Plan B co-presidents Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner are producers operating at the highest level, finding themselves and their films in the awards conversation repeatedly and closing major deals on a regular basis. They won Best Picture for 12 Years A Slave just three years ago, and will be hoping to capitalize on their PGA triumph with The Big Short this year when the AMPAS envelopes get opened on Feb 28. The Big Short has been hailed not only for its humor but for its pressing sociopolitical relevance. Gardner and Kleiner discuss the outcome of the film’s successfully “bipartisan” screening before Congress, the great effects on the world of socially conscious films, and some of the best advice they’ve taken from fellow Plan B producer Brad Pitt.
Director Adam McKay recently participated in a screening of The Big Short for members of Congress, in addition to a Q&A. How did that go over?
Kleiner: We both had other work commitments, but we obviously spoke to our team, and they were very positive about the screening and about the bipartisan nature of the attendance. One of the things that McKay talked about was the fact that the left-right divide is, itself, an artificial construct, and that there are issues that concern everybody. The makeup of the audience seemed to really speak to that. That was one of the things that we were very excited about, because I think we certainly have maintained—and its been true all along—that you have Bill O’Reilly and Bernie Sanders talk about it on the same day. It’s not a film for any one particular political orientation—it’s a film for everybody.
Do you feel there’s been any real change that has come from the movie?
Gardner: The dialogue that we’ve been having with people who have oversight into this business is this notion of “economic literacy”—that the basics of our financial system are things that should be taught. Not to age myself, but I remember vividly Schoolhouse Rock! and entrust my grammar to it. Is there a column that we can carve out for economic literacy for kids? For people who are entering into the world of making their own livings, etcetera. And obviously, at a fundamental level, everyone’s watching who’s talking about bank regulation, who doesn’t talk about bank regulation. That’s been in the news cycle, but I think one of the things that we’ve been struck by—and I think has struck the people who’ve taken their kids to see the movie—is how engaged the kids are, and that it’s quite appropriate, in fact, to them to have a sort of primer on our system, what it entails and what it means. What the risks are, what the benefits are, and what the negatives are. And why have we forgone that without protest, or without debate?
Kleiner: I think that’s exactly right, and I think it’s connected to this thing, and Adam talked about this at the DGA Awards, which was, this crisis happened and there just hasn’t been an adequate explanation as to why, and yet everyone’s living with the events and the aftereffects of the events without the benefit of an explanation. It feels like there is a lot of conversation happening, in a way, almost ten years later, because people are hungry for an explanation. They want to understand what this event really was. We’ve always maintained that this movie isn’t a period piece—it’s a movie about now because we’re still living in that moment. But I think all of this conversation speaks for a hunger for what Dede called “economic literacy.” For people to have an agency in their own life, as far as how economic matters that concern them are handled. Are people comfortable just assuming that a bunch of experts are dealing with this for us?
Plan B’s relationship with author Michael Lewis dates back to 2011’s Moneyball. Is it the accessibility of his approach to these issues that attracts you as producers?
Kleiner: We obviously love Moneyball, even though Dede and I didn’t produce the movie—it was something that Brad [Pitt] was very close to and produced. That movie was about how ideas matter—concepts that are seemingly abstract actually can have a huge impact. And also, the challenges when people go against conventional wisdom, even though things that seem obvious or seem like there’s data to support them don’t get their proper audience because they’re not popular, or because the person who’s making the case doesn’t meet the standard for what should be listened to. In other words, the story is about people who are heretics, that actually have strong belief systems. The battle of values—the battle of ideas—we love how he makes that accessible and makes it feel like the stakes are enormously high, even if it’s taking place in a world that you’re not used to thinking of as the most high-stakes world, necessarily. I just think he did that brilliantly, again, in The Big Short.
Did you look at the way other films had addressed Wall St. in recent years?
Gardner: You always look at other movies that reside in the landscape of your subject matter, but truthfully, we had a great script from Charles [Randolph], and Charles would say that the movie was still proving elusive. I think it would’ve been a noble film—you can’t really dispute what it’s about—but the truth is that when Adam McKay called us and said, “Would you ever give me a shot at this?” Jeremy and I looked at each other like, “Oh my God! We’re so stupid. That’s exactly right!” The level of absurdity of this event should be approached through its absurdity door, and in doing so, you don’t force, necessarily, its ferocity, its severity, or its seriousness or implications—none of that has to be given up if you go through a different door, but that’s actually the way to do it. That’s what helped make it stand up singularly inside this landscape of films about finance.
