THR's Producer Roundtable: 7 Behind-the-Scenes Players on Saying No to Directors, What to Do When Studios Kill Projects

Jessica Chou

Letty Aronson, Tim Bevan, Jim Burke, Chris Columbus, Michael De Luca, Kathleen Kennedy and Bill Pohlad explain how movies really get made.

This article appeared in the Dec. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It shouldn't be a surprise that Kathleen Kennedy cited Steve Jobs as a hero of hers during The Hollywood Reporter's annual Producers Roundtable. After all, the late Apple chief was heralded as a visionary for marrying artistic vision with savvy business practices -- the exact balancing act mastered by movie producers at the top of their game.

VIDEO: THR's Producer Roundtable Uncensored

Consider the creative and financial achievements of the group THR invited: Letty Aronson, 67, serves as her brother Woody Allen's trusted right-hand woman for all his films, including the time-travel dramedy Midnight in Paris, which became Allen's biggest box-office hit ever. Tim Bevan, 52, pulls double duty as co-chairman of the prolific Working Title Films and as an active producer, including on the spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Jim Burke, 57, managed shooting The Descendants in interesting Hawaii locations on a tight $12 million budget. Chris Columbus, 53, also known for his active directing career (including the first two Harry Potter films), spent months in Mississippi working on the logistics that led to the surprise blockbuster The Help.

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Michael De Luca, 46, the New Line executive turned producer, helped revive Moneyball after the studio fired its original director. Kennedy, 58, shepherded two very different Steven Spielberg projects, The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, often working on both at the same time. And Bill Pohlad, 56, the Minnesota-based producer-financier, put his own money into Terrence Malick's ultra-arty The Tree of Life and was rewarded with $54 million in worldwide gross.

Together, the group, who gathered for an hourlong discussion Nov. 13 at The Writers Room in Hollywood, represents the best of the year in filmmaking.

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THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: What's been your most difficult moment as a producer?

Michael de Luca: Mine actually happened to be this year. (Laughs.) It was when Moneyball ended up not going forward with Steven Soderbergh at the helm. When a plug is pulled on a picture, it's rare that it gets started again. But we had tremendous allies in the people at Sony. [Studio co-chair Amy Pascal] believed in the project, and I think for her, it was never, "Let's move on," it was, "How do we restart?"

Kathleen Kennedy: One of the toughest was Empire of the Sun [1987]. No one had ever gone into China from the Western world and done what we ended up doing, which was to close down the Bund and shoot in Shanghai. That took about a year of constant trips to Beijing and then to Shanghai, and then negotiations to get the permission to be able to go in and do what we did. Juxtapose that against something totally different, which is Steven [Spielberg] saying to me [on 1993's Jurassic Park]: "I want dinosaurs that are 30 feet tall and I want them to run in front of the actors." And that's the end of the discussion.

Jim Burke: [Descendants director] Alexander Payne and I have known each other for such a long time and we share a sensibility, so I trust him. But there were a couple of small moments where that trust was tested. We had to cast a young girl who was 10 years old. And we looked everywhere and couldn't find her and the clock was ticking. We were three weeks away from starting, we still didn't have a 10-year-old actress. But he was like, "Don't worry, don't worry." And I said, "OK." But I did worry, and then [Amara Miller] presented herself. We saw her on tape and she flew out and she did a terrific job.

Tim Bevan: My toughest moments are when you start pictures where things aren't quite ready. Like on Green Zone in 2010, where, for various reasons, including the writers strike, we started the movie without a complete script. You can feel things sort of unraveling from the first day. It's that horrible thing in producing -- your job is kind of putting out fires. But you don't sign up for putting out fires 24 hours a day, 30 days a month and nearly a year. You just have to keep the movie alive.

THR: Looking back, what would you have done differently?

Bevan: I wouldn't have started it. Starting a film when the script's incomplete is nine-tenths madness. You don't have to make the movie. But as a producer, there's that thing inside where you've got the money and you're off to the races and it's starting and you keep moving anyway.

THR: How much harder is getting the money these days?

Letty Aronson: My greatest challenge is a yearly challenge, because we raise independent funds on a yearly basis. We don't get any studio money. We don't sell the film in presales to get the money. So every year I'm out there looking for the money.

THR: All these producers have multiple projects with many directors, but you work with just one and he's your brother. What happens when you and Woody disagree?

Aronson: He's very reasonable. (Laughter.) It has its pluses and minuses, but mostly its pluses. We are a year-round operation. We film in the summer. We film for seven weeks; we come back around Labor Day when Woody edits. In November, he starts thinking about a new project -- that's the hardest part. Once he's finished thinking, then he starts to write. He writes quickly. And then we budget it in January. In February or March, if we're going out of the country, I go with our line producer to Europe to interview all the key positions. We always hire local people. We start preproduction then. And in the middle of June, three weeks before we shoot, we go to the country or the city to look at all the locations, and in July we start to shoot.

Kennedy: And why can't we all do this?! (Laughter.)

THR: When have you said no to something Woody wants?

Aronson: On occasion I have said, "We just can't have rain." Because it's very, very expensive. Or, "We've got to stay the extra day." On Midnight in Paris -- Woody doesn't like to shoot at night and he usually doesn't write anything that requires it -- but this [movie] was 50 percent at night.

De Luca: Late Afternoon in Paris isn't as romantic. (Laughter.)

Aronson: He was under the impression that we could shoot this between 10 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., because he doesn't like to work late, and that's very late for him. But it gets dark very late in Europe, so you can't even start lighting until 10. So a lot of nights we worked until 3 or 4 in the morning.

THR: Kathy, have you had to say no to Spielberg?

Kennedy: You never say no. You always give a choice. It's actually a really interesting rule that I use all the time. It's not going to do any good to say no if you don't have a solution. I love the process of trying to figure it out: "OK, what am I going to offer up?" I don't want to say, "You can't do this." If there's a good reason why we can't do it, then the problem needs to be solved, so what's the alternative?

Burke: I love that approach; it makes me smarter and it engages me more.

Bevan: And it'll make the crew smarter, too. Challenging the crew against budgetary constraints is a good thing, actually. All of a sudden their creativity goes off in a different direction, and quite often you get a more interesting result.

Kennedy: Or ask a question rather than saying no. "It doesn't look like we can do this, but what do you think?" You might get three or four different ideas and often those ideas are better than what you started out with.


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