Richard Brown —
The Catch-22, Outlaw King, and True Detective producer on revolutionary television, the new streamer paradigm, making the call to Clooney, and the Mourinho and Barça films that nearly were.
By Noah Davis | Photos: Timothy Young | Illustration: Marco and Mauro La Villa
THERE IS AN ARGUMENT to be made that Richard Brown is, as much as anyone, responsible for some of the best programming out there, the big, sprawling, epic narratives that unspool over six, eight, ten hours while feeling as cohesive and self-contained as a brilliant two-hour film. Brown, currently a producer at Anonymous Content, helped usher the first season of True Detective into the world, selling HBO on a package that included stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson and director Cary Fukunaga. He’s continued to build on that model, developing projects with the material, actors, and director, then selling the whole vision to traditional buyers as well as the new streaming platforms. Recently back from Italy where he was working on Catch-22 alongside George Clooney, Kyle Chandler, and Hugh Laurie, Brown took a couple hours to chat with Kit at Petit Paulette in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The conversation, and the natural wine, flowed freely.
ND: In an 2015 interview, you said that TV was in the Wild Wild West phase. Is that still true?
RB: No. Less so. What essentially happened was that a new platform arrived: streaming. That meant a huge expansion—new buyers and distributors. That means more demand for content and these companies competing with each other, which created a sellers’ market. After the success of shows like True Detective there was a migration of high-end film talent into the TV space. What’s certainly true is that there are more possibilities in terms of trying new paradigms, new models. You can take more creative risk and probably have more control if you have put together something which is clearly undeniable in terms of the concept, script, and talent involved.
But the bar has gotten a lot higher. As a general rule, I don’t think corporations like it when the talent has too much power. When Netflix came along and bought House of Cards, it was a transformative moment for TV because suddenly they were paying far more than anyone else and they were committing to a season, or even two seasons, rather than only a pilot. This caused everyone to reinvent their business models to compete. Then there was the arrival of Amazon, Apple and Hulu into this space. It unsettled everyone else. Buyers were often doing whatever they had to do to get things they thought were desirable. Everyone started packaging TV shows like movies, with high-end talent, and I think there was a glut. A lot of the stuff wasn’t good and now I think we’re seeing a correction.
Where do you fit into that narrative?
The TV I’m most interested in is limited series, which lives kind of at the intersection of film and TV. How much cinema can you bring into TV? One of the obvious ways you can do that is to elevate the role of the director in television.
Like the first season of True Detective.
As a kid, I fell in love with Twin Peaks. I didn’t know why. Looking back, I realized it felt different from everything else on TV at least in part because it was made by an auteur filmmaker. Television is not typically driven by filmmakers, it’s driven by writer-producers. Whereas the creative captain in film is the director. It’s an odd anomaly. Television has typically been a writer’s medium but one limitation of that has been, in part, that the director often becomes devalued, a technician for hire. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s been some amazing TV made that way: The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men, etc.
But I couldn’t help thinking, what if there was a great filmmaker involved in making those shows, who could create an elevated cinematic grammar? That’s what interested me. That’s what Twin Peaks had. You don’t generally get that in TV.
So, how do you make TV that looks and feels like cinema but also utilizes all this is great about the episodic structure? What we came up with on True Detective was, “Let’s do a limited series of eight episodes, have one person write all of them, and have one person direct them all, a film director with a cinematic vision.” Have him be empowered. Not at the expense of the writer, but in collaboration with the writer.
The benefits of that are many. One of them on a practical level—and it ends up being a creative boon as well—is that you can potentially get big, well-known actors to be in that series. Movie stars typically want to know who the director is first and then what is the script. When I was trying to get Matthew McConaughey for True Detective, I didn’t call his agent and ask if Matthew wanted to do TV, I asked initially if he wanted to work with Cary Fukunaga. Then I had to explain to Matthew’s agent that it wasn’t a movie but nor was it a TV show in the conventional sense. It’s a hybrid. Eight hours and out, as opposed to multiple seasons. Matthew read the scripts, loved them, and signed on. Once we had Matthew, we were able to get Woody [Harrelson] partly because they’re friends and wanted to do something together, and also because Woody was keen to work with Cary. So you have a TV series with Matthew, Woody, a very in-demand director, and a great script. When you go to the buyers with that package, you get more than one offer which means you have some leverage about defining the way in which you’re going to make it.
