“Aim for excellence” - Producer Allyn Stewart on the business of making a blockbuster movie


Producer and president of Flashlight Films Allyn Stewart has worked with the stars and developed some of the most iconic movies in Hollywood. On the latest Walker Webcast, Allyn discussed the alliance between business and creativity and the future of the movie industry. She also shared some incredible behind-the-scenes anecdotes about working with the likes of Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks, Laura Dern, Morgan Freeman, and more.

On the latest Walker Webcast, Willy offers a market update on the recent low rates in commercial real estate before turning to his guest for the episode - Allyn Stewart.  Allyn is a movie production executive whose career has spanned seasons at 20th Century Fox as well as Warner Brothers.  For the past several years, Allyn has been spearheading her own company, Flashlight Films, which has produced such noteworthy films as SULLY, Trial by Fire, and LAND.  

Backing up to the early days of her career, Allyn shares about how she got into the film industry, worked on projects like her first movie (Chariots of Fire), and developed her love for filmmaking.  Allyn completed a degree in international economics with a dream of relocating to Europe.  However, she was profoundly struck by a visit to the 20th Century Fox lot and instead spent six months working on getting into the film industry in Europe.  She cut her teeth at a small office in London that afforded her a lot of experience. As she learned about the industry, she developed her passion for storytelling and crafting compelling screenplays for the big screen.   

Of course, Allyn’s career hasn’t followed a straight line.  She rose through organizational ranks to become a production executive at Warner Brothers but made a decision to transition into a purely entrepreneurial space. She established Flashlight Films, and then her industry climb had to - in many ways - begin again.  As things stand now, Allyn loves her job and enjoys it even more than she enjoyed her former executive roles. 

Turning to some of the specific work Allyn has been involved with throughout her career, Willy first asks about Driving Miss Daisy.  Allyn had to push through opposition to see the film made, and with the benefit of skilled actors Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman on board with the project before becoming big Hollywood names, the movie struck a poignant chord with audiences.  Other film concepts, though, haven’t struck Allyn as worth fighting to see completed.  One thing she is particularly drawn toward in a script is effective hero mythology and the crafting of archetypal characters that create a relatable “everyman” baseline.

As she has moved deeper into the epicenter of Hollywood glitz and glamor, Allyn has learned not to be seduced by surface energy but to really listen to what the talent (especially the director) says and look for a vision that jives with its script.  With the benefit of mentorship and experience, Allyn has developed strong instincts and practices in choosing talent, managing business concerns, and striking a balance between vying needs on film projects.  She prioritizes working with people of integrity and is careful in determining what projects to take on and how to structure her film budgets.  Given the fact that a movie release is basically a new product launch without opportunity for pre-testing, there are a lot of stakes to consider before production and release.  

Moving forward, Allyn and Willy discuss the value of realistic movie settings, the extent to which editing can fix a film, and the importance of safety on a movie set.  As the recent Rust set accident demonstrates, there are protocols in place that need to be carefully followed, even if a film hires crew members who aren’t unionized. Allyn explains what drew her to the stories for SULLY and Trial by Fire, offers thoughts on the future of Hollywood in light of its current climate, and finally talks about the importance of screen size and what she’s working on now!    

Key Ideas: 

0:47 - Willy gives a recent market update. 
3:25 - Welcome to the show, Allyn Stewart!
5:10 - What attracted Allyn to the movie industry, and how did she decide to start a company?
8:13 - Conversation turns to Driving Miss Daisy.
11:46 - Willy and Allyn talk about scripts and looking beyond surface glamour.  
16:25 - What has Allyn’s experience been like as a female in her business?
19:24 - Allyn comments on navigating creativity and business concerns.
24:27 - Willy asks about budget planning and film shooting.
30:05 - Safety on a film set is of paramount importance.
34:00 - Allyn talks about SULLY’s authenticity and story, film editing, and Trial by Fire.
42:48 - What can Allyn say about the future of Hollywood, small screens, and her current work?


Learn more about Allyn Stewart and the works of Flashlight Films.
Check out Walter & Dunlop’s website

Webcast Transcript

Willy Walker: Thank you, Susan. And good afternoon, everyone on the east coast and good morning to those in western time zones. It is a gorgeous day here in Denver, Colorado, and it is a real pleasure to have my old friend Allyn Stewart join me today on the Walker Webcast. Before I dive into the intro to Allyn and our conversation on the movie industry, a couple of quick notes. 

The first thing is, as everyone saw with earnings last week from CBRE, JLL and Walker & Dunlop, the commercial real estate industry continues to move at a ferocious pace. Commercial real estate assets in the United States are attracting an unprecedented amount of both domestic as well as foreign capital. And as rates stay low, and the world is yield starved, commercial real estate is seeming to be an incredibly good place for people to invest their capital. I would say that we had spectacular earnings at Walker & Dunlop last week. And I am gratefully thankful to all the work of our team at W&D for all they did in Q3 to have such a successful quarter. The other thing I would say is that one of my peers, CEOs came out last week during their earnings call, and called for a pretty rapid rise in rates. And I wrote him a note after his earnings call and said, you're now predicting where interest rates are going to go. You must have had a really, really, good quarter. I think I'm smart enough not to try to predict where interest rates go, but I will say that after the FED meeting last week, and the FED chairman putting together a plan for the tapering, the fact that rates have actually rallied over the last week, I think clearly shows that the market really doesn't know what's going to happen as it relates to rates. The market is trying to digest all of this information on inflation. And until we get some clarity on how real inflationary pressures are, and how that is going to impact the movements of the FED, it's really a wait and see mode. And for now, rates are still exceptionally low. People are finding the opportunity to go and buy assets at low CAP rates and put very cheap financing on them. 

