Catching Up With Neal Dodson, producer of All is Lost (Part Four)

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Neal Dodson knows how to come out of the gate strong. The first feature film he produced with partners J.C. Chandor and Zachary Quinto was Margin Call, which was made for a pittance with an incredibly timely script and a smack-your-head-great cast (including Quinto himself, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, and even Dodson’s wife, actress Ashley Williams). That film won the Robert Altman Award at the Indie Spirits, and its script was nominated for an Oscar. His followup film, again with Quinto and Chandor, is this month’s stunning All is Lost, which stars Robert Redford. And no one else. Literally. His next project stars Javier Bardem and Jessica Chastain. Are you getting the picture yet? You can’t even say Dodson’s on the rise any more; he’s already there. Today is Part Four of a four-part interview we did with the producer. In Part One, Dodson told us about growing up, going to drama school, trying his hand at acting, and getting a job with a Hollywood producer. In Part Two he told us about how all that led to the opportunity to produce Margin Call. In Part Three, he tells us about making that film. Today, in our fourth and final part, he tells us about the making of All is Lost and what the future holds.

Paste Magazine: Among other things, Margin Call sets you up to have your next film be Redford’s first lead role in… I don’t know when his last leading role was in someone else’s movie. But it’s been a while.
Neal Dodson: Yeah, it’s been a while for sure.

Paste: Tell me about how that came about. Was that because of Sundance and through those connections?
Dodson: The project existed in J.C.’s head. He was in the middle of writing it and he hadn’t really cast it in his head yet, which is odd because he tends to have actors in mind even if they don’t end up being the actors that he gets.

He was thinking about it in the winter, right as we had finished Margin Call and hadn’t yet played Sundance. So we went off to Sundance. We got our Sundance call on Thanksgiving at winter or sort of Christmas time. He was thinking about it at New Years. So we went off and we weren’t even the biggest success at Sundance by any stretch of the imagination. Marcy May Marlene and Like Crazy and a lot of other movies were certainly more talked about at Sundance than we were. And they’re certainly great movies. But we were sort of… I think it felt a little like “Maybe it was a Hollywood movie.” People were like “Oh they’re bringing in this big Hollywood movie,” but it was a tiny little movie. It just has a great cast.

When we got there, J.C. went to the filmmakers brunch that happens every year. And he got there, and he was sitting in the very very back of the room eating some bagels or something, and Bob was giving this whole speech to the filmmakers of that year, talking about the state of film and thanking them for bringing the movies that they made. It’s very inspiring and a famous part of the Sundance experience if you’re a director there, getting to hear Bob give you his two cents on the state of the film business and independent film and art. And right as he was sitting there, the speaker that was behind him went out, and then came back on as if someone had re-plugged it, or it had short circuited or something, and so suddenly he hears Bob’s voice booming in his ear and he’s looking up at him and thinks “Wow, what an amazing tool that the voice is. This is one of the most iconic voices of all time. I wonder what it would do if you took that tool away from him. What would that do. What would it reveal?”

And so since he had this thing that he was working on that was dialogue-less, it suddenly sort of struck him that maybe this was the guy. He didn’t even really meet Bob until after Sundance that year. He basically saw him from afar. And kept writing. And then we went on our little journey to Berlin which was a month after Sundance. He pitched me and Zach Quinto, and our Foreign Sales Agent, this guy named Glen Basner who runs a company named FilmNation. He pitched the three of us All Is Lost, and he told us the story, and he had these napkins and he was drawing boats and shipping containers and waves and all these things on maps to show us how all these things sort of worked. And he pitched us the whole movie and he said “And I think I want the guy to be an old guy.

And he said to Glen, our sales guy, “Who does that need to be in order to make my movie? Here’s who I’m thinking of — Robert Redford.“And Glen said, “Well, that could work,” and J.C. said “Ok! Let’s go after that. Maybe he would respond to this.”

So he finished the script which, by the way, was thirty-one pages long. A piece of prose. There’s a small piece of voiceover at the beginning of the movie and other than that it’s just descriptions of what happens with this guy.

