Producer Roundtable: 6 Power Players on Delivering 'The Hobbit' and the 'Nightmare' of Making 'Les Mis'
Philippa Boyens, Grant Heslov, Eric Fellner and other heavy-lifters behind this year's best movies open up about their biggest regrets, raising kids on set and how computers are now deciding on greenlights.
THR: Stacey, you were saying before this roundtable that you took your kids to China when Contagion was filming there. How does producing affect your private lives?
Heslov: That is the downside. That is the hardest part.
Sellar: And I produce with my husband [Daniel Lupi] a lot on Paul's films, so …
Heslov: That's the other downside. [Laughter.]
Sellar: It's not bad. Paul trusts us both, so if I need to go off and do something with the kids, then there's Daniel there, and vice versa.
Boyens: My little one is nearly 3, and I went to give him a kiss, and he went, "OK, bye Mommy." Well, I went, "Oh, my gosh, I've got to stop doing this disappearing."
Cohen: My husband and I have a 19-month-old daughter. It's funny for me because I'm 51 years old, and so after a life of producing where I didn't have to worry about juggling, now I'm like, "Oh, my God, this is …"
Sher: But now's the easy time. You can take them anywhere you want. Wait till they're in school. My kids actually said that they want to travel. And they love sets. Kids that grow up on set love being on set. My son saw his first movie with Uncle Quentin.
Boyens: That's pretty cool.
THR: Do you ever think about your movies and wonder what they would have looked like with other elements? Bruce, I read that Robert Zemeckis was offered American Beauty before Sam Mendes. How would it have been different?
Cohen: The good news is you can't really imagine, and you won't ever really know. I mean, you're only going to have your movie the way it was made.
Boyens: I would have loved to have seen Guillermo's Hobbit. That would have been cool. He has a slightly more fairy-tale thing going on there, a different visual sort of thing. I'm really glad Pete ended up doing this, and I think he's done a beautiful job. But, you know, part of me still sort of thinks, "I wonder what that would have looked like," having lived with the possibility for 18 months.
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THR: How would Argo have been different if Clooney had directed? Was there talk of that?
Heslov: We hadn't really gotten that far by the time Ben Affleck had expressed interest. I think George could have directed a great film, but it wouldn't have been the Argo that we have. Ben knows how to direct something that is really tight and really puts you on the edge of your seat. And that wasn't totally the way that George and I had conceived the movie from the beginning. Actually, the opening of the film, which is one of the great openings that I've seen in a long time, is the overtaking of the embassy. That was all Ben wanting to do that. We had a little thing in the beginning. He's like, I want a long, long sequence to start it out. And as the budget started to grow and grow, we were like: "Well, this is the piece that's got to go. We can't afford to do this." Well, we were wrong, clearly, because the opening is f--ing great, and the movie wouldn't have been as good without it.
Sher: I learned a lot when we were making Out of Sight. There's this great scene that Steven Soderbergh had directed. It's after Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney are together in the hotel room, and George has this great speech about being a bank robber. And the studio wanted to cut it because they thought the movie needed more pacing. And Steven didn't want to cut it, and he shouldn't have because it was fantastic. We were all fighting to keep it in. And then, at a certain point, they wore Steven down. And that was a big one for me because I'm so used to doing whatever the director says. I was like, "Well, he doesn't want it anymore, so I'll give up," and Anne Coates called me, our editor, who edited Lawrence of Arabia -- OK, she's incredible.
Sher: And she said, "I'm not cutting negative on that reel yet. Take one more shot at him." And I did, and I would like to say that I achieved it, but our mutual friend, Richard LaGravenese, got on the phone with him and said, "This is what makes it a Steven Soderbergh film." And he put it back in. And I can't imagine the film without it.
THR: Was there a debate about the live singing in Les Miserables?
Fellner: What? Whether there should be any? [Laughter.] Someone here has made a musical? No? OK, it's a nightmare. You're going to places that you don't fully understand as dramatic or nonsinging producers. So the big decision was made by Tom Hooper right at the very beginning. He said two things: "I'll make the movie, but everybody sings live; and if we can't find a great Jean Valjean as the lead character, there's no point in making the movie." So they got lucky with Hugh Jackman wanting to do it. He was the only person on the list.
THR: Is there one film you wish you had produced?
Fellner: The Lord of the Rings.
Boyens: Well, you nearly did.
Fellner: Yes, in a building not far from here. … We would never have been able to do it because at that time, PolyGram didn't have that kind of money. But Peter came in and showed the models, and at that time, I think it was one, maybe two films.
Boyens: It was two scripts.
Heslov: You should have used your personal cash on that one. [Laughter.]
Sher: Mine's Boogie Nights because Nick Wechsler and I sent Mike De Luca Boogie Nights.
Sellar: Oh, really? Didn't even know that.
Fellner: My other one is Pulp Fiction.
SHER Well, everybody passed except for Mr. Weinstein.
Philippa Boyens, The Hobbit: The New Zealand native has worked with Peter Jackson since writing the first Lord of the Rings installment with him and Fran Walsh in 2001. She shared the Oscar for adapted screenplay with the pair for 2003's The Return of the King.
Bruce Cohen, Silver Linings Playbook: The Oscar winner for American Beauty (and nominee for Milk) was called on by The Weinstein Co. exec Donna Gigliotti to shepherd the $22 million film's 33-day Philadelphia shoot.
Eric Fellner, Les Miserables: Universal struck a deal with Regal Cinemas to run a 4½-minute trailer explaining how this musical would be different from others -- the cast performed all the songs live on set rather than prerecording them.
Grant Heslov, Argo: An actor, writer (the upcoming Monuments Men) and partner with George Clooney in Smokehouse productions,Heslov filmed the Ben Affleck drama in Los Angeles, Washington and Turkey, which stood in for 1980 Iran.
JoAnne Sellar, The Master: Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson scrapped his first drafted Scientology-inspired movie then reconceived it, requiring Sellar -- who has worked with him since 1997's Boogie Nights -- to find new financing.
Stacey Sher, Django Unchained: Sher, who executive produced Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction in 1994, reunited with the filmmaker for this spaghetti Western about an American slave who teams with a German bounty hunter to find his long-lost wife.
About THR's Roundtable Series: The Hollywood Reporter continues its annual series of exclusive discussions among the year's most compelling film talents. As awards season unfolds, look for the final roundtable with composers. Go to THR.com/TheRace to watch videos of the full discussions.