It has become common to find Scott Rudin with multiple films in the Oscar hunt. This time, the producer has the Joel and Ethan Coen-directed Inside Llewyn Davis, financed independently and distributed by CBS Films, and the Paul Greengrass-directed Captain Phillips, funded by Rudin’s home studio Sony Pictures. The prolific producer manages these Oscar campaigns while he presided over a record-breaking limited stage run of the Mike Nichols-directed Betrayal with Daniel Craig; as The Book Of Mormon continues to be Broadway’s biggest bread winner; preps for next month’s Berlin premiere of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel; is in post on the Chris Rock-directed Finally Famous and Jon Stewart’s helming debut Rosewater, about a mock journalist who spent nine frightening months detained in Iran after filing a comic field report on Stewart’s The Daily Show. There are big pics percolating, from one with Paul Thomas Anderson to the adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs, a Girl With the Dragon Tattoo sequel, and the adaptation of Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra book that got a new draft from Eric Roth and has everyone excited including Angelina Jolie, who seems destined to play the Egyptian queen. Rudin, who once had his projects bankrolled by whatever major studio he called home, has responded to a changing market for the challenging adult films he favors by becoming increasingly nimble in finding money to empower the auteurs that work with him over and over. There is reason for optimism in this race: his last two Coen collaborations were the Best Picture Oscar winning No Country For Old Men and the Best Picture nominee True Grit; his last film with Hanks, Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, was a Best Picture nominee. Rudin took time out to discuss Inside Llewyn Davis, Captain Phillips, and his continued evolution in a fast-changing business.
DEADLINE: Inside Llewyn Davis was probably the first Coen Brothers film made without a distributor in place. How did you benefit from doing it that way?
RUDIN: It gave us a huge advantage. It was not a particularly expensive movie, under $20 million, and we financed it completely out of Europe. StudioCanal was a fantastic partner and allowed the guys to go off and make the movie exactly the way they wanted to. They wrote a check, wished us luck, and loved it when we were done. To have a completed Coen Brothers movie, and own North America, was spectacular. We had four or five offers for it. We did a one night screening with a music component to it that people loved, and we took the CBS Films deal. That was a choice people were curious about when we made it because they didn’t have experience with this kind of movie. It worked out fantastically well.
DEADLINE: Is that because the usual suspects already had Oscar bait films?
RUDIN: A big part of the draw was Terry Press. We’ve worked together on a ton of movies; she was the head of publicity back when I did Sister Act at Disney. We go back 25 years. She worked on The Social Network and on Dragon Tattoo, and I knew she loved this kind of music and the Coens. As we fielded other offers, I frankly hoped it would end up there. We had a lot of input into how they distributed it and sold it. I liked working with Wolfgang Hammer and have always loved Les Moonves. He was running Fox Television while I was running feature production at Fox in the mid-1980s so we go back 30 years. They didn’t have another movie in this slot, and it felt they would do something bold and more aggressive with it. It felt like a perfect fit.
DEADLINE: You undersold that buyers screening. As I recall, there were wall to wall music stars milling with Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and every star in the constellation…
RUDIN: That became our selling screening. We had this idea to do a screening the night before Grammys because a ton of music people would be in town and we wanted to screen the movie for musicians. We sent invitations and the list came back so spectacularly that I said to Joel and Ethan, why don’t we just invite some buyers? It was such a great opportunity to screen the movie for an audience you could feel pretty confident would love it, because the movie was really about them. It was a great party full of people who really loved the movie and had a profound relationship to the subject. A lot of them had worked with the Coens or worked with me. We had 700 people in two screening rooms, followed by a concert with T Bone Burnett, The Punch Brothers played, so did Marcus Mumford and Oscar Isaac. It was pretty spectacular. Because there was this pure motive of, let’s screen the movie for musicians, and because no one had seen the film, it had a buzz in the room that existed because it was an authentic event.
DEADLINE: When did your offers come in?
RUDIN: The next day.
DEADLINE: Your decision to make Inside Llewyn Davis without a distributor was organic, but a look at the Oscar contender prestige films, from The Wolf Of Wall Street to American Hustle and 12 Years A Slave and others, shows that the money comes from outside the studio system. Have we moved to a place where majors only get involved in these films as distributors?