It was written in Final Draft, but Final Draft always tries to correct your errors in formatting. So it was a nightmare with that because he’s writing in these long paragraphs. Final Draft hated it. The program was angry at J.C.

So he had this thirty page draft of this story. Like a short story. Which we sent off to Redford, to his production company and to his producing partner, Bill Holderman at Wildwood. We didn’t know, but we just said “Give it a read, we’d love Bob to do this movie with us.”

At that time we were calling him Mr. Redford. Until he instructed us not to ever again. But I believe Bill read it and interestingly enough Bob’s wife, Billy who is an amazing painter and a phenomenal champion of the film and champion of us, which is awesome-the two of them fell in love with it and said “Bob, you really need to take a look at this. It’d be really interesting.”

Unbeknownst to us, he had really been looking to find a project to get away from directing and directing himself and a lot of the stuff he’d been spending the last fifteen years doing, and get back to being just an actor. It was so bold and so stark and so rare to see a project like this that it really appealed to them, and they thought it would to him, so he read it.

It’s a quick read, needless to say. He quickly asked for a meeting with J.C., so he flew out to LA and met Bob. They sat down and had a brief little conversation about how cool it was that Margin Call had come through Sundance. Bob loved Margin Call and loved the script and thought it was really bold, and it was appealing to him. J.C. had had this whole plan-you know-two hours worth of explaining how it would work, what was scary and “Well, maybe the guy could have some more back story but I don’t think that’s the right thing and…” Assuming that Bob was going to have a lot of concerns. Because it’s all so bizarre.

J.C. said “Do you have any concerns of questions?” And he said “No, I think this is exactly what I need to be doing right now, and I just wanted to make sure that you weren’t a total crazy person. And you’re obviously not so—”

And he remembers Bob sort of slapping his leg, and saying “Let’s do this.” That was it.

So J.C. called me afterwards and said “He’s in, we hugged it out, he’s in. We’re gonna go do this with Robert Redford. This is crazy.”

So then we had a plan. Then it took seven or eight months after that to figure out how to put the financing together. Even with Robert Redford and J.C. coming off-I guess this was before he had the Oscar nomination, but we were heading into a big release and the reviews were great and momentum was building but still-terrifying for financers and studios. But to their credit, Roadside Productions and Lionsgate, which released Margin Call and did a great job, really took to the project and really believed in the project and believed in J.C.

J.C. went to them and said “Listen, I really don’t need too much money, this is how much I need,” and gave them a number for the domestic rights to the movie and they said “Great!”

So it was a negative pick up. We financed it independently but they agreed to buy the domestic rights when it was done. We did the same thing on the foreign side. We had some equity partners involved at some point, we tried a couple of different versions to piece the thing together and there was a moment when it became clear that there was the last piece of the risk that people weren’t willing to bet on. So we had foreign sales estimates for X number of dollars from Glen Basner and we had a domestic offer from Lionsgate and Roadside and if you believed those two things were true, then it was a very safe investment. Put your money in and once those sales were done, you get your money back, probably at profit.

However, it was hard to believe the thing was true, because it was so weird. We were always a little bit apart from being able to make the deal work. So we decided to change it up. One of our agents at CAA is an expert in packaging, and he called and said “Listen, I think you need to take the movie to Berlin and have Glen sell it, and you’ll know exactly what it’s worth. And if he’s right, the numbers are right, you’ll have no problem financing the movie and if he’s wrong, then you’ll know that you need to make it for less money.”

So Glen Basner went to Berlin, two Berlins ago, last February 2012, and in four hours he had sold every single country on earth. Basically, for exactly what they were worth. So suddenly we had all these contracts. Universal Pictures bought an enormous chunk of it. They thought the project was really cool and they brought in distributors. Then we had Lionsgate for domestic and then soon we had every country sold. So it appeared that we didn’t need the equity money anymore. So we went to a bank and borrowed nine million dollars from the bank against the domestic sales. We literally took out a bank loan for nine million bucks.

It was a bank loan for ten million bucks after you factor in all the fees and expenses. But we still had to go make our movie, so as long as we could figure out how to make it for nine million bucks, we were golden.