Is pitching one streaming service different than another?
All the new places have slightly different models. And they have different wants and needs to satisfy. Netflix realized that they needed to start programming their own content and now their strategy seems to be to make so much content, of all kinds and genres, that they become ubiquitous. They want to make everything for everybody. When they first started and they bought House of Cards, people thought they wanted to be HBO. But they don’t only want to be HBO, I think they want to be all things to all people. And they seem to have the appetite for it. The reported numbers are that they are spending between (US)$10 and $11 billion this year making content. Those numbers dwarf everybody else.
The only people Netflix has to keep happy are the subscribers. The way they measure success is what kind of excitement and noise was there around the show. Social media activity, reviews, etc. I think you could argue that’s a better criteria for assessing the quality of something than how many tickets it sold. In a way, I really love this about Netflix, that we don’t know how many people watch their shows.
“In our culture, quality and quantity often get conflated. I think Netflix is fixing that, in a way. Maybe it's an unintended consequence. But they will make movies that no one else will.”
Do you, really?
I do, in a way. Because it changes the criteria of what is successful. Speaking not as a producer but as someone who likes film and television, I like that things are judged not solely or specifically by their numbers. In our culture, quality and quantity often get conflated. I think Netflix is fixing that, in a way. Maybe it’s an unintended consequence. But they will make movies that no one else will make.
I just did a film with Netflix called Outlaw King. A big Scottish epic. It cost almost $100 million to make. No one else would have made that movie. Their criteria for whether that’s a success is, essentially, how much noise does it create? Does it get nominated for awards? And therefore does it attract new subscribers to Netflix, as well as satisfying the existing subscribers.
Is that a different kind of pressure as someone responsible for making the movies?
The pressure is what I’ve always wanted it to be, which is to make something great. The criteria is different at these places—HBO, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu. It’s an entirely different business model. And I think it’s a better model for creators.
HBO was one of the original companies to focus on subscribers rather than sheer reach. Is there a difference making things for HBO than for the new generation of streaming platforms?
HBO is quite specific in what they want to do. They are selling a brand of excellence to their audience: “We’re the gold standard. We’re the guys who do the good stuff.” Their story is that, if you subscribe to HBO, you might not like everything but you’ll appreciate it. It’s high-quality. They care profoundly about maintaining that brand. It’s the highest common denominator.
So who wins?
As a producer or as a consumer, I don’t really care who wins or even what that looks like, except as it affects what gets made and how it gets made. I don’t think anyone knows what’s going to happen. Nobody would have imagined that the biggest players in film and television would be Apple, Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon.
Where do Amazon and Apple fit?
Amazon’s model is notably different. In my opinion, they make TV shows and films to help sell everything else you can buy on Amazon. What you get when you buy Amazon Prime is access to watch TV shows and movies—and “free shipping.” Then, if you have the free shipping, you want to use it. Here you are watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or Manchester by the Sea, and, on some level, you might be thinking, “I have free shipping—I should buy something.” And the way the technology is now, you can even buy something without stopping what you’re watching. Just ask Alexa. Or use your phone. So they aren’t only selling Amazon Prime subscriptions, they‘re selling everything that Amazon sells.
Apple, I don’t know what they are going to do because they haven’t told anyone their distribution model. They have iTunes, but that’s a store, not a subscription-driven viewing platform. They’re making at least ten shows right now and actively buying material. I’m sure they have a smart strategy as to how they’re going to build this. It would be foolish to bet against Apple.
Photographed at Petit Paulette—Fort Greene, Brooklyn
We all have their phones.