Final thing I'll say before I turn to Allyn, which is that I saw my old friend, Dr. Jim Lehrer last night. Jim has been on the Walker Webcast before, and Jim and I were talking says I hear you have this amazing film producer on tomorrow. And I said I do Allyn is an incredible film producer. And he said, how do you get these guests to come on the Walker Webcast? And I said, fortunately, Jim, I know people like you, and I know people like Allyn and they're kind enough to give me an hour of their time to shed some light on both what you do from a coaching and performance standpoint and what Allyn does from a movie production standpoint.

And so, Allyn, welcome to the Walker Webcast. You started your career in the movie industry with large studios moved up to be an executive at Warner Brothers and then on to 20th Century Fox. And then founded your own firm Flashlight Films and have produced a number of very noteworthy films such as Sully with Tom Hanks; Trial by Fire with Laura Dern and Land most recently with Robin Wright. 

Let's back up a little bit Allyn to the very beginning. I think the first movie you ever worked on was Chariots of Fire. Tell our listeners how you got into the movie industry, what it was like working on that first film Chariots of Fire?

Allyn Stewart: I was 12 when Chariots of Fire was made, so don't add up the years. I finished university with a degree in international economics. And all I wanted to do was work in Europe because I had gone to school for a couple of years in France. And so, I was meeting with multinational corporations and investment banks, and it just didn't feel like a right fit. And I walked onto the Fox lot, even though I grew up in Los Angeles, I didn't know anyone in the movie business. The second I walked on the lot; it was like I was hit by lightning. I'm like, oh my God, they make movies. It took me six months to get a job because not only did I want to work in the movie business, but I wanted to live in Europe, which was a tough combination and the early 80s. And I ended up working for Fox in London, starting in distribution. And then I realized you know what I want to make movies. I don't want to distribute other people's movies. So I moved over to production and kind of cut my teeth in a very small office in London, where we made Empire Strikes Back and Alien and ultimately Chariots of Fire. It was a blessing because I was in a very little pond and got a lot of experience quickly.

Willy Walker: And as you started to learn the movie industry, what was it that really attracted you in the sense of was it the stories that were being told? Was it the economic side of you can make something and it can turn into a gold mine? Was it the artistic process of pulling things together? What was it that really as you got into the industry you sort of said, not only does that interest me, but that's what I'm good at?

Allyn Stewart: You know, I transitioned a lot and I'm glad that I was open minded to just kind of take each turn with curiosity. I think initially I just was fascinated by the business, and then became more and more fascinated with making movies, how you make them. It's a tough business, but it can also be a lot of fun. The creative process combined with the business process can be fun. But ultimately, I would say, after a good decade, I realized my passion was not only telling stories, but that my craft became more and more honed on being able to develop screenplays. So, hearing a story and then figuring out how to put it down on 125 pages or television, multiple series episodes. But that's what I love. A lot of people just love the business of the business. But I genuinely love telling stories and the thrill of then seeing it on the big screen.

Willy Walker: As you look back on your career, was there a moment where, if you will, you had the opportunity to stay on the corporate ladder to think about one day running a big studio? Or did you always think that at some point, you’d jump out on your own and start your own thing?

Allyn Stewart: I was offered that a number of times. And finally, I kind of had the decision to make about, did I want to stay on the corporate side or go out of my own and produce movies? And my instinct was just to... go out and basically live a purely entrepreneurial life. It was culture shocked because I left Warner Brothers at kind of the height of my career where not only would people return my calls, but I probably had 75 to 100 calls to return a day, to all of a sudden the phone doesn't ring, and people don't kind of call you back. So, it was a real climb back to where I was before. But I'm so grateful because here I am, these years later, I absolutely love what I do. So, what a blessing to be working every day and doing a job that I truly love much more than being an executive.

Willy Walker: One of the films that you worked on while you were still an executive at Warner Brothers was Driving Miss Daisy with Morgan Freeman, talk about how that movie came to be, because I've heard you a number of times talk about finding scripts and really thinking how stories will resonate with the viewing public, and Driving Miss Daisy if you looked at that script in that day and age which was I believe 1989 wouldn't have exactly jumped off the pages sort of let's make this movie and this thing's going to be one of the blockbuster movie. So, tell us about the story behind Driving Miss Daisy.

Allyn Stewart: Two of the films I made during that period were Driving Miss Daisy and Dangerous Liaisons both of which were plays. And both of which I saw in New York, and I was sitting on Broadway watching Driving Miss Daisy and I thought, oh my god, what an incredible movie. I found out that the rights had been sold, but they had been sold to my very dear friends Lilly and Dick Zanuck. So, I called them up and said, OK, I've got to make this movie with you. And at that time MGM owned the rights. MGM decided not to make it. And at that point nobody would make it. So, I said to them, I'm now still an executive at Warner Brothers. I said I'm going to get this movie made. So, I tried and tried and tried and tried. And even though at that time, it was a miniscule budget of $7.5 million, I could not get my bosses, the chairman of the board and the president of the company to green light the movie. And even one of my colleagues said you know you should shut up about this. This is not good for your career.

