Whatever she touches 'turns to gold' — can Dede Gardner do it again at the Oscars?
Updated February 24, 2023 at 8:53 AM ET
Dede Gardner is the only woman to have won two Best Picture Oscars, for Moonlight and 12 Years a Slave. At the Academy Awards next month, she could break that record.
This year, she and her partners at Plan B Entertainment produced three big films this year: She Said, a drama about the New York Times investigation into former Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein; Blonde, which stars Best Actress nominee Ana de Armas as Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe; and Best Picture nominee Women Talking, which dramatizes a group of abused women in a conservative religious colony.
Gardner says these films have something in common: "They all, in their own and respective ways, deal with sexual assault... violence against women is a real thing all over the world. In very different ways all three movies are insisting on this truth."
She's made a career of producing audacious movies, many of them critically acclaimed. "I've kind of always had a gut instinct about it. I don't see any point in telling stories that have already been told. I'm really interested in what other people have to say."
She sees 'storytelling as sacred'
Gardner was born in Chicago in 1967 and studied English at Columbia University. She worked in theater and at the William Morris agency in New York before coming to L.A, where she worked her way from location scout to Paramount Pictures' director of development. Seventeen years ago, she was hired as President of Plan B Entertainment, a production company founded by Brad Grey, Brad Pitt and his then-wife Jennifer Aniston.
"I knew I wanted to produce and I knew I wanted to be very hands on," she says. "They were clearly very smart and they had optioned some really interesting books. I didn't think any of those three principles would be on the ground, on the set for months at a time producing the movies. So I thought oh maybe this is a real opportunity to do that."
At Plan B, Gardner finds stories to make into films, then works on financing, casting, production logistics, editing, promotion.
Jeremy Kleiner, who is now co-president of Plan B, says Gardner was his mentor before he joined her as a producing partner. "I've had the privilege of working with her for almost 20 years," he says. "She's just a one-of-a-kind person in so many ways. Incredibly brave and views storytelling as sacred."
Together with Kleiner and Pitt, Gardner has steered seven films to Best Picture nominations, including Selma in 2015, The Big Short in 2016 and Minari in 2021.
"Basically, whatever Dee Dee does, it turns to gold," says Jessie Buckley, one of the stars of Women Talking.
She's changing the culture on-set
Buckley says Gardner has also changed the culture of making movies. "The age of bullying and kind of creating a kind of power dynamic on set is gone," Buckley says. "You have women like Dede who are actually paving the way for a much healthier and humane way to create. She's a producer who consciously thinks about creating a set where there is care."
That includes ensuring there are therapists on set for the cast and crew in case they are triggered, according to She Said actress Carey Mulligan. "She was always there to make the set feel comfortable because obviously we were touching on difficult things. They were real survivors who were participating in the film."
It just makes a huge difference, you know, that we'd be done in time that I could get back and put the kids to bed.
Mulligan says Gardner also makes sure her productions have decent working hours. "It just makes a huge difference ... that we'd be done in time that I could get back and put the kids to bed," she says.
These kinds of considerations are not minor, says actor Frances McDormand, who quotes Gardner. "She says, 'How do you make a change? You bake it into the budget. If you want to have a family-friendly set, if you want to give respect to your cast and your crew, you bake it into the budget.' "
She's unafraid to take risks
McDormand says she always admired Gardner's film choices and sought her out to co-produce Women Talking. She says after giving Gardner the book the story is based on, the producer quickly mapped out how to make it cinematic.
"Her personal politics when it comes to storytelling is really ... there's an edge to it that is always exciting," McDormand says about Gardner. "I think that she could, in fact, direct a film. Her intellect is so crisp and so expansive. She understands that film, a really good film, is not made by committee, that it has a vision and that vision comes from one person."
Gardner says she cherishes her relationships with visionaries like filmmaker Barry Jenkins. They worked on several projects, including Moonlight and The Underground Railroad miniseries.
She's a great example to follow. She's very adamant about protecting the artist's voice.
"Dede, is this combination of an extremely hyper intelligent person, but also a hyper empathetic person," says Jenkins. "As a producer myself now, she's a great example to follow. She's very adamant about protecting the artist's voice."
Gardner says protecting those voices is important as the film industry has become more risk averse. "It feels to me like a moment where people are sort of battening down the hatches and are picking the safe lane," she says. "The theatrical landscape feels much less reliable than it used to. So I get it. But also I want daring, risky stuff to be made."
With a new investor, Plan B is expanding, and Dede Gardner says she's excited about making even more daring and risky movies.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.