Many Hollywood producers go their whole careers hoping just once to field a Best Picture contender in the Oscar race. Scott Rudin, who won in 2008 for No Country For Old Men, this year has not one but two films with real shots to win the ultimate category. There’s little doubt that his The Social Network and True Grit will make the lineup for the 10 Best Picture nominees. Earlier today when the Producers Guild announced their nominees, Rudin became the first producer to receive two feature nominations in the same year, to go with the David O. Selznick Achievement Award he’ll also receive at the ceremonies. Campaigning for one film is a challenge for any producer. For one as hands on as Rudin, it’s a lot to navigate.
DEADLINE: It’s rare to be the main producer of two films in the Best Picture hunt. It must be like a father having two kids in the same beauty pageant…
RUDIN: First of all, I don’t want to talk about myself as the main producer, I had great partners on both. I’m working with both these teams again and part of the reason this works is we all share. But it’s a great thing to have two movies people like. The Oscar stuff is fantastic, rewarding and in some ways exciting, but it’s not why you do it. You do it because you want to hold your own work to a standard of excellence. It’s a bonus when other people agree you’ve achieved it, but, in the end, I’m really trying to feel good about my work. That’s my goal, to feel like I’ve done the best I could. When I’ve done that, anything else that happens is a bonus.
DEADLINE: The Social Network has passed $200 million at the worldwide box office, and True Grit has been the Coen Brothers’ highest grossing movie ever. What does this tell you?
RUDIN: They’re just good. I also don’t buy the idea that audiences don’t enjoy dramas. I think that audiences historically have just not responded to weak films. I got really lucky this year with two strong films from fantastic filmmakers. That’s why both worked, along with the advantage of being well marketed by both studios. A couple of years ago, either movie might conceivably have gone out through a specialty division. Neither would have reached anywhere near the level of gross they did. Because you are looking at two movies that opened in 2,200 and 3,000 screens respectively. That’s got to be powered by a decent amount of advertising money. There’s no way to bet halfway. Part of the reason you’re looking at them turn into blockbusters is that the studios that made them loved them, believed in them, and chased them. The chase is a big part of this.
DEADLINE: Chase means spend. Is convincing studios to do that on non-sequels a challenge?
RUDIN: The challenge is convincing the people paying for it that there is an upside in going for it in a big way. In the case of Social Network, we had a handful of LA screenings and the movie was, frankly, rapturously received. It was by far the best critical response I’ve ever had on anything. We thought it would be great if the film opened the New York Film Festival. They were the first people to see it, the screening finished, and they called and said, ‘You have opening night. We love the movie’. That movie was ratified, immediately. With True Grit, while we never had a screening of the movie, the people who paid for it thought it was a big rousing romantic adventure. All of us felt it clearly had the potential to be the most successful Coen Brothers movie ever, which it is now. They deserve it. They did a brilliant job on it. Part of the job is carrying the studio along with the making of the film, so people understand you’re making a film that you believe has the capacity to work in a big way.
DEADLINE: These are two very different projects. How did you support each as producer?
RUDIN: They needed very different things. In the case of True Grit, it has always been, pulling together the financing, pulling together the cast, running the marketing, giving them what they need. They need no help of any kind making the movie. They don’t want it, and I wouldn’t presume there was anything I could tell them about the making of a movie. We worked great together because we know what we each do and that’s a very comfortable place. There are aspects of the movie they’re very happy to run on their own, and aspects they are happy for me to run alone. We got that very clear and right the very first time we worked together on Raising Arizona, so I go back with the guys basically to the very beginning of their careers.
DEADLINE: Will they take a script note from you?
RUDIN: Yes. I have done that, and I do. We did a lot of work on the script of No Country, and on True Grit. There are big differences between Charles Portis’ book and this movie, and some of the best things in No Country are their invention. They are so brilliant at the calibration of moment to moment narrative that they can break down material better than almost anybody I’ve ever worked with. Most of the things we talk about on the script have to do with the math of the story. Is this clear? Is the context clear? Have we set something up as well as we need to? One of the big challenges in True Grit was getting the bookend idea to work. That wasn’t in the first movie. A lot of equity went into making sure we had done that right. That end narration got rewritten several times in post.
