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LYDIA TENAGLIA - When It Comes To Embracing New Frontiers In Nonfiction TV, The Producer and PGA Member Has No Reservations

Posted By Chris Green, Wednesday, October 25, 2017

First things first: the G is silent. “Te-NAL-ya,” she corrects me, proudly rolling the word around the L like a Calabrian street vendor. “It means ‘pliers’ in Italian, which I somehow think is very fitting,” she smiles. ”It feels like a good match for my personality—tenacious. Tenaglia.”

Having tenacity as a birthright seems like a pretty good starting place for a producing career, particularly one that’s based in the highly competitive and ever-shifting world of nonfiction television. A post-college, entry-level stint at legendary documentary company Maysles Films provided the next step, schooling her in the finer points of the classic verité style. She put that education into practice out in the field while still employed at Maysles, serving as camera assistant on the acclaimed 1992 doc Brother’s Keeper.

After graduating from NYU’s graduate film program, Tenaglia started to hone her producing chops at the late and lamented New York Times Television, graduating from the edit bay to story development and field producing. Along with creative partner (and later husband) Chris Collins, Tenaglia began to look for material the duo could expand into larger work. She struck gold when she picked up Kitchen Confidential, the charged, abrasive, intensely readable memoir of then-chef Anthony Bourdain, which pulled the curtain back—way back—on the New York restaurant world. Upon learning that Bourdain was proposing an Innocents Abroad-style travel journal as his follow-up, Tenaglia saw the rich narrative possibilities of the idea and picked up the phone. The ultimate result of that cold call was A Cook’s Tour, which aired on The Cooking Channel for two seasons before hitting its stride as No Reservations following its pickup by the Travel Channel. Today Tenaglia, Collins and Bourdain’s flagship show lives at CNN, under its third title, Parts Unknown.

While Bourdain’s ongoing gastronomic exploration remains the mainstay of Tenaglia and Collins’ production company, Zero Point Zero, the enduring appeal of the series has allowed its producer to refine her style and expand her own creative horizons. Shows like Meat Eater and The Hunt with John Walsh showcase Tenaglia’s skill at building innovative, culturally engaging series around fiercely distinctive voices, while feature work such as Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent and Fermented leans into the culinary cachet she’s earned through her championing of Bourdain. We’ll learn even more when she and Bourdain take the stage as two of the headliners for the Producers Guild conference Produced By: New York, on October 28.



So, very few producers start out with the idea that they would be producers of either TV or movies. What was the original plan for you?

I’d say early on I was always interested in the field, but I took a circuitous route. I went to undergraduate at Smith College, and then I took two years off and worked at Maysles Fims. There I became interested in cameras and editing and got my first real sense of unscripted production.

Had you done any scripted stuff? Theater stuff, even?

No. When I was at Smith, I had started to dabble in producing short videos for friends who were doing thesis projects and who wanted a video component. I realized that I really liked being behind the camera and trying to tell a story in that way, through a visual medium. So that was my very first intro to producing, all self-taught. And then I had my Maysles experience.  Six months into my job there, I met some documentary filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, and serendipitously ended up on their film called Brother’s Keeper, as a camera assistant. So I got a chance to explore camera. Bruce was also a great editor, so I would go into the edit room and watch him as he did his thing. So I kind of created my own internship that way.

After Maysles and the Brother’s Keeper experience, I wanted to deepen my knowledge of film production, so I went to grad school, NYU Film and Television, and started making my own short films. I found work as an editor around the time production companies were pushing the model of “preditors,” editors who could also produce their own material.

Right, yep.

Do you remember that?

Some folks still use that word.

Yes, it’s still used! There were “preditors” and then there were preditors who coud also shoot, so it was really the trifecta of fun, there! I did producing-shooting-editing at New York Times Television for a while and really got my footing producing stories. I rose up the ranks and started series producing and then executive producing. And then at one point my husband Chris Collins—we worked together as a producing team, as friends, before we were married—and I had this crazy thought, as many people do, “Hey, maybe we should try to go pitch our own stuff.”

And very fortuitously, our paths crossed with Anthony Bourdain, almost 18 years ago. I had read Kitchen Confidential and thought it was a great read, and heard that Bourdain wanted to do a follow-up book called The Cook’s Tour, where he was going to travel around the world. So I went and I met him. Cold called him. He was still working in a restaurant at the time. And I pitched the idea of trying to make A Cook’s Tour into a television show.

He’s like, “Whatever. What the hell. I’m just a writer who happened into a book that made a splash. I’m still working in a kitchen, for God’s sake.”

Chris and I ended up shooting a 10-minute demo at Les Halles, the restaurant where he was working at the time. I edited it together and we pitched that, and that went forward as a series. That was the start of our production company, of our relationship with Bourdain. We formally created Zero Point Zero Production in 2003, and the Bourdain series really became our flagship show. It started at Food Network, where it was called A Cook’s Tour, and then moved  to Travel Channel for eight years as Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, and now we’re on CNN for the last few years as Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.

