THR's Roundtable Series kicks off with superproducers including Jason Blum, Eric Fellner, Seth Rogen and Ridley Scott debating tough decisions, surprise successes and sexual harassment in Hollywood: "No, I don't think [Weinstein]'s an outlier."
"It's a tragic situation for our industry," says Amy Pascal, addressing the Harvey Weinstein-sized elephant in the room at The Hollywood Reporter's annual Producer Roundtable on Oct. 7 in Hollywood.
It's been only two days since the first sexual harassment and assault allegations against Weinstein were reported by The New York Times, followed by more shocking claims in The New Yorker and from dozens of women since, and the 59-year-old onetime Sony Pictures chief and now producer (Molly's Game, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Post) has joined five of her peers for a discussion about filmmaking, politics and, yes, the shame of sexual harassment.
"This is a bad dude," says Seth Rogen (The Disaster Artist), 35, adding that he decided after filming 2008's Zack and Miri Make a Porno never to work with Weinstein again. But with a legend at the table like Ridley Scott (All the Money in the World, Blade Runner 2049, Murder on the Orient Express), 79, a disrupter in horror king Jason Blum (Get Out), 48, and two of Hollywood's most prolific producers — Judd Apatow (The Big Sick), 49, and Working Title's Eric Fellner (Baby Driver, Darkest Hour and Victoria and Abdul), 58 — the discussion touches on all the thrills and frustrations of modern filmmaking, from the granular (how did Baby Driver sync up all those songs?) to the grand. "Movies absolutely can change or push a conversation," notes Fellner, "but only if they're good."
We live in a politically charged time and in an age with more media than ever in the history of the world. Can film still have a social impact?
JUDD APATOW That's a good question. How I think about it is: People like Jon Stewart and shows like South Park have led to a younger generation thinking about things differently, maybe being more tolerant. So if you've watched people like Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah make fun of people who are prejudiced and [say] people who treat people bad are bullshitters, you might begin to form your way of reading the news. But I don't know if one movie rocks the world in such a way that people go, "Wait a second, I don't like Trump." (Laughter.) But I hope that if people see The Big Sick, they might think, "I don't know that much about a lot of the people who immigrate to this country and maybe I could tune in a little bit and be more compassionate."
ERIC FELLNER Movies can absolutely change or push a conversation, but only if they're good. And if we're not all making good movies, then people are going to migrate away from the cinema.
JASON BLUM One of my favorite things that [director] Jordan [Peele] always says about Get Out is that when you come into the movie, white people might relate to Allison [Williams] more, and black people might relate to Daniel [Kaluuya] more, but by the end, everyone is on the same side. That's probably my favorite thing about the movie.
APATOW The Big Sick premiered at Sundance the day of the inauguration. So we weren't thinking about any of this when we were making the movie, and then suddenly the Trump thing became very real, and there was all of this talk about how Mexicans are rapists and not wanting to let people into the country. And suddenly the movie felt like it had resonance around these issues — but all we were trying to do is humanize these people who live in the United States, and suddenly that became a political act.
FELLNER Just as an audience member of your movie, it was a great story about human issues. And then it was like, "Oh, my God, it's really interesting what's going on."
What inspires you? What makes you say, "I have to do this"?
SETH ROGEN A few things. One is some sort of idea that I heavily relate to in some way, 'cause it takes a long time to work on these things. Something that I have some emotional connection to, something that I would go see, that I'd probably be angry if I saw that someone else made and I was like, "Why didn't I make that?"
RIDLEY SCOTT The jealousy factor. (Laughter.)
ROGEN We try to make things that have some element of risk — starring the type of person that you would normally not see in a movie, or with jokes that you couldn't believe you would ever see in a movie. Those are the things I get most excited by, when people are watching something they're surprised they're seeing, and they're surprised they're liking it.
AMY PASCAL The studios are afraid to make certain kinds of movies so that stuff ends up on television, and everybody then makes things that are good for television and commercial for movie theaters. I don't think we can let that happen.
APATOW Television and streaming television is a black hole of need for product. A lot of these services, they need so much stuff that they have to get out of the way. So they're willing to take chances. And something has happened, which I've noticed just from being in TV for a long time, is that there is now a profit motive in taking a chance in television.
BLUM And there isn't in movies.
APATOW And the movies haven't found a way to have that profit motive. (To Blum) Your movie is the example of, "We can do this at this price, and it can make this much money." They need to place more bets that way. But their main bets are, does this work in China and Russia? And so that knocks out most of the movies that a lot of us want to make because a lot of great movies —
PASCAL They're not built for that.
