PGA Awards: Donald Trump, Immigration Policy and Escapist Entertainment Dominate Red Carpet Talk

Hollywood insiders encouraged artists to speak out against the president's controversial politics. Said 'La La Land' producer Fred Berger: "Don’t move to Canada. Write a play, write a movie, get out there and protest. Use your voice."
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Tom Rothman

As Tom Rothman says, his politics are “no secret.”

And it’s true. The chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Motion Picture Group is a longtime Democrat (and party donor) who was appointed by President Barack Obama in March 2016 to serve as a member of the National Council on the Arts, the advisory body of the National Endowment for the Arts, one of the organizations said to be in imminent danger with President Donald Trump now in the White House. 

But it’s also no secret that seasoned top-tier executives like Rothman typically dodge talk of politics on Hollywood red carpets, especially on a night when they are being honored smack dab in the thick of awards season. Saturday night, however, was not a typical night. As VIP guests were making their way down the red carpet inside the Beverly Hilton Hotel for the annual Producers Guild Awards, thousands of protestors were swarming airports in New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and other major cities in the wake of Trump’s newly signed executive order that called for a travel ban affecting refugees and blocking entry into the U.S. for citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. 

Trump and his controversial move (one of a record number of executive orders signed by the president in his first week in office) would figure prominently into the night’s awards program with a number of presenters and winners speaking out, including John Legend and producer Megan Ellison. On the carpet before show time, it was a similar scene as The Hollywood Reporter caught up with many, like Rothman, who were open to sharing their responses to the political events of the past 24 hours.

“It’s a tough time for the country,” said Milestone Award winner Rothman. “It’s an unhappy time for me, too, not just because of the particular politics but because the country is turning on itself. The division in the country when it becomes this level of acrimony — citizen to citizen — that is not what we teach our children. So, I really hope there’s more respect.” (Speaking of children, Rothman’s own daughters, Elizabeth and Nora, flew out from New York to present him with his honor and received standing ovations for their Women’s March-approved pink hats.)

The veteran exec then added a dose of optimism culled from personal history. “I’m old enough to remember that we survived [Richard] Nixon, you know, and I was there to levitate the Pentagon in ’74. The republic is strong and the republic will prevail,” he said, before adding that if, in fact, the National Endowment for the Arts is threatened, “We are going to fight like hell to not make that happen. There have been a lot of emails (about it) and we’re not going down without a fight.”

Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz, producers of La La Land, which took home the top film prize later in the evening, also were balanced in their disappointment and optimism, while both encouraged artists to use whatever forms they choose to have their voices heard. Said Berger: “It needs to be said that today is a very ugly day in an eight-day streak of increasing ugliness … and I don’t think any one movie here will cure that. But our arsenal is art and we need to fight back with that however we can. We cannot be suppressed or extinguished. Don’t move to Canada. Write a play, write a movie, get out there and protest. Use your voice."

Added Horowitz: “It’s important to have these conversations and say these words to ensure that they will be heard.” 

Double PGA nominee Shawn Levy — recognized in the film category for Arrival and in TV for Stranger Things — didn’t have any trouble finding his voice but wanted to make sure he wasn’t being too aggressive. “Honestly, I have been really struggling down the rabbit hole of hopelessness, anger, incredibly righteous indignation. The fact that both Arrival and Stranger Things are nominated here tonight – it required that compelling a reason for me to get off of Twitter and get off my newsfeed and focus on something other than my outrage,” he explained. “Is that too honest? It’s the goddamn truth.” 

Veteran producer Lauren Shuler Donner, a nominee for her work on Deadpool, has a strategy to avoid Levy’s conundrum. “I can’t watch that much of it anymore; it sickens me and it depresses me,” she explains. “I can’t understand this immigration policy, and it makes me fear what’s going to happen next. So I watch MSNBC and I only read the newspapers that I know share my point of view. Misery needs company.” 

And with so many award-winning producers in the crowd — people who make a living by solving problems, diffusing contentious on-set battles and restoring peace to their projects — that company of peers added another layer of emotion to the night’s festivities. Life, Animated producer Julie Goldman said she felt “strange” being at an awards show while her friends were protesting at New York’s JFK Airport. “It’s important for me to be here to honor the film and my fellow producers, but we’re living in a time where somebody is putting disgraceful executive orders in place that are tearing us apart,” said Goldman, who added that before arriving she had been glued to TV and social media. 

Wearing a Deadpool-inspired sweater, 10-carat hollow gold chains (“the cheapest you can buy”) and filling in for an absent Ryan Reynolds, T.J. Miller took a break from his typically comedic one-liners to describe how the politics of the week had affected the mood on HBO’s Silicon Valley. “We were trudging through the day yesterday,” he tells THR. “It was a lot of effort to be funny and be energetic and bring any life or buoyancy to these scenes on this show that we know a lot of people in the United States enjoy. Unless they don’t have a great sense of humor, but even then, they think that I have a very oblong and misshapen body. I really felt yesterday, for whatever reason, it settled in that this is real. It’s no longer talk, it’s now action.”

Miller continued, saying that while it can be depressing to face the news, the events shouldn’t “overshadow the good things” that are happening in the United States, and that includes the PGA Awards. “Hollywood is doing great things so I’m really glad to be at the PGAs so I can thank producers. I want to thank producers like the ones on Deadpool for taking risks and making great things. We are going to have to do that plus more for the next four years.”

Escapist entertainment also was mentioned by Hell or High Water nominees Carla Hacken and Julie Yorn. Says the latter: “I loved La La Land and I feel great escapist entertainment has an incredible role to help people. There’s not a lot that most people can do about what’s going on in the world. We all feel sort of powerless. So that’s the one thing that Hollywood can provide is escapist entertainment. It’s important to have both though, including movies that examine what’s going on.” 

Dana Brunetti, a nominated producer for his work on political drama House of Cards — a show that had been praised and examined for its similarities to D.C. politics in a pre-Donald Trump era — admits that their work on the Netflix show now makes it more difficult than ever for their team. “Anything that we’ve done in the past doesn’t compare to anything that has happened, even in the last 12 months,” says Brunetti. “We really have to push it now.”

To be fair, not everyone is pushing a political agenda either way. Hacksaw Ridge nominated producer Bill Mechanic had a quick answer to how the day’s events had affected him. “Not at all,” he said calmly. “It doesn’t enter my frame of reference. I live in this world (of Hollywood) and there are four more years to come. Hopefully it all goes well.”

Moana producer Osnat Shurer admits that she’s “too outraged to comment,” and instead, at least for the evening, she’d like to stay in the bubble of a big Hollywood awards show. “I went away to the Women’s March and came back to this happy occasion, so I want to stay in this world of happy people making amazing movies,” she smiled.