Scene and heard

First-person insights from producers who worked on some of this year's biggest Oscar contenders.

Andy Harries
(Miramax's "The Queen")

When we were doing (PBS' "Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness"), I noticed at the read-through that everyone was so amazed to see Helen Mirren; she had not been on television for a long time, and they kind of bowed to her -- she was like the queen of British drama. I watched her, and I thought, "Blimey! She even looks a bit like the queen."

That was in 2003, and we had just finished (the British telefilm) "The Deal," about (Prime Minister) Tony Blair and his relationship with (Chancellor of the Exchequer) Gordon Brown. Suddenly, the notion of doing a film about (Queen Elizabeth II) seemed very much more ambitious.

So, we started the process of talking to biographers, journalists, the usual gamut of royal watchers, to help us pinpoint where the drama might be. It was pretty obvious that it would be something around (Princess) Diana's death. It was an audacious idea because the queen had only been depicted (fictionally) once on television, and that was in an Alan Bennett play about 15 years ago.

I immediately went to see a whole bank of lawyers, and they all said there was no history of litigation between the royal family and everyone. The queen stands above that. But we were very careful with everything as we moved forward. We had a basic principle: If there weren't two sources to represent the more contentious lines, we wouldn't have them in. For example, when Prince Philip gets into bed with her and says, "Move over, Cabbage," we had two sources that told us that is what he called her.

When we came to shoot, it was very difficult to get clearance for the locations. There was a big problem with shooting anywhere that represented Balmoral (one of the Queen's castles). It is a kind of mock-German design, and there are only a couple of places in Scotland that look like it. Word from the royals was that no one wanted to cooperate, and then we were turned down by everyone. We had to go to a castle that was foreign-owned because the other owners were fearful of being involved in a project she might not like.

We also got turned down when we tried to shoot in (a Royal Air Force) officers' mess just outside London. At one point, the Ministry of Defense wouldn't let us in. But eventually, good sense prevailed. It wasn't censorship; it was just that everyone got panicked.

It is a sensitive area making stuff about the queen; even though our credentials were good, people were fearful. I even phoned the palace a few weeks before we started shooting. I rang the chief press officer and offered to send the script. She listened for about 15 minutes and said words to the effect, "This is not a project we in any way wish to be involved in."

Graham King
(Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed")

The hardest challenge about making "The Departed" was the scheduling. You are dealing with a lot of high-profile talent, and they have other movies to promote and shoot. Matt Damon was doing (Universal's) "The Good Shepherd," and Mark Wahlberg had to make the football movie (Buena Vista's "Invincible"), and Ray Winstone even went off and shot (MGM/The Weinstein Co.'s) "Breaking and Entering," then came back and finished his part.

Once we were shooting, the guys were often playing around with the script. Jack (Nicholson) and Leo (DiCaprio) and (director) Marty (Scorsese) would make changes all the time, and that would affect the schedule. You never knew what they were going to do -- and that made it interesting and fun for a producer but logistically very difficult.

I don't get intimidated by Hollywood (stars), but I admit even I was a bit nervous when Jack came (on the set) and did his thing. But he was the friendliest, nicest guy -- and funny, really funny. He was a little bit in character and acting like (the gangster he plays, Frank) Costello.
He and Marty would add things to the character -- not really big changes but things that added layers. There is a scene where Jack is in a restaurant with Leo. Leo got a call the day before saying, "Jack is going to show up with a bottle of whiskey and a gun and a box of matches." And no one knew what he was going to do! That came from Jack and Marty's nonstop talking and making little changes here and there that made the character a lot more intense.

Once, I got on the set and we were going to do the scene in the porno theater. And Marty comes up and says, "OK, well, Jack is going to be wearing a strap-on dildo in this scene." The strap-on dildo was never in the script. I am like, "OK, Marty -- when you and Jack decide something, who am I to say anything?"