And one night I was leaving a lot, it was late, and this woman was in her office right by the parking lot. She was an accountant. she yelled out at me, Allyn I read your script Driving Miss Daisy, I cried so hard. I got up and I gave it to my neighbor next door that night. So, I was like gosh dang it. I'm just going to make this movie. I don't care what it takes. I put together the financing. Warner Brothers put up a teeny bit for $5 million and I found $2.5 million out of England, actually from my friend who would finance Chariots of Fire. And during the whole time that the dailies were being seen every day, everybody was like, why do you want to make this movie? Blah blah blah...
And at our first preview, which, Willy, you know I talked about, the scary thing about making movies is you can't preview a script. So, you really have to go by your gut. At our first preview, it struck a chord with the audience and that was sheer magic, but my neck was like out 10 feet before that first night of the preview.

Willy Walker: How do you get someone like Jessica Tandy or Morgan Freeman to buy into doing a movie that is, so if you will under-funded. I mean you went out and basically against, not against the, you obviously got the $5 million from Warner Brothers. But this wasn't hey, this thing is going to light the world on fire. How do you get great actors like that to buy into something like this?

Allyn Stewart: Interestingly, Jessica had done it on stage, but she was kind of an unknown. And the studio, really, my bosses really wanted Audrey Hepburn. And Willy and Dick like, nope, we're sticking with Jessica because she didn't really have a film career at that point. Next thing, she won the academy award which was magical. And Morgan was an unknown entity at that point. I wouldn't say unknown, but I mean he was not Morgan Freeman as we know today. So, the movie was a big break for him. Then at that point, when he was making the movie, he was living on his boat somewhere along the coast of Florida. I mean he's an incredible man, but thereafter his career went.

Willy Walker: It was actually when I was doing research for this, I went and looked at what year Shawshank was made. Shawshank came out in ‘94 and Shawshank was after Driving Miss Daisy.

Allyn Stewart: That's a kind of miracle of the movie, is that it really didn't have these big movie stars. But the studio did a brilliant release, which is that we started off in four cities and then we went to ten cities and then we went to... So, this movie was completely governed by word of mouth. You couldn't buy your way into success it literally had to be one person telling the other to go watch it.

Willy Walker: What is it about something in that script and in many of the other movies that you have made, Allyn? Where I've heard you talk about the archetype of character, the person who represents a pattern of human behavior. What are those patterns in human behavior, in the archetypal characters that you most look for? Because there's such a broad spectrum of archetypal characters. What's the one that you go after that is consistently resonated with your viewing public?

Allyn Stewart: I think the one that speaks to me the most is the hero mythology where the heroes tested every day because obviously we're all tested every day. And we identify with somebody that overcomes hurdles to perform in situations that can be extreme or about inherent survival like Robin Wright in Land, trying to figure out how to survive a horrible tragedy. For me, what I've learned over the years and being an executive was a huge gift because I got to get paid to make a lot of mistakes. So you start to learn what works and doesn't work in, particularly what you experience versus that's authentic versus others. And I learned that I have kind of like a baseline common denominator with the every man. And through the process of previewing, if I really feel something in my gut, and I stay true to it and I make sure that the entire screenplay stays true to it. It reaches people. So, I think it's about me realizing that I am a part of the pattern of human behavior as we all are. So, if I stay true to that as the essence of the story of script, it reaches people.

Willy Walker: What's the one or two scripts or ideas that came to you that you ended up passing on that turned out to be huge hits.

Allyn Stewart: You know, the movie that it was so disappointing to not do. This is when I was an executive. Kevin Costner brought us Dances with Wolves and I loved the script. But he insisted on having a lot of the movie’s subtitles. They were all speaking of a native American language. So, we passed, and of course when I saw the movie, it's such a great movie. But, you know, I couldn't really kick myself, but part of me feels like maybe if I’d lit myself on fire, I would have gotten us to make it. That was a big pass.

Willy Walker: What do you, I mean when someone like Kevin Costner walks into your office with the script saying I'd like to go make this. We're going back some in your careers being an executive and you just talked about leaving Warner Brothers at sort of the height of your career. But it must be very difficult with that kind of star quality all around you to really look through kind of all the glitter, if you will, of here's Kevin Costner in my office with a script in a movie he wants to make and look beyond that to sort of look at it from a business perspective. And you have to, at times, sort of said don't get caught up in just who this person is or what the opportunities might be and boil it back to what's my gut say on this and do I really think this is going to be a great movie from a dollars and cents standpoint. How do you toggle between that? Because for people like me and 99% of the world, we don't come in contact with people we know every single day to the extent of star quality where you can get big eyes and sort of say, wow if this person says they want to do it, I've got to do it. How do you manage through that?

Allyn Stewart: You learn not to because being seduced by a surface energy, we all know that's not really the substance of the business that we do. So, in Costner’s case, it was the opposite, which was to see past doubt, because not only was it going to be subtitled that he wanted to direct it and he never directed anything. What I learned over the years is really listen to what the talent says whether it's an actor or a director, particularly directors. Where a director may have had a monster hit the movie before but if you don't hear a vision for the project that he wants to do, that kind of jives with the script, you can't let yourself be seduced. And even though you surrounded by people that say, great great great, make it with that person, unless they really see the movie that you see, you just need to walk away. I would say that one of the things I learned about my work is it's very easy to be seduced into sounding good at a cocktail party. Yeah, I'm working so on and so on and so on ... But that for me is a recipe for delusion.

