Post a Job Join The Guild
Contact Us   |   Sign In   |   Register
Features
Blog Home All Blogs

 

Search all posts for:   

 

Top tags: feature  cover  diversity  new media  PGA East  Produced By Conference  Producers Guild Awards  ap council  california  chris moore  disney studios  dodger day  elections  empire  Events  fea  film  financing  gender equity  Greening  Harvey Weinstein  hdr  high dynamic range  Ice Cube  ilene chaiken  incentives  laura ziskin  LGBTQ  lot lunch  New York 

CHARLES D. KING - Charles D. King Isn't Looking To Join Your Club. (But Maybe You Could Join His...)

Posted By Chris Green, Thursday, June 7, 2018
Updated: Wednesday, June 6, 2018

As anyone who’s worked in this business for more than 15 minutes can tell you: It’s a different world out there. The equity money isn’t where we thought it was. The technology can do things we only dreamed of 10 years ago. In fact, 10 years ago, the dominant player backing new and original content barely existed as a distribution platform. The audience doesn’t look like we thought it did, and the creators producing the most exciting content definitely don’t look like we thought they would.

Near the center of this shifting landscape stands Charles D. King, himself both a symptom and an agent of these changes. But before he was an agent of change, he was simply an agent, working for 15 years at WMA/WME, ultimately earning distinction as the first African American to be named as a partner in the venerable company’s history. As a talent rep, King built a thriving career out of working with filmmakers of color, among them Ryan Coogler, Tim Story, Rick Famuyiwa, Lee Daniels and M. Night Shyamalan, fighting to help them seize their chances in a Hollywood that was characteristically averse to those who looked, spoke and thought differently than the dominant industry culture.

But for King, agency work, however rewarding, was always a stepping stone to something larger—ambitions toward a career as a producer of content and media, a mogul in the mold of David Geffen or Barry Diller. Those ambitions took a massive leap forward in 2015 with the founding of King’s company, Macro, and the succeeding few years have helped establish his reputation as a savvy and judicious champion of the kinds of stories and storytellers for whom he once drafted deal memos. First came a pair of collaborations with longtime personal hero Denzel Washington, serving as a backer and executive producer on the searching character study Roman J. Israel, Esq., directed by Dan Gilroy, and the long-in-gestation adaptation of August Wilson’s stage classic Fences, directed by Washington himself and nominated for four Academy Awards, winning one for Viola Davis’ performance. Even more triumphant was Mudbound, which King put together as one of the lead producers on a substantial team of collaborators. The first film to carry King’s name as “Produced by,” Mudbound proved to be the biggest sale at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and ultimately scored an historic quartet of Oscar nominations for writer/director Dee Rees, director of photography Rachel Morrison, and cast member and songwriter Mary J. Blige. Releasing this summer is King’s second film as producer, Sorry To Bother You, a wildly imaginative satire from hip-hop trailblazer turned first-time writer/director Boots Riley.

As his company name—and the interview that follows—suggest, Charles D. King has an intuitive grasp of the big-picture changes taking place in the entertainment business. For nearly 20 years, he’s worked to give talented outsiders the access and support that, once upon a time, only Hollywood insiders enjoyed. If King and Macro can deliver on their substantial ambitions, in a few years we’ll be looking at an industry in which there are no true outsiders and no true insiders—just supremely talented artists telling the best stories they can.


There’s plenty to talk about in your career, but I’d like to get a sense of how you found your way to Hollywood.

I grew up in Decatur, the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. As a kid growing up, I would watch movies and television pretty voraciously. I went to Vanderbilt University, where my focus was initially business, and I was a political science major.

One summer, I started doing some things creatively, really just as a way to make some money … some commercials, some print work and some modeling. From that, I began to help friends get into the business, and I discovered that I had a knack for identifying talent in others. Somewhere along the line someone suggested, “Look. You’re at Vanderbilt. You’re studying political science. You obviously have an interest in entertainment. You should think about entertainment law.” I had really no idea what an entertainment lawyer did, but I did recall the show L.A. Law and the character played by Blair Underwood, who was the one African American on the show and who was so charismatic and intelligent. I really liked that character. So I had that model in my mind.

I graduated, worked in the corporate world for a couple years, then went to law school with a focus on entertainment law. Around that time, I read this book called Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun? by Reginald Lewis. That’s really where the idea formed that one day, I could perhaps start a media company that would focus on telling these stories that would reflect who I was and would reflect the community. I wanted kids and people around the world to have that same kind of “aha” aspirational moment that I had when I saw L.A. Law because, frankly, I didn’t have enough of those stories and images of people that looked like me.

At that point I was considering my entry point into the industry. Someone suggested I look at the talent agency world. I did the research and learned about these titans, like Barry Diller, David Geffen, Bernie Brillstein … these iconic figures who built these amazing companies and careers and studios all at one point were agents. So I thought that the agency world would be an ideal space for me to cut my teeth, to build the relationships and connect with artists, to understand the landscape and then ultimately go on to build something. It’s the epicenter of the industry.

So I moved to LA. I went into the belly of the beast and went to WMA (now WME) and had an amazing career working with some of the most compelling and inspiring artists across every sector. After 15 years, I felt as though I had done everything that I set out to do in that world—having created new deal models for filmmakers, actors, musicians and media titans. It was time for me to forge ahead and really build out this vision that I had since before I even moved to town. So three years ago, I launched Macro and we’ve been having a great journey ever since.


So in representing all these creative figures, it put you across the table, in many ways, from producers. What was your experience of producers and content creators from that vantage? And how did that inform your path as you crossed the line over to the side of generating the content as opposed to representing the artists?

That’s a very good question. I represented filmmakers, writers, directors and a lot of producers too. The best ones, for me as an agent, were the ones who just made things happen, right? They did whatever it took, driving things forward by identifying ideas but also by building out a team and connecting the dots.

I never really thought about it until you asked this question, how much I learned from so many of those people about what worked, what didn’t work; when to push, when to lay back; how to coalition-build with the filmmaker and align the right elements to support the filmmaker and the right crew; knowing which distribution or studio partner would be the best fit for certain types of vehicles; how to navigate the landscape and be amenable to deal structures with talent. It’s like you’re putting together whole companies, teams of hundreds of people, all to work together toward a common goal, and you’re doing it over and over.

 

Going back over all the producers that you worked with, are there particular instances that stand out in your mind as times where you arrived at some degree of insight into what the job was, at its best?

There was one movie where I had more than one client involved with the production. It started out as a smaller independent movie, but the vision and scope of this movie continued to expand and grow. It wasn’t a massive $100 million movie or anything like that, but it went from being a tiny, micro-budget project to more of a low-to-mid-size film. But the producer on it was someone who had made many movies that were much larger in scope, an incredibly accomplished producer who was already at the top of their game.

Now this was one of the most challenging films that I was involved in. I still joke with friends about this one particular film, that I had hair before that movie. [Laughs] But I’ll tell you this: The producer, athough they went through lots of ups and downs through it—and there were some moments of yelling and things like that—the thing that really struck me through all of that was how committed that producer was, from the time it was a micro-budget movie all the way to the mid-size range that it ended up in. Even though they had produced these massive blockbusters, they were just as committed to this film as to anything else that they had worked on or could be working on. The amount of energy and time they committed was absolutely extraordinary. It made a huge impression upon me, how when you believe in a story and you’re passionate, then it doesn’t matter what your producer fee is or what the economics of it are. You’re going to pour all of your heart and energy into every one of those things that you’re working on.

In the same category is a producer who I represented along with a talented filmmaker on a number of projects. They were literally my first call every single day. And getting into my office somewhere between  7 a.m and 8 a.m., before the workday even started, they were literally the first person calling me every single day—“So, what are you doing?” I admit, I didn’t expect that kind of tenacity every day. They were just a force of nature. No matter what, they just made things happen.

It got to the point that there was a moment where they weren’t calling every day and I was honestly a little worried … “What’s going on?!” It turns out, they had gotten married and they had calmed down for a second. And then all of the sudden they were calling again, “Yeah, I’m back in action now.” We had a great experience and those projects all moved forward. Really great producers—they put in the work, they work their asses off, they will projects into existence.

I could probably give you a hundred more examples, but those are the first two that jumped out at me.

