Ridiculous requests, inclusion riders and that "patronizing" popular Oscar: Producers behind 'Black Panther,' 'A Star Is Born,' 'Crazy Rich Asians' and more reveal the new challenges of guiding great films, from streamer-vs.-studio dilemmas to social media spoilers.
"You have to be a bit mad," concedes The Favourite producer Ceci Dempsey of a key commonality among those in her nutty profession. After all, many would consider it madness to pursue one elusive project for two decades — which is how long Dempsey, 65, spent trying to get Yorgos Lanthimos' quirky Queen Anne period film made. For Bill Gerber, it took about half that (11 years) to bring Warner Bros.' remake of the showbiz classic A Star Is Born to the screen, with a previous version (Clint Eastwood was once attached to direct, Beyonce to star) slipping through his fingers before the Bradley Cooper-Lady Gaga musical finally took form.
And while it was only two years ago that Gabriela Rodriguez, 38, signed on to produce Alfonso Cuaron's ambitious autobiographical drama, Roma, it was a project that the Oscar-winning director had been wanting to make his whole life. Joined by Black Panther producer (and Marvel Studios chief) Kevin Feige, 45, 22 July producer-director Paul Greengrass, 63, and Nina Jacobson, 52 — who guided both Ben Is Back and Crazy Rich Asians to the screen this year — these pros spoke to THR in early October (their conversation has been condensed and edited here) about how they shepherd a helmer's dreams, what's next for representation in Hollywood, that popular Oscar snafu and the unique acrobatics of their work behind the scenes.
"I used to watch The Ed Sullivan Show, and there was a guy who had 12 plates spinning — it feels like that all the time," says Gerber, 61. "It's like until you get all 12 plates spinning, you're not getting a movie made."
What's the biggest disagreement you have ever had with a director, and how, as a producer, did you fix that problem?
PAUL GREENGRASS I have that all the time.
BILL GERBER With yourself. (Laughter.)
GREENGRASS Yeah, exactly. So I fire the writer, that's me, and then I always want to fire the director, that's me.
As a director, what makes a great producer?
GREENGRASS The relationship between a director and a producer is absolutely fundamental, speaking from a director's point of view. The most important thing is that you need to be working with a producer who, in some indefinable sense, you want to please that person. And you always know whether you have that chemistry or not. It comes very, very quickly, and you never lose it, actually — no matter what your arguments are.
NINA JACOBSON When you have an honest back-and-forth and you feel like you actually go into the conversation with both receptivity and conviction, that's the most pleasing part of the job. When it's least pleasing is when you have a filmmaker who doesn't actually want your honest opinion — they are so sensitive that in order to get to the thing you want to say, it has to be couched in a whole bunch of preamble.
KEVIN FEIGE I've been very lucky to not be in this position very often, when it seems like, "Wait, are we making different movies?" It's almost never happened to us. It's usually a very specific thing you're talking about, and it comes down to, "Why am I getting that note? Am I getting that note because you want to wrap early? Is this a budgetary note?" And I start to get upset, but if you talk it through and [they] realize, "No, this is about the movie," you get through.
CECI DEMPSEY I also think if there's a philosophy of making a virtue out of a problem and if you're in sync with your director, that's the best part of your relationship. There may be stomping around and a bit of a tantrum, but ultimately you think, "We're going to make a virtue out of this." There have been so many instances on the last two films I've made [she also produced Lanthimos' The Lobster] where ridiculous things happen out of the blue.
What's an example from The Favourite?
DEMPSEY There was a cockfight that figured quite heavily in the beginning of the film, but you can't do a cockfight, and I had to say no. It's not legal, you can't even fake it. And he's into very authentic ... everything has to be authentic. So this was a massive tragedy from which I thought we would never come back. He and [screenwriter] Tony [McNamara] rewrote it as a duck race, which is now one of our favorite scenes. It's funny and it's witty and it's silly, whereas a cockfight would've been very aggressive and quite serious.
Gabriela, Roma is a true story but a very personal one based on Alfonso's life. How did that shape your responsibilities?
GABRIELA RODRIGUEZ He wanted this creative freedom in this process that there was no studio involvement or anyone flying in to say, "You're spending too much." At the beginning, the fact that we didn't have a script and we did this whole process that was based on his memories and him just telling us what he wanted felt like that was going be the most difficult thing of all.
Was there a time when you had to put your foot down and say, "We can't do that"?
RODRIGUEZ I tried to tell him "No, we can't do this" a lot, but he always gets his way somehow. (Laughter.) We had a meeting with all the neighbors, the ones who used to live there when he was young, and they were like, "Remember there was this bear that used to play a tambourine that used to stand on the corner." And Alfonso goes, "I want a bear playing a tambourine." I'm like, "I'm not going to get you a bear playing a tambourine." And Nico Celis, my co-producer, who is Mexican, he's like, "Oh, I love this challenge, I'm going to do it." After calling every zoo, every place around that could possibly, Nico goes, "Well, maybe I'll wear a bear suit and stand on the corner." I'm like, "This is getting out of hand. Someone tell him he's not getting a bear."
