The movie of movies on the fall film circuit was Steve McQueen’s”12 Years a Slave.” The film, which eventually picked up Oscars for Best Picture, screenplay and supporting actress, was nurtured along the way by Plan B producer Dede Gardner and her partner, Brad Pitt, who co-stars in the film with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, newcomer Lupita Nyong’o and Benedict Cumberbatch. I interviewed Gardner for a Toronto Film Festival Industry Q & A, below.
Anne Thompson: When you showed the film at Telluride were you worried?
Dede Gardner: Of course.
AT: Here you are at TIFF with “12 Years a Slave.” It’s so powerful and immersive and puts you through the pain. It doesn’t spare you. How did you get involved?
DG: We saw “Hunger” and I couldn’t breathe. I thought it was one of the most amazing films I’d seen in a long time. We reached out to Steve McQueen and said, “you don’t know us and you’re new to the system but we want to work with you, and to trust us.” You start talking and feeling out one another’s overlap, where your interests are as human beings and artists and as people who love film. He said, “why don’t you think there’s ever been a movie about the institution of slavery per se? There have been movies about singular events but never one that really presents a survey.” We said we didn’t know. I was troubled by the question and said, “why don’t we try?” So that was the beginning.
We talked about a lot of ideas, fictional ideas. Steve was always interested in the notion of a free man who becomes a slave. He was always convinced that a story will be more resonant with an audience if you start with someone who is free and has his freedom taken away from him. His wife Bianca found the book [Solomon Northup’s memoir] and I’m mortified to say I hadn’t heard of it. The book is a beautiful piece of writing and also eerily cinematic both visually and structurally, and that was the starting point. We were already speaking with [John Ridley] and he agreed to write the script [on spec]. Our idea was to get this film as far as we could to the point where it was undeniable. Once we had worked with the script for several years, we got Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt. We thought we had a shot.
AT: Is a $20 million budget about right? How did you do that?
DG: We shot in New Orleans for 35 days. We had in the costume designer and production designer two extraordinary partners. It was an endeavor of goodwill. Everybody wanted to be there and everyone was willing to do what it took to get it finished on schedule and see it through.
AT: Talk about Ridley’s screenplay. How did it change? How did you adapt the Solomon Northup memoir?
DG: The 12 years and the progression of plantations is what it is. We had to truncate some stuff. There are whole episodes – the boat stops in Virginia, there’s a huge smallpox incident, he goes into a hospital and nearly dies of smallpox before he continues on his journey – and also, Mistress Shaw, played by Alfre Woodard, has one line in the book. It’s a great scene, and Steve said to John, “I actually think this is important.” He was committed to showing slave masters married to former or current slaves. That interracial dynamic existed back then but wasn’t commented on, it just was, and in order to do that it required a full scene and I think John did a beautiful job.
AT: The filming must have been emotionally grueling for the participants; how rough was it for them?
DG: You’re right, but it wasn’t a surprise. Everyone knew what we were going to do. We’d all read it and rehearsed it and talked about it and planned for it. It’s maybe a little bit like a marathon where you physically get yourself into the headspace of what you’re about to embark on. Unlike a marathon, which is a solo endeavor, you have a team and a group of people that are going to link arms and help each other.
AT: Why was Chiwetel the right person for the role?
DG: He is who we went to first. Steve was going to make another movie with Chiwetel and knew him well. He’s a funny awesome guy but he’s reserved at first and I think that seeming dispassion was right for the trajectory of Solomon. The choices he made were in order to stay alive, and they are choices that put everything inside and didn’t expose his vulnerabilities or emotions because they would have been exploited and it would have been over.
AT: You must have done a lot of research.
DG: We did a ton of research and we had consultants to help us. It was really important to us to get it right. But we were obviously telling a really specific story at a specific time that we feel is so relevant to now in terms of what humans are capable of doing to other human beings. There was an extra on the set, a man named Gregory Bright, who was very quiet and showed up every day in the 100 degree weather and did his thing. It came out over time that he’d been incarcerated mistakenly for 17 years and was freed by the Innocence Project. We had to drag the story out of him and I thought, “Oh, here’s this now.” It was a quiet set. It was good.
AT: The most harrowing scenes involve whipping. There is one specific long scene that feels as though you’re really putting the audience right there. What was the intention and how did you execute that?
