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How the Producers of ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ and ‘Fruitvale Station’ Got the Films Off the Ground

Different budget levels lead to different production challenges

Producing movies is not exactly a science; there are myriad ways to approach the discipline. But whether the budgets are $1 million or $100 million, many of the obstacles remain the same, managing finite amounts of time and money, locking down locations or scheduling multiple A-list actors with busy schedules. Here are three projects recognized by the Producers Guild of America as among the year’s standouts, at three different budget levels and how three different producers got their projects made, despite the odds.

Dallas Buyers Club

Just 10 weeks before production was set to begin on “Dallas Buyers Club,” Craig Borten’s long-in-the-works script about an unlikely homophobic Texas AIDS activist, producer Robbie Brenner got the devastating news: “The money just disappeared,” she says.

After two decades of false starts, with multiple studios (Columbia, Universal), directors (Marc Forster, Dennis Hopper) and actors (Brad Pitt, Woody Harrelson), Brenner and longtime friend, producer Rachel Winter, had finally attached Matthew McConaughey, Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee and a Montreal-based backer who wasn’t scared to fund the project, which, according to Brenner, some 200 financiers had already passed on. (“People loved the script,” she says, “but said, ‘I don’t know if anybody wants to see that subject matter.’”)

But then “it all disintegrated,” says Brenner. “People were crying. Matthew (McConaughey) had already lost 35 pounds and had a small window before his next project; I knew if it didn’t happen then it was never going to happen.”

At the last minute, producer Cassian Elwes brought in Voltage Pictures to take on foreign sales and new Texas-based Truth Entertainment for a final piece of equity. Along with Louisiana’s tax credits, they were ready to go, though down from 40 to 25 days, on a budget of less than $5 million.

“I was using my credit card to feed people,” says Winter, who was on set. In order to make their schedule, “the camera was rolling all the time.” And they used only practical lights. At one point, they stopped McConaughey’s driver from leaving the set in order to use the car’s headlights to illuminate the scene. “It was terrifying,” continues Winter, “but everyone had their game face on and the stresses were alleviated by the confidence (of Vallee and his d.p. Yves Belanger) in this crazy way of shooting.”

But Brenner believes the stripped-down approach was worth all the trouble. “As much as I work inside the studio system and respect that process,” she says, “I think this movie was meant to be made in an intimate, personal and independent way.”

The Wolf of Wall Street

You can’t say Martin Scorsese lacks ambition. For his 23rd feature, he used more than 100 locations, filmed over 100 scenes and employed hundreds of extras. “Mobilizing a crew of that size and getting from point A to B to C was one of the biggest challenges,” says producer Emma Koskoff, who has worked with Scorsese dating back to “The Departed.” “I know what he needs, and I am able to be proactive” — whether that’s finding the right locations or scheduling the shoot in chronological script order as much as possible.

But with so many moving parts on “Wolf” — including a cast of stellar comedic actors, from Jonah Hill to Kenneth Choi, whose “scenes could take on a life all by themselves,” notes Koskoff — it’s a miracle the film came in on time (87 days) and on budget (around $100 million, fully financed by Red Granite Pictures). Even Tropical Storm Sandy barreled through, delaying production by a week.

Perhaps the most complicated sequence was the capsizing of the film’s 170-foot super-yacht. The filmmakers shot on three different soundstages in New York and L.A. “I was very concerned about it,” says Koskoff, “but surprisingly, it went off without a hitch.”

While Koskoff admits overall it was a difficult shoot, she attributes the success of the project to the production team. “We put together a fantastic crew, many of whom had worked with Marty before,” she says, singling out producer and production manager Georgia Kacandes and assistant director Adam Somner. (“He runs a really tight set.”). “I think it’s a privilege to work with Marty, and his crews really give him 200%.”

Fruitvale Station

“Every dollar counted,” says Nina Yang Bongiovi, who together with Forest Whitaker, produced the low-budget Sundance 2013 sensation, “Fruitvale Station.” Winner of the PGA’s Stanley Kramer Award, which honors producers or film that raise awareness for important social issues, “Fruitvale” tells the true story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who was shot and killed by a police officer on the last day of 2008.

Neither first-time director Ryan Coogler nor the movie’s tough subject matter made for an easy sell among U.S.-based backers, according to Bongiovi. “They said, ‘Who are you going after to star?’ When I said we were excited about Michael B. Jordan, they’d say he didn’t have foreign value.”

Fortunately, Bongiovi had some wealthy childhood friends based in Asia, among them Shanghai-based Michael Y. Chow, who committed $800,000 because he believed in the film’s story of racial injustice. That was enough to jump-start production, but it turned out not enough to finish the film.

Garnering locations was one of the biggest obstacles. Though they finally received permission to shoot on the trains and stations of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, where the film reaches its climax, the extra costs associated with union labor took a hefty toll on their budget. “That’s when Octavia Spencer stepped up,” Bongiovi says. The Oscar-winning actress, who plays Grant’s mother, helped with financing. She also refused her per diem and paid her own hotel charges.

In order to shoot on film — Coogler wanted the richness and grittiness of Super 16mm — they also needed extra cash for processing. Another friend of Bongiovi’s, John Kwok, wired $100,000 from Hong Kong. In the final days of the mere 20-day shoot, Bay Area philanthropist Lisa Kleiner-Chanoff also came on board to help with funding.
For all these benevolent gestures, the production still barely scraped by. “I’m embarrassed to say what we paid our editor,” Bongiovi says. “But the challenge and beauty of making a film for around $1 million is that the script better be damn good, or you’re not going to get all of those favors.”

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