Producer Charles D. King and Mudbound writer/director Dee Rees at the PGA's Produced By: New York conference in October, 2017


So now you are one of those folks. How did you take the leap and start putting together those first productions?

When I was agent, I represented Kenny Leon, who directed Fences on Broadway. I was fortunate to be at the opening night when Denzel Washington and Viola Davis were starring. I was just so blown away by their performances and the emotion of those characters. I knew that Fences was in development for years at Paramount. Over my last couple of years at WME, as I was charting my path to go and launch this company, I began to create a grid of projects that I would be interested in if they ever moved forward and if there were an opportunity to get involved.

Fences was one of those projects that we were tracking. I also had a tremendous respect for Denzel, who has, throughout my life, been my favorite actor, hands down. I’m a connoisseur of his entire body of work and what he represents. But for years I also had a great experience as an agent interfacing with [producer] Todd Black.

So when I found out that this was moving forward and there could possibly be an opportunity to partner, it checked every box of what we were looking to do as a company: supporting the vision of a brilliant filmmaker and artist like Denzel, working with one of the great actresses of their generation in Viola and working alongside a masterful and thoughtful producer like Todd Black.

We were not day-to-day on the physical production side of things. They already had their cast, obviously. We were probably a little more involved when it got to some of the efforts around the marketing of the film and social media strategy and things like that. But it was a team and a vision that we were thrilled to be a part of as executive producers and financiers.

I wonder if you could contrast that with something like Mudbound. Denzel and Todd have been making movies for a long time, and Fences is a classic of the American stage. But Dee Rees is a younger, less tested filmmaker, and not as many people are as familiar with the source material. What was your role as a producer in that scenario?

So this is one where you know how they say, “It takes a village?” Mudbound truly took an entire village of mission-aligned producers, who all brought their own skills to the table and who all worked together as a team to move this forward. But the unifier was really a commitment to supporting the vision of a brilliant filmmaker like Dee Rees. Five months into launching Macro, my friend and former colleague Cassian Elwes had lunch with me and he said, “Hey, I have this script, Mudbound, and it’s the best thing that I’ve read in the last few years. It feels like it would be a great fit for your company and your mission and what you’re looking to build. And if you respond to it, we should do this together.”

Now I’ve got to give Cassian credit. This was before we even announced who our investors were and what our financing was like. But he, as a smart producer, knowing the landscape of this town, understood that I have credibility in terms of the relationships and my understanding of marketing, and my ability to galvanize creative contributors even though I had not physically produced a movie yet. My colleague, Poppy Hanks, read the script first and told me, “Charles, this is amazing.” I read it, and I agreed.

Dee needed the right opportunity to be supported in her vision. She’s very selective. She had passed on so many things for years and really only focused on making films that she was deeply passionate about. And when she shared her vision for Mudbound with us, again, it checked so many boxes and had a universal theme. It was a story about a time and an era that we hadn’t seen before.

From there, Cassian and Macro partnered with the other producers who had developed it, Sally Jo Effenson and her son, Carl. We had a group that had developed it, who got the story to a certain point. They brought it to Cassian, who helped with his understanding of how to package. Cassian brought it to Macro. A few months before, it was a dormant script that no one paid attention to. All of a sudden, it was on fire. We had talent at the highest levels interested in being a part of it. That’s a big part of what producers do, galvanizing the community. Cassian was strong on financial structures. We were bringing the equit, along with a market understanding and talent relationships as well.

My colleague Kim Roth, who used to run production at Imagine, joined right around the same time. It was Cassian and Kim and myself really engaging the talent, putting the cast together with Dee. We had two other great producers who also came in as co-financiers, who weighed in a lot as well. But each one of us knew our strengths and where we should play, working almost like linemen in front of this quarterback, Dee, who was throwing touchdowns every day on set.

You look at all the historic nominations around that movie, with Dee being the first African-American woman to get nominated for an Academy Award for an adapted screenplay, Rachel Morrison being the first female DP nominated in the history of the Academy and Mary J. Blige being the first artist to get nominations in a movie for both a song and a performance. To be frank with you, those things happened with the support of a company like Macro with an African-American financier who, alongside our co-financier, ultimately drove most of those decisions of who should be hired. We supported our filmmaker with who she wanted to bring on, in every case. I know for a fact that the average studio wouldn’t have given her that kind of support.

But in our case, we ended up with a product and an opportunity and a historic win that we are all proud of. Almost every one of our department heads was a woman, and we made a tremendous film. Hopefully more people will take note and will take similar strides.

It seems crazy, that the entire industry seems to be waking up to the fact that there’s this giant, untapped talent pool just waiting to show what they can do. What took everyone so long to recognize that?

To be honest with you, I can’t speak to why other people make these decisions, except to think that people are just used to working with who they know and who they think they’re going to be most comfortable with, instead of asking “Who’s the best person?” Right? That’s the only way I look at it, whether we’re building our team at Macro or when we’re putting together a project. We didn’t have an inclusion rider in front of us when we were looking at who we were going to bring in. I know it was important for Dee, it was important for us, but we didn’t sign anything to that effect.

But obviously we are going to be a part of supporting every single one of the initiatives about more inclusion in our space. We’re going to be driving it and hopefully in front of it. But it’s just smart business. You want the best people. You want to have a lot of different voices as part of your production. It’s going to make the product better, and it’s going to make your company better.


We’ve worked in the business long enough to see a few cycles in which ideals of diversity, frankly, have gone in and out of fashion. But something feels different this time.

I feel like the wider range of opportunities we’re seeing in both film and television is really a part of the digital revolution. The streaming platforms have created tremendous opportunities, both in terms of longer features as well as scripted shows.

But it’s also about the falling cost of digital cameras and the tools available to young storytellers, like crowdfunding and wider access to independent capital for emerging filmmakers whose talent and gifts are evident. Access to opportunity is less organized and no longer defined by the same group of gatekeepers.

What I think we’re going to see, along with the shift in demographics, is the growth of what I will call the “new majority.” You have organizations like Macro that are African-American owned, that are financing and telling stories. You have others like Franklin Leonard and the fund that he launched recently. You’ve got other producers who are thinking more entrepreneurially, who are not looking to say, “Hey, please let me be in your club,” but who will participate in the larger ecosystem.

You’re going to have groups of people who are smart, who want to work with artists and who want to tell stories for an audience that is thirsty to see a wide range of offerings that are more reflective of their experience. They’re going to build market share and create value and not be concerned about whether they’re in someone else’s club or not. They can create their own club. They can create their own studio in the way people have like Tyler Perry back in Atlanta or Robert Rodriguez had with his compound in Texas or the way George Lucas built his studio in San Francisco. I believe we’ll see people from diverse backgrounds doing more of those.

And to the degree that the industry’s larger institutions don’t recognize and understand that this audience is there, they’ll lose market share and they’ll lose relevance. Some of them clearly do get it, like ABC. Look at the success of all their shows. Look at what happened with Disney with the success of Black Panther, bringing in all these new audiences into the Marvel universe. I’ve seen the trailers and the commercials for the new Avengers—they have Black Panther characters out in front of them. If you’re telling me that they aren’t smart enough to know that they have a chance to keep the same Avengers audience while also bringing in new people, you must be kidding me.

Marvel is brilliant to be doing that. If other places want to sit back and keep making movies for who they think the audience was 40 years ago, they’re going to get acquired or they’ll die. That’s what’s going to happen. I think that forward-leaning producers are going to understand how to tell stories for the world, not for what they think their buddies in the halls of Hollywood want to see.

 

Making your own club, that’s a really useful shorthand for understanding the transformation that’s going on.

Maybe they can come join my club. [laughs] I don’t mind going to your place either. 

Charles D. King (right) with cast member Denzel Washington at the premiere for Roman J. Israel, Esq. in New York


In terms of being part of the digital revolution, well … Netflix distributed Mudbound, after all. The company is clearly a key driver of changes we’re seeing. As somebody who’s worked very successfully with the company, what should your fellow producers know about Netflix?

