HIFF Interview: Producer Todd Lieberman on ‘The Aeronauts’ and Falling In Love With Movies

"The Aeronauts"

Todd Lieberman has been producing films for more than 20 years. He earned his first Academy Award nomination with “The Fighter” in 2010, and several of his projects have gone on to nominations and awards. His filmography includes entertaining inspirational fare like “Stronger,” “The Muppets,” and “Wonder.” He also produced the 2017 “Beauty and the Beast,” which currently stands as his biggest commercial success—so far.

And now Lieberman is back with one of his most ambitious projects, “The Aeronauts,” a high-flying adventure tale inspired by a real incident from 1862. The film stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as aeronauts who find themselves in peril when they fly a gas balloon into the eye of a storm.

“The Aeronauts” screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival and I had the opportunity to sit down with Todd Lieberman. We talked about what he loves about movies, how he knows when he’s found his next project, and why “The Aeronauts” is particularly special. Please enjoy our conversation:

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: What do you look for when looking for your next project?

Todd Lieberman: It took me awhile to figure this out, but it came to me several years ago. I’ve been in this business about 25 years and I think I figured this out about 15 years ago. I really respond to things as a viewer where I leave the theater feeling better than I did when I walked in. That if I leave and I’m feeling exhilarated or inspired or even the residual effect of the story—if there’s something that it leaves me with that I want to investigate or ponder or think about. One of my favorite things to do in general is go to an early movie on a Saturday with my wife at like 4:00 and then go to dinner afterwards and talk about it.

Realizing that as a fan and a viewer of movies, I like the residual effect and I like the idea of taking something away from it and getting a little bit of an uplift, I realized, well, those are the movies I should be focused on telling as well.

Generally there seems like there’s a through line of the kinds of films that we’re doing where—even if they go to a dark place during the course of the film—at the end there’s some kind of uplift. And I think it’s not unilateral, but I would say that’s one of the primary things I’m looking for in a film.

KP: We want movies to make us feel something.

TL: There’s all kinds of film product out there and lots of different genres and there’s certain filmmakers and storytellers who are really good at certain things that I’m not good at. And there’s something liberating about realizing, well that’s not necessarily a story my business partner or I should be telling, but someone else should tell that and they’re really good at it and we’re not. So this idea that it’s really easy to pass on things because it takes a lot of energy to make a movie and we want to be the best partners to people and we gotta love it. It’s kind of a wide range of what allows us individually or collectively as a company to connect with something, and it’s as evidenced by the kinds of movies we’ve made. They’re all over the place on genres, but going back to that one through line of, yeah, it does feel like at the end if you can take something away with it—generally a smile or a piece of inspiration—that’s what we’re looking for.

KP: What was one of the films where, as soon as you saw it you just knew you had to make it?

TL: Going back to the idea of the last question of what are the kinds of movies we like to make, I really do need to fall in love with something. I genuinely need to love the story. Because the other thing I’ve learned is I’m only useful when I’m super passionate about something. When I love something to the point that I need to get it made. So in a way, there aren’t any films necessarily that we’re working on that I don’t feel that way about. And a lot of times, those ones you fall in love with when you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m falling in love with this one because it’s going to be really hard.” [laughs] “Wonder” is a good example of that where both David [Hoberman] and I read that book right before it was being published. We both read the book in one night and called each other afterwards and were like, “This is gonna be a bear to get made, but we gotta do it.” And it was a bear to get made, but we had to do it.

I felt the same about “The Aeronauts,” frankly. Tom [Harper] and I sat down and he pitched me the one liner and I immediately saw what the potential of that would be and just got obsessed with it. And that feeling of true passion and love and kind of a vulnerability that if you don’t get it right, if you don’t get it made it’s going to be crushing. Those are all the strange and crazy emotions that go with making something that you give your heart and soul to. I mean, not to sound overindulgent about it, but that’s the truth. I gotta love it. I have to really, absolutely, unequivocally, passionately fall in love with the story, because it takes 100% of my energy.

