Toronto: 'Butler' Producer Cassian Elwes on Breaking Racial Boundaries (Q&A)

Elwes: Mile-High Hero

Film producer Cassian Elwes has been the toast of the Twittersphere since he tweeted the harrowing tale of talking down a highly unstable fellow passenger on an Aug. 19 JetBlue flight from New York to Los Angeles.

The indie ?lm vet discusses his years at William Morris, Hollywood's "quiet racism" and why luck has nothing to do with success.

When Cassian Elwes exited the William Morris Agency in late May 2009 — a casualty of the merger with Endeavor — he retreated to Lake Tahoe, not sure he'd ever work in the film business again. Having joined the agency 15 years earlier, Elwes had risen through the ranks to become one of Hollywood's premier indie agents, famous for his all-night dealmaking marathons at film festivals.

Elwes, 54, did end up returning to the industry after a six-month hiatus and, working outside the cutthroat agency culture, has helped arrange financing for 25 movies in four years — including box-office and critical hit Lee Daniels' The Butler (his second teaming with Daniels after The Paperboy), and Robert Redford's All Is Lost and Lawless.

And he's got two high-profile films premiering at Toronto, Dallas Buyers Club and Hateship Loveship, a drama starring Kristen Wiig, Hailee Steinfeld and Guy Pearce. Among other projects, he just finished shooting Black and White, starring Kevin Costner as a grandfather fighting for custody of his biracial granddaughter.

Elwes, who in May launched e2b, a financing entity that connects financiers with filmmakers, grew up in England, where he was born into a storied family — he and his brothers Cary, the actor, and Damien, an artist, are distant nephews of King Henry VIII, while their father and grandfather were noted portrait painters before their deaths. His mother, the shipping heiress and interior designer Tessa Kennedy, is now married to filmmaker Elliott Kastner. Elwes has two daughters from his previous marriage to heiress Priscilla Woolworth, Arielle, 23, who works for The Weinstein Co., and Lucie, 21, a senior at Sarah Lawrence.

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You'd been running the independent financing group at William Morris with Rena Ronson before the newly formed WME tapped Graham Taylor to run the unit. Was it difficult leaving?

It was very hard. I'd never been to Lake Tahoe and I just sat there for a couple of weeks and decompressed. I was very burnt out.

What were the highlights of your tenure there?

The 100-year anniversary that they had when they shut down the street around the agency and we were all out there. We just felt like we were really part of something really huge. That's what's incredible to me now that it doesn't really exist anymore. But at that time, we were just like, "I'm part of something so big" and part of that history of it. [And] I would say Monster's Ball, which was very hard to finance because everybody in town said the same thing: You can't make a love story about a black woman [Halle Berry] and a white man [Billy Bob Thornton] or vice versa. There's an inherent, quiet racism in this town. I raced around for a long time, and Lionsgate helped get the movie made in the end. I was in Mexico watching the Oscars when Halle won. It was a very important moment in cinema and the first time that an African-American woman won best actress.

Do you think Hollywood needs to do a better job making movies targeting African-American audiences?

The Butler's success just shows that the audience is out there and that you can reach it very specifically, that they will turn out for a movie that's good. I've worked on a lot of black films and I'm very proud of them. I worked on Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which became a huge hit and really put Tyler Perry on the map. And there was obviously Monster's Ball and a little movie I loved called Hav Plenty. And The Butler has just been an amazing, amazing experience.

Oprah Winfrey stars in The Butler opposite Forest Whitaker. Why didn't she invest in the ?lm, considering how hard it was to raise the money?

Lee felt very strongly about this. He didn't want to change the director-actress dynamic. Everyone worked for very low money and, in exchange, they will get a piece of the end.

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How did you feel when the film opened to $24.7 million, far more than expected?

Now, it's quickly approaching $100 million. Amazing. Amazing. Amazing. I've worked for a long time and people like to think, "Oh, how lucky is he. The Butler was a success and this is great and he just got a lucky." And maybe luck was involved, but I've been involved in a lot of movies. You work very hard on a lot of movies that sometimes never see the light of day and are not successful but you think are brilliant. A lot of stars have to align for something like The Butler to happen.

Will any of the Butler financiers — including Sheila Johnson, the co-founder of BET, and former NBA player Michael Finley — make more movies?

I don't know. I think this whole group came together as kind of a one-off. I think [Windy Hill Pictures'] Buddy Patrick from New Orleans will for sure. I would assume they are all being bombarded now with opportunities. I think they all invested because they believed in this movie and thought it could be a commercial success. So for it to happen that way is amazing.

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With Naomi Watts and Robert Pattinson dropping out of Werner Herzog's Gertrude Bell biopic Queen of the Desert, is the project dead?

It's been in casting hell, but we feel like we are coming out of it now. I think we're close to making an announcement.

Dallas Buyers Club makes its world premiere in Toronto on Sept. 8. How tough was the role for Matthew McConaughey, who plays Ron Woodru?, an HIV patient who smuggled anti-viral drugs into the United States to help others?

People have focused on the fact that he lost 41 pounds. That was just the physical aspect. Emotionally, he reaches a place that I've never seen before and I think that if people get to see this performance, they'll recognize that he's unbelievable in the movie. So is Jared Leto, for that matter. People see him now as more of a rock star maybe, but as an actor he's fantastic.