This latest iteration of our Insider Interviews Series is with producer Ed McDonnell, one of the three judges of Industrial Scripts’ inaugural screenwriting contest, The TITAN Awards.
Ed McDonnell Biography
Ed McDonnell has produced some of the most interesting and critically acclaimed films of the last twenty years and racked up $1.25 billion in global box office in the process.
His career typically straddles the border between arthouse-commercial and in doing so, he’s garnered a reputation for working with brilliant, visionary directors at the beginning of their studio careers.
He’s worked with Christopher Nolan on Insomnia, David O. Russell on Three Kings and Denis Villeneuve on Prisoners and Sicario. More recently he’s moved into producing for TV as well, working on series such as Counterpart and The Mosquito Coast for Apple TV.
We sat down with Ed and talked with him about his career, what it’s like working with great directors, bumps in the road and why judging The TITAN Awards is important to him as a producer.
Interview with Producer Ed McDonnell
How did you start out in the business?
“I was an investment banker at Lehman Brothers and I wasn’t happy. My mother took pity on me and bought me a one-way flight to Los Angeles.
The only person I knew in Hollywood was a producer I had met at Studio 54. I called because he gave me his card and I explained to his Assistant that I was new in town and his boss had said to call him because I was looking for a job.
And the Assistant said, “There is a job actually because I f***ing quit this morning”. And I got that job. So I worked for this slimy producer who had a relationship with United Artists at the time. And from there I met people. One person led me to another. I was an assistant at UA for about a year and a half.
I loved it.
It was on the old MGM lot and it still had some of the remnants of a bygone era. So for example, the guy at the guard gate had been there 50 years, the shoeshine guy had been there for 40 years. The people waiting in the commissary had been there since the 40s or 50s. It was magical to be on the MGM lot where they made the Wizard of Oz. I knew I was home, it was the right place for me.
Then about a year and a half later, I got lured away by Jeffrey Katzenberg, who hired me at Paramount Pictures as an executive.
I learned all about story structure, how to pitch a story, how to buy a story and what the important elements of a story are to a studio when they’re looking to buy something.”
Jeffrey Katzenberg has a reputation as one of the hardest working people in the history of Hollywood. Doesn’t he hold the unofficial Hollywood record for most phone calls made in a day, or something?! What was working for him like?
“The motto with Jeffrey was: “if your headlights aren’t on when you come to work, and your headlights aren’t on when you leave work, you didn’t come to work”.
He was always there before you and always there after you.
It was a great time, we were making movies like Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, Flashdance.
And we had an overview of all these things. I remember one of the first things they asked me to do was go to the set of Flashdance and have a conversation with Adrian Lyne (the director) and tell him that the sets didn’t match the characters…and I naively went.
He screamed at me and kicked me off the set and I was never allowed back on. They laughed at me (back at the office). It was trial by fire in that sense.
Jeffrey Katzenberg led by example.
He never asked you to do anything he didn’t do himself. And it was the days of serious notes. So we would have to do these 20-page documents of notes on scripts to give to writers.
There was always what we called a ‘Paramount ease’ – how you approached and how you spoke to a writer. It was things like ‘we feel you might better enjoy the character If you do this…’. It was a whole new language to learn for talking to writers. And you would have to send your first draft to Jeffrey and it was like sending it to a professor. He would redline everything he didn’t like and send it back and say, “try again”. You might do this three or four times before he’d say, “Okay they’re not great but you can give them to the writer now”.
Jeffrey would make relationships with talent because he would get up very early and make calls to people who would also get up early and didn’t have anything to do until the office opened. Jeffrey’s secret weapon was that he would call people at 7:30 am because he knew they’d be up having their coffee and they’d take his call. He was there before everybody. The phone in Hollywood doesn’t usually ring until 9/9:30 am, Jeffrey was making calls at 7:30.
I ultimately was fired because I didn’t like the Beverly Hills cop script.
At a meeting, I said that I had read it over the weekend and didn’t like it.
Two days later I was fired. And Jeffrey called me in and told me I got fired because I “didn’t know how to read a room. Your compatriots had worked really hard on that script and you came in and just sh*t all over it. And that’s not how you do business here. You come into the room and you support your teammates. You let people know what the bad elements are but always lead with the good elements.”
Producer Colin Vaines once told us his taste is at the “arthouse end of commercial, or the commercial end of arthouse”. Looking down your filmography, is that your taste bullseye, too?
