From 'BlacKkKlansman' to 'Vice': 12 Top Producers Talk Making the Impossible Possible

7:00 AM 11/12/2018

by THR staff

Producing is all about being nimble, as proved by these 12 movie-makers, who had to roll with the punches, from giving up what wasn't working (a jailbreak sequence) to fighting for what was needed (vintage bookshops).

Playbook- From 'BlacKkKlansman' to 'Vice': 12 Top Producers Talk Making the Impossible Possible- Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy Photos

Producers are the behind-the-scenes problem-solvers on every movie set, and for these 12 top producers, that meant dealing with everything from getting the director exactly what he or she needed to pull off that perfect shot, to figuring out how to make a big, ambitious story on a not-so-big budget.

THR spoke to the producers behind some of this year's best films, from BlacKkKlansman to First Man and If Beale Street Could Talk about their biggest challenges and what they did when things didn't go as planned.

As told to Lauren Huff, Katie Kilkenny, Rebecca Ford and Tara Bitran. 

  • Raymond Mansfield

    The biggest adjustment we had to make was working with Spike [Lee]'s speed throughout the entire process. He's a very nimble storyteller. Spike has a way of working the scenes so that they are urgently relevant and timeless at the same time. He looks at what's happening in society right now to give his stories the most dramatic impact. So his decision to put the Charlottesville footage [of the August 2017 march] at the end of the film really changed it in many ways for us. It gave us a clear hindsight to the rest of the script leading up to that point and helped with the clarity and scope and creative intent of the movie. How did we handle it? We wholeheartedly supported it. It was risky for many reasons but we knew the decision would make BlacKkKlansman more than a film ­— and as a film, one that people would not easily forget. That was what we were trying to do. We can't imagine the film without that ending now. — AS TOLD TO LAUREN HUFF

  • Dede Gardner

    The center hub of the movie, the scene in the diner, has acting at an acrobatic level that I rarely see — there's so many pivots and turns in it. [Director] Felix [van Groeningen] rehearsed with Timmy [Chalamet] and Steve [Carell] for a couple of weeks — they worked on that scene every day. You're covering a massive landscape in that scene and there are so many different corridors of manipulation and appeal and then disgust and then anger and then rage and then rejection and then sadness. We had one day to shoot it, and it was the third day of our shoot — which, in hindsight, may be lunacy. We got to this diner in San Pedro and we set up one camera, because Felix is traditionally a one-camera guy. Then we realized, "Oh, that's impossible. It's never going to work." What we witnessed, between Steve and Timmy, was so singular and so in its own column of experience that we quickly figured out how to get a second camera. It's a hard scene to shoot with two cameras. Felix had this beautiful kaleidoscopic perspective going on. It was all very on the fly in order to ensure that we got what was happening in front of us, this waltz that they were creating. — AS TOLD TO TARA BITRAN

  • Eli Bush

    When we were shooting the pool party, there was just this chaos of all these kids and the cameras and the pool and all this kind of stuff. It was sort of like, "Well, this is our movie! People will like it or they won't, but this is what we set out to do." [Director] Bo [Burnham] was just so ambitious and clear about what he wanted to say, and big-hearted about it. He went to these schools, he found real kids. Everyone would say, "Bo, you're making your first movie, you're crazy. It's going to be with kids. It's shorter days and it's really hard on production." He believed in [the kids] and he took it seriously, and they really took it seriously. They're really smart, they're really sensitive. They really understand what we're trying to do and they're really committed. [Lead actress] Elsie [Fisher] graduated eighth grade, and then we shot the movie over the summer. So it also had a vibe like this was our weird summer project or summer camp. — AS TOLD TO T.B.

