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Jennifer and Suzanne Todd’s Sister Act

Jennifer and Suzanne Todd’s Sister Act

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It’s an old and tired story: Hollywood as a testosterone-driven industry, dominated by power-mad male executives and underscored by boys’ club misogyny. But the film business has always been a place where weary stereotypes hold long and true.

Despite more than a few feminist revolutions, studio big shots have remained (for the most part) men. “You look at the numbers, at the amount of women behind the scenes and behind the camera, and frankly, it’s still pretty depressing,” sighs producer Jennifer Todd. “But I don’t think it’s naïve to think that there’s hope and that change is happening right now.”

As one half of the highly influential production company Team Todd, Jennifer has been integral in defying the hard facts. With her sister Suzanne by her side, she’s been responsible for pushing a number of incredible projects through the stranglehold of production. Raised in Los Angeles, the sisters worked at numerous production companies (including New Line and Joel Silver’s Silver Pictures) in a number of capacities before proving their independent production mettle.

In 1993, Suzanne created the production company Moving Pictures with Demi Moore and, a few years later, was inspired to create the successful Team Todd with her younger sibling. Producing credit on the Austin Powers series would lend them commercial credibility, while their involvement with Christopher Nolan’s Memento would garner them cult cred.

Since the late 1990s, the Todd sisters have helped to guide more than a half-dozen films in a dizzying array of genres—from romantic comedy (Must Love Dogs) to high action (Zoom). Working together has proven to be a wise move—a joining of forces that has garnered numerous accolades, including an Independent Spirit Award for Memento and an Emmy nomination for the HBO movie If These Walls Could Talk 2.

After a stint at DreamWorks, the Todds are now based at Revolution Studios. With nearly two decades of experience in the business, the two are firmly entrenched on the front lines—and their partnership is recognized as one of the strongest in the industry. With Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe still wowing audiences and Griffin Dunne’s The Accidental Husband readying for a Spring release, MM spoke with the sisters about bringing a touch of the feminine into the fold.

Jessica Hundley (MM): I know you have numerous projects in the works, but let’s start with Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe. It’s an experimental musical starring relative unknowns, which seems like a pretty difficult undertaking in terms of selling the idea.

Jennifer Todd (JT): That’s true, but in a lot of ways it’s exactly the kind of challenge we love. We got the script from Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais and we just loved it. Once the permission came through to use the songs from The Beatles’ back catalog, it was incredibly exciting. We got to take these tracks that have become so much a part of everyone’s lives and reinterpret them—to have them lead a narrative and really breathe new life into them. To be able to work with a director of Julie Taymor’s talent, to really experiment and try to create a totally new experience, I mean, what could be more thrilling?

Suzanne Todd (ST): We also always really loved musicals as kids. Jennifer and I would watch movies together all the time and the musicals were some of our favorites, so it was so much fun to be able to work on one as producers and see all of that come together in front of us.
It’s a genre that comes and goes in terms of popularity, and making a musical right now might seem to be a risk. But I think it’s a genre that always has a solid fan base. You’ve got Hairspray redux, you’ve got these incredibly popular stage musicals and we had Julie, for whom we had total respect in terms of both her film and theater experience.

MM: Can you talk a bit about the casting and the decision to use unknowns in most of the main roles in the film?

JT: I think that, in general, people are really hungry for new faces and that if you have a well-made movie with a great script, you don’t have to be tied to famous actors filling the roles. I mean, the number one movie this week is Superbad, which has no name stars; it’s just a funny, sweet movie that people are completely enjoying. I think part of the reason for that is that it isn’t huge stars, it’s these kids that people relate to.

ST: Evan Rachel Wood was our one very experienced actor other than the cameos, like Bono and Eddie Izzard. We had so many people that actually wanted to be in the movie who were famous—big actors who wanted to sing, singers who wanted to act. But we felt like the lead characters, the character of Jude in particular, needed to be a young unknown. We auditioned so many actors for that part, but when Jim Sturgess auditioned, that was it. We knew we’d found him. It sounds cliché, but it’s true.

MM: Growing up, were there any indications that you’d wind up working together—and working in film?

JT: I think in some ways we knew we’d be doing something like this. We watched films together all the time as kids—that was a big bonding experience for us. We watched anything and everything— Xanadu, you name it. We were totally obsessed.

ST: We watched everything, from the really terrible to the really incredible. Early on, I think I knew that I wanted to work in film, but I owe it to the people around me for giving me a chance to actually try it, to move from assistant work to actual producing. There were a lot of people along the way who really believed in us and gave us a lot of responsibility. I think once the two of us had proven ourselves with a few great films, it just made sense that we would combine forces. We trust each other for one, which is a huge thing to have inherent in a business partner. I think we have a similar taste and aesthetics as far as the kind of projects we’re attracted to, too.

MM: Speaking of which, how do you choose your projects? You’ve done all kinds of films together, in all genres.

JT: Again, it sounds cliché, but the story matters most. It doesn’t matter what genre—comedy, drama, action—you need to have a great script and you need to be able to recognize a great story. If you have that, then you’re most of the way there. Robert Evans has that famous line in The Kid Stays in the Picture, what does he say about writers? MM: “I’m not a star fucker, I’m a writer fucker.”

JT: Exactly! If you have a great script, it’s hard to make a bad film.

MM: What do you feel you bring to projects as women that makes you stronger as producers?

ST: Well, let’s face it, a film set is basically a highly dysfunctional family that you love and you hate and you have very little control over. I think it’s the producer’s job to make sure that family sticks together and that things are as healthy as possible between the members. You’re part parent, part psychotherapist and part camp counselor. It makes sense that, as a woman, you might be more patient and more empathetic with your cast and crew.

JT: Exactly. When you think about it, being a producer is essentially a nurturing role—you birth the project from start to finish. It becomes your baby and you try to protect it and give it the right things to make it grow. You bring your own experiences into a film each time in terms of learning and guiding a project in a way that makes sense—and they’re all your favorite kids, even if they aren’t perfect every time. MM

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