RUDIN: I honestly don’t know. As a company, we’ve been incredibly lucky. We made the relatively inexpensive Captain Phillips this year. We made a very inexpensive Moonrise Kingdom last year and before that The Social Network. We have coming up the Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson movies. We have consistently made these movies and put them together in a variegated way because that is how they’ve had to be put together. Most had some studio help. It is very hard to get these movies done without some studio presence at all. What was great about this was that because the Coens have so much heft internationally, Canal was willing to foot the bill for a whole movie that wasn’t expensive. These movies are always going to be the hardest to get made and they are always going to be the ones that are fundamentally in the margins. Until people see them and they’re great, and then they look like the easiest decisions of all time, retrospectively.
DEADLINE: I can’t recall a movie done about the early 60s folk music scene in New York…
RUDIN: What was exciting was this: the Coens are at the absolute apex of the New York filmmaking scene, but they had never made a movie in New York. So there was a big interest right away, that not only were the Coens going to do a music film, but a big New York film which was going to take on a period in New York with their imagined version of that.
DEADLINE: When did you get involved?
RUDIN: They started telling me about it when we were doing True Grit. They’d told me over the course of a couple years there was this nascent movie set in the folk music scene that was inspired by the life of Dave Van Ronk but not, strictly speaking, his story. They had a very abstract idea of how they wanted to tell it. It felt like when Philip Roth wrote The Plot Against America, this speculative fiction, or what E.L. Doctorow did with Ragtime. It had that fictional characters set against true events element. When people with big imaginations do that it can be incredibly satisfying. Their knowledge of the scene is so deep, rich and specific, it just felt like the no-brainer of all time. Plus, frankly, who would not do anything with them? You’d have to be an idiot not to want to be part of anything and everything they want to do.
DEADLINE: I asked you when you produced Moneyball if you were a baseball fan, and you weren’t. What affinity did you have to the folk music scene?
RUDIN: None. Absolutely none. But I have a big affinity for the Coen Brothers. I also loved Elijah Wald’s book about Van Ronk and got very interested in the whole notion of the guy who wasn’t Bob Dylan. It’s always interesting to read about the person who wasn’t the guy, who missed by a hair. The notion that talent isn’t enough, that there is something else, maybe your character is going to determine how well you’re going to do, and maybe the luck of the draw is going to determine how you’re going to do. And there was the fundamental love of the music being the heartbeat of the movie always felt like a great thing for Joel and Ethan.
DEADLINE: You could find a Van Ronk in basketball, Hollywood, politics.
RUDIN: If you’d made the story ten years later, he’d be Salieri. Honestly, I had done two movies with Joel and Ethan I’m most proud of, in No Country For Old Men and True Grit, and there wasn’t going to be any project they wanted to do that I wasn’t going to want to be part of if offered the chance. There are a handful of people that, when they call, you go. They’re at the top of the list. The thing I love about this movie is, it’s their most personal film. It’s about a lot of things they think about in making art. They would be furious at me for saying it, but honestly it’s emotionally the most open hearted movie they’ve made, probably because of the music. That’s the emotional landscape of the movie. It’s very personal in the way of the best movies that seem to be about a tiny subject and you watch them grow and grow until they seem to be about everything.
DEADLINE: I can imagine the story of a musician who might not be good enough to make it in an exciting desirable world resonating with the Coens, who make distinctive risky films. Do you ever have that feeling of fear, that it’s all over and you’re not good enough?
RUDIN: Oh, yeah. You always feel the ground rumbling beneath your feet and if you don’t, you’re an idiot. Mostly, because it is rumbling beneath your feet and there is always someone who is coming up behind you who is as good, younger and, at least as you perceive it, has more energy and more nimbleness than you. Success is extremely ephemeral and very hard to hold onto.
DEADLINE: You continue to have a prolific output of high quality work on the screen, the Broadway stage and now in television. I imagine there’s a lot of producers looking at your output and wondering, how the hell does he keep up this pace?
RUDIN: One of the things we got good at is how to protect filmmakers and play makers. We’re a very effective force field of resistance to what I would call not productive input. I think we are a good front line for the filmmakers we work with, and we’ve had a lot of success being that. I’m really proud of that. This is our third movie with the Coens, we just made our fifth with Wes Anderson, our seventh with Noah Baumbach. There’s another with Paul Thomas Anderson. We work with the same people over and over and it’s because we put a huge, huge amount of time and energy into making sure that they all get well taken care of.
