'Revenant' Producer and 10 More Reveal How They Overcame Roadblocks on Set

6:55 AM 11/12/2015

by THR staff

From the snow woes of 'The Revenant' to the casting difficulties of 'Beasts of No Nation,' Mary Parent, Shannon McIntosh, John Lesher and more share stories of how they conquered the impossible.

The Revenant still 1 Leonardo DiCaprio  - H 2015
'The Revenant,' Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
  1. 1

    Stretching a Beantown Budget

    Making Spotlight was a true joy for all of the producers, in spite of the many obstacles that were thrown at us in the eight years since the project was conceived. But getting [director] Tom McCarthy his shoot days in Boston — now that was something.

    We had to schedule the bulk of the production for Toronto to make our numbers work — and Tom was adamant that we shoot all of our exteriors in Boston — so, initially, we planned for four shoot days in Boston. We started there, shot our first night at Fenway during a live game and got some beautiful stuff. But, as fine filmmakers oft do, Tom wanted more. We didn't have the money, but we went again — on a weekend — and we really couldn't afford it, so we said, "This is the last time!"

    Then we went again. On a weekend. We had to find the money! And Tom wanted winter shots. It was September. We wrapped in November. So we went again in April to get "winter shots."

    These "extra days in Boston" were quite difficult — so many moving pieces: cast availability, locations and a shrinking budget. We originally anticipated going once to Boston, but went four times. But when we saw how Tom captured not just the exteriors of Boston, but the essence of the city, it was clear we made the right choice.

    Sugar is a producer of Open Road's Spotlight.

    From THR's Review: A would-be All the Cardinal's Men, the less-than-resonantly titled Spotlight makes a dry affair of the sensational story of a small circle of Boston Globe journalists who, more than a decade ago, exposed the Roman Catholic church's institutional protection of sexually abusive priests. As numerous notable films have demonstrated, the spectacle of lowly scribes bringing down the great and powerful can make for exciting, agitating cinema, but director and co-writer Tom McCarthy's fifth feature is populated with one-dimensional characters enacting a connect-the-dots screenplay quite devoid of life's, or melodrama's, juices, which are what distantly motivate this story in the first place. Virtuous only by nature of its subject matter, this Open Road release, set to open in November, might have been more at home on the small screen.

  2. 2

    Desperately Seeking Snow By Mary Parent

    The Revenant was very ambitious, how it was filmed in all natural light and with more than 90 percent being shot in exterior, real locations.

    The big nemesis we encountered was the weather. We faced completely unusual and unpredictable weather patterns. Before experiencing it firsthand, I didn't know what a chinook, a warming wind that quickly melts and evaporates snow away, was. We would come to work and have beautiful snow, and then you'd go in the trailer and come out an hour later to completely dry ground. It was shocking. It was as though someone came and sucked up everything with a vacuum cleaner. We were shooting in Calgary, and March, which is traditionally their heaviest month of snow, was suddenly just the opposite.

    In addition to multiple weather services, we would frequently speak with local ranchers, who told us spring had come early and this hadn't happened in 35 years. We began augmenting the disappearing snow with snow machines, but then it became too warm for the snow machines to work at all and we had to rely on trucking it in. Big beds of snow would arrive super early, be shoveled into wheelbarrows and taken out to set. The commitment and dedication of the crew responsible for these efforts was incredible.

    Pretty soon, this wasn't working anymore, and with only two weeks left to finish the film, we had to shut down. We wrapped in early April, returned to Los Angeles where [director] Alejandro [G. Inarritu] started editing, and we started scouting New Zealand and Argentina. There are only certain places where you're going to find snow in our summer. We started this intense search, and we got really lucky and found what we needed in Argentina. We all knew this was going to be an adventure, but part of what makes the film so special is the ambitious nature of it.

    Parent is a producer of Fox's The Revenant.

    Watch producer Steve Golin discuss the challenges of making The Revenant during THR's Producer Roundtable.

  3. 3

    When the Topic of 'Transgender' Could Empty a Room

    The Danish Girl is a period drama and love story about a wife who helps her husband become her authentic self — a woman. When I optioned the book in early 2000, the industry had entered a time when the word "period" alone was enough to put a nail in the project's coffin with financiers. But it didn't stop there: The subject of transgender was enough to empty any room in which the story was pitched.

    It took another seven years before I had a script by the wonderful Lucinda Coxon, two major actors and a director — but still no financier. By then I was extremely fortunate to have been joined by two dedicated producers, Anne Harrison (who had largely paid for the screenplay) and Linda Reisman.

    In 2008 we took ourselves, the actors, the director and the script to AFM, and we sold out our foreign territories, improbably, at one of the most difficult AFMs in recent history. We were elated; we were finally on our way. Then, of course, we lost our first director.

