You may not know the name Suzanne Todd, but you definitely know her films. A graduate of the USC film and television program, Todd got her start as an associate producer on Die Hard 2 and she got it through sheer intrepid determination, penning 200 letters to power players throughout the industry looking for work. One of those letters paid off, landing her a gig with Joel Silver and launching a career that ranges from Austin Powers to Memento to Must Love Dogs and Alice In Wonderland – a career that has spanned three decades and grossed more than $2 Billion at the box office.
Now, Todd has another winner with last week’s hit Bad Moms, the R-rated, female-driven comedy starring Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and the inimitable Kathryn Hahn. From The Hangover scribes Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, Bad Moms carries over that raunchy, rollicking quality, but this time, it’s the ladies who get to have all the fun. An original, moderately-budgeted, female-driven film in a sea of male-led tentpole IP, Bad Moms held its own in a stiff box office competition with Jason Bourne and Star Trek Beyond (male-led tentpole IPs), nearly knocking Beyond out of the #2 spot. For a veteran producer like Todd, who has a proven track record of financially successful films, it’s yet another notch under her belt. But on a larger scale, it’s a fine demonstration that a film made for women, starring women, and produced by a woman can stand up to fierce competition and come out a winner.
And it’s a success that speaks to a lot of the issues Todd and I discussed last week, when we spoke at length about the pervasive gender dynamics that shape the film industry, and how she has spent the last 25 years working around them. During our wide-ranging chat, we also discussed how the film industry has shifted over the last few decades, why working with burgeoning production company STX Entertainment reminded her of her early New Line years, memories from the set of Memento, and perhaps most importantly, the magic of Kathryn Hahn. Check it out in the interview below.
You got your start on Die Hard 2, which is not necessarily what you might expect as a first project for a female producer in the 90s. How did that come about for you?
SUZANNE TODD: One summer, which was a super crazy summer, I worked as a tour guide at Universal Studios on the tram. “Hi, my name is Suzie, and I’ll be referring to my side as the left, and the driver’s side which is your right for two hours.” I still remember that the Universal backlot is 420 acres and a number of other random facts. I would basically work doing whatever jobs I could get. I graduated and wanted to get a full-time job, and again, not totally understanding how it works, I sent letters out, like 200 letters, but didn’t understand that I should’ve sent them to HR or somebody that could actually hire. So for a long time all I got were pass letters, very very kind pass letters, from everybody, from Jeffrey Katzenberg to Mike Ovitz to you name it, because I had just reached out to the head of every company that I thought would be good and said “Hi, do you have a job for me?”
The crazy thing is, I sent out 200 letters and I got one job interview, and I actually got that job, which was working as a development assistant at Joel Silver’s company. I always say that to people when they ask “What do I do?” and I’m like, “Look, I didn’t get ten responses, and I didn’t get five interviews, but I got one interview, and I got the job,” and that was all I needed.
I love that. I love stories where people don’t know what path to take but know the direction they want to go, so they make their own path.
TODD: The last summer job I had before I really was going into the workplace, I had been working as a production coordinator, and the first day of shooting they fired the second AD. So then this weird thing happened where they asked me to be the second AD, which I was happy to do. It was much, much more money, it added zeros to what I was making, and I got grandfathered into the DGA at a very young age. I was only 20; I was maybe the youngest AD ever. I only worked on that one movie, but then quickly realized that the path of being an assistant director was not gonna get me to producing. It’s a different path coming up through production management and then line producing. So I basically was in the position where I was going to take any job that felt creative, like the one I got, which was reading scripts and writing coverage. So even though I was taking a job where I was making less money than the job immediately prior, it seemed like the right thing for me, so yay.
Why did you want to get into producing instead of directing?
