"Nothing's tougher than making a movie," says Ice Cube ('Straight Outta Compton'), who gathered with five other elite producers — Scott Cooper ('Black Mass'), Steve Golin ('The Revenant' and 'Spotlight'), Simon Kinberg ('The Martian'), Stacey Sher ('The Hateful Eight') and Christine Vachon ('Carol') — for a discussion on their most difficult career moments and the pitfalls of their profession.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Did Leonardo DiCaprio's The Revenant really cost $200 million? "Oh no, that's ridiculous," says Steve Golin at THR's annual gathering of six top producers with Oscar-contending films. But Golin admitted that Alejandro G. Inarritu's snowy Western did end up going well over its budget and was the "most difficult production" of his long career, which also includes this year's Boston church abuse drama Spotlight. Golin, 60, shared war stories with fellow producers Ice Cube (N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton), 46; director-producer Scott Cooper (Black Mass), 45; writer-producer Simon Kinberg (The Martian), 42; Quentin Tarantino's longtime producer Stacey Sher (The Hateful Eight), 52; and indie veteran Christine Vachon (Carol), 53, in a lively discussion Oct. 25 at Mack Sennett Studios in L.A.
Many of you have done this for a long time. What advice would you give to your younger selves?
SHER: Not [to] be so timid. I know that doesn't really seem to resonate with my personality. (Laughs.) But one of the things — particularly being a woman — you tend to defer a lot. And to deflect, like, "Don't worry about me. I'm just over here working. Doing my job." I worried too much about how you're perceived as being a good girl or a good worker. A lot of the women in Hollywood at that time practiced what Gloria Steinem would have called the "queen bee syndrome"; there were only a limited number of people at the table, and they weren't really helpful. It's really changed. It's not as scary.
VACHON: Most women of our generation probably experienced a lot of, "I don't want to be the bitch." After a while, you learn it's not a popularity contest. Don't get me wrong: I think men learn that, too. But it's a little different for women because it's more stigmatized.
SHER: If you're a strong woman, you're a bitch.
CUBE: My advice would be to not take the process so personal. Being a black filmmaker, you think, "Oh man, why is this not getting made? And why is this piece of shit getting made and not this movie that I think is great?" Then you realize every movie is hard to get made. Steven Spielberg is probably saying, "Damn! Is it because I'm Steven Spielberg they don't want to make this movie?"
Was Straight Outta Compton harder or easier than most pictures?. Well, are you promoting? That's probably why it doesn’t travel.""]
CUBE: It was the hardest movie. And I've been producing movies since 1995 [Friday]. Not just because of so many dynamic personalities — so many different stories, so many different legal problems. Outside threats. Seeing it about to fall apart at many different times. That was our biggest thing, using all of our powers to keep it together because it just wanted to unravel in so many different areas.
You had problems with Suge Knight making threats against you, and then he ran over and killed a man near the set. How did that affect you in the filming?
CUBE: Not at all. We didn't make the records — when it comes to N.W.A and producing those records — without controversy, without danger; so this movie's not going to be made without controversy and danger. We knew that a lot of people didn't want the movie to be made.
GOLIN: What Cube said is really right: It's so difficult to get these movies made. The "younger self" question is just: Develop a thick skin early because it's going be a rough ride all the way along. And then you're still Willy Loman trying to sell your wares to everybody out there. The Revenant was the most difficult production, in terms of logistics. [Director Alejandro G. Inarritu is] extremely demanding, completely unrelenting. Leo [DiCaprio] was really great. He didn't actually sleep in any animal carcasses [as DiCaprio said in an interview]. There's a scene where he sleeps in an animal carcass, but it wasn't a real animal carcass, and he didn't sleep in it. He was in it for about two hours. But we were shooting in Calgary. The conditions were freezing.
The Revenant began with a $60 million budget, and rumors are that it reached nearly $200 million.
