At the 2nd annual Produced By: New York (PBNY) conference on Saturday, October 24 at the Time Warner Center in New York, producers directors, writers and actors from four of this year’s most critically-acclaimed films discussed “The Power of Successful Creative Collaboration” on a panel of the same name.
The panelists included producers Christine Vachon and Elizabeth Karlsen, representing “Carol,” writer-director Tom McCarthy and producer Michael Bederman, representing “Spotlight,” actor Michael Stuhlbarg and producer Michael London, representing “Trumbo” and director Lenny Abrahamson and A24 executive Noah Sacco, representing “Room.”
Check out some of the highlights from the panel below.
Elizabeth Karlsen and Christine Vachon began the panel by describing the decade-long road that finally brought their passion project “Carol” to the big screen.
Since 2001, Karlsen had been working with the screenwriter Phyllis Nagy to get the Patricia Highsmith novel, “The Price of Salt” adapted into a film, but she faced repeated obstacles because the rights were not available. Having been enamored by the book, Vachon first expressed interest in joining the project while working on the HBO movie “Mrs. Harris” with Karlsen in 2003. A full eleven years then passed and the rights finally went up for grabs, setting off a series of fortuitous events which lead to the production of the film that continues to earn rave reviews at festivals across the world.
After having scooped up the rights to “The Price of Salt,” Karlsen recounted the crucial conversation she had with Vachon. “We were on the phone and Christine was saying, ‘God, we’ve lost the star of Todd Haynes’ new project.'” Karlsen responded, ‘Well, I haven’t got a director for ‘Carol,’ and there was a silence in that phone call that was a very pregnant and collaborative silence. And a lightbulb went on across the Atlantic somewhere. She said, ‘Let’s send ‘Carol’ to Todd,’ and 48 hours later really the birth of this version of ‘Carol’ began.”
Vachon spoke at length about her work with Todd Haynes, which she worked with on his first film, the cult short “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” which was never released because of licensing issues. “If you haven’t seen it, you should go illegally download it immediately,” she said.
After “Superstar,” Vachon immediately knew she wanted to continue working with Haynes. “I said to Todd, ‘I’ll produce your next film.’ Of course, I had no clue what I was talking about,” she said. “Ignorance can often be your best friend. And we made ‘Poison’ together and then we were off to the races.” Vachon has since worked tirelessly to support Haynes’ vision on all of his films, including “Safe,” “Far From Heaven” and “I’m Not There.”
Having built this relationship on trust has allowed Vachon to overcome obstacles that have inevitably arisen. “On ‘Carol,’ I knew that I could have a shorthand with Todd that would be very helpful for us all on what was a difficult shoot,” she explained. “It was the usual over-ambitious — its eyes were way too big for its stomach — there were a lot of challenges on it, it felt like because of our relationship, because we had each others’ backs, Liz and I, and because Todd knows that I always have his back, it kind of cut through what could have been a lot of divisiveness or difficulty.”
“Spotlight,” a dark and intense story about how the scandal of abuse amongst Catholic priests came to light in Boston, faced numerous challenges financial and otherwise, in coming together. Writer-director Tom McCarthy discussed the similarly long and tumultuous journey taken to make “Spotlight,” a process that meant dealing with budgets that “start grand and continue to diminish.”
McCarthy explained, “As a director, it’s very difficult because you’re like, ‘When am I giving up my vision and when am I collaborating on that vision with financial limitations and challenges?’ It’s a very tricky thing, it can really play with your mind. And at that point, you really need good producers and collaborators because you start feeling really defensive not just about your work but about the film you care so much about and the true story that we were telling.”
McCarthy remembered, “We were kind of at a breakpoint. Even with all these amazing people involved, the movie still almost fell apart two or three times.” That is when McCarthy was approached by his co-producer Michael Bederman, who on the brink of insanity, had one more desperate idea. McCarthy recounted, “He said, ‘Don’t kill me. What if we split our time between Boston and Toronto?’ And my head hit the table and I was like, “I can’t do this, I can’t make a movie about Boston in Toronto.'”
