Interview: ‘Silence’ Producer Randall Emmett Talks Scorsese, ‘Power,’ & John Gotti

Randall Emmett, Martin Scorsese, Emma Koskoff, Irwin Winkler
Marion Curtis/StarPix

Silence, the harrowing story of two 17th century priests who travel from Portugal to Japan in the hopes of finding their mentor and spreading Catholicism, has been Martin Scorsese‘s passion project since he first began trying to develop it in 1990. The film, which stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, and Issey Ogata, is based on Shüsaku Endō‘s 1966 novel of the same name. After numerous hindrances, Scorsese finally found financing for the project through Randall Emmett, George Furla, and Irwin Winkler. Producer Randall Emmett is one of the most successful producers currently working in TV and film whose work includes Lone Survivor, End of Watch, Broken City, and Starz’s Power. We recently sat down with Emmett to discuss his involvement with Silence, as well as his collaborations with 50 Cent, his production work through his companies Emmett/Furla Films and Cheetah Vision Films, and what’s next for him.

Randall Emmett
EFO Films

Cory Mahoney: Hi Randall! How are you doing?

Randall Emmett: How are you?

Good, thanks! So, it’s pretty widely known that Martin Scorsese worked for decades to get this film made, and he’s explained why he stayed so committed to it, but I’m curious, what was it about this project that drew you in?

Let’s see… Um, well, A) It was Martin Scorsese that drew me in. You know, him in and of himself. And then it was the power of the story, the conviction of faith, you know, the question of faith and how it translates to everybody in the world, how it’s more of a humanity thing than it was a religious thing. I think those were the key factors. Marty, obviously, the chance to work with him, and then all of it — the whole question of faith.

Right. Was there anything personal in your life that really resonated, with regard to faith?

Yeah, I just think once you have kids, you really start to ask yourself a lot of questions. They’re an extension of you, and you really kind of go through this process where you have to have more faith than you’ve probably ever had. I’ve always been somebody who has had faith, but I think, then having children, the question comes up a lot more than it ever has.

I’m sure, you have those questions of “where do we all come from?”

Yes, exactly! And “where do we all go, if anywhere?” So, yeah.

That’s a lot of responsibility on you as a parent to answer those questions.

[Laughs] Exactly.

So, when you first signed onto the project, after everything that Martin Scorsese had gone through trying to get the film made, what were some of your biggest concerns before getting involved?

I jumped head in, right away. I didn’t even think twice. I got a call from Ari, my agent at William Morris, and he said there’s a chance that you might be able to produce/finance this Martin Scorsese movie, or raise the financing, and I went running to the opportunity. I got to New York, and I did my best sell I could, and from that, Marty gave us the chance to do this. The reservations, I think, more were just kind of “well, we’ll deal with them as we go,” you know? I knew it was not going to be a traditional film in terms of the financing or the domestic piece. I knew they would all be challenges, I just didn’t know the challenges I would be facing from a rights point of view, and a domestic point of view, until I really got into it. It was just, the words “Martin Scorsese,” you just kept saying it, and it was more like “I’m in this,” and this is a dream opportunity for me as a filmmaker, and we’re not gonna stop till we get to the starting line, because I knew Marty had tried for 20 years and this was something very important to him. So, you know, A) to be part of the Martin Scorsese filmmaking team, but also B) that was his passion project, which was pretty amazing, considering who he is.

The film is stunning by the way, so congratulations on that.

Oh, thank you. Thank you.

What were some of those challenges, as you started making the film? I know you guys filmed in Taiwan for financial reasons, so were there any other challenges, like maybe scouting locations or something?

Yeah, we shot in Taiwan, and they had done a lot of scouts before I came, over the decades. But we had settled on Taiwan, and I went on my first director scout with Marty and the whole team, and that was pretty epic, because we got to Taipei and then getting to go with [cinematographer] Rodrigo [Prieto], and with Marty’s team, you know these guys all have a shorthand, but just to be there, and when it finally came to that point, having lived in this movie for years, but to physically go there and really start the collaboration of making the film was just a beautiful, beautiful time. The director scouts I went on were probably the highlight for me, just to watch Marty finally give birth to this child that he had wanted for so long. The director scouts were amazing, the locations, shooting in Taiwan, the visuals, the coast. It was spectacular.

Yeah, it was beautiful just to see it on the screen. One question I have, because I think the subject matter is really delicate for this film, and given the current socio-political climate with face in film and #OscarsSoWhite, was there a concern about white outsiders in Asia, and handling that in a way that wouldn’t cause an uproar?

There was a delicacy, for sure. Marty had a lot of consultants, and I think he was never going to make the movie until he could make it in the right way, so I think this was handled with a lot of care and a lot of love. I think he very much so went out of his way to make the film as authentic as humanly possible, and I think those conversations were had with a plethora of consultants to make sure he was handling it the right way. So, the answer is yes. He was surrounded by a lot of Japanese historians and different kinds of consultants to make sure he didn’t miss a beat when making the film.

I think that really came across, too.

Yeah, I think so, too.

So, on a personal note, you’re one of the most prolific producers in Hollywood right now, and I’m just curious, what do you look for in a project before you agree to finance and produce it?