Willy Walker: How was it before you went out on your own, and I want to get to it when you go out on your own, but as a female in the movie business? All of us know about the really bad scandals with people like Harvey Weinstein and we all also many of us have watched Entourage, which seems little less than a boy’s club as it relates to big entourages running around Hollywood to some degree misbehaving. But more importantly, sort of a men's club. How was it as a female executive at one of the major studios?

Allyn Stewart: The worst moment of my career was when I was trying to get my first job and I wanted to go to Europe and the head of distribution at Fox said, “well what if she goes to Europe and gets pregnant?” Thank goodness I had a benefactor really that said, are you crazy? So that was the attitude when I first started working. When I became an executive, I was kind of in the second group of women working their way up. And I always think, I think my blessing is, I have three sisters, I went to a girl’s school so, it didn't really occur to me. I didn't look for it. And I just put my head down, and I do believe we all as women had to work twice as hard as the guys around us, because it was definitely a guy’s club. But I just didn't look for any form of prejudice. I just, I did my job. And if I had to work harder, fine. And many times, I've made a lot of movies where like I'm the one of the few women on the set. And again, I just feel like I know my job. And it, I just don't...I don't look at it. I'm aware of it. I now look at it with curiosity like how funny that person is diminishing me because I'm a woman. But I don't give them a second’s worth of energetic response. It's not worth it.

Willy Walker: Was there any mentor that you had male or female that was helpful to you during either the formative years of your career, or as you became an executive that was very helpful to you as it relates to kind of the moves you made and where you went and what you were working on.

Allyn Stewart: I would say that the first mentor I had was Alan Ladd Jr. when I was an executive. He ran Fox when I arrived. And what his perspective was more than anybody else running studios at that point. It is all about the movie and writers and directors and he absolutely worshiped talent. So, he wasn't into the business of the business. And I would say that thereafter in my executive life, I constellated with some of the most honest, integrity filled, passionate heads of studios that were my bosses. And I think it's because that's what I gravitated to. I gravitated that to that much more than where can I make the next big deal for myself. I really wanted to work with great people. Honestly is a big thing for me. And I've been lucky that both in my executive life and my producing life, I have worked with people that have a lot of integrity.

Willy Walker: And as you think about the people you work with today, someone like Clint Eastwood, who you know very well and have done a lot of work with. As you think about someone like Clint, who's been a director, an actor, a producer, is such an iconic figure versus the Hollywood studio bosses, is Hollywood today headed more towards the artistic side, represented by someone like Clint Eastwood, or the business management side, if you will, representative like someone like Bob Iger?

Allyn Stewart: It's been in transition for a long time. As movies became more and more expensive more number crunchers became involved in the decision making, which I completely understand. But equally as movie studios started to be bought by all of these major corporations, then you had non-movie people running basically the studios. And that's create a bit of a schism because it is an absolute alliance between the creative process and business. And they have to be in balance. If you think it's all just business and metrics, then you're missing the kind of magic of the creative process. And Iger is an interesting person to bring up, because a lot of these companies are now making decisions based on algorithms, Netflix’s algorithms, which I think is, market research is a tool, but it can't be the decision maker. And Bob Iger in his departing speech to his team when he was handing the reins over, he said, don't fall into the trap of using only algorithms, trust your gut. Your gut is going to lead you to innovation and success, not just looking at numbers on a piece of paper.

Willy Walker: By that, I mean, is there, one of the things that you've talked about and said previously is that this is a single product launch with no ability to test market it before you built it. In the business world, we’d never do that. We never think about doing that. I never sit there and say, let's bet the entire farm on one product that we don't know whether our customers are going to like. Every time at Walker & Dunlop, when we’ve launched anything new, we’ve worked on it for a long time. We've shown it to our customers. We know it's going to work, and then we tell the world that we're actually working on it.

The dynamics of that are so challenging as it relates to: This is going to work; this is not going to work. And how you build up that filter. And I'm just as curious as you matured in the industry and seen both movies that have done exceptionally well and movies that have crashed and burned, how have you changed your own algorithm to the degree of that's got promise and that doesn't? All of us over time. I can today after the number of years I've been in our business, I got a pretty good sense when problems are going to rise. And I've also got a pretty good filter on how to deal with problems, because I've dealt with so many. That's what I get paid for. I'm thinking that is you've gone through your career, you get better and better at that screening process, that personal algorithm. How has that changed?

Allyn Stewart: I think first of all, I know that you do the same thing. You wear many hats. You have to look at a movie through all these different prisms. Good story, good cast. How do you market it? Why would somebody want to see this? Why would somebody want to click the clicker to watch it? And I think you just have to not compromise. If you're not hitting… my partner, my movie producing partner for many years is an icon called Stanley Jaffe. He always said, listen, if you aim for excellent, hopefully you get good. It's just not compromising. If you're not getting the right cast, don't make it. It's also making the movie for the right amount, meaning Land. Robin is a big, obviously very successful actress and television actress. But I knew that the market for that movie was adults. So, we made it for a very reasonable price because let's get into profit and then if it goes way above great. But I'm a big believer in the responsibility of the amount of the investment versus what the market potential is.

