PGA Breakfast: Producers of 10 Nominated Films Reveal Behind-the-Scenes Drama

PGA Nominees Breakfast
Colin Young-Wolff/Invision for The Hollywood Reporter/AP Images

PGA Nominees Breakfast, on Saturday, Jan. 18th, 2014 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Colin Young-Wolff/Invision for The Hollywood Reporter/AP Images)

At the Producers Guild's annual nominees breakfast, Charles Roven, Spike Jonze, David Heyman and others shared stories and insights about how they got their movies made.

Ahead of Sunday's PGA Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, the nominated producers shared behind-the-scenes stories of what it took to bring their highly-acclaimed movies to the screen at the annual Producers Guild of America Nominees Breakfast, presented by The Hollywood Reporter.

PGA national executive director Vance Van Petten opened the program, which was held on Saturday morning at the Landmark Theatres in West Los Angeles, by proudly noting that this year there was a real gender balance with five men and five women on the panel, which was moderated by producer Gary Lucchesi, vp motion pictures for the PGA.

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Speaking at the roundtable event were: Robbie Brenner (Dallas Buyers Club), Letty Aronson (Blue Jasmine), Dede Gardner (12 Years A Slave), Alison Owen (Saving Mr. Banks), Emma Koskoff (Wolf Of Wall Street), Charles Roven (American Hustle), Albert Berger (Nebraska), David Heyman (Gravity), Michael DeLuca (Captain Phillips) and Spike Jonze (Her).

From casting dilemmas and lost financing, to terrible testings and shooting location choices, here are some of the inside stories that they shared at the event, sponsored by Landmark Theatres, Cadillac, the Production Resource Group and the Honolulu Film Office.


Brenner was a studio executive in 1995 when she first heard about the story of Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaugheyan AIDS patient who had become a hero to his community when he found ways to bring then-experimental drugs banned in the U.S. to help the afflicted. She said their writer (Craig Borten) went to Dallas to interview Woodroof and stayed in a tent in a park for two days to gather 25 hours of footage, before returning to L.A. to write the script. The problem was, recalls Brenner, it was controversial and "nobody wanted to put the money up... That’s why it took 20 years to get to the screen."

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Even after they got the money, there were problems. She recalls that seven weeks before production was to begin in New Orleans, the financing dropped out. McConaughey had already lost about 45 pounds to play the role and director Jean-Marc Vallee was deep into post production in New Orleans. "We had six weeks to re-do everything," said Brenner, who produced with Rachel Winter.

They found new financing but not enough, so they had to make drastic budget cuts - which included everything from lighting equipment to the number of days for filming being cut to 25, and even involved shooting with no lights and virtually zero rehearsal time! With both Leto and McConaughey on strict diets for their roles, Brenner recalled there wasn't a craft services because there wasn’t money for a caterer.

McConaughey was cast early in the process and stayed with the project through years of difficulties but the key role of Rayon wasn’t cast until later. Other actors were attached before they considered Jared Leto, who had become more of a musician than an actor at that point. The director wasn’t sure he would be right but then they set up a Skype call with Leto. “Jared got dressed up as Rayon and he proceeded to seduce Jean-Marc for twenty minutes."

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Aronson, who is director/writer Woody Allen’s sister, said the conversation began with a discussion of what genre would be interesting for the famed filmmaker's next movie. Allen’s wife told him about a woman she knew whose life fell apart after her Wall Street financier’s husband lost everything -- this was not Bernie Madoff, she was quick to point out -- and the idea was sparked. "Then Woody thinks for a long period of time," explained Aronson. "Then he writes and rewrites... Then I read the script and have my own comments. He keeps rewriting the whole time."

The decision for the two cities in Blue Jasmine, added Aronson, started with the obvious choice of New York City; and then the next question was where would be a contrast - and be somewhere that Allen would be willing to live and work for 10 weeks. San Francisco was the obvious answer because Allen already loved it, and the city was cool enough in summer for him to be happy.

Allen always had Cate Blanchett in mind for the lead and had worked with Sally Hawkins before, who played her sister, Ginger, but they had to "think outside the box," said Aronson for some other roles, especially the choice of Andrew Dice Clay. Her initial thought was, "He's great but can he act?" As we now know, the answer was clearly "yes."

