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This story first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Rarely are the links connecting Hollywood’s inner circle more evident than they were at this year’s Producer Roundtable.
Before David Heyman, 52, made Gravity and Charles Roven, 64, made American Hustle this year, they were favored children in the Warner Bros. family, responsible for the Harry Potter and The Dark Knight franchises, respectively. Roven also produced the Mark Wahlberg starrer Three Kings (and reteams with its director, David O. Russell, on the upcoming Hustle). And Wahlberg, 42, worked with Michael De Luca, 48, when De Luca was at New Line as an executive — he oversaw Wahlberg’s Boogie Nights.
The history that binds these men — along with two women, Pam Williams, 49, and Dede Gardner, 45, each with a long history of her own — perhaps contributed to their openness at the Nov. 7 roundtable, where Wahlberg joked about firing agent Ari Emanuel, Heyman delved into how he nearly lost Potter co-star Emma Watson and Roven explained the horrible personal and professional challenges of handling the death of Heath Ledger on Dark Knight.
What’s the biggest misconception that people have about producers?
MARK WAHLBERG: For me, it’s like, “Oh, you’re starring in a movie, so you demanded a vanity credit.” You can damn well be sure that I’m involved in every single aspect of it.
What if you’re starring in it, but you’re not a producer?
WAHLBERG: Then I will just quietly raise my hand and suggest something I think would save us time and money. But it depends on the person that’s driving the train, whether they want to listen. Like with Michael Bay [on Transformers 4] — (laughter) — “Tell me where to stand, what to say, boss.”
CHARLES ROVEN: I think the other thing about producing is, there are so many different capacities you function in. It’s very difficult to be great doing all of those things.
WAHLBERG: I’ve worked with Chuck, so I can attest to that.
What do you do best, and what do you struggle with?
ROVEN: I guess sometimes I don’t have the greatest bedside manner.
WAHLBERG: I can attest to that!
ROVEN: But no two films are the same. Even if you’re making a sequel, it’s different because it’s like alchemy: One different ingredient will change the whole thing. There could be more problems in the marketing or the casting, and there’s always that one guy on the crew that’s not exactly right, or budgets are spiraling out of control. What are you going to do? How are you going to make sure you don’t hurt the process? And that’s when you’re actually making it; getting it to the point to where you’re making it, that’s a whole other skill set. On American Hustle, [director] David O. Russell made significant changes [to the script], and he was also in the middle of an Oscar campaign for Silver Linings Playbook, and it was a struggle to get his attention while he was still focused on the movie that he had made. And yet we had a release date, in December, and so the period of shooting [in Boston] and postproduction was really, really compressed.
WAHLBERG: How long was it before you guys were able to shoot [Hustle outside Boston] after the bombings at the Boston Marathon [in April]?
ROVEN: We actually shot the day of the bombings, and that wasn’t a problem, but when they found the brother who was alive in the boat, they shut us down on that day, and then the next day, we were back shooting again.
DAVID HEYMAN: For Gravity, it was exactly the opposite problem. It took us four years to make the movie, and for us, the big issue was figuring out the technology with which to achieve zero gravity. It was a year and a half of R&D, where the studio was putting in money on blind faith because we didn’t have a clue what we could do.
ROVEN: That was amazing, all the different cameras and monitors that you had.
HEYMAN: Yeah, we were traveling to San Francisco to look at robots and how they’d work with the computers. It was a real odyssey. Fortunately, I was working with incredibly smart people — Alfonso, Emmanuel Lubezki and Tim Webber — trying to figure out solutions, but none of them had done this before. I’d worked on a few visual effects [films], but I’d never done anything like this. So, going back to what a producer does, the misconception is we’re sinful people who put up the money, and …
WAHLBERG: Some get a credit for just cutting a check.
