How Producers on 'Irishman,' 'Once Upon a Time' and 10 More Best Picture Contenders Overcame Their Biggest Challenges

9:00 AM 11/11/2019

by THR Staff

Whether it was convincing Paul McCartney to approve a Beatles song in a movie with Hitler, finding an NBC player who could act or earning the trust of Fred Rogers' family, these talented folks reveal how they made their directors' biggest asks come true.

From left: 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,' 'Booksmart,' 'The Farewell,' 'The Irishman' and 'Jojo Rabbit.'
From left: 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,' 'Booksmart,' 'The Farewell,' 'The Irishman' and 'Jojo Rabbit.'
Courtesy of Films

  • Peter Saraf, 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood'

    Courtesy of TIFF

    Something that we all needed — which I wasn't sure that we were ever going to get because it took years — were the rights to the show [Mister Rogers' Neighborhood] and the music. We developed this project for seven years because it took that long to earn the trust of the people who worked with Fred [Rogers] and his family and the people who are charged with protecting his legacy, and they are, rightly so, very protective. There were many times when I thought we weren't going to get the rights and that we weren't going to be able to tell this story that we were determined to tell, but it was also one of the most gratifying challenges. Because out of the process of earning that trust, we learned so much about that community and the work that Fred did and the work that all these people did. We made lasting relationships that certainly changed me for the better, and many other people who worked on the movie, too.

  • Jessica Elbaum, 'Booksmart'

    Annapurna Pictures

    We needed to shoot in L.A. Obviously, it's a little bit more expensive, but Annapurna saw the value in being able to shoot in the city where this movie should take place. [Director] Olivia [Wilde] said, "I really think that aesthetically and visually, this needs to be set in L.A. and not Atlanta for L.A. or Canada for L.A." They agreed, and that doesn't happen all the time. Most of the time we're just happy that we get to make our movies and our TV shows. But this is a real victory. Los Angeles does play into this movie — you can feel it. It was just something that isn't necessarily a no-brainer and typically doesn't always happen, but it wasn't even a fight [to get to film in L.A.].

  • Andrew Miano, 'The Farewell'

    Courtesy of A24

    The biggest challenge in China was that [producer] Dani [Melia] and I didn't speak the language, so it was a challenge to make sure we provided [director] Lulu [Wang] with anything she needed. We had an assistant who was our assistant/translator, but I felt bad not speaking the language. And in China, there's less paperwork, so it requires trust. You had to just trust that you'd get something, be it a location or a piece of equipment — and I will say it was always there. But we weren't used to that. They'd say, "We promise it'll get done," and it did, but it made us a little nervous.

  • Jane Rosenthal, 'The Irishman'

    Netflix

    This project took since '97 to get out there, and it was probably one of the longest struggle[s]. It was constant: To get the right financing, to get all of that out of the gate, and then to be able to work with our team on the digital effects because that hadn't been done before. The de-aging had never been done before. It took testing and refinement and working with Pablo Helman from Industrial Light & Magic when we were on set.

  • Carthew Neal, 'Jojo Rabbit'

    Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox

    We needed the Beatles. It was an audacious idea to put hysterical footage of Germans at Nazi rallies against a German version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" — to illustrate what it was like to be in Germany in the late '30s and why our young protagonist might think the way he does at the start of the film. [Director] Taika [Waititi] came up with the idea while watching Hitler Youth documentaries and seeing crowds gushing for Hitler. The Beatles are complicated to clear in any situation, but this was an unusual use that could easily be taken the wrong way if seen in isolation. During the edit, a few people asked about our backup plan. We didn't have one. I believed the intention of the film would be understood. Our composer, Michael Giacchino, knew Paul McCartney and wrote to him explaining our belief in the film. At the same time, we approached their label. We showed the label the whole film several times, and Taika sent letters to Paul [McCartney], Yoko [Ono], Ringo [Starr] and Olivia [Harrison], explaining his hopes for it. After several steps, they agreed to put the song in the film.

  • Michael B. Jordan, 'Just Mercy'

    Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

    The thing we were most concerned about on this film was doing justice to [attorney] Bryan [Stevenson] and his story. It wasn't that we thought it was impossible, but it was on our minds in every scene and every moment of the journey. There's a Hollywood version of this film, and there's a real version of this film. Every decision we made along the way was to serve the aspiration of being the latter.

