Left to right: David Heyman, Mark Johnson, Jermaine Johnson and Fred Berner onstage at the panel. (Courtesy of Tibrina Hobson / SBIFF)

On Saturday, Feb. 10, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival held its annual Producers Panel at the Arlington Theatre. Moderated by the New York Times reporter Nicole Sperling, the panel featured the Academy Awards-nominated producers of the year: Fred Berner (“Maestro”), Jermaine Johnson (“American Fiction”), Mark Johnson (“The Holdovers”), David Heyman (“Barbie”), Daniel Lupe (“Killers of the Flower Moon”), Andrew Lowe (“Poor Things”), Marie-Ange Luciani and David Thion (Anatomy of a Fall), Emma Thomas (“Oppenheimer”), Christine Vachon (“Past Lives”) and James Wilson (“The Zone of Interest”). 

After an initial congrats from Sperling, she began the panel by asking producers — now affirmed by the academy through an Academy Awards nomination — when they felt the Academy Awards were the farthest thing from their reality. 

Lupe was the first to answer, mentioning that he didn’t realize how he would “become a meteorologist,” recalling a four-hour lightning storm with the crew locked inside buildings. Jermaine Johnson, who shot in Boston, later seconded this: due to weather circumstances, they had to rechoreograph an entire scene from “American Fiction,” in real-time. 

Thomas divulged that there was a time during prep when “Oppenheimer” might not have been a possibility due to circumstances regarding the budget, a “dark moment” for those involved. Fortunately, they were able to logistically circumvent the trouble. Vachon then offered a humorous answer, jokingly saying, “One of the things I realize on every movie on the first day of production, is that I hate production,” to which the crowd laughed, appreciating the irony of the sentiment. 

Berner held an alternate perspective to Vachon, mentioning that they were at risk of losing the rights, and then “the music — which in ‘Maestro,’ is a big deal [audience laughter]” during development. He explained that his anxiety over directorial and studio changes caused him to feel lucky the day they made it to production. 

Heyman brought up his experience onBarbie,” when the studio offered half the budget they actually needed. To make matters worse, there was a restriction on what comps — established movies that assist “sales projections” for a film — they could use. Here are some comps they tried and weren’t able to use: “Wonder Woman” and any Disney-animated film with a female lead. Comps they were able to use: “Bridesmaids” and “Legally Blonde.”

Mark Johnson — a previous Academy Awards-winner for “Rain Man” — cut through with a candid assertion, that “the moment that you think you have something special, you’re dead in the water.” Their first realization of the movie potentially working was during their first audience screening. 

This took Heyman back to “Barbie’s” first audience screening in Arizona — “a disaster.” Sperling chimed in: “Was that just Arizona’s fault or is the movie different than what it is now?”

Heyman playfully responded, “No comment.” 

He later added that viewers’ primary concern following the movie was Ken — would he be okay? Attendees chuckled in response. 

Wilson discussed how on a conceptual level, he never anticipated “The Zone of Interest” receiving the level of visibility that it has obtained. The hardest part for him was during development when screenwriter Jonathan Glazer would call him on various writing retreats, panicking that he wouldn’t be able to complete the script. 

Luciani answered in French, and a translator relayed her words to the audience: Justine Triet, the director, approached her and said, “We have to make this film … it has a dog that has a very important role, it has a child who is blind, who has to speak like a 20-year-old, it has a lead character — a woman — who you’re never quite sure if she did it or didn’t do it, it’s gonna cost a lot of money and it probably will not appeal to the public. Let’s go!” Luciani was on board. 

Sperling asked Thomas about her initial reaction to Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” proposition: “three-hour script that’s part courtroom drama and part science experiment, and said, ‘This should be a summer blockbuster.’” 

Thomas affirmed that she felt better while reading the script, but highlighted that Nolan wanted this to be a “big-audience movie.” She cited her first time watching the film to be her realization that it could actually work for a release in July. 

The panel transitioned to the impact of COVID-19 on the production process, beginning with Lupe revealing the obstacles of commute and COVID-19 on “Killers of the Flower Moon” — 250 rental cars, $1.2 million on gas, 8,000 extras and 75,000 COVID-19 tests. 

Sperling asked about the benefits of COVID-19 on the production process, to which responses varied. Vachon and Thomas agreed that fewer people on set proved to be a benefit. Lowe mentioned the allowance to set up a smaller art department in London dedicated to worldbuilding. Berner appreciated how things slowed down a bit — which deepened people’s understanding of “Maestro.”

Thomas commented on the hindrances of interpersonal communication with the mass wearing of masks, to which Wilson concurred, mentioning that the production designer for “The Zone of Interest” is deaf in one ear.

The discussion pivoted again; Jermaine Johnson elaborated on his long-time relationship with director Cord Jefferson, in how they would say “crazy” things to one another and figure out how to make it happen. Casting Jeffrey Wright was one of those “crazy” things.

“Past Lives” is Vachon’s first Academy Awards nomination. “I don’t make movies for awards, but it’s pretty nice when it happens.” She found that the universal resonance of the script translated, even though a lot of the film was not in English. Audience recognition is a matter of chance, but Vachon maintains the optimistic belief that great work will persevere.

For Mark Johnson, it is his third. He affectionately cited a friend’s joke: “Why don’t you try winning an Oscar in this century?” For Mark Johnson, movie-making has become both easier and harder. They have better technology, but the studio structure is much more difficult to navigate.

Berner recalled a question his grandson asked him about how he’s able to pick which projects he’s interested in: He has to be able to stay interested in it for a very long time, many times for years on end. 

Vachon finds it difficult to not be cynical during the production process, but this was mitigated by the unbridled enthusiasm of a first-time director working on something that “they’ve been waiting their whole life to tell.” 

For Jermaine Johnson, it was his first time making a movie (in addition to Jefferson being a first-time director), and the novelty of the experience urged him on. The pair had “been through so many almosts” together throughout their entire careers, that the gratification of making something sustained them.

Berner and Thomas then discussed the production perspective of making films about real people, echoing similar sentiments of setting creative boundaries while maintaining respect for the subjects. 

Wilson noted the intricate nature of the set design for “The Zone of Interest,” which was shot in Poland — a large portion of which was based on a real house located by the Auschwitz concentration camp. He discusses how the location raises the film’s questions about our “proximity to systematic violence and injustice.” They ended up in another house close by, and the art department rebuilt the house and created a garden from the ground up, a five-month endeavor. 

Luciani then discusses the casting of the child and the dog in “Anatomy of a Fall.” They actually found the dog in an ad, and it is now a big star in France. 

Heyman joked that the plastic dog in “Barbie” was much easier. 

When asked about the sexual nature of “Poor Things,” despite Disney being affiliated through Searchlight Productions, Lowe cited the faith in Emma Stone and Yorgos Lanthimos’ collaborative relationship, and Stone’s enthusiasm to produce the project. 

Thomas commented on her initial unhappiness with Nolan’s insistence on “Oppenheimer’s” runtime of three hours. She mentioned that Nolan referenced the “Avengers” being the same length, and mused that despite Robert Downey Jr.’s presence, they were very different films. However, she commented that he proved to be correct.

Sperling’s final question to the panelists was a predictive one, referencing the current state of Hollywood — including the recent strikes — asking how they feel about movie-making going forward.

Thomas was optimistic, saying that “things look very good in terms of what audiences are willing to go see when they’re interested.”

Lowe agreed that the current films are high-quality, but iterated that it’s “up to studios to take those risks and back those films.”