SCOTT Who decides that? Who predecides that and supersedes the creative instinct? The creative instinct constantly gets squashed unless you get into a position where you can argue, "I'm going to do this." You're inevitably going to be watered down by hierarchy.
BLUM But that's why, to your point of making quality movies, I think — this is going to be maybe slightly controversial — but the way to combat that is to bring the cost of the movie down.
ROGEN I agree with that.
PASCAL I agree with that.
APATOW Wait, wait, how does that affect my fee? (Laughter.)
BLUM If you pull the price down of the movie, it doesn't matter about Russia, it doesn't matter who's in the movie. We made Get Out for $4.5 million. Every movie we do is $5 million. It's great that they're profitable, but that's not why we do it. We do it for all the reasons we're talking about. How do you make edgy, different stuff and not have to cast so-and-so, not have to please so-and-so? The way we do it is by pushing the budget down.
APATOW The worst outcome of this is if Ridley agrees with you. (Laughter.)
BLUM I disagree.
APATOW He starts making $5 million movies.
ROGEN His $5 million movies would still be good. (Laughter.)
BLUM Ridley, they'd be incredible. Make a movie with us!
ROGEN We [Rogen and producing partner Evan Goldberg] make the exact type of movies everyone says they don't make anymore, which are those midbudget, $20 million to $35 million movies. We essentially work backward from like, "What's the number where you'll leave us alone?" To us, the budget is as much a creative decision as anything else. We know if it's this much, they'll expect this; if it's this much, they'll expect this. As long as we keep it in this range, we'll be able to do what we want, and we will have the resources that we need.
SCOTT There's only one person at this table even qualified to answer this question (to Pascal) because you were head of a studio. And that's the hardest single thing to do, because you've got to read God knows what from Friday till Monday, make decisions and decide to put your money on black. And you can be right or you can be wrong.
PASCAL Yes. And you're wrong plenty. But if you're afraid of people saying, "You were wrong, what an idiot, why did they do that?" then it's a really rough job. You can't be afraid of being wrong.
SCOTT You cannot be afraid of being wrong.
PASCAL You can't be driven by that. You have to be driven by what you actually want to see.
BLUM But if the movies are low-budget, it's easier to be wrong.
PASCAL Yeah. (Laughter.) But I've been wrong on every level, let me tell you. As a person who works at a studio, you don't make the movies. What you do is believe in other people. And when you meet people who are good at what they do, you let them do it, that's how it works. How it's supposed to work.
ROGEN My favorite Amy story is, we had made Pineapple Express, and we had very little input from the studio, which was wonderful, and we were at a test screening for the movie, and it was playing really, really well. And Amy was sitting beside me, and she leaned over to me five minutes into the movie and goes, "Now I get this." And I was like, "You let us make it!" She's like, "I know and I'm glad because now I get it." And I was like, "Wow, like, she let us get this far without getting it." You would never have had any indication she didn't get it; she just let us do it.
BLUM The hardest thing I would think is not saying yes, but the amount you have to say no.
PASCAL Yeah. And I'm not that good at it.
APATOW That was the funniest part of the Sony hack is when all my emails went public, they were all just emails of Amy and Doug Belgrad saying no to me. (Laughter.)
ROGEN Yeah, exactly.
APATOW You wanna tell him no? He's crazy! Sequel to Pineapple Express for $50 million? No!
PASCAL Oh, that's hilarious.
The hack was in response to Seth's movie The Interview. What one thing did you both learn from such an awful experience?
PASCAL Oh, God, no.
ROGEN That we're closer than we've ever been. (Laughter.) Go on, Amy, take the lead.
PASCAL I learned that there are true-blue people in our business who stick with you and stick up for you and are with you through anything. Because so many people say such rotten things about people in the movie business, and I learned that that's just not necessarily true.
ROGEN Umm … (Laughter.) I mean, what did I learn? I can't tell you. Yeah, I wish I'd had another set piece in the third act, honestly. I have some creative thoughts.
FELLNER Maybe for the sequel.
SCOTT I still use fax. Steve Jobs used fax. I still use fax because a fax — I receive the piece of paper, I write on it and fax it back, and it's entirely confidential. Email is everywhere in a heartbeat. So I never put anything on email I'm going to be embarrassed about.
PASCAL I wish I could say the same. (Laughter.)
ROGEN I still get emails from Amy where I'm like, "What are you doing?" (Laughter.)
Ridley, what attracted you to the Getty family story?
SCOTT Good script. I didn't develop it. There are two good scripts that have landed in my lap over the years, actually three. Alien was very good, and I was fifth choice. They gave it to Robert Altman. (Laughter.)
ROGEN That would've been weird.
