How Ridley Scott, Dan Friedkin, Runner-Up Christopher Plummer & $10M Reshoot Ransomed Getty Kidnap Pic Back From Kevin Spacey Scandal Death Sentence

Ridley Scott Dan Friedkin Christopher Plummer
Fabio Lovino/Imperative Entertainment/Fabio Lovino

Director Ridley Scott unveiled his new film All the Money in the World to press and for consideration by the Producers Guild over the weekend. By his estimate, that meant staging “200 interviews in the last two days, and seven screenings.” Scott said the film got as strong a reaction as it did when a wet print was shown the previous week to the Hollywood Foreign Press and elicited three Golden Globe nominations.

Christopher Plummer Ridley Scott

“I think the press are genuinely taken with the movie,” Scott said. “It would be nice, if this pays off. I have a very good partner in Dan Friedkin and his company, and I’ve been very concerned that their investment would be lost and I’ve been working really hard to keep their heads above water. I think the film is so good. What Christopher Plummer has done is fantastic, it trumps everything before. We’re going to ramp up the pipe this next nine days with an onslaught of P&A, and I’m feeling very good about it all.”

It would have been hard to imagine hearing this enthusiasm just six weeks ago, when Scott, Imperative Entertainment principal Friedkin and his partner Bradley Thomas, and Sony made the hard decision to pull the film from the prized AFI Fest closing-night slot that has been a launch pad for Oscar films like The Big Short. This after the thriller about the shocking kidnap of J Paul Getty III was hijacked by the revelation that Kevin Spacey — who played the boy’s billionaire oilman grandfather J Paul Getty — became engulfed in the sexual harassment scandal that was just beginning to turn Hollywood upside down.

All The Money In The World
Sony/TriStar Pictures

Scott and Friedkin initially favored keeping the date, more out of defiance than anything. They soon realized it was over for that iteration of the film, despite the strong work of Michelle Williams, Mark Wahlberg and the rest of the cast that surrounded Spacey. Their bitterness and anger over Spacey’s shocking alleged misbehavior was the thing that prompted the unprecedented move to scrub the two-time Oscar-winning actor’s performance from every scene of the movie, and reshoot with Christopher Plummer.

“What it came down to was, it just wouldn’t have been a film we would have been proud of, in this environment,” said Friedkin, a success in building other businesses who is just hitting stride in Hollywood with the production/financing venture Imperative Entertainment, and 3oWEST. “Even if that version of the film was very successful, cast that way, it was just something we would not have wanted to be associated with. With AFI, we decided not to do something that pulled away from this great film so many people had worked on, with a premiere that would cast it in a light that wasn’t favorable. This movie wasn’t about one individual, it was about 800-plus people who worked very hard. And we felt the noise, the negative environment around AFI, and what a release of that film at that time would have meant. It would have been detrimental to everything we worked for.

“That was the last thing we wanted,” said Friedkin. “This is a film I wanted to be proud of, that I could one day show my grand kids. But in a lot of ways, it could be symbolic of an inflection point, a turning point in society that is hopeful and is based on, look, we’re not standing for this behavior. Here was a film that could be a tangible example of how change needs to occur, and it is based on action, and we’re going to start right now. It was so clear that it would have been detrimental not only for AFI but also for the film to premiere there, after this news broke.”

Scott said the moment on October 29 that Star Trek: Discovery’s Anthony Rapp divulged that Spacey threw him on a bed and tried to assault him in the ’80s when he was just 14, and Spacey immediately responding with an online apology and a confounding pronouncement that he had come out as gay, the director knew his film was in deep trouble.

“The feeling was there immediately, because it wasn’t just Kevin, it was what already had happened with Harvey [Weinstein],” Scott said. “I thought, ‘Uh oh, we’re in for an earthquake here.’ ”

The tremors hit immediately.

