"The Last Tycoon" Producers on The Series' Social Commentary, Top-Choice Cast, and Meticulously Crafted Sets

Photo: Jenevia Kagawa Darcy

"The Last Tycoon" is a meticulously crafted period piece that combines the deepest nostalgia for Old Hollywood glamour with all the relevant sociopolitical commentary necessary to address the inequalities of show business both then and now. The latest in a line of original programming commissioned by Amazon Prime to expand the service's standing in an increasingly expanding competitive market.

Adapted from the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, "The Last Tycoon" centers around the charismatic protagonist, Monroe Stahr (Matt Bomer). Stahr works as a big-shot film producer on Brady studios run by Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammar). Also starring are Pat's daughter Celia (Lily Collins) who hopes to take up the family business of producing films, Brady's wife Rose (Rosemarie DeWitt), and Monroe's new love interest Kathleen Moore (Dominique McElligott). Though the series' plot is interwoven through an extensive network of moving parts with a large roster of starring and supporting characters, it thoughtfully addresses the questionable dealings involved in filmmaking and the entertainment industry in general.

The question of adapting a novel often comes down to how closely to follow the source material versus taking creative liberties to make it better work for live-action.

"Tycoon, as opposed to other novels is unfinished, so it gave us a little bit of leeway," says executive produce and writer Chris Keyser. They also visited the Fitzgerald Society to meet with experts and discuss how to adapt the novel and get their seal of approval. Expanding beyond the original material was seen as a faithful homage to Fitzgerald's work. The television format also allowed for greater room to expand on the material more effectively than if they were to simply do a two-hour film. Additionally, the writers had a wider scope of the historical setting Fitzgerald was writing in as well as a fresh perspective better suited to create content for a contemporary audience. "He didn't know a lot of the stuff we're talking about. He didn't know about the Nazis, he couldn't have thought about women the same way, couldn't have thought about the underprivileged in American the same way. But that doesn't mean it's not from Fitzgerald. It just means that we're talking about Fitzgerald as he applies to 2017."

Diverse audiences are left feeling excluded even when consuming a modern palette of film and television and that feeling is exponentially larger when looking at older Hollywood properties. The approach of "The Last Tycoon" to addressing relevant social topics that arise in the original novel are equally as relevant to today's social climate. These sociopolitical elements are one of the staples to the show's success and greatly appealed to the creators and actors.

"It was such a huge part of the appeal for both of us," says executive producer and writer Billy Ray. "When I first heard the book, I thought the conversations that he's writing about in 1930's Hollywood are conversations I've had a hundred times in my career, because the basic power dynamic of Hollywood has never changed. That struggle between art versus commerce or passion versus profit, it is exactly the conversations that people were having then because the fact is that movies are the most expensive medium in the world and if you want to make a movie today, it's going to cost you sixty million to make it and another fifty to open it and if you don't have it, you have to go to a source of finance which is probably going to be a studio. Once you go to that studio, your movie becomes their product and that's where the clash comes. Who then controls it? Who should control it? That was completely true in the 1930's, it's been true from the moment film began. Then throw on top of it, the thematic realities of the American dream and its promise and its cost, and the perspective of that from the 1930's, and then this perspective of it from today and what we've learned in those intervening years that have made us look a little differently at the American Dream."

"I'm really interested in the idea that movies are a lie, essentially, that we tell ourselves about who we are," adds Keyser. "They were certainly a lie in the 1930's in the midst of a Depression because they didn't talk about the Depression to people. They talked about what American might be. That was necessary, right? You needed something you could go to. People had no money for anything else but they went to the movies because they went to the movies for hope. Still, it was a lie about the truth of America. So much a lie by the way that the Jewish-American men, the immigrants who came to this country to make those movies created a world of America that did not include Jews. Movies tells us these lies, amongst them are lies like 'Anyone in this country can grow up to be anything he or she wants,' the American Dream idea, not just in movies but in general. We just have a different perspective on that in 2017. It's very clear that the America we thought we were in the 1930's and 1940's is at least not the America we still are. Whether it was ever that entirely we don't know. It's pretty clear now that the idea that somebody can grow up to be anything he or she wants to be is not really true in this country. In fact, it's demonstrably less true in this country than it is in any other country in the Western world. There is less intergenerational social mobility in America than any other place. Having said all of that, there is some reason why we tell stories to each other and why we need those stories and that question is really interesting to us."

With a cast full of strong performers, Keyser was eager to share on how remarkable an experience casting the series was. "This was a unique experience in my career in that every single person we went after said yes. Nobody said no. The first person we talked about for Stahr was Matt Bomer, the first person we talked about for Brady was Kelsey Grammar, the first person we talked about for Rose was Rosemarie Dewitt. Similarly, we never offered the part of Celia to anyone but Lily and never offered the part of Kathleen to anybody but Dominique. It was extraordinary in that way, the type of momentum that built off of Matt saying yes." The domino effect even extended to the production design, costume design, and the DP.

"The Last Tycoon" also boasts an impressive set of visuals, with careful attention going into the production design by Patrizia von Brandenstein. Keyser shares how extensively the the show's sets and costumes were crafted and that this foundation made it all the more seamless for the actors to perform on the backdrop of a period piece. "We were pretty fastidious about the idea that every prop, everything that people picked up and looked at and every corner of every room you went into felt genuinely like the thing itself. Then it gets filmed in this incredibly romantic way by Danny Moder [the series cinematographer] who not only channels the 1930's but also in many ways, as was sort of our obligation, takes 2017 sensibility and applies it to that. It was very complicated to do something like that. We had tremendous resources compared to a television show I might have done years ago on broadcast but we were pushing up against what we were physically capable of doing in an eight and a half, essentially nine day shoot per episode togged those kinds of sets built and costumes."

"It's a question of where you set the bar," adds Ray. "We felt very strongly that the show was about the power that the dream has on everybody in Hollywood. They're all chasing something that is so elusive and so romantic and so intoxicating and they're all so compelled by the pursuit of that dream. If you're gonna do that, you better shoot it in a dreamlike way. You better make sure that dream looks beautiful. So the bar that we set was, we were making nine movies this year. We didn't think of them as episodes in a production sense. They had to be as good as movies, as good-looking as movies. They had to give you that feeling that you have when you sit in a beautiful theatre and you watch a hundred-million dollar movie, that it feels lush and it feels specific and it feels romantic, and every lighting choice feels like the right choice. That's a hard thing to do if you're doing it in sixty-four days. We feel we did it."

The Last Tycoon is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.


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