Producer and Relativity production executive Robbie Brenner is having quite a year, as she helped to make two indie features in the thick of the year-end awards fray. The $4 million true-story AIDS drama “Dallas Buyers Club” (which this week won a Gotham for Matthew McConaughey and a New York Film Critics’ Circle Awards for Jared Leto) might never have been completed without Brenner’s tireless support over the years. And another hardboiled drama, Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace,” was backed by her own Relativity Media, where she’s been working with production chief Tucker Tooley and chairman Ryan Kavanaugh (pictured) for five years.
The NYU Tisch School of the Arts film grad got her “bootcamp training” at Miramax in New York, where Brenner started as an intern in 1985, working her way through the ranks through such releases as “The Piano,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “Cinema Paradiso.” “The hallways were buzzing with people who were excited and passionate about films and filmmaking,” she says during a phone interview. “Harvey [Weinstein] is as good as it gets, because of his vision and tenacity for stories.”
Brenner took that tenacity with her when she left Miramax in 2000 to produce on her own. She worked with some old friends, writers Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten, on “Dallas Buyers Club,” a script that she had tried to get Miramax to buy. “It was such an incredible story that it stayed with me,” she says. “I don’t read scripts like that very often.” The writers hadn’t been able to get the project off the ground and asked her to put some muscle behind it. In 2001 she sent the script to her friend, director Marc Forster, after seeing “Monsters Ball,” and he became attached, at which point she showed the film to Brad Pitt, and set it up with them attached at Universal.
Then the movie went into big studio development for a few years and Brenner took a step back. “I wasn’t that involved,” she says. “They developed different incarnations of the bigger version of the movie we ultimately made. The writers brought it to me after they got it back in turnaround and gifted me the script. And then I called Matthew.”
This was before “Mud,” “Bernie” and “Killer Joe.” “He has a quality that Ron [Woodroof] has, inherently likable, charismatic, can sell you a used car,” says Brenner. “He was the perfect guy to play Ron, he has a depth you see in ‘A Time to Kill’ and some earlier work. You get to a point in life where you say ‘ok, I want to do things that mean something, leave a mark on the world.’ This was the role that Matthew was destined to play.”
When Brenner saw “Young Victoria” she was impressed by French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee, who seems an odd choice for a movie about a Texas cowboy. “It was because it was so traditional,” she says. “and so diametrically opposed to ‘Crazy.’ I knew he would bring an organic quality that I thought it needed, he was something of a wild card, he had a je ne sais quoi. In all three of his movies his characters seemed to feel real and organic. I didn’t ever feel like there were movie moments.”
The filmmakers shot basically the original script Brenner had submitted to Universal in 2001. “It’s a miracle we got it back,” says Brenner, “so we could make it with the spirit we had in mind all along over two decades with Craig and Melisa. Hollywood is an interesting place. You have highs and lows, and I needed to complete the circle for us all. We needed to make it right and tell the story and move on. Catharsis. There was no ‘no’ in the equation. This was not a universe where we were not going to get movie the made, if it was the last thing in the world I ever did.”
Another reason that the movie had to proceed was McConaughey’s dramatic weight loss. “He had started losing weight when we lost financing eight weeks before we started shooting,” says Brenner. “It was a huge problem. We had no money. Everyone passed. Matthew had lost 35 pounds. I had to be transparent, I was freaking out. I had to figure it out and get it together, it’s happening, he’s showing up.”
Brenner got on the phone with producer Rachel Winter and ultimately producer Cassian Elwes stepped in to help to put the financing pieces together. “Everybody was of the mind that this movie is happening,” Brenner says. “No one was getting paid anything. Vallee wanted 45 days, we cut back every week, and finally whittled it down to 25 days. He was screaming, ‘no more, I can’t. You won’t take another day away. Lose the camera package, we’ll shoot with available light, take away the lights and the gaffer.’ I thought he was crazy. ‘We need lights for the actors.'” ‘No we don’t, we’ll use available light. The D.P. is amazing. I’ve done it before. Listen to me, trust me.'”
One night in Toronto, the cinematographer was shooting without lights, a dolly or a camera package, with the camera on his shoulder. “It was not a Steadicam,” says Brenner. “And he didn’t cut between the two actors. He’d run around to the other side or use a different angle by putting on higher shoes and do it that way. It was crazy, but the actors found this so freeing. Jared Leto stayed in character as Rayon, so Matthew became Ron Woodruff, and Jennifer Garner was the glue holding it all together. It was extreme for them, moving so quickly, there was no time to sit around talking to the grip about what you did yesterday and what was for lunch, no small talk. It was very focused, like a stealth fighter unit. You couldn’t even find trucks. I’d be walking, ‘where’s the set?’ There was no video village, nothing.”
Vallee was able to deliver “Dallas Buyer’s Club” with no lights on the rather astonishing budget of $4 million in 25 days– including post-production.
Focus acquired the movie after the production had wrapped and Brenner flew to Montreal to see the director’s cut projected on a wall at Vallee’s house: “It feels so real, it’s not false, he got it right with Rayon, I knew it was the right casting, it could have taken you out of the movie, but he had the nuances, he doesn’t pander. It was everything I had imagined and then some.”
