PGA Roundtable: Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow, Ang Lee Talk Fear and Pragmatism in Films

Ahead of Saturday's award ceremony, the nominated producers gathered at Landmark theatres to discuss the casting and development process of their films.

Early Saturday, ahead of the Producers Guild Awards ceremony at the Beverly Hilton, the nominees for the Producer of the Year award gathered at Landmark Theatres at the Westside Pavilion for a lively, casual breakfast and roundtable discussing their films. 

"This year, this group of films is probably going to do $4-5 billion dollars at the box office and you can never say that," said Eric Fellner, producer of Les Misérables, to applause from attendeesHe added: "The groups of films, they're all great films, but they don't make much money usually."

"$3.9 [billion] of that is Skyfall," immediately joked Ben Affleck

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The Producers Guild panel was comprised of Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), Donna Gigliotti (Silver Linings Playbook), Stacey Sher (Django Unchained), Kathleen Kennedy (Lincoln), Michael G. Wilson (Skyfall), Ang Lee (Life of Pi) and Josh Penn (Beasts of the Southern Wild) along with Fellner and Affleck (Argo).

The discussion, moderated by Gary Lucchesi, Vice President of Motion Pictures at the PGA, centered on casting and development. The panelists also had a conversation about the role that fear and anxiety played during the creation of their now critically acclaimed projects. 

"I don't know if I'd call it fear," responded Bigelow, when asked if the emotion was useful to her as a motivator in making Zero Dark Thirty. "I just think there's a certain pragmatic imperative that you work with. In other words, we shot this in 66 days, came back to close to 1.8 million feet of film and about maybe another week, maybe 19 weeks to cut. So, there is definitely a heightened sense of urgency and compression."

She also added: "I think there's kind of a pragmatic urgency, maybe its the same as fear, that kind of drives you."

Affleck had put it more bluntly.

"That I live with every day," the Argo filmmaker said of attaining a high bar of quality set for his films. "This is just my third movie, and I felt like each has sort of been a step forward and involved new things for me that I haven't done before and so each time I wonder, 'will I be able to do this successfully ...'" 

"That fear that you [moderator Lucchesi] are talking about is definitely the sort of, whatever that kind of anxiety, that undercurrent of 'I have to get this right, this has to work.' I have always felt like it was life or death for me, career-wise," Affleck elaborated. 

On the set of Life of Pi, Ang Lee liked to keep it quiet in order to keep clear-headed. 

"I like a quiet set. Maybe not pin drop quiet, but pretty quiet. I found that most efficient," Lee said. "I think when you are serious, you naturally have a quiet set. And then, if not, you can always ask the assistant director to keep them quiet. "

The casual conversation also touched on casting and developing decisions. While discussing Pi, Lee, prompted by Affleck, quipped that the film pitch could've been "a drift movie without Tom Hanks."    

Eric Fellner said that the best singing audition for Les Misérables was Sasha Baron Cohen, who broke out in a Fiddler on the Roof tune. He "refused to sing anything from this particular musical," the producer said. "So for his audition, he insisted on doing 'If I Were a Rich Man.'"

Lincoln producer Kathleen Kennedy recalled the moment when Tony Kushner's initial 500-page script for the film arrived. "I remember, I got this call from Steven [Spielberg], and he's like, 'what are we going to do?'" She noted that Kushner asked her on the phone, "do you think this could be a mini-series?" 

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Wilson, who produced Skyfall on the 50th anniversary year of the James Bond franchise, also weighed in on anxiety during a film's development.

"I just want to say something about fear, and that is that on a film which is $200 million dollar-plus, and as well as many locations, there's plenty of fear going around all the time," he said. "Our job is really to insulate the director and the artists from production problems from the studio and everything else. It's a buffer. Let them get on with making the movie. And that's really, I think, the best thing we can do during the making of the film."

"Can I work with you?" quipped Ang Lee, drawing laughs and applause.