Producers Guild Breakfast Takeaways: Dune Part II by Steven Spielberg

Prior to today’s Producers Guild of America awards ceremony, the annual Darryl F. Zanuck Award nominee breakfast will be held at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The subject of the panel, moderated by PGA President Lisa Fisher, was Steven Spielberg, who was nominated to co-produce his musical West Side Story.

During the conversation, the two-time Academy Award winner — for ‘Schindler’s List’ (1993) and ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998) — told audiences he’ll never direct another musical in his career, although he’ll be at some contribute as a producer. He is currently co-producing the musical adaptation of The Color Purple, starring Fantasia Barrino and Danielle Brooks. He directed the 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker, which was nominated for 11 Oscars and won his first DGA award, although he did not receive a Best Director Oscar nomination.

The admiration for Spielberg and the general gratitude of all the nominated producers was beautifully expressed at the event.

When asked how producers can be successful and get into the business, Spielberg responded by saying, “The smartest thing I do is hire women. I always have and always will. I believe in the power of the producer. They’re not just the leaders. They are therapists. I rely on someone stronger than me to produce.”

Reflecting on the challenge of getting the rights to West Side Story, he went to lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s home and said, “His dogs were sniffing my crotch and I was afraid to push them away. [as] I didn’t mean to offend him.”

He was able to achieve his goal and shared that this was an opportunity to keep the story of Romeo and Juliet alive for another 30 years. “My favorite channels are TCM and Criterion Channel, but they don’t get the highest ratings.”

A representative from each film nominated by the Producers Guild took the stage for the in-person event – Todd Black (“Being the Ricardos”), Philippe Rousselot (“CODA”), Mary Parent (“Dune”), Tim White (“King Richard” ), Sara Murphy (“Licorice Pizza”), Tanya Seghatchian (“The Power of the Dog”), Julie Oh (“Tick, Tick…Boom!”), and Spielberg (“West Side Story”) — while Kenneth Branagh ( “Belfast”) and Kevin Messick (“Don’t Look Up”) both performed virtually via Zoom.

Fisher first thanked everyone and told the film producers in the room that they “got their way”: “They tried to kill us but couldn’t.”

She also highlighted the diversity of this year’s producer nominees, which include nine producers. Fisher stated that nearly 50% of the guild is made up of women.

Support from streaming giant Netflix was also a common topic of conversation among the three nominated films.

Tanya Seghatchian gushed about the brilliance of her producing team, particularly Power of the Dog director/writer Jane Campion. The rights to Thomas Savage’s novel have passed through several hands over the past 55 years, including classic actor Paul Newman, who would play the lead character Phil Burbank, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the final film.

Julie Oh’s charisma shone brightest on stage as she discussed the journey to bring composer Jonathan Larson’s stage musical: “There’s a reason there’s a Wikipedia page on Development Hell.”

Oh attended one of only five performances held in New York with Lin-Manuel Miranda. She was initially unaware of the show and was surprised the rights were available.

In Don’t Look Up, Kevin Messick spoke about the “urgency of climate change” and how Adam McKay wrote the film with Jennifer Lawrence in mind. Most poignant was his response to the roughest production day; “The worst day was January 7th,” referring to riot attacks on the capital.

Todd Black spoke of wanting to make a film about the life of Lucille Ball in 1995, but the comedian’s children didn’t want it at the time. He also shared that he knew “Aaron Sorkin was the right man to write it” given the eight-year journey to make the film.

Philippe Rousselot began his opening speech by acknowledging the strong year in film. Discussing the journey to make “CODA” and eventually sell it to Apple at Sundance for a record $25 million, he said, “It’s been the most extraordinary journey of my producing life.”

Mary Parent had watched the rights to Dune change hands and waited for the right opportunity to seize the moment. This moment came after several “hard passes” from different studios. She introduced Alex Garcia to the production while filming Godzilla (2014) and sold the project to Legendary in 2013. She also spoke about an interview with Denis Villeneuve in which the director shared that she had wanted to direct an adaptation of the famous novel since he was 14 and knew at that moment that she had found her director.

Parent all but hinted that Dune: Part II is “not a sequel. It’s half the truth.”

King Richard producer Tim White recalled holding up signs at a 1999 tennis match in Miami long before he knew Richard Williams, who is played in the film by top actor Will Smith that he wanted to make films. Along with his brother and producing partner Trevor, the couple emailed Venus Williams and said they wanted to tell the Williams sisters’ story, but received no response: “The odds [were] against us,” says White. “We have absolutely no access to the Williams family.”

Sara Murphy spoke about the story of “Licorice Pizza” that has long lingered in the mind of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. She spoke about Anderson spending a lot of time with producer and former child actor Gary Goetzman, on whom Cooper Hoffman’s character Gary is based, following the death of Oscar winner Jonathan Demme. Murphy said one of the hardest parts was “getting Gary to sign a life rights agreement.”

Branagh championed his three female producers – Laura Berwick, Becca Kovacik and Tamar Thomas – and recalled everyone’s availability during the pandemic. He heard from two of his stars, Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, within hours of sending them an initial email regarding the project. Branagh also recalled showing his family the semi-autobiographical “Belfast”: “There was a tremendous amount of uncertainty. The most difficult moment was showing my family this personal story about my family. My brother says that things I say happened to me happened to him.

The PGA Awards are tonight at 8pm PST.

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