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“We Are Not Meant to Be Isolated”: Denis Villeneuve, Mahershala Ali, Rebecca Hall and the THR Producer Roundtable

Producers Tim White ('King Richard'), Laura Berwick ('Belfast') and Tanya Seghatchian ('The Power of the Dog') also talk about the importance of the theatrical experience and gun safety on sets after the 'Rust' tragedy.

If producers found themselves in a brave new world in 2020 thanks to the impact of the pandemic, 2021 only accelerated that evolution. Of the six films featured on this year’s THR Producer Roundtable, three are being released via streamers (Rebecca Hall’s Passing and Tanya Seghatchian’s The Power of the Dog on Netflix and Mahershala Ali’s Swan Song on Apple). Tradition (sort of) held, with Warner Bros. having backed two of the sextet — Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and Tim White’s King Richard — albeit with both bowing simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. The lone film to buck the streaming trend this year is Laura Berwick’s Belfast, which received an old-fashioned theatrical-only release from Focus Features. With the big-screen experience teetering on the brink, the six agreed that that unfortunate reality keeps them pacing in the wee hours. Whether cinemas emerge stronger in a post-COVID future or cede more territory to the streamers remains to be seen.

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On Nov. 15, at The Hollywood Reporter‘s invitation, Ali, Berwick, Hall, Seghatchian, Villeneuve and White converged via Zoom to discuss the pros and cons of a present dominated by streamers, the impact of the Rust tragedy and how to deal with unvaccinated colleagues.

What’s the industry issue that most keeps you awake at night?

DENIS VILLENEUVE For me, it’s the lost equilibrium between streaming and the theatrical release. I love streaming. I think it’s a very strong tool to explore a story of cinema. But it’s important to protect a window for theatrical release, and that keeps me up at night.

TANYA SEGHATCHIAN I think I’d agree. But also to say, it’s that thing of the collective experience. It’s not just that you want to see your film projected on a big screen, but you want to share it collectively and to feel the sensations of your audience alongside you. Now, streaming gives you the capacity to reach a wider audience and reach people who can’t make it to the cinema. It’s being part of the conversation that I think is really the challenge. How do we get noticed? How do we watch together? And how do you appreciate the films we make together?

LAURA BERWICK Especially after the period we’ve just all gone through, it’s even more clear, this power of — as Tanya said — the collective experience. There’s something miraculous about seeing people back in movie theaters and the power of storytelling, and to move people and to bring them together. I see this as a healing process. It’s been incredibly impactful and powerful for people to return to having that experience.

VILLENEUVE We are not meant to be isolated. We are meant to be together, to share.

TIM WHITE For me, it’s streaming combined with the consolidation in the industry right now. It’s a time of real uncertainty in terms of what types of films will be made going forward and what movies will still be these large, uniting cultural events that they have been for years in the past.

REBECCA HALL Certainly, the thing that keeps me concerned is what happens to the smaller movies, the movies that are not tentpole or existing IP but the original, smaller voices that you don’t hear so often. Is the only space for that to get made on a streaming service? Because they have to have a theatrical window. I don’t want to use words like art house cinema, but art house cinema needs to exist … I feel this slightly paranoid guilt sometimes that the movie that I’m promoting right now, we managed to pull off a black-and-white movie in a 4:3 ratio about a provocative and controversial subject matter, at a tier-one level under $5 [million]. I sort of hate that we pulled it off because it suggests that now everyone who has anything remotely innovative or slightly against the grain also has to make it for less money. And that is something that definitely keeps me up.

MAHERSHALA ALI Just to dovetail on what everyone else has said, I am concerned about this time and the transition and just thinking of theaters as being this last safe space for filmmakers … It’s the space where filmmakers can go, “This is where my film is going to be seen appropriately. I’ve got a chance here.” In some ways, we’re fighting the distraction that is inherent in our culture now. It’s interesting, this idea that there may be films that are really well-suited for the streaming platforms that also should have a space in theaters. But just to speak quickly about Swan Song, some people are having somewhat of a cathartic experience with it. Sometimes it feels more appropriate for you to have that in a really private space, a private setting where you can weep openly if you need to or have an experience that allows you to feel alone in private or with your loved one and having that within the confines of your own home. I do think that there are instances where both can work, and work really well. And I think we have to find a way for those two things to work really well together.

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Swan Song Courtesy of Kimberley French/AppleTV+

Why did each of you choose to explore your respective subjects?

WHITE I grew up playing competitive tennis. So, I always knew the Richard Williams story. I think it was honestly an inside tennis world story in a lot of ways — people knew the character and the broad strokes of it. Around 2014, my brother and I were trying to think of really interesting origin stories that were largely unknown. And we thought of this one, and it was just a character we both loved. As we looked into it further, it was something we thought was just incredibly inspiring, what this family did. Then, we started to look for writers. The project didn’t really become real until we met the right writer, Zach Baylin, in 2017, who just had the right take.