  • Anne Carey

    We were definitely trying to walk in [writer and forger] Lee [Israel]'s actual footsteps in and around Manhattan and the various bookstores and organizations that she worked in, and trying to find people who would engage with us to talk about Lee. There were some people who were very resistant, and people who didn't want to have anything to do with it. There was the challenge of the creation of the New York City that still existed in the period. We were chasing bookstores. We'd find the bookstore and it would close. And we'd find another one and it would close, or we'd find one and they'd build a condo next to it. So, the store looked perfectly like whatever year it was supposed to look like, 1990, and then right next to it was some building that suddenly didn't work. One of the hardest challenges was keeping it in Manhattan and chasing the corners of time that hadn't been gentrified yet. — AS TOLD TO REBECCA FORD

  • Wyck Godfrey

    One of the biggest challenges of the entire movie was how we were going to do the moon surface; not only the weightlessness, but just, how big does it need to be? The only way to achieve the single-source light of the moon ­— of just the strong sun and nothing else — was to shoot it outdoors at night, with a light that literally had to be designed for the movie, a single-source light that was at a wattage that we had never used before in film. And our production designer, Nathan Crowley, was like, "OK, great. But I have to find the place to make the moon's surface." So, he not only found a quarry outside of Atlanta, but he 3D-mapped the exact spot where we landed on the moon, and gave it to the guys who owned the quarry and said, "I need you to create this landscape." They changed the whole landscape to fit our specifications. They were excited to be a part of it. And then there were these rigs that would allow Corey [Stoll, as Buzz Aldrin] and Ryan [Gosling, as Neil Armstrong] to take the exact leaps that would be the right gravity force of the moon. What you're seeing when he steps out onto the moon is exactly the craters, the mounds, exactly what was there when we landed. — AS TOLD TO T.B.

  • Helen Estabrook

    The poor props department had to source all of these period-accurate video cameras and still cameras. It was hilarious. Every day someone would come into my office saying, “He can ship us these four cameras.” You’re trying to track down cameras that no one uses anymore and that aren’t retro enough to be cool yet — 1980s equipment that had to be accurate for the period but is really hard to find. You walk into the conference room of our production office and it looks like a war room of 1987 [during Gary Hart’s presidential campaign], with all of these pictures of what every single location actually looked like, what every single person would have been using for the press corps — and they had to source them. The amount of time and effort to find these things that are still around but aren’t easily accessible in such quantities [was profound]. You could get one camera here or there, but to create an entire press corps for an entire campaign, it’s a lot of cameras, it’s a lot of film, it’s a lot of tape, it’s a lot of things that are not easy to find. Our props team and our production design team were tasked with some real intense sourcing and intense work. — AS TOLD TO KATIE KILKENNY

  • Tim Bevan

    On a film like this, you could make the $100 million version or you can make the $50 million version — and in your head, and at the beginning, you are always making the $100 million version, which means you are an hour from the mountains of Scotland, shooting at castles that you’ve built all the way through. The really careful balance on a movie like this is to get the production value out of going out into the countryside and getting sweeping epic shots, and then shooting the rest as much as possible in studios, because that’s much more cost-effective. And we also realized quite early on, because we knew we had Saoirse [Ronan] as [Mary, queen of Scots], the casting of [Queen] Elizabeth was going to be really important. When we got Margot [Robbie], the way the script worked and the buildup, the tension between these two women when they are not onscreen together, that was always going to be very much the heart of this film — that is where the money had to go — you wanted them to look magnificent, you wanted the costumes to be magnificent, and you wanted their environments to be fantastic. So, it’s getting that balance right, and that’s always a challenge on these films. Saying no to something — and it’s usually saying no to something epic outside and forcing it to be shot in a more controlled environment inside — quite often, great creativity comes from that. — AS TOLD TO R.F.

  • Toby Halbrooks

    In the original draft of the script, the movie started with a prison escape. The character that Robert Redford plays was based on this guy who had escaped from 18 prisons, and one of his biggest escapes was from San Quentin: He basically made a boat, tricked this regatta and made it look like he was a part of this big boat race. But in the middle of production, we started to run into a lot of problems finding a body of water that was going to work. It ended up getting way colder, we built this little rig that might have worked and finally we were like, "This isn’t going to work." [Director] David [Lowery] said, "Guys, we don’t need that anyway. This isn’t about him escaping prison, this is about him robbing banks. And there’s this bank that I want to feature." Unfortunately, we were shooting the movie in Cincinnati and this bank that he wanted to feature was in Waco [Texas], so it was a pretty huge adjustment. That was the biggest change, just admitting that we didn’t need this huge set piece [that] also was totally impractical to shoot. — AS TOLD TO K.K.