DG: We planned for a long time. Steve really wanted to do it in one take and as it turns out we had to do it in two. It’s virtually one take and it’s an entire mag. What Steve does is he shoots things for as long as things take. So in “Shame,” that’s how long it takes to order dinner at an awkward first date, and that’s how long it takes to ride an elevator when you’re in a total panic that someone you love has hurt themselves, and that’s how long it takes to run two city blocks. Similarly in “Hunger,” he said, “Oh, you want to see how long it takes to starve yourself? I’m going to show you what that looks like.”
He’s uncompromising in, I think, the best way and what I find so amazing is when I’m in a moment like that in a movie and it’s uncomfortable, I think, “this is what’s real, so how conditioned have I become to portrayals that edit, cheat, truncate, don’t show me what something really takes in terms of time?” It’s an aspect of his filmmaking that I really appreciate and admire, and there is no mistaking the fact that he’s trying to show slavery for all its evils. That’s what happened–everyone was made to sit around and watch it and everyone was made to participate in it. It was a right, almost, on plantations so why should we make that easier [for an audience]? It’s already easier, we’re sitting in a movie theater.
AT: Talk about the young actress you discovered.
DG: Lupita Nyong’o. She is a superstar. She put herself on tape. She was at Yale Drama School. She had a manager from a tiny movie she had done in Kenya. Steve saw the tape and thought “wow.” She came to New York and did it again, and then she went to New Orleans to work with Steve. She’s a really special woman. She’s Kenyan and was born in Mexico City. She’s extraordinary and I think the performance speaks for itself.
AT: Why the Hans Zimmer soundtrack?
DG: Steve and Hans had a previous relationship that they reignited when we were cutting the movie, and Hans saw it and said, “yes.” I think Steve and Joe found themselves using a lot of Hans’ music in the temp. It was very organic.
AT: It was unusual with a lot of percussive sounds and organic noises.
DG: That was always the intention. The first time I saw it the percussion was in there. Certainly in moments when they’re running along the boat, in the hold and during the hanging. I think those are moments when your heart is beating really hard and Steve wanted the audience to feel that.
AT: I want to go back to the beginning. How did you get into this industry and find your way to Hollywood?
DG: I always loved movies as a child, and I love story. I got my degree in English. Film and story seemed to me the vector of the movie business. I really didn’t know what “the film business” meant, but I decided I wanted to be in it. I talked to people. I got on a student film at Columbia and did locations [for other things], the way the freelance world works, one thing leads to another. I continued doing locations and working in the art department for awhile and then decided that I wanted to learn more about where the movies came from. So I worked with a small agency absorbing the theater world and then worked at William Morris and absorbed the book world and then I moved to L.A.
AT: How did you first encounter Brad Pitt?
DG: Plan B had already been formed, it was Brad and Jennifer [Aniston]’s company. They had a deal at Warner Bros. and they were looking for someone to run the company and that began a series of interviews I embarked on which landed me the job.
AT: What surprised you about Brad?
DG: I knew he was a kindred spirit when we talked about the company and we had a lot of crossover with our ideas: wanting it to be a safe harbor for filmmakers, a place where people might come where the energy and the protection felt singular. He also is a cinephile, so it’s a treat to work with him. He also really believes in the shelf life of a movie, which is to say he doesn’t put a lot of stake in opening weekends. He believes movies are found over a long period of time. He said to me one year after we made “Jesse James” and “A Mighty Heart,” “I couldn’t be prouder and those movies will find their place and their time.”
AT: I remember at a party talking to Brad about “Jesse James” and challenging him about the length of the movie and he stood up strong in defense of the filmmaker. What happened on that?
DG: There was a debate about the omniscient narrator, about Nick Cave’s score, about a series of other things. I’m biased because I really love the film with all my heart. That was Andrew [Dominik]’s vision and we weren’t going to leave until that was the movie that reached the screen and we weren’t interested in any other version. I don’t want to characterize it negatively. It’s a challenging movie, and it’s a business that we’re in, so there is a motivation to recoup on your investment. The thing that is messed up is [solving a problem] just by sanding off all the edges. I don’t know that you’re going to make more money and you’re certainly going to make a film that’s not as good so at the end of the day what does that get you?