DEADLINE: So if a younger producer was wondering how to emulate your track record, would that be the key?
RUDIN: That, and operating in good faith. We go into everything believing it’s going to be good. We don’t ever get into arrangements we don’t think we can fulfill. We’re really careful about what we say we’re going to do, and then we go do it. I’ve never believed in saying we were going to do things I wasn’t 100% sure we would be able to. Whether it’s saying we’re going to produce a movie or a play. If we say we’re going to buy a book, we buy that book.
DEADLINE: I remember Mike De Luca telling me in one of these interviews that the big thing you taught him was do not let a film move forward until the script is right. What if the filmmaker you are there to protect wants rush things when the script wasn’t right? Is protecting him from himself part of the bargain?
RUDIN: I would stop it. I have stopped it. I’ve said, we will do the movie, but we’re not going to do it before it’s ready. We just finished a movie with Cameron Crowe, with Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone. We were going to make that movie five years ago with Ben Stiller and Reese Witherspoon. The script wasn’t ready and we stopped the movie.
DEADLINE: Did Cameron Crowe understand?
RUDIN: Yeah, of course. It’s very rare that a smart filmmaker would think he’s ready and I wouldn’t. We are lucky to work with very smart people. You don’t have to rush to make the movie. Book Of Mormon is a perfect example. Seven years of workshops. Seven years until it was ready and then we went and did it. And now it’s a 250 million dollar business.
DEADLINE: So when you have a property cranking out that much revenue, when do we see the movie?
RUDIN: The guys will make it when they’re ready. We talk about it all the time, and talked about it a couple days ago. It wouldn’t surprise me if they waited. Book of Mormon and South Park have dominated their last five or six years. If they did another movie ahead of Mormon, that would be really smart. We’ve always talked about doing the movie at some point, I just don’t know when. We don’t need to get around to it now. It’s got a huge advance still, it’s got years of touring, it’s a big hit in London and we’re talking about additional productions. It’s got a long life. There is no hurry.
DEADLINE: As producer, what was the biggest challenge in helping them execute the Coens execute their vision?
RUDIN: It was incredibly hard to find Oscar Isaac. As we got closer, and this happened on No Country For Old Men until we found Josh Brolin, we were asking ourselves, can we make the movie? Same with True Grit, before we found Hailee Steinfeld. We didn’t have Oscar Isaac until right before we were starting, and that was the biggest challenge. Frankly, figuring out the whole process of selling the movie was a big challenge, and how to create a series of music-related benchmark opportunities for it was really fun. It has been one of the most challenging things to market that we’ve ever worked on, and probably the most rewarding. We created all this ancillary material that you never get on any other movie. We did the concert. There’s a live album, a documentary. All of this stuff was everybody having had a great time on the movie and wanting to stay together and keep making things. We ended up with all this other stuff, which you never get on movies.
DEADLINE: Inside Llewyn Davis is a very self-absorbed character who could have been unlikeable. When Oscar came in and won the role, what was the most important think he brought?
RUDIN: We completely believed him as a musician who was good enough to be on the cusp of succeeding. One of the great things about Oscar, he wasn’t a star. You projected nothing onto him, except the behavior that was demonstrated. He has no reservoir of audience goodwill, which is fantastic because you could approach him as a viewer and have no idea what he was going to do next. That’s fantastic, hard to find, and it is very hard to get a movie made with a guy you don’t know. There was zero resistance to him, though, and once everybody saw the movie it was very clear that this was a remarkable star turn.
DEADLINE: The movie played through the roof in its Cannes premiere. They loved him. You see a star career for him?
RUDIN: Completely. He’s got a great part in this J.C. Chandor movie, and that’s the next big opportunity for him. We made this small Alex Garland movie with him at Universal that he’s great in, with Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander.
DEADLINE: I can’t recall a music guy get as prominent seat at the creative table as T Bone Burnett got here. What did he bring?