TODD: I went to school with two girls whose dad was a producer and they were my good friends, and I just sort of got to understand what he did. His name was John Foreman, and he produced Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Great Train Robbery and all these other good movies. I loved hearing about it from him and kind of understanding it. It also seemed like things that I would probably be well suited for. It takes a number of different skill sets, I think, to try and be a good producer. You have to be very creative, but you also have to be incredibly financially minded. I jokingly say the job is kind of part cheerleader and part dictator. It is both of those things, because you have to make sure that people are doing what they need to be doing, but creatively you really need to be helping each person in every job across the crew. Cheering them on, keeping them inspired into doing their best work, and you have the director’s vision in the forefront. There’s a lot of different things in doing the job well.
It’s also a job I think a lot of audience members don’t necessarily understand beyond seeing producers listed pretty high up in the credits.
TODD: And also, we don’t help them by listing 17 names. People say, “I don’t understand the difference,” and I’m like, “Well, I don’t either.” People would like to have rules to follow, and ask, “What does the executive producer mean versus producer?” It’s certainly easier to delineate in television versus features. Because it’s upside down; in television, the executive producer is really the lead person whereas in features it’s really the producer — the Producer’s Guild call it a “Capital P Producer”, meaning it just says the world producer and it doesn’t say anything else. That’s generally the lead person on a movie. But over the years, way too many people have producer credits for the audience to even understand what that’s supposed to mean.
Looking back on your resume, it doesn’t necessarily follow a trend. You’ve got action movies and spectacle movies, romantic comedies, Memento, Austin Powers and now a female-driven raunchy comedy with Bad Moms. Is there a through line that attracts you to these, or are you looking for different projects at different times in your life?
TODD: You know, it’s really when I come across something that I feel is a movie that I’d like to see, which is a lot of different kinds of movies. It’s funny that it took me so long to make a musical when we made Across the Universe, because if you asked my young self graduating from film school, I would’ve told you my first three movies were going to be musicals. I’ve always loved musicals so much, and I still do. And by the way, I’d like to make another one tomorrow because I’m kind of obsessed with musicals.
My parents are not in show business, but my grandmother was an actress, and she had very small parts, bit parts, in a lot of those classic MGM musicals. She was a contract player at the time. So she’ll have one line or one scene and be in the background of Singing in the Rain and all those classics, and I literally watched those movies over and over and over and over and over again, so many times. I’ve probably seen Singing in the Rain more times than any other movie other than the ones I’ve made that you wind up watching 200 times for work. Somebody pointed out to me that there’s no horror film on my resume, which is true, but I also don’t really go see those movies. Although when I was thinking about it, I was thinking “I would probably have a really nice beach house if I made a horror movie.” They seem to be very popular. I just don’t think it’s my thing.
It’s funny, I remember we were doing the press for the movie Boiler Room, somebody had said to me “What’re you doing with a movie like Boiler Room? It’s all men and you’re a woman. You should be making romantic comedies,” or something like that. Boiler Room, for me, was a morality tale. It spoke to, I think, men and women — it was intended to — this idea of “Where is your line? What happens when you walk up to it? What happens when you step on it? What happens when you cross it?” And I remember this interview where they said to me “Yeah, but all the characters are men,” and I was like, “But I’m a girl, I like men!” It’s not like there’s nothing interesting to me just because a lot of characters in that movie happen to be male. Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I only wanna make Must Love Dogs over and over again…but I love those movies, too.
The perception is certainly that it’s harder for female producers and directors to get work, especially on those projects that aren’t obviously for a female audience. Did you find it was harder to get jobs like Boiler Room or something like Memento, where the movie doesn’t scream “female audience”?
TODD: I don’t think Memento was harder to take on because we were girl producers. The funny thing, at the time, was we had a reputation of making movies that were financially successful, and that was one of the reasons we had to put Memento down the road. I don’t think Memento was harder because we were girls, I think Memento was hard because people didn’t get it, they just didn’t understand it. Not from the stage when we read the script and liked it. It’s sort of a famous story now how we finished the movie and showed it to distributors and nobody wanted it. So it wasn’t just they didn’t get the script, they really didn’t even understand the movie when it was done. But I think that was a particularly hard one. I don’t think it was harder because we were girls, but I do think obviously there are particular challenges to working in a male-dominated industry.
