A Strong Slate: Mandeville Films follows smash 'Beauty and the Beast' with 'Stronger' and 'Wonder'

Features
Movies Features

Still based on Disney’s Burbank lot where it began life in 1995 with a five-year first-look pact with The Walt Disney Studios, Mandeville Films and Television continues after decades of hit after hit and a consistent management style, work ethic and philosophy under founder and owner David Hoberman and business partner and co-owner Todd Lieberman.

Mandeville’s most recent smash is 2017’s biggest box-office earner, Beauty and the Beast, and to shamelessly pun with help from two imminent Mandeville releases, the company gives every sign of growing stronger (Roadside Attractions releases the Jake Gyllenhaal Boston Marathon drama Stronger on Sept. 22 following its Toronto world premiere), and no wonder (Lionsgate’s all-star family dramedy Wonder hits theatres on Nov 17).

Hoberman started Mandeville following years atop the Motion Picture Group of The Walt Disney Studios as president. “When I came to Disney I started working on movies and I fell in love with that, but the farther up you climb, the further you get from the actual creative process.” At Disney, he was responsible for overseeing development and production of features under the Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures umbrellas. (Pretty Woman, Dead Poets Society, Beaches and Three Men and a Baby were just a few of the blockbusters under his watch.) But it was the desire to find great stories and create hands-on and from the ground up that he craved.

For his new company name, Hoberman made a non-creative detour in 1995 when, turning into L.A.’s Brentwood neighborhood, he noticed the Mandeville street sign and had a “Why not?” moment.

Just a few years later, the Mandeville founder brought aboard Lieberman and made him co-partner in 2002. The producers, sharing a distaste for corporate titles (co- or otherwise), politely accede to being labeled Mandeville co-presidents. Working with a support staff helping them cover both film and TV prospects and projects, they continue the first-look arrangement with Disney. But indicative of the now-not-so-new-normal on Hollywood lots, they have the freedom to forge deals with other companies when the studio passes on projects they choose to develop.

Such are David Gordon Green’s (Pineapple Express, Our Brand Is Crisis) awards-bound, gritty true-life drama Stronger, with Gyllenhaal as real double-amputee Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman, who helped police find the perp, and Wonder from filmmaker Stephen Chbosky (co-writer of Beauty and the Beast and writer-director of The Perks of Being a Wallflower).

This latter is based on R.J. Palacio’s best-selling young-adult novel and features Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and Jacob Tremblay (the boy “wonder” of Room). But Tremblay’s adorable face is something else here, as he plays the loving family’s gifted and adored son born with a severe cranial irregularity that distorts his face but hasn’t interfered with him being wise, kind and well-adjusted. Previously home-schooled, the story has this fifth-grader begin public school and encounter peers who bring new challenges.

Disney watchers will observe that the R-rated Stronger and also smaller-scale (i.e., smaller-budget) Wonder both fall outside the familiar Disney playbook. So on their own (but not for long), Mandeville began developing each film in-house from written material: Wonder from the best-seller and Stronger from a page or two of survivor Bauman’s inchoate idea.

The producers stumbled into Stronger. Lieberman recalls, “We were looking for projects that had powerful emotional resonance and real uplift at the end. At that time I was sitting with a young agent who told me about Jeff, who had lost legs during the bombing and that he might be writing a book. David and I thought the aftermath of such a tragedy would be interesting and inspire other people to push through pain.” With the help of writer Bret Witter, Bauman got beyond the scant treatment and the Mandeville producers got an early look at the book. John Pollono did the screenplay adaptation.

The producers see both films reaching a wide audience. Wonder has the star trio of Tremblay, Roberts and Wilson in what is a feel-good family film designed to appeal across generations and loaded with important messages. No surprise that Walden and Participant are among its backers. And the film’s added measures of comedy, fantasy and romance no doubt pleased Lionsgate, also along for this ride.