RUDIN: He is the music maker of the movie, the way Joel and Ethan are the writers and directors. In their own way, I think they would describe him as an equal partner. Their past relationship with him is one of the big reasons they wanted to make it. They trust his taste implicitly, and they love his process and being around him. He has this vast encompassing knowledge of American roots music and also very witty tastes. The fact that he’ll come up with The Shoals of Herring or that they will sit in a room and all of them write Please Mr. Kennedy, he turns the room in a way that is very unique to him. When we put together this concert for Town Hall, I really had never seen anything like it. It took six months to get the whole thing organized, get everyone to do it, get the space, raise the money. And in a day and a half, he put the whole thing together onstage, and it was so brilliant.
DEADLINE: Your other Oscar contender is Captain Phillips. The hostage drama played out publicly not long ago. When you chased the book rights…
RUDIN: That wasn’t me, it was Dana Brunetti and Mike De Luca. They did it entirely themselves…
DEADLINE: What made this a major studio film that could draw Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks?
RUDIN: The globalism. It felt like a story you could tell with no villains. You could tell it where the point of view of the audience was equally with the Somalians’ experience as much as the Americans. It felt very modern, and much more like a Pontecorvo movie than Rambo. It is not rah-rah Americana, and that’s why people really responded to it. That is a huge credit to Paul Greengrass.
DEADLINE: So as you and Paul planned this, is it fair to say that if at the end you felt no sympathy for the pirates, you’d failed?
RUDIN: Yes. When that guy gets off the boat and onto the SEAL boat and says where are the elders? he doesn’t realize until that moment there are no elders, that he’d been played and outgunned. I find that incredibly moving. To me, that’s the absolute best stuff in the movie and the extraordinary strength of Tom Hanks’s performance is he doesn’t pull the movie toward him at that point. And then the ending is so unbelievable.
DEADLINE: Hanks’s decompression process at the end is a logical outcome of what would happen to anyone when the danger passes and the fear and adrenaline is still there. Did you realize it was going to be such a tour de force moment?
RUDIN: No, because it wasn’t in the script. It was entirely improvised. The woman who examines him is the woman on the boat who does that. She’s not an actress. Paul and Tom asked, if he came off that lifeboat, where would you take him? We would take him down the hall to the sick bay. Can we look at the sick bay? Sure. Hey, what would you do here? We’d cut his clothes off, make sure he wasn’t bleeding. And that’s how the scene got done. What Tom did then was stupendous. I wrote Tom a note the other day after seeing Saving Mr. Banks. I thought his last scene in that movie was equally brilliant. He was responsible for the two best last scenes of any movies that came out last year.
DEADLINE: You do your best producing work from your office, not on a movie set. That was a harrowing shoot on the high seas. Were you on any of those ships long enough to get seasick?
RUDIN: Oh, no. One of the great things about people like Paul Greengrass or the Coens is, they don’t need us on the set. They need us to get the movies put together, What am I going to say to Paul Greengrass about how to shoot the movie? We talked every day, I saw dailies every day. We continued to refine the script. He’s so in charge of the actual film, the same as the Coens or PTA are. They don’t want or need anybody around. They are great at saying hey, I need help, can you help me with this?
DEADLINE: Paul Greengrass and Joel and Ethan seem like very different filmmakers. Give me an idea of how as a producer you best supported and served Greengrass compared to the Coens?
RUDIN: Getting the budget and script where they needed to be. He needed the freedom to make the movie he wanted to make, and so it important to help him by getting the studio to understand how he was going to make the film. He wasn’t going to go off and shoot the script word for word. He was going to find the movie as he made it. Making everybody comfortable with that was challenging. It’s not the way most studio movies get made.
DEADLINE: Finding the movie during shooting on The Green Zone resulted in a high negative cost for Paul’s film, so it is understandable why a studio would resist.
RUDIN: Yes, but what helped was, Paul knew he had to prove he could do it. So he was very eager. He didn’t want anyone to go into it thinking it was going to cost more than we said it was going to cost. He didn’t want anyone going into it not knowing how he was going to make it. A big part of what we did was make sure the studio had a very clear idea of what they were going to get.
