“Strap on Your Flak Jacket and Lean Into It”: Charlize Theron, Peter Chernin and the Producer Roundtable
Charlize Theron, Peter Chernin, David Heyman, Dan Lin, Debra Martin Chase and Emma Tillinger Koskoff shared plenty of trade secrets of working with demanding directors, remaining agile in an ever-changing industry and knowing when to fight to the finish for a movie in THR Producer Roundtable.
“Tom just landed on the roof,” jokes Emma Tillinger Koskoff about amateur airman Tom Cruise as THR‘s Producer Roundtable is interrupted by the sound of a circling helicopter outside. Tillinger Koskoff, 47, who produced Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Todd Phillips’ Joker, is used to a few shooting hurdles along the way to a hit.
She joined David Heyman, 58 (Marriage Story, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Peter Chernin, 68 (Ford v Ferrari), Debra Martin Chase, 63 (Harriet), Dan Lin, 46 (The Two Popes) and Charlize Theron, 44 (Bombshell), for an hourlong discussion in October, when they shared plenty of trade secrets of working with demanding directors, remaining agile in an ever-changing industry and knowing when to fight to the finish for a movie. Said Theron: “Pure panic is what makes me stick around. Usually the projects that scare me the most are the ones that just don’t leave.”
Movies sit in development for a long time; you have to fight every step of the way. How do you know if a movie is worth committing to?
DAVID HEYMAN It’s instinctive. You feel it if there is sort of an urgency within you that you’ve got a story to tell that you are passionate about.
DEBRA MARTIN CHASE First and foremost, you have to entertain because you have to get people into the theater. But for me, this is almost a pulpit, and there are messages that I want to get into the world that I think are important, that will inspire people, that will maybe even change somebody’s life.
With Harriet, it’s about a woman who couldn’t read, couldn’t write and was destined to be a slave for her entire life. She decided, “No, that’s not going to be my destiny.” And if people can get that message, that they can control what happens in their life, that’s an important thing. That’s worth fighting for.
DAN LIN For me, I ask questions: Why tell this story? Would it be aligned with my personal values? I am much more motivated in telling that story. But also I look at why tell that story now? With The Two Popes, we are in a moment when you have two living popes here at the same time. The world is in dissension right now — all of these different sides fighting. Each of these popes represents a different side, a different point of view, so we felt like now is the time to tell the story because it’s going to resonate with audiences, and there is an important message to get out there. So timing is important, too.
PETER CHERNIN You wake up in the morning ready to fight. It’s instinct. You just start fighting. And you keep going. Some of them you will lose eventually. But you just keep fighting.
On that note, tell me about the biggest fight you ever waged to get something made.
CHARLIZE THERON I started producing on Monster, and it just happened that I felt the need to protect a first-time director [Patty Jenkins], who was really taking a huge risk. The character was very unusual. And initially when we went in to get our financing, it became very clear to me that there was this need for me to step in. Because I think the financiers actually thought they were basically paying for a hot lesbian movie with me and Christina Ricci. And knowing what Patty wanted to do with it, I knew that we were going to come up against things. There were a lot of fights. As soon as I started gaining weight, I had one of the financiers call me up. Actually, his wife saw me, and she was like, “Did you see Charlize? Have you seen what she looks like?” And I got that call, like, “What’s going on with that?” This is back in the day when it took, like, three weeks for dailies to make it back here, and I got a call at 3 a.m. from the guy.
He was like, “What are you doing? You never smiled. You look so angry, you look horrible.” So you panic a little bit because you are putting yourself out there, and you are taking a risk, and when you do that, you are not a hundred percent sure. You are taking a chance. So there is a part of you that second-guesses, right? And you are like, “Shit, well, maybe I did go too far with this.” Then you realize you have to stand that ground.
LIN The marketplace doesn’t want to make these movies, so you’re already going in with people wanting to say no. And I find it’s a fight for talent, too. So on The Two Popes, how do I keep my director locked in? It takes a long time from development all the way through to get a movie made. In this case, [director] Fernando Meirelles sold the pitch with us. And we were developing it. And then his country, Brazil, asked him to direct the Olympics. So we lost him for several years.
Charlize, what was the day like when you found out Annapurna wasn’t going to back Bombshell?
THERON We aimed really high and had a lot of actors who are very, very busy. So our scheduling was the biggest problem with the financing falling through because we were two weeks out from shooting.
HEYMAN Oh my goodness.