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Gardner remembers being "blown away" when she saw the 2008 movie Hunger, which led to a meeting with director Steve McQueen about other things they could do together. Over lunch, McQueen noted there had never really been a movie about the institution of slavery and what it must have been like for the slaves day-by-day. "Steve always had the idea of the movie being about a man who was free and then captured."

At first they were going to set it in the 17th century, until McQueen’s wife, who is a historian, ran across the book that became the basis for the movie. "It was really cinematic structurally," said Gardner, of the process from print to screen, explaining that it was important to McQueen to make an "aesthetically beautiful movie" despite the horrors of the story. "He fundamentally believes people misbehave," she explained, "but it can happen in beautiful settings."

When it came to the cast, McQueen knew he wanted Michael Fassbender and sent him the script with an offer to pick his part. "Benedict (Cumberbatch) put himself on tape from Europe," Gardner recalled, "and said, ‘Please, I will do anything.'" The producer added that Brad Pitt and his company played a key role in getting the movie made. "He's a treasure. He hadn’t done a cameo (in a movie) in 25 years and said, ‘I will do whatever it takes.'"

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"It definitely takes the prize for the stupidest development of all time," admitted Owen. "l decided to develop a story (when) Disney owns the rights, that’s like someone coming from England with a nail file and saying: 'I'm going to break into Fort Knox.'"

The film had started as a documentary in Australia, partly funded by a government agency, and then writer Kelly Marcel "saw that the interesting story was between Pamela (P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins) and Walter (Walt Disney). She transformed it into the story it is," explained Owen.

The biggest challenge was to convince Disney, which owned the rights to Mary Poppins, and jealously-guarded the life story of Disney, to work with them, which they fortunately did. That gave them access to shoot at the studio on actual locations, most of which remained unchanged, but it also brought them into contact with fans and Disney historians who are, she admitted, "obsessive about every detail." Owen remembered one archivist who came in to see the set and was pleased that a vent was in exactly the right place. "People get very emotional about these things," she explained. "It was a great challenge."

For Disney, they needed an actor who was iconic and "as American as apple pie," and Tom Hanks was the obvious choice. "I don’t know how we could have made it with anyone else." In contrast, Pamela had to be "more British than a cup of tea," she recalled, "and that became Emma Thompson."

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The film began with an idea Leonardo DiCaprio brought in, recalls Koskoff. Over time, other movies came and went before Joey McFarland got involved right after Martin Scorsese finished Hugo and Terrence Winters was brought in to write the script. "We met and agreed to go forward," explained Koskoff, "and literally overnight we were into it."

DiCaprio suggested Jonah Hill, who was one of only two actors they seriously considered for the role of Donnie Azoff. "Marty identified the movie as a black comedy from the beginning," explained Koskoff, "and knew he wanted to go with the more comedic cast."

She went on to reveal that one of her favorite scenes is at the beginning when Matthew McConaughey is teaching DiCaprio about the stock market business in a restaurant, while knocking back martinis. The scene was originally only three-quarters of a page in the script, but transformed into "Matthew doing his thing," said Koskoff, and "Leo pushing him. It’s an iconic scene."

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Roven said his producing partner Richard Suckle brought him the project. At the time they had a deal to do a movie for Columbia Pictures that wasn’t working out, so in 2009 they switched the commitment to American Hustle. "It was a great script," said Roven, "but it was mostly a procedural about the FBI sting of some congressmen.

"However, when David (O. Russell) came in he felt he wanted to turn the project into mostly about these characters and them the spine of the movie." With Boston’s suburbs being chosen as being most evocative of the film,  some locations were specially-built, including the Plaza hotel. "We shot in 42 days," said Roven. "It was always planned as a real quick shoot." They wanted more time for pre-production and post-production but it was not to be as it all became very "compressed," he said, and became a "run and gun. We had no time. We had an amazing cast. We had to be very conservative with how we spent below the line."

Over the time it took to get it made Christian Bale was attached and then pulled away, and as they were about to recast he was able to clear his schedule again to do the part. Roven said Bale gained 50 pounds and "really shaved his head" for the role. "I said to him you have two attractive women falling for you. You've got to be attractive. He said, 'Don’t worry about it.'"