First of all, I have to say that on Mudbound, Netflix was an absolutely incredible partner. The passion and the energy that they exhibited from the moment they saw Mudbound galvanized the rest of the team. They came in and acquired the film out of Sundance, making it the biggest sale at the festival that year. The entire organization backed up everything that they said they were going to do, and then some. They over-indexed on everything that they said they would and took it to another 10 festivals ... what they did on the marketing campaign, what they did on the awards campaign, how they made sure it was seen around the world. They did share a nice amount of data with us. Would it be great to have the full algorithm and sit there and digest everything it could tell us? Yes. Of course we would all love to see that. But hey, we also want to know the formula for Coca-Cola, right? This proprietary approach obviously works for them as a company. Everyone would love to have more of that data.

But I’d say that in our case, I was very happy. They were the ideal partner for that show. All around the world, people know what this film is. This movie was seen in 180 countries and it will continue to be seen. It had cultural relevance. So Netflix was an incredible partner. Still, as we think about going forward, we want options. We still want to work with studios. We still believe that there’s a huge marketplace for theatrical features and that shared moviegoing experience in the theater, whether it’s a period drama or a love story or a comedy. Then there are some films that might be great to see at home on your television through Netflix or watch them on a tablet. We still believe that there’s a great independent film marketplace where you can make movies outside of the system and then you can decide if you want to have a theatrical release or you want to have a streaming service acquire it for their platform.

So we, as a company, are playing ball in all of these arenas. We’re mindful of where the business is going. Obviously there’s a different kind of pressure on theatrically released movies. But then that’s where as producers, as well as financiers, we have to be smart and thoughtful about movies that we’re financing, how we’re making them, how they’re being marketed, who the best distribution partners are and what is the best way to not only create a great product, but what are the best ways to monetize this great product that we’re hopefully making?

We will continue to seek other new players, and if tech companies want to create great content, we’ll get involved. That’s why we’re producing and financing stories on all platforms: film, television and even shorter-form digital. You want to create content where all of these audiences are. For other producers in our space, if they want to maintain relevance and market share and business, they also need to be aware of those things. Otherwise they’re going to limit the possibilities and all of the cool things and fun content that they could produce over time.

 

Could you talk a little more about your approach to short-form work? To date, Macro has mostly gained notice for its feature films. How are you looking to crack the “television-plus” side of the equation?

We believe that there’s all kinds of quality storytelling on the digital platforms. Our initial slate was focused on premium short-form content that, if you looked at it, you’d think, “Wow, this could pass for an independent feature. This could stand next to something you would see on a streaming platform or a premium cable network.” It’s just in a shorter form, more episodic. We’ve had great success upstreaming a nice amount of that first group of projects on our initial slate.

As we go forward I believe we’ll be looking at Gente-fied and I Turn My Camera On as good examples of shows that we created as short-form content that have now been upstreamed in those areas and brands we want to work with. But we’re also beginning to think about even shorter forms of content. Those kinds of content might not usually be considered “premium,” but they’ll be pieces of storytelling shared via social that still connect to and unify the premium content we’re creating. How do you connect the pieces and begin to create a consumer-facing connectivity to an audience over time, whether or not that content appears on others’ platforms or one day, maybe our own?

Right now, that’s how we’re doing it. Obviously it’s a space that’s going through a lot of change, but we ought to be nimble enough to adjust as new models come together and entrepreneurial enough to try different things. But it’s also a way to incubate great new voices, as well as an arena where you can work with established filmmakers who want to just experiment and do some new things.

From left, Mudbound executive producer Cassian Elwes, cast member and songwriter Mary J. Blige, Macro president of production Kim Roth, producer Charles D. King. - Wenn LTD/Alamy Stock Photo


Speaking of new things, I can’t let you go without asking about Sorry to Bother You. For a producer who’s built his early rep on these almost literary dramas, this movie seems wildly different.

It is wildly different. I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of work with Sundance. I had a lot of great experiences with the festival when I was an agent, supporting so many filmmakers that I worked with from Craig Brewer to Rick Famuwiya, Justin Simien, Dee Rees and lots of others through the years. I’ve been a mentor in a number of the labs. I met [writer/director] Boots Riley at the first lab that I was a part of, and then he was at a second one and a third one. I kept seeing him there, and I was really impressed by his vision for what he wanted to do with the script. When he would pitch the story, I could see his energy as an artist and where he was coming from, both as a musician and now transitioning into a filmmaker. It was bold, and it was audacious, and it was unique and refreshing. For me, it was about helping him channel that into a budget and a framework that I thought would make sense and then making sure he was equipped with the experience and tools to make the transition. Between all of those labs, he spent a good year or so working on the script and the budget.

The other key element was partnering with great people. We’re a company that’s very collaborative. Nina Yang Bongioviis a producer who I have the utmost respect for. We had a lot of success together when she produced Fruitvale Station with Ryan Coogler when I was one of his agents, and then I gave her the Dope script and we worked together again where I was the agent and she was the producer, partnering up with Rick Famuyiwa, and she did a great job making that film.

So we were looking to find something else that we could work on together. She had also met Boots at those labs. I told her, “Hey, if you ever get the budget and the range, I would love to do this with you.” And so they got it to that place and then I said, “Let’s do this together.” She, along with the other producers, drove a lot of the production. We got very involved in casting and galvanizing the town and packaging the movie. On set, Nina and her team led a lot of it. We came back in for a lot of the post process and determining who could best distribute and market the film--we were heavily involved in all of that.

So once again, it was a great team scenario, which is always our choice as a company. It was great to tell a story like Mudbound. It was great to tell a story like Fences. But it was important to us to tell a more contemporary story, to push the genre boundary, the way Sorry To Bother You does ... to make people a little uncomfortable with the movie. It’s funny and it’s out there. It’s unique. That makes some people uncomfortable. But I think uncomfortable is good. It gets people outside of their comfort zone, thinking about things and waking them up.

This is a film that so many people respond to, and it speaks to the audience that we’re talking about. It’s incumbent upon producers to think about and listen to the marketplace, to understand the wide range of audiences that are out there for such stories. And it was important for us to work with a brilliant auteur like Boots, who is willing to take chances, to push boundaries and tell the kind of stories that haven’t been told before. That’s a part of our mission. I can 100%, for a fact, tell you you’ve never seen a story like Sorry To Bother You before. I can’t wait for the world to see this.

This post has not been tagged.

Share |
PermalinkComments (0)
 

Living (And Dying) In The Past - 'The Alienist' Team Holds A 19th Century Mirror Up To 20th Century Anxieties

Posted By Kevin Perry, Tuesday, May 8, 2018

A transgender hate crime. A demonized immigrant population. Politics vs. police vs. the press. Female empowerment in the workplace.

This is 1896. And this is the lurid landscape of The Alienist.

The breakthrough TNT series follows a fledgling psychotherapist, journalist and police secretary as they hunt a ravenously depraved murderer of children. Along the way, the show also tackles many of the most visceral issues of our time by transposing them to a vastly different era. It’s a challenging proposition for the audience, to be sure, but an even more daunting task for the show’s creative team, which includes, among numerous talented producers, PGA members Rosalie Swedlin and Marshall Persinger.

“The hardest part was the time factor,” confesses Persinger, a co-executive producer on the series. “Originally it was supposed to come out in 2017, but there was just no way.” That’s an understatement, given the fact that they didn’t start shooting until March 16 of that year. The date is indelibly set in Persinger’s memory. “When people would come in and they would see what this entailed and what was going to happen— what was needing to happen— before March 16, they would get this look of terror on their face for like two days. We just called it ‘the look.”’

The crew was justified in being daunted. They had less than a year to replicate 19th century New York City from scratch and thus began the weekly production meetings. “Those meetings were so terrifying on one hand, because it was like, ‘How is this ever going to all come together?’ But on the other hand, it did really help everyone learn what was needed.” Persinger assesses, “It really was a massive undertaking. It took everybody—the network and the studio— everyone together. It really was a great team experience. We were under a lot of pressure, because there was a lot riding on it.”

These great expectations for The Alienist date back to 1994, when Caleb Carr penned the celebrated novel of the same title. Blending gruesome fact with historical fiction, Carr’s story has been a proverbial white whale for producers throughout the past two decades. As Swedlin explains, “While we wanted to be respectful of the novel, which had a huge international following, we had to obviously make some dramatic changes and story changes to make it work as a 10-part series.” The eternal optimist, Swedlin alchemized those obstacles into opportunities. “I knew the book from when it was initially published and acquired as a feature film. I think one of the reasons that it never got made is that one of the great pleasures of the novel is all of the great texture and historical background. When you try to do a screenplay and reduce it to two hours, it’s difficult to retain what people loved about the novel. In that sense, I think it lent itself perfectly to television in terms of storytelling and not losing all of the sense of what New York was like at that time.”

