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Producer Roundtable: 6 Power Players on Delivering 'The Hobbit' and the 'Nightmare' of Making 'Les Mis'

This story first appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

During the '90s, when producers Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan's Working Title Films was owned by PolyGram, the company heard a bold pitch for a planned two-film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings from an unknown New Zealand filmmaking team led by Peter Jackson. Working Title loved the project but was unable to justify the enormous financial risk. Still, the early interest "meant a lot to Pete," Jackson's longtime co-writer/producer Philippa Boyens told Fellner at The Hollywood Reporter's annual Producer Roundtable. Boyens, 49, who co-produced the $3 billion-grossing Rings trilogy and is back with the first of three Hobbit prequels, joined Fellner, 51 (Les Miserables), Bruce Cohen, 51 (Silver Linings Playbook), Grant Heslov, 47 (Argo), JoAnne Sellar, 49 (The Master), and Stacey Sher, 50 (Django Unchained), on Dec. 6 in a private room at The Palm restaurant in West Hollywood for a discussion about studio politics, movies they wish they had produced and how to say no to Quentin Tarantino.

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The Hollywood Reporter: Eric, like at many studios, your company's film projects are now run through a computer to see if they make sense financially before you give a greenlight. How does that work?

Grant Heslov: Yeah, how does it work?

Eric Fellner: Well, I hate to sound like a boring old geezer, but we've been doing it since the PolyGram days in the 1990s. It's really useful because it helps you not make giant mistakes. Sometimes it's wrong, and you've got to fight it because the people who are doing the numbers will come at it with way less passion or understanding of what the material is than we, the producers, do. But it can guide you in terms of what scale of budget you should be working on for that particular kind of material. There's a film now that we're looking at that's in a foreign language, and it's going to cost $15 million or something. So we're really second-guessing it, thinking twice about whether we should do it.

Joanne Sellar: On a Paul Thomas Anderson film, it's always trying to find someone who's very passionate about the film because they never make sense. We were so lucky with The Master to find Megan Ellison, somebody who's really, really passionate about Paul's work and wanting to get the movie made. But it's always an uphill battle.

Heslov: I don't think we would ever get a movie made if we worked with computer models because none of our movies make sense.

Stacey Sher: Mine neither.

Heslov: Except for the one I'm making right now. [Laughter.] That makes sense.

Philippa Boyens: We had that, strangely enough, with The Hobbit, which everyone thought was a no-brainer, but it wasn't greenlit for the longest time. Guillermo del Toro was in place, and part of the problem for him was how long that process was taking. He'd been in place as the director for 18 months, and it just was going to go on forever. Peter had to step up and direct it for it to start making sense in terms of those financial models. That's one of the reasons that I think he stepped up to the plate and did it.

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 THR: You mean that if Guillermo had directed, the money wouldn't have been there?

Boyens: No, Pete was especially committed to seeing Guillermo's film vision of The Hobbit happen. But when the film was just not getting greenlit, Guillermo said: "OK, I can't do this. I can't hang on any longer." People say it's a no-brainer. But nothing's a no-brainer really, is it?

Sher: And nothing's a sure thing. You find movies that look perfect on paper, and then they just don't work at all.

Bruce Cohen: For each project, you have to decide: How much are we listening to projections, and how much are we ignoring them? I mean, on the one hand, they can be very helpful because if you know -- we really need an element, from a director or star or something, or we don't have a shot to get it made -- then, of course, that's good information. But a lot of us, if we listened to those projections or took no for an answer, then we wouldn't get our movies made.

THR: What has been your most painful experience on a film?

Sher: It's every time somebody says no, and you just start from square one again. I'm starting a film at the end of February that I've been developing for 12 years. It's called A Walk Among the Tombstones. Scott Frank wrote the first draft 12 years ago, and Liam Neeson's starring in it. We finally have the right element, and Scott's directing it. There was another director. There was another star. But they come in, they go out, and you never give up if you care about them.

Sellar: The most tragic thing for me was, I was producing this film called Dark Blood that River Phoenix died on. I spent two years putting it together, and we shot for six weeks and -- I mean, obviously the tragedy of River dying was really, really awful. George Sluizer, the director, has actually just -- 18 years on -- finished compiling a film from the footage. I didn't want to be a part of it because I don't think River's family was behind it, and I don't think there was any point in bringing that all up for them again. So I haven't seen it, but I'm sure I will.

Fellner: Did they create a digital character, or …

Sellar: No, they've cut it, and they've done voice-over. It was a three-hander with Jonathan Pryce and Judy Davis, so it's like there wasn't a lot they could do.

