Producers on producers

Power players weigh in on year's best

The powers behind the big stage and little screen weigh in on the year’s top pics.

Tim Gibbons on Warner Bros.’ ‘Inception’
Producers: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan
I had no idea what I was getting into when I went to see “Inception.” At first it seemed somewhat like a detective or spy story, then it morphed into a wild sci-fi action adventure, which ultimately was grounded into reality by a very touching love story. As I got deeper and deeper into it, I became more amazed by what I was seeing and hearing, as well as what I was feeling.
echnologically astonishing, full of fantastic visual effects and astounding special effects, the film, unlike many other technologically heavy films, has an emotional core to it that kept me riveted until the very end. I cared about the characters while I was being awed by the look and feel of the film. That Christopher Nolan was able to pull off action, science fiction and a love story, all in the same package, making it all work seamlessly, with a real emotional depth, is testament to his unique directorial abilities. Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting was top-notch, and his input and insight in the character were flawless. ‘Inception’ is one of the delights of 2010, a film not to be missed.
Tim Gibbons is executive producer of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

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Robyn Goodman on ‘The Kids Are All Right’
Producers: Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Celine Rattay, Gary Gilbert, Jordan Horowitz, Daniela Taplin-Lundberg, Philippe Hellmann
Hats off to the producers of “The Kids Are All Right” for making a film that has finally taken gay women out of the context of drug addicts, sex maniacs and secondary characters into the forefront of the average American family. Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg negotiate every day problems with insight and wit and tell an emotional story about an unconventional family without putting it in quotes. Annette Bening (Nic) and Julianne Moore (Jules) bring real complexity and humor to their portrayals. Annette’s silent moment when she discovers her partner’s infidelity is breathtaking, and who couldn’t love Mark Ruffalo’s careless sexuality and charm? There have been rumblings from certain gay factions about the veracity of Jules’ behavior and what it signifies in a homophobic environment. I say, “Why does this film have to represent every lesbian issue in the world?”
Speaking as a gay woman, I am delighted to see women I recognize in a popular mainstream movie.
“Avenue Q” producer Robyn Goodman brings the new play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” to Broadway this spring.

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Ashley Gable on the Weinstein Co.’s ‘The King’s Speech’
Producers: Emile Sherman, Gareth Unwin, Iain Canning
Curse you, Brothers Weinstein, for knowing that I love movies about Brits and their stiff upper lips so much that even though you haven’t sent me a screener I would go see “The King’s Speech” in an actual theater. This film is a crowd-pleaser in the best sense: deftly drawn characters, witty dialogue, wrenching emotional moments and an ending that is completely earned and never maudlin. The heart of the story, well-crafted by writer David Seidler, is the push-pull between Colin Firth’s “Bertie,” aka the future King George VI, and his iconoclastic Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Rush is a delight as he cajoles, prods and provokes the very clenched Bertie into losing his debilitating stutter so he can be a head of state in the new age of radio. Tom Hooper’s direction is sure-footed and understated (well, he might have eliminated one of the fish-eye lens shots; but I quibble). And what terrific production design (the boho charm of Logue’s office, the imposing backdrop of Westminster Abbey for the accession ceremony). Hooper and his production team create a world of enormous pomp and ceremony so that we may feel the crushing pressure Bertie was under so he could be the voice of his people, particularly as they launched their battle against Hitler.
Ashley Gable is executive producer of CBS’s “The Mentalist.”

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Robert Heath on Columbia Pictures’ ‘The Social Network’
Producers: Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Cean Chaffin, Michael De Luca
Let’s fact it. David Fincher was directing a film about a guy who’s a computer programmer, a very boring subject. A lot of people don’t understand how programmers work or how they develop a site. Fincher’s direction was very smart and compelling. Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin both did a really good job of including an audience that isn’t necessarily driven by the Internet. “Social Network” is a story about human beings, betrayal and social communication. The most important thing was to keep the ball in the air, to keep it moving forward so a scene didn’t die and get boring. That’s the hard thing with films about writers or people who are pretty much loners: to keep it interesting, because we’ve all grown to the point where we hate lingering too long on one thing. So I love the way Fincher and Sorkin used the two lawsuits to timeshift back and forth. The scare of that is, can the audience do that time-shifting and understand where they are? The way they edited the film avoided that problem. And I just loved Sorkin’s script. The way he puts the dialogue together is like poetry. It’s not the way people speak but it works on film. And to use relative unknowns was genius because their stardom didn’t get in the way of the story. You believed those guys to be pretty much the real people. The challenge for the producer was that he could have fallen into a really big trap on the casting, because the first place that most studios want to go is to get some name people to get audiences in the seats. The decision to use newcomers kept the story focused on them as opposed to ‘Well, how is Tom Cruise playing this part?
Robert Heath is producer of TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland.”