VILLENEUVE I’ve been obsessed by the book of Dune for 40 years. And I was mesmerized by several topics that the book explores, one of them being the danger of mixing religion and politics and the danger of messianic figures, and also the exploration of the ghost of the past and how to get free of those voices coming from our multiple heritages. There are so many things about the book that kept me dreaming through the years, and honestly it was one of my biggest dreams, if not the biggest, to bring Dune to the screen. I decided, for the first time, to be a producer on this production, because as I was getting more experience as a director, I was feeling that I wanted to be more involved and to make sure that the money was going [to] the right place, that I was the one choosing the battles.

HALL I come to Passing as a director-writer primarily. I read the book 13 years ago when I was thinking a lot about my own grandfather, who was an African-American man who passed as white his entire life. And the book opened up a lot for me and my family history and gave me a lot of compassion for his choice. The book was also such a force. It’s so modern. It contains all of the things that I have been preoccupied with — obviously not as a filmmaker, because this is my first film — but as an actor, as a person, as an artist in the world. It struck me as having all of the themes that I knew how to make visual. I immediately started writing a screenplay, and then it took me a long time to get it made. It sat in a drawer for six years, and then I spent seven years actively trying to get the funding for it. And once I’d essentially gone to everyone in the industry and said, “Please give me some money to make this movie,” and they said, “No,” I was still fighting for it. At a certain point, it became clear that I was a producer on it. When we found Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker, who did finally find a miraculous way to get it made, it seemed obvious that I’d been doing that work on some level for a long time and would continue to.

ALI I came to Swan Song first as an actor. I was just so blown away by the concept and the dilemma, and I’m always looking for something interesting and challenging to do. I’m working with a first-time filmmaker, and this being my first lead opportunity, there was a lot of collaboration and a lot of communication from the jump and working to build out the story and to expand certain things about the relationship. There’s this thing in Hollywood where people think like, “OK, I have this story, and I can go with Clive [Owen], I can go with Ryan Gosling or [David] Oyelowo, and just kind of plug him in.” And as soon as you start dealing with ethnicity, there are these ripple effects that impact the film in a very specific way. One of the things that really attracted me to the film was: I lost my father when I was 20 years old, and he was 38. And just the idea of seeing this Black family, this love story existing in that genre, told in that way, someone who’s really concerned about being a father and concerned about how he is leaving his family — those were just all things that felt very personal to me. I felt like I had something to contribute.

BERWICK Belfast was a very personal project for Ken Branagh. He wrote an exquisite script, about ordinary people in a very uncertain time, and how they dealt with that. It was, in a very Irish way, through laughter and community, and I suppose the occasional song. There was clearly a universality to the story, which has resonated with many people. We’re seeing this with audience reactions to the film.

SEGHATCHIAN I’ve been obsessed with Jane Campion for decades, so it goes without saying that the prospect of working with Jane on the feature was incredibly attractive to me. We’d worked together on her previous film, Bright Star, which was more than 10 years ago, and I wanted to get her back into the cinema. The kind of producer I am is that I want to enable the director to achieve their vision. Her stepmother had read [the book] and given it to her, and she gave it to me and said, “Look, might this be something we can do together?” A psychological drama set in Montana in the 1920s is an interesting diversion for Jane. It really centers on a male protagonist and issues of masculinity, as opposed to femininity. It was very exciting for me to see her dealing with subjects and a way of storytelling, which is very relevant, very modern, that she could put her own spin on as a master of desire and sensuality.

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Belfast Rob Youngson / Focus Features

What’s the toughest decision you had to make on your respective films?

HALL There was a moment when all the funding fell apart. And we went to other sources, and financiers said to me, “We’ll make it tomorrow if you make it in color.” It was definitely the toughest moment for me because I either had to make it in color or risk not making it at all. And the choice to risk not making it at all was genuinely frightening but did pay off in the end.

SEGHATCHIAN The toughest decision was how to put the film back together again, because we had started, and then we had to shut down because of COVID. We were shooting in New Zealand, and we didn’t know when we would be able to get going again. Some of the cast and myself left the country, and then the issue of how to put the film back together and get back into the country to complete the film became an extraordinary challenge.

ALI Our film both has a blessing and a curse in that there are so many different ways you can share the movie. There are so many different ways you can put it together in the edit because it has all these flashbacks and this memory downloading process. So, we improvised for about two weeks to be able to truncate those flashbacks down into seconds. The most difficult thing for us was trying to come up with how to sequence this film when we just had endless options.

VILLENEUVE We had to delay the release of the movie over a year because of the pandemic. It was not safe in the theaters. That honestly was not an easy decision to make.

