The Hollywood Reporter's Film Producers of the Year talk about Oscar contender 'Promising Young Woman' and why they tapped Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach to write a Barbie movie: "Whatever you're thinking, we’re going to give you something totally different."
It was on the 2013 set of the World War II romantic drama Suite Francaise that Margot Robbie met her best friends, producing partners and future husband.
Tom Ackerley and Josey McNamara were assistant directors at the time, but, like Robbie, who was not yet the A-lister she would become, they aspired to careers far grander than the ones they had. "We were all like, 'I want to make my own stuff,'" recalls Robbie, with Ackerley, now her husband, adding, "It was a bit of, 'If they're doing it, why can't we?'"
So, in 2014, the trio, along with Robbie's childhood friend Sophia Kerr, launched LuckyChap Entertainment out of a London home that the then 20-somethings moved into when filming was done. The company's first release, I, Tonya, the black comedy starring Robbie as disgraced Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, earned widespread raves, a cadre of key Oscar nominations (including a win for supporting actress Allison Janney) and instant credibility. Six years later, the female-focused production company behind Birds of Prey and Hulu's Dollface has first-look deals in place at Warner Bros. (for film) and Amazon Studios (for TV), with a slate of projects, including Greta Gerwig's forthcoming Barbie adaptation, that has Hollywood salivating.
Up next: Promising Young Woman, a darkly comedic revenge thriller that's already garnering Oscar buzz for star Carey Mulligan, who plays an intensely smart, cunning former medical student driven to right the wrongs of her past. A Sundance darling, the film — written, produced and helmed by first-time director Emerald Fennell (Killing Eve) — is slated for a Christmas Day theatrical release, with plans to hit premium VOD a few weeks later. For Fennell, the opportunity to team with LuckyChap was a thrilling one. "As producers, they're hands-on in all the ways you want them to be: They move fast, give incredibly good advice and partner you with all the right people," she says. "At the same time, they never pressure you and they take your side on everything. Plus, they're people who you really trust, and everyone else trusts them, too."
THR's Film Producers of the Year — Australian-born Robbie, 30, along with Brits Ackerley, 30, and McNamara, 35 — found time on a recent afternoon to discuss their early success, their industry gripes and their plans for LuckyChap's future.
Promising Young Woman marks LuckyChap's first film not starring Margot. Was fronting every film until this point by design or necessity?
MARGOT ROBBIE We never started a company to be a starring vehicle for me or to be a platform for me to chase my dreams. It was really that we wanted to expand what female stories and female storytellers could do in this industry, and I don't need to be onscreen for that to happen. But it's a wonderful position to be in since my platform can also open some of those doors. And especially at the beginning, there were a lot of first- and second-time filmmakers that we wanted to work with, and you can't get something greenlit without a bankable name attached and I'm so lucky to fall into that bracket [of bankable names]. But I'm not right for every role. I felt that way about Promising Young Woman.
I watched the film thinking Carey Mulligan is wonderful, but it just as easily could have been you. How was the decision made?
ROBBIE I was like, "I think I'm who people would expect to be cast in this." But the most delightful thing about Promising Young Woman is that it takes you by surprise, and I just felt like I wouldn't be that surprising — me doing these kinds of things with people's perception of who I am and the characters that I've played. Carey Mulligan, however, is an actress that has this air of prestige around her. She's in period dramas. Throw her in Promising Young Woman, and people's minds get blown.
When do you feel the industry began taking you seriously as producers?
ROBBIE Once we made a movie. Our first movie was actually Terminal — though I, Tonya came out first. But even before anything came out, the fact that we made a film was a pretty big difference because there's a lot of people who are "producers" and then everyone's next question is, "What have you made?"
And then there's a long, awkward silence?
ALL Yeah. (Laughter.)
JOSEY MCNAMARA We like to say, "First you get lucky, then you get smart." I, Tonya set the bar so high that after that, we realized: "OK, it can't just be a case of us putting anything out into the world. It has to be more strategic."
TOM ACKERLEY We needed to prove we were more than one movie.
I've heard you say your company's motto is, "If it's not a 'fuck, yes,' it's a 'no.' " Please define a "fuck, yes."
ROBBIE Something like I, Tonya. A lot of people probably read that script and went, "That can't be made." We were young and dumb enough to go, "Let's make that." Promising Young Woman, same thing. Emerald was a "fuck, yes." To me, it's a gut instinct — and a little bit of, "Oh, God, can we pull it off?" But if we do, it's going to be amazing.
MCNAMARA We used to say we want things to be subversive, but now it's more about how is it surprising? There's so many things that are trying to be subversive these days but very few things that are actually surprising.
ROBBIE And we like the things that feel a little left of center. Something like Barbie where the IP, the name itself, people immediately have an idea of, "Oh, Margot is playing Barbie, I know what that is," but our goal is to be like, "Whatever you're thinking, we're going to give you something totally different — the thing you didn't know you wanted."
Having Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach attached to write it in itself subverts expectations …
ROBBIE Yes. Now, can we truly honor the IP and the fan base and also surprise people? Because if we can do all that and provoke a thoughtful conversation, then we're really firing on all cylinders.
One of your goals from the outset was to promote female stories from female storytellers. How did you decide on that as a company mission?
ROBBIE In starting any business, it's about identifying a gap in the market. And the conversation started because I was like, "I keep picking up scripts, and I never want to play the girl, I just want to play the guy." And I can't be [the only one]. There are brilliant actresses who aren't getting amazing roles. And beyond that, you look at the statistics of male versus female directors, male versus female writers, etc., and there's so much to be done. You can't just sit there and do nothing when you hear those stats.
