Our 2022 class of movers and shakers including:
+ TOM CRUISE Everybody loves Rain Man
+ ARIANA DEBOSE
Takes her shot
+ PRIYANKA CHOPRA JONAS Miss World is not enough + SQUID GAME Seafood for thought
David Cronenberg goes back to body horror with Crimes of the Future
+ SONIA FRIEDMAN All the world’s her stage
PLANET OF THE SHAPES
The Square ’s Ruben Östlund forms a Triangle of Sadness
GEORGE MILLER THE WIZARD OF OZ RETURNS TO CANNES
uncorking his new grown-up fairy tale, Three Thousand Years of Longing, starring Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba PLUS: PARK CHAN-WOOK JOE ALWYN PAAPA ESSIEDU and more Cannes alums…
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CALL SHEET C A N N E S F I L M F E S T I V A L
First Take 6 ONES TO WATCH Five names to keep an eye out for on the Croisette 14 EDEN ROCK How music found its home at the Cannes Film Festival
Dialogue 16 20 24 28
David Cronenberg Joe Alwyn Ruben Östlund Park Chan-wook
Cover Story 32 GEORGE MILLER How 20 years of trying led to epic fantasy Three Thousand Years of Longing
Flash Mob 152 Contenders Television ON THE COVER: George Miller, photographed exclusively for Deadline by Mark Rogers
CO U RT ESY ARI AN A D E BOSE
Disruptors 2022 46 Ariana DeBose 51 Jamie Erlicht & Zack Van Amburg 52 Denis Ivanov 53 Marina Ovsyannikova 54 Tom Rothman 60 Onyx Collective 64 Roger Ross Williams 68 Sonia Friedman 74 Redesigning Women 78 Audrey Diwan 82 Omar Sy 88 Crossover Television 90 Taylor Sheridan 90 Isabel May 92 Priyanka Chopra Jonas 98 SPACs 100 Jeymes Samuel 106 Candle Media 110 Squid Game 116 The French Newer Wave 120 Morgan Cooper 124 David Unger 126 The Spec Stars 128 Blockbuster Auctions 130 Abigail Disney 134 Range Media Partners 138 Zeinab Abu Alsamh 140 Wild Bunch 144 Tom Cruise
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T C A N N E S F I L M F E S T I V A L
O N E S T O WATCH P H OTO G RA P H BY X X X X X X X X
DEADLINE ANOINTS THE FIVE NAMES DESTINED TO ROCK THIS YEAR’S CROISETTE
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DEADLINE’S ANNUAL GROUP OF ONES TO WATCH IN CANNES IS MADE UP OF ACTORS AND FILMMAKERS WHO ARE ALL BRINGING SOMETHING FRESH TO THE FESTIVAL. THE DISTINCTION ISN’T ALWAYS RESERVED FOR BRAND NEW
OUT, OR WHO FIND THEMSELVES IN WATERS WHERE THEY ARE LIABLE TO MAKE WAVES. CANNES CAN BE A PLACE OF REINVENTION, AFTER ALL.
P A A ESSIEDU EMMY I
TAKES A TURN IN ALEX GARLAND’S MEN Paapa Essiedu has a secret. “I’m in Rio de Janeiro,” confides the actor. “I’m on holiday, and I’m still coming to terms with that. I find it hard to ever justify taking my foot off the gas, but, I’m in Rio de Janeiro, I’m on holiday, and I’m owning it.” Essiedu left London at the insistence of his partner, who was rightly concerned about the amount of work the actor had been doing lately. It is also probably a suitable time to decompress before Essiedu dives into the madness of Cannes, where he can be seen in Alex Garland’s surreal psychological thriller Men, due to screen Out of Competition in Directors’ Fortnight. The film is Garland’s third as a director, and it has already piqued much interest for its strange trailer, which stars Jessie Buckley as a grieving widow, along with a number of characters all played by British actor Rory Kinnear, a familiar face from the sinister Penny Dreadful television franchise. Essiedu plays James, the widow’s late husband. “The context,” Essiedu explains, “is it’s about a woman in the aftermath of the death of her husband. She goes to the country, rents out an Airbnb to get away from it all, and spends time in one of those oh-so-recognizable English hamlets where she encounters various men. Those encounters impact her in various ways, and let’s just say it gets increasingly tense and increasingly distressing, until…” He stops himself and laughs. “I’m not so good at doing synopses without spoilers, as you can probably tell.” Essiedu spends a lot of screen time with Buckley, who was Oscar-nominated for her role in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter. He describes those scenes with Buckley as “super intense” and “no holds barred”. He explains, “It takes a lot out of you because she is so committed. She really goes in. She puts more than 100 percent into every single moment of the film, but especially in our scenes, which are about a husband and wife that are going through a difficult patch. You’ve got to have real courage to go there, and she definitely has. I was really like, ‘Wow, I need to step up.’” Essiedu is being modest here, having made history in 2016 when he became the first Black actor to play Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Described by the Washington Post as “charming, combustible, [and] lightning with language,” Essiedu received the British theatrical Ian Charleson Award for playing Hamlet and King Lear for the company. And to think he might never have become an actor, having originally gone to school to
A HBO’S STAR
become a doctor before dropping out and attending Guildhall School of Music and Drama instead. Would acting’s loss have been medicine’s gain? “To be honest, I don’t know,” he says, “but it was very close. I had a place at college that I was going to take up, but I made a bit of a last-minute U-turn.” Growing up in Walthamstow, where his Ghanaian mother raised him after his father died in his early teens, Essiedu had little to no experience in the arts, much less anyone to guide him on that path. “Look, I didn’t know anyone who was an actor,” he says. “There are no actors in my family, or even artists in my family, I don’t think. I didn’t know anyone who’d been to drama school, so the idea of people on TV, or people in films, being, like, normal people who had jobs was just surreal—those two things were completely separate for me. So, to meet people who were like, ‘Yeah, we enjoy this acting thing and we’re going to train in it so we can do it as a job,’ was a real baptism by fire, in terms of the knowledge that I was gaining.” Looking back, he still cannot remember a eureka moment that galvanized him. “Still today, it feels absurd,” he says, “the idea of ‘making a go of it’, because it’s such a difficult industry and there are so many aspects of it that are hard. Graduating from drama school, getting an agent, getting my first job... it has been a case of
Paapa Essiedu at the Olivier Awards in London.
TO incremental steps forward. Always trying to make sure the next thing has been better than the last thing. That has allowed me to learn while doing, because I know that when I left drama school, I was not very good at all. But I was lucky enough to get jobs in plays and in big theater companies that gave me the opportunity to watch big actors do plays night after night. I was able to see what they were doing that was interesting, or exciting, or that was inspiring audiences, and then I could try and figure out how to put that into my own process.” He does find it ironic that his breakout moment occurred in a Shakespeare play, even a reimagined one. At the RSC, Essiedu’s Hamlet was a modern-day graffiti artist with a wicked tongue. “It’s proper weird, because when I was at school, I fucking hated Shakespeare. I thought it was so, so boring, and just so impenetrable, people talking in a language that I don’t understand about things that I don’t care about, being taught by someone who didn’t give a fuck. I hated it, but there was just a real difference when I had the opportunity to do it, to see those pieces of work as something other than a literary bible, to see them as something living and breathing, that could be changed. I’ve always been interested in Shakespeare as a reimagination, as opposed to recreating something from once upon a time, and when we did Hamlet that was a big part of our modus operandi—how can we make this play relevant to our world?” Essiedu was surprised to find that fate had more in store for him than the Bard. Last year, a role he did as a favor for an old drama-school friend—playing Kwame in Michaela Coel’s hit series I May Destroy You—led to Bafta and Emmy nominations. “We auditioned on the same day,” he recalls. “I remember chatting to her on the escalator in Moorgate tube station in London, and we were like, ‘This is mad,’ because both of us were from East London, and both of us were like, ‘We don’t know anyone who does this shit.’” So, we had that kind of bond from the beginning. I do count myself lucky in meeting her, but more as someone that’s in my life, as opposed to for work reasons. Obviously, being a part of her show has been a big part of my professional life, but even when I was doing it, even when I said that I wanted to do it, I was mainly doing it because she was my mate. And it just so happened—obviously, because she’s brilliant—that it turned out to be brilliant, and the character that she made for me was brilliant. So, yeah, she’s a very, very important person and figure in my life, for many reasons.” Even after the Baftas and the Emmys, however, Essiedu still can’t fathom where it all started to go right. After promoting Men at Cannes, he will walk straight into promotional duties for his Sky sci-fi series The Lazarus Project, which he describes as “a kind of world-building, time-bending love story.” He’s also set to appear in the BBC cop show The Capture, before starting on Kill the Light, an adaptation of Anthony Quinn’s novel Curtain Call. “I feel very lucky to have had the trajectory that I’ve had,” Essiedu says. “I don’t think I would’ve done very well if I was one of those actors whose first job was Spider-Man or whatever. It was a way more gradual process, and I feel very lucky for that.” —Damon Wise
WATC H C A N N E S F I L M F E S T I V A L
LU K AS D H O
THE BELGIAN FILMMAKER GRADUATES TO
ON ONLY HIS SECOND TRIP TO CANNES Lukas Dhont’s Cannes debut was also his debut feature, Girl, which ran in Un Certain Regard in 2018. A stunning start for the young Belgian, the movie brought him the Caméra d’Or and myriad other prizes down the line. Now, four years later, Dhont is returning to Cannes with his follow-up, Close, which has landed him in the main competition.
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“It feels unbelievable,” Dhont says of graduating to the Lumière theater. “Of course, we had an amazing journey with Girl, but we feel Close is more personal and universal.” It’s also a little nerve-rattling. “It’s such a personal film to me that sharing it at that scale is something.” Close is centered on two 13-yearold boys who have been friends forever. That close friendship is disrupted when something happens in their lives that changes the course of it. Dhont describes the movie as being about “the deep connection and the vulnerability of friendship, and masculinity.” He was inspired after returning home to Belgium post-Girl and recalling his first friendships and love stories. “I felt the urge to discover and explore male friendship. The intimacy of male friendship I haven’t seen as much on screen as I wanted to. It feels like friendships define who we are, maybe more than our other relationships.” Looking back at Girl, the story of a 15-year-old girl born in the body of a boy, who dreams of becoming a ballerina, and the controversy it sparked—some trans critics called it irresponsible—Dhont calls it a learning experience. “I try to do everything in my life with authenticity, and love and respect for who I am and who others are, and I also have the same respect for people’s opinions. I think dialogue is something very important to me. At the end, it was an experience in which I gained a lot of maturity.” —Nancy Tartaglione
DEVON FASHION’S STRIKES
ASSAYAS’S META-DRAMA IRMA VEP
Lukas Dhont at the Governors Awards in LA.
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With her no-fools-suffered, rock-chic attitude, Devon Ross looks like she’d be more at home in the Runaways than on a runway, but the 22-year-old has become one of the most sought-after models in the fashion world, representing Gucci, Mulberry and Valentino. And now she will make her acting debut. Directed by Olivier Assayas, working from his 1996 film of the same name, she appears in the HBO mini-series Irma Vep, which screens in the Cannes Premiere section and stars Alicia Vikander as Mira, an actress on the verge. “Mira’s a movie star, and she’s going to Paris to make a film called The Vampires,” Ross says. “She’s kind of disillusioned by her fame and her relationships. I guess she’s been traveling for a really long time and doesn’t have anywhere to call home. I play Regina, Mira’s assistant. She’s a huge cinephile—she’s obsessed with film and she’s working towards making her first feature, so she’s in the right place at the right time.” The same thing might be said for Ross
herself. At 15, she recalls, “I was like, ‘I want to do something with my life.’ So, I went to a modeling agency and I was like, ‘Take me or leave me.’ They signed me and then it just all started from there. My mom was a model, so I grew up looking at her portfolio and I was always, like, ‘This seems like the best job ever. You just get your photo taken, and there’s nothing better than that.’” Unlike her peers, Ross has some very different ideas about glamour. “I’ve always loved Elizabeth Taylor—she’s just gorgeous,” she says. “But I also love the Rolling Stones and Keith Richards: I grew up listening to them, they’re like my uncles in my head. I feel like I know them, but I don’t.” And if the actor work continues to come, she’d like it to be known that she’s a big fan of Patti Smith’s 2010 memoir Just Kids. “I’m waiting for someone to make that film because I’d love to play Patti.” “That’s my dream,” she says, “so put it out there. Let the people know.” —Damon Wise
5/3/22 4:28 PM
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L E JI-EUN
KOREAN MULTI-HYPHENATE LANDS HER FIRST TRIP TO CANNES’ RED CARPET IN HIROKAZU KORE-EDA’S BROKER
WITH A PARIS POLICIER SET IN THE WAKE OF THE
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French director, writer and producer Cédric Jimenez is known for his gritty crime thrillers inspired by real-life stories involving specific police departments. They include 2014 Toronto Film Festival debut The Connection (La French) about magistrate Pierre Michel, who waged an obsessive six-year battle to bring down Marseille’s infamous ‘French Connection’ drug ring; and last year’s box office hit The Stronghold (Bac nord), based on a 2012 police corruption case, also in Marseille. The latter was acquired by Netflix outside France where it was the number two local movie of 2021 with 2.2 million tickets sold. It also scored seven César nominations. The film began its career out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival last July, and this year Jimenez is returning to the section with Novembre, another work that looks at the police, but through a different lens. With the emotional subject of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris that left some 130 dead as its background, the film is likely to have extra poignancy given the currently ongoing trials of suspects and accomplices involved. Novembre dives into the activities of the French anti-terrorist subdivision of the police during the five days following the attacks. Jean Dujardin (who also led The Connection), Anaïs Demoustier, Sandrine Kiberlain and Jérémie Renier star in the thriller which Jimenez has described as being “about life and the tsunami that hit the police when [the attacks] happened”. Jimenez has also worked in English, directing 2017’s The Man With The Iron Heart (HHhH), and was at one point attached to the Graham Moorescripted Mind Fall. But off the back of The Stronghold’s strength and with the potential for Novembre, the Marseille native now seems primed for more significant crossover. He was signed by Range Media Partners in late 2020 and is prepping Verde, about Ingrid Betancourt and Clara Rojas’ captivity in the Colombian jungle. —Nancy Tartaglione
When the Cannes Film Festival lineup was announced on April 14, Twitter positively exploded with excitement over the news that Lee Ji-eun would make her Riviera debut with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Broker in Competition. The Korean actress, singer and songwriter—popularly known as IU—has a legion of fans, including 26 million followers on Instagram, and has been described as a national treasure at home. She may now be well poised for crossover success with her first commercial film. The first film from Kore-eda since the Palme d’Or winning Shoplifters in 2018 is also his first movie to be made in Korea. Backed by Asian powerhouse CJ ENM and starring Parasite’s Song Kang-ho, Broker concerns the peculiarly Korean phenomenon of “baby boxes”— drop-off points where people who are unable to raise children can deposit their babies anonymously. Lee started out as a recording artist, releasing her first album in 2008, and by 2019 she had three songs on Billboard’s list of the 100 Greatest K-Pop Songs of the 2010s. This included 2010’s holiday single “Good Day” from her album Real, which took the top position. In 2011, Lee made her acting debut with teen drama series Dream High, followed by family drama You Are The Best! in 2013, 2015 comedy-drama The Producers and 2018 drama My Mister. In 2019, she made her film debut in Netflix anthology Persona, playing four different characters for four different directors. All the while, Lee has continued to release albums, tour and work in television, including 2019’s Hotel Del Luna which is ranked in the Top 20 of all-time highest-rated Korean cable series. She also made her soundtrack debut with 2020’s “Give You My Heart” for the hit TV series Crash Landing on You. Her other film credits include recently wrapped sports drama Dream, costarring Parasite’s Park Seo-joon and directed by Lee Byeong-heon, helmer of Korea’s box office smash Extreme Job. —Nancy Tartaglione
5/3/22 4:28 PM
F E AT U R E
may have accidentally photographed a murder also featured live footage of the Yardbirds in a studio-built replica of the London’s cool nightspot The Ricky-Tick. The ecstatic performance by Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck on guitar with Keith Relf on vocals comes to a halt in the film when Beck, annoyed by a buzz in his amplifier, smashes his guitar on stage and throws its neck into the crowd. A riot ends up breaking out, an eerie presage of the Stones’ experience in Gimme Shelter. Two years later came Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, the story of a drug-fueled biker
VIVE LE ROCK Cannes may be known for solemn arthouse
At the apparent suggestion of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead (who were originally set to perform at the festival but ended up steering clear due to serious concerns about violence), the Stones had the bright idea to hire Hell’s Angels to police it, a calamitous decision that would lead to chaos and even murder. Gimme Shelter juxtaposed the devilish high of the band’s performance with Mick Jagger’s ashen face as he later watches—and rewatches—blurry footage of the incident on a Moviola. When Croisette, one of the audience members was the Beatles’ John Lennon, who was quoted as saying, “My God, this was a real
who wore black ties with Civil War suits instead of tuxedos to the premiere, were as bespoke mix of the Band, the Byrds, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Steppenwolf, topped off with a theme song (“Ballad Thanks to its depiction of the cocaine trade promptly banned—no mean feat in permissive France. Easy Rider also began the trend of the curated soundtrack, which not only sent the cost of music licensing through the roof
mistaken as rock musicals, but what would Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (Directors’ Fortnight, 1974) be without the crashing or Phil Spector’s thunderous intro to The
By Damon Wise
No offense to Lennon, but those so-
In 1971, the Cannes Film Festival opened with a screening of Gimme Shelter by Albert and David Maysles, an immersive, vérité depiction of two weeks in the touring life of the Rolling Stones. If that was all it did, it might have been forgotten by now. But by a terrible freak of chance, the filmmakers followed the band to the most notorious concert of their entire career— the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in Livermore, CA, where the Stones, along with Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, were set to perform a free concert for 300,000 people on Dec. 6, 1969. “We didn’t know what it was going to be,” Albert said later. “We just had a childish faith that having seen the Stones and getting along with them, there might be a feature film there.”
place at Cannes. This year’s festival, in fact, features three rock and roll entries. Playing Out of Competition is Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, a gold lamé fever dream of the star’s rise to fame that promises to be as subtle as the director’s hip-hop take on 2013’s opener, The Great Gatsby. In Special Screenings is Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind, Ethan Coen’s portrait of Presley’s surly rockabilly rival. And for the Midnight crowd is Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream, an “expethousands of hours of live performances by David Bowie. (Bowie is unusual in Cannes history, having also acted in at least two Competition entries—1983’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and 2002’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me—and he had signalled an interest in being on the jury not long before health issues ruled it out.) Rock music found its way to Cannes in 1967, when Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup entered the competition two months after its premiere in swinging London. The mystery thriller that starred David Hemmings as a photographer who
Ford Coppola’s 1979 Palme d’Or winner Apocalypse Now have endured without the the opening shots of a helicopter attack on
Vietnam? And would Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 Palme d’Or winner Pulp Fiction be the
Pink Floyd: The Wall
Tommy and The Wall were based
Truth or Dare
Gimme Danger The Velvet Underground in C A N N E S F I L M
Truth or Dare na
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Madonna: In Bed with Madon-
24 Hour Party People
U2 3D Rocketman
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C RO N E N B E RG
The Crash director prepares to double down on his Cannes notoriety with provocative Competition entry Crimes of the Future BY DA M O N W I S E
David Cronenberg has been at the cutting edge of horror for more than 50 years, sailing close to the mainstream with edgy early-2000s thrillers such as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises while appeasing the fans of his visceral ’80s work with the likes of 1999’s eXistenZ Crimes of the Future is very much in the latter mold, a nod to the squishy weirdness of Videodrome Crash, his outrageous
early on in my career, where this was a big deal. It was like: “People will see your movie and then they will go out and kill other people.” You don’t hear that anymore, but that was a really hot button of criticism and social
automotive-erotic drama that scandalized the Croisette in 1996. that movies and entertainment in general have on people. Now, you’re seeing a bit of that in a strange way with TikTok, but it’s not quite the ence people is undeniable, but the way that it does it, and the potency of it, is totally in question and totally varies in the context and so on.
You made a very different short Crimes of the Future Well, it came about in a very organic cance, actually—the original title was Painkillers, and it was over 20 years ago that I wrote the script. So, when I was discussing reviving the project with the producer Robert Lantos, he suggested that we co-opt the old title because it was more interesting. A lot of movies and books and TV series called Painkillers had come out in the 20 years since I wrote that script. So, we thought we needed a new title, and we just thought Crimes of the Future, although it is not a sequel or a remake of my old are accurately called Crimes of the Future—so why not do it? It was Only a few people will know about the way we thought about it. We just liked the title, and we thought it would be nice to have it on a movie that will probably gather a larger audience than the original. You seem to me to make two types -
Basically, I feel that I am a benign creature in the universe, and, therefore, I assume that my creativity will produce benign results. Now, whether that’s true or not… [Laughs] I certainly have met many, many people who said that they grew up Léa Seydoux, Viggo Mortensen and Kristen Stewart in Crimes of the Future.
on in Videodrome. Yeah, it was also evident in Scanners, actually—there’s a sculptor who lives inside the head that he’s created, you’ll recall. So, the art world has never been far from my purview. In Toronto, I was an interested part of what was developing with the art scene here with the sculptors and the painters that were developing in Canada. You know, I’ve really avoided having a major character who is an artist, but with Crimes
art hasn’t existed—of course it has existed, and it is still thriving. But ment. So, it felt very natural to me when I was writing it those many years ago. And when I revisited it—from, of course, a very different perspective—it still felt quite viable, quite juicy, with meaning and potential, dramatically and thematically.
for me, although, of course, I know exactly what you mean. But, yeah, I guess that is the description of this movie, it’s going to either attract or repel people. Basically, I’m returning
art. It’s surgical performance art, basically. So, it brings together a few of the themes of things that I’ve been dealing with. I’m always interested, as any, I suppose, writer, process, and turning your own lens on your own process. It’s an honor-
done for a while. And the feeling is like Crimes of the Future that didn’t exist when I was making my last
or about writers, about sculptors. So, this is my very particular version of that because I’ve invented the art form. Not that performance
inevitably say yes. Now, I don’t know if they’re just being nice to me, but it seems that therefore my feelings validated to a certain extent by the reactions I have from people, some of them very young.
memory of Crash must stay with No, not really. You have to be realistic
Yeah. Well, for me, psychology is
to see The Fly, or Scanners, when they were kids, and that I was a big
do not have, on people. And as an artist, it’s ironically very liberating to anybody whatsoever. As an artist, you have to accept that. I think it’s a big mistake to think that you’re going to change the world if you’re an artist. Big mistake. First of all, it’s not realistic, as history has proved. And then, secondly, it would really start to inhibit you. I mean, it would really lock you up into a cage of your own making. I mean, there was a time,
Well, I’m not nervous. I’m looking forward to it because you make a as usual—and I’ve said this many times— I’m not making a movie to shock people or assault them. I’m saying, “These are things I’ve noticed. These are ideas I’ve had. These are dreams that have troubled me. I’m showing them to you. You can interpret them as you wish. I just think you maybe would be interested in experiencing these things as I have experienced them.” That’s my approach, and you get a huge variety
How graphic is it? There are some very strong scenes. I mean, I’m sure that we will have of the movie. I’m sure of that. Some have said that they think the last 20 minutes will be very hard on people, and that there’ll be a lot of walkouts. Some guy said that he almost had a panic attack. And I say, “Well, that would be OK.” But I’m not convinced that that will be a general reaction. I do expect walkouts in Cannes, and that’s a very special thing. People always walk out, and the seats notoriously clack as you get up, because the seats fold back and hit the back of the seat. So, you hear clack, clack, clack. Whether they’ll be outraged the way they were with Crash, I somehow don’t think so. They might be revulsed to the point that they want to leave, but that’s not the same as being outraged. However, I have no idea really what’s going to happen.
art, which is to turn things on their head and give people a perspective that is not an obvious perspective, that is in fact the opposite of what they would’ve thought naturally. So, I think that is really what the artists in the movie are doing. They’re saying, “Yeah, we’re doing terrible stuff. There’s no way we can stop it, but it doesn’t mean that that’s the end. It means that we must transform.”
for the right balance, the right tone, for the movie. Some things that you put in one movie would be subversive in a bad way in another. An extreme scene of violence might, in some movies, be perfectly well A History of Violence. But in another a mistake, an artistic mistake, a creative mistake. But that’s within the ing as an artist of what you’re doing
again, once again, once again. Do you ever think people miss the humor in some of your work? I don’t think so, but that will be one of the unique things for me about the time I will have seen it with an audience that knows very little about the movie, and therefore I will get laughs where I think they should be or not. Of course, there’s also the question of language and the subtitles and so on, but French viewers who have humor. A lot of the humor is derived from the dialogue, so you need to know what the dialogue is to get the only
In terms of the violence and the imagery, do you ever wonder if you’ve gone too far? No. I mean, you’re always looking
censorship in any country would do. It’s impossible to think that way. As soon as you start thinking that way, you’re lost. I mean, it’s what they talk about in the Soviet Union, and now we’re talking about Russia in general. Self-censorship. The fact that you have absorbed the censorious structure that’s around you, to the point that they don’t even have to censor you because you’re doing it yourself. So, you would never self-censor? You can’t do that as an artist. So, my understanding of what is extreme, what is too violent, what is too sexual, really has to do with what the tone of the movie is, within the world of the movie. That’s my purview. That’s where I’m operating. Now, once you’ve done that, you can have distributors say, “I cannot distribute this movie in my country…” Because it’s too this, or it’s too that. And at
But people do seem to be more frightened by existential fears. From the trailer, the line that unnerved me the most is when Léa Seydoux says, “Have we just been made obsolete?” Is the inference that we are just making more problems by using technology to clean up after ourselves? No, it’s sort of perversely the opposite of that. It’s kind of saying, “Let’s embrace what we’re doing. Let’s embrace the terrible stuff that we’re doing—to the planet and to each other and to our children. Let’s that a positive thing, a transformative thing in a good way.” And, of course, that is another possibility of
Mortensen in his Crimes of the Future role as performance artist Saul Tenser.
that point you say, “Well, OK, too bad. You don’t get to see it. That’s proaches to censorship around the world—subtle and not subtle—that you would drive yourself crazy, I mean, you would basically neuter yourself completely if you worried about all of that. Do I worry about Jordan, or in Hungary, or in France, or in the U.S.? I mean, if you take all heart, you will not say a word. You can’t speak. Do you see waves of censorship? You’ve been making movies for 50 years. It seems to me that censorship comes in waves—it goes and then it comes back. It does, and it comes back in interesting forms. The way that the #MeToo movement can be used as a tool of censorship, for example, is a new approach, a new little arabesque on censorship, and it is used politically that way, or is resisted as a censorious movement rather than a movement of some kind of liberation. So, you get all of these complexities involved. But, yes, I’ve seen it in and out, including in my own country, in Canada, which is not overly censorious, but there have been moments of censorship. Once again, you are best to ignore it, and then you take the hits, I mean, you’re out there. You are very vulnerable. You are exposing yourself as an artist. Part of what you do is to expose yourself, and you are therefore susceptible to all kinds of criticism and anger and outrage and everything else. The only way to avoid that is to not speak. One last question: last year you made an NFT called The Death of David Cronenberg. Where do you go from there? Well, I have a new NFT, which is called Inner Beauty. And if you check it out on SuperRare, you’ll see that it is my kidney stones. If you look it up on the net, you’ll immediately see it. I’m proposing my kidney stones as an artistic statement of the inside of my body to the outside of my body. So that’s the next step.
N EO N
of responses. Now, I really don’t think that we’ll have a Crash experience. For one thing, there’s really no sex in the movie. I mean, there’s eroticism and there’s a sensuality, but of course, part of what the movie says—and one of the characters says it very straightforwardly—is that surgery is the new sex. If you accept that, then, yeah, there’s sex in the movie, because there’s surgery! So, people might be put off by that.
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the most unique experience I’ve had with a director on set, but I think she is completely grand. What’s your character like? businessman who’s pretty enigmatic and we don’t know a whole lot about
both sort of playing a game and sort of pretending to be someone they’re not amidst this backdrop of political unrest and turmoil and complete these two strangers, who themselves don’t give a lot away really about what they are at heart, fall for each other and have some strange kind of connection, but then they fall into trouble. Well, he particularly falls into trouble, and they have to escape
A LWY N
to escape to the border, maybe together. That’s the narrative of it, but I think as much as anything, reading it, it was about those moments of tenderness between two people that managed to break through in an environment and world of mistrust and games and falsity.
B Y R YA N F L E M I N G
The Stars at Noon, The Conversations With Friends, directed
Stars at Noon
How did you get involved with The Stars at Noon? I got involved pretty late in the game. I was sent the script on literally a Friday morning to read with an email saying Claire would like to Zoom me that afternoon. “If you’re interested, and if they want you, then you’ll be row?” Claire was already there. So, I read the script and obviously I was never going to say no to working with Claire Denis. I Zoomed with her a few
hours later and she said, “Will you I think by Tuesday I was on a plane days later. I’d read the script, but it’s based on the book. I didn’t even get a chance to look at the book until I happens for a reason. What was it like working with Claire Denis? It was amazing. She’s unlike anyone
I have ever worked with, and her sets are unlike any other set I’ve ever been on. She is a force. She is completely singular and of herself and a real orator. what she wants and then incredibly tender about what she wants. It feels like she discovers everything in the moment and in such a way that... I don’t know. I think I’m probably still working out how she works. I don’t think I’ll ever work out how she
So how do you prep for that kind of character? I only had a choice to approach it a certain way because it came about quite last minute and the whole shoot was kind of up and down in the air and thrown together right at the last minute, so there wasn’t a couple of months to think about script as quickly as possible, getting what you can from that, thinking about bits and pieces of backstory that perhaps could lend itself to
from what was on the page and going with that, and also going with Claire and seeing where she felt. but you’re almost informed as much
CO U RT ESY O F C U R IOSA F I LM S
The rumors are true: the London boy is making his Cannes Competition debut with Claire Denis’ The Stars at Noon
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by the way that she’s making the
Joe Alwyn and Alison Oliver in the Hulu series Conversations with Friends.
What are some highlights from your times on this project?
How was the shoot in Panama? Normal People Normal People
You also have the BBC Three/ Hulu series Conversations With Friends coming out where you play Nick Conway. What did you make of him?
What was it like working with
Cannes after you won the Trophée Chopard in 2018. What does it mean to you to have The Stars at Noon Competition at the festival? -
Conway is also an actor, so what his acting career and in your own? -
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Ö ST LU N D PLAT TFO RM PRO DUKTIO N
The Swedish director is back with a new film and a new suit. But does Triangle of Sadness have the right shape for a second Palme d'Or? BY DA M O N W I S E
In just over a decade, Ruben Östlund has established himself as one of the new Cannes masters, leapfrogging from sidebar to sidebar—2011’s Play debuted in Directors’ Fortnight, 2014’s Force Majeure
How does it unfold? We start in the fashion world, and
with 2017’s art-world satire The Square. This year he returns with Triangle of Sadness, starring Harris Dickinson, Charlbi Dean and Woody Harrelson. Here, the Swedish director reveals all—and would have
then we end up on a deserted isthese three different environments.
people, and his latest subject, the fashion world, suggests plenty of food for his dark thoughts.
How does it feel going back to Cannes as a Palme d’Or winner? Does that make you nervous about going back into competition? I’m not nervous to go back in, but I was very nervous waiting for the decision. That was really nervewracking. And now I’m just happy and relieved that we are in Competition, and I’m looking forward audience. There’s also a feeling this time that the restrictions are not as heavy anymore since the pandemic, so I’m looking forward to a festival where we are getting back a little bit more to a cinema climate. What can you tell me about Triangle of Sadness? Well, I can tell you what a “tri-
angle of sadness” is. If you have a wrinkle in between your eyebrows, it’s called “the trouble wrinkle” in Swedish, and you get it if you have had a lot of trouble in your life. minutes. It’s a term that comes from cosmetic surgery—not plastic surgery, cosmetic surgery—and I thought it was comical. Like, a dark, comical comment about surface and beauty, our obsession with beauty, and our obsession with looks, and our belief that our inner problems will be solved if we construct a great shell around ourselves.
world, isn’t it? Yes. And the reason that I’m doing something that takes place, or at
least starts, in the fashion world and in the beauty industry is because my wife, Sina Görtz, who I met in around 2014, is a fashion photographer. When I met her, I wanted to hear everything about the fashion industry—there’s something a little scary about it at the same time that is attractive. And she started to tell me a lot about the male models. To be a male model is not really considered a high-status profession. The male models earn, like, one third or less of whatever female models do, so it’s really a mirror of
few professions where men earn less than women. So, with that as a starting point, I got interested in the idea of beauty as a currency.
It’s a huge cast. Is there a lead character, or is it an ensemble? I would say that there’s two lead characters. It’s Harris Dickinson, a British actor, who plays a male model. And then it’s Charlbi Dean, a South African actress, who plays a female model. And this couple, we follow many ways an ensemble movie, because on the yacht and on the island, we have eight actors that are creating the ensemble and we have quite big parts for all of them. We have actors from the Philippines, Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark, the U.S. and England, so it’s multinational. The Square 150 minutes. Is this one going to be as long? It’s going to be perfect [laughs]. Not too long, not too short, hope-
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fully. But then it’s a story that takes, of course, a little bit of time to tell, because you have to establish these three different environments. Hopefully it’ll feel like a fresco, like a rich adult rollercoaster, I like to say, because it’s going to be entertaining and interesting. But it’s for adults.
when I started to look at male behavior—the male image and being a man in our times. And then The Square also is really investigating what being a man is. What are we struggling with, and how does the outside world look at us? And I would say that, in many ways, Triangle of Sadness now that is really investigating what it is to be a man. And I have gotten a lot of inspiration from my own life.
Does that mean adult content? Not really any explicit stuff. Maybe there are… some things. I won’t talk about them now, but there are some things that you don’t want to show your kids.
No. I mean, the people that are in Charlbi Dean and Harris Dickinson as Yaya and Carl in Triangle of Sadness.
made under Covid protocols, Yeah. We started in January of 2020. And then we started to hear about this virus in China, and then in Italy, and immediately an alarm bell was ringing in the back of my head. So, we started the shoot. We stopped once in March, because of the lockdown, and then we were waiting for the fall. Actually, we shot Harrelson to Sweden. We managed to get a window of a couple of days before lockdown started again, basically. And then, when we were in Greece and shooting the last part of
lockdown again. So, we completely hit the pandemic when we were
Yes, that’s true. But there were also some restrictions in that country—you were not allowed to be on a ship, for example. So, it was stuff like that we had to deal with. I think we did 1,160 Covid tests, and luckily all of them were negative, because one positive test—with one of the main actors or one of the main crew—I don’t know if we would have been
when we were shooting on the yacht because it was so expensive to rent. There was a lot of pressure. But also, what was a good experience for me was that everybody was working so well together, in the were put aside—we had bigger problems to deal with, not individual, small dramas. So, I had really nice shoot, in spite of everything.
Of course. I mean, I think Don’t Look Up [force] the satire, it’s still accurate. These things are happening! Obviously, I’m looking at smaller situations. I’m more interested in social interactions between humans when we have a kind of awkwardness, and when we are dealing with the fear of losing face and so on. But I think there are parts of the became very contemporary. Like, on the yacht, we have Woody Harrelson as a Marxist captain, and he gets his revenge on the guests of the boat, all these rich passengers, by always having the captain’s dinner when the weather gets rough. So, they are sitting there eating a sevencourse meal, and it’s going to turn
into mayhem. But there’s one guy that isn’t seasick, and he’s a Russian oligarch. So, we have the American communist and the Russian capitalist, sitting and drinking together and starting to talk politics. I was brought up during the ’80s and ’90s, with the Eastern and Western blocs constantly pushing their ideologies at each other, then suddenly, this thing in Ukraine happens, and we’re back to this Eastern/ Western-bloc mentality. In many ways, it’s so old-fashioned, but now it’s happening in the world again. Force Majeure Downhill involved in the remake? No, I let them get on with it. I thought it was important that they were doing was very happy that they wanted to do a remake. I didn’t have any problem with it. You have to look at it like if someone is doing a theater play over and over again—everybody’s allowed to have their take on it. There were -
Force Majeure When I think about Force Majeure,
that are not different from any other industry, I would say. As soon as you get to know them, you don’t feel so threatened by their obsession with clothes. Something that I don’t like about the fashion industry is that it’s trying to sell us clothes and products by preying on our insecurities. Just to point out an example—and the very posh brands, you see that the models basically never smile, and they look down on the consumer. Like, they’re on the top of the hierarchy, and those clothes are sold yourself within the social group that you feel that you belong to. So, if you pay a lot for your clothes, you can also be on top of the hierarchy and look down on other people. But the cheaper the brand gets, the more the models are smiling and welcoming, like, “Maybe we’re at the bottom of the triangle here, but we’ll have a great time together.” They know a lot about sociology, I would say, in the fashion industry.
pet in Cannes? Yes. You know what? As research, I actually did a little bit of a collection for a friend of mine. I have a brand, a fashion brand. I did my own tuxedo, and it’s called Lumière, after the cinema in Cannes. So, I will wear that one, of course.