    Variations on this theme continued to pile up. For the next seven years we would repeatedly have three out of the four crucial elements in place, including — at various stations of the cross — three sets of financiers, several co-production partners in six countries, five changes in the principal cast and two additional directors before, in February 2014, the phone rang one day and Tom Hooper said, "You have yourself a director." Within 48 hours, we also had Working Title, Universal Pictures and a greenlighted movie.

    Mutrux is a producer of Focus' The Danish Girl.

    From THR's Review: The title seems almost a misnomer in The Danish Girl, director Tom Hooper's thoroughly English bio-drama of groundbreaking transgender figure Lili Elbe and the artist wife who stood by her husband Einar Wegener throughout his long and difficult transition to live as a woman. The correctness and careful sensitivity of the film's approach seem somehow a limitation in an age when countless indie and cable TV projects dealing with thematically related subject matter have led us to expect a little more edge. But if the movie remains safe, there's no questioning its integrity, or the balance of porcelain vulnerability and strength that Eddie Redmayne brings to the lead role.

    Listen to Eddie Redmayne on THR's Awards Chatter podcast hosted by awards analyst Scott Feinberg.

    Watch Eddie Redmayne talk about his approach to playing the role of real-life transgender figure Lili Elbe.

  4. 4

    Race in the News at the Right Time

    One of the major challenges of Straight Outta Compton was creating a film about the world's most controversial group, N.W.A, that was more than a typical music biopic. We were always cognizant of telling a story that was universal in its themes about brotherhood, friendship, triumph, betrayal and tragedy. We understood that what was occurring in Compton and South Central Los Angeles in the mid- to late-'80s still existed in the world today.

    At the end of the second week of filming, we shot two nights of the dramatic and heart-stopping opening of the film, where Eazy-E is in the midst of a drug deal when the LAPD arrive en masse with a battering ram. We knew this opening would make a statement to the audience that this was more than a music biopic but a depiction of the world at large. Simultaneously, the situation was arising in Ferguson, Mo., where people started protesting.

    While we were on set the second night, we saw a photo of a burning building with "F— the Police" spray-painted on it. At that very moment, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, [director] F. Gary Gray and I knew that this film was becoming bigger than us all and was no longer a history lesson but a current event.

    Bernstein is a producer of Universal's Straight Outta Compton.

    From THR's Review: Biopics about bands consisting of equals are far rarer than those about solo artists, and for good reason: Try doing justice to even three performers' rise from obscurity to fame, especially if they then veer in different directions, and you hardly have time to develop the stars as human characters. So Straight Outta Compton, about the fractious career of gangsta-rap doorbusters N.W.A., turns into a bio-epic, running well over two hours without even mentioning the competing strands of hip-hop (from Public Enemy's righteous anger to the feel-good vibes of De La Soul) that, by contrast, made N.W.A.'s furious sound so upsetting to so many people.

    Listen to F. Gary Gray, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell on THR's Awards Chatter podcast hosted by awards analyst Scott Feinberg.

    Watch Dr. Dre tell actor Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre) how to play his role in Straight Outta Compton.

  5. 5

    Nuclear Jet Propulsion Isn't a Crowd-Pleaser

    One of the most important parts, if not the most important part, of The Martian was making sure the "science" was as real as possible, while still being engaging. Nuclear thermal jet propulsion and planetary science aren't exactly crowd-pleasers. So [director] Ridley [Scott] wanted to help the audience experience space travel by making it look like the very near future. To do this, we spent a lot of time meeting with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, discussing language and designing the look of the costumes, spacecraft and, of course, Mars.

    Everyone at NASA and JPL loved the book, the script and storyboards. We felt like we had really hit something special, where all of these completely different people were all excited about the same vision. Then we screened the first 45 minutes of the film for JPL and a room full of journalists. Charles Elachi, the director of JPL, responded first: "We actually dress much better than that." OK. If that's NASA and JPL's big complaint, we'll take it.

    Schaefer is a producer of Fox's The Martian.

    From THR's Review: Ridley Scott goes back to the future, a familiar destination for him, and returns in fine shape in The Martian. Although technically science fiction by virtue of its being largely set on a neighboring planet, this smartly made adaptation of Andy Weir’s best-selling novel is more realistic in its attention to detail than many films set in the present, giving the story the feel of an adventure that could happen the day after tomorrow. Constantly absorbing rather than outright exciting, this major autumn Fox release should generate muscular business worldwide.

    Listen to Ridley Scott on THR's Awards Chatter podcast hosted by awards analyst Scott Feinberg.

    Watch Matt Damon talk about if people could survive on Mars.

  6. 6

    Room Without a View

    Initially, building the 'Room' part of Room seemed to be a fairly straightforward prospect. But from the moment director Lenny Abrahamson and I started to talk about it with our production designer Ethan Tobman, it evolved into something much more complex, storied and ingenious.

