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This story first appeared in the June 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
For more than two decades, New York-based producer Anthony Bregman has steered some of the most iconic independent films of his generation, from The Brothers McMullen to The Ice Storm to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As many of his contemporaries from the early-1990s indie scene are slowing or holding steady, Bregman, 47, is hitting his stride. He is producing more ambitious movies like Bennett Miller‘s Foxcatcher, which generated rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival, and moving into TV with frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman for the FX comedy pilot How and Why. And his five-employee production company Likely Story, which he runs with L.A.-based Stefanie Azpiazu, closed a financing deal in December with PalmStar, hedge fund EBF and Israel-based Tadmor Group to provide debt and equity for films like John Carney‘s next project, Sing Street, which sold to The Weinstein Co. at Cannes. Another Carney-directed, Bregman-produced movie became a record-breaker in 2013: The Keira Knightley–Mark Ruffalo musical Begin Again (formerly titled Can a Song Save Your Life?), which opens July 4, marked the biggest Toronto Film Festival deal to date when Weinstein paid $7 million for domestic rights.
But the past 12 months have not been without difficulty for Bregman. His film Enough Said lost its male star when James Gandolfini died in June (it grossed $25.3 million worldwide). Ezekiel Moss lost its director when Philip Seymour Hoffman died in February (production had not begun). And, though less tragic, Daniel Craig dropped out of Bregman’s courtroom drama The Whole Truth as the movie was about to shoot. The New York native and father of four (married to college sweetheart Malaika Amon) met with THR in his downtown Manhattan office on the eve of Cannes to chat about former colleague James Schamus and why castmember Adam Levine was anything but a diva on the set of Begin Again.
Foxcatcher was supposed to be released in 2013. Why the delay?
They needed more editing. That happens all the time. That was a movie I produced with Megan Ellison, but she took the lead on the film — so that’s a better question for her than for me.
What was the genesis of Begin Again?
Even before I got involved, John [Carney] had been developing the film with Judd Apatow at Sony, and somehow [the studio] put it into turnaround. Then WME’s Dan Aloni, John’s agent, sent it to me to produce. I went to Ireland to meet with John. We got along and said, “Let’s do it together.”
Is this the exact type of midbudget drama the major studios don’t make anymore?
It’s a movie that is very execution?dependent, and studios are often not in the business of execution-dependent movies. But that’s actually where the opportunity for my type of business comes in because I am there with the filmmakers, and we are working on the execution part. That’s the reason the budgets [$5 million to $25 million] tend to be more constrained: It’s not a sure thing.
What is the downside of the major studios moving out of this space?
Someone needs to distribute it, but with the studios having moved on, this allowed these new distribution companies like A24 to come in and aggressively seize the space. I think there will be a lot more of that.
Was it difficult to get rock star Adam Levine to co-star in this movie?
He’s a big music star, but he campaigned for this part. He stuck his neck out; he put himself on tape for it. He couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about it. He flew himself in for it and was the opposite of difficult. He really put himself in John’s hands for his first movie experience. At the very end there’s a big concert scene, and we filmed that at Gramercy Theatre with hundreds of extras. We filmed it for eight or 10 hours of him just being onstage with the extras in the audience, who needed to be pumped up. And he kept them.
What is the secret to longevity as an independent film producer?
I get movies made, and that’s really a question of trying to find the price point at which movies can get made — which is definitely not the price point at which the filmmaker envisions the movie. It’s very difficult saying: “Wow, I thought you needed $25 million. I can only get $10 million.” How do you make filmmakers comfortable with that? But after you’ve made that leap and you’ve found that $10 million, you rarely think, “I wish I had more money”; you rarely think, “This scene is compromised.” Because you find a way to make all the limitations of the budget work for the film instead of against the film.
What is your sweet spot for budgets?
I’ve done films of every size. We’re doing a movie now that’s in the mid?$20 millions: [the Kristen Stewart–Jesse Eisenberg starrer] American Ultra. It’s an action movie that we wound up shooting in New Orleans. But $10 million to $15 million seems to be where a lot of these movies are working right now. The similarity with all of them is they are aspiring to look and feel like movies with budgets three times the size of what you’re actually making them for. They are movies that “wannabe”: If you’re making a movie for $25 million, you want that movie to feel like a $75 million movie; if you’re making a movie for $10 million, it has to be like $30 million. You’re finding ways that production value can be enhanced: the cast, the type of visual effects, the music.
What are the most important criteria for you to get involved with a movie?
Is this something I want to live with for five years or more? Is the director someone I want to work with? And does the story feel like it’s going to be unique in the marketplace, something that someone else isn’t telling better somewhere else? Like making a musical that feels like a love story that’s full of music instead of people just breaking out into song.
You worked with former Focus Features CEO James Schamus for more than a decade at Good Machine. How greatly does his void affect the indie landscape?
I hope it’s not going to be a void for very long. James typifies a belief in the commercial viability of artistic ambition. Many of us live by that principle: We believe that if you make something that’s really artistically interesting and daring, there’s an audience for that. And it worked out very well for many [Focus] movies like Eternal Sunshine and Lost in Translation and Brokeback Mountain. They were all movies that are very unlikely from a traditional analysis perspective, but because they’re well made and because they’re really artistically interesting, they became hits.
What happened with Daniel Craig and The Whole Truth?
He pulled out. It’s a mystery. We had to put it on hiatus until we reconfigured it. And it’s going to go again this summer. We’re in the middle of [casting]. I can’t say who because we have no deal yet, but it’s coming together.
James Gandolfini died soon before you took Enough Said to Toronto. Can you describe the experience?
It was incredibly sad. He passed away just when we were heading into our sound mix. It was such a departure for him that could have really spawned more great movies by him. At the same time, it’s a great homage to him. [Writer-director] Nicole Holofcener said: “I guess we just put the movie in a drawer. Who’s going to want to see a movie and laugh after he’s died?” But once you get through the sadness of having lost him, the movie is a great testament to who he was as an actor and a person.
Does your new financing deal with PalmStar, EBF and Tadmor set you up to take on more ambitious budgets?
We could definitely do more ambitious budgets — there’s no cap to it. It still needs to be movies that feel right, where both the economics [and the sensibility] are right, but it does mean we will expand the number of films we make and the size of films that we can make.
What are your TV plans?
We just shot our first pilot (How and Why) for FX with Charlie Kaufman, who will write and direct all the episodes. FX is incredibly supportive of a pilot that has a real artistic vision. It feels that TV makes enormous sense coming out of the indie world because so much of the stuff that worked in the indie world now works better in TV.
Have you been tempted to produce a tentpole?
I actually love many of those movies, and I’d love to do something like that. I’d like to do a version of a tentpole that feels like a $300 million movie that you made for $100 million — and then maybe becomes hugely profitable for everybody.
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