SCOTT The other one was American Gangster. And then [David] Scarpa's [All the Money in the World]. Who was it that said that, was it Hitchcock? It's all about the script, script, script.
SCOTT The studio head's job, I think, is read the fucking material. You can't delegate material. I can tell within a paragraph whether I'm going to be in good hands or not. By the time I get to page 10, I'm beginning to perspire because I'm thinking, "Please don't drop the ball; please don't drop the ball." Page 30, I'm now beads of perspiration. "Holy shit, we're really getting there." And so writing is everything. Everything else is dressing. Sorry, actors. (Laughter.)
ROGEN We're the worst.
Judd, you discovered Seth. Why did you think this guy was a movie star?
FELLNER Look at him. (Laughter.)
ROGEN Exactly. I'd put my money on Blum.
APATOW Well, he was 16 years old.
APATOW And so it's amazing to be at the table here with Seth as a producer.
PASCAL That's nice! Sixteen?
APATOW We auditioned him for [NBC's] Freaks and Geeks. I got a tape and I remember looking at it and just thinking Seth was hilarious. I just thought, "This is a really weird dude." (Laughter.) And then when we started working on the show, we realized there was a very soulful person underneath his gruff exterior, and he was a great improviser. We asked him to write for the TV show Undeclared after Freaks and Geeks got canceled. And then we table-read Superbad years before it was made.
PASCAL Yeah, it took a long time to get it made.
APATOW No one wanted to make it. And the funniest part about it, which we always talk about, is that for a while there was a producer working with us —
APATOW He said, "Yeah, let me try to get it made," and he couldn't, and then he got a job as a head of a studio. And we said, "Oh, I guess we'll make it now." And he said, "No, I'm not going to make it." (Laughter.)
ROGEN It was shocking.
APATOW Amy was the only person in town [who would make it]. It got turned down by every financier at every budget level.
PASCAL I also remember that [Judd] ran over to my office and said, "You got to see this girl that we're casting as Jonah [Hill]'s girlfriend." And it was Emma Stone. He's like, "She's it. She's going to be a star."
How do you choose who to work with? Judd, you must be inundated with people who want to work with you now.
APATOW I'm not at all. I'm always looking, and no one sends me anything. I'm always shocked at how little mail I get.
BLUM I'm sending you a script this afternoon.
Seth, as an actor, what do you respect in a producer, and how have you translated that to your own producing projects?
ROGEN I don't act in movies that I am not the producer of a lot. And when I do, I would consider the best producers the ones that I, as the actor, have no contact with in any way, shape or form. (Laughter.) There is no reason for the producer to be talking to the actor, probably. You know? It's funny 'cause as an actor I have less sympathy for the plight of the actor than maybe a lot of people do. I really think actors are a part of the crew in a lot of ways, and at times they are the fifth most important thing that is occurring on the screen.
SCOTT Oh, I love this. (Laughter.)
SCOTT "What's my motivation?" You're motivated to try to stick your head up your ass. (Laughter.)
Eric, music was so central to Baby Driver. Were the songs included in the script?
FELLNER Yeah. The script was on an iPad. It was quite expensive in development. We were sending iPads everywhere.
BLUM We could make a movie for the cost of sending that script out.
PASCAL You had to listen to the music as you were reading.
FELLNER When you got to a scene, you just tapped the header and the music played as you were reading.
ROGEN That's more complicated than any movie I've made.
FELLNER Of all 50 songs Edgar [Wright, the director] had chosen, only one changed. We preapproved them all before we started shooting.
SCOTT What was the song bill?
FELLNER Substantially less than you would think. The only reason we've ever been able to make the varied amount of films we make at Working Title is by keeping the cost low. Being based in London helps that enormously. I shouldn't say it on camera, but you negotiate through the international rights holders. We had a brilliant lady who does all our clearances.
I want to get into Harvey Weinstein and harassment in Hollywood. What responsibility does the industry have for this type of behavior?
APATOW It's a difficult question because there is a culture of paying off people. If you're sexually inappropriate with somebody, they think, "Oh, if I speak up, am I suddenly a pain in the ass to everyone else in show business and I'll never work again?" And then Harvey's like, "Here's 150 grand, and I won't mention it to anybody." That's why it lasts for decades, because it's like a perfect system. We all hear all these rumors: "He does this, he does that." But we didn't see it. So it's hard to say, "Let's go get him," because we're not a part of it. It's unfortunately up to the people that are truly aware of it. Someone was writing those checks and somebody knew and those people on the inside, when they're quiet also, it goes on for decades and decades. But it's not hard to not be a creep. We all work in this business. It's very easy not to act like that. You can respect women. It's easy. It's demented not to. And hopefully the industry as a whole is getting fed up.
