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DONNA GIGLIOTTI - She's Been Pushing Stories About Strong Women For Decades, The World Finally Caught Up

Posted By Chris Green, Wednesday, October 17, 2018

“I’ve done a lot of interviews in my time,” Donna Gigliotti tells us. “This one is making me nervous. Because I’m not sure, in all honesty, that I have anything that’s even remotely interesting to say.”

Well there’s always that time she spun a chance encounter with Robert De Niro into a gig working as Martin Scorsese’s assistant on Raging Bull. Or that time she spent two years in Europe directly overseeing a half-dozen movies—anywhere from two to four productions on any given day—during the prolific heyday of Miramax. Or that time she won the Oscar for Shakespeare In Love, her first-ever “Produced By” credit. Or the decades since, which have seen her emerge as a champion of women’s stories, resulting in work that’s received critical acclaim, delivered huge box office numbers and scored a further trio of Oscar nominations, for The Reader, Silver Linings Playbook and Hidden Figures.

Fact is on her dullest, most boring day, Donna Gigliotti is still the liveliest conversation partner you’ll have all month. Sure she’s an outstanding storyteller in the way that all great producers are storytellers, putting compelling characters up on the screen. But she’s as great a storyteller on the personal level, a legit raconteur whose years in the New York production trenches give her accounts the force, directness and rough edges of her home city. Feel free to scrutinize the following interview for Hollywood-style blandishments. You’ll find none. Gigliotti has built her career on the strength of her own voice and instincts, which are proud and unmistakable reflections of her Gotham sensibilities.

That predilection for the unvarnished truth might be just what our business needs right now. As the industry wakes up to the commercial viability of stories about women and people of color, it would do well to listen to producers who have been working that territory for the length of their careers. Gigliotti is already banging the drum about clearing the next hurdle for inclusion within the industry—diversity among below-the-line crew. “Thirty-two percent of below-the-line on Hidden Figures were either women or people of color,” she says proudly. “That was very difficult to do but you really have to make an effort as a producer.”

Donna Gigliotti knows how to tell a good story onscreen, and she knows how to tell a good story to an interviewer. But the story she’s chosen to tell with her career and the sum of the choices she’s made stands to be the best and most important one yet.


So as a young person, what was your relationship like with movies?

The movie that was seared into my brain—and I’m not unique in this regard—was The Sound of Music. Maybe I was 8 when I saw it. I remember the opening helicopter shot very clearly and Julie Andrews spinning around, singing on the top of that mountain.  I was thinking, “Whoa, where am I?” The movie brought me somewhere else. I can close my eyes even now and remember sitting next to my mother in the movie theater. That movie made such an impression on me that I actually came out of the movie theater and thought that I wanted to become a nun. [laughs]


No movie has done more for nuns, I think, than The Sound of Music.

Mercifully I righted myself and became a film producer. [laughs] But I think that movie had a big effect on a lot of young women who saw Julie Andrews as a rebel spirit.


I have no doubt that’s true. But it’s a long way between walking out of The Sound of Music and then deciding to actually make a career in film production. How did your early career begin?

I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and I had it in my head that now somehow or other I was going to be in the movie business. I didn’t quite know how I was going to do that.

But I had three directors that I wanted to work for: in no particular order, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Francis Coppola. This was 1977, and I was swinging for the fences.

I wrote a letter to Bob Altman and I never heard back. I began to question whether I should leave Francis Coppola on my list, because he was in the midst of Apocalypse Now, and the effect of that film on him was not necessarily salutary.

That left Martin Scorsese. By a stroke of luck, I literally bumped into a man who turned out to be Robert De Niro. And when I realized who I had just bumped into, I didn’t say, “Oh, my gosh! You’re Robert De Niro! You’re a movie star!” I said, “You know Martin Scorsese!” [laughs] I wrote my phone number down on a piece of paper and I said, “I really want to be his assistant. Is there any way that you can help me?”