GOLIN: Oh no, that's ridiculous. But it did escalate. It wasn't like it got greenlit at $60 million. There was talk early on of doing it at that price, but that was a joke, and the movie was greenlit at substantially more than that and then expanded beyond that. It was a series of decisions made to enhance the movie. And Arnon [Milchan, financier and producer,] is kind of an old-school patron of the arts, in that way most corporations aren't. But it wasn't like there weren't heated conversations. This was the biggest picture that I've been involved in and certainly the most logistically complicated. Frankly, I don't want to do it again. I'm not interested in making pictures of this scope.
Simon, you started as a writer. What advice would you give your younger self?
KINBERG: Make movies you love because it's miserable. Every movie I've worked on at one point or another is exhausting, and you feel like you're making a bad movie. I came out of film school and went after movies that I thought audiences wanted to see or that the studios wanted, as opposed to the movies that I wanted. Over the last 10 years, I've gravitated more and more toward the films that I grew up loving — classic Spielberg, Lucas, James Cameron and Ridley Scott movies. Star Wars was a big, seminal movie in my life. To come full circle and work with Ridley Scott on a science fiction movie was this incredible dream come true.
And now you're working on the Star Wars spinoff film. Do you feel extra pressure?
KINBERG: I feel pressure as a fan. I don't really feel pressure from the fans, if that makes sense. I worked on other movies, like the X-Men movies, that have big fan followings. And if you start to get lost in those voices, you will be completely lost. I feel the pressure of the 6-year-old me.
But you don't want to be the guy that creates the new Jar Jar Binks.
KINBERG: No, but you've got to trust [that] your own compass will lead you away from whatever mistakes were made.
Scott, did you as a producer ever want to fire you as a director?
COOPER: Probably every day. But you're so entrenched in the process, and all of these things are fraught with peril. I don't think I had much time to consider firing myself.
Simon, didn't you fire the director of Fantastic Four? Tell us what happened.
KINBERG: We didn't fire the director [Josh Trank]. It was the same director from start to finish. It was a really hard movie to make, and for whatever reason — and [to Golin] you're experiencing it on Revenant — there are certain movies that the press decides to focus on.
But you were on the Star Wars team when they decided not to proceed with Trank on a Star Wars spinoff. Is it right to assume you had a role in that decision?
KINBERG: No. I was the person that brought that director into the Star Wars process and had a good experience. The parting of the ways between Josh and Star Wars was a genuinely mutual parting of the ways. He had felt the pressure of making this big movie with this kind of attention and didn't love doing it and didn't want go straight from that into an even bigger version of it. But every movie has its complexities and its challenges.
Stacey, how do you work with a superstar director like Quentin Tarantino?
SHER: It was a different kind of movie. The script was leaked, [which led to] a public reading of the script. The film we've shot is substantially rewritten. The reason he was so upset about people leaking his script was because it was truly a work in progress, and he had only given it to a very small number of us. Also, snow is hard. Snow in the mountains.
SHER: Snow at altitudes. We had three call sheets prepared every single day. If it was sunny, we shot inside the haberdashery. If it was cloudy and overcast, we went into the stagecoach. And if it was snowing, we were out wherever we had to be to get our exterior snow shots.
Scott, what was your pitch to Johnny Depp to star in Black Mass?
COOPER: I got a phone call after [my movie] Crazy Heart that Johnny appreciated the film. His agent said, "Johnny doesn't see many movies, and he happened to catch that one." So I met with Johnny. I showed up around noon, and I left at 8 p.m. And we just talked about sharing a sensibility in literature and in music and in film. And I said, "[This is a film] that is not going to reach the audience that most of your films reach."
Was the studio aware that you were telling him that?
COOPER: Well, no, you don't have those discussions with a studio executive. But I will say that it was by far the best experience of having a studio [Warner Bros.] support you in every aspect, all the way through production and through the testing process, which is my least favorite experience.
CUBE: I love testing a film.
GOLIN: To put it in front of an audience and see what the reaction is, I think, is so important. Some of the research you can throw out the window. But you've got a real sense of it when you screen the movie.
Cube, what did you change about Compton following the testing? There was a three-hour-and-30-minute version.
CUBE: It was too long at 3:30. Things needed to be tightened up, and last thing you want to do with a good movie is hold the audience hostage. As an entertainer myself, I just know it's better when you leave 'em wanting more than to stick around too long.
