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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

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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

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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

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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:


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


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

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Living Well Is The Best Revenge: Armed With An Iconic Title and A Hot Director, Veteran Producer Roger Birnbaum Breathes New Life Into "Death Wish"

Posted By Michael Ventre, Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Vengeance-minded movie buffs have always had one title that consistently pulls their trigger. That would be Death Wish, the 1974 thriller in which a man’s wife is murdered and his daughter brutalized into madness by a cadre of urban scum, so he takes a gun given to him by a colleague and sets out to pay it forward. Charles Bronson, known primarily before it for brooding character work in ensemble pieces like The even and The Dirty Dozen, became a star as a result of that polarizing tale of vigilante justice that many interpreted at the time as a right-wing exploitation fantasy.

Veteran Hollywood producer Roger Birnbaum has dusted off the Death Wish title, substituted Bruce Willis for Bronson as vigilante Paul Kersey and set the film in Chicago instead of New York. Those may seem like cosmetic changes, but they’re part of what Birnbaum considers more of a reimagination of the source material, rather than a standard reboot. The essential theme of the ’74 release and the one scheduled to hit theaters on March 2 is roughly the same— retribution—but the main character’s mission is of a different caliber entirely.

“This is not the kind of movie where a man goes and just wipes people out,” Birnbaum opines. “This is about a man looking for justice.”

The distinction isn’t just run-of-the-mill Hollywood spin. Those who remember the original will recall that while the unassuming Kersey stalks the dark and gritty avenues of New York and fills with lead anyone he deems a threat to mankind, he never really gets the people who send him on this shooting spree in the first place. In the new version, Willis specifically hunts the villains who attacked his daughter.

“In our story, a similar tragedy occurs,” Birnbaum says. “But in fact, when the system frustrates him due to the kinds of economic woes and understaffing that afflict many cities, where the police can’t help, he decides to go after the people who actually did this. So it begs the question: ‘What would you do if this happened to you?’”

Birnbaum is no stranger to the reanimation of old celluloid. Most recently he produced the 2011 reboot of Footloose, the 2014 version of RoboCop and the 2016 edition of The Magnificent Seven. At Thanksgiving, he could probably turn leftovers into something that would make Bobby Flay envious.

Yet the career of this Teaneck, New Jersey native is lengthy and impressive, going back to the early 1980s and including Rush Hour, Bruce Almighty, Seabiscuit, Memoirs of a Geisha and many other critical and commercial hits. In 1998, he and business partner Gary Barber co-founded Spyglass Entertainment. In 2010, Barber became CEO of MGM, and he and Birnbaum assessed their new movie-making toy.

“At the time we took over, the cupboards were rather bare with current product,” Birnbaum recalls. “We thought the fastest way to get material into development is to look at the library and see what titles would be important today. We came across Death Wish.

“Of course the Death Wish of the early ‘70s could not and should not be told today,” he adds. “So we wanted to roll up our sleeves and tell a story that would be relevant today. We worked hard to make something that was not exploitative.”

The script for the 2017 Death Wish went through several writers; Joe Carnahan eventually received credit, with a nod to novelist Brian Garfield and also screenwriter Wendell Mayes, who wrote the 1974 version. Then there was the little matter of a director. When discussing a film that examines a man’s reaction to unspeakable horrors, who better than Eli Roth, who made his bones (cough, cough) helming chillers like Cabin Fever and the Hostel films?

“The idea for Eli came from MGM,” Birnbaum explains. “I was part of those meetings. He’s very bright about material and was clear about what he wanted to do. We thought with my experience and his budding talent, we could help each other; I could help guide him to play in a bigger sandbox than he’s ever played in before.”

To hear Roth tell it, the collaboration was a hit from the very start, and it had almost nothing to do with Death Wish.

“I had heard about the legendary Roger Birnbaum for many years,” Roth smiles. “But I didn’t know him until our first meeting with MGM. We hit it off instantly. It’s hard to find somebody else who has that identical kind of Jewish/Catskills/ Borscht Belt sense of humor. In the first two minutes, we were trading ‘2000 Year Old Man’ and Blazing Saddles references.”

Of course, the movie they were talking about making had a much less funny version of “Excuse me while I whip this out!” The new filmmaking team had to find just the right lead actor to brandish a weapon and aim it at cretinous goons. It didn’t take long before Bruce Willis’ name came up.

“Bruce was willing from the get-go,” Birnbaum says. “I think he was intrigued by the title and told us he was interested. When the script came in, he embraced it. And when Eli came aboard they met in New York City, liked each other a lot and agreed on the point of view of the script. It all came together very, very easily.”

Says Roth of the Willis meeting: “Roger was great at coaching me. He knew Bruce well ... knew what to say and what to hold back on. He’s just someone who knows and understands people, movie stars, movie executives. Everybody loves Roger. He goes back to Unbreakable with Bruce.”

The production of Death Wish was unremarkable in the sense that it went that smoothly. A few days of shooting took place in Chicago—one day with Willis, the rest second-unit photography—before moving to Montreal for the bulk of the schedule. The shoot wrapped on time and within budget. And despite the city of Chicago’s recent difficulties with gun violence, not only was there no resistance to having the new Death Wish set there, city officials welcomed them, according to Birnbaum.

The film’s title—its name recognition and its visceral impact—is gold. But the story itself needed burnishing. The team set out to make a film that would lure audiences with an iconic name on one-sheets but would keep them riveted in their seats with something novel and more relevant to 2018.

“We wanted to make a smart, elevated genre movie,” Roth explains. “We didn’t want this to be pretentious or preachy. We wanted it to be fun. We were looking at films like Man On Fire, Eastern Promises, Sicario, Unforgiven, Taken. These movies touched a nerve because they have great characters who are seeking revenge.

“I love the original Death Wish,” he continues, “but there’s no point in replicating what they did. We wanted to make it about today, which involves looking head-on at the fact that we live in a gun culture and what happens with that. We wanted to look at it like what would happen if this story really broke today. Oddly this is the perfect time for this film.” (In a grim irony, Roth provided this quote only days before gunman Stephen Paddock massacred dozens in Las Vegas.)

Although the picture may be finished, the collaboration is just beginning. Birnbaum and Roth plan to continue doing schtick together in meetings and on set when not preparing for their next project, and they’re already batting around ideas, including hopes for the expansion of Death Wish (like its predecessor) into a franchise.

“Once in a while, you make a movie and you meet some talent that you just know you want to keep working with,” Birnbaum says. “Eli is a friend of mine for life now. We’re talking about other things.”

On location in Montreal, from left: producer Roger Birnbaum, cast member Bruce Willis, director Eli Roth

“It’s rare to click creatively the way I do with Roger,” Roth explains. “We both have the same work ethic as well as the same sense of humor. He knows when I’m on a project I’m possessed, in a good way, as he is. He’s so successful doing it because he loves it.”

Birnbaum recently was in London overseeing the production of Nasty Women, a reworking of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels that stars Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson. Roth, meanwhile, served as producer on two forthcoming edge-of-your-seat suspense pics, Haunt and Lake Mead. Yet their creative partnership will always be linked to that title first unfurled in 1974.

“It’s a terrific title,” Birnbaum reflects. “It’s a title a lot of people know. In this day and age, you have to try to get people’s attention as quickly as possible. Several generations never saw this. They don’t bring anything to the experience other than the advertising they’ve seen.

“But I’m very happy with this film,” he continues, “and I know audiences will love it. Watching the audience reactions in previews has been very gratifying. They’re really embracing the work Eli did with support from the rest of the team.”

Turns out, the best revenge of all might be ... success.


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