He took the piece of paper. I don’t know what he thought about me. But I will say this, all props to Bob De Niro because he called me two weeks later and he said, “Marty is looking for an assistant.”

I called the phone number Bob gave me and I went to see Martin Scorsese. And I said to him, “There are two things in the world I really want. One is a Cartier watch. The other is to work for you. Not necessarily in that order.” And he gave me the job. And when I left two years later, he gave me the watch with a note that said, “Go get some new goals.” I still have that note!


Aw, that’s lovely. Just for my own curiosity, what were the circumstances under which you bumped into Robert De Niro?

I was in a screening room—the wrong room, it turned out—and the lights were dimmed. I thought he was the projectionist. When he stepped into the light, that’s when I realized he was Robert De Niro.


  Cast member Selena Gomez snaps a selfie with Donna Gigliotti
  on the set of The Fundamentals of Caring.

That’s wild. So working for Marty, what did you take away from that? I mean, that’s the education in filmmaking that every movie buff dreams of.

Sarah Lawrence is a terrific school, but very little of its film offerings were grounded in the reality of how the movie business works. So one piece of my education was just going through a production, which turned out to be Raging Bull. It was a matter of learning very quickly, “This is what a call sheet is. This is what a casting session is.” Learning the real, practical elements of making a movie.

Maybe more interesting was the way Marty’s enthusiasm as a teacher extended to anybody around him. He has a vast film collection. At the time, a lot of it was on VHS cassettes. And he would say, “Here is a cassette of I Know Where I’m Going!. You should watch this movie. You’ll like it. Afterwards, I’ll tell you all about the movie.”

And so I would go home and I’d watch Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going!, which to this day I love. And La Terra Trema, Visconti … I remember that film so clearly because it was this grainy black-and-white VHS. And then I’d come in and I’d say, “Well, I watched it. I don’t get it.” Or “I loved it and here’s why.” Then I’d get 20 minutes from Marty on the subject of whatever film it was that I had just watched. That was an invaluable education.


That’s kind of the ultimate apprenticeship.

For sure.


So now, with all this information and the Cartier watch on your wrist, what’s your next move? How do you build from there?

It’s a problem for any kid that starts off being somebody’s assistant, because a lot of my job involved going to the dry cleaner and collecting Martin Scorsese’s suits. Don’t get me wrong; I was learning a lot. But when I left, what was I really qualified to do? I was qualified to get dry cleaning.

So I thought, “Okay, where and how do I fit into the scheme of things?” And again, in part, it was luck. This is such a crazy story. My friend Tom Bernard called me up and said, “I have to go to this cocktail party and you’re the only person I know that would have the right dress to wear. Will you come with me?” So I did. At that time Tom had just gone to work for United Artists Classics and at the cocktail party, he introduced me to his boss. In the course of the conversation, I said I was looking for a job. He asked what I wanted to do. Now why it popped into my head to say “acquisitions and development” is still a mystery to me. I don’t know why, but that’s what came out of my mouth. And he said, “Oh, you should come and talk to me.”

So I went to United Artists at 729 Seventh Avenue and I had a conversation with Nathaniel Kwit, and I elaborated on this idea of a job that I had sort of made up. And he gave me a job. So Tom Bernard and I were running United Artists Classics. Tom was doing distribution and I was doing acquisitions and development. This is something I tell young people over and over again: When you are looking for a job, you have to be specific about what it is you want to do. The more specific, the better.

United Artists was at that time was going through a very tumultuous period. Transamerica Corporation had purchased the company and it seemed like they were going through presidents every other week. After Heaven’s Gate bombed, it wasn’t a place that felt very stable. I said to Tom, “I don’t think we have a future here.”

