Plan B Producer Dede Gardner Talks '12 Years a Slave,' 'World War Z,' and Partner Brad Pitt

Interviews
by Anne Thompson
October 15, 2013 4:20 PM
2 Comments
  • |
'World War Z'

DG: That was always the intention. The first time I saw it the percussion was in there. Certainly in moments when they're running along the boat, in the hold and during the hanging. I think those are moments when your heart is beating really hard and Steve wanted the audience to feel that.

AT: I want to go back to the beginning. How did you get into this industry and find your way to Hollywood?

DG: I always loved movies as a child, and I love story. I got my degree in English. Film and story seemed to me the vector of the movie business. I really didn't know what "the film business" meant, but I decided I wanted to be in it. I talked to people. I got on a student film at Columbia and did locations [for other things], the way the freelance world works, one thing leads to another. I continued doing locations and working in the art department for awhile and then decided that I wanted to learn more about where the movies came from. So I worked with a small agency absorbing the theater world and then worked at William Morris and absorbed the book world and then I moved to L.A.

AT: How did you first encounter Brad Pitt?

DG: Plan B had already been formed, it was Brad and Jennifer [Aniston]'s company. They had a deal at Warner Bros. and they were looking for someone to run the company and that began a series of interviews I embarked on which landed me the job.

AT: What surprised you about Brad?

DG: I knew he was a kindred spirit when we talked about the company and we had a lot of crossover with our ideas: wanting it to be a safe harbor for filmmakers, a place where people might come where the energy and the protection felt singular. He also is a cinephile, so it's a treat to work with him. He also really believes in the shelf life of a movie, which is to say he doesn't put a lot of stake in opening weekends. He believes movies are found over a long period of time. He said to me one year after we made "Jesse James" and "A Mighty Heart," "I couldn't be prouder and those movies will find their place and their time."

AT: I remember at a party talking to Brad about "Jesse James" and challenging him about the length of the movie and he stood up strong in defense of the filmmaker. What happened on that?

DG: There was a debate about the omniscient narrator, about Nick Cave's score, about a series of other things. I'm biased because I really love the film with all my heart. That was Andrew [Dominik]'s vision and we weren't going to leave until that was the movie that reached the screen and we weren't interested in any other version. I don't want to characterize it negatively. It's a challenging movie, and it's a business that we're in, so there is a motivation to recoup on your investment. The thing that is messed up is [solving a problem] just by sanding off all the edges. I don't know that you're going to make more money and you're certainly going to make a film that's not as good so at the end of the day what does that get you? 

AT: What was the first movie at Plan B?

DG: "Running with Scissors." I really believe in Ryan [Murphy] and he went and got the rights and was trying to find the right partner for it, and came to us. It's something I pursued for a long time and it worked out.

AT: How do you and Brad make decisions about what you're going to do?

DG: I can't say there are a lot of rules to it. It's driven largely by instinct. He has a lot of faith in our passions. If one of us is just going to die if we don't try to make something, he backs it. We discuss a lot and we debate a lot, we put stuff up and we see if it holds water and knock things down and come at it from different angles, but we're free to at least to embark on pretty much anything. As things get further down the field, some fall away, some don't stand the test of time, some aren't actually good ideas for movies. As for time management, that's an age-old problem, that's not unique to us… you don't want to be spread too thin.

AT: How many projects do you take on?

DG: It really varies. We certainly have a lot in development right now. We've been busy the last few years and we're just coming up for air, and I think we're getting excited to read again and do that side of it.

AT: "Killing Them Softly" was a recent one that in another era might have been a studio movie, and you were thrown into another kind of financing setup. Explain that.

DG: Thank god we didn't make it for the studios because nobody went to see it. That was a situation where Andrew [Dominik] said he had a story to tell, and Brad said, "I'd do it." We went to a foreign sales company … it was a really fast and furious endeavor, it kind of just came together and I think that was largely possible because Andrew Dominik is part of the family and we said, "okay, we're all going to do this." It got some great reviews out of Cannes. Still nobody went to see it.

