‘Elvis’ Producer Gail Berman Talks Biopic’s Success, Teases ‘Goonies’ Series and Netflix’s ‘Wednesday’

·6 min read

Four years after she was first elected to run the Producers Guild of America with Lucy Fisher, Gail Berman is ready to fully dig back into her day job. Like many in show business, she didn’t initially think she had the time to serve as guild president in 2018 — but was assured the role would only require an hour from her schedule per week.

“I can use the time that I’m doing the elliptical machine, I thought. Then COVID came,” Berman says. With only weeks before she and Fisher are termed out of their jobs this August, she takes pride that “we saw it through, and thankfully we’re on the other side and the organization is still standing. It’s in its best financial state ever.”

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The lone woman to serve as both a television (Fox) and film studio (Paramount) leader, Berman has a packed slate at her company, the Jackal Group. She’s currently riding high on the neck-and-neck triumph of “Elvis,” which edged out Tom Cruise’s blockbuster “Top Gun: Maverick” to take the top spot at this weekend’s box office with a $31 million haul. It’s something of a full circle for Berman, who made a splash at age 23 in mounting a production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” on Broadway.  After winning Elvis’ catalogue rights from two sets of owners, Berman says “There was only one idea. Baz Luhrmann and Elvis. The bigness and beauty of Baz, and the legacy of Elvis.” The film enjoyed a lush Cannes premiere and has propelled star Austin Butler into early Oscar conversations.

The contemporary media landscape has dramatically changed in step with Berman’s own career path. “When change is involved, I always see opportunity,” Berman says of her future and the current landscape. “Showbiz is a great respite for the public. I’m grateful to be able to provide that from time to time.”

That extra hour a week should serve her well. Here, Variety chats with Berman about her upcoming slate:

In September, you’ve got “Monarch” coming to air on Fox. That trailer got a lot of attention, especially Susan Sarandon with that big Southern hair.

I had a company called Sidecar, and I was working with Fox. We were around for about 18 months before the pandemic shut it down. I went in and sat with Michael Thorn, and said “What do you want?” He said they were really interested in the country music space, and I thought the idea of three generations of a country music family could be a good soap saga. He loved.

I did think, I can’t tell that story the way it needs to be told because of my experience so we found someone who was. Someone suggested Jason Owen, and it was a love affair from the first second. He’s a consummate music manager, he represents artists like Casey Musgraves, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and Little Big Town. We became partners on the idea, and then visited Melissa Hilfers who I’d worked with before. From there we got lucky with Susan Sarandon, Anna Friel, Trace Adkins. That premieres in September, right after a big national league game so we’re coming on after football.

There’s also so much groundswell about Tim Burton’s “Wednesday” at Netflix, on which you’re an executive producer.

All the props go to [creators] Al Gough and Miles Millar. It’s their baby with Tim Burton. It’s a modern telling of the story, it’s a clever new interpretation. You haven’t seen this before. I love “The Addams Family,” I always thought it was an amazing, underutilized brand. I met with Kevin Mizracki a long, long time ago. The rights had become available and we took a leap. I had a deal at the time with MGM for television, and they got on board right away for an animated feature. It’s been a wonderful partnership, and ‘Wednesday” was an outgrow from that.

You have another music project set up at Fox, the music anthology “Icon” that examines the stories of music legends.

The first one up is about The Judds. Obviously, we’ve had a very difficult and enormously sad thing happen with the passing of Naomi. It was shocking, we had gotten to know her quite well. It was devastating when I got the call. So, before we start on the next icon, we want to see this through in a way that is right for our writer Adam Milch. We’ve written two scripts and a bible. Naomi was a great gal, and a great hoot, and wonderfully talented.

One of the most interesting things on your slate involves “The Goonies.”

This is a partnership between me, Amblin, and Lauren Shuler Donner. When I was at Paramount, there were these young boys doing this movie about “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” a shot-by-shot remake. It got some press at the time, and the studio was very upset about it. I thought it was an amazing idea, and it always stood in my head of — how can you take an idea like that and turn it into a TV series?

We needed a terrific writer and great partners, so we brought the idea to Amblin and those guys loved it. Sarah Watson is our creator. The series is a story of a town and a family in the lens of “Friday Night Lights,” and within that they tell a story of a shot-by-shot remake of “The Goonies.” We had to go to Warner Bros., to Toby Emmerich, and ask if we could have rights [to “The Goonies”]. They said yes, obviously, because of Mr. Spielberg and the Donners. We’re now doing this for Disney Plus.

Musicals are a massive part of your history. When did that fascination start for you?

My first show was “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat”! I was a musicals girl. When I graduated from college, my business partner at the time and I wound up producing “Joseph” at Ford”s Theater in Washington, D.C. and that little show became a big hit and eventually we got permission and rights to take it to Broadway. This fascination dates back to me listening to my parents’ “West Side Story” and “Mame” records. To have this much musical stuff going on right now is wonderful. It’s everything I love about entertainment.

One of two stage shows you have in development is “Black Swan,” which seems like a big swing to adapt for theater.

In March, we finished our 29 hour table. That’s the equity concept of the first table read, and it happens over the course of a week. Our director is Rachel Chavkin, our composer is Dave Molloy, our book writer is Jen Silverman. We’re in the process of hiring a choreographer. The producing team is Kevin McCollum, Darren Aronofsky, and Scott Franklin. It’s not campy. It takes the story of the movie and advances to a much more contemporary ballet story. At the center of it is still this young woman. What we’re attempting to do is a ballet musical thriller. It’s a tall order, and we’re hopefully going to workshop it in December.

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