38th Santa Barbara International Film Festival Producers Panel – “Find the thing you care to tell a story about” [VIDEO]
Movie fans braced unseasonably cold temperatures on Super Bowl Sunday in Santa Barbara to enjoy the annual Producer’s Panel at the 38th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, an assemblage of producers of the year’s most lauded films. Nine of the ten Best Picture Oscar nominees were represented, including Gail Berman (Elvis), Jerry Bruckheimer (Top Gun: Maverick), Todd Field (TÁR), Dede Gardner (Women Talking), Malte Grunert (All Quiet on the Western Front), Kristie Macosko Krieger (The Fabelmans), Jon Landau (Avatar: The Way of Water), Jonathan Wang (Everything Everywhere All At Once) and Erik Hemmendorff (Triangle of Sadness). Only All Quiet on the Western Front credits a single producer, so, other than Grunert, each producer on the stage was representing a team. The only Best Picture nominee not represented for the discussion was The Banshees of Inisherin.
Los Angeles Times columnist Glenn Whipp moderated a discussion that covered a breadth of topics, including challenges each producer encountered, how COVID affected their productions and the overall state of cinema today, including their level of optimism about whether audiences, post-pandemic, will continue to go back to the movies.
Here are some highlights.
Berman admitted she always wanted to make a movie about Elvis, but knew she would only make it if there was a new way to tell his story. “Who could make the movie and tell the story like nobody has done before?” Enter Baz Luhrmann.
Hemmendorff said the ship’s interior for Triangle of Sadness was the biggest set ever built in Sweden, and the whole thing was on a gimbal (so they could create the effect of the yacht being tossed on the sea). Even though Sweden was never shut down for COVID, the rest of the world was, so their actors couldn’t get there, so the set just sat there for months.
Krieger read the script for The Fabelmans even before any of writer/director/producer Steven Spielberg’s sisters did. “He was always on the fence about making it. It was more like therapy for him.” He wanted her to read it to see if it was something more than therapy. If it wasn’t, he was happy to just put it in a drawer and move on. But Krieger read it and instantly said, “This is not just your story, this is a universal story and it has to be made.”
But Spielberg had to get more than Krieger’s blessing. If any one of Spielberg’s three sisters had said no to making the film, he wouldn’t have done it. Thankfully, they all said yes. And not only did they support the film, Krieger said, but they were incredible resources, adding little touches to make the sets, hair, makeup and costumes much more authentic. They helped the makeup designer look through hundreds of shades of red lipstick, for example, to get their mother, Mitzi’s, perfect color.
The film brought Spielberg and his sisters closer than they ever had been. They didn’t know the secret that Spielberg had been carrying around, which is revealed in the film, until they read the script. Krieger notes, “He was ready to be open and to forgive and it wasn’t like anything I’d seen before.”
Whipp noted to Landau that he has produced three of the top four box office grossing films of all time (Avatar, Avatar: Way of Water and Titanic). But before Whipp could get a question to Landau about that, Landau immediately made a point about how honored he was to be on the stage with all the incredibly talented producers, and how important it is that all of them, and others, continue to make films to be shown on the big screen. And he encouraged them to continue to take risks, “We have to take chances in our movies. Audiences want that.”
The state of moviegoing, post-COVID, was on every panelist’s mind, as Field noted a key element is getting the arthouse theaters to come back.
Bruckheimer, not willing to give in to the sense of gloom-and-doom, acknowledged that he was the oldest one on the stage, and he remembers when “experts” buried movies when television was invented, and then again when DVDs arrived, and, every time, movies continued to thrive, so he believes the industry will continue to succeed, as long as there’s something people want to watch. “As long as we make good product, people will show up.” He added, “We all have kitchens, but we all still love to go out to eat. The communal experience of what we do is what it’s all about.”
Field, who wrote and directed TÁR, admitted he also produced the film, in addition to all of his other duties because “I’m not very smart.” Due to budgetary restrictions, he was the only American they could afford to have on the set in Germany. Because he acknowledges that, “I’m not a professional filmmaker. I don’t make a living doing this,” he hired an 80-year old line producer who has been in the industry for fifty years and has seen and done it all, to make sure he wasn’t missing anything.