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We were grabbing a cup of coffee and we started talking about our next project, and I brought up what I was thinking about that love story between a man and a woman, and so we started talking about what kind of profession this male character should have. And then that’s when I brought up the fact that I love Martin Beck, the Swedish crime detective novel series that features a very charming detective. And so, I talked about how I would love to create a character like that, and we started talking about the female character, what kind of woman is she?
C H AN-WO O K Music and passion are very much the fashion in the Korean director's genre-defying detective story, Decision to Leave BY DA M O N W I S E
Park Chan-wook made a big impact in Cannes in 2004 with his lurid revenge drama Oldboy, which took the Grand Prix from Quentin Tarantino’s jury, made a cult star of Choi Min-sik, and alerted audiences at the festival, returning in 2009 with his literary vampire horror Thirst and again in 2016 with The Handmaiden, a delirious, taboo-busting erotic thriller set in 1930s Korea. Director Park’s trademark is not Decision to Leave promises to be yet another stylish, category-defying composition.
What is Decision to Leave about? A detective is dispatched to a scene of death of a man who has fallen from the mountains. There are three possibilities with this case: either he took a wrong step during a climb and he accidentally fell, or he committed suicide, or someone pushed him off the cliff. And so, the detective calls in the wife of the dead man to have but he notices that there’s something special about her. He doesn’t quite know what it is, and there are other detectives who are suspicious
of her, but nonetheless, although he doesn’t want to acknowledge this, he is unknowingly attracted to her for some reason. He feels a mixture of suspicion and this attraction, so he starts to carry out an in-depth investigation on her. What inspired you? There’s a Korean song that’s featured ”. It’s a popular song from the ’70s. It was to it a lot, and I loved the song after I grew up as well. It’s by a female
singer. I was searching for that song while and I discovered that the same song was sung by a male singer. It’s a singer that I almost worship. And so, after hearing that song, I thought about featuring the same song sung by a male singer and a female singer think about a love story between a man and a woman based around that. At the same time, Jeong Seokyeong, the screenwriter that I always work with, was visiting London with her family to see me.
You could say that I wanted to create a police procedural and a romance I wanted to do. What I wanted to procedural is not separated from the romance, where the investigation in itself is a process of their love blossoming. So, if you take the interrogation, for example, where the detective and the suspect sit across from each other and they talk and the police interrogate her, that entire process could seem like a process of their love blossoming. People who are in love, they quarrel as well. They pull that goes between two people who love each other. And I thought the interrogation process could be quite similar. And so, because this is a romance, because there is love between these two characters, these personal emogation, which means those elements are inseparable. But you might have noir' or 'femme fatale'. We try not to use those phrases because this tional concepts like that. So, in other It does feature a police investigation, but it doesn’t really follow the genre
M EG A
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Since when have you ever followed genre conventions?
How long have you known Jeong Seo-kyeong, and how does the collaboration work? Lady Vengeance
Go Kyung-Pyo and Tang Wei in Park Chan-wook's Decision to Leave.
for Thirst in Possession
What draws you to creating strong
Was the shoot affected at all by What about the setting?
Why were you both so keen to work with Tang Wei? Lust, Caution
Talking of Director Bong, how has his Oscar success affected the
Late Autumn -
Why did you take the chapter divisions out?
Late Autumn -
Vengeance Lady Vengeance Squid Game
of the Vengeance
5/3/22 6:08 PM
Seven years since Mad Max: Fury Road set the Croisette aflame on its route to Oscar gold, George Miller returns to the Cannes Film Festival with his latest movie, Three Thousand Years of Longing, further establishing his place in the cinematic pantheon. He tells Joe Utichi why his grand fairy tale was worthy of the two decades it took to bring it to the screen.
GEORGE MILLER IS DISTRACTED. Five minutes into our meeting, he begs forgiveness to take a quick call. And then, on an iPad tilted in his direction, the filmmaker watches as a camera feed from the Australian outback offers him a live view of a pre-shoot for his next feature, Furiosa. His supervising stunt coordinator and second unit director, Guy Norris, whose work with Miller stretches back to 1981’s Mad Max sequel The Road Warrior, is already shooting sequences for the new film. Set 15 years before the events of Mad Max: Fury Road, the film will tell the backstory of Charlize Theron’s enigmatic Furiosa, this time played by Anya Taylor-Joy. “Here I am doing an interview with you halfway across the world, and I’m able to look at this footage being shot far west from where I am and we’re discussing it as we go through the process,” says Miller, marveling at the technology. “It’s amazing, really.” It has been seven years since Fury Road established itself as the most innovative and exciting blockbuster in decades, earning six Oscars from 10 nominations. Miller was nominated for Best Director and the film for Best Picture. And now here he is, on the eve of the Cannes Film Festival, where he will premiere his next feature—the film he shot in-between—Three Thousand Years of Longing, perhaps suggesting that Miller’s movies
can be likened to that old adage about buses: you wait forever for one to come along only for two to stack up in quick succession. Miller has described Three Thousand Years of Longing as the “opposite” of Fury Road—an “antiMad Max”—and in many ways, he’s correct. It is dialogue-driven; a lingering two-hander in which a scholar on a trip to a speaking engagement in Istanbul inadvertently summons a Djinn who details his long journey through fantasy and history as he endeavors to tempt this scholar—who claims she wants for nothing—to make her three wishes. Tilda Swinton plays Alithea, the scholar, and Idris Elba the Djinn. But the director of Mad Max: Fury Road does scale in his sleep, and Three Thousand Years of Longing doesn’t just tell us about the Djinn’s complex journey to a modern-day hotel room in Istanbul. It shows us, too, bringing us into the courts of the Queen of Sheba and the Ottoman rulers, the bedroom of a 19th Century Turkish slave courtesan, and all the way to present day London; despite the film having been entirely shot in Australia during the pandemic. There is
George Miller, photographed exclusively for Deadline in Sydney, Australia by Mark Rogers.
magic, and there is war. Mythical creatures and conquering armies all conjured in exquisite detail. It is a chamber piece in the George Miller mold, which is to say that it flatly refuses to be confined to a single chamber. It is also a project that has burned brightly for Miller for more than 20 years. The filmmaker optioned A.S. Byatt’s short story, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, a little while after it was published in 1994. He has tinkered away at it, in between other projects ever since, collaborating with his daughter, Augusta Gore, on a screenplay that took on added dimension as time and technology developed. It is a film about love and human connection—even if one of the parties may not strictly be human—but it is also a story about a world that is becoming increasingly distracted by other, less essential, priorities. How did this journey start? A.S. Byatt had won the Booker prize in 1990 for Possession, and then in 1994 she put out a series of stories, or of fairy tales, called The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. I probably read it in the late ’90s, just before the turn of the millennium, because I remember a lot of newspapers were asking people to comment on the best music of the millennium, the best books of the millennium, and so on. The New York Times had asked her to write about the best stories of the millennium. And because she’s a big advocate for story in literature, she wrote a wonderful piece called “Narrate or Die”, and it was on The Arabian Nights—the One Thousand and One Nights—and talked about the evolution of that story. I realized she was deeply interested in this stuff. What I saw in the short story was that it probed a lot of stuff. There was a lot of detail, in a relatively compact narrative, about all the mysteries and paradoxes of being human, or of being alive as a human. And, of course, it was allegorical; it’s a fairy story. That was the starting-off point, and then during the making of the other films, it was always around, and we kept working on it. Kept coming back to it. You wrote the screenplay with your daughter, Augusta Gore. How did that come about? I’d written the screenplay for Lorenzo’s Oil with Nick Enright, a wonderful actor, playwright, teacher and director. We had a wonderful time doing that and we had talked about wanting to write something else together. I remember talking to Nick about this film and we wanted to collaborate on it, but very sadly he got cancer, and he didn’t have much time left. My daughter Gussie was his godchild, and she and Nick were very close. He said, “Look, if I’m not around to write it, why not Gussie? Far more than me, she’s just got the skill to understand this.” Even when she was a little kid, there was a poetic quality to her language, and more particularly to her writing. So, we set off. I’ve always loved collaborating
George Miller directs Tilda Swinton (Alithea) and Idris Elba (The Djinn) on the Pera Palace Hotel set of Three Thousand Years of Longing.
with people, one way or another, and as we started talking about it, we knew the pressure was off and we didn’t ultimately have to do anything with it. It happened, over the years, that I was working on other projects, and she was doing other things as well, so we took our time, and that’s how it came about. I’m very glad of that experience because, apart from anything else, as we went through the process, I taught her, and she taught me. If it was an unhurried affair of which nothing made it your next movie? I think what happened was what has happened on most of the projects I’ve done. I mean, I never, ever intended to make a fourth Mad Max, and then an idea comes one day and it’s there, seated in the back of your brain. It’s competing with all the other ideas that seem to bang around in there, and then it just takes hold. Suddenly, it insists on itself in some way. Even now, there are several ideas rattling around, and I’ll never get to make them all. There are always several things happening. I find that’s the best way to approach it. Often, you’re waiting for the opportunity to make it real. With Happy Feet, I had the film, I had the story. I really wanted to work on the story, but I wasn’t sure how to do it as an animation. And then, back in the early 2000s, Andrew Lesnie,
who shot the Babe movies, went on to shoot the Lord of the Rings movies. He came back from Lord of the Rings, and he showed us the first motion capture of Gollum. With the permission of Peter [ Jackson] and everybody, he’d give little talks. When I saw that first motion capture of Gollum, I remember I’d never seen anything like it. I didn’t even know it was possible, I’d never even heard of motion capture, even though I tended to be up to date with things. In that moment, I thought, Oh my God, the penguins can dance. Suddenly, that then made it a reality, because I didn’t think we could get good dancing from animation, or we would have to do ‘rotomation’, like they’d done when Gene Kelly had danced with Tom and Jerry. But motion capture made it much more viable. And with that, we happened to end up with wonderful dancers and we were able to capture every detail and every moment. That happens a lot, and it was the same with Three Thousand Years of Longing. It was there on and off, and we’d go back to it when it felt right. It’s not that typical thing where you engage a writer, and there’s a first draft and a second and so on. I think that was ultimately to the advantage of the film. The film would be made when it was ready. It wasn’t something that we had to make by a certain time. That approach, I guess, is also why you’re always so hesitant to discuss upcoming projects. You’ve said previously that you feel it jinxes them. Yeah, for me it does because it has happened several times. I’ve been sacked off a film—that happened with Contact and I was very enthusiastic about that. Then, we were very keen to do Justice League back around that time, and there were already photographs and publicity out, and then that fell away. I’m not saying that’s what jinxed it, but I think it’s just better to finish the film and offer it to audiences; to let them take on the story or not.
You’ve described Three Thousand Years of Longing as the “anti-Mad Max”. Was the desire to do something diametrically opposed to Fury Road part of that impulse? Well, it’s certainly a palate-cleanser for Fury Road. And there was a lot of pressure to go straight into another [Mad Max movie]. In a way, things got chaotic with the studio going through changes of regimes, and I knew I really wanted to make this film regardless. But when I say it’s the anti-Mad Max, I mean it only in the sense that it’s got way more dialogue than the very laconic Fury Road. Most of that was shot on location in the deserts of Southern Africa. This one was shot basically indoors, with only a couple of outdoor scenes. Its scale is smaller, at least in terms of its physical scale, even though, yes, it is set over 3,000 years. But also, Fury Road was a story that essentially happened over three days and two nights, and this happened over 3,000 years, so that’s what I meant by the anti-Mad Max.
Express,’”—which is true—“but I stayed on the other side of the Bosporus in another hotel.” Obviously, you change quite a bit when you take on a story like that, so that was one of the things. I thought we should have her stay in that hotel. There’s a huge curiosity to these characters; about each other and about the world. And the attention to detail suggests that you had no less curiosity for the history and mythology you were playing with here, everything from modern technology. Is it fair to say this was a deep dive for you? Look, there’s no doubt you need curiosity. In fact, it’s probably the first thing you need. It goes to the question of whether it’s worth it to go through
the challenge of making any film, and it’s only happened to me a couple times where you lose your curiosity for the film. For the film, and for life in general. You retreat into a smaller life. You must have a relentless curiosity as a filmmaker because you’re riding a very wild beast when you’re making films. If you look at the history of cinema, it’s always changing. And with more technology, it’s changing much more quickly than ever before. You can never really comprehend it all, but you’ve got to try, and the thing that leads you into it is the curiosity you carry. To make the film, however, you also must dig as deeply as you possibly can. You’re looking for some grounding authenticity because that basically earns you the right to attempt fantasy.
THE for the ride. “There’s a contract
ries the Djinn tells Alithea. The hotel is the Pera Palace, which I’ve been fortunate enough to have stayed at. Oh, you have? Well, I’m almost reluctant to say this now. Our intention was to shoot in Europe; London and Istanbul. We had locations, we had all the government permits and so on. And then Covid hit. We were literally there in Europe and we weren’t too far off shooting, but of course, the film was then delayed several months because of Covid, and we eventually had to relocate the whole thing to Australia. There were very strong restrictions. Every single actor that came—there were several Turkish actors, obviously some from England, and a couple from America—had to quarantine. We lost some of our Turkish actors because they had already gone onto other productions due to the delay and the long wait. We were very rigorous with the production, like we had to be. And once we shot, we weren’t affected by Covid at all. But so, we couldn’t go to the hotel. We couldn’t go. It all had to be done digitally. Obviously, the whole place was scanned, and we did the same for the Topkapi Palace. You can do that today. In the past, of course, you couldn’t. I recognized the place from its interior almost instantly, and it has been over a decade since I was there. So, you did a pretty good job. Oh, good [laughs]. Why that hotel? Well, in the book, she mentions the hotel, though she mentions it in a way that is different. The character in the story, she says, “I would have liked to have stayed in that hotel because that’s where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient
George Miller, through the lens of Tilda Swinton
For Tilda Swinton, Three Thousand Years of Longing began where all projects should start: at a friendly Cannes Film Festival luncheon. “I had the extraordinarily graceful occasion to sit down opposite George Miller. I knew nobody and was certainly feeling too shy to talk to anybody,” she recalls. “As I think probably happens quite often with George, he just starts talking to people that he’s never met, and we became friends within the course of half an hour.” It may be true that Miller is true is that Swinton seems to have been tailormade to play Alithea, the curious, enigmatic scholar who barely blinks when a Djinn appears before her to offer three wishes, and Miller had likely clocked that long before this festive lunch. When she was eventually given the script to read, Swinton says, “There was a sense that it was a beautiful read, but how would we keep it intact?” She fell in love with the narrative journey of these two unlikely soulmates, she feared how tricky it might be to bring a cinema audience along
where there’s a leap that the audience is going to have to take, or not,” she describes. “The sense of stepping into a fable. And it’s an extraordinary achievement on George’s part to keep that balloon up in the air, because it’s a about fantastical truth.” Alithea shares almost all of her while we travel with him alone to the many chapters of history and fantasy he details. And yet, Swinton smiles at the notion that a chamber piece. “Yes, it’s two characters in a hotel room, but they have access to all of these Miller was open to the discoveries the two actors made as they played through their scenes together. And it made navigatthat much more possible. “Both of these characters are out of their comfort zones,” Swinton says. “Both of them are on a precipice. It’s like two people meeting around the back of the bike sheds; they’re both slightly ill at ease. She wants him to say, ‘Oh, forget about it, I believe you don’t want anything. I’ll make an exception in your case.’ And he wants her to say, ‘Oh, alright, I’ll make a couple of wishes.’ But, as it goes on, it becomes quite
come to an agreement.” She describes the experience on set as one of the most beautiful of her life, crediting Miller with fostering an atmosphere of intimacy that folded into the story being told. “For me, he’s a master and I mean that in the truly classical sense,” Swinton says. “It felt like I was working with Hitchcock. It felt like a masterclass every day to watch him shoot, to direct the camera, to direct the set. He believes in the camera’s ability to tell the story,
She remembers the conversations they would have on set, marveling at how Miller would contemplate every story thread by tracking back, always starting with the opening shot of the through to whatever particular narrative question he faced in a given moment. “He couldn’t spot check,” she says. “He couldn’t, or he didn’t. He certainly didn’t ever want to spot check and surgical strike. It was always about how every moment was linked to what had come before it. The whole skeleton had to be redrawn.” Miller, Swinton says in summary, is a director “enchanted by cinema. And he wants to be enchanted; he wants to remain enchanted.” —Joe Utichi
So, it’s that balance. There’s no historical record of the Queen of Sheba [played in the film by Aamito Lagum]. She’s in mythology more than she is in history. So, we had to think about what that world would be. If you notice that world, it’s much more fantastical compared to the real world that we end up at by the end, and there are all sorts of variations along that path. But you had to come to some understanding in your own mind as to what that was like. Then you end up at the time of the Ottoman Empire for a hundred years of the story, and then 19th Century Turkey and the story of Zefir [Burcu Gölgedar]. Finally, you have today’s London representing the modern world with all its apparent dysfunction. You must really ask yourself about those worlds and start picking up little details. One of those little details, if you notice, is Prince Mustafa [Matteo Bocelli] is riding a white horse, and it has got a pink mane. That’s not just a fantasy of the designers. In many of the illustrations of that time, they dyed the horses’ manes pink. Right, so you learn that, and you put it in. The tiniest little things like that. Now, the unexpected nature of that, I believe might lend some subtle authenticity to it, just because it was there. But remember, this film is also a fantasy played out in the mind of Alithea as she’s being told the story, or in the Djinn’s retelling. And what was interesting to me was I live in Sydney, and in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, there’s a 19th Century painting by Edward John Poynter that depicts Sheba visiting King Solomon. Solomon is in his court, and she visits him. I always assumed that was the case. Alithea says, “Didn’t she go to Solomon?” And the Djinn says, “No, no, he came to her.” “But,” she says, “It’s in all the books, and Handel wrote ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’” that now gets played at weddings. And the Djinn says, “Madam, I was there.” So, it’s the Djinn’s insistence that his version of the events is right. And that was in the original short story. At least, the idea that Solomon visited her was in the original. Those little things we played with. But if you’re going to play with them, you’ve got to somehow ground them as much as you can in that real detail. It’s the difference between an audience wondering why the director thought it would be cool to dye the horse’s mane pink, and that same audience wondering how these people hundreds of years ago pulled that off. Those little into to a different world. Exactly. If you look at human behavior, and language, dress, and gesture... All cultural behavior is learned, of course, and shared, and it is always evolving. We pick up so much from movies. even before we can read as infants. And I think you’ve got to be careful because it keeps on feeding back on itself. There was a documentary—that I didn’t see,
From top: Alithea discovers a curious, misshapen bottle at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul; Alithea and the Djinn take a stroll in the park in modern-day London.
but I read about—about how modern-day military based their language on World War II movies. I became aware that even in our social behavior, and even in our courtships and so on, those details are learned and absorbed. I was once, many years ago, a doctor. I remember the very first time that I had to tell a family that one of their loved ones had died. We were treating them in the emergency room; a man who had collapsed in the street. A lot of people were working on attempting to resuscitate him, and sadly he died. I remember we sat back in the doctors’ room, and I happened to be sitting next to the slot where the card was, and I picked up the card and it became my case. All the other doctors looked at me. I was just a junior, but they said, “You’re going to have to go and tell the family.” That was in those days, and I’m sure it has changed now, but I remember that no one ever told me how to tell a family that they had just lost someone suddenly. I remember thinking, How do I handle this? I walked into the room and there was a young woman, her mother, and a Catholic priest, and they all looked at me. I know that what I did—and the only other place I’d seen it was in endless movies—was I walked in, and I just shook my head. I’d seen that scene over and over again. Now, the interesting thing was, they’d never been in that situation before. And their behavior, including the young Catholic priest, was something that was also out of the
movies... Because it could only be. That behavior is learned and mimicked. I think that’s a wonderful thing and, also, there’s a certain danger to it as well. When you’re telling stories, you will fall into those traps, and you’ve got to find a way to work off those traps. Otherwise, it just ends up being cliché.
I think that’s always the case. Ultimately, it’s a poetic medium, regardless of how didactic you might want to be. Even the best documentaries have an allegorical quality to them. And like all stories, they are always in the eye of the beholder. They are for whatever the individual members of the audience wants to take from them. And there is an enormous number of examples of that, depending on the culture or the worldview of the person. I think your obligation as a storyteller is to tell it as well as you can, according to your own instincts. But I can give you some astonishing examples for me, going way back to something like the first Babe. I remember being in South Africa and people telling me, “Oh, it’s a film about Apartheid, isn’t it? It’s specifically about Apartheid.” I said, “Well, not exactly, even though it’s about prejudice and the lack of prejudice.” They
said, “No, no, it’s specifically about Apartheid, because at one point the farmer looks out of the window and he sees that the pig has separated the brown chickens from the white chickens.” That wasn’t the overt intention of it. The scene required there to be some separation of the brown chickens and white chickens. But obviously, having said it, that becomes true. I’ve found that over and over again, with just about every film, and it has led me to the realization that, ultimately, every film is allegorical and it’s there for you to feel its undercurrent and decide what it means to you. Is the allegory sometimes subconscious, do you maker, even if just foundationally? Oh, it must be designed by us. It’s not random. You put anything out there and hope it has some resonance with people, but it has to have meaning to you, and all of us who are working on the film. You must have very clear dramaturgical strategies to find your path through. There is a craft to it. That said, if you try to close the narrative at every point and be very didactic about it, it becomes something else, and it’s not a story, it’s an instruction. The best example of that is that someone came up to Freddie Mercury at one point, very excited, and said, “I’ve figured out what ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ means.” The person told him everything that he thought the song was about and Freddie Mercury said, “If you see it, dear, it’s there.” I think I’ve learned that a lot. It’s not just the artist unloading all this stuff. Every bit of it, there is a craft. You have to apply the craft. Otherwise, it becomes an incoherent mess. There’s a lot of rigor to it, but that’s the paradox of it. Despite all the rigor, you’re looking for that poetry as well. And the interplay between the two is what makes the process fascinating, I think. You’ve faced your share of struggles to get every project of yours across the line, and it has been the better part of a decade since your last movie was released. Is Three Thousand Years of Longing—this title—an adequate description of Well, yes [laughs]. I’ve definitely learnt the hard way that’s the case. But look, that applies, I think, to any kind of worthwhile work. It has a long gestation, and part of that gestation ultimately proves the value of the effort, I think. You’ll hear stories of people who say, “I read the script in a weekend, and we went out and shot it, and it’s fully and perfectly formed.” Well, if you really inquire about it, that weekend is the culmination of a huge amount of work; often a lifetime’s work. And that applies to all areas of design and creativity. There’s a very wonderful story about how Frank Lloyd Wright designed Fallingwater. He didn’t put pencil to paper until 45 minutes before the client arrived to see it.
But, of course, he’d been working on it for many, many months in his head beforehand, after a lifetime of dedication. When you interrogate everyone’s process, you’ll find that’s true. They all take a long time. One of the best analogies of the process of making a film is that it’s like going to war. You can’t really describe the experience to any anybody— what it feels like to do it—but you need to develop a kind of agility to respond to whatever comes at you. You need to be able to work out where the landmines are, where the snipers are. Somehow, you’ve got to fulfill the mission in some way. You’ve got to get there, and the ability to adjust and to shift with that is part of the process. Now, making a film is a process that takes a lot of
time and resources, money, and the collaboration of a lot of people. But I believe the same thing happens if someone is writing alone. It’s not a smooth ride, but it all comes good in the end. With my first film, the first Mad Max, I really thought I didn’t have the makings of a filmmaker. I found the process way too hard, and the film was nothing like I wanted it to be. I had a film in my head, I thought we were highly prepared and had figured everything out, but it all just went off in so many different directions. But after, on films with more resources, I realized that was just how it happened. I’m someone who, on the one hand, I like things to be calm and go smoothly. But on the other hand, I realize that’s never going to happen.
George Miller, through the lens of Idris Elba
George Miller granted Idris Elba’s wish. Or, at least, he settled called to say the director of Mad Max: Fury Road wanted to speak with him, he was ebullient. “Those calls are pretty rare,” he says. “Not because most directors don’t like to cold call, which they don’t, but because directors like George are really rare.” But when Miller described the passion project he’d nurtured for two decades to Elba, the actor was concerned about the character he had been offered. “I hadn’t wanted to do anything that resembled Aladdin,” Elba explains. “No genies, nothing like that.” Reading the script, and discussing it with Miller, is what settled his mind. “Obviously there’s some crossover with what we know about genies, granting three wishes and all that. But the particulars of this character, his journey, his three thousand years of longing, transcended that concept of a genie.” Elba says that, at Miller’s request, he didn’t read A.S. Byatt’s short story. Instead, he and Miller drilled down into the Djinn, discussing every aspect of his long journey, and then,
with Swinton, his psychology as they got to know one another in the hotel suite. “I’ve never really talked about any role as much as I have this one,” he says. “And that’s part of George’s style. He doesn’t want to shoot anything he doesn’t understand, and he doesn’t want his actors to shoot anything they don’t understand.” The delays to production owing to the pandemic helped that process as much as they hindered, too, offering more opportunity to debate. “The world was off its axis and there was a lot going on,” says Elba. “So, I think anyone writing or prepping anything during that time was compelled to question the validity of what they wanted to be saying. What was the impact going to be? We really opened up the meaning of what we were doing because of the cavity created by the pandemic.” Elba echoes Swinton’s description of the intimacy with which their scenes came together. “The process was and love,” he says, “because of the intimacy and because of the delicacy of these two performances being under the microscope for me and Tilda. It was like we were doing a two-handed play every day, with eons of dialogue, and we were able to take our time with it.” He chuckles. “George doesn’t like
to rush, and he really likes to go again. He’s not a guy that’s like, ‘Yeah, got it, moving on.’” For Elba’s own aspirations as Miller set was a learning experience he will cherish. “I want to direct again in the future,” he says. “I want to step behind the camera more than I’d be in front of it, and it was an absolute masterclass watching George Miller pull something like this together. Every single layer that wasn’t there in the room with us, he could explain, and it was always present somehow. He taught me that, no matter how much you examine the text, you
a screenplay, going line-by-line, page-by-page until it’s ready to shoot, but when you get the actors on set—the people that have to say these words—you have to do it all again, turning the page and going over every single line. What does it mean? What is the intention?” It’s an exhausting process, Elba says, but it unearthed surprises every day, and he watched as Miller adapted to them. “You think, He’s George Miller, right? He doesn’t need to know what Idris thinks about whether this should be a twoshot or a wide. But it’s because he’s George Miller that he wants to know.” —Joe Utichi
I think I learned that lesson when I was practicing medicine. When you’re working in hospitals, and particularly working in the emergency department, you have to be prepared to adjust to every contingency. The unpredictability of it is just something you have to manage. And had I not had that, I just don’t think I’d be making films. Had I not had that experience, and at least felt all those anxieties and the wilderness that I felt I was in back then, I simply don’t think I’d be making films today. As you’ve gone on, have you been able to get hold in your head at the start of the process? As you accumulate some degree of craft and work with people that you worked with before, you can get pretty close to what you set out to do. That’s not to say that there aren’t surprises, both positive or negative, but you learn to adjust or adapt them into the process. On that first film, even though I used to sketch out drawings we didn’t even have a photocopier, so any drawings I did, I had to write them down in words. In comparing it to the storyboards of the intention, it was a long way off. I would say it was about 50 percent off. The second film—the second Mad Max—was a much more difficult film to make. I remember going through that process and then watching the film. I thought, Oh, we got it to about 75 percent of what it was meant to be. But in that case, that other 25 percent was even better. So, it goes on. There’s no excuse anymore for making a film that is technically below par. Working in the digital medium is enormously helpful. There’s a huge amount of plasticity within the frame and you can really get there. Once, the only question was, “Where do you make the cut?” But for example, within Three Thousand Years of Longing, we did a lot of cross-shooting with cameras. And if we saw the other camera, it was so easy to erase. In the old days, we’d have boom arms coming in, and you’d have to cut the shot or live with it. In this case, because I really didn’t want to do much ADR and I wanted you to be able to hear every breath and so on, the boom is quite often in the frame and the actors can tolerate it being much closer. You didn’t have to worry about it because you can lift them all out in post. You can get a lot closer today than I think you could do in the past.
Three Thousand Years of Longing
Is there a risk of using the technology as a crutch, though? Do you have to be careful not to lean into those possibilities so heavily that the life drains from the picture? Absolutely you do. There’s no sense of felt life in a film if it’s utterly perfect. And that’s why I believe that when you do animation, you have to introduce abstraction in order to take away from what you see as too perfect. In the past, a couple of people have said to me, “George, be careful you don’t overthink it.” And I would think, Gee, am I overthinking things? But then I realized, no, you can never overthink it, because ultimately, if you’re drawn to a particular process, you are drawn by intuitive responses which are much harder to grasp or to rationalize. And particularly if you’re in the creative life, the intuition can never, ever be overwhelmed by the intellect. It simply can’t. In fact, there’s a feedback loop; your intellect informs and gives you all the grit for the intuition. And then, the intuition basically does the job of making the final decision for you. So now, I’m at ease of that. Every time I think I’m overthinking it, I just relax and say, “No, you’re just fueling your engine.” And once again, it applies to everything that one does where you’re attempting some degree of excellence. You think of a basketball player and the constant drilling from when they’re a child. Or a musician, and the hours upon hours of practice. Performers are completely surrendering to the instinct. I mean, there’s a
pattern to it, but you can’t sit and think about where you’re going to place your fingers on the violin; it’s ultimately given over to intuition. The greatest actors are like that. They’ll sit and worry about the role, they’ll intellectualize it. You start to worry it’s going to be a little bit mechanical or staged. But the moment you start shooting, all that’s gone, and it is purely intuitive. We’re in an era in which cinema’s power has been challenged by other distractions, like television, streaming, and the internet. Do you think that the power of cinema has lost any of its potency? One thing I will say that hasn’t changed, and I don’t believe will ever change, is the need for story. But the way we tell and receive stories is always changing. There’s a certain bewilderment by some to what’s happening with streaming. Three Thousand Years of Longing is obviously a film that has absolutely been made for the cinema, both in sound and picture. It’s 4K resolution, where Fury Road was 2K. With the sound, every nuanced breath, every lip smack, every note of music or sound design is there to be heard in some sort of perspective that can only be best heard in the cinema. So of course, you make it for the cinema. But if I’m paying any attention to the world, I know that the majority of people who will watch this movie in its lifetime—the majority who watch movies period—will be seeing it on a smaller
Mad Max (1979) The Road Warrior
George Miller, through the lens of his selected filmography The Witches of Eastwick Mad Max Babe (1995)
screen. Sometimes, on a phone. And sometimes— perhaps most times nowadays—people will be watching it, even in the cinema, with two screens. I can get upset about that as an old-school filmmaker. But if I do, I’m being very foolish, because it has always been so. When radio dominated and everyone would go to the cinema, it pushed aside vaudeville in the United States, and people went to the silent cinema. And then, when the television came, it was going to be a major disaster, and cinema, as we all know, reacted to television by putting on epics in Cinerama and stereo sound. It was trying to get a competitive advantage. Now it’s changing again, and it has never, ever been any other way. For filmmakers, we have to adapt to that. If people are too busy scrolling through their cellphones, on TikTok and Instagram and whatever else, you have to acknowledge those things are addictive simply because they’re telling stories in such a quick and efficient way. We are speedreading the moving image now, and if you don’t take account for that in your cinema... That’s not to say you can’t have slow-burning films, but there has to be a dramatic purpose to them. So, cinema itself will definitely lose its ubiquitous influence, but stories won’t, in whichever form those stories are told. When I think about superhero movies and that whole debate, to reject them simply as something other than cinema doesn’t make any sense because it’s denying that we are in a cultural evolution and have always been in that process. I think the argument for the cinema experience is, for me, two things. One is all that technological effort that goes into creating something that’s immersive, and that must always start with story before everything else. Because a good story can be appreciated even if the film is being watched on a phone. But the other thing that’s special about cinema is that congregation of the audience. That congregation of strangers that people often talk about. There’s almost a quality to cinema where it’s like a kind of a secular temple. And to be honest, that’s why I’m just so happy that the first audiences that are going to see this film—just as happened with Fury Road—are going to be in Cannes. For an old-school filmmaker like me, that makes me very happy.
You’ve had a long association with this festival. Yes, and I’ve been lucky enough to be on the jury at Cannes three times. A long time ago I was on the jury with William Goldman, the screenwriter, and he was such a wonderful man. We came up with an experiment. He said, “How many times in your life do you ever pick up a novel or go to a movie or turn on a TV show that you know nothing about?” Because most times you walk into a cinema, you’re carrying something about the film with you. There’s an expectation in Cannes to go to the big screening—the evening premiere—but he said, “Let’s go to the press screenings; the first screening of the movie. And let’s make a point of not reading anything about the film, nor the filmmakers, the country of origin, nothing.” We would watch films, if you like, in a completely virginal way. It was wonderful, because to sit in a movie theater and not know anything about the film and just let it unfold was unlike anything I’d experienced. I’ll never forget that experience, time and time again.
something at the heart of your curiosities as Three Thousand Years of Longing
Oh, well, that’s a lovely thing to hear because that was one of the reasons why the story wouldn’t let me go. I couldn’t—and I can’t—really figure out any kind of genre for the film. I mean, you can figure out a genre for a Fury Road, it fits into well-established patterns and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, most stories, one way or another, you can put into some kind of template. I think that’s inevitable and necessary. And the person who shed light on that the most was Joseph Campbell, who saw them across all cultures, across all time. But in terms of the confines of a story told in under 100 minutes, I can’t quite put my finger on what genre it would fit into, which I really do think of as a virtue. I always look to the notion of making something ‘uniquely familiar’. It’s got to be itself, and yet, because it’s built on all the stories that came
before, it harnesses a collective sense of story. It has got to be uniquely familiar. And I think that those films that have a level of uniqueness are the ones that are somehow much more likely to stick in the mind. You say that Fury Road
I mean, that’s something important to strive for. Even in telling stories with each other. I know for my family, when I start on an anecdote and they say, “We’ve not heard that before,” I get more excited to tell it. I have a twin brother, and I think that’s another one of the reasons I became a storyteller, because we were always telling each other stories of our day. He’s way funnier than I am, and I was always interested in his take on the same day that we had. We spent virtually the first 22 years of our life together, through school and university. And yet, we were not identical twins. So, he’d have an experience in the classroom or the playground, or of playing with other people, and he’d come back and tell me, and then I’d tell him. And the ones that had that extra flavor, that extra surprise, the ones that weren’t the sort of standard that you’ve heard so often before, are the ones that stick in the mind. I think it’s same with movies, or with any form of storytelling, any article someone writes, any piece of music, any artwork, any building, anything.
