Producers Guild Nominees Reveal Secrets Behind Their Best Picture Contenders

Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP courtesy of 42West
From left: Todd Black, Bill Mechanic, Julie Yorn, Donna Gigliotti, Marc Platt

At the annual Nominees Breakfast, the filmmakers swapped stories about filming on closed freeways and sweating out test audience screenings.

When producer Donna Gigliotti first approached Kevin Costner’s representatives about the star appearing in Hidden Figures, she made one thing clear from the start. As far his salary went, she told them upfront, “Kevin’s the fourth banana. He can’t get more cash than any of these three women.” She quickly added, “So hat’s off to Kevin” for signing on to the project, which has turned into an unexpected hit.

Gigliotti’s anecdote drew one of the largest rounds of applause as the Producers Guild of America on Saturday gathered together producers from all 10 films nominated for the PGA’s Darryl F. Zanuck Producer of the Year Award at the PGA’s annual Nominees Breakfast. Held at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills and sponsored by The Hollywood Reporter, the event included a panel, moderated by Gary Lucchesi, who serves as PGA president along with Lori McCreary, that allowed the producers to share behind-the-scenes stories about what it took to bring their respective films to the screen.

Some of the projects took years to become reality. Bill Mechanic recounted how he and David Permut spent 16 years pursuing Hacksaw Ridge. At one point, in 2003, it looked as if Casey Affleck would star in the part that ultimately went to Andrew Garfield, only for the project to fall apart — a fact that Manchester by the Sea’s Affleck reminded Mechanic of when they recently ran into each other on the awards circuit. “They never forget,” Mechanic joked.

Other projects, like Moonlight, came together relatively quickly. One of that film’s producers, Adele Romanski, explained how, after Plan B’s Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner learned about the script that writer/director Barry Jenkins was working on, it was just six months before they had lined up financing from A24 and just another six months before filming began in Miami.

Producers Marc Platt (La La Land) and Simon Kinberg (Deadpool) traded tales of what it was like to close down freeways for their movie’s opening sequences. In the case of La La Land, the production had just two days to work, in 100-degree-plus temperatures, on a ramp connecting the 105 and 110 freeways in Los Angeles. At the end of the two days, Platt said, “Everyone was exhausted, but no one wanted to leave,” and so everyone stood around and watched a playbook of the sequence, applauding and crying. Deadpool utilized an overpass in Vancouver, but could only film on it for three hours at a time in the early morning hours, so, with repeated visits to the location, the sequence took two weeks to complete.

Arrival’s Dan Levine revealed his production found its main exterior location, which is meant to be Utah in the movie, in a small town six hours north of Montreal and lucked out on the one day it was using a helicopter to capture shots when photogenic clouds rolled in. On the set of Hacksaw Ridge, Mechanic said, director Mel Gibson chose to use lots of smoke in the battle scenes to hide the surrounding eucalyptus trees. For Hell or High Water, producer Julie Yorn explained that while the action takes place in Texas, the film chose to shoot in New Mexico, making its headquarters in Albuquerque.

Fences’ Todd Black explained how that movie’s star, Denzel Washington, was so secure in his role, which he had played on Broadway, that when staging the big emotional moments (Washington also directed the pic), he always filmed the other actors first, saving his shots for last. Said Black, “He loves [playwright] August Wilson. I think this role spoke to him in a way that no role has spoken to him before.” And Manchester’s Kevin Walsh recalled how writer-director Kenneth Lonergan was so happy to begin filming — the first scene that was shot was the scene in the lawyer’s office where Affleck’s character learns he’s been given custody of his nephew — that he just sat cross-legged in front of his actors taking in the scene.

When it came time to screen Lion for a test audience, producer Iain Canning admitted he approached a showing in London nervously, since he wasn’t sure if emotionally restrained Brits would respond to the heartrending movie, but when the film ended, “there was a scream from all the men in the room to keep the lights down,” since they didn’t want to be seen sobbing. And Gigliotti related how after Hidden Figures got a 98 percent rating in the top-two boxes from an African-American audience, the studio asked for another screening, so the filmmakers took the film to Kansas City, where it scored a reassuring 97 percent.

The PGA will hold its annual 28th annual awards ceremony on Saturday night at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.