Was there never a moment of reluctance—of wondering whether this was a director who could execute this material, given his background in directing a much different kind of fare?
Gardner: Genuinely, there was no reluctance. You never know if a movie’s going to work—that’s true of every movie you make, but if you’re a fan of Adam’s, you know the piece on Broadway he did about Bush, and you’ve seen the strain of DNA that lives inside of Funny or Die, and you know that he came out of avant-garde theater in Chicago. You know that he is a rigorous thinker. It didn’t feel far afield.
Kleiner: I think we were humble about the challenges of translating this material, but we didn’t have reluctance about Adam being the person to do it. I think we finally felt, to Dede’s earlier point, that we had a captain of the ship who had the vision that was going to lead us there. We didn’t feel there was anything about Adam that wasn’t capable of rising to that challenge, but it remained a huge challenge, irrespective of the fact that we had a lot of faith in Adam.
After assembling this amazing package at Plan B, with great material and Brad Pitt attached, was it fairly easy to attach the rest of the cast and finance the film?
Gardner: When you have Adam and Charles’s script in your hands, it turns out, it’s not so hard. [Laughs] Every movie’s hard and we faced a lot of challenges, but the script was such a calling card. It was so singular. I think all those guys read a lot of stuff and no one had ever seen anything like it—no one had ever heard a, quote unquote, “serious subject” entered through a different sort of side door, and there was this effort at exclamation through the celebrity witness accounts, and breaking the fourth wall, and there was a narrator. There’s just so many things about it that I have to imagine, as an actor, sang out as unique. I think everyone’s just trying to be in stuff that’s original.
And then to get on the phone with Adam, and he’s so articulate about his intention, about how furious he is about the situation, about how devoted he is to the source material. He picked up the book one night and he didn’t put it down—he just read until dawn—and that level of commitment is very infectious. You feel safe getting inside a boat like that; one that’s driven by that kind of fuel. And then yes, it’s hard and we were moving fast and we didn’t have a lot of money, but everyone climbed in without looking back, and everyone did it for a fraction of their normal fees, and everyone did it fast and furiously, and the studio was right behind us and said, “Go, go, go, go, go.” We wrapped this movie in May. [Laughs] I think we also felt there was an accelerative in the world happening—we all felt like “Now—now, now, now, now. Don’t wait.” Do this now, because it is happening now.
There’s been a tremendous conversation this year about diversity in cinema, following this year’s Oscar nominations. You’ve previously had great success producing films featuring diverse casts and telling diverse stories. Where do you see your responsibility in terms of affecting this kind of change?
Gardner: I think we can always improve—I think everyone can improve. What I think is that it’s a discussion that has an origin much earlier than the Oscars. Obviously, the Oscars are the result of a more serious condition. It’s about storytelling, and to the extent that the choice of what stories get told lies in the hands of producers, then it is our responsibility to ensure that stories are told that reflect our world and our population and our citizenry. We endeavor to heed that responsibility and we will continue to.
Kleiner: Producers, as people that often originate projects, are very responsible, to the point of not looking at the beginning of the chain of intellectual property, sourcing and creation.
Gardner: [The Oscars] are a reflection of the stories that were elected to be made and financed. If bigger and bolder fights are being had at the decision-making point, about what stories to make in the first place, I’d like to think you could broaden that spectrum. We’ve certainly tried.
You’ve won Best Picture before. Do you think another win for The Big Short would have any kind of practical effect on the way you make films going forward?
Kleiner: We’ve had a narrative-driven, filmmaker-driven, theme-driven approach to movies—that’s who we are, and we’re going to keep doing it that way. We’re going to have good years and bad years, and movies that work and movies that don’t work—we’ve already had bunches of each. It’s nice to have your stuff recognized, but we have to be in the laboratory all the time.
Gardner: Jeremy and I are the great beneficiaries of a lot of wisdom on Brad’s part, but one thing he’s always said to us is that he really genuinely believes in the shelf life of a movie. There’s an enormous amount of liberty that comes with someone who really believes that. Like, we made A Mighty Heart and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford one year and I can tell you not many people saw either of them, and yet those movies exist—they’re out there. People are still finding Jesse James, in ways that are very moving to us. When you have someone who reminds us, “Hey, we didn’t go see 2001 in the theater,” or, “We didn’t go see All the President’s Men in the theater,” that belief permits a commitment to narrative that is very pure, and we’re very, very lucky.