Many producers don’t have the luxury of that kind of steady anchor series.  Its consistency and longevity is a  production company’s dream, allowing it to grow and evolve. But we had that good fortune. We have about 150 people working at Zero Point Zero now, working on different series for a variety of networks. We continue to have a fantastic partnership with CNN and are working on a few new series for them right now; two are in production and will be announced next year. So that’s that!  My career in a nutshell. [laughs]

Producer Lydia Tenaglia and Anthony Bourdain, en route to the next exotic location and revelatory meal. (photo: Chris Collins)

Can I skip back and visit some points?

Yeah! Of course.

So just going back to Brother’s Keeper, what was that first documentary experience in the field like? What was it about that gig that made you feel like, okay, I’m in my element. This works for me?

Well, even getting on that film was very fortuitous. I was working at Maysles at a really low-level, entry position. But I had become good friends with the guy who managed the equipment there, Marcel Dumont. He taught me a lot about film cameras—how to film load and focus pull, a lot of good AC stuff. Bruce and Joe were also both employees at Maysles at the time; Joe was heading up the sales and marketing department and Bruce was an editor. They happened upon this murder mystery story up in Munnsville, New York and drove up there on their own to check it out.  The quickly realized that they had a good story on theor hands.

So they very quietly gathered a small crew, as cheaply and economically as possible. The DP, Doug Cooper, was incredibly gifted but young at the time and willing to commit to the long hours and low budget.  And so was I. Having been at Maysles for over a year, and watching their verité style of filmmaking secondhand (from my desk chair!) I really wanted the experience of being in the field. So I threw myself into the project. For 10 months, every weekend, the four of us—Joe, Bruce, Dough and I—would load up the van and drive five hours to Munnsville. We’d spend the weekend there, gathering the material for Brother’s Keeper. I was just plunged into that whole world, feeling like: This is really cool. I felt viscerally connected to that kind of storytelling, that kind of camaraderie with a group. That was very eye-opening for me. It was what made me apply to grad film school. I think back on film school now, and honestly? I probably could have done a year of that and gotten the same amount out of it. I don’t regret going. But it’s really an apprenticeship industry. You learn by connecting yourself with people in the industry, a good editor or a good DP or a good producer, and just saying, “I’ll get your frickin’ coffee. I will do whatever it takes. I just really want to learn.” The industry has always been based on that apprenticeship style of learning.

It’s a craft.

It’s a craft. Exactly. It’s a craft and you learn by connecting yourself with the craftsperson. What I learned most by being involved in Brother’s Keeper and observing Joe and Bruce in the field is how, as a filmmaker, you walk the very fine line of connecting with a subject, but then pulling back quietly into an observational role. Working on both sides of that line, you come to understand something very deep about people.  That was unbelievably fascinating. That kind of verité storytelling can be so powerful, so compelling, so riveting. I think my personal producing style probably walks its own line between Maysles-style verité and something more produced. I definitely lean toward wanting pieces of the story to have a more constructed beauty via recreations... but damn, Brother’s Keeper was a masterpiece.

Lydia Tenaglia with iconoclastic chef Jeremiah Tower
on location in Mexico (photo: Lydia Tenaglia)

Being able to integrate that in a way that feels coherent and organic is a real skill and a real challenge. In terms of bringing Anthony into the picture, what was it that sparked for you, that made you pick up the phone and make that cold call?

His writing was very funny, very sardonic. It was brash, almost punk. Kitchen Confidential was flung out there with no sense that it would have any consequences or ramifications. It was very unfiltered but also so smart. Clearly there were lots of references to books and films. So when I heard that he wanted to write A Cook’s Tour, where he was going to travel the world despite having virtually no travel experience, I was intrigued. Bourdain’s entire career up to that point was 25 years in various kitchens of New York. And suddenly he’s asking, “How does the rest of the world eat? What do they think about food?” I thought maybe there’s a series here, where we follow this guy around as he sort of stumbles through the world. And that in fact is exactly what the show became. We found Bourdain at a point in his life where he was really traveling for the first time. Everything was new, everything was different and strange and outside of his comfort zone.

I think we were able to capture that. At the same time, the show would not have worked quite the same way if Bourdain didn’t already have an encyclopedic knowledge of films, of literature and history... he was able to draw from all those references. As producers, Chris and I were feeding off of those creative references. We found that rhythm with Bourdain pretty early on.

By the second location of A Cook’s Tour, Vietnam, we had hit our stride...The minute we landed and exited into that airport—an airport that we’d seen all through images of the Vietnam War—there was an immediate connection to that location for him. He’s a very avid reader of Vietnam history, especially the war period. He had a strong connection to works like Apocalypse Now and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. He had all these references that he started to pull from, and from there, he came alive—and the show really came alive at that point. We ended up doing two seasons of A Cook’s Tour. Then the Food Network’s mandate shifted, and they asked Tony, “Could you try to do more domestic shows? Maybe a barbecue show?”