AT: What was the first movie at Plan B?
DG: “Running with Scissors.” I really believe in Ryan [Murphy] and he went and got the rights and was trying to find the right partner for it, and came to us. It’s something I pursued for a long time and it worked out.
AT: How do you and Brad make decisions about what you’re going to do?
DG: I can’t say there are a lot of rules to it. It’s driven largely by instinct. He has a lot of faith in our passions. If one of us is just going to die if we don’t try to make something, he backs it. We discuss a lot and we debate a lot, we put stuff up and we see if it holds water and knock things down and come at it from different angles, but we’re free to at least to embark on pretty much anything. As things get further down the field, some fall away, some don’t stand the test of time, some aren’t actually good ideas for movies. As for time management, that’s an age-old problem, that’s not unique to us… you don’t want to be spread too thin.
AT: How many projects do you take on?
DG: It really varies. We certainly have a lot in development right now. We’ve been busy the last few years and we’re just coming up for air, and I think we’re getting excited to read again and do that side of it.
AT: “Killing Them Softly” was a recent one that in another era might have been a studio movie, and you were thrown into another kind of financing setup. Explain that.
DG: Thank god we didn’t make it for the studios because nobody went to see it. That was a situation where Andrew [Dominik] said he had a story to tell, and Brad said, “I’d do it.” We went to a foreign sales company … it was a really fast and furious endeavor, it kind of just came together and I think that was largely possible because Andrew Dominik is part of the family and we said, “okay, we’re all going to do this.” It got some great reviews out of Cannes. Still nobody went to see it.
AT: Explain how you got involved in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes the year before.
DG: That was a long-term process where Brad and I met with Terrence Malick and Sarah Green years and years ago about a different project. Over the course of our dialogue it came out that there was this passion project of Terry’s that he was determined to make, and he started talking about it and sent us something about it. We said, “if there’s anything we can do to help you get this made, we will.” We investigated financing and different cast members and different ways it may or may not come together, and late in the process relative to how long we’d already been talking, there was an opportunity for Brad to be in it.
AT: Does it look like a normal script?
DG: More than people think. There was some description but yeah it’s more traditional than what people expect it to be.
AT: Describe what it’s like every day on a Terrence Malick set.
DG: You have to organize yourself really well so that he has many options. He wants to shoot all day long, in every direction, he wants to follow that cloud… which means all your trailers and your gaffer trucks have to be hidden. So all of a sudden you’re on a real live sound stage, outside in rural Texas. It was such a pleasure, and it meant he could see what was happening with the actors, especially the boys who were so young and nonprofessional. And if there was a vibe happening between them and it made sense to use that for a scene that wasn’t necessarily on the call sheet, you could. He knew he had a certain number of days to shoot the movie.
AT: You’ve seen Brad on many movies. For my money that is his best performance. How did that happen?
DG: I’m biased, I think he’s good in a lot of things. He grew up in the Midwest, with two siblings. I think aspects of it were familiar. It was an incredibly intimate set, it was quiet… Terry endeavors to create a sacred space onset, and I think people around him give a lot as a result. They can go deep and they can be rocks and be vulnerable. He encourages you to do it in your own words. You’re reacting from a place of real truth because you can’t have planned for it.
AT: I’m curious about “World War Z”–there was a lot of speculation about what was going on and reshoots and it came out and did rather well and got great reviews. What was going on there? What was your role?
DG: It was a big investment. It was something Brad had never done as an actor. It was wildly over-reported on, but we needed to make a great movie and that just took more time than we originally allotted. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Paramount should be commended for giving us the opportunity to get it right. A lot of movies come out and you think, “couldn’t you have just tried a little harder?” There was a lot of pressure and the stakes were high but it’s a cool ending to a long story. I was gratified because of how hard we worked.
AT: You completely rewrote the ending so that must have been a serious conversation with Paramount. Brad Grey has been a close person in Plan B’s life. Explain that relationship.
DG: He started Plan B with Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt and was at the genesis of the company. After I’d been there a year he took my old boss’s job at Paramount, so there was a little overlap. He’s been a tremendous supporter of the company over many years so it was also, for us, really gratifying that it worked the way it did because it was for his company and a return on his faith.