PAM WILLIAMS: Well, on The Butler, that certainly is the case. For us, our biggest problem was getting the movie set up. We had originally set up at Sony, but when it came to making the movie, they opted not to move forward. [The late] Laura Ziskin, my producing partner, and I had never produced an independent film before, and we thought, “Oh, no problem, we can raise $25 million in equity. …”
MICHAEL DE LUCA: At least you weren’t daunted.
WILLIAMS: Well, that was Laura. She never took no for an answer, and so we do have [dozens of] producers credited on the movie. And most were first-time financiers. They had never put money in a movie before. They were very deferential, but at the same time, they did have a say at certain really critical junctures — like, we needed distribution, and they said no to the first Weinstein offer.
DE LUCA: ‘Cause it was zero? (Laughter.)
WILLIAMS: No, it actually was a really good offer. You know, [they didn’t] totally understand what was being offered and why it was being offered, and they wanted to look at all the models. I was in the middle of production at the time and needed additional funds to finish it, so I very much needed a studio deal to close. The bond company was saying, “By Friday, you’ll tell us what days you are cutting in order to finish the movie without that.” We went down to New Orleans with $20 million saying, “If we have to make this movie for $20 million, we’ll make it. There is no other option.” We discovered that wasn’t enough, for the ambition and the scope: We could have told Cecil [Gaines‘] story in the White House, or we could have told his son’s story; but without $25 million, we couldn’t tell both.
WAHLBERG: We closed on bond, I think, two days before we wrapped production [on Lone Survivor]. It was set up at Universal for quite some time, and then for whatever reason, they were getting cold feet. I had a friend [Randall Emmett] who used to work for me who had financed two other films for me, and he said he could get the money. He used to be my assistant. I used to bark orders [at him], and he came up with the money. And we were pretty much left alone. Now, mind you, we didn’t have the money we would normally have. It had been at the studio, but I think that was the way we needed to make the movie. We were up at 14,000 feet [shooting in New Mexico], so we were able to keep most people away by being at the top of a mountain.
DEDE GARDNER: One of the illusions is that it’s easy. An illusion is that it’s fun. An illusion is that producers are made of Teflon and don’t take it personally in the way actors and directors do.
With World War Z, there was so much attention on that film, how do you deal with that?
GARDNER: I wouldn’t wish that on anyone in the world. You have to just put your head down and tune out all the noise. You have to just stay focused, and I feel very fortunate to have Brad [Pitt] and Jeremy [Kleiner] as partners. But that was wretched on every level. It was horrible. And I had a great time making Z, but I didn’t like the scrutiny that comes along with the size of it. I really found that uncomfortable. I guess it’s a natural thing because of the size and the investment, but I felt this is no one’s business until we’re finished with this movie.
ROVEN: I’ve had many films that had some weird stuff going on — before “social media” was the term. We did keep our head down, tried to stay true to our vision, and the film came out and it was very successful. I had one film where, based on the person we cast, we were getting [comments] that his parents should have killed him at birth; that his parents should have smothered him with a pillow.
Mike, you’re dealing with this on Fifty Shades of Grey. How much of that noise has seeped into the process? You had a very public exit by an actor, Charlie Hunnam.
DE LUCA: I didn’t feel pressure because we had a possible replacement in place before the thing actually went down. It’s just called being prepared. But I am on Twitter constantly. I am a masochist. I’m into the fandom, so I was aware of what was coming the first time around, when Charlie Hunnam wasn’t what most readers pictured. But he was so awesome in this audition that he did with Dakota Johnson, and he really wanted to play that character, and we’re not making the movie based on Twitter. We thought we’d get there with him, and then when we couldn’t, we anticipated that the new guy, Jamie Dornan, was going to be more of what the fans conjured in their imaginations.
HEYMAN: But, really, is there a singular vision of who that character is?
DE LUCA: He looks a lot like Mark Wahlberg.
WAHLBERG: I almost fired my agent Ari [Emanuel] over [Fifty Shades] — not because I wanted to play the part. We were aware of the book very early on, and we were close to securing the rights, and then we get into this bidding war. We were so close to having [it]. That was one of the few times I was going to fire Ari.
