When the financing on Stephen Frears’ new drama Lay The Favorite, starring Bruce Willis, fell apart twice, producers Paul Trijbits and Anthony Bregman faced a race against time to re-assemble and refinance the project and keep the director and all the cast on board.
When Ruby Films producer Paul Trijbits was approached by Focus Features in February asking if he would help with the financing structure of its new project, Lay The Favorite, it seemed a good fit. Trijbits had just worked with Focus on Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, and this adaptation of Beth Raymer’s memoir about her experiences as a Las Vegas cocktail waitress-turned-super gambler was set to be directed by Stephen Frears, with whom Trijbits had worked on Tamara Drewe. Throw in a script by High Fidelity-writer DV DeVincentis and a cast including Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Rebecca Hall and the job seemed an enticing prospect.
The trouble began when Trijbits headed off for a weekend of skiing following the Berlin film festival. “I got a phone call from Jenne Casarotto [Frears’ agent] saying Focus had put the film in turnaround and if we didn’t have some indication in the next 48 hours that it was going to happen the talent would walk and Stephen would go off and do something else,” explains the Netherlands-born, London-based producer, who previously enjoyed a six-year stint as head of the New Cinema Fund at the now-defunct UK Film Council.
Making the numbers stack up
Trijbits points to the budget, which was around the $20m mark, as being the problem. “Despite having an amazing cast, an extraordinary director and a wonderful script, somehow those elements together with that budget didn’t stack up and Focus couldn’t get the budget down to the level they required,” he says.
Within minutes of speaking to Casarotto, Trijbits rang New York-based Anthony Bregman, the producer on the project through his production outfit Likely Story. Bregman had previously worked with Focus on Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Trijbits and Bregman had never before met.
‘I am known for closing finance way in advance of a production, but in this case how could we?’
Paul Trijbits, producer
“Over that weekend [of February 18] we must have spoken to each other 20 times on the phone trying to work out what elements were there and what pieces of finance we could bring to the table. I hadn’t even read the script yet,” laughs Trijbits, who by this point was on board as a producer, almost by default. He was unable to resist the challenge, despite the shooting start date (April 20) being a near-impossible eight weeks away — the only time Willis was available.
One lifeline was the readiness of Focus and Random House, which had jointly developed the project with Frears and DeVincentis, to hand over the rights to the producers as well as easing the legal and financial transition along the way. “The numbers didn’t add up in their matrix, but they were behind us in our effort to see if the numbers added up in someone else’s,” explains Bregman.
In the UK, Trijbits set about trying to rally his contacts. He brought on board London visual-effects company LipSync, which took an equity stake in the project (as it had done on Ruby’s Toast). He also secured a deal with Cutting Edge to do the music as well as pre-sales to Alliance for Canada, Village Roadshow for Australia and Svensk for Scandinavia.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Michael Kives, Willis’ agent at CAA, put Bregman in touch with Emmett/Furla Films, the US production and financing company with which Willis had just worked on the action film Setup. Emmett/Furla was looking to move into high-end dramas.
“Kives called me up with Randall Emmett on the phone, who said he was willing to put up a certain amount against the domestic rights. We agreed on a deal over the weekend. On Monday morning I flew to LA to try to close the remaining gap,” explains Bregman.
Crucially, Emmett/Furla guaranteed a bridge loan to give the project some much-needed cashflow during pre-production.
Emmett/Furla was in the process of setting up another feature in New Orleans. Randall Emmett suggested to Trijbits and Bregman they scrap the planned Las Vegas and New York shoot of Lay The Favourite for New Orleans, with just a few days in Las Vegas. It meant the New York crew that was already in place had to be abandoned but the producers could now take advantage of Louisiana’s favourable tax rebate which was the equivalent of 18% of the budget, now down to around the $16m mark.
Bregman and Trijbits then set about dramatically changing the schedule, flipping Willis’ shooting dates to the beginning which meant they could push the start date back to April 27.
At the same time the producers were in lengthy negotiations with Pathé to handle international sales. But a deal could not be reached, landing what Trijbits and Bregman both describe as a major blow to the project.
“We had gone a long way down the path with Pathé, and for people who had backed Stephen before, to make an offer to be involved in the film and then very late in the day bow out…” says Trijbits. “That had never happened to me before.”
Pathé did not want to comment on the project when contacted by Screen.
‘Don’t give up, budget appropriately, find the right partners; not just the highest paying ones’
Anthony Bregman, producer
With Emmett/Furla still committed, the only option was to take the project out to the market again with just three weeks before the start of principal photography. Wild Bunch stepped in. Bregman had been talking to Agnes Mentre of Tazora Films, which represents Wild Bunch in the US, earlier in the process.
“She came up a little [on her offer], we came down a lot, Paul shifted the numbers around some more, we ransacked the budget again, Random House and Focus agreed to pitch in some more, all of the producers deferred yet another portion of our fees, and the shortfall finally disappeared,” says Bregman.
By this stage, further key cast members had come onboard including Joshua Jackson and Vince Vaughn. Wild Bunch was able to take the film to Cannes and secured a slew of pre-sales, including to eOne for the UK. Wild Bunch will distribute in France and Italy.
However the financing did not close until a few weeks into shooting. “I am known in the UK for closing the finance way in advance of a production, but in this case how could we? We had a major financier [Pathé] drop out three weeks before we started to be replaced by a new financier [Wild Bunch], so we had to negotiate a whole new deal.”
Throughout the process, there was also the little matter of keeping the talent onboard and happy. Trijbits says it was down to Frears.
“He could have said, ‘Listen, I’ve done too many films, I’m not doing it.’ But he managed to make something out of the restrictions, and the performances he has managed to produce from people like Rebecca and Bruce Willis are extraordinary,” says Trijbits.
Shooting took place from April 27 until June 12 on location in New Orleans, with seven days on location in Vegas. As well as Trijbits and Bregman, the producers are Randall Emmett, George Furla and the film’s writer DeVincentis. Executive producers are Jim Skotchdopole, healthcare magnate Rick Jackson, Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson and LipSync managing director Peter Hampden.
With principal photography over, Trijbits and Bregman can now breathe sighs of relief as they reflect on the breakneck speed of the process.
“It is even more important than ever to have all the elements of your film at exactly the right pitch,” says Trijbits. “If it’s the right film in terms of script and cast but with the wrong budget, then it probably won’t happen. Plus making films at this level has become so complicated that it’s almost impossible for one single person to do it.”
“Don’t give up, budget appropriately, find the right partners — not just the highest paying ones,” adds Bregman. “And pay attention to hesitations because they may turn into abandonments.
“I was working on this financing for 10 straight weeks, seven days a week, literally from the moment I woke up until I went to bed. So there’s something to be said for eating a good breakfast.”