The industry has changed so much in the past few years. What is required to be a successful producer today that wasn't a requirement a few years ago?
GERBER You have to be aware of a lot more now in terms of this social media aspect. You had no idea how great that was, when you could keep things secret. Now, nothing is a secret. Everything is now under a microscope.
JACOBSON Navigating a slate — knowing that to get a movie made and released, every movie needs to have its own intricately plotted path. To get it developed, who cares? It doesn't really matter if you've developed something, it only matters if you've gotten it made. And so with each movie, having to decide and anticipate very early on in the process — what is the path that will actually result in this movie being released, being valued by the people who are releasing it and being seen by hopefully as many people as possible? — is a huge challenge. Because it's not like studios are lining up to make a giant slate of films — many of those films are already decided upon, there are franchises taking up a good chunk of the schedule, so what are going to be the slots?
GERBER Don't look at Kevin when you say that.
JACOBSON It might have something to do with somebody at this table. I'm not mentioning any names. (Laughter.)
GERBER Yeah, 2023 July Fourth.
JACOBSON So threading the needle so that you still end up mattering is a real challenge.
Two big studio movies this year, Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, featured really diverse casts. Was there a big fight you had to take on to get these two movies made?
FEIGE We had Black Panther on our schedule for a while. (Laughter.) We had amazing support, [Disney's] Bob Iger and Alan Horn at no point questioned it. Quite the opposite: They said, "This needs to stand alongside the biggest movies you've made." It had a budget that matched that. At no point was there a question about this market or that market or where does it play. It was a big movie that we were going to make with an almost entirely African and African-American cast.
Nina, what was your strategy to get Crazy Rich Asians to the screen?
JACOBSON We made a very specific decision in that case, which was we're not going to develop it inside the studio system because it will be too easy for somebody to not make it or to have to make a concession that was fundamentally not true to the movie. We went to studios and streaming services with what was a yes-or-no proposition: "Here is our $30 million with an all-Asian cast." And we could then say: "Who is the best, who wants this the most, believes in it the most, is the best home and can find the biggest audience for it?"
When we're talking about diversity in Hollywood, a big topic of conversation has been the idea of an inclusion rider. What do you think of putting a representation requirement in writing?
FEIGE Well, one question really is: Should people be forced to do it? And maybe the answer is yes, maybe the answer is no. If you're in a position of power and you're the one doing the hiring, we have learned — on our last number of movies and a number of movies that haven't come out or haven't been announced — that the more diverse the group of people around the table, the better the movie. [Black Panther director] Ryan Coogler actually said, "Do you have production designers, costume designers that you like to work with?" And we said, "Sure, but if you have some let us know." And he said, "Well, I've worked with various people on films that were excellent but much smaller than Black Panther." And in the case of every single crewmember that he brought to us, they blew us away, they were incredible. And it was because we were open to listening and giving people an opportunity. And now, you know, we're desperate to work with them all on all of our films going forward.
GERBER But there is a bottleneck problem, there is a studio issue, there's not enough opportunities for people coming from different backgrounds to get into the business.
JACOBSON I do think sometimes people need a push and they need pressure because it is very easy for people to say, "I just want to work with the people I know and trust." (To Feige) Not everybody will take the initiative that you guys took in saying, "Yeah, we have an incredible organization that can help support people who are taking a big step up in budget, we have confidence that if you have the talent, we'll have the scaffolding to help you scale it up." If Hollywood and the system need a kick in the pants and a bit of coercion to move the needle, then so be it. Because it's time. And the bottlenecking issue, well, what better reason to try to undertake opening doors, educating people at a much earlier stage about jobs that exist, creating apprenticeships and mentorships so that it's not just that you have to know somebody in order to get a chance to be a grip or to work in the makeup department. Pressure does have to be applied. And if it's applied in the form of an inclusion rider, I'm down.
In this #MeToo era, how do you ensure that there are no issues of bullying or harassment on set?
GERBER Our crew, it wasn't 50/50, but there were many, many women as heads of departments on A Star Is Born. And that was really Bradley Cooper's lifestyle. He is very close with a lot of professional women — my producing partner, Lynette Taylor, on the movie, whom he did Place Beyond the Pines with, [production designer] Karen Murphy and [costume designer] Erin Benach and our first AD, Shelley Ziegler. So if anybody even thought about doing something inappropriate, they probably would think twice. But I think producers and directors who care about these things need to make it very clear from the onset, even just when you're in the office, prepping: There is no tolerance for that. And when the filmmaker is very vigilant about those things and takes it very, very seriously, it just permeates the production.
