A version of this story first appeared in the March 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
There’s a practical reason why Dana Brunetti moved his Trigger Street Productions from the STK building in West Hollywood to a downtown L.A. loft seven years ago. “This business is a lot of B.S. meetings that typically never lead to anything,” he explains. “Being down here is a very good filter or barometer of how serious a meeting is.” Given the success of Brunetti’s recent efforts — both on his own (Fifty Shades of Grey) and with Trigger Street founder Kevin Spacey (House of Cards, Captain Phillips, The Social Network) — there’s no shortage of would-be collaborators now making the trek. Brunetti, 41, got his start as Spacey’s assistant after a stint in the Coast Guard, and he quickly rose to become an in-demand producer (he and Michael De Luca beat out Brian Grazer and Scott Stuber for the coveted Fifty Shades gig).
Raised in Covington, Va., Brunetti is proving that midbudget films — the least favorite bet among the major studios — can thrive. Fifty Shades cost $40 million and has earned $529 million to date, while Captain Phillips ($57 million budget, $219 million worldwide) and Social Network ($37 million budget, $225 million worldwide) were profitable and scored best picture Oscar nominations. The single father of a toddler daughter (whose name is tattooed on his left forearm) invited THR to his office in the former Nabisco factory, where he addressed Fifty Shades‘ on-set drama, tussling with Harvey Weinstein and why Frank Underwood or Scott Rudin would make a better president than Hillary Clinton.
‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Director: Working With EL James Was “Really, Really Frustrating” (Q&A)
Some of the military challenge coins that Brunetti has received from people on projects with whom he’s been involved.
A lot has been written about EL James and director Sam Taylor-Johnson clashing on the Fifty Shades set. What’s the real story?
People are always going to disagree, but ultimately if you don’t agree, then the movie doesn’t get completed and released or it ends up being absolutely horrible because somebody says, “It’s my way or the highway.” And that never works. There’s been so many other movies where there were battles on set that were real battles, where people were walking off set or trying to stop production or hijacking editing rooms. This got blown out of proportion because anything with Fifty Shades in the headline got attention. Big whoop. There’s disagreements every f—ing day, every setup, every shot. The press just ran with this and blew it into a much bigger issue than it ever was.
Will Sam be back for Fifty Shades Darker?
No idea. We literally have no idea what we’re going to do. I have not even met with the studio or anybody yet about the second film. We always said, “Let’s get this first one out and released and then we’ll regroup and figure out what we’re going to do on the next.” That hasn’t happened yet. So, [James] hasn’t been back to the States [from her home in London] yet. I haven’t been into the studio yet. We’ve sent some emails back and forth and were basically like, “OK, we’re just going to figure out when everyone can get together and meet.”
“No, it’s not a ‘Fifty Shades’ paddle,” Brunetti jokes of the oar given to him at the wrap of ‘Captain Phillips’ by a few of his special op buddies. It’s given to a SEAL upon retirement.
Given how much Fifty Shades has earned, will the budget go up for Darker?
I hope not. As a producer, I love the fact that we made it for as little as we did and it’s grossed as much as it has. I’ve been proud of that on all my films. Will the budget go up? Maybe if there’s renegotiations on deals and fees. But as far as the actual production is concerned, I don’t think so. We run pretty lean and mean.
What do you think of Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan wanting big raises?
Look, when I was starting out and had to cut my teeth and build my résumé to get in, I had to basically work for free on a lot of things. I still take reductions in my fees for the opportunities to do certain things. We got slack on Captain Phillips about how much Barkhad [Abdi] and those guys got paid. Look at Jonah Hill in Wolf of Wall Street. It was great for his career. So I’m not going to cry for anybody who wants to be in this business just because a thing they were involved in did very well and they didn’t get paid [a lot]. That’s not the deal that you made. If it was, I’d have more than a couple Ferraris because all the money my films have made is f—ing insane. You’ve got to start somewhere.