And that historical moment seemed eerily familiar. “Some of the issues that people were dealing with at the end of the 19th century parallel many of the issues that are problematic today,” observes Swedlin. “Immigration; the disillusionment in institutions–the church, government, police; feminism–the suffragette movement was in full force; and the technological revolution... there are a lot of parallels to today’s world that make the series that much more interestingly relevant and accessible.”

Well before Persinger was circling March 16, 2017 in red on her calendar, Swedlin and her team at Anonymous Content was engaged in pulling together the eclectic staff of writers and producers who would bring The Alienist to life, including Hossein Amini (Drive), Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective), E. Max Frye (Foxcatcher) and John Sayles (Lone Star).  “Along with our partners at Paramount, we went after writers together.  Hossein knew the book; he wrote the first episode and the series bible.  Cary was involved from a very early stage.”  But while Amini and Fukunaga were a key part of the development and writing, schedules prevented them from taking the reins on set as a showrunner/director duo.  “By the fall of 2016,” Swedlin continues, “Cary had another commitment, and we had to find another filmmaker.  That’s what led us to Jakob Verbruggen.  He was supposed to be on vacation, taking a drive up the California coast, but somewhere along the way, we caught up with him for a long conversation and he came on board.”

Swedlin and Persinger relax outside the Anonymous
Content offices in Culver city.

Meanwhile, location scouting was continuing apace.  We scouted Montreal and New York,” Swedlin recounts, “to see if we could find enough of 1896 New York left in either of them to make shooting possible. Ultimately, we built the streets of New York on the backlot in Budapest. Budapest provided us with a lot of other locations, buildings that were intact from the same period in which a lot of the upscale 19th century New York buildings were built.” Even when the season one narrative sprawled from NYC to upstate New York to Washington D.C., the wildly resourceful crew found all those locations in Budapest. “It’s a wonderful city to shoot in,” she concludes, “with great infrastructure for production.”

Finding the locations was the first step, but the on-set team supporting Verbruggen wasn’t yet in place. “Max Frye was illing to come back,” recalls Swedlin, “and essentially be our on-set showrunner. He had never run a show before and so he brought on Marshall; she stayed on through the entire shoot.” 

Persinger recalls arriving at the Budapest backlot mere weeks before shooting. “We came in and everything was just plywood,” she confesses, praising the diligence of production designer Mara LaPere-Schloop. “I still don’t know how she pulled it off with all the people she had answering to her.” Growing conspiratorially concerned, Persinger whispers, “I don’t think anybody slept very much, to tell you the truth.”

The set really started to take shape with the arrival of some props from Mad Men art department veteran Ellen Freund. “She was in Austria and Germany,” recounts Persinger. “She went everywhere to find what we would consider the smallest prop, just so that it was realistic.”

Freund wasn’t the only crewmember scouring the globe for period perfection. Costume designer Michael Kaplan was “designing everything the principals were wearing—traveling around and getting the fabric from everywhere in Europe.” Persinger continues, “There were two incredibly huge warehouses full of wardrobe for extras … The faces on those extras were just unbelievable. It was such an amazing representation of New York, but all in Hungary. That was a huge job for the costume department, dressing them.”

Great production values don’t just pay off in visual impact—they improve performance. Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning sported some killer threads to evoke the fashion of the era. Swedlin notes, “Dakota had to wear a corset that was pulled tight at the back under every single outfit. Her clothes had far more buttons than you would ever find on any female garment today. All the men wore detachable collars, vests under their jackets, and cravats … That, in itself, transported our actors back in time.”

The uncomfortable garments, however, didn’t put a crimp in the stars’ style. Swedlin assesses, “Our actors genuinely had a wonderful time working with each other. I think they’ve all become lifelong friends now.” Persinger adds, “They were like an independent film troupe from the very beginning. So we breathed a sigh of relief, because our actors were so committed and excited and working well together. I think we lucked out.”

In addition to these still-rising talents, the cast of The Alienist includes one of our nation’s most celebrated presidents: Teddy Roosevelt. “One of the great pleasures of the novel and the series is the recognizable historical characters,” remarks Swedlin. “We kind of imagined it as a Roosevelt origin story. This is not the Roosevelt that everybody knows. This is a young man who, before the series begins, has suffered two horrible losses—his mother and his wife died within hours of each other. He’s a much more understated Roosevelt than the larger-than-life Teddy Roosevelt that people know.”

Rosalie Swedlin (right) at The Alienist premiere in New York with (from left) fellow exec producer Jakob Verbruggen, Paramount Television President Amy Powell, TNT President Kevin Reilly, cast members Dakota Fanning,
Daniel Bruhl and Luke Evans. 

Bringing such luminaries into the fold requires a presidential level of research. Action sequences are complicated enough for any production, but the team had to do a lot of thinking before the shooting started. Persinger remembers obsessing over the costume details, “When Roosevelt issued guns to the police officers … Y’know, where do they carry them? Their uniforms weren’t made for that. There would always be those little emergencies.”

Now multiply those emergencies by two and you’ll start to get the bigger picture of Persinger’s dilemma. “There were literally two full crews shooting their blocks at a time throughout this period,” she explains. “And we were editing. Luckily we were editing there in Budapest, on the lot. It was pretty extraordinary. And then to have it come together as it did is a tribute to the teamwork that was going on.” Summoning up her vast reserve of self-awareness, she quips, “I’m a ‘control freak’ producer, but at some point you have to give up. You just couldn’t be on top of everything … My philosophy was to make sure that lines of communication were open and everyone was expressing what they needed and determining how we as producers could help them achieve what they needed to achieve. I think that’s my overriding philosophy. Luckily, everyone else believed the same thing.”

Persinger still reflects upon the crystallizing moment when she was able to appreciate the scope and scale of The Alienist’s production successes. “I remember the day that we went to shoot on [the] 300 Mulberry Street [set]. We had to do it on the weekend because we had to take over a public street in Budapest. That actually happened at the same weekend the Hollywood Foreign Press came down to visit, plus a lot of the people from the network and the studio were there.” So, no pressure. Go on. “It looked like 1896. There were pig carcasses, chicken carcasses hanging, there were street carts, any and every kind of cart, there were 250 extras out there, there were horses and carriages. This was an extraordinary experience. You really felt like you had stepped into 1890s New York.”

Persinger beams, harkening to her indie feature roots: “To get everybody to come together and speak this language of high-end filmmaking–because I’m not even gonna say people were making television, it was like filmmaking. Everybody was striving for the best of the best.”

As story with so much immersive subtlety required a team with just such a pedigree. “We were telling the story that Caleb Carr created but very conscious that we were telling it in a time when these issues again are very much in the news … It speaks to the fact that America was made by immigrants who contributed enormously to the growth of the city and to the country.” Swedlin concludes, “It’s organic in the narrative.”

But how does that narrative fit within the larger context of pop culture? And how would the audience receive it? These questions were central to the make-or-break nature of bringing such challenging material to the masses, and Persinger wrestled with them endlessly. “I think now people are so used to seeing stories about serial killers and getting into the mind of the serial killer that I think the harder thing for us now is to make sure that it seems fresh. Especially when The Alienist is a precursor to all of those serial killer shows, movies, series, all of it.”

The intermingling of psychoanalysis and ritual murder has been a creative goldmine for TV producers of late. Dexter plumbed the morality behind the mask of death, Hannibal blurred the line between head-shrinker and scalp-taker, and Mindhunter pinpointed the moment when behavioral sciences awoke to the pathology of serial killers.

