Theft Appeal: An all-star cast brings a feminine touch to 'Ocean’s 8'

Movies Features

“A him gets noticed. A her gets ignored. And for once, we want to be ignored.”

So says Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), the criminal mastermind behind the wheel of Ocean’s 8, out June 8 from Warner Bros. Onscreen, Debbie and her compatriots take advantage of the relative anonymity afforded their gender to plan the ultimate jewel heist. In the real world, women are more and more stepping to the forefront, at least when it comes to their stories being told in movies.

As the director of The Hunger Games, Ocean’s 8 helmer Gary Ross has been a part of that wave. When he signed on to adapt the first book in Suzanne Collins’ young-adult series—not yet the cultural phenomenon it would become—he anticipated pushback on the brutal, kids-killing-kids subject matter. Instead, “I was warned by so many people not to do an [action] movie that had a woman as a protagonist,” he recalls. “There was this admonition on the part of people in the industry that that couldn’t be successful, because it hadn’t been before. Which, to me, sounded crazy.” History was on Ross’ side: Fast-forward six years, and The Hunger Games has become a billion-dollar franchise.

“The impact [The Hunger Games] had on girls, seeing a heroine like that up on screen, really stuck with me,” Ross says. “I was at dinner with a friend one night, and I realized there’s never been an ensemble like [Ocean’s 8].” The heist genre “had always had an off-limits sign” when it came to women—there’s usually room for one or two per movie, your Julia Roberts in Ocean’s Eleven or Maggie Blye in The Italian Job, but the faces on the movie posters are usually going to be men. (Usually. Let’s take a moment here to appreciate F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off.)

Ross reached out to close friend Steven Soderbergh, who directed the 2001 Ocean’s Eleven remake and its two sequels. (Ross helped Soderbergh in an unofficial capacity on those films; Soderbergh is a producer this time around.) “I had the idea about Sandy playing [George Clooney’s] sister. And then [Soderbergh] and I brought that to Jerry Weintraub, who was alive at the time. Then we brought it to Sandy, who said, ‘Look, if the script is good, I’m interested.’ And we brought that to Warner Bros., and they were interested.”

Next to board the movie-in-the-making was Ross’ co-writer Olivia Milch, whose credits include the indie stoner comedyDude, distributed on Netflix earlier this year. It was key for Ross that he not only work with a female writer, but that women be represented behind the camera in other fields. “Several of our producers are women. My editor [Juliette Welfling] is a woman. My costume designer [Sarah Edwards] is a woman. We insisted that the AD staff be 50% women, which they were.”

For Milch, co-writing Ocean’s 8 wasn’t just a matter of e-mailing drafts back and forth. The two proved a real pair of collaborators, standing side-by-side throughout the entire moviemaking process. It was a “continuous conversation,” Milch recalls. “This set in particular was so open and welcoming, and such a place of trust and generosity in terms of knowledge… This was the first time I was on the set of a huge film like this. I’m at the monitor every day with Gary. There’s so much that he was willing to share not only with me, but with other members of our crew, even our PAs, [some of whom] are women who wanted to be in the industry… It’s wonderful how willing he was to have me there, and have our partnership be seen by everybody, and be something that was relied upon throughout the shooting. Here was a young woman who he was empowering, and everybody was seeing that.”

Of course, if you’re going to pull a Debbie Ocean and rob the Met Gala of its most expensive piece of jewelry—a Cartier necklace valued at over $150 million, brought out of its vault to adorn the neck of self-absorbed actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway, a standout)—you’re going to need your own group of collaborators. Luckily for Ross, “everybody we wanted, we got,” he recalls—nothing short of remarkable when you consider the star power of the cast he assembled.

There’s the ever-busy Rihanna as hacker Nine Ball, a role that was heavily influenced by the singer/actress herself. Ditto Mindy Kaling’s Amita, the team’s expert on all things jewel forgery. “We didn’t realize there was a thriving Indian-American community that had a large jewelry industry within it,” says Ross. “But there is, in Jackson Heights, [Queens]. So we were able to lean into the specificity of that character.”Awkwafina was cast after Ross saw her in a rough cut of Milch’s Dude; Milch recalls the actress texting her, “Is this a joke?” Helena Bonham Carter and Sarah Paulson play a scatterbrained designer and a fence-turned-suburban-mother-turned-fence again, respectively. Finally, the role of Lou, Debbie’s hard-nosed partner, was originally named “Cate,” after the actress Ross wanted to play her. The director recalls, in a passable Australian accent, Cate Blanchett politely suggesting that “maybe we should have a different name for this.”

“One of the things that’s so exciting about this film is that you’re getting to see eight distinct women who have their own personalities, their own backstories and their own skill set,” says Milch. “The fact that we were able to create those characters and have this incredible cast bring them to life really speaks to what people are excited about with this movie and what’s enjoyable while you’re watching it—you’re getting to spend time with eight different women, as opposed to the more reductive, simplified characters we often encounter.” Ross is particularly proud thatOcean’s 8 brings a diverse range of ages to the big screen. Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) may have been pulling off heists well into their 40s, but as far as women are concerned, “there’s always this push that everyone be under 30.”

That diversity is particularly key given the New York City setting of Ocean’s 8. And the entire film, aside from a few pickup days in Los Angeles, was shot in New York, across all five boroughs. And you can tell, too. Lou and Debbie dine in East Village institution Veselka. One location is clearly the lobby of the New York Times building. There’s the Met Gala itself, recreated with (per Milch) “authenticity and accuracy,” as required by the Met and Vogue. (Watching this movie is the closest 99.999% of us will ever get to attending.)

“No one’s filmed as extensively in the Met as we have. I don’t think anybody’s made it their home for a couple of weeks,” says Ross. Two weeks, to be exact, with shooting done overnight. No surprises here: When you film in the Met, you have to be very, very careful. “When you have a safety meeting on the set, it’s usually for stunts that are dangerous. I called safety meetings for the art!” the director recalls. “When you get to the Met, you have to be very specific about every single shot. If I put a crane through a John Singer Sargent, that’s worth more than the budget of the movie.”

Though a certain amount of precision is necessary when you’re shooting priceless works of art—or, for that matter, when you’re shooting a heist movie, where every little detail matters—Ross generally wants his sets to feel “like jazz, not classical.” With Ocean’s 8, he’s achieved that, crafting a film that has all the summer-season fun of hanging out with eight of your best friends—albeit friends in all likelihood more sophisticated, competent and gorgeous than the people you know in real life. “You want there to be buoyancy, fun and spontaneity. And with this ensemble, that’s inevitable. They were just having a blast. That’s the best way to get what you want.”