'The Post,' 'Shape of Water,' 'Mudbound' Producers Talk Keeping Actors Happy on Set

Courtesy of TIFF
'The Shape of Water'

Crewmembers from Woody Allen's 'Wonder Wheel' and 'Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold' also participated in the Produced By NY panel.

During the second producers master class panel Saturday at the Producers Guild of America’s Produced By Conference NY, the producers and crewmembers from Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel, Steven Spielberg's The Post, Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water and Dee Rees' Mudbound reflected on the importance of keeping talent happy on set.

Post costume designer Ann Roth said perceives her job as a way to read the mind of the director and translate it into a way that can make the cast happy.

“The director basically asks the producer for the designer, and the designer’s job is to make the director’s life easy and happy,” she said. “One of the ways of doing that is to let the actors be very happy. If the actor’s unhappy, walk away.”

Two other producers took turns explaining their process for helping actors get into character.

“In our case, we had a unique situation where the lead actor and actress in our film never speak a word,” said Shape of Water producer J. Miles Dale. He went on to explain that once director and co-screenwriter Guillermo del Toro cast the film, including lead actors Sally Hawkins and Michael Shannon, “he started to write for them. … He started to write with their voices in mind and to their strengths. That was kind of the benefit of that situation.”

Dale also explained that del Toro wanted to give the actors a degree of freedom, including input on their costumes. The director also would have in-depth conversations with castmembers about the background and perspectives of their characters. “Not only is it written for them, but they’re feeling really grounded in their characters, and they're feeling the freedom that they can do something without him specifically looking for something,” said Dale.

Shape of Water production designer Paul Austerberry added that speaking with the actors about “what their character is and what their history is” was beneficial for everyone on set.

The ensemble cast of Mudbound includes Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige. Much of the movie was filmed on a hot plantation that the cast rarely left during production.

“It really was our task to make sure they were comfortable and we could at least figure out some kind of air conditioning tent,” said producer Charles D. King. “We had to be really cautious and really protective of our cast. We’re out in a plantation where there were snakes.” The producers wanted to “support the [actors] in the fact that they were also willing to play ball with us under the conditions of extreme heat.”

While King ensured the cast was comfortable, writer-director Rees made sure that the actors put everything they had into their characters. “My process is not like a traditional rehearsal and reading,” Rees said before explaining her workshop-like approach that brings out “the cores of the relationships.”

She continued, “I pair the actors off, so for me I had Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige, who play Laura and Florence, just come out to my office and square off against each other and do a repetition. ‘You have the power.' 'Now you have the power.’ Because for me that was about power.” This process let “the actors really see each other and scare each other.” The director believes that the workshops help the actors see their co-stars as their characters.

For the documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, casting wasn’t extremely difficult. Director-producer Griffin Dunne is Didion’s nephew, so the production process was a bit of a family affair. Inspiration for the film came when the director realized that there had never been a documentary about the author made with her consent. “I pushed my luck and I asked and she said — she’s a woman of few words — and she said, ‘Uhh, okay,’” Dunne recalled. “What I wanted to do was make a doc that traced her life as a wife and a mother and what she was writing about and what was going on in the country and extend that all the way through."

For Allen’s latest film Wonder Wheel, finding the best crew was just as important as the perfect cast. “When Woody decides to do a movie, he does one just about every year, we first find out that Santo’s [Loquasto] available because they reached an unspoken kind of relationship where Santo knows exactly what kind of thing he wants and Woody gives a shorthand with him,” producer Letty Aronson said of Allen's frequent production designer. “Their collaboration makes life much, much easier than when we have to go and get someone else.”

The panel also included Post producer Kristie Macosko Krieger and Center Will Not Hold editor Ann Collins and was moderated by Bruce Cohen.