“Sometimes your personal interest is subjugated to your commercial interest because you have to work and sell a movie.
So it’s often “I know I can sell this. I know this is a commercial piece of material”, even if it’s not in my normal wheelhouse.
Sometimes I’ve been asked by studios to develop certain kinds of material that isn’t necessarily what I would do if I had a free choice.
There are movies that you can tell are my passion projects, like Under Siege 2, the Steven Seagal movie, which I think I’m credited as Associate Producer on.
That was one of those scripts that J.F. Lawton wrote. He’d done Pretty Woman, so it was sort of unusual for him to do a kind of a movie like Under Siege. Warner Brothers really wanted Steven to do the movie but he didn’t care for it. But I had a passion for the project because it was just a great script. Even Steven couldn’t screw it up. I think it’s the best movie of his career, after Above the Law.
My material taste is good storytelling and good scripts and good writers. That’s the driving force. It’s the balance of character and plot in a good script that intrigues me. It can be a drama, action, any genre piece. And a good concept, you need a good concept to drive a story.
Did your days with Jeffrey Katzenberg help inform that? It’s that sense of – ‘What is the poster? What’s the tagline? How are we going to actually get people into a cinema to see this thing?’
Yeah. Jeffrey would always say, “if you can’t sell it to me in three lines or less, I can’t sell it to the general public”. It’s ‘Detroit cop goes to Beverly Hills’. That’s the poster (for Beverly Hills). That’s the movie. Trading Places too. Jeffrey sold that idea. All those movies of his first era running the studio at age 28/29 were like that.
I went to university in New York City, and I came from a place where I read a lot and books were my favourite thing as a kid. So I combined that with a love of the movies. I’d been watching movies since I was five or six. I’d be left at home and in New York and Connecticut, you’d watch these old movies after school, everything from Betty Davis to Joan Crawford. They were just great old movies. And I think I learned my vocabulary to a certain extent from those old movies, because they’d say things that I didn’t understand and that I’d look up in the dictionary.
Jeffrey Katzenberg would always say to me “if you can’t sell it in three lines or less I can’t sell it to the general public”.
So my taste is really somewhere in between commercial and art but if I had a choice I would go in the arty direction. However, it’s tough to get the funds for an arty movie these days, especially in the US.”
That tension between art and commerce never goes away, does it? Have you ever wished you’d taken the more strictly esoteric, arthouse route?
“No. I started off making tiny movies.
I think with some of my first credits we made those movies for around $400,000. It was fun and great collaboration. I would have five different jobs on those movies, I wasn’t just the producer. I love those movies but I think in order to tell the stories I wanted to tell I needed a bigger canvas and that’s where the studio called.
You luck out into your track a lot in Hollywood. My first job was working with features and working for big producers. That was the track I went down, the studio route.
You can go the indie route though of course too. I just did an indie movie for $2.6 million, for example, The Violent Heart. This was a script I worked on for 6 years with a young writer/director (Kerem Sanga).
It got to the point where everybody in town saw the script and wanted to fund it. And this is typical in Hollywood, they said, “we’re going to make your movie, we’re going to give you lots of money”. And by the time we actually went to make the movie, we had very little money, and we had to compromise too much on the movie.
So, for example, the movie was originally supposed to take place in Texas. But Texas was too expensive. We ended up in Nashville, which was lovely and we had a great crew. But the movie just wasn’t set there. And to force it into that box was a compromise, one that I think made the movie suffer.”
You made Three Kings in 1999, which was a bit of a high-water mark for American cinema in general with the likes of Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, American Beauty and others released. How did that movie come about?
“We purchased Three Kings as a spec script, me and my associate Kim Roth, who had a relationship with John Ridley. Then we convinced Warner Brothers to buy the script. It was a much more commercial fare when we originally bought it.
After about 9 months of development on it, the studio gave it to David O. Russell to do a “quick” re-write and…
…two years later he delivered a script that was around 230 pages! It was long but brilliant. There was no doubt about that.
It was my first time as a producer on a big movie so it was complicated. I don’t think we thought it would work out in the end as well as it did. When we saw the first cut, it was brilliant.
David O. Russell was an interesting filmmaker. He’d never made a studio picture before. His previous movies were independent.