How did he take that idea?

He … politely pushed away from the table. [laughs] God love them, that stuff has worked very well for Food Network. Nothing against barbecue shows! Because hey, we did a barbecue show. But Tony’s like, no, I’m really enjoying this international thing. Fortunately, we were able to continue making the show with other networks.

After doing the series for so many seasons, how do you work to keep the format fresh?

The format for the show actually forces us to keep it fresh. For each location we travel to, we ask: Is there a reference that we want to tap into for this particular place? Several years ago, we did an episode of No Reservations set in Rome. We did it all in black and white, very much fashioned after that Italian neo-realist style. That was the starting point. How do we shoot a Rome episode using Italian neo-realism as our reference point? That’s the starting point, I think, for every episode. Is there a film reference, a book reference, an historical reference we can use as inspiration? Is there a filmmaker we really like? Bourdain a fan of Wong Kar-wai, for example, so our Hong Kong episode became an homage to Wong Kar-wai films. Darren Aronofsky, the director, wanted to accompany Tony to Madagascar so that episode had its own texture and tone.

Hit Madagascar with Darren Aronofsky. Cool, cross that off the bucket list.

[laughs] Exactly. I mean, the only real format to the show is: It’s Bourdain and we go to a country. That’s it. The rest is asking the questions: What’s the story here? Who are the characters in that place who can tell that story? The show has moved way beyond just sitting down to eat food at the table. We did an L.A. episode where we concentrated the entire show in a three-block radius of Koreatown. We just made the entire show about that world of characters who live there.

Yeah, that neighborhood is a real crossroads. In terms of prep, how far out are you planning these shoots? Obviously you need to have some control over your shooting environment, but so much of the best nonfiction work comes out of spontaneity and improvisation.

Prep can be anywhere from five to seven weeks, depending on the location and how difficult it is to access. It’s important to find good fixers on the ground who can help get that inside access, and find characters who can tell the story of that location in a unique way. If we have a strong visual conceit, like in the Wong Kar-wai episode, that will inform the kind of cameras and lenses we use, along with the color palette and style of shooting. That part gets carefully thought out. When shooting each individual scene, there is a tremendous amount of improvisation, but there is also a lot of structure in the way a particular story is going to be told.
 

Can you talk a little more about that? What are some times on location when you had to scramble, where you wound up somewhere unexpected?

I can answer that question pretty literally, in fact. [laughs] But I have to first note that I’m not physically producing that particular series anymore. It’s produced in the field by an incredibly skilled team of directors, producers and cinematographers, led by executive producer Sandy Zweig, who are putting their own personal and very unique aesthetics into each episode. But very early on when we were doing A Cook’s Tour, it was just me and Chris and Tony in the field. For one episode, we were in Cambodia and suddenly had this opportunity to fling ourselves into the unknown—the fixer said, “If you want, you can take a boat ride up this river and it’ll take you to this interesting little town in the jungle on the border of Cambodia and Thailand.” Now, this trip was not included in any of our preproduction research, but we thought, sure, let’s see where this goes. We made our way down to the shoreline in a very remote location and suddenly this man pulls up … in full military fatigues. That was our boat. The three of us got on with him. He spoke no English. And we made our way up this river, deeper and deeper—it went on for a long time, hours and hours. The sun started to drop. The boat suddenly stopped. In the middle of nowhere, we picked up another passenger, a male passenger, also in miliraty fatigues. And at that point, we looked at each other and we were all a bit freaked out.

Now as producers, you can either sit there and be completely freaked out—and we were—or you can be freaked out and then try to make a scene out of that. Up until that point, we had been mostly shooting the scenery along the way, but then  we decided to tap into what was actually happening there, tap into our fear and trepidation in that moment, and make that a piece of the story. We started prompting Tony, trying to shoot him in a way that hovered between fear and fascination with the situation and what we were all feeling. That became one of the strongest scenes in the episode.

That was nothing we ever could have pre-produced. It was not on any outline. I think that is the strength of the Bourdain series, the way it walks that tightrope of improvisation.

So if as you’ve said, Bourdain has provided the foundation for Zero Point Zero’s work, how have you tried to build on that?

Across most of our work, we definitely lean in the direction of character-driven stories. The characters have a really strong personal voice. Eight out of 10 times they’re actually very good writers; they’ve either written books or they’re accomplished journalists. So from the start, there is a strong editorial point of view and a strong writing style. We’ve done a series called Meat Eater, a hunting show, for six years now with a guy named Steven Rinella. That was a subject that I thought I had no affinity for and certainly had my own preconceived notions about. He walked in the door of our office that frst day and I was like, Oh, here comes the hunter guy. I already know what this is going to be. But I started to read his work. He’s written several incredible books about the ethos and philosophy of the hunter. He’s probably got a more honest relationship with food than any of us does, and he was able to articulate the world of hunting in a way that really attracted us to the subject matter.