“The theaters might not have taken us, but more than that for me, my investor Dan Friedkin would have wasted a lot of money, and I just couldn’t let that happen to him,” Scott said. “Immediately, I was thinking of how I was going to fix this. You could just feel there was a bit of a purge going on here, one I think needed to happen in Hollywood. This overall issue of sexual harassment, it had to stop.”

Kevin Spacey All The Money In The World trailer
TriStar Pictures

The idea of making a strong statement by banishing Spacey from the plum part of Getty was laudable, but what were the practicalities, when the film was locked and so was marketing, with a teaser trailer already out and stills everywhere depicting Spacey as Getty?

Extensive and expensive reshoots aren’t unprecedented, both for recasting purposes (Robert Zemeckis replaced Eric Stoltz with Michael J Fox four weeks into shooting Back to the Future) or to fix plot holes (World War Z had a whole different third act written and reshot, and the Star Wars spinoff Rogue One endured a similar process). Mostly, studios would only considering protecting their investment by spending reshoot money on tentpoles that have a chance to be hugely profitable in the global marketplace.

A gritty adult-themed R-rated ’70s-set kidnap thriller, All The Money In The World doesn’t fit that mold. And no one before had done what Scott proposed to, recasting and conducting major reshoots just eight weeks before the film’s December 22 release date (which moved back three days to Xmas).

“Bradley and I drove over to Sony, to try and get in front of a scheduled marketing meeting that Tom Rothman had on his schedule,” Friedkin said. “I said, Bradley, we will stand outside his door until he gives us 10 minutes. It was a particularly busy day for Tom and he’s a busy man. He saw us before his other meeting, and we said, ‘Tom, we have to talk to you about something, an idea Ridley, Bradley and I have. We want to recast it.’ And Tom said the thing he should have said, as a responsible studio chief: ‘That’s impossible.’ ”

It was an understandable reaction. While Imperative Entertainment fully financed All the Money in the World, Sony/TriStar had expended the resources and brain power to plan a full marketing campaign, with Spacey’s performance the centerpiece. But Rothman had worked with Scott before at Fox and is himself a film historian. He suddenly began calculating the possibilities in his head while Friedkin and Thomas sat there. They helped their cause by saying they were going to cover the costs of reshoots that Friedkin said slightly exceeded $10 million.

TriStar Pictures

“Tom stood up, and started pacing around,” Friedkin said. “And then he said, ‘OK, if you guys did this, it would mean this, and if you did that it means that. He started breaking it down and we could see him coming around to the concept. He said, ‘If you guys could pull this off, it would be a first,’ and he also said that if anyone could pull this off, it would be Ridley Scott. He saw that I, Ridley and Bradley had made the decision to do it. We had sat with Ridley and we saw the look in his eyes and he saw the look in ours, and we knew that, no matter what, we were going to find a way to make this happen. And Tom got behind it. He said, ‘OK, if you guys are doing this, get on with it.’ We left, and we started lining up everything that had to be done, which was a pretty monumental effort.”

While it would seem nearly impossible to cull a list of actors who could play J Paul Getty, available immediately and willing to interrupt their Thanksgiving holiday, Scott was completely undaunted. He had an ace card up his sleeve: Scott had come close to casting Plummer from the start.

“I said, I can correct this,” Scott said. If I can get Christopher, I’m in, and this is up and running. He was one of the two choices. I just happened to go with Kevin.”

Friedkin said Scott’s ferocious confidence, and determination to bring Plummer back for the role he though eluded him, gave him and Thomas all the confidence they needed that this could happen.

“It would have otherwise been close to impossible on that timeline, but Ridley from the very beginning really liked Christopher Plummer,” Friedkin said. “Once he decided to zero in on this, he said, ‘I’m going to get him. I’ll meet with him and I believe I can get him excited and can convince him to do it.’ We flew him from London, the day after we talked about it, and he met Christopher that evening and then Mark Wahlberg again the following morning. That would have been November 6, and then Wahlberg on November 7.”