Brunetti is part of a consortium that owns racehorses named Fifty Shades (pictured), Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.
Any chance you guys will split the third book — Fifty Shades Freed — into two movies, like Hunger Games and Twilight?
I don’t know. I mean, look, we don’t even have a writer yet, so we have to sit down and think about what the takes and all that would be, so that’s way too premature.
It seemed like you were the consigliere for EL in Hollywood. How did you like that role?
She’s a really interesting person to begin with. Her story is amazing — how she came from obscurity to this and still is very humble, no matter what people say and think of her. She’s actually very frugal. You would never know that she’s made as much money as she has. She has a Tesla, a little Audi that she bought herself. They live in a nice house, but it’s not what you would think. It’s in a regular neighborhood outside of London. When the bill comes, if she’s paying the bill, she still goes over to make sure she hasn’t been charged for anything she shouldn’t have been charged for. It makes me want to check my bill now. I’m like, “Wait, They do that?” None of it has gone to her head. Her husband bitches to her about her data plan when she’s over here.
Spacey’s boyhood home was located on Trigger Street in Chatsworth. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti gave them the sign.
What are your thoughts on all the recent executive moves in the film business?
What happened with Amy [Pascal], I feel really bad for her. She got caught in something that was really beyond her control as far as The Interview was concerned, aside from the fact that she didn’t have to greenlight the movie. But I think that’s a bullshit argument because there’s been a lot worse that’s been done. Some people are, “She shouldn’t have done it. It’s North Korea. Why didn’t they just change it to whatever fake country?” But then it starts to be censorship. We’re then cowering to the terrorists. And then the emails with her and Rudin. God forbid anybody got in my emails or anybody’s email. Everybody jokes around and has fun at the expense of others, no matter if it’s on race or religion or just somebody they don’t like. We all do that back and forth. I think people are a lot more careful now about doing it, but we’ve all done it. Scott skated right through that because people think, “Well, that’s what you expect from Scott Rudin.” Maybe that’s what they expect of me as well. But Amy, I guess they didn’t expect that of her or from someone in her position. As for Tom [Rothman] coming to Sony, it’s going to be interesting to see what shakes out. Now there’s going to be fresh eyes on things. And with Paramount, who’s going to replace Adam [Goodman] is going to be interesting. I was not taking anything [to Paramount] because nothing was happening. Depending on who they bring in, maybe I’ll start taking projects there.
What would it take for you to take an executive job?
I would have to be able to come and go as I please. I could not sit in some office. You look at our office now, it’s very creative, cool and easygoing — we make our own hours and do our own things — very flexible. I don’t know if I’d do well in a structured, corporate environment. I’m very open. I share everything. I don’t care. I don’t have anything to hide. I’m very transparent that way. I shouldn’t say, “I don’t have anything.” Everybody has things to hide. I think [in Hollywood’s] corporate environment, everyone wants to be able to control and keep everything locked down. But the day and age we live in now, that’s next to impossible. But as for what it would take, they wouldn’t be able to keep a leash on me in a way that I think they want a lot of executives, particularly sitting there behind a desk all the time. That’s just unproductive to me. I’ve got to be out doing a million things. That’s how I find stories. That’s how I get the relationships and get the projects that I get with the writers, the directors. And then you’d have to pay me a f—ing lot of money.
How involved is Spacey on projects when he’s a producer?
It varies. On House of Cards, obviously, a lot because he’s there and very involved. On Social Network, he was a little bit involved on that, but that ultimately led us to House of Cards with [director David] Fincher. With Captain Phillips, I used him to come meet the captain with me, basically to help push the captain over to go with us. I always refer to Kevin as my arrow. If I need to get to somebody, I fire him at whoever it is that I need to get to, and he basically opens the door for me, and then I’m in.
Brunetti is a Ferrari fanatic. The two models represent his pair of full-size versions.
Do you have any plans to work with Social Network writer Aaron Sorkin again?
