Megan McLachlan talks to producer Daniela Taplin Lundberg, founder of Stay Gold Features, the company behind two of the most exciting films of the season—Harriet and Honey Boy.
Stay Gold Features is having a platinum 2019.
First, Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet, which has an A+ CinemaScore, a strong performance from Cynthia Erivo, and box office legs. Then there’s Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy, penned by Shia LeBeouf and based on his relationship with his father (whom he plays in the film).
I had a chance to chat with Stay Gold Features founder and producer Daniela Taplin Lundberg about working with female directors, the #BoycottHarriet backlash, and why she and her team took a chance on Shia LeBeouf.
Awards Daily: What makes you choose the projects you want to be a part of? Honey Boy and Harriet are so different in context, but both based on real-life people/stories.
Daniela Taplin Lundberg: It’s funny. We talk about this a lot. We started Stay Gold almost four years ago now, and I realized that in order to succeed in this landscape where there are so many things being produced, we really needed to do two things: The first is to find new material that could feel like an event in its own right, novel and fresh, something that would draw audiences out of their homes, because we really do want to create theatrical experiences in things that we’re producing and spending years on. And the other thing that’s so important to us and to me is impacting people in a positive way and trying to educate or change hearts and minds when we’re dedicating so much of our time to something. The triumph of the human spirit tends to be a very common theme in a lot of the projects that we do, and I would say that is a theme that resonates in both Honey Boy and Harriet.
AD: That’s so true. I know that Stay Gold is an entirely female-run production company. Both Harriet and Honey Boy have female directors. Is that something you strive for with projects?
DTL: The situations were a little bit different. In the case of Harriet, I think Debra Martin Chase (Harriet producer) and I really felt like that would be a tremendous asset to the film. Having a female perspective on Harriet Tubman as a young woman just felt like the right fit. We were intent on telling the story of this bad-ass hero but we also wanted to highlight that she was a woman who loved and lost and her passion for her husband and her family was the thing that drove her. That felt like something that Kasi [Lemmons] would be able to uniquely communicate effectively. In the case of Honey Boy, Shia and Alma were very close friends and collaborators, and I think that Alma was the first person Shia sent his writing to for this project. She was really the first one who was a part of the film. I had been a huge admirer of hers. I’d met with her the year before I got the script and knew she was someone I wanted to collaborate with.
AD: That’s great. That’s cool that Shia has a relationship with a female director. It’s nice to hear. It’s such a boys’ club in so many cases.
DTL: He has the sweetest heart and just really believes in auteurs and artists and people who have vision and passion, and I think that they became friends accidentally six or seven years ago.
AD: With Harriet, what was the journey like to get it to the big screen? I can’t believe this is the first Harriet Tubman film. Why do you think it took so long?
DTL: I came on to the project almost five years ago. My partner Debra Martin Chase had been a long-time friend with Gregory Allen Howard, who had written [a script] for Disney back in the ’90s and it had just been sitting there and was never going to get made. He had the initial idea to try to raise it from the dead and gave it to her and she committed to producing it. I think it’s taken a while for Hollywood to get on board with the idea that female heroes can be the leads in commercially viable films. Even five years ago, when we first started out, it was a very different landscape. And then Wonder Woman came out and that was a huge success. And then Hidden Figures came out and that was a huge success. And I think the landscape started to change, and the industry started to understand that women could be the leads in films and people would come out and see them in droves. So it’s a little bit of luck and it’s a lot of tenacity. We just kept pushing it. I was going to finance the film independently on the project and I had raised over half the budget and was going to be raising the last few million. We were already in early prep when we went out to LA and pitched the film that was literally ready to go. I think the fact that we were going to be shooting with or without a studio was part of the reason that Focus jumped on board so quickly. We were shooting three months later.
AD: I love the ‘little bit of luck and a lot of tenacity.’ That’s kind of like Harriet! Maybe she was with you on the project.
DTL: She was our patron saint. She inspired us the entire time, the more we learned about her. Every day on set, it was an incredibly difficult shoot. The crew was always like, ‘Well, this isn’t Harriet tough. It’s never going to be as hard as what she suffered through.’
AD: What do you think of some of the feedback on the film about the white savior narrative and the liberties it takes with the black slave catcher Bigger Long (Omar J. Dorsey)?