  • Andrew Form

    The thing we didn’t anticipate, which was honestly the first thing [director] John [Krasinski] pitched me when he read the screenplay, was the idea of the sand paths, which really leaned into the sound of the movie. What we weren’t ready for was the maintenance of the sand paths and how they get beat up every single day by people walking on them and, if your sand path isn’t there or ready, you can’t shoot. We weren’t prepared for the amount of personnel needed to maintain the sand paths, the amount of sand we needed, running out of sand, the equipment — these little things [the crew] would stand on, almost like a Bobcat, to bring the sand on — getting the sand paths perfect. If people walked on the sand, you had to rake it and make it look like it hadn’t been walked on. Any weather, any wind, all of it always was ruining the sand paths. Every day we were fighting sand paths. The amount of people we needed to get the sand paths ready was pretty crazy. It was one of the things that we never saw coming. And, by the way, [it was] so important in the film. — AS TOLD TO K.K.

  • Adele Romanski

    The pivot around Puerto Rico was pretty seismic. In the book, Sharon [played by Regina King] goes down to Puerto Rico to try and "save Fonny’s soul," as the movie puts it, and we were three days away from going down for our first scout in Puerto Rico when [2017’s Hurricane Maria] came through. And that kind of put us into this holding place, waiting to see how destructive it was going to be, what the rebuilding and the recovery was going to be, and, of course, we all now know how catastrophic the damage was and that folks are still rebuilding. But in the immediate aftermath, we didn’t know. We had to have a lot conversations around the fidelity to the text. Is it misrepresenting if we go and film the Dominican Republic for Puerto Rico? Is this a time where we should be trying to infuse resources into the economy, help the local economy, help the local crew? Is it a time for art? Is it a time for activism? So ultimately, we went and shot in the Dominican Republic. I think it worked really well, and we actually pulled crew from Puerto Rico. So we kind of were able to both employ folks who needed work after the hurricane but also leave that province to its rebuilding and healing. — AS TOLD TO R.F.

  • Kevin Messick

    The first big puzzle piece, the moment after Christian [Bale] said "I’m in," was about makeup. Our very first makeup test was March 17 [2017], and we weren’t sure that we got it. We couldn’t make the movie until we had it, until I think the weekend before we started rolling. That process takes place in the least sexy place, outside a storage facility in the [San Fernando Valley], in the heat of summer. We’re with our genius makeup artists, [and] in the back of this storage facility was this old, tattered barber chair that Bale would sit in. He’d get there at like 2 or 3 a.m. Christian would be in the chair before any of us ever got there, so for the three months that we made this film, we never saw Christian, because after he wrapped he would go to get his makeup off. So we only saw Cheney, we never saw Bale, until after the movie was over. Which is weird because Christian is a smart, warm, funny guy, and that’s the same guy, although it looks like Dick Cheney, that you’re hanging out with between takes. — AS TOLD TO L.H.

  • Iain Canning

    The one thing that we knew going into this was that it was a Steve McQueen film, but it was also a crime thriller based on an original TV show that had action sequences and thrills and twists and turns. So we knew that we had to directorially find a way for Steve to navigate that world — to still be Steve McQueen but give mainstream audiences the thrill ride that they’d expect from a crime thriller. We were lucky to have some real artists in terms of special effects and stunts, and they allowed Steve to dream about what type of sequences he’d want to do. The first 10 minutes of the film is an action sequence where the camera action takes place out of the back of the van. Traditionally, in a scene like that you’d expect a helicopter shot or cars to be careening off the bridge, but there’s an intensity to the construction of that scene now where Steve stays in the back of the van, the frame becomes the back of the van. The challenge was to be unique and to be artistic about it, while also having the tension and the joy that people get from action scenes in other films. — AS TOLD TO L.H.

    This story first appeared in the Nov. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.