  • Amy Pascal, 'Little Women'

    Wilson Webb

    When [director] Greta [Gerwig] came to us, it was before she'd made Lady Bird, and she said, "I have to make this movie, and I know that you don't know that I can, but I can. And this movie is about money. This movie is about how without money, there is no economic freedom." So many people think of this book as a cozy, sentimental novel, but it's telling you something very important about the state of women. I'd never heard anyone talk about this book that way. I don't know if that made it harder to do, but it made it urgent to get it done. And then, when I broke my ankle, I was laid up in bed, and I was walkie-talkie-ing with Greta on the iPhone as she was shooting. That was hard. We were talking on the phone so much that we both had to put them away. Not being there in the beginning and then being there in a wheelchair was a challenge. But you know what? It's all sweet.

  • Shannon McIntosh, 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'

    Photofest

    Getting Hollywood Boulevard for the time we needed during the height of tourist season was something we were really nervous about. Rick Schuler is a great location manager, but how we finally ended up getting it was because [director] Quentin [Tarantino] came to talk to the Hollywood Closure Committee about why he really needed this. He showed his passion. They were actually running late, so Quentin hid in a broom closet so that he could be a surprise. It all paid off, and we got Hollywood Boulevard.

  • Kwak Sin-ae, 'Parasite'

    Courtesy of TIFF

    I never thought there would be something [director] Bong [Joon Ho] can't do, but I was very curious about how the second half of this movie ends. Since the spring of 2015, when Bong wrote such a detailed story for the first half and a rough treatment for the second, there were three to four versions for the second half, until the summer of 2017. I realized most of them were "temporary." The treatments and stories for the second half wouldn't stay the same — but I never felt anxious about it because this was an ordinary process for Bong, who creates the completed version when the time comes. As I expected, after four months of Bong's working on the scenario, in December 2017, I finally faced the perfect version of Parasite with awe. I screamed with joy and confidence, that it will do. The next step was just to make the film as it was written.

  • Sebastian Bear-McClard, 'Uncut Gems'

    Telluride Film Festival

    I thought getting a real NBA player and real NBA games would be impossible. The script had been based on an [actual] diamond-dealing Jew who was obsessed with basketball. It had gone through a bunch of iterations based on player availability — meaning that if we were using the Knicks' Amar'e Stoudemire, we needed to have the games that Howie was betting on be Knicks games. But then Amar'e didn't want to change his hair to be period-appropriate. We asked a bunch of players. These guys are public figures and a lot of them were nervous to be in a serious movie. It's a lot easier to get them to say, "I'll be in Space Jam." There is zero reputational risk. Between the scheduling, and finding an NBA player that wanted to do it and one we thought we could get a good performance out of, it all came down to the last minute. We lucked out with Kevin Garnett. He felt right out of Safdie Central Casting.

  • Ian Cooper, 'Us'

    Courtesy of Universal Studios

    When we were shooting all the Tethered holding hands on the beach in daylight, it dawned on me, "How on earth are we going to not let this become a spoiler, because there are people everywhere?" I was looking at every person and bluffs in the distance and seeing who's up there, trying to make sure no one leaked this. We started telling people that we were shooting a Verizon commercial. If we sell that, then maybe they will disperse and not try to get the pictures. It seemed impossible not to let that leak, and somehow it didn't.

  • Jim Wilson, 'Waves'

    Telluride Film Festival

    The biggest challenge was scheduling. We wanted Sterling K. Brown to play [the father figure] Ronald. As we were pulling the film together, Sterling read it and spoke to [director] Trey [Edward Shults] and [actor] Kelvin [Harrison Jr.]. But Sterling was shooting This Is Us, which was shooting while we were making Waves. At first glance, it was a scheduling clash. That would be the end of that conversation. But we were so keen to have him. We really thought he was the guy. It seemed almost 98 percent impossible. We couldn't move our shoot that much because of Lucas Hedges' play, The Waverly Gallery. We were literally hours away from moving on from Sterling, with maybe two weeks till we started shooting. It was like, "We're going to have to find another Ronald." Then a producer on This Is Us, a guy called Jeff, became our angel. What we ended up doing is, we changed our whole week around, and our weekend was a Thursday and a Friday. Sterling would shoot This Is Us Monday through Friday during the weeks in Los Angeles. On a Friday night in L.A., he would red-eye to Miami or Fort Lauderdale, and we shot weekends. Saturday and Sunday we would do Sterling's scenes. And it's a particularly intense character he has to play. Then he would get on a plane back to L.A. and do This Is Us from Monday to Friday. I've never seen someone put themselves into such a difficult work situation.

    Tara Bitran, Sharareh Drury, Rebecca Ford, Mia Galuppo, Hilary Lewis and Pamela McClintock contributed to this story.

    This story first appeared in the Nov. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.