Best supporting actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence was a late addition to the cast, and only had a three-week window to shoot. While she was involved in doing awards season promotion for Silver Linings Playbook, Russell had told her about the movie and the role. "She got engaged," said Roven. "She loves throwing herself into a role she had never done before."

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Berger recalled that the script by Bob Nelson first came to him and partner Ron Yerxa ten years ago, and was based on the writer's own experiences with his father in Nebraska. "We thought this was a small Sundance film," confessed Berger. But when they brought in director Alexander Payne as a consultant on the movie, he suggested he direct it himself.

Payne’s first choice as Bruce Dern as the father and he knew from the start he wanted  to shoot it in black and white. "He wanted something in the vein of Paper Moon or Last Picture Show," said Berger. "That also created a problem. Not everybody is eager to make a black and white film."

Payne also wanted to wait because he didn’t want to do another road movie at that point  -- and that wait turned out to last seven years. During that time the movie was set up at Paramount Classics, which loved it. Then Paramount changed the division to Vantage. And then Vantage disappeared and they had to deal with "big Paramount," recalls Berger. "That’s when the complications started." Eventually they made the movie they wanted to make but on a very tight budget.

Casting was also "an elaborate process," said Berger, that really was done in two parts –- the stars and then everyone else. Although Dern had been Payne’s early choice, they ended up seeing about 100 actors for the role, and at one point wanted Gene Hackman, but he refused to come out of retirement to do it. That brought Payne happily back to Dern. For many other parts they advertised on local radio in Nebraska and asked people to film their parents and send in the tapes as auditions.

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Heyman explained that it was a five-year process, first to get the technology right and then to cast and make the movie, which involved extensive visual special effects. The journey began with a script by Alfonso Cuaron’s son Jonas. "Alfonso wanted something with that simple clean (story) line with one person at the center."

It was set up first at Universal but that studio later put the script in turnaround, and for a long time the cast attached was Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr. When Sandra Bullock was first approached, she didn't want to work at all, "she was enjoying some time with her son," but eventually said yes.

The production design was especially challenging because so much of the movie only existed inside a computer, but Andy Nicholson was able to create the scenery and sets they needed in that cyber world thanks to his art director background.

Test screenings were also an issue as a lot of the effects were not done and the background sky was just gray. "It is not the best environment to show a film which is really a cinematic experience," said Heyman. "We didn’t test very well."  Fortunately Warner Bros. remained "unrelenting in its support for us" despite "nervousness and anxiety about how successful the film was going to be."

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DeLuca recalled seeing the original story about the ship captain who faced down the Somali pirates on TV with his producing partner Dana Brunetti, and they soon flew to Vermont and acquired the rights from the real Captain Richard Phillips.

When they pitched Phillips on working with them, they told him that they envisioned Tom Hanks playing the part, even though they had yet to sign the actor. "When we got him we joked people are gong to think this is the easiest process in the world," laughed DeLuca, who now is an executive at Sony Pictures Entertainment. To cast the Somali lead, played by Barkhad Abdi, they had open casting calls including one in Minnesota,  where there is a large Somali immigrant community.  

One of the key creative decisions that Paul Greengrass made, recalled DeLuca, was how to handle the moment when the Navy Seals save Phillips and kill most of the Somali pirates. "It would have been easy to have people clap when the Seals came in, but that’s not what we wanted," says DeLuca. When the film was tested, some did clap, but then stopped when they realized the rest of the audience wasn’t joining in. 

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Producer, director and writer Jonze joked that his movie was in development for 38 years, about as long as he has been alive. "Ten years ago I had the initial idea of a man and an intelligent operating system," revealed Jones.

He didn’t want to create the cliché of a future world full of gleaming glass towers and unreal landscapes, so they shot those scenes in China where he felt it could both be futuristic and real. "The important thing," he added, "is the visuals always come second to what were trying to create, which was the mood and tone."

Joaquin Phoenix was the natural choice for the lead role, because he was "someone who could hold the camera for the whole movie. In a way he had to represent both of them on screen." For the female lead, Jonze read a number of actors before casting Scarlett Johansson. "We wanted depth of character... range of character, innocence and a guileless quality but also intellect and the emotional place she ends up. To have somebody play all that through her voice, at times I thought might be impossible."

Tim Appelo and Debbie Emery contributed to this story.