Willy Walker: So when you see a script like Land, you start to... you take the script and you're developing a screenplay, and then you're building a budget for the film. Do you model that you need to get someone like Robin Wright in that role? In other words, I'm assuming that the cost of production has a huge impact of whether you're getting Robin Wright to do it or whether you're getting someone else to do it.

And so, as you said you get the right cast, but kind of going back to Driving Miss Daisy when you were sitting there with the screenplay and you were trying to put it together, at that time, Morgan Freeman was not the star that he is, and Jessica Tandy wasn't sort of, if you will, the first pick. How do you deal with that, if you will talent line in your P&L as you're building a budget for the movie as you go out to try and raise capital on it? Does it always have to have we're going for the A star Robin Wright? Or do you build it with a... we're going to put a line item in here that says we're going to get XYZ talent. Then hopefully we can overshoot the mark.

Allyn Stewart: You know, like in the case of Daisy, the budget of the movie was commensurate with how notable those stars were, even at that time, $7.5 million was like that much. So, I feel like I finally got it made because we couldn't lose a dime. There was no way we could lose money and chances are we would make some money, nothing like what we made. It was not a risky investment. Land is the same thing. Robin and I had watched, direct herself in House of Cards. She did it 10 times. She was uncommonly good as a director and directing herself. Initially she didn't want to be in it. And I finally was like, OK, listen, we have to shoot through all these different seasons. We can't get an actor to be available in the summer, in the winter, you should just do this. And so, she finally said, yes. But yeah, your budget, normally, if your budget grows because of the status of the star, the marketplace grows. So, if the status of your star is or status is wrong, marketability, want to see, is lesser than you make the budget a bit lesser. And if it's Tom Hanks, it gets more than it grows. But that's where you can really easily run the numbers in terms of what's the lowest threshold that this movie needs to hit to merit this money.

But I’ll say again, you also have to make a great movie. Meaning we can run the numbers all we want. We can get Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt whatever. But it's got to be a great movie.

Willy Walker: And when you were building the budget for Land and you were talking to Robin about both directing it and acting in it, you also made the decision that you were going to build the set at 8,000 feet in Alberta, Canada at the top of Moose Mountain. Why did you do that?

Allyn Stewart: It was a huge fight that I had with my team. Because not Robin, it is like Robin is incredibly intuitive, and she's made so many movies that we were just fluent, easy, great, creative conversation. A lot of the other team wanted to do, build the set on a stage, and do everything visual effects. And the views out this cabin to this magnificent wilderness. I was like you guys, a character in this movie is the environment, is nature. And I don't care how you do it. You can't fake it through visual effects. So, I finally won the battle. And thank God because our reviews upside down sideways is about the beauty of nature, but when we were shooting, we had two major 4-foot dumps of snow overnight. So, we had to shut down. We had two days of 75 mile an hour winds. And so of course when those things happened, the first AD is looking at me like, told you so. It was the right thing to do.

Willy Walker: In that when you get a 4-foot dump of snow, my understanding was that you were going to film the fall scenes and then come back and film the winner scenes, but you ended up getting 4 feet of snow and you said let's go film the winter scenes now.

Allyn Stewart: Yeah.

Willy Walker: One of the things that fascinates me is that, how do actors go from... I would think that as an actor gets into a role, and there's a continuum in a movie that they're building towards the sort of the crescendo at the end. And now all of a sudden, you've stopped and said we're going to fill in the end first, and then we'll do the beginning later. I'm assuming they're just great professionals, and they can kind of act to the moment and act to it all. But is there something of filming in sequence, if you will, that ends up getting a better finished product than kind of jumping to the end, filming that, and then going back and filming the beginning?

Allyn Stewart: It depends on the actor. I think filming in sequence can be helpful in terms of the development of a character. People like Robin or Laura Dern they're just nimble professionals and sure Robin had to readjust and deal with the vagaries of the set. We had many many crazy days. In fact, Robin and I ended up staying in our trailers at the top of the mountain a number of nights, because it was taking an hour and a half, hour forty-five to get home. And I'm like this is stupid. You're spending three hours on the road when you should be resting. But she's a nimble pro, she could do it and I don't know how. Man, I would watch her just saying, I don't know how you're moving back and forth, and also the adversities. I mean in the movie, you see her breath, that was real. It was freezing when she was having to play summer in winter, and it was crazy. 

But I learned, you know, Clint taught me something so great, which is just keep shooting. Don't look for protraction, just keep shooting, shooting, shooting. So, like when we started shooting Sully, our first week was in New York city, we were shooting on the Hudson for ferries arriving and the people getting off the ferry. And as we're starting to shoot, there was a hurricane warning. And I'm like, we better make plan B. Clint was like, it will be fine, keep shooting. So, the day we're shooting everybody getting off the boats, having been rescued. It wasn't a hurricane, but it was a complete tropical storm. I mean it was insanity. And most people wouldn't shoot through that. Most people would say, let's go home and come back. Clint was like, nope, let’s keep going. And of course, he's mister brilliant. Everything has to be authentic. It looked so great because the people getting off the boats were freezing and miserable, just like it wasn't... we weren't faking it. So, it came out fantastic and of course, everybody was safe. For me, safety is everything. But it's more about how miserable can you let yourself be to get it on film.

