Monday, February 3, 2014

Talking Old Hollywood: Steven Berger, Producer

Steven Berger, Producer of The Pretty One (2014)

To be honest, when I first learned of actress Zoe Kazan, I probably wouldn't have been as curious about her work if I had not known that her grandfather was the legendary director Elia Kazan (East of Eden, On The Waterfront); but when I saw her performance in the film Ruby Sparks (2012) (for which she also wrote the screenplay) I was charmed. Zoe gave a tantalizing performance in that film and I was sold on her skills as both an actress and writer. Now Zoe is starring in the upcoming film, The Pretty One, in which she plays the dual roles of twin sisters and Zoe again delivers a mesmerizing performance in what is a quirky, yet delightful film. The Pretty One opens in theaters beginning February 7, in New York and then in select cities starting February 21.

For this installment of Talking Old Hollywood I got to ask Steven Berger, one of the producers behind The Pretty One, a few questions about the film, classic Hollywood, filming locations and more.

Robby Cress: What is The Pretty One about?

Steven Berger: The Pretty One is about Laurel and Audrey, who are identical twins.  Laurel has always lived in Audrey’s shadow, and everything always just came easier to Audrey- boys, work, life in general.  When the sisters are in a horrible accident, Audrey dies, and Laurel is mistaken for Audrey.  In making the choice to live her life as her sister, Laurel winds up finding her true self. 

RC: The film has a great cast with some notable talents involved. Can you tell us a little about some of the people involved with the film and what the experience was like working with this cast and crew? 

SB: We actually had a pretty extensive casting process for this film, which took months.  Mary Vernieu and Lindsay Graham, our casting directors, brought in some truly incredible people to read for the lead role, but we still didn’t quite feel like we had found our lead.  Eventually Zoe Kazan came in and completely knocked our socks off.  She really understood the dichotomy between the two sisters and the nuance, and it was the first time we really felt like we were in the room with these characters- you could feel the characters and the difference from head to toe.  The idea of feeling like you’re in the room with the character is such a cliché but it really happened.  As soon as Zoe finished her read, Jenée LaMarque (writer/director) and I just looked at each other, and we didn’t even need to say anything- we had our Laurel/Audrey.  After that, the cast really came together with Jake Johnson, Ron Livingston, John Carroll Lynch, and everyone else.  It was such a dream to be working with actors whose work I’ve admired for years.

RC: Zoe Kazan, the lead actress in The Pretty One, happens to be the granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan. Did Zoe ever share any stories about her grandfather or did you ever ask about him?

SB: Zoe and I briefly chatted about this, but it was really just an aside.  I remember her saying that as a kid, he was really just “grandpa”.  I have such admiration for her talents as both an actor and writer and her body of work that I really didn’t want to make it about her lineage.  She absolutely worked her way into this movie on her own talents and her name never really had any bearing at all.  Her entire family is so unbelievably talented- not only her grandfather, but her parents Robin Swicord and Nicholas Kazan as well.  They’re just born storytellers.

RC: You shot this film in Los Angeles. Where did you specifically film? Are there any locations that may be familiar to audiences, or at least audiences in LA?

SB: We filmed primarily on the east side of Los Angeles (Atwater Village, Silverlake, and Altadena), and up north in Piru (Ventura County).  A bulk of the shooting was more or less right down the street from where I live, so I could basically walk to and from set, which never happens.  One of my favorite locations is this storybook home we shot on Griffith Park Blvd.  It is one of the original “Snow White homes” that housed the animators who were working on the Snow White in the early 30’s (the Snow White Cottages are across the street where David Lynch shot Mullholland Drive).  The original Disney Studios was right around the corner on Hyperion (now a Gelson’s Market), and the old Disney hangout, the Tam O’Shanter. It definitely felt like we were shooting on some hallowed ground.  We also filmed at one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants, Viet Noodle Bar, and Audrey’s duplex was actually a place that my wife Johannah and I almost moved into when we were looking to rent a duplex in the neighborhood.  We only knew it existed because we had recently looked at the place to live in.

RC: Why did you choose to film in Los Angeles when now so many productions seem to be going out of state?

SB: We did at various times talk about shooting the movie in other places, but we always came back to filming here in LA.  Not just the convenience of staying at home, but also how unique and visual the locations are here.  I think that LA has always been shot a certain way, and while that’s great, I think it’s a different version than our experience of LA and the neighborhoods we live in.  The film is also very much a fairytale set in the “once upon a time” and we were much more easily able to achieve a timeless look and feel with the selection of locations, picture cars, etc. 