Now Tom Bernard doesn’t like change. [laughs] In case you haven’t noticed, he’s been at the same job for the last, I don’t know, 28 years. It took all of my willpower to convince him that we should pay attention to an offer from Orion Pictures. Finally, we went off to see Arthur Krim at his beautiful Upper East Side townhouse, and he made us an offer. Along with Michael Barker, who came with us from United Artists, we formed Orion Classics.

We were very, very successful at that time, really the preeminent specialty division at any studio. But personally, after doing the acquisitions job for seven years, I was itching to make movies, not just buy them. So I decided in 1989 that I would take a leap. I didn’t exactly know where I was going to leap to, but I had some idea that I should start a production company. I thought that the company should make specialized films and that those films should have a top-end budget of about $13 million. I thought that I probably needed partners to do this.

So I went to Marty and I said, “You just produced The Grifters. You have an interest in doing these kinds of films. How about we do this together?” And he said, “Yes. Good idea.” I told him I wanted to include somebody else who I thought would be a good balance—Steven Spielberg. Marty said, “It’s great! It’s great! Steven is ‘white,’ I’m ‘black’! Steven is ‘A,’ I’m ‘Z’! It’s all terrific!” So we went to see Steven, and he said, “Oh this is a terrific idea. Yes, we should do it.” [laughs] Those turned out to be famous last words.

Steven told us there was a lot of independent financing out there, particularly in Asia. I thought sure, why not? We’ve got Marty Scorsese and Steven Spielberg ready to produce lower-budget, creative, artistic movies. Of course we should be able to raise money.


That sounds like a winning proposition.

Not quite. [laughs] I put together a business plan. It was a year of meeting and greeting. There was one set of Japanese investors that I actually introduced to Marty and Steven. We were going to base the company in New York. I think Steven still owns the fourth floor at 375 Greenwich, and that’s where we were going to base the company.

These Japanese investors wanted to know why the company would be in New York. I thought that was an odd question, so I asked, “Why does that concern you?” They said, “Well, because we understand that all the good actors are in Los Angeles.” And I remember Marty literally springing off of the couch and saying, “That’s nonsense! There are good actors wherever there are good actors! There are good actors in Tashkent!” I remember that so clearly, him saying there were good actors in Tashkent. And I thought, “Oh, god. This is never going to go anywhere.”

And at the end of the day, it didn’t go anywhere. We were a little ahead of ourselves. I think that’s really what it amounted to.


I’m sure that must have been disappointing. How did you bounce back?

I live in New York and I didn’t want to move to LA. It was 1993 and Disney had just bought Miramax. I thought, well, maybe they’re on more solid ground than they used to be. Because you always used to hear stories about how they could barely make payroll at Miramax. So I had my attorney at the time phone Harvey [Weinstein], and that began two years of another extremely interesting education in film production. I really didn’t know anything about film production and at Miramax, I was thrown into the deep end. I don’t even remember what my title was. I only know that I ended up going and spending a lot of time in Europe making a million movies in the two years that I worked there. I’ll say this: Being thrown in the deep end like that, it’s true--you either sink or swim. Either figure out real fast what film production means, or you’re looking for a new job.


I’m curious, what answer did you come up with to that question? What does film production “mean” in that environment where you’re overseeing maybe half a dozen movies at any given time?

I don’t know that this is an answer to that question, but here’s an example. One of the films that we were making was called Restoration, which starred Robert Downey, Jr. and was directed by Michael Hoffman. It takes place in 1665. The production design was just beautiful. Eugenio Zanetti, the production designer, had created this long passage of rooms, one after the other, on the H stage at Shepparton Studios.  The design was immaculate; the finishes were amazing. Mike created a shot that was on the Steadicam, following Charles II down this long, elegant enfilade. Harvey Weinstein looked at the rushes, and he called me up and he said, “Donna, there was no Steadicam in 1665.” That’s all he said.