That became our task. My other producer-she and I were the two producers who were active in making the movie, Anna Gerb-she and I went to Mexico with J.C. We explored all these various places to shoot the movie, and that ended up being the best place for this portion of the shooting of the movie. There’s no land in the entire film. There are no other actors in the entire film. The cast and credits read “Our Man: Robert Redford” and that’s the only actor in the entire scroll. Which always gets a laugh when people are watching the end of the movie. That’s great, it sort of points out how crazy the endeavor was.

So we shot in the ocean, off the coast of Los Angeles and Long Beach. We shot in the ocean off the cost of Ensenada, down in North Mid Baja. We shot for a week in the Bahamas, where we shot a lot of the underwater fish photography and shark photography. That’s a cool part of the movie and we’ve taken a few corrections from people on Twitter — I saw a guy write a few days ago “And obviously all the fish are CG.”
And there’s not a single CG fish or shark in the movie. It’s all one hundred percent real. But it’s so crazy, some of the photography that we got, that it looks like it must be fake. But I’ve never had to insist that something wasn’t CG before.

The rest of the movie we shot at the Baja studios, which is the studio that James Cameron built to shoot Titanic in Rosarito Mexico. One of the water tanks is the size of three and a half football fields and has twenty million gallons worth of water. And there’s another one that’s a deep tank that we used for some of the underwater stuff. There’s another one that’s a storm tank that we used for some of the storm sequences with the waves and dump tanks and hoses and sprays and gale force windows from these huge fans. You know, we really took over the studio. For this little nine million dollar movie, we had a sixty acre studio lot with sound stages and housing and offices and a commissary and a bar that Russell Crowe had built there during the shooting of Master and Commander. All this ridiculous stuff that we totally took over. We prepped for eight weeks and shot for six weeks in Mexico. Redford was there for the six weeks and a week of prep, so he was there alone, by himself. And it was an amazing adventure. We truly learned a ton; a ton of things that we’d never done before, myself and J.C. Stunts we’d never used before and special effects and a VFX and a marine unit and safety divers in the water and we had to buy three thirty nine foot boats, yachts and match them to one another for the same boat and these life rafts. There’s a life raft in the movie. We had to buy seven of those and match them to one another and age them appropriately, and it was pretty insane in the scale and the scope of it, particularly on that budget.

It was nuts. Ultimately it came down to-our two best special effects were J.C.’s writing and directing and Mr. Redford’s performance. It’s amazing. He’s bold and brave and more vulnerable than you’ve ever seen him. And yet still very Bob. It was something that J.C. was trade on, there is no backstory for this character in the movie. He doesn’t have a name. You don’t have the shot in the movie where you see a family photo float by. J.C. had a bunch of rules about the movie. Those were among them.

There’s no backstory. No unnecessary and false situational back story. No super human moments. So, this guy is doing amazing things but nothing that’s out of the realm of believability for a seventy-six year old guy out at sea to do. Consequently, Bob did all of them. Sometimes to our great fear: leaping off of things and climbing up the sixty-five foot mast of the boat, all the way to the top. Swimming underwater and getting caught in the sails and getting dragged behind the boat. Getting thrown from the boat. It was incredible, the stuff that this guy was doing. He literally, he turned seventy-six a week after we stopped shooting and he’s now turned seventy-seven. When you see the movie, it’s just… mind-boggling. But, he was really committed to J.C.’s vision.

If there’s anything J.C. knows as much about the financial crash, it’s sailboats. And consequently, he managed to sort of wrestle this thing together and be very knowledgeable. Anyway, I’ve been monologuing.

Paste: No, no no, that’s good. So now, J.C.’s done. He’s shot all his bullets, right? One movie each about the financial crisis and about sailing, and now he’s ready to retire?
Dodson: Exactly, that’s exactly right.