We were super lucky to make this film with great friends and collaborators like our cinematographer Polly Morgan, production designer Anne Costa, and costume designer Emily Batson (among others), and shooting in LA meant that we could all work together to make the movie without worrying about who we could afford to fly out somewhere, if the person we were hiring helped us qualify for a tax incentive, etc.  It was all about the right person for the right job, and there are just so many incredibly talented people here in LA.

RC: As a producer what was the most challenging part about bringing The Pretty One to fruition? For those who may not be familiar with what a producer actually does, maybe you can explain your role as producer?

SB: As with any indie film, it’s a matter of never giving up and fighting for what you’re passionate about.  It took about five and half years from the time I read a very early draft of the script to the time we’re releasing the film in theaters.  This movie was such a labor of love.  Making a movie is inherently difficult, and you really need to be passionate about your material and be willing to fight for it.  That means not accepting no for an answer, and when you hit roadblocks, you plow through them.  When one door closes, you have to go knock on 10 more.  Jenée and I knew that we were so committed to this movie that whether we were going to make it for a bunch of money with big stars, or no money and our friends, we were going to get this story on the screen. While we had slightly more than no money to make the film, our entire budget was less than the catering budget on a lot of studio films.  Ultimately we wound up with an incredible cast that I could not have been happier with under any circumstance, the best creative collaborators you could ask for, and we made something special.

As for exactly what a producer does, it’s such a monumental question.  The easiest, most concise answer I can give is that a producer is there to bring all of the concepts of the film to reality, and to support the director’s vision to the fullest- creatively and logistically.  I was involved with this film from the very early stages, so I was active in the development and creative evolution of the script, the fundraising, management of physical production, post production, and now the release of the film.  It’s really top to bottom.  I am so lucky to be able to collaborate with Jenée LaMarque who has such a unique, funny, and beautiful voice, and she made the process so fluid, easy, and fun.  It’s so rare that you can really say that after working 18+ hour days, seven days a week, but she really did.  I was also fortunate to have a partner in Robin Schorr, who has produced an impressive body of work, and I have tremendous respect for her and her films.  The saying “it takes a village” really does apply to moviemaking, and our team complimented each other so well in that we all bring something different and complimentary to the table.

Berger at work on the set of The Pretty One.

RC: I read on your IMDB page that your grandfather, Arnie Shupack, was a President of Studio Operations at Columbia Pictures. Is this true and did he have any influence on your decision to become a producer?

SB: Yes!  I was really fortunate to grow up steeped in the world of movies from an early age, and I don’t think I realized exactly what that impact would be until I was a bit older. I had incredible access to films- every time we went to my grandparent’s house, it always meant watching a movie from my grandfather’s massive movie collection.   One of my earliest memories of “visiting grandpa at work” was walking onto stage 15 at Sony, to a massive pirate ship built onto a wall, with TONS of people bustling around- the energy was palpable and infectious.  I knew that everyone was hard at work, but they were also “playing pretend” as a job, and while I didn’t quite quantify it this way at such a young age, the idea of storytelling as a career was exactly what I wanted and needed to do.  A year later, I went to the premiere of that film, and it was Steven Spielberg’s Hook.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on the screen, and having encountered those sets and those people firsthand, it was even more magical to see it transposed on the screen…I had to be a part of that.  I would go back to the lot every chance I could get, and the Sony lot still feels like home. 

RC: I'm sure your grandfather saw some interesting things during his time with Columbia. Did he ever tell you stories about his time at the studio or about working in the industry in general?

SB: He’s shares some phenomenal stories.  I am a HUGE classic film fan, and yearn for the golden age of Hollywood, so I’ve always loved hearing about his time in the business.  He was at the studio for years and saw some of the greatest (and the worst) come through.  He definitely has stories of both, He’s talked about running into Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and spending endless amounts of time with some of the greatest people you’d ever want to meet.  I completely geek out about it all. 

When my grandfather was at Columbia, he was also friends with the archivist, which also meant that whenever something special was discovered in the bowels of the studio, his phone would ring.  One of the cool things that my grandfather wound up with, which he has since passed onto me, are a handful of signed paychecks to D.W. Griffith.  Such a cool piece of Hollywood history.

Berger in conversation with actor John Carroll Lynch.