Somebody asked me, “When was the last time it was harder for you as a woman”? And I was like, “What time is it? Do you mean today?” I hate to say that, because it sounds so depressing, but it absolutely happens in many many ways all the time, large and small ways. But it’s not like it creates new pain for me on a daily basis, it’s just a pain that I accepted long ago. It’s definitely harder.
Bad Moms deals a lot with this idea that women tend to hold themselves to a higher standard of perfectionism, do you think that serves you in an industry like this?
TODD: I don’t know. There’s a thing about Hollywood where there are at least a couple of guys that behind closed doors and in small circles we think of as having a magical P.T. Barnum quality. Which is to say, they may not be the most talented, and they may not be the smartest, but their movies made money or won awards, so they move ahead. There’s a saying in Hollywood about failing upward. The interesting thing about that list of people is that they have unending ego. So no, I don’t think actually that that kind of ego check or “I could do better” mentality probably serves better in Hollywood, because it’s definitely not a meritocracy. You can look at any number of careers and sort of see that they don’t really make sense if it was only based on your movies working either creatively or financially. There are people that move ahead without that, and there are people that don’t move ahead even if they did have that.
I absolutely agree. Given what you just said, how do you make sure you’re succeeding on your own terms instead of listening to that voice in your head that’s always pushing you to do more, better?
TODD: For me and movies – and it is kind of similar to motherhood and raising your children – I always feel like there’s more you can do, and I don’t know if that’s particularly a female quality. I don’t know how dads feel, but there’s definitely a never say die, no stone unturned, never give up a minute that you could be pushing it down the road and try to make it better. But I don’t think that wears on me, because that’s just the nature of the process. Especially with the movies, it’s time and money, and at some point you’ll run out of both and you’ll have to let your baby bird fly free and get into the world and let people have a look at it. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The hard thing for me, and it took me many years to understand, the concept of Hollywood not being a meritocracy — I am a middle child, and as most middle children will tell you, that never goes away, wishing the world was fair and understanding. That’s very hard, my middle child and I discuss this now, this idea of what you need to come to terms with as the middle child.
On the flip side of things, it’s not just harder for women to make movies, it’s harder to get movies about women made. Despite the recent numbers, studios seem to still be hard to convince that there’s an audience for female-driven films. What was the path to getting Bad Moms made?
TODD: Bad Moms had a bit of a complicated path. Actually, the financing had been made, and there were two or three steps that happened before I was involved. It was announced at the time that there was a version with Judd Apatow, and his wife playing the lead, and a different studio financing it. And after that, it went through at least a couple other incarnations of who was gonna be in it and how the money was gonna come together. I think part of it is, as you said, it’s more difficult to believe that it’s a sound investment for these girl movies. This one, particularly in the R-rated comedy space where you have Bridesmaids and Trainwreck and some of the other ones have worked, so the people who get to make the financial decisions do believe that they can make the investment and it’s a good bet. But the idea that it took kind of wrangling in different budget levels and different people being attached to it, I think it just speaks to how hard it is for these movies to get green-lit.
Did locking in the cast make the financing easier?
TODD: That was all hand-in-hand, Mila was doing it and then it was getting made. Mila and Christina [Applegate] and Kristen were kind of the first ones in, and then the other ones came after that. But yeah once you have the talent attached, I think it’s much easier for studios to say, “Yes, you can have the money and go ahead.” You saw the movie, how funny are they? Aren’t they great together?
They are great. It’s a killer cast, and in particular, I just cannot ever stop singing the praises of Kathryn Hahn. It’s been this way for years and every movie I’m like, “How does she keep being this good?”
