This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
My favorite day on the set of Unbroken was filming the scene where Lou Zamperini [Jack O’Connell] is forced to hold a heavy wooden beam over his head by his prison camp commander. If he dropped the beam, he would be shot. The scene had been in every draft of the screenplay since 1998. When [director] Angelina [Jolie] came aboard, she wanted this particular moment to be a highlight of the film as it encapsulated all the heavy lifting Lou had done since his childhood. Lou’s enormous force of will to not drop the beam was the ultimate example of the belief he had in himself. For 16 years, I’d been holding the beam of getting Lou’s amazing life story told in a film. As I watched Jack lift the long piece of wood and hold it high, the metaphor of my own journey was filled with gratitude and satisfaction.
Into the Woods (Disney)
Happy accidents are what excite me. I’ve learned it’s best to trust your gut and stay open and flexible on the day. On one particular day, Nov. 8, 2013, we were filming an intimate scene that develops into a large staged finale featuring Meryl Streep and the full company. Well, that’s what was planned. As we navigated the emotional core of the ending, [director] Rob Marshall and I looked at each other and realized what we had rehearsed would overwhelm the delicate scene. We could instead interweave the final song as the underscore alongside the scene. Our partner Marc Platt agreed. Speedily, we informed everyone of our change of course. It was up to Rob to break the news to Ms. Streep. She was, of course, an absolute mensch. Not only did she love the idea, but thought it much better! In the end, it’s all about what serves the film … and I’m always ready for the surprises.
My favorite day on set was our second day shooting in the historic location of Selma, Ala. We were shooting on the Pettus Bridge, a very visually striking structure, which happens to still be named after a man who was a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan. On this particular day, we were shooting pieces from two different landmark marches: Turnaround Tuesday, and, almost two weeks later, the final, triumphant march to Montgomery under hard-won federal and state protection. So there was a deep sense of living history — the passage of time inside the day itself, at the physical location where so many men and women courageously stood and in some cases died, all in the presence of people who actually marched in 1965 and were heroes of this movement. It was very powerful to witness.
See more The Making of ‘The Imitation Game’
The Imitation Game (The Weinstein Co.)
Our final setup on set was filming Benedict [Cumberbatch] on a train. We’d been scheduled to shoot it at King’s Cross station, but due to a scheduling snafu, we were at a dilapidated scrap yard 30 miles from central London. Perhaps because it was last minute or because it was the end of a grueling shoot, we hadn’t realized we didn’t have a gimbal to rock the train. It was ridiculous: a tired and thirsty crew, hours from their wrap party, now on the brink of [disaster]. It began as a joke, but my fellow producers Teddy Schwarzman and Nora Grossman and I started jumping up and down on the carriage. Slowly, the PAs and ADs joined. Eventually the entire crew was jumping and rocking until we’d simulated the movement of a real train. A minute later, [director] Morten [Tyldum] yelled, “Action!” It felt like 20 takes, but I’m certain Morten got it on the first one. While the scene plays well on film with tension, I can’t help but smile when I watch it.
Every year we filmed Boyhood was tough — I wouldn’t say there was a particular one that was tougher than the others. But in the last round of filming in 2013, we lost a key location at the last minute thanks to the federal government shutdown. We’d been heading out to the Big Bend National Park in West Texas to shoot Ellar Coltrane‘s last scene. We had scouted it and were all set to shoot. But then, thanks to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, all the national parks were shut down because of the federal government closure. Thankfully we found a state park nearby. While we had the ultimate luxury of time on this film, which allowed [director] Rick [Linklater] to meditate on the script [between our yearly shoots], it wasn’t like a normal film, where everything was broken down in a 45-day shooting schedule. With a project of this size and ambition, there was a certain level of flexibility we had to maintain.