I’ll tell you how it’s going when it’s finished, but it has got off to a lovely start. All I can say about my excitement about doing it is that it’s definitely exciting, because even though it’s certainly of that world of Fury Road, it’s also got a lot of the differences we’ve been talking about. Again, it’s uniquely familiar. And probably the biggest difference is the timespan. Fury Road happened over three days and two nights and this one happens over 15 years. So, it’s a saga. For more than that, we’ll have to talk again in the future [laughs].
doesn’t go down well with Farmer
classic of family entertainment. For
the beaks, many of whom, including
in triumph to Max’s mad world of ar-
Hoggett‘s top collie. Miller wrote, pro-
the 1998 sequel, Babe: Pig in the City,
Nicole Kidman and Robin Williams, also
mored vehicles and dusty wastelands.
duced, and researched animation tech-
Miller also took on directing duties.
sang. Elijah Wood played Mumble, the
And this time around, he brought a
penguin who has no singing voice but
strong feminist bent; Charlize Theron’s
niques that would make the animals’ mouth movements convincing, getting
Happy Feet (2006)
can dance up an ice storm; Brittany
Furiosa is in the driver’s seat as crazy
technical advice from—among others—
More animal magic followed in this
Murphy played Gloria, his soulmate.
petrolheads go into pitched battle in
Stanley Kubrick. Babe took $254 mil-
inspiring story of a tap-dancing
Happy Feet Two followed in 2011.
the outback. Fury Road won six Oscars
penguin—also striking a blow for the
and was nominated for Best Picture.
won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects,
Antarctic environment—which won
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Two more sequels are in the pipeline,
but it is the charm of its underpig story
the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
It took 30 years and three collapsed at-
focusing on Furiosa and Max Rockatan-
that made it an instant and enduring
There were some starry voices behind
tempts before Miller was able to return
sky separately. —Stephanie Bunbury
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ZEINAB ABU ALSAMH BLOCKBUSTER AUCTIONS CANDLE MEDIA PRIYANKA CHOPRA JONAS MORGAN COOPER CROSSOVER TELEVISION TOM CRUISE ARIANA DEBOSE ABIGAIL DISNEY AUDREY DIWAN JAMIE ERLICHT & ZACK VAN AMBURG THE FRENCH NEWER WAVE SONIA FRIEDMAN DENIS IVANOV ISABEL MAY ONYX COLLECTIVE MARINA OVSYANNIKOVA RANGE MEDIA PARTNERS REDESIGNING WOMEN TOM ROTHMAN JEYMES SAMUEL s the entertainment industry continues to reclaim TAYLOR SHERIDAN its footing following years of pandemic-induced upheaval, Deadline’s 2022 class of Disruptors SPACS promises to make it an increasingly more THE SPEC STARS eclectic, interesting place. The people, companies SQUID GAME and movements reflected in this year’s selection come from across the industry and across the OMAR SY globe, transcending barriers and rewriting film, DAVID UNGER television and theater into exciting new forms. This year’s group, in alphabetical order… WILD BUNCH ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS
The Oscar-winning, history-making, empire-building star of West Side Story knows something’s coming—something good
BY ANTONIA BLYTH
D E BOSE “T
here is indeed a place for us,” Ariana DeBose said on the Oscar stage back in March. As the first Afro Latina and the first openly queer woman of color to win, she addressed her acceptance speech—for her role of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story—to those who have ever questioned their identity and find themselves in “the gray spaces”. In the audience that night the 90-year-old Rita Moreno was in tears. Having played Anita 60 years earlier, she had been the first Latina ever to win an acting Oscar.
And now DeBose carries that torch forward. A woman who set aside her fears and told Spielberg “no” to reading at the first West Side Story audition because she hadn’t had adequate time to prepare, she was Tony-nominated for her role in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, lauded for her work on the original cast of Hamilton, and spent a decade on stage before making her name on screen. In Ryan Murphy’s The Prom, she played a closeted cheerleader, drawing on her own experience of dancing with a girl at her prom back home in North Carolina. And afterward, she and co-star Jo Ellen Pellman set up the Unruly Hearts Initiative to support LGBTQ+ youth. Her upcoming project Two and Only is set to provide yet another fresh take. She’ll executive produce and star in the film, written by Latina and LGBTQ+ writer Jen Rivas-DeLoose with DeBose in mind for the lead. For right now, DeBose is in London shooting her role of Calypso in Marvel’s Kraven the Hunter. In a conversation via Zoom, she describes how the women in her childhood helped lay the foundation for her unflinching authenticity and her pursuit of projects that leave underrepresented audiences feeling truly seen.
Looking back on your Oscar speech, how do you feel now? That moment was really wild. I think I just remember, OK mom. Mom. If I can just hug my mother, everything will be OK. And then I got up there and looked out and realized people were standing and I was just like, “Oh God, please sit down.” And then I realized there was a thing counting me down and I’m like, “But I haven’t said anything I want to say, so get it out.” I think it might have been one of the most validating experiences of my career, potentially my life thus far, because I was given the opportunity to say what I wanted to say. I was there to represent our film, which I’m incredibly proud of, but I was also representing myself. And it was a culmination of a very long journey. Nobody influenced me. I got to say what was in my heart. And that’s not how it happens for everybody, so I was really grateful for that. I have seen how young people have reacted to it. It’s not just young people, but I do get a lot of attention from young folks right about now. In what way? I was headed to an appointment somewhere in London because I’m still trying to figure out what neighborhood I’m in at any given moment. I was walking around. I had a bag of chips because I was hungry, and I was stuffing my face. And these two beautiful, beautiful Black humans were on a bike ride. I hear, “Oh my God. Is that Ariana DeBose?” And I was like, “Am I going to stop? I’m going to stop.” And I turned around and they had stopped and were staring. And the guy’s like, “It is. It is her. You’re mad inspiring, man. Thank you so much.” And the lovely young woman that was with him said, “You’re so lovely. Thank you for everything
you’ve done.” And I was just like, what world is this? I’m not in my hometown. I’m in another country. I had sunglasses on. I was eating chips. But that was really cool.
How is the Kraven the Hunter shoot going? It’s cool. It’s going well. I mean, for as much as I believe I’m allowed to say about it, I think it’s going swimmingly. It’s exciting that Marvel seems to be really pushing for change. Yeah. I’m proud of them. I think all of these franchise pieces, it’s all about your growth. And it’s exciting to be a part of something that feels like it’s taking a step in a different direction. I feel like they’re just allowing this to live in whatever world it needs to live in, which is kind of cool. I don’t like work experiences, period, where I feel like I’m asked to fit a box, because my job is to discover the box and to define the box. That’s my job, in my opinion. I mean, it is 2022.
Einhorn and Jeremy Stern’s] Sad Unicorn, and all the gang over there. I’m grateful that Sony’s Screen Gems said, “We like the concept.” The cool thing about this is that, not for nothing, the conversations around this piece were going on before I won an Oscar. That’s what I find so heartening, and I felt this way about Schmigadoon! too, because I shot West Side Story before I shot Schmigadoon! and it’s like West Side Story has given me all this opportunity, but Schmigadoon! came out before it, The Prom came out before it, and I’m laying seeds with Two and Only. I was laying them before anything happened with this award season. So, it’s nice to always have work that you’re constantly working on, regardless of what happens with the special accolades, but to feel like people were taking me seriously before, and now they’re really listening. That’s a very cool moment to sit in.
“There’s something about acting. Acting isn’t about me, dance isn’t about me, singing is not about me. It’s about the storytelling and the people. It’s about the community. It’s about what I’m hoping to bring voice to.”
You spent 10 years on Broadway, it’s not like you just suddenly appeared, but in the last three years you’ve become a household name in a new way. How does it feel? For the longest time, everyone used to be like, “Ariana, like Grande.” And And you have Two and now, it’s like, “No, Ariana DeBose.” I Only coming up. Is it think that’s so cool. accurate to say it’s a When I left Hamilton, my goal kind of My Best Friend’s was just to take on work that was Wedding with a bisexual more challenging, like, a leading lady, Latinx point of view? heavily featured role. When West Side That’s kind of what it is, Story happened, I was doing Donna but I like to leave room Summer, but then that role came along for things to grow. My Best and started this commitment of doing Friend’s Wedding, that was something new. And that’s what the one of my favorite films three years has been. Yes, my introgrowing up. There are a duction to film and television really lot of people who say it was West Side Story and musicals like doesn’t hold up well, but Schmigadoon! and The Prom, but it’s a there is something about it commitment to a different medium. that I find so intriguing. It’s So, I have felt like the chapters of that age-old question: she’s my life shifted in such a way where it’s running, he’s running after finding where your commitment lies. I her, you’re running after commit per project, but there are seahim, who’s running after sons of one’s career. I seem to be in a you? Nobody. season at the moment where the work —A R I A N A D e B O S E I really loved Jen’s that is calling to me most is in film or script because we don’t see television, but that doesn’t mean that stories that are authentiI’m not planting seeds for something cally from a bisexual perspective every day. So, I that I might want to do in a different season on thought it was a really fun opportunity to explore stage. I believe in planting seeds. that, and, as an executive producer, to make sure Now that you’ve begun executive producing, are that you’re bringing an accurate voice to the film you going to create a production company empire? so that it speaks to more people and have a little Oh, I mean, I think there are some great examples fun while doing it. of women who have done that. When I was first in At what point did you get involved? LA, making The Prom, it turned out that was the They came to me. And in fact, it was the first time time when my team was shifting. I was doing what that ever really happened in my career. And I actors do, taking meetings with different agencies. thought, What? Somebody wrote something with And it was fascinating because I felt like everyone me in mind? Oh my God. It was just a logical, was trying to figure out, what’s Ariana going to collaborative relationship that formed, and one jump for? My manager, who is still my manager I’m really excited about. I love [producers Randall to this day, Anthony [Calamita], we always talked
From left: As Anita in West Side Story with David Alvarez as Bernardo; at the Oscars with Steven Spielberg and Rita Moreno.
about me having an empire state of mind. I don’t just do one thing. I really love people and I believe in philanthropy and advocacy. I like finding products that are actually good for people. So, when I was taking these meetings, I was looking for a home that would allow me to essentially build some sort of empire. I think it’s funny that you used that word, because I do believe in doing multiple things. And perhaps, one day, I will have to create an umbrella company.
These things often have their own momentum. They happen naturally. Well, isn’t that Hollywood though? Things just start rolling and you can’t really stop them. It becomes like a movement that is bigger than you in a way. That’s what I think I’m learning. There are so many things that I’ve experienced that are so much bigger than me, but I’m like a vessel or a catalyst. It’s the ability to not make it about you. I think those that I’ve witnessed that are most successful in their mission or their purpose, they have the ability to not make it about them. Humility is so important and quite rare, I hate to say. I tend to agree with you. There’s something about acting. Acting isn’t about me, dance isn’t about me, singing is not about me. It’s about the storytelling and the people. It’s about the community. It’s about what I’m hoping to bring voice to. Judith Light always said to me, “Find a way to be of service. How can the work be of service?” And that’s been a real moral compass for me.
The Prom was released, you talked about how, like your character Alyssa Greene, you yourself were your conversations with Ryan Murphy going into that? Taking that role had to feel like a personal choice. Oh yeah. It was a real personal choice. And it was a delicate time as well because I was finishing
making West Side Story. I think there were powers woman. I said, “Well, if you hire me, you probably that be that were encouraging me to lay low and have to, but I think you should because there’s a wait for things to work themselves out. And I’m conversation to be had within the Black commuvery intuitive. I felt in my bones that I needed to nity around this.” He said, “But Ariana, do you do this, or maybe it was for some sort of healing think it makes her a villain?” I love Ryan. But he for a younger version of myself… was very concerned that it would be bad to make Young, Black, queer-identifying women, or a Black woman a villain in this case. I was like, “I those that are curious and questioning—I’m talking don’t think that’s what this is. You’re asking a about high-schoolers—they Black woman to play a mother. don’t get to tell their story. And at the end of the day, no And I think there were a lot matter what choices she makes, of things that were misconshe’s making the choices that she strued around [me saying] believes are in the best interest that. I was never and have for her child. And sometimes that never said, “Oh, but my means parents are blindsided Alyssa Greene is the only by their own bias.” And then the queer interpretation that next thing I knew, I had the job. I is accurate or that we’ve guess being honest is helpful. seen,” because it’s not true. The story you told around the audiBut what made that Alyssa tion for West Side Story, where Greene special was that somebody had forgotten to tell it’s not every day that you Spielberg you’d arranged not to get to hear from a young, female perspective about her hadn’t had time to prepare, so you queer journey. told him no. I’m always fascinated I think we’ve gotten really by people who must be authentic good at telling the young and stand by themselves and their boys’ perspective perhaps. It’s the more common story you with that ability? we talk about for a myriad of I do think that there is a part of different reasons. But Alyssa me where that character trait is and Emma were so special just inherent to who I am, but because it was two lived I was raised by a community of experiences from the queer really strong women. My mom is perspective, questioning peran incredibly strong woman who spective, gay, lesbian perspec—A R I A N A D e B O S E raised me as a single parent. And tive, both by young women. my grandmother was also heavily And I wasn’t sure—I’m still not involved in my childhood, my sure—if that point actually was mom’s sister, my aunt. received. But that’s why I wanted to take the job. My mother is a teacher as well. I was born in Ryan spoke with Jo Ellen and I frequently Wilmington, but we moved to New Bern, North about our lived experiences. And he actually Carolina, which is a very small town. And the asked me, the first time I met him, what I thought teachers that were working with my mother were about making [Alyssa’s mom] Mrs. Greene a Black
“At some point, yeah, you do realize you don’t look like anybody else surrounding you. That’s sort of inevitable. But it’s how each of those moments was handled that shaped me into a person who tries.”
also very influential in my formative years because I was raised by a village of really strong, independent women with varied opinions. They were all a really great example as to how to walk through the world as a woman with your strengths, your flaws, your opinions. I saw great examples of knowing when to admit that you’re going to lose this battle, but you’re going to win the war, how to admit you’re wrong, how to apologize. That’s been very helpful in my adulthood. How to just be like, “I don’t know. I know nothing. Yikes.” But I think it probably comes from their example. I had the benefit of many examples of femininity. And I think I don’t know how to be anything but myself because I was always encouraged to be myself. There have been a lot of people who have questioned my upbringing.
What do you mean questioned your upbringing? Well, because I’m a lovely Black woman. I’m a mixed chick. And I was raised by my mom. My mom’s white, and my mom’s family’s white. And so, they’re like, “But how could... How did you... Were you not raised to see color?” A lot of people don’t like that phrase, “Oh, I don’t see color. I wasn’t raised to see color.” And it’s not really a black-and-white thing. You can’t narrow down that lived, experienced experience to a phrase. I was raised by a group of people who taught me that I had possibility and that if I worked really hard and was determined and put in the effort every day, I could accomplish anything I wanted. That doesn’t mean it didn’t come with challenges. At some point, yeah, you do realize you don’t look like anybody else surrounding you. That’s sort of inevitable. But it’s how each of those moments was handled that shaped me into a person who tries. I try every day to lead with love and compassion and a sense of positivity. I think I was raised to see people and their potential for goodness, if that makes sense. What’s your vision of what you want to achieve moving forward? I just want to make work that calls to me, that I enjoy doing, that I have fun doing. And I just want to tell stories that I believe can be impactful in some way, and not focused on genre and not focused on the A-list of directors. I’m not focused on that because, for me, I find that to be a bit superficial. I am focused on what I’m signing up to do, and if I have synergy and chemistry and creative inspiration with the people already signed up. I think the great benefit of West Side Story was that Steven chose me and he taught me that it’s all about the family you create to make the work with. The work is only good when you feel safe with the people that are surrounding you. That’s what I’m looking to do. That doesn’t mean I won’t make a couple of duds here and there. In fact, I think I might. But damn it, they’re my duds and I’ll be proud of them. And if I’m lucky, I will get to be Judi Dench’s age and I will still be making work. She’s the dream.
JAMIE ERLICHT & ZACK VAN AMBURG
hen Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg left Sony Pictures Television in 2017 to steer Apple’s film and TV fortunes, few doubted they would give the tech giant’s upstart content company a beachhead on the small screen. During their 12 years at Sony, they hatched hits like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul and Rescue Me. It was the film part of the equation that prompted questions about their qualifications. Even though they tapped Matt Dentler to run their film unit, Erlicht and Van Amburg were not nearly as prolific as their counterparts at Netflix, Disney+, Amazon or HBO Max. That fueled expectations they were biding time until they found the perfect seasoned movie executive to help put them on the map. So, imagine everyone’s surprise when Apple became the first streamer to win the Best Picture Oscar in just its second year in the film business. The duo’s $25 million acquisition of CODA at Sundance bested a crop that included Netflix’s The Power of the Dog, which was considered an early shoo-in for Best Picture but ultimately only earned one Oscar for director Jane Campion. CODA’s victory at the Academy Awards—it took home three in all, including one for supporting actor Troy Kotsur—was icing on the cake for Erlicht and Van Amburg, who watched Ted Lasso earn seven Emmys in September. The duo will continue to follow a selective track, spending big when an opportunity like CODA presents itself. They made a massive investment in the WWII miniseries Masters of the Air, executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Playtone partners Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, and have deals with A24, Skydance and Imagine, among others. On the film side is Killers of the Flower Moon, the Martin Scorsese-directed drama that stars Leonardo DiCaprio, and Emancipation, the Antoine Fuqua thriller featuring Will Smith as a runaway slave whose experiences caused worldwide revulsion in 1860s America and solidified the cause of abolitionists. Though no premiere date has been set, prognosticators were already positioning Smith to win back-to-back Oscars—that is, until he slapped Chris Rock on Oscar night. Controversy involving one of their A-list stars? Yep, Van Amburg and Erlicht are definitely in the big leagues now. —Mike Fleming Jr.
DENIS IVANOV Fighting talk from the industry veteran on the battle to free Ukraine and save its culture
BY DIANA LODDERHOSE
ilm producers are often used to facing challenging situations but for Denis Ivanov, he never could have anticipated the dramatic diversion his job would take when, on February 24th, Russia launched a full-scale military invasion of his home country. The Ukrainian producer-distributor, who has long been a regular fixture on the international festival circuit with credits including Oleg Sentsov’s Rhino and Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, now volunteers—like many other creatives in the country—for the local territorial army. Ivanov is driving or delivering ammunition, raising money internationally, helping transport drones, whatever may be needed on any particular day to facilitate the locals in fight against the continued onslaught of Vladimir Putin’s army on the country. Speaking via Zoom from his office in the country’s capital of Kyiv where, at the time of the interview, Russian troops had fully withdrawn to focus on their offensive in eastern Ukraine, Ivanov appears calm and focused. He may not be fighting on the frontlines, but his battle is nonetheless important: he’s fighting to preserve Ukrainian culture. “The war is not only about the military,” he says. “The first thing Russians are doing when they come into a town or village is they go into the library and take out all the Ukrainian books about our history. It’s not that they are just fighting for the land, they are fighting against our language and our culture. The world has often thought of Ukraine as part of the Russian-speaking world, but for us, we know we are not just that. We are now trying to make everyone understand that we are unique, and we are not part of Russia.” The challenges ahead are admittedly arduous but if the last few months have shown the world anything, it’s that Ukrainians are tough, resilient and will fight fiercely to protect their heritage and homeland. Ivanov’s company, Arthouse Traffic, was one of the first film companies in the country to distribute and produce arthouse cinema when it was founded in 2003. It co-produced Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s 2014 Cannes Critics Week entry The Tribe and has since released more than 400 films. The
company was also a founder and co-organizer of the Odessa International Film Festival from 2010 to 2013. Now, with Russian troops out of Kyiv for the moment, Ivanov and his colleagues have already begun the process of rebuilding and trying to get locals back into cinemas. “We’re trying to do some damage control because, in terms of cinemas, many have been destroyed,” he says. “In Kyiv, one of the most modern multiplexes was hit by a missile. But we’re getting back to work. It’s not about making money; it’s about getting the organization active and rebuilding. “Of course, going to the cinema is not the first thing people are spending money on, but it’s important that we participate in this huge wheel and try our best to keep the economy going.” During this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Ivanov will be urging international sales agents to help empower Ukrainian distributors by treating them as a separate entity from Russia, a major concern for the local sector there now. Ivanov says that 50 percent of content Arthouse Traffic buys is through Russian distributors because historically many global sales outfits, particularly ones with smaller teams, have preferred to deal with a bigger territory. “This is a huge challenge for independent distributors like our company because we can’t buy from Russia now because of the sanctions,” he says. “We definitely need to rebuild everything, and it is a process but at the same time there is a big question mark as to how we will do it in the upcoming few years because there are certain restrictions.” Film production, he says, is an even bigger challenge as he and his colleagues and contemporaries continue to find resources to finish films that we already in post-production when the war began. For Ivanov, the time is now for Ukraine and its creatives to be forthright about the changes that need to be implemented for the country to break out of Russia’s shadow. Since the war broke out, the influential exec has been vocal about backing a proposed boycott of Russian films and has personally called upon all international film organizations and festivals to refuse to promote or accept Russian titles. “It’s not about boycotting Russian filmmakers because many of them are in opposition with [Vladimir] Putin,”
— D E N I S I VA N OV he says. “But this is about moving against a system that needs to be rebuilt. There are many great directors who are not pro-Putin but whose films are financed by Putin oligarchs or the Russian Minister of Culture so they’re part of the ecosystem that has seen Russia inflict a ‘special operation’ in Ukraine. We just want to stop the system, not the rational filmmakers, but the narrative.” He hopes that “breaking the system” would in turn encourage Russian artists to examine their own narratives, which Ivanov believes are laden with stories exalting Russia’s role in World War II or plots with Russian soldiers winning in combat. “Russian culture also needs to reinvent itself and it won’t be reinvented if it’s connected with institutions who are responsible for propaganda or oligarchs who support Putin,” he says. In the run up to Cannes, Ivanov, who is part of the Cannes Market’s Producers Network, and his counterparts have been building a dialogue with the festival’s organizers to explain its opposition to some decisions the festival has made for its 75th edition. Notably he raised issue with the festival’s opening night film Z (Comme Z) from Michel Hazanavicius, which Ivanov has called a
pro-war symbol of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Even the Ukrainian Institute issued an official letter to the festival regarding this, as ‘Z’ is considered a pro-war symbol in Russia. In response to this criticism, Hazanavicius has changed the film's title to Coupez!. While Ivanov notes the original name was surely a coincidence, there were huge ethical ramifications on the Russo-Ukraine situation. Ivanov has also been vocal about the inclusion of Kirill Serebrennikov’s Tchaikovsky’s Wife, which is screening In Competition this year, a title that is backed by Roman Abramovich’s $100 million film fund Kinoprime. The EU and the U.K. have imposed sanctions on Abramovich due to his close ties to Putin. “Cannes is an important festival and the one everyone looks to," he says, "so how they approach these topics will impact how other festivals and delegates handle things. It will be a domino effect.” As Ivanov continues to fight the good fight, he’s quick to brush off any suggestion that he is one of the cultural heroes of the current Ukraine generation. “My friends who are in the frontline risking their lives, they are the heroes,” he says. “We are all just trying to do what we can on the other front.” It’s clear that Ivanov is proud of what Ukraine has built in terms of culture in just four decades of existence, and he, like so many of his countrymen and women, are devoted to building it further. He has been “overwhelmed” by the amount of solidarity the international film community has shown Ukraine, which has buoyed morale and resolve. He urges the wider film community to support screenings of Ukrainian films in their own countries and continue to give Ukrainian voices a space in local media. “We are grateful for all of the small things because, believe me, they are very important to us,” he says. “What we don’t want to do is just be victims. Of course, we are in a very hard situation and while we are victims of the aggression, we want not only to survive but to develop as a nation and culture. Now is the time to find the partners for new projects to rebuild this system of sales in films as well as deliver our point of view on the Ukrainian-Russian relationship. We don’t want anyone to say, ‘You’re small Ukrainians.’ We are mighty.”
“The war is not only about the military. The first thing Russians are doing when they come into a town or village is they go into the library and take out all the Ukrainian books about our history. It’s not that they are just fighting for the land, they are fighting against our language.”
hen Marina Ovsyannikova stormed the live broadcast of Russia’s flagship news program on March 14 to protest Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it was a valiant moment that quickly reverberated across the world. The journalist and editor spent six seconds holding a sign saying, “No war, they are lying to you,” on the Kremlin-controlled TV Channel One where she worked. Her brief act of defiance cost her 14 hours of questioning and detention, with no access to legal help. But her protest at Russian propaganda during the height of the country’s invasion of Ukraine had the intended outcome: the incident was watched globally by more than 250 million people, catapulting her into being a global symbol for freedom of speech. Ovsyannikova, who was born in Odessa before Ukraine became an independent state, calls herself a patriot who made a “spontaneous” decision to stand up against a war she felt Russia had no right to be starting. It’s not clear whether she could face further action from the Kremlin, which has deemed her act as “hooliganism”, but the journalist has no regrets and even declined France’s offer of political asylum, choosing instead to continue reporting from Russia. The mother of two has been vocal about her opposition to Putin, the war and Russian propaganda, which she says is permitting the “zombification” of Russian people. Speaking to initiative Faces of Democracy, she said, “Democracy means being able to live as a free person, however, my home country Russia has recently turned into a totalitarian state that is increasingly closing itself off from the outside world.” Ovsyannikova recently joined German newspaper Die Welt as a freelance correspondent where she’ll report for the paper and its TV news channel from Russia. —Diana Lodderhose
TOM ROTHMAN AWARDSLINE
Island in the streamers: Sony's chairman doubles down on his commiment to cinema
BY MIKE FLEMING JR.
rom the time he stepped in as chairman of Sony’s Motion Picture Group in 2015, Tom Rothman has heard the rumors that Sony would eventually sell because it didn’t have a streaming service or the scale to compete with its behemoth rivals. Universal, Warner Bros, Disney and Paramount battle it out with him at the box office, but Rothman’s studio is the only one that hasn’t spent a fortune building a streaming arm that factors into the decisions he makes. Still, Rothman is bullish on his studio’s chances, even before Netflix reports a 200,000-subscriber loss, prompting its stock to drop 35% and costing it $50 billion of its market cap.
You’re a Disruptor by being the only major studio head without the cushion of streaming service subscriptions, and you’re making it work. You’re a throwback to a model you used for decades at Fox, a studio that no longer exists. So, I’m the Last of the Mohicans?
SO N Y P I CT U RES
Why have other studios—and Wall Street—decided your model isn’t a good long-term strategy? To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of the theatrical movie have been greatly exaggerated. Why it happened? There’s a current Wall Street obsession with streaming. The media narrative follows, and it becomes viewed as established wisdom whether or not it’s true. We finished the best year we’ve ever had at the movie company, in the midst of Covid. Our model is alive and well and thriving. Why? Cultural impact. If you are going to achieve any sense of permanence, of mattering in the movie content business, you have to make cultural impact. It’s different for series, but the vast forests of movie fodder that exist on the six or eight streaming services don’t make a cultural impact. The vast majority are written in disappearing ink. Because algorithms don’t market. [Streamers] don’t really have to get over the bar of making real cultural impact. Theatrical movies do. When they fail, it’s rough. When they succeed, they’ve become a meaningful part of pop culture and when that happens, they become very valuable economically. Sony Pictures alone has grossed $3.3 billion at the worldwide box office in those eight months, in the middle of Omicron. So, what do I say to those who say movies are dead? That’s a good death. It wasn’t just Spider-Man; it was Ghostbusters and Venom and also Uncharted, a brand-new franchise for us. Ours is a fantastic model, when you win. The fact that we are one of the few companies that put that first gives us a great advantage with talent and filmmakers. We are not subservient to the larger corporate issues of a service and subscribers, and onto the next. We burn the boats on every movie. Quentin Tarantino said, ‘Rothman, yeah, he’s a butts-in-seats guy.’ I don’t know if my kids will like it
on my tombstone, but I’ll take it. I’m a butts-in-seats guy. I am not knocking streaming; it’s been great for us. We’re an arms dealer to them and have made a lot of money doing it. We have great partnerships with them. But many filmmakers really value the audience connection experience in theaters, and they know we’re a company devoted to them. We’re going to make it work or die trying.
You don’t subscribe to the narrative that movies are in trouble? This is the thing the media underestimates. Real movies have competed with in-home entertainment since the ’50s. All the stories you read today about how movies are doomed, you could just have Xeroxed them from the New York Herald in 1958. That is when television came. Same with Home Box Office; same when VHS was invented. I hate to say it, I’m old enough to have lived through it all. Television turned out to be great for the movies. VHS turned out to be great for the movies. HBO came and everybody said, ‘You’re dead.’ It was great for the movies; the business made a fortune. Now it’s streaming. ‘You’re finished, pack it up.’ We ain’t finished. Streaming’s great. I have fantastic deals. Netflix has the first pay window and Disney the second pay window, and then that replicates with Sky and other providers all over the world. This pays us billions of dollars, when we make content that matters. Everything stems from that. Beyoncé was asked what’s the secret to everything in life? “Make dope shit,” she said. You just got to make cool shit. Beyoncé aside, your model makes you susceptible to streaming revenue. Isn’t that a potential Achilles heel to your model? An Achilles heel? No. Is it a challenge to our model? Absolutely. But it has always been that way. I’ve done this now for decades; I’ve had hot hands and cold hands. Ultimately, you got to have more hot hands than cold hands, or you won’t last. I have a particular ethos I’ve followed and it’s not foolproof. I try to be creatively reckless and fiscally prudent, at the same time. Take creative risks and underpin them with financial downside protection. There are
lots of ways to do that. Good use of partnerships at times, and be sure that you’re aligned with the talent. You’re not giving away lots of the front end of the movie before you’ve recouped your cost. Take something like Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Well, that’s a creatively quite risky film, right? It was not inexpensive. So, we had partners, and the talent worked with us to be back-end driven. It worked out very well for all of us.
We just went through an Oscar race where some Best Picture contenders had runtimes of around
15 or 30 minutes shorter, you’ll get an extra theatrical run each day? I never speak about it in that way. I speak about it in terms of the quality of the experience for the audience. If the film is less repetitive, more concise, more propulsive, the audience is going to enjoy it more. It’s going to be a better movie. I definitely agree with you that, overall, films have gotten too long. It’s ironic; I personally have worked on two of the three biggest films of all time. Titanic was three hours long, Avatar, two hours and 40-some minutes. And one of the top films ever, Avengers, was three hours. So, you have a bit of a tough time in the argument when they say, well, wait a minute, the biggest films of all time are long. What do you say? It was right for those films. I sat in the first screening of Titanic. Nobody moved an inch. So, you look for people squirming in their seats? Yes. When we screen a film now, and people start wandering… you don’t want the audience to get ahead of the storytelling, so don’t tell the audience what you already showed them. Get us one scene that dramatizes the idea really well, rather than two. This is part of my job, to speak truth to power, and sometimes power tells you to fuck off. Mostly what I do is point to the audience. I actually don’t care how long the movie is. I care how long it feels. It’s tempting for talent to make a streamer deal that brings a payday and a pre-determined backend payday for a project that doesn’t have to be sell a model of back-end participation after breakeven, which involves a gamble? I don’t have to sell it but if I wanted to, I’d just have to point them to any agent who represents anybody on Spider-Man. Ask them about the back end of that
movie, and watch the smiles light up their faces. In terms of playing for the upside, there’s no comparison, if you have a hit. But you’re right that if you have a bomb, no. So, the first question is, what do you want? Do you believe in yourself? Are you willing to bet on yourself? I know this goes against the outsider’s perception of Hollywood, but I find that while talent rightfully cares about money, that’s not the prime motivation. They care more about their work and making something that matters and lasts. There are a lot of people who believe in the power of the experience of movies in theaters. Does that require some gambling and some leap of faith, and a risk of failure, when on streaming you can come and go and nobody will know? Yeah, it does. But who really remembers where they first were when they first streamed such and such a movie? Nobody. Do you remember where you first were when you first saw The Godfather? This is generational. I know where I first was when I first saw Lawrence of Arabia. And if you ask my daughters, they know where they first were when they first saw Moulin Rouge!.
I think that’s incumbent upon us to fix. For young people in particular, we have to make things that matter to them, the way music does and the way they’ve formed alliance to streaming series like Stranger Things and Euphoria. We have to make more like Get Out, Straight Outta Compton, Black Panther, the most recent Spider-Man. But don’t forget, teenagers still want to make out, and kids still want to get out of the house and away from their parents. Everything has been skewed by Covid. Everything. A mistake the media has made is to draw long-term conclusions from short-term circumstances. There was this New York Times article, a few weeks ago, that said, this is the end of movies. I would argue the exact opposite. I would say [the pandemic] proves the resilience of movies. That $3.3 billion figure I gave you, was achieved in the face of [adversity]. That’s resilience, not extinction. Covid literally closed our business, but here we are.
We have those memories but hasn’t social media and a pandemic created a youthful generation more
that have never been on the same page as content -
Well, I agree with you. I think it’s imperative and a combined effort is needed. You mentioned the Academy. That was never particularly relevant to young people, but it was much more relevant culturally. Failings of the show aside, and we could talk about that forever, the Academy itself, and the pictures that it picks, has lost complete touch with the large audience. It’s become a self-defining elitist redoubt, and you’re just not going to be relevant if you’re that.
There’s a generational skip because family entertainment’s working well, and there are all these filmmakers making quality stuff for adults. So, what about the young person who just got their driver’s license? How do we excite them about going to the movies again? We on the filmmaking side, have to do a better job.
You singled out media for scorn a couple times here. But I see studios shifting allegiances because they -
Clockwise from top left: Zendaya and Tom Holland in Spider-Man: No Way Home; Venom; Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.
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We have terrific support from Tokyo. They’ve been very clear they are not sellers. They define the overall of Sony as an entertainment company with a solid foundation in technology. They have a case now where there’s a much greater synergistic inner working between the entertainment divisions, in Uncharted. That was a PlayStation property, then the movie company made it, and PlayStation helped us promote it to great success. That leads to more sales of games. Rather than lose billions and billions of dollars setting up a streaming business, we’ve used the arms dealer strategy, selling and making product for streamers. And we are enjoying record profitability right now.
Long-term? I believe there will come a time, not that far away, and I think you’re starting to see it, where Wall Street’s obsession with streaming and only counting subscribers is going to shift to, where’s the profit? As soon as Wall Street starts asking about streaming profit, as opposed to the billions of dollars that are getting poured into their war, then it’s going to be very favorable for Sony. It’s common belief that all seven or eight of these services can’t survive. Fortunately, we don’t have that risk. We have some good long-term deals that will benefit us for years to come. From everything that I can see, Tokyo’s had a very clear strategy that they’ve enacted with resolve, and it’s worked well. Studios with rival streaming services look at the
movie like Greyhound
No. I think it’s very clear that there’s room in the ecosystem for both, and that the existence of streamers is very beneficial to us. In the same way that HBO and Showtime, and VHS, television and syndication poured hundreds of billions of dollars into the movie-making system. We’ve always competed with in-home. Is the competition harder now? Are they competing for product? Yes. If you can’t
take the hit, get out of the game. Greyhound was a Covid-driven decision, but it was a very profitable one for us.
“We’ve always competed with in-home. Is the competition harder now? Are they competing for product? Yes. If you can’t take the hit, get out of the game.”
work out that well. But because of Jason Reitman and his relationship with Ivan, may he rest in peace, we were able to resuscitate that into a tremendous success, both theatrically and in home entertainment.
I’m intensely proud of how we navigated Covid. Unlike many, we had Ghostbusters? no layoffs. Yes, there was product Yes, we will. We have we had to license out when theaters plenty of franchise were closed, but even then, we universes with which were really licensing first window. to operate in, but since They revert to us, we retain China, I have Deadline here, I we retain linear television and —T O M R O T H M A N want to say, and please home entertainment. We licensed include this, OK? Everythe first window because theaters one will say, yeah you did were closed. Going forward, we will $3 billion but it’s all sequels and superheroes. It make some movies for streaming because that’s a was not all that. There was Once Upon a Time… in viable ecosystem now. Hollywood and Little Women. This summer, we've got Bullet Train, from David Leitch, with Brad Pitt, a pure original, R-rated rock ‘em, sock ‘em action Uncharted, Jumanji, Spider-Man. We have our Marvel movie for grownups. And Where the Crawdads business, which breaks into three tranches. There Sing, a big bestseller with an up-and-coming are the Spider-Man movies, and we’re currently actress, Daisy Edgar Jones, for women. I absoat work on two Spider-Verse sequels to our Oscar lutely believe that women will come back to winning animated movie, with Lord and Miller. We the box office. hope to get working on the next Spider-Man movie. You mentioned Bad Boys That whole group, we hope. Then there are movies I would call adjunct to the Spider-Man universe. That’s Kraven, which we’re shooting now, and Madam Web, which we’ll start in the spring with S.J. Clarkson directing. And then there are many Marvel characters that are standalone. When I took over Sony, it was said, oh, Sony has no IP. Not true. We actually had fantastic IP. We just needed to focus on it. We had Jumanji, Bad Boys, Uncharted. Ghostbusters, another example. Just before I got here, they took a turn down a road that didn’t
No. That was inaccurate. That movie’s been in development and still is. There weren’t any brakes to pump because the car wasn’t moving. That was a very unfortunate thing that happened, and I don’t think it’s really my place to comment, except to say that I've known Will Smith for many years, and I know him to be a good person. That was an example of a very good person having a very bad moment, in front of the world. I believe his apology and regret is genuine, and I believe in forgiveness and redemption.