This thriller/therapy hybrid subgenre is apparently Marshall Persinger’s wheelhouse. She has been fascinated with the twisted subject matter ever since she was baptized in blood (metaphorically speaking) in the early 1990’s, earning one of her first major screen credits on the Citizen Kane of serial killer movies: The Silence of the Lambs. During her time working for the incomparable Jonathan Demme, Persinger bonded with writer E. Max Frye and Buffalo Bill himself, star Ted Levine. When the three of them reunited on the set of The Alienist, Rosalie Swedlin captured the moment on camera. “Rosalie actually took this picture of Max, Ted Levine and me, and we sent it to Jonathan [Demme] and we wrote him, ‘We wish you were here and we’re thinking of you.’ He wrote us back and said, ‘I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.’ And then one month later he died. We were so grateful that we got to do that. This is the emotional part of the interview.” Persinger pauses, acknowledging her grief and mustering up considerable strength. She repeats for emphasis, “We were so grateful that we got to do that.”

The producers of The Alienist have found killer success exorcising the darkest demons of history, but their personal bonds continue to light the way forward.
--------

*Theater and stair photos by Kremer Johnson Photography

This post has not been tagged.

Share |
PermalinkComments (0)
 

Cruise Control - EYE Q Takes Immersive Production Out To Sea

Posted By Chris Milliken, Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Ready for an excursion out at sea on an exciting ocean cruise? Then get onboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s new ship, JOY! It’s leaving Shanghai in five minutes! There’ll be plenty of sea breeze, fresh air, sunshine and sweeping views of the ocean blue. What else would you even want on a cruise? For starters, how about immersive stage shows with dancers and aerialists, including high-tech backdrops that span 180°? Or while you’re in the middle of the ocean, how about a virtual trip through Paris? Right now, the Norwegian JOY is the only boat sporting these amenities, thanks to the creative and technical team at Eye Q Productions.

Eye Q is a boutique production company based out of Agoura Hills, specializing in immersive entertainment, projection design, 3D mapping and creative video design. Headed by PGA member Jenni Ogden, who has been working alongside creative director Jeff Klein since 2003, the Eye Q team includes technologists, 3D animators, production designers and more. Before founding Eye Q, Ogden worked in the music industry, where she produced live events; she also has a background as an entrepreneur, having founded a record label. Today she sits on the PGA’s New Media Council Board of Delegates.

 
  Eye Q President and Executive Producer Jenni Ogden

The shows on JOY were a natural fit for Ogden and her team, building off of similar elements and projects they had previously created. Before working on the JOY’s shows, Ogden and Eye Q had produced nine theater shows for Disney, as well as five projection mapping spectaculars and numerous projection shows for Universal Studios. Moreover, the JOY project was not even their first time at sea—Eye Q had worked on immersive shows for Disney Cruise Lines as well. One of these productions connected them with Richard Ambrose, then Disney Cruises’ VP of Entertainment, who subsequently moved to Norwegian Cruise Lines. At Norwegian, Ambrose was looking to push the boundaries of immersive onboard entertainment. Naturally he knew just the producer for the job.

Ogden observes that Eye Q has been fortunate in that most of the company’s projects have been through word-of-mouth or repeat work with the same clients.

But what exactly is immersive entertainment and what exactly are the shows onboard like? In the theater space on JOY, an audience of about 1,000 is treated to hour-long “Vegas-style” stage shows that feature dancers, aerialists and other stage artists who perform in tandem with immersive projection backdrops that span eye to eye (180°) around the theater. The projections enhance the show’s story by adding visual backdrops, locations or reactionary elements to the performances on stage.

The two shows onboard JOY are conceptually different but offer similar immersive high-tech elements. Elements is inspired by the four elements: earth, air, water, fire. Paradis is a is a virtual trip through Paris, which begins at street level, before whisking the audience off the ground through the city center. Both shows incorporate music and are constructed for the immersive backdrops to match the performers on stage down to the second.

In creating the shows, Eye Q was responsible for creating the content on the projection screen and other technical elements while they collaborated alongside Broadway choreographer and the shows’ creative director Patty Wilcox (Motown the Musical). While Wilcox had created earlier versions of Elements and Paradis for previous shows on Norwegian Cruise Lines, the addition of Eye Q’s immersive environments has transformed the material, turning it from a performance into a must-see multimedia experience.

When putting together early versions of the shows, Eye Q looked to create unique entertainment, creatively speaking. For Paradis, the process involved creating a 5-mile digital recreation of Paris, constructed from scratch. Conceptually, Wilcox and Ogden’s team worked to create a journey through the city that was not simply a “greatest hits” landmark-oriented tour. Instead, they conceived of a more abstract representation of Paris that included a peek inside a speakeasy and a flight past the Eiffel Tower and d’Orsay Theater. They drew additional inspiration from famed trapeze artist and tightrope walker Philippe Petit.

Ogden explains the great creative opportunity that came with working alongside a renowned practitioner from another discipline—a choreographer—to mesh dance and performance with technologically immersive projection elements. The collaborative give and take in the effort to make them work in tandem was among the highlights of the process. As Ogden puts it, everyone—choreographers, performers and technologists– “was rowing in the same direction.”

The 3,000-passenger Norwegian JOY was built specifically for the Chinese market, which comes with large demands for impressive high-tech experiences. On a cruise ship that also features everything from virtual reality experiences to high-tech go-carts, Ogden and her team knew that the bar was set high. Ogden laughs, recalling the original request from Norwegian: to put together “a show on steroids.”

But as exciting as producing high-tech entertainment and setting up two immersive shows on the JOY was, it didn’t happen without a variety of unique challenges. For one, setting up the shows involved working on the ship while it was still under construction at the Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany. Before fine-tuning the shows prior to the maiden voyage, Eye Q had to load show-specific equipment—involving the show’s programming, data and backups—onto the docked cruise ship and into the previously unseen theater space. When the team finally saw the performance space, they swiftly realized that some elements needed to be reprogrammed to work with the colors of the room and to utilize the space appropriately.

Once set up in the theater, producing the the shows required a six-week stint onboard the ship for rehearsals, while JOY got its bearings at sea. While the JOY was conducting listing and turning maneuvers out on the water and testing alarms to ensure the ship was safe and ocean-ready, the crew from Eye Q worked with the creative director and performers to enhance and adjust the show’s overall presentation and the technical setups.

The changes were both creative and practical. Since projections were used in tandem with traditional stage lighting, Eye Q needed to adjust lighting of their 180° panels to work in concert with the stage lights. This required close collaboration between projectionists and stage technicians, to ensure the lighting and visual focus worked cohesively and directed the audience’s attention to the right places at the right times.

 A classic Paris speakeasy, as rendered by Eye Q for the Paradis show on board Norwegian's JOY.

The rehearsals at sea also introduced the challenges of working on a moving ship. This meant adjusting projection equipment and visual elements and working with live performers who were themselves getting used to performing on a sometimes moving stage. It wasn’t only the dancers who had to adjust; these bumpy rehearsals out at sea required minor adjustments like replacing rolling chairs in the ship’s tech booth. (Too much sliding!)

Finally, knowing the entire show would need to be operated by Norwegian’s own technicians, Ogden’s team faced the challenge of producing a show that would be highly automated. With Norwegian crews operating the show for six-month stints, Eye Q had to engineer a “locked” presentation that could essentially run start to finish with just the touch a button. To ensure it runs smoothly, every six months an Eye Q technologist goes to train Norwegian staff on how to conduct the show and make necessary adjustments.

While Elements and Paradis are undoubtedly very high-tech shows, Eye Q confirms that cruise lines are continuing to up the ante on high-tech entertainment. Ogden is confident her team is up for the challenge and expects to work again on Norwegian’s next cruise ship.

But as exciting and novel as working on a cruise ship is, Ogden and the team at Eye Q are simultaneously working on plenty of other projects that incorporate a variety of formats. From new immersive experiences to features and television to live projection experiences and virtual reality, it’s the passion for creating entertainment that embraces different formats that really makes Eye Q tick. As Ogden says, “Telling stories across multiple formats is something I really love to do.”

--------
*Set images by Decker LaDoucer
*Portrait of Jenni by Sam Roseman

This post has not been tagged.

Share |
PermalinkComments (0)
 

WARREN LITTLEFIELD - 20 Years After 'Must See TV', His Series Remain Essential

Posted By Chris Green, Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Honestly, it would have been enough to have given us “Must See TV.”

Twenty years ago, if you’d asked anyone to summarize Warren Littlefield’s legacy within the television business, their answer would have rested on those three words. The shorthand slogan for NBC’s dominant TV lineup in the 1990s, anchored by Friends, Seinfeld and ER, the phrase today is a nostalgic grace note from the pre-digital era … the time when any series worth watching was on one of four networks and when NBC Entertainment—under president Warren Littlefield—ruled the TV airwaves.

