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Gaston Pavlovich, a 51-year-old self-taught producer from northern Mexico, has enjoyed the kind of run that most aspiring Hollywood filmmakers only dream of. In just seven years, he has worked alongside Jerry Lewis in Max Rose, Tom Hanks in A Hologram for the King and Mel Gibson in the biopic The Professor and the Madman. And then, in 2016, with a little luck on his side, he scored the opportunity of a lifetime to produce Martin Scorsese’s religious saga Silence.
Pavlovich’s gambit to collaborate on Scorsese’s long-gestating passion project, a slow-burning period drama with a two-and-a-half-hour running time, was risky, to say the least. And even though the picture garnered generally favorable reviews and had some star power behind lead actors Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, Fabrica de Cine (Pavlovich’s Mexico City-based production company) lost money on the film.
But the effort would not be forgotten, and Scorsese, grateful that Pavlovich made Silence happen, invited him to produce his next fiction film, the Jimmy Hoffa drama The Irishman. It was a monumental challenge due in part to the film’s expensive CGI de-aging technology, which allowed cast members Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino to play the same characters over a number of decades, but the payoff was huge, as the picture is generating serious Oscar buzz.
The Hollywood Reporter recently sat down with Pavlovich at the Los Cabos Film Festival, where The Irishman had its Latin American premiere.
You’ve never been one to shy away from risky projects ever since you started producing Hollywood movies about seven years ago. Would you say that penchant for risk-taking ultimately led you down the path to Scorsese?
Absolutely. I mean, there were some fortunate events along the way. Just the fact that the [previous] production company for Silence had fallen through about five months before the movie was to be filmed and that they were trying to get someone to make it with a high risk involved, plus it was very religious and not the typical Martin Scorsese film. Also, I had just come off an independent Tom Hanks film called A Hologram for the King, also a risk, and (I benefited from) the fortunate events of having Tom Hanks’ agents having conversations with Martin’s agents about my work. They were looking for someone to produce and finance Silence, and I was interviewed during that process.
As you said, producers did not want to go near Silence because of concerns over financing and the film’s religious subject matter. When you met with Scorsese for the first time, how did you convince him that you could make it happen?
I had a great conversation with Marty, and I think that was important. It was very personal and very faith-related and cinema-related and we hit it off well. The next morning he said that if I wanted to produce Silence I was welcome to do so, but we needed to do it within three months. When we were talking about Silence he was asking about my faith and digging into what kind of man I am. So I told him that my faith and my spirituality are very strong, and then he shared with me how important his faith is and told me that when he was young an Irish priest practically saved him from the streets. I think that helped, because Silence was indeed a very provocative, profound, faith-filled film, and I think he wasn’t finding that partnership in Hollywood.
So why did he need to do Silence if he had already done The Last Temptation of Christ?
I also asked him about that, because to me that was an important question. I asked him if we were going to do another Temptation kind of story, and he said his intention with The Last Temptation of Christ was to show the world what would happen if Christ had not sacrificed himself for humanity, [but he did not have the intention] to generate controversy. He needed to make a religious statement about his faith because he takes that seriously, and then it kind of backfired, and he was hurt that the Church was aggravated by his film. So he later had a conversation with a priest friend who told him that he had made the wrong story. The priest gave him Sushaku Endo’s book Silence, and that was about 30 years ago. After reading the book, he decided that that was the film he needed to make. When we talked, I reassured him that on a professional level I had the capacity to make Silence happen and I was willing to risk everything. I knew it was my opportunity, I knew it was extremely high risk, but I was trusting on his word when he said he would help me later if I helped him make Silence. I didn’t know it at the time, but the next film he would make was The Irishman, and later he and Robert De Niro invited me to produce it.
Were there moments before, during or after The Irishman production when you had to tell Scorsese that something simply couldn’t be done from a financial or technical perspective?
After I had fine-tuned the budget, Marty was taking to me about the de-aging technology, and that wasn’t included in the budget and financially it was too risky to produce something over $100 million [the film’s budget would eventually balloon to an estimated $159 million]. Personally, me and my company had already lost too much money doing Silence, and we couldn’t make another sacrifice, so that was a big moment. I remember the moment in New York on December 16, and we had a meeting with Martin Scorsese, Bob De Niro and producers Jane Rosenthal and Emma Tillinger Koskoff, and they were all sitting around a table looking at me, which was a bit intimidating, and they were asking if we were going to do the film or not. And I said we cannot make it at over $100 million. I had talked to every single studio and financier and nobody wanted to do it at that amount, and especially knowing that Marty wanted to make it another three-hour-plus film. It was a very tense meeting and at a certain moment we thought, well, this could be the end, but then a few days later I got a call from Marty’s manager saying Netflix was interested.
The Irishman has a long list of producer credits. How would you describe your specific role on the project?
The first step was taking the rights out of Paramount, and it had been in development hell for seven or eight years, so with Marty’s and Bob’s authorization and support I was able to sit down with Brad Grey, then president of Paramount, to discuss how to get the rights transferred to me. I think [Paramount] was second-guessing if they should let the rights go, so they took a while, and it wasn’t easy. Bob De Niro was always the guy I called, I would say we are getting stuck here, and he would make the calls. Around that time Cannes was approaching and I told Paramount I needed to get it out in Cannes so I could see if there was any interest in the worldwide market. We finally got the rights signed off to me about 10 days before Cannes, and at that point I was formally the producer. So I quickly signed Bob De Niro as the main actor, and we went to Cannes, and after talking to every studio I finally decided on STX, and for the first time people were taking about The Irishman as a reality. I transferred the film to Netflix two days before we started shooting. Once transferred, my workload decreased and Netflix was really taking control of the film. I was still part of the producing team in terms of making the major decisions, but I wasn’t so hands-on as I was in Silence.
Do you think Netflix’s limited theatrical release strategy is sustainable in the long term and especially in the case of a film like The Irishman, which was ten times more expensive than Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, which employed a similar strategy?
I do not, I think that something structurally has to change, and it will change. I did partake in the negotiations with the theater chains, and obviously Netflix wants a shorter window before they take their film to their platform, because that’s their main business. However, they do feel there’s great benefit in taking it out to the cinemas before the platform. I see that as an authentic strategy by Netflix, that their films will be in the theaters somehow, and they should be, because it helps promote their content, and at the same time it could be a very good line of business for them, besides the subscriptions. What I think will happen is either the theater chains will adjust with a new understanding of the amount of window, maybe something between 30 and 90 days, or there will be a new player to come along that will open theaters with a commitment to screen films from companies like Netflix, Amazon or Apple.
Do you see yourself collaborating on Scorsese’s next project?
He put me in the driver’s seat with Silence and The Irishman, but I don’t see Hollywood letting him go anymore with independent producers, and now he’s going to do this Leo DiCaprio film with Paramount (Roosevelt), so Hollywood is coming back to him again. Remember that Silence and The Irishman were actually independent productions before they went to Netflix. But if there’s an opportunity, he knows that he can always count on me.
What was your biggest takeaway from working with one of the greatest directors of all time?
It was like getting a PhD in the power world of Hollywood. The creativity, the brilliance of Marty Scorsese speaks for itself, and it was a privilege to be around that and see how he prepares and works. I now feel confident in the labyrinth of Hollywood.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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