TODD: She really is. I’ve seen the movie I can’t even tell you how many times as well as throughout production. There are like five things that Kathryn Hahn does in the movie that I cannot get through any screening and not burst out laughing, to the point where other people watching the movie get annoyed with me. The scene where Kristen Bell says what she has to say about Tom Selleck and Kathryn says, “I just feel like everything that come out of your mouth is a cry for help,” I cannot not burst into laughter. The lines that the guys wrote and the genius of Kathryn Hahn, I love the fact that everybody would come out of the movie talking about Kathryn Hahn. I love when we would preview it and people wouldn’t necessarily even know her name, but they would write on the card “I love the girl who plays Carla.” I love that it’s gonna make her a bigger star than she already is, because she is the best.
I’m always hoping for the day when Kathryn Hahn is the name getting movies made, that’s the world I want to live in. Not that Kristen Bell and Mila Kunis aren’t amazing, they’re wonderful, talented actresses, but I want to live in a Kathryn Hahn-led world.
TODD: I know! I totally know what you mean. Nothing against our other already giant stars, and by the way Kathryn knows this, all of Kathryn’s reps knows this, that I’m obsessed with doing it with her. My 14-year-old, the middle one, saw one of the TV commercials this morning — I haven’t let any of my kids see the movie because they’re really too young to see it, so they saw one of the TV commercials. They were obviously on set with me but not for stuff that’s inappropriate, and he said to me this morning the ultimate compliment to Kathryn Hahn, and it’s true. He said, “It’s so funny when I see how she is in the commercials because it’s so not what Kathryn is like in real life at all.” He’s said, “I’m amazed at what a good actress she is.” And I’m like, “You’re right that’s what makes her a great actress.” She totally inhabits this character that has nothing to do with who she really is.
When you look at your career, what do you hope to do that you haven’t done yet?
TODD: Well, like I said, I wish I was more into horror movies, but I’m not [laughs]. I certainly would like to make another musical. I’m very excited that two of these movies so far this year have been hopefully empowering to women and at least starting a conversation. You can understand since you’ve seen the movie, and hopefully by this time next week a lot of people will have seen the movie, I think people hear the title and before you can watch the trailer or the spot, there’s maybe a tiny misunderstanding about Bad Moms. It’s not a movie about celebrating doing things badly or doing things wrong. People come out of this movie, and they laugh a little and maybe they tear up a little bit at the end, but if there’s any space where they just feel better about how hard they’re trying, or conversely for the men if they pick up their mom or they call their mom or they call their wife and just say, “I love you and I appreciate who you are in my life.” That’s such a win. For me to be able to be making those kinds of movies, I hope there’s more of that in my future.
The world has obviously changed a lot over the last three decades, how have you seen the industry change in that time?
TODD: The industry has changed in big ways. When I started making movies, the studios were not all owned by huge conglomerates, so the decisions were made in a very different way. Over the years, I’ve watched both the rise and the decimation and fall of the DVD as a portion of where you could generate revenue from making this kind of content. We’ve seen this change in the balance sheet on the international side of the ledger; it’s now a much bigger percentage than it is on domestic, even though movies would have been previously really domestically driven. And the interesting thing about making this movie, for STX in particular, is that when I first started out, I made a number of movies at New Line, or early New Line, and they would make any movie if the price was right, meaning if it was a price that that movie could be financially successful at. And what happened is New Line ended up making a bunch of kinds of movies that the studios weren’t really making at the time. And the interesting thing to me about Bad Moms and STX is that it feels a little bit like how it felt at early New Line. Because over the years, the studios have really focused on tentpoles and more expensive movies and then through acquisitions or whatever, you have smaller movies that sometimes tend to be award-winning movies, but there’s no middle. It used to be the $35 million movies, and then it was the middle spread and there weren’t any $25 million movies or any $40 million movies coming out of the studios. So the idea of a place like STX — who won’t just make movies in the middle, I think they’ll make movies on both ends as well, but it’s exciting to have another place who’s willing to be open to that, again on a model that they think will be financially successful.
