Shepherding a film from a nebulous idea to a locked print is fraught with interruptions and surprises. As such, no profession in Hollywood requires greater dexterity than that of a producer. And unlike any other time in cinematic history, 2020 was a year of overnight transformation amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, leaving producers with no choice but to adapt fast.
Two producers from this year’s roundtable — Judas and the Black Messiah‘s Charles D. King and The Trial of the Chicago 7‘s Marc Platt — saw their theater-bound films take a detour to a streaming platform (HBO Max and Netflix, respectively). Although Eric Roth, who produced David Fincher’s Mank, was always poised for a streamer release via Netflix for that film, he also experienced the great sweep to HBO Max with the upcoming tentpole Dune, which he wrote. Ashley Levinson, whose Pieces of a Woman and Malcolm & Marie are both in the awards season conversation, oversaw the writing and production of the latter during the COVID-19 lockdown. Minari‘s Dede Gardner, the only female producer with two best picture Oscar wins (for 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight), and Palm Springs‘ Andy Samberg were the lone two of the group lucky enough to see their films premiere in a packed, mask-less theater (both films made their debuts at Sundance in January 2020).
On Jan. 8, at The Hollywood Reporter‘s invitation, Gardner, King, Levinson, Platt, Roth and Samberg converged via Zoom to discuss the great cinematic reset, this year’s awards season controversies and what they’d fix about Hollywood.
2020 was a year of seismic changes in the film industry. What wound up being your biggest pivot?
DEDE GARDNER Just being home. I haven’t gotten on a plane in 10 months. I’ve made 9,000 quesadillas. Just home with the kids, honestly.
I’m especially interested in hearing from Charles and Eric on this one because of the big news of Warner Bros. sending all its 2021 films to HBO Max. You each had a film affected, with Judas and Dune, respectively.
ERIC ROTH It was a major disappointment, particularly the way it was presented. I hope it will rectify itself, but it’s a much longer conversation. I’m an advocate of streaming in many, many ways because of the opportunity for many, many people to see things that they wouldn’t have seen. On the other hand, I grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant and went to the Brooklyn Paramount Theater at 8 years old and was enveloped in the theater experience. So, I think it’s a complicated thing.
MARC PLATT Chicago 7 was intended for a theatrical exhibition. One of our goals in making that film was to actually get it out before the election. The acceleration of the business to a streaming business was actually a gift in certain ways, for that particular film, in our ability to get it out this past October through Netflix, as opposed to a theatrical market that was not existent at the time.
And in your case, Paramount was fully transparent in bringing it to Netflix?
PLATT Well, the picture was structured as a negative pickup. It wasn’t really until the picture was completed, even in post in July, that we actually asked Paramount if we could look around. They were happy to do so because they also recognized that there was no theatrical world, really, because of the pandemic at the time. So, it was full transparency, and I think everyone was actually happy the way that it went down.
CHARLES D. KING For Judas and the Black Messiah, there was definitely a conversation before we went into production about if this could be an HBO Max play, but we really had committed to our filmmaker, Shaka King, as well as [fellow producer] Ryan [Coogler], that we wanted this movie to be seen [by] as wide of an audience as possible. So we continued down the theatrical journey. Similar to Eric, we learned about the new distribution decision that was made by WarnerMedia in the press just like everyone else. We understand the challenges around theatrical at this time, but we were disappointed in how it was communicated.
ROTH Mank was a gift from Netflix, to give David [Fincher, director] the money and the opportunity and the support to make this movie. I think [streaming] has been good for Mank and good for certain types of movies.
How about Ashley or Andy — any particularly challenging pivots for either of you this year?
ASHLEY LEVINSON I felt an enormous responsibility to try to create as many opportunities as possible, because our Euphoria crew wasn’t working. For us, it was just how can we mobilize, how can we do it safely. So, for Malcolm & Marie, which we shot during the pandemic, we started rethinking everything. How do we structure backend [compensation]? How do we give our key grip, our focus puller, our production designer an opportunity to make some money and success? We feel really grateful for how it came together because it could have gone another way.
ANDY SAMBERG In some strange way, it was actually beneficial for us, the pivot that we were forced to take. Obviously, we were really excited for [Palm Springs] to have a theatrical release, and that was a big part of the deal we made at Sundance. That’s why we did a sort of co-deal with Neon and Hulu together, so that Neon could handle the theatrical. But because we came out in the summer, right in the first few months of [the pandemic], I think we had a much more captive audience. It wasn’t the way we wanted people necessarily to be seeing it. After seeing it play in a theater at Sundance and feeling that reaction, how exciting and crackly that can feel, it was disappointing. But because it was in the summer when all these blockbusters were supposed to come out and didn’t, all of a sudden it got a lot more attention.
Why did each of you choose to explore your respective subjects?
ROTH I’ll speak up because I have a big mouth. David Fincher asked me to come aboard. He had to encourage his dad to write it. This is a really unique situation where his dad, who passed away, wrote this a number of years ago. His name was Jack Fincher. He was a journalist for Life magazine, took a shot at this particular subject matter that interested him, this oddly hopeful kind of story about this very complicated man who hadn’t really found value in his life and ended up writing Citizen Kane. And David and he tried to get it going over a number of years and it just didn’t find a place.
Then David continued with his career, which is quite good, and he came to me saying — like two or three years ago — “Could we try to do this together, and make the best movie out of this?” I think part of it was because I know what it is like to be a screenwriter; that’s what the subject matter is. There are certain political things in it that interested both of us.
PLATT Similarly, Aaron Sorkin actually wrote The Trial of the Chicago 7 in 2007 and it really took a village of people, instigated by Laurie MacDonald and Walter Parkes and Steven Spielberg. As happens, it’s a script that is a small period drama, so it fell through the cracks for many, many years. About two years ago, Aaron called me — somebody I knew very well but had not yet produced and was interested in doing so — and said, “Would you produce this?” And Steven called me. This was 2018 and it was before the pandemic, but in an eerie kind of a prescient way, the pandemic became, I guess, the Vietnam war in that time, and the issue of police brutality and cultural and political revolution were all subjects that were interesting to me. And I’m old enough to actually remember the 1968 Chicago National Convention, watching the riots and the subsequent trial.
I was raised in a very liberal family. … I marched with my mom and dad for many causes. So the material spoke to me, as did the great writer, great voice, that Aaron Sorkin is.
It was an arduous journey, until it was independently financed with an investment from Paramount. But it was [due to] Aaron Sorkin and the subject — then, after the summer, [we had] the Black Lives Matter movement, the issues we have in this country with police brutality, and the way that parts of our government can purge and diminish voices. Also, the nature of the left and revolution and the messiness in all this — all that was in the movie, so it spoke to me, as did Aaron Sorkin.
KING First off, we were approached to go on the journey of Judas and the Black Messiah by Ryan Coogler, whom I have a long friendship with and worked with, in a prior life in the agency world before launching Macro and producing and financing movies. He approached us a few weeks after the global and phenomenal success of Black Panther and said that the first project he wanted to get involved in was telling the story of [Black Panther Party Illinois chairman] Fred Hampton, that Shaka King and Will Berson had this really beautiful script.
Ryan, Shaka and I not only work in our industry as producers and filmmakers and directors, but are also activists and very involved in human rights organizations. One in particular that we were really involved in highlights some of the issues that Marc was just talking about, around police brutality and the disparity [in treatment based on race], issues that we’ve seen in our communities. For Ryan and Shaka and myself as African American men, this is a reality we live our entire lives.
Our company worked alongside Ryan Coogler as producers and financiers, but also Shaka King, a brilliant filmmaker whom we knew had a really strong and unique perspective on how to tell the story about this hero, Fred Hampton and, frankly, the steps that our government took to quell the revolution, as well as prevent the galvanizing of a rainbow coalition of bringing all these communities together. So to be able to play a part in bringing that story for the masses on a domestic and global level, and the combination of doing that alongside such a prolific artist as Ryan Coogler, who was beginning his journey as a producer, and Shaka King — it was all the way a compelling reason for us to get involved.
LEVINSON With Malcolm & Marie, we actually reverse-engineered into it. We were advised by doctors, we knew we wanted one location, we had two actors. So Sam [Levinson, director and husband] was like, “What can I write that can hold suspense for everyone, given that we have these limitations?” And he was like, “I know a terrible thing that someone can do to another person — what if Malcolm forgets to thank Marie at the premiere of his film?”
Then he and I just looked at each other and started laughing, because he’d done it a few years earlier to me, and I remember during the premiere, I was like, “Oh, it’s OK, it’s fine.” Then we went to the afterparty and it started to weigh on me, and the car ride home, I remember saying to him, “Maybe next time you can remember me.” It had been two years since we’d even talked about it, but in his head, he’d had a hundred conversations with me about it, the weight of it, acknowledgment of partnership, and I think during the pandemic we’re learning about our partners and ourselves in a new way. So this idea of what you unpack, who you thank, who you acknowledge, how you support and respect them and allow them to grow, was something that I think was on a lot of our minds, and Zendaya and John David [Washington] and Sam and Kevin [Turen, producer] and I just started to think about how could we do this and tell a story.
For Pieces of a Woman, I had been a very big fan of Kornél [Mundruczó, director] and Kata [Wéber, writer]. I loved White God. I find them to be such incredible, cinematic filmmakers and it was an experience the two of them had, the loss of a child. And, it just really deeply moved me, and I knew it would be carried by one single person. I’d been a massive fan of Vanessa Kirby from The Crown. I had a general meeting with her, and 10 minutes before she and I were meeting, I got a text from Sam that said, “You’re absolutely going to love her.” And I sat across from her and she said, “You know, I’m looking for a movie, something like A Woman Under the Influence.” And I was like, she’s Martha [the central character in Pieces of a Woman]. I text Sam under the table and said, “She’s Martha.” He said, “I’ve been thinking the same thing for two hours.” And I just felt very grateful to be part of the journey. It’s the first film I produced.
