan Thijs/Paramount Pictures

    For Shawn Levy and producers Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder and David Linde, Arrival had an undeniable synergy. At the end of a general meeting with Eric Heisserer, the screen-writer mentioned an obscure science fiction short story he ´┐╝wanted to adapt. Then, during another general with a pre-Sicario Denis Villeneuve, the French-Canadian director mentioned he always wanted to make a sci-fi film. Levy spoke to THR about how he and the producers somehow helped Villeneuve bring his esoteric ideas about organic-looking spaceships and banyan tree-esque aliens to life.

    How long has Arrival been in the works?

    Five and a half years. It started with a general meeting with Eric. At the time, he was known for horror films (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Thing). The meeting definitely went in a different direction. It’s not like we brought him in to write a horror film in our slate. We weren’t looking then — although now we have one or two horror films in development, but that’s never been our go-to. What is our go-to is that if we recognize talent, we want to get to know the person because that’s the only way a collaboration is going to bloom. It was at the end of that meeting that Eric mentioned Ted Chiang’s short-story collection Stories of Your Life.

    Read the full story here.

  • Fences

    Paramount

    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

    The process of making Fences into a film began back in the 1980s, when August Wilson initially adapted his Pulitzer Prize-winning play for the screen, then stalled due to his insistence that the movie be directed by a black filmmaker.

    Thirty years later (and more than a decade after Wilson's death), that director ended up being Denzel Washington, who also starred in the 2010 Broadway revival of the play, winning a Tony Award for his portrayal of Troy Maxson, a frustrated middle-aged former Negro League ballplayer who's having trouble accepting change in 1950s Pittsburgh.

    With the help of Todd Black, his longtime producing partner, and Scott Rudin, Washington made a film that was true to the emotional intensity of the play yet cinematic. It has been recognized by the Oscars with a nomination for best picture, acting noms for Washington and Viola Davis, and a posthumous nomination for Wilson for adapted screenplay.

    Black spoke with THR about Fences' biggest hurdle, political acceptance speeches (he's in favor) and why he's excited about "f—ing brilliant" Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel.

    Read the full story here.

  • Hacksaw Ridge

    Lionsgate

    Mark Rogers/Summit Entertainment

    Twenty-two years after Bill Mechanic joined forces with Mel Gibson for the Oscar-winning film Braveheart, the two reteamed on another war story, Hacksaw Ridge — about a real-life combat medic who saved dozens of lives during World War II, without ever touching a gun. Last time, Mechanic was the 20th Century Fox chairman who greenlighted Gibson's picture; this time, he's one of the producers. The industry veteran, who also produced the 82nd Academy Awards, described Hacksaw's 15-year journey.

    How did Hacksaw come to you?

    It goes way back to 2001. Terry Benedict, a documentary filmmaker, secured the rights from Desmond Doss, who had bequeathed them to his church, the Seventh-day Adventists. He never wanted to sell the rights, so he'd been turning people down for 60 years. But [at age] 80, his friends told him to do it. So he made a deal to do a documentary and feature film, and I watched a two-minute clip from [the documentary] This Is Your Life, and it was a great story.

    Read the full story here.

  • Hell or High Water

    Lionsgate

    Lorey Sebastian

    When you are making an indie feature, Julie Yorn and Carla Hacken will tell you, there are times when you have to make cuts, and sometimes those cuts include a cougar. Regardless, the feline wasn't missed in the modern-day Western Hell or High Water, which is vying for the best picture Oscar — the first nomination for the duo, who produced the film along with Sidney Kimmel and Peter Berg. Directed by David Mackenzie, the contemporary Western follows the story of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), who plan to save their family farm by robbing the very bank that is trying to seize it, and the Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) who is hot on their trail. Yorn and Hacken spoke to THR about how they survived rattlesnakes, the high desert and their actors' schedules.

    How did each of you get involved with Hell or High Water?

    CARLA HACKEN When I came to run production for [Sidney Kimmel Entertainment], the project was here and was trying to come together. I was obsessed with the script before I even came to the company. I had tried to buy it at my previous job. I met with Taylor [Sheridan, the screenwriter], and I just loved it, and when I got here, I was like, "I'm going to get this movie made come hell or high water." (Laughs.) I said that long before it was the title. If I remember, it used to be called Comancheria.

    JULIE YORN You sent the script and told me how much you loved it, and I read it that night.

    Read the full story here.

  • Hidden Figures

    Fox

    Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

    During a recent ride from LAX to Beverly Hills, Donna Gigliotti’s driver inquired as to the reason for her visit. The veteran New York producer said she was in Los Angeles for Hidden Figures, the Oscar-nominated film she made with Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams and director Theodore Melfi, about a trio of female African-American mathematicians who helped NASA put the first men into space even while having to endure segregation and racism. The driver asked if he could shake her hand, a common reaction in the collective outpouring of goodwill for the film. Gigliotti spoke with THR about finding the story, the reaction to the script and Donald Trump’s attention span.

    How did you find Margot Lee Shetterly’s book proposal?

    There is a book report that comes to all the producers and studios every week. Margot had just sold a 55-page proposal to Dunton Publishing, and it was on the list. It was just so obvious to me this was a movie. I don’t think anybody else was bidding on it. Then we found Allison Schroeder to write the script. She had interned at Cape Canaveral in college and studied engineering. She understood the vernacular of this story.