DEADLINE: And your role on The Social Network?
RUDIN: I worked very close with Aaron Sorkin on the script. A lot of the really good thinking about how to tell it out of the litigation, the big structural ideas, came out of those conversations. David Fincher needs no help in making a movie. He’s a brilliant filmmaker who has more mental calibration available to him than any human being I’ve ever met. The way he handled the anthropology of the movie was extraordinary. He really got so brilliantly underneath the culture that the movie was describing. He knows what it’s like to be 19 and come up with something and have somebody older and more monied try to take it away from you. Things he didn’t know, like the Harvard and Palo Alto parts, he learned. He’s recreating a very specific time and place and doing it with an unbelievable level of detail, confidence and skill, in service of Aaron’s script. I’m most proud of the unlikely marriage of those two collaborators. But it worked out so that it feels completely inevitable.
DEADLINE: How did the movie come about?
RUDIN: It started with Dana Brunetti and Mike De Luca. They had Ben Mezrich and his book proposal. I got my hands on that proposal quickly, and I had Sorkin. I went to Amy Pascal at a time when, unbeknownst to me, they had basically sold it to Sony already. Amy generously brokered a marriage between all of us, and Mike and Dana were gracious to let me into their project. The Facebook challenge was incredibly exciting to me because I’d never done anything like it. I’ve done a lot of movies based on real people, real situations, non-fiction books, magazine articles, life rights. I’ve never been part of a movie where we didn’t have any rights and were clearly never going to get them. It took an enormous amount of nerve on Sony’s part to make a movie without having rights to Zuckerberg or Facebook. Anybody who understands how a movie gets made understands that a deep-pockets player is not going to make a movie that has anything defamatory in it without protections. The script went through a long arduous vetting process. We had to have a massive amount of sourcing for everything that’s in the movie.
DEADLINE: Did it fall to you to figure out the rights situation?
RUDIN: It started out with the hope of having a cordial relationship with Facebook, and that evolved into a very generous relationship with Facebook. We stayed on parallel tracks but in the places where we converged, we made a decision at the beginning to try not to kill each other and did a really good job of living up to that. That was hard, it took enormous time and energy. It was complicated to get the battery of lawyers that had to approve the script to do that without in any way shaving the edges off the material. We did that. There’s nothing in the movie we wanted to say that we didn’t get to say. We also felt a moral responsibility to Mark Zuckerberg, beyond that there were legal issues we had to satisfy. We tried to make a movie that was as balanced as we could, but not lie about what happened.
DEADLINE: Was there anything specific he asked you to drop?
RUDIN: He had issues on a couple of things he believed were fiction, and asked us to change. We didn’t believe they were fiction and we left those in. There were other things he thought it important to make clear, and that made the movie better. Things like the hacking. It was important to them to make clear that he is the only guy who could have done what he did. That was incredibly important to us, because why else would you be making a movie about the guy? In places where our desires were synchronous, we were very good partners for each other. And we stayed on good parallel tracks when we didn’t have the same goals.
DEADLINE: Would the rights have come with impossible restrictions on the movie?
RUDIN: I don’t think we were ever going to get the rights. What Facebook wanted, really, was for us to postpone it. They wanted it to go away and were really hoping we would lose interest. They kept saying, ‘let’s see what happens in six months. Maybe we’ll be interested in cooperating.’ I kept saying, ‘no, we’re doing this now, with or without you.’ There was one conversation with their corporate guy about what it would take for them to sign on with us. The answer was, ‘if it’s not set at Harvard and the site isn’t called Facebook.’ I said, ‘we’re done now.’ But I said, ‘I’ll show you the movie. I’ll show you the script. You can have a voice in it. We’re not going to change things we don’t want to change, but if you have a point of view, we will listen to you, always.’ And we did.
DEADLINE: What was it about the movie that made all of you want to make it?
