Margot Robbie and David Heyman Discuss How ‘Barbie’ Went From ‘Unpaved Territory’ to ‘a Film for the Ages’

Liem Soeng

Margot Robbie and David Heyman Discuss How ‘Barbie’ Went From ‘Unpaved Territory’ to ‘a Film for the Ages’

Margot Robbie and her husband and producing partner Tom Ackerley had always been honest with Mattel about how they wanted to approach “Barbie” from all sides of the conversation. “But it would always be coming from a place of love and positivity,” said the actress and producer.

When their company LuckyChap Entertainment pitched the toy giant, it had been going through a sea change with new CEO Ynon Kreiz, and a new direction for the toy line that allowed more room for creativity. “The changes that Mattel made in 2016 made this movie possible,” Robbie said to IndieWire over Zoom. “If we had tried to make this before 2016, before they diversified their Barbie line and called every Barbie ‘Barbie,’ I don’t know how we would’ve built a Barbie Land and everyone in it without just not making a movie we’d really be able to stand behind.”

Each development update felt like a win, from recruiting Greta Gerwig to direct, to hearing her partner Noah Baumbach would be writing the script with her, providing a take on the iconic doll that’s now Oscar-nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. “At that point we thought, we are going to need a little extra help. This movie is going to be absolutely massive,” said Robbie. “We thought, ‘Ok, if we’re going to bring in a producing partner, who do we want to learn from the most?’ And the clear answer was David Heyman.”

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JASON BOURNE, Matt Damon, 2016. /© Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

The now four-time Best Picture nominee, who has balanced shepherding marquee film franchises like “Harry Potter” and “Paddington” with auteur-driven work like “Gravity” and “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” (the film he first worked with Robbie on) was considered the North Star for “how to conduct yourself in the business,” according to the LuckyChap producers. On Zoom with Robbie, Heyman returns the compliment. “Margot is amazing. She both separates her acting from her producing, and she is without ego, and is relentlessly, tirelessly supportive of everyone, particularly Greta.”

Though it all starts with Mattel’s iconic doll, the billion dollar success of “Barbie” has had its own resonance. “The fact that people are getting back into the mode of dressing up to go to the movies, or feeling like it’s a real event to get behind and get excited for and anticipate, and people are throwing Barbie parties— there’s just this feeling out there of embracing femininity, embracing the color pink, embracing joy, and that is bigger than the brand and bigger than the movie,” said Robbie.

But the pair is still not ready to even explore the idea of producing a “Barbie” sequel. “This was an amazing experience. It was a joyous experience. It was a challenging journey. There was some material left on the floor, but there was nothing left behind, so we haven’t had that conversation,” said Heyman.

Below, the pair discuss how their critically-acclaimed, big budget success story with eight Oscar nominations can be looked at through a new lens.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 25: (L-R) Tom Ackerley, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Margot Robbie, Greta Gerwig and David Heyman attend the State of the Industry and Warner Bros. Pictures Presentation at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, on April 25, 2023, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for CinemaCon)
Tom Ackerley, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Margot Robbie, Greta Gerwig and David Heyman attend the State of the Industry and Warner Bros. Pictures Presentation at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon 2023.Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for CinemaCon

There’s a lot of cynicism around IP storytelling, but all aspects of filmmaking come with their constraints. Is the right approach with IP to treat it as such? As a foundation to build something original on top of?

Margot Robbie: IP has been a jumping off point for movies since movies began getting made. Maybe it was less comic books and more novels, but it’s always been a jumping off point. What feels perhaps constraining these days is the expectation of how to use that IP and utilize it and put it out into the world. But IP itself is wonderful inspiration and always has been for so many filmmakers. With this piece of IP in particular—because this movie does feel extremely original. Both the tone feels original and the approach feels original. But Barbie didn’t have a narrative, which sets this apart, I suppose, from a Disney princess or even Harry Potter, where it’s a book and there’s a story and there’s characters and a journey and an arc that they have to go on. Or Spider-Man—here are the things that have to happen to Spider-Man, no matter which Spider-Man version you’re making.

Whereas this is unpaved territory. She didn’t have a narrative, and in some ways that was very freeing and exciting for Greta and Noah, and we knew it would be from the get-go. Whoever wanted to come on board, they’d really get to build whatever they wanted. But at the same time, it’s incredibly daunting because you can go in so many directions, and sometimes having parameters makes this a little less overwhelming. So it was both the fun and joy of it, but also the thing that could have led it in so many different and perhaps wrong directions, and thank God they hit the smallest target ever and approached this in the most unique and original way.

In this instance, it’s less about thinking of Barbie as IP and more about thinking of it as something recognizable. We didn’t really see it as comparable to say, when we’ve put together a Harley Quinn movie and there’s a canon that you go to abide by, etc. It was less like that and more about a recognizable thing like Spielberg and dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are a thing we all know and have a connection to and a feeling about. It was more akin to that, in my mind, than it ever was to replicating a character in a story that we are familiar with.

Heyman: No, I agree. IP has been around forever. The key for me is you have to understand or know why you want to tell this particular story. That is key to any IP, whether it be “The Godfather,” or “Harry Potter,” or “Barbie.” And “Barbie” in a way is a Trojan horse. It’s actually about so many things. But Margot and Tom, and Greta and Noah in their initial conversations decided to embark on an adventure that would require incredible boldness and bravery, and it wasn’t conventional at any point. There were themes and ideas within. Obviously everybody wanted to make big entertainment, but within that, there were themes and ideas that resonated with them, and clearly resonated with me, and with a lot of people around the world.

