Seven Ways to Produce an Oscar Contender, From ‘The Irishman’ to ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’

It’s so easy to make a bad movie, and so hard to produce a great one. Two producers this year each managed the rare feat of producing not one, but two movies that are in the race for 2020 Oscars. Emma Tillinger Koskoff produced Martin Scorsese’s big-budget period epic “The Irishman” as well as Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” while David Heyman supported two writer-directors, Quentin Tarantino and Noah Baumbach, with sprawling showbiz mosaic “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and bicoastal tug-of-war divorce drama “Marriage Story,” respectively. All required a range of skills learned over many years, not least of which is knowing when to say no, and when to say yes.

“A producer is only as good as the director you work with,” Heyman told IndieWire. “You can make a great film with a great director, but you can’t make a great film with a bad director.”

1. Hitch yourself to an A-list director.

Koskoff began as Scorsese’s assistant 17 years ago and grew into the role of producing partner, juggling TV series and films from HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Departed” to “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Said Koskoff, “I take the movie and set it up and make it work. I keep the schedule.” (Margaret Bodde runs Scorsese’s The Film Foundation and his documentaries.)

Scorsese’s manager, Rick Yorn, sent him Todd Phillips and Scott Silver’s script for “Joker” with a note: “You should read this beautiful homage to you.” Phillips, Scorsese, and Koskoff planned to produce the Scorsese-inflected “Joker,” which was “one of the best scripts Marty had read in awhile,” said Koskoff. Scorsese later dropped out in the face of completing three documentaries, but Phillips asked Koskoff to stay on to produce her first movie without Scorsese.

Four days after “The Irishman” wrapped 108 days of filming, Koskoff was scouting a new set of New York locations with Phillips for “Joker,” for which she rolled over much of her “Irishman” crew.

Shannon McIntosh, David Heyman, Brad Goreski, Quentin Tarantino, Margot Robbie and Leonardo DiCaprio'Once Upon A Time in Hollywood' photocall, 72nd Cannes Film Festival, France - 22 May 2019

Shannon McIntosh, David Heyman, Brad Pitt, Quentin Tarantino, Margot Robbie, and Leonardo DiCaprio

Anthony Harvey/REX/Shutterstock

For “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino approached British producer David Heyman to join his long-time producing partner Shannon McIntosh and line producer Georgia Kacandes on the ambitious period epic. Without his former patron, Harvey Weinstein, he needed a veteran who could run interference with the studio as well as offer objective — and creative — advice.

“Quentin wanted someone who wasn’t part of his inner circle,” said Heyman, “who wasn’t his best friend, who could be supportive and say what needed to be said while coming from the right place.”

Heyman stepped into a similar void on “Marriage Story,” which saw Noah Baumbach without his heavyweight producer, Scott Rudin.

Heyman first met Baumbach at a London dinner with Wes Anderson, when he and Baumbach were writing “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.” “Quentin and Noah know what they want,” said Heyman. “They’ve both been [making movies] long enough to know when they’re comfortable giving in and when they’re not. Both are brave directors who perform high-wire acts.”

“The Irishman”

2. Nail Down a Compelling Story

“The Irishman” started to become a movie when Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese decided that Charles Brandt’s 2004 book, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” would make a better post-“Casino” reunion than the one they were supposed to make at Paramount, “The Winter of Frankie Machine.” In 2007, they walked away from a greenlight in order to develop the story of mafia hitman Frank Sheeran and his relationship with Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa.

“It was a passion project for De Niro,” said Koskoff. “He dreamed of getting Marty. All he did was send him the book and Marty was all in.” That said, it would take a while: In 2009, producers De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Scorsese, and Koskoff hired Oscar-winner Steve Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) to adapt Brandt’s book into a movie that would star De Niro as Sheeran, with Scorsese directing. There was one caveat: First, Scorsese had to shoot “Silence.”