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Dune Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures

What’s the film you previously worked on that best taught you how to produce?

WHITE Ingrid Goes West. We made it for $1.5 million. We were literally out of money at all times. We got shut down numerous times. But we ultimately got it done.

SEGHATCHIAN Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War. A 4:3 black-and-white film with a double suicide set in Poland, in Polish, was not the easiest of projects to get going. And yet I learned everything about independent financing, about respecting the director’s vision, about creating an environment in which that vision is respected, protected.

HALL I’ve been thinking about Passing and 4:3 black-and-white for 13 years, and it just felt impossible. I worked on a film as an actor called Christine, which was set in the ’70s about someone who committed suicide on television. It was not an easy sell. Nobody wanted to finance that movie, and I ended up being an EP on it, but it was very nominal. But I got to see some of the ins and outs of that process of scraping it together to get it made as faithfully as possible, and that definitely taught me everything about making this one.

ALI Green Book and True Detective, the third season. While shooting [Green Book], Peter Farrelly was sharing iterations of scenes and really opening up a space for feedback. Just the process of learning what to speak on and how to speak on those things was truly an education. With True Detective, again having a seat at the table to look at how things are being put together and how decisions are being made, and who are department heads and the world of decisions that go into filmmaking. It was nice to move past trying to serve the story as an actor and understanding how to have a hand and trying to improve the film as a whole.

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Passing Courtesy of Edu Grau/Sundance Institute

With the tragedy on the set of Rust in New Mexico, has it prompted any of you to think differently about guns on set or even the broader issue of on-set safety?

SEGHATCHIAN I was very grateful that we made a Western with no guns in it, and that actually I’ve never produced a film that had a gun in it.

VILLENEUVE I think I will have a controversial position about this, but I don’t think the problem is guns on set. We’ve been using guns on set for more than 100 years. It’s horrible what happened, but I think that if you focus on the idea of the guns, you are not pointing your finger in the right direction. It’s about having experienced crews. There’s an increased demand for content right now where there are more movies, more TV series, and sometimes there are productions that don’t take security seriously. That’s the issue because making movies, we’re all doing tons of dangerous stuff. We do stunts with cars, we do explosions. We put houses on fire. It’s dangerous and for that, there are a lot of rules. I did movies with a lot of guns, and the amount of safety is incredible. Some people [on Rust] obviously didn’t follow the rules. And there was an obvious lack of experience.

HALL I second that. Also, it’s about health and safety on set, but that extends to more than the protocols. It extends to the amount of sleep people are getting. We have to ensure that there is a limit to work hours and that people are rested and getting home safely, because that contributes to the overall dynamics of a crew.

WHITE We’ve had a couple movies recently with guns on set. This incident really shook me up quite a bit. I don’t think that I would be on set with a gun in the future without personally going over and talking to the person who checked it. Even if it’s completely unnecessary, just for peace of mind. Ultimately as producers we are responsible, and [obviously] you don’t want to micromanage people who are doing their jobs, but at the same time I would just want to check it, double-check it and triple-check it and be sure I was talking to the person who was actually handling it.

VILLENEUVE There were live bullets on [the Rust] set! That’s mad.

ALI Which is not the norm. Safety protocols are in place, and they do exist. Like Rebecca was saying, there are other things that you have to take into context in the fact that you’ll work 18 hours and then you’re right back. Certain things do contribute to environments being dangerous, but anytime someone’s pointing something at you, it’s really uncomfortable, but I’ve always felt safe on set. I’ve worked with prop masters that have checked the gun for you, put the light through there. Check it again, check it again. And you’re like, “OK, I got it. OK, I’m clear. It’s safe.” That’s been my experience more times than not where you’re triple-, quadruple-checking. Those people that I’ve been around handling guns seem to be so conscious of how dangerous that is, but I’ve never been on a set where there have been live rounds for any reason. I’m not educated on all the details of that particular instance, but we do make a lot of movies, and we have a lot of guns in our movies. Fortunately, this is really rare. But one death is too many, obviously. And there’s always room for improvement, but within any kind of protocol improvement, it always falls back on us as people to make sure that you’ve got to put your seat belt on. There are things that we have to do to participate, to make sure that environment is as safe as it can be for us to continue to make these films that feel really dangerous at times.

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King Richard Chiabella James/Warner Bros.

All six of your films are being distributed by global conglomerates. How much do you find yourself thinking about how your film will be received in, say, Saudi Arabia, or will it get a release in China?

SEGHATCHIAN I don’t think you think about that when you make film … For me, the bigger question is exposure. How do you have the exposure that enables people to want to see it, to have access to seeing it, to feel that that’s where they’re going to commit their time in these days when there are so many options for how to spend your time?

