Producers on 'La La Land,' 'Loving,' 'Jackie' and more recount their personal experiences battling weather, uncooperative cops (hint: serve up Jake Gyllenhaal selfies), Mel Gibson fears and alien cliches.
When Clint Eastwood Is in Charge, Even the Weather Cooperates
When we shot on the Hudson River, we were in the midst of this huge tropical storm, Joaquin. And Clint just kept shooting. I've never seen anybody shoot through those conditions. It was the end of September 2015. We thought it was going to be a hurricane. The challenge was that everybody was wet, cold and miserable. And the boats couldn't pull up exactly [as planned]. Everything had to be modified a little bit because the Hudson was roiling. I mean, I can get seasick, and I will tell you we were all trying to survive the moment. But the great thing, of course, is when we saw the footage. Guess what? It all was real. Everybody was wet, cold and miserable, and it's exactly what happened on that day. So thank God Clint did shoot through it because when you're sitting in balmy weather, it's hard to put forth that feeling.
Everybody always says Clint has the luck of the gods. When he needs good weather, he gets good weather. And when he needs bad weather, he gets bad weather. All those scenes on the dock where it's blustery, it was like gale force winds and rain. Listen, it's not unique. That's kind of the nature of making movies, right? But in my experience, it wouldn't have been an automatic to keep shooting. By the time Joaquin hit us, it was dissipating. But [producer] Frank Marshall and I got all of these different hurricane apps, so that every day we were looking at our apps trying to see whether it was going to be a direct hit or not, because it actually was a Category 4 hurricane at one point. — As told to Tatiana Siegel
Trusting a Director to "Fill Those Spaces"
It's funny to suddenly find myself in a producer position having to worry about things like marketability, because as an actor we usually bask in the luxury of saying, "To hell with marketability." Initially, I suppose, I had those questions [about Loving]. I went all the way across the spectrum about, How do you make this film? And I did hear some ideas, which were a little more geared toward playing to a bigger audience. It wasn't going to be car chases and it wasn't about the more extreme aspects of brutal violence. All of those are things that film employs to ramp up the impact. In the early days I might have been tempted to find someone who would take the film in that direction. But when I saw Take Shelter and became aware of Jeff Nichols, I thought, "It all just fits" — because of the quietness of these people [Mildred and Richard Loving], the fact that they weren't activists, they weren't demonstrative, they weren't exhibitionists. The story had to be true to that and the feel of it had to be true to that or else we might as well not be doing it. Any other approach would have just been inconsistent with what appealed to me about the film.
We had to throw our lot in with Jeff, and when he delivered his script, it was a beautifully lean thing. But it was nerve-racking because there just weren't a lot of words. When you write a script that's largely going to be a film about silence you have to have an awful lot of faith in the person who's going to execute it. I thought, "I'm in love with this script as long as Jeff directs it," because I could see how he would fill those spaces. A script is often written with excessive stage directions, which are usually there to reassure investors. And this didn't really have all that. But we'd had Jeff write the script without tying him in as director. That's not good practice, you know? It's because we were inexperienced that I encouraged my partner, Ged Doherty, to take that risk. I was saying to him earlier, "If we'd known what we were doing, we might never have gotten this film done." — As told to Anna Lisa Raya
"It Was an Equal Opportunity Cry Fest" Among Men and Women on the Set
When I read Margot Shetterly's book proposal in April 2014, I was stunned. I'd never heard of the NASA [human] computers, and I couldn't find anyone else who had. This is about three black women mathematicians whose important work at NASA went unrecognized for more than 50 years. The film is inspiring because of the grace and perseverance of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.
On set, maybe the thing I am proudest of is that our crew was 33 percent women. That's a little more than double the average of most major motion pictures. Ask Octavia [Spencer] or Taraji [P. Henson] — they'll confirm that we had an extraordinary number of talented women crew. It made the set kind of electric. Having a gender-diverse crew, telling this specific story, brought a different level of energy to the daily grind of production. But I don't want to imply that somehow women crew were any different than their male counterparts. But maybe the environment was more committed. The day we shot Janelle Monae's big monologue in front of the judge, my monitor lost the connection on take one. Our [video] village was pretty far away from the set. I arrived after take two to find our gaffer moved to tears by Janelle's performance. He wasn't the only one. It was an equal opportunity cry fest. — As told to Anna Lisa Raya
Helping Scorsese Achieve a Vision 30 Years in the Making
I began working with Marty [Scorsese] as his assistant in 2002. And within the first week, I can't remember what it was, but I had mentioned, "Oh, somebody called about Silence." And from that moment on he was like, "You need to understand what this project means to me. This is a movie I have to make." This film [based on Shusaku Endo's book about Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan] has been a 28-plus-year odyssey for him, and coming up on a 13-year one for me. The day that it clicked that we finally were making the film was the day we stepped in front of the cameras.
