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East Meets Best - How Producer John Penotti Went Crazy. Sometimes, To Find Your Way, You Need To Get Lost

Posted By Kevin Perry, Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Last summer audiences booked their tickets for the woman-meets-world sleeper hit Crazy Rich Asians, but the journey of its lead character was more than just a pleasure cruise for producer John Penotti. “I many times joked that, minus a few years and with a few creative changes, I was really Rachel Chu,” quips the PGA member. He recalls “landing in the airport in Singapore for the first time and being completely blown away by how beautiful it is … there’s carpet everywhere, and there really is a movie theater there. It’s just a different experience. We see Singapore through Rachel’s eyes, and to me that felt very familiar because I had just gone through my discovery.”

It was a long, strange trip indeed, and it all started in Paterson, New Jersey.

Penotti was debating whether or not he should continue his med school endeavors when he suddenly found a more healing pursuit: filmmaking. He enlisted as an assistant director for the legendary Sidney Lumet and immediately left his scrubs behind. “I really loved the scheduling and budgeting and logistics side of the business. Coming from training as a pre-med student, I loved that kind of systemic investigation. I just kind of transposed it to film production. And Sidney, bless his heart, he noticed it and took an interest and very quickly made me part of the team.”

It was a crew that elevated analog filmmaking to gritty perfection. Penotti recounts Lumet’s unique pre-production ritual at the Ukrainian social hall in New York City. “We would tape out the dimensions of the important sets on the floor,” narrates Penotti. “It’s his process. He worked well removing all of the logistical unknowns, even down to deciding on lens sizes weeks before we ever got on the set, because then he allowed his actors to have total freedom and comfort and confidence without wasting time. That sense of preparation is probably the biggest thing I’ve taken away from the honor I had to work with him.”

Penotti leveraged that prep ethic into a deliriously successful producing career, catapulting movie after movie into indie nirvana. “Those moments when a project stands on the precipice of being done or going back on the shelf, bringing that kind of mechanical and specific understanding to the particulars of filmmaking right down to the details, has helped me to be a better creative producer.”

Tempering his assuredness with humility, Penotti adds that he “still [has] a lot of work to do, but I do think that when you understand what’s possible on the logistics side, you can help the creators really attain the vision that comes from their head.”

His fellow filmmakers have always appreciated Penotti’s generosity of time and talent. When tapped for comment, super-producer Charlie B. Wessler declared, “I was very lucky to work with John on a film a few years back. He is a wealth of knowledge and experience. He is one of those rare producers who can give astute, useful, creative notes on a script and at the same time juggle all of the complex financial issues. John is meticulously organized and, at the same time, the most fun guy on the set. Go figure.”

This combination of frivolity and frugality has served him well; the turn of the century was a golden age for John Penotti. His catalog covered the spectrum from popcorn teen flicks to brooding Oscar hopefuls, but a reckoning loomed on the horizon. “We had already had some great success with In the Bedroom, Prairie Home Companion and Swimfan. We had a nice run, but by the late 2000s it was very difficult. All the distributors had disappeared and DVD sales had plummeted, and streaming had no ancillary value at that point, so it was just a depressing time to be an indie producer and financier.”

Where would Penotti turn to salvage his faith in filmmaking? Go east, young man.

“I needed a new mission on how we were making movies,” he reflects, “but also I needed to see a different model. The indie model that we had been working successfully was collapsing. The international sales market had plummeted. So I went to Asia thinking there has to be a better way.”

The pilgrimage opened his eyes like the blossoming Tan Hua flower. “I just got intellectually interested in stories that originate in the east, whether it’s literature or folklore or action films. To me, it was like … wow! Genres I really relate to, but now told in a different language with different creative instincts and impulses. If I can marry these, this will be interesting again. So that was what my two years of research was about.”

John Penotti and novelist Kevin Kwan (center) chat on the set of
Crazy Rich Asians with cast members Henry Golding (left) and
Constance Wu (right). Photo courtesy of Anja Bucko.

And in that creative crucible, Penotti discovered the novel that would rewrite his career. “When I read the manuscript for Kevin [Kwan]’s book, I was already attuned to the idea,” explains Penotti. “Because I had spent time in Singapore, I had some exposure to the Crazy Rich Asians world already, so I was like, ‘This is real. This is not fiction.’ While it’s written as a novel, clearly [Crazy Rich Asians] is inspired by true events and real people, many of whom I have now met.”