One of the things you've done, with Christina Hodson (Birds of Prey) and her company, is launch a program to help female screenwriters break into the action space. And now the first batch of writers has successfully sold projects to major distributors, isn't that right?
ACKERLEY It's a small step, but putting those writers out into the world has shifted the stats. And it's not just about creating a lane for people, it's about writers telling the stories they want to tell.
ROBBIE To think that female writers wouldn't want to write action films — or any genre other than low-budget, character-driven stuff — is ridiculous.
How important is it for you at LuckyChap to hire female directors for your projects?
ACKERLEY We want to be working with the best directors in town — but we also want to be breaking new directors. Promising Young Woman was Emerald's first feature — she was well on her way already, but we want to target people like her and then support them in any way we can.
ROBBIE She's a prime example of a director who had a really clear vision and an amazing way of articulating it. And fortunately for her, us and the world, she's also an exceptionally talented writer, so she could put it on the page as well. But you have to do the work to find the Emeralds. When you make potential director lists, you can easily think of 10 guy names who could be right for whatever it is. Thinking of 10 female names requires work. You have to be scouring the festivals and commercials and shorts because those names haven't been given the same chances.
MCNAMARA And even if they don't get the job, if we can just get someone in a room, in front of studio execs, who might not have been in a studio room before, it's a win for us.
Margot, I'm curious how you navigate your own career, choosing what to take on as a hands-on producer versus an actor-for-hire? And do you have the clout now to say, "I'll only sign on if LuckyChap comes aboard"?
ROBBIE Oh no, I'm still very happy to do acting pieces where I'm not involved or the company is not involved. It's really nice, actually. (Laughs.) I feel myself start panicking and doing a shot list in my head, like, "Oh, we're not going to get that. Oh, we're going to go into overtime." And then I'm like, "It doesn't matter."
"That's not my problem …"
ROBBIE Exactly, someone else can worry about that. (Laughs.)
MCNAMARA And from a company standpoint, we always want to be additive to a project. We don't want to be baggage.
ROBBIE We don't want to just be another line item in the budget, and we always have that conversation up front. Can we be additive as producers? Because if you're just trying to flatter us with this, we have a lot of other passion projects that need our time and attention.
You have a deal at Warner Bros., which has just announced it is smashing the theatrical release window and putting its 2021 slate day-and-date on HBO Max. Presumably you didn't know this news was coming?
What do you make of it?
ROBBIE We know there are people at Warner Bros. whom we have brilliant relationships with that are very talent-friendly and are responsible for the incredible reputation Warner Bros. has had over the past decades as the predominant talent-forward studio. We are hopeful that this will work itself out and that Warner Bros. will do right by its storytellers.
There are plenty in the talent and talent representation community who are very worried about how talent will be fully compensated without traditional box office. Are you concerned?
ROBBIE I think everyone is figuring that out. It's so recent; all those conversations are being had right now. And everyone will have their discussions and put their opinions forward.
MCNAMARA And we'll still be making movies.
ROBBIE Yeah. All we can do is come back to, "Why are we doing this in the first place?" If we were money-oriented people, we'd probably be working in a different industry. For us, it's the excitement of telling stories and being on sets and giving people a platform, and stuff like [the Warner Bros. news] doesn't change that.
You've got a lot in the pipeline beyond Promising Young Woman. What has you most excited?
ACKERLEY We're shooting Maid up in Vancouver, which is phenomenal. Molly Smith Metzler has written the most incredible scripts. It's a socioeconomic story that examines poverty in America, and it's starring Margaret Qualley, and Netflix is going to do great things with it.
MCNAMARA And then Barbie, which is kind of our Everest. As Margot said, you think you know what that movie is with Margot as Barbie, but Greta and Noah have subverted it, and we can't wait to get into that one.
Can you tell me anything about the premise?
ROBBIE We can't, unfortunately. All we can say is whatever you're thinking, it's not that.
Is the script done?
ROBBIE I can't talk about it. I want to tell you everything, I do. (Laughs.)
I'll try another question: Will there be a Birds of Prey sequel?
ROBBIE I don't know. Nothing imminent at this stage, nothing worth mentioning.
There's an adage that says you shouldn't mix business with pleasure — and here you are, best friends, former roommates and, in Tom's and Margot's case, husband and wife. How has all of that made the setup easier and harder?
ROBBIE It's super awkward for me because these two are practically married, so … (Laughter.) No, to be honest, when we first started the company, a lot of people warned us against it and said, "Business and friends do not mix. It always ends dirty." We heard that a lot.
MCNAMARA But we have such a shorthand because we know each other and each other's taste so well, so it's just so seamless. And it also makes it enjoyable.
ACKERLEY Exactly, and we really try to promote that familial environment at the company, too. It's a hard thing to do, and I think we've succeeded.
What does that look like?
ROBBIE Well, in the best ways it looks like 4 p.m. wine at the end of the week that turns into Jägerbombs that turns into … (Laughter.)
Speaking of, I have to ask about the LuckyChap name. I know it somehow involves Charlie Chaplin and a few too many drinks.
ROBBIE Yeah, you pretty much summed it up. We were drunk, and we don't remember how we landed on it. (Laughter.)
MCNAMARA We should really come up with a better answer.
ROBBIE It's too out there now. But it's been a good-luck charm so far, so I think we'll keep it.
Interview edited for length and clarity. This story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.