    First of all, we built a Styrofoam dummy set to experiment with different dimensions and, along with our cinematographer Danny Cohen, concluded that anything more than the 10 feet by 10 feet specified by writer Emma Donoghue would take something essential from the story. We also decided that the camera lens would never sit outside the walls of the room and designed the set as a series of small, quickly removable panels in the walls, floor and roof, which meant we did not need to float walls. This also helped the actors, Jacob [Tremblay] in particular, by not ruining the illusion of 'Room.'

    We built the set in a large studio space so we could give a realistic feel of exterior daylight (decent space also stopped the crew from going stir-crazy over the five weeks it took to shoot). Lenny wanted the set completed several weeks in advance of the shoot to rehearse in 'Room' with Brie [Larson] and Jacob. This meant that we started work 10 weeks out to allow for the exacting process of building and then dressing, texturing and aging 'Room.' We had to think about things like the layers of the boy's artwork on the walls, how sunlight bleached the tiles and myriad other detailed considerations.

    Guiney is a producer of A24's Room.

    From THR's Review: Irish director Lenny Abrahamson clearly has a penchant for confining his actors to tight spaces — Michael Fassbender within a large fake head in Frank, and now Brie Larson and her little son to a 10-by-10 shed in Room. The result is rather better this time around, as this adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s celebrated 2010 novel, with a script by the author herself, is involving and moderately heartwarming here and there, even if doesn’t reach the higher levels of psychological insight and emotional profundity to which it aspires. Strong performances by Larson and young Jacob Tremblay as a mother and son held captive for years, as well as the book’s reputation, will provide a certain art house draw, more among female viewers than men. But the claustrophobic and upsetting nature of the material will be a disincentive to many.

    Listen to Brie Larson on THR's Awards Chatter podcast hosted by awards analyst Scott Feinberg.

    Watch Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay share stories about what it was like working together on set.

  7. 7

    When Quentin Needs a Special Camera

    Our biggest challenge in making The Hateful Eight started on page one of the script: "A breathtaking 70mm-filmed (as is the whole movie) snow-covered mountain range." Quentin [Tarantino] had told me that he wanted to shoot the movie in 65mm and release it in 70mm, but reading it in black and white certainly cemented the task at hand.

    A partnership between the production, FotoKemPanavision and Kodak was formed, and we set out to resurrect a rare format. A few movies have had limited releases in 70mm, but no movie has had such a wide release in a long time. Our first visit to FotoKem had us visiting workflows that had never been done before. Because we were shooting a Quentin Tarantino dialogue movie, we had to ask Kodak and Panavision to provide the tools necessary for that undertaking — this meant creating 2,000-foot [camera] mags and manufacturing 65mm rolls with up to 2,000 feet of film.

    Next, our DP Bob Richardson paid a visit to Panavision to find a set of lenses that could be used to shoot the movie. He found some in a back room that had not been used since Khartoum in 1966; these were the Ultra Panavision lenses. Ultra Panavision has an aspect ratio of 2:76:1 — it is the widest format there is. Quentin was drawn to using this format after screening the chariot sequence from Ben Hur. The team had to retrofit these anamorphic lenses to work on modern 65mm cameras, along with preparing them for the harsh winter conditions we'd face in Telluride. Panavision, led by Dan Sasaki with the support of [assistant cameraman] Gregor Tavenner, somehow managed to get this done in an extraordinarily short two months.

    It's still mind-boggling to me that we were able to bring equipment from the 1960s into the 21st century, make it work in some of the toughest shooting conditions imaginable and come out with such a spectacular result. Our team now says: "Once you go 70mm, you never go back."

    McIntosh is a producer of The Weinstein Co.'s The Hateful Eight.

    Watch The Hateful Eight producer Stacey Sher talk about Quentin Tarantino's controversial comments.

  8. 8

    How to Boot a Kid's Acting Coach

    Overall, Black Mass was a pretty smooth shoot because [director] Scott Cooper was so well prepared and the crew was so on top of everything. However, we ran into a small issue with one of our younger castmembers.

    We cast this really great kid, Luke Ryan, because in the audition, he was cute, charismatic and delivered a completely natural performance. However, when we got to set, it was clear he had been working closely with an acting coach. When he delivered his lines, they felt very rehearsed.

    We had to politely ask the acting coach to leave, and then we reworked the script so that our young actor could have fresh lines to work with. In the end, we got the authentic performance we cast him for and were very pleased with his work.

    Lesher is a producer of Warner Bros.' Black Mass.