Baumbach developed his semi-autobiographical breakup dramedy “Marriage Story” in bits and pieces over years of discussions with Adam Driver and later, Scarlett Johansson and Laura Dern. While he and Driver were in post on “The Meyerowitz Stories,” Baumbach decided he was ready to make “Marriage Story.” That’s when the director brought Heyman into the conversation.

“We had lengthy script meetings,” said Heyman, “on the meaning and characters and comedy, the mythic aspects of the story. It’s about people communicating, how the system encourages division, yet when people cross over and communicate directly, there’s more opportunities for conversation and solution. Of the directors I’ve worked with, he likes to talk everything through. He likes the dialogue on the script, the casting, the editing, the music, the marketing.”

"The Joker"

“Joker”

Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

3. Keep the project together, with the right budget

“The Irishman” began with backing from Scorsese’s first-look Mexican financier Gaston Pavlovich (“Silence”), who sold the project to indie distributor STX without Scorsese’s knowledge. That deal fell apart as the budget skyrocketed above $150 million. Only Netflix was willing to step in at that level. A studio could have funded the expensive period drama, but they all chose not to risk both a tentpole budget and high-cost theatrical marketing and distribution. Netflix’s Ted Sarandos and Scott Stuber also promised Scorsese an exclusive theatrical run before hitting Netflix on Thanksgiving. “The Irishman” wound up playing multiple film festivals and independent theaters for four weeks after the big chains refused to cut a compromise on their 90-day window.

It took a while to get Warners to back Phillips’ standalone vision of the Joker origin myth, which leaned on DC’s Batman universe, said Koskoff. But once she and Phillips locked Joaquin Phoenix and a $55 million budget with studio chief Toby Emmerich, they were on their way with minimal interference. Of course she had to deliver an ambitious movie with a third of the resources she had on “The Irishman” and a 59-day schedule. Warners was comfortable in the knowledge that, even with a dark, disturbing, and chaotic R-rated movie, marketing chief Blair Rich could sell Batman’s Joker. (Which she did: The movie has passed $1 billion worldwide, even without China, becoming the most lucrative comic book movie ever made.)

When Tarantino pitched studios on “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Sony’s Tom Rothman offered him a $90-million budget and final cut. “Quentin knew where he wanted to put his time and money,” said Heyman, who helped him stay inside strict budget parameters during filming.

After “The Meyerowitz Stories,” Netflix’s Stuber was happy to stay in the Baumbach business, greenlighting “Marriage Story” at $8.6 million and guaranteeing a four-week exclusive theatrical window before streaming December 6. Heyman was determined to turn in both movies on time and on budget, and did so.

“Marriage Story”

Netflix

4. Assemble a Top-Line Cast

Casting director Ellen Lewis helped Scorsese to land his dream cast. While De Niro and Pacino costarred in “The Godfather, Part II” and Michael Mann’s “Heat,” Scorsese and Pacino had long wanted to collaborate. Nor were Scorsese veterans Harvey Keitel and Bobby Cannavale hard to convince. But Joe Pesci was long retired, happily hanging with his daughter and playing golf. De Niro convinced Pesci to come back to New York with Scorsese. Part of the appeal for all of them was an opportunity to play as a group at the top of their game, perhaps for the last time. “He was happy to join the party,” said Koskoff.

Baumbach had already assembled his principal cast as he wrote the final script, and used Heyman as a sounding board and partner to “help create the space,” Heyman said. He credits the casts of both “Marriage Story” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” for delivering the challenging comedic tones their directors demanded. “The comedy could easily take over and it doesn’t,” he said. “It just rides that line between absurdity and laughter, with the family serving the divorce papers — and Quentin too, as when Brad is stoned with the Mansons and the dog.”

