DETROIT — Gary Gilbert says he didn’t foresee during the making of “The Kids Are All Right” that the film would get several Academy Award nominations and be competing for best picture on Feb. 27.
“Not at all, and you never do when shooting a film,” he says by phone. “In this day and age, you’re hoping that you just get some form of domestic theatrical distribution. But really, you have no idea while you’re shooting a film what the finished product is going to look like or be.”
But Gilbert did know that the film had all the right ingredients — a talented director, Lisa Cholodenko of “Laurel Canyon” and “High Art,” whose work he admired, a script co-written by her that he loved, and an A-list cast of Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo.
The small-budget independent film was shot in just 23 days. Gilbert’s responsibilities as one of the producers included overseeing the production on the set and working to get distribution for the film.
“The Kids Are All Right” has gotten the sort of glowing reviews that only a handful of 2010 movies received. Besides a best picture nod, it has earned Oscar nominations for Bening, Ruffalo and its original screenplay.
The story of two moms raising their two teenage children and the sperm-donor dad who comes into their lives, “The Kids are All Right” has been hailed as a funny, profound portrait of a family that connects universally with audiences.
“It’s very topical, the same-sex marriage part of it. However, what I think is very special about the film is that it’s not heavy-handed,” says Gilbert. “It doesn’t take a stance on same-sex marriages. It’s just a fact. It’s a premise of the story. And I think that people see that, just like any other family, they are exposed to the same challenges and problems as a conventional family.”
It’s been a relatively short journey for Gilbert from aspiring film guy to red carpet regular for the 2011 awards season. Ten years ago, he was on a journey to learn everything he could about the business. Then in 2004, “Garden State,” his first film as a producer, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to become a critical and box-office success.
Prior to that, Gilbert — who earned a degree in business administration from the University of Michigan — was involved in the world of mortgage banking. In 1985, he helped his brother, noted businessman Dan Gilbert, found Rock Financial mortgage company. The sale of the company more than a decade ago allowed Gary Gilbert to shift his focus to a new career.
“There was a period where I was just trying to figure out, well, what do I do with my life? What do I love? And I said to myself, well, I love film,” he says.
But in those days, long before the state’s current filmmaking incentives, people from Michigan didn’t necessarily go into the film industry.
“I was actually dreading people rolling their eyes when I was going to tell them that that was what I wanted to venture into,” he remembers.
According to Gilbert, he decided in 2000 to take about 18 months and not invest in any films, but instead arrange as many meetings as possible with anyone — agents, managers, directors, actors — who could help him learn the business.
After about two years, he says, “Garden State,” came his way. It starred Zach Braff and Natalie Portman, who is up against Bening for the best actress Oscar. Gilbert liked the material right away and financed the $2.5-million film, which sold at Sundance for $5 million. According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, it made more than $26 million domestically.
Recently, Gilbert and his colleague at Gilbert Films, producer Jordan Horowitz, who also worked on “The Kids Are All Right,” have produced two made-in-Michigan movies: “Meet Monica Velour” with Kim Cattrall, which was shot in 2008 and opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 8, and “Cripple,” which features Aaron Paul, Lena Olin, Tom Berenger and Jeff Daniels and was filmed late last year.
“Cripple,” which Gilbert hopes to debut this year at the Toronto Film Festival, is inspired by a real-life metro Detroiter. A drama with plenty of comedy, it’s based on the memoirs of Adam Niskar, an employee of Quicken Loans who was paralyzed after a diving accident.
Gilbert has been working on developing the project, formerly titled “Right Angle,” for about eight years. His brother Dan, the chairman of Quicken Loans, is an executive producer and sole financier of the movie.
Scenes were shot at Quicken’s downtown office and Niskar has a cameo in the movie. “He did a phenomenal job,” says Gilbert.
As for a highly anticipated project that wasn’t made here, “Margaret,” a movie that Gilbert produced and co-financed with Fox Searchlight and that stars Anna Paquin, Matthew Broderick and Matt Damon, is set to be released this year after much delay due in part to multiple lawsuits. It’s directed by Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”).
For the past few weeks, Gilbert has been going to the award shows that take place before the Oscars. “The Kids Are All Right” won a Golden Globe for best picture — musical or comedy.
How does he prepare for all of this? “I get my tuxedo dry-cleaned every week,” he says with a laugh. “I think I need a new one for the Oscars.”
But he’s serious about what it means to receive a best picture Oscar nod. On the Oscar Web site’s official nomination roster, he’s one of three producers listed for “The Kids Are All Right.” Although it’s a cliche, he says it really is an honor just to be nominated. “It is something that will stay with me all my life,” he says.