This movie was so touch-and-go. But Marty stepped up as he always does and rolled with whatever came his way. It's ultimately one of the greatest coming-togethers of any film I've worked on. We had a crew of 750-plus people from five different countries who spoke four different languages. The physical challenges for Marty were immense. There are some tough scenes that I think he's been thinking about and realizing and directing in his head for almost three decades now. When you've waited so long to make your passion project, you can't help but second-guess what you're doing, even when you know what you're doing is what it's meant to be.
Every day was fraught with issues but every day was also really exciting. There was one day when we were shooting a scene up in the mountains; it was a beautiful day. We shot the master and we were getting into coverage. All of a sudden we just got enveloped in this thick cloud of mist. Marty was like, "Oh my God. This is amazing. We have to reshoot everything." And we did. And that's what's in the scene now. In the script it was not written and it was not envisioned to be that way, but whenever we see it, we’re just like, "Wow, amazing." — As told to Anna Lisa Raya
Teeing It All Up for Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard
This project took seven to eight years to develop and get the green light. [Director Robert] Zemeckis came to me a few years ago when he read an earlier draft of the script and fell in love with the story that [screenwriter] Steven Knight told. When we got to the set, I remember the first day of shooting and us looking at each other and going, "We're here." We were so happy when we got Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard [cast as the leads]. It sounds corny, but it wasn't the hardest movie to cast.
As a producer, you go out and say, "Maybe you can try this movie star or that movie star." Nine times out of 10 it doesn't work, but this film just clicked and it was all thanks to Knight's fantastic writing. Usually when you have an organic screenplay, things come together that way. It was amazing to see these two great performers tell this story and how Bob moves the camera because he is such a master of digital and visual effects. The war is the backdrop, but it's not about WWII — it's about these two characters. It was amazing to watch Bob plan these shots and how he already had everything in his head. From that first day, he knew how he wanted every shot of the film digitally, what he wanted to do on a stage, what he wanted to do on location. I had never really worked with a filmmaker like that. He is a guy who doesn't miss a beat and knows every angle he wants to shoot going into it. We were on time, on budget and on schedule. We didn't wrap the movie until May and we are coming out in November, so when you think about it, that is a pretty crazy schedule for any movie, especially one of this size. But that's because we had a filmmaker who planned so well. — As told to Mia Galuppo
Watching the Dance of Denzel on Set
We wanted to stay as authentic as we could. Denzel [Washington] told us he wanted to shoot Fences the way August [Wilson] wrote it, so we went to Pittsburgh. We didn't build anything. All the places [Wilson] writes about in the screenplay are the places we used; he used to walk those neighborhood streets and meet the characters that would end up in his plays. The actual house we shot in is just a couple of blocks away from Wilson's house: All we did was paint the inside and add some period furniture. We had to fit a 125-person crew into this tiny house — that was challenging for the cinematographer and the lighting department, but it made a difference for the actors.
Denzel wanted to use the same Broadway cast in the movie. Denzel inhabited the role as an actor and as a director in a completely different way this time because, a) he knew the material and the cast so well from Broadway, and b) this is his third film. He had a shorthand with Viola Davis. I've never seen this before. He was able to act in the whole scene with her, then he'd say, "Cut," and he'd go up and whisper one or two words in her ear. Or he'd say, "You're being too nice to me," or "Do you really believe that? Let's take it one more time." She'd nail it, and he did, too. My mouth was hanging open, that he was able to play his role and still watch her as a director, respond and give her a note and nail it in the very next take. — As told to Ashley Lee
So, You're Concerned No One Wants WWII Movies or Mel Gibson
Nobody was interested in WWII for the longest time. One studio said, "We don't do anything with dust," which meant, "We don't want anything that's not current." People were afraid of the religious angle. They might have been afraid of [director] Mel [Gibson]. People make up reasons. Everybody's afraid of everything. That's the horror show of making films today. No one wants to make anything other than the bifurcated market: the under $10 million movie or the over $100 million movie. The fact is that Braveheart cost 50 percent more than this movie to make, 23 years ago. It was pure hell.