“The Irishman”

5. Wow audiences with something new

Over the decade that “The Irishman” spent in development, technology changed rapidly. ILM visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman and long-time Scorsese VFX consultant Rob Legato figured out a way to use the same actors through five decades via digital de-aging effects. The challenge was to meet De Niro’s demand to achieve this without using green screen and distracting face dots. He wanted shooting conditions to remain intuitive and natural for the actors.

Before Scorsese and his team signed on for the new technology, Helman performed a side-by-side test of a scene from “Goodfellas” with one shot today with De Niro de-aged by 25 years. The results convinced everyone that it was possible to age everyone, year by year. In the movie, Pacino, Pesci and others submitted to digital aging fixes, while lead De Niro, with the most screen time, wore blue contact lenses that changed over time, and acted in front of a complex three-headed camera rig devised by ILM and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. For his old age, De Niro went back to good old-fashioned prosthetic makeup.

Joker and Sophie

Zazie Beetz and Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker”

Warner Bros.

6. Location, location

Koskoff and Phillips found “Joker” locations ranging from MTA subways under construction to neighborhoods in Westchester, Rockland County, Queens and The Bronx. For ’80s-era Times Square, however, Koskoff talked Phillips into decamping to Newark: “This is our Gotham,” she said.

“The Irishman” also mined New Jersey and all five New York boroughs (Queens subbed for Philadelphia), recreating iconic highway drive-offs like Stuckey’s and red-roofed Howard Johnson’s on Staten Island as well as a parade of stunning vintage cars, fedoras, neckties, cigarette brands, and firearms.

Baumbach also shot at many recognizable New York locations, including the Knickerbocker bar for his Stephen Sondheim aria “Being Alive,” while Tarantino’s production team sought out iconic Los Angeles locations for his 1969 elegy for a lost Hollywood. When the movie returns to the night of the Manson attacks on Cielo Drive, the director recreates a row of vintage neon lights on Hollywood Boulevard by having them light up at sunset, accompanied by Jose Feliciano’s cover of “California Dreaming.”

Some things the production team found, like a Taco Bell and a Der Wienerschnitzel that were reverted to their former selves; some they built. Of course, the movie includes shots of still-functioning Musso & Franks and classic Mexican restaurant El Coyote, located across the street from the theater that Tarantino now owns. (Back then it was not the New Beverly, but The Eros.) The movie conjures up a more innocent, pre-#MeToo era, when audiences were drawn to one glorious movie marquee after another, when Westwood was hopping with moviegoers, and the Playboy Mansion was cool.

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Sony Pictures

7. Let the filmmaker have his way

During filming of “Joker,” the production had to bear lengthy improvisations between Phillips and Phoenix; the actor sometimes took breaks to recover his equilibrium before returning to set, and occasionally wrapped himself. During the filming, Fleck’s relationship to the single mother down the hall (Zazie Beetz) changed from the neighborly friendship in the script into something more romantic and imaginary. “They explored and changed things,” said Koskoff. “It makes her more interesting.”

On the set of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Quentin came up with new ideas and approaches on how to shoot a scene all the time,” said Heyman, from Di Caprio shooting two versions of the western scene in which he does it right and then messes it up, which then yielded the unscripted, improvised breakdown in his trailer. “Quentin is open to the process as it emerges with his crew on the day,” said Heyman. “This story is primarily about showing Leo’s character and his psychological state.”

As always, editing the movie for Tarantino was a struggle over what to cut and what to keep, which changed after Cannes, when he restored (thanks to completed VFX) a scene with DiCaprio playing McQueen in “The Great Escape,” as well as some Rick Dalton commercials and extra footage with Robbie as Tate. “He and Fred were rigorous in understanding the rhythms of the film and building the music of the storytelling,” said Heyman.

One advantage for Scorsese on “The Irishman” was that Netflix doesn’t care how long anything is. A three and a half hour running time –Scorsese’s rough cut, more or less — was no problem. “There was some pruning and fine cutting,” said Koskoff. “It’s a wild ride of a man’s life. It’s a beautiful, epic ride.”

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