And by the way, I think it’s one of the reasons why I have been so incredibly focused on the finances, and maybe more so than a lot of other people that also do the creative producer job. Because at early New Line, the great thing about it was they would empower you and if they believed in your idea, they would let you go off and make your movie. They did not micromanage you the way studios have a reputation for doing, but there also was no more money. It wasn’t like going back to the guy running stocks and being like “Hey, there’s a problem and we need 5 million dollars.” There was no chance of that. You had to make the movie for the money you agreed to make the movie for, so then every decision becomes, again, partly a creative artistic decision and partly financial decision that you have to be responsible because you want the movie to be successful so you get to keep making them.
Memento was one of those movies that completely took me and my friends by storm. I was in High School at the time, and it was just the talk of so many lunch breaks. Is there anything particular you remember from Memento production?
TODD: While we were making it, it was the very first independent movie I had ever worked on. So not to say that I was spoiled, but when you make a studio movie, even if it’s a lower budget movie for New Line, you kind of get used to having a dry place to sit when it’s raining or having a certain level of food for catering. That was really the first movie since the movies I had made in film school that really felt like you didn’t have two nickels to rub together. It wasn’t bad – we were so excited about making something that was so special to us, it was that thing where you didn’t really care that we didn’t have the creature comforts that we would on a bigger budget movie. It was a really, really exciting time. Just watching Chris direct was amazing. He is one of the most lovely people, which as you know doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with great directors. But with Christopher Nolan, and there’s only a few I think like him in Hollywood, that’s absolutely true. He’s absolutely a pleasure to be around and he’s a genius. It was also one of those films where it felt like everybody pulled together and everybody was making the same movie and it really meant a lot to people. That can be undersold, I think, the importance when you’re trying to do something good is that everybody understands the director’s vision, everybody believes in it, and everybody can find their own path to supporting it, and that’s how you end with a great movie.
How do you go about trying to put those pieces together to make sure everybody’s on the same page?
TODD: The first thing you do as a producer is you try to understand the director’s vision in as deeply a way as you can. Sometimes, you end up with a director that has more vision or sometime they have less vision. You hope that they have more. In the case where they have more, you need to understand it in the deepest way you can. Sometimes in the early stages in prep, it’s watching other movies together and talking about the look and talking about stories of other movies. You end up in all these conversations because you’re making all these decisions early on that are somewhat subjective. Even when you’re casting, casting is always one of the weirdest subjective areas. You can get a group of people who would decide and point their finger and say, “This person is a great actor and this person is less than a great actor,” but there will always be somebody else who likes that person better than you based on their experience in their other films. So I think it’s first about understanding and finding people who understand it in the same way throughout the crew and everybody who’s going to be working on it. And a piece of that is also personality, because there’s a lot of psychology into being a good producer. You want to put people together who will work well, and each movie kind of has its own personality in terms of how people are working or the temperature on set, and we want people who will fit in with that mix. It’s one of the really important parts of it.
You’ve produced a couple TV movies, but given the current trajectory of the entertainment industry, do you want to produce a TV series?
TODD: I have developed series over the years; I developed something a couple of years ago with stars that we didn’t end up making. The problem for me is that I just don’t often come across material that speaks to me and my TV education. Before we all had DirectTV and Netflix and Amazon, there’s literally 15 years where I saw nothing. Now, I get the pleasure of binge-watching, so now I feel like I’m much more in a TV state of mind, because I binge-watched so many incredible TV shows that now I’m actually a little bit more excited about working in the space. I only did it because there were things that were screaming to me. I’ve gotten a couple over the years.
Lena Dunham came to me recently because she wants to do another If These Walls Could Talk, because she has been a fan of those when she was young. We’re just in the early stages of development, but we’re gonna do a new one on feminism and equal pay, and that will make me very happy if we get that to the screen.