Deadline broke the story that Plummer was set the following day, and the race was on. Scott has previously told me that when he reads a script, even for the first time, the visual shots and staging of scenes just naturally materialize in his brain. Similarly, the most efficient ways to remove Spacey and give Plummer the chance to give the indelible character of Getty his own stamp whirled through his brain at about the same speed.

“I realize some were saying this was difficult to impossible, but it really has to do with experience,” Scott said. “I’ve done over 2000 commercials, and I mean in the heyday of commercials and not the crap now where you have the mommy in the kitchen with her little girl. I mean the Apple spot, and things like that. I was very experienced in moving quickly, so that by the time I first directed a movie at age 40, doing The Duellists felt pretty straightforward to me. Even doing Alien after that felt straightforward. I felt I knew exactly what I was doing. By now, if I’ve got a problem, if someone says the roof is falling in, I say, prop it up, or move. I always look for the solution; I never dwell on the problem.”

Scott and Friedkin said that Williams, Wahlberg and the entire crew didn’t flinch at the idea of giving up Thanksgiving with their families. When Williams’ daughter, for instance, learned that mom was going to spend the holiday acting with Captain Von Trapp from The Sound of Music, she was gleefully supportive.

“Every one of them came around, immediately,” Scott said. “They said, we’ll come in, we don’t need extra pay or anything.”

Said Friedkin: “We hoped what we were doing could be viewed as something of an inflection point, in changing the way this film is viewed, through action. When we got back to the set for reshoots, there was an energy I’d never experienced before. So many people coalesced and came together, gave their energy, gave up Thanksgiving with the families to make things right with this movie. I saw a resolve and a spirit that I’ve never experienced in any business I’ve been involved in. It was brought on by the desire to do what was best for this film, and in a way, for the industry. I love the movie, but I think that is what I’m most proud of was walking on the set and seeing that enthusiasm and commitment.”

Sony Pictures

Friedkin said Plummer started with two scenes on green screen in shots where the younger Getty leased oil lands in the Saudi Arabian desert that forged his path to become the world’s richest man. Other than that, every other scene that depicted Getty interacting with other characters was completely reshot.

Scott wrapped his reshoot November 29, turned 80 the next day, and had the print ready to be seen December 4 by HFPA members on both coasts. They responded with nominations for Best Director, Best Actress for Williams and Best Supporting Actor for Plummer who only four weeks earlier had been engaged to star in the film.

“We flew back Thursday morning of Ridley’s birthday from Rome, after we wrapped the entire reshoot the night before,” Friedkin said. “We went back to the UK, where he immediately went back to finalize things with Claire [Simpson] in the edit bay, and then sound mix and color grading. I screened it with him within 48 hours of returning from Italy, because Claire had been cutting it the whole time, with Ridley. He was not only directing the reshoots, he was cutting and editing at night.”

Was there any attention paid to the milestone of one of the greatest living directors turning 80?

“Ridley is not big on fanfare,” Friedkin said. “We had a nice dinner and celebrated with a small group, but to him, it is just another day. It is always, ‘Let’s get on with it, it’s no big deal.’ ”

Now, they hope to get beyond the story of changing the narrative around the movie, to focus on the stylish film itself. Scott was progressing towards a production start on an adaptation of the Don Winslow drug corruption epic The Cartel when he read David Scarpa’s script on the Getty kidnapping and immediately committed last March. Scott is capable of love at first sight, and the impact was sudden and as palpable when he dropped everything after seeing George Lucas’ Star Wars and lobbied to direct Alien, or when he read the Cormac McCarthy script The Counselor and cleared the decks for that one. Shifting back The Cartel made sense because it requires stars – I’ve heard the hope is to pair Leonardo DiCaprio as the DEA agent and Benicio Del Toro the Mexican cartel kingpin — but the grounded subject matter and period of the Getty kidnap film is really why Scott took the leap.