Weirdly, I understood that note. He was 100% right. The movement of the Steadicam felt inconsistent with the subject of the film and the style of the movie. After that one scene, it was never used again in the film. But I’ve never forgotten that because at the time, I knew that something about the scene wasn’t right. But I didn’t understand that it was because of the Steadicam. Making as many movies as we were in those days, those are the kinds of things that you’re learning, and you’re learning them real fast.



A lot of making movies, producing movies, is about having the big idea. Three black women mathematicians work at NASA in 1961 and help get John Glenn into orbital space. That is a big idea. I recognized that idea from 55 pages of a book treatment and said, “I’m going to make that into a movie.”

The other side of it is you make sure that hair and makeup, lighting, production design, costumes, all of those things in their smallest details have to be accurate and feel right and authentic to the movie. Many period pieces are undone, I think, by feeling less than authentic. When that gets in the way, you’ve got a problem, because the audience can’t connect to it. This goes back to La Terra Trema, Marty Scorsese. It goes to Raging Bull, the grittiness, Bob gaining all that weight, right? I connect it back to the education that I got from Marty. I can still remember him discussing the collars on the shirts of all of the actors and what those collars were going to look like. There’s no detail that is too small. I don’t know if that answers your question or not but that’s the gist of what film production came to mean for me.



The other thing I learned was that you should never be overseeing six movies and overseeing them in the way that one did at Miramax. It was an amazing education, but it was exhausting. At the end of two years, I just didn’t want to do it anymore. But there was this script called Shakespeare in Love that I had known about for a very, very long time. Harvey had this way of trading stuff. He had options on talent or material that he would trade to other companies. Anyway he had an option on Peter Jackson, and Universal wanted Peter Jackson to make a movie for them. And I said to him, “There’s this script over there that we should get as part of the trade.” And it was Shakespeare in Love. That was really my first experience producing a movie.


What a movie it turned out to be.

It was all there on the page, from Tom Stoppard. I seriously think it would have been hard to mess it up, because it was so funny and smart and clever. What we shot was 98% satisfying. We went back in and did one day of additional shooting. That picture made $300 million worldwide and then won 8 Oscars.


Donna Gigliotti at the 2013 Producers Guild Awards with fellow
Silver Linings Playbook producers Jonathan Gordon (left) and Bruce Cohen.

I don’t think we can talk about Shakespeare in Love without talking about that moment it won the Oscar, and five or six people came to the stage to pick up an award. That was the moment that really crystalized the nature of credit proliferation for both the Academy and the Producers Guild. How did it shake out that this production came to have so many “parents”?

Well David Parfitt was the line producer. There was me. There was Harvey, who wrote a check to Universal for $4 million—that was half of the turnaround costs. I think he felt by virtue of the fact he had signed his name on that check, he was deserving of a producer credit. Mark Norman had written the original screenplay. Ed Zwick was the original director when the picture fell apart at Universal. The truth is, it was completely legitimate for the Academy and the Producers Guild to look at that stage and say, “We have to do something about this.”


So when your first real producing gig wins a Best Picture Oscar and is a massive worldwide hit, where do you go from there? How do you follow that up and turn it into something sustainable?

Well at least in my case, you don’t. The truth is, I made a left turn in my career that was a mistake. I think that I suspected it was a mistake when I was doing it, but Barry Diller is a very persuasive man, and I also liked him very much. He was just starting what was called USA Films. And he said, “Come and be the President of Production and make movies.” And I did. I went back to being an executive and, in pretty short order, realized, “Ooh … that was a mistake. I don’t want to be an executive.”


Right. There was a reason you left that behind.

Exactly, exactly. [laughs] I did that for two years, until I said to him, “I’m not happy doing this. I want to go back to being a producer.” Then there’s a long time where I went and made maybe one movie a year. It was hard. A) I lived in New York and B) They weren’t studio movies. So it was not easy to earn a living, is what I am trying to say. There are some wonderful films in there, but it was hard. I don’t know how I managed to make one film after another. It was really difficult.

