Film producer Albert Berger returned to Chicago to serve as the keynote speaker of the 2018 Chicago International Film Festival Industry Days.
Albert Berger never wanted to be a producer. It just kind of happened that way. It just so happened that he and producing partner Ron Yerxa just happened to own a copy of This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. They didn’t even own the theatrical rights when they headed off to the 1989 Sundance Film Festival. This was the same Sundance in which Steven Soderbergh hit the map with Sex, Lies, and Videotape. While the film would pick up some buzz during the festival, they just happened to approach the director about meeting to discuss the book. Ultimately, this led to producing his follow-up film, King of the Hill.
Berger refers to himself as a creative producer. These are the ones who are on board “from the very beginning” and see the films through to their completion.
Berger said that they would “find books that fell through the cracks.” One such book was Tom Perotta’s unpublished manuscript for Election. Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor adapted the screenplay and received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Payne had no interest in having a teenage audience. In fact, the studio wasn’t even interested in having him direct the film until Citizen Ruth premiered during Sundance. It was only when people referred to him as “the next Jonathan Demme” that Paramount and MTV were interested. Still, Paramount wanted Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise for the role of Jim McAllister. Payne wasn’t interested and the role went to Matthew Broderick.
“He’s my favorite director,” Albert Berger says of Payne.
Berger spoke about some of the decisions that could lead to frustration between a producer and director. In one instance, there was a scene at a bar in Nebraska where Bruce Dern mutters a vulgar word to Will Forte. It is because of this word that the film was rated R. Had they gone for a different word, it would have surely been rated PG-13.
During a recent film, there was a war over the music. “At the end of the day, there’s only the movie,” he says. “You have to fight for what you think is best.”
Berger praised the effort of first-time feature filmmaker Elizabeth Chomko. Chomko is the writer-director of the upcoming film from Bleecker Street, What They Had. She was desperate to tell this very personal story and nobody working on the film did it for the money. They did it because they responded to the story. Berger had been on the jury for the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting in 2015 when Chomko was named a winner.
Regarding Little Miss Sunshine, screenwriter Michael Arndt had previously been Broderick’s assistant during Election. His script dates back to 2000. It wasn’t until late 2001 when Marc Turtletaub was bright on board as a financier The $8 million film was made around the same time as Little Children. The film marked the feature directorial debut for Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. It wasn’t until the summer of 2005 when the film was finally shot–Steve Carell had been cast before the success of The 40-Year-Old Virgin. An ending would be shot at the end of the year. Fox Searchlight acquired the film at Sundance with the biggest acquisition in Sundance history in 2006 (at the time) and only because Focus Features dropped the film in 2004.
“We had no idea what we was going to happen with that movie,” Berger said.
The industry has changed quite a bit since Berger produced his first film. He now represents the Producers Branch as a member of the Board of Governors for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences. The question to consider is what gets people to the theaters. Where the industry is headed is essentially based on what’s happening at the moment. There are films that benefit from the shared experience of viewing it with an audience while others can very well be watched from home.
“There’s something about sharing a comedy in theaters,” Berger said. The Juliet, Naked producer notes that audiences can bring something to this experience.
Regarding the whole Netflix question, Berger said that he’s very open to them if they come calling.
With regards to the Oscars, the old guard is a different view on streaming. There’s a committee that’s been formed to look at the rules, which simply require that a film play no less than seven days in a theater. He had nothing but praise for Roma, the black-and-white film directed by Alfonso Cuarón.
“The sound is unlike anything you’ve ever heard before,” Berger said of the film.
“It should be a landmark year,” Berger said of the current crop of films under consideration. “It’s a great year for movies.”