From Peter Spears, a first-time producer turned Best Picture Oscar nominee for Call Me by Your Name, to a storied veteran, Mike Medavoy, chairman and CEO of Phoenix Pictures, whose filmography includes producing Zodiac, Shutter Island and Black Swan (which earned him a Best Picture Oscar nomination in 2011) as well as such TV series as Altered Carbon (Netflix) and the miniseries The Long Road Home (National Geographic)—that’s the range of experience on the mini-continuum reflected in this SHOOT feature on Leading Producers.
Also in the mix are: an EP who just wrapped her second season on an HBO series only to then jump onto a movie which is set to debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in April; an EP/showrunner who directed three first season episodes of an acclaimed limited series and has now helmed select installments of the show’s next iteration for season two; and a seasoned EP who has teamed with Darren Aronofsky on an ambitious docuseries.
Here’s a look at the perspectives of Spears, Medavoy, Alison Benson, Kenneth Biller and Jane Root.
Actor Peter Spears made his first foray into producing—and it was a marathon run, underscoring the importance of perseverance. Some 10 years ago, Spears read Andre Aciman’s novel, “Call Me by Your Name,” and recalled, “I was so moved by it and kind of jolted into this moment where I felt the need to make this into a movie. I had never felt that before. I went into it blindly with the feeling that whatever it takes, I want to do this.”
Through many chronicled stops and starts, the right team of “amazing artists” finally came together, said Spears. “This happened when it was supposed to and the way it was supposed to. Some of the earlier incarnations would have been different movies. I’m so grateful we waited for the time we did.”
Still, the timing wasn’t ideal on all fronts. Stormy weather for a film set in the summer of 1983 in a 17th century Italian villa posed a new set of problems. Spears credited fellow EP and the film’s director, Luca Guadagnino, with coming to the rescue. Guadagnino thankfully knew Lombardy, the town in Italy, all too well in that it’s his hometown. “Every bit of the film has Luca’s imprint as a filmmaker and a producer. It was his town, his artwork, his furniture, his dishes. What we didn’t count on was shooting the summer in Italy and getting in May/June the coldest, wettest, stormiest time in 200 years in Europe. We were constantly battling rain, flooded rivers, location changes. Everything you see in that movie that looks and feels like summer is the wizardry of our amazing DP (Sayombhu Mukdeeprom) and Luca knowing the town, how to make it feel like summer while in fact we were deluged and under water.”
Spears hopes that the film’s four Oscar nominations, including a win for James Ivory for his adapted screenplay, will not only prompt people to see the movie but to read the book on which it is based. “Andre (Aciman) entrusted us with his baby, this book. The Oscars help to protect the legacy of the story—both in the movie and in the book. My wish is that more people seek out the book and read it who might not have otherwise—and that they have the same experience I had when I read it 10 years ago.”
Included in Mike Medavoy’s extensive filmography are several seminal war films—Apocalypse Now when he was SVP of production at United Artists, Platoon as co-founder of Orion Pictures, and The Thin Red Line at Phoenix Pictures. He recently returned to the war zone but in television with The Long Road Home, a National Geographic series which is in this year’s Emmy conversation. Based on Martha Raddatz’s New York Times best-selling book, The Long Road Home depicts a heroic fight for survival during the Iraq War, when the 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hook was ambushed on April 4, 2004, in Sadar City, Baghdad—a day that came to be known in military annals as “Black Sunday.”
The eight-episode series takes us to the action on the ground in Iraq as well as the homefront back in Texas where spouses and families await news for 48 nightmarish hours.
Medavoy was drawn to being able to delve into multiple first-hand perspectives of a story with the luxury of eight hours of television as compared to a two-hour feature. Other highlights were construction of what was billed as the largest operating set in North America as the crew, led by production designer Seth Reed, fully rebuilt the town of Sadr City in Fort Hood, Texas; and forging new collaborative relationships, including working for the first time with director Phil Abraham, who made his initial mark as an Emmy-winning (Mad Men) and -nominated (four times for The Sopranos) cinematographer before making the transition to directing (a two-time Emmy nominee for Mad Men). Abraham’s directorial credits span such series as Orange Is The New Black, Halt and Catch Fire, The Strain and Ray Donovan.