From left: Jumanji: The Next Level; Ghostbusters: Afterlife.
5/4/22 9:32 AM
A pre-Oscars brunch for Onyx Collective above, from left: Colman Domingo, Joseph Patel, Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson, Quinta Brunson, Tara Duncan, Larry Wilmore, Tariq Trotter & Natasha Rothwell. Below: Freeform and Onyx President Tara Duncan.
ONYX COLLECTIVE After launching with Questlove's Oscar-winner Summer of Soul, the imprint is shaking up Disney
BY JOE UTICHI
wenty-four hours before his win for Best Documentary Feature would result in one of the most powerful speeches of this year’s Oscar night, Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson and his Summer of Soul team gathered at an intimate brunch in the picturesque gardens of Dana Walden’s Brentwood estate. Walden was there, along with Peter Rice, Matthew Greenfield, David Greenbaum and other high-level Disney executives. Even Disney CEO Bob Chapek put in an appearance. They were present to toast the early success of a small Hulu imprint, Onyx Collective, which is run by Tara Duncan and is dedicated to flying the flag for creators of color, bringing diverse, authentic stories right to the heart of the studio better known for its noisemaking franchise brands like Marvel and Star Wars. As Disney continues to reign supreme as Hollywood’s biggest studio, Duncan’s ambitions for Onyx
Collective are no less than to create a in the doc community”), identi“I want us to brand that can compete for that same fied early the magic of Questmake truly broad, mainstream attention, making it a love’s ode to the 1969 Harlem accessible, general hallmark of quality for the industry Cultural Festival and the power and audiences alike. entertainment hits. of a film that shone a light on a “I want us to make truly broad, chapter in cultural history that Unapologetically accessible, general entertainment had been largely forgotten. commercial, global, hits,” Duncan says. “Unapologeti“We were a new brand, and cally commercial, global, wanting to we had a very clear mission,” wanting to rally rally an audience and shape culture. Duncan recalls. “We tried to an audience and Executives of color have often been go after it before it premiered shape culture.” sidelined or overlooked, but this is at Sundance, and once we all a big opportunity from a business saw it, we met internally and — TA R A D U N C A N standpoint. We positioned ourselves decided this was something we early to really take advantage of that.” really wanted.” Duncan couldn’t have made a smarter first move Onyx partnered with Searchlight Pictures, bringwith Summer of Soul. She and her executive team, ing the film to its eventual home in a $12 million deal which includes Jackie Glover and Jihan Robinson who that marked the largest documentary acquisition oversee documentary non-fiction (“they’re celebrities in Sundance history. “I really can’t overstate the
5/3/22 5:11 PM
partnership with Searchlight,” “We’ve got streaming that we were wanting to program Duncan says now. “It was truly content,” Duncan says platforms, broadcast premium that partnership that brought of the precious gem she chose. An networks, cable [the acquisition] to fruition and onyx is “strong and indestructiallowed it to take flight. We immeble” she says, but while many channels. We can diately saw awards potential, and think of it as a black stone, figure out how to get people Searchlight knows awards.” “it actually comes in a multitude the content to the In the end, Summer of Soul of shades and colors. We liked the became a dominant frontrunstory of that.” right people, and ner throughout the season, and Disney, she says, is the best it empowers our while its Oscar win might have possible home to ensure the art creatives to focus on Onyx Collective nurtures reaches been expected by the time the show rolled around, it felt no less the widest possible audience. being true to what meaningful for Duncan. “There’s Through partnerships with they’re creating.” something about this film,” she other Disney entities—like with says. “We were there [on Oscar Searchlight on Summer of Soul— — TA R A D U N C A N night], sitting with the people Duncan hopes to place Onyx who’d been on this ride with Collective’s output everywhere us from the beginning, and Ahmir spoke from the on the “cradle to cane” product line of the Walt heart. For it to be recognized in that way, for it to be Disney Company. “We’ve got streaming platforms, Ahmir as the filmmaker, and the producing team that broadcast networks, cable channels. We can figure put it together, and the fact that people now know out how to get the content to the right people, and what the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival is… No one it empowers our creatives to focus on being true to knew, except the people who were there. To see it on what they’re creating.” screen like that, and to have that confirmation of that Onyx Collective’s success with Summer of Soul truth, that encapsulates everything we’re trying to do should not be underestimated—the company’s incepwith Onyx Collective.” tion was announced only one year ago. And at the Duncan, whose career started at Section Eight time, Onyx Collective was able to announce partnerbefore she became a creative executive at AMC and ships that include The 1619 Project, directed by fellow
limited series The Plot, starring Mahershala Ali. Based on the novel by The Undoing author Jean Hanff Korelitz, the series tells the story of a struggling author and writing instructor who steals an idea from one of his students. Unprisoned is a half-hour comedy that will mark Kerry Washington’s return to television. The show is inspired by the life of relationship expert Tracy McMillan, played by Washington, and the challenges she faced growing up in foster care while her father was in and out of prison. The show opens with her father, played by Delroy Lindo, moving in with her after his release, and focuses on the delayed father-daughter relationship they attempt to build. “In some ways it’s a story of love between a father and a daughter,” Duncan says. “And it’s also really looking at the criminal justice system in a way that we haven’t seen. I think people will be surprised, from the logline, that it’s actually really funny and there’s a lot of heart.” Onyx Collective will partner with ABC News on another Sundance-acquired documentary. Aftershock premiered at this year’s festival to universally positive reviews and tells the story of the families fighting for justice after two women died due to preventable complications of childbirth. “The maternity crisis in the U.S. affects all women,” Duncan says, “but specifically Black women in a very impactful way.” The partnership will allow Onyx Collective “to get the
From left: Summer of Soul; Black Panther director Ryan Coogler; Harpo Films’ Oprah Winfrey.
Netflix, joined Disney in 2020 to head up Freeform, a young-adult specialized Hulu imprint. She is keen to insist that the goal of Onyx Collective is not about burnishing a big studio’s diversity quota. “There are times where this could feel like a diversity and inclusion initiative for these huge corporations to check boxes. But I think when you empower executives of color to really bet on the talent and material they see, and that’s reflective of their experience, there’s just a different ethos and mandate. We’re positioning ourselves for a future and really doubling down on making content for everyone.” It’s a philosophy reflected in the company’s name. “We wanted a name that was reflective of the fact
Disruptor Roger Ross Williams, and based on work from the New York Times and Nikole Hannah-Jones. It is produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films. Onyx Collective, too, will work with Ryan Coogler’s Proximity on any non-Marvel projects from the Black Panther director. Also in the works is a docuseries called The Hair Tales, again in concert with Winfrey, along with Michaela Angela Davis and Tracee Ellis Ross, which will look at femininity and beauty through the lens of Black hair. Onyx Collective’s first scripted series is Reasonable Doubt, with former Shondaland writer Raamla Mohamed and Kerry Washington. It beat Netflix, HBO and Amazon to the punch in boarding
message and the story out in a way that also has the journalistic integrity and reach of ABC News.” There are many more projects in the works, and Onyx Collective’s early success is indicative of that opportunity she says has gone untapped for so long. “You start with the story you want to tell,” says Duncan, to summarize her priorities. “What’s so great about right now is that, then, you can figure out the right format to tell that story in. Some need two hours, others need 10 hours, but even in terms of form, there are things we’re discussing now that are a blend of narrative and documentary. It’s nice to be able to start with what you’re trying to say and let that be the lead.”
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ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS The Oscar-winning director has turned his production company into a powerhouse, providing space for BIPOC talent to blossom
BY MATTHEW CAREY
few years ago, as filmmaker Roger Ross Williams contemplated founding his own production company, he experienced a Field of Dreams kind of vision: “If you build it, they will come.” The revelation took place far from the Iowa cornfields of the movie. “I was actually walking by this big, empty office space in Brooklyn,” Williams recalls, “and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a great office space. I should rent it to start my company.’ I thought that renting the office space would force me to fill it.” Fill it he did, first with edit bays, then with staff. One Story Up has become a thriving enterprise and one of the industry’s few African American-owned production companies. The company name doesn’t refer to a physical location, but to an idea. “I loved the word ‘story’ being in the name and lifting ‘up’. The two things: lifting up filmmakers of color and telling stories,” Williams says. “I said to myself, I need to use the production company as a vehicle for helping other artists like myself who have felt marginalized and have not had a seat at the table, so to speak.” Not even winning an Academy Award, seemingly, got Williams a seat at that table. In 2010, he became the first African American director to win an Oscar, for his short documentary Music by Prudence. But he says that accomplishment didn’t trigger a wave of offers. “The phone wasn’t ringing, no one was calling me,” he says. “I wasn’t getting any jobs.” He persevered, however, going on to direct several more projects, including a pair of documentary features: God Loves Uganda in 2013 and Life, Animated, which earned an Oscar nomination in 2017. The following year, Williams partnered with a longtime friend, producer Geoff Martz, to launch One Story Up.
“This country, in my view, is in crisis… We need to discuss and come to terms with certain things around race and certainly slavery. And I hope that people will sit and watch The 1619 Project with an open mind and be able to learn and take in the facts, because they are facts.” —ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS
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“It was really important to Nikole Hannah-Jones that The 1619 Project was in the hands of African American creators who continue to live the experience of what The 1619 Project is about,” Williams says. “And it was important to Ibram X. Kendi— whose book How to Be an Antiracist was No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list all through the racial reckoning after George Floyd—that it was a majority African American-owned production company and a Black creator who he would entrust his work to.” Conservatives have attacked The 1619 Project as well as Kendi’s work: Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas name-checked both of them during the recent U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. “Ted Cruz holds up Kendi’s book Antiracist Baby [during the hearing] and I said, ‘Well, I must be doing something right,’” Williams laughs. “If [works from] two people I revere—Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and Nikole Hannah-Jones—are One Story Up projects, I am doing something right. It was a sad moment for America [to see Sen. Cruz denigrate them], but a proud moment for me in that I get to tell these really important stories. And I don’t take that lightly. I don’t take that for granted for one second.”
Artist George Anthony Mason, the subject of Master of Light.
world that is so colorful and fascinating. It’s a very inspiring film, and Gael is fantastic.” Williams is working on a documentary about the late singer Donna Summer, co-directing with Summer’s daughter Brooklyn Sudano. Among other projects, he is producing The Empire of Ebony, a documentary directed by Lisa Cortés on the pioneering Black media company Johnson Publishing, which founded Ebony and Jet magazines. And he is embarking on a documentary series for Hulu that is certain to garner huge attention; The 1619 Project, based on journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opus for The New York Times. Williams will direct the first and last episode of that series, he says, with One Story Up producing alongside Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films, The New York Times, and Lionsgate Television. The series takes an unflinching look at the history and legacy of slavery in America and how systemic racism persists in public and private institutions.
He adds, “This country, in my view, is in crisis… We need to discuss and come to terms with certain things around race and certainly slavery. And I hope that people will sit and watch The 1619 Project with an open mind and be able to learn and take in the facts, because they are facts. There’s no fiction, just facts in 1619. And there’s a lot of great people in that series. And the same with Stamped From the Beginning. These are historical facts. People will want to call it fiction for their own convenience, but it’s historical fact.” Opening doors for others has made Williams a disruptor in the business. He doesn’t shy away from the term; far from it. “Yes, I am a disruptor for sure,” he says. “Proudly, proudly.” That applies to his time serving on the Board of Governors of the Motion Picture Academy. He was elected to the first of two consecutive terms in 2016, representing the Documentary Branch. “I walked into that room the first time and I
remember it very clearly,” Williams says of his initial Board of Governors gathering. “The only other person of color was (then Academy president) Cheryl Boone Isaacs. I remember I saw Tom Hanks sitting at the table and Steven Spielberg. There were some women, of course, but mostly white men. And I thought, How did I get into this room? I just couldn’t believe it. I thought, OK, well, you can just sort of sit there or you can disrupt the Academy. And the way I could do that is within my own branch.” In 2016, under the leadership of Boone Isaacs, the Academy launched its A2020 initiative, “to double the number of women and underrepresented ethnic/racial communities and significantly grow its international membership by 2020.” Williams took that goal and ran with it. “I set out to bring in a large number of people of color. You could count on one hand the number of Latino members when I joined; two hands, maybe, the number of African American members; and a very small international [contingent],” he says. “And now the documentary branch is a third international. We’re the first branch to go from gender non-parity to gender parity. And we have an incredible amount of BIPOC members. We still have a lot of work to do, but we are the most diverse branch in the Academy. The Academy acknowledges that. They said we are the gold standard, the doc branch, and I’m very proud of that work over the last six years. I’m very proud that we set an example for the other branches. And that’s what I mean by being a disruptor. That’s what I want to do. That’s my purpose.” His goal with One Story Up is to continue providing space for BIPOC talent to blossom. Case in point, Master of Light, a documentary directed by Rosa Boesten about the extraordinary artist George Anthony Morton. In March, the film won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW. “Everyone who worked on that project, Rosa, first-time queer filmmaker, to Ephraim Kirkwood, first-time Black editor, to Francesca Sharper, who’s the associate editor, her first feature film, Jurgen Lisse, the DP from Surinam… All these first-time people of color, and their film wins the Grand Jury Prize,” Williams says. “What does that tell you? That if you give opportunities to people of color, to BIPOC filmmakers, they will shine, they will win, they will create great content, and tell great, positive stories about uplifting and positive characters like George. That win was just like a stamp of approval of what Geoff and I have created at One Story Up.” In a few short years, the company has gone from startup to major force, supplying content to HBO, Netflix, Hulu, and A&E, among others. “One Story Up has just exploded, cultivating all this new talent,” Williams says. “We’ve gotten so big over the last three years, [we have] a hundred people working for us.” And with that expansion comes a challenge. “We’ve outgrown our location,” Williams says. “So now I’m looking for new office space.” That much quoted maxim from the motion picture may serve him well once again: “If you build it, they will come.”
CO U RT ESY SXSW
“I trusted him, and he had the experience.” Williams says. “The first thing we did was the series The Innocence Files for Netflix. I directed the first three episodes of that, and that was the first use of this office space.” Williams says One Story Up currently has “14 or so” projects in various stages of completion, including films and series. When we spoke, he was on the set of Stamped From the Beginning, a hybrid documentary-scripted feature for Netflix based on the bestselling book by Ibram X. Kendi. “I’m in the studio now shooting on a green screen stage, doing test shots with actors,” he says, explaining that it’s part of a brisk production schedule. “Late next year, basically, I will have three feature films come out, and it just happened like that because the pandemic delayed things. It’ll be a scripted feature, a documentary feature and a hybrid. Covering all the ground there.” His scripted independent feature, Cassandro, stars Gael García Bernal in the real-life story of Saúl Armendáriz, a gay amateur wrestler in El Paso, Texas, who grappled in drag as the character El Exotico. “I shot that last summer in the middle of the pandemic in Mexico City,” Williams says. “It’s a
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a career that has, in the intervening 34 years, seen her emerge as one of the world’s top theatrical producers, working with a stellar array of talent including Gillian Anderson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lily James, Mark Rylance, Imelda Staunton and many more. She has worked with writers like Tom Stoppard and Robert Ike and directors like Stephen Daldry, Ian Rickson, and Ivo van Hove. Her list of collaborators is almost endless.
O Deadline first broke the news that Friedman would soon reteam with Van Hove to produce a stage version of Stephen King’s The Shining, set to feature Ben Stiller. “It’s half confirmed,” is all she will allow. She’s so nervous discussing it out loud that she crosses her fingers. If it happens, though, the show, which she’s producing with Colin Callender, will get its start on the London stage sometime in 2023. She stresses that Van Hove will adapt King’s book and not Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 movie. Friedman has 25 productions up and running in the U.K., the U.S., Germany, Japan, Australia and points in between. Three stages on London theatreland’s fabled Shaftesbury Avenue boast her productions. A revival of Jez Butterworth’s masterwork, Jerusalem, is at the Apollo with Mark Rylance revisiting the role he originated 12 years ago. Next door at the Gielgud, Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, directed by Bartlett Sher, opened to rave reviews with Rafe Spall as Atticus Finch. Further along Shaftesbury Avenue, the Palace Theatre is home to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. A fourth show, which resides across Leicester Square, is her production of The Book of Mormon, at the Prince of Wales, a house owned by Cameron Mackintosh. During the pandemic she, along with Mackintosh and Michael Harrison, a producer of glittering pantomimes and musicals like The Drifters Girl, engaged on a daily basis, supporting each other professionally and, from a distance, emotionally. It was from the Palace’s wings that Friedman would watch her sister, Maria, perform in a 1980 production of Oklahoma! The show was a revelation to the girl who’d been steeped in Bach and Vivaldi. No surprise then that she’s one of the producers
EM ILIO M ADRID-KUSER FOR BROADWAY.CO M
hen she was 23, Sonia Friedman was—to use her expression—thrown into a rehearsal room with Harold Pinter at London’s National Theatre. She was his deputy stage manager during production for the premiere of his one-act play Mountain Language starring theatrical royalty Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins. “I was the person sitting right next to [Pinter],” she recalls. “He would whisper into my ear all the way through,” about how he wanted it to look, where’d there’d be a cue. She says the playwright would make almost no changes to his script. “Though he did at one point add a pause and asked me to write that into the script,” she says, smiling at the memory. It was a life-changing moment for her, working with playwrights who directed their own work. “I fell in love at that point, particularly with new work, watching actors mine something that no one else in the world has ever seen before.” She wanted more of that experience. Until then, she hadn’t really known what she’d wanted to do, let alone what a producer did. Something in the arts, sure. But what? She’d given up the cello when she was a teen because, she says, she realized she’d never be as good a classical musician as her estranged father, the classical violinist Leonard Friedman, whose storied career included co-founding the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Scottish Baroque Ensemble. Nor would she ever be as skilled as her brother Richard Friedman (‘Ricky’ to her), a leading violinist, and one leader of the London Symphony Orchestra. Or her sister, the theater artist, singer and director, Maria Friedman. Her mother, the concert pianist Clair Friedman, would play for hours and hours. Friedman was 12. “I found it too difficult having a violinist father and brother who were so brilliant, and I couldn’t cope with not being as brilliant as they were,” she says. “I also know my personality and character type is such that unless I could do it terribly well, I’d never be satisfied.” She might also have become an opera singer. But there was little encouragement for her to get the necessary training. Pinter whispering in her ear, though, sparked
How the West End's queen of drama conquered the world's stages
BY BAZ BAMIGBOYE AWARDSLINE
A FRIEDMAN AWARDSLINE
the transfer to the Young Vic of Daniel Fish’s electrifying, reimagined version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, that played at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn back in 2018, before moving to Broadway. Undoubtedly, theater is Freidman’s first love, though in recent years she has been an executive producer on television productions, partnering with Callender on The Dresser, led by Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen; and on Richard Eyre’s TV film of King Lear with Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Florence Pugh, Jim Carter, Emily Watson, Jim Broadbent and Tobias Menzies. She is also a co-producer on Callender’s six-part television adaption of Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed Wolf Hall, directed by Peter Kosminsky and starring Mark Rylance. A production of Uncle Vanya directed by Ian Rickson, starring Toby Jones and Richard Armitage, was enjoying a good run at the Harold Pinter Theatre before it was forced to close due to the pandemic. She and collaborators sprang into action and filmed it for a cinema release. It also enjoyed a season on the small screen. Two recent TV productions, Together, directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin and starring James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan, and short film People You May Know with Arthur Darvill and Lydia West, were both BAFTA-nominated. Friedman confirms that she’s open to the idea of establishing a television and film department within Sonia Friedman Productions. There’s hesitancy, not simply because it’s a mammoth undertaking, but because she believes—is “absolutely convinced” even—that the digital world must always be secondary to her theater operations. At the height of Covid, she says, there was endless debate about whether digital would be central to their work. “Will it supplant it? It can’t,” she responds adamantly. “I’d get out of the industry.” She is determined that if she did enter the space, she would create a separate division to “either develop, from the ground up, work for television, or to be inspired by the [theater] work we’re doing and seeing if those stories could perhaps be adapted in a different way for TV.” She insists that it won’t be a division “that’s going to take the work and do an NT Live,” referring to the National Theatre’s livestreamed broadcasts of theater productions. “I’m not going to do that.” One property is being set to test the waters. The Shark Is Broken is a biting stage comedy-drama about an aspect of the making of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie, Jaws. It’s co-written (with Joseph Nixon) and co-starring Ian Shaw, son of the film’s Robert Shaw. Shaw portrayed his own father when the play transferred from Edinburgh to the Ambassadors Theatre last Autumn. A three-hander, The Shark is Broken is a gripping study of how Jaws actors Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Schneider and Shaw coped with being cooped up on a creaky boat for endless hours during the making of what has become a classic blockbuster. The Shark is Broken is headed for a future life in North America and New York in the coming months. “The Jaws fans are legion and absolutely adore it,”
Friedman says. “We’re simultaneously exploring a life for the story in some form on film.” Is Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem a contender for the screen? Unlikely, she says, then adds cautiously, “But you never know.”
Diller’s partner and Barry has his own set up with Scott. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t need to know. I have no direct relationship with Scott.”
It’s vital to revisit Friedman’s childhood to understand how she has survived, and prospered profesFriedman’s U.S. adventures include a Broadsionally, in the shark-infested waters of the enterway-bound production of Tom Stoppard’s mournful tainment business. play Leopoldstadt—a study in heartbreak that was She says that her father abandoned his family, playing at Wyndham’s Theatre in London when “before I was even born. He went pretty much durtheaters and places of entertainment closed due ing my mum’s pregnancy.” to the pandemic. She’s in second position as a proHer mother was left to attempt to raise four childucer of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, directed dren under 10. “Our father was a huge spirit; very by LaTanya Richardson and starring Samuel L. charismatic, a very great musician who couldn’t Jackson, who is Richardson’s husband, as well as cope with the children. He’d had terrible advice Danielle Brooks and John David Washington. The from his mentors who said, ‘You’ve got to choose revival is due to open this October. between art and family.’ He chose his art,” she says. Friedman was asked by The Piano Lesson’s lead Their way of surviving such a catastrophic loss producer, Brian Moreland, and Wilson’s estate if she in the family was to tell stories. Her brother Ricky would join the production. would get her out of bed Does that mean she’ll and take her downstairs to transfer it to London? “I the piano room where he’d hope so,” she beams. “The play the piano then spend reason I was asked to join hours playing make-believe, was because of the U.K. I’m “putting on shows, all made hoping very much that we up from our imagination.” can bring it over with that Maria, and Sarah, her older cast.” She’s excited about sister, would join in, too. Richardson directing. “How “We all have our life wonderful that LaTanya’s stories, and I wouldn’t have getting her Broadway debut chosen another one,” she as director. She talks about says. But she was often this play as if it’s been in her angry and confused. “I was DNA forever.” a 10- or 11-year-old who She is equally excited would pretend to people that Denzel Washington is at school—when I went to producing a film version of school that is—that my dad The Piano Lesson, which she had died, because of the won’t be participating in. shame of having a dad who However, they have connever saw me or knew me. versed. “An inspiring man,” The best I could get out of —SONIA FRIEDMAN she says. him was a telegram on my Hadn’t Scott Rudin birthday, which was always been involved at one point a day late because my mum with The Piano Lesson? Rudin famously withdrew would have told him to send me one.” from his own productions when he faced a public Once her siblings had left home, she was mostly backlash over allegations of bullying his staff. He alone because her mother was often away touring, and Friedman partnered on many shows on both though a friend of her mother’s would pop in to Broadway and the West End. check that she was eating. There was little concern “I haven’t had any contact with him,” says over her schooling. She’d often bunk off and spend Friedman, later noting that it’s been “a year” since time on her own in a laundry closet she’d stocked they last spoke. “When I worked with him, well, you with dolls. “I was very lonely and a bit lost, but I had know what Scott’s like, he was completely inspiring my stories,” she says. and very exacting, and I enjoyed our collaborations. Her brother had encouraged her to think of stoAnd in many respects I learnt a huge amount from ries that would surprise and give the tales ridiculous him,” she says. titles and start from there. “One of them was The How has the relationship unraveled from a Swiss Fridge Mender,” she recalls. business stance? With Book of Mormon, she says that These experiences shaped her philosophies on her point of contact was always with Anne Garework. She’s very happy, she says, if audiences want fino. “Nothing has changed on Mormon. We run it easy. “But I don’t want easy,” she insists. “If it’s here [in London], nothing has changed there. Their something visceral I get a chill. If I’m not hooked on business relationship (Garefino and Rudin’s) has something I’m reading by the first 20 pages, boom, changed, but not mine.” gone. Fine, other people can do it. There are many Similarly, with To Kill a Mockingbird. “I’m Barry plays that go on that I’ve rejected because they
“I don’t want easy. If I’m not hooked on something I’m reading by the first 20 pages, boom, gone. Fine, other people can do it. There are many plays that go on that I’ve rejected because they didn’t make me go, ‘Oh, fuck!’ Or because I knew what was going to happen next.”
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didn’t make me go, ‘Oh, fuck!’ Or because I knew what was going to happen next.” It’s great to have those instincts, she says, but also irritating, “because I can go to a film and I know what’s going to happen next. That’s because of my family. My brother, particularly, told me to always look around the corner, in all stories.” I have a four-page list of her productions, past and present. I realize that although she wrote none of them, a few are strangely semi-autobiographical, in the choosing of them, at least. Take Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, inspired by E.M. Forster’s Howards End, and directed by Stephen Daldry. Her interest in that sprang from her activism in the 1980s and 1990s during the AIDS crisis. Friedman was a volunteer ‘buddy’, often joining forces with the actor Kelly Hunter, and later joined by producer Caro Newling, to mount mammoth fund-raising drives for causes concerning AIDS. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was incredibly personal to her, as well. Friedman was interested in Harry as an orphan, and how his son Albus would cope with having a famous dad. “I also wanted to understand: What does it do to a child whose
happen because you don’t necessarily get the backing. But if disrupt means not following a formula; if disrupt means never trying to emulate last year’s success; if disrupt means always striving to give audiences what they think they don’t think they want; then fine, I’m a Disruptor.” She ensures that writers, actors, directors, designers and other creatives “feel safe, supported, nurtured. It’s no bad thing earning some money in the commercial world from the thing you do. But it’s about support.” She adds, “The most important moment for any producer is the moment you put together your creative team. You know what your play is, or your musical, or whatever it is. It’s not my job to then interfere. It’s not my job to intervene. It’s not my job to tell them what I want to see, because they’re the artists. I want them to do what I believe is going to really surprise me. I never, ever want to be the smartest person in the room.” What if there’s something she’s not liking? “Of course, I will do what I can to encourage, support to take it in a slightly different direction, to note it, but it will aways come from a place of love. It will always
I mention the imaginary ghosts that Rooster conjures up and say that we’re at a point where we need giants. “To save us”, Friedman says, finishing my sentence. “I have to believe those giants are going to come.” Stephen Sondheim’s Giants In the Sky from Into the Woods comes to mind. Softly, quietly, Friedman begins to sing. “There are giants in the sky, there are big, tall terrible giants in the sky…” It’s one of her favorite musicals. Several days after that private performance, Friedman sends a text from New York, where’s she’s overseeing the opening of Funny Girl, a production that began five years ago out of the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre located on the south side of London Bridge. “I think I could sing you a Sondheim for every occasion in my emotional life—happiness, joy, pain, anger, love and of course loss. He understood what it is to be alive. What a ginormous loss. But what a legacy,” she writes. She’s not fussed about her own legacy. She’d stop tomorrow if the stories dried up. But that’s not likely. Robert Icke’s production of Oedipus had
From left: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Uncle Vanya.
parent had no parenting? How can they parent?” That was her way in when she and Callender met with J.K. Rowling. “And it chimed with Jo,” she says. “Just exploring the inner life, the inner turmoil of a child told at 11 they’re a wizard. I tapped into something that I thought was yet to be explored, and that obviously I couldn’t have done without my life experience.”
O The events of Friedman’s childhood, thought by many to be failures, had strengthened her and that strength was demonstrated in the career that she subsequently built. It’s what has made her such a disruptive force in the theatrical world. But Friedman’s modesty makes her shy from the word. “Disrupt almost feels like a choice or a decision, and it’s not,” she says. Rather, it’s about doing the work she believes in, she says, “on my terms and not on any sort of textbook rules. And sometimes, therefore, it won’t
come from a place of belief, fundamentally, in what they’re trying to achieve as opposed to my vision up there. It’s got to be their vision.”
O I see Friedman again following a preview of Jerusalem. Forced to close her shows during the pandemic, Mark Rylance had called to ask what he could do. “We can do Jerusalem,” she replied. So it was that a month into the pandemic, Friedman announced that the play was coming back to the West End. The play is a four-letter word—or a finger—to authority, and it still lands, perhaps even more than it did when it first played. Rylance’s performance as the incorrigible, iconoclastic Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron seems deeper. The audience is clearly stirred by Butterworth’s play. Friedman agrees that it’s more devastating, heartbreaking. “It’s about his needing to be free,” she says. “Thank God there’s a piece of work out there that’s allowing us to think and feel.”
been set up pre-pandemic with Helen Mirren and Mark Strong. Both Mirren and Friedman confirmed that Mirren is no longer available to play Jocasta, because of a scheduling clash. Another artist will be cast. Strong is still connected to the project, which is not dated. Icke’s also directing The Doctor, his acclaimed adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi. It played at the Almeida Theatre in north London three years ago and will now transfer to the Duke of York’s Theatre starting Sept. 22 with star Juliet Stevenson. Casting continues, Friedman says, on Merrily We Roll Along, starring Daniel Radcliffe. Her sister, Maria will be directing later next season at the off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop. The play is based on a production that she directed at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Isn’t Sonia Friedman one of those giants come to save us? Could be.
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Robin Thede of A Black Lady Sketch Show and Bridget Everett of Somebody Somewhere are changing the bandwidth for women in comedy
BY LYNETTE RICE
fter majoring in broadcast journalism at Northwestern University to keep her parents happy—“I was going to move to Los Angeles to pursue comedy professionally, but my parents were so scared,”—Thede began her career by writing for shows like Clunkers, Real Husbands of Hollywood and The Queen Latifah Show before becoming the first Black woman to serve as head writer on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore in 2015. Two years later, she launched her own late-night show on HBO called The Rundown with Robin Thede. “I never had any intentions on being a journalist by trade,” says Thede. “I was being a dutiful daughter who got into
high-profile gig got canceled in 2018, so friend Issa Rae gave Thede a toughlove call she didn’t know she needed. “She said, ‘So, your show got canceled. What are we doing together?’ I was like, ‘Geez, way to have sympathy on my hard day.’ She said, ‘I don’t give a fuck. This is opening the world for you to create your next thing.’ She really kicked me in the pants, so I said, ‘I’ve got this sketch show but I just don’t think the money’s gonna be right.’ It wasn’t quite where I needed it to be because I wanted to make a super narrative sketch show. So, she said, ‘Bring it to HBO.’ We were on the air nine months later.” (Rae is also an executive producer.) Though Thede’s goal is to make the show universally funny and relatable, the cultural specificity remains paramount. Look no further than sketches like the ‘Black Lady Courtroom’, with guest star Yvette Nicole Brown presiding over an all-Black court, and cast member Ashley Nicole Black as Trinity, a spy who can go undercover anywhere because—as she’s so painfully aware—no one pays attention to a Black woman like herself. “It’s called A Black Lady Sketch Show,” Thede says. “If we’re not specific to the culture, what are we doing?”
How She Cast the Show
Robin Thede in The Black Lady Sketch Show on HBO.
the best journalism school in the country, so I picked the major that allowed me to be on television.”
HowA Black Lady Sketch Show Became a Reality Thede sold a sketch show to another network while she was hosting her late-night show for HBO. But then her
Besides an extraordinarily talented ensemble that includes Black, Gabrielle Dennis, Skye Townsend, Laci Mosley and Thede herself, the show has fast become the go-to stop for Black actors and comedians on TV. Rae has made several appearances in sketches, as has Brown, Amber Riley (Glee) and David Allan Grier. Plenty of A-list talent has stopped by too, like Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, Khandi Alexander, Laverne Cox, Lil Rey Howery, Jesse Williams, Lena Waithe and Ava DuVernay. “I’ve been in this business 20 years and I’ve just forged a lot of relationships behind the scenes with folks, so I’m lucky in that way. Even in the first season before people knew what the show was, they wanted to be a part of it. The idea sounded cool, and it was about time, you know? And of course, the HBO of it all makes it attractive for people. Now we have a reputation for taking care of our guest stars, and three of our guest stars have been nominated for Emmys so hopefully more will come. I think it’s a place where they’re safe, where they can be funny and free.”
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How She Achieved the Look
What People Think
Thede can’t say it enough: she’s not making skits for a show like Saturday Night Live. The production values alone for A Black Lady Sketch Show make Thede’s show stand apart from the rest. “The show is very hard to make, especially the way we make it,” Thede says. “It’s like shooting 50 short films and the writers’ room is just the beginning. The production of it is a massive undertaking that I don’t think anyone understands. Everything’s on location, there are 40-plus guest stars and hundreds of characters. We have to create unique hair, makeup and wardrobe. I still can’t believe our glam team, honestly. They deserve all the Emmys. There’s just nobody else doing it like this. I set out to make the most cinematic sketch show in history, and I feel like we are there.”
Thede admits that she’s often asked whether it’s a challenge to come up with so many funny skits. “I’m like, no. Am I crazy? Should I feel pressure?" she says. “The thing is, I’ve been doing this for so long. I know people don’t realize that because the other sketch shows I was on were canceled quickly. But I don’t feel any pressure. I always have sketch ideas. I always have amazing writers who have amazing sketch ideas. I have a great cast who have amazing talents. Just surrounding myself with geniuses has helped me not to feel that pressure. “Do I feel an obligation to deliver a better season than last? Of course, but I always say I’m only in competition with myself to do better.”
Bridget Everett, with co-star Jeff Hiller in Somebody Somewhere.
fter studying music and opera at Arizona State University, the Kansas native got her start by playing a liquored-up party girl who applies to be Carrie’s assistant in the first Sex and the City movie. She yukked it up on Inside Amy Schumer from 2013-2016 and had her own Comedy Special called Bridget Everett: Gynecological Wonder in 2015.
But her most memorable work has been on the cabaret circuit, as a bawdy crooner with a tendency to strip, spit wine, and occasionally mount her fans in the audience. “You gotta make a living,” quips the comedian, who has developed quite the cult following. “I just finished doing a run of shows at Joe’s Pub [in New York City]. It was modified because times are changing. But we still had a lot of fun.”
How Somebody Somewhere Became a Reality After scoring a development deal at HBO in 2018, Everett called friend and uber-producer Carolyn Strauss about helping her put together a show with writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen. “I think a lot of people have seen my live show and have been like, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be fun to do something with her?’ But we never could figure it out. So, I got lucky with Carolyn, Paul and Hannah.” Thureen suggested a show based on Everett’s life growing up in Manhattan, Kansas, where she swam competitively and participated in show choir. In Somebody Somewhere, Everett plays Sam, a 40-something singer who returns to her Midwest home to care for her dying sister. While her days are spent working at a test-grading center and helping her family cope with the endless disappointments of life, Sam finds joy by performing in an underground cabaret at a local church. “By the end [of the pitch] I was so overcome with emotion. I’ve always kind of done things like, follow my gut, you know? There were a lot of personal elements in it, like the singing aspect and the sister who passed away, and Murray Hill as Fred Rococo. Murray’s one of my best friends in New York, I lost my sister, and music is the great love of my life. I figured the more personal we made it, the better. It felt more interesting to think about, what if somebody like me never went to New York? I love my hometown, but I left it for a reason. Family for many people is complicated, and I was in a place where I never really felt like I belonged, even though I had a lot of friends. That shaped me, but in a good way.”