The prestigious Toronto Fest premiere of Stronger is the handiwork of distributor Roadside Attractions, which, auspicious for the film, saw a strong boost last year at Toronto for Manchester by the Sea. Like Manchester, Stronger is another stunning cinematic effort that goes deep into a Boston-area working-class family and milieu to tell its heart-wrenching story. Real-life hero Bauman is first met pre-Marathon as a regu-lah (as the locals would pronounce it) guy working in a Costco kitchen and having girlfriend problems with Erin (an excellent Tatiana Maslany), a hospital worker and runner who’s about to tackle the 2013 Boston Marathon. Bauman wants to mend the breakup, so he shows up at the finish line to surprise her. But another kind of surprise awaits. He’s ravaged by the terrorists’ bomb and loses both legs. Upon regaining consciousness at a Boston hospital, he’s able to help police identify one of the perps.

Were Hoberman and Lieberman ever tempted to include more of the detective work strand into the film that lead to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s capture? “Never,” Lieberman responds. “We made a conscious effort to stay away from plot-driven aspects to focus on the personal dramas.” And do they ever.

The emotionally packed, gripping story of Bauman’s bumpy road to recovery (emotional adjustment, really) is well-told and was ripe for telling. (Bauman became the living embodiment of “Boston Strong,” words often intoned like an anthem following the horrific terrorist event.) Archival and actual newscasts further engage, but it’s the special effects (done in the effects mecca of Montreal), that render Gyllenhaal remarkably convincing as the double amputee. Lieberman explains that the cinematic trickery was, in general terms, largely a result of various wheelchair rigs, Gyllenhaal wearing green socks that would be digitally erased, and many departments including makeup that collaborated so well to convey the illusion.

Also authentic is the non-clichéd depiction of working-class life and leisure and Jeff’s challenged family and circle. Two-time Oscar nominee Miranda Richardson is especially delicious as his tough-as-nails, booze-loving, foul-mouthed mother. (How do these Brits “get” their very American characters?)

Also powerful is Stronger’s sense of place, mainly Bauman’s hometown of Chelmsford, Mass., where it was filmed and which happens to be next to Lowell, the blue-collar town where Mandeville’s acclaimed 2010 drama The Fighter was set. And there’s another similarity: Both films prominently feature fiery Boston-area middle-aged women—both tough mamas who challenge hero-sons. The similarity also bodes well for Richardson when Stronger meets awards season, as Fighter supporting actress Melissa Leo, like the film’s Christian Bale, won an Oscar for her role.

But awards campaign considerations aren’t on the producers’ minds. Says Lieberman, “I love all our movies—they are all phenomenal and different and what determines an Oscar and who votes is so hard to determine.” Adds Hoberman, “What I love about Hollywood is you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The Mandeville producers, neither of whom is from Boston, acknowledge the similarities between The Fighter and Stronger and their seeming affinity to capture blue-collar Boston area pockets. Boston acknowledged it too: Hoberman received an honorary doctorate from the city’s Suffolk University, Lieberman earned a special government lapel pin, and both were honored as guests at an official Boston dinner.

On tap in the more mainstream corner is Wonder, which imparts important life lessons especially of value to the young. The film manages this in an entertaining way, functioning as a compendium of important do’s and don’ts but with considerable comedic, romantic and fantastical elements providing relief from the didactic.

The producers see the audience for Wonder as “everybody.” Says Lieberman, “The film is for kids from seven on and through to people in their eighties. It crosses lots of generations in its many threads. It’s a film about humanity, not necessarily about kids.” Chbosky, with two other writers, has Tremblay’s Augie entering the jungle of public school, although, set in upscale Brooklyn (and shot largely in Vancouver), the school is not such a blackboard jungle. But Augie still must deal with the ageless bullying and ostracism that plague what are meant to be safe learning havens.

Augie’s family includes forceful mother Roberts and jolly good-sport dad Wilson, and a sister (Izabela Vidovic) dealing with problems d’amour familiar to most late adolescents. But it’s Tremblay as Augie, the young hero with the unusual facial affliction, who is the heart of the film. The severe distortion that might even strike many as grotesque (at first) was the film’s biggest production challenge. Notes Lieberman, “We worked hard to figure out the best way to represent [Augie’s] facial differences, which in the cranial facial community is called just that—a facial difference. As Palacio’s book is a work of fiction and open to interpretation, what he would look like, how severe or not, was a big concern. We consulted many books and I believe we represented him accurately.” Tremblay required an elaborate physical makeover for his character but was, reports Lieberman, “an incredible professional who would sit in the makeup chair up to two hours a day.”