We didn't have enough first unit, we didn't have enough second unit, enough extras, bullets, soldiers, equipment, costumes; we didn't have the right locations. For the scale that we were aiming at, it was that problem of, how do you get through it and what sacrifices are you making? Nobody would finance the movie. So I had to raise money to make it in Australia, which I thought was good for Mel. He would be welcomed there, and he was. We were completely supported there. I got a call from this guy who offered us free help — a helicopter with a free pilot and a cameraman. I got excited and came to the set and said, "Mel, we're going to get our aerial shot." And he said, "We can't use it. If you go up, you'll see all of our flaws." — As told to Anna Lisa Raya
A Star Who Elevated Everyone
I used to be [director] Mike Mills' line producer. This film pulled from all his strengths as a graphic designer and photographer: The stock footage, the stills, the music — they're all in the very dense script. Before we started shooting, he took everybody on a tour of Santa Barbara. There was a moment when I wandered off and sat on these benches. I looked down and saw two placards that were dedications to his parents. At that point, I saw how personal this film was. He put little Easter eggs in the movie: pictures of his family, furniture from the house he grew up in. There are probably many more things that only Mike knows.
The Dorothea character was at the heart of casting; once we knew who she was, we knew, age-wise and tone-wise, how to skew the rest of it. Watching Annette Bening work with Mike and find Dorothea and become her was incredible: The choices she'd make, you could feel it in the room. She elevated everyone's performance. It's a true ensemble, which doesn't always happen — you don't really know if the chemistry works until you get there. It was a lot of luck and goodwill. — As told to Ashley Lee
When Getting the Scene Involves Muppets and Jake Gyllenhaal Fanboys in the Police Force
One night we were shooting on the highway [outside L.A.]. It wasn't even night. It was a dusk scene, and we couldn't get through the highway because a Muppets project was shooting, and the police had barricaded the road. The light was starting to disappear, and Jake [Gyllenhaal] says, "I'll take care of this." He got out of the car and the guard cops recognized him immediately from End of Watch [in which Gyllenhaal plays a police officer]. Of course they take selfies with him and they were so excited — "Oh my God, it's Jake Gyllenhaal" — and then they let us through so we were able to finally shoot the scene.
Each scene has its own arc, with a first act, second act and third act. They are independent, so I realized that I could, in editing, move them around. In the end, they actually worked as I had originally written them. This was a much more complex film than my first [A Single Man]. It was bigger in every way in terms of a complex story and the number of actors and locations. I learned in my first movie how much I valued the editing process, so I set aside plenty of time for that. I edited for about seven months, whereas on A Single Man I edited for about five. Editing was the most surprising thing, because it is when the film is really built. You have to let go when the film is shot with what you intended to get. In editing it's, "How do I turn this into the film that I wanted it to be?" — As told to Mia Galuppo
Finding Damien Chazelle's Magic Hours
We were really prepping three movies at once: It was a regular movie, a movie with singing and original music, and then a movie with dance and choreography. And we operated without a net; there was no coverage. Ambition was a key word, and I think [director] Damien [Chazelle] brings it in spades in a way that makes him a really distinct filmmaker.
He planned on making long single shots for the musical numbers in the tradition of the films in the '40s and '50s but decided to add to that — if we saw a night sky, it had to be magic hour. So suddenly these long, very intricate single takes, with really elaborate choreography, also had to be done in a half-hour period at the perfect time of night. And it had to be shot on 35mm. We didn't make it easy on ourselves. Ryan Gosling doesn't have a piano double; he plays every note. And we made sure he had the most challenging piece of jazz to play on his first day shooting. Prep was a really intense, around-the-clock, seven-days-a-week process for three months in our warehouses in Los Angeles. The actors made it a prerequisite before they joined the film that they had to have three months to prep, which was music to our ears. — As told to Rebecca Ford
When a Director and His Star Go "Toe to Toe" in More Ways Than One
[Director] Kenny [Lonergan] wore this big coat during the whole shoot [in Cape Ann, Mass.] because it was so cold. It's called the "Triple Fat Goose" or whatever, so we called him "The Blue Goose" during the shoot. When we were shooting the scene where he has his cameo, Kenny was like, "Should I wear the coat?" Ultimately it was the right decision to wear it, although if you look at the scene, his hood is not folded correctly.