Willy Walker: So when you talk about being on a set and safety being everything, I got to ask you about the very tragic accident that happened on the set of Alec Baldwin's movie Rust. To most of us who have never been on a Hollywood set before, the thought would be that you use fake guns and that animation will fill in what the bullet looks like or how it goes into a target et cetera, and that you use CGI for most of that.  So, when we heard that there was actually an actual bullet discharged, that there are actual live rounds on a movie set, at least I was shocked, and it's obviously a tragic accident that happened. How important is, obviously safety, as you just said, is super important. But in these sets, and when you're filming, how much is live versus Memorex? To go back to the old ads that you and I used to see when we were growing up.

Allyn Stewart: I mean the accident is unconscionable, tragic. You never have a live round on the set, ever. We have such strong protocols. When weapons are needed for a scene, the armor never loses sight of the gun. The gun is checked, and checked, and checked. A first AD would never handle a gun who's the guy who took it off some cart where the gun was left out and handed it to the director like... There were so many protocols that were violated that it makes me angry because that is the extreme, extreme, extreme aberrant behavior.

And if I see one of my crew members not being safe on the set, which a couple of these people had already been not safe on that set, they go home, they don't come back. I never have anybody stay working. I don't care if we have to shut down. But safety, I always say we're only making a movie. So, safety is number one, but they violated very, very strict protocols. And I guess it angers me not only for the loss of life, but it places a dark shadow on our business. And that's just not how we behave, meaning everybody checks the gun. This person checks the gun, that person checks the gun... they just... it's unconscionable.

Willy Walker: And on that Allyn, it makes me think about the screen actors guild and union labor is very big in the movie industry. And I would assume that one of the reasons why they have the ability to continue to warrant the pay and the contractual rights that they have is because of those types of protocols and a longstanding track record of those protocols in the safety. When you are deciding where you're going to film, whether it's in Canada, whether it's in Mexico, or whether it's in New Guinea, if you go to a cheaper cost place, do you still need to use unionized labor?

Allyn Stewart: No.

Willy Walker: So you can go to Hungary and film, and you do not have to use a unionized labor, whereas if you go to New York, you have to use unionized labor?

Allyn Stewart: It depends on where you are. There are quite a few non-union states, but there are also union states. Some people go to non-union states, and you make a movie for...somebody said to me, “Well, that's what happens when you make a low budget movie.” I’m like, no, it isn't. Even if you make a non-union movie, you follow the protocols of the business. So, this was just sloppy. It was a poorly managed and produced movie. And I will go back to something you said I mean, a) never live ammunition, but also we've discovered that even blanks can be dangerous because they shoot out a plug. You're right. In today's world, you don't even need the blanks. It's so easy. It's very cheap and easy to just add the muzzle flash through visual effects, like really cheap. So, this was just poorly conceived.

Willy Walker: When you were talking about Sully, and about that scene when the weather rolled in, I thought it was interesting that you went, and you used many of the first respondents who actually responded to the plane crash. The frog men who jumped out of the helicopter and the first responders who showed up in the ambulances and the boats. That must have been, I mean, how often do you use civilians in a movie? Or is it almost always members of the screen actor guild as seconds and things of that nature. And this was a real departure to bring in those heroes who helped on that day.

Allyn Stewart: You know, Clint set an experience for that movie, which was, it must feel authentic. You have to feel like you live this. And because I had developed the screenplay with Sully, everything in the script was authentic and real. It didn't occur to me we cast the real people. When he first did it, he cast the guy who was the ferry driver and I'm like, “Oh god, I hope he can do it.”

This happened a few times that it kind of gives you... of course, I shouldn't have anxiety because it's Clint who directs actors so well. But I mean unprofessional actors have a hard time. But we did it throughout the whole movie, even the guys that were in the simulator. People flying the simulator. They were the real characters, and it created a spirit of reliving the event. And he was right, I mean of course he was right, but he was right to really go at...It was fun like even we shot the rescue part, all the red cross people were real. So, they come up and go, well actually, this is what happened in that. And he loves that. I mean he loves the real guys coming in. The frogmen telling him this is how we did it. He’d go, OK go do it.

Willy Walker: So, on Sully, I'm fascinated that you see the script on Sully and there's not a person in America who doesn't know the end. They don't know what ends up happening, right? So, what was the angle to Sully that made you say, everyone knows what ends up happening here, but there's a story still to be told.

Allyn Stewart: So initially, I wasn't sure there was. And when I read his autobiography, it was, you know I got my pilot's license when I was 16, and then the air force, then the event, I was like, we all know that story, and it had happened the year before. So, it's not like we've got twenty years later. We're dying to see it again. How can you top that anyway in terms of the footage that we saw? But my partner at the time Kipp Nelson said, let's just go meet Sully, be fun to meet Sully. And we went up to his house. And within 20 minutes of meeting him, he said it wasn't until eight weeks ago that I didn't know all of this was going to be taken away, meaning his fame, heroic fame, and success. And I was like, what are you talking about? He proceeded to tell us about the NTSB investigation and how they tried to prove that there was pilot error. There's lots of reasons, by the way, that happens. The airlines don't want to be seen as at fault, the manufacturers of the plane and engines, FAA... So they always go after the pilots. That's the easiest mark. And pilots don't have money for insurance and for lawyers.

So, the more you talk to that that's a spectacular architecture for this movie. It's something none of us know. And they tried to aggressively prove that he was wrong. So you have this great conflict between this heroic event and this big group that really went after them, you know that the NTSB try to say they didn't, but they really did. And during the course of making the movie, and that, by the way, is the blessing of me developing the scripts is I knew that we had done it correctly. I knew that it was truthful. Everyone I met along the way, all the real pilots that run simulator everybody spoke the same story, vis-à-vis the investigation. So, when they tried to kind of prove us wrong, I had a lot of arrows in my quiver. I knew that we had told the story correctly, but of course it made them not look so good.

