Many in Hollywood pair Suzanne Todd with her younger sister and producing partner Jennifer, long known as Team Todd. They produced a raft of movies together, many at freewheeling New Line Cinema, including teen coming-of-age classic “Now and Then” and Mike Meyers’ Austin Powers franchise. They also put on the map Christopher Nolan (“Memento”) and Ben Younger (“Boiler Room”). And while they both produced Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” with Joe Roth at Disney, for its sequel “Through the Looking Glass,” Jennifer was busy running Pearl Street Films, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s production company, while Suzanne carried on with the “Alice” sequel. And so she went solo on “Bad Moms,” which STX opened well this weekend.
Todd has often scored by zigging when others zag. “I have an eclectic list of movies I’ve made,” Todd told me in a recent conversation over iced tea. “I didn’t want to ever care more about the result than the actual movie. I wanted to tell the stories that I thought were interesting and focus on characters that meant something to me. I’ve never made horror movies and I never will.”
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Producing has always been a tough road for Todd. “The process of putting movies together and trying to make good movies is incredibly frustrating,” she said. “I didn’t realize this for a great many years, that I had picked the job that was the booby prize. Like, when these studio heads get fired, they make you a producer. But they all have so much richer deals than I do, whether it’s Lorenzo Di Bonaventura or Joe Roth. I didn’t want to work for a studio, just because I didn’t think I would be good at it, and I liked what I was doing.”
According to Todd, “the producer was the one who got the idea or found the book or put the whole thing together or picked the best director or the best talent or the best crew, and made sure everything ran smoothly, and tried to cheerlead everyone into doing a better job.”
On Jon Lucas and Scott Moore’s “Bad Moms” (2016, STX), production chief Cathy Schulman scooped up the dormant project from Paramount, where Judd Apatow wanted to produce for his wife Leslie Mann. Schulman sought a woman producer to oversee the raunchy comedy from “The Hangover” writers-turned-directors and reached out to Todd, knowing the film would play best for women. (The opening weekend pulled 82% female audiences.)
Mila Kunis plays a working mother who rebels against the ridiculous demands of the perfectionist moms at her children’s school, joined by two fellow renegades (hilarious Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn). This unholy trio revel in being bad moms: playing hooky at the movies, drinking, flirting, partying, and bringing store-bought donut holes to the sugar and gluten-free bake sale.
A working single mother of three, Todd read the script and liked that the writer-directors “were really trying to take on that experience of how hard we as moms are on ourselves,” she said. “That is so true, and so relatable. And this idea that women feel like it’s just never enough, you know? When you beat yourself up, it doesn’t actually make you do a better job, or make you enjoy your kids any more. Nobody’s kids ever had a better time at the school party because you spent an hour with seven other moms discussing the color of the napkins. We jokingly boiled it down to: ‘Do less. Enjoy it more.'”
Todd developed the final phase of the script with Lucas and Moore, offering up some of her own experiences, including one explicit bathroom sex education scene. “I did give them some ideas from real life, because I have been single and dating for many years now,” she said, laughing. “So I shared some more graphic things with them and they put all of that in—in addition to how moms talk to the kids or the other moms at school, the idea that she wouldn’t hold her phone in the car because moms don’t do that, it’s not safe, you would only talk on your Bluetooth. But letting people see Tampax isn’t such a terrible thing.”
Kunis was the first role cast, followed by Christina Applegate as the perfectionist PTA head and Kristen Bell as Kiki. The debates came over casting the Kathryn Hahn role. “The studio likes it when you cast big names,” said Todd, “because there’s the financial end of having to sell the movies, and it’s easier with people who are more well-known. And Kathryn is that person who has just been doing such great work for everybody for so long, and yet hasn’t really broken through. So there was a bit of everybody getting comfortable with the idea that we were going to cast the person that we thought was the best person for the part, not necessarily the most famous person that was going to do it.”
After playing well at four previews, the $20-million R-rated comedy scored a range of reviews (it’s at 60% on Metacritic), with sure enough, raves for breakout Hahn. “Obviously everybody has a mom, is in on that experience,” said Todd. “I think people will be surprised by how sweet the movie is. It’s willing to be rough some of the time, and you have your money moments. But you’re hanging on to those characters throughout.”
After studying production at USC, Todd started out working for Warner Bros. producer Joel Silver, rising swiftly in the ranks because while she and her cohorts could cover scripts, she could also break down a schedule—as well as doing the chores no one else wanted to do, like driving “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane” star Andrew Dice Clay to Elizabeth Arden in Beverly Hills to have a wax job “because somebody at the studio had deemed him too hairy at the early camera tests.”
New Line Cinema
She wound up producing films for scrappy New Line Cinema, in the indie days when production chief Michael De Luca “would ask the domestic guy and the foreign guy how much they knew they could cover,” she said, “and then they would pick a number for the budget. And as long as you could make it for that much, so that they knew they wouldn’t be out, then you could make a lot of different kinds of movies.”
While New Line has long been folded into big studio Warner Bros., Todd sees some similarities with start-up STX, because “they are willing to make a lot of different kinds of movies,” she said. “Everybody has been talking in Hollywood for so long about how the middle fell out. Like ten years ago, everyone was like, ‘Oh, nobody will make a $40-million movie anymore.’ But then the middle really spread. It became that they wouldn’t make a $25-million or a $75-million movie. It became this thing of studios focusing on the biggest movies. But then they realized there were a couple of years that they weren’t getting any of the awards or nominations. So then they went back into acquisitions to pick up some [contenders].”
