Ordinarily, escapism and the movies are like the ocean and sea-faring vessels: Bob along, stay afloat, avoid any massive icebergs of implausibility. Reality? It just makes waves.
And yet this year’s nominees for the Darryl F. Zanuck Producers Guild Award — the PGA’s top prize, and the most reliable harbinger of Oscar’s best pic — are all about subjects that are usually more suited to jaw-clenching documentaries: Slavery, mental illness, terrorism, despotism, various other isms and economic oppression. All together, this year’s top films add up to a tsunami of social awareness.
“I think it’s partly coincidence,” says Grant Heslov, who with George Clooney and Ben Affleck produced the thriller “Argo,” about a chapter in the 1979 Iranian Revolution and its ensuing hostage crisis. “But I also think that we do go in some sort of cycle — of what audiences are interested in seeing, and what filmmakers are interested in making.”
What’s critical this year, he adds, is that the films with substance are making money. “They’re all doing well commercially and I honestly think that, especially at this time of year — not to disparage summer films, I go to them just like everybody else — but I think after a while you crave what you haven’t seen.”
In the case of the PGA awards, which will be handed out Saturday, these include films about race and bondage (“Django Unchained,” “Lincoln”); amoral monarchies and atonal music (“Les Miserables”); terrorism and torture (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “Skyfall”); poverty and eco-disasters (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) and, of course, obsessives and compulsives (“Silver Linings Playbook”).
Even among the more fantastical nominees, such as “Moonrise Kingdom,” or “Life of Pi,” there are themes of metaphysical discontent, existential dread and romantic angst.
“Here’s what excites me about this year,” says Gil Netter, one of “Pi’s” producers. “There are a lot of good movies and a lot of good movies that aren’t fitting what seems to be the formula that Hollywood wants to follow these days. And they’re succeeding. I’m hoping it forces studios to diversify their portfolios.”
Netter agrees that “it’s probably just cyclical,” but both “Life of Pi” and “Moonrise Kingdom” are among the few top-ranked films this year that aren’t based on real-life stories or, like “Django Unchained,” deal with historical issues, however deliriously.
But fact-based stories have their problems: As “Argo’s” producer-director Ben Affleck told Variety late last year, there were some terrific yarns that were part of the movie’s backstory but which got cut out of the film because they didn’t propel the narrative. “You would have had to make a 10-hour miniseries to get it all in,” he said at the time.
“The tricky part is when you make a film that about people who are alive,” says Heslov. “It’s about getting it right and at the same time making a movie that people want to go see. There is definitely a balancing act. There are always too many characters, and you have to figure out who will tell the story.”
Sometimes you have to massage reality and sometimes reality gives you a gift, as it did with the revelation that a woman CIA agent was at the heart of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and provided “Zero Dark Thirty” producer Mark Boal with an ideal kind of dramatic centerpiece.
“It was an opportunity to write a female character who’s a little different from the cinematic tropes we’re used to,” says Boal, who wrote the script. “Here you have a woman who, in the hands of Kathryn Bigelow and Jessica Chastain, is not defined so much by gender politics or her relationship with men; she’s defined by her work. She’s a hard-charging protagonist who carries the kind of stuff you usually delegate to men.”
Similar to avoiding gender stereotypes, the PGA nominees have almost uniformly resisted the pigeonhole. There are moments of horrific violence and humor in “Django,” pathos, wit and intellectual rigor in “Lincoln,” whimsy and melancholy in “Moonrise Kingdom,” and an almost uncanny coexistence of serious drama and romantic comedy in “Silver Linings Playbook.”
“What I realized at the script stage and even moreso when we started shooting was that there weren’t just dramatic sections or romantic, funny sections to the movie, but that both were happening simultaneously,” says Bruce Cohen, who produced the David O. Russell-helmed “Silver Linings Playbook” with Jonathan and Donna Gigliotti. “The complicated dual tone of our film was our focus .”
It’s like life, Cohen adds, which tends not to pigeonhole itself. But movies do — and auds expect they will. So didn’t the carefully calibrated approach to “Playbook” seem like risky business?
“To me, all good stuff is risky business,” says Cohen, who produced the Oscar winners “Milk” and “American Beauty.” “We look for something to break new ground. The question was whether we’d be able to pull it off.”
It’s never hard to get someone during awards season to say it’s been a great year for movies. This year, however, the quality arguments are also backed up by numbers.
“At end of day if they make money and are made for a reasonable price at the beginning, everybody wins,” Heslov says.
TV’s infinite potential | Society’s ills unchained | PGA’s stamp of approval firmly in place