Today, those airwaves are barely an afterthought, first thanks to coaxial cable and later, wireless data streams. Those four networks have lost the battle for prestige programming to once-upstart channels like HBO, AMC and FX, and streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu. And Warren Littlefield is no longer the leading TV executive of his time. Instead he’s the only former network president who can, today, call himself an Emmy Award-winning producer.

Littlefield, despite his modesty, has become something of a promiscuous award winner; between his two series, FX’s Fargo (created by Noah Hawley) and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (created by Bruce Miller), he’s been honored with multiple Emmys, multiple Golden Globes, a Peabody Award and a trio of Producers Guild Awards (“the three I’m most proud of,” he quips graciously). At this year’s Golden Globes, no less an eminence than FX chief John Landgraf pronounced, “I think it’s fair to finally say that, as a producer, you have now surpassed your great career at NBC.”

If you’re wondering why, listen to Littlefield’s long-standing collaborator and MGM President of Television Production Steve Stark: “I’ve been out there in subzero weather with him. I’ve been on calls with him well past midnight. Warren has earned the right not to do that stuff. But he does, because he just loves the job. He loves making television.” Lucky for us, Littlefield is making a bunch more of it—Handmaid’s Tale season two premieres April 25, Fargo year four is in the works, and there’s plenty more incubating in the development hopper of the producer’s first-look deal with Bert Salke and Andy Bourne of Fox 21.


So, WHAT’s  the Reader’s Digest version of how you found your way into the business and to NBC?

I guess it started when I was a young kid, like elementary school age. I spent a lot of time home from school, just watching television. It seemed to be OK with my mom. One day Stanley Campbell, who I went to school with, came by my house and said, “Hey, there’s a rumor you’re dead.” And at that point I thought, “Well, maybe I should show back up at school.” So, very early on I was captivated with the medium. Even though I graduated with a degree in psychology from Hobart and William Smith, I first began working for a small independent production company called Westfall Productions.

My first big break there came when I produced a television movie of the week for CBS called The Last Giraffe. My boss at that company, Charlie Mortimer, and another colleague named Jonathan Bernstein, basically taught me what it was to be a producer. Someone gave me a million and a half dollars to go to East Africa and make a MOW. That went on the air in 1974 and for some strange reason, The Hollywood Reporter picked it as one of the top 10 movies of the week that year. Of course that was an age when there were hundreds of movies of the week made every year.

They ran wild across the plains in incredible numbers.

Yeah. I’m not sure why The Hollywood Reporter singled us out, maybe because the title wasn’t Policewoman Centerfold, but I knew that was an opportunity to put me into a different playground. So, I used that credit and that little article in The Hollywood Reporter to get a job at Warner Bros. TV, where I was made a Director of Development. I was there for six months and then a job came up at NBC. I applied for it and I was offered a job as Manager of Comedy Development, working for Brandon Tartikoff.

Then a whole other level of education kicked in for me, and it was a wonderfully exciting time. I got to be a part of the Fred Silverman years, the Brandon Tartikoff years and then the Grant Tinker years … an amazing, amazing time to get to grow up and understand the broadcast business at NBC.

After about a decade in the trenches, once Brandon left, I was given the opportunity to be President of NBC Entertainment. I did that until late ’98, when they told me I would no longer be doing that. I had a 20-year run at NBC and of course, the highlight of that was the “Must See TV” years.

Obviously, more goes into creating a storied television lineup than we can get into here, but I’m curious about the lessons you drew from Brandon and Grant and Fred and how that may have informed your work with producers and ultimately your own work as a producer.

Fred infused us with a kind of “anything is possible” and “do it now” spirit. And believe me, based upon the shape that NBC was in at the time, someone had to think that way. Brandon was thrilled each and every moment of the day to be in a sandbox where he was engaging with creative people and knowing that he could be a spark that would bring content to life.

I think Grant’s greatest lesson for us was: respect the audience. Stop looking at the audience as alien beings. He would look at a group of us and say, “You’re young. You’re well educated. You love this medium. Why don’t you start doing programming that would make you race home across the freeways at night to get to your television sets because you had to see it? Start thinking about the audience as you. What do you want to see?”

Well, we’d just launched Cheers and Hill Street Blues. These were sophisticated, adult forms of comedy and drama. And while they didn’t start strong, they ultimately became foundational building blocks for what NBC would become. Those were incredible lessons.

you mention how those shows didn’t start strong. When you start that sentence about a contemporary show, usually it doesn’t end with, “…but it became a legendary TV series.” These days the stuff that doesn’t start strong tends not to get a chance.

I once had a memorable conversation with Brandon, because Cheers was the lowest rated program in all of network television. Like, it’s not that it wasn’t in the top 10; it’s literally the last rated program on any network. It’s the bottom. “So, what do we do? Cancel or renew?” And Grant happened in on the conversation and he asked, “Well do you have anything better?” We said, “No.” And he says, “Well I think you answered your question.” So we picked it up. It was an incredible lesson. We believed in it. We believed in the auspices in front of the camera and behind the camera. And it took time for America to realize that this is what you might get from NBC.

The same was very much true for the slow start of Hill Street Blues. Then we had an incredible Emmy night in 1981, where the entire night felt like a tribute to Hill Street Blues. We moved the show to Thursday night and never looked back. We had T-shirts made for our affiliate meetings that said, “Patience Rewarded.”

Well that’s got to be very gratifying. as an executive, what was the nature of your working relationship with producers? And how did that shape your initial forays as a full-time television producer?

Even as President of NBC Entertainment, even through all the “Must See TV” success, I don’t think I ever thought that I was the most important person in the room. I think I always knew it was the creators, the showrunners and producers who made exceptional content. They were the most important people in the room. Our job was to broadcast it. I had a very respectful and appropriately elevated sense of their magnificent talent.

So after 20 memorable and award-winning years at NBC, I figured that my great network education and what I think is a pretty intense work ethic would propel me to instant producing success. It didn’t. It turns out, I had a lot to learn as a producer. One of the reasons that I’m still doing it is I feel like I’m still learning every day. 

That’s something I hear from lots of producers. It may be the thing they relish most about the job.

Exactly. I think that, as a group, that intellectual curiosity drives us all. 

given that you didn’t enjoy the initial success you may have expected, what was the nature of the lessons that you learned over that time? how do you keep going as a producer when you’ve been the architect of “Must See TV” and suddenly it’s difficult to get a show on the air for more than half a season?

I finished up at NBC and I was under a producing deal there for a short time, but it became pretty clear that they weren’t all that interested in anything I had to offer. So, I went to Paramount and I had my first development season there. I did a drama call Keen Eddie, that starred Mark Valley and Sienna Miller, and a half-hour called Do Over, that starred Penn Badgley. Two pilots, both picked up to series.

And then I watched each one slowly die. With Keen Eddie, we finally got on the air at Fox. I’m really proud of what we produced. We were a favorite of everyone except for the head of the network. And so we withered and died there. Do Over landed at the WB network and ultimately, they kind of pulled out of half-hours altogether. It was a tough realization. I spent a lot of time and energy. I was proud of what I did. But nothing really stuck.

Then there was a long, long drought. I was playing entirely in the network development game. Of course that was my background. I knew network television pretty well. When I was under a deal at ABC-Disney, we found a half-hour Swedish serialized documentary. Andy Bourne, who worked with me at the time, brought it to me. I thought it was really interesting. Maybe we could turn it into a one-hour character documentary.

That propelled me to Noah Hawley, who was also at ABC-Disney at the time. We made a pilot for ABC called My Generation. It was, I was told, Bob Iger’s favorite show. Then they had a management change at the network. Steve McPherson was out. Paul Lee was in. We went on the network for two episodes, Thursday night at 8:00, and then we were gone. But the most important part—this was in 2010—was that I creatively bonded with Noah Hawley. I had developed a script for Fargo when I was at NBC in ’97, a year after the movie had come out. I didn’t go forward with it as a pilot because my fear, despite it being a good script—Bruce Paltrow was the executive producer—was that network television would unfortunately do a network television version of Fargo. Already, it was an iconic film. But I knew we would wind up getting some television actress to play the role of Marge, and it certainly wasn’t going to be Frances McDormand. And so I let it go.

