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Producers of ‘American Fiction,’ ‘Maestro,’ ‘Origin’ and More Oscar Contenders Talk the Toughest Tasks Behind the Scenes of Their Films

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Erika Alexander and Jeffrey Wright in Orion/Amazon MGM Studios’ American Fiction. Claire Folger/MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

Producer Jermaine Johnson worked primarily as a literary manager for clients like first-time movie writer-director Cord Jefferson (whom he’s represented for close to a decade) before the pair collaborated on Jefferson’s darkly comic adaptation of the novel Erasure by Percival Everett, which Jefferson wrote on spec with Johnson’s encouragement. 

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Naturally, first-time filmmaking meant an inherent learning curve. “Day one was a tough day because Cord didn’t really feel qualified to tell Jeffrey Wright how to act,” Johnson recalls. “He did not feel like he was the guy for the job.” That meant adding pep talks to Johnson’s job description. “The conversation was, ‘Hey, man, Jeffrey wants to be directed. Actors want to collaborate and get in the clay with you,’ ” he says. “Next thing, he’s just in there, between takes, talking to Jeffrey, playing around with it. And they established a rapport, from day two on.”

Shooting constraints prompted production to relocate from New York to the Boston area, where Jefferson would be able to film the scenes at Monk’s (Wright) family beach house in the Massachusetts coastal town of Scituate. “You start to crunch the numbers and think about what it takes to shoot in New York,” Johnson says. “Once we landed on Boston, it was a very quick yes.”

Northeastern weather, however, proved one of the main production challenges. “I learned what it takes to light a beach at night. That is an extremely difficult task,” Johnson says of a scene in which Leslie Uggams, as Monk’s aging mother, wanders away from her home. Rigging lights amid 20-mile-an-hour winds proved nearly impossible. But for the 80-year-old actress, the wind was no problem. “We’ve got Leslie the legend out in this weather, and she is such a professional that she did as many takes as we needed,” Johnson says, adding that Uggams was “just the brightest light there.”

Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Paul Giamatti in Focus Features’ The Holdovers.
From left: Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Paul Giamatti in Focus Features’ The Holdovers. Seacia Pavao/Focus Features

An Oscar winner for Rain Man, Mark Johnson wasn’t cowed by Alexander Payne’s rigorous commitment to getting his story right. But The Holdovers, set in a New England boarding school over Christmas break, proved a particular exercise in patience. “With Alexander, the script is understandably the most important part of moviemaking,” Johnson says. “He spent a lot of time [giving first-time feature writer David Hemingson feedback] on it.” One of the main developmental changes was expanding the character of grieving chef Mary, played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph. “I really do believe her performance is the heart of the movie,” he adds.

Finding financing for a story on this scale — an intimate, humanist dramedy centered on Mary along with Paul Giamatti’s weathered teacher Paul Hunham and troubled schoolboy Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa) — also proved a challenge: “It’s not a big, bombastic subject. Paul Giamatti has such great respect, but is he a big box office name? No,” says Johnson. But midscale films about life are “the movies that so many of us really enjoy,” he says. “These movies are harder and harder to put together. Movies that I’ve made from the very beginning, like Diner or even, quite frankly, Rain Man, I wonder how we would go about putting them together today?”

Another challenge was location: The preppy Barton Academy where most of the movie takes place is actually a composite of multiple New England schools — though all that snow is, remarkably, very real (about “85 percent” of it, anyway). “I’ve had people come up to me after screenings saying, ‘Oh, I went to that school,’ ” says Johnson. “Well, no, they didn’t, because that school didn’t exist.”

Harris Dickinson, Zac Efron, Stanley Simons and Jeremy Allen White in A24’s The Iron Claw.
From left: Harris Dickinson, Zac Efron, Stanley Simons and Jeremy Allen White in A24’s The Iron Claw. Eric Chakeen/A24

Writer-director-producer Sean Durkin had been obsessed with his drama’s subject matter — the Von Erich wrestling family — since an early age, having read about them in magazines and watched old tapes of their matches. When he began writing the script, he was very conscious of the constraints he would need to adhere to. “When I started out, I really did all the line producing myself,” says Durkin, whose films include Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) and The Nest (2020). “I’ve never been able to separate financials. I’m so envious of writers who can just not worry about it. I’m very conscious of how to craft a world and to be aware of the type of budget [for] the film I’m making.”

Most of the film takes place in the wrestling arena known as the Sportatorium or on the Von Erichs’ Texas ranch, and simulating those spots proved surprisingly difficult. Preparing to shoot in Louisiana, the scouting team had their work cut out for them. “We really covered the entire state to find the right feel for the ranch,” Durkin says. After landing in the Baton Rouge area, finding a warehouse that could house a wrestling stadium was equally tough. Production designer James Price “was going into every single building that could work size-wise, but it’d be the wrong shape inside, or the wrong texture.” The solution was found in a furniture showroom. “It was just a bunch of fake living rooms. We had to convince the place to let us clear out everything, knock down all the walls.”

Zac Efron and the cast worked intensely to transform physically to play the Von Erichs, though Durkin didn’t require it. “I wanted them to feel comfortable getting to whatever shape they felt was best for the character,” he says. But for the wrestling, authenticity was key. “They had to learn how to wrestle all the way through from top to bottom, and do multiple takes,” he says, noting that he filmed matches live in front of an audience. “We got really lucky with the Baton Rouge crowd, because they were really into wrestling. It was really quite beautiful, that energy between the background [performers] and the actors.”