VILLENEUVE The language of cinema is universal. That’s the beauty of it. It’s one of the art forms that travels so well from one country and culture to the other. But I agree with what Tanya has said, you cannot [compromise] the movie to please. You do things with your heart, and you hope it will speak to other people from another culture.

WHITE With our project, we heard such differing perspectives on that. Some people felt like it was going to have a lot of international appeal because of Will Smith, and we’re also dealing with Serena and Venus Williams. And other people thought that the international [audience] would be way less because of sports and [it’s] a more U.S.-centric story. Just like Tanya and Denis mentioned, you just have to kind of follow what you really believe in and make the movie you want to make.

ALI Just knowing that Apple was distributing the film, you know they have a capacity to reach people internationally. So, then it was focusing on making the best film that you can possibly make and hoping that the more personal, the more universal it is. We really focused on making the most heartfelt family drama with the sci-fi backdrop that we could.

HALL This film did feel so outrageous to imagine that it would be seen by anybody. But when you sell it to Netflix and someone pushes a button and suddenly 200 million people have the potential to see it, it’s incredibly humbling and overwhelming and wonderful, and actually, why you do it.

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But reach can come with a price. There is this push and pull in Hollywood where in order to get a movie the broadest possible audience being on Netflix or any streamer or Warner Bros., there can be some degree of self-censorship or even overt censorship. Have any of you experienced that?

WHITE I think we wanted the movie to be PG-13. And the only thing we really had to pay attention to was the language to be sure that would work.

VILLENEUVE I wanted the movie to be PG-13. I wanted the movie to be accessible to a younger audience because the book spoke to me when I was 13 years old … I tried to express myself through violence in a different way, making it less graphic. As for ideas, I put no restriction. Frankly, I would rather not show the movie somewhere than change my ways of doing things or what I’m thinking about the world.

HALL There were natural translations that I made from a book written in 1929 to make it ring in the same way to 2021. There were things that I did censor from the book actually, when I think about it, but that’s an artistic choice.

ALI I remember certain language coming up while we were working on these scenes, I was kind of like, “No one’s saying anything? OK.” So I don’t have to necessarily worry about that, because [I’ve had experiences] where they’re counting how many F-words you say and trying to cut those down to make sure that it can slide. We were free throughout to explore and didn’t feel any type of real limitations in the process of the edit or in postproduction.

We’ve seen a number of stories in recent weeks about actors or even crew choosing not to get vaccinated. How are you dealing with, or would you deal with, that issue?

ALI I guess you have to increase testing for those who are, for whatever reason, not comfortable with being vaccinated. I know on our film we were being tested two or three times a week.

WHITE It’s not something we’ve dealt with yet.

BERWICK This is obviously not from a perspective of a producer, but I’m also a manager. Recently, I had a client who was a mature client and was on a Netflix show. And I was so appreciative that [Netflix] set a mandate. They said, “You can’t be on this set unless you’re vaccinated.” And in that context, it was enormously relieving that I didn’t have to be concerned. I could feel comfortable about my client going to work and knowing that she was not going to be unsafe. In that regard, I was grateful to the studio for taking a very strong position.

WHITE One producer that I really admire is in production now with a crew that is unvaccinated. She’s been having conversations with them and trying to offer them access to experts to potentially answer questions or deal with anxiety around it. I think for some people, it’s actually ended up with them getting vaccinated at the end of the day. And for others they’ve still said, “No.”

Finally, let’s look toward the coming years. What are the biggest changes you anticipate seeing in the industry five years from now?

VILLENEUVE A movie like Cold War is a movie made for theatrical release. And it’s a movie that is different when you watch it in a theater. That’s what I think the battle will be: Make sure that every movie that needs theatrical release [gets a theatrical release].

HALL Yeah. There’s a sort of misunderstanding that a small movie requires a small screen or something. And that’s often the opposite case. Sometimes, the subtlest movies require the scope for all of their subtlety.

ALI I think there’s been an explosion of opportunity to some degree because of streaming and people who wouldn’t have normally had an opportunity to share their film … [so, I] hope and believe that over the next five or 10 years you’ll have people who will have been able to improve with the opportunities that have opened up because of streaming.

WHITE As the world shifts more to streaming, which is probably inevitable, those movies unfairly come and go, and they don’t feel like they’re the events that they should be. I would like to see that change — for streamers to really figure out how to turn these movies into the cultural events I think they should be.

SEGHATCHIAN I think the eco-culture of festivals and how festivals, exhibition all work together is going to be the important question moving forward. Because if you are fighting for space and exposure, whether it’s a tiny independent movie or a huge studio tentpole, it’s the competition in the leisure space that we’re all contending with. Like how do we create events? How do we create a sense of this thing landing and arriving? I think that’s really important for us all to think about.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.