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31 May 2023

Plenty of obstacles on the road to awards: filmmakers

Nora Ephron puts Meryl Streep and others through their paces on Julie and Julia. (SUPPLIED)

By Zorianna Kit

Producer Finola Dwyer can thank Orlando Bloom for the success of An Education – even if he isn't in the film.

Dwyer, who produced the 1960s comedy-drama with Amanda Posey, had financiers interested in backing the movie but couldn't close a deal until she attached a "name'' to the project.

"When Orlando Bloom committed, I used that as leverage to complete the financing,'' she recalls. "That's when the film became real.''

Two weeks later, Bloom dropped out, but it didn't matter. Dwyer had structured an arrangement so the moneymen did not have approval over casting. With a start date around the corner, Dwyer and Posey scrambled and found a replacement in Dominic Cooper, who had auditioned for the film and was among the top choices.

"Fortunately for us, Dominic was still available and still keen to do it,'' says Dwyer, who reached out to the actor on a Wednesday, did his deal on a Thursday and had him rehearsing with the cast by Friday. Some movies take years to get to the screen, while others seem to come together practically overnight.

This year's awards films each faced a turning point – a hurdle that the filmmakers overcame to ensure their project got made.

Where is the money?

Financing is often the top challenge for independent producers, but for Lee Daniels, director-producer of Precious, that was not the case. In fact, Gary Magness and Sarah Siegel-Magness, who put up the money for Daniels' 2008 film, Tennessee, approached him about a follow-up.

"We were posting Tennessee in the editing room and Sarah just turned to me and said, 'Let's do another movie right away','' Daniels recalls. "I said, 'OK, it's Push [the original title], and that's when the movie became real. I immediately jumped into prep while I was still in post.''

The Magnesses hadn't even seen Tennessee before committing to Precious. But their move proved shrewd: The Colorado couple could find themselves at the Kodak Theatre on Oscar night.

It wasn't so easy for fashion designer-turned-director Tom Ford. He had to swoop in and save his own film, A Single Man, from an early death by putting up his own money, said to be in the $7 million (Dh25.7m) range. Fortunately, his work over the years with Gucci, Yves St Laurent and his own label enabled him to do that.

"The exact turning point came in midsummer 2008 when, after struggling to complete outside financing, I made the decision that I would fully finance the film myself if I could not finalise a deal,'' Ford recalls.

As he continued talks, Ford began planning for preproduction. Then Lehman Brothers went under and the global financial meltdown ensued. "Needless to say, my possibility of outside financing evaporated,'' Ford says.

The first-time filmmaker had a lot to lose. But the project was extremely personal to him. He had optioned Christopher Isherwood's novel himself and bought an existing screenplay by David Scearce. He wrote a new script, personalised with elements from his own life.

Then the actor hired to play the lead, George, dropped out when production schedules changed. And the actor meant to play George's student, Kenny, simply decided not to show up five days before filming began. Ford refused to let his hard work lead to nothing.

"I decided that the project meant so much to me and that it might never come together again with such a perfect cast and crew. I simply had to make the film,'' he says. "I financed it myself and I have never regretted that decision for a minute.''

Budget battles

Nancy Meyers' It's Complicated is a studio movie, but she still faced a key challenge in getting Universal to commit to it. She sold the project as a pitch and had a script ready to go in seven months.

"The movie is only real when you get the green light, and no movie is greenlit until you hit that number the studio wants you to hit,'' says Meyers, who wrote, directed and produced the film. "That's when the gun goes off and everybody is running out the gate.''

In Meyers' case, her budget was around $75m, insiders say. With a cast that includes A-listers Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, filming in Los Angeles would be too expensive, so production moved to New York to take advantage of rebates.

"Shooting a movie that takes place in Santa Barbara in May when you're in Brooklyn in the snow was definitely challenging,'' Meyers jokes. "But we had to make 75 per cent of the movie in New York.'' (Four weeks of exteriors were shot in LA with three days in Santa Barbara.)

Like Meyers, The Hangover's Todd Phillips – whose company has a deal with Warner Bros – knew his project would get made only if he met a certain budget the studio could live with. In his case, it was about $35m.

While the studio wanted him to shoot somewhere cheap, the filmmaker was adamant that the movie be shot in Las Vegas. He stuck to that point, even though it eventually cost him some upfront salary, until both sides agreed on a budget.

"I said, 'Yeah, we can back into the number','' says Phillips, who directed and produced the film. "Then it became very real very quick.''

Phillips also told the studio he wanted to make an R-rated comedy using unproven talent because "there have been a lot of the same faces in comedies in the last few years,'' he recalls.

"I was trying to build the movie a bit around Zach Galifianakis because I've known him forever and I thought he was never used properly in a film," he says.

The gamble paid off with more than $300m in domestic box office and a Golden Globe nomination for best picture (musical/comedy).

And Galifianakis, Ed Helms and Bradley Cooper have become big stars.

Thespian enthusiasm

For Jason Reitman, who directed, produced and co-wrote Up in the Air, attaching an established star to the lead role was a key hurdle in getting the film made. In Reitman's case, he had only one actor in mind for his lead: George Clooney.

"I was at George's house in Lake Como,'' Reitman recalls. "He walked in to the room and said: 'I just read it. It's great, I'm in.'''

Nora Ephron had a similar experience when she finished writing the script for Julie & Julia. She had run into Streep in New York and was astonished when she told the actress what she was working on and Streep suddenly burst into a dead-on impersonation of Child. Inevitably, that made Streep first port of call when the script was done.

"Forty-eight hours later she called and said she would do it,'' Ephron says. "At that point, I knew someone would give us the money."

That someone was Sony Pictures boss Amy Pascal. "Meryl had conveniently become a gigantic box-office star between the time I started work on this project and finished the script,'' Ephron jokes. By the time production ended on Julia, Streep had also earned her 15th Oscar nomination for Doubt.

"No matter what movie you're doing, you always know it's cast-contingent,'' Ephron says. "To me, that's when the movie comes together, and that's when the movie falls apart."

Sometimes finding that key star doesn't work on the first try. When filmmaker Rob Marshall was proceeding with Nine, casting the lead wasn't so clear-cut.

"The heart of Nine is a character who is European and has to sing,'' says Marc Platt, one of the film's producers. "There was a relatively short list of known actors that met those requirements. The moment I knew with certainly we were moving forward is when we cast Daniel Day-Lewis.''

Getting there, however, wasn't a slam-dunk. Javier Bardem was first in discussions for the role of filmmaker Guido Contini, but his schedule couldn't be worked out. Marshall then offered the role to Day-Lewis. "Daniel coming forward just clinched it and made the film an undeniable certainty,'' he says. "The train really left the station,'' concludes Marshall.

Director's cut

A-list directors are another factor that can turn a dead project into a living film.

Although producers Lori McCreary and Morgan Freeman had Nelson Mandela's blessing to proceed on Invictus with Freeman playing the South African leader, the film "became real when Clint Eastwood came on board,'' McCreary says.

Similarly, Mark Boal, who wrote and produced The Hurt Locker, felt he had a real movie when Kathryn Bigelow agreed to direct his project.Boal says financier Nicolas Chartier was a fan of Bigelow's and had already expressed an interest in financing her next project. "Without her, I'd probably be still walking around with the script.''


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