Charles Roven still was in his teens when he landed work as a stunt extra on Hawaii Five-0 and fell in love with the entertainment business. After studying economics and political science at UCLA, then switching to USC’s film school, his brother Fred persuaded the Los Angeles native to go into finance. He used that money to develop film projects and build a management company, then produced his first movie, 1983’s car-racing drama Heart Like a Wheel.
Thirty-three years later, Roven, 67, is one of the industry’s pre-eminent producers, responsible for such major feature films as 12 Monkeys (1995), City of Angels (1998), Man of Steel (2013), the Dark Knight trilogy and the upcoming Wonder Woman and Justice League. Once overshadowed by his (late) wife, Dawn Steel — the famously combative studio chief — he also is moving into television, with 12 Monkeys now in its third season on Syfy, and has a management company, Atlas Artists.
This year alone, Roven has produced three pictures that together have earned more than $2 billion at the box office: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Warcraft: The Beginning and Suicide Squad — and in February, he’ll also have the $150 million-plus Matt Damon starrer The Great Wall (which opens Dec. 16 in China).
The prolific filmmaker, an Oscar nominee for 2013’s American Hustle and whose movies have grossed a combined $7 billion-plus, is THR‘s producer of the year.
What do you need to be a good producer?
To be involved granularly in all aspects of moviemaking. If you’re there for the beginning of the idea, you want to be involved in where that idea goes, in the development process, the budgeting, the casting and production, the early stage publicity, the early stage marketing.
How has that role changed through the years?
Once you get into the branded tentpole, that’s a whole other way of producing. [But in the independent arena,] we have a tremendous amount of control. Understand that for us the movie is the most important thing; we will do everything that we can to protect it. If the movie is financially successful, odds are everybody will live to play another day; if the movie is critically successful, odds are everybody will live to play another day. But if the movie is critically and financially a bomb, everybody gets hurt.
How did you get started in the business?
[As a teenager,] I was a surfer and rode horses, and I really didn’t like school. In between high school and college, I took a year off and went to Hawaii and surfed. And I ended up getting a job as a stunt surf extra on Hawaii Five-0, and that’s where I got the bug. Then I went to UCLA and didn’t do very well, but I had a cousin who taught this course at USC called A Director Acts. I said, “Can I audit your course?” He said, “Sure.” And one of the guys who was doing his master’s degree said, “Hey, I’m going to be shooting a 30-minute movie. You want to be in it?” And I got the role.
Were you a good actor?
I was good enough in that movie. (Laughs.) Then I got a job working for [producer] James B. Harris. I think my title was assistant producer. I worked on Some Call It Loving, with Richard Pryor. [The first day they met,] Pryor says, “I hear you’re fresh out of film school.” I go, “Yeah. I’m so excited to be working with you.” He goes, “Well, let me see if I can make this memorable.” Four or five hours later, the pastor of the church where we were shooting comes up and says, “These young girls say a black man said some very sexually inappropriate things to them. And if that’s accurate, I want you guys to pack up and get out of here.” So I go to Richard and say, “I want you to tell the guy you didn’t talk to the girls.” He goes, “No, I don’t think I’m going to do that.” So now I’m shitting, right? We go into the pastor’s office, and he turns to Richard and goes, “What did you say?” Richard goes, “I just said to one that I really wanted to eat her little pussy.” The pastor goes, “Are you kidding me?! Pack up your stuff!” And Pryor drops on his knees, grabs the guy’s dick through his pants and pretends to blow him. And then Pryor jumps up and he goes, “Oh my God. Father, forgive me, I’m in the wrong place!” And he runs out. The pastor was in shock. So I’m walking around with him, [searching for Pryor], and I see there’s a casket, and there’s just a little crack open in the casket. He’s hiding in the casket. I open the casket, and he goes, “Gotcha!”
You opened your own brokerage firm and used your money to develop projects, right?
I developed Dick Tracy and made my first deal at Universal with [executive] Ned Tanen, and then I also sold him a musical called Big Mac, Lord of the Fries. It didn’t get made, but it was quite lucrative. [When it was being developed as a Broadway show], the actors and actresses got offered contracts, and they all came to me and asked me to represent them. So I was in the management business, I was in the movie production business, I was in the play production business. [Soon] I was on my way to managing the woman who was the subject of my first film, Heart Like a Wheel.
How did that come about?
I’m at home trying to develop things. And I’m watching Wide World of Sports, and Shirley Muldowney is being interviewed because next Saturday in Pomona she is racing against her boyfriend, who used to be her sponsor. They are both in the finals of the world championship drag race, and they’re competitors and used to be lovers. And then she beats him! She is the first woman in the history of motor racing to ever win a car title head-to-head with a guy.
The film you made about her, Heart Like a Wheel, had its share of challenges during filming.
The movie cost $12 million, and in order to get it greenlit — because [its star, Bonnie Bedelia] wasn’t a household name — they needed an actor. We hired an actor. I won’t reveal who it was, but he was a producer in his own right. He literally would yell “cut!” during the shoot. [Director] Jonathan Kaplan went up to him and said, “Hey, so here’s the way it goes: I say ‘action,’ you do everything in between, and I say ‘cut.’ ” And the actor says, “Nah.”
He had all the power. What did you do then?
So I talk to the guy’s agent, and then my phone rings, and it’s the actor. He goes, “What am I, some little kid? I’m a f—ing star. You want me to, I’ll resign. You have till Sunday to decide.” Click. So one of my closest friends at that time was an agent at CAA. He gave me Beau Bridges’ address. I literally climbed over his wall, threw the script on Beau’s porch. Sunday morning, I get a call: “He’s read it, he likes it, he’s ready to engage.” Sunday night, I pick up the phone, and I call the unnamed actor, and I go: “Remember when you told me I had until tonight to replace you? It’s very gracious of you to resign. I accept.” He was shocked. He says, “No, no, no. I was just kidding. I’m really sorry. What do I need to do?” I go, “You’re out.”
What did you learn from that?
That the most important thing is the movie. And that whenever things look like they’re impossible, you have to continue to find a way. Your goal is to make the movie better until the very last moment, until you’re out of money.
On your first film with David O. Russell, Three Kings, he and George Clooney got into a fight. What happened?
I call it the domino effect. The first domino was: We needed an actor of stature who was willing to cut his price. George fit the bill. There were a number of places along the way where he had every opportunity to bail on the movie [because] he was advised to for his own personal safety and said no. But he needed to work seven days a week, between making our movie in Arizona and ER. Nobody should work seven days a week for months. At the same time, the studio beat the shit out of David to get him to bring the budget down in the $40 million range. They tried to get him to take 10 days out of the shooting schedule.
What did you say to that?
I advised him not to do it. I begged him. But he said, “I can run and gun.” Well, he couldn’t. So we’ve got George, who’s having trouble remembering his lines because he’s working seven days a week, and we’ve got David, who’s falling behind schedule. Now we’re shooting the climax of the movie. Helicopters, explosions, gunfire. It’s chaos, madness. And George sees David talking to the extras’ [assistant director], and it looks like he’s yelling at him. But he’s yelling to be heard. And George comes running over and goes, “I told you, motherf—er, if you’re going to pick on somebody, pick on me.” And David goes, “Why don’t you just f—ing remember your lines for once?” And boom! They grab each other, and they’re tussling. And so I pulled George away. That was it. But David is always only about the movie. And you have to respect that.
You’ve got The Great Wall coming out. You shot in China, didn’t you?
We did. That was one [of several] movies that caused me to realize I just can’t be in that many places at the same time. [At some point,] Warner Bros. didn’t want to fund it, and [Legendary Entertainment’s] Thomas Tull and Warners were having their issues, and then Thomas went to Universal, and we shut the movie down. So now, 18 months later, [Chinese director] Zhang Yimou comes in, and I brought Matt Damon into the project. And then Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman got greenlit and so I wasn’t able to be the on-set producer as much as I would have liked to. I believe the film will do extremely well in China and has real potential all around the world. But it’s the most expensive movie-for-export ever made in China.
There was talk you’d step away from DC Films to some degree.
The studio made me the producer of all the DC movies, and they announced eight. When we finished the [timetable], we looked at each other and said, “This is incredibly ambitious, but we haven’t taken into consideration if something goes wrong.” We also hadn’t decided where we were going to shoot those movies. As difficult as it was for me to commute from Toronto to London to Italy, it became really clear I couldn’t do the job that I do as a producer [with Aquaman likely to shoot in Australia]. I’m for sure producing the sequels of the movies that I have made.
How are Justice League and Wonder Woman going to be different?
Wonder Woman is an origination story, so the whole dynamic and the plot moves are different than other DC movies. There’s also a great relationship between her and the guy [played by Chris Pine] who crash-lands on her island and is the trigger mechanism for her going back to man’s world.
What about Justice League?
We knew we were making a very serious, compelling, driving film with Batman v. Superman. Now the bell has been rung and the whole tone of the movie is lighter.
If there is a sequel to Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad, will the budgets be lower? They made less than the studio had hoped.
Suicide Squad made almost $750 million. Batman v. Superman did $873 million. Those two movies were huge hits.
You once were married to Dawn Steel. What did she teach you about moviemaking?
Dawn taught me to trust my gut. She had the greatest gut of all time, she had the greatest instincts, and she could visualize [things happening]. She taught me to trust my instincts and to see myself being successful.
Was it hard when she was a studio head and you were —
— a struggling producer? It was harder when she was at Paramount [as president of production] than when she was at Sony [later as Columbia Pictures president] because she went from being a marketing executive to a creative executive to having everybody above her leave. So, since I had one good movie, but my second movie failed miserably — [1987’s] Made in U.S.A. — that was rough.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I ride horses, I scuba dive, and I used to ski. I’m a modest collector of art. Banksy gave us our logo for Atlas Independent.
Have you ever met him?
(Laughs.) Another time, another tale.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.