That night, I called the studio and said, "We had a great day of shooting, and everything went well and, oh, by the way, Jack wore a strap-on."

I hung up, and (the studio executive) called back and said, "Did you say dildo?!" I said, "Yes." He was like, "Explain!" But they kept it in the movie.

Lloyd Levin
(Universal's "United 93")

The challenges were formidable. We started with the assumption that we would be able to get the support of the families of the passengers and crew; we would not have gone forward if we were not successful -- and that meant going out and meeting with all of them individually. Then we did not know if we would get the cooperation of the (Federal Aviation Administration) or what kind of technical support we would get.

We weren't even sure we could find an airplane to shoot in, and that turned out to be one of our biggest problems.

We did have a lead on an airplane set in Canada, but we weren't altogether pleased with the shape it was in, and we weren't sure it was durable enough for us to film in. It was an issue of cost. If we had had a much bigger budget (than the film's $17.5 million), we could have had a designer build it. But our budget limited us to either finding an airplane set or an actual plane.

(Director Paul Greengrass) wanted to bring a group of actors together in a realistic 3-D environment and put together a believable scenario about what might have occurred in that plane, so it was very important that this didn't seem like a "set," that it was as real an airplane as we could get.

Then we got lucky. We found a decommissioned plane in a salvage yard in northern England, which we were able to bring back to Pinewood (Studios). The plane was put on the back of a truck, in pieces, and then it was reassembled on a stage at Pinewood, with all the electricity and flight controls made functional.

A construction coordinator -- with the help of a manual the size of three telephone books -- was able to reconstruct it. We were able to pull it apart and move it about and separate different sections for our needs, which we couldn't have done with the set. The special effects coordinator put together a series of extremely clever rigs that we were able to set the plane on and achieve different kinds of motion and different physical effects.

After the shoot, the plane was boxed up and sold back to the salvage yard. It all worked very well.

Rob Lorenz
(Paramount/DreamWorks' "Flags of Our Fathers")

Finding a location to represent such a unique setting as Iwo Jima was an incredible challenge. We looked all over the world -- Hawaii and New Zealand and Australia, where we had seen photos of black-sand beaches like Iwo Jima. But nothing had quite the characteristics we were looking for. The beach had to be without vegetation and rather large -- the real one was 2 miles long -- and we'd be doing pyrotechnics and bringing in a whole crew.

We even went to Iwo Jima itself, which is about 600 miles south of Japan. It is very difficult to get to. It is controlled by the defense forces of Japan, so nobody can go there without permission. It is a military outpost where they do training exercises with about 400 military forces.

It's an incredible place. It is a moment of time, frozen. There are remnants of the battle everywhere. There are some parts of the island we were taken to where nobody visits, and you could run your hand along the ground and pick up shell casings and bullet heads that have been sitting there for decades. We went into the commander's cave and found a number of artifacts. It is not easy to get to -- you have to crawl down a dark passageway about 2 feet by 2 feet, and then you emerge into a large cave. It was about 120 degrees while we were there. The island is geothermic: It is a volcanic island, so there are changes in temperature throughout. In fact, they don't allow swimming because there are fissures that allow hot gas to come through, and the whole place smells of sulfur.

We brought back some black sand, and a jar of it is sitting on my desk. That is what made this particular spot so unique and what all the veterans referred to: the black sands of Iwo Jima.

But we didn't shoot the film there -- number one, because of sensitivity. It is more or less a monument to the lives lost. And then because of logistics: It being so far from any city, we would have had to go to great expense to bring everything in.

That left us with Iceland, which is also a volcanic island, so the topography and geography are strikingly similar. We were told the best months to shoot were July and August because you get 24 hours of daylight in summer, while it is completely dark in winter.