Yet, after the initial doubts, McCarthy came to realize just how smart Bederman’s plan really was. As long as all the exteriors were shot in Boston, a lot of the movie that happens in a newsroom could be filmed in Toronto. As McCarthy put it, “It’s that kind of crazy you need to get a movie over the hump.” Ultimately, the film’s production designer Steve Carter came in and built a massive and beautiful set in Toronto to serve as the newsroom.
Taking chances was a theme that continued to resurface throughout the panel. Despite being pestered by “Trumbo” screenwriter John McNamara for years to read his script, producer Michael London mentioned that initially, “I had not even wanted to read the script, I sort of felt like a biopic of Dalton Trumbo would probably be the worst thing for me to take on at that particular point in my life.” Making a film set in Hollywood in the 1950s meant a big task, a big budget and a lot of risks. But London said, “I read it, I fell in love with it,” and reached out to Jay Roach to direct the film.
In addition to his roles in “Steve Jobs” and “Miles Ahead” this year, Michael Stuhlbarg plays the iconic actor Edward G. Robinson in “Trumbo.” At the panel, Stuhlbarg was asked to shed light on how an actor approaches collaboration with the screenwriters, producers and the director when boarding a project.
Stuhlbarg explained that in fact, “In some cases, you’re not always welcome to collaborate as an artist…If you’rre lucky enough to get to be thrown together with Jay Roach and Michael London, you’re given every opportunity to collaborate with them. They couldn’t have been more generous in terms of helping me do my work.”
Nevertheless, according to Stuhlbarg, it is his responsibility as an actor to steep himself as much as possible in the life of his character and bring whatever he learns to his director. “I’ve come to the place in my life where I’ve decided to collaborate whether they want me to or not. I do my work, I learn as much as I can about the person I’m going to play, and then I offer that information freely,” he explained. “And whether or not they want to use it is completely up to them, but it’s really my job to do that.”
Abrahamson began by crediting his whole career’s work to successful collaborations, especially those with Ed Duiney, his producing partner who he grew up with in Dublin. In terms of “Room,” Abrahamson recounted that, “there was no real point in the journey when anybody said that you have a greenlight, we just decided that we were going to make this film in the Autumn of 2014 and we bullishly proceeded as if that was just going to happen. And very luckily, some key collaborations emerged which facilitated that.”
Though in many cases, authors aren’t brought on to adapt their own book to screen, Donaghue was the exception. “Wisdom has it that [authors are] going to be precious and they’re going to be not wanting you to change it, but it couldn’t have been further from the truth.”
Abrahamson reiterated the importance of open collaboration, including with producers and financiers, by saying, “If you’re not defensive and you’re lucky enough not to be dealing with psychopaths — you have to at least make sure you’ve got that one in the bag — but if you are dealing with real human beings, you can gain a lot by dropping that defensive posture that filmmakers often have and just saying, ‘There you go. This is what I think. This is what I think is going to work.'”
Speaking about how his distribution company got involved with “Room,” Noah Sacco said that A24’s collaboration was borne out of a long-term obsession with the material and Abrahamson’s work. “Very importantly, Lenny and Ed did not need to have a distributor on this film as early as they did,” said Sacco. “We understood that and I think a lot of times distributors can be seen as creative deadweight or blockage, and all we had was our enthusiasm for the material and our belief in Lenny.”
Sacco then recounted having “sent this notes document into the ether not knowing where it would land and how it would be received.” A month later, Lenny and Ed came to the A24 office in New York, and “then he pulled a document from his bag, this very crumpled piece of paper which I realized were the notes I had put together and I was convinced that the next thing to happen would be him lighting them on fire, as I think usually happens with studio executive notes, and then I looked a little bit closer and there was handwritten notes all over them and it became very clear that he had engaged with them in a way that he truly didn’t need to.”