Willy Walker: And is it because it was that, if you will, the conflict that Sully was going through and that investigation that you named the film Sully rather than Miracle on the Hudson.

Allyn Stewart: I think about this. Clint and I were sitting in the office, and we're going back and forth, back and forth about, you know there's the captain. There were all these titles, and we both just kept coming back to Sully. We both said we like single word titles, and he looks at me go let's just call it Sully. So, it just was a gut. It was a gut feeling. You can second guess yourself and that's where market research to me, sure you can research titles. But that's not really going to tell you what people respond to in the scope of the marketing and the movie itself. And so, you just kind of have to go by what would make you want to see it.

Willy Walker: You know we talked previously about the fact that this is kind of a... The movie industry is a single product. There's no real test marketing before you've actually made the film. But when you have actually filmed it and you start to do testing with pieces of it and you're getting focus groups to see how well it's going to score and things of that nature. How much in the editing process, Allyn, how much do you have the ability to rework what you have filmed? In other words, is it 90% baked and the editing is just kind of 10%? Or could you actually go and take 50% and switch it around and put different film into it to actually materially change the finished product?

Allyn Stewart: It depends on what your problem is. If you're missing little pieces, it's really easy to go and pick up extra footage. I've seen movies change 25% by just reconceiving a restructuring. On the other hand, if you never really got a great script, you never really had an ending. You can't find it in the editing room, and you can't make it up later like it's got to all be there. And then sometimes you have unanticipated changes or confusions that's easy to fix. But if you're trying to find the movie in the cutting room, it won't work.

Willy Walker: Trial by Fire, a very different movie from Sully, a tragic fire death of... was it three daughters?

Allyn Stewart: Two

Willy Walker: Two daughters in the early 2000s and a father who was on death row. How did that story hit your radar screen? And what was the driving force to making that movie?

Allyn Stewart: So David Grann wrote the article in the New Yorker. It was a fantastic article, and it won the Polk award, which is the highest honor in journalism. And I read it in the article, read like this compelling narrative. And then I had a screenplay development fund at that time, and I called CAA, the agency representing the article and I said, I think I'd really like to develop this. Kipp and I were doing that together. They said we have a few clients want to do it. And I said, tell you clients that I want to do it and see if they know me. One of those clients was Ed Zwick, who is a very well known. He did Legends of the Falls, and he did Glory. Wonderful director, who had been my friend for thirty something years.

So, we got on the phone and started to talk about it. And our connection with why we wanted to tell the story was it's just a really compelling expose about a criminal justice system. And particularly, if you are poor in America, getting justice is very difficult. Equally, once you're convicted, it's very hard to get out. The appeals process, particularly in Texas, it doesn't exist. You have to have such a massive reason for revisiting evidence that very few people do. So, Ed and I... it was a passion project. I never thought it was going to be this massive, big hit movie. I thought it's going to be a really good movie and we made it for a very reasonable price. Laura Dern interestingly was on her kind of big comeback meaning she's always made great movies, but she wasn't at the level she, in terms of Academy Award and as she was... and she is now and so, we met with her, and she was so passionate about the movie. We thought alright, we're going to make this with her. And then of course, during the time we're making the movie, her stardom kept getting bigger and bigger. So, from a marketing standpoint, we got lucky. But she was prefect for the movie. I mean it was a great experience. And you always find out why a number of actors are as successful as they are, is no mistake. Yes, there's star quality, but they're so disciplined and committed to the work, whether it's Tom Hanks or Laura Dern, Jodie Foster. They're real pros and their preparation each day, I mean it's awe inspiring. I think they know themselves. Laura knew she could do this. Tom Hanks knew that he could play Sully. And so he would never put himself into something that he... Tom has success movie after movie because he knows what works for Tom Hanks.

Willy Walker: As we think about the future of Hollywood and Netflix and Amazon. And as you said at the top, big business stepping into Hollywood, and this isn't big conglomerates like we used to get coming to Hollywood and buying and trying to plug studios into everything from GE when they owned NBC and things of that nature.

But now you have these big tech firms that are coming in, that are revolutionizing both the way that films are sourced, made, and then distributed. A couple thoughts on that. First, you mentioned Bob Iger saying, if you will, don't rely on the algorithms, which I think is a really interesting statement from someone like Bob who's been so successful at buying brands. I wrote Bob a note after reading his book, and I said to him, instead of Ride of a Lifetime, he should have entitled it legacy, legacy carrier, or legacy holder, because to go to Steve Jobs and get Steve Jobs to sell him Pixar and to go and buy Marvel and to get that sold to him and to go to Lucas and get Lucas films sold to him. Bob really has an incredible talent of going to these people who are multi-billionaires, have created this brand and want to have him be the keeper of their legacy, if you will. It's interesting to hear someone like him who is so good at running businesses to say don't trust the algorithms.

As you look at the power that Netflix has, the power that Amazon has in Hollywood today, is there hope for the independent film?