Actors are always looking for a new voice and David O. Russell clearly had a new voice. So I think that’s what attracted the big actors (Mark Wahlberg, George Clooney, Ice Cube) to it. Particularly Clooney, he fought for that role. He showed up at David’s door and knocked and said, “I want to be in on this”.
It is that balance of commercial and art that caused that movie to have a very hard time. It almost got shut down. Because it was at a time when the country was very sensitive to US-Arab relations. And some people thought the script was offensive to Arabs.
So in order to get the commercial level of funding, I think we had to have a lot of discussions with a lot of people to make them feel comfortable. That continued right down to the end because David is a filmmaker who pushes the envelope, oftentimes beyond people where they are comfortable.
I think Warner Brothers saw Three Kings as a prestige piece and not purely as just a commercial piece. They always want to make a movie that’s commercial but studios tend to have a certain amount of product every year that they want awards for and I think they thought it was an awards movie.”
You worked on Christopher Nolan’s first studio movie, Insomnia. What was that like?
“Great. Once again it was a complex movie because it wasn’t obviously commercial. Originally we had a commercial director on board because we thought that would excite the studio. But he wanted to re-write the whole script.
And then at the last minute, Christopher Nolan’s agent called and said “You gotta go see this movie (Memento)”. And I and my business partner went to go see Memento, which hadn’t been released yet and was just being shown at screeners around town. We were blown away by it. Steven Soderbergh was actually in the same screening and said, “if you don’t hire this guy (Nolan), you’re crazy. If I can help in any way you let me know”. And literally, Steven Soderbergh was calling Lorenzo di Bonaventura to say, “I’ll back this guy. If you don’t like what he does the first week, I’ll help you out, I’ll help him out”. And that’s what got the movie made.
Chris was the ultimate collaborator. He had a vision for the movie from the first meeting we had. He had never done a studio picture, which is something I seem to have a reputation for (working with first-time studio directors).”
What was it like firstly meeting, and then working with huge stars like Al Pacino and Robin Williams?
“Christopher Nolan and I went to meet Al Pacino at his favourite restaurant about taking the role on. We walked in and joined him at his usual table.
From the minute we sat down he knew what he wanted to find out from us, he knew the script inside and out, Chris could answer his questions to make him feel comfortable and by the end of the meal he had signed on.
We walked in sh*t-scared but came out overjoyed. Because if you treat people like humans and don’t star f**k them, they appreciate that. We never start f**ked Al. It was always honest.
Chris has this ability to get actors to feel comfortable around him and challenge themselves but at the same time for them to not go to those comfort places that actors have from past performances. Chris and Al were able to get so tight that Chris was able to eliminate those comfort places Al had, certain ‘Al Pacino’ mannerisms.”
And then when they mentioned Robin Williams, it was like, “really Robin Williams as a serial killer?” Chris Nolan and I flew to Toronto to meet Robin on the set of Death to Smoochy. We went to his trailer and he told us how he was going to play this character. And he sold us on that one.
The weird thing was is that I had known Robin Williams in my Studio 54 days. So we kind of had a history. He wasn’t one to reminisce but every once in a while he would just turn to me and go, “Richie Havens”. And it let me know that he did remember our last big night at Studio 54, because we hung out with Richie Havens, this incredible musician, who nobody on this dance floor knew. And he and I were the only two on the dance floor who knew who Richie Havens was.
So Robin Williams was an amazing choice. Just amazing. And the two of them, Al and Robin, together, they liked each other.”
Careers never run on a purely upward trajectory, there are always ups and downs, particularly in Hollywood. What was working on Catwoman like? A movie that didn’t get the best critical reception. What are the weeks like after a movie like that is released? How cold is the water…?
“The waters can be really cold!
I mean, I gave up Batman Begins to do Catwoman!
I was planning to do both but the Batman script came in so strong Warner Brothers decided they would make the movie right away. I was only ten weeks away from shooting Catwoman so I couldn’t leave as I was contracted by the studio. Batman was originally supposed to take place a year afterwards but they pushed it forward.
The studio kept me on Catwoman, mainly because I had a relationship with the director that no one else did because he was French and I spoke French. Catwoman was supposed to be a simple story, with a relatively small budget ($40 million). But Superman fell through that year, which was supposed to be their big summer release, and so they gave us inordinate amounts of money ten weeks before shooting to make this their big summer movie. It was never meant to be that.
Afterwards, it was cold.