It finally ended after I’d produced a picture that James Gray directed in 2009 called Two Lovers. It was in competiton at Cannes and, like all James Gray films, it had a stellar reception at the Palais screening. After the screening, it was raining and we were all jammed together in the lobby of the Palais. It must have been, I don’t know, 10 years since I had last seen or talked to Harvey Weinstein. But suddenly this familiar voice was in my ear, saying, “Donna, Donna … beautiful picture. Will you come and talk to me tomorrow?” I thought he wanted to talk about acquiring the film. In fact, what he told me is, “I have a real problem. I have this film called The Reader. There is no producer on it. Anthony [Minghella] has died. Sydney [Pollack] has died.” Scott Rudin was a producer on it, but Scott’s not going and hanging out on the set. It was being directed by Stephen Daldry, who I love. And Harvey said, “Will you go to London and meet Stephen and maybe take over the film?”

And I did. That took me down a whole different path, which culminated with Silver Linings Playbook. I took over The Reader, which was fairly contentious on a lot of levels with a variety of people. But lo and behold, it got nominated for Best Picture! And I have to point out this is in the days when there were only five slots for Best Picture.


Those Bygone Days

The Reader made $125 million worldwide. I liked the film a lot. The next big one that comes up is Silver Linings Playbook, which was not an easy movie to get made for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that it’s a movie that is about a guy with a mental disorder, and it’s kind of a comedy, and kind of not. That one was really like pushing a rock up a hill. But again, worth it because it grabbed a lot of Oscar nominations, for me, for the cast. At that point in time, after Jennifer Lawrence won, I had a relatively unique distinction, which was that any time I had been nominated for Best Picture, the lead actress had always won an Oscar.


Hey, that’s right! [laughs]

That was great. So it was Gwyneth Paltrow, it was Kate Winslet and then Jennifer Lawrence.



Wow, that’s quite a pattern.

You know what? It is a pattern. I mean, I don’t take any credit for their performances or that they won Oscars. But it goes to the heart of what has always interested me: strong women protagonists. It’s pretty much a theme in everything I have done. That same quality is certainly true of Hidden Figures. It’s a pattern, it’s what interests me. And the good news is that clearly there’s a market for it. Nobody really wants to say that there is, but if you do the math, I think that my films, beginning with Shakespeare in Love, have taken in close to a billion dollars in worldwide box office. What I think that comes down to is that they’re interesting stories. But as an audience, women are now supporting movies that have strong women in them. Today it’s something that everybody has caught onto, and there are lots of producers that are trying to feature women.

I’ve said it a million times, that women are an underserved market in Hollywood. The movies that I’ve made have strong women at the center of them, and they’ve made a lot of money for a lot of people. Because look, you need a certain amount of money to make the film look like it’s a “real movie” up on the big screen, meaning it isn’t shot in one room with practical lighting. You need to have enough money to pay stars. Not their full rate, but something more than Schedule F. And if you’ve got a story that is interesting, then with what in Hollywood terms is a modest-sized budget, you can make a movie that makes a lot of money.


It used to be the conventional wisdom that female-centered movies “don’t travel” or “don’t open big.” Given that wisdom has been kind of discredited, are you seeing a different approach to these kinds of stories? Are people more receptive to them now?

I think so. I mean, the same can be said of pictures with African-American leads. The first book that I ever optioned was in 1992. It was called Devil in a Blue Dress. I set up at Universal, but I remember Tom Pollock telling me, “You’re never going to be able to make that movie because you can’t sell it internationally.” I heard the same thing in 2016 about Hidden Figures; no foreign value. Ultimately Devil got made, and it became a touchstone for a lot of African-American audiences. Denzel was in it, Don Cheadle was in it, Carl Franklin directed it. Subsequently, Tyler Perry came along.  I love that guy--he’s a genius. He understood better than anyone that the African-American audience was wildly underserved. Films like Hidden Figures and Black Panther, both gigantic hits, really changed the perception in Hollywood. Right now I have two projects that both have African-American themes or lead characters. And I’m going to tell you something, it’s not easy to find black writers right now. Everybody is busy. Their agents say, “No, she’s not available for the next 35 years. Call her then.” I ran into Geoff Fletcher, who won the Oscar for Precious. He said to me, “Donna, after I won the Oscar it was great, and I got some offers to write stuff. But now I don’t have enough hours in the day, I get so many choices.”

