La La Lovely
As comedian Jimmy Kimmel delivers his opening routine at Sunday’s Academy Awards presentation, La La Land producer Gary Gilbert will be in attendance with 14 reasons to celebrate well before any winners are announced.
That’s the number of Oscar nominations the critically acclaimed musical has received, making Hollywood history by tying the record for the most Oscar nominations ever received for a single film. In the Academy’s 89-year history, there have only been two other films that received 14 nominations: All About Eve in 1950 and Titanic in 1997.
Gilbert, 52, who grew up in Southfield, is the founder and president of Gilbert Films, which also produced The Kids Are All Right (2010) and Garden State (2004) as well as numerous other films. La La Land broke records in January with seven nominations and seven wins at the Golden Globes (those watching might have caught a glimpse of Gilbert on the stage).
“Damien Chazelle created a magical love story, set in a whimsical world where dreams do come true but often not without paying a price,” Gilbert says of the writer-director. “The film is a great escape, which I’m sure plenty of people could use in these times.”
Emma Stone, portraying an aspiring actress, and Ryan Gosling, as an aspiring pianist wanting to open his own jazz club, sing and dance through a love-etched tale in a musical reminiscent of the old classic MGM musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, so popular decades ago.
It has been six years since La La Land came to Gilbert’s attention.
“It was in 2011, during the awards season for The Kids Are All Right, when our studio, Focus Features [a division of Universal Pictures], approached us regarding a tiny workshop they were creating called Story Camp,” Gilbert explains.
“The idea of Story Camp was to introduce very young wannabe writers-directors to producers. At the time, Damien was only 25 years old, and he hadn’t directed a film yet. He was a wannabe first-time director who hadn’t started writing the script yet; all he had was a treatment, an outline for a proposed script.
“It was a couple of years before his first hit, Whiplash, which was managed by another production company. For the next several years, we continued to develop the La La Land script with Damien. From the very start, we loved the music, which was all composed by Justin Hurwitz, who had been Damien’s roommate at Harvard.” (For more on Hurwitz, see “Jews Winning Awards” in this issue.)
Gilbert, who especially appreciates the opening scene of La La Land with cast members dancing along a crowded freeway, explains that, as a general rule, he favors working with stories that touch the heart.
“My production choices come down to the stories, loving them and wanting to share them with the world,” he says. “At the same time, they must have commercial potential. Distribution is harder than ever, and there are more movies with the same number of screens.”
Gilbert, a University of Michigan business graduate, recalls youthful weekends often spent frequenting local movie theaters, such as the Berkley Main, Northland and Royal Oak Main.
“I loved the experience of sitting in a big room with tons of other people and watching a movie on the big screen,” says Gilbert, then joined by his brother, Dan Gilbert, friends and Katzman cousins. “I remember seeing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Papillon, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Sting and many others.
“Stanley Kubrick is one of my favorite directors because he was extraordinarily successful in completely different genres, and Damien reminds me of him. Damien’s first feature film, Whiplash, which is a thriller, couldn’t be more different in terms of genre than La La Land, which is a fun musical.”
Gilbert’s professional work initiatives began when he was just 21 and on summer break before his senior year at U-M. His brother asked him to get involved with starting a small mortgage brokerage, Rock Mortgage, with their childhood friend Lindsay Gross. It soon became Rock Financial and later Quicken Loans.
“It was as if he were asking me to cut lawns for the summer,” Gilbert says. “I had no idea it would become my life for nearly 15 years.”
In late 1999, Intuit (Quicken) acquired Rock Financial, and it was then that Gilbert decided to move from Michigan and pursue a career devoted to filmmaking. He remained an investor as the Detroit-based financial enterprise was repurchased by his brother and grew as a family of companies.
Part of deciding what to do in a follow-up career involved the enjoyment Gilbert experienced through motion pictures. Avoiding any investment for 18 months, Gilbert made film industry contacts and learned about the business while splitting his time between New York and Los Angeles.
Garden State became his first film, which was written and directed by Zach Braff, who also starred in the film, as a Jewish character, with Natalie Portman. While working together, Gilbert and Braff developed a friendship that still exists today.
Jewish connections have been important to Gilbert, who had his bar mitzvah at Congregation Beth Achim in Southfield and continues his commitment to Metro Detroit Jewish causes. He and wife, Charlotte, the parents of two young daughters, have supported programs benefiting the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, the Anti-Defamation League, JARC and Yad Ezra.
Commitments to the larger community have placed him at Detroit Homecoming business forums.
“I’m working on my first television series,” reveals Gilbert, also an owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. “It’s called Counterpart, and it stars J. K. Simmons, who also is from Detroit. It’s about parallel universes.”
The thrust of the series focuses on experiencing individual lives panning out in two ways simultaneously. It’s a science-fiction project that propels Gilbert into his own simultaneous and parallel entertainment universes — one with more Oscar possibilities and one with Emmy possibilities.
La La Land’s 14 Oscar nominations fall into the following categories:
Best Picture; Actor in a Leading Role; Actress in a Leading Role; Cinematography; Costume Design; Directing; Film Editing; Music; Music (Original Song) with two contenders; Production Design; Sound Editing; Sound Mixing; and Writing (Original Screenplay).