‘Irishman’ and ‘Joker’ Producer: Oscar Double Play for a Fifth Time?

Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Matt Baron/Shutterstock

In 91 years of Academy Awards, there have only been four occasions when a producer had two best picture nominees simultaneously: Francis Coppola and Fred Roos, with 1974’s “The Godfather Part II” and “The Conversation”; Scott Rudin, with 2010’s “The Social Network” and “True Grit”; Megan Ellison, 2013’s “American Hustle” and “Her”; and Steve Golin for “Spotlight” and “The Revenant,” 2015.

That could happen this year with Emma Tillinger Koskoff, who produced “The Irishman” and “Joker.” As a bonus, she was also exec producer on “Uncut Gems.” In other words, she’s having a good year.

Tillinger Koskoff freely admits that many people, even within the industry, are unclear on a producer’s role: “Some producers find the material and develop it. Some raise the funds and never go to the set. That’s not what I do.” What she does do: Pay attention to the filmmaker’s vision, and do everything necessary to bring it to life.

Even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has seemed vague about the role. It wasn’t until the 24th ceremony, for the films of 1951, that the producer was nominated by name. Before that, the best picture Oscar went to the studio. That sometimes led to awkward moments: When producer Hal Wallis rose in his seat after “Casablanca” was announced as 1943’s best picture, studio topper Jack Warner beat him to the stage and made a jubilant acceptance speech. “And 40 years later, I still haven’t recovered from the shock,” Wallis told film historian Ronald Haver in 1989.

The first producer whose name was read out loud at the Oscar ceremony was Arthur Freed, winner for the 1951 “An American in Paris.” For the next 20 years, it was either solo or duo producers. The innovation of three nominated producers was introduced in 1973, with Tony Bill, Michael Phillips and Julia Phillips (the first woman nominated in the category), who won for “The Sting.” “The Deer Hunter” (1978) was the first best picture Oscar contender with four producers, and 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love” had five, including Miramax distribution topper Harvey Weinstein. The following year, AMPAS set a cap of four, but agreed to make exceptions in rare cases.

And the Producers Guild is working to stop execs’ habit of promiscuously handing out a producer title. It’s an ongoing battle.

Tillinger Koskoff clearly earned her credits. “Irishman” began shooting in September 2017 and wrapped in March 2018. As “Irishman” went into post, Tillinger Koskoff shifted immediately to the Warner Bros. production “Joker,” her first film as a producer without Martin Scorsese.

She had been associate producer on Scorsese’s 2006 “The Departed,” and has worked on all of his films since (“Shutter Island,” “Hugo,” documentaries), becoming a producer on “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), “Silence” (2016) and “Irishman.” In each collaboration, her duties are similar: She keeps her distance as he works with the writer — in this case, Steven Zaillian — on the script: “When they come up with something close to a shooting script, that’s when I go into action.”

She oversees the assembly of a production team and works on the budget and schedule. She and Scorsese work hand in hand during prep, as they hire crews and fill out the cast. “And during production, I’m with him every moment, before the first call and after the day’s wrap.

“I’ve never worked on a film with the scope and scale of ‘Irishman.’ We wrapped the film in March 2018. Four days later, I was in a scout van with Todd and Mark Friedberg [director and production designer, respectively] for ‘Joker.’

“This was my first film as a producer without Marty, so I was understandably nervous,” says the producer. “But Todd was so encouraging and supportive, I quickly started to gain confidence. “With ‘Joker,’ I learned that I could use the same skill set as a producer. Marty knows what he wants; I then make it happen. I did that for Todd as well.”

And there has been a big payoff: The Warner Bros. film has passed $1 billion at the box-office.