We were on the world tour and every country was going to be the country where the movie did well. We’d get to Germany and the Warner Brothers executives would say, “okay they didn’t like it here but they’ll love it in France”. Then we’d get to France and they’d say, “okay they didn’t love it here but they’ll love it in London”. As the cities went on, you couldn’t get us home quick enough.
We were taking private jets and Halle Berry and Sharon Stone wouldn’t get on the same plane as each other! I mean Halle still says it ruined her career in some regards.
How do you feel about it looking back now? Are you philosophical about it? Or are you still angry you didn’t get to do Batman Begins?
No, never angry.
You can’t go backwards. You can only look forwards. I’ve had great opportunities and I continue to have great opportunities. But after that movie, if you look at my resume, there’s like three years where I didn’t do anything.
It was tough. It’s not really that cold. People are nice to you, but they’re just not buying from you. And they’re not pushing the projects you’ve got in development forward.
You can’t go backwards, you can only look forwards.
You hit back commercially with Eagle Eye and then critically and commercially with Prisoners. What was working on Prisoners, with Denis Villeneuve, like?
“I had made Insomnia with a couple of guys (Andrew Kosove and Broderick Johnson), who has funded the movie for Warner Brothers. And they knew I was having a hard time after Catwoman, so they called me up and brought me into their office and said, “we want to find a movie for you, we want you here because we think you’re a great producer”. And they found and put me on Prisoners.
We had Antoine Fuqua to direct originally but we couldn’t cast the movie and had to shut it down three weeks before production and look for a new director. I had seen Incendies in Paris (where I live) and loved it and Denis Villeneuve’s name came up on the list.
Once again, like Christopher Nolan, after his meeting with us you couldn’t ever see another director doing this piece. He understood the material and had a point of view. Again, it was his first studio picture.
I was very grateful that Andrew and Broderick had thought of me and brought me onto the picture. They stepped up and supported me all throughout the movie too. It’s one of the good stories of Hollywood because I had a bunch of stuff and development around town and it just wasn’t going.”
Sicario feels like the perfect example of the ‘arthouse end of commercial’ movie. What are your memories of shooting Sicario and what did you think of the script when you first read it?
“I loved the script. I had the option on the script for a year whilst we were making Prisoners. I even sold it to a studio one day, only for them to change their mind the next day. I showed it to every director I knew.
But I had this principle I always stuck to where I never showed a director I was working with at that moment another script. My mistake.
As we were on post-production on Prisoners, I lost the option on Sicario and it went to a friend for very little money. I didn’t think much of it and moved on.
And then me and Denis Villeneuve had dinner one night during post-production on Prisoners and I said, “so what are we going to do next together?” And Denis said, “Well I just read this great script, it’s called Sicario”…
You could hear a pin drop in my head. I called my friend who had bought the option and told him Denis wants to do it, will you bring me on as a partner? And he said, “absolutely”.
When we saw the first cut of Sicario I don’t think we had a single note. The producers sat in that room for a good five minutes in silence, because we were blown away.
I think we always looked at it as a commercial venture and it became art as the elements started coming together. As you were going through it you could feel the evolution into something more than we originally thought it was going to be. When we saw the first cut of that movie I don’t think we had a single note. The producers sat in that room for a good five minutes in silence, because we were blown away.Embed from Getty Images
With Denis, I don’t think there was ever a bad day on set. There was one day where we walked in and Denis could feel something wasn’t working in the script.
And we shut down for five hours and Denis, Roger Deakins, Benicio del Toro and Emily Blunt went into a room and wrote one of the best scenes of the movie (the confrontation at the end of the movie).Embed from Getty Images
Bearing in mind the quality of the movie, were you disappointed with the box office performance? There was a dialogue around the juxtaposition of Emily Blunt’s character as a ‘strong’ female protagonist and her seeming ‘weak’ in the movie, or that she’s at least subjugated by all these men. Do you think the cynicism of the ending affected the box office?
I remember in casting Emily, she was the first woman to say, “I don’t want you to change this”. Because so many women that we met said, “No, I need my moment to really take Benicio del Toro out at the end”. And it’s like they didn’t understand the movie. This is a woman who plays by the rules. She’s not weak, she just plays by the rules. And her moral compass is ‘I’m not giving in’. And that’s the choice she makes.