How She Cast the Show One of the more endearing qualities of Everett’s show is how the entire cast looks like actual average people, not Hollywood’s version of average people. “That starts with who’s number one on the call sheet. I don’t look like your typical leading lady,” Everett says. “We wanted that to be reflected
all the way down the call sheet. It just feels like a truer reflection of the people I see in my life. I have some very beautiful friends, but they’re not top models. You know what I mean? We cast people we could see on the streets of the ‘Little Apple’, which is what we call Manhattan, Kansas.” Everett was also hands-on when it came to outfitting her actors. “We didn’t want the Midwest to be represented as corny. When I lived there, I used to just wash and go and grab something comfortable. There weren’t a lot of options for a plus-size woman. So, I would just buy T-shirts and cut the neck out. I just wanted it to feel real that way.”
How She Achieved the Look Though it’s semi-autobiographical, Somebody Somewhere is actually shot in the suburbs of Chicago, not smalltown Kansas. “I think it would have been really self-conscious,” admits Everett about the possibility of shooting back home (though production did get some B-roll in Manhattan). “The fact that we did it in Illinois felt like we were in our own little world and in a little bubble. It never felt like, Oh my, holy shit, this is gonna be on HBO.’ Fortunately, the folks back in Manhattan are pleased with the results. “I think my hometown is happy and that is probably one of the greatest reliefs, because my brother and my mom still live there, and I don’t want her to walk around town with her head hung in shame.”
What People Think Initially, Everett worried the show wouldn’t resonate with HBO subscribers. “I was nervous for a number of reasons. It’s very personal, so I felt like if people didn’t like the show, they didn’t necessarily like me, you know? But more than that, I was nervous because it doesn’t feel like a cool show. It’s not built as a comedy. I think of it as a slice of life. And I was just concerned that because it wasn’t cool that it might not catch fire. Carolyn says it’s a show that likes to wear its heart on its sleeve, and I think that’s true. I think that we got lucky. I think the more specific you make something, the more universal its appeal if you get it right. So, while it’s not doing Game of Thrones numbers, it has found its audience and they seem to be very enthusiastic. The show is a nice bit of sunshine for the sort of hell that everybody’s been living through right now.”
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Happening (L’événement) was passed over by France for Oscar submission in favor of Julia Ducournau’s Titane, it was no great surprise to Diwan. “It was such a hard choice for them to make,” she says. “We both have movies that are not very easy topics regarding the Academy.” While Titane had won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Diwan was BAFTA-nominated and won Venice’s Golden Lion with Happening. But Diwan’s film pushed the envelope to a place the Academy has historically swerved. Happening is a graphic, red-raw observation of a young woman, Anne, played by Anamaria Vartolomei, who undergoes an illegal abortion—a subject as contentious as ever in the U.S. as changing legislation currently closes in. Poor Academy precedent loomed too, in the form of Romania’s submission of Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 film—also about abortion—Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, which didn’t make the shortlist.
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Ultimately, perhaps ironically, neither did Titane. hope at some point when the movie’s done that But France’s submission decision left Diwan unrufwe are going to be able to show it to people in fled, not only because of her personal supportive other countries.” friendship with Ducournau, but because votes and That dream came true when the film won the opinions are not necessarily her creative drivers. Golden Lion at Venice and IFC acquired the U.S. Despite making a film that speaks to a deeply perrights. “The Golden Lion changed everything sonal heart of female freedoms, she seems healthily regarding to the topic and the light we can put on unattached to how it’s received. it,” she says. “I am a lazy filmmaker, I do half of the journey For Diwan, although the film follows a specific and then the audience has to do the other half,” she abortion experience, at its root it’s also about the says. “I’m zero provocation, I’m not interested.” boxes women have been put in and societal control. Diwan lit on adapting Annie “She’s also this young Ernaux’s book of the same student that wants to say name when it struck a perto everybody, ‘I want an sonal chord. “I’m a big fan of intellectual future. I’m going Annie Ernaux’s literature, and to go from one social caste I read the book after having an to another. I have desire abortion myself,” Diwan says. “I and I’m going to have a was not looking for a movie. I sexual life.’ So OK, we also go wanted to read something about through an illegal abortion, it because I needed to think but to me everything was about what happened to me.” about freedom.” Unusually, and sensiAlthough the story is set tively, given the subject, she in the ’60s, Diwan felt it vital approached the adaptation in that the film feel current, so collaboration with Ermaux, she didn’t employ any diswho is now in her 80s. “I asked tinct cues or markers of that —AU D R E Y D I WA N her to tell me more about what era in the film. “I wanted not was not in the book. I had more to be confusing, but to write questions about her family,” a story beyond time,” she Diwan says. “We also talked about friends, about says. “When you do a period piece, I always feel that sexual desire. And then she agreed on reading three there is trick, and the trick is nostalgia. Regarding versions of the script.” a woman’s condition, I have zero nostalgia. And I Diwan then had a full-on fight on her hands to really wanted to focus on what was important to get the film made. “Lots of people told me in the me. Not the setup, but the body. I read the book as industry, ‘Why do you want to make the movie now, a very intimate thriller. And I wanted the film to be because we’re in France and we already have the some kind of a natural organic thriller because time law?’ And I was like, ‘OK, I really hope that you’re is running out, and she has to find a solution.” going to ask the same question to the next filmmaker Another aspect of the story Diwan wanted to that comes to you and says they’re going to make a ensure came through was that men are not vilified. movie about World War II. Because I guess the war There was to be no simplification, or definition is over.’ It was not easy to have them understand. I of their culpability here. “I read the book in 2019, mean, look at how many women died on that battleand there were so many things I didn’t know about field and tell me it’s not a war. It’s a silent war.” illegal abortion,” she says. “Imagine a guy in his 40s Fortunately, she says, her producers are fighters. in 1963, they have no clue. So, it was very important “But it was hard to find the money to make the to me not to judge any of my characters, but to try movie. And all the time we were thinking, We to understand.”
"I read the book after having an abortion myself. I was not looking for a movie. I wanted to read something about it because I needed to think about what happened to me.”
Even the doctors in the story who refuse to help Anne are not presented as simply black-and-white, good or bad. “Those who know, or know a little, they’re scared because there is a law, and the law is very hardcore. If you are a doctor, and you’re going to help the girl who asks for help, even if you believe you’re right, at one point maybe you won’t be allowed to be a doctor anymore. So, I was very careful with the idea that I won’t separate men from women, but I tried to find out: what do they know?” Diwan is a part of Le Collectif 50/50, an association that promotes industry equality and diversity, and her Happening crew were predominantly women, and a team she’d already worked with on her first film Losing It (Mais vous êtes fous). She describes their working relationship as “an orchestra”, an analogy she uses because, due to the especially long shots she employs, with very little editing, everyone must move in perfect sync. “For one shot to be OK, everything, everybody has to be ready at the same moment,” she says. “It’s not like we were doing this and that and this and that, and we will see when we edit. It was not like that.” And the denouement of Happening comes in a particularly long scene in which Anne almost dies following the abortion. It’s shocking and hard to watch and unflinchingly real. Did Diwan ever have doubts about presenting it that way? “It’s very hard to get that right,” she says. “Emotionally, sometimes myself I was shocked. I remember one sequence, a sound engineer came to me and said, ‘Audrey, I’m sorry but you’re crying louder than Anamaria.’ But I had no question about the way I wanted to have this on screen because Annie Ernaux, when she writes the book, she never looks away. So, I can’t have it that you can look away. Then I really tried to be that girl and to be in her house.” The film was shot during the pandemic, but now, Diwan has finally had the opportunity to meet audiences, some of whom are anti-abortion. She did not shy away from speaking with them. “I met some [anti-abortionists] in France, in Italy, in Germany, in Austria,” she says. “But we managed to have a discussion, a debate. I will not pretend that they have changed their point of view from watching the movie, but new questions were in their mind and that was the thing that we were able to share.” $
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Happening, from left: Annamaria Vartolomei; Louise Orry-Diquero, Luàna Bajrami and Vartolomei.
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Hail César! The award-winning star of The Intouchables and Lupin has changed the face of French cinema BY ANDREAS WISEMAN
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hings have changed a little bit,” Omar Sy admits about life after Lupin. He laughs. “My parents do know what I do now.” That’s how the actor and his family like it. Low key. The Frenchman’s move to LA a decade ago was in part driven by a desire for more anonymity. In his home country, Sy is a superstar. In America, picking his kids up from school didn’t need to be a drama. “It’s still different being in LA,” he says, despite his growing fame. “Even if things have changed a bit, there’s still less attention here than it might have been in France. The guy from Lupin is not a big deal in LA.” In truth, “the guy from Lupin” is becoming a big deal all over the world. Sy was already an established comic in France when The Intouchables took the world by storm in 2011. The film made an astonishing $426 million at the global box office and is still the biggest French film of all time. Sy became the first Black man to win a César award and the movie’s U.S. remake rights were snapped up. Sy went on to score roles in U.S. blockbusters, including X-Men: Days of Future Past, the Jurassic World franchise and Transformers: The Last Knight. French-language credits included Samba and Chocolat. In the latter, the actor gives one of his most impressive performances to date as Rafael Padilla, the first Black circus performer in Paris. But it was his turn in Netflix’s Lupin last year that transformed his career once again. Inspired by Maurice Leblanc’s tales of criminal Arsène Lupin, Sy plays gentleman thief Assane Diop, who sets out to avenge his father for an injustice inflicted by a wealthy family. The series was watched by 70 million households during its first month, becoming the most-watched
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in the family. His mother worked as a house cleaner and his father worked in an auto parts factory after moving from Bakel to France in 1962. The family was raised Muslim. The Parisian suburbs, or banlieues as they are called in France, are known for their toughness but also their diverse, close-knit communities. They are a favorite subject of French filmmakers, captured vividly in lauded movies such as La Haine and more recently Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables. “I’ve always been curious about people and places,” says Sy about what his roots have imparted to him. “As an actor, as soon as I learn something, I want to share it. I grew up in a community with a lot of different people from all over the world. My neighborhood was full of people from different backgrounds. You learned things all the time. Maybe that was one of the effects that helped me to become an actor. Learning and sharing.” As it turned out, Sy wasn’t the only prodigious talent in Trappes at the time. Among his childhood friends from the neighborhood were the former France and Real Madrid footballer Nicolas Anelka and the popular French-Moroccan actor and comedian Jamel Debbouze. Sy, who from a young age enjoyed sketches and
The Netflix series Lupin, clockwise from top left: Omar Sy as Assane Diop; with Clotilde Hesme; with Antoine Gouy.
impressions, started out by appearing on Debbouze’s radio show before venturing into stand-up as part of popular double-act Omar et Fred with Fred Testot. However, it was The Intouchables that changed his world. The film was a watershed moment, not only for Sy, but for the French and European industry. Never before had a Black French actor spearheaded a global hit. To this day, that remains a rare feat right across Europe. “It feels like something I’m still coming to terms with,” the actor says of the experience. “It was something that changed things not only for me, but people like me. I’m so grateful for that movie because it changed a lot in the industry by bringing through more Black actors. The movie I’ve just made [Father & Soldier], which is debuting at Cannes, came about as a consequence of The Intouchables. The film’s success allowed me to approach different subjects as a Black actor.” It’s not only on-screen that Sy found his range. The actor has increasingly used his platform to speak out about societal injustice. Two years ago, he made a powerful intervention following the killing of George Floyd, whose death echoed the controversial case of Adama Traoré in France four years earlier, when he wrote a powerful opinion piece for French
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non-English series on Netflix at the time. Sy and the show both garnered Golden Globe nominations. Soon after its rollout, the actor became the first French talent to score a multi-year deal with Netflix. Sy is in LA with his family, on a break between filming the third season of Lupin in Paris. The ebullient actor does a fairly good job of buttoning up when asked about the upcoming season: “I really can’t give anything away, but we’re coming back with the same energy and fun,” he says. If it were up to him, Lupin would continue ad infinitum. “I would like to do it the rest of my life. I wish we could. But it will depend what story we can tell and where the character can go. If we have the right script, we’ll continue.” There has been talk of spinoffs, most recently in a Deadline interview with Gaumont chiefs Sidonie Dumas and Christophe Riandee, the show’s French producers. “I read that about spinoffs on your site,” Sy says amusedly. “It was a surprise to me. I look forward to hearing more about it.” Sy is a genuine disruptor. A trailblazer. His journey is atypical of French and European acting stars, making his story all the more special. He was born in the working-class Parisian suburb of Trappes to West African parents. He was one of eight children
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From left: Laurent Lafitte, Sy and Izïa Higelin in Netflix film The Takedown; in Father & Soldier.
magazine L’Obs. He pleaded: Let’s wake up. Let’s arm ourselves with courage, be vigilant, not let another four years pass without accountability. The death of a man due to disproportionate and excessive force must be punished. George Floyd and Adama Traoré had one thing in common: They were both Black and large. Their lives turned into horror in a matter of hours. For nothing. I’m 1.92 (6’2”), I’m Black, I look like them. Can the same thing happen to me? Is this likely to happen to my children tomorrow? To your children? This nameless fear, this unjustified fear, that swells in our lives must disappear. I know this feeling that eats away from the inside having witnessed police stops when I was growing up. Two years on from Floyd’s killing, and six years on from Traoré’s, how much change does Sy think has been achieved on the battlefield of social justice? “It’s difficult to say. 2020 was a time when there was no space for denial, which is a great thing for change,” he says. “I hope that change is in process, even if we still have a level of denial. It’s nuanced. It’s not about being against or in favor of cops, it’s about how we work together to achieve justice. I’m still optimistic.” Does that optimism extend to the film landscape in France? Sy is one of only a handful of Black actors to win France’s highest film honor, the César. The number of Black French talent leading movies or TV series remains low and—as in most European countries—Black executives are painfully invisible within the ranks at production, sales and distribution companies. “We’re still working on it,” Sy says. “It’s not easy. There is a pragmatism to quotas, but in France there’s also a certain philosophy we abide by. We are working on it, but it takes time. We know we’re way, way behind but there is a process underway. I’m a case in point. Things are changing but we need more time to achieve balance and we need to make progress in creating opportunities.” How and when such opportunities are created continues to be a burning question within the entertainment and culture industries. Film festivals are
a key part of that conversation, none more so than Cannes. The Riviera festival remains the world’s most revered film showcase but the event has also been under fire in recent years for a lack of diversity within its lineup. There is some positive change this edition with a record five women in Competition and multiple films from directors of North African descent. There are a number of movies starring Black, North African and Middle Eastern actors. And yet, of the 70 films in Official Selection, only one is by a Black filmmaker. It’s a depressing statistic, for which there are deep-rooted structural and societal reasons. But some would also argue that the world’s biggest platforms have a responsibility to instigate change. “Cannes is the place for movies,” Sy says. “There’s no other place like Cannes. It opens minds. We’re all responsible for creating change but Cannes has to lead by example, for sure. We need to find a fair balance. Look at Ladj’s movie (Les Misérables) which debuted there. We need to understand that it’s not always possible, and yet at the same time they have to do it, it’s obligatory. If Cannes doesn’t, no one will.” —OMAR SY Sy will be on the Croisette this year with a new film, Father & Soldier, about how France recruited men from its former colony Senegal to fight in the French trenches during the First World War. The project has been a longtime passion project of Sy’s and director Mathieu Vadepied, who was DP on The Intouchables. “We talked about Father & Soldier more than 10 years ago and we have kept talking about it ever
since,” says the actor, who has maintained a strong connection to Senegal. “We’re both proud to talk about these French soldiers who are a part of our history. We talk a lot in France about ‘Les Poilu’ (French infantrymen) who fought at Verdun during the First World War, but few people know about the Senegalese ‘Tirailleurs’. I was French before my father came to France and it’s important to remember that many of our ancestors share the same history. At a time when the right in France is gaining more power, I want to remind people what our history is, to understand our past better in order to build a better future.” As a person and an actor, Sy is impressive in almost every way. How much can there be left on the bucket list, I wonder? “Producing is on the list because there are so many stories to tell. The best way to help reveal underrepresented stories and new talent is to be a producer; in order to give back opportunities. I’d like to direct one day, but I’m not ready just yet; I’d like to work with more great directors. That’s the best way for me to learn as an actor. I’d like to have the lead in a U.S. movie. I’m just starting, I’m far from done.” The actor has never been more in-demand. Netflix’s crime comedy The Takedown rolls out this May and Sy has just been set to star alongside Kerry Washington in Lionsgate action movie Shadow Force. After donning a cape to play Bishop in X-Men: Days of Future Past, could another superhero movie be on the cards? “Of course. On set I’m always like a kid. I’m so happy to have done Father & Soldier, a historical piece, and a year later I’ll be on set with Kerry and (director) Joe Carnahan for Shadow Force. That’s my great fortune as an actor: to be able to learn and explore new things and places.” $
“I grew up in a community with a lot of different people from all over the world. My neighborhood was full of people from different backgrounds. You learned things all the time. Maybe that was one of the effects that helped me to become an actor. Learning and sharing.”
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From left: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit; Homicide: Life on the Street. Below, from left: Dick Wolf; Warren Littlefield.
Homicide met Law & Order—
BY NELLIE ANDREEVA
he top scripted series on each of the Wolf and Fontana sat at the same table. The two Big 4 broadcast networks—Grey’s Anathad been good friends since Fontana was on St. Elseomy (ABC), FBI (CBS), Chicago Fire (NBC) where and Wolf was on Hill Street Blues in the early and 9-1-1 (Fox)—all have something in ’80s. “We kept in touch as our career wended its way common: they are the motherships of through various highways,” Wolf says. “Tom moved drama franchises that stage frequent crossovers. back to New York, I stayed in LA.” Building integrated universes consisting of multiple The two used the party to catch up. “Homicide series, whose characters move seamlessly from one was one of my favorite shows, he said Law & Order show to another, has become a broadcast staple and was one of his,” Wolf says. “We were talking, and we arguably the most successful storytelling formula on thought it would be interesting and fun to do a story network television over the past decade that continthat crossed over both shows. He didn’t think anyone ues to draw viewers amid dwindling linear ratings. had done that and neither did I.” But while crossovers are standard event programLittlefield, who jokes that “success has many ming and quite ubiquitous nowadays, this was a revauthors,” shares his own recollection of what tranolutionary concept when it was first proposed almost spired that night. “My feeling was, you get lots of peothree decades ago and was initially met with resistple who were working for you at the time, providing ance. Involved in its inception were two top TV showgreat content, you put them all in a room in a party runners, Law & Order creator and executive producer atmosphere and just good things happen,” he says, Dick Wolf and Oz creator and noting how he was making his way executive producer Tom Fontana, through the restaurant when he “My feeling was, as well as former NBC Entertaingot to the table Wolf and Fontana you get lots of ment president Warren Littlefield, were sitting. people who were now a producer of series like The “I’m like, ‘I love it, you guys are Handmaid’s Tale and Fargo. together,’” Littlefield says. “‘You working for you at The first crossover included know, you both have wonderful 10 the time, providing episodes of Wolf’s Law & Order p.m. dramas on our network, we great content, and another NBC drama series, could probably figure out someHomicide: Life on the Street, on thing here.’ I may have said the you put them all which Fontana was executive proword ‘crossover’. It’s late at night, in a room in a ducer and showrunner. it’s a party atmosphere, people party atmosphere Littlefield says the idea came are drinking, they are celebratabout around 27 years ago, during. And I remember by end of the and just good ing NBC’s 1995 upfront party held night, they said, ‘We think we can things happen.” at a hip downtown New York resdo this.’ And I was like, ‘OMG, that taurant co-owned by Fontana. would be awesome.’” —WA R R E N L I T T L E F I E L D
Like any precedent, making the idea a reality wasn’t easy, but Littlefield credits Wolf and Fontana for sticking with it. Law & Order was produced by Universal Television, Homicide by NBC’s in-house studio, which were separate companies in the 1990s, prior to the NBC-Universal merger. “Of course, then business affairs, after we started to describe it, they just said, ‘Hello, Universal and NBC? That will never [work],’” Wolf recalls. “I think it was really their persistence and our desire to throw money at it, and at the end of the day it went from ‘we could never’ to ‘you know what, we might have a way of getting this done.’” Each studio had their own plans for selling their show in syndication and having an episode that features characters from another series and a joint storyline with a competing drama was not something they knew how to handle amid fears about the stunt’s potential impact on the shows’ syndication value. Having the network as an ally in the process helped. “We were concerned it could be a problem with syndication, but Warren said it was fine, the network wouldn’t object,” Wolf says. “We did our first crossover in 1996, and it was the highest-rated episode for both series.” Two more crossovers between Law & Order and Homicide followed in the next three seasons. “Then it didn’t come up again for several years, when it became obvious there could be a natural crossover between Law & Order and SVU,” Wolf says. “The audiences like it, I find it a lot of fun, but it’s very tough on the writers. It’s very difficult to do, but it’s ratings crack.” Littlefield says he cannot remember a single misfire for a crossover event on the drama or comedy
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side both during his tenure as an executive and whle watching as a casual viewer. “There is always a spike,” he says. “It gives the audience an extra reason to show up. And in a world of infinite choice, you need to give the audience an extra reason to show up.” Wolf, who has been the driving force behind the growth and evolution of interconnected drama franchises in the past three decades with Law & Order, Chicago and FBI, also addresses the reasons for crossovers’ ratings success. “Familiarity breeds contentment,” he says. “The Chicago shows are a perfect example. It worked so well before that I realized that there was an opportunity with the Chicago shows to literally birth a new series [ Jason Beghe and Jon Seda were introduced on Chicago Fire] and once we had three shows, doing crossovers was a no brainer. So, Chicago PD and Chicago Med were born as crossovers.” Wolf took the drama franchise concept to a new level with the ‘One Chicago’ collection of shows, building the first fully-integrated universe of characters. The lines between the individual shows got so blurred that the three casts almost always appeared together at events and panel discussions, and Wolf even argued in 2016 that they should be considered as one entity by the SAG Awards. “I’d like the cast of all the Chicago shows to be entered as one ensemble because it is truly an ensemble,” Wolf told Deadline at the time. “Everybody transits effortlessly between the shows, there are full-scale crossovers that involve everybody on all the casts, so I think they should be celebrated as a group.” As effortless as it looks, building franchise universes is a very tricky proposition. “I know how difficult it is to achieve an integrated universe with multiple shows, it is so difficult that there has to be an overriding sensibility driving the train or else it will never get done,” Wolf says. With Chicago, Wolf also broke new ground, introducing a branded night. While he had been doing crossovers for more than two decades, it was not until fall 2018 that all three shows from the same franchise were scheduled on the same night with ‘One Chicago Wednesday’ setting the stage for three-hour crossover events. The scheduling stunt was so successful that it has being adopted across many drama franchises, including all of Wolf ’s. “I think Bob [Greenblatt, then-NBC Entertainment Chairman] understood the value of ‘stacking’ the Chicago series, which made crossovers easier, and research shows that the average binge time for viewers is three hours. So, it made sense to stack the shows on one night. CBS saw the Wednesday night success and did the same on Tuesday. And NBC doubled down with the Law & Order [shows] on Thursday.” This is a strategy also employed by ABC with Station 19 leading to Grey’s Anatomy, Fox pairing 9-1-1 and 9-1-1: Lone Star, and CBS doing the same with NCIS and NCIS: Hawai’i. Both Wolf and Littlefield had the same reaction to the proliferation of crossovers, integrated universes and franchise blocks on the schedule: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” When Wolf pitched FBI to CBS, he did not just pitch a series but an entire franchise. He admitted that he does not think of a TV series as a one-off anymore. For Littlefield, it’s satisfying to see how a casual party conversation 27 years ago has led to such a big—and lasting—change in event TV programming. “When I’m navigating through any content on networks and I see that promotion [for a crossover], it makes me smile and I go, ‘You know what, they are still doing that.’”
ong before he became a premier storyteller for Paramount+, Taylor Sheridan was a struggling journeyman actor who couldn’t even get a raise while starring on Sons of Anarchy. As Deputy Chief David Hale, Sheridan played a pivotal role in the SAMCRO universe, but the studio suits didn’t seem to share his assessment. “When my attorney said, ‘Look, there are kids on the Cartoon Network making more than you’re offering this guy,’ this jerk business affairs attorney goes, ‘He probably deserves to make more, but we’re not going to pay him more, because guess what? He’s not worth more. There are 50 of him. He is 11 on the call sheet. That’s what that guy is and that’s all he’s ever going to be,’” Sheridan recalls. “That’s really when I quit [because] that’s how the business saw me: ‘Let’s replace him with someone cheaper.’ And I decided that I didn’t want to be 11 on the call sheet for the rest of my life.” Sheridan has been writing, directing, producing and showrunning ever since, from the critically acclaimed thrillers Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River, to the Yellowstone universe, all through 101 Studios. Unlike uber-creators like Dick Wolf, Sheridan did not hand off responsibility of a Yellowstone prequel to someone else. He wrote every word of 1883 himself, while continuing to contribute to Yellowstone and his latest Paramount+ drama Mayor of Kingstown with Jeremy Renner. And the Texas-based Oscar nominee has plenty more to say: he has six new shows in the works, including a Sylvester Stallone starrer about an Italian mobster in Kansas called Tulsa King, and a still in-the-works Yellowstone spinoff set on the 6666 ranch. This cowboy at heart will ride his storytelling horse as far as it will take him, refusing to take for granted his prolific run.
From left: Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan; 1883’s Isabel May.
he emergence of Isabel May as the lead in Taylor Sheridan’s frontier epic series 1883 is so unlikely it still has the actress trying to come to grips with her star-making turn. It was in a casting meeting with May for another project that Sheridan discovered she was exactly the actress he needed for the origin story of Yellowstone’s Dutton clan. “I saw she could represent innocence and hope,” Sheridan says. “At that point I had not figured out how to tell this story and I had Sam Elliott over here, and I had Tim McGraw there, and Faith Hill, and I had not found the bridge between them all. When I met Isabel, the whole story, all 10 episodes, went right through my head.” May’s coming-of-age arc as Elsa as she travels in a wagon train on a trek from Texas to Montana is still something she struggles to process. “I played potentially the greatest role I might ever have the opportunity of playing, and I still don’t know how to take it,” she says. “I don’t understand what I did or what it is about myself that may have influenced Taylor in that moment, when this character sparked to life in his head.” May plunged herself into frontier life. She recalls how, in the middle of a scene on a ranch in Guthrie, Texas, a cow in the background suddenly gave birth. “The baby just stood up and started walking around, and we were just trying to digest this beautiful moment.” There was hardship too, like when May tried to hide her shivering as she filmed on horseback in the 18-degree Montana cold, or when she lost feeling in her feet after stepping into frigid water. “The second they said, ‘Cut,’ a lot of explicit words came out of my mouth, and I hauled butt out of there as fast as I could,” she says. “Not my proudest moment. Sure, it was challenging, but I came to feel that if it wasn’t, what’s the point?”—Mike Fleming Jr.
5/3/22 4:30 PM
riyanka Chopra Jonas grew up eyeing a career as an aeronautical engineer, but a detour to pageantry led to a Miss World crown in 2000 and a pivot to an acting career. She became a star in her native India and has gone on to conquer Hollywood. That may sound like the stuff of fairy tales, but there were certainly challenges along the way—from facing a patriarchal society at home to avoiding what Chopra Jonas calls “jack-in-thebox” typecasting in the studio system. Now, she’s determined to make things easier for women and South Asian talent following behind her, rewriting the rulebook and busting conventions. Says Chopra Jonas of how her education informed her business decisions, “I’m someone who likes excellence… I like having
a sense of control and I think math and physics give you that because you always have to find the right answer… Curiosity helped me navigate unfamiliar waters and land into something which I made my own.” Chopra Jonas took the ethos of being a student into her career, she says, and it has been worth it, in spite of the struggles. “I’ve reached a place where I find immense challenge and complexity and joy and growth in the business that I ended up in.” Chopra Jonas’ Bollywood credits include such hits as Andaaz, Aitraaz, Krrish and Bajirao Mastani among dozens of others. She is one of the rare Indian-born stars to fully cross over to Hollywood, having spent several years in the ABC thriller Quantico. More recently, she starred in The Matrix Resurrections and Netflix’s The White Tiger, which she executive produced.
Meet the Bollywood superstar who’s rewriting the rule book for
WA RN E R B ROS.
BY NANCY TARTAGLIONE
WA RN E R B ROS.
Clockwise from top left: Quantico; with Hrithik Roshan in Krrish 3; The Matrix Resurrections; with Rajkummar Rao and Adarsh Gourav in The White Tiger.
Was there competition when you were coming up, and entering the business from the pageant world? Yes, to that very specific point. This was early 2000s and yeah there was competition because in any predominantly patriarchal society, women are pitted against each other and there’s just one that can be the best. Over time, I think especially in my generation, we’ve all made immense strides in digging in our feet and creating a sisterhood, which I’m very proud to be part of now as a community. How has that evolved? Whether it’s Bollywood or in America, what I’ve experienced is women standing up for women. I’m doing a movie in India now with two of the top actresses in the country, Katrina Kaif and Alia Bhatt, and the three of us decided we wanted to do a movie together and partner together to produce it. But the idea is, yes, it was very different when I started out. We were all pitted against each other, and our casting was very dependent on the lead actor of the movie, and it depends on who is the flavor at that time and that was a very unsettling feeling. It’s a really telling question because it really gave my career a very specific direction because of a
specific uncomfortable feeling. I took on many parts which were female driven. I took on movies that were solely on my shoulders because it was very uncomfortable to have to be the flavor of the season and then not get cast. So, it defines me taking on movies that didn’t necessarily always have the big male leads and it made my career very much my own.
How does that come about that you get to choose? You’ve done enough movies that people are casting you or want to do stories around you, they just don’t have the budget for a big movie, and they never would have at that time because the audience wasn’t privy to female-led films being box-office successes. Now you see many female-led films being box-office successes, hence a lot more female-led movies being made. And female actresses of my generation that have had the courage to say, “OK, I’m gonna get to work with the big actors but also have agency in my own career and have films that I will produce.” You see so many female producers and that’s something that happened in Hollywood as well. Like Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, so many of
these women have talked about wanting to be able to do stories where their characters have agency and then becoming producers or writers to be able to create them because no one else was doing that for them. That’s the kind of pivot you see in India as well and I think this generation of female actors has been very pivotal to be able to make that happen. I think the women of my generation were also feeling very boxed. So, I think a lot of us felt the need to be able to push the envelope and I’m really glad that I had the ability, the courage, to be able to take on that dive and to kind of go with it. It’s not easy, it’s scary, but just that feeling… Even when I got to America to be seen as the lead of a movie which was mainstream, which had a big budget, was a big fight for a brown girl like me, especially one that came from India.
To what do you ascribe being able to make such strides in your career? It’s taken me 10 years and I’m finally able to do the lead parts that I wanted to do. But it takes perseverance. I stuck my ground at the beginning of my career. When I started feeling comfortable, I started working with people I respect, that respect me,
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respect the fact that I bring something to the table and there are many of those out there. So, you take that one action, I stood my ground and then I found colleagues that helped me build a career that was bold and disruptive and my own, versus what was laid out for me. I can say that in India and in my work in America, it just takes perseverance and really sticking to it—consistency, determination. There are times you eat lots of ice cream and there are lots of tears, but you get there.
I wasn’t getting paid when I started here so it’s a big sacrifice. I had to take off work in India, which was a big sacrifice, too. I didn’t know if I would succeed in America, and at the same time, what if work just stops coming? Hollywood’s golden gates are not so open to immigrant actors as it is hopefully now starting to be because of this generation that is demanding change and that has changemakers supporting it. My career is not my own, I had people who had a vision in 2010 and said, “She can be mainstream,” in the same way you have Josh Safran and ABC who cast me in Quantico and said, “We’re going to put a It was a very humbling learning experience. I brown girl in a network show.” That was unheard of learned very quickly that if I wanted to succeed at the time, and now we’re seeing things like what in Hollywood, I couldn’t rest on my laurels that I Shondaland has done with Bridgerton. had built in another film industry. I had to come in As an Indian, the bane of my existence is Apu. as a new actor, I had to introduce myself. But the When I went to high school [in the U.S.] everybody different part about it is that when I walked in a recognized him as the only reference, and I had no room, people took meetings with me, not because one who looked like me on American television. I had worked in different It was such an emotional genres of film, but because I moment for me when I saw was a popular Indian actor. that happen for myself. So, I would get in the room And now, when I watch and then I would be cast as Bridgerton, and I see the the jack-in-the-box for that nuances of Indian culture audience, which felt too and the complexity of the transactional. I wasn’t being origin of these characters... seen as an artist, but when I love that these are a you’re starting out you have South Indian family who to do some of that, too, while has moved to London. you build your credibility It’s such a cosmopolitan and how people see you. I [thing], which is the Indian play the long game and I’m of today, and that’s been a not afraid of it. big journey. That journey has been because of people who have come before us as South Asians, like Anil Kapoor, Kal Penn, Mindy Kaling... You know, there are so many incredible actors that pushed that envelope— I want to start by saying it is Naveen Andrews, my gosh; — P R I YA N K A C H O P R A J O N A S not everybody’s ambition to I’m missing people, but if work in Hollywood. That’s you think about that it’s been something I’ve definitely a steady growth and it’s just seen—and it shouldn’t be either, because it’s a been wonderful to have been a part of that growth. massively large industry, self-distributed around the world. And the ones who do want to work in Hollywood, you know, it’s a lot of work, you’ve got I try to. When you have a platform, you have the to set up base here. ability to amplify things that mean something to It took me 10 years to be able to do the work you, and I learned that very early because of a pagthat I was already doing in India in a completely eant. I was a small-town girl who was plummeted different country. onto a platform with bright lights, and it took me off balance for a second, but when I found my feet, I think it’s such a wonderful time to be an Indian I realized what I could do with it. So yes, along with actor in Hollywood because we’re creating such an furthering my own career as an artist I’ve always amazing community around the South Asian actors— tried to be philanthropically aligned, and to further and I’m going to include Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri the cause as much as I can for women, specifically. Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan—where you’re seeing people coming into Hollywood and we’ve gone from Apu Purple Pebble Pictures had a certain ethos when I in The Simpsons to the Bridgerton sisters, and that’s started it in India. I started making regional movies, been a massive struggle for a lot of people. I paid for and at that time not too much of Bollywood was myself, I paid for my life when I moved to America.
“It's a wonderful time to be an Indian actor in Hollywood because we're creating such an amazing community around the South Asian actors. We've gone from Apu in The Simpsons to the Bridgerton sisters.”
producing regional work, and we made a few really amazing movies and won some really high national awards. Then I moved the company to LA as my career started working here, and the mission now is I need to tell unique stories about women, unique storytellers. But more than anything, to give opportunity to the up-and-comers, to people who don’t get their doors open. I am incubating new writers, filmmakers who want to pitch their stories, and Purple Pebble Pictures is the gateway for that. I never had that when I joined the industry. I’m also really trying to immerse the business of entertainment with stories about India and about the South Asian diaspora. About girls, about women, about our place here. And I’m trying to create diversity, not by just talking about it but by actually letting my work and the work that comes out of my production company stand for it.
I think the industry has had to become more open to it. With streaming coming in, it literally had to quickly pivot into being able to quickly provide that much content to that many specific local regions that streaming is catering to now. Hyper-specificity in entertainment is so interesting. For any viewer sitting in any part of the world to see themselves on a streamer and say, “Oh my gosh, this is me—what?” Representation matters, we just never had representation in entertainment for diverse casting, or for people from all around the world because the medium was so limited. But now with streaming coming in, the opportunities are endless, and we just have to make sure that we give these amazing endless opportunities to the people who deserve it. To look outside of our box and create opportunities where you don’t see any. But we have to keep the decisionmakers in check. That’s going to be such a crucially important thing that this generation of people in film and television need to do, is make sure that the traffic coming in and out of those doors is democratized, that we do create opportunity for the people that these doors have opened up to.