SAMBERG With Palm Springs, it’s sort of a slightly different approach, because I was asked to be in it as well as produce it, and our company is still fairly young with producing, but we have done a couple of movies. We’re always looking for something that is funny, usually first, but with Palm Springs, it was actually exciting to me because it’s presented as something that we would be more known for in a comedy sense, but then there’s this wonderful underbelly to it, when you peel back the facade, that is actually dealing in more serious themes and questions. I think similar to the way you’re saying about two people stuck together — the quarantine thing we’re all going through — one of the reasons Palm Springs may have been landing with people is the mechanism of a time loop and marrying that with existential dread and a rom-com. (Laughs.)
It’s sort of a lot — and what a lot of people are going through. If you can’t get away from yourself and the people you’ve chosen to spend your life with, and you can’t look to those distractions that you used to hold them at bay, what is really there? And do you let yourself off the hook for mistakes you’ve made in the past enough to love yourself, and therefore let love into your life? And are people who have made mistakes they feel like they can never come back from actually a lost cause? Or can they be saved and brought back to some sense of normalcy and happiness — which we obviously think, yes, they can. So, it was exciting for us to make the movie in that regard, and it was just nice to know that there were moments in it where we were going to get laughs and also a lot more to it than that.
GARDNER We’ve always been really interested in championing and protecting voices inside the system. We became friends with Steven Yeun when we made Okja, and he was sent the script and he then sent it to my colleague Christina Oh, who gave it to me and Jeremy [Kleiner, partner at Plan B]. I think we saw an opportunity to tell a universal story through highly specific characters and setting. That’s what we were interested in trying to do. Sundance seems a long time ago.
It wouldn’t be an awards season without controversy. There was some outrage that Minari can’t compete for best film at the Golden Globes. Dede, what are your thoughts about the Globes’ rule that prevents a film like Minari from being considered in the top category?
GARDNER They’ve decided that their rule is determined by percentage of language and, you know, it’s their rule. And it’s their rule to change should they decide to. We just follow the rules, and because we are over 60 percent [in a foreign language], we had to submit it for foreign. That was the only choice we had.
Parasite was in the same situation last year.
GARDNER Yeah. I think [Minari] is a profoundly American film, so what can you do? I appreciate the conversation that came out of it, actually. It prompted people to think, “Oh, wait. Is that how we should do this?”
And Ashley, you had to contend with your Pieces male lead, Shia LaBeouf, being embroiled in controversy. What kind of conversations did you have with the film team and Netflix about how to handle moving forward?
LEVINSON I was deeply saddened personally, and I was grateful to Netflix because the story was always about a woman who was going through a tragic event, and the relationship between Vanessa [Kirby] and Ellen [Burstyn] was really for me the heart of the story. It was about, how do you overcome grief and the expectations put on you from one generation to the next? So our [marketing] materials didn’t change that much. It’s really hard on you personally, on your film, and, yeah, it was upsetting.
If you could make one person watch your film, who would it be?
LEVINSON I was very close to Bob Evans [who died in 2019], and he encouraged me to get into this industry and be a producer, so I would love for him to see my movies.
PLATT Because my film is based on true events and true people, I would say the participants in that trial, many of whom are not alive now. For Tom Hayden to see how he inspired others to become politically active, the same thing with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Fred Hampton, who’s more of a side character. Those people who didn’t live to see the effect that their voices had at that time would be the folks I’d want to show the film to.
ROTH I was very close with Abbie Hoffman. Even when he was on the run, he would call me from renegade places. I think he would love to see that movie. I would like Louis B. Mayer to see Mank.
GARDNER I would say the farming community, in hopes that we convey the precariousness of that life in its day-to-day way and that we paid respect to how hard it is.
KING We were very involved with chairman Fred Hampton’s family. And so they were able to be there as part of our production. When they finally saw the finished product, having them absorb it, and how it’s now other survivors and leaders of the party and the movement having them see it, and for them to be moved by it, has been gratifying. I think it’s important for people on the other side of the spectrum to see this story and stories like your film, Marc, because it’s important for them to understand the other perspective, and hopefully that can be part of bridging and bringing people together to understand the history of how we got to where we are now.
SAMBERG I would go much more petty with mine. I would say probably the film school professors that said I wasn’t taking it seriously because I was doing comedy, and be like, “Sundance. How ’bout that?” (Laughs.) But yeah, you guys had better answers. Let’s be real.
Is there one actor or actress you would love to cast in a movie who you haven’t had the opportunity to work with yet?
ROTH Meryl Streep. Very simple for me.
GARDNER For my teenager, I’m going to say Andy. I’d be so heroic. Michaela Coel is on a whole other level.
PLATT I would say Jonathan Majors, who was actually supposed to be in Chicago 7 and the days didn’t work out. Hopefully, I can find something to work with him on.
KING Jonathan [Majors] and Michaela Coel. Donald Glover. And Lupita [Nyong’o].
If you could fix one thing about the film industry, what would it be?
GARDNER A long list. (Laughs.) Pay equity. Opportunity for people from all walks of life.
KING I would round out the decision-makers and who has greenlight authority to actually reflect the market, because it doesn’t right now.
SAMBERG Yeah, I would second that. More diversity of every kind in positions of power.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.