DE LUCA: I mean, the woman wrote a fantasy: a square-jawed, tall, broad-shouldered, genius, billionaire Adonis …
GARDNER: So, Mark. (Laughter.)
WAHLBERG: No, sounds like Brad Pitt to me.
DE LUCA: It’s tough to be literal. Do you remember the James Bond outcry? “Oh, Daniel Craig‘s blond! How could you cast a blond James Bond?”
ROVEN: When we cast Heath Ledger, it was like, “What? Heath Ledger? What, as the Joker? Are you kidding me?”
When he died, did you have meetings to discuss strategy?
DE LUCA: Well, way to bring us down.
ROVEN: There are a lot of meetings that go on when there’s a huge, seminal event that happens. You know, first of all …
DE LUCA: I imagine the grieving.
ROVEN: That’s the first thing that happened, because I had just seen him two weeks before and showed him this five-minute prologue — that’s what we were into back then, these five-minute prologues introducing the Joker. I had just shown him the five-minute prologue that was going to come out in Imax, six months before the movie was coming out. And he just went crazy for it, loved it so much. We showed it to him twice, and then two weeks later, he’s dead. That was really, really shocking. The first thing that we did was speak to his family and made sure that they were part of whatever decisions we were talking about.
HEYMAN: Richard Harris was Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies, and when he got sick, I remember going to see him in the hospital. He said: “Don’t dare recast. I’ll be back.” And then he didn’t make it. And he was a godfather to me, and it was like a family, and there’s grieving. You don’t rush on and go, “Oh well, who are we going to get to replace him?”
DE LUCA: Films really are like family.
HEYMAN: Sometimes a functional one, sometimes …
WILLIAMS All families are dysfunctional.
DE LUCA: In the case [of Fifty Shades], it really went down to the wire. Everyone wanted it to work out, including Charlie. In terms of schedule, to be free from Sons of Anarchy in time to show up on the set of our movie, the physical transformation and the psychological transformation from Jax to Christian Grey was more than he could accomplish in the time that we had. We all hung on until the bitter end, but to his credit, he came to us and said, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to get there in the time we have, and I don’t want to do a bad job. I’m not going to be able to turn into this guy.” And you’ve got to let go, too. Sometimes you can hold on too tight and not let go of something.
David, with Harry Potter, was there any point where you almost lost the cast?
HEYMAN: They were initially signed up to two films, but then we had to renegotiate each time. Emma [Watson], in particular, was quite academic and was very keen in pursuit of schooling and was wrestling a little bit more than the others. So each time there was a negotiation, it was not about a financial [matter], it really was about, “Do I want to be a part of this?” We had to be sensitive to her needs and how important school was to her. And you have to listen. In our position, you’re not dictating, you’re listening. At the same time, it’s a tipping point, and it’s working within a framework. I deeply respected her, encouraged her. She’s very smart, always was, and fiercely intelligent.
ROVEN: And it’s a little bit different now because Harry Potter had so many incarnations, and The Dark Knight turned into a trilogy. But when we started Batman Begins, we were hoping to make one really good film, right? And maybe you negotiated a sequel for Christian Bale. Now you’re negotiating multiple deals, and as a result, there’s some really great talent who just say, “I don’t want to know that you guys own me for the next 10 years.”
DE LUCA: That was a big consideration on Fifty, also, because you have to sign up for three movies. The two scripts aren’t written for the sequels, so it felt like this was going to go in the direction of unknowns or fresh faces, actors more willing to take the risk.
Why do you renegotiate? Jennifer Lawrence, who got half a million for Hunger Games, now is getting exponentially more to do the sequels.
DE LUCA: There’s a reality to someone’s changing status in the marketplace. Personally, I think it’s the cheapest money you can spend — to keep someone happy and feeling respected and still get [them for less than] they could fetch on the open market.
