THR's Producer Roundtable: 7 Behind-the-Scenes Players on Saying No to Directors, What to Do When Studios Kill Projects
Letty Aronson, Tim Bevan, Jim Burke, Chris Columbus, Michael De Luca, Kathleen Kennedy and Bill Pohlad explain how movies really get made.
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.
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.
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.
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 . 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.
THR: Has that come up with Lincoln, the Spielberg film you're shooting now?
Kennedy: The logistics of Lincoln are pretty straightforward. We do have one specific issue, which is we're getting access to a lot of government buildings. Because government is out of session, in Richmond, Virginia, they turned over everything to us. That creates constraints, meaning we can shoot for X number of weeks, but we can't go back. So that makes for a very efficient process.
THR: If you sat with a group of students, what would you say is the most important thing about being a great producer?
Chris Columbus: Certainly, I had to forget that I wasn't [directing The Help]. I had promised [DreamWorks'] Stacey Snider and Steven Spielberg that I would be on the set every day, and that was terrifying. I had to learn how to really be a diplomatic, caring producer. I had to learn to respect all those guys who used be hovering over my shoulder when I was directing.
THR: Do you regret anything on that film?
Columbus: I regret a couple of conversations that I had early on where I felt like I came on really strong with [director] Tate Taylor, who knew absolutely what he was doing. This was early on in the screen test, and I was a little harsh in an e-mail, and I still feel bad about that.
THR: Bill, What was the most surprising thing about working with Terrence Malick?
Bill Pohlad: I thought there would be a lot of tension, and there actually wasn't. It was very relaxed and very easygoing. The challenges mostly came in post [production]. In actual production, Terry is very flexible. You give him the parameters and he lives within the parameters.
THR: The golden rule of Hollywood is, you don't spend your own money -- but you did on Tree of Life. Why?
Pohlad: This one was special because I had been working with Terry for so long and I really believed in it. We decided to roll the dice, so to speak. I wouldn't want to do that too often, and I don't, but in that case it seemed worthwhile to do it. I knew that this movie probably wouldn't get made in the way that it was intended to be made without somebody doing something like that.
THR: Would you spend your own money again?
Pohlad: Yes, judiciously. (Laughter.)
THR: How much can a studio executive help and hurt a film when it's being made?
Bevan: Stacey is like the old-fashioned type of studio executive in that she comes from a creative background. But there's a trend in Hollywood at the moment where studio executives are coming from more of a marketing background, and that is challenging. Stacey would always have the five best script notes and know as much, if not more, about the film than the director did and wasn't frightened of the process. I think one of the problems of marketing executives is that they don't understand how films get made and they're a bit nervous. And that is not the most efficient way to be a studio executive.
De Luca: Courage is always an admirable quality.
Kennedy: Anything in excess of two or three pages [of notes] is way too long and they're not identifying what the core issues are in the story. They're getting into a lot of nitpicky detail that, frankly, in the long run always gets ignored.
Burke: The challenge with notes is when you get 10 bad notes in a row to keep yourself open to the 11th.
THR: Would any of you like to produce the Oscars?
De Luca: Sure. That sounds like fun.
Kennedy: Producing the Oscars sounds like fun? (Laughter.)
De Luca: I'm a glorified fan, and I've watched the Oscars since I was a toddler. I still look forward to watching them every year and it just feels like you'd be part of history.
Kennedy: And you want it to be good.
De Luca: Sometimes the musical tributes [are bad]. One year there was a musical tribute to editing. I think those are hard. I would cut down on the musical medleys and tributes and do more film clips. Obviously, I'm not going to get the call anytime soon. And I used to like when they had all the nominated songs performed by the original artists. They don't do that anymore.
THR: Your jobs are all-consuming. What do you do in your personal lives to take a break?
Kennedy: I collect books. I have a huge collection of Jules Verne, but I also have a really interesting collection of voyages and explorations around the world. And I have two teenagers right now who take up most of my time.
Columbus: Baseball. That's why I loved Moneyball, because it feels like a Capra-esque version of what a baseball film should be. Also, it's corny, but my family is an obsession. Even coming here today [a Sunday] was difficult because Saturdays and Sundays to me are sacred. Even when I was doing Harry Potter, I said, "I'm not working Saturdays and Sundays." It was a philosophy of Spielberg's as well. I always remember Steven saying, "That's the way to do it. Separate yourself, so no calls at home. Nothing at all." I lead a boring life in San Francisco. I have a great time whenever I am here [in Los Angeles]. I have a lot of friends, but I would destroy myself. So living in San Francisco, I keep a great balance.
THR: Do you feel that you've made big personal sacrifices for your job?
Kennedy: Yes. Trying to balance your kids is always hard because this is a very, very time-intensive job. When they're little -- I don't know if you all did this -- but you can take your kids with you. And then they get older and it's a negotiation. And [husband] Frank [Marshall] and I both do this job.
THR: Does that make it easier or harder?
Kennedy: We just see the kids, we don't see each other. (Laughter.)
Columbus: There are pluses to being able to have my kids with me. I mean, when my daughter was 11 I could bring her to the Great Hall at Hogwarts [on Harry Potter]. I never do anything that cool now, particularly now that they are teenagers and older. But there are perks in the film business with the kids. You work very hard for a specific time and then you have a long time where you're off, and you may have weeks where you get to spend time with family. My philosophy in filmmaking is like when Michael Corleone says, "Can a man ever truly lose his family?" That terrifies me. Almost every film I've ever made is about someone losing their family, and I've taken that attitude in my personal life. I don't want to lose my family. It's the most frightening thing in the world.
THR: Who are your heroes?
Kennedy: I've been very fascinated by Steve Jobs. I'm sure because of everything that has been written. I thought it was fascinating that he walked all the time. I do that. On a set, I'll just leave and go for a walk.
Bevan: I walk my kids to school, and I see these other people with their phones in their ear. You should be talking to your kids!
Kennedy: I consciously don't take my phone. Ever.
THR: Why are you fascinated by Steve Jobs?
Kennedy: A complicated personality, and I think he had certain similarities to various personalities in this business, where you're dealing with intensely creative people.
De Luca: He married visionary creativity to a business, which is what we do sometimes.
Kennedy: Yes, exactly. But it's fascinating because even if you're in the creative business, you still don't completely understand where those ideas come from.
THR: Did you know him?
Kennedy: I met him a couple of times. I don't think he was an easy person to know.
THR: What about other people's heroes?
Pohlad: [Gone With the Wind producer] David O. Selznick. Looking back on that era in Hollywood, there's something that's really great about that.
THR: Could Selznick exist in this world?
Pohlad: I don't know.
De Luca: [Late studio executive] John Calley is my hero for a bunch of reasons. He was a man who was generous to me personally, just in terms of panicked lunches that I'd request for advice and just being a mentor. He was very generous with his time with me. And as an executive-turned-producer, I just look at his run at Warner Bros. from 1970 to 1980 and I just worship all the movies. And then his career as a producer, and then his second career as an executive again. He kind of jump-started MGM-UA and then came over to Columbia.
Columbus: Heroes? I'd have to say Bruce Springsteen. Because to me, Bruce represents integrity and always staying true to yourself. I've created a couple of wrongs and I've always tried to go back [to fix them], and when I went back, I would say, "What would Bruce think?"
ABOUT THR'S ROUNDTABLE SERIES: The Hollywood Reporter's annual Roundtable Series will conclude with the Animation Roundtable, which runs in a stand-alone special issue of the magazine available on Dec. 16. The series will return in the spring and shift to television talent, with the season's Emmy contenders in acting and writing categories.