Medavoy values working with talent for the first time, trusting his instincts as to what they can bring to a project. For The Long Road Home, he teamed with several such artists, praising their contributions, including Abraham and composer Jeff Beal.
That trust is particularly special, said Medavoy, because of the special trust that The Long Road Home entailed. “We were telling true stories, got to know the families who were impacted; people who lost family and friends. Nobody wants to relive that. Nevertheless, they trusted us to tell that story with taste and in a way that honored those who served.”
This brings a larger profound calling that transcends the usual myriad creative, financial and logistical responsibilities of a producer. “Doing justice to these stories, these people’s lives,” said Medavoy, is the paramount priority which carries its own pressure. “You feel personally responsible.”
Medavoy, who was in the U.S. Army Reserve for six years, said, “My feeling has always been that one should really support national service. It’s important for the country to know what these people—those who serve and their families—go through. It’s why we honor them—and should honor them in every way.”
Plate spinning is a circus manipulation art in which a person spins plates, bowls and other flat objects on poles, without them falling off. That’s the seemingly ongoing juggling act for producers, as reflected in Alison Benson’s recent schedule which saw her exec producing season two of Divorce (HBO) while prepping a feature film, both through Pretty Matches, the company in which she is partnered with Sarah Jessica Parker.
Benson has been part of Divorce, which stars Parker and Thomas Haden Church, from its inception, back to when Parker initially envisioned the show to later bringing in Sharon Horgan to help realize it fresh off her success as the creator of Catastrophe (Amazon). However, Horgan, with her other commitments, wasn’t as involved in season two as she had been in season one, according to Benson who said, “New people coming in can be a bit of an obstacle in the writing room. But we got everything to work out, making for a great season two.”
Meanwhile during the last three weeks of shooting season two of Divorce, Benson and Parker were gearing up for the feature, Blue Night. “We’re wrapping a TV show, going into post while actively prepping the movie,” recalled Benson. “We finished Divorce in early June (2017) and started shooting the movie the first week in July.
Blue Night, a French New Wave-inspired drama, centers on a singer in New York who gets a grim diagnosis from a doctor, prompting her to put her life and dreams into perspective. Parker stars in and served as a producer on Blue Night, which was written by Laura Eason and directed by Fabien Constant.
“Fabien has tons of experience in the nonfiction world, in fashion and beauty,” related Benson. “He did a documentary (Mademoiselle C) on the French editor of Vogue. He came to us with this idea for a feature. It’s a great part for Sarah and we went to Laura Eason, whom we are big fans of. We made the film for under $3 million with an unbelievably great cast (Simon Baker, Jacqueline Bisset, Common, Taylor Kinney, Renee Zellweger, Waleed Zuaiter) and an original song by Rufus Wainwright. Pretty Matches is a small production company. But we were able to bring all the elements together by putting all hands on deck.”
Blue Night is among a select group of Spotlight Narrative features which will premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival in April.
As showrunner, executive producer and a director (of three episodes) for season one of Genius—a National Geographic series delving into the life of Albert Einstein and garnering 10 Emmy nominations in the process—Kenneth Biller has a lot to live up to serving in the same capacities for season two, which centers on Pablo Picasso, who as an adult is portrayed by Antonio Banderas.
Yet the silver lining to having to meet or exceed a lauded show is that some key contributors remain intact from the first season, including the talents of EPs Ron Howard and Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment, cinematographer Mathias Herndl, AAC, editor James Wilcox, VFX supervisor Marek Ruth, department head makeup artist Davina Lamont, as well as assorted other artists and actors.
“I’m fortunate to have these people back with me,” affirmed Biller. “When you find incredibly talented people, you are desperate to hang onto them. In this golden age of television, there is so much work for high-caliber talent. They get snatched up immediately. We’re fortunate that they were loyal to the series and believed in it. They could work anywhere else they wanted. Some turned down work to wait for season two to happen.”
Biller, who directed the finale of season one, this time around directed the first two episodes of the second season, teaming with Herndl to set the look and tone of the Picasso series.