KP: It’s so much easier to write about films I love versus the ones that are just okay.

TL: Yeah. And, look, because it’s also a business and we have to make product, it becomes harder and harder to always find something that you feel that passionate about, but that’s the goal. I would say that every project we have in development right now, I love. And I’m not going to lie and say that I have the equal level of passion for every one of them, because I think I’d probably be dead if I dedicated all that kind of energy to all those stories. But you learn to find that passion as they evolve. So at the beginning, there has to be enough to know that either I’m immediately in love with it or I see the potential for me to fall madly in love with it.

KP: And that happened for you with “The Aeronauts.”

TL: Yeah.

KP: So what was that first meeting with Tom like?

TL: Love at first sight. We had worked together with Jack Thorne—the writer—on “Wonder.” And I had seen “War and Peace,” the mini-series Tom had done, and I was really overwhelmed by how ambitious it was and beautiful it was and tonally how he nailed it. It was both entertaining and funny and dramatic and had scope and all these things and it was a really difficult story to crack. I was just in awe of it and him as a filmmaker. So, as one does, you see something you like and you call the representative and say, “I’d like to meet that filmmaker. I don’t know him.”

We sat down and just had a general meeting. I was really impressed by him. He’s humble, articulate, has a vision, a good guy. Just all those things and you get that from the very beginning. And then, as one does in a general meeting, you talk about what you’re working on. And he said, “Well, I’m kind of in the middle of formulating this story with my friend Jack Thorne.” And I said, “I know him. We just worked together with Jack. He’s the best.” And he is an amazing gent and writer.

[Tom] pitched me the one liner of this story that he’s formulating which was this real-time Victorian balloon adventure that was inspired by a true event that happened in 1862 where these people went up and down in the course of 91 minutes, and the trials and tribulations they encountered along the way. And I just saw what that could be. Both emotionally, dramatically, and then technically—the challenges of how to achieve that. And the technical challenges of that were also part of what was really intriguing about it. That you could tell this fascinating story that turns out to be emotional and awe-inspiring and all that, but how the heck do you make it? All those things were—not to keep going back to this theme of falling in love, but the same feeling you get when you’re like, “I’m tingling, I’m nervous about it, I’m excited about it. I’m all those things.” That was everything I felt in that meeting and we just joined forces and moved forward.

KP: I think people who aren’t in the industry have this sense that movies just sort of happen.

TL: [laughs] Mhmm

KP: How long was it from that initial meeting to the time you started pre-production?

TL: In general development terms, it actually wasn’t all that long. Some of the movies I referenced before, “Wonder” took I think seven years to get made, “The Fighter” took eight years to get made; “Beauty and the Beast” took ten years to get made. You just stick with these things for a long time. So in relative terms, this wasn’t actually all that long. Jack wrote the script on spec, so we had some time to develop it.

I think from the moment we had that meeting, up until the moment we started filming maybe was, I want to say, 18 months. So it was pretty quick, actually—which is both a testament to Jack and his skill of writing a script, and then Tom and his vision of what the movie could be. And it all kind of—you know, some movies are destined to get made. It all kind of came together. So it wasn’t a very long time, but it was an incredible amount of work condensed into a short amount of time.

KP: When you’re producing a film, how hands-on are you and what’s your day to day like with it?

TL: Here’s the benefit of having a brilliant business partner. We’ve been together for twenty years. Generally what we do is split our slate, which allows us to do double the work. It depends on how busy we are, but from the very beginning on this one, I made a commitment to Tom that I’d be by his side every step of the way. So I’ve lived up to that commitment and have literally been inside of this one 24/7, which has been thrilling, actually.

I would say, for the most part, I’m pretty active, pretty hands-on in every step of the way. I guess what I’ve learned is it’s how I work best. The two things go hand in hand. I have to love something in order to be able to expend the energy to do it, and if I don’t love something, I won’t expend the energy to do it and therefore it’s not worth my time and not worth the other person’s time to have me. So it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy that I love it so much, therefore I need to be involved. That’s generally how it’s working.