Things have shifted. The same is true when it comes to women. Frankly I really think it was Wonder Woman that did it. As a movie, that had both social impact and huge financial success. I have the sense now that people in Hollywood understand that social relevance can turn into big box office. Over the course of the last two years, it seems easier to get a movie made with an all-female cast or female leads.


Well that’s encouraging. Too often it seems like we make temporary strides, and then people go back to hiring the SAME people they’ve hired for the last 10 years. But from what we’re seeing right now, it feels like some kind of critical mass has been hit.

Well I want to be very specific about this. I think it is true for above-the-line. Where it really lags is below-the-line. As producers I think this is the next arena where we really have to pay attention. But I think it’s easier to make a movie that is diverse above-the-line if you have a diverse crew. I talk about this all the time, and I’m very proud of it: Thirty-two percent of below-the-line on Hidden Figures were either women or people of color. That was very difficult to do, but you really have to make an effort as a producer. Believe me there were heads of departments on that movie who will recall my calling them up and saying, “So, who are you hiring in your crew? I want to know if there are women. I want to know if there are people of color.” That’s what you have to do in order to make this change.

But it’s also a question of supply. There’s only one woman sound mixer in New York City. Guess what? She is booked for the rest of her natural life. So we’ve got to figure out how to increase the numbers of employable people. Because I’m sorry to say this, but as a producer, “taking a chance” on someone is not a Plan B. What I really want is to have a variety of qualified and talented people to choose from. It’s the next big challenge, I think, for our industry.


Well I hope people read this interview and try to do it differently next time, even if it takes a couple of extra phone calls.

It’s hard. But there should be more than one woman production sound mixer in New York. I mean, there just should be.


One would think. It’s not a big “upper body strength” kind of job.

Exactly. Thank you. So figuring that out is a really big challenge for both our Guild and for all of us as producers.


Before I let you go, I want to talk about Hidden Figures and specifically about script development. A lot of the work you’ve done has been either implicitly or explicitly literary, based on novels OR about literary FIGURES. BUT Hidden Figures is ABOUT real lives and real history that needs to be serviced. it’s great when Tom Stoppard can give you a script that’s 98% there, but how do you approach the path when you have to grapple with a responsibility to actual events?

Well I didn’t have any secret method. Hidden Figures was a 55-page book proposal. Everybody saw that book proposal, and nobody paid any attention to it. When I read it, I thought to myself, “This is unbelievable. Can this possibly be true?” Because it felt fake, to be honest with you.


Yeah. [laughs]

Nobody knew these women existed. I called six people that I know who are space geeks and asked them, “Have you ever heard of Katherine Johnson, of Dorothy Vaughn?” No, no, no. Nobody had heard of them. But I love research. That’s my favorite part of the whole process, because you’re always learning something new. You learn something about the black plague. You learn something about Shakespeare. You learn something about second-generation Germans after the war. There’s always something to learn.

That kind of getting deep into the research weeds was number one. Number two was meeting Katherine Johnson. She was 96, I think, but sharp as a tack; I mean, a little bit frail, but she remembered everything. Just looking at the woman, listening to the way she spoke, how she carried herself, her demeanor … all of that informed the story. Research, research, research.

The overarching rule of being a producer, in my opinion, is that you have to do your homework. If you are a good student and you do your homework, you will be successful as a producer. That’s what got us to the script of Hidden Figures that everybody signed onto. It was just a matter of doing the work.


-Feature photography by Noah Fecks

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