    From THR's Review: After too many Caribbean vacations, Johnny Depp finally gets back down to some serious business in Black Mass, a major league real-life gangster film loaded with ripely presented murders, beatings, betrayals and vengeance-takings, all backed up by a deep-secret arrangement between Boston's top-dog criminal and the FBI. Even if director Scott Cooper's jump into big-time studio filmmaking feels familiar and derivative in some respects, he has taken care to borrow only from the best, and a top-notch cast socks over the many dramatic opportunities. Box-office prospects look potent.

    Watch the cast of Black Mass talk about their experience working with Johnny Depp.

  9. 9

    'Brooklyn' in Montreal

    Raising enough money to make the film we wanted to make, with the proper casting, was singularly the most challenging aspect of bringing Brooklyn to the screen. Shooting a period piece in three countries over eight weeks (on a 35-day schedule) was certainly ambitious, but I knew we needed to pull this off with the dream team of director John Crowley, screenwriter Nick Hornby and Saoirse Ronan leading the cast.

    The traditional model of covering a sub­stantial amount of the budget through presales, which was still available when I made An Education and Quartet, has altered dramatically over the last few years. An immigration story with a female protagonist was not a slam-dunk. Shooting the Irish part of the film in Ireland was always in the cards. But how to re-create 1950s Brooklyn on a modest budget was a conundrum. We needed to find a location that gave us the best creative options: good infrastructure, not too far from London (so we could zip back and forth for casting and scouting) and with the ability to access local funding and financial incentives.

    We created a look book of the locations we wanted to replicate and a spreadsheet of tax incentives offered throughout the world. Canada offered the most: promising locations, an ability to structure the film as a trilateral co-production (U.K.-Ireland-Canada) and strong local financial incentives. With 13 different pieces of financing and a maze of co-production rules to navigate, Montreal was our new "Brooklyn." After five months of wrangling, we were able to film two critical days in Brooklyn to place our story firmly there. Together, the contributions of Canada, Ireland, England and America came together to create our immigrant tale, one I am proud to call Brooklyn.

    Dwyer is a producer of Fox Searchlight's Brooklyn.

  10. 10

    Scam or a Talent Search?

    One of the greatest challenges making Beasts of No Nation was casting. We convinced the bond company to let us shoot in Ghana despite minimal film infrastructure. This meant there were few professional actors. We couldn't afford to bring in many outside actors, except Idris Elba, so our only option was to cast locals — read: non-actors. The priority was to find the boy who would play Agu, the film's lead.

    Initial efforts with a local casting director proved fruitless. People didn't believe we were making a film. Many thought we were operating a scam. Only a few came to open auditions. Ten weeks out from shooting, we were des­perate. We hired an American casting director, Harrison Nesbit, to spearhead a new strategy. Losing another two weeks processing his visa and vaccinations, Harrison had only eight weeks to cast over 300 nonspeaking and 39 speaking roles. He started looking everywhere young people would congregate — schools, soccer fields and Internet cafes. Along with [director] Cary [Joji Fukunaga] and a small team of scouts, he searched in Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone, in the end auditioning over 2,500 kids. Two weeks before shooting, we cast Abraham Attah as Agu.

    The challenges did not end there. During production, actors wouldn't show up and had to be recast at the last minute. Our military advisor and some young Liberian actors were arrested in the Ivory Coast under suspicion of being mercenaries. After we paid to have them freed, we could only afford to fly half of them to set, so the other roles had to be recast out of our extras.

    The shoot was grueling, and everyone had to endure extreme conditions, but the camaraderie from the experience bonded everyone for a lifetime. All the hard work felt rewarded when Abraham won the best young actor award at Venice [Film Festival].

    Kaufman is a producer of Bleecker Street/Netflix's Beasts of No Nation.

    From THR's Review: One of the most impressive things about Beasts is that it was able to be made at all, and with such verisimilitude. Shot mostly outdoors in Ghana, the action moves around a great deal and there are several large-scale scenes of troops moving into ever-bigger towns, skirmishes, battles and mass evacuations that obviously presented major logistical challenges. Given the country's lack of much filmmaking infrastructure or a history of hosting big international productions, what's ended up onscreen is very impressive, and Fukunaga's camerawork is — as in his earlier films — lustrous and alert without falling back onto mere hand-held exigencies.

    Watch Cary Fukunaga talk about economical issues that are affecting the nation.

  11. 11

    Decoding a Financial Crisis

    Michael Lewis' book The Big Short centers on a monumental global event that continues to reverberate today. And, as in Michael's other work, it poses a troubling question: What do the experts really know? Do they know anything?

    Because this particular story takes place in the world of bond markets, filled with complicated financial instruments, we had the challenge of making the story comprehensible onscreen, so that the huge, probing ideas of the book would register with an audience.

    Adam McKay and Charles Randolph made some brilliant choices in their script to make this a film that anyone can understand — and, to go a step further, a film that makes us aware of how so-called experts can utilize fancy terminology for their own ends.

    Kleiner is a producer of Paramount's The Big Short.