    Read the full story here.

  • La La Land

    Lionsgate

    Courtesy of Lionsgate

    Fred Berger and producer Jordan Horowitz believed in Damien Chazelle's vision and talent long before the director made the 2014 Sundance breakout Whiplash. Back in 2011, Chazelle was just a New York transplant with Hollywood hopes of creating a modern musical with original music — a commercially risky proposition that seemed overly ambitious for a young director with only one movie (2009's Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) under his belt. But Berger, Horowitz and fellow producers Marc Platt and Gary Gilbert stuck with Chazelle and his dream, which eventually became La La Land, starring Emma Stone as aspiring actress Mia and Ryan Gosling as jazz musician Sebastian, and nabbed a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations. Berger, 35, spoke to THR about crane malfunctions, the pact he made to protect the film's story and the rewards of jumping off a cliff.

    When did you know that this film actually was going to get made?

    This movie has been a six-year ride with really low lows and bleak points along the way. We were sure it would never get made, and then there were other times when we were off to the races. There were two tipping-point moments: One was when we got the green light from Lionsgate saying, "Congratulations, you're making this film." But that was with the previous cast [Emma Watson and Miles Teller]. Then timing issues happened and we lost the leads, and we went back to being a film that was never going to happen because the list of actors who have that type of chemistry — that old movie-star quality who sing and dance and also justify getting a movie like this made — was very short. When Emma and Ryan came on, that was more exciting than I can describe because they were our dream duo from the beginning. We were suddenly making it with our dream crew, our dream cast, all in L.A. Every day after that was the most challenging shoot — but also the most joyous production I think any of us have ever worked on.

    Read the full story here.

  • Lion

    The Weinstein Co.

    The Weinstein Company

    Based on Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home, first-time director Garth Davis’ Lion follows the journey of a man (Dev Patel) trying to find his birth mother in India 20-plus years after getting lost at a train station there and being adopted by a family in Tasmania. To get the film made, 37-year-old Englishman Iain Canning and his See-Saw Films partner, Emile Sherman — both are nominated with Angie Fielder — embarked on their own epic odyssey: It began in Park City, Utah, and will end at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, after stops in Kolkata, India; Sydney; Hobart, Tasmania; and Toronto, where the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Canning spoke with THR about putting Patel through the ringer and commandeering Kolkata’s busiest bridge.

    How did you secure the rights to Brierley’s book?

    Emile and I were at Sundance screening Top of the Lake, Jane Campion’s TV series. Garth [Davis] had directed three episodes of the series, so we were talking to him, desperate to produce his first feature and find a project that would suit his talent. We started to become aware, from afar, of all this interest in Australia for Saroo’s story and for his soon-to-be-finished memoir. So Emile, who is normally Sydney-based but was in Utah, looked at me and said, "I’m in the wrong place." He needed to get back to Sydney and meet with the rights holders and with Saroo and his family to pitch us as being the best possible home for the project. So he hotfooted it back to Sydney.

    Read the full story here.

  • Manchester by the Sea

    Roadside/Amazon

    Roadside Attractions

    In his career, Matt Damon has earned Oscar noms for lead actor (Good Will Hunting, The Martian), supporting actor (Invictus) and has won one for original screenplay with Ben Affleck (Hunting).

    But with Manchester by the Sea, the 46-year-old has his first producing nomination, along with Kimberly Steward, Lauren Beck and Chris Moore, for a film he once planned to direct and star in. Damon spoke with THR about making the movie on budget, how the awards have changed since his 1998 win and why Ben Affleck always will choose him over Jimmy Kimmel.

    How did you first get involved with the project?

    John Krasinski had this idea and talked to me about it over dinner. We decided I would direct and he would act. I had done a play of [Kenneth Lonergan's] in London in 2002, so we pitched it to him [to write]. He loved the idea but was busy, so we had to go to the back of the line. That was fine because Kenny wanted to do it. A few years later this script arrived. It was rough, it was long, it was meandering, and it was absolutely brilliant. His next draft was essentially the one we ended up shooting. At that point, I had this heart-to-heart with Kenny and said: "You have to direct this. This clearly got its claws into you. Why don't I star and you direct?" Then, because of my schedule, we had to push, and I didn't have an opening for another two years. Kenny was ready to go, so we decided on Casey Affleck to star.

    Read the full story here.

  • Moonlight

    A24

    Courtesy of A24

    Adele Romanski, who has been friends with Barry Jenkins since their film-school days at Florida State, knew she was going to produce the director's second feature — she just didn't know what it would be. When they landed on Moonlight, an adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney's unproduced play about an African-American gay man coming of age in Miami, she and the other producers, Plan B's Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, faced the challenge of bringing the emotional tale to life and making it feel universal — all on a shoestring budget. Romanski spoke to THR about her first encounter with the script, overcoming casting challenges and the difficulty of finding a high school in which to shoot.

    How did you first sign on?

    Barry and I made the decision together that he was going to direct something and I was going to produce it. Moonlight was the one idea that we both felt very strongly about. I think, for Barry, it was something that was deeply personal. For me, it's a story that has nothing to do with me, where I come from or how I grew up. And yet I had such a strong emotional response to it. I don't remember the last time I felt something so powerfully. After reading the first draft, I just sat in my bed for a very long time, not really able to move or speak, and just feeling so much.

    Read the full story here.

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