Paste: You are someone who, while as we established not being quite an overnight success, you are someone who at a very young age in the scope of a career has certainly managed to make some pretty amazing things happen. Share some sort of…. I hate to say principles, but some sort of guiding wisdom that you have about what you’ve found is important about being a successful producer.
Dodson: I think for me, one of the things that we certainly learned from our first couple of films is that being responsible doesn’t have to be counter to being creatively autonomous or being smart about how you handle things. I think that’s often a misconception. It may be that that is true inside the studio system, for most people or all people but outside the studio system, my gut is, if you can make films responsibly and creatively then you get to keep making them. So, what we try to do and what we’ve managed to do with a reasonable degree of success is figure out what what we’re making is worth, and then go make it for less than that.

If you do that, people are less concerned about getting up in your business and controlling the decisions. That doesn’t mean you still don’t have to have certain times where you have to stand your ground for something creatively. J.C. has certainly had to do that occasionally. Generally, he’s been responsible for his choices. I also think that we believe very strongly and sort of fight for is-there’s this idea of final cut and needing a final cut to make sure no one takes your movie away from you. The truth of the matter is, it doesn’t really exist. You can have it contractually, and he HAS had it contractually-but at the end of the day, you want your distributor to love it and you want them to spend money marketing and putting it out there wide. And if they don’t love your movie and they think that the thing that’s stopping it is some decision that you’ve made, then they’ve got all the leverage, right?

That idea isn’t necessarily that productive. To sort of fight for or lean on. When we showed Margin Call to a distributor before making final changes to release, they had notes and they had thoughts and they had concerns and they had questions. Every single one of them was one hundred percent worth exploring and talking about. It didn’t mean that we took everything that they said sort and inserted it into his film, but if someone has a question about a certain section of your movie, it’s certainly worth going through it and saying “They have a question about that, is that unclear? What can I do to make it more clear? Is there a simple change that I could make to make it more clear and address this note that doesn’t feel like bastardizing my vision?”

The answer is often yes. Or sometimes it means you say back to them, “This is an acknowledged weak point in the movie, but to make the changes you’re suggesting would ruin five other things. We’re just going to have to live with this being something that doesn’t work quite right.” That’s also a possible answer. The idea that their thoughts are inherently anti-creative and anti-filmmaker—I think there’s something that I may not have been able to do and J.C. feels the same way, he’s about to turn forty, I just turned thirty-five. I don’t know that either of us would be able to do that at twenty-two. That was always a big selling point when I was trying sell J.C. as a first time filmmaker and we were raising money for Margin Call. I would always start by saying “Just to be clear, he’s thirty-six years old, he has a daughter and a baby on the way, he’s married and he owns a home and he’s worked in alternative energy and a bunch of other things, he didn’t just get out of film school.” And it sounds like a slam to people who went to film school and certainly that’s not the case and I’m sure there are-there are some famous examples and I’m sure there are others that I don’t know, of people at that age-22, 23, 24 who make amazing, amazing things.

That being said, I do think that one of the advantages we’ve had, we’ve both had and our partners, my other producing partner on these movies and my producing partners Zach and Corey, have had other lives before we decided to go do this. Doing other things. I think coming to it from that perspective where it isn’t “I know everything and it’s my way or the high way and don’t ruin my vision, man” kind of stuff, I think, benefits us enormously. It allows us on a business basis and on a creative basis to have really adult conversations. It also puts us in a position where we don’t ever have worries about calling an agent if it’s taking too long to get a read out of an actor, to say “Hey, just so I know. Do you think we’re gonna get a read by the end of the week? Because if not, we’re just going to move on,” And sometimes the answer is “You’re gonna move on?! From my actor? Because I took an extra week? Why would you do that, people wait forever for that!” And our answer is “If it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be. We’re confident that we’ll come up with another creative solution and we’ll figure it out and if it’s not meant to be on this movie, I’m sure we’ll work with them again.” It doesn’t have to be… you shouldn’t let the business take you and wrestle you to the ground. That’s sort of the way we look at it.

For me, it comes back to the creative responsibility. We’ve made movies on budget, we’ve made movies under budget. We’ve made movies without any drama. When there is a problem, we call our financiers, we call our studios, we call our bond company-we say “Hey, this happened, here’s our thoughts about how to solve it. What are your thoughts about how to solve it. Are you concerned? If so, we’re sorry, let’s work together to fix it.” And generally people behave like adults when that happens.

