Producers, those mysterious creatures who effectively drive the movie product line yet whom the public barely comprehends, generally prefer to keep the mystery intact. As a rule, they’re not gaming to place an imposing stamp on their movies, certainly not in the vein of such titans as Cecil B. DeMille, Irving Thalberg, Sam Spiegel or Carlo Ponti, and they laugh away any idea that they’re auteurs.
But if they last long enough, and maybe get invited back to the Oscar show more than once, their work tends to point to the least remarked-upon yet probably most lasting quality that a producer can assert on a project: taste.
What do some of 2007’s most discussed films reveal about their producers’ tendencies, which in some cases extend back decades and in others suggest new directions?
The hyper-active Scott Rudin is simply in all places at once this year, handling films that would make most Hollywood producers blanch, fearful and envious all at the same time: “There Will Be Blood,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Margot at the Wedding” and “The Darjeeling Limited.” It’s a lineup that’s not for the risk-averse, and it exemplifies Rudin’s twin-track strategy to back films with a literary source (Paul Thomas Anderson freely adapted Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!” for “Blood,” while the Coen brothers closely adapted Cormac McCarthy’s novel) and those made by strong, independent-minded filmmakers (Noah Baumbach for “Margot” and Wes Anderson for “Darjeeling”).
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What’s different this time is that Rudin’s “literary movies” are considerably tougher and more daring than such past, more classically genteel efforts as “Notes on a Scandal,” “Closer,” “The Hours,” “Iris,” “Angela’s Ashes” and “Marvin’s Room.” Note, too, that these are also mostly British, unlike the collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coens, which are aggressively American. “Darjeeling” is Rudin’s third with Wes Anderson, and is very much a piece with “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” — which is another way of noting that Rudin has let that particular director make exactly the movies he intends. The same applies to Baumbach, whose signature use of twisted comic characters and deeply caustic views of American life align with past Rudin productions like David O. Russell’s “I Heart Huckabees,” both “South Park” epics, “Zoolander” and “The Truman Show.”
Perhaps the most surprising turn among topline producers belongs to Kathleen Kennedy, who has helped shepherd two French-based films, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “Persepolis,” both of which are enjoying charmed lives from their prizewinning launches at Cannes on through to their current platformed domestic releases at the height of awards season.
For this longtime producing partner with Steven Spielberg (as far back as “E.T” 26 years ago), the swivel away from quintessential mainstream projects to work like the French-language “Persepolis” is unprecedented.
Still, there are indicators that Kennedy’s choices aren’t so left field. She has been alongside Spielberg for his most important international work, including “Empire of the Sun” (set in China), “Schindler’s List” and “Munich” (both set and shot in Europe), while the inspirational thrust of “Diving Bell” echoes that of her Oscar-nommed “Seabiscuit.” “Persepolis’ ” innate appeal to young people carries on Kennedy’s interest in films for tweens, from “E.T.,” “Twilight Zone: The Movie” and “Gremlins” in the 1980s to “The Young Black Stallion” in 2003.
Like Kennedy, Brian Grazer has identifiably hitched his producer star to one director — Ron Howard — but he’s showing signs of making his own imprint with other filmmakers. “American Gangster” marks his first venture with director Ridley Scott, but the film’s epic ambitions and large physical demands don’t belong to Scott alone.
Grazer is increasingly going big with his movies, a trend that firmly began more than a decade ago with “Apollo 13” and has continued with a mix of fare scaled for Oscars and/or adults (“A Beautiful Mind,” “Cinderella Man,” “The Da Vinci Code” and the upcoming “East of Eden” and planned bigscreen version of his fattest TV series, “24”) and for families (“The Cat in the Hat,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”).
For Sydney Pollack, wearing his producer cap for “Michael Clayton” must have been like deja vu, given that the George Clooney thriller combining corporate and legal players with doses of paranoia is precisely in line with some of Pollack’s own movies as a director (particularly his spy thriller “Three Days of the Condor” and his legal suspenser “The Firm,” which he also produced). Pollack’s taste for dramas with topical and political concerns spills over into his producing work, from “Presumed Innocent” and “Havana” to the 2006 South African apartheid drama “Catch a Fire.”
A vet Hollywood lion like Richard Zanuck and director Tim Burton appear to be odd bedfellows, yet Zanuck has backed two of Burton’s projects starring Johnny Depp: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is the grandest screen transfer yet of a Stephen Sondheim musical, and cockeyed “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” (And before that, also with Burton, was the fable-like “Big Fish” and the remake of “Planet of the Apes.”)
Assembling a musical of the range, depth and varying tones of “Sweeney Todd” requires filmmaking that touches on many different kinds of movies, which effectively defines Zanuck’s track record as a producer. The credits stretch back to the waning days of father Darryl F. Zanuck’s rule at Fox, and the telling ones include Oscar-laden dramas (“Driving Miss Daisy”), blockbusters (“Jaws”), period pieces (“Road to Perdition,” “Mulholland Falls,” comedy-dramas (“Cocoon”) and Westerns (“Wild Bill”).