Lesli Linka Glatter’s 70s-set teen comedy”Now and Then” (1995, New Line Cinema) was Team Todd’s first movie at the indie; the film celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. When Todd invited hot young playwright Roger Campbell to a general meeting, he brought along his writing partner Marlene King, who thought Todd might like her script that nobody else wanted to make. Indeed, she loved it, and so did Demi Moore and rookie movie director Glatter.
Jay Roach’s “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” (1997, New Line Cinema) came about in the mid-90s after Todd met Mike Meyers and his wife-to-be Robin backstage at the Oscars, soon after he had moved to LA. They became friends, sharing a love of Game Night, playing everything from Celebrity, Charades, and Mahjong to Poker (Todd plays in Las Vegas at the World Series and mounts a charity Poker tournament).
Meyers was heating up and developing projects; CAA took his spec comedy script to the top three producers in town, who all passed. “So then he came to me,” said Todd, “And I read it, and I was like, ‘I love it! I would make this movie in one second.’ CAA also represented me, and I remember having the conversation with David O’Connor, who represented Mike at the time, and he was like, ‘Yeah, sure. If you think you can do something with it, go ahead!’ Because obviously these other wiser powers that be had already passed. I was in an overall [deal] at Universal, so I had gone there first, and they didn’t want it. There was another movie getting made at Disney at the time with Leslie Nielsen. He was coming off that whole run of ‘Spy Hard.’ And Universal said, ‘Oh, it’s a waste of time to make Austin Powers because Leslie Nielsen has already started this franchise, and you’ve missed the boat.'”
So Team Todd shopped it around to the studios, who passed. “The guy who was running MGM at the time called me and said, ‘I’m passing on the material, but I have something that I really want to say to you: I think this material is disgusting, and you have a reputation as a nice girl. Like, I don’t know you very well, but I feel like this will be ruinous to your career. I’m just telling you, I don’t think you should do this.’ And I just remember thinking: ‘What am I missing here?’ I thought the script was really funny.”
Again, New Line’s De Luca came to the rescue—for a price. Todd told Shaye that she wanted to hire her old USC cohort Jay Roach to direct, even though all she had to show him was a student film they had made ten years ago, which was not a comedy. “Bob said, ‘Well, I trust you enough that you can do it, but if this is terrible, I’m gonna kill you.’ I was like, ‘Okay!’ I had faith in Jay.” (The three “Austin Powers” movies delivered $670.7 million in worldwide box office.)
Ben Younger’s “Boiler Room” (2000, New Line Cinema) was another film that no one initially wanted to make.
“It was a first-time director, and he had written the script,” said Todd. “There were people in town that would have picked it up to make the movie, but they didn’t want to let him direct. That was another crazy one. We had set it up someplace else, and we had attached Ben Affleck to do that chunky scene, he literally worked one day for us. And then the company that we originally set it up with, by the time it was ready to go, couldn’t afford to make the movie. And De Luca had said, ‘Okay, if you keep it at this price,’ and we still had the crazy Ben Affleck deal, that we would make it there.” Team Todd also produced Younger’s follow-up, “Prime.”
Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” (2000, Newmarket) was the first film Team Todd produced without a distributor. “I met with Chris, who was so clearly incredibly talented,” said Todd. “Again, it was one of those moments where I didn’t understand how other people didn’t get it. You know? It was so clear to me. And you did have to read the script a couple of times to make it add up in your head and make sense, but that was one of the things I liked about it. I feel like I tend to like things that are a little bit more different.”
Nobody wanted to make the movie. “One company was willing to put the money up,” Todd recalled. “And we basically finished the movie and showed it to distributors and nobody wanted it. So we were so lucky at the time that Newmarket and Bob Berney had the idea that they would try and self-distribute. Because otherwise it would’ve just gone away, and people would’ve only seen it on DVD.” (The movie scored $39.7 million worldwide and launched Nolan’s career.)
Several different backers fell out on Team Todd’s fellow Buckley alum Rashida Jones’ romantic comedy “Celeste & Jesse Forever” (2012, Sony Pictures Classics). “And then we just ended up making this super low-budget version of the movie,” said Todd. “It was less than $1 million.”
For several years Team Todd had an overall deal at Joe Roth’s Revolution Studios, and traveled with Roth to Sony after its demise. Together they produced Julie Taymor’s innovative Beatles musical “Across the Universe” (Sony, 2007) and started developing the first “Alice in Wonderland” before it moved to Disney.
Sony foolishly sold the “Across the Universe” soundtrack to Interscope, “because someone thought that no one would want to hear Beatles songs sung not by the Beatles,” said Todd. The album made more money than Sony did with the movie. For Taymor, “control is very important to her,” said Todd, “and I don’t think that will ever change about her. Teenage girls really loved it. The longing and the unrequited love speaks to them. But there were definitely parts of the movie that feel tangential.”
After the huge success of Tim Burton and Linda Woolverton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” why was there such disappointment in the follow-up, James Bobin’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass” (2016, Disney)?
“It’s a lovely, female empowerment story of this girl, and how hard it is to be out of step with the times,” said Todd. “There’s the summer date, which went up against ‘X-Men.’ The first movie came out in March and we didn’t have anybody against us. And we got this weird reaction—some of the reviews would ask, ‘How could you make this sequel without Tim?’ Then they’d say they didn’t like the first movie very much anyway, and didn’t think it should’ve made that much money, and, ‘I didn’t like this one that was directed by a new guy.’ It felt like we just couldn’t win in that scenario.”
Todd is relieved to be running a small shop again, after finishing up “Through the Looking Glass,” where “there are literally so many people on those visual effects movies. It’s so much, all the time. It’s like what I imagine it’s like when you’re waging a war.”
Finally, Todd is looking forward to getting back to what she does best — sniffing out material that maybe moviegoers haven’t seen before.