But here we were, many years later, and I said to Noah, “You know what? I think we can get Fargo from MGM. Television is ready for an adaptation of that movie.” To his credit, Noah wasn’t afraid of that notion. We engaged with MGM. They really were primarily booted up for movies at the time. Ultimately Roma Khanna, who was running MGM TV, said, “I can’t let you do it for network.” And I said, “Yeah, I get it. That’s absolutely correct.” I waited until my deal and Noah’s were over at Disney-ABC and I said, “OK. Now we can go do Fargo.”

We went in to see Steve Stark and Max Kisbye at MGM and Noah gave them his take on how to do Fargo. And they said, “We love it.” We reminded them, “It’s an anthology.” They said, “Doesn’t matter. This is a great way to go.” Then we called John Landgraf at FX, because FX already had indicated interest in developing Fargo. And that changed my world. That took me out of the network game. It reinvented me as a producer. I’ve never done network development since.

I want to backtrack a bit, to your guys’ conception of the show as an anthology series, which after all was a format that had gone out of vogue decades ago. It’s not hard to imagine the more traditional Fargo that might have been, where Marge has a case every week and it’s a procedural with some quirky accents. What led you to tack away from that  approach, toward this outside-the-box conception of the show?

It really helped when I got a call from Nick Grad at FX and he told us that in some discussions with Steve Stark at MGM, they were asking themselves, “Do we actually need Marge to do Fargo?” A really bold question! Noah wasn’t intimidated at all. He loved the film, was a student of the Coens’ work. Yet Noah was smart enough to see that if we tossed out the network procedural format, it was wide open. Nothing was more liberating than to be freed from those brilliant, iconic characters, not having to “do justice” to Marge. Because what Noah fully understood is that Marge was never a cynic. And so how could Marge deal with crime after crime, season after season and not lose that? She’d have to be a robot.

Executive producer Warren Littlefield (left) confers on set with showrunner Bruce Miller
during production of season two of Hulu's
The Handmaid's Tale. 

Yea, as a character, she’s not built for serialization.

What we described is that Fargo is a state of mind. We would not be locked into any of the characters from the movie. We would not be locked to a time period. We would be locked to a sensibility where, as Noah articulated, it’s the best of America versus the worst of America. We wanted the audience to fully invest in these characters for 10 hours and then walk away. And that would be a satisfying television experience, bringing Fargo to life.

When we started to break down the show and pitch it, we got a big old Rand McNally road atlas and put it on a poster board. When we first walked into MGM, we took out felt-tip pens and we said, “So here’s where this story starts and then here’s where it goes.” And we just started drawing it out on the map as Noah wonderfully talked about these characters, what those characters’ journeys might be, all against a theme and aesthetic that we knew.

Max and Steve jumped off the couch. No one sat there and nodded their head with approval. They jumped off the couch. They said, “This is a reinvention of this movie. This is a reason to make it as a television series as opposed to a half-hearted retread of a the movie.” Meanwhile friends and colleagues would ask, “What are you up to? What are you working on?” And I would say, “Well I’m doing Fargo as a TV series. We’re developing that with FX.” And they’re like, “Dude, this is the worst idea you have ever had.”

Yeah. [laughs] I admit, I remember scratching my head the first time I heard about it.

Television critics who are also friends, they were telling me, “Big mistake.” I just said, “Hey, you know what? It is possible that we could have made a mistake. I’ve made them before. But watch the first hour and you’ll decide. You’ll see and you’ll weigh in.” And that all turned out pretty well. Our partners at MGM and FX have been wonderfully patient. They just say, “A season of Fargo … it’s an event. Whenever Noah is ready, we’ll do more.” And that propelled us into Year Two and then to Year Three. Four is now being hatched.

I think in this platinum age of television, we’re highly aware that the level of quality just keeps going up every single year. And so each year, we try and scare ourselves more with what we attempt to do, and how much we put up on the screen, and how ambitious we are as producers. Each year we scare ourselves to death and somehow it all manages to work.

So having done what’s a pretty remarkable feat of adaptation from one medium to another with Fargo, you have another kind of exemplary adaptation in Handmaid’s Tale. How did your experience with Fargo lead you toward what you were able to do with Bruce Miller and The Handmaid’s Tale?

Well I never would have had the opportunity to be a part of The Handmaid’s Tale without Fargo. MGM and Bruce Miller had developed two scripts for The Handmaid’s Tale with Hulu. They were excited and interested in moving forward, and they focused on Elisabeth Moss. Elisabeth Moss’ representation was very clear: “She’s not lining up to do another series right now. We don’t see a reason for Elisabeth Moss to do that.”

I had recently joined WME and Ari Greenburg asked me, “Hey, do you know anything about The Handmaid’s Tale that your friends at MGM are doing?” I think you ought to look at this material. They’re interested in Elisabeth Moss.”

At the time, I was gearing up for Fargo year three, on top of my development slate. But I said, “OK.” So I read the scripts and I was quite frankly blown away by the power of the dystopian world that Bruce Miller had created in his adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel. I read it. I sat down and read Margaret’s book. I read Bruce’s scripts again. And then I told Ari, “It’s incredible. I’m very interested.”

Ari called up Elisabeth Moss’ reps and said, “What’s your favorite television series?” And they asked, “Is this a trick question?” He said, “Just answer the question.” They said, “Fargo.” He goes, “Well, what if I have the producer of Fargo ready to do The Handmaid’s Tale?” And they said, “Well that might get Elisabeth Moss’ attention.”

So, what WME told me was, “OK. Here’s what you do. You need to get on the phone with Elisabeth Moss. You need to get her to agree to do the series. You need to get her to approve you. And you need to see if you can get her to give director approval to you, because that seems to be a hang-up in making a deal.”

Now, I’d never met Elisabeth, and she’s in Australia shooting   and these are the three things that I’m supposed to accomplish in this one phone call?

No one ever said producing was an easy job.

True enough! I had a multi-hour phone call with Lizzie. I said, “Look, you have an outstanding career where you have excelled so that you have options in your life. I’m in a moment where I also have options. I just think this material is so strong and so compelling that I can’t imagine walking away from this opportunity. If you did it, I would do it. And I promise I will be there for you.” And Lizzie said, “I think we have to do this ... I think I would die if I didn’t. I just can’t imagine leaving this opportunity behind.” It was in that phone call that we solidified our relationship and we moved forward. And yes, I promised her that even if it wasn’t in the contract, Bruce and I would never hire a director she didn’t embrace.

So, on the other end, what were your early conversations with Bruce like?

They were wonderful. Bruce and I met at a waffle shop in Hollywood. I had never met Bruce, never worked with him. But I knew of his work and I knew of his great reputation. After a lot of pleasantries, Bruce looked at me and said, “So, I really have just one question: how does this work, between us? Who’s the boss?” I said, “Well it’s kind of an easy question, because in the world of television the creator and showrunner is the boss. I think that I can be enormously helpful in achieving the ambitions of this series and I think I can be a very good partner to you. We have a dystopian thriller set in a world that doesn’t exist and that will not be easy to mount, but together I think we could do something that lives up to the material that you wrote.”

That became an unbelievable bond, and we’ve never once had a question about power or how anything works. Bruce defers to me in many production and directing issues. But yes, the creator/showrunner is always the ultimate visionary, and I serve that vision. That’s an exciting job for me. I love that.

I want to dig a little deeper, into the nature of your role on these series as a non-writing executive producer. Not every series has someone in that position. what does it mean for you? What is your day-to-day like as a producer who’s not in the writers’ room?

Well first of all, I have to say that while I don’t live in the writers’ room, that’s not a foreign world. I’m in and out of it and commenting and engaging, but that’s not at all my full-time job. I would say I’m “writers’ room adjacent.” I take great pride in the selection of directors. I’ve been at the head of that spear for all three years of Fargo. Very early on, it became clear that most feature directors were afraid of walking in the Coens’ shoes. So I said to Noah, “I don’t feel like being rejected by feature directors who are afraid of this. Let’s just find someone who can bring Fargo to life for television and who’s excited to do it.” And that’s what we did.