Kristie Macosko Krieger, Maestro

Bradley Cooper in Netflix’s Maestro.
Bradley Cooper in Netflix’s Maestro. Jason McDonald/Netflix

Kristie Macosko Krieger was originally planning to produce a Leonard Bernstein biopic directed by her longtime collaborator, Steven Spielberg, with Bradley Cooper signed on to star as the famed conductor and composer. When Spielberg made the decision to step away from the director’s chair, Cooper offered his own name as a replacement, and asked Spielberg and Krieger to watch an early cut of his directorial debut, A Star Is Born

Krieger recalls, “Twenty minutes into the film, Spielberg got up and walked over to Bradley and said, ‘You’re directing this fucking movie.’ ”

Cooper had a clear vision of the details he wanted to bring to Maestro, and he would not budge on any of them. “He was like, ‘We’re absolutely going to go over many time periods,’ ” Krieger says. (The film spans from the 1940s through the 1980s.) Cooper also worked with prosthetics designer Kazu Hiro for three and a half years to transform his face into Bernstein’s. “He wouldn’t stop until he got it right,” Krieger says.

The film was shot on location in New York’s Carnegie Hall and Central Park, in England’s Ely Cathedral and at Massachusetts’ Tanglewood Estate. Some desired locations, however, were impossible to get. “We could not shoot in the Dakota apartment [on Central Park West],” she says. “Bradley wanted to re-create that to almost exactly what it looked like. He enlisted Kevin Thompson, our production designer, to build the entire Dakota set.”

Cooper also insisted they shoot with live orchestras, which meant that the film could not shoot during the height of COVID and had to be postponed. “But again, he wasn’t compromising,” says Krieger. “He was like, ‘It will look better, it will be better, it will be the movie that I want to make.’ He made all of us better as department heads in figuring out this film, so none of us were settling, either.”

Florence Pugh and Cillian Murphy in Universal’s Oppenheimer.
Florence Pugh and Cillian Murphy in Universal’s Oppenheimer. Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Emma Thomas has worked as a producer for her husband, Christopher Nolan, “on pretty much all of his films, ever,” as she puts it. “When I first read Chris’ script, I thought it was the best he’d ever written. It was very clear that he was approaching the story with a large scope in mind, as a blockbuster.”

But despite Nolan’s pedigree and Oppenheimer’s seemingly endless scale, the biggest production challenge was working on a minimal budget. “It’s about very difficult and weighty subjects,” Thomas explains. “I wasn’t daunted by the things he was proposing shooting, but I knew that the only responsible way to make a film this challenging, that was inevitably going to be R-rated and three hours long, was to make it for a reasonable amount of money. And a reasonable amount of money was probably going to be about half of what anyone else would do it for.”

Proposing a budget cut in half to department heads meant each sector of the crew had to find creative ways to consolidate resources. “Our production designer, Ruth De Jong, got really smart about ways in which she could build things, with a very targeted eye, building only what was necessary for the shots,” says Thomas. “Our DP, Hoyte van Hoytema, said, ‘There are things that I can do to go faster: to only have one camera, to do as much handheld as possible.’ Our actors were all on set all the time, ready to go as soon as the camera was ready. Those are things that added up to us being able to finish the film on this incredibly punishing schedule.”

Building Los Alamos, the site of the atomic bomb’s creation, meant battling freezing temperatures in the mesas of New Mexico. “The weather was so cold, it was impossible to dig into the ground because it was frozen,” says Thomas. “We had snowstorms and windstorms. And that was just when we were building the town. Once we got the shoot there, we had another great big windstorm, and we weren’t even sure that the tents were going to stand.” But the production ultimately used the weather to its advantage. “It looks amazing on film — that shot of Cillian when he walks up to the Trinity Tower, and climbs up it, that’s real wind.”

Paul Garnes, Origin

Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in Neon’s Origin.
Jon Bernthal and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in Neon’s Origin. Courtesy Array Filmworks

Paul Garnes had worked as a producer with writer-director Ava DuVernay in the past, but it had been some time since the pair had operated outside the studio system. “In the early days, we were at Netflix,” he says. “[Origin] got caught up in the industry slowdown. Ava made the really bold choice to go out and make this independently.” 

That decision made things more exhilarating and terrifying, Garnes says. “In every production, there’s some executive that you can call and say, ‘Hey, this is happening, what do we do?’ We didn’t have that. It was just me and Ava. We could really only depend on each other.”

The film spans centuries and continents, with scenes in Berlin at the height of World War II, aboard slave ships in the 1600s and in the streets of contemporary India. The decision to finance independently meant working with local governments to shoot in as many historical locations as possible. “We weren’t going to build a bunch of sets on soundstages,” Garnes says. “Outside of the slave ship sequence, because obviously slave ships don’t exist, we shot everything else pretty much on location.”

That made for some awkward asks. “Could we shoot a Nazi rally in downtown Berlin, in the place where that book burning in the Bebelplatz really happened?” says Garnes. “We didn’t know at the time, but they had never let anyone film there.” Filming also took place at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. “It’s a sensitive place. You don’t want to cause any stress or damage or anything to a place people visit in very solemn moments.”

As a home base, production landed on Savannah, Georgia, where they were able to re-create a concentration camp. Bringing in those extras meant “Ava [taking] very careful time to get the background talent to understand what they were doing, who they were,” says Garnes. A sequence portraying the murder of Trayvon Martin was also filmed in that area, as well as scenes set in cotton fields in the 1930s South. 

This story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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