ROGEN I worked with him once a decade ago, and I was like, "This is a bad dude. I'm never going to work with him ever again." And everyone is just like, "Yeah!" But they still do. People would say to me, when I would refuse to work with him, "You know, he's old-school." And there is kind of a wink and an acceptance of that type of behavior. A lot of Hollywood people also like the fact that we work in a business that doesn't have the same rules as other businesses, and they're kind of free to have varying personalities. That ultimately also allows people to excuse a lot of horribly inappropriate behavior that shouldn't be acceptable.
Do you think Harvey's an outlier?
PASCAL No, I don't think that he is an outlier. And I think that's probably why a lot of people haven't spoken up, because I don't think that you can throw bricks at glass houses. Some of the problem is that people really believed that they'd get hurt. And it's a tragic situation for our business. The women who stood up have to be applauded because that's really, really hard to do when nobody wants to stand up, and the silence is deafening. That's the part that we're responsible for.
ROGEN There's just a lot of people who, for lack of a better word, are pieces of shit, and people just keep working with them. Because they're just like, "Well, it's a necessary evil. It's what you got to do."
PASCAL And you can make money.
ROGEN Yeah, you can make money. And like, I don't work with those people. Again, I said 10 years ago I'd never work with him. I knew nothing about any of this stuff, but it's not surprising at all. So more people need to do that. It's nice that I'm in a position where I'm successful enough to say I don't want to work with someone, 'cause a lot of people aren't in that position. But it is up to those [who are] to not work with those people and to shun them and to let people know that it's not acceptable.
What's the best advice that each of you has received about working in the industry?
BLUM Mine was recent, actually. There's this book called Ego Is the Enemy.
ROGEN I disagree with that. (Laughter.)
BLUM So there's this whole chapter in the book, which says passion is the enemy. Obviously I don't totally believe that, but it's a funny idea, and it rung very true to me. There is something really to the notion of being pragmatic. The first eight movies I produced, I wasn't passionate about the script. I read a script that I thought I could get made. And now, luckily, we're all in the position where we do things that we love. But to those starting out, I'm going to say, put passion over here for a second and be pragmatic.
PASCAL You always have a choice between your ambition and your ego. And you have to be very clear which one you're choosing all the time, because it's really hard not to choose your ego. And it doesn't work.
APATOW I'm trying to think of the best advice I've given. I remember when we were making Superbad with Seth, I think my advice was, "Less jizz, more heart."
ROGEN Yeah! (Laughter.)
APATOW It's an odd encapsulation of years working for Garry Shandling, whom I'm making a documentary about. Everything for him was about getting to the truth of people and being authentic. Garry didn't make an enormous amount of things in his life. He did great stand-up, a couple of specials and like two series that changed television. He did things that he cared deeply about. He wanted to make things that would make the world a better place, make people think, make people happier, make people in some way try to connect with other people. And so I have always thought about what Garry would do and how he made decisions.
FELLNER I think Stephen Frears gave Judi Dench that exact note. (Laughter.)
ROGEN Less jizz, more heart?
FELLNER Less jizz, more heart. She went with it, and it worked.
Eric, do you have a great piece of advice you've received?
FELLNER I think it was Hitchcock — he didn't tell me but somebody told me, and I've really focused on it for the last 10, 15 years: It's the ending. It's all about the last five, 10 minutes, just in terms of audience, the way they go out of the cinema and talk about the movie and give word-of-mouth and perpetuate the success.
SCOTT I didn't get a shot to do anything till I was 40, so my advice is be grateful and keep trying.
ROGEN I started doing stand-up in high school [when I was 14], but I was a big fan of other comics, like Billy Crystal and Steven Wright, and I would try to emulate their styles. And then an older comic named Darryl Lenox was like, "Aren't you out there trying to get hand jobs and stuff like that? Talk about that. Like, nobody else can talk about that. That's how you can make it."
He said that to a 14-year-old?
ROGEN He did. And to me —
FELLNER He is currently in jail.
ROGEN To me, Hollywood is incredibly competitive, and I am just not a competitive person. I hate feeling like I'm in competition with other people because I fear I will lose. And the only way I am able to rationalize that what we are doing is not actually competing with what anyone else is doing is by feeling as though it's something only we could be doing. For better or for worse.
BLUM All right, hold on a second now. I'm going to take issue with one thing that you said. You said you are not competitive, but you don't want to compete because you're afraid you would lose. Those two don't go together. That's a very competitive thing that you just said.
ROGEN It is, it is. It's for sure my own weird rationalization. But if you're afraid of losing, it's a good way to deal with Hollywood.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.