So, I feel like that’s why we’re gonna be able to keep making them. The movies that I make with J.C. and the other projects my company makes. We’ve got a couple of films that we’re working to put together for next year and we’ve got a pair of television projects and you know, all of them-we’re just trying to make them responsibly. We’re not asking people to make crazy things.

J.C. wanted to make a movie with an old man in a boat, right? If he had asked for forty million dollars to do it and wanted to do it starring his uncle, you know-

Paste: Yeah, yeah. Starring his friend’s father-who does great community theatre-
Dodson: Yeah, yeah, exactly. But then the second you put Robert Redford in it, it’s like, “Ok, he’s trying to make the right decision. Now, what’s the price.” There was a moment when we tried to make the movie for twelve or thirteen million dollars and we were trying to shoot it somewhere else and we couldn’t figure out how to pull it off the price or whatever, and that was too much. We couldn’t figure it out at that price. So we had to figure out how to make it for less.

We went from J.C. and myself and Anna making less money to our crew making less money to having a smaller crew to having six weeks of shooting instead of seven, to all of the compromises we have to make and then we got to a place where J.C. felt he could responsibly make the movie and the price was the right price for this actor and this kind of crazy idea and suddenly we were like “Ok, that’s the movie we’re making” and it became-not easy because there were still a lot of challenges-but from a responsibility perspective, it became easy.

So, anyway, it sounds unromantic but my number one piece of ethos about making movies is be responsible. Obviously I have a great passion for making beautiful, creative, challenging, brave movies, but the responsibility part comes in to allow me to keep doing that.

Paste: I think that’s fantastic.
Dodson: Our first four movies we made for our company were all first time filmmakers and the only reason we have any second time projects is because we’re starting to make second movies with those same filmmakers. We have three or four other first time filmmakers on projects and we believe in fighting for those visions, and it’s always a little harder and we could certainly be finding easier work for ourselves in the film industry but… we’ve had a pretty rewarding run of it.

Paste: Tell me about what the future-not necessarily specifically like “Oh, we’ve got this project, we’ve got that project, tell me, other than continuing to do the things that you’ve just talked about, finding new directors, finding great stories, filming them responsibly, what’s the vision of where you all want to go in the next ten years, in the next twenty years. Where are you headed?
Dodson: Listen, my feeling is-continuing to make movies in the way that we’ve been making them….if I can keep doing this forever, What more could I want in a weird way, you know? We get a lot of control, we make the movies that we want to make, we get to make them interestingly. And we have a lot of freedom in doing so, we’re having fun, we’re making friends, you know? We’re able to go to these fancy award shows which are sometimes really fun and sometimes pretty silly… certainly fun to be there and certainly fun that people want to honor you. And we’re getting to travel. I was just in Europe for twenty four hours earlier this week… because why not?

I think, for me, the sort of bigger picture dreams besides from getting to do that-I would love to be able to expand my infrastructure. Remunerations haven’t been rich enough to grow the team and have a few other people working on these things. It’s very very hands on. It’s not unlike when I was the president of the company at Warner Brothers and also the assistant. We have a small team of people who work with us but generally we’re doing a lot of this on our own. So, I’m looking forward to that, just on a logistic basis. I’m looking forward to seeing how several of these filmmakers we’re working with J.C., Victor, a couple of these other guys, how they grow. What they want to do next.

J.C. certainly has a lot of opportunities coming his way so we’ll see whether he wants to go make a really big movie or whether he wants to stay in this type of scale. His third movie, we’re working on that, we’ll shoot that in early 2014. Which is called A Most Violent Year, and we have some other really cool things coming down the pipe.

Keep the lights on. Grow the staff a little bit. Get to keep making some fun movies and… keep the dream alive. I can’t really find much to complain about. It’s always nice to make a little more money than we’re making. We’re certainly not raking it in. But that’ll come in time. I’m not worried about that long term. We’ve been stretching ourselves and learning on every project that we’ve done and as long as that keeps going, I’m a very happy guy.