By the time we decided to shoot there, it was April 2005, so we didn't have quite enough time to arrange everything. That became the next challenge -- shipping all the equipment and armaments and boats. First, we had to collect them from all over the U.S. and then drive them to the East Coast, where they could be loaded onto ships that sailed up the coast of Nova Scotia. But one of the ships broke down, full of special effects equipment. It was a headache. We had to decide whether to buy new stuff or take a chance. We bought a little of what we needed and prayed. And it got fixed barely in time.

Laurence Mark
(Paramount/DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls")

I ran into (writer-director Bill Condon) at a Christmas party at the time of (2002's) "Chicago," and I said, "Is there one other musical you would love to do?" He said, "Yes. But one can never get near the rights." I said, "You must mean 'Dreamgirls'?"

Many people had knocked on David Geffen's door to no avail -- he owned it (and had been one of the backers of the original stage musical). Then I said, "Would you mind if I gave David a call?"

So, I called David the next day, and he spent 10 or 15 minutes very carefully telling me how the movie was never going to happen because he felt very responsible to both the legend that is "Dreamgirls" and the legacy of (the stage show's director) Michael Bennett, who was a very close chum of his. I said I respected that, but if he wanted to hear Bill's ideas for the movie, he should call me whenever he was in the mood. He waited a beat and said, "Well, what about lunch tomorrow?"

Bill and I got together and rehearsed our act at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Bill has such a clear understanding of the musical form that it is always a marvel to hear him on the subject. And then we went over for lunch, and somewhere between the entree and the dessert, Bill got to do his six- or seven-minute presentation.

Rather quickly thereafter, David's response was, "Sounds like we should give this a shot."

Bill had to make another movie first, (2004's) "Kinsey." So, the screenplay didn't come in until two years later. Fortunately, after that, the studio was keen to move forward.

Musicals have their own set of challenges, mostly because there is singing and dancing, which needs a vast amount of preparation. But almost everything fell into place with this one. At the very outset, there was difficulty making a deal with Jamie (Foxx). Six weeks elapsed before everybody came to terms. Then we spent about three months in various forms of rehearsal in Los Angeles. We videotaped a lot of it; that was very helpful in visualizing the numbers and the dance stuff.

After we shot, there was a massive amount of footage. The reason is, when you do a musical number, you have three or four or sometimes five cameras going, so you have all those cameras. There was something like a million feet of film.

Musicals are the most fun. You get to sing and dance. I did, too. In the disco number, you couldn't help but bump and grind. You couldn't help but be carried away.

Holly Wiersma
(MGM/The Weinstein Co.'s "Bobby")

Different agents and managers had talked to me about this script called "Bobby," and I'd read it and loved it. Then I was reading a magazine article about the Ambassador Hotel being torn down, and I called (writer-director Emilio Estevez) and said, "We have to do it now, or it will never happen."

That was in April 2005, and in May, we started putting it together. Emilio had found Anthony Hopkins and Demi Moore, and that was like a domino effect. Everyone wanted to be in it, and they all did it for scale.

But we could only shoot part of the movie in the actual hotel (where Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated). It was really difficult to get a permit to shoot there; they didn't know if it was safe. By the time we started to prep the movie, some of it had already been torn down. So many things were being torn down, and we just begged and begged, and then we had to wear hard hats when we shot. I was very upset that it was torn down -- it was a huge part of history, with all the people that stayed there and all the things that happened there.

We managed to shoot the restaurant scene there -- the stuff with the boys and the waitress -- and the exterior at the beginning with the fire drill.

It was strange: When you walked into the lobby, there was all the same furniture (as in the 1960s). It felt like a ghost town, a place where time had not moved. I got to look around with Sharon Stone; the security guards took us around. We went into the kitchen one night when we were shooting -- it was very surreal and creepy and had lots of emotion. But I did not see the handwriting. ("The once and future king" is said to have been scrawled on the kitchen wall.) You could really feel what it must have been like when Kennedy spoke there. Later, I got to meet (his widow), Ethel. It was at a fundraiser Harvey Weinstein invited us to. She just spoke about the film for a moment. She said, "Thank you so much."