In the scene Kenny's [character] is screaming "F— you!" [to Casey Affleck]. There's a lot of pent‑up anger between the two of them. You know, there was tension building up the whole shoot, just with them communicating everything. But that scene gave a lot of levity to the set because it let the two of them go toe to toe. People were cracking up. So, there was a lot spilling out, which was really good and made it authentic. But while we were doing that scene, everyone was hustling to get it, we were working against the time of the day. We did the first take, and I was standing behind the monitor, and the scene kept going and going. I realized, "Oh my God, the f—ing director's in front of the camera." So, I looked around, thinking, "Who's yelling cut?" I ended up hopping out from behind the monitors to end the scene. — As told to Andy Lewis
How Two Chilean Brothers Made an Intrinsically American Movie in Paris
We were two Chilean filmmakers [Juan is director Pablo Larrain's brother] doing an American movie about an American first lady, in Paris, with most of the crew being French. We shot the White House scenes in Paris until Christmas of last year, at the City of Cinema studio. It's Luc Besson's studio, so we all got to meet him — he was walking around the studio — which was very exciting, especially for Natalie Portman because, of course, he directed her first film [The Professional]. We built the White House, a one-to-one replica, in that studio. We built the Oval Office and a big part of the second floor — the Lincoln Room, the Kennedys' bedrooms. But we also sent a crew to shoot the background in Dallas, at Dealey Plaza, though most of the buildings in the movie were done in post, since Dealey Plaza has changed a lot since the assassination.
One time when [producer] Darren Aronofsky visited the set, I asked him why he had asked two Chilean filmmakers to do this movie. He said he thought it was a good idea having someone foreign making this movie because it would have been much more difficult for an American. When you have to touch your own past and history — the things you grew up being taught about in school — it can be difficult. But someone else who is not so emotionally connected can sometimes do a better job. That made a lot of sense to me. — As told to Benjamin Svetkey
When you start educating yourself, you put a bandage over the camera on your computer. It hits you that all of a sudden what we thought was private is no longer private anymore. The [Snowden] script was written on a computer that was never connected to the internet. We never sent a script around where the pages weren't separated in at least three different piles and sent by three different couriers. We were as careful as we could be. One of the biggest challenges was when you are looking at a computer screen [in the film] or are looking at someone hacking on a keyboard, it is pretty boring. If you don't really understand what is going on, you have to find a visual way to show it, and [director] Oliver [Stone] and [cinematographer] Anthony [Dod Mantle] found an interesting way to show a complex, complicated world. The most interesting part was Snowden's life and what makes somebody at that age give everything up because he thinks there is something wrong that our government is doing. — As told to Mia Galuppo
Solving an Alien Dilemma: "Don't Characters Need Eyes to Connect With the Audience?"
We had a meeting with [screenwriter] Eric Heisserer. At the end of the meeting, my producing partner Dan Levine says, "What are you reading?" It was a throwaway question at the end of a general. And Eric turns us on to this Ted Chiang collection, Story of Your Life. While we were stumbling on the short story [upon which Arrival is based], we saw Incendies by Denis Villeneuve. So we bring Denis in for a general. Same thing. And he mentions, in passing, "I would love to do science fiction."
Early in preproduction Denis was showing us his designs for the alien craft and the heptapods. That ship and those aliens look like nothing I've ever seen in a movie. A craft made of this rough-hewn, black-gray stone in the shape of a sheared-in-half, like, what? Egg? Surfboard? Lima bean? It's so unusual. When Denis showed us the aliens, we kept saying, "Where are the eyes? Don't characters need eyes to connect with the audience?" And he very sweetly, but vigilantly, resisted. He said, "They don't need them. They're going to be expressive without them." One of the great aspects of how we did this movie is that it was entirely outside the studio system until right before we shot. When Denis would present audacious ideas, a) they were not subject to typical committee note-giving, and b) look at my biography — do you know what I would give for that f—ing freedom? — As told to Anna Lisa Raya
A particularly beautiful thing to watch on set was Sunny Pawar, who played the young Saroo, go from being a young boy who had no idea about acting to a total pro who understood everything about what he was doing and was completely in control of his performance.
He was discovered at a school for disadvantaged children in Mumbai after an exhaustive search. When he was cast, Garth was looking for someone with a “look behind his eyes, a history, a quality that's beautiful to look at” and Sunny had that in spades. He could just sit in a room with the cameras on him and anyone watching would get lost in his story, in his face. You can see it onscreen that he's not wandering around just looking at things, he's feeling things. Watching him experience his character during the shoot was truly special.
During one particularly important scene where Saroo is with his mother and brother, Sunny started crying as we were shooting — they were real tears, there was no makeup involved. He was genuinely crying because he was so emotionally involved in the scene. He had become an actor. — As told to Anna Lisa Raya