Wisely, it’s not Augie’s face but what’s in his character and personality that dominate. The film’s ending is one for the books, as it delivers on a multitude of fronts.

With story of foremost importance to Mandeville, it’s no surprise that, as was the case with Stronger, it was the story within the Wonder novel that got the producers’ attention. “David and I fell in love with the book early on. When it became a phenomenon and sold over six million copies, an extraordinary amount of people became aware of it. That built in its inherent commerciality.”

While Participant, Walden and Lionsgate are onboard with Mandeville, there weren’t too many cooks stirring this pot because, says Lieberman, “our partners were technically financiers and gave us a lot leeway as creatives and producers.”

Strongergained its momentum when Lionsgate jumped onboard to help develop and produce the project and Gyllenhaal joined up to star and help finance through his company Nine Stories Productions. Mandeville did the actual production, with Liberman running point as lead producer. Hoberman, who ran point on Beauty and the Beast, and Lieberman shared those responsibilities on Wonder.

The producers explain that in earlier Mandeville days they worked together on each film but decided to split up the responsibilities as the company became involved with more projects and making films simultaneously. So, usually who takes lead depends on what the Mandeville production schedule is, who’s busy with what and “one of us runs point on a film and the other looks in,” says Hoberman. “We have complementary strengths and both do similar things. Todd learned a lot of what I learned and we’re both creative producers. In fact, a flaw might be that maybe we’re too much alike. And we also complement each other with our connections in the industry.”

Although both Wonder and Stronger areoutside the big-budget realm, the contrast between them—beyond being destined for different audiences—raises the question of what is an “indie” today—or is that really the question? Well, no, offers Lieberman, “because people these days are asking what is theatrical versus what belongs elsewhere and we have to take this into consideration. We first focus on story and then figure it out.”

Figuring things out resulted in the creation of Mandeville’s TV operation, which began when Hoberman produced the award-winning USA Network detective series “Monk.” In August, the company announced its latest TV venture, development of a roman à clef but fictional novel written by former O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark and reportedly telling a revenge story influenced by the trial-of-the-century case she so famously lost.

As the producers watch Stronger and Wonder meet audiences and critics, they can rest comfortably on their past laurels of two decades of successful films, including the most beautiful of the bunch. But Mandeville’s Beauty and the Beast took some time to transition from its 1991 Disney animated iteration to become a Disney live-action phenomenon.

Lieberman explains that the duo “pitched [Disney] the idea from the perspective of the Beast and going back to the original story, which was a lot darker.” As for Jean Cocteau’s classic 1945 version of the film (recently made available and distributed in a restored version), “It was very inspirational to us. We looked at it very carefully, at all the cultures written into it and dug into the mythology and gleaned much from that.” While the Beauty producers cite Cocteau as “the main inspiration,” Hoberman notes that the success of Disney’s animated blockbuster Frozen also influenced their approach to the project.

Hoberman admits that “taking on such a previous Disney hit was intimidating. We felt such a responsibility, especially when you’re spending a lot of money. But you take the project on its terms or it gets muddied. When you start second-guessing what people want instead of using your instincts about the story, you can get messed up.” No mess-up here: Beauty and the Beast currently ranks as the eighth-biggest domestic release of all time.

Previous Mandeville winners over the years include, among others, George of the Jungle, Bringing Down the House, Raising Helen, Eight Below, Insurgent, The Shaggy Dog and several Muppets films. Especially noteworthy is Mandeville’s 2009 romantic comedy The Proposal, which earned over $317 million.

Beyond Stronger and Wonder, Mandeville has in pre-production for Amazon Studios The Aeronauts, based on the true story of balloon pilot Amelia Wren and scientist James Glaisher and their extraordinary and harrowing journey to discover the secrets of the skies. Already in production is Extinction, a sci-fi alien-invasion thriller starring Michael Peña and Lizzy Caplan, directed by Ben Young, and to be released by Universal Pictures.

Also reportedly with Universal, Mandeville has in development (and for the art-house crowd) director Luca Guadagnino’s untitled project based on the ballet Swan Lake, with Felicity Jones attached.

The producers are forthcoming about their cinematic “sauce,” agreeing it’s their ability as a team to spot great material that is both commercial but dives deeper and has as a hallmark endings that somehow uplift. Easier said than done, but Mandeville has done it.