KP: What were some of the challenges with “The Aeronauts?”

TL: Every movie—it’s cliche to say it,—but it really is kind of its own organic, life-breathing organism that’s always evolving and changing and moving, and I feel like the job of the producer is to be able to see the grand picture of it and to be able to kind of swoop in when there’s something that needs a helping hand and-—equally important—swoop away when things are ticking along and moving.

This one, the challenges weren’t plentiful in the way you would think, in that this went wrong or this went wrong. Really, because we had the best of the best people working on this film across the board—every department had crew member, cast, everybody was dedicated in the way you would want a cohesive unit to be. Everyone loved it like we all loved it, and felt it was kind of their mission to get this movie made in the best possible way.

So the challenges were kind of obvious from the beginning, which were how do we do it? And one of the original things Tom had mentioned in his vision for the film was he wanted to build the balloon for real and fly it, and fly it with the actors. Now, this hadn’t ever been done in the history of film, where you’re building a gas balloon and putting actors in it and filming it. A lot of times, if you see a balloon movie, it’s usually a hot air balloon that’s kind of replicated to be a gas balloon. A gas balloon like this hadn’t been built in 40 years or something, and they just generally don’t really fly them. They certainly don’t in the UK, and there really aren’t many people who know how to fly them.

David Hindle, one of our production designers, had a really funny quote that I thought was appropriate. He said, “If you’re doing a space movie, your first inclination isn’t to build the space ship and fly it into space!” But that’s exactly what we did here. We built the balloon and we were gonna fly it. So the challenges were that. How do you translate the vision of this filmmaker—who wants nothing but authenticity of feel and experience—how do you translate that to the screen in the best possible way while making sure that all the insurance is taken care of and people are safe? [laughs]

Our filming challenges were great and we did take the actors up in the balloon and flew them multiple thousands of feet and harnessed in. Felicity [Jones} was climbing up on that rope and sitting on the hoop 2000 feet in the air with helicopters and drones flying around and climbing on the side of the balloon. We had a stunt performer—Helen Bailey, who is utterly fearless—summiting the balloon 2000 feet in the air. It was really breathtaking.

It’s impossible, really, to translate how awe-inspiring this 80 foot balloon is in person. It’s called the Mammoth. It’s just spectacular, it’s gigantic. And when you have this almost surreal piece of silk and a wicker basket sitting in front of you, doesn’t look like it should float, there’s no version of that going into the sky—and then when some sand is thrown out and it just kind of rises up like a birthday balloon, it’s really weird. So I would say those were our challenges.

The storytelling, we had typical movie challenges in edit of how does this story evolve in the best possible way? Where visual effects blends in with practical and how do we make sure that looks as real as possible? But I would say mostly it was the combination of how much can we film practically and get away with doing it?

KP: And now where so much is done with green screens and giant LED screens, how did it help the production to do this practically?

TL: I think it helped tremendously. One of the things we all did as a crew—every one of us—was we all went up in the balloon before we started filming. Not together, because that would be too many people. [laughs] But we had multiple balloon flights where you could book your time and eight of us went up. So we all got this sense of what it’s like to be up there. Because part of that is, if we’re going to represent this filmicly, we need to feel and understand what it feels like.

Tom and Eddie [Redmayne] did hypoxia training—where they went into where astronauts train and they went into an oxygen deprivation tank and simulated going up to 37000 feet. So they felt what that felt like. When they filmed the scenes where the balloon was frozen and they were freezing to death, we had a stage set aside that was below freezing in temperature with ice buckets there, where they would put their hands in the ice bucket and film in this below freezing temperature so that it wasn’t acting as if they were freezing—they were freezing. When we filmed the scene with the butterflies, we mated butterflies and had an actual butterfly wrangler in there and all of these butterflies flying around in there and landing on them.