He surprised us, just like Tony did with food and the table. Food and the table was just an entry point to talk about something bigger. It isn’t just about that banh mi you’re eating in Vietnam, it’s about what is contextually happening around it. It’s sociopolitical, it’s cultural. Steven Rinella was able to articulate the story of the hunter to us in a very similar way. Hunting is just the way in to talk about a particular philosophy, about a personal ethos.

We’ve done The Hunt with John Walsh about the search for criminal fugitives. John, of course, did years of America’s Most Wanted, and I had had my preconceived notions of who John was. But he came in and really started to articulate his world in a powerful way. He made us all understand deeply the importance of his work for the last 25 years, And we realized that there’s a way to redefine this subject matter from a new and very particular point of view.


How so?

What you realize when you speak to John is that his strong passion to capture criminals emanates from a very personal tragedy, and he has an ability to articulate that experience from the point of view of the victim and the victim’s family, So The Hunt is really about the internal life of the victim and of those left behind after something tragic has transpired.

We don’t put John in the field like in America’s Most Wanted. Instead, we inteview him in this very gritty, raw space, where he’s able to comment on particular cases in a way that cuts straight through to the audience: This victim was a living, breathing person with feelings and dreams and a family... and this is the aftermath when a person’s life is tragically cut short. The people around them are left in a state of internal chaos and despair.  The criminal who perpetrated this crime ran away from what they did. They must be found and must face what they have done.

The series is very powerful and very effective.  The audience becomes invested in the hunt and engaged in the process of calling the tip line.  In the three seasons we’ve been on, the show has been directly responsible for the capture of many criminal fugitives.

Tenaglia (second left) and Anthony Bourdain (second right) celebrate a delicious Vietnamese meal at Com Niue Saigon with hosts Dinh Hoang Linh (left) and Madame Ngoc (center), and producer Chris Collins (right). (photo: Diane Schutz)


That kind of material requires a really delicate touch.

Yes. I really credit the two showrunners, Shawn Cuddy and Ted Schillinger, for the way they crewed up the series.  The teams they hired are highly skilled at riding that delicate line between caring for the victims while also getting the material they needed to tell their story.  Not easy.

So, having done this for 17, 18 years, you’ve been able to watch whatever we call “reality television” cycle around a bit.

Yeah, we’ve watched a pretty big cycle go around.

How have you guys adapted to those cycles?

I think it’s more like we purposely haven’t adapted. During the years where everyone was perhaps hovering around a certain kind of reality television, I think we held our own, in large part because we’ve never been any good at pitching to the mandates. We just don’t. We can’t. A network will send out their signals, ‘This is what we’re focused on,’ but we can only pitch in a way that we truly can get excited about, that we find interesting, and that we feel like we could produce in our own Zero Point Zero style. Of course, that doesn’t always work out for us. Networks certainly have their own brands of storytelling. If our style meshes—great. If it doesn’t, we move on. But we’re not going to re-imagine the show in a way that’s less interesting to us just to fit a network’s brand identity. I’m sure a lot of production companies can relate to this.

That can be tricky when trends dictate that “food programming” means cooking competitions and recipe shows.

Yeah, in general, I would say most of the networks that we deal with here in the U.S., aside from CNN, do feel more comfortable with domestic-type programming. It doesn’t preclude them doing things that are international, but there’s an emphasis on trying to keep stuff closer to home. Whereas partners like Netflix, for example, who are inherently global by the nature of their platform, are looking for programming that can appeal to audiences all over the world. So I think they like what we do and know that we can do it well, and they believe that the material we create can be re-versioned for their different global markets. So that’s why we like working with them. The same is true of CNN. I mean, CNN’s a news organization. They’re not going to say, “Make another barbecue show.” They’re telling us, “Yes! Go to Myanmar. Go to the Congo.” Other networks more likely say—with complete justification, since they know their own brand—you know what? Our audience is not really interested in the Congo or Myanmar or what’s happening there.

What would you say to other producers who are looking to expand the boundaries of the form – geographically or in whatever other way?

Don’t be afraid to defy convention. Don’t be afraid to break the mold. You see a lot of networks decide, “Oh, that’s working,” and then everyone falls in line. “Let’s try to repeat that.”

TV is very good at that.

[laughs] It’s very good at that. I’m not trying to sound arrogant or whatever, but if you believe in trying to push the ball forward, then push the ball forward. Don’t be afraid to put your inimitable stamp on something. If someone pitches me an idea and they’re like, “Hey, this is the next Deadliest Catch” or whatever … Well, I don’t want to do the next Deadliest Catch. Because they already did Deadliest Catch, and they did it really fuckin’ well. Why do you want to do the next Deadliest Catch? Move forward. Find somebody who can tell you a story that only that person can tell, then build a world around them and push the damn ball forward.

 

- photography by Noah Fecks

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EMMA THOMAS - Meet Christopher Nolan's producer - for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in Gotham or in Dunkirk

Posted By Chris Green, Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Her situation is, admittedly, a little different than most of her producing peers. The “resting state” of many producers is to have a multitude of projects in various states of development or production, following the heat wherever and whenever it appears. As opposed to Emma Thomas, who at any given moment is working on one project, and that project alone. Most producers are constantly seeking and cultivating new connections and industry allies. Thomas’ career to date is the product of a single relationship that spans her personal and professional life—she’s the producer, wife and essential creative partner of visionary filmmaker Christopher Nolan. A chance meeting during their first days at University College London blossomed into a decades-spanning collaboration, yielding not only contemporary classics like InceptionThe Prestige and The Dark Knight trilogy, but four children as well.

If Thomas’ role as a development producer is by its nature narrower than that of her peers, the challenges she faces in prep and production are almost certainly more expansive—service as Chris Nolan’s producer means that it’s on her to bring to life such elements as interstellar travel, dreams within dreams within dreams and a teetering-on-the-brink Gotham City. One of the few filmmaking teams who appear determined to push the envelope with every new outing, Thomas and Nolan most recently have raised the bar with their thrilling war film, Dunkirk. A compact epic, its elegant cross-cutting narrative, historical authenticity and exhilarating camera work have earned the duo some of the best reviews of their storied careers.

We were fortunate to catch up with Emma Thomas at the Dunkirk press junket at Santa Monica Airport’s Barker Hangar. For someone whose work has taken audiences to the outer and inner edges of the known universe, Thomas is reassuringly grounded and accessible. Nearly 30 years into her film career, she sounds as surprised as anyone to have wound up an essential contributor to some of the most successful and admired films of the current generation. Even amid the buzz of the junket, shes relaxed and friendly. She admits that it helps that everyone seems to really like the film, and anyway, with regard to the press, the stakes for her are lower: Nobody is that interested in producers,” she deadpans.

Not if we have anything to say about it.

I have to imagine that being in this position, as a blockbuster movie producer, was not your career target, growing up.

It never occurred to me that it was even a possibility.

So, what left turn brought you into producing?

I completely fell into it. My dad was a diplomat, a civil servant. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. I assumed I was going to go into the Foreign Service like my dad.

And my first day at university, I met a guy called Chris Nolan. He had always wanted to be a director. I was really fascinated by that, because I didnt know anything about that world. It was right at the beginning of the school term time when everyone is joining lots of different clubs and societies. And he said, “I’m going to go make films in the Film Society.I thought, Well, thats kind of interesting.I mean, how do you even do that? I had no idea.

So it really started as a social thing. That was just the group of friends that I connected with. I had no idea what a producer did, but I started helping Chris make his films, and that was kind of the beginning of it.

So by the end of university, I decided I didnt want to go into the foreign office. Chris had some ideas for films, and I figured Id try and get a job in the film industry. But of course we were in England; there werent a huge number of film companies around. But there was one called Working Title. They ran an internship, where you could be a runner for two weeks for free. I did that, and afterwards got my first job with them as a receptionist. I remember my dad came down to meet me. He took me out to lunch and he had a pile of brochures from the civil service in England. I think he was pretty horrified that I had gone to university, the first one in my family to do so, and then I was taking a job as a receptionist.

But that was the beginning of it. I learned an enormous amount from watching Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner but also Jane Frazer, who was my immediate boss. I ended up working as an in-house physical production coordinator. In the meantime, on weekends, we were making our own films.

So talking about Tim and Eric and Jane, what sort of information and experience did they impart to you?

Tim and Eric, they were head and shoulders above everyone else in England at the time, making films in what I want to call an Americanway. They had very commercial sensibilities but at the same time really cared about script and the artistic integrity of their films. Jane taught me everything about the nuts and bolts of filmmaking and what it takes to make a film, from how a production report works to insurance and budgeting. What was most amazing about her was that she was incredibly generous with her time and her expertise and never made me feel like I didnt have a right to ask questions. She was incredibly encouraging and Im enormously grateful to the three of them.

When the time came, Chris had finished making this film called Following, which we shot on weekends with no money whatsoever. We were looking at the way independent films were discovered in the U.S., and it seemed very much as though we needed to do the film festival thing. I was talking to Jane about what I wanted to do next and she said, Well, you could go and work on one of our productions, if you want. Or maybe you could go and work in our LA office.And of course I went straight for the LA office. That was where I needed to be if we were going to figure out how to put this film that we had made out there.

Producer Emma Thomas chats between takes with cast member Harry Styles
on the set of Warner Bros.' action thriller Dunkirk. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon

Landing In LA for the first time, was there a major culture shock?

The system here is very different, with the agencies and the studios and so on.  Just learning who everyone was and how it all worked was an incredible eye-opener for me.  In the meantime, we were submitting Following to festivals. I look back now and I think, Gosh, you were so naïve.Because we really believed that if we just sent these tapes out cold, they would get discovered.  We were incredibly lucky that anyone ever watched the film or managed to pick it up from the pile.  We did manage to get Following into a couple festivals, including the San Francisco Film Festival. We had shot the film on 16mm but cut it on tape, and we had to have a print to show, which was going to cost us $6,000.  We had to raise the money. It was the most intense and insane experience of our lives because we got the print made in the UK, and our lead actor flew the print up to San Francisco. I mean, it had just been finished. He flew it out with hours to spare before our first screening at the festival.  The first time we saw this print was when it ran in the theater. I look back on it now and I think we were mad to do that.

After we had a successful screening in San Francisco we hooked up with an amazing guy named Peter Broderick who ran a company called Next Wave Films.  Peter gave us finishing funds so that we could blow the film up to 35 mm, and helped us get distribution.  We played a bunch of other festivals, while in the meantime, Chris had been writing Memento.  On the back of the small-scale success that Following had, we managed to get Memento going.

One of the great things about your and Chriscareers is that the earlier films each demonstrate a clear growth in terms of scale and production complexity.

Exactly. I would say that the leap from Following to Memento is by far the biggest leap we’ve made. When you look at Chris’ body of work on paper, you would probably think that Insomnia to Batman Begins would be the biggest leap.

I admit, that was my thought, at first.

To me, the biggest jump was actually Following to Memento, because although Memento was a miniscule budget by comparison with the films that we subsequently made, it was the first time that we were making a film with somebody else’s money. You’re no longer pleasing yourself. On Following, we could do whatever we wanted. We controlled every aspect of it. We didn’t have anyone giving us notes. I mean, it was incredible, looking back. On Memento, there were a lot of people with a great deal of money invested, and if they didn’t have money invested, they had their reputations invested. So you find yourself having to do a lot more explanation of what you’re doing.

Especially with a story like Memento.

Especially with Memento. Memento was a script that when I first read it, I remember very clearly a lot of going back and forth among the pages. It was definitely a challenging script, pushing boundaries in a very unique way, just a very different experience. All credit to Newmarket and [producers] Aaron Ryder and Jen and Suzanne Todd for taking a chance on it. It was an incredible act of faith in Chris and in the script and just ballsy beyond belief. I mean, it changed everything for us. I’m eternally grateful for that.

Producer Emma Thomas (right of center) on the set of Batman Begins, alongside director and writer
Christopher Nolan (center). Photo by David James

What about the leap from Memento to Insomnia, your first film in the studio system?

Yes, that was the first film that we worked on with Warner Bros, with Broderick Johnson and Andrew Kosove of Alcon financing and producing it along with Ed McDonnell and Paul Witt. I went into the project with no credit or position guaranteed, but after seeing the way I worked with Chris, Andrew and Broderick generously gave me the credit in addition to allowing us to develop our own relationship with the studio.  It was really interesting to cut our teeth on a studio film, which is a very different kettle of fish then an independent film. It was really interesting to cut our teeth on a studio film, which is a very different kettle of fish than an independent film. I mean, Memento, for example, we didn’t have distribution when we were making that film. That was a process that came later. So when we shot Memento, it was a very pure sort of production process. Whereas on Insomnia, we were already in the studio system …

You have a slot and maybe a release date

You have a slot. And in casting of the film, there are names that you have to attach. Its just a massive education.

Many producers say thats their favorite part of the gig, the way the job is a constant learning process.

Exactly. Somebody asked me a question earlier, to the effect of, How do you keep excited about your job?And I felt like, its so obvious to me! Because every two years, its like were living in a different universe. Every film has a new set of challenges and a new set of people and personalities and I think thats massively exciting.

What about the education in blockbusting franchise filmmaking, with Batman Begins?

That was definitely a kind of baptism by fire. It was a whole different level. For a long time on Batman Begins, right up until we started shooting, it was just Chris and I. There was no other producer on it. In fact, Chris wasnt a producer on Batman Begins.

Chuck Roven produced it, right?

Yes, Chuck came on to produce it with me, and we formed a great working partnership which lasted for four films, including Man of Steel, where he took the lead. But we approached it very much as we approach all of our films, which is that we keep it to as small a group as we possibly can. Particularly on set, I think that our films, whatever the size, all feel fairly similar, as stripped back as possible and really focused on the work at hand. In many ways there are a lot of benefits to making a film like a Batman film within a studio system because it’s so important to the studio that you’re never going to fall between the cracks when it comes to marketing or whatever. As long as you’re all on the same page about the film that you’re making and there’s a level of trust between you and the studio, it’s a pretty fantastic way to make a film.

I think its much harder to make a non-branded film. I mean, they dont even make films like Insomnia these days. But if you were in the $50 million cop thriller category, fighting for their attention against these huge branded properties I think would be really, really tough. So Batman Begins was eye-opening all around, but I definitely feel like we benefited from the high-profile nature of the character. Of course, that makes the pressure harder in some ways, but we felt very confident about the film we were making. As long as the core of the project is solid, then you can deal with that stuff.

I really cant reiterate it enough: Chris does produce on all of his films I think Batman Begins was the last one that he didn’t. But as a director, he is a producer’s dream. I remember Chuck saying that once—and it’s because he’s incredibly responsible and articulate in terms of what he wants. People, I think, have the notion that everything is very secret and closed-in with Chris. He does ask that we keep the circle small. But he never holds the studio at arm’s length. He brings them in, because ultimately he understands that it’s a partnership and if you fight them, they’re going to come down on you harder. It’s so much better to have an open dialogue, show them what you’re doing and bring them into the process, so that they can be invested in what it is you’re trying to achieve as much as you are.

Emma Thomas on location for Dunkirk with a multitude of colleagues,
including cast member James D'Arcy (left). Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon

At this point I imagine Chris has built the trust that a studio is going to let him do what he wants to do. But earlier in your guyscareer, before you built that trust, how did you work with the studio to convince them to take the risks you felt you needed to take?

I think you just have to work harder. Were very lucky in that Chris has achieved that level of trust with the studio that has enabled him to make a film like Dunkirk, that I think another filmmaker, who wasnt in his position, might not be able to make. For that film, the process of explaining to Warner Bros. what it was about the story that we felt was the reason we should make it was a fairly easy process, because they know that when Chris says hes going to deliver something, he will deliver it.

Obviously that wasnt always the case. At the beginning of Batman Begins, for example, where we were taking the studio’s crown jewel and doing something different with it, I would say the biggest difference was in the pitching process, whether it be pitching what the story was or illustrating for them what the design was going to look like, on the car, for instance. We had to devote a bit more attention to that. To me, it speaks to Chris’ openness, which I generally don’t think people realize is a characteristic of his because they tend to think it’s all secrecy. But on that film when he was developing the script with David Goyer, we had Nathan Crowley simultaneously working in our garage in a sort of early form prep, designing an early version of the Batmobile. So when the studio read the script they also were able to look at the very early designs for the car, which was a very good illustration of how different the world was going to be.

It makes a big difference to be able to give them something concrete like that.

Exactly.

So, in terms of your personal and professional relationship with Chris, how does the partnership work at the various stages of production? that collaboration must operate at different levels at different stages of the project.

Definitely. I would say Im usually the first person that gets to see the script. From the moment he has an idea, hell tell me, generally speaking, what the idea is. And then hell go away, and hell write something or hell think about it. Then hell come back and tell me about it. And then Ill read the script. Ill tell him what I think. But I very much view my role as being a facilitator, someone whos there to help him achieve his vision.

Thats the producers job, after all.

That is ultimately what were here for. Being married to each other, he can be very confident that I only have one agenda, which is to make the best film that we possibly can make. I dont work with other directors. I dont work on other projects. I dont have anything else going on other than making the best film that we possibly can, and I have utter faith that the best film that we can make is going to be the one that he wants to make.

Okay. well, lets just take Dunkirk for example. From the moment he says, I think Dunkirk is where my heart is taking me,where are you? Is there a moment where you start thinking, Oh no. That means were going to have to shoot a movie on the water…?”

Yes.

At what point do you start having independent ideas that you may or may not share? At what point do your producer wheelsstart turning?

From the beginning, from the moment I read the script, Im thinking about those logistical aspects. Oh my God. How on earth are we going to do this?Particularly as it related to this film. Were at the point now where I have such a good sense of how Chris is going to want to make a film that when I read the script for Dunkirk, I knew he was never going to be satisfied making this on a green screen stage in LA. I knew immediately that this was going to be the location versionwith real planes and real boats and real everything to the degree that we could get them.

Including—significantly, I have to believe—a real ocean.

Thats something we hadnt really done before. The first thing that enabled us to pull it off was finding a really fantastic marine coordinator, Neil Andrea. Because the logistical issues with shooting on water are just bananas, even assuming that the weather is goodand thats a big assumption to make when youre also shooting in Northern Europe. We were shooting on a small boat that fit maybe three actors on there at any given time and a bare minimum crew: Chris, [DP] Hoyte [Van Hoyteme], first AD, sound. I would be on there if I could be.

As well as one of the biggest cameras in existence.

Oh yeah, plus an IMAX camera! It was just so fascinating. I mean, I have this amazing visual in my head: Theres the Moonstone [a small family boat that plays a significant role in the story] and then behind it you have the safety boat, the camera boat, hair and makeup boat, stunts. I mean, just a trail of boats, one after the other. It was absolutely incredible.

It sounds like you needed your own little Dunkirk flotilla for every shot.

Exactly. And then of course the shot is all fine, but then as soon as it turns in the other direction, then all of those people and boats have to get out of the way. And then theres the question of where everyone goes to the bathroom. How does everyone eat? It took us at least 45 minutes to get out to where we were shooting every day. So we would go out there, shoot, then we had a PA just bringing lunch boxes out to everybody. Wed eat on the boat and then come in at the end of the day.

It was insane on every level. Things like boat-to-boat transfers are incredibly dangerous. So you have to be really careful about making sure that when you go out in the morning, as far as possible everyone is on the boat that theyre going to stay on. Obviously people do have to go from one boat to another. But youve got to be really careful about it. The making of the film is very important, but the most important thing is safety. Because its going to be a great film, but ultimately we want everyone to get home in one piece.

Nothing wrecks a shoot like somebody getting hurt, or worse.

Exactly. As I said, hes a producer on the film, and hes a very responsible director. Safety is paramount. Likewise, hes not a director who has any interest in making a film that doesnt have the chance to succeed. Yes, Dunkirk wouldve been a lot easier to make if wed have doubled the budget. I think there is a world in which we couldve fought to try and get more money than we ultimately asked for. But Chris never wants to make a film that is asking to fail. If we had made this film for too much money, then it wouldve made it that much harder to make a film that would be financially profitable for the studio.

Ultimately, we want to keep making films. So we were in lock step from the beginning about how much we felt was the correct amount to ask for to tell this story. We knew it was going to be extremely challenging,shoehor because we have significantly less than we had on the last few [films], given the fact that we knew we were going to be casting unknowns in a lot of key roles. And its a very English story. It doesnt feature anyone in tights and a cape.

Are you sure you couldnt have shoehorned someone in there? “Dunkirk Man” couldve really put you over the top.

Oh, I know! [laughs] But we agreed on what the budget was going to be. Then we started talking. Okay. Well, within that number, how exactly are we going to do it?Thats when we begin to get slightly more into the territory of him saying, Well, this is the way I wanted it.And I dont say, No, you cant do it that way,but what I say is, Are we really sure that thats where we want to devote our resources? Is it really going to be worth it? Are we going to, at the end of the day, feel like, Damn, we should never have spent that money there because we couldve put it somewhere else?’”

Can you recall a conversation like that that you guys had on this movie?

Theres a shot in the film where all of the little ships are approaching. Theyre on their way to Dunkirk and the Moonstone goes past a big destroyer. And theres this seemingly endless row of soldiers on the deck, all lined up on the side. That destroyer was a real French ship called the Maillé-Brézé. It cost us a lot to bring that. It was in a berth in Nice or somewhere near there, and it didnt have an engine. We had to tow it up. It was a very big deal to get it, but it was the only destroyer that we were able to get. We were getting fairly close to the shoot, but we hadnt quite pulled the trigger on it coming yet. I was asking, Are you sure? Couldnt we just do this with visual effects?We had all these other ships that kind of looked enough like destroyers that we could have made it work.

Shooting the bow from
this one, the stern from that one

Exactly. I was thinking, “Can’t we just do something like that?I really made quite a half-racket to get rid of the Maillé-Brézé. And Chris said, No, I think that this is going to be an important shot. I think its going to be a defining moment in the film. I really want to be able to see the little boats next to the destroyer.

So I gave in. Okay, fine.And when I watch the film now, for me it is a defining moment. I don’t think there’s any way that we could’ve replicated it with a visual effects solution. So I think that a big part of a producer’s job is knowing when to trust your creative partner, and I am extremely lucky in that my creative partner is somebody who is very clear about what he needs and what he doesn’t need. The fact that he is very responsible about getting rid of stuff and making compromises in other areas means that I totally trust him when he says, “No, this is something I really need.”

Another massively important part of our job as producers is working with the marketing department of the studio. At every step of the process of making our films, were bringing the studio in to see the early concept work or to see designs or just to talk about what it is that we see as being the reason for making this film. One of our jobs as producers is explaining to people whats special about this film, why they should bother to come out to the cinema and spend two hours in a darkened room looking at lights dancing off a screen. And over the course of making the film, we gradually develop that from those earlier conversations about design and concepts.

The people at the studiotheyre your first audience, basically.

Theyre our first audience. Exactly. I think that completely crystallizes what it is that Im saying. We want the studio to be as invested in this, in our film, as we are. The thing about producing, which I always think is so fantastic and fun, is that there are so many different elements to it. Other than the director, theres really no one else whos on the film from conception to beyond release. And I love that. 

 

 

 

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