Producer Stacey Sher on Casting 'Mrs. America' and Lessons Learned From 'Out of Sight' and 'Gattaca'
Since the late '80s, producer Stacey Sher has consistently had a hand in film and TV projects that helped define the zeitgeist of their particular era. From Pulp Fiction and Erin Brockovich to Get Shorty and Garden State, the Academy Award nominee's work manages to create a lasting impression. Furthermore, even some of Sher's work that didn't overwhelm at the box office has now reached cult status, something Gattaca and Reality Bites can both attest to currently. While tragic in a way, Steven Soderbergh's 2011 film, Contagion, which Sher produced, is yet another example of this phenomenon as it topped the charts of virtually every streaming platform throughout the first few weeks of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Sher's most recent work, the critically acclaimed miniseries Mrs. America, just completed its nine-episode run via Hulu and its FX on Hulu label. The series is led by two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett, who plays Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative activist who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. While Blanchett is joined by an extraordinary group of talented women including Sarah Paulson, Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba and Elizabeth Banks, Sher credits the male actors and their willingness to play smaller roles in support of the show's who's who of female stars.
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"I think [the talented cast] was a combination of subject matter, Cate, Cate, Cate. … I mean, who doesn't want to work with Cate?" Sher tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It's a deep bench. And then, we were incredibly fortunate that the actors stood up to support this incredible group of women because of the subject matter. Women often get offered the role of wife and girlfriend, but the fact that John Slattery, Jay Ellis, Adam Brody and James Marsden — all of them — just stood up … It was Marsden who said, 'We want to be here to support this extraordinary group of women.'"
In 1999, Sher produced Milos Forman's Andy Kaufman biopic, Man on the Moon, which starred Jim Carrey at the height of his powers. Carrey portrayed both Kaufman and his infamous character, Tony Clifton, without breaking character during the entirety of production. Chris Smith's 2017 documentary, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, features behind-the-scenes footage that chronicles the very chaos that seemed to follow Carrey's unwavering commitment to the role; however, Sher reveals that there was more to the turmoil than meets the eye.
"It was the single best, most magical experience making a movie. The person that I think had the hardest time with it and who I have real empathy for, actually, watching the documentary, was [director] Milos (Forman)," Sher explains. "I don't think that I was that empathetic toward him while we were making it because Danny (DeVito) — and all of us — were all in on what Jim was doing. From day one, when he drove an ice cream truck to set, we went along for the ride. Even when you see me in the documentary saying, 'I can't believe what Tony's (Clifton) done,' I'm playing it."
In a recent conversation with THR, Sher reflects on working with Lawrence of Arabia editor Anne V. Coates, on Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, her bizarre experience with Carrey at the Man on the Moon junket and Gattaca's emergence as a cult classic.
While it pains me to bring you back to this time period, can you talk about how the 2016 election inspired and ultimately changed your approach to Mrs. America?
Originally, we were looking at the idea for the show in the midst of the campaign. Of course, we thought it was going to be in the wake of a historic event. And when the election came, Dahvi Waller had already been writing and was underway in thinking of what it would be. And we kind of had this reckoning and realized that it was going to become this story of how we got here from there — and the direct line. So, the piece broadened and became about the shift in American politics. I would say that the same philosophy of small federal government has also led us to some of the dysfunction that we face now in the wake of the pandemic.
Do you recognize Phyllis Schlafly's influence on the notable conservative women of today?
I think she really was a marketing genius. Dahvi always talked about Phyllis as a very Trumpian character because she played very fast and loose with the facts. She made up cases and would discount polls. So, I think it's no coincidence that her last book, The Conservative Case for Trump, was published the day after she died.
So, yes [on her influence]. I think that her reframing, her marketing, her sound bites and whoever's getting the most attention … Often, certain things were covered in the same way they were in the equal rights fight because there were so many people in the insurance industry that really didn't want the Equal Rights Amendment to pass. Because, really, up until the Affordable Care Act, being a woman was essentially a preexisting condition, and you were able to charge women more for insurance than men.
Since Cate Blanchett is playing someone with political views that are polar opposite from her own, what was the crux of your pitch to her?
Well, I think it's an exploration of how somebody can be invested in working against their own self-interest. That certainly was the exploration for me because I'm also a feminist. I think that Phyllis is a fascinating contradiction, and I also think that telling this story — weighing in at the moment that she came on the scene — was a way of looking at feminists in a way that wasn't just a hagiography. That's not to say we wanted to be critical, but we wanted them to be viewed as: We all stand on their shoulders, but they're also human beings. And so, to understand how a righteous revolution is still in process, we wanted to look. Cate didn't know who she was. Even though her father was American, Cate didn't grow up in the U.S. I was aware of Phyllis when I was growing up, but I really couldn't tell the difference. I was young enough that she and Anita Bryant sort of all seemed the same to me. So, it was when I saw the Makers: Women Who Make America documentary that I thought this was an interesting way in … Most people don't even realize that the Equal Rights Amendment — or didn't realize — that the Equal Rights Amendment isn't in the Constitution.
Besides Cate, you've assembled quite a roster of talent, as the main cast alone could lead their own shows. Since you had important material, a well-regarded creative team and a movie star like Cate, was casting relatively easy as a result?
Sarah Paulson was right after Cate, and she made an incredible leap of faith; she and Cate are close. She loved the first two scripts, but her character's arc wasn't completed. The great luck is also in having a writer that's as talented as Dahvi Waller at the helm, and I was really fortunate that she wanted to do this when I pitched it to her. Where she took it and what she and her team of writers and researchers put together exceeded my hopes for what the project could be. When Sarah came on board, Margo [Martindale] was pretty close after that. Actually, Elizabeth Banks was in pretty early too. I think it was a combination of subject matter, Cate, Cate, Cate … I mean, who doesn't want to work with Cate? We were really fortunate to have extraordinary director-executive producers in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who were just coming off of Captain Marvel. And then, Margo, Tracey [Ullman], Uzo [Aduba], Elizabeth [Banks], Niecy Nash, Kayli [Carter], Melanie Lynskey, Jeanne Tripplehorn. You could go on and on and on and on. It's a deep bench. And then, we were incredibly fortunate that the actors stood up to support this incredible group of women because of the subject matter. Women often get offered the role of wife and girlfriend, but the fact that John Slattery, Jay Ellis, Adam Brody and James Marsden — all of them — just stood up … And it was Marsden who said, "We want to be here to support this extraordinary group of women."
The lines have become blurred in the past six years or so, but is it safe to say that the stigma regarding movie stars and television is officially dead?
I think that people view it as content and story and now make decisions on what the best format is to tell a story in. If it's in the theater, in a two-hour form, that's one thing. If it requires a deeper dive, that's another thing. And I think that everybody's just being led by where the best material takes them.
Had you encountered this stigma a lot during your career, or was it overblown a bit?
It's funny. Earlier in my career, I remember that it was a harder road for a TV star to move into film than it was for a movie star to do television. Obviously, it started to shift in the early days of HBO. Right after we did Get Shorty, I feel like James Gandolfini started doing The Sopranos. Obviously, Sex and the City and Sarah Jessica [Parker], who was a big movie star as well. So, I think that was a bigger issue, and you really started to see it shift. My former partner Danny DeVito obviously moved seamlessly between the two mediums and is also an incredibly gifted filmmaker. So, I think there is no stigma anymore. But, at the time, I do think that the question was what it meant for the trajectory of your career. To use the Saturday Night Fever analogy, it was harder to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan than from Manhattan to Brooklyn.
You've had a remarkable career as a feature film producer, and you're certainly no stranger to TV, as you've made plenty of well-respected shows. Is your job as producer on something like Mrs. America markedly different from your job as producer on a typical feature film? Or are they more similar than one might think?
I think that they're similar. I have an approach to things, which is, sort of, no job too big or too small. And so, you just want to support the people who are making the project. If it means figuring out who can hand-carry wigs that are working the next day to Canada because the airline has misplaced a trunk of wigs that got left in Los Angeles — I'm going to do that. And I would do that if it were a feature or if it were a television series. Certainly the showrunner is the auteur in television, in the way that the organizing principal of film is the director. So, in some ways, it is a similar role. And we had very strong filmmakers that were involved all across the board. From Anna and Ryan to their incredibly talented cinematographer, Jessica Lee Gagné, who set the look and style. We just had extraordinary filmmakers: Amma Asante, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Janicza Bravo. This was a bit of a scheduling Rubik's Cube. Coco Francini was an executive producer on the show, and Jim Skotchdopole, who Coco and I had worked with on Django Unchained, was our line producer/co-EP. It was all hands on deck because this was so big.
You're an EP on the upcoming Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect, starring Jennifer Hudson. Was it a daunting task to tell the story of someone with such giant shoes to fill?
Well, I think it was a little bit less daunting to tell that story when the person whose shoes you're filling asked Jennifer to play her. Ms. Franklin hand-selected Jennifer to play her. So, I think that that was a great honor, and I think Jennifer's definitely up for the task.
Contagion is having quite a resurgence on Netflix given the sad state of the world. Did you learn anything during that movie that prepared you on some level for what we're going through now? In other words, are you all that surprised that life has imitated your art in a way?
(Laughs.) Yes and no. Because of Scott Z. Burns' and Steven Soderbergh's extraordinary attention to detail and the origin of why they wanted to tell this story, we all became very close with our advisers, Dr. Larry Brilliant, Dr. Ian Lipkin and Laurie Garrett, and they all stayed in our lives. We spent a lot of time with them during prep, the making of the film and the promotion of the film. And they all always said, "Not if, but when." I've been wiping down my airplane seats and tray tables since I made that film. Once I learned about fomites, I was completely flipped out by it and started wiping down remote controls and things. People would just look at me like I was a freak. And handwashing was always something that was talked about during that time period. So, no, I'm not surprised. One thing that people ask us is why weren't we [the U.S.] prepared for the level of chaos? And obviously, a movie is a movie, so the virus that Dr. Ian Lipkin designed was a much more lethal virus with an even higher death rate and even more transmissibility. But the film was based on a very robust federal response, a very strong Centers for Disease Control and nations cooperating because Dr. Brilliant was part of the World Health Organization team that eradicated smallpox on the planet, which required tremendous global cooperation and working together. And I think we're seeing that in science; we just may not be that coordinated from a government standpoint.
Gattaca is one of my favorite films of all time. When you make a great film that doesn't impact the box office but somehow becomes a cult classic over time, does the industry have a way of crediting you for these belated wins?
Honestly, I loved Gattaca, but people didn't really understand the film or what we were after back then. I will say that we did get an award from the late Roger Ebert. He used to have a thing called "Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival" [now known as Ebertfest], and we got a bronze cast of a thumbs-up many years later. There are certain films that we made that were ahead of their time, and I think that it's great that people are discovering them. There's a joke that I think was attributed to Brian Eno about the Velvet Underground: "The first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies, yet everyone who bought one started a band!" And I think Gattaca was a little bit like that. The style was incredibly influential, as was Andrew Niccol's attention to detail and the incredible production design of Jan Roelfs. He was actually nominated for an Oscar for the film. Michael Nyman's score was also nominated for a Golden Globe. And look, again, when we began working on that film, they had not completed mapping the human genome. And by the end, when we were getting ready to release, Dolly the sheep had been cloned. So, it went from being sort of true science-fiction to kind of science-fact or social science-fiction.
Is there a story from the Gattaca set that comes to mind at the moment?
I always think about this when people talk about the glamor of producing. We couldn't afford a wave maker or a tank when we were shooting that final swim; the movie wasn't made for very much money for a studio film. So, somebody told us that if we put a forklift in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, it would make waves that would match the stuff that we shot outside. We needed the close-work for Ethan [Hawke] and Loren [Dean]'s conversation before Loren swam off in the "I didn't save anything for the way back" scene. So, we put the forklift in; we're in the Olympic-sized pool, and it just totally does not work. And at a certain point, me and every other person on set were lying on our stomachs with kickboards, making waves. (Laughs.) So, that's the sort of "no job too big or too small" philosophy of producing.
When I saw the Man on the Moon documentary, Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond, I felt a great deal of sympathy for the cast and crew. I can't even imagine what your day-to-day was like during that time. Since the end result was still outstanding, how did you keep that set on track when your star, Jim Carrey, was that deep into character?
OK, so here's the thing: It was the single best, most magical experience making a movie. The person that I think had the hardest time with it and who I have real empathy for, actually, watching the documentary, was [director] Milos [Forman]. I don't think that I was that empathetic toward him while we were making it because Danny [DeVito] — and all of us — were all in on what Jim was doing. From day one, when he drove an ice cream truck to set, we went along for the ride. Even when you see me in the documentary saying, "I can't believe what Tony's [Clifton] done," I'm playing it. Every day we were planning some crazy thing with Tony Clifton, and Jim never broke character. He was only Andy or Tony. We all bought in and Danny loved Andy so much, and it was Danny's idea to do this story. He actually pitched Milos. He went to go see Milos when we were all in New York for the New York Film Festival for Pulp Fiction. He saw Milos that day, and we all got in a car when we were on our way to the screening. Then, Danny said, "I have the most exciting news to tell you. Milos is going to develop this with us." So, that's when we began, and for me, the height of it was when we were finally doing press and having a junket at the Four Seasons. There was an HFPA press conference, and Jim was doing his HFPA interview roundtable. And then, Tony Clifton came in; it was obviously Bob Zmuda. Or maybe it was Andy Kaufman. (Laughs.) And he was just awful and out of control, and I think he either really was or pretended to pee in a corner of this ballroom. Jim stormed off and said, "We're not shooting anymore. This is ridiculous. I can't do it." And they all turned to me and they were like, "Can you please go up and talk to Jim? He'll listen to you. You can get through to him." So, I went up to Jim's holding room where he was sitting for the junket, and I'm like, "You've got to come down. We kicked out Zmuda." And all of a sudden, I realized, of course Jim knew what Bob was doing, and I was being George Shapiro, begging Andy to come back down again. But it was intense and Tony Clifton [Zmuda] was banned from the premiere, I recall. Unfortunately, that's another example where the film was not a huge hit when it came out — not a hit at all. Jim gave one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking performances. I still think about that beautiful look on his face when he goes to the psychic surgeon, gets treated with chicken guts and basically realizes that the conman has been conned. Danny used to tell stories about Andy like, at his funeral, people were poking the body, saying, "This is your best one yet, Kaufman." And we all really became a family. We're still friends with Lynne Margulies, Andy's girlfriend. That was predominantly her footage that she shot while we were making the movie — Jim gave her unprecedented access — with the exception of the contemporary interview. But Lynne shot all that. It's a very funny thing to have almost like a home movie of your younger self at work. It was very surreal watching it.
Besides Contagion, you've worked on several films with Steven Soderbergh including Erin Brockovich and Out of Sight. What was the ultimate takeaway from those experiences?
I'm going to tell you a story about Out of Sight which had one of the biggest influences on the way that I work. While we were making it, I was truly blessed to work with the late and truly great Anne V. Coates, Academy Award-winning editor of Lawrence of Arabia. She cut Erin Brockovich. She cut Out of Sight, and there was a scene in Out of Sight that the studio had wanted us to cut. Steven didn't want to; we didn't want to. So, we argued to keep it in, and at a certain point, the studio had kind of worn Steven down. Up until that point, I was like, "I will die fighting for whatever the director wants." And then, Anne called me and said, "I refuse to cut negative on this reel until you take one more shot at him. That scene belongs in the film." I happened to be with our mutual friend, [screenwriter] Richard LaGravenese, who had seen early cuts of the film, and when I called Steven, Richard picked up the phone and was like, "You can't cut that scene. It's what makes it a Steven Soderbergh scene." So, it went back in, and it's one of the best scenes in the film. It's a scene that people remember; it's sort of a post-coital scene with Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney. We were all mortified that it was almost out, but the lesson that Anne taught me was that there's a moment where anybody can get worn down by the process. It's a long process of shooting. It's a long post process. And I think that it's very important to remember the idea that everybody set out with in the beginning, be the keeper of that and be able to almost hold that picture up as a mirror to a filmmaker, or whoever in the process, and say, "Hey, don't forget, this is what we said we wanted to do," when the going gets rough.
Are the needs of a Soderbergh film different from those of a Quentin Tarantino film? Does the job differ depending on the filmmaker involved?
Every director directs for a different value. I look at it as getting any filmmaker or writer what they need in order to do the best version of the job. And then, also pushing. When you're coming from a super respectful position, I find that the best filmmakers that I've ever worked with — Steven, Quentin, Oliver Stone — want to have people that they respect and value in order to talk about things with because it can be very lonely. You want people that you know want you to win, and that you share a common sensibility with, to be in it with you. That was a great part of working with Anna [Boden] and Ryan [Fleck] on Mrs. America.
Since you rose through the ranks during the industry's traditional business model, what's your impression of working with streaming services so far?
Just finding that out … (Laughs.) I mean, I think we're all just sorting out what it means. It's a new time. There's a lot more content. I think it's exciting. It's terrifying. It's all those things. But this business has been through so many changes. I was really fortunate to have gone to the Peter Stark Program at USC when Art Murphy, who was a great institution at Variety, was teaching. Because he had been a statistician in the Marines, he really looked at the cycle-through of the business, and it's always reinventing itself. First, it was the advent of sound, then color and television was going to end it all. And then, cable TV was going to end it all. And then, VCRs were going to end it all. People have looked back at the impact of the 1918 pandemic on cinema attendance and on the industry to find a path forward. And I think that it's great. Honestly, if the 15-year-old me could've had access to the Criterion Channel, God knows what I woul've been able to do. I didn't see a [Federico] Fellini film until I was in my 20s. So, I'm excited to be part of the debut of FX on Hulu.
Does the job still surprise you?
Yeah, you learn all the time. When you get to work with people that are as talented as someone like Cate Blanchett, it is always surprising. Yes, she's enormously gifted, but she's an example of "10,000 hours" [Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-Hour Rule]. And by the way, a perfect example of why she and Sarah [Paulson] are so close ... And really our whole group. All of them. You're always learning from people who are passionate about doing this. Maybe it might've been easier for me and my career if I could've just been drawn to do one sort of thing or tell one kind of story because then it'd be like, "Oh yeah, she's the rom-com lady," or something like that. (Laughs.) But I'm in it to learn more about who we are, the times we live in and where we can go. So, I think that's why I've been fortunate enough to have been involved in a bunch of zeitgeist pictures and shows, because it's what I'm interested in.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity. Mrs. America is now available on FX on Hulu.
by Pamela McClintock
by Richard Newby