The Theory of Everything (Focus Features)
Early in the film, we re-create a scene showing Jane [Felicity Jones] and Stephen Hawking‘s [Eddie Redmayne] romance: a lavish, magical 1963 May Ball in Cambridge. This particular evening we were all excited because Stephen himself was coming to set. He had yet to arrive when word came that our 300 extras were ready in their ball gowns and tuxes and our three cameras were ready to roll and the fireworks were to be lit. But just as the go-ahead was given, another announcement came over the walkie-talkie that Stephen had arrived and was already driving his electric wheelchair down this long path into the center of the scene. Despite his speculations on time travel, his 72-year-old self and his electric wheelchair would not fit in the same moment with his 21-year-old self, so we cut cameras and the lighting of the fireworks while all the cast and crew appropriately waited as Stephen made his way down the long path. It was truly a grand entrance befitting the man at the center of our story.
Foxcatcher (Sony Pictures Classics)
As producers, we are forcing something into existence that wouldn’t otherwise happen. [Director] Bennett [Miller] first pitched me his vision for Foxcatcher in his apartment in New York in September 2006. We sat at his kitchen table and he told me the story. I was moved and inspired by it and wanted to help him get it made. Sometimes a story taps you on the shoulder and you can’t turn away. It gets under your skin. We drove from New York City to the real Foxcatcher estate in Pennsylvania. It’d been abandoned for almost a decade. “No trespassing” signs everywhere. We parked on the side of the road and walked through the woods to a tall chain-link fence. We stood in silence and looked for a few minutes. It wasn’t unlike the scene in the movie where Channing [Tatum]‘s character sees Vanessa Redgrave‘s character standing in front of the estate. Bennett said, “I want in.” It took us another seven years, but we made it.
American Sniper (Warner Bros.)
One of the major challenges of American Sniper was taking the story of Chris Kyle‘s remarkable life beyond his four tours of duty in Iraq. The facets of his life beyond the war are equally compelling and offer a portrait of a man who was more than a hero on the battlefield. After investigating numerous locations, we started photography in Morocco, with the plan to shoot our military scenes first. It was the most grueling part of the entire shoot. After two weeks of intense action, we shot a scene with Bradley Cooper on a rooftop facing a moral dilemma nearly exactly the same as the one he had encountered at the beginning of the film. Watching Bradley in this scene was the first time we could really see that this film was much more than just a war movie. The consequences of his actions were clear. We knew from the beginning that our goal was to make a movie honoring a soldier’s life, but that day reminded us how powerful a tale we were telling.
Wild (Fox Searchlight)
Many of our locations were controlled by the national forests, and every filming permit was under the jurisdiction of a government-run organization. We had to rearrange the first two weeks of the schedule and pray every day for the government to start back up [after its shutdown]. One great thing about production is that you have to prepare for what you don’t expect to happen, so our team went with the flow and hoped like hell the government would reopen! In the end, we filmed at Oregon’s Crater Lake a month after we were scheduled to. We had the most perfect day at a time it might otherwise have been covered in snow. But my absolute favorite moment on set was on the first day, when I knocked on Reese [Witherspoon]’s trailer with [Wild author] Cheryl Strayed. Reese was in her main hiking look, and Cheryl said, “Oh my god, you’re wearing my shorts and T-shirt.” Despite the fact every department had spoken to Cheryl about every detail of her hike, she was still in awe when she first saw Reese as “Cheryl.” It was magical.
Exodus: Gods and Kings (Fox)
One of the most memorable days of production for me was filming Ramses [Joel Edgerton] and Moses [Christian Bale] leaving the palace with their army to fight in the Hittite battle. We were at Pinewood Studios in London, and it was the first time most of the principal cast was assembled. It was a complicated scene to block: We had 50 chariots with horses galloping away from the exterior of the royal palace, more than 100 extras and even a live cheetah. After [director] Ridley [Scott] had coordinated the action and gotten a clean take, he asked everyone to hold while he inspected — and then swapped out — the fur rug splayed out before the steps that Ramses and Moses descended. I was so appreciative of this moment; movies are rarely still made this way. Immense, raw actor talent assembled on a massive set with animals, extras, complicated blocking and greenscreen, yet Ridley was unfazed by the complexity. He still had his eye on the smallest of details, ever the perfectionist visionary.