RUDIN: We all had different things about it that made us interested. David was much more interested in the ruthlessness of innovation. David believes that Zuckerberg did everything necessary to do right and protect Facebook. Aaron’s point of view on the material is more Ibsen-like. Zuckerberg is a tragic hero who suffers a substantial punishment. To me, it’s about the total joy of building something. I love the way Zuckerberg talks about work. That was the thing I was most interested in. I love work. I love putting together a group of people who are all doing the same thing. The commonality of purpose. For me, it was like making a movie about movie producing. People who do what I do experience what he’s experiencing every day. You pull together a group of people, your job is to be the leader, the one whose job it is to say, ‘thanks very much for your opinion on going right, but we’re going to go left now.’ Sometimes the willingness to do that comes with a price. The moment you realize you’re inevitably going to pay that price, to me was worth making a movie about.
DEADLINE: Why has the movie done so well?
RUDIN: I think it coincided with the idea of Facebook as a force in the culture reaching critical mass. The noise around social networking and the noise around the alienation of those innovations meant to bring people together was actually driving them farther apart. It was all that, and really entertaining. The older people who aren’t necessarily on Facebook themselves wanted to know what it was and were interested in it as a morality tale. They understood what the movie was describing as the cost of success. Younger audiences felt the movie was completely aspirational and wanted to be Zuckerberg. Because the movie doesn’t ever judge him, intentionally, it was able to work for both audiences.
DEADLINE: What was hardest about getting True Grit set up?
RUDIN: There’s no question when we said to people we were doing True Grit, the general reaction was puzzlement, mixed with a healthy dose of disdain. If you’re a producer, that’s fuel. Nothing is better than being said no to. I already knew the novel. I was immediately on board for True Grit. Those guys, doing their version of Rooster Cogburn, felt like a complete home run. It’s a version of The Dude. It’s in the wheelhouse of their most beloved characters. The thing that felt great was, they’ve never made a film that lived in classicism as much as this one does. The fact that they took a talent as capacious as theirs and put it in service of a John Ford movie, is pretty selfless. It’s their first four-quadrant film for everybody who loves movies. And I’m really proud to have been part of that.
DEADLINE: Did you always aspire to a four-quadrant film?
RUDIN: No. We had to decide if we could get it to a PG-13. We had, in this office, a long day of pros and cons. Is this a movie for families? Is this a movie we want kids to be able to see? Is this a movie that can go farther than their other great smaller movies have gone? We decided that to make this movie one that a 13-year-old girl couldn’t go see, when it’s fundamentally about this heroic child, seemed stupid and ultimately indefensible. Once we were able to say, yes, we want those kids to be able to come, we could lose some scenes of some fingers being chopped off. So then, if you’re going to do that, when do you want the movie opening? You want it opening at Christmas. Once we made that one decision, we thought we’d make a big romantic ardent Western adventure.
DEADLINE: Did you have to show multiple cuts to the ratings board?
RUDIN: We did. But the trims to not get an R were so minor. It was an amount of blood spray. The MPAA, historically, is very conservative about violence where children are involved. There’s a hellish level of scrutiny when people make movies where kids and guns co-exist.
DEADLINE: In your observation, does the best picture usually win? How much do variables like momentum, controversy, and likeability of the people involved come into play?
RUDIN: I can only respond as someone who gets a ballot every year. I sit down and mark an X where I think the best work was. I vote for what I think was the best film, the best performance, the best job of directing. I think that’s how most people do it. I don’t think people handicap their ballot based on marketplace conditions, selling job, personal interest. I just don’t believe it. In their privacy of their homes or offices, they mark the ballot the way they want to. I can only look at this from my own lens as someone who makes three to five movies every year. You can only say, Am I proud to have done it? Do I want my name to be represented on it? Am I happy when I see the poster on the wall when I walk into my office in the morning? That’s it. You get your own satisfaction. Honestly, you can’t look for anything else.
DEADLINE: Is that the secret to good producing?
