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TWO SHOT: Hateful Joy. Old Pals Richard Gladstein & Jonathan Gordon Share Some Stories

Posted By Administration, Monday, January 4, 2016

Twenty-odd years ago, Miramax Films was deep in production on Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Richard Gladstein had brought the project to the company as its new head of production, having previously executive produced Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and sold the finished film to Miramax. While on the set of Pulp, Gladstein’s lifeline back at the office was Jonathan Gordon, Harvey Weinstein’s assistant; two years earlier, Gordon had been a senior at Northwestern. Through the ups and downs of getting a modern classic over the finish line, the pair became friends.

Gladstein left Miramax a few years thereafter to form FilmColony and produce full time, ultimately scoring a pair of Oscar nominations for The Cider House Rules and Finding Neverland. Gordon stayed on, rising through the Miramax ranks to serve as Co-President of Production up until the split with Disney in 2005. After a stint as President of Production for Universal, he found his groove as the go-to producer for writer-director David O. Russell, nabbing a pair of Oscar noms of his own, for Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.

This year, Gladstein rode with Tarantino again, producing The Hateful Eight along with Stacey Sher and Shannon McIntosh. Meanwhile, Gordon was on set for Russell’s Joy, working with fellow producers John Davis, Megan Ellison, Russell and Ken Mok. In a twist of fate, both films open on Christmas. But despite the dictates of the calendar, there’s no sense of competition between the friends, who sat down at Little Dom’s in Los Feliz to knock back some drinks, catch up, and share stories about working with a pair of the most iconoclastic filmmakers working today.

Richard Gladstein:
So what stage are you guys at now?

Jonathan Gordon: We’re locking picture, which is sort of a relative term. David will keep finessing the film until you pull it out of his hands. It’s what makes him great to work with; the ideas never stop. How does Quentin work in the editing room?

R: Fred [Raskin] creates his assembly while we’re shooting. After taking two weeks-ish off after the completion of shooting, Quentin comes into the cutting room and goes straight to dailies, starts cutting, Scene 1, as though the editor’s assembly doesn’t exist. I don’t think he ever watches the editor’s assembly straight through.

J: David doesn’t either. He has never watched an assembly, ever. Sometimes the studio will ask, when are you going to watch the assembly? And he says, "What are you talking about?”

R: Quentin may refer to the assembly at times because he’ll suggest something and the editor says, "I already did it that way, check it out.” But Quentin studies dailies endlessly at his house, at night, and comes in very prepared to cut. He’s so damn secure that there are certain things that he doesn’t shoot that you, as a producer, expect him to. With a less experienced director, you might quietly suggest, "Don’t you want to get this angle, or go closer?” But Quentin, he knows his movie in his head completely. "I’m never cutting to that. It’s unnecessary.”

J: David also knows exactly how he wants to cut things while he’s shooting, but in post he also loves pushing the footage to its limits, making sure nothing is left on the table.

R: As a producers, you learn something on every movie, and then you bring it along to your next movie. So we get taught by Quentin or David or whomever. I remember on The Cider House Rules, we had a scene where Tobey Maguire and Charlize Theron are in a theatre watching a movie. We shot the scene and [director] Lasse [Hallstrom] then says, out of nowhere, "Can we change their shirts, please? And change her hair just a little bit? Have them switch seats? I just want to get a quick shot.” And I’m wondering, "What for?” He said, "I don’t know. What if we want to show that they’ve gone out a few times? Or create a montage of dates? This way, I have a shot of them going to see another film on another day.” That’s brilliant.

So that’s something I can bring to other movies, suggest to the director, "Y’know, while we’re here, why don’t we grab another shot like x y or z, just in case we need it to show x y or z?” And the director says, "That’s a great idea. Where’d you come up with that?” I tell them, "Lasse Hallstrom.” I love Lasse!

J: David sort of did the inverse of that on Silver Linings Playbook. Mark Bridges, our costume designer, kept proposing all of these different changes for Bradley [Cooper’s] character and David told him, "Keep him in the same fucking t-shirt. I don’t want him in anything else.”

R: Because then he could move scenes around …

J: Exactly. There were so many scenes that got shuffled around, and it allowed him so much more creative freedom. Then we went to do American Hustle and every actor had like 17 changes a day.

R: Quentin’s material is written so structured and ordered that I don’t recall him ever moving the order of scenes. Not in Dogs or Pulp and definitely not in Hateful.

J: So okay, default question here, what was the biggest challenge of producing Hateful Eight?