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Judy Craymer on Summit Entertainment’s “The Ghost Writer”
Producers: Roman Polanski, Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde
“The Ghost Writer” is a classic thriller that could only have been made by a master filmmaker, which is what Roman Polanski is. Pierce Brosnan as a seemingly genial ex-prime minister gives a deeply sinister performance that probably caused shivers on Downing Street. There are so many hold-your-breath moments from an intriguing cast — Kim Cattrall, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Williams and more — that builds to an ironic ending, which recalls another Polanski classic, “Chinatown.” No spoilers! I also commend the producers’ choice in using North Sea locations in Europe to re-create the starkly beautiful off-season Northeast U.S. shoreline. Perfectly chilling. Perfectly Polanski.
Judy Craymer is producer of “Mamma Mia!” onstage and onscreen.

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Sue Frost on Summit Entertainment’s “The Ghost Writer”
Producers: Roman Polanski, Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde
This movie hits my sweet spot. I love a good mystery thriller — twists and turns, chewy characters that you think you know but they keep surprising you — suspenseful without a lot of gratuitous violence. The same team behind “The Pianist” is responsible for “The Ghost Writer,” and it’s a pleasure to watch a solid producing team with a history together work their magic again. There’s a Hitchcockian feel to the whole thing – atmospheric, a little creepy. Polanski is in top form here, with the added benefit of a couple of great performances from Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor. I especially liked the score, juxtaposed with some very effective moments of complete silence. And stillness. What a relief to be drawn in, not hammered over the head. Oh, and it’s timely — political intrigue and scandal, war crimes, figurehead politicians, treachery — a thinly veiled take on Tony Blair’s fall from grace, and the duplicity of relations between the U.K. and America. Good stuff. I thought the ending was going to let me down, but there was one last surprise at the end, and it’s a good one. Very satisfying.
Sue Frost is producer of the new musical “Memphis.”

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Jeff Davis on Paramount Pictures’ ‘How to Train Your Dragon’
Producers: Bonnie Arnold
The film that got me the most in 2010 was one about a Viking warrior’s physically weak but strong-willed son who defies his people and his entire way of life by befriending a dragon. In fact, the scene in which the boy, Hiccup, first attaches a self-made rudder to the dragon’s tail (which he himself was responsible for partially destroying) and goes through the trial, error and eventual triumph of learning how to fly got me so hard in my seemingly cold, cynical writer’s heart that I honestly felt a tear well up in my eye. I sat there simultaneously reveling in the joy of this Viking son’s relationship with his pet dragon and the fact that I was still capable of producing human tears after working in Hollywood for this long. “How to Train Your Dragon” is also the perfect example of the producer’s and studio’s Holy Grail: the four-quadrant movie. It appeals to young and old, male and female. Humor is always a good way to attract a wide audience but there were other interesting steps the producers took. One was to change the dragon Toothless from the book version, where he was utterly tiny, to a fearsome Night Fury, the rarest and most revered of dragons. Another brilliant idea was the hiring of cinematographer Roger Deakins, best known for his work with the Coen brothers, to add some darkness and filmic lighting style to the animation. These kinds of choices in the producing process are what I most often marvel at. They’re what take a project like this from “cartoon” to “animated film” and then, with some exceptionally clever screenwriting, to “animated classic.”
Jeff Davis is creator of CBS’s “Criminal Minds.”

