Brad Pitt has a famous face, but these days, his name is even more ubiquitous on projects that he doesn’t star in.
Plan B, the production company Pitt co-founded with Brad Grey and Jennifer Aniston in 2001, has gained traction in recent years as one of the most significant entities supporting auteur-driven work in the United States. In 2013, the company helped bring Steve McQueen’s Oscar-dominating “12 Years a Slave” to fruition. Over the next two years, the company’s highlights included Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” and Adam McKay’s “The Big Short,” both of which struck a marked contrast to more traditional studio offerings. Earlier this fall, the company unveiled “The Voyage of Time,” Terrence Malick’s cosmic documentary about the origins of the universe.
But there may be no better demonstration of Plan B’s current focus than the two films it produced that screened this month at the New York Film Festival: Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” a decade-spanning look at the life of a young gay black man in Miami, and James Gray’s ambitious “The Lost City of Z,” a rough-hewn adventure drama about British explorer Percy Fawcett’s lifelong attempt to discover a mythical city in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. (A24, which co-produced “Moonlight,” will release the film on October 21; “The Lost City of Z” will be released by Amazon and Bleecker Street next year.) Both movies couldn’t have been made by the traditional Hollywood studio system; they’re singular works that reflect the creative freedoms of their directors, and Plan B provided a crucial foundation for them to exist.
For the last three years, Plan B’s operations rely on the efforts of two leading individuals, co-presidents Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner. While Pitt remains focused on several of his own movies, Gardner and Kleiner do the bulk of the work involved in setting up new projects and scouting for talent. In the following excerpts from a recent conversation, the duo talk about how they find projects these days and what sort of filmmakers they’re looking to support.
DEDE GARDNER: We spend a lot of time reading, a lot of time watching movies in small corners of libraries and hotel rooms. It’s probably our favorite thing to do. We fall in love with a movie and we reach out. We ask to meet, see more work and listen to what they’re interested in, what world they want to live in, what stories they want to tell. Time and time again, those conversations can result in movies. They just need to be had in an honest space. The only intentions will ever be to continue the conversation, and not think about these things as products, but adventures that we might embark on together.
JEREMY KLEINER: Brad Pitt has encouraged a culture of that: watching and trying to understand what an artist is doing and what they want to say. It’s stating the obvious, but it’s not peripheral. If you’re inspired by something, if something grabs you, if you read about something that causes you to be curious about it, follow the curiosity and see where that takes you. That philosophy has led us to some very interesting people and their films. He’s a very supportive, intellectually curious and passionate partner. We’re very, very lucky for that.
DG: Brad’s involvement sort of depends on the movies. He likes our movies, obviously, but he has created a space for us to work that is, I would suggest, entirely singular. By that I mean that he believes in the shelf life of movies, he doesn’t believe in the notion that a movie has to see a successful opening weekend to work. He reminds us all the time of the movies that we discovered long after their initial release, and he believes that we should tell stories that we feel like we would die if we didn’t. He feels like we should work as hard as we can because what we do is a privilege. It’s enabled us to be very liberated in our ambitions. It lets us really stretch, because we feel incredibly supported and blessed to chase our passions.
We’ve been trying to get James Gray’s movie made for, what, eight years?
JG: Nine years.
DG: Our instincts feel the same as they always have: What stories do we want to tell and with whom do we want to tell them? We love filmmakers, we love directors, we love writers. And we certainly love movies that ask questions and make people think and ask questions to themselves. In an interesting way, both “Moonlight” and “Lost City of Z” have people at the center who evolve, shape-shift and wonder, “What will I be remembered for? What is my purpose here? How do I ensure keeping the bar raised for myself?”
JK: We’re also interested in the counterintuitive: James is writer-director, Barry Jenkins is a writer-director, Mike White is a writer-director, Bong Joon-Ho is a writer-director…
DG: Andrew Dominik is a writer-director.
JK: Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, with whom we’re doing another show at Netflix. That’s another very personal, intimate collaboration. David Michod is a writer-director, Felix Van Groeningen is a writer-director. We don’t need to list everybody, but the common thread is…
DG: Adam McKay!
JK: Adam McKay is a writer-director. Maybe there’s something about people who write and direct that draws us in — they feel very specific, very authored, they’re very much the point of view of somebody that causes people to see the world in a potentially new way or tell a story with new insight. That’s very appealing.
DG: We’re just holding on for dear life like everyone else in some regards. The landscape for distribution is constantly changing. Just as an example, we had a pretty significant experience with “The Normal Heart.” We tried for years and years to make that as a feature, and we ended up making it as a movie for HBO. Millions and millions of people saw it. I don’t believe that would have happened if we’d been able to make it as a feature. We couldn’t get the money to do that. We’re learning as we go. We certainly make stories to be seen and we’re very curious to see how these next couple years of releases unfolds and what that means for eyeballs. But we also love sitting in a dark theater. So I hope that there’s room for all of it to exist.