Last month, while in town for the Little Rock Film Festival, Hollywood producer and Little Rock native Brad Simpson politely declined to talk about the famously troubled production of "World War Z," the Brad Pitt-starring international zombie thriller that opens in theaters on Friday. During the four years Simpson worked as an executive producer on the film, he reportedly had to deal with a ballooning budget, escalating tension between Pitt and director Marc Forster, last minute rewrites and reshoots, sets filled with as many as 1,500 cast and crew and a Hungarian counterterrorism unit that seized weapons slated to be used in a climactic battle scene that Hungarian officials said weren't fully disarmed. Those details were revealed in the cover story of the June edition of Vanity Fair, which hit newsstands a few days before Simpson arrived in Little Rock.
"I can't say anything on the record about that stuff," Simpson said. "All I'll say is I'm really excited about 'World War Z.' The movie is really great."
Despite Hollywood's love of schadenfreude, his optimism might be well founded. Early reviews have been respectable to positive, though the film will need a strong opening weekend to make up its reported $400 million cost.
If it does prove successful, it'll be the latest in a remarkable run for Simpson, perhaps the least-known most successful Hollywood player from Arkansas.
Simpson grew up in the Quapaw Quarter. He spent a lot of time at the Territorial Restoration (now the Historic Arkansas Museum) and the Arkansas Arts Center's Children Theatre, where he did summer theater academy and was part of a production of "Lord of the Flies." He credits his time at the children's theater — and the advent of the consumer VCR — as what sparked his desire to work in film. "It showed me that there was something creative I could do on a bigger stage."
Simpson would've been in the 1991 graduating class of Little Rock Central, but his family moved to New York before his junior year.
It's hard to point to missteps in his CV after Arkansas: After college at Brown, he spent eight years producing for the New York-based independent production company Killer Films, where he worked on the likes of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "Boys Don't Cry" and "Far from Heaven." A desire to make bigger movies sent him to L.A., where he ran Leonardo DiCaprio's production company Appian Way during the making of "The Departed" and "Blood Diamonds." But after three years of serving as an executive, he wanted to return to hands-on production. "I feel most happy when I'm on a set or moving towards production as opposed to when I'm sitting behind a desk talking about something that might happen or trying to figure out a deal," he said.
After Appian Way, he made a splash with the three "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" movies based on the massively popular children's book franchise. The books and movies were such hits, Simpson said, because they're honest. "It's basically Larry David in middle school. They're honest about how ugly middle school is. Nobody looks back at middle school and says those were the best years of my life."
Simpson worked on the "Wimpy Kid" films with Nina Jacobson, a former production head at Disney, and last year became a partner in Jacobson's Color Force production company, home to "Hunger Games" franchise.
In a panel discussion at the film festival, moderator Courtney Pledger asked Simpson how he defines the often nebulous role of a producer.
"I believe the producer is someone who protects the movie, who's the guardian of the film," he said. "It often starts with finding the material or helping develop the material. Pulling together the cast and financing. Guarding the film through production and then taking it through post [production]. I think a real producer is putting a protective shield over the film, protecting it at times from the filmmaker, protecting it at times from the studio, and keeping the train going and thinking and worrying about the movie at all time. Their agenda should just be I want to get the best movie possible that's also the most responsible movie possible, meaning making the movie that will speak to an audience and making it for a responsible amount of money. You want to be able to do a next one and you want movies to do well."
Simpson and his wife, Jocelyn Hayes, who's a successful producer in her own right and was part of the film festival panel, met at Killer Films. Before they married and started having kids, their careers were well established. Hayes has produced "The Company," "Infamous," "Lola Versus" and the new indie thriller "The East." But scheduling has occasionally been a challenge. Navigating weather, massive amounts of money and actor availability pretty much mean that they have no control over their own schedules. Five weeks after Hayes gave birth to their second child, Simpson left to work on "World War Z." Soon after, Hayes, two kids in tow, went to New York to produce "Lola Versus." She kept the baby on set with her. Simpson flew in on weekends. After that, they were in Vancouver as a family during production of a "Wimpy Kid" film and then in Shreveport for "The East."
Simpson and Hayes said that when they're on location, they always like to pretend like they're living in whatever city they're shooting in. Rather than staying in a hotel, they rent a house and try to become locals. They said they guessed they'd live in Hillcrest if they were making a movie in Little Rock.
Good restaurants and general quality of life matter more than people realize in terms of determining a location for a production, Hayes said. With Arkansas's diversity of geography, they think Little Rock is primed to become a base for big productions. Plus, a lot of the Southern and Midwestern cities Little Rock might compete with are "shot out," said Hayes. "That means so many people have shot there that the locations become too familiar and the residents get really tired of production in their neighborhoods and stop saying yes."
Establishing Little Rock as a film hub is "all about making sure you're on Hollywood's radar and that the incentive is real and it'll stay in place," Simpson said. "Then if a couple of films have a good experience, it'll snowball."