WAHLBERG: As an actor and a producer, you try to be fair, but it’s never really going to seem fair to both sides. There was a complete misconception about what was going on with the Entourage [movie] contracts. Everybody’s saying it was all about money. It wasn’t, necessarily. It was really about fairness, and what I was trying to communicate to the guys was, “This is an important movie for us to do at a price.” And then if the movie is successful, like Sex and the City, there’s a lot of opportunity on the upside. You know, doing Transformers, I definitely had to sign up for three. Does that mean we’ll make three? No, it doesn’t.
So many actors try to produce. What advice would you give them?
WAHLBERG: The only reason why I wanted to was because I was never going to get the script first. I had to wait for Brad Pitt to pass; I had to wait for this one to pass. So I had to go out there and create my own thing, find material, develop it for myself and have creative control. I’d rather be behind the wheel of a car going down a highway at 200 miles per hour than in the backseat with somebody else in control. So that was it for me, and then I just loved it, and it was addictive to me.
Has it changed the way you go about the work of being an actor?
WAHLBERG: Absolutely. Absolutely. I’ll go to my trailer to get dressed, and I just sit on the set. I want everybody else to follow suit because so much time is wasted. It’s like, “Come on, guys, we’re wasting time, we’re wasting money.”
When you’re working with an A-list filmmaker, is there a danger of feeling powerless as a producer?
GARDNER: With any luck! You want that.
ROVEN: You want someone who has a real vision and a sense of how to get there, but they don’t have to have every answer, and you want them to be collaborative and open to ideas.
WAHLBERG: There are a lot of filmmakers who are great creatively but don’t understand the concept of budget and finance at all.
WILLIAMS: I come out of television, where you hire the director on a weekly basis, and they come and go, and so you’re always driving the train. In film, basically, you hire your boss, and then it really is about servicing his vision.
HEYMAN: The role of producer really is supporting the director, and that can mean very different things.
DE LUCA: It could mean protecting them from themselves.
HEYMAN: One of the difficult things, I think, about the process is that it’s results-oriented. It’s really about those [test] scores, and sometimes they’re not indicative.
DE LUCA: Yeah, Boogie Nights scored horribly. They recruit for these [test screenings] off a paragraph [synopsis] in the mall, and the paragraph for Boogie Nights made it look like a sitcom, and then they come for this three-hour exegesis on existential crises in porn. It got to a point where Bob Shaye, my old boss, chased good scores on that movie, and that movie was never going to score high.
WAHLBERG: I remember [he did] his own cut.
DE LUCA: Yeah, it was horrible. It was tough. That movie was going straight to video, and then the reviews started to come in at the New York Film Festival. If it wasn’t for early reviews …
WAHLBERG: I was starting to think, “F—, I should have done Starship Troopers.” (Laughter.)
WILLIAMS: And yet screenings aren’t just [about] the score. We must have screened The Butler 70 times. A lot changed, namely tone. Lee Daniels is a certain director, and the movie needed to be PG-13, and he is [in] more of an R-rated world. And the movie started out as two hours and 46 minutes, so it was really useful to know [what might be cut]. I see those as a tool — and if screenings are used as a hammer, that’s the wrong tool.
WAHLBERG: I did a test screening in New Jersey once, and it’s New Jersey. The guy goes, “Why the f— isn’t Joe Pesci in this f—ing movie?” It may have been The Fighter. I’m not sure. But if you have a smaller movie that’s not working, and you need [the studio’s] support, you really need those numbers.
One last question. It’s a very competitive marketplace for material. What’s your pitch? What is your ace in the hole when you want something?
DE LUCA: I try not to slime other people in my pitch.
GARDNER: You have to listen to the author. You have to listen to what they say, at least create the space to have a conversation. They have opinions about how they want their material adapted.
HEYMAN: And ultimately, they’ll go to the person who they feel is best for them.
WILLIAMS: All you can do is lead with your passion and what your vision is.
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