[Laughs] Thank you for that comment. Today, I think we really look for something that’s a little challenging, if not incredibly challenging, for instance, this was obviously incredibly challenging, and also something that inspires me. You know, Marty is an inspiration on every level as a filmmaker, but the subject matter was also. It’s something that people said couldn’t be done for 20 years, and I took that very seriously when trying to make the film. I like a good story, which is pretty generic, par for the course, but also characters. I think a piece of me has to be in the character that I get involved with, even if it’s so far-fetched from my daily life and my upbringing, I still want to connect. There’s a lot of scripts you read that are really exciting, and really cool, and really different, but I don’t always connect with the character. I don’t always see anything in the character that I can relate to. So, I think character is probably my number one thing, that when I see something exciting in a character that I can either connect to, or relate to, or be inspired by, then that something that drives me in that direction, if you’re not talking about the elements around the film, just the story itself.

Interesting, so are there any characters in particular that you felt most connected to on your projects or even projects you didn’t work on?

Yeah, I mean, all of my movies I find something. Take Lone Survivor, for instance. I mean, here’s a movie that, I never served in the military. I grew up with a military dad who served in the Marines and was so prideful about his service in the Marine Corps, so growing up I had this utter respect for the military because my father instilled that in me, and I think a lot of people obviously have respect for the military, whether they have family members serve or not, but for me, you know, my father served in the Marines during Vietnam. When I read Lone Survivor, what inspired me was the fight of the brotherhood, the loyalty that these four soldiers had for each other. They didn’t have anything, anyone else. It just felt like family. Dying for their country and for each other, protecting each other. It was just this honor that I just had never seen before, and it just resonated to me on every level. This is another movie that took many years, many years, people had tried to make it, and I read it and it just jumped off the page to me. I was in tears by the end of the script, and I just thought, this story needs to be told. All of these fallen soldiers, they need to have a voice, and I want to help that story with Mark [Wahlberg] and [director] Peter [Berg]. You just have to find something you can relate to as characters, and for me, I just felt like I had to tell their story, and I was very passionate and obsessive over that movie. I just felt so responsible, when Mark had given me the script to read, and at that point, I felt like I didn’t really have a choice. I had to make sure we got this to the screen. That’s probably, outside of Silence, the other most important film I’ve been a part of.

Just to shift gears, we’re huge fans of Power here at the office…

I love it!

I’m just wondering what your thoughts are on, how, despite the fact that it’s Starz’s top-rated show, and it has heaps of critical praise (including 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for season 2), that it never seems to get the acclaim and awards reception that it deserves. Do you have any thoughts on that? Why do you think that is?

Yeah, look, I think we were the underdog, pre-Empire and a lot of other shows. I remember when 50 [Cent] and myself, and [executive producer] Mark Canton, came together and developed an idea and said, let’s go try to make a TV series. It was such an innocent conversation among many conversations, and when we really decided to go for it with the concept we’d come up with, I don’t think we took really ourselves that seriously in the beginning. I think it was more like, we have a cool idea for a show and let’s go try to flesh it out and try to get a partner. We met with a lot of showrunners, and then Courtney [Kemp Agboh] came to the table, who is just beyond talented, and really, really took it to a level and layered it out for us. I was like, wow. That’s just the history and where we are today. When we sold the show, you know, we got passed on by everybody. And [Starz CEO] Chris Albrecht greenlit it on the spot, without reservation. I guess he just saw what we saw. By the time we got to him, we really had a fleshed out show, Courtney really had taken it to another level, and I think the show, when we came out of the gate, I don’t think people gave us much attention at first. I think the show was Courtney’s talent, and the cast, and the directors that were assembled, I think it really started to catch on, and I think people started to see something special. It’s just taken some time, so my answer — I don’t really know with the awards, why, what were, and how — but my take on it is, we’re shooting season 4, and in season 3 we finally started getting some nominations, like NAACP and things like that, but I think that people now, the awareness factor has finally reached a crossover and has branched out. I’m hoping that critically, people give the talented people on the show a lot more acclaim than they’ve been given because they deserve it. If I were to take a guess, when we first came out, I don’t think people took us that seriously. But I think now, like you said, the show is the highest rated show on the network and we’re greenlit for seasons 4 and 5, and you can’t overlook that. I think the people who are fans of the show know what it is and know how good it is, but I think we’re just starting to get there now. Hopefully, the critics and the awards will start to take notice. I’m much more optimistic today than I was a few years ago.

With good reason! You’re only building steam.

Yeah, for the creators and the actors and the directors on that show, these people are as talented as anyone and they deserve all of it. I really want them to get accolades, because they all deserve it. I’m really hopeful that, in the next couple of years, as the show comes into season 4 and ultimately 5, that we start to see more of that.

Hopefully! Well, speaking of looking to the future, I know you have a lot of projects coming up, including The Life and Death of John Gotti, which I’m really excited to see, but what else can we expect to see from you in the near future, or which projects are you most excited about?

Let’s see… We’ve greenlit a movie called Speed the Plow, it’s David Mamet, one of his greatest plays, ever. He’s one of the greatest American playwrights… I’m doing that with Irwin Winkler. I’m excited because we just wrapped on Gotti, based on John Gotti and John Gotti Sr. John Travolta plays John Gotti and Kevin Connolly directed it. We’ve just seen a bunch of cuts, and I think that people are gonna be really excited about that. It’s based on his autobiography. We’re excited about that, and talking about the future and what we’re gonna make this year, Speed the Plow is probably up there as an exciting film, what it could be.

Awesome, I can’t wait to see it.


Silence is now playing in major cities and opens nationwide on January 13, 2017.