I’ve thought about this question myself. I’m sure all of us are thinking right now, you know, you take one turn and see the world going to destruction, you take another turn and you see the world going to destruction all over again. It’s a scary place to raise children and to think about a future. What I’ve started doing, which has really helped me honestly, is focusing on the now more than I ever have. I take a second to tell the people I love that I love them. I make sure that when I’m working with someone, we have fun. I make sure that the stories that I’m telling give people joy, move people, and that’s all we can do right now. I think the world is a little bit fractured and we need to heal it. We’re so lucky to be in entertainment [where] we can be part of that healing. I mean, we can’t do everything, but we are part of that healing and I’ve chosen to focus on that right now.
5/3/22 6:13 PM
From left: International Media Acquisitions Corp.'s Shibasish Sarkar; I2PO founder Iris Knobloch.
They may be on rocky ground, but special purpose acquisition companies are still promising shake-ups in the media space
BY TOM GRATER AWARDSLINE
pecial purpose acquisition companies— known as SPACs—have been all the rage in the world of investment for the last two years, and they’ve made a mark in the media space, but is the trend slowing down? Known as ‘blank check companies’, SPACs are publicly traded investment vehicles that raise capital solely to acquire existing companies. They are often fronted by a well-known figure and are seen as a simpler alternative to going public via an IPO. They can also provide everyman investors with an opportunity to tap into the high growth that some companies experience in their early years. At the same time, of course, a disappointing debut can register significant losses. In some instances, SPACs will be announced with specific investment targets in mind, like when Virgin Galactic completed a successful SPAC merger in 2019 and launched a trend of similar endeavours across the past two years. On other occasions, the SPAC will launch without disclosing specific targets, instead offering investors insight into its wider strategy. Last year, former Reliance Entertainment CEO Shibasish Sarkar, one of the biggest names in the Indian media landscape, left the company to launch his own SPAC, International Media Acquisition Corp. The company is targeting major moves in the local entertainment space and had a successful $230 million IPO on the Nasdaq in August. In an interview with Deadline in December, Sarkar said he was targeting acquisitions in three areas and would be closing the first deals ahead of the deadline of July 2022. “We want to be active in three spaces: production companies—whether film, television or animation—to create the largest content creation company in India; the exhibition space, where the objective is to be a meaningful player in the industry, the third or fourth biggest; and the opportunity of taking a meaningful position in a streaming platform,” Sarkar says. Also last year, Iris Knobloch, a former WarnerMedia president in Europe (and the newly announced incoming president of the Cannes Film Festival), left the company after 25 years to launch a $300 million SPAC via Euronext Paris with backing from French billionaire François-Henri Pinault’s Artemis. Named I2PO, the company is the first of its kind to target the European entertainment and leisure industries. “Europe is home to many solid companies with
high potential in this sector, which, through the contribution of capital, resources and expertise by I2PO, will have the necessary support to take their business to the next level,” Knobloch said at the time. “I see a huge opportunity to consolidate a fragmented market and to go beyond Europe into other markets.” I2PO recently confirmed its first deal: a merger agreement to take French music streaming service Deezer public at a $1.1 billion valuation. Pinault described the move as an opportunity to “develop Deezer as the leading independent music streaming platform through strong positions in selected key markets”. However, there have been numerous cautionary tales in the SPAC space in the last 12 months. Former Disney exec pair Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs, along with retired basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, raised $350 million for their SPAC Forest Road Acquisition Corp II in March last year, and quickly closed a merger deal to take fitness companies The Beachbody Company and Myx Fitness Holdings public. After an initial bounce, the combined entity has since tumbled 80% in value and is struggling to recover, serving as a warning that these big-capital deals can also go sour. Digital media outfit Buzzfeed went public via SPAC merger in December but its share price underperformed. Following an earnings report in Q1 this year that fell short of what the company had promised investors when launching its SPAC, pressure from those who had bought shares led to cuts in Buzzfeed’s news division, with some reportedly urging CEO Jonah Peretti to close down the Pulitzer Prize-winning news team entirely. In turn, the Buzzfeed example appears to have made several other digital media companies wary of pursuing their own proposed SPACs. Long-standing chatter about both Vox Media and Vice Media going public via SPAC has quieted in the last few months. There may have been some choppy waters for SPACs over the previous year, but the trend looks set to continue. OnlyFans, the social media platform famed for its adult content, has held talks about going public via a SPAC merger, while Asian financing bigwig Jason Wong, known as ‘the godfather of SPACs’ in Asia, recently predicted that Hong Kong could see at least 40 blank-check investment vehicles launched in the city in 2022.
— CHICAGO CRUSADER
“ S E E M S A L L T H E M O R E U RG E N T ” — DAILY BEAST
“ T WO S O L I D L E A D P E R F O R M A N C E S ” — AV CLUB
5/3/22 1:18 PM
JEYMES The Harder They Fall
BY MIKE FLEMING JR.
f you’re a fan of the music and video creations by singer-songwriter Jeymes Samuel—performed under his stage name The Bullitts—you’ll recognize that same enthusiasm, precociousness and ambition directed into his feature directorial debut, The Harder They Fall. Spurred by his love for the genre and the lack of diversity in old Hollywood westerns, Samuel recruited a veritable who’s who of Black actors—Idris Elba, LaKeith Stanfield and Jonathan Majors, among them—to play infamous gunslingers of color who somehow eluded the attention of previous storytellers. The film began its journey as the 2013 short They Die By Dawn, which he broadened into a Netflix feature seen around the world. A rare talent in that he not only writes, directs and produces but also scores his films—he has a silky singing voice reminiscent of his brother, Seal—Samuel’s versatility is outshone only by his irresistible and infectious enthusiasm for cinema, from its
history to a future he is determined to be part of. Here, the multi-hyphenate filmmaker reflects on the experience, and how it actually teases his next project.
You made your feature directorial debut on The Harder They Fall when you were 40, just like Ridley Scott. No way. So that’s why he has gone so hard ever since. He is relentless. He told me a story where he saw the original Star Wars Instead, he felt he had to do something in space, so he found Alien. How are you following your momentum on The Harder They Fall? I wasn’t going to make an announcement until the deal is done, but I’m going to tell you right here, right now for the first time I’m telling anyone. I’m going to tell Mike Fleming what the next movie is, right?
SAMUEL Jeymes Samuel with Idris Elba on the set of The Harder They Fall.
Let’s have it. It took so long to make The Harder They Fall, 15 years since I first had the idea and 10 years of hard graft making it. To me, The Harder They Fall is like my Reservoir Dogs, my She’s Gotta Have It. Their next ones happened quickly. Mine is already written, and hopefully I’ll be shooting this year. I gave a huge Easter egg in The Harder They Fall to what my next movie is. Jim Beckwourth [RJ Cyler] is on his horse. Nat Love [ Jonathan Majors] says, “You got a reason you want to die, too, Jim?” And he says, “Outside of you saving me from this?” And shows burn marks from the rope that was around his neck. He goes, “Besides, I hear Cherokee Bill [LaKeith Stanfield] runs with Rufus [Idris Elba]. Every time I speak on my speed, people pull Cherokee Bill out their ass. I’m going to put an end to that debate once and forever. Like you say in the Book of Clarence, ‘Can’t no man outspeed me.’” And Bill Picket [Edi Gathegi] says, “Outspeed ain’t a word and Clarence ain’t a book. I’m kinda hoping Cherokee Bill put a bullet in that ass just to shut him up.” So, my next movie is The Book of Clarence. And LaKeith Stanfield will play Clarence. And I’m taking it all the way back to the Bible era. You remember those biblical epics, whether they were about the
barefoot? Did he buy his clothes or did people just say, “Hey Jesus, wear this?” Was there a particular brand that he liked, or a particular tailor who made his shawl? Where did Mary Magdalene get her hair done? They didn’t have any hair salons since the Cleopatra days. What currency did they spend? All that stuff the Bible doesn’t speak of fascinates me about the era. The Bible just gives you bricks. But the mortar you’re meant to fill in yourself. I want to show who he bought them from and what that guy was doing. What the guy that sold him those sandals had for breakfast, for dinner. Who was in the hood? Who was the troublemaker, or the cool dude that the girls liked? Who was the kid with aspirations? Who was the nincompoop? That stuff is what fascinates me about that era. The Book of Clarence is all of that stuff. It’s a really awesome, awesome, awesome tale.
I want to tell the tales that we’ve never had before. We’ve never had Black people in the Bible days of cinema. There’s not even a template for us to go, “Well, like that movie?” We’d seen a Black cowboy before. We’ve never seen... Even when Andrew Lloyd Webber made something as nuanced as Jesus Christ Superstar, there’s no Black people in it, except Judas. Judas was the Black guy. “I’m going to betray you, Jesus.” What the hell? That’s what you’re giving us? That’s the Black guy? You saw what I did with the Western. I want to give people something to talk about. Imagine when they unleash Jesus on me. I’m going to give us something we’ve never seen before. But it’s going to be so much fun. We’re deciding now where it will be made, talking to studios. I have a relationship with Netflix. That’s a big thing, but I do need this film to have a viable theatrical component as well.
You know me. If you’re at a performance that features Jimi Hendrix, you’re expecting him to burn the guitar. It’s me saying this, so I’m biased, but it’s a wicked movie, man. For me, The Book of Clarence, from the beginning of the movie to the end of the
From left: Zazie Beetz; Regina King, Idris Elba and LaKeith Stanfield stage a jail break in The Harder They Fall.
Bible or just taking place around it, from The Ten Commandments to The Greatest Story Ever Told, Samson and Delilah and Ben-Hur, which runs alongside all that stuff in the Bible? As will be The Book of Clarence, a full fun-filled extravaganza. It’s written and ready to go, and set in 29 AD.
This is exactly what excites me. Firstly, the Bible’s the biggest franchise in the world. The biggest superhero, the most famous superhero of all time is Jesus himself. But when I used to learn about those things when I was a kid, I used to say to myself, “Where did Jesus buy his sandals from? Did he walk around
movie, is what I call the Richard Dreyfuss in a Steven Spielberg film face. You know Richard Dreyfuss. In Steven Spielberg’s movies, he’s always [looking bewildered]. Richard Dreyfuss is always looking up, with that look. Even if Jaws is coming level, when it’s on Richard Dreyfuss to kill him, he’ll be looking up. Hell, Close Encounters. So, what I’m looking for from you in The Book of Clarence, is Richard Dreyfuss’ face. Or the feeling you get when you first see the boulder chasing Indiana Jones. I promise, even the opening sequence, it’s such an original thing I’m doing with the opening sequence when the credits roll, and you’ll be eating your popcorn hopefully, and going, “I’ve never had this experience before.” It’s one of those. And you put Black people in there... I don’t want to give away too much. It’s going to be a really awesome, awesome movie. I’m happy that it’s you I told about it.
Yeah. To me, Netflix is like Uber. I didn’t use to call Uber, Uber. I used to call it karma. Because in the U.K., those famous black taxis do not stop for Black people.
They don’t stop for Black people. One time, me and Seal were leaving Harrods and we had all the shopping in the world. And we were standing there, and all the black taxis were going past us. And this is Seal! And he had to go back into Harrods and have a white person come out and hail a taxi for us. And we hid behind the bushes and jumped out and got in the taxi. So, Uber came out and righted all the wrongs. Now, black taxis stop for Black people because you need to make as much money as you can, and no
Paramount Network is a trademark of Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Art Photo Credit: © 2015 Screen Actors Guild Awards, LLC
5/3/22 4:29 PM
one’s using you like they were, except tourists. That’s Netflix, right? Netflix is Uber. Studios historically would not fund Black movies. They’ll give Black people the racist foreign distribution model, how much your movie is worth in Germany and how much your movie is worth here and there, giving you a worth for your movie, and that’s why they wouldn’t finance movies with Black people. I hate using the term Black movies. I think it’s an unfair term. Close Encounters of The Third Kind hasn’t got a single Black person in it, but it’s not a white movie. Movies are just movies. But the studios wouldn’t finance movies with Black people in them, saying they had no value overseas. The irony is, I live overseas. And then, Netflix comes around and they bypass that foreign sales market, that racist foreign sales distribution model, and they just fund movies. I don’t know if a studio would’ve funded The Harder They Fall. They may say they would’ve done it, but I’m not sure that they would have. I think when the pandemic hit, they would’ve bailed, whereas Netflix doubled down and spent even more so we were able to make the movie. That’s why I say Netflix is Uber. They are the out-and-out savior to filmmakers like myself who wanted to get their films done with a high budget and a cast of Black stars.
They Die by Dawn in 2013, a The Harder They Fall Yeah.
The Great Gatsby
Literally, no. I was taking it around. Vice, for South by Southwest, they made a 250-seat venue for us to premiere They Die By Dawn in. We had something like 12,000 RSVPs. That was the appetite for me to show Black people in that time and place. And then I released it on Tidal, and I was touring with it, doing all of these festivals. My friend was working at Warner Brothers at the time, and she said, “Warner’s would never make this movie. They’ll never make the movie version of this film.” And I was like, “Wow, really? At least take it in.” But she wouldn’t, and she was Black. I’m not sure that they wouldn’t have made it, but that’s what she told me. But this is what I was facing with everyone. People not understanding the viability of what happens if you put Black people in major roles. Quentin put one Black guy in cowboy clothes and had the biggest movie of his career. This is just something that, when you give people something they’ve never seen before and they’re not used to seeing, there’s a huge appetite for it. So, take Black people in the Bible days. As my mother said, “The difference between The Harder They Fall, Jeymes, and The Book of Clarence is, I’ve been waiting for The Harder They Fall for my whole life. But The Book of
Clarence? That’s the one I’ve really been waiting for my whole life.’ So, my mother’s been waiting her whole life and her mother’s been waiting for her whole life. Like everyone in the Bible. But I don’t know that studios... because I was talking to them for 10 years. I just don’t know that they would’ve made it. And Netflix are the ones that stepped up to back The Harder They Fall.
the #MeToo movement and
Menace II Society and John Boyz N The Hood -
’90s, Quentin, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh, Edward Burns with The Brothers McMullen? I believe if they came around today, that wave, they would be shooting movies on iPhones. Meaning we have a powerful device, that we’re talking on them now. So, I do think now there is a way. If you look at Regina King, Shaka King, Donald Glover, Issa Rae, a whole wave of people. Issa made it by just doing shows on YouTube. I think it’s changing now, because we have more opportunities to have our voices heard both musically and in film, bypassing corporate entities and going straight to YouTube, using our iPhones. So, you might be seeing a whole new influx of talent that have come to prominence through Instagram. That is what has changed. We have to not expect anyone else to be the change that we want. Otherwise, it’s hashtag changes.
“They’ll give Black people the racist foreign distribution model, how much your movie is worth in Germany and how much your movie is worth here and there, giving you a worth for your movie, and that’s why they wouldn’t finance movies with Black people. And then, Netflix comes around and they bypass that foreign sales market, that racist foreign sales distribution model, and they just fund movies.”
Young women are kidnapped in Africa, and the hashtag is, bring back our girls. And Christ Superstar… ...was Judas. then the Kardashians drop the premiere of Season 2. And then where are all those 200 women that were kidnapped? Hashtag changes don’t last. I believe we, as Black people The reaction to me has should not wait for anything. always been kind of… I kind I look at someone like Lena of just pretty much exist by Waithe, who is a powerhouse myself. I self-funded They of creativity, and you just look Die By Dawn. I was going to in her eyes and you can see a —J E YM E S S A M U E L shoot The Harder They Fall whole legacy. She’s a powerand would have shot it on house and nothing is getting iPhones if I couldn’t get it in her way, and nothing is made. I never critique, I create. I never complain, I stopping her. And I think the same with Issa Rae. contribute. So, I was definitely making that movie. Kent Powers is another one, Regina King. I don’t But the reaction has been awesome. We’ve won... know if a change is here, per se, but I do know that I don’t know if you’d call it a snub, but we didn’t I’m here now. So, the game is just going to be that get any recognition from the Academy. But we won much different. other rewards and I’ve had tremendous reaction I’ll give you a Western and then we’re going to from people, like, everyone knows who I am there, the Bible days. And then we’re going to go someand they’ve offered me amazing projects and stuff. where else, and I’ll go back to the Old West. And Although, I pretty much write my own stuff, and I then nothing is going to stop me telling the stories can’t imagine someone offering me something more that I want to tell. I have boundless energy and exciting than The Book of Clarence. boundless creativity. I do think the industry has So, I would say things are changing. I’m not changed because of streamers. We can’t ignore sure how much, because the change doesn’t come that stuff. The streamers have made more even the and is not going to come from Hollywood. It has to playing field. We have talented execs out there now, come from us. and so I think we’re going to see a lot more diverse stories. But we, as Black people, can’t wait for talented execs, or studios to have a guilty conscience. The change has to come from us as a people, right? We have to find a way to make what we’re going Meaning we have to stop expecting to be given to make and nothing can stop us. I think that as anything. I made They Die by Dawn. I didn’t go to soon as we all think like that, we’re not going to be whole Hollywood for funding. Remember that wave beholden to any temporary waves of guilt. We can of indie filmmakers that came about in the early just be the change we want to see.
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From left: Candle Media founders Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs.
CANDLE MEDIA Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs load up on independent companies
BY DADE HAYES & JILL GOLDSMITH AWARDSLINE
evin Mayer and Tom Staggs have been around the media business long enough to resist the temptation to overreact to Netflix’s latest travails. Even though their emerging investment firm, Candle Media, owns two key Netflix suppliers—CoComelon production company Moonbug Entertainment and Fauda producer Faraway Road—they don’t seem too concerned that Netflix may topple from its perch. (And at press time, the previously unthinkable scenario has become a lot more, well, thinkable.) “We are still big believers in streaming overall, now and in the long run,” Mayer says. “The addressable market is enormous, and it continues to grow as consumers expect and demand the convenience that streaming provides.”
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Comments from Netflix executives during the company’s recent quarterly report, which helped lower the company’s value from $300 billion to $100 billion, “highlight the battle for customer acquisition and retention,” Staggs says. Killer content is generally the answer to that challenge, he insists, which is what drives their operation. “In fact, increasing competition and current economic headwinds actually underscore the importance of differentiated content,” adds Staggs. “And that’s exactly where we’re focusing with Candle.” Before founding the company last year with about $2 billion in backing from private equity giant Blackstone, Staggs and Mayer worked together as senior executives at Disney for more than two decades. As Mayer sees it, their newest venture has thus far been “completely seamless”. At Disney, the early part of their tenure was marked by a memorable episode back in the pre-streaming days of 2004. At the behest of former CEO Bob Iger, they investigated the then-new theory of the “long tail” of content propounded by magazine editor and writer Chris Anderson. They produced a document called Disney 2015 that predicted mediocre content would no longer be sustained by a marketplace bursting with new technology and well-defined niche audiences. They presented it during a board retreat in Orlando. Both Staggs and Mayer, who were seen as likely successors to Iger, helped engineer major transactions, like the acquisitions of Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm. Mayer’s run was highlighted by his time leading the strategic planning group —T O M S TAG G S and then launching Disney+. Staggs was CFO, COO and head of theme parks. Mayer was passed over for the top job at Disney in favor of Bob Chapek. The announcement of Chapek’s elevation revealed that Mayer was ending his decades-long Disney tenure to become CEO of TikTok. But then, within three months, Mayer had left the Chinese-born social video platform amid heightened scrutiny by the Trump Administration and constant threats of a forced shutdown in the U.S. Along the way, Mayer also became chairman of sports streaming outlet DAZN. Together, Mayer and Staggs preceded Candle with a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC. Despite some dings suffered by once-high-flying SPACs, the duo says theirs is still active, though Candle is their priority. (Both names also have been floated in connection with potential top roles at Warner Bros. Discovery or even Disney, but they remain steadfastly centered on their new venture.)
They are operating in a different price neighborhood than in the Disney days, but in a way that makes the chase even more interesting. The $71.3 billion acquisition of most of 21st Century Fox, which Mayer helped orchestrate, is several universes away from Candle’s sweet spot, but the upside is therefore a lot greater. The goal, now as it was then, is to recognize an undervalued business and inject resources into it with the aim of turning it profitable. And the vibrant M&A market, especially as every player grapples with the streaming transition, means potentially transformative deals lurk around every corner. Candle bought Moonbug for $3 billion last year, on the heels of taking a significant stake in Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine in a deal valuing it at $900 million. Candle also took a stake in Westbrook, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s production entity. Mayer and Staggs see potential to further develop the companies they have bought into. Hello Sunshine is considering a kids entertainment portfolio, and Moonbug’s line has added properties like Blippi and Little Angel— the latter a YouTube network with 88 million subscribers. While the price tag for Moonbug caught a lot of casual observers by surprise, anyone whose preschooler has been entranced by CoComelon understands its magnetism. Having seen the enormous clout of kids’ fare at Disney, Mayer and Staggs are hoping the same kind of dynamic can pay dividends at (for now) a smaller scale. “CoComelon is not only the largest channel on YouTube, it was also the second most streamed program on Netflix last year,” Mayer says. From Netflix’s point of view, “this degree of popularity and repeat viewing makes it among the most efficient programs on their service.” The reason to pursue independent companies is simple, Mayer said. “Hollywood is now architected due to streaming services… everyone is vertically integrated. HBO Max can’t license from Disney and vice versa, and if you want to license content that you don’t have, or you don’t have the capacity to make content because you’re Apple TV+, then you’ve got independents to buy it, and the demand for such TV and film content is greater than ever and growing.” Speaking of growth, the company’s staff at the end of 2021 consisted of just Mayer and Staggs. Since then, it has brought in Salil Mehta and Brent Weinstein as CFO and chief development officer, respectively, and is in the process of making other hires in finance and business development. Where will Candle look to go from here? “We’re focused on both investing in the growth
“In fact, increasing competition and current economic headwinds actually underscore the importance of differentiated content. And that’s exactly where we’re focusing with Candle.”
of our existing operations and making additional acquisitions that expand our business and brands,” Staggs says. The company has recently closed deals for kids’ property Little Angel and content commerce and community brand The Home Edit. Staggs sees two to three more deals in the near term, and though he kept mum on what field they will be in, they talk admiringly of the creator economy and ecommerce in addition to the production holdings already in the stable. Linear TV networks, which produce considerable cash flow but are in secular decline, are unlikely to join the portfolio. (Starz, which Lionsgate put on the block several months ago, isn’t under consideration by Candle.) The structure with Blackstone does not involve a traditional notion of veto power over potential investments, the top duo said, though the firm is Candle’s biggest shareholder. By keeping their investments forward-looking and their overhead modest, Mayer and Staggs say they are contemplating a public stock offering for the company down the line, though there is no urgency or timeline to that effort. And what if the climate changes just months after an investment? Asked whether Will Smith’s calamitous Oscar-night slap of Chris Rock and all that ensued afterward is causing any sort of rethink of Candle’s Westbrook position, Mayer didn’t hesitate. “We’re holding steady with Westbrook and believe the team there will continue building a strong broad-based content business,” he says. On a broader note, the M&A marketplace has remained hot, but the economic backdrop has grown more discouraging, with rising interest rates, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and new waves of supply chain and employment angst weighing on investors. “We’d also expect the valuation reset we’ve seen in the public markets to be reflected somewhat in private market valuations as well,” Mayer says. That trend is “obviously a positive in the near term for us as a buyer.” Candle isn’t just another passive investor. Mayer and Staggs say the combined team of internal Candle staffers and those working for companies they have invested in, numbers about 400. “We think of Candle as an integrated company,” Mayer says, and the aim is to encourage collaboration. Many principals at companies they invest in, including Witherspoon and Hello Sunshine CEO Sarah Harden, join Candle’s board as a result of transactions. “We’d like to find, as I think we found already, some great companies with some great leadership that we can position through scale, through capital, through some expertise on synergy and branding and the like to really go further than they might’ve gone on their own,” Staggs says, “but without being heavy handed about their creative vision or what they’re trying to achieve as individual entities.” It’s a familiar playbook for Staggs. “We helped set up the construct that allowed Pixar to continue to thrive inside of Disney, allowed Marvel to thrive inside of Disney and allowed Lucasfilm to do the same. So, we understand that construct and that hierarchy.”
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irst, there was Parasite, shaking up the global film sector and snatching Oscar glory. Then, there was Squid Game. It’s been quite the three years for content from Korea, a nation that has long had an outstanding reputation for producing top quality entertainment that had nonetheless struggled to travel beyond Asia, with some exceptions. That changed in earnest last September when Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game launched, breaking records that none could have thought breakable and stealing the zeitgeist in a way that no show has done in recent memory. If you didn’t know someone dressing up as a Squid Game character for Halloween, you probably weren’t invited to a Halloween party. Hwang is in a reflective mood after a whirlwind half year during which time his show has shaken up the global TV landscape, sending him from relative unknown outside his home nation to being told by Steven Spielberg: “I want to steal your brain.” “I feel like I’ve been swept by the Niagara Falls over the course of the last six months and fallen off a cliff,” he says. “To have such compliments from Steven Spielberg was completely beyond my imagination. I still can’t work out whether this is real or I’m daydreaming.” The success of Squid Game may have happened at lightning speed, but getting from idea to greenlight took a little longer. As an avid comic book reader in the late 2000s “without a penny” in his pocket, Hwang took to reading stories about people risking their lives for money. “If I was asked to participate in one
of those games back then, I probably would have,” he says. “As a creator that led me to thinking how I would design such a game. So, I started building the story and made a survivor game. I’m not that smart or physically strong so decided to make simple games; games for kids.” Hwang was fascinated by the contrast of people risking their lives on simple games they hadn’t thought about since they were children, and he spent a year working on a feature film version of what was to eventually become Squid Game. But back then, there was no appetite for such a violent feature and, after pitching to several places, Hwang put his script away in a drawer and worked on other projects. Fast-forward seven years and Netflix’s Korean launch provided the environment for Squid Game that Hwang had been craving. The streamer was commissioning local content on a global scale in multiple different languages and happy to go to very dark places with the tone of its shows. Squid Game the feature film became Squid Game the 10-part TV series and Hwang had his greenlight. He is completely measured about having to wait so long for his passion project to reach the screen and cites a second reason why it needed time. “This story feels much more realistic in 2021 than in 2011,” he says. “People’s survival feels more threatened now. We have seen the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ grow due to Covid, so given these global circumstances, I can see why people are more immersed in this story and it is resonating.” Hwang is full of praise for the autonomy with which Netflix let him go about his business (“I was able to do things in the freest way,” he insists), but the deal that secured the show has been publicly decried for failing to secure the
How Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Korean smash proved the potential of non-English TV BY MAX GOLDBART
N E T FL IX
Moment to Shine
Lee Jung-jae is lead character Seong Gi-hun.
n Squid Game, lead character Seong Gi-hun is a down-on-his-luck gambling addict given a dangerous opportunity to win a fortune and turn his life around by playing deadly children’s games against 456 other cash-strapped no-hopers. Lee Jung-jae, who plays Seong, has almost nothing in common with his alterego: he is one of South Korea’s biggest stars through films such as Deliver Us from Evil and the Along with the Gods franchise and shows Chief of Staff and Triple. He is humble about his opportunity after the show’s unexpected global success and the glut of awards nominations he garnered afterward (including becoming the first male TV performer to earn a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for a fully non-English language role). “I still don’t feel like my life has changed dramatically,” he says. “But I do look forward to having more opportunities to work with great people on more projects.” Lee had no representation in the U.S. when Squid Game broke through, creating the situation where an overnight Netflix star emerged without a direct line into Hollywood. That soon changed when he signed with CAA in February. “After several meetings, I came to the conclusion that we could be good partners,” he says. “I’m already getting a lot of support from them. I’m truly grateful.” Lee now has the toolkit to replicate his huge Korean success in the U.S. and he believes the way audiences interpret stories these days gives him an even better chance to make an impression. “We now live in an era where the ability to express emotions is more important for an actor than the linguistic skills,” he says. “I’m not fluent in English, but I don’t think it will
prevent me from communicating the emotions of my characters.” Lee will be at the Cannes Film Festival at a Midnight Screening with his directorial debut Hunt, in which he stars opposite close friend Jung Woo-sung as a National Security Agency operative. While the film, which he is also writing and producing, is a spy thriller with a 1980s-set storyline addressing the paranoia and fear behind the decades-old conflict between North Korea and South Korea, it actually centers on themes of “preventing war and violence,” he says. “The themes can be rather serious, but I did my best to make the film as entertaining as possible. The organizers of the Cannes Film Festival took a favorable view of the intentions behind the film and the elements of entertainment it brings. I’m honored to be able to have my directorial debut screened at the festival, and I look forward to the conversation with the audience after the premiere.” Looking beyond the French Riviera, Lee sees a bright future for Korean content. He notes that the central themes of Squid Game— such as class, financial woes and overcoming crazy odds—resonated around the world and proved how stories from the country can drive the global conversation. “There’s a lot of Korean content that is just as entertaining as Squid Game, so I’m confident we will see more hits like it,” he says. “There are many series and films currently in production across a wide variety of genres that have not been tried before. These series and films will move and entertain audiences in many other countries.” If Lee is right, K-pop soon won’t be the only Korean entertainment export driving tastes in the West. —Jesse Whittock
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creator a bonus for the millions of subs it attracted to the service. Reports have valued the show’s impact value at almost $1 billion for the service and yet it only cost $20 million to produce, a steal for the streamer. If he had his time again, Hwang says he would “absolutely no matter what” have struck a deal that would have allowed him to keep some of the show’s IP. “I’ll get compensation as I have achieved success and can do something bigger as my next step, but if I could go back to the table then I would have made sure it was an IP-sharing deal,” he says. Netflix is no stranger to this form of criticism. British multi-hyphenate Michaela Coel famously walked away from a multimillion-dollar Netflix deal for global breakout I May Destroy You that would have left her with no IP. That show ended up with the BBC and HBO, and the rest, as they say, is history. But unsure of its potential success, Hwang signed the deal and Squid Game has become what it has become, at one point sitting atop Netflix’s mostwatched list in 94 countries. Just how did Hwang crack the global market in a way no creator has done before? He ponders the question for a long while before positing three important factors: “Overcoming the barriers of language and culture with a simple and visual message”; “focusing on the emotional aspect of the characters”; and playing with familiar colors and shapes that are “intuitively understandable”. On the first point, he elaborates: “The games are very simple, they are kids’ games, so regardless of how old you are you can understand the rules in 20 seconds. Whether it be Red Light, Green Light or Tug of War, everyone has experience of one of these games, so I wanted to build on the memories of so many people around the world.” A focus on characters’ emotions eschewed the need to make the games more complicated, he adds, pointing to viewers’ strong connection with many of these characters, whether in the form of adoration towards lead character Seong Gi-hun (played by Lee Jung-jae) or hatred targeted at arch-villain Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae). “I also wanted familiar colors and shapes, with a focus on pinks, circles, triangles,” he says of the third factor. “They are used intuitively to set the hierarchy of the show’s characters.” The show’s success has helped contribute to a blossoming Korean culture around the world, not just in TV and film but also K-pop, Hwang says. He expects this sensation to continue for a long time as the world works its way back through the archives of TV shows, films and music that have been popular at home for many years. The world is obsessed with what Hwang will do next and, although the deal is still not signed, he is putting much of his mental energy into Squid Game Season 2. “Season 1’s success has given me an immense amount of pressure and I am having nightmares about the reception for Season 2 not being so good,” he admits candidly. Hwang says he is formulating ideas and thinking of new games and characters to introduce to the show, and the first run was left with plenty of
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N E T FL IX
unanswered questions. He is targeting a Halloween 2024 launch and confirmed to Deadline recently that fan favorite Gi-hun will return along with the shadowy Front Man, played by Lee Byung-hun. Away from the franchise, Hwang is developing a feature inspired by a novel by revered Italian essayist Umberto Eco, with the working title Killing Old Man’s Club. He has teased this project as “even more violent” than Squid Game but won’t detail further. On the lighter side, Hwang reveals exclusively that he is working on a comedy provisionally titled The Best Show on the Planet, a satire based on his personal experience of forging an overnight global hit. As for the legacy of Squid Game, along with non-U.S./U.K. Netflix breakouts including Spain’s La Casa de Papel and France’s Lupin, Hwang believes the show could be one of the founding programs to tip the global content balance from English language to non-English language. “There are untapped parts of the world that don’t speak English and you only have to think of their market size,” he says. “These are huge, growing populations. Non-English titles can’t reach the level of English titles yet due to a lack of investment, but if the trend continues then I personally think there will come a point when non-English language content goes beyond English language content.”
WHERE TO FIND THE NEXT SQUID GAME
From top: Jung Ho-yeon, left, and Jae-Sup Choi; Lee Byunghun, right, is the Frontman; Wi Ha-jun, center, in the VIP room.
f one piece of content caught the zeitgeist on the world stage over the last 12 months, it was Squid Game. But the show didn’t come from nowhere. Korean content has been breaking out in a big way across the last decade, from Parasite’s groundbreaking Oscar triumph to the proliferation of K-drama across Asia and beyond. South Korean shows are set to light up the world in the coming months (they topped Netflix’s most-watched non-English chart for 10 of the first 13 weeks of the year), with the likes of Soo Hugh’s Pachinko dropping on AppleTV+ very recently and a Money Heist remake in the works. And there are other nations doing fascinating things in the content space at a time when audiences are hungry for non-English language shows from different places. At the recent Series Mania and Mip TV forum events, the potential next Squid Game was the hot topic. Next to Korea, Japan has been producing quality content for many decades, but much of it is made exclusively with the strong local market in mind and is primarily consumed on those shores. The truly worldwide nature of players such as Netflix and its aggressive localfor-global content spending policy could see that change in the coming years. Japan certainly has the pedigree, with it being both the fourth most-nominated and most-winning country in the history of the Oscars’ international feature film category, including, most recently, for Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car. Thailand is another nation insiders are keeping their eyes on, with an upcoming series on the famous Thai cave rescue coming out soon. As for China, geopolitical turbulence hampers its content-production abilities but there is plenty of IP that could capture international audiences. Another intriguing and complex market is India, which has long been established for having a wildly successful cinema hub and is looking now to potentially produce a game-changing global TV show. Bollywood has the knowhow and capacity to make the next Squid Game, and the region, with its huge untapped middle class, is a key streamer battleground. Turkey is another country that numerous executives cite when discussing booming emerging markets. The nation’s epic historical dramas are vastly popular at home and increasingly so abroad, particularly in India, and the year ahead could see it take a step up in terms of quality. Meanwhile, execs are excited by shows coming out of Africa. Mo Abudu, the pioneering founder of EbonyLife and a past Deadline Disruptor, has deals in place with Netflix, Sony, AMC and BBC Studios and is forging, amongst multiple shows, a 50 Cent-produced African period drama titled Queen Nzinga. —Tom Grater and Max Goldbart
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THE FRENCH NEWER WAVE
ueer director, activist and scholar Amandine Gay continually pushes back against the notion of universalism with her words and content. Her feature film, a documentary titled Speak Up (Ouvrir la voix), puts the lives of Black women living in France at its front and center, providing an intimate portrait and a truthful analysis of what it means to be Black and to be a woman living in France and Belgium. The film sparked conversations about race and gender, which brought the taboo topic of intersectionality to the forefront. But because her film showed that France
wasn’t the racial utopia many wish to believe it is, Gay had to self-produce and self-distribute. In 2017, the film was released in theaters around France, Belgium, Switzerland and Canada. Many accused it of promoting division amongst French society, but the New Yorker praised the film as, “A vital film in itself and a virtual kit for the inspiration of other filmmakers; it’s an opening of voices and of paths.” Her second documentary, A Story of One’s Own is poised to open a whole new discussion about adoption and adoptees, as the film chronicles five transracial and transnational adoptees and their experiences.
