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 Three 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. Today, in Part Three, he tells us about making that film. Come back for Part Four tomorrow.
Neal Dodson: It came to us through a friend of a friend who basically called us on a Friday morning who said “Hey, before he heads to the airport to fly home this afternoon, I think you should meet my buddy J.C. He’s a writer/director and he has a project. Do you want to come meet us for a drink before he goes to the airport.”
Zach wasn’t able to go, so Corey and I went to meet with J.C. and within five minutes, both of us kind of looked at each other like “This is the right guy.” We hadn’t read anything, we hadn’t seen any of his work, we just had a gut instinct. Then he told us what his script was. We felt like it was exactly what we were looking for. It was topical, it could be sold as a thriller, but it was relevant and meaningful and smart. And I had not read it¬—this was just from his pitch. So I called Zach really quickly and Zach was at a vet appointment with his dog, he left there and immediately came to where we were to meet J.C. And we spent maybe twenty minutes with Zach there, and then he had to leave for the airport. On the way he handed us a paper copy of his script. Paper copies of scripts don’t even exist anymore, and that was only four years ago! And we all read it that night. He got back on to a plane and headed back to New York. We called him at midnight and said “This is it, we got to-you know-don’t stop and collect 200 dollars, just go,” or whatever the appropriate Monopoly metaphor is.
We called him again the next morning and said “We want in. Zach would like to attach himself to play the younger role. We want to produce this with you. The one thing we’re uncomfortable about is that we don’t have any money to option this or give you anything.” And he said “Well, that’s good, because I am the guy who doesn’t like to sign things over, because I’ve had bad experiences in the past. So, I would not option it even if you had the money, so this seems like a perfect fit.”
It was all just on a handshake basis, and that’s always the way. J.C. never had papers until we literally had to because of financing. Suddenly then we were like “Aw, shit. We gotta draw something up.”
That was it. Then, a year later we were shooting the movie. Maybe fourteen months later we were shooting the movie in New York with that crazy cast.
Dodson: Yeah, we just muscled it together. We very quickly started sending it out to actors. We had a first version of the movie where we had attached a brilliant actress named Carla Gugino, who is amazing. She’d been cast to play the Demi Moore role, and then Brian Kingsley who was attached to play the Jeremy Irons rol,e and Billy Crudup to play the Stanley Tucci role ended up playing. I’m trying to think who else… Sam Shepard was suppose to do it, and Will Arnett, and all these various people that flowed in and out of it. At one point Zach, my producing partner, had to drop out of the acting portion and Joseph Gordon-Levitt signed on to replace him.
Then Joseph Gordon-Levitt had to drop out and Zach was able to come back in. It was quite a dance through the whole process. We ended up with a pretty insane cast for a three million dollar movie.
What was the cast coming in and coming out? Was that because of taking a lot of time to find the money? I assume it was the type of thing where people were interested but could only do it in a certain window, and it didn’t happen for one reason or another in that window.
Dodson: It was basically that. When you have a big ensemble piece like that in particular-and needless to say, J.C.’s second film having a single actor in it is a bit of a reaction to the juggling that happened with the first movie. But yeah, it was basically that. It was a puzzle. We never changed from our original plan to shoot in seventeen days. God knows why we didn’t enlarge that to give ourselves a little more room, but that was our plan. And it was part of the reason why a lot of these people were able to say yes, too. We weren’t asking them to commit months of their life. We were asking-you know, Kevin Spacey shot twelve days. Demi and Simon Baker each shot for six days. Tucci and Jeremey Irons shot three days each. Then it was just Zach and Paul Bettany and Penn Badgley and Mary McDonnell who were there for about four hours. Bettany and Badgley and Quinto shot the entire time, which was only seventeen days. That was the biggest commitment anyone had to make for shooting on a movie.
They worked for pennies and a decent participation on the back end of the movie, and were happy to do it because they loved the material and thought it was interesting and we weren’t asking too much of a time commitment. It turns out they were all very very proud of the movie, but yes, in answer to your question, the puzzle-like nature of the movie-once you locked in one actor, particularly of this caliber, we knew that Stanley Tucci needed to be there these three days and then he needed to go on vacation, and Kevin had to be there these six days but needed to go to London for a couple of days, pretty quickly every other role fell into place.
Ok, so we were just talking about the puzzle pieces of trying to get everybody available at the same time.
Dodson: Ultimately that’s what it was. Once you knew who was locked in for those days, that sort of pattern-there was a moment when Carla Gugino was unable to do the movie because of her schedule on another project and she was heartbroken about it and so we needed to replace her very quickly, and there was a weekend where-I won’t name names, but in addition to an incoming call saying Demi More would be interested in this, I had called about three or four other very famous actresses because it was the only female role in the movie at that point. Our cast was great, we had everybody except for Jeremy Irons in the movie. It became a hot female part for a minute, so we had these big movie stars that wanted to do it. Three or four of them to a number, and their agents would call and say “Well, she can’t do those exact dates, can you just move this one ‘cause she has a conflict or this and that,” and I would have to say no and they’d have their minds blown because these are actresses whose agents are used to movies being moved six months for them to star, you know? In this case, this first time producer, first time filmmaker, tiny little three million dollar movie was saying no.. you know?