RUDIN: If you don’t understand that the risk/reward relationship is fluid and will always be fluid, you’re going to find yourself out in the cold. The smart practitioners of this job understand it’s always cyclical and it’s going to be better for certain kinds of movies, and worse for others, at any given time. You’ve got to adapt your way of operating to what the actual circumstances are. I’ve done that the same as everybody else has. There is a thing that happens to a movie, which is, movies tend to reach their own level. You can try your hardest to force them, but you really can’t. They’re going to go where they are going to go and they take the time they take. They come together the way they’re going to come together. You can continually try to manage it toward the center, which is really what I do every day, but in the end I’m not in control of it. And I don’t think anybody who really understands what producing is, really believes they’re in control of it. You try to influence it and that’s the best you get. We can only control budget, compensation, scale of how you make the movie.
DEADLINE: And what’s the producer’s most important job?
RUDIN: My biggest job, in all the work we do, is to try and stay clear on why we’re doing the thing we’re doing. It’s hard when you’re in the day-to-day rhythm of making a movie, finishing a movie, or selling a movie to remember what it is that first motivated you to do that movie. That, to me, is the very best thing you can hang onto. Most films are made as a labor of love. So was The Social Network, and so was True Grit. Nobody got paid to do either of those movies. All of the filmmakers, actors, directors in both those movies gambled on the upside and took substantial participations, and basically did not get paid to make those movies. But everybody involved had a big passionate desire to work on that material. I’ve done really well betting on my own movies. But I think that’s very necessary now. If you’re not willing to gamble on yourself, opportunities are very hard to come by.
DEADLINE: The Social Network and The King’s Speech are shaping up as Best Picture frontrunners, which pits you against Harvey Weinstein. After clashing on The Reader, do you two have a civil relationship now?
RUDIN: We do. I don’t think you’re going to see us together in St. Bart’s over Christmas on our boat. But I have a huge amount of respect for him and I believe he feels the same about me.
DEADLINE: In Bernhard Schlink’s book, Kate Winslet’s Hanna character committed suicide because she read books that made her understand the enormity of the Holocaust horrors she helped inflict. She came off in the movie as a sympathetic, illiterate scapegoat. I’ve heard that discrepancy was a reason you exited.
RUDIN: It contributed. I felt the movie simply wasn’t ready and that we did not have time to confront the enormous moral issues relating to what the movie was actually about.
DEADLINE: As a Jewish director, Steven Spielberg could stand behind Schindler’s List. Fair to say you weren’t comfortable doing that with The Reader?
RUDIN: Yes. When I saw the movie for the first time, I was shocked and upset by it. It did not make a clear statement about what it felt about this woman and what she did. I don’t think a moral lesson is an obligation of a movie. Clarity is. Also, frankly, I was the only Jew on the creative team and knew it would fall to me to defend it. I didn’t ultimately feel I could stand up for it, and it would be required of me. But I didn’t want to be a drag on the process. Stephen Daldry felt good about the movie and he’s probably one of my three best friends in the world. The choice was, stay and confound a process my friends didn’t necessarily want to be confounded, and that the distributor was violently against my confounding, or just go along and then have to wear it. So I left. I was relieved to be done. There was no moment where I felt I’d made a stupid mistake, even when it was nominated.
DEADLINE: You are readying a movie adaptation of Stacy Schiff’s biography Cleopatra, with Angelina Jolie. Last time Hollywood tried that subject on a grand scale, it nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. Why will this fare better?
RUDIN: It is a completely revisionist Cleopatra, a much more grown-up sophisticated version. She’s not a sex kitten, she’s a politician, strategist, warrior. In the Joseph Mankiewicz movie, Elizabeth Taylor is a seductress, but the histories of Cleopatra have been written by men. This is the first to be written by a woman. It felt like such a blow-the-doors-off-the-hinges idea of how to tell it, impossible to resist. We’re pretty close. A lot of directors want to do it, but there is only a handful we’ll make it with.
DEADLINE: James Cameron seriously flirted with directing it before taking a huge deal at Fox to direct two Avatar sequels. Did you feel leveraged?
RUDIN: No. I’ve been a good friend of Jim Cameron’s since I was the executive on Aliens. I got promoted because of my relationship with Jim Cameron and the guy’s been a seminal figure in my career. I never for one second thought we were being leveraged. I fully expected Fox to make the play they did, to make sure he didn’t do Cleopatra. I wasn’t surprised when they did.