RC: As this is a blog about classic films and classic Hollywood, are there any classic films that have inspired you and maybe had influence on the kinds of films you want to make?

SB: I have been inspired by countless classic films.  After all, it’s that magic of the flicking projector that sucks us all into this business.  My tastes have always been pretty broad, from the French New Wave and Italian Neo Realism to the golden age of Hollywood.  I particularly love American films of the 70s as well. Klute, Harold and Maude, The Godfather, and a million others.  For The Pretty One, some of our biggest influences were Jane Campion’s Sweetie (although a bit more contemporary) and Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie.  In fact, our brilliant composer Julian Wass and Kárin Tatoyan did a cover of the Tootsie theme “It Might Be You” for our credits song.  I am absolutely in love with their version.  It’s beautiful.

RC: If you had to produce a movie using classic movies stars, what kind of film would it be (comedy, thriller, etc.) and who would be the stars in the cast (and why)? Who would you get to direct? 

SB: Wow.  That’s such a hard question!  I am a huge fan of the screwball comedies of the 30’s and 40’s like His Girl Friday, Easy Living, and Bringing Up Baby.  I’m also a huge fan of greats like Sergio Leoni and David Lean.  I think there’s a certain scope and quality to films that just doesn’t exist anymore like in Lawrence of Arabia.  It wasn’t about a gimmick or overly flashy effects.  They went to the world’s most exotic places (or recreated them to a T), and told these wonderful compelling stories that transported the audience to another time and place.  For that reason, I think I would have David Lean direct Cary Grant in an epic.  Cary Grant was legendary in North by Northwest and he had such great dramatic chops for a guy who did so many comedies.  He was just so dynamic.  I actually think that Cary Grant was considered at one point for Lawrence of Arabia, so I guess I would just be creating some alternate reality that almost existed. 

RC: Are there any producers from Hollywood's past that you aspire to be like?

SB: While I am inspired by the prolific nature of so many golden era producers, I am even more inspired by so many producers today who care so deeply about the stories they tell.  I have to say that, at least in some circles within and certainly outside of the studio system, there’s a push to return to quality storytelling instead of a Henry Ford assembly-line process of making movies.  While the technologies are becoming more and more accessible, it’s harder than ever to get a movie off the ground. I’m blown away by my peers and how they fight for their movies to get made because they believe in them. We’re bombarded by content on a constant basis, and it’s only the most compelling stuff that will cut through the noise.    

I have such respect for the greats like Jerry Weintraub and Robert Evans, but I’m really happy to see a greater diversity in storytellers now.  We need more women in film.  We need more minority voices.  In that regard, I am really happy with the departure from the old studio system.   

Zoe Kazan and Jake Johnson in The Pretty One.

RC: Another recurring feature on Dear Old Hollywood are filming location posts showing now and then comparisons. A common theme is seeing so many places that are now gone. As someone who lives in Los Angeles, can you name five things in LA that are here today that you would truly miss if they were suddenly gone tomorrow?

SB: There are so many parts of LA that I absolutely love and would be devastated if they were torn down.  I am a huge fan of architecture, and I always hear about these incredible homes designed by greats like Levitt and Neff among others, that are bought as teardowns.  I feel like I die a little inside every time I hear these stories.  Not only are the works of art, but movies were shot there, and they were almost all built for and occupied by some of Hollywood’s biggest names.

LA also has such an interesting history with bridges and they’ve appeared in so many films, like the Glendale Hyperion bridge in my neighborhood (it’s in the chase scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, among other films), the Colorado Street bridge in Pasadena, and the Shakespeare bridge in Franklin Hills- I think they add to the charm of Los Angeles.  They’re just so unique to LA. I’d hate to see these ever go away.  I would be remiss not to mention The Bradbury building too.

Trailer for The Pretty One. Click lower right corner to expand to full size.

RC: Where can people go to learn more about The Pretty One?

SB: The movie is hitting theaters February 7th in New York, and February 21st in LA and Orange County, Chicago, Portland, San Francisco, and Washington DC.  We have more information at, and please follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

RC: Thanks so much Steve!


Unknown said...

Great interview!
Can't wait to see this film.

Unknown said...

Great interview!
Can't wait to see this film.

iODyne said...

Zoe kaZan is a kazoo of a name and there is a Z in Cuddles Szakall who improves any movie just by smiling.
I looked for him on your master sidebar roll. 0.
Check how Chevy Chase now needs no make-up to play the title role in a Cuddles bio-pic.


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