CAA had been showing a three-minute promo reel to buyers, but Universal/Focus had first look and last rights of refusal and were interested. Jeb Brody, the president of production at Focus, called and she urged him to step up. The next day he flew up to Montreal with his Focus bosses James Schamus and Andrew Karpen; they loved it, and bought it. (FilmDistrict’s Peter Schlessel has since taken over the division.)
For Brenner, Vallee’s skills resonate in the scene near the end when the movie crosscuts between Ron and Rayon: “There are butterflies in the freezer, no swell of music, just hot fluorescent light bulbs, in the stillness of the moment. There are a lot of moments like that, of rawness and realness.”
Five years ago Brenner signed up to head production at Relativity Media, working closely with Relativity president Tucker Tooley, who runs the company day to day. She loves her job, which is “demanding, with any company evolving and growing,” she says. “We’re only distributing movies going on three years, creating a studio from scratch. There’s a lot to do and figure out about our identity: who are we, what’s the best way to work, what’s the message? We’ve made mistakes, but we managed to pick up ball and run.”
Relativity produced Paramount’s Oscar-winning “The Fighter” and Sony romance “Dear John,” and released its own thriller “Limitless,” “Act of Valor” and “Safe Haven,” and acquired “Catfish,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon,” and Luc Besson’s “The Family.” “When you are building a studio you create a balance between commercial releases and ones that will feed people’s souls,” she says, “by creating something special and indelible.”
That’s where “Out of the Furnace” falls, a script that was getting nowhere at Relativity until Scott Cooper made it sing. Brenner has known the writer-director for 20 years; he was one of the first people she met when she came to LA. “He started as an actor,” she says. “It was a pleasure developing this with him and championing the film. Look, Scott is talented. I witnessed that with ‘Crazy Heart.’ He has a confidence about him, an unflinching vision, for better or worse, which I think is better. He crafted and wrote the script, which is a personal story for him. I knew what he wanted. He was steadfast in his vision.”
The movie almost didn’t happen. “We had a short window to put it together. Christian [Bale] read it several years ago when he was playing Batman. Scott sent it to him and he responded to it, had him locked in to do the movie. Then he decided not do it. The timing wasn’t right. Now we had to move on, put it on ice. Scott went his way and I went mine.”
That Christmas, Brenner had lunch with Cooper and producer Michael Costigan. “Scott had exchanged some emails with Christian,” she says. “There was an open door there. ‘If we got him, would we make the movie?’ I said ‘yeah.’ Scott reached out and reengaged with Christian. His agent said ‘you know he has a slot in the spring, he’s going to do the Terrence Malick at the end of May, can you get the movie together that quickly? ‘Yeah we can do it, don’t worry.’ Come January Christian was committed. We had to be out by the end of May. It was crazy, we were going 100 mph trying to fit into the budget number, meeting every day with the A.D. and line producer figuring out how it could happen in the days.”
It would be more expensive to shoot in Cooper’s location of choice, rural Braddock, Pennsylvania, but she felt it was worth the $3 million hit on a budget in the mid-$20 million range. (With Bale on board, foreign sales company Red Granite raised the budget via foreign pre-sales.) “There was no tax credit. Scott said, ‘I don’t’ care.’ It was 100% the right choice, it is a character in the movie, so palpable. This is the kind of movie, it gets under your skin, you can feel it and taste it, it’s tangible, the setting, the mood, the way to shoot, the cinematography. All the characters are movie throwbacks to a 70s movie like Michael Cimino’s ‘Deer Hunter.’ It’s a very slow burn, private and deep. Everything doesn’t happen in five minutes. You need to settle back into it and engage and it draws you in from the first frame.”
“Out of the Furnace” is admittedly a tough sit for some, so it’s hard to understand why Relativity skipped the critical support film festivals might bring in favor of a late-breaking AFI Fest premiere and wide December 8 release. “It’s not for every single person,” Brenner says. “It can have a critical and commercial fan base and hook in people. It’s incredible filmmaking with an all-star cast and a nostalgia element. People will find it. It’s different from everything else coming out, it will stand out. It has star power and we believe audiences, especially males, will respond to it, it’s harder for females. So we decided to go wide with it.”
Still to come at Relativity is Natalie Portman’s beleaguered “Jane Got a Gun,” a remake of “The Crow” with Spanish director F. Javier Gutiérrez (“Before the Fall”) and Luke Evans, who starred in Tarsem’s “The Immortals.” “He was so fantastic in a role that could have been laughable,” says Brenner, “but he grounded it with a crown and a bullwhip; he’s confident and can sell you anything.” Relativity is also embarking on their third collaboration with Nicholas Sparks, Michael Hoffman’s “The Best of Me,” in the spring, as well as an Imagine co-production, “The Most Wonderful Time,” a dysfunctional family Christmas comedy written by Steve Rogers and directed by Jessie Nelson (“I am Sam,” “Corrina, Corrina”) to go in the spring. Casey Affleck is writing and directing the Josh Hamilton sports drama “The Miracle Shot.” And Brenner is developing a heist film called “Den of Thieves” to round out the “whole eclectic slate,” she says. “We want to make good stories. When the right script, director and cast come together, we make the movie.”