THERON We had no window on the other side of it. So if the film fell through, we would have had to recast the whole thing. And the moment that I heard about it was really shocking because they loved the film so much. When Annapurna sent it to us to produce, they were calling us every day because I was kind of sitting on it because it scared the shit out of me. I never felt anything from them that felt tepid or that they wanted to remove themselves from it. So, you’re lucky when you can pick up the phone and call a previous financing partner that you have had a great experience with, and in this case it was Bron [Studios] and Aaron Gilbert. I called him right after I got the news that Annapurna was dropping the film, and I just said, “Can you put your cape on and come and rescue me?” Five hours later, he called me back, and he said, “We will do it.”
Jay Roach, our director, was on a scout with all of his head of departments, and I couldn’t call him. I called Aaron first. I think ultimately we made that movie the exact way that it was supposed to be made.
Have any of the rest of you had that eleventh-hour issue that sent you into a panic?
EMMA TILLINGER KOSKOFF I had it on Joker, but I’ve had many, many eleventh-hour scrambles.
MARTIN CHASE I mean, it kind of always happens. You get that last minute, “You know what? You are over budget.” So it’s like we’ve got to figure out how to take out X-million dollars to get the green light. And you are a few weeks out. So you’re like, “What are we cutting?” That’s the nature of the beast.
CHERNIN There is a certain misconception that there is a formal moment of greenlighting. I think it’s you just keep going forward. And don’t ever let them stop you, you know? But there is no moment where they go, “OK, you are greenlit,” and then leave you alone. It’s just, you are constantly plugging in and you’ve got to force them to stop you.
TILLINGER KOSKOFF But it’s funny because it’s like, really? You don’t think we know we are actually greenlit? We are now in year how-many-millions in and we are at four weeks out and you are still pretending like we are not greenlit? I love that. That’s my favorite game.
MARTIN CHASE You push, push, push, push. Don’t give up. And then you also have to know when it’s time to just say, “OK, you know what? Time to pivot.” And the wisdom to know the difference between the two. Because sometimes you can be pushing yourself over the cliff.
THERON On the day that Patty and I were going to sign the contract for a straight-to-video with Blockbuster on Monster because no distributor would pick it up — literally, the lawyer was coming to the editing room — we got a call from [distributor] Bob Berney.
Those things happen where you stop trying, you almost give up and surrender. But then magic happens. It is a little bit like we work in a business where we are trying to constantly capture that lightning in a bottle, right? And if it was all about just manufacturing it, then everybody would probably be able to do it.
LIN When Charlize talks about “give in and surrender,” that’s a huge thing for us. All of us here probably are control freaks who want to control everything. And part of being a producer is, sometimes you do have to give up and surrender.
Peter, what was your biggest fight on Ford v Ferrari?
CHERNIN The thing that was crazily challenging is those race scenes. We shot in four different locations at different times, months apart. Le Mans doesn’t look anything today like what it looked like, so we had an idea of how to re-create the race track. We built the grandstands in an airport up in Santa Clara. But we shot two of the turns in Georgia. And we were shooting them months apart with different cars, so it was incredibly complicated to just get the choreography of the race going.
How much driving is Christian Bale doing himself in this movie?
CHERNIN He is doing very little driving. (Laughter.) He is driving to work in the morning.
HEYMAN Funny enough, driving is a big part of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and we watched quite a lot of films about Los Angeles in 1969 of driving shots. But I think Brad [Pitt] loved driving along Hollywood Boulevard and the freeway filled with cars from 1969, being able to go at [it] much faster than he would be normally.
CHERNIN Ironically, Brad was attached to Ford v Ferrari at one point.
And Tom Cruise as well.
CHERNIN Tom Cruise was attached. Brad was attached. I think it was about 15 years in development.
THERON Did Tom pull out because he wanted to make it about planes? (Laughter.)
CHERNIN Tom just wants to do anything fast.
When it comes to the power dynamic between a director and a producer, how do you handle when you have to tell your director no?
TILLINGER KOSKOFF Neither one of mine really takes no for an answer, so I am trained very well in the Scorsese filmmaking world, where you know he is uncompromising and extremely exacting. And so I have learned over 16 years with him how to protect and cover for those instances.
CHERNIN I would say it’s a weird two-part struggle. It’s your job to argue with them quietly and to fight for them externally.
THERON Also it’s a disservice to your director if you are not honest. We sometimes think, “Oh, we don’t want to rock the boat.” But ultimately it is your job to bring what you know or what you have experienced to the table. Some directors like to have you be direct. They don’t want the small talk. They are not overly sensitive. And then you have other directors. … You can’t use the same recipe for every one of these people. I have definitely found with some directors, sometimes it’s better not to hammer it. If you just take a step back and let it play out a little bit, they almost get there on their own, without you having to be like, “This is never going to fucking work.”