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Larry Teng on Fox Searchlight Pictures’ ‘127 Hours’
Producers: Danny Boyle, Christian Colson, John Smithson
The story sounds simple… a man falls into a canyon and gets his arm pinned by a rock, man cuts off arm to save his own life. But the movie is so much more than that. It is subjective storytelling at its best; one location, one person, minimal dialogue. I think many will underestimate how difficult a task it is to tell this kind of story, but Danny Boyle really nails it with this film. Throughout the movie, you never leave the main character, Aron Ralston. You are always there with him, whether it’s sharing a small victory when he successfully recovers his multi-tool after dropping it, or his sense of despair after realizing he spilled a few milliliters of valuable water. I also love how Boyle uses flashbacks but not in the traditional sense. Since these past events are actually memories that Ralston is triggering at that moment, we stay with Ralston and our sense of intimacy with him. By the time you get to the arm-amputation scene, it so works because Boyle and Franco have you at a place emotionally where you’re rooting for Ralston to do it.
As a producer, the logistical challenge is to try and accurately depict what happened to Aron Ralston. The sense of authenticity is critical to the piece. That means everything from creating a prosthetic arm that looks and reacts properly even while being amputated, to creating a scale replica of the canyon where Franco’s character is trapped for five-plus days must be done with an eye towards verisimilitude. Normally the benefit of creating a set is to ease production; an especially important consideration when the location being depicted is no bigger than my walk-in closet. In this case, the goal was clearly to try and maintain the integrity of the actual location while not apparently embellishing the space to make it easier to shoot and light. So much of the movie’s effectiveness is achieved because it never gives in to a Hollywood aesthetic, never violates the audience’s willing disbelief by putting the camera in a position other than where it might have been had the film been photographed in the actual canyon.
Larry Teng is co-executive producer of CBS’s “Medium.”

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Gary Lennon on Sony Picture Classics’ ‘Animal Kingdom’
Producers: Liz Watts, Bec Smith, Vincent Sheehan
“Animal Kingdom” is one of the best coming-of-age crime thrillers of the last 20 years. It’s right up there with Scorsese, Lumet and the best of Polanski. The story is very difficult. We’re talking about a young boy, Joshua ‘J’ Cody, whose mother ODs in the opening of the film and then ‘J’ is thrust into a family of criminals. In my opinion, when this script came across producer Liz Watts’ desk, she faced several challenges: a first-time director in David Michod and an incredibly tough piece of material that had complicated, flawed characters who aren’t easily likeable. The film is densely layered with a Medea-meets-King Lear power to it. Jacki Weaver’s Janine Cody is Medea. Janine will sacrifice one of her sons to get her favorite son out of prison. It’s King Lear in the sense that Janine’s hands, the ones that nurtured her children, are the same hands that will eventually destroy them. Janine’s complicit in all her children’s criminal activities. And she’s OK with it as long as it benefits her. I imagine every financier Liz went to said, “You’re kidding me. Right?” It would have been a battle for her because the story itself is so rough. But the bigger struggle must have been identifying the audience for the film. Who do you tap into? What’s the marketing campaign? Unfortunately, I don’t think they were able to crack that completely or it would have had a wider release and a bigger response. But I am grateful that critics saw the film and are rewarding it at this time of year. Liz took a gamble and she really succeeded.
Gary Lennon is producer of FX’s “Justified.”

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Hal Luftig on Fox Searchlight Pictures’ ‘Black Swan’
Producers: Scott Franklin, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, Brian Oliver
I like anything that takes a theatrical perspective — I mean, that’s where my heart is. And with Natalie (Portman), especially — she did a production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” that David Stone and I did back when she was 14 or 15. “Black Swan” was very much about theater and the discipline it takes, and how hard it is — about everything that goes into the show. And her performance was so wonderful.
I loved the final moment — she’s lying bleeding on the mattresses and says, “I wanted it to be perfect.” I was just shattered by that. We all want perfection, we all want to have the perfect scene or the perfect number. It really chilled me to the bone. When you have that moment of perfect as an artist, is that the pinnacle of your career? That really resonated for me.
One of the things about Natalie is that she’s so committed — there had to have been moments when she was doing Anne Frank when she was thinking, “What the hell am I doing? I could be hanging out with my friends in Syosset at the mall.” And there, as in the movie, she was 100% there the whole time.
“Thoroughly Modern Millie” producer Hal Luftig brings the new musical “Catch Me if You Can” to Broadway this spring.