What's been the toughest moment of your career?
CUBE: To get different studios to promote and push the movie. Market the movie as wide as they can go, especially overseas.
VACHON: It's very tough right now. There's extreme downward pressure on our budgets. We joke that now we're making the movies we used to make for $15 million for $5 million. Five's the new 10. And it's starting to have an effect on the kind of stories we can tell. We make a lot of female-driven films, [and that means] convincing financiers, studios, etc., that there's an audience for those movies. As we said, it's called Still Alice. Not Still Alice and John. (Laughs.)
COOPER: Are financiers asking you to cast people that you wouldn't ordinarily consider?
VACHON: All the time. There's a tremendous amount of pressure to cast someone of equal financial stature with your female star.
Cube, is the music business tougher or easier than Hollywood?
CUBE: Crazier. Not tougher. Nothing's tougher than making a movie. Making
a record, you can kind of come and go as you please. Making a movie, you're there, and you better be.
Stacey, as someone who has worked with Tarantino for a long time, how do you respond when he gets criticized for his comments, especially on race? [The day before this roundtable, Tarantino had called police "murderers" at a rally.]
SHER: I think it's incredibly unfair. Quentin is a filmmaker who really dives into things very seriously and deeply. And when he does interviews, he really wears his heart on his sleeve and he doesn't hold anything back. He doesn't think about how things are going to be packaged into sound bites of this kind of click-bait world that we live in. He's interested in exploring where we're at, and he doesn't hold back. He's prepared to talk about it, and he's prepared to not censor himself. On Django Unchained, I don't think any of us were prepared for what we went through, because nobody really wanted to look at slavery in that big way before. He takes the bullets and goes out on the frontline on the things that he cares about, and he's not worried about doing it. It's why I really admire and respect him.
Django had more than 100 references to the N-word. Cube, what did you think of that?
SHER: They seated us next to each other. They're hoping I'll start talking about women in Straight Outta Compton, too.
CUBE: That's fine. [The N-word] to me doesn't make the movie much more inflammatory than the next. It was a great Western. I usually don't mind movies that people think go overboard because that's what art is all about. Art is about pushing us and making us examine ourselves.
Is this a great era for producers?
GOLIN: No. It's the toughest job there is. And I think that we're diminished, frankly.
COOPER: How so?
GOLIN: Just in terms of the process. We're looked at sometimes as not necessarily added [value]. You have a very tough job. You're there to solve problems.
VACHON: There are financiers who would just as soon get rid of us, you know?
SHER: (Laughs.) Agreed.
VACHON: [They] see us as baggage and in the way. It's humiliating to have to explain your value.
GOLIN: That's right.
Is there a single film that you saw as a child that put you on this path?
COOPER: Now that I have two young girls, I have what we call "inappropriate movie night," when my daughters can see movies that perhaps they shouldn't. But for me, it was Francis Coppola's Godfather, Godfather: Part II and The Conversation.
CUBE: It's two blaxploitation movies that I saw when I was too young. My brother and my two sisters took me to the Century Drive-In theater, and we saw The Mack. And then we saw Coffy. Blew my mind.
SHER: A Clockwork Orange and Raging Bull. And I saw Clockwork Orange probably 20 times at an inappropriate age — I was like 13 or 14. I guess that doesn't make what I ended up doing surprising.
KINBERG: The first for me was Empire Strikes Back, which I saw with my dad, and said, "I want to do that" — having no idea what "that" was. When I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, that was the first time I felt film is art and there are people that constructed that art — and that made me want to be a filmmaker.
GOLIN: I grew up before there was any kind of cable TV. So I hadn't seen a lot of important movies. Then, when I went to NYU in the early '70s, I saw Fellini, Antonioni. They had a huge influence on me. Red Desert blew me away, and Pickpocket.
VACHON: I grew up in New York City, and I could walk to a movie theater. The Poseidon Adventure, I just kept going back and watching it, week after week. And then my best friend and I were trying to find a horror film, and we passed a theater that was showing Cries and Whispers by Bergman. And we thought, "Oh, that's a horror film!" And it was.
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