AT: Explain how you got involved in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes the year before.

DG: That was a long-term process where Brad and I met with Terrence Malick and Sarah Green years and years ago about a different project. Over the course of our dialogue it came out that there was this passion project of Terry's that he was determined to make, and he started talking about it and sent us something about it. We said, "if there's anything we can do to help you get this made, we will." We investigated financing and different cast members and different ways it may or may not come together, and late in the process relative to how long we'd already been talking, there was an opportunity for Brad to be in it. 

AT: Does it look like a normal script?

DG: More than people think. There was some description but yeah it's more traditional than what people expect it to be.

AT: Describe what it's like every day on a Terrence Malick set.

DG: You have to organize yourself really well so that he has many options. He wants to shoot all day long, in every direction, he wants to follow that cloud… which means all your trailers and your gaffer trucks have to be hidden. So all of a sudden you're on a real live sound stage, outside in rural Texas. It was such a pleasure, and it meant he could see what was happening with the actors, especially the boys who were so young and nonprofessional. And if there was a vibe happening between them and it made sense to use that for a scene that wasn't necessarily on the call sheet, you could. He knew he had a certain number of days to shoot the movie.

AT: You've seen Brad on many movies. For my money that is his best performance. How did that happen?

DG: I'm biased, I think he's good in a lot of things. He grew up in the Midwest, with two siblings. I think aspects of it were familiar. It was an incredibly intimate set, it was quiet… Terry endeavors to create a sacred space onset, and I think people around him give a lot as a result. They can go deep and they can be rocks and be vulnerable. He encourages you to do it in your own words. You're reacting from a place of real truth because you can't have planned for it.

AT: I'm curious about "World War Z"--there was a lot of speculation about what was going on and reshoots and it came out and did rather well and got great reviews. What was going on there? What was your role?

DG: It was a big investment. It was something Brad had never done as an actor. It was wildly over-reported on, but we needed to make a great movie and that just took more time than we originally allotted. I don't think there is anything wrong with that. Paramount should be commended for giving us the opportunity to get it right. A lot of movies come out and you think, "couldn't you have just tried a little harder?" There was a lot of pressure and the stakes were high but it's a cool ending to a long story. I was gratified because of how hard we worked. 

AT: You completely rewrote the ending so that must have been a serious conversation with Paramount. Brad Grey has been a close person in Plan B's life. Explain that relationship.

DG: He started Plan B with Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt and was at the genesis of the company. After I'd been there a year he took my old boss's job at Paramount, so there was a little overlap. He's been a tremendous supporter of the company over many years so it was also, for us, really gratifying that it worked the way it did because it was for his company and a return on his faith.

AT: "World War Z" wasn't just another studio action movie. It had ideas, it was ambitious and beautifully made, and Pitt carried it really well. Your standard is very high.

DG: We don't give up. You're getting paid to do this and you're getting a lot of money to make these movies. Going to the effort of casting and finding a crew, it is your job as a producer to make it work as well as you possibly can. It's also way more fun.

AT: I wanted to talk to you about "Eat, Pray, Love" because it's an issue that there aren't enough movies for women and it doesn't seem to be getting any better. This one was definitely for women and it did OK.

DG: It did really well. It got bad reviews but I think the movie's great. Whatever. The challenge is business. Women have to go to the movie theater, but you've got to make the movies that will bring them in. I made Rebecca Miller's movie "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee," which is decidedly for women and that didn't get seen, but I think it's amazing. I love that movie. I don't know what that's about. I'll keep trying, certainly.

AT: Do you think that Brad will ever direct like Angelina?

DG: No. He says, "Why? There are so many good directors out there." He loves making movies and he's very involved but he's worked with the greats. I think he would be a great director, having sat in the cutting room with him, but I don't think it's on his list.

AT: Is he hard on himself or is he confident and easy?