So Emily embraced that idea. She’s the eyes and ears of the audience going through the movie. But I don’t think you could have made the movie without that character and had the success we had with it. Because I think that it becomes a genre piece otherwise. If she’s that badass woman at the end of the movie, it’s like, “we’ve seen that movie already”.
It’s a movie where if you just look at the trailer you might not want to watch it if you’re artistically or intellectually driven. It sort of built its reputation post-release. And this happens a lot with movies. All my favourite movies didn’t make a lot of money at the box office. We made money on Sicario but not a lot. All my favourite movies didn’t make a lot of money, Three Kings, Insomnia, Prisoners.
I think Sicario could have been marketed stronger. But it was a choice we made. We were all very proud of the marketing at the time. I do think it slightly missed that arty-commercial audience because of the way it was sold. They discovered the movie after its release, on VOD. It made its reputation on VOD.”
You’ve moved into TV recently, specifically producing The Mosquito Coast for Apple TV, what has motivated that decision?
“I have always been a big fan of TV. It’s like I said before, you get on a track in Hollywood and you stay on that track. If I’d by happenstance gotten a job in TV early on I probably would have been a TV producer.
I love storytelling. That’s what drives me the most. And right now TV is where you can do the best plot and character work. It doesn’t exist on as much of a frequent level on the kind of features that I work on. My best movies are that mid-level studio picture and they’re not making those anymore. So those stories tend to go to television now.
And so I got this opportunity on Counterpart and took it. I bridge that gap between creative and production because I know how to produce on a ground level but I also know storytelling. It’s a whole different verbiage in storytelling working with directors and actors than it is if you come from the production part.
Not to say that production isn’t creative but they just don’t have the language often. I talk character development and structure with actors and directors and most television line producers don’t know how to have that conversation.
Today more and more you need somebody who can bridge that gap, especially as TV shows are being created by younger and younger writers, who don’t have the production experience. So I can come in and partner with a creative.
So I found this niche for myself and I really enjoy it, because I do have that creative involvement but I don’t have to spend years trying to sell it. I come in after it’s sold.”
It’s never been more brutal in the indie film world, right? Do you think ‘indie film producer’ is even a legit, bona fide, ‘could fund a family’ type job right now?
No. It’s not.
It’s brutal. All my friends want to get into television now and I was maybe six months ahead of the curve.
I mean, I made an indie film for $2.6 million and it was the hardest thing to get the money. Every day was like, “Well if you don’t have Mary J. Blige, I can’t give you the money”. You need somebody with a name to put on a poster because Grace Van Patten and Jovan Adepo aren’t big enough to put on a poster”. We lucked out with Lukas Haas and Kimberly Williams-Paisley in the end.
But yeah, it’s impossible. I mean, if you’re trying to make a $40 million movie right now, good luck! More and more indie producers are going to Netflix.
So it is that old gag, “how do you become a millionaire in indie film? You start out a billionaire.”
Exactly. The Violent Heart probably won’t make any money at a $2.6 million budget. And it’s a good movie!
Also because of COVID, which is killing everything. So streaming is the only choice we have. Because even if you get a movie from a movie theatre studio, they don’t want to do anything less than a $150 million movie because they have to sell it worldwide.
How excited are you to read the Grand Finalists of The TITAN Awards? And in the globalised, connected world we all inhabit how important are talent identification programs?
“They’re essential. You’ll notice in the last year with all these agency issues with the Writers Guild, they couldn’t even submit scripts to me. So I need an opportunity to see new material.
Established writers don’t write on spec anymore. The old days where I would get ten spec screenplays per week from agents are gone. I’m not getting material I can buy, frankly. And If I’m seeing that, everybody else is seeing it too. So the competition for fresh material is very intense.
And I think if we can create a new workflow for new writers to be seen, that’s great. I do think the days of “If I can’t get an agent, I can’t get a script traction”, are gone.
And the protection of an assigned workflow and a company like Industrial Scripts is important for a producer.
You need to have somebody to give you the material who you trust and then the writer has to trust that the person giving it to you is legitimate”.
Ed McDonnell was speaking as a judge of the inaugural TITAN Screenwriting Contest, by Industrial Scripts. Read more about the contest and enter at the link below.
- Enter the 2021 TITAN Screenwriting Contest.
- View all previous Insider Interviews, here.
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2 thoughts on “The Insider Interviews – with SICARIO Producer Ed McDonnell”
Right on. Thank you for sharing.