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Stephanie Savage on Fox Searchlight Pictures’ ‘Never Let Me Go
Producers: Alex Garland, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich
My favorite kind of films are the ones that stick with you, that get so fully absorbed into your consciousness you sometimes forget their origins. A familiar image flashes into your head and, for just a second, you hesitate. Was that from a movie? A book? A dream? Am I remembering something that happened to me? The film that did this for me in 2010 was “Never Let Me Go.” Mark Romanek and his production team had the challenge of not just creating multiple time periods but multiple time periods in a parallel universe. And if — for even one flickering second — the film started to feel like science fiction, the whole thing would fall apart. Performance, camerawork, production design and the gorgeous score by Rachel Portman all felt of one: confident, convincing and utterly transporting. A box of broken toys, a boat washed up on a beach, the uncomfortable feeling of not knowing how to order in a restaurant, loving someone on borrowed time. Despite the otherworldly premise of the film, I would not be surprised if years from now I find myself thinking of Hailsham, and having to remind myself it’s a place I’ve never actually been.
Stephanie Savage is co-creator and executive producer of CW’s “Gossip Girl.”

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Howard Gordon on Warner Bros.’ ‘The Town’
Producers: Graham King, Basil Iwanyk
I found so much to admire about “The Town.” Because Charlestown itself is a major character in the film, the locations (some of them flashed by in an exquisitely choreographed car-chase sequence) really needed to evoke a sense of place, and these were spot on. And given the relatively limited budget, the producers accomplished more than I thought was possible on the bigscreen. That we could get behind the violent armed robber Doug MacRay is a testament not only to Ben Affleck’s nuanced performance but also to his surehandedness as a director. Because he allows the characters enough space to show us who they are, we are invested in their stories from start to finish. Other standout performances by Jeremy Renner and Blake Lively rounded out the excellent cast and elevated what could have been a by-the-numbers heist movie into a layered crime story about some of Charlestown’s dead-end denizens.
Howard Gordon was executive producer and showrunner of the longrunning “24.”

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Merrill Karpf on Roadside Attractions’ ‘Winter’s Bone’
Producers: Anne Rosellini, Alix Madigan-Yorkin
I have no idea what the budget was for “Winter’s Bone.” I just know that independent films do not have a very big budget, but I never saw anything suffer in Debra Granik’s film. If she had a short shooting schedule, I never saw anything rushed. I was never taken out of the story. The cinematography was textured and beautifully lit. The sets were layered. If you looked on any frame, you would see such detail. All of that enhanced the story without ever taking you out of the story. The casting was flawless right down to the extras. Jennifer Lawrence is a star and I think we will see a lot of her. She handled the accent beautifully. I never caught her or anyone in the movie acting. And all of the characters were well realized, even the smallest ones. One scene blew me away. It’s not an easy scene because they were working on a rowboat at night. That could be a whole day’s shooting right there. Jennifer’s character, Ree Dolly, is trying to find her father, who is dead. So she can prove that he’s actually dead and didn’t skip bail, they use a chainsaw to cut off both of his hands. As the boat rows away, the camera lingers on the water. And you see the film from the chainsaw just floating on top. The camera just lingers on it. That detail, that’s good filmmaking.
Merrill Karpf is executive producer of Showtime’s “The Big C.”

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Thomas Schlamme on Summit Entertainment’s ‘Fair Game’
Producers: Jez Butterworth, Akiva Goldsman, Doug Liman, Bill Pohlad, Janet Zucker, Jerry Zucker
When you hear about a film re-creating recent history, you are always a little worried that it might be like eating vegetables. Sure, it’s good for you, but is there a better dish out there? Nothing could be further from the truth with “Fair Game.” This is a full, highly entertaining, powerful meal of a movie. Part political thriller (done masterfully by director Doug Liman), part dissection of a very contemporary marriage (performed flawlessly by Sean Penn and Naomi Watts) and all cautionary tale. Yet the most astonishing thing about this movie is that while it painfully shows the tragedy of how we went to war, it somehow miraculously leaves you hopeful and even patriotic. No small feat. A testament to the extraordinary talents who have come together to remind us all what it really means to be an American.
Thomas Schlamme is executive producer of the new ABC series “Mr. Sunshine.”