Yes, everyone has their devices. Because they are Apple and they are as big as they are, a global entity, they can’t make anything that will offend anyone. They have to be very safe. One of the things that was so successful about HBO, and now the others in that space, is that they can make things that the commercial networks can’t make, because they are not beholden to advertisers. But Apple is also a little hamstrung; they can’t run the risk of offending any of the people who buy their devices, so I think they are going to go much more down the middle than the others. Maybe it will work. Maybe they will replace the mainstream network outlets.
Hulu wants to be as big as Netflix. Now that the Disney-Fox merger is happening, I think they will put a huge effort into building up Hulu globally next year. That’s the next step.
In the near immediate future, it’s easier to get good, interesting shows made. It’s also easier to get bad ones made because of the demand for content, and people are saying yes more easily than before. There’s less curation. If one of these shows doesn’t work, it’s not the end of the world. They can afford a few mistakes.
Afford a few mistakes, sure. But you still want to make things that are good.
Good things don’t get made because you met someone at a party. So it’s all about material. Early in my career, someone told me the only kind of producer you want to be is the one with a red-hot script in your hands.
We just made Catch-22, based on the Joseph Heller novel. It doesn’t really work as a movie—Mike Nichols was a genius and he couldn’t make it work—but we thought it would be a fun idea to try to make it as a limited series. So we took a shot: got the rights, developed the scripts with two fantastic writers, Luke Davies and David Michod. When the time came to find a director, we thought of George Clooney. The primary reason he said yes is, of course, because he read and loved the scripts.
“They have to be architects of the whole enterprise. It's fundamentally their vision which has to be transmitted to, and executed by, the star players / actors.”
What’s that call like?
It couldn’t have been better. It was so obvious that he was right for this material. His sensibility, his taste, the place he occupies in the culture. It’s clear that he’s a highly talented filmmaker, in addition to being a great actor. And he wanted to play a key role in this as an actor as well as directing. George hasn’t acted much recently, and he hasn’t acted on TV in twenty-something years, so that was exciting. Then you sit down with George, have a discussion about what you’re trying to achieve. Then you go forth and try to make it.
How’s his taste in natural wine?
He’s really more of a classic wine drinker. I didn’t succeed in convincing him about natural wine. Or soccer. He loves sports, though, particularly baseball and basketball.
You’ve flirted with making films about both Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Paul Greengrass, the wonderful film director who made the Bourne movies and United 93, is a football fan. We’re friends and decided it could be fun to follow José Mourinho through his first year at Real Madrid. We didn’t know quite what a jerk Mourinho was then—it wasn’t as clear as it is today. We set up a meeting in Madrid but we got there and he kept us waiting for almost 24 hours. And his terms for making a film would have essentially given him creative control over the project, which was a non-starter for us. In the taxi on the way to Madrid airport we realized it might be a better idea to make a film about Barcelona in the [Josep (“Pep”)] Guardiola era instead: Barça reaching the apotheosis of football under the inspirational guidance of their homegrown hero. Instead of going home, we went to Barcelona and met with Sandro Rosell and others at Barça via Paul’s great friend John Carlin, a fantastic writer who was at the time living in Barcelona.
It feels like directors and managers have similar jobs in some ways.
What I noticed when I was watching interactions between Paul Greengrass and Pep Guardiola is that they have a similar job. It requires the same mentality and approach. They have to be the architects of the whole enterprise, it’s fundamentally their vision which has to be transmitted to, and executed by, the star players / actors. How a coach creates and protects his team and his ideas is similar to how a director tries to make and protect his film. When a coach moves to a new team, that seems analogous to a director starting a new film.
Unfortunately the business side of football can be extremely political and sometimes corrupt, and we ultimately had a hard time getting the rights to the footage we needed, and finally it became impossible to continue. It would have been a great film. It was a real pleasure to spend time around FC Barcelona, though—we had the pleasure of getting to know the directors, the coaching staff, and some of the players. We even traveled with the team to Madrid for a Clásico, which was an almost surreal experience. I’ve been a devoted Barça fan ever since.
This article appears in the Autumn 2018 (Issue 05) print edition of Kit Magazine.