Margot Robbie, Ana Cruz Kayne, Director/Writer Greta Gerwig and Hari Nef on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Barbie.”Jaap Buitendijk

In choosing what directors to work with, are you thinking of scalability? So they may have indie cred now, but their sensibilities aspire to something much broader.

Robbie: Totally. I really respond to ambition in filmmakers, and I could sense that in Greta from the first time we met, even though she hadn’t done a big budget size film before, she clearly had the appetite to play with the big toys and play with the big budgets. And she fills you with confidence in a lot of ways because she’s so smart and she’s so charming and she knows what she wants. She clearly has a voice and a vision. But the way that she can speak about both filmmaking techniques, filmmaking history, current cultural conversations, all those things fill you with confidence. But then there is a clear ambition that she wants to do all the things in this business, and I really respond to that because I have an appetite for all budget sizes as well.

I don’t find my sweet spot in one particular area or budget size. I get really excited when I see a techno crane on set, and when you do an indie film, you’ve got to pick your two days that you can shoot with the techno crane, and you’re really excited for those two days. But then, when you go do a big film and you’ve just got two cranes sitting there every day that you could use, or you can build a hundred feet of track if you wanted to because you’ve got the crew, you’ve got the time, you’ve got the money. That’s thrilling to me. I love the equipment, I love the machinery, I love what you can do at a bigger budget size. And not that it’s any less magical at a smaller budget size, because that’s why I love it too, and it almost makes it more special when it has to be super intentional because of those constraints that we spoke about earlier.

But I definitely respond to people who are in a similar way to how I feel. They also get excited by the potential of getting to play and flex those muscles— and it is a different set of muscles. People underappreciate how difficult it is to operate at that scale. It’s like cooking dinner for eight people or hosting a wedding. It’s not easy. It’s really, really difficult to do it well, and Greta is one of those handful of directors that can steer a ship that large, which I find incredibly impressive. As an industry, the bigger the film is, the less impressed we are, which is just odd because it is so hard to make huge films and make them really, really well.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28: David Heyman attends the Warner Bros. Pictures World Premiere of
David Heyman attends the Warner Bros. Pictures World Premiere of “Wonka” in London, England.Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s almost like you two are storm chasing. David, both the conversation with “Barbie” and with “Wonka” was, “This could be a total disaster if done wrong,” but your trust in the filmmakers behind them was affirmed by the audience’s response to the films.

Heyman: Yeah, both “Wonka” and “Barbie” are independent directors, but for me, the director is the key, because the ceiling of how good a film can be is defined by a director. And I know Margot and Tom are ambitious and want to make great films, as do I, so it’s about finding those people who you believe in, and supporting them to the end of the earth. That’s what Margot and Tom have shown throughout their career. And seeing it firsthand on “Barbie” was very much in evidence, it was absolutely there. But just going back to the indie versus large scale, a lot of independent directors or people who’ve made independent films have gone on to make big studio films. And while I completely agree with you, Margot, that it’s a very different thing and it’s a big beast, if those people are supported well, in a way, the skills are very similar.

There are just a myriad of more moving parts and more people you’ve got to deal with. So if you are supported by a producer like Margot and Tom, but also great people in the departments, then, as has been shown again and again, people who come from the independent world can really thrive. And I actually believe they often make the most interesting films of all, because they are ambitious and interested, especially the directors that Margot and Tom and I like to work with, in telling great stories in a really unexpected and interesting way.

Is there a game-changing film you’d want the legacy of “Barbie” to mirror? David, you’ve mentioned before that during development, you all couldn’t really find comps for the film. 

Heyman: Wow. There are so many films that have influenced me and shaped me both creatively as a producer, and that I just loved. And I hope and believe that “Barbie” is a film for the ages. It is very much of now, and very much a film that needed to be made now. And as I said, there were no comps for “Barbie.” And the ones that we’ve tried, we were not allowed to use. But [that] was really shocking, and obviously Margot is pioneering in her support of female stories and female directors, but it’s really shocking when you actually look back on it how few films there are not in this vein as it were, but with female leads at a significant budget. It’s disappointing. Hopefully “Barbie” can pave the way for their being myriad more in the near future.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 12: Margot Robbie takes a selfie with fans during The European Premiere Of
Margot Robbie takes a selfie with fans during The European Premiere Of “Barbie” in London, England.Antony Jones/Getty Images for Warner Bros.

Robbie: David’s completely right, there were no comps when we were trying to green light this project, and there still doesn’t feel like a comparison of a movie that hit the zeitgeist in the way that this did, whilst having pretty spicy cultural conversations, whilst also injecting a huge amount of joy, whilst also being at this budget size. There was such a confluence of elements in this scenario that I can’t think of “Ok, when’s the last time I walked through a movie theater and saw people dressing up to go to the cinema? The Harry Potter films?”

And that was a long time ago now, but that didn’t really ignite this cultural conversation. It was more of an event for this childhood nostalgia. What I do find interesting too is—because when we got the Best Picture nomination, we thought, “Well, when’s the last time that the Academy and the public agreed? When’s the last time that the highest grossing movie of the year was also the Best Picture winner?” And it was 20 years ago, [with] the third Lord of the Rings film.

That doesn’t really bode well for us. It’s been 20 years and “Lord of the Rings” had the first and second one to be jumping off as well. But it is interesting that it is so rare for the highest grossing film to also be a Best Picture winner. It’s incredibly rare. It’s been 20 years, I don’t know how much longer it’s going to be, but as far as a comp for this scenario, I can’t think of one. But hoping for it to be timeless, always. For a movie to stand the test of time is always the goal. And there are movies that I still watch, we all rewatch movies from 20, 30, 50, 60 years ago that feels as potent today as it did back then. And that’s the mark of a great film. So I really do hope that “Barbie” is appreciated and still feels relevant in decades to come.

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