JACOBSON We did [FX series] Pose this past year, and we knew that on the one hand we populated the production at every level with as many trans people of color as we could and as many people who had been from the scene, the [1980s underground drag] ballroom scene, and knew it well and could help educate everybody about the realities of that time as well as this time. But we also knew that we're going to have people on our crew who probably haven't worked with any trans people before, and so you educate and you make sure that you're not afraid to talk about anything in the beginning so that people feel more confident and more secure about how to be with people who are different than them. There is a component of education and creating a safe space and making sure everything gets talked about early so that people aren't just guessing and not sure what's expected.
RODRIGUEZ Alfonso hadn't shot in Mexico since Y Tu Mama Tambien , and he wanted to be — I don't want to say anti-establishment, but a little bit. He didn't want to necessarily trust that whoever is the biggest Mexican gaffer or the biggest Mexican AD is the right person for this job. He wanted to say, "Who are the young people, who is new? Send me what you've been doing, give me some options because I don't care how old you are, I don't care how many movies you've done before." I mean, it was very unorthodox, so honestly whatever experience you had (laughs), maybe you had to unlearn it and adapt to this new process. I don't know exactly the ratio of women or men. There were loads of Mexicans (laughter), so maybe that helps the quota in the U.S., minorities all the way. And there were loads of young people. I think Alfonso was the oldest person on set.
This year we almost had a new category at the Academy Awards, the popular Oscar. What were your thoughts when this was announced and during the uproar that made it go away?
DEMPSEY I thought I'd heard something wrong. I thought I was hallucinating — it was some sort of, like, X Factor mentality. I thought it was a terrible idea. I mean, popular? How do you define popular?
GREENGRASS Do you have an unpopular category?
RODRIGUEZ The fact that a movie is popular doesn't mean it needs to not be good. I mean why can't two worlds come together, no?
FEIGE Black Panther came up a lot in those conversations. But — a testament to Disney and to everyone involved — we just kept talking about best picture.
JACOBSON It feels patronizing. And especially this year — it felt like a way of ghettoizing movies that succeeded with people of color, which is to say, "Well, these films can't be judged just on their own merits, but they were popular." The work that you end up making and believing in, it comes from the inside out — you don't think, "What will other people like?" You think about, "What does it mean to me? What does it mean to the filmmaker? What does it mean to the writer? What does it mean to the actors?" The idea is meant to be that we're humans, and if we dig deep enough, those emotions are universal and will be received by others if it moves the people who are telling the story deeply.
Bill, Clint Eastwood and Beyonce were at one time attached to A Star Is Born. What happened and how did you deal with starting over?
GERBER Time happened. Beyonce got pregnant, and then Clint went off and did another movie. At the time I thought, "I'm going to be able to make a movie with my old dear friend" — not old, my young dear friend — and I was so excited about it. And I called Beyonce's people, and she came out, she met with Clint, and I'm sitting there and I think I'm watching something historic about to happen. And then it didn't. It's just the movie business.
How do you know when it's the right time to make a movie?
GREENGRASS Speaking for myself, I tend to make films that are kind of about the world out there. So you try and think about the things that you care about most. In my case it was the rise of the far right and where that was leading us. But I think the hardest thing is to identify what you care about most as opposed to what you ought to care about. If you can identify that and sing the song that only you can sing, if that's the right expression, then it shows because the film has an inner truth and an inner passion.
JACOBSON With Ben Is Back, we were really hell-bent on having the movie released this year, which is unusual because I read the script for the first time last summer. So it's the fastest that I have ever made a film. [Director] Peter Hedges and I go way back to my days as an executive at Disney, and he sent me a script that he had written for himself to direct, and I read it on a plane ride home from New York, right after he had given it to me — and by the time I got off the plane, I was like, "I want to do it with you." And we had a sense of real urgency given the subject matter and how profound the crisis is in our country with the prevalence of opiates that are crushing so many lives.
GREENGRASS It was pretty much the same. 22 July we made really, really fast. And there is something thrilling about that. Particularly like your film and our film, where you're wanting to address what's going on out there and it's a rising situation, to make it fast and put it out fast gives it an energy and an inner resilience, which I think is good.
22 July and Roma are both being released by Netflix, which is obviously known for streaming. What conversations did you have about ensuring your movie is seen on the big screen?
GREENGRASS In my case it was pretty straightforward. I finished the screenplay, and we sort of went out with it on Monday, and I spoke to Scott Stuber on a Wednesday. What he basically said was, "We're going to try and create a proper theatrical side to the Netflix offering alongside the streaming side; we think that's the way the business is going to go." From my point of view, this particular film, I wanted it watched by young people. And the challenge that we faced was that young people sadly don't go to see art house movies. I remember talking to my son, who's a college-age young man, and he said, "Well, if you do it art house, my friends will never see it. If you put it on Netflix, we'll all see it."