Snow. Weather in general, really, and schedule. And of course the cold and moving our horses and stagecoach around. I was worried that shooting in 70mm would slow us down, but it never did … We did a million tests and worked out the kinks in prep. But a six-horse team pulling a stagecoach? That’s about the length of four cars. It’s really difficult to maneuver, the turning radius is probably twice that of a mack truck. And you can imagine, if the camera is here and the horses are going from A to B, how do you get take two? How do you bring a six-horse team, with stagecoach, back to one? You stop, unhitch horses, walk each horse back. You need a snow truck to pull the stagecoach back. That’s a long fucking time between Take 1 and Take 2. On top of which, you also don’t want to mess up virgin snow with footprints and tracks. A lot of the time, we just moved the camera and Take 2 will have a slightly different background.

J: Right. And this whole time it’s cold, and the conditions outside aren’t enjoyable. And you lose your momentum …

R: And of course the light changes. And the horses? In snow, their legs can break if the snow is deeper than their knees, because the ground beneath the snow is often rocky and not flat. So we figure out ways to pack down the snow to where it’s deep enough for us to do what we want to do but not too deep to hurt the horses. There’s no way we’re hurting a horse. In fact, some of the horses that were on Django are actually on this movie, because Quentin really liked those horses. He’s all, "Can we get Leche back? I love Leche. Leche was so cool.” He’s not gonna hurt a horse. No way.

So what about Joy? Was there anything more difficult than the other movies you made with David?

J: Well, under any other circumstances I wouldn’t have the same answer as yours, but I do. It was snow and schedule. We shot in Boston, which had the coldest winter with the most snowfall in as long as they’ve been recording the weather. It was this biblical amount of snow.

R: And Telluride had its lowest snowfall in 25 years.

J: Yeah, we had heard that you guys needed snow. It was kind of a running joke that we should find a way to send you some. Because even though the snow was good for us aesthetically, since a lot of our movie takes place at Christmastime, from a production standpoint it was a nightmare. The week before we started shooting, the snowpack had accumulated so much on top of our stages that the roof collapsed right on our mill where our sets were being built. Fortunately a friend who we had worked with before was doing an HBO show in Boston and he let us finish building some things at his mill. Then the first day we were supposed to start shooting the movie, we had to shut down because there were 30 mile an hour winds and it was snowing so hard that it was actually unsafe to keep the crew outside. It was so hard for us to get out of the gate at the beginning. It really slowed everything down for David, who always likes to jam as much as he can into a day.

R: OK, get this, it’s the very first day of our pre-shoot, with no actors except James Parks, who plays the stagecoach driver. We had found this meadow that was just crazy beautiful … The sky, the way the two meadows came together with the trees and the vista, it was awesome. When we looked at it a few days before the shoot there was nothing on the ground, but the forecast said snow. So Quentin says, "I want to start with this shot. If it snows over the weekend the way it’s supposed to, on Monday morning this is going to be spectacular.” And lo and behold, it snows all weekend. Monday comes, we show up at our spot. They’re setting up the camera and crane, everything is perfect. The horses are getting in place. We’re just about ready. All of the sudden, out of nowhere, a crew member in one of our snow cats comes driving …

J: Oh, no, no, no …

R: … right through the middle of meadow, through the middle of our damn frame! Over fresh virgin snow. We all can hear the motor before we see him. We’re waving our arms, shouting, "Stop!” but he can’t hear us.

J: You’re like Michael in The Godfather when his wife’s about to turn the key in the car!

R: Exactly! Too late! There’s nothing we can do. The guy pulls right up to the camera where we’re all standing, and hops out of the vehicle and he’s like "Hey. What’s happening?”

Quentin was crushed. He made us bring everybody, the entire crew, up to camera from basecamp. Everybody slowly gathered and Quentin said, "I’m calling it. We’re all going home. And this can never happen again. If you see virgin snow you do not drive in it, you don’t step in it, you don’t touch it. Okay? Never again.” And we scrapped the first day of shooting.

J: That was the first day?

R: The first day. That was just a bad karma day. That same day—this has never happened to me before in the history of my life—my friggin’ alarm didn’t go off. So I wake up to a phone call from [fellow producer] Stacey [Sher], "Richard, where are you? We’re out in front of your apartment in the car.” Bad karma. I mean, I got there in time, but on the first day of shooting, you want to be there before everybody gets there. You’re not rolling up late; that’s rookie shit. I’m not letting the director get there before me. Or the AD. Or the DP. My movie? Never gonna happen.

J: With David we have this ritual called the "van meeting” which we started on Silver Linings. David always wants to go through the day’s work on the way in to set, so every morning we drive in in the van together. When we get to set, we pack everyone into the van—producers, AD, DP, camera operators, production designer, script supervisor, sometimes even the actors. When it’s cold, everyone’s got big jackets on, doesn’t matter, we’re all packed in. And even though it’s uncomfortable, it’s like the best thing. David says, "Let’s go through the whole day right now.” Because he knows that the second you walk onto set and everyone’s chatting and eating their breakfast, the creative focus naturally dissipates. He wants to make sure everyone knows exactly what the day’s plan is and to have potential obstacles flagged and solved in that intimate creative environment, not once there are a hundred people walking around all focused on their part of the production.

