How a Brad Pitt Mantra, 'Game On, F---ers!,' Fueled His Oscar Contender '12 Years a Slave'

Miller Mobley

The Plan B star-producer reveals the stomach-churning drama that had his team remaking "World War Z" while developing "Slave," as negative whispers and doubt abounded. Says his partner, Dede Gardner: "It's still hard for me to talk about, to be totally honest."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

On the morning of Aug. 30, a nervous Brad Pitt boarded a private plane in Los Angeles for the hourlong journey to Telluride, Colo., where his company's new film, 12 Years a Slave, was about to debut.

Bringing Slave to a close -- while dealing with the roller-coaster ride leading to his June release, World War Z -- had left the star and partners Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner exhausted, uncertain and at times publicly vilified.

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The three had worked together intimately for more than a decade, but they never had endured a year like this. The negative reports about Z had been constant, including a Vanity Fair article that implied its producers didn't know what they were doing. One Wall Street analyst, Cowen and Co.'s Doug Creutz, had even predicted doom before the $170 million-to-$200 million zombie thriller opened, estimating it would take in a mere $85 million and calling it a "likely candidate for a big write-down."

Pitt, rather than giving in to his critics, dug in his heels and thought, "Game on, f---ers." But Gardner, 45, a thoughtful executive who had cut her teeth at Paramount during the Sherry Lansing regime before joining Pitt's Plan B Entertainment in 2003, found the whole experience far more painful.

"It's still hard for me to talk about, to be totally honest," she says. "The criticism resonated with me on several different levels. There's the purely professional level, which involves feeling acute responsibility for this film and the investment these people made in it. Then there's the more personal concern: 'How have I failed? Have I failed?' And I was disappointed by the absence of comrades or just people reaching out and saying, 'Hang in there. It's gonna be OK.' "

Despite Z's success (it would go on to earn $539 million globally), an air of uncertainty hung over Plan B. It had gained a reputation for artiness in a town where that was something of a dirty word. Several of its best-known movies had been critical hits but commercial disappointments, including 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and 2012's Killing Them Softly. Now insiders were grumbling that Plan B was being coddled by Brad Grey, the powerful Paramount Pictures chairman who had launched the production outfit with Pitt and his then-wife Jennifer Aniston a decade earlier and who helped maintain it through a first-look deal with his studio.

Given all this, the fact that Pitt, 49, was about to present a bleak period piece about a real-life 19th century black man kidnapped from New York and sold into slavery hardly seemed cause for celebration; in fact, the only thing that looked good about Slave was its budget -- $16 million, or $4 million less than Paramount had spent on reshoots for Z.

All this was in the air as Pitt and Kleiner landed in Telluride, where they joined Gardner, who had driven in from her Wyoming vacation, for an early dinner at Cosmopolitan restaurant before they strolled to the Galaxy Theatre and waited anxiously for Slave to unspool.

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The movie's triumph at Telluride, where it was met with an ovation before receiving a rapturous reception at Toronto, not only has positioned the film -- which opens Oct. 18 in limited release -- as a major Oscar contender, but it also has vindicated the work done by Pitt's small staff of seven for more than a decade.

Years after Hollywood cognoscenti dismissed Plan B as a "vanity deal," it has emerged from these festivals as a major force for some of the most challenging material around, Pitt's mandate when he started the company in 2002.

"From the outside looking in, it's easy to reduce this to, 'Here's a fabulously powerful A-list movie star who is now going to be a quote-unquote producer,' " says Damon Lindelof, who wrote a new ending for Z when the reshoots became necessary. "Whereas Plan B seems to be exactly the opposite: They are using their clout and Brad's notoriety to make movies that wouldn't be made otherwise."

Those movies have included Year of the Dog, The Tree of Life and Running With Scissors, though Plan B also has made more mainstream fare such as the Julia Roberts starrer Eat Pray Love, Kick-Ass and its sequel. (While Plan B was a producer on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Departed, others handled most of the production chores.)

Now, helped by a blockbuster and an awards front-runner, the company is moving forward with a host of film projects and also is entering the television field with Resurrection, a supernatural drama that debuts on ABC in March.

Plan B also is developing a sequel to Z, which still is in its nascent stages, though director Marc Forster won't be back. "We are talking about it," says Pitt. "We are going to investigate a script. We have a lot of ideas we will cull from. Nobody is writing just yet, but we are compiling our ideas."

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Plan B came into being when Grey (then an owner of management company Brillstein-Grey Entertainment) approached Pitt about joining forces. The actor was in the early stages of creating his own production entity with Aniston.

"I decided I wanted to start focusing on producing movies," recalls Grey. "Brad had been trying to build a small company with Jennifer. I called Brad, who's an old friend, and he and I had a long talk, and I told him what I wanted to do with the company and said, 'We should really think of doing this together.' "

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