So, we just had a sense that if we let it get out of control or if we let it move, then it wouldn’t come back together. So we stuck with our guns and ended up with Demi Moore, which is no small feat. The last role, Jeremy’s role was casting the whole way through. We were told Jeremy was unavailable so we were going through a bunch of offers and no one was available. So we had to spent twenty-four hours with so and so and twenty-four hours with so and so and they read it and weren’t available, or they would read it and feel that they didn’t know how to do the role, or thought they were too young or whatever it was. So we went through a ton of people.
About a week into it, the seventeen day shoot, we finally got a yes out of Jeremy. Because someone finally told us he was actually available, so Spacey called him and said “Listen, we’ve never gotten to work together and we’ve known each other for twenty years. Please come and do this with me,” and he agreed to do it.
There were a whole lot of shenanigans getting him his O1 visa. Which had expired. So we got him a visa in about three days which, according to the US State Department, is something they’ve never seen, which we’re very very proud of. It was quite a puzzle piece. But once everyone showed up it was remarkable. They were really kind and really generous and really understanding that it was a team effort. We were shooting twelve pages a day and sometimes as little as nine and as many as sixteen, seventeen pages in a single day. In Margin Call there’s a big boardroom scene where all the actors are in, and it’s Jeremy’s first appearance in the movie. We had one night to shoot that boardroom scene in an all-glass office tour on one of the shortest nights in the year.
So, we had about a sixteen page day but we only had about seven or seven and a half hours of full darkness on the forty second floor of an office building where you can sort of see the sun rise, and it starts to glow pretty early in the morning. These actors were amazing! They pounded it out.
I think of our nine above the title actors, seven were in that scene along with another fifteen extras. With cameras swirling around them and LOTS of dialogue. They didn’t flinch and it was amazing. I’m very proud of the atmosphere that that set had and I’d like to think that we had something to do with that.
We aren’t screamers and we aren’t freaker-outers. We try and run a calm set and try and hire-we have a little bit of a no-asshole rule. We don’t always succeed at that but we try to not hire jerks to work for us. We really pulled it off in that movie in a magic way but it had a lot to do with the fact that J.C. was so kind and calm about it and that the actors came and decided that they were going to commit themselves to a really cool, smart little movie.
By the way, at the time, they didn’t even know that that movie was going to get into film festivals. There was no distribution. That was just their gut. You know? The fact that we ended up having the ride that we had with the movie, where we did Sundance and then Berlin and then New Directors, New Films and then RIGHT as our movie was coming out, bad for the country but good for the movie, we had been worried that the financial crash was going to be long since over by the time our movie came out but-
As it turned out, you didn’t need to worry about that.
Dodson: Yeah, didn’t need to worry about that. In fact, not only still raging but Occupy Wall Street started just about three weeks before our movie came out. That was a little marketing miracle in a way, even though it was intense for the country. But, instead of our movie being a one review buried in the middle of the Arts section, we were on the cover of the Arts section, on the cover of the News section, on the cover of the Lifestyle section in the magazine, in all the opt ed pages, we got picked up everywhere because it was so timely. Instead of just doing entertainment weekly, J.C. and Kevin and Jeremy and Paul Bettany and Zach were all doing MSNBC squawk box shows and going down to the stock floor and doing all that kind of stuff.
We were covered a lot more in the Wall Street Journal than we would have otherwise. It turned it into a really groundbreaking little movie where-it’s funny, now that we’re releasing J.C.’s second movie, we see all these articles-J.C. and I don’t know whether to be offended or not. These articles say about Margin Call: “The criminally underappreciated” or “the vastly underwatched movie, Margin Call” and you know, needless to say, every filmmaker who makes their movie to be seen by more people-it was a three million dollar movie made by a first time filmmaker and a first time producer in seventeen days. It got nominated for an Oscar and did global thirty million dollars of business when you factor in the huge VOD success in the United States. It made every single person from our investors to our distributors to the actors who owned the profits on the movie, a ton of money.
Frankly, the only people who didn’t make money from it was my company and J.C. cause we had, at some point, given up all our participation to get the actors. Which was fine. We don’t regret it for a second. Because we have the movie.
It’s funny, because people now sort of think-and I’ll take the underdog status and J.C. kind of loves the underdog status as well-but Margin Call-while it wasn’t-it made five million dollars in theatres while doing ten million dollars in VOD, in the US alone. And it was only in theatres for four weeks.
It was kind of amazing. And then it did huge business in another-fifteen million dollars in business all over the world and… it was a huge success on any stretch of the imagination. We all have Independent Spirit Awards and J.C. has an Oscar Nomination. But I do like that people pity us because they think people ignored our little movie, which is sort of sweet anyway. I just think it’s one of those movies that, because it didn’t have an onslaught of advertising campaigns, and people think it’s really good and like it that I think they think “Why the hell wasn’t this nominated for more awards or win more awards, and how did I not know about it?” That’s the gut feeling they have. If they missed it, it feels like a discovery so they must have been hidden from them somehow.