I spend many, many hours watching hundreds and hundreds of directors’ work from all over the world. The same is true for The Handmaid’s Tale. I guess that the most dramatic story is Reed Morano’s. Reed had been a distinguished DP but had directed maybe one hour of television, and she’d done a small, independent movie called Meadowlands. Bruce, Lizzie and I looked at a number of far more experienced and credentialed directors to help us launch The Handmaid’s Tale. And yet we really loved the sensibility, the attitude, the look, the vision that Reed Morano brought to it. She did a 60-page look-book. She gave us a soundtrack of what was in her head. The more we engaged with her, the more we came to feel that just because she didn’t have the resume didn’t mean she wasn’t the one.

We had a lot of people to convince that we didn’t need an Oscar winner—because today, of course, Oscar-winning directors do television. To their credit, our MGM and Hulu execs embraced that idea and helped me manage up to the highest levels of those companies to get that approval. Bruce, Lizzie and I were in sync. It didn’t seem crazy to us. Today, maybe it looks a little crazier … but I guess today it looks as much like we were brilliant.

Warren Littlefield (right) with fellow executive producer Noah Hawley on location in Calgary for Year One of FX's Fargo.

You can be both, it’s ok.

[laughs] Yeah. We just thought we had the right artist for the right task. I waited a week after we got Reed approved for the first hour and then I said to everybody, “Gee, I’m looking at the schedule and I think I’m just going to hire her for the first three hours.” And everyone went, “OK … you realize that if you’re wrong, then it’s over for the show? You’ll have destroyed the show.” I said, “You’re absolutely correct. But if I’m right, we will have locked ourselves in for the series and it will make up for other potential mistakes we may make later on, because we will be in a very solid place and know exactly who we are. Not to mention, we’re already a little bit pregnant because you already approved her to do the first hour. So, if we’re wrong, then I think I’ve already screwed up the series.”

Again, I have to say, our partners at Hulu and MGM supported that decision. They deserve a lot of credit for that. It was a very unexpected move and the rest, I guess is history. For year one of The Handmaid’s Tale, four out of our five directors were women. Most of our department heads are women. I remember them saying to me, “You know it’s OK, right? It’s OK if you hire a man.” Bruce and I are keenly aware that we are not women and this must be a very strong feminist piece. So, we’ve surrounded ourselves with many talented women who are writers, producers and department heads, not the least of whom is Elisabeth Moss, who is an active producer, and for year two, a brilliant executive producer.

But I really relish the kind of strategizing and mapping of the battle plan, because both of these series are quite ambitious in their own ways, and we’re not in a world of unlimited funds. We’re able to compete with series that run budgets that are two and three times greater than what we’re working with. I enjoy working on the battle plan with the line producers, the showrunners, all of the department heads, the ADs of how we’re going to pull this off. That’s fun to me. That kind of planning and prep with directors is what I really relish. When I look at what we shoot and what we put together, I know there’s a reason why we were in that specific grocery store and what that location brings to that scene. And I was a part of looking at the seven that we rejected in order to get to that one where the scene works as brilliantly as it should.

It must be very gratifying to be able to see yourself in all OF these secret, invisible ways in every frame.

Yeah. I mean, fortunately the scripts for The Handmaid’s Tale as well as Fargo, they’re works of art. But then they need to be produced. So many changes have to be made in order to bring those shows to life in their respective worlds.

You mentioned earlier how you haven’t done network development since you started work on Fargo. over those years, the quality of network programming has clearly fallen behind that of cable and streaming platforms. That said, you of all people can recognize that a healthy network television ecosystem is good for everybody. As someone who’s played both games, why have the networks had such a hard time catching up to the other platforms?

Well look, I won’t say “never” as far as going back to do broadcast network programming. But the process is awful. That’s just not the case in cable and in streaming. That’s why I have a first-look deal with Bert and Andy at Fox 21.They embrace a creative process where there’s much more “gray” to explore. I remember we had one year during my deal when I was over on the ABC-Disney lot, and we had a particularly frustrating development season.

We made up shirts, and what we put on the front of the shirt was the one note that you always got in network television no matter what the project was: “CLARITY.” Our shirt read “CLARITY” but with the international “no” through it. Because it may just be that the lack of clarity and the mystery as to where you are going is more interesting than having everything spelled out—because the audience can’t and doesn’t anticipate it. As a developer and as a producer, that’s what I’ve chased.

We’re given enormous freedom. Encouraged to take risks. On The Handmaid’s Tale, I often look at what’s in the script, at the day’s work, and I think, “I wonder if someone is going to tell us we can’t do this.” And neither from MGM nor from Hulu, have they ever said, “Don’t do it.” What Craig Erwich from Hulu did say is, “Look, our greatest fear is that this world is hopeless, that it’s such a dark, relentless, dystopian tale that the audience won’t be able to stomach it.” That’s a legitimate fear. It’s our job to give the audience a reason to continue that journey, to not give up. There must be some sense of hope. And that of course is all wrapped up in Elisabeth Moss, in what she brings to the character—or maybe more accurately the characters, Offred and June—that she is playing.

But that note is on target. Because that kind of grey that you play in, with that danger and risk, is embraced in cable and streaming. That’s why they have lapped broadcast in all award-winning categories. I’ll go back to Grant Tinker: respect the audience. The audience has matured. They have an incredible number of choices. You need to respect what they can handle and where they’ll go. That means more sophisticated character development and a story journey that we navigate that’s far more complex than anything that is being presented on network television. That’s what they’ve embraced and it’s served them well.

It’s served all of us well, honestly. But in terms of your role as a producer, it seems in many ways, not so very far from your executive roots, playing the essential support/champion role.

Well, I think that’s true. The difference is, as a producer when you support a vision, it means you also have to execute it. As a network executive you can support a vision and there’s a lot you can throw at it. You can throw money, you can throw promotion, you can throw lots of things, but it’s not your job to execute it. Maybe this has a little to do with my age, but today I have this enormous appreciation for a day well lived. That keeps growing because I’m involved in the detail of actually executing and making something. And that’s wildly satisfying in a career where I’m happy to say I’ve had more than my share of highs, and I’ve gotten to be a part of the best of the best. This is more satisfying than any other time in my life. 

That’s terrific to hear, just on a human level as much as on a professional one.

Thank you. I’m thrilled to be able to say it. I really am.

--------

* Photographed by George Kraychyk

This post has not been tagged.

Share |
PermalinkComments (0)
 

FIRST LOOK: A Documentary/Non-Fiction Screening Series

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The PGA East Documentary/Non-Fiction Committee presents First Look, a screening series showcasing pre-release documentaries followed by a filmmaker Q&A and short reception. The series is programmed and managed by committee members.

 

First Look is focused on documentaries that are released by small distributors, self-distributed or do not yet have distribution. (Studios and larger distributors are invited to participate in the official PGA screening program). In 2017 First Look screened KIKI, THE BLOOD IS AT THE DOORSTEP, DINA, QUEST, A SUITABLE GIRL and THE FORCE.

 

The venue, tech and reception are provided at no cost to the filmmakers. First Look does not cover filmmaker transportation or “print” shipping costs. The producer and/or director must be available to participate in post-screening Q&A.

 

In 2018 the First Look series will screen monthly, March – September. Although First Look is not a member screening program, members are strongly encouraged to submit their documentaries for consideration. All documentaries should be submitted a minimum of 8 weeks prior to release date. This is a very competitive process, and the FIRST LOOK selection panel  decisions are final.

 

If you are interested in submitting your documentary for consideration, please complete the First Look Submission Form.

 

PGA members interested in joining the Documentary/Non-Fiction Committee, please request membership at:
Easthttp://www.producersguild.org/members/group.aspx?id=136088
West: http://www.producersguild.org/members/group.aspx?id=138882

 

For questions regarding First Look or information regardingthe official PGA screening program, please contact Mitzie Rothzeid, Director, PGA East "mrothzeid_at_producersguild.org"


 

* photo from the Q&A for The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography

This post has not been tagged.

Share |
PermalinkComments (0)
 
Page 4 of 54
1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8  |  9  >   >>   >| 
ABOUT THE PGABECOME A MEMBERPRODUCERS CODE OF CREDITSPGA AWARDSPRODUCED BY CONFERENCEPRODUCED BY MAGAZINE