I went to Santa Barbara–rainy again, like last year–to recover from Sundance. At Patrick Goldstein’s thoughtful producers’ panel, Jim Brooks admitted that The Simpsons Movie was his first time being part of “an event movie where the studio is supporting you,” he said. “On my other films I was always going against the wind. It made me depressed about all my past experiences. All the producers were also working on the script, the way we do the TV show as well. The big deal is to believe that in order to do the picture, if you’re directing and writing it, you have to have some true temporary insanity that makes you believe that it’s the most important thing in the world, you’ll die if it isn’t going to work. As close as a producer gets to that mindset is how valuable you can be to the person making the film.”
Clearly with Daniel Lupi, Paul Thomas Anderson is always calling the shots. He said his job was mostly about keeping PTA on budget. “Studios have very little to say if you stay financially on track,” Lupi said. If they got into arguments, his wife JoAnne Sellar was there too. “There’s three of us. If Paul doesn’t talk to me he talks to her.” He also plans Anderson’s penchant for reshooting scenes into the budget.
Lianne Halfon praised Juno director Ivan Reitman for being “well-trained” after 30 shorts. He still works with the same crew he’s had since high school and college, she said. If anything he’s so used to shooting on the fly, she had to slow him down and tell him to take more time. The opening titles were done by some pals of Reitman’s he knew from short fests. They had two ideas, one to shoot Juno in the chair in different locales, and the animated sequence they did shoot, which went on longer and was cut.
Neil Meron and Craig Zadan were in a long line of producers pitching New Line Cinema on why they should produce Hairspray. (Meron was just back from a happy debut of TV movie Raisin in the Sun at Sundance, while Zadan had been touring Europe with 70-year-old rake Jack Nicholson for Bucket List.) They pitched John Travolta for the mom role. And got the job because they were so passionate about it. Then they didn’t land him for 14 months. He was afraid he’d not look like a woman. But he came around.
Similarly, PTA wrote TWWB for Daniel Day-Lewis, but through 9 months of raising financing, kept sending him old photos and articles and tapes to keep him interested; the long courtship process was eventually successful. “The film came out exactly as he wanted it,” said Lupi. “He didn’t shift it.” He admitted though that the last scene in the bowling alley was different in execution to the way it read on the page. And that Jonny Greenwood’s score was a radical departure for the film.
All the panelists agreed tone is a very difficult thing to find, explain, nail and maintain on any non-genre movie. And that working with temperamental actors is no fun. “If everybody is disagreeing but all care about the work, it’s ok,” said Brooks. “It’s not ok when someone has an agenda outside the work. If an actor is taking drugs you are not going to win. It’s an insult to the production.”
According to Brooks, on As Good as it Gets he shut the production down one day, a radical thing to do, and sat down with Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson and worked things out. “It was a pivotal moment. All we did was look with mutual humility at the task ahead of us and what we needed.” Brooks admitted that it’s burdensome to produce for himself as writer and director. “The dream is to find a producer who will die for you and I haven’t found anyone other than myself to do that.”
On Bucket List, Zadan and Meron praised director Rob Reiner for spending several months in pre-rehearsal with Nicholson, so that they had everything worked out before they hit the set.
Halfon prefers to work at lower budget ranges because there’s more control and less studio interference. She uses 8 to 12 weeks of pre-production if she can.
Brooks loves the preview process; on The Simpsons they’d take a big bus to the previews in each city and rewrite the movie on the way back on the bus. He also loved working closely with the studio on creative materials on The Simpsons, from 7/11 displays to ad copy. PTA is involved in every detail, every photo, the early YouTube trailer, every aspect of marketing, said Lupi. “Critics were crucial on this one,” he added.
Halfon said that working with Searchlight’s marketers on Juno was a gift for which she was duly grateful.
At panel’s end, Zadan told the story of how their Harvey Milk movie The Mayor of Castro Street will never be made, after pursuing it for 16 years, through Oliver Stone and Robin Williams and Bryan Singer and Chris MacQuarrie and Steve Carrell. Gus Van Sant had been attached at one time but jumped on a different Harvey Milk spec script that Focus Features is already shooting with Sean Penn. “After 16 years the project is not going to get made,” sighed Zadan.
The life of a producer.
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]