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Greg Shapiro: 'My ultimate responsibility is to my director'

Oscar-winning producer held a masterclass in Zurich to talk about his career to date.

Greg Shapiro, Oscar-winning producer of The Hurt Locker, the Harold & Kumar franchise, Rules of Attraction, The Conspirator and upcoming films including Nightingale and Zero Dark Thirty, was the subject of a Zurich industry master class yesterday.

Shapiro started out in the industry as Nick Nolte’s assistant on the Lee Tamahori-directed thriller Mulholland Falls: “It was the best vantage point, I got to learn a lot,” said the producer. “Soon after that, I set up a production company and started calling myself a producer and it became what I did. There wasn’t a real design to it.”

Shapiro discussed some of the intriguing production and release back-story to The Hurt Locker, which picked up six Oscars in 2010:

“In the beginning I didn’t think it would be possible to make the film,” he confessed. “We sent it to Nicolas Chartier [Voltage Pictures] and he loved it, saying he could raise $12m for it. But that clashed with Bigelow’s desired $18m, so I went round the world looking for other backers. When none worked out, the project went back to Nicolas.”

While Jeremy Renner was at the time an unlikely choice for a film with The Hurt Locker’s budget, the actor quickly convinced Bigelow and Shapiro that he was perfect for the part: “I flew to London as a favour for a friend to meet Jeremy to discuss the part. In the course of an hour he so impressed me with his knowledge of the character that I immediately called Kathryn and said she had to meet him. Jeremy flew to LA, they met, and Kathryn cast him in that moment”.

The film’s release proved contentious: “The film had been scheduled to come out in fall 2009. That’s when we wanted it to be released. It screened at Venice 2009 but Summit wanted to prioritise Twilight in the fall slot. We had a big battle with them. In the end we came out against Transformers in June the following year.”

While the film’s box office didn’t take off in the US [the film was also the second-most pirated film of 2010, with 10 million illegal downloads, according to Shapiro], the film’s critical success built towards the Oscars:

“The film became somewhat forgotten a few months after its festival launch. I was making The Conspirator when I got a call explaining that we had won a major film critics award. And then I would get more similar calls and the film took on a life of its own”.

As for the much-talked about title of the film, Shapiro explained: “I think it comes from sports but was appropriated by military personnel. It means a place of total pain and punishment. It’s the worst possible place to be. Like the place you might be in when defusing a bomb. Everybody tried to change that title. I think someone said it sounded like an S and M movie. Kathryn refused to change it, she loved it”.

About balancing the interests of a studio with those of a director, Shapiro said: “You’re always battling between trying to please the studio and supporting your director. My ultimate responsibility is to my director.”

The audience was treated to first footage of Shapiro’s upcoming drama Nightingale, written, directed and produced by James Gray. Marion Cotillard stars alongside Renner and Joaquin Phoenix in the story of a desperate US immigrant who falls prey to the charms of a New York pimp.

Shapiro has a number of projects in development, including a biopic of Steve McQueen, also being written by Gray, and with Jeremy Renner attached to play McQueen and also on board as a producer.

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