The inherent challenge of chronicling Picasso, observed Biller, is “to visually represent the life of the greatest visual artist of the 20th century. It better be interesting to look at.”
In that vein, Biller is grateful to have a lasting collaboration with Herndl; the two worked together on Legends prior to the first season of Genius. In fact, Biller recommended Herndl to Howard, who also struck up a rapport during an initial meeting with the DP. As a result, Herndl lensed the Howard-helmed season one opening episode of Genius and recently won the ASC Award for that effort. Furthermore, Biller noted that filmmaker Howard as a series EP “made himself very available to me and very much a part of the discussion about Picasso. I had many long conversations with Ron about how I wanted to approach this season visually—how we would continue to make the same show but have season two become its own thing. He was very much a presence in all the thought that went into this chapter of the series.”
Among the distinctions that made season two “its own thing,” shared Biller, was a decision stemming from “making a show about a painter and how that affects your framing.” He explained, “When you watch the older Picasso played by Antonio Banderas, there are times we almost never move the camera. The master shots especially are composed still frames, letting characters walk in and out of frame. Keeping the camera still for the most part allows for movement within the frame which is very energetic. That and the color palette are the two biggest differences between seasons one and two. The first season with Einstein, a middle European show, we used a cooler color palette. For Picasso, in a Mediterranean setting—Mediterranean lighting played a key part in Picasso’s work—we used much warmer tones of blues, golds and reds.”
As an EP and showrunner, Biller had to deal with more geographic-related logistics in season two as compared to the first season, which was shot largely in Prague. Picasso was a creature of the Mediterranean but because of the schedule for National Geographic, “We were not shooting at a friendly time of year. So we had to go to quite a few different locales to achieve the look and light of Mediterranean locations.” Among those lensing locales were Paris, Malaga (Picasso’s and for that matter, Banderas’ birthplace in Spain), Barcelona, Budapest and Malta. “The production was bigger in that sense. We had to move a lot more, work with more local crews in lots of different cities.”
Season two of Genius premieres April 24 on National Geographic.
There’s no place like home. And in this case home is planet Earth, the wonders of which are being explored in the National Geographic docuseries One Strange Rock executive produced by acclaimed filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, mother!, Requiem for a Dream) and producer Jane Root (America: The Story of US, The ‘80s: The Decade That Made Us, and the News & Documentary Emmy Award-nominated How We Got to Now), former president of Discovery Channel U.S. During her Discovery tenure, the mega documentary series Planet Earth became a worldwide phenomenon. Prior to Discovery, Root was with BBC2.
Root was approached by a National Geographic exec some three years ago about producing an ambitious project centered on the marvels of Earth as seen from an atypical orientation. She then got the ball rolling by seeking out scientists and varied experts to gain their input and feedback. Then came the idea of looking to scientists with, said Root, “a different attitude” about Earth, namely astronauts who have not only “a ton of info and knowledge” but also both “an emotional and practical view of the world.”
One Strange Rock examines why life as we know it exists on earth, brought into perspective by the only living souls who have left it behind—astronauts.
With astronaut POVs and insights proving invaluable, another key find, Root recalled, was later coming up with the appropriate series host, “somebody who would be the face of the viewer in the show.” Fitting that bill was actor Will Smith who, said Root, “is really all about joy,” an ideal voice to talk about “the joys of the world.”
One Strange Rock entailed shooting in 45 countries. The 10-part series from Nutopia and Protozoa Pictures takes cameras where they’ve never been before—and beyond filming on six continents, there’s the lensing perspective from outer space on the International Space Station.
Root—who is founder of Nutopia—described Aronofsky as “our muse. We talked a lot about all aspects of the show, how things look, the structure of how things should work—what’s the grammar and how does it all fit together? He helped us work out the template for the whole project.”
Root hopes One Strange Rock—the first episode of which debuted March 26 on National Geographic—turns out to be a series which can be enjoyed on different levels, educating as well as entertaining. “It’s not just a science show. It’s a show that engages you. It’s a show you can watch with the sound down and still enjoy. It can be watched all kinds of different ways. It’s a science show and more.”