Producers Guild Nominees Trade Production Nightmares, Successes at Annual Breakfast

Knives Out - Publicity Still 8- H 2019
Claire Folger

Knives Out

Nominees from the 10 films up for the PGA's top award — including 'Marriage Story,' 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,' 'Knives Out' and 'Parasite' — swapped production horror stories and debated the use of existing IP at the event.

To hear producer Ram Bergman tell it, the making of Knives Out was simple.

"I said, 'You're going to start writing in January and we're gonna finish the movie by the end of the year,'" Bergman said of the initial conversations he had with writer-director Rian Johnson about the Agatha Christie style whodunit, right after the release of The Last Jedi. Johnson wrote, and Bergman was tasked with figuring out how to actually make the movie. 

"While he was writing it, we started prepping it loosely and we ended up cash flowing it ourselves," the producer said. "Seven weeks before we wanted to start filming, we got Daniel Craig. Basically, we cast the rest of the movie within those six weeks."

While producing a movie start to finish in less than a year might have been stressful under other circumstances, Bergman said his relationship with Johnson convinced him it would work. "We trust each other," he said matter-of-factly.

Bergman joined fellow producers from all 10 films nominated for the Producers Guild of America’s Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures at its annual nominees breakfast Saturday morning. Over 600 PGA members gathered at the event, which was held at the Skirball Cultural Center and sponsored by The Hollywood Reporter. PGA president Lucy Fisher moderated the panel, during which producers divulged some of the biggest challenges and successes of their respective films.

"As we were nearing the start of production, we still didn't have Hollywood Boulevard locked down," Once Upon a Time in Hollywood producer David Heyman told the audience when asked about the hardest part of working on the film. "That was pretty nerve-racking."

Luckily for Heyman and the rest of the crew, Quentin Tarantino's personal connection to the film helped seal the deal. 

"Quentin volunteered to go down to speak to the city of Hollywood.... He's incredibly persuasive and incredibly passionate. He talked about how much this means to him — this story and Hollywood Boulevard itself. He persuaded them and we were able to shoot."

For most of the producers on stage, situations that seemed like a nightmare in the moment worked out quite well in the end. For 1917, producer Pippa Harris said, the final trench run — a scene that has gone viral on social media and earned a loud round of applause from the audience when played during the breakfast — did not go as originally planned. 

"We'd lined it all up and we had 500-plus extras in the scene. When George [MacKay] gets knocked down, we were behind the monitor and we thought, 'We're never going to be able to use that take,'" she said. Since they could only try the scene eight times before they'd have to pack everything up and start all over the next day, Harris recalled feeling relieved when the botched take turned out better than anticipated. "We looked at it and thought, 'Actually, it's quite good that he gets knocked over.'"

In addition to trading horror stories about the toughest days of production, the panelists debated the pros and cons of working from existing IP. Two of the films, Little Women and Joker, spurred from well-known existing IP — though additional films, including Jojo Rabbit and The Irishman, are loosely based on books as well. 

While having the popular name might help the marketing team sell the film, Little Women producer Amy Pascal said that doesn't make filmmakers exempt from putting effort into the story they're trying to tell.

"A lot of people on this stage have made a lot of movies from IP," Pascal said. "I think the truth is you can do really lazy versions and then they're shitty or you can do really inventive versions and then they can be great. Just 'cause it has a title doesn't mean you're done."

Many of the films also dance between genres and tones, creating a whirlwind of emotions for viewers. Parasite writer/producer/director Bong Joon Ho spoke about how his genre-bending film has been perceived by audiences and how he conceived such a story.

"When I'm writing the script I'm never really conscious of which genre I'm writing in," Bong said. "It's the same with the actors as well. It's not as if the horror parts of my script are in red and the drama in yellow. I don't define it that way. When we shoot, it's not as if I talk with my actors on what the genre of this part is."

Though Bong did admit he feels bad for the team that has to market his hard-to-define film, he joked he now has an answer when someone asks how to describe his work.

"When we screened the film at Cannes last year, an American reporter wrote about how there's no need for us to struggle to define the genre of Parasite. Bong Joon Ho is a genre unto himself," he told the audience. "I'm so happy to hear that comment and from this point on when a marketing team asks me about what genre my film is, that's what I'm going to say."

The PGA will hold its 30th annual Producers Guild Awards on Saturday night at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The full list of nominees includes:

Producers: Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris, Jayne?Ann Tenggren, Callum McDougall

Ford v Ferrari
Producers: Peter Chernin and Jenno Topping, James Mangold

The Irishman
Producers: Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro, Emma Tillinger Koskoff and Martin Scorsese

Jojo Rabbit
Producers: Carthew Neal, Taika Waititi

Producers: Todd Phillips and Bradley Cooper, Emma Tillinger Koskoff

Knives Out
Producers: Rian Johnson, Ram Bergman

Little Women
Producer: Amy Pascal

Marriage Story
Producers: Noah Baumbach, David Heyman

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Producers: David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh, Quentin Tarantino

Producers: Kwak Sin Ae, Bong Joon Ho