DEADLINE: Paul was very honest when I interviewed him about his feeling that he has to be open minded and changeable to recognize surprises and opportunities on the fly and embrace them. A lot of filmmakers seem like they wouldn’t be comfortable with that…
RUDIN: Mike Nichols is a guy who will circle the story for a long time and gradually find his way into it. We’re finishing this run of Betrayal, the second play we did together in the last couple years. We did a three week workshop of a Pinter play. People might say why the hell would you need a workshop for a play that was written 30 years ago? When we did Death of a Salesman a couple years ago, Nichols did a four week workshop in that. We weren’t going to do any writing on it. It was just the idea of taking the time to find your way into the play. In both instances, the workshops were why both plays were good. He wanted the time to find the play and didn’t want to go into it with a massive amount of preconceived notions. He wanted to find it with the cast.
DEADLINE: That’s fine when you are actors in a room. Isn’t it different when cameras are rolling, and you’re shooting on the water?
RUDIN: Ultimately, Paul had to finish x number of scenes each day and he was incredibly good about doing that.
DEADLINE: This year has been a brutal collision of year end prestige films, and you moved Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel into 2014. Can anything be done about this, to stretch the calendar and still be remembered for Oscars?
RUDIN: I was anxious about the Wes movie coming out in March, but the Searchlight guys made a very compelling case and I think they’re right. They felt, we can’t shove all these movies into the fourth quarter and that ultimately, the good movies are going to be remembered. Because Wes’s movie was made entirely in Germany, the chance to open in Berlin was a big opportunity. It was hard to refute the value of that, but I really think this is the best film he has made, and it’s going to reach a lot of people. Also, realistically, I think it’s crazy that every good adult movie is shoved into fourth quarter.
DEADLINE: It’s the same as the tent poles in the summer, cannibalizing each other. Then you see someone take a shot on MLK weekend, or Thanksgiving and succeed. Should Hollywood do a better job exploiting the entire calendar?
RUDIN: Yeah, of course. I think the cynicism is, we tend to think people have very short memories when it comes to awards, but it really isn’t true.
DEADLINE: It is hard to really cite many test cases—Shutter Island was a financial success but not an Oscar picture– because nobody wants to risk showing outside the Oscar corridor. This year, we’ll see your film with Wes do it, as well as George Clooney’s Monuments Men.
RUDIN: If we had Wes’s movie finished eight weeks earlier than we did, it would have been hard to not put it into this year. Realistically, Searchlight has 12 Years A Slave, we have our two movies. How much ultimately can you take? At a certain point, you can’t be competing against yourself. Wes made it easy because the movie wasn’t ready. If it had, that would have been a really tough call. I’ve been lucky and had two year end movie for the last four or five years, but that is very hard. The risk of having somebody very angry at you is not a lot of fun.
DEADLINE: That you’re favoring one of your children over another…
RUDIN: You can’t favor one over the other. You have to stay morally clean and do everything you can for both movies. But it doesn’t always look like that.
DEADLINE: You make movies all over now, but your deal is at Sony, where you made Captain Phillips. What did you think about all the changes Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton made in the wake of withering criticism of shareholder Daniel Loeb and a couple of summer flops?
RUDIN: Honestly, I haven’t seen what the changes are. I think Amy and Michael have done a very good job of insulating the filmmakers from it. Whatever they’ve had to do, and I know they got put through it a little bit, but I see no difference in how we’re operating on a day to day basis.
DEADLINE: How much harder is it to make lasting artistic films when the financial pressure on these major studios grows each year?
RUDIN: The kind of movies we’ve mostly made, you have to be mindful of the risk-reward relationship if there’s a Daniel Loeb or not. Ultimately, it makes very little difference to what we do. If you’re going to make Captain Phillips, it has to cost a certain amount of money. You’re not going to be able to make it for more than that. If you’re making Inside Llewyn Davis, there’s a ceiling on it. That’s a healthy thing, not a bad thing. This is a global concern, not a specific Sony concern. There is never anything wrong with understanding what box you have to operate inside of. Otherwise, you are not going to be able to make any more movies.
DEADLINE: You have worked a lot with Columbia Pictures production president Hannah Minghella. Now, your Captain Phillips, Social Network and Moneyball producing partner Mike De Luca soon will share that title with her. How’s that going to work out? Are they going to fight over you?
RUDIN: I hope they do fight over me! I’m thrilled that Mike is going to do this. I’ve always considered him to be one of the best movie pickers around.