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THR: Have you ever completely resurrected a film that was absolutely dead?

Heslov: George Clooney and I wrote Good Night, and Good Luck to do as a live television show for CBS originally. We'd worked on it for a long time, and it was right when Janet Jackson had her top taken down [during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show], and that was CBS, and they just didn't want to do anything live. So we sort of took our lumps for a while, and then we said, "Well, screw it," and we just rewrote it as a feature. We brought it to Warner Independent at the time, and it was a $7 million film, and it was black and white. And they couldn't make the numbers work because black and white has no value. It was a whole nightmare. So we ended up having to go and just cobble the money [together] ourselves.

THR: JoAnne, for The Master, how many people did you go to before Megan Ellison said yes?

Sellar: Well, originally, Paul wrote on spec for Universal, after he'd done There Will Be Blood. And then, after he'd written it, it was obviously not a Universal picture, and with all the places like Miramax, Warner Independent, Paramount Vantage [gone], we had like five different financiers involved. Then Warner Bros. was going to come in for distribution, then we had a bunch of other different foreign financiers. And then Paul, quite rightly, didn't feel the script was in the right place, and we were racing to get into production because Philip Seymour Hoffman had to go off and do a play in Australia. So we decided ourselves to pull the plug. And in that interim period, I met Megan, and she said: "Well, I want to do it, and I don't want any other financiers. I just want to do it on my own." And I was like, "Oh, my God." [Laughter.]

Heslov: Yeah, nice gift.

Fellner: The man in the moon.

THR: You all work with top filmmakers. How does someone like Quentin Tarantino react to casting suggestions or other tweaks that might help a film sell overseas, take advantage of tax credits or things like that?

Sher: Well, we didn't have that situation. I did hear that I was making a black Western a lot, which is not something that looks very good in a computer. But it's a Quentin Tarantino film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx and Sam Jackson.

Fellner: I don't think anybody would have any trouble financing that.

Sher: But by the way, Quentin's very sensitive to all of those things. He's an accessible, commercial filmmaker.

Heslov: But he's also a star in his own right.

Sher: In the same way Peter had to direct The Hobbit for the numbers to make sense, Quentin and Peter Jackson are brands, as is George.

Boyens: The funny thing with Peter is that he sees himself as an independent filmmaker. SHER So does Quentin.

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THR: Except Peter owns New Zealand! [Laughter.] There have been a lot of reports about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey being given about $100 million from the New Zealand government. All of you were …

Boyens: No. This is such a myth. Peter brought a lot of money to New Zealand, and in exchange, they -- New Zealand, quite rightly, I think, because this is a competitive industry -- had to figure, "Do we want to make this an environment where you can make these kind of movies, or do we want to give it up?" That money would not have come into the country -- the taxes that were paid on that money, just through the 3,000 people who were employed on the film; the exposure it gives; the tourism. Pete truly doesn't own New Zealand. No one is harder on us than the Kiwis. You have the tall-poppy syndrome: They cut your head off if you get too big for your boots. It's a Kiwi thing.

THR: Was doing a third Hobbit movie your choice, or was that Warner Bros. saying, "We'd really love a third film"?

Boyens: That was absolutely our choice. The relationship with the studio has been really good. They're really upfront, which allows Pete to be upfront, too, and that was one of those upfront moments where, you know, they weren't just buying into it. They weren't just going, "Oh, yeah, third film." It was: "OK, what's the story? How do you want to do it?" They really wanted to know and understand why a third film.

THR: How do you say no to your directors?

Boyens: You never turn up with a problem. You turn up with …

Heslov: Choices.

Boyens: We turned up for a set [Beorn's house] that was in the wrong place. Literally, it was not where Peter had said.

Sher: We had this crazy situation where it didn't snow in January in Mammoth for the first time in 100 years.

Cohen: Of course. That always happens.

Sher: And we needed snow, so within five days, we all came together with a plan to present to Quentin, who had already scouted Wyoming, and it became this great happy accident. We had to pick up our set that we built in Mammoth and move it to the Grand Tetons and figure out how to get into all the places we needed to on very short notice to not stop filming.

Cohen: A pretty standard joke among producers is any location you go to, they're always saying: "It's never rained this much before in this month. Last year, the weather was exactly what you wanted."

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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.

Heslov: Historic.

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.

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THR: Is there one film you wish you had produced?

Fellner: The Lord of the Rings.

Boyens: Well, you nearly did.

Heslov: Really?

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.

THE FILMS

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.