“When anyone mentions things like the press, truth, newsworthiness, things like that, my ears perk up,” Scott said. “I do so much fiction, and exotic material. Anything I can do that is relevant to today and modern times, I jump on it. That’s why I leapt on Black Hawk Down. It was a bugger to do, but it made sense because it was the perfect pocket edition of the insanity of war. Same with American Gangster. It was on the shelf and Steve Zaillian said, ‘Take a look at this, it’s been on the shelf five years and I think they’re crazy not making it. What do you think?’ Because it was a person out of Manhattan and Harlem, in a period I was fascinated by, I jumped in. Same thing here. I knew the era very well. I was quite successful already at 27 in the ’60s. I had money to spend and cars to drive and I mixed a lot with a lot of the rock and rollers and saw it all happen. But when this kidnapping was done, it was like a time bomb, a bombshell went off. Everybody was stunned by how it unfolded. That’s what I found fascinating.”

The movie opens with a stylish depiction of that Italian social scene, first in black and white and slowly warming to full color. The opening was an homage to the Federico Fellini film La Dolce Vita, which Scott said so vividly captured “the Via Veneto, with all the Euro-trash, paparazzi and people hanging out in the restaurants at night. That is why it begins there, right in the middle of that.”

The naïvely sweet Getty III is quickly nabbed by his kidnappers, and met with an outsized $17 million ransom demand. Wahlberg plays Getty’s security advisor Fletcher Chase, who becomes an unlikely ally for the kidnapped youth’s mother, Gail Harris. She is played by Williams, and grows from an accomplice in the intoxicant-addled habits that consumed her husband John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan) into a fiery heroine who bides time with the kidnappers while she attempts to wrest ransom money from the former father-in-law she loathes, particularly after he simply refuses to pay for his grandson’s freedom.

Plummer soars in his depiction of Getty, for whom even $17 million would have been a drop in the bucket. What Scott said he loved about the richness of Plummer’s character is how much more complicated the oil baron actually was. The coldness in viewing his heir as just another possession worth an appropriate price tag comes off as heartless.

“There is that, to it, but there is this other side,” Scott said. “Getty was also a clever, consummate politician. When he’s asked by press, what would you pay for your grandson? ‘Nothing. Well, 17 million dollars sounds like a helluva lot of money for a young man.’ He’s talking to the Mafioso. He knows he’s putting it out there in the public and that they’re listening to him, so he’s already beginning the negotiation with the mafia. That’s what he’s doing. He’s saying, ‘The kid doesn’t mean shit to me. I really don’t care.’ Immediately you see he is trying to come to a point in a negotiation and don’t forget, governments today will not negotiate with terrorism.”
Much the way that Scott has been willing to depict violence in films like Hannibal and Alien, the infamous severed ear sent by J Paul Getty III’s captors to an Italian newspaper, is well, not an image you’ll soon get out of your head.

“I do think it’s pretty gnarly, but you had to have it like that. It’s a moment of truth.”

Scott said the same was true in Williams’ layered performance of Gail Harris, who wasn’t one to lapse into histrionics despite her desperate effort to save her son.

“Michelle is very strong and intelligent woman, the rare actress who can hit many layers at this level and at the same time be a real caring mom,” Scott said. “What was great was, we didn’t disintegrate into tears and hysteria and table thumping. We avoided that and it was the right thing to do because you don’t win anything by getting hysterical. She was asked here, ‘Why wouldn’t a mother shed tears for her son?’ She answered, ‘They want me to cry, is that it? Fuck them!’ Gail Harris was pretty tough. She has seen the film and loved it and said, ‘Thank god it’s a good film.’

I asked Scott what he thought Getty would have done if faced with a crisis that befell the director and Friedkin, where a quality film was instantly rendered a near-dead distressed asset because of a scandal they had nothing to do with other than casting the wrong actor in an indelible role. Would have Getty have cut his losses, or executed the bold last-minute save attempt as Scott and Friedkin did?

“Getty would have done exactly what we did,” Scott said without hesitating. “He would even think about it, he would have just jumped in and done it. I didn’t even think about it. I said, ‘We can’t let this happen. We’ve got the opportunity and just enough time to correct it,’ and that’s what we did.”

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