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Graham Yost on Sony Picture Classics’ ‘Get Low’
Producers: Dean Zanuck, David Gundlach
I first heard of “Get Low” when I read Chris Provenzano’s original script for the movie as a writing sample during the time we were hiring a writing staff for “Justified.” I loved the script and hired Chris (and brought him back for the second season). When I saw the movie, I was so entertained and so moved. It’s not easy doing any feature, but doing one set in the Depression, on location, in 23 days for $7 million? In TV, that’s about what we spend on a 45-minute pilot. Of course, producing is much more than making a film in the time allowed for the money you’re given. It’s about getting a cast (and what a cast!) and working with the director and writers to bring the story to life. This story — about a curmudgeonly, cantankerous, possibly dangerous hermit who wants to host his own funeral before he dies as a way to confront his past — accomplishes the most basic and timeless goal of movies: It makes us laugh and cry. And for those of us lucky enough to have seen “Get Low” and to have talked about it afterwards, our conversations diving into themes of mortality and regret, it also made us think.
Graham Yost is producer of FX’s “Justified” and HBO’s “The Pacific.”

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Jordan Roth on Focus Features’ ‘Somewhere’
Producers: G. Mac Brown, Roman Coppola, Sofia Coppola, Jordan Stone
In the first moments of the exquisitely subtle and deeply intimate “Somewhere,” director-writer Sofia Coppola offers us a prologue of what we’ll be exploring by way of how we’ll be exploring it. A black Ferrari races in circles, entering and exiting the frame countless times, while the camera maintains an extended still gaze. No explosion. No crash. Just look. Take the time. It is a generous lesson on the rules of this portrait, downshifting us from the frantic pace of the day to the deliberate pace of somewhere. In our world of quick cut, flashbulb, breakneck-speed coverage of all things celebrity, “Somewhere” dares to slow down and really look at one Johnny Marco, affectingly and sensitively realized by Stephen Dorff. Locked in permanent transience at the Chateau Marmont, he is spinning in circles, thrill-seeking in fast cars, strippers and one-night stands that all fail to thrill or even register. He is numb. But to some extent, we all are. Celebrities’ hook-ups, drunken mishaps and car chases can all blend into oblivion through the passing speed of a paparazzo lens. But through Coppola’s lens, we must stop to focus, to really examine this man and this state of being in which some are constantly watched but rarely seen. Only then are we and he ready for the one thing that could revive him, that could offer him a way back into life — his 11-year old daughter, Cleo, played with effortless and disarming charm by Elle Fanning. When she spins, as she does on ice skates, she does so with soul and grace and purpose. And this time, it’s not just we who take luxurious time to see, but so does her father.
In this daughter older than her years and this father younger than his, Coppola deepens her meditation on time and the time it takes to see one another. It is a confident search for essence that is both cultural commentary and personal exploration. And here’s the best part: We don’t necessarily see all these layers of meaning as we’re seeing the film. But as it continues to linger in our heads, they emerge. It takes, once again, time.
Jordan Roth is president of Broadway’s Jujamcyn Theaters.

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Jim Serpico on Newmarket’s ‘The Way Back’
Producers: Duncan Henderson, Joni Levin, Nigel Sinclair, Peter Weir
“The Way Back” is a harrowing tale about survival inspired by the Slavomir Rawicz novel “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom.” Within minutes of the opening sequence, I found myself hanging on to the edge of my seat rooting for the survival of our main characters – innocent men sentenced to sure death, albeit from physical exhaustion or the mental ware of their Russian captors. Weir’s portrayal of unimaginable human hardship and drama brings out animalistic behaviors, fear and ultimately compassion and trust. Weir directs stellar performances out of all his leads including Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris and Saoirse Ronan, while delivering Colin Farrell’s most impressive performance ever as an intimidating street criminal whom we grow to respect. Weir’s attention to nuance, detail and realism is evident across all departments in the film. Production designer John Stoddart’s prison camp set is so authentic yet unlike any prison camp design I’ve ever seen. Location manager Michael Meehan’s remote Bulgarian locations double perfectly for Russia, Mongolia and China and provide the perfect backdrop for cinematographer Russell Boyd to frame his picturesque landscapes. Burkhard von Dallwitz’ inspiring score compliments this fantastical adventure of escape and heroism.
Jim Serpico is executive producer of FX’s “Rescue Me.”

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