Allyn Stewart: Yes, right now during Covid it's hard because you can't even get a movie insurance or bonded. You know some, a movie that gets covered for worst case disasters. Yes, because in the end it's about talent. I think right now we're in an uncomfortable time where talent is undervalued. I think part of Mr. Iger's success is that he truly appreciated talent, and he was willing to pay for it, whether it's Lucas or Pixar. He was a visionary, but it was also people. He brought in the right people. And I think the problem with a lot of these companies Netflix, et cetera, is they're not quite as aware of individual talent and that being an essential component to your success.
So, algorithms say, make this, but unless you have a talent, it won't work. So the difficulty for all of us is that Netflix and these other companies won't give any portion of upside, back end of the show. If a show does well, you will not participate. No, not one. I think the only person J.J. Abrams who created Star Trek, get some of the back end, otherwise you get nothing. So, if you make a show that's a hit for four years, you have zero upside of that as a piece of talent. Equally, what is a hit? Because they won't release what their numbers are. So, we have no idea how many people are seeing these shows? And in the success of any product, movie to TV show, et cetera. On streaming, we don't have any metrics for how well they're doing, except that Netflix makes the next season, but they don't release any of their numbers.

So, I don't know what will change. Really top talent, if you Willy know what you're doing, you want a piece of the upside.

Willy Walker: And given that there's a push back on that, does that mean that then just creates more of an opportunity to distribute through new channels? I mean in other words, if Netflix isn't going to, give Tom Hanks back end on something that he goes and does for Netflix, he'll go find another distribution channel for it?

Allyn Stewart: Yes. But first of all, I think a new way of looking at channels is talent, right? Like most people, if you see an ad trailer or TV spot that looks fantastic with Tom Hanks, you're going to find it. I think it depends on the quality of the star. Like many music acts started to self-publish. So sure, if you wrote the Rolling Stones, you could just put yourself out on the internet. I mean quite a few stars do that now in terms of music stars.

I don't think we're quite there yet. But sure, if talent isn't being recompensed in the way that they should be, not only will they seek alternatives, but their agents will seek alternatives because the agents are getting less of a percentage of the upside too. So, I think the movie business is in a real... the movie television streaming, it's all shaking out right now, and it's been accelerated by Covid, as we all know. But in deal making, it's in its infancy.

Willy Walker: And as you think about the big screen, because you've always made for the big screen. And now the big screen is everything from going to an AMC theater to watching it on your iPhone. How much does that change what you're making in the sense of that large format? Your last film at the top of a mountain with incredible cinematography and incredible views of the natural world that needs to, by some definition, be seen on a large screen and large format with high, high definition. And yet at the same time, so much is being consumed on these small little screens, on small little devices. And while the technology is fantastic, and the color and the quality is amazing and the streaming capabilities are there. It loses something of the artistic piece to what has made great films like Dancing with Wolves, which you said previously was one of those ones that you passed over. What it was? So, as you think about that, does that impact what screenplays you're picking up and the way that you think that it's going to interact with your clients or your consumers or the viewers of your films?

Allyn Stewart: I mean yes from the standpoint that series are the most popular form of entertainment vis-à-vis streaming and streaming still has the foothold. When we actually released in theaters and then we moved to pay per view and then we moved to streaming. But equally, as far as I'm concerned, I'm so passionate about the story that yes, I prefer Land to be seen on big screen. But everyone's home entertainment systems are now these sophisticated, big screens with the sound. If that's where we end up, that's okay with me, too. Because it's pretty inevitable with broadband that you're going to have access to entertainment in a way that you never had before. So, I'm more concerned about, what about my project? Series or movies? We'll make somebody want to click it on or get off their couch because there's a huge amount of product out there. So, I go at it every single time tasking myself with what makes this uniquely special that Willy sitting in Denver is going to want to watch it, even if it's on your phone.

Willy Walker: And so my final question as we wrap up, Allyn, what are you working on right now that has you the most excited?

Allyn Stewart: Oh, my goodness. I have a number of stories. I am developing a story that was all over the news, the end of August, which is about a marine major active duty who ten years ago became very close with his interpreter, because this interpreter, he said out of a dozen that he had... He was fit. He spoke perfect English and he picked up a weapon anytime the marines were under assault. They were in Xinjiang, which was the most violent province that...

Willy Walker: in Afghanistan.

Allyn Stewart: And this guy saved his life and many others. So, he tried to get the guy out of Afghanistan for six years and couldn't. The bureaucracy was horrible. There was no special immigrant visa. The Department was all shut down. So, he paid, he gave the guy money to ransom his way across Afghanistan. And then it's an extraordinary, heroic rescue at the end. It's amazing story. And the guy who wrote Saving Private Ryan is writing the script. And it's a tearjerker. I mean Rachel Maddow did a story on it as did Nightline did it up. At the end of her story, she's crying, you're crying. It's about brotherhood. It's a love story between two guys that risk everything to save each other and in this case, the interpreter by that point had a wife and four little kids. And he got him out. 

So, I love stories that are about the best of us, of human beings. And this is one of those stories.

Willy Walker: Sounds great. Can't wait to see it. 

Allyn, what fun for me to be able to dive into your role a little bit and for you to share with all of us your spectacular career and your insights as it relates to how movies get made, and what's going on with the future of movies and all of that. So, thank you so so much for taking the time.

Thank you everyone for joining us today and we will be back next week with another Walker Webcast. And Allyn, I look forward to seeing you over the holidays in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Allyn Stewart: Thank you Willy, pleasure.

Willy Walker: See you.

Allyn Stewart: Bye.

Filter by Category