DTL: Kasi did months and months of research on Harriet and the period. She really wanted to reflect the complexities of the world accurately. The truth is that all the characters that are represented in the film are actual characters or types of characters that existed at the time. It wasn’t a simple story to tell. I really admire Kasi for doing the research and reflecting the story in a way that is really historically accurate. Harriet was married to a free black man. That was actually the case. Her father was free, her mother was enslaved. That was the kind of thing that happened in the area that she lived in the Chesapeake Bay. Those are things that aren’t commonly seen in stories of this nature, and I admire all the work that Kasi put into it.
AD: It does show how complicated history is. So with Honey Boy, I read somewhere that you were the only person that wanted to produce it. Why was it a challenge to get this film made, too?
DTL: I raised a film fund of my own for this very thing, to take shots on movies, ideas, and people I believe in. We got that script two years ago. Shia was newly out of rehab. That was pretty widely known. The story itself is the tale of him writing it in rehab. I think that traditional film investors were weary of jumping onto a film like this because it was hugely risky. We read it and really felt like it was such an authentic and honest piece of writing and also so good. I hadn’t read dialogue like that in a long time. My executive Becca read it overnight and said, ‘This is one of the best scripts I’ve ever read.’ Once I read it, I felt like the biggest risk was just whether Shia was going to show up for work or not. So I flew out to LA, I sat with Brian Kavanaugh-Jones (producer), Chris Legget (producer), Alma, and Alma brought Shia in and we all sat together and Shia told the story of how this came to be. He was so honest about where he’d been, where he’s coming from, the fact that life is a struggle on a daily basis to stay sober. I so appreciated that honesty in the room. The thing he said to me that really resonated was, ‘This movie is too important for me to mess up. If you commit to it, I promise I will do the best work of my life and also you have to know that it’s saving my life.” I remember crying in the room, all of us started weeping, because it’s rare to see that kind of honesty. We all committed to jumping in together and doing what we needed to do. So I committed to coming on to produce with Brian, Chris, and Alma, and committed to financing it. Part of it was financed out of my own film fund. Then I found partners to come on with me and one of those angel partners was a woman named Anita Gou, who also produced The Farewell. She’s just this incredibly wonderful, trusting soul who felt the same way about filmmakers the way I did, which is you need to trust them and you can’t try to cut them off at the knees when they’re trying to create something great. We were the perfect team to make this film. I’m not sure every financing team would have taken the leap of faith that we did, but I’m so proud of it. I really do think it’s a masterpiece in its own right.
AD: Shia LeBeouf is amazing in the film. Were you ever concerned that him writing it and essentially playing his father would be a challenge? That maybe he’d get too close to the material and want to get away from it?
DTL: Absolutely. I wasn’t on set every day, but I was on set enough to see and observe him. First of all, he was always so grateful that we took this leap of faith. He’s such a respectful, lovely person, but I think it was a form of therapy for him, so there was a certain risk in that. One of the things I remember him saying was that this film is all about letting go of my pain and anger toward his father and he was afraid he wouldn’t be as good. I think that was a real struggle Shia had and probably continues to have. For me, that was so ironic because he’s such a talent. Everyone has their own experience and their system of beliefs and their own reasons why they’re successful, so I think he’s really started to come out on the other side. It’s such a pleasure to watch him enjoy the process of making movies. People are really responding to the film, and I think that’s lovely for him as well. The whole thing was a cathartic experience.
AD: After Harriet and Honey Boy, what are you working on next?
DTL: I’m in post on a film called Good Joe Bell that Mark Wahlberg starred in, that phenomenal director named Reinaldo Marcus Green directed. He directed a movie called Monsters and Men that premiered at Sundance two years ago. It’s a true story of a young teenage boy who comes out of the closet and lives in a very small town in Oregon, and he’s so heavily bullied that he commits suicide. His father is so distraught about his son’s death that he decides to walk across the country to raise awareness for bullying. That walk becomes an odyssey for him, and as he meets people along the way, he starts to realize the issues he had with his son and the culpability that he had in his son’s demise. It’s really beautiful, and again, I was so impressed with Mark Wahlberg in taking on this role. He was the most professional person, showed up on set early every day. Such a good actor. So I’m excited about that.
And then I’m working on a project called The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, which is about Teddy Roosevelt’s early life before he became president. It covers a really interesting period in his life, where he launched America into its first international conflict and created the Rough Riders and all the pitfalls that he suffered along the way that ultimately made him a really great leader. It’s really fun, funny, and eccentric, and filled with action and adventure.
Harriet and Honey Boy are now playing.