TILLINGER KOSKOFF Absolutely.
THERON It’s like every time you’re dating somebody new, and you have to kind of treat it that way.
Emma, there was some controversy about the violence in Joker. Did you see that coming as a producer while working on it?
TILLINGER KOSKOFF Not while we were making it, really. There was a little pushback at times prior to getting it officially greenlit, some concerns about some of the gun violence, understandably. But once we got locked and loaded in the budget and up and running, everything was great.
The trouble didn’t start brewing until we screened it for the first time and just wanted to be very, very aware and careful given the subject material. It’s been interesting. I’m just glad that we opened and it’s all quiet on the Western front.
THERON A weight has been lifted. Sometimes you don’t know, right? And then sometimes you do, and you have to literally just strap on your flak jacket and lean into it.
We just made a movie [Bombshell], and I am sure we are going to have numerous lawsuits. At some point you have to just go, “If that happens, then that happens.”
TILLINGER KOSKOFF Right.
THERON I have never understood when people are like, “It’s a true story.” Well, hold on, it’s never really a true story. You’re chasing the greater truth. Right? So, whenever we do these real-life movies, you just have to make peace with that and do as much work as you possibly can. When everybody starts saying, “Don’t do that because we are going to get sued,” it’s like maybe we should get sued. So, I mean, I hope nobody sues us. It’s not like I am inviting it. But you have to be pragmatic about what that looks like.
MARTIN CHASE I am just saying you do your best to protect yourself. And as long as everybody is on the same side — your financier, your distributor — we are all facing it together.
TILLINGER KOSKOFF I started looking at stuff, and I was like, “Oh boy,” because I don’t do deep dives into the dark web, but I was like, “Oh God, maybe [Joker] is never going to see the light of day.”
LIN And you have to be careful, too, online. We had experiences with that on Aladdin. You just never know, is it a minority speaking for the majority? I found I had to just step out. There is a lot of darkness, and we are in an environment now where everyone wants to take people down and they feel better about themselves. I think as a producer, just engage a little bit. Understand what’s going on in the world. It’s important just not to go down the rabbit hole.
THERON They hear a title or the casting or director and then all of a sudden, it’s like they know exactly what the movie is going to look like. It’s such an unfair position for films. It’s also a fun challenge because it is a little bit like, “See? See the movie?” Like you get to rub it in their faces at the end.
CHERNIN It may indeed be controversial, but I believe it’s controversial for a reason. And then the hell with it. Hopefully, it will work and it may not work. But you can’t second-guess. I always used to say that you know these jobs are wildly subjective, with one exception — which is you know your own thoughts and feelings remarkably well.
MARTIN CHASE That’s right.
HEYMAN Actually, I don’t think that controversy is a bad thing. In the world, there is not much conversation, there is only polemic. To actually put things out there that encourage a conversation of some kind is really healthy.
CHERNIN Death is when you approach something cynically, saying, “I don’t really like this, but they will like it.” I have made movies like that in my life and I am ashamed of them 25 years later.
Can you say what film?
No. It was a sequel, a very successful movie 25 years ago, and I am humiliated by it to this day.
Several of your films were made with Netflix, which is still not giving films a traditional theatrical window. Did any of you pause before signing on with them?
TILLINGER KOSKOFF We did not pause. We, Marty and [Robert De Niro] were determined to get [The Irishman] made. That was the only studio ready to step up and give us what we needed. What’s great about Marty is he is so open to new ideas and technology. Obviously, you know his first choice is always a wide theatrical release. When we entered the conversation, [Netflix’s Scott] Stuber had been trying desperately to get theatrical, negotiating all of that. We were promised that we would have something.
LIN It wasn’t a pause, but it was certainly a conversation [for The Two Popes]. We had multiple bidders, then we did have a conversation. We wanted as many people to see the movie as possible globally. We knew it was a hard movie to get made and a hard one to get people to go to the theater for. It’s a faith-based movie that plays to believers and non-believers alike. But with Netflix, it’s day-and-date all over the world, so ultimately we thought that was the best way to get people to see it.
HEYMAN A film like Marriage Story would never be seen, as Dan said, by as many people as it would without the marketing of Netflix. They are great partners and I would make another film there in a heartbeat. With us, the condition of making it was that they would guarantee us significant [theatrical] distribution. They are also talking about keeping it in the theaters through February and March, April.