For Field, the biggest stress of the TÁR shoot was the fact that they were planning on working with the Dresden Philharmonic, but, because all German orchestras are democratic, which Field calls “a nightmare,” the process of getting approval was very long and arduous. Because of the pandemic, the orchestra hadn’t been performing, so they had a very small window to get the film shot with them and they didn’t get the green light until days before shooting. “We had no plan B, so it was terrifying.”
Wang noted that, contrary to popular belief, Everything Everywhere All at Once did not have a big budget. “It cost $14 million to make the film.” The production used one location, an empty office building in Simi Valley, California, to shoot nearly the entire film, using almost every inch of the building, and adapting floors and rooms as needed.
Everything Everywhere All at Once had to be shot in a single location, and it had to be close to Los Angeles, both because co-writer/director/producer Daniel Kwan had just had a baby and wanted to be close to home, and because the only way they could secure Jamie Lee Curtis was to shoot in Los Angeles.
Wang, who was the youngest producer on the stage, said it was important to him and the Daniels that the film be made “with kindness and love,” referring to a culture on the set to make it fun and a place everyone wants to be. They had decent hours and enforced a “no yelling” policy on set. They all agreed to “Make it like a summer camp.”
Asked what it was that made the three of them work so well together, Wang confessed, “I’m half Chinese and half white, and Daniel Kwan is Chinese and Daniel Scheinert is white, so I feel like their weird little love baby.”
In Germany, the book All Quiet on the Western Front is canon, and is taught in every school. Because of this, the pitch for the film was the only time director Edward Berger’s teenage daughter showed the slightest bit of interest in his work. Grunert tells of how it was Berger’s seventeen-year-old daughter who encouraged him to make the film, when she said she had just read it for class and found it to be beautiful.
Regarding how they found star Felix Kammerer, who makes his big screen debut in All Quiet on the Western Front, Grunert said his wife, who worked for the state theatre of Vienna, Austria, had hired him to be in a show and she insisted Grunert come to see him.
Bruckheimer thoroughly credits co-producer and star of Top Gun: Maverick, Tom Cruise, for the fact that Top Gun: Maverick was in theaters. The pandemic continued to push off a release date—it was pushed back for over two years—but Cruise was “adamant” that it be seen in theaters. “He was right,” Bruckheimer said. It turned out to be the first adult film that brought audiences back after the pandemic.
Jumping on that point, the conversation swung back again to the topic of moviegoing, as Berman thanked Bruckheimer for blazing the path for adult films to come back to the theater, noting every film represented on the stage (except maybe Avatar: The Way of Water) needed adult audiences in order to survive. “We were the beneficiaries of your film and its success.” Krieger was quick to tell Bruckheimer directly, “I saw [Top Gun: Maverick] six times. SIX TIMES, Jerry. Six.”
Dede Gardner says what drew her to Women Talking was reading a script about “minds changing through conversation.” She feels the film is very hopeful, imagining what a different future can be like.
When Whipp asked the panel, “Actors get glory, directors get credit, what do producers get?,” the panel was quiet until one person said, “Grey hair!”
Whipp pointed out there were film students in the audience, and he asked the panelists if they had any advice for the students. Here’s what was offered:
- Wang advised students to be knowledgeable about the world and what needs to be said. “Knowing the stories to tell is the most important thing.”
- Krieger, who came from the assistant world, said to “pay attention to everything,” and “no job is too big or too small.”
- Landau urged them to be sure to treat everyone the same (and well) because you never know where your next job will come from.
- Bruckheimer, who started in the mailroom, advised the students to ask questions and say yes to everything.
- Hemmendorff suggested the students find their crew. Find someone you find joy with, but someone you can fail with, too. “Trouble is fun if you share it.”
- Berman advised, “Find the thing you care to tell a story about. You must have passion for the story you’re telling.”
Photo by Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF