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Taking On The System: Michael London Embraces The Contradictions Of Trumbo

Posted By Jeffrey McMahon, Thursday, October 22, 2015


There are a few Hollywood truisms: don’t work with children or animals; always get everything in writing, and nobody wants to see a movie about writers. Much less likely is it that audiences will pay to see a movie about disgraced, mostly Communist screenwriters from 60 years ago. But that’s the leap of faith that producer and PGA member Michael London and his Groundswell Films are making with the new film Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach and starring Bryan Cranston. For London, this film is the latest in a line of independent productions about unique characters grappling wth American society’s values and received wisdom, the kind of film London and Groundswell have become adept at turning out. And for London, it’s another opportunity to make a film his own way, speaking to subjects and themes outside the normal Hollywood mainstream.

Dalton Trumbo’s name stands out in history mainly as one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters, directors and producers singled out by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for improper association with Communists at the dawn of the Cold War. In 1950, Trumbo went to jail for refusing to name names before Congress, and he and many others were blacklisted, banned from working for the studios. Desperate for money, Trumbo took whatever work he could find, and ultimately broke the blacklist with help from Kirk Douglas, who hired him to write Spartacus with full screen credit. "It’s not just a great underdog story,” says London. "Trumbo himself was such an incredible character. He was both a capitalist and a Communist. He wanted to live well and still believed in Communist credos. You don’t come across characters like that every day.” For London, producer of Sideways, The Illusionist, and Milk, seeking these types of iconoclastic stories has become part of his unique niche in the indie world.

Raised in Minneapolis, London attended Stanford University, with no interest in becoming part of the film industry. Pursuing an interest in journalism, he got an internship with the Los Angeles Times that led to a job in the paper’s Calendar section. There, he was steered toward covering the movie industry: "I did investigative stories, trend stories, interviews … It was a chance to write for a living. But reporting is hard, and not particularly inspiring.” His world opened a little wider following a feature story on a pair of fellow Minnesotans: the then-unknown Coen brothers, moments away from breaking through with their debut, Blood Simple. "I knew them through high school friends, and I said that these guys were really talented … No one at the newspaper had heard of them or the movie, but they sent me to do an interview. And I wrote my little heart out. And bizarrely, Don Simpson read that article.”

Producer Michael London (left) on the set of 'Trumbo' with cast member Bryan Cranston (center) and director Jay Roach

Mega-producer Don Simpson, fresh off the success of hits like Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop, happened to read London’s piece in the Times and was smitten. "He wanted to hire an executive to run development for his company,” London recalls, "And he literally read this story and said, ‘I wanna hire this guy,’ like in an old Hollywood movie.” Given an offer he couldn’t refuse, London found himself an executive before his 30th birthday, working for one of the biggest producers in Hollywood. "I knew nothing about production,” laughs London. "I had never been on a set. It was hard, but a great learning opportunity … Don and Jerry Bruckheimer were both wonderful to me, and gave me all kinds of autonomy, but it slowly began to feel like I didn’t fit,” London says. "I found I preferred being in the room with the writers than being in the room with the business people.”

After several years with Simpson and Bruckheimer, London took a job working for 20th Century Fox, where he "learned how much I didn’t know about overseeing directors and budgets and deal-making … After a while, I had learned what I could learn, but it felt like I was just shopping for movies that the studio wanted to make.” After his time at Fox, first as an executive, then as a producer with a studio deal, London found himself looking for a fresh start.

"If the Coen brothers thing was the first bit of fortuitousness in my life, the second was David O. Russell inviting me to a dinner at his house where I was seated next to Catherine Hardwicke.” Hardwicke, then a successful production designer, had just finished writing a screenplay with a teenage friend about the pressures of being a contemporary teenage girl, and gave the script to London to read. "I read it that night, and I called her the next morning at 8:30 and I said, ‘Could I work on this with you?’” London went on to produce Hardwicke’s screenplay, which she directed, as the indie hit Thirteen. The experience was transformative. "I stopped thinking in terms of the studio mandates that I’d been thinking about all this time,” he recalls. "I said to myself, what if I just worked on things that I want to work on?”

Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper and Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo in "Trumbo"

In short order, London began developing a writer’s pitch that would become the low-budget comedy 40 Days and 40 Nights, and came across an unpublished novel that would become the Academy Award-winning hit Sideways, directed by Alexander Payne. "So I had these three movies and I thought, Oh, there’s a whole other way to do this. You don’t have to go to lunches and schmooze agents and sit in staff meetings that you don’t want to go to. It felt like I was being true to myself in some way that I hadn’t before.” Since then, London has continued to generate a string of high-quality low-budget films, including the Academy Award-winning Milk, the quirky western Appaloosa and the heartwarming Win Win, building a name for himself as a consistent generator of smart, profitable movies.

In 2006 London founded Groundswell Films to handle his business operations, with his producing partner, Janice Williams, running the bulk of physical production. "I went back into the business side of things,” he explains, "and made a bunch of movies, but was sometimes less personally connected to them because I was managing the company. So recently I’ve been looking for projects that would regenerate me, that didn’t feel like they were necessarily wildly commercial.

"My development executive had read this script by John McNamara called Trumbo, which had been around for several years,” London continues. "She said, ‘You have to read this script,’ and I said, ‘It’s a script about the movie business, which doesn’t interest me. And it was a script about a writer, which really doesn’t interest me … We’re not going to make that movie and I’m not going to read that script.’” But after carrying it around for a few weeks, London took out the script and started reading. "There’s this very chemical thing that happens when you read a script and it just gets under your skin. I read that script and I had that palpitating feeling. At the heart of that story was someone who was an outsider who had to create a community for himself, and he had to take on a whole system. It hit every theme that I love, and I met with John McNamara that week.”

McNamara, a veteran television writer/producer, had been fascinated by Dalton Trumbo and the blacklist ever since taking screenwriting classes under blacklisted writers Ring Lardner Jr., Waldo Salt and Ian McClellan Hunter. "I met John McNamara,” recalls London, "and he wanted to direct it. I told him, ‘I think if you direct this, it will take you five to 10 years, and you may never get it made. But if you would allow me to work with you and take it to filmmakers of stature, I think there’s a really good chance to get the movie made, and I think we could find a great actor for this role.’ John never blinked. He called me the next day and said, ‘Okay, you’re on.’”

London suspected that director Jay Roach could be a good match for the material, based on his political satires for HBO, Recount and Game Change. "Jay is very skilled at making true stories entertaining to watch,” says Janice Williams. "I felt like the movie couldn’t afford to take itself too seriously,” agrees London, "and I thought that if we found a filmmaker who had a sense of humor, and who loved comedy, rather than someone who was just kind of a ‘big, important storyteller,’ it would feel fresher.”

"I’ve known Michael for a long time and wanted to do something with him,” Roach recalls, "and I connected with the complexity of the character.” Roach pushed for additional involvement from the Trumbo family, particularly his daughters Niki and Mitzi. "Some very interesting story ideas came from them,” Roach recalls, "about the stresses the family endures in the second act, where Trumbo begins writing under other names.” Roach also collaborated with McNamara to build the character of Hedda Hopper, the legendary columnist and radio celebrity who was a virulent anti-Communist and nemesis to the Hollywood 10. London was all in favor of emphasizing the role of Hopper as a media figure during the Red Scare. "Hedda Hopper had a lot in common with the world of media today, and John was able to make Hedda this totemic, iconic figure.”

With the script in good shape, London and his fellow producers began to send it out to actors, catching the eye of Bryan Cranston. "He’s Dalton Trumbo in different garb,” London chuckles. "Bryan is strong-willed and passionate and cantankerous and stubborn and creative. There’s a lot about Dalton Trumbo that’s very contrary, and Bryan really embraced those contradictions. With Bryan on board, the film really started to feel alive. It wasn’t a portrait of a ideologue, which none of us was interested in. I think we all really loved that we could do a portrait of a guy who didn’t feel perfect.” With Cranston on board, London and his fellow filmmakers put together one of the year’s most impressive supporting casts, including Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, Helen Mirren, John Goodman and Louis C.K.

With the cast assembled, Groundswell teamed up with Shivani Rawat’s ShivHans Pictures and producers Nimitt Mankad (Danny Collins) and Monica Levinson (Borat, Dodgeball) to put together the final financing and packaging. Together with London, Roach, McNamara and Williams, and producer Kevin Kelly Brown (Roswell, Earthsea) the team set out to do justice to Trumbo’s story over a decades-long timespan, featuring dozens of speaking parts, but on a carefully controlled budget. "We decided that the best place to film was Louisiana,” explains Williams,” because it still has extraordinary period buildings and bars and restaurants that you just can’t find in California any more.” Ultimately Trumbo went to shoot 40 days in various parts of Louisiana, with one shooting day in Los Angeles for crucial Hollywood exteriors.

Even as the film was being finalized, London and his fellow producers remained uncertain how Trumbo’s political leanings would play to a mainstream audience, and experimented with a pair of test screenings, first in Pasadena. "In Pasadena,” London says, "they loved the movie, but they didn’t cheer, they didn’t stand up … Then we went to Plano, Texas. We showed the movie to a non-Los Angeles, solidly middle-class Texan audience. There was a giant standee of John Wayne in the theater, and we were really, really scared. We said to each other, ‘We’re going to get our asses handed to us’ … And they just loved it. They were yelling, they were cheering. The scores were higher than any movie I’ve ever worked on, and it made me realize that we might have the last thing we expected, which is a crowd-pleaser. They didn’t see him as a Communist, they saw him as a guy who takes on the system.”

As Trumbo awaits its rollout, bearing strong reviews and awards buzz, London has hopes that it could go beyond a niche market. "Business-wise, I never felt like Milk was able to transcend the trappings of a political message movie. It had a subject matter such that there was a perception that the movie could only exist in a certain bubble. I think Trumbo has the potential to go beyond that, to reach an audience that wants to see Bryan Cranston say ‘fuck you’ to the political establishment … There’s a lot of that going on right now,” London smiles.

However Trumbo fares, London and Groundswell have a full slate on their hands, including another film, Love the Coopers, being released in November, plus Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad in active development. And London continues to look for projects that don’t just look like good bets, but get him excited. "I like characters who are outsiders. And I realize that I am drawn to characters who have some kind of outsider relationship with power or life or work or community. In Sideways you can see that, you can see that in a movie like Milk in a big way, and in Trumbo.” London reflects. "Maybe there’s something kind of adolescent about that, but it is something that continues to excite me, when I read about someone who’s had to strike out on their own against some kind of odds and find their own way.”

- Photographed by Kremer Johnson Photography

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