All of those things, with the attempt to make sure that everything is represented as authentic an experience as possible, I think, helped tremendously, both for the actors, the crew, and I think the end result for the audience is, in my opinion, it feels very real.

KP: Now that audiences are starting to see the movie, what have been some of the comments that have really left you feeling satisfied that you did a good job?

TL: I think both the advantage and one of the tricky parts of this movie is people don’t exactly know what to expect. So a really fulfilling, continual comment we get a lot is, “Wow. That was not what I expected and so far beyond my expectation. This idea that I’m on the edge of my seat, I have sweaty palms and anxiety during some of these scenes, and how did you guys do that?” I think all of those things are representative of what we would hope would have happened and I think it’s coming true.

It’s this really interesting blend of—on one hand it’s a classic, quaint, period drama, and on the other hand it’s this high octane, energetic action film in a period that no one’s really seen before in the way it’s done. So combining those two things together, I think, is unique and it’s probably part of the challenge of how do you set the tone for what it is? So in a way, I think the best marketing material for the movie is the movie.

KP: What about for you? I know while you’re going through the production you’re seeing dailies and rough cuts. But once it was finished and you sat down to watch the final product for the first time, how did you feel?

TL: I go into pretty analytical mode when I’m in that capacity. So it’s tough for me to sit back as an audience member would, because I know too much. I do my best to try to distance myself when I see the first cut, I’m unfortunately unable to enjoy it as an audience member would enjoy it and I’m already in kind of data analytics mode.

But what I did know—and generally when I see a first cut, I have a feeling and it’s this kind of instinctual feeling of we’re in good shape or oh, we’ve got a lot of work to do. And it was the former here. We’re in good shape. All we have to do now is make sure we execute this to the best of its possibilities. Even with some of the action sequences being ten percent or less rendered, you could tell there was something really special and unique in the way that this was executed. So I did know that once—if we were able to get some of the visual effects to the place that we ended up getting them—that we would have something really great. The story was working, the chemistry between our two leads, obviously had been proven before. It’s undeniable. They’re both just incredible performers—individually and together. It’s the one plus one equals ten thing. They’re just so great. So that was all working and I knew if we could just make sure that the visuals lived up to what they were supposed to be that we would be in really good shape.

So finally, when I was able to see the final, final, final product with all the correct sound and the visuals locked in and everything was rock solid, then I was able to enjoy it as a film goer. And kind of take the ride and distance myself finally and be like, “Okay, I’m not analyzing a thing, I’m just enjoying it.” And then I certainly did.

KP: At what point do you usually get to where you can watch your films as a fan of movies?

TL: A lot of times what I do, when I’m in a big crowd—whether it’s a test screening or at a festival like this one or a big theater—is I spend a lot of time looking at other people in the theater and kind of what their reactions are. A lot of times it’s surprising. “Huh, that got a laugh. I had no idea that would get a laugh. Good!” Or, “Huh, that got a gasp. Interesting.” And the best feeling is when simultaneously, for a movie like this, the entire theater is dead silent and you could literally hear a pin drop and you can see people leaning forward and covering their eyes and that’s always a good feeling.

KP: You have a lot of things you’re working on after “The Aeronauts.” Is there anything you’re excited and able to talk about?

TL: There’s a ton that we’re doing. We have like 30 projects. One thing I’m really excited about doing—not in specifics of a movie—is going back and doing a comedy. We’ve done a bunch of comedies, but I think back to the experience of making “The Proposal” and just the unbelievable amount of joy I had working on that film, laughing to the point of stomach aches every day. I want to do that again. I’m excited. We’ve got some comedies we’re brewing right now that I think are close. So I would be really excited if we were able to go make a comedy and I could just laugh every single day for months.

Awards Circuit would like to thank Todd Lieberman for speaking with us.

“The Aeronauts” is distributed by Amazon Studios and will be in theaters December 6.

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