Producer Mary Parent endured frigid weather and one or two logistical debacles on the set of The Revenant, but don’t feel too bad for her—she’s spent the new year thus far in much more inviting climes, following the production of Jordan Vogt-Robert’s Kong: Skull Island to Hawaii, Australia, and most recently, Vietnam. Known at various points as the Chairperson of MGM and Vice Chairman of Worldwide Production for Universal Pictures, Parent is finding new satisfaction in her role as a prolific film producer, shepherding seven movies in four years. For Parent, The Revenant is the single most ambitious undertaking of a highly ambitious individual. Below, Parent delves into her busy travel schedule, her career transition, and the year of the tentpole film.
You’ve just gotten back into town from Australia, where you were on the set of Kong: Skull Island with fellow Oscar nominee Brie Larson. It’s been a busy time for you.
I’m still trying to figure out what day and what country I’m in. I’m going to go to London for the BAFTAs on Thursday and I’m going to fly from London to Vietnam and then meet the production there, because we finish in Australia in a week. Poor Brie, she’s commuting even more. But she’s, whatever, 25 years old, so it’s fine for her.
Having had a prior career as a studio executive at both MGM and Universal, are you finding new satisfaction in your role as a film producer?
Sure, yeah. To a certain extent we all do the same thing, which is to try to identify and go after great material, and put together movies that have a reason for being, and with a talented group of people, and whether you’re doing that as a producer or an executive, there are slight differences, but it’s the same goal. For me, it was a conscious decision to do it at a time in my life where I felt like I could pick up and be a bit of gypsy, and go around the world like this. I love making movies, so it’s been a pretty incredible experience and I feel really fortunate—it’s been seven movies in less than four years, all kind of different shapes and sizes, and filmmakers, and it’s different, but it’s not. Certainly as an executive, you’re a buyer, so that can make it a little bit more of a direct line, although at the same time you’re selling, too, because you’re trying to go out and sell your movie to the filmmaker, to the actor. It’s the same skill set, applied slightly differently.
Frankly, timing is everything in this business, and going to be chairman of MGM in April of ’08 and then having the market crash in October was not particularly fortuitous, but every experience that you have teaches you something new, so I feel fortunate that I’ve gotten to have so many different kinds of experiences, and I draw from those experiences every day. Having spent time on the other side really helps me to understand and respect the studio perspective. It’s funny because a lot of times people think there’s the filmmaker side and there’s the studio side, and at the end of the day the agenda is all the same. Everybody, regardless of what your role is, just wants to make good movies that do well. That’s it.
There’s nothing at all unambitious about you, but The Revenant feels like a singularly ambitious project, for a number of reasons. What made you want to take it on?
This is by far the most ambitious thing that I’ve ever been involved with in my career, and in many ways, the most satisfying as a result. The initial draw was absolutely Alejandro, as well as Leo and Tom. The story, I really connected with, and I think it’s rare that you can find material that, on one level, works as a really entertaining, visceral adventure and cinematic event, and then at the same time, has many deeper levels to it, and asks many timely and powerful questions about our place in the world—who we are, individually and collectively, how we treat one another, culturally and otherwise, and certainly our responsibility towards the planet that we inhabit. You look back on that time and what was happening in the fur trade, and by the end of the nineteenth century, the footprint that we made as human beings was catastrophic. To think about that then, and many of the lessons that we didn’t learn, and still haven’t mastered, it’s such an interesting moment in time. I think Alejandro did a beautiful job of weaving all these different things in—I’ve talked to people who’ve told me they’ve seen the film more than one time, and it’s really exciting to hear how, going back again, they pick up different things.
As a producer, this is what you really dream of getting to do, and every day, it was hugely satisfying. You don’t work any less hard on movies that you’re not equally as proud of, but to have something that was a bit of a tightrope forced all of us to rise to a level. I find that I do my best work in those environments—it becomes very much sink or swim, and I found that exhilarating. Also, I think we banter these terms a lot about filmmakers and who they are and what they represent, but for Alejandro, every single one of his movies has this handcrafted feel to it, and they’re all different. Getting to support that vision was extraordinary.
It’s a pretty interesting and unique year in film—two of the biggest tentpole spectacle films of the year are the two films with the most Oscar nominations by far, which is very unusual. What does this suggest to you?
I agree with you—it’s a great year for film, and seeing more ambitious, bigger films connecting and working like this is amazing for the business, in general, because some of these films may not have been the most obvious at the outset.
The budget for The Revenant came out at $135 million, which is actually somewhat low for a film of its scope. Did that budget size create issues for you in production?
Having to finish the film in Argentina was the trickiest thing. The good news for us was that, other than the fort, we didn’t have huge builds. It was interesting because it was sort of the littlest big film I’d ever been involved in. But it also made it more nimble. We were actually able to run and gun in ways that most traditionally big films aren’t. We were able to save money in many ways. We tried to put as much as we could on the screen—that helped us come out at a decent number, and obviously there were also really big tax incentives that we were able to capitalize on. We also had a tighter post, in a way, so that balanced out a little bit too. It all kind of comes out in the wash. You get a break on some things and not on others—we didn’t have a lot of equipment, we had no lights. All those normal things that come along as you’re weaving your way on set trying to get to the center of it—we were free of all that.