R: Every day?

J: Every single day. Come visit our set on any given morning and you’re gonna just see a van with steamed up windows idling in the cold.

R: Quentin doesn’t do that. On the list of people he would like to talk to before he sets up his first shot, the producers are not on it. Until he sets up the first shot, and probably until he shoots something, he doesn’t want to talk to me. He only wants the DP, the AD and his actors.

J: On any movie, it’s all about anticipation. Working with David, I think I’ve become better at that. Even though he may surprise me creatively, I know how he wants things to run. I know when he wants to be spending more time with the camera. I know when he wants to be closer to the actors. I know what he’ll sacrifice if push comes to shove. I can kind of anticipate it on the day. And I know we’ve got to leave a little room because he comes up with so many ideas in the moment. Jennifer [Lawrence] lip synching "Live and Let Die” in American Hustle was an idea he had the night before we shot it. On Joy there was a day where literally an hour before call, he decided to incorporate elements into the scene from a set we had shot weeks earlier.

R: And the art department is like, "Really? You serious?”

J: I’m calling everybody on the way in to work … the production designer, the costume designer. And yeah, in that moment you want to say to him, "Are you kidding me?” But what he comes up with is so inspired you find yourself getting excited about what the idea can be. David thrives off of that energy. I think you can feel his exuberance and and love of cinema in every frame. As a producer you have to allow the room for those things to happen because that kind of inspiration … that’s the magic.

R: You see also the way the actors respond to these guys. They follow them to the ends of the earth. That exuberance motivates everyone, and it’s contagious, it creates this bubbling brew.

J: In Joy there are a number of days where we had our entire cast all in one scene—Jennifer Lawrence, De Niro, Bradley, Edgar Ramirez, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd—people with more years of acting experience, nominations and awards than you can count. And on set with David, they all have this excitement like it’s the first day of their first movie. When David wants to try the same scene in a few completely different ways, they know it’s going to let them stretch as far as they can go. David gives them chances to surprise themselves, which is such a gift. Jennifer always says that the key to working with David is to just be his paint and trust him to do the rest, and I actually feel like that’s true in no matter what capacity you work with him.

R: Same deal with QT. Everyone trusts him completely. And we’ll do anything for him. He makes everyone better. I think that comes from QT trusting us and his actors. It’s always reciprocal, always a collaboration … but QT is the leader, the arbiter, general, for everything.

J: David actually says, "I don’t know,” a lot. If he’s got an actor who’s saying, "I’d rather do it this way.” He’ll say, "Listen, in the time that it’s going to take for us to argue about who’s right, let’s do it your way, and then let’s do it my way, because I don’t know what’s better. You may be right.” And the best part of it is when you see those scenes cut together and there’s both takes in it. I love that you have these directors who are at the top of their game—and not just the top of their game, more like at the top of the game—and they are confident enough to say, "I don’t know.”

R: Sometimes, with writer-directors, actors can feel stymied because the writer can have a fixed idea in his mind of what that actor is going to do. On one film that I did a bunch of years ago, a very prominent actor who was in the movie wrote a note afterwards to the writer-director and said, "Look, now that we’re done shooting, I just felt that I should share that I didn’t have a great time making the movie. It felt to me that there wasn’t a director on the set, but the writer was on the set all day. If you have the entire film fixed in your head, you’re not leaving room for us to do our job.” And he was right. There was no director; the writer was in the way.

And yeah, there are those crazy brilliant sets and days. And Quentin’s sets are tops. There’s a scene in Hateful where Sam Jackson delivers one of those uber-brilliant Quentin monologues. Everyone tracked when they were gonna shoot that and everyone found their way to set to watch. There were actors who showed up who weren’t even working that day. There was this buzz … "We’ve got to watch this.”

They did the scene, and it was mesmerizing. When Quentin cut, all the other actors, and the crew started clapping. Everybody was saying it was like a master class, and it was. It was a master class of writing, a master class of directing, a master class of acting, a master class in filmmaking. It was a ballet. It was music. It was a full blown orchestra. And it was just Sam talking. I actually cried. A tear went right down my face. We work so hard, but once in a while, you’re just a full blown spectator with the best seat in the frigging house. It’s a gift.

J: Whether you’re an actor or you’re a cinematographer or a designer or a producer, moments like that are the ones which completely fulfill that first desire you had to do what you do. As you go on in your career, things happen and sometimes you lose sight of why you originally got into it. But when you’re in the presence of that, it instantly all comes back to you.

Because we have the same thing as you described with Quentin. The actors never leave the set on David’s movies. Nobody goes back to the trailers, no one does any of that stuff. Everyone stays, because it’s this feeling of: this is the best that it gets. That’s why everyone shows up, because the kid in them is alive again, remembering, "This is what I wanted to do. This is why I’m here.”

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