AT: “World War Z” wasn’t just another studio action movie. It had ideas, it was ambitious and beautifully made, and Pitt carried it really well. Your standard is very high.
DG: We don’t give up. You’re getting paid to do this and you’re getting a lot of money to make these movies. Going to the effort of casting and finding a crew, it is your job as a producer to make it work as well as you possibly can. It’s also way more fun.
AT: I wanted to talk to you about “Eat, Pray, Love” because it’s an issue that there aren’t enough movies for women and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. This one was definitely for women and it did OK.
DG: It did really well. It got bad reviews but I think the movie’s great. Whatever. The challenge is business. Women have to go to the movie theater, but you’ve got to make the movies that will bring them in. I made Rebecca Miller’s movie “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,” which is decidedly for women and that didn’t get seen, but I think it’s amazing. I love that movie. I don’t know what that’s about. I’ll keep trying, certainly.
AT: Do you think that Brad will ever direct like Angelina?
DG: No. He says, “Why? There are so many good directors out there.” He loves making movies and he’s very involved but he’s worked with the greats. I think he would be a great director, having sat in the cutting room with him, but I don’t think it’s on his list.
AT: Is he hard on himself or is he confident and easy?
DG: We are hard on ourselves as a company but not in a bad way, just in a keep-reaching, keep-trying way.
AT: What’s coming up?
DG: On “True Story,” we’re in post. We read an article years ago and then a book about a NYT journalist who was fired for compositing some characters in a magazine story and fled to a cabin in Montana. He was called by a reporter who he presumed was pursuing the story of his transgression when in fact he was calling about a series of murders. There was a guy in Mexico who’d been brought back to Oregon to stand trial for the murder of his wife and three children. And the caller said what’s this got to do with me? And he said, “well he was using your name.” It’s a story about truth and subjective vs. objective truth and someone who thinks, “this is my mea culpa, if I tell the full truth here then I’ll be restored in the literary canon.” Can you ever really do that, though, and how much do you need the story and how does that affect your ability to tell the truth and see the truth? It’s directed by Rupert Gould, who’s a British theater director, with James Franco and Jonah Hill starring. I’m not sure when it’s coming out. We have to finish it.
We’re also shooting “The Normal Heart” for HBO, which has been a long time coming. Ryan Murphy is directing. We’ve shot the first period which was five weeks and then we shut down for various reasons, and then we’re going back up in November for 10 days. I think it’ll air next spring.
AT: You’ve been in the industry for a while now. Could you reflect on how it has changed? What are some of the challenges? You have been adept at adapting to them but you do have a major movie star on hand.
DG: It’s really fun. I’m really lucky. I suppose I find the speed of reaction to be the most troubling, from the media and everyone rushing to file news and stories. So many movies take more time than that, and really require more thought and maybe another viewing. I worry about that a lot. I thought about “12 Years a Slave.” What happens? Everyone sees that movie and races to their laptops? It has taken me a dozen times for me to find my emotional footing with that film. I wish there was a way to carve out more time for thinking. There are other aspects of the speed that are great but that’s what I think about the most.
Audience: Where do you see the industry going in five and ten years?
DG: I think about that to a degree but not as much as I should. I’m still thinking about the stories and the filmmakers. I believe there will be ever-widening forms of distribution and more and more people who can make movies but at the end of the day, I can still focus on story. I hope I can still read books and find filmmakers I can fall in love with. I hope we can still sort of be that, and then I think I have to figure out how to make movies for less money. Tentpoles are going to keep getting made until people don’t go.
Audience: What motivates you?
I don’t just do it for money, which is good because there is none. That kind of advocacy, getting behind Terrence Malick, Andrew Dominik and Steve McQueen–that is my sweet spot. I’m comfortable there. I’m better at brawling for someone else and their vision. When I really believe in someone’s abilities as a filmmaker and their conviction, I love doing that and I think you have to do that. People are not cool with discomfort, they want things to be easy, to be palatable, to be the most common denominator. I don’t like things like that, so inside my own tiny sphere, to whatever degree I can help keep things as angular as their original intention is, I like doing that. And you can’t be concerned with what other people say. You’re going to get a good review, a really bad review, and you just have to keep your nose to the ground. It’s hard, but in some ways it is ultimately easier because you feel good when you’re doing it.