CHERNIN The marketplace has also changed significantly. And it is really hard for a lot of these smaller movies to find any home in the marketplace right now. Between the price value Netflix has on the one hand, where people go, “Should I take my family out and spend a hundred bucks on the movies? Or should I subscribe to Netflix for a year for 120 bucks?” And then on the other side, you get squeezed by Disney superhero movies. It’s really hard to find a weekend to open on. I made this sweet little movie in the spring called Tolkien. We got killed. Five years ago, that movie would have done $50 [million], $60 million worldwide. I think we did $15, $20 [million]. No one is going out to the movie theaters for these small movies.
MARTIN CHASE And there is no stigma anymore. Initially it was, “Oh God, my movie is worthy of theatrical.” It’s about what is the right distribution platform to get as many people as possible to see the movie.
THERON I have had a great experience with them, too. David Fincher, whom I [produced] Mindhunter with, he was like the first person to really tap into this important role of that entity [with House of Cards]. It was incredibly helpful that somebody like him stepped in because he is such a solid filmmaker. It took that stigma out of it.
I remember so vividly, 25 years ago, working with Tom Hanks, and he wrote in my script, “Promise me you will never do television.” Isn’t that unbelievable? And look at him now. He can’t stop making television. I feel like a lot of these places are shaking us and waking us up to how we need to bring back a little bit more bravery. We need to push the envelope. We need to do scary things because when you make television, those [risks] are the things that are really encouraged.
MARTIN CHASE The key to longevity in this business, whether you are Marty Scorsese or you’re us, is paying attention to the changes that are taking place.
TILLINGER KOSKOFF You have to stay current.
MARTIN CHASE You have to stay current. You have to stay open. You have to stay nimble. I mean, the technological changes now are happening — every day something is different.
TILLINGER KOSKOFF That’s what I love about Marty at 77 years old. He is not afraid to try anything new. He just rolls with it.
LIN What’s the secret? I just saw him at Telluride. He had more energy than the rest of the room.
TILLINGER KOSKOFF It’s unbelievable.
LIN His diet or …? What are you feeding him?
THERON Is it a pill?
TILLINGER KOSKOFF It’s not. It’s just …
THERON He loves what he does.
TILLINGER KOSKOFF He loves what he does. Total passion. It’s like trying to get him off the set — he’ll shoot 16-, 17-hour days, easily. It was great on Irishman because we have others who couldn’t quite, you know, keep up. So 108 days of that is — it’s his passion. There is nowhere he would rather be than on that set.
What’s one film you think every aspiring producer should watch?
THERON I think, watch bad movies.
TILLINGER KOSKOFF Watch bad movies.
MARTIN CHASE Yeah, bad, because you learn from your mistakes. It’s like, I am a lawyer and so you know there is legal precedence. Well, the other films are the precedents here. What works, what didn’t work.
LIN The one I would recommend is actually a documentary — Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Because he is a sushi master. I think those are the kinds of people we work with. Perfectionists — directors, actors, other producers, other craftsmen. And if you can see the mentality and the drive of someone like Jiro, then you can work with these people.
CHERNIN Probably I would say Titanic [which was made at Fox while Chernin was CEO]. Just because it was such an extraordinarily impossible production. And at the same time had as big an impact as any movie in history. So it shows you the promise of what you could potentially achieve — but it was hell. Hell on a level unimaginable.
THERON When was the last time you saw it? I haven’t seen it in a while.
CHERNIN I see bits and pieces of it. When I greenlit it, it was the most expensive movie ever made. And we went more over budget than the budget was.
THERON Just in production?
CHERNIN Mostly in production, yeah. We went $105 million over budget.
HEYMAN There is a director [James Cameron] who would not take no for an answer.
CHERNIN But it was also a great lesson because it was an out-of-body experience — everything public about the movie was a disaster. And with every personal interaction I had, I thought it was phenomenal. It was a phenomenal pitch. It was a phenomenal script. It was phenomenal dailies. [Cameron] would show us an hour of footage — the only decision I made was just go deeper.
THERON Was that an easy decision to make? Or did you panic a little bit about that?
CHERNIN I didn’t panic. I assumed I was going to get fired, but I was ready to be fired for it. You have got three alternatives: Shut it down entirely — that seemed like a bad idea $140 million in. Replace the director, which seemed like a bad idea. Or try and make it great. And it seemed clear to me the only hope was to make it great.
THERON You are right, you do have a good gut. (Laughter.)
Roundtable edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.