After the controversial 2020 César
BY VALERIE COMPLEX
programmed movies from an unprecedented number of women and people of color, more than in any other year. Director Julia Ducournau won the Palme d’Or for her film Titane, becoming only the second woman to do so. This win gave people hope that maybe change was coming from the white, male-dominated festival. But with the initial reveal of the Cannes lineup last month, it appeared things had gone back to the way they usually were, with women and POC content largely shut out. Subsequent additions to the slate included five films directed or co-directed by women in Competition for the first time. But is it enough? Change is happening slowly, but the years of exclusion have proven harmful to many filmmakers who exist on the margins, and few established voices seemed willing to speak up. That is until a new wave of women decided to confront the issue head on. The difficulty in calling attention to the issues of underrepresentation lies, in part, within French law. The Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés (the French data protection agency) banned the gathering of personal data and statistics that show the breakdown of racial and ethnic origins, health status, sexual orientation and religion. Since the numbers don’t exist, there is no documented evidence that addresses where the French film and television industry is lacking. But just because the numbers aren’t there does not mean the issue is going unnoticed, and the voices calling for change are getting louder. Joining Deadline’s class of Disruptors this year, directors Céline Sciamma and Amandine Gay, and actresses Aïssa Maïga, Adèle Haenel and Nadège Beausson-Diagne represent the vanguard of the fight, using their words, content and activism to challenge the status quo and question the outdated views of a white, male-dominated industry. Here’s how they’ve done it.
n November 2019, French actress Adèle Haenel accused director Christophe Ruggia of sexual abuse and of attempting to groom her between the ages of 12 and 15. Speaking out is still uncommon among women in any industry, but she was one of the first to speak publicly about the abuses in the country’s entertainment industry, two years after the #MeToo movement created by Black activist Tarana Burke kicked into high gear. Haenel's speaking out propelled other women to come forward with their stories of abuse as well. Now, she is one of France’s most lauded young actresses, having been nominated for seven Césars by the age of 30, and winning two. She was nominated for another César for her role in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She led the walkout at the César Awards that year when Roman Polanski was awarded the prize for best director, and she famously shouted “La honte! [The shame!]” as she left. The actress ignited a feminist flame within the women of France who continue to demand change from the government in the way it handles abuse and harassment. Haenel is always on the frontlines of these marches, keenly aware of the power her platform gives her to discuss these issues out loud.
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ctress, director and producer Aïssa Maïga made her acting debut in the 1997 film, Saraka Bô. Since then, she’s portrayed a diverse range of roles, and every performance is executed with fearlessness, sincerity and confidence. However, in her years in the profession she had noticed a pattern of racist behavior in the French film industry that she could not ignore. She was one of the participants in the staged protest against racism in the French film industry that took place at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. The actress linked arms with 15 other Black French actresses as they walked across the red carpet to the steps of the iconic Palais des Festivals. Her big Disruptor moment came in an act of defiance on stage at the 2020 César awards. In front of the mostly white audience, Maïga spoke about the discriminatory treatment of actors of color, and how stereotypical roles for Black actors continue to dominate casting choices. “We survived whitewashing, blackface, tons of dealer roles, housekeepers with a Bwana accent; we survived the roles of terrorists, all the roles of hyper-sexualized girls, but we are not going to leave French cinema alone,” she said. The speech left the audience stunned into silence. Did she make some folk angry? Yes. Did that stop her in any way? Maïga has kept her word, realizing that she must be the change, and now the actress creates the content she wants to see. With her featurelength documentary, Regard noir, Maïga gave a platform to Black actresses around the world to relay their stories of racism, sexism and colorism in the industry.
riter and director Céline Sciamma started a movement—unintentionally. Her film Portrait of a Lady on Fire brought back discussion of the female gaze and how it had been explored by a
male-dominated cinematic history. The movie inspired a generation of young women who raise signs at French feminist marches that say, “We Are the Girls on Fire.” As an out lesbian, Sciamma has never been afraid to criticize the current state of French film and television, acknowledging it is very white, male, and bourgeois. This is why Sciamma, along with others including actresses Léa Seydoux and Lily Rose Depp, backed the 50/50 campaign, which aims to achieve gender parity in the industry. This has caused many industry traditionalists to side-eye her accomplishments. This was evident when she told The Guardian about how the French press reacted to Portrait. “In France, they don’t find the film hot,” says Sciamma matter-of-factly.
aris-born actress, singer and poet Nadège Beausson-Diagne has been a loud and proud activist within the French film and television industry. She was present at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, walking hand-in-hand with other Black actresses to protest the under-representation of Black and mixed-race women and the clichés they are subjected to. Throughout her career she’s heard several anti-Black comments referring to her skin color and her language, calling her too Black or not Black enough. Along with Adèle Haenel, in 2019 she also came forward about her experiences with sexual abuse and sexual assault. Nadège posted to her Instagram account about her experiences saying, “I too was the victim of sexual harassment and sexual assault on two shoots in Africa. It was a very long time ago. The pain was swallowed up. Today, I am ready to speak out to help release that word and reclaim my life.” The actress has turned her pain into acts of resistance by publicly calling out the issues of race and sex. By sharing her story and putting her feet to the pavement to fight for women’s rights, she stands alongside Céline Sciamma, Aïssa Maïga, Adèle Haenel, Amandine Gay and others determined to make the French industry a better place.
“[They think] it lacks flesh, it’s not erotic. It seems like there are some things that they can’t receive.” Her contempt for the status quo came to a head at the 2020 Cèsar Awards at which Roman Polanski—who had been convicted of sexual abuse in the United States in the 1970s—won the Cèsar award for best director. She left the ceremony in protest with actors Adèle Haenel, Noèmie Merlant, Aïssa Maïga and others. It validated everything she had been saying about the industry’s desire to keep its head in the sand. But now it’s out for the world to see. While change is slowly creeping through in France, none of the naysayers have stopped her from putting queer ideals and women at the forefront of the stories she chooses to tell.
5/3/22 6:14 PM
The director of Bel-Air
nspiration can come from the most unanticipated places, like walking the dog in the park or buying a soft pretzel at the mall. For Morgan Cooper, it came in 2019 while driving down Route 71 in Kansas City, Missouri. Heading home after shooting a low-budget beauty commercial, Cooper concocted a plan to turn ’90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air into a gritty short film, with Will Smith’s iconic character reimagined as an unlucky Philly teen who gets caught with a gun during a playground brawl. Rather than face a certain future behind bars, his Uncle Phil works some attorney magic and arranges for Will to start over in the wealthy Southern California neighborhood where he would attend an elite private school. Filmed in eight days with hometown actors and locations in Kansas City and Burbank, the three-and-a-half-minute potboiler was never meant to serve as a grassroots resume for a gig in Hollywood; Morgan just wanted to
have some fun. “I built my career on staying focused on what I could control, and not getting too fixated on the result,” recalls Cooper, now 30. “But I knew the idea was special. I knew it had immense potential to be big.” Within a day of uploading the film to YouTube, Cooper heard from Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Westbrook production company, which used it as the basis for Peacock’s Bel-Air—now one of the most watched original series on the streamer. “Honestly, I’m not a fan of reboots,” says Cooper, who was named an executive producer and director on the series that earned an immediate two-season pickup. “But when there is an honest reimagined take, like The Dark Knight, now that’s somebody taking something and really making it his own. There aren’t a ton of things like that that come from a really sincere place, that aren’t studio manufactured, that aren’t birthed in a corporate boardroom. Mine came from the 71 highway.” Cooper likes to say the Fresh Prince found him. While honing his skills
M EG A
BY LYNETTE RICE
P H OTO C RE D IT
as a self-taught cinematographer—he bought his first camera at 18 and spent his days in Missouri shooting music videos and learning how to light his subjects—he liked to spend his down time watching the ’90s sitcom that was “always in reruns” on his local Channel 38. “It was a staple in the community, to be honest,” says Cooper, who never attended film school before starting his own successful commercial-making business. “Seeing Black wealth on screen and seeing California, everything about it was so captivating. I didn’t grow up around wealth in Kansas, so to see all these different perspectives coming from Black people… the sitcom was so ahead of its time.” So, it was more than a little surreal for Cooper to fly to Miami and meet Smith in the flesh. “It was like meeting a friend I had already known,” Cooper says. “He was so incredibly warm, he was so since Day 1. He was filming Bad Boys for Life and I saw him across the beach. I saw his silhouette saying, ‘Yo, yo, yo.’ He put his arms out wide. He felt like a big brother, embracing me.” The men immediately set out to cast their reimagined drama. Like in Fresh Prince, Bel-Air’s lead character is an effervescent teen named Will Smith who is a natural at basketball and wooing
the young ladies. In other words, it seemed almost impossible to find someone who could embody Smith’s swagger and charm that was displayed in the original sitcom—until they met Jabari Banks. “I’m just naturally charismatic,” says the 23-yearold newcomer. “I’m a people person. The character is a pleaser and that sometimes gets him into trouble. I naturally got into that flow.” The next pivotal role was that of Carlton Banks, Will’s high-strung cousin who was endearingly played in the original by Alfonso Ribeiro. In the updated version, Carlton (Nigerian-American actor Olly Sholotan) is a big man on campus at Bel Air Academy who hides his crippling anxiety by snorting Xanax in his bedroom. He and Will clash immediately over sports, cultural identity and a very cute girl, but find a moment of grace when Will reveals how he never knew his real dad. (Spoiler alert! Will finally meets him in the finale, but more on that later). Filling out the cast is Cassandra Freeman as Will’s Aunt Vivian, Adrian Holmes as Uncle Phil, April Parker Jones as Will’s single mother Vy, Coco Jones as Will’s entrepreneurial cousin Hilary, and Simone Joy Jones as Will’s love interest, Lisa. After a false start with their first head writer—Chris Collins
Clockwise from top left: Will Smith, Morgan Cooper and Jabari Banks; Simone Joy Jones and Banks; Cooper and Adrian Holmes; Banks as Will Smith in Bel-Air.
“[Fresh Prince] was a staple in the community, to be honest. Seeing Black wealth on screen and seeing California, everything about it was so captivating. I didn’t grow up around wealth in Kansas, so to see all these different perspectives coming from Black people… the sitcom was so ahead of its time.” — M O R G A N CO O P E R
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stepped down in August 2021—T.J. Brady and Rasheed Newson of The Chi and The 100 fame took over as co-showrunners. Fortunately for them, much of the groundwork had already been laid. “We had Morgan’s trailer to start from,” Brady says. “A lot of the debates that occur on other shows are over the look and sound, the feel. That was already settled. That’s why people wanted to do this show. In many aspects we were at an advantage because of that trailer. Where the debates come in is how far to push what the characters do. What we did with Carlton, was it too far? How much can Aunt Viv and Uncle Phil argue? And what would those arguments be like? Those were the exploratory things that happened in early outlines and scripts that we tried to navigate.” “The issues are African American, but the larger stories are universal,” Newson says. “It’s a family story. One thing we did, and I’m proud to say we had to fight for, is that we decided the parents were going to have real meaty stories that didn’t always involve the children. The show could not survive if it was just going to be about the love lives of 16-year-olds. We built something so people who are middle-aged could have something to relate to.” Realism remained paramount in telling the story of modern-day youths in high school, so Morgan and the showrunners made the bold decision to pepper the dialogue (and use rap music) featuring expletives and the N-word. One of the more memorable
moments from the pilot is when Will discovers some of the white kids at school singing an explicit rap song and dropping the N-word without Carlton batting an eye. “Humans cuss,” Cooper says simply. “They curse. We wanted to create authenticity so that’s what hit the screen.” “I can tell you in the pilot we counted the use of the N-word and cut it back,” Newson continues. “It is a balance of being authentic and also knowing you are turning a lot of people off every time you use that word. The rule that emerged is that it can come up in times of emphasis, in anger, but it couldn’t be like, ‘Hey, N-word.’ You couldn’t enter a room that way. There are a lot of African Americans working on this show and there are a lot of opinions among us. As a lot of things on this show, it became a conversation that we had to have early to just make sure we were being intentional about what we were doing.” Now, back to that cliffhanger of a finale. Cooper and the writers wrapped the first 10-episode season in March by introducing Marlon Wayans as Will’s long-lost father Lou. Before his unexpected arrival in California, Will was led to believe by his mom and uncle that Lou abandoned his family; in reality, Lou was serving time in prison and never wanted his son to see him behind bars. “This is one of the things that comes with taking a sitcom and turning it into a drama,” Newson says. “In a sitcom you can gloss over the fact that Will was meeting his rich relations that he hadn’t seen
in years. In this one, you have to explain why there was this rift in the family. It’s a natural question, those stories have to come out. When Will was four, his dad was convicted of a violent crime and he was sentenced to prison, and he told Will’s mother and Uncle Phil, ‘Don’t bring my son down here. If you bring him down here, I won’t come out to see him. I don’t want him to see me like this. I grew up seeing my dad in prison and I think it messed me up and I don’t want to do that to my son.’ Uncle Phil and Will’s mother weren’t able to tell a 4-yearold, ‘Your dad is in prison and doesn’t want to see you anymore,’ so they let him think his father had walked out. That’s what they are reckoning with now because his dad is at the doorstep.” The episode ends with Will storming out of the Bel-Air mansion—the perfect set up for Season 2. Chances are pretty good that the young protagonist will return to the good life (where would the show be otherwise?). Either way, Cooper is thrilled about the possibilities that lie ahead. “I’ve got a lot of ideas, but I will continue as an executive producer on Bel-Air,” he says, while clearly hoping others learn from his good fortune. “I think for filmmakers in 2022 and beyond we have to be entrepreneurial and create our own opportunities. There is a huge difference between pitching an idea and going out and making it yourself. Believe in the 10,000 hours you put in your craft. Invest in yourself. People will respond.”
uring his lengthy career as an agent, David Unger saw there was a future in representing actors from the growing international marketplace. That’s what led to the creation of the Artist International Group in 2019. Judging by the success of everything from Shang-Chi and Lupin, to Parasite, Narcos, Squid Game, Money Heist and Fauda—and the flood of talent those projects introduced to Hollywood— the move has certainly been validated. Unger and other reps who have leaned into global talent management are finding their clients in high demand, thanks to the need by streamers with stagnant domestic subscription growth to make indigenous series and films. “I spent 25 years nurturing international voices, and they have never mattered more in this streaming economy,” says Unger, whose international sensibilities came from growing up in London and observing the business from that side of the pond. His father produced Don’t Look Now, and his grandfather owned Charlie Chaplin’s film library. Unger’s international track began when he signed Chinese actress Gong Li two decades ago. He has since picked up clients such as Michelle Yeoh, who just starred in Everything Everywhere All at Once and the upcoming Avatar sequels. He also has Donnie Yen, who stars opposite Keanu Reeves in the upcoming John Wick sequel, Slumdog Millionaire’s Anil Kapoor, 355’s Fan Bingbing, Ludovic Bernard (Lupin) and Pachinko’s Lee Min-ho, to name a few. Having already achieved proprietary joint ventures in the U.K., France, Spain, Mexico, Brazil and Korea, AIG sees opportunities for performers all around the globe. “We believed the rest of the world was going to matter more, and that talent in these countries would have an outsized prevalence because of what they represent to their domestic market,” Unger says. “That has happened, and it will only continue to grow.” —Mike Fleming Jr.
DAVID UNGER AWARDSLINE
5/3/22 7:19 PM
THE SPEC STARS
ith the motion picture business shifting almost exclusively to franchises over the past decades, screenwriters are increasingly put through the wringer as they find themselves replaced and replaced again throughout protracted development processes. It’s a punishing road that can be demoralizing for writers who have often spent months pitching for an open writing assignment. But as more and more streamers look to add content to their film slates, screenwriters are finding new opportunities to flip the script. A high-profile comic book movie set to debut next year recently had its final script submitted to the WGA for screenwriting credit, and insiders tell Deadline that a staggering 45 writers had some sort of involvement with the script at various stages through the development process. The likelihood that all those writers will get credit is “basically impossible”, according to one source close to the project. And while this might represent an extreme example, having as many as 20 writers involved on a script has become all too common. This can be especially frustrating to the original writers when it comes to the credit bonus they receive when the guild signs off on who will ultimately get a byline on the script.
After decades of disregard, screenwriters
BY JUSTIN KROLL According to several literary agents, writers often count on those big-money credit bonuses, and the fear they won’t come is increasingly pronounced. But in the past year, screenwriters have started to feel hopeful as streamers rush to outbid the major studios for high-profile spec scripts with A-list talent attached. William N. Collage’s Emancipation sold to Apple for more than $100 million with Will Smith attached to star and Antoine Fuqua directing. An untitled Formula One script by Ehren Kruger that came with Brad Pitt attached also sold to Apple for more than $200 million. In both cases, the screenwriters have been properly compensated upfront, and they’ve been in a stronger position to control the rewrite process. These sales were some of the biggest, but streamers’ interest in original content would seem to
indicate that the trend won’t dissipate any time soon. One agent, describing streamers’ slates, says, “We have these big buyers with these huge homes and no furniture. At one point we were just filling their shelves; writers are now giving them the furniture.” It’s an approach to project origination that is starting to seep into the theatrical side of the business, too. MGM recently acquired a package for Challengers, written by Justin Kuritzkes, with Luca Guadagnino and Zendaya attached. Kuritzkes wasn’t even a WGA member when the package sold, but given MGM’s need to compete with the streamers, the studio paid big bucks and Kuritzkes scored a seven-figure pay day. It’s not just an improved payday for writers emerging from these big sales. They’re also finding newfound leverage as a key part of the dealmaking, negotiating producer and executive producer credits that make it harder for studios to cut them out of the process. In some cases—as with the seven-figure sale to Netflix of Below by writers Gregory Weidman and Geoff Tock—the deal even includes a provision not to replace the writers at all. For years, the theatrical business has disempowered writers and decimated the spec market. But as the fight for content intensifies, it’s the spec stars who are taking back control.
5/3/22 7:31 PM
BY MIKE FLEMING JR.
he rise of streamer content has created anxiety for talent and their reps, because of models that require ownership of a project in perpetuity. Because product starts on a streaming site and then never leaves, there is no chance of backend windfalls. Just look at the creators and cast of Squid Game to see what that can mean: a billion-dollar property for Netflix, embarrassingly tiny paydays for the artists who made it, and little hope of making up the shortfall in subsequent seasons. While some of Hollywood’s top dealmakers and lawyers are trying to create fair compensation formulas, one growing way to turn shifting sands into an upside is a trend of artists and their agents gambling on themselves and coming to the market with fully fleshed-out projects, packaged with script, director and star. The result has been auctions that bring greenlights and sometimes career-best paydays. The biggest recent example was the sale of two Knives Out sequels from Rian Johnson. The CAA-brokered auction ended with Netflix paying around $450 million for two films, and the paydays to Johnson and star Daniel Craig are rumored to be in the $100 million range. It was one of the largest Hollywood deals for a picture property, ever. Similar deals with large paydays were realized on the Antoine Fuqua-directed Will Smith starrer Emancipation, Killers of the Flower
Moon—directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro—and a Formula One race movie to star Brad Pitt, with Top Gun: Maverick’s Joseph Kosinski directing. There are many examples of varying degrees. And studios and streamers alike don’t resent the premium price, they look at it as an acceptable cost to add quality, star-driven projects to their slates that they don’t have to develop from the ground up. CAA Media Finance sells an inordinate amount of these, and Roeg Sutherland and Benjamin Kramer say it has become a viable way to get movies made, with the participants gaining more creative control and a better stake in the future of these properties. This will make for a brisk Cannes marketplace. “Never has there been more money in the marketplace, ever,” Sutherland says. “People understand the benefits and risks that come with creating content. There are so many buyers out there that, after it’s finished—and it’s good—you’re going to find a home for it at more favorable terms and with more upside.” Says Kramer: “Making a film independently and then licensing it is a way to get out of a cycle of being reliant on studios’ whims and timetables. Filmmakers and producers who are entrepreneurial see the value of holding on to control. On the right projects—those that start franchises—that value is exponential.
M AR IE N G U Y E N
It’s a risk, but there are big paychecks for those brave
From left: CAA Media Finance's Benjamin Kramer and Roeg Sutherland.
Peacock © Peacock TV LLC. Bel Air © Universal Television LLC. All rights reserved.
5/3/22 11:23 PM
BY MATTHEW CAREY
ABIGAIL DISNEY I
f Abigail Disney had listened to her financial advisers growing up, the heiress would have concentrated on one thing above all else: getting even richer. The granddaughter of The Walt Disney Company co-founder Roy O. Disney says of those early money managers, “They were really lovely, wonderful, nice people who had known me since I was a child… and they taught me some things that it took me a long time to break open and really unpack. Nobody said this out loud—this was just implied—but if you end your life without more than you started with,
Peacock © Peacock TV LLC. The Amber Ruffin Show © Universal Television LLC. All rights reserved.
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then you’ve somehow failed. And beyond that, Fairy Tales, co-directed by Kathleen Hughes. The your children should be better off than you were.” film, which premiered at the Sundance Film FestiBut with her, the imperative to compile wealth val in January, takes direct aim at the vast disparity on top of wealth didn’t take. “I think that’s an between what Disney pays C-suite executives vs. appropriate thing, maybe in the middle class low-level employees at its theme parks, the workers or the working class,” she notes. “But I started Disney refers to as ‘cast members’. already with more than I need. Why would I want Ralph and Trina, a married couple employed more or need more?” at Disneyland and parents of three young girls, tell The social activist, philanthropist and docuDisney in the film, “Even with both of us working mentary filmmaker has become a disruptor on full-time, we still fall below poverty level.” Ralph a grand scale, challenging fellow one-percenters and Trina work overnight shifts at Disneyland, to rethink their values and question the unequal earning $15 an hour, plus an extra 75 cents an hour structuring of society. for overnight duty. “We’re the people who do the “I just don’t think you can move about in the pixie dust at night,” Ralph says. “You scrub the world, have your eyes wide open and feel OK about kitchens, the floor, the toilets. And I’m proud of the way things are arranged right now,” Disney what I do.” says. “I think it’s necessary to start calling each But Ralph tells the director it’s hard for him and other out on our own team. other Disneyland workers at The one thing you never do his level to make ends meet. is say, ‘But, you know, I think “We have cast members that’s wrong.’ It’s very frowned that have to make decisions on, it’s ‘un-collegial’ and between [paying for] medica‘overly emotional and immations and food,” he says. “And ture’, and all those things. But these are essential things. You it seems to me that what we’re can’t make choices like that.” doing now is not working very In the film, Disney interwell. Quite the opposite. And I views multiple park employees didn’t see any options left but struggling to get by on their to kind of turn on my class.” wages. At a roundtable with Disney, in a 2021 opinworkers, she asks for a show ion piece for The Atlantic, of hands of how many are on blasted dynastic wealth. And food stamps, have skipped in 2020 she joined a handful medical treatment to save of immensely rich people, money, or have slept in their including members of the cars because they couldn’t Pritzker and Gund families, afford housing. Most of the advocating for higher taxes on hands go up. the super-wealthy. “What I saw as I was “Those of us in the richest making the film was this 1/10th of the richest one kind of entrenched view in percent should be proud to management that the people —A B I G A I L D I S N E Y pay a bit more of our fortune who work for you on an hourly forward to America’s future,” basis, the people who are the group wrote in a letter cleaning the toilets and the addressed to 2020 presidential candidates of all rest of it, are not quite really like you,” Disney says. parties. “We’ll be fine—taking on this tax is the least “I really do think it’s an ideology that’s very close we can do to strengthen the country we love.” to racism. So, the guy who never took advantage of Disney has described Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the education program you offered him and is still Warren Buffett—three of the wealthiest people on there at minimum wage, well, he deserves what he the planet—as “plutocrats”. And in a 2019 Washinggets, and his children deserve what he gets.” ton Post op-ed, she criticized the “naked indeDisney begins the documentary with a quote cency” of the reported salary of Robert Iger, then from poet Gwendolyn Brooks: “We are each other’s CEO of The Walt Disney Company. business; we are each other’s magnitude and “According to Equilar,” she wrote, referencbond.” The filmmaker believes that attitude, once ing the information services firm specializing in prevalent in America as she sees it, began to erode corporate leadership analysis, “Iger took home in the Reagan era. “The 1980s… [saw] the great more than $65 million in 2018. That’s 1,424 times norm shift,” she says, “which is that we’re not all in the median pay of a Disney worker. To put that gap this together.” in context, in 1978, the average CEO made about That norm shift, combined with changes in 30 times a typical worker’s salary. Since 1978, CEO taxation policy favorable to the wealthy, has led pay has grown by 937%, while the pay of an average to “historic income inequality”, Disney says. “If worker grew just 11.2%.” we’re not now past the Gilded Age, we’re certainly She isn’t limiting her critique to print. Disney getting there.” expands on the theme of income inequality in her On that score, Disney recently tweeted, “The latest documentary, The American Dream and Other last four decades have seen a massive redistribution
“What on earth do rich people need to be comfortable for? I think they’re defined by their comforts. And, so, they need to be made to confront some very unpleasant realities about their wealth and the consequences of the inequality.”
of wealth. Only problem is it went to those who were already wealthy.” Disney pegs her own net worth at $120 million. She says her efforts have been directed toward reducing her wealth, not increasing it. “I could be a billionaire if I wanted to. I’ve said no to more money for much of my adult life… I think of it as a long, slow ceremonial suicide that I’m committing, by being a terrible businesswoman and giving a lot away. But I don’t understand why that’s not one of the options.” This attitude makes her an outlier among the super-rich, the kind of people who huddle in Sun Valley, St. Moritz and Bora Bora. “If I were still invited to those places, which I don’t think I will be, I would be only too happy to say the uncomfortable things because what on earth do rich people need to be comfortable for?” she says. “I think they’re defined by their comforts. And, so, they need to be made to confront some very unpleasant realities about their wealth and the consequences of the inequality.” Disney says she developed her perspective toward wealth and inequality over time. It wasn’t like one day a lightbulb turned on. “Epiphanies are like silver bullets. There’s no such thing,” she insists. “From childhood I was just kind of paying some attention in a way that was weird, probably. My mom used to say, ‘A stork brought everybody else, but Abby came in a spaceship.’ And I’m sort of proud of that.” Her political positions—pro-union, pro-taxation of the wealthy, in favor of abortion rights and gun control—put her at odds with the wider Disney clan that she describes as conservative. It can make for awkward family gatherings. “I’ll say there’s a diversity of opinions about me specifically,” she says, “but the people I’m close to I remain close to, and we keep talking. And two of my siblings have been very, very, very supportive and that’s been really great.” Abigail’s sister Susan Disney Lord and brother Tim Disney are executive producers of The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales. The film has yet to find a distributor though the prospect of it winding up streaming on Disney+ seems remote. Disney suggests her criticism of former Disney CEO Robert Iger in the film may have turned off other potential distributors. “Disney either owns or controls or influences almost everything,” she says. “There’s a loyalty to class. You don’t criticize another billionaire,” she says. “I think there’s been hesitation around that because of the way the film calls out, specifically, Bob Iger, because that’s the thing you don’t do… I suspect we’ll probably wind up self-distributing or doing a service deal somehow. If I have to stand in Times Square with a megaphone, I’m going to do it. It’s going to get seen, one way or the other. I hope in the fall, we’ll be out.” In the meantime, she remains engaged on social media, calling out what she sees as the scourge of grotesque degrees of wealth disparity. Disney recently tweeted about herself, “Being a traitor to my class is my proudest accomplishment.”
“EXQUISITE” “TRIUMPH…BEAUTY AND ENIGMA” “GRADE: A…PAMELA ADLON’S MASTERPIECE IS COMPLETE”
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5/3/22 5:08 PM
Birthed during the pandemic, the management company is anything but business as usual BY JUSTIN KROLL AND ANTHONY D’ALESSANDRO
RA N G E M E D I A PART N E RS
representation, and a lean into branded opportunities outside their onscreen work. In fact, director Luca Guadagnino—who followed founding partner and former WME partner Rich Cook to Range—was so all in that he designed the company’s new headquarters. “My professional relationship with Rich is profound, I see him as a rock to hang on to and I have been building with him a strong complicity in our path,” Guadagnino says. “So, I would have followed him anywhere. The great news is though that since Rich told me about Range, I realized how powerful and visionary they were in waiting to make such a disruptive move, so now the reasons became two. As I said about the disruptive power of this idea, I love when there is a very healthy ‘shake of the house’. In this case the energy of the different people evolved into this company, the ‘out of the box’ thinking intertwined with the absolute ‘insiders’ nature of all people involved was so exciting.” The formation of Range two years ago is the dictionary definition of ‘disruptive’, and it was fraught with painful farewells to mostly receptive former colleagues. “Yeah, we remember that Sunday well,” says
RANGE MEDIA PARTNERS
t has been nearly two years since a group of the best and brightest young agents and partners told their bosses they were stepping away from their million-dollar salaries to follow former eOne strategy officer and CAA television veteran Peter Micelli and be the founding partners of a new management company, Range Media Partners. They made their dramatic pivot at the height of industry instability; movie theaters remained closed from Covid, production was slow to rebound as no one was writing Covid policies and that meant no completion bonds; studio tentpoles were being unloaded to streamers. The rep business was also in flux, with the WGA bent on eradicating the packages and affiliated productions that had increasingly fueled agency coffers. So, a consortium of agents from CAA, UTA, WME and other firms, repping such A-listers as Bradley Cooper, Tom Hardy, Keira Knightley, Emilia Clarke and Ramy Youssef decided to embrace change, not fear it. Their clients understood their reps’ sell that this could be the new phase in an ever-shifting Hollywood, with an emphasis on hands-on
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“CAPTIVATING” “IDRIS’ PERFORMANCE...IS A
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Jack Whigham, who left CAA for the new opportunity at Range Media Partners. On that late summer day of departures, also following Micelli and Whigham were CAA’s Mick Sullivan, Dave Bugliari, Michael Cooper, CAA Global Brand Group’s Sandra Kang, CAA Foundation’s Rachel Kropa, WME lit agent Cook; UTA TV Agents Mackenzie Roussos, Susie Fox, and Chelsea McKinnies; New York-based manager Byron Wetzel, founder/president of LA-based music management company BRND MGMT Matt Graham, and digital and brand strategy vet Natalie Bruss. Range Media Partners would extend beyond the de rigueur of TV and film representation, catapulting clients’ brands into areas such as Web3, E-gaming, NFTs, social media and venture capital. “We got to a place where we were thinking about what was needed, not just creating a competitor for competitors’ sake,” Micelli says. “There was a dynamic change that was coming, and the company would be reflective of dealing with that.” “That was what was really motivating for us, because when you looked around, you said ‘OK, you see the big shifts coming in terms of what Web3 is going to do and the Writers Guild issues and the issues all representatives are having with the screening backends and the buy outs,” he adds. “We were just thinking about what was needed.” Unlike other management firms, who, like the agencies, handled a massive list of clients, Range would prioritize top, exclusive talent. “We were all stretched pretty thin in our previous lives,” says Whigham about changing up from an agent to a manager. “By saying we’re going to do something more intimate and boutique with less clients, we’re going to spend more time on the things that are either not on the menu or hard to achieve because they do take a lot of time. That takes strategy.” At the agencies, there’s a huge divide in the millions of dollars earned by the executives who run the firms, and the crackerjack agents pulling in commissions and relying on bosses to set bonuses that rise and fall with the health of the agency. At Range however, partners have equity stakes and discretionary bonuses are eliminated as they’re often a bone of contention. Instead, one manager’s success with a client resonates to others in the firm via a shared pool of commissions. Aside from a start with top dealmakers and strong ground-floor clients, Range began on solid financial footing. The new firm was bankrolled by hedge fund billionaire and future New York Mets owner Steve Cohen, via his early-stage capital firm Point72. He remains a minority investor, with additional funding from New York Knicks coach David Fizdale, Microsoft CMO Mich Mathews-Spradlin and Grubhub founder/ CEO Matt Maloney. Less than two years since their launch, Range Media Partners is now valued at an estimated $300 million. It is close to what one of Hollywood’s biggest, most established management-production companies, 3 Arts, sold for in 2018 after 27 years in the business. Range Media is also reportedly cash-flow positive over the last five months. In the streaming era, quarterly subscriber upticks, and undisclosed, elusive viewership data are
challenging benchmarks for a talent rep to build any “We believe that bringing a really sophisticated client’s career from, versus box office or TV viewerpoint of view and capability on the data analytics ship which are clear barometers of an artist’s worth. informs opportunities and strategies immensely However, rather than fight the new normal, Range because Hollywood traditionally has been a little bit Media’s philosophy is to embrace it. gut instinct,” Whigham says. “One thing we were seeing was that you have a lot So Range has built the most comprehensive undermore direct-to-consumer capabilities through digital standing of their clients’ fan base, from what they and online. You had challenges in the traditional film stream to their credit card purchases. marketplace, so artists are talking to their fans more “Not only are we able to use it in the B2B sense to directly and they’re having to be more aggressive help our clients get the roles they want or identify the about revenue streams, because there’s uneasiness in clients that might be best associated with a piece of traditional film. So, they’re going to be more aggresintellectual property, but also to help them undersive, more ambitious about a lot of different areas of stand their fans in a way that frankly only venture and their life on average,” explains Whigham. hedge funds have ever done because our clients are This begged the question for Range Media Partners brands too,” Bruss says. about what they might be able to exploit. Range’s data set has been instrumental in client “One is to be well capitalized, so that if you were negotiations, whether it’s demonstrating their actually bringing money to the table and certain opporfinancial value to a media conglomerate’s library, or tunities, you could either in the case of M. Night Shyamalan, leverage great opportunities persuading Apple to use the twoor you can get stuff over the time Oscar nominated filmmaker’s line,” Whigham says. name in promoting his series Servant Part of Range’s power to on the service. Range’s Head of propel their clients’ projects Digital Management Kai Gayoso, a stems from a model which former Facebook vet, who overis built on creating multiple sees the firm’s influencer division joint ventures with various worked directly with Shyamalan on studios and platforms for reorganizing the marketing around various projects. Servant and his Universal thriller last One such investment summer, Old. “We got to a place is with A+E Networks, Another á la carte consultation where we were which recently took a highfrom Range is in the realm of music. teens stake in the firm for Shyamalan’s next movie features thinking about what $50M. The deal calls for a prominent music component. was needed, not just A+E Studios to become a Range’s music division which includes co-production partner for creating a competitor managing partners Matt Graham and scripted TV projects emergTyler Henry, structured a means for for competitors’ ing from Range. Previously, the filmmaker to release and own that Range had formed a joint music through a partnership with sake. There was a venture with A+E Studios Universal Music. dynamic change which put the series White Other examples of how Range that was coming, House Doctor in developis broadening their clients beyond ment at Fox with Alyssa the standard buckets of film and TV and the company Milano producing. include a deal for Vince Vaughn at would be reflective of Also of late, Range Caesar’s; essentially a joint venture teamed with FilmNation to between Range and GPN, Game Play dealing with that.” co-produce and co-finance Network, Yellowstone actor Luke —PETER MICELLI four-to-six films annually Grimes’ new country singing career, across a range of genres and Atlantic Records rapper Jack and budgets, thus giving the Harlow’s acting debut in 20th Century latter access to high-end material and talent from the Studios’ reboot of White Men Can’t Jump. Range also firm’s stable. signed Flight Attendant EPs Meredith Lavender and Looking beyond film and TV, Range also steers its Marcie Ulin, and is working on a visual branding that clients on a mélange of areas including, but not limited jibes with their stories. to brand incubation and business investments. “We want Range to be a place where partners, art“Artists have spent their careers building other ists and clients can come and say, ‘You know what? I’ve people’s assets, not building themselves into their own always wanted to do this.’ We have the venture capital assets,” says managing partner Bruss who has worked expertise, we have business development expertise, we extensively with Gabrielle Union. Bruss has advised have the data analytics, we’re spending an enormous the L.A.’s Finest actress on becoming a co-owner on amount of time in Web3 and understanding what the the National Women’s Soccer League, Angel City, to potential of it is and how that impacts artists commulaunching her own baby care line, Proudly. nicating their stories to the world,” Micelli says. “The Another area distinguishing Range is their use more we are able to sit down with clients and unearth of data analytics in negotiating for their clients and other dreams, the more the promise of our company informing their decisions. really comes to fruition.”