I think Aaron’s a genius. But my ex-girlfriend [actress Kristin Chenoweth] was an ex-girlfriend of his. (Laughs.) I would love to work with Aaron. I can only hope.
What’s the market right now in Hollywood for these adult dramas of substance?
It sounds kind of crazy for me to say this [given Fifty Shades], but it sucks that it has to be all franchises and these big, insane movies. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, but that’s all they’re trying to find, constantly. I think it’s cannibalizing a bit, and you really start to get away from the enjoyment of filmmaking, the craft, and storytelling. Look how much money American Sniper made. There’s definitely an audience for it, so there should definitely be a place for it. But even at Sony, it would have been impossible for me to get a movie like Social Network or Captain Phillips made there in the past year because they were focusing more on tentpole movies and not those [types of adult dramas], even though they were made for a price and did very well. It just wasn’t their M.O. They were changing direction. But now with Tom there, maybe it will change back. We need to feel it out and start to see what they start approaching us with or what I’m able to get traction with there.
How much is Netflix going to change the business?
Remember when the iPhone first came out and Steve Jobs held it up and swiped his finger across the screen, and the whole audience was like, “Holy shit”? That wasn’t that long ago. That was 2007. That’s where we are with Netflix now. Eventually that’s where we’re going to go with the studios. Right now, the theaters have a stranglehold on the studios, where they take a piece of the films and take concessions. If I ran a studio, I would flip that. You want to show my films? You pay me, and I’m going to take a piece of your concessions. And I would also release the films day-and-date and make them available for streaming and charge a premium, $50, $60, $70, $80, whatever the market will bear.
Do you think within five, 10 years, Netflix will have a best picture Oscar winner?
Oh yeah. They’ve been nominated for their two documentaries the last two years. With House of Cards, we got nominated for Emmys and Golden Globes right out of the gate. When we started, it was like, “We’re not going to be eligible for awards.” We were all like, “F— it, then. Who cares? We’re getting to make a great product. They’re giving us all the control. They’re giving us a bunch of money and the ability to do what we want to do.”
You famously clashed with Harvey Weinstein over the release of 2009’s Fanboys. What were the lessons?
Look, everyone was making a stink about Sam and EL. That was nothing compared to what I was dealing with for three f—ing years with Harvey and the filmmaker — three f—ing years of this movie being held up and never being released. When it’s finally released, Harvey just put it on 10 screens and said, “If the fans like it, they’ll come out and see it.” I think a lot of people shot themselves in the foot with it all the way around, and I was kind of in the middle of that hurricane. But Harvey’s a genius. We’re actually looking for something to do together.
A mug shot from Brunetti’s DUI in New York some 20 years ago hangs behind his desk. “I still have trouble with customs when I go into Canada,” he says.
Spacey told THR that he’s seen the closely guarded House of Cards ratings. Have you seen them, too?
No, and I don’t think he’s seen them. Maybe Ted [Sarandos] told him what they were. They’re pretty tight-lipped on that one. I love that Netflix does that because f— everybody. As long as their subscribers are happy.
How long will House of Cards last?
I have no idea. I mean, I hope for a few more seasons at least. Who knows? Maybe a new president?
Do you have a presidential candidate you like for 2016?
Do you like Hillary?
No. Not for president. I know it’s not the popular thing to say. I loved [Bill] Clinton. Then we had Bush. I was not a fan of his. Then Obama, who I thought was going to be about change, and it’s the same shit. Just to go in there and be like f—ing Frank Underwood and get shit f—ing done. It needs to be a f—ing producer. Somebody that is ruthless. So I don’t know who that is. Maybe Scott Rudin for 2016.
What’s your safe word when dealing with Hollywood sadists?
I just hang up the phone.
Brunetti’s office is teeming with ‘Star Wars’ memorabilia, including this stormtrooper, thanks to producing the 2009 film ‘Fanboys.’