DG: We are hard on ourselves as a company but not in a bad way, just in a keep-reaching, keep-trying way.

AT: What's coming up?

DG: On "True Story," we're in post. We read an article years ago and then a book about a NYT journalist who was fired for compositing some characters in a magazine story and fled to a cabin in Montana. He was called by a reporter who he presumed was pursuing the story of his transgression when in fact he was calling about a series of murders. There was a guy in Mexico who'd been brought back to Oregon to stand trial for the murder of his wife and three children. And the caller said what's this got to do with me? And he said, "well he was using your name." It's a story about truth and subjective vs. objective truth and someone who thinks, "this is my mea culpa, if I tell the full truth here then I'll be restored in the literary canon." Can you ever really do that, though, and how much do you need the story and how does that affect your ability to tell the truth and see the truth? It's directed by Rupert Gould, who's a British theater director, with James Franco and Jonah Hill starring. I'm not sure when it's coming out. We have to finish it. 

We're also shooting "The Normal Heart" for HBO, which has been a long time coming. Ryan Murphy is directing. We've shot the first period which was five weeks and then we shut down for various reasons, and then we're going back up in November for 10 days. I think it'll air next spring. 

AT: You've been in the industry for a while now. Could you reflect on how it has changed? What are some of the challenges? You have been adept at adapting to them but you do have a major movie star on hand.

DG: It's really fun. I'm really lucky. I suppose I find the speed of reaction to be the most troubling, from the media and everyone rushing to file news and stories. So many movies take more time than that, and really require more thought and maybe another viewing. I worry about that a lot. I thought about "12 Years a Slave." What happens? Everyone sees that movie and races to their laptops? It has taken me a dozen times for me to find my emotional footing with that film. I wish there was a way to carve out more time for thinking. There are other aspects of the speed that are great but that's what I think about the most.

Audience: Where do you see the industry going in five and ten years? 

DG: I think about that to a degree but not as much as I should. I'm still thinking about the stories and the filmmakers. I believe there will be ever-widening forms of distribution and more and more people who can make movies but at the end of the day, I can still focus on story. I hope I can still read books and find filmmakers I can fall in love with. I hope we can still sort of be that, and then I think I have to figure out how to make movies for less money. Tentpoles are going to keep getting made until people don't go.

Audience: What motivates you?

I don't just do it for money, which is good because there is none. That kind of advocacy, getting behind Terrence Malick, Andrew Dominik and Steve McQueen--that is my sweet spot. I'm comfortable there. I'm better at brawling for someone else and their vision. When I really believe in someone's abilities as a filmmaker and their conviction, I love doing that and I think you have to do that. People are not cool with discomfort, they want things to be easy, to be palatable, to be the most common denominator. I don’t like things like that, so inside my own tiny sphere, to whatever degree I can help keep things as angular as their original intention is, I like doing that. And you can't be concerned with what other people say. You're going to get a good review, a really bad review, and you just have to keep your nose to the ground. It's hard, but in some ways it is ultimately easier because you feel good when you're doing it.

You might also like:

2 Comments

  • VG | September 14, 2013 5:35 PMReply

    Great interview, Anne! Thanks for asking the right questions. Good read indeed!

  • VC | September 13, 2013 12:44 PMReply

    What a good read! I think I love Dede's job. Thanks for the interview.

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

Email Updates

Most "Liked"

  • LISTEN: On KCRW's The Treatment, Mindy ...
  • Brad Pitt to Star in David Michôd's ...
  • Arthouse Audit: 'Only Lovers Left Alive' ...
  • Fox's Jim Gianopulos to Deliver USC ...
  • Pulitzer Prize Winners Unveiled
  • The Highs and Lows of the Meaningless ...
  • Watch: Highlights from Seth Rogen's ...
  • Box Office Top Ten: 'Captain America' ...
  • Career Watch: As 'Mad Men' Enters Its ...
  • Brie Larson Goes Into the 'Room,' Lenny ...