How the Producers of ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ and ‘Fruitvale Station’ Got the Films Off the Ground
Producing movies is not exactly a science; there are myriad ways to approach the discipline. But whether the budgets are $1 million or $100 million, many of the obstacles remain the same, managing finite amounts of time and money, locking down locations or scheduling multiple A-list actors with busy schedules. Here are three projects recognized by the Producers Guild of America as among the year’s standouts, at three different budget levels and how three different producers got their projects made, despite the odds.
Just 10 weeks before production was set to begin on “Dallas Buyers Club,” Craig Borten’s long-in-the-works script about an unlikely homophobic Texas AIDS activist, producer Robbie Brenner got the devastating news: “The money just disappeared,” she says.
After two decades of false starts, with multiple studios (Columbia, Universal), directors (Marc Forster, Dennis Hopper) and actors (Brad Pitt, Woody Harrelson), Brenner and longtime friend, producer Rachel Winter, had finally attached Matthew McConaughey, Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee and a Montreal-based backer who wasn’t scared to fund the project, which, according to Brenner, some 200 financiers had already passed on. (“People loved the script,” she says, “but said, ‘I don’t know if anybody wants to see that subject matter.’”)
But then “it all disintegrated,” says Brenner. “People were crying. Matthew (McConaughey) had already lost 35 pounds and had a small window before his next project; I knew if it didn’t happen then it was never going to happen.”
At the last minute, producer Cassian Elwes brought in Voltage Pictures to take on foreign sales and new Texas-based Truth Entertainment for a final piece of equity. Along with Louisiana’s tax credits, they were ready to go, though down from 40 to 25 days, on a budget of less than $5 million.
“I was using my credit card to feed people,” says Winter, who was on set. In order to make their schedule, “the camera was rolling all the time.” And they used only practical lights. At one point, they stopped McConaughey’s driver from leaving the set in order to use the car’s headlights to illuminate the scene. “It was terrifying,” continues Winter, “but everyone had their game face on and the stresses were alleviated by the confidence (of Vallee and his d.p. Yves Belanger) in this crazy way of shooting.”
But Brenner believes the stripped-down approach was worth all the trouble. “As much as I work inside the studio system and respect that process,” she says, “I think this movie was meant to be made in an intimate, personal and independent way.”
You can’t say Martin Scorsese lacks ambition. For his 23rd feature, he used more than 100 locations, filmed over 100 scenes and employed hundreds of extras. “Mobilizing a crew of that size and getting from point A to B to C was one of the biggest challenges,” says producer Emma Koskoff, who has worked with Scorsese dating back to “The Departed.” “I know what he needs, and I am able to be proactive” — whether that’s finding the right locations or scheduling the shoot in chronological script order as much as possible.
But with so many moving parts on “Wolf” — including a cast of stellar comedic actors, from Jonah Hill to Kenneth Choi, whose “scenes could take on a life all by themselves,” notes Koskoff — it’s a miracle the film came in on time (87 days) and on budget (around $100 million, fully financed by Red Granite Pictures). Even Tropical Storm Sandy barreled through, delaying production by a week.