As eager as Penotti was to make it rain onscreen, the funding didn’t come together as extravagantly as he had dreamed. “We went in hoping that something called Crazy Rich Asians, something as luxurious as the material and our view of what we knew we could accomplish, that we would be getting a lot more product placement and promotional contributions,” he relates before admitting, “It just really didn’t happen!” Taking a step back and tightening his proverbial belt, Penotti reassessed, determining, “We had to get more clever on how to deliver on the Crazy Rich portion of it.”

Luckily clever comes naturally for director Jon M. Chu. Penotti continues, “By the time we went into production, we were so confident in Jon’s vision of the film, that he was going to deliver something luscious, that it was our job to deliver for him. To make sure that he had the looks he wanted—that was our commitment. It had to happen.”

Penotti and Chu stormed the filmmaking frontier together, and the producer praises his cohort’s ability to prioritize on an epic scale. “Jon Chu, he knew how to spend the limited money we had. I’ll give you an example: We fought really hard, not for just one helicopter, but three. And that was a big-ticket item. So we cut other areas where we weren’t gonna have as impactful a moment.”

The filmmakers’ quest for the best took them from the heights of aviation down to the depths of decadence. But when they were searching for just the right jewelry for Michelle Yeoh’s character, they hit an emerald wall. “We were like, ‘Ya know what, we’re not getting it. Michelle what do you have?’ And Michelle brought in the beautiful ring,” Penotti reveals. “That was her ring: the hero ring of the movie, that was Michelle’s personal ring. That becomes iconic in the film.”

The stars of Crazy Rich Asians provided much more than bling; they represented talent from every corner of the globe. “We had casting directors in five different countries,” Penotti elaborates. “Constance Wu being the only person we considered for Rachel and obviously Michelle—who else would there be except Michelle to play that role?”

But the riches get even more embarrassing as Penotti praises the supporting players. “In terms of the comedy, I gotta say that was just something we were never concerned about because Jon very skillfully cast what we jokingly call ‘our special effects,’ the great comedians Ken Jeong and Awkwafina.”

Producer John Penotti (leaning on chair) watches a take alongside the Crazy Rich Asians team,
including director John M. Chu (center). Photo courtesy of Sanja Bucko.

Penotti has come a long way from the trenches of independent production to the contemplation of franchise fare, and he credits the evolution to his producing partners and fellow PGA members Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson. “These guys are working on a studio level that far surpasses any experience I had. I had sold movies to a studio, but I had never gone through that producing process.” Penotti positively beams, “To see how they operate and to balance the needs of the studio, I just learned a ton! And then to have the film work on this level—not only can you not plan it, you can never expect it.”

Penotti’s word “work” is an understatement as massive as the success of Crazy Rich Asians. The film shattered box office expectations, pulling in almost a quarter of a billion dollars internationally. Not bad given its production budget of roughly $30 million. Penotti, Jacobson and Simpson also earned well-deserved Producers Guild Award nominations for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures.

But for Penotti success really translates into opportunity. “It’s made the conversations when we acquire material so much easier,” he explains, “because Crazy Rich Asians has turned the tide toward understanding that these properties are valuable. These properties that speak about representation, telling international stories and diverse casting—they can work. Why shouldn’t they? And now we have something to point to in a very profound way.”

Inclusion is more than just an abstract concept for Penotti, it’s a calling card. “Our business model is specifically taking local stories and bringing them into global markets. So this is a validation. Crazy Rich Asians is an uber-validation of the original premise we had when we began.”

Drilling down to the bottom line, Penotti continues, “I just think it’s good business. We’re looking for audiences to come pay for our tickets, right?” He answers his own rhetorical question with a passionate plea for humanity and common sense. “It’s laughable to me that people only would want to look inward at a time like this, to go inward to the intense nationalism that is pervading a lot of countries. It just seems completely idiotic to me. On a human level, it’s ridiculous, and on a commercial level, it’s wildly shortsighted.”

Penotti’s vision is an inviting blend of passion and compassion. That empathic orientation helps him see the most intimate stories and pluck them from obscurity for the benefit of global audiences.

Now Penotti is focusing his sights on the red carpet. When asked how he is enduring the rigors of awards season, he replies with refreshing honesty and unabashed exuberance. “C’mon, I love it!” he grins. “I mean, I get to hang out with a group of people who—we’ve just become so close. Listen, people get close on movies all the time, but this is different. In my 35 or 40 movies I’ve done, I’ve never had the experience of this kind of continued camaraderie and rooting for people! The minute someone gets a job or something good happens, in the midst of it, there is genuine support. I gotta say if the awards season allows us more time to spend together, isn’t that great?”

 Once again answering his own query with warmth and confidence, Penotti surmises, “Yeah it’s been terrific.”

- Banner photograph by Kremer Johnson Photography.

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