RODRIGUEZ Same for us. Netflix was involved after we were already in the end stages of postproduction. And Alfonso felt the same way — this is a movie in Spanish, in black-and-white, about Mexico City in the 1970s. It's not like we had all the big studios knocking on our door. And like Paul was saying, Scott also and Ted [Sarandos] are committed to a theatrical release for the film. It will have that combination of having the platform experience and the experience of people seeing it online and the theaters for those who love the theater and want to see it on the big screen, which I'm hoping a lot of people will.
GREENGRASS And Disney and Fox, the first thing they're going to do is set up streaming. It's going to be the future.
GERBER And it's a great thing for filmmakers ultimately because there's a lot of movies that, like you were saying before, don't fit into necessarily the blockbuster format, and they should be seen.
GREENGRASS But I don't think it's going to affect the theatrical experience, do you?
GERBER I hope it doesn't. I mean, I go to the movies all the time, my friends go to the movies all the time. You go to see Black Panther, any of the movies we're talking about here, there are packed theaters to see them. It's an exciting experience. It is kind of still our campfire in many ways.
Kevin, what are your thoughts on the Disney/Fox merger and how it will affect Marvel?
FEIGE Well, it's not a hundred percent complete yet, so there's only so much I'm allowed to say, or so much they even tell me. But Paul mentioned the streaming service, and I think that is something that we're going to be adding content to, which is exciting. I love your analogy with the campfire, right? As many people as you can get around the campfire and tell stories. Campfires can be different: We are going to tell stories for the streaming service that we wouldn't be able to tell in a theatrical experience — a longer-form narrative, that's what comics are, it's about as longform a narrative as exists. But also maintaining that theatrical experience, which is our bread and butter, and the lines around the block, if you're lucky. Black Panther is not real, he is not a real person, but —
JACOBSON What? (Laughter.)
FEIGE He represents real hopes and real dreams and real representation. And so there is a certain amount of pressure that came with that, delivering on what people had been dreaming about for years, whether they read the comic book or not. Because a lot of people said "Wait a minute, this is a hero that looks like me," and the importance of that really can't be understated. People get so excited to see themselves on that big screen, and you take that very, very seriously.
Black Panther may not be real, but Paul, you often make films about real people — in 22 July, the survivors of the 2011 massacre in Norway. How heavily does their reaction weigh on you?
GREENGRASS A lot. The people who are caught up in these events always feel, in my experience, quite a bit different to what you would think. It's an interesting phenomenon of terror and political violence in democracies [Greengrass also helmed the 9/11 drama United 93.] Because when these events happen, they affect us all because they're public events — they're meant to terrorize us and weaken our faith in each other and our faith in our institutions. But of course, for the people directly involved, it's an intensely private moment of grief and pain. So there is a tension between the public and the private. Then later you find — and I've seen this before, and it was certainly true of 22 July — that the roles reverse but the tension remains in the sense that for those of us not involved, we have to get on with our lives. And our political and religious leaders tell us that we need to, and we tell our children that we need to carry on as normal, and that's important so we don't surrender to these things. But for those directly involved, there is no getting on with it — their lives are changed forever.
GERBER The first time it happened to me I was working at Warner Bros., and we wanted to do the Selena movie. [Director] Greg Nava brought her father in to meet us. When you're at a studio and you're having a zillion meetings a day and you're working on hundreds of projects — they're movies, it's not life or death necessarily. But facing the father of someone you want to make a movie about, who's been tragically murdered, it's very, very sobering.
GREENGRASS And movies are held to a much higher standard, which is, I suppose, fair enough because it's such a powerful medium.
GERBER Because they live forever.
What's the most backhanded compliment you've received about one of your films?
FEIGE We have a joke at Marvel Studios that oftentimes, we try to do a lot in a movie. We screen all of our movies in the testing process — we always learn something, usually learn something you're not expecting — but when people see early cuts of our films, they come up and they go, "That's a lotta movie." (Laughter.) "That's a loootttaa movie."
DEMPSEY My brother said to me — and it was a couple of years after The Lobster came out — "As a viewer, did you actually like that movie?" I mean, he couldn't help himself. (Laughter.) It had been bothering him for years, you know, 'cause he didn't.
JACOBSON "It's a brave film" is the worst —
DEMPSEY That's a killer, yeah.
JACOBSON Because it's a code word for stupid, foolhardy, poorly chosen, unlikely to succeed in the marketplace. There was a movie I got — as an executive, The Life Aquatic — and I loved that movie. I loved that movie so much. And I started to be concerned when many people commended it for being brave. (Laughter.) But I still really love it.
GREENGRASS Good for you.
JACOBSON But it did not make money. So brave is the word, I think.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.