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ZEINAB ABU ALSAMH More opportunities for women and a Saudi version of show how much the region is changing
BY DIANA LODDERHOSE
einab Abu Alsamh has only been general manager of MBC Studios Saudi Arabia for a year but with the blazing speed at which the local industry is growing, she says it has felt more like five. “Things are happening a lot faster than I anticipated,” the Saudi native says. “But it’s great because for the last 40 years we haven’t had our stories come out—I’m not even talking about the world—I’m talking about come out even to us.” Abu Alsamh, who previously was the chief commercial officer of the Saudi Broadcasting Authority, is responsible for overseeing all Saudi content and development projects for MBC Studios, the in-house production arm of the Saudi-owned free-to-air network giant MBC, as well as expanding the content production industry in the kingdom. With 13 different regions and a population of 30 million people, two-thirds of whom are under the age of 35 and hungry for content, Abu Alsamh says it’s an extraordinary time to be a filmmaker in the country. “People are eager to be part of this prosperous industry,” she says. “There are parts of the country that even I, as a local, don’t know much about. So, every time I get scripts in from different areas of Saudi, I get very excited because it’s such a first step and everything is new. We have so many stories to cover that haven’t been represented to us yet.”
Abu Alsamh was instrumental in facilitating the two biggest Hollywood productions to shoot in the country: the $140 million actioner Desert Warrior, with Anthony Mackie and Aiysha Hart, that shot in the country’s Neom region, and Kandahar with Gerald Butler that was shot around AlUla. “It was so important to have these productions here because it laid out the ground rules for other productions to come,” she says, noting that the experience the local crews were able to take away from these projects was invaluable. “Whenever I go onto these sets, I always talk to the interns to see how they are doing, how the experience has been for them, and it’s always like a dream come true for them to have this opportunity to work on a production without having to leave the country.” The exec is especially looking forward to their upcoming series Rise of the Witches, which is one of the country’s biggest-budget TV series to date. The story is based on a Saudi novel and tracks the rise of two witches’ covens that eventually go to war with each other. “It’s very edgy and very modern,” Abu Alsamh says. “It’s mystical and fantastical and such an exciting piece of material for us to work on and offer to audiences.” The show features an all-Saudi cast and is also shot in Neom. MBC is also busy with a local version of The Office. “Our workspace is so unique and not open
to anyone,” Abu Alsamh says. “Families don’t know how their kids work in offices and it will be great to portray this interaction between men and women from different backgrounds being put together in one space. I’m really excited about this opportunity.” Abu Alsamh also heads up the MBC Academy, an education and training platform with the aim to discover and up-skill Saudi talent. “We’re booming at the moment, so we need an abundance of talent and we’re always trying to grow our local skillset through this,” she says. “It’s important to recruit new faces, get acting coaches and build our industry from the ground up.” Abu Alsamh is particularly passionate about empowering women in the business. As the mother of two daughters, who also has three sisters, Abu Alsamh says it’s a huge directive for her to facilitate getting female Saudi voices heard in the film and television sector. “From a company point of view, MBC has always had a thrust to empower women, whether it be in productions or empowering executives within the organization,” she says. “It’s very holistic, comfortable and a diverse place to work. But personally, I am very passionate about empowering women. There are a lot of women in my family, and I feel it’s our responsibility to make this world a better place, as clichéd as that sounds. It inspires me to see what women can do—we are fantastic creatures.”
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The landscape has changed, but new CEOs Ron Meyer and Sophie Jordan will change with it
BY NANCY TARTAGLIONE
n a surprise move last November, veteran studio chief and CAA co-founder Ron Meyer and former beIN Media Group executive Sophie Jordan were named CEO and co-CEO of European indie powerhouse Wild Bunch AG. Together, the formidable leadership team will help steer the pan-European film, TV and media company into the next era of expansion. It’s an interesting turn of events for Wild Bunch, which was originally founded by former StudioCanal executives in 1999 and spun off as a separate entity in 2002. It has consistently been at the forefront of the global indie film movement with strong ties to the Cannes Film Festival, having backed at least six Palme d’Or winners. In 2015, it became a subsidiary of Germany’s Senator, which then rebranded as Wild Bunch AG. In 2019, it formed a standalone sales division, Wild Bunch International, overseen by Wild Bunch co-founder Vincent Maraval, someone
Above: Wild Bunch CEO Ron Meyer. Below: co-CEO Sophie Jordan.
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with whom the company has long been synonymous (but who we have also heard has been mulling a rebrand). Wild Bunch manages a library of more than 2,500 titles and has positioned itself as a key player in direct electronic distribution via its VOD/ SVOD service FilmoTV. The company has had a turbulent run in recent years, with multiple refinancings including a €35 million credit line from Commerzbank in 2020. Today, Meyer says, “We have the funding to do what we need to do,” with a portion from global investment house Tennor Group and other “outside sources”. There are no plans to take the company public as of now. In a 25-year run at NBCUniversal, Meyer guided the media conglomerate through the transition of six different ownerships. Jordan’s international expertise includes runs as an executive and board member at leading companies like Canal Plus, beIN Media Group, Digiturk, Miramax, Paris Saint Germain and Qatar Sports Investments.
that we would like to pursue and the companies that would like to be pursued by us.
Vincent Maraval has been an integral part of Wild Bunch since its inception; how does his Wild Bunch International dovetail with your plans? Jordan: We came into an existing situation. The idea is that Vincent Maraval is obviously an important element of the history of Wild Bunch and still at Wild Bunch International today, and we’re taking that into consideration. I mean, we love Vincent, we like working with him and we want to continue doing that in whatever form that may take. Meyer: The one thing that is clear is that everything that we do will stay in-house. Obviously, we plan on continuing our relationship with Vincent Maraval, but all of what we do will stay within Wild Bunch. We haven’t figured out whether Vincent Maraval changes the name of his company, but we intend to continue a relationship with him; it just may change.
“We see an opportunity to really be the first worldwide independent production/ distribution company. We have the funding to make the acquisitions and investment in companies that help us get there.”
Can you describe how this partnerWild Bunch at its inception ship, and taking over Wild Bunch, was a maverick company came about? Ron Meyer: I’ve been consulting to the and grew to become iconic Qatari royal family for the past year-anda-half about their possibility of being industry. It’s rare to have an in the movie business, and I’ll speak American at the head of an for Sophie who, for the past 19 years, entity like this. What has the has really been overseeing beIN Sports, reaction been? which encompassed Miramax and the Jordan: There’s nothing Paris Saint-Germain soccer team. In my other than goodwill in the many meetings with the Qataris, many French media or film indusof them Sophie had been in. I think try. Everyone wants to see we liked each other, and I was always Wild Bunch succeed because hugely impressed with her knowledge it’s a much beloved brand. and ability. She’s a lawyer, although she And, on the contrary, having wasn’t necessarily practicing law, but I the influx of Ron’s industry was always very impressed by her and knowledge and relationship we had a good relationship. is seen as a great advantage. We were approached by a man, Lars Meyer: If I didn’t have Windhorst [CEO of investment house — RON MEYER Sophie as a partner, it would Tennor Group], who at that time was the be out of the question that majority owner of Wild Bunch and really I could do this. She’s on the ground in France really presented us with a kind of irresistible opportunity to running the company on a daily basis. I’m here in the take the company over and grow it. So, Sophie and I U.S., although I come to Paris at least once a month, spent a good deal of time talking about the company, but my focus is really on growing the company in the what we could do with it and how we would do it, and United States, and ultimately all of what we do will we both decided that we would do this together. become one company. My background, my knowlWhat are you looking to do in terms of production, edge is more U.S.-centric than international, so I distribution, potential acquisitions, and expansion? think Sophie and I, a lot of what makes us work and Sophie Jordan: In general, we have the ambition to will make it work is that we share that mutual knowlposition Wild Bunch as an international independedge of various regions. ent producer of local content, leveraging our strength Within the company, are you planning to make big from our historical subsidiaries in Spain, France, Gerstructural changes? many and Italy; and also expanding in other territoJordan: I think it’s a little early to answer that. ries, in particular the U.K. and United States. There’s always changes when new people come on, Meyer: We see an opportunity to really be the first but we’re not contemplating any immediate huge worldwide independent production/distribution changes either in staff or structuring. company. We already have the base in those territoOn the contrary, we really need to rely on the hisries. We have the funding to make the acquisitions torical Wild Bunch. And going back to your Disrupand investment in companies that help us get there. tors edition, this is what really, I think is the interBut we’re meeting with people now and having disesting part of what we’re trying to build here: the cussions and really trying to target the companies
synergies between what we can leverage in the actual European talent and then the U.S., U.K. production and distribution part of it. Also, the company was kind of stalled for the past three or four years, so they haven’t been doing that much in terms of production. They didn’t actually take that kind of pivot eight or 10 years ago when they probably should have. There are not really any changes to be made in that area because that area doesn’t have strong existence yet. It’s rather building up on what we have than making changes.
Sophie mentioned local content. Does that mean you
Meyer: For the company to grow, we have to be out of just the local production. You know, we still want to continue local production, but we have to be in films that really travel around the world, and we’re the new kids on the block so a lot of people are showing up with a lot of ideas for us. We haven’t decided what, when and how we’ll go forward, but there are a lot of opportunities, we’ve just got to decide what we want to do and when we want to do it.
Meyer: We’re out looking for the right strategic acquisitions or investments and we have those opportunities. We’re just deciding which ones make the most sense for us, and frankly, that the ones that we want, want to do it with us… We’re probably a number of months away from making any significant announcement. We’d like not to make a lot of little piecemeal announcements. When we have a complete picture to announce we’d like to do that.
You’re entering the independent business at a time
biggest challenges and advantages to setting off amid the current landscape? Meyer: There’s no mystery. I think traditional distribution has changed a lot and a lot of films are going to go to the streamers first or be made for the streamers. So, I think you have to pay attention to what’s going on out there. For content providers, which obviously we will be, I think it’s a great time—it’s a better time than it’s ever been, it’s a little bit of a gold rush. So, if you’re making content and you’re in kind of a great position, the question is where do you sell it? Do you distribute it in traditional theatrical form? Do you sell it to a streamer? Do you put it in the theaters for a short period of time and then go to the streamer? There are a lot of options, and each film must be evaluated on its own merit and what you decide to do with it, but I think there’s more opportunity than ever. I am bullish and optimistic about the future of the movie business, where some people are painting doom and gloom. I don’t think people are going back to the theaters in the most traditional way, but they are going back in a way that the right films can make money in the theaters, and otherwise there’s a great business in making films for streamers and television.
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Go to space, chip a tooth, buy clean underwear—the Top Gun maverick will do anything the part requires. His A-list collaborators reveal all
BY MIKE FLEMING JR.
op Gun: Maverick’s Cannes premiere marks another high point in the movie star career of Tom Cruise. The actor turns 60 on July 3, and unlike most leading men of that age who become quicker to call for the stunt double, Cruise shows little evidence of slowing down after 43 films. If anything, his Mission: Impossible stunts seem to grow more ambitiously dangerous, not to mention the fact that he and director Doug Liman will become the first to actually shoot a space film in space for real—aboard one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX crafts with the cooperation of NASA. So how does Cruise continue to carve such a path? “I’ve gotten to work with a number of actors who’ve had great success and long careers, Tom being at the top of the heap,” says Top Gun: Maverick director Joseph Kosinski. “He approaches every day with the enthusiasm that it’s his first movie, and at the same time puts the effort into it like it’s his last movie. That’s a good attitude to have; never take it for granted, give 110 percent every single day. Constantly push the crew and yourself to achieve excellence. I’m amazed by that, that he’s 40 years in and still loves what he does and isn’t slowing down at all. It seems like he’s accelerating, which is pretty amazing.” Here, a group of directors, producers and actors look back on their Cruise experience and why Hollywood won’t see another global superstar quite like this one.
PA RAM O U N T P ICT U RES
TOP GUN: MAVERICK
and only choice for Top Gun, that’s who Tony Scott liked, and Don and I really pursued him,” recalls Jerry Bruckheimer, who produced the original hit with late partner Don Simpson. “I don’t think he was a pilot back then, but he just had the charisma and we loved what we saw in his film career. You could tell he was a terrific actor and that is so much of what it is all about.” It was to become Cruise’s signature immersion into the process of preparation. “He went down to Miramar in advance and hung out with a lot of the pilots, found out what they liked and why they did what they did. He just cares so much, and not only about his character but the whole movie. A lot of actors walk into a role and just worry about themselves and how they’re perceived. Never Tom. That was the way he was back in ’85 when we made the first one, and he showed it again this time.” On the first film, Cruise was the only cast member who didn’t lose their lunch while filming dialogue scenes inside those roaring jets. Mindful of that unpleasant experience, he made it his mission to make sure the new crop of actors playing Top Gun pilots in the sequel fared better. “We learned on the first one,” Bruckheimer says. “He was the only one we got good footage on; we couldn’t use the footage on the other actors because he was the only one who didn’t throw up. So, Tom designed a flying program for all the actors this time. It took months to do this. First, they went up in a single engine prop plane, just to get a feel for flying. Then, an aerobatic prop plane, and then a jet, and once they were comfortable in that jet, he put them in the F-18. Tom designed [the process] himself to acclimate the actors to the G forces they would experience.” Kosinski previously directed Cruise in the 2013 sci-fi film Oblivion. In the
Top Gun sequel, the director says Cruise put so much into mentoring the young actors on set who were in awe of him. “Tom is an actor that, if you can get him interested in your project, then you can do almost anything,” Kosinski says. “When you combine that with something beloved like Top Gun, it becomes an unstoppable force when you go to make it. We needed that on this movie because what we were doing was very intense and there were a lot of things that hadn’t been done before. Having Tom there to push through the ideas and techniques we were going to use was really helpful. Tom knew just how difficult capturing those images would be, just how physically grueling it would be for the actors. “I remember one day on the carrier, when Tom was sitting with these young actors, most of them just starting their careers,” Kosinski adds. “Miles Teller has a lot under his belt, but the rest were new. For them, every day was like a master class, and he would make time for them every day. He would sit down and have these impromptu sessions with the actors, either to talk about the scenes we were shooting that day, the technical aspects of shooting an aerial sequence, or broader advice, like how to build a career. I remember Tom asked Glen (Powell), what kind of career do you want? Glen said, ‘I want your career, Tom.’ So, Tom said, ‘How do you think I got that?’ Glen said, ‘By choosing great roles.’ And Tom said, ‘No. That’s not how I did it. I did it by choosing great films. Then, I took the roles and made them the best I could.’ That advice blew Glen’s mind. If you look at Tom’s career, that’s exactly what he did. He chose great films and directors he admired. Regardless of the size of the role, especially on a movie like Taps. And then he created something with it, made the role his own. That’s something these younger actors hadn’t thought about and can only get from someone who spent 30 years as a movie star. I thought it was really interesting to watch.”
Clockwise from top left: As Maverick in Top Gun; Monica Barbaro as Phoenix in Top Gun: Maverick; with director Joseph Kosinski in Oblivion; back in flight for Top Gun: Maverick.
ruise’s turn as the star sports agent who loses his throne after an existential crisis would mark his second Oscar nomination and one of his best-remembered performances. Cruise shows a different side in the romantic comedy. Writer/director Cameron Crowe wrote many lines that were execution dependent that would be the difference between heartwarming and cringe-worthy, and Cruise embraced all of them. That includes the climactic scene, when Maguire pleads with his estranged wife (Renée Zellweger) to give him another chance, a plea delivered in a crowd of pessimistic women who’ve all had their hearts broken by cads. “Oh, Tom couldn’t wait for that scene,” Crowe says. “I was a little nervous about some of the lines, like, ‘You complete me.’ It’s a slippery slope; if you lean wrong into a line like that, it’d probably be the first thing you cut. But he said, ‘I want to say I love you in this movie, and I want to say it with that line.’ And by the time he got to it, it was two in the morning, at the end of a long week. “Tom surprised the women because we
didn’t tell them that he would be there to do the scene with them that day. In he comes, and in the most loving way, this heavyweight was ready for the knockout. He gently crushed it. The ladies were crying. The crew members were crying. And Renée was a mess. He just took great pleasure in being able to deliver a line that he knew I was on the fence about. He’d said, ‘Just give me a shot, man. You’ll see if I got it, or if I didn’t.’ And, you know, I’m still just so proud of it.” Crowe recalls other ways that Cruise endeared himself to those around him, from one late night when an In-N-Out Burger truck showed up, courtesy of the actor, or the way he handled the first young actor who pulled out of the precocious child part that eventually went to Jonathan Lipnicki. “Tom stayed in touch with the mother of the kid who had asked to be replaced,” Crowe says. “Tom wrote him and called and sent him stuff. I only knew this because his mother called to say, ‘Thank you for everything Tom Cruise has done to make my son feel good about even being in the movie and working with him as
hen Russell Crowe changed his plan from playing the assassin who conscripts a cab driver to drive him to a series of murders in Collateral, director Michael Mann went right to the doorstep of Cruise, even though it would be a decided departure from the actor’s resume of hero roles. “In Tom, I saw Lee Marvin,” Mann says. “When Tom zeroes into a certain kind of person, if they are far enough away from him so that it’s a turn-on for a man of adventure, to be on some kind of a frontier with a character he can get to know but is very different from him, I could tell that within him it becomes a real adventure. To play Vincent, this solipsistic sociopath, who has all the fucking answers and is so methodical and good at what he does, it felt like Tom was a perfect fit. He’s a perfectionist about knowing how to do the things he is supposed to do, which is why he does his own stunts in Mission: Impossible. The sociopathy of this guy was so unique, in his cosmic indifference and outrageous statements that still crack me up when I see some of the scenes
with Jamie Foxx in the taxicab. ‘You ever hear of Rwanda? So, what do you care about one fat guy who gets thrown out the window?’ Or answering Jamie’s accusation of ‘you killed him’ with, ‘I didn’t kill him. The bullets killed him and then he fell out the window.’ The flat irony of Tom’s delivery on those lines is so perfect. It was a very different character for him, and I knew Tom would throw himself into whatever I needed to take him through to become that assassin.” When I mention the memorable shootout scene in the nightclub and that Cruise’s proficiency with weaponry is reminiscent of the acumen shown by Keanu Reeves in the John Wick films, Mann is quick to correct the record. “John Wick’s are not real techniques,” he says. “What Tom did, those are real techniques and there was a lot of training with my friend Mick Gould, who was the head of close quarter combat training for the British SAS. The scene in the alley, there’s no cut in that scene… It came down to doing the work. There was nothing he was doing that wasn’t established close-quarter combat moves that came from months of training. That included blending
much as he did.’ I went to Tom on the set and said I couldn’t believe what he’d done, spending the last few weeks making sure his spirits were high. Tom just said, ‘Well, I just don’t want that guy growing up, looking at movies and feeling disappointed about what happened. I want him to love movies.’ Wow.”
Top: with director Cameron Crowe. Below: with Jamie Foxx in Collateral.
in. Obviously, people know Tom, but I wanted him to feel what it would be like to blend in, to mix with people and have conversations. He went to Central Market and trained to be a FedEx delivery guy. He said to me, ‘They’re gonna know it’s me.’ I said, ‘No, they’ll see the sign that says FedEx, and you’ll wear sunglasses and a cap and carry that portable computer that drivers used to have when they made deliveries.’ Tom went in and delivered something to a liquor stand and sat down and struck up a conversation with a couple people and insinuated himself into the lives of others. There was a lot of psychological training he did. Tom is a dream. He sees the adventure in what we do, just the way I do, and I imagine other directors do. He just goes for it.”
From left: With Christopher McQuarrie, far left, on the set of Mission: Impossible—Fallout; with J.J. Abrams on Mission: Impossible III.
fter scripting the Cruise WWII thriller Valkyrie, Christopher McQuarrie became the actor/ producer’s creative partner on the Mission: Impossible franchise with 2015’s Rogue Nation, 2018’s Fallout, the recently completed Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One and the eighth installment that is currently in production. Cruise had stepped up his commitment to outrageously ambitious stunts right before McQuarrie got there, when Brad Bird directed Ghost Protocol, and Cruise scaled the glassy exterior of the world’s largest skyscraper in Dubai, 123 floors up. But it was on McQuarrie’s watch that Cruise hung from the exterior of a flying Airbus A400M in midair for Rogue Nation, and when Cruise broke his ankle after a leap during a chase in which he crashed into a wall. It was a rare mishap, and McQuarrie feels that Cruise is so meticulous in his stunt prep and so confident in his ability to walk away unscathed, that the director swallows hard and says yes. “I was asked once by a film student: ‘How do you know when you’ve made it?’” McQuarrie says, “I said, ‘You don’t make it. You’re making it. Actively. All the time. May you never make it. May you always be making it. May you look back one day on all you’ve made and go right on making more.’ Tom embodies that. There is no finish line, no pinnacle, no summit. He applies all he’s learned to something new, then studies it with brutal honesty: Where did we go wrong? Where did we go right? How do we apply it to the next thing? How do we push the limits of what is possible? How do we create the most immersive, engaging experience for the widest possible audience? How do we do all that with an emphasis on character and story first? Tom’s not still here by accident.” McQuarrie could not recall a stunt Cruise insisted on doing that the filmmaker tried to talk him out of. “I get asked that a lot,” he says. “Honestly, no. Is there anything I wish I hadn’t
suggested? Absolutely. When I’m sitting in an A400M with the engines running and my friend is strapped to the fuselage, I’m thinking, Maybe I should have kept this one to myself. The truth is, that stunt seems tame now. What we’ve done since, I still can’t believe. If my hair could get any whiter, it would... Tom understands how all of the individual parts function. His level of preparation is exceedingly present and aware. The bigger the stakes, the higher the awareness. That awareness is contagious and enormously clarifying.” J.J. Abrams made his feature directorial debut on Mission: Impossible III, the one in which Phillip Seymour Hoffman went mano a mano with Cruise after kidnapping the agent’s wife (Michelle Monaghan). Abrams says the stunts weren’t as eye popping as the ones in the films directed by McQuarrie and Bird (Abrams is a producer of all of those films). While Abrams was a hotshot TV director and showrunner with Alias, Cruise pushed for him to direct, despite his being untested on the big screen. “I blame Tom Cruise entirely on my having a career,” Abrams says. “He did all the impossible heavy lifting I don’t think anyone could have done to give me a shot. I will be forever grateful for everything he did.” They met when Cruise and Steven Spielberg wanted Abrams to script War of the Worlds (scheduling didn’t work) and they cooked up a Mission: Impossible movie different from the one Paramount thought it was going to make. “While I was shooting the Lost pilot, Tom watched Alias and asked if I would be interested in Mis—J. J. A B R A M S sion: Impossible. They were
meant to shoot that other version of Mission. Steven was meant to shoot Munich and then War of the Worlds, and somehow Tom convinced both Steven and the studio, and it seemed like a herculean task only Tom could do, but he managed to reorder the films. Steven agreed to do War of the Worlds first, and Mission: Impossible got moved to after. What I remember is that I had a meeting with Tom and Sherry Lansing, who was high on this other version of the movie. I remember Tom basically saying, that he and I were going to do Mission: Impossible together. I remember Sherry saying she liked the other script and Tom saying, ‘This is the one we’re going to do.’ And she said, ‘OK.’ I’m sitting there, watching him take a wild chance on someone who had never directed a feature before, and I couldn’t believe it was me. I came to learn that kind of thing is a normal Tuesday for Tom.” Any fear Abrams had that the film’s star and producer would impose himself on a young director was quickly allayed. Abrams says Cruise had a clear understanding of the lanes each occupied, and that he relied on good directors to push him to do his best work. “Any first film is a surreal experience,” Abrams says. “To have it be something where the first day you are filming in Rome with Tom Cruise on a Mission: Impossible set, now that is incredibly surreal. On the second film I directed, which was Star Trek in 2009, I remember getting to the set the first day and feeling the palpable sense of the absence of Tom Cruise. Which is to say, I had only known shooting a movie with Tom, which was a kind of gift you can’t find anywhere else. You have someone who you always know is working as hard—if not harder—trying to make something work, and he is number one on the call sheet. It’s an incredible rarity.”
“I blame Tom Cruise entirely on my having a career. He did all the impossible heavy lifting I don’t think anyone could have done to give me a shot.
oug Liman, who directed Cruise in the fact-based American Made, the sci-fi Edge of Tomorrow and the upcoming film they’ll shoot in outer space, got to see more than most filmmakers what it is that makes Cruise tick. “I lived with Tom when we made American Made,” Liman says. “When you work with Tom, it’s a seven-days-a-week job. No matter how hard a worker you are, and I consider myself that, it’s nothing compared to Tom. After 40 or 50 straight days, we were coming up on July 4 weekend. It happens his birthday is July 3 and I’m thinking that since his birthday happened to fall on a holiday, maybe Tom will want to have a long weekend off to celebrate his birthday somewhere. I mention to Tom, ‘Are you thinking of going away for your birthday?’ Tom says, ‘No. I was thinking since we have the day off on July 3, we can use that time to have the eight-hour aviation meeting that we’ve been having trouble scheduling.’ I am beyond tired and I’m like, ‘You want to have an eight-hour meeting on your birthday?’ He said, ‘Yes, that’s what I want for my birthday. I want to be making a movie. That’s the best birthday present.’ There was no blowing out candles, either.” “Cake? No, Tom doesn’t eat cake. You don’t get to look the way he looks, by eating birthday cake. You have to make a life choice there. You know the suit of armor, the exoskeletons he wore on Edge of Tomorrow? They were extremely heavy, cumbersome, took 10 minutes to get on and off and was too heavy for him to sit in between takes. He would get out of the armor and go, we’re wasting all this time, me getting in and out of this suit. So, Tom gets this idea that, between set ups, it would save time if, instead of getting in and out of his suit, we converted a child’s swing set into something with hooks that he could hang from, in between set ups.” For the result, picture the gangster Carbone, hanging from a meat hook in the freezer truck in Goodfellas. “Yeah, that is the visual,” Liman says. “Living with Tom on American Made, I came to the conclusion that it would be like if you imagined a premise for a high concept movie, where you got to wake up and be Tom Cruise for the day. He gets up with so much energy. He was a real taskmaster when it came to chores in the house. We didn’t have a housekeeper, for security reasons, and we had to clean the house. He would constantly pull out a pot that I had already cleaned and put back, and say, ‘This is not clean.’” Liman is circumspect about timing and the story he and Cruise will film in space, but not the intent. “The thing both of us have in common is, we’re not interested in the gimmick of shooting a movie in outer space,” he says. “For Tom and me, it’s a challenge to make sure we make a movie that is so frigging good it can survive the inevitable criticism, ‘Did they really have to go into space to shoot that?’”
arry Levinson, who directed Rain Man with Cruise, saw the film win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman’s turn as the autistic savant. Cruise wasn’t nominated for playing Charlie Babbitt, the hustler who kidnaps his brother Raymond and drives him to LA to claim an inheritance, but in Levinson’s mind, “Tom had the harder job,” he says. “It was a difficult role because he basically had to drive the movie. Otherwise, Raymond would just be content to sit in a motel. His obligation is to continually drive it and push him, and at the same time not exhaust the audience with a one-beat, ‘C’mon, we’re going.’ It was a very hard role, and he never got the credit he deserved for that film.” Levinson got the job after Martin Brest, Spielberg and then Sydney Pollack were in and then out because of the tricky nature of the material. Levinson says they found the movie while shooting on the road trip, and what surprised him was Cruise’s skill in improv, and willingness to try most anything they could think of. “When Sydney dropped out, we were seven weeks out from shooting and we hit the road and kept working on dealing with the relationship between the two of them as we went along,” Levinson says. “We did an extensive amount of ad libbing and improv work for that film, and Tom jumped in there and ran with it. It was at that point very different for him, not only to be that type of character, but also because the movie was a two-hander. It’s just these two guys basically, and they’ve got to carry the movie. Tom was never resistant to the idea of, well let’s just see what happens if we do this. I said to him once, ‘Let’s get in a car, I wonder if the audience is thinking, the brother hasn’t done anything for Raymond. I think he needs to do something so at least he has made an attempt to deal with him.’ He said, ‘Well, what about if I gave him fresh underwear? That will lead to an argument. Raymond can’t wear that because he gets his underwear in Cincinnati.’ That was the basis of the idea to just have a little something, riding in the car. The two worked really well with each other. I know it sounds like it can’t be true, but it was as good a relationship between the two guys and in terms of what we were trying to accomplish. They were both contributing, and Tom was the one who had to push this movie all the time and I think Dustin would acknowledge that. You keep slowly seeing the changes, as he becomes more emotionally attached to his brother.”
Dustin Hoffman and Cruise in Rain Man.
A FEW GOOD MEN
To A Few Good Men director Rob Reiner, there is just about nothing Tom Cruise can’t do as an actor, and so he was not at all surprised by the way he went toe-to-toe with Jack Nicholson in his prime during that electric courtroom scene. “I’ll tell you something. He’s a great actor,” Reiner says. “I know in the last many years he has been doing his Mission: Impossible movies and different things. It seems every really good actor, whether it’s Chris Evans or Mark Ruffalo, they are all in these big action pictures. The thing Tom used to do is, he used to balance that out. I would love to see him do some things that aren’t the franchise films. I’d seen him do things like Taps, Risky Business, and I never worried about him going up against Nicholson because Tom has
an incredible work ethic. At that time, I’d never met a young actor with as much dedication as he had to the process. He worked his ass off in rehearsals. He was not only on time, but early every day, and always had his lines nailed. Never had I seen a young actor with a work ethic like this guy. He may tell you behind the scenes that he was intimidated by Jack, but I never saw it. “When Jack came and we had the first reading of the script, he came fully loaded to work, with a performance at the table. In a table read, you’re usually just kind of marking it. And when Jack got into his performance, it just sent a message to every other young actor. Kiefer Sutherland, Tom, Demi (Moore) and Kevin Bacon and Kevin Pollack, everybody involved knew, you better step up here. We’re not messing around. Tom was always right there with it. I would love to see him play more complex characters than the ones he’s doing now because people don’t realize how great an actor this guy is.”
From left: With Demi Moore in A Few Good Men; with Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, C.Thomas Howell and Patrick Swayze in The Outsiders.
hen Francis Ford Coppola adapted the S.E. Hinton novel The Outsiders, he wound up with a cast filled with the most promising young actors in the business, from Patrick Swayze to Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez, Ralph Macchio and C. Thomas Howell. Cruise’s role was smaller by comparison, but Coppola had an inkling he might be special based on how the rest of the cast buzzed about how it was Cruise who got the starring role in Risky Business, while the rest of them were confined to ensemble work. “It’s hard for me to remember that time since I was so focused on casting all of the boys’ roles, of which there were many,” Coppola says. “In those days, I was very experimental about the way I handled auditions. I felt strongly that everyone who showed up be given a chance to show their strengths, so we held them in an open arena where everyone was able to watch the other actors’ auditions
“I was impressed by his willingness to go to extremes in creating a character. If the role called for a chipped tooth, he would willingly chip his tooth. He did not go light or easy in his commitment.” — F R A N C I S F O R D CO P P O L A for the same roles. The method was as new to them as it was for me. Through that process, I discovered a wealth of talent from which to choose. It’s the luck of the draw I guess, but
certainly Tom more than justified his promise. Risky Business was a great showcase for him, and as I recall, he left our set a few days early in order to begin production on that film.” What stood out to Coppola was the young actor’s openness to messing with what would become his signature thousand-watt smile, to fit the character. “I was impressed by his willingness to go to extremes in creating a character,” Coppola says. “If the role called for a chipped tooth, he would willingly chip his tooth. He is also very athletic, which you can clearly see in the scene where he backflips off a car. He did not go light or easy in his commitment. I liked his look, and I liked his performance in Taps. He might have been suitable for the older brother role, except he was a little young compared to Patrick Swayze. “I can’t say that I would have predicted [what was to come for Cruise] at the time, but back when we worked together, he did impress me as a very committed actor with many gifts. Certainly, the incident of the self-inflicted chip in his tooth is an example of his whole-hearted commitment to character.”
BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY
liver Stone badly wanted to tell the story of wounded Vietnam vet Ron Kovic’s transformation from gung-ho soldier to anti-war protester, and each time the film faltered, he could feel it crush the film’s subject. “I had written it with Al Pacino in mind,” Stone says. The movie fell apart when Pacino dropped out, and the project languished for years. Until Cruise sparked to it. The actor was coming off a string of hits that included Risky Business, Cocktail, Top Gun and Rain Man. He was the brightest young superstar in the business and used that clout to empower a picture that allowed him to test his acting mettle in a new way. “I was broken hearted, and Ron was a basket case,” Stone says. “I said to Ron, ‘If I ever get the chance, I’ll come back and do it.’
or a young actress playing a difficult role as a precognitive woman in the Spielberg-directed Minority Report, measuring up in a blockbuster can be a daunting task. For that reason, Samantha Morton says she often thinks of how much easier a difficult shoot became because of the film’s star. “I suppose I didn’t fully appreciate how rare Tom was, but now having been
need to make us better?’ “I was 22 when I worked with him, and I didn’t have a huge wealth of knowledge in regards to his cinema history at the time, and I was just there to get my job done. I’ve since seen how exceptional his body of work is. He’s insanely talented and continues to be so, and I have more praise for him as the years go by. He wasn’t being like that because he had to, back then, it was just how he is.”
in the industry so long, he’s incredibly rare,” Morton said. “Not only is he unbelievably professional, and at a time when a lot of very famous men around me were not being very professional, he was unbelievably generous to me as an actor and as a creative person in that space. And it wasn’t fake or false in a kind of job way. He is genuinely one of the nicest, kindest people I’ve ever worked with, and I cherish those memories of that experience because the job itself was very tough.” “Mr. Spielberg was incredibly kind and supportive and they made me raise my game because they believed in me. When an actor of his caliber is on set, oftentimes those individuals can be all about the self, and here’s the opposite of that. Because of [Tom], it was, ‘What do we
Morton mentions Cruise sending a coffee truck on a particularly trying day. “People do that now, but nobody did that stuff back then,” she says. “My character was always very emotional and vulnerable. And maybe I was being a bit too method for my own good at the time. But there were scenes where the character couldn’t walk, and he physically carried me all through this shopping mall because I wasn’t taking my own weight. I said, ‘Oh God, I’m so sorry,’ after I don’t know how many takes of the scene. He just smiled. A lot of other actors would have moaned, said something to the director who would have come back and said, ‘Is there any way Sam can just walk on this take?’ Not Tom. And I can tell you, his generosity and exuberance were contagious.”
From left: in Born on the Fourth of July; with Samantha Morton in Minority Report.
Platoon opened up the world for me, and it was either Charlie Sheen or Paula Wagner who suggested Tom Cruise, who was her client. I had met with Tom, and he liked Platoon so much. Maybe no one was going to give the performance as Kovic that I’d seen Al Pacino do in rehearsals, but Tom had other qualities. He was the right age, he looked far younger [than Pacino] and he worked his ass off prior to rehearsal. He hung out with Ron Kovic for a few weeks, going around LA in a wheelchair and getting the moves down, getting the mentality down. Ron was such an enthusiastic teacher and Tom took everything he could and kind of fell in love with Ron in a way that he absorbed him into his performance. And they stayed in touch for many, many years.” Stone says the shoot was grueling, but Cruise was game. “We started the film overseas in in the Philippines, where Platoon was made, and for Tom and everyone else, it was a very tough shoot because of the subject matter. I remember the scenes in the hospital being especially difficult, but Tom stuck through it. I was not surprised because I saw his dedication. Tom is a person with a tremendous willpower and once he committed to the role, he really committed.” Stone says he wondered if Cruise was saying yes to anything the director asked. “In the early scenes, I was worried because I hadn’t seen him wrestle,” Stone says. “He tells me, ‘I can wrestle.’ Well, I’ve been told that kind of thing by a lot of actors, and when you get there on the day of the shoot, when you have no fucking time to adjust, you find out they can’t wrestle. So, I’m worried. He said, ‘Just trust me. Don’t put pressure on me, I put pressure enough on myself.’ And sure enough, he actually wrestled very well. So never doubt Tom Cruise, I suppose is the lesson.”
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