Manhattan Beach film producer Chris Fenton couldn't have two more different films hitting theaters on Friday, April 6.
Three parents go all out to prevent their daughters from losing their virginity on prom night in the “R” rated comedy “Blockers.” In 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy was driving with campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne when he drove off a bridge into shallow water, he survived, she didn't. “Chappaquiddick” explores that night and the events that followed.
“Both films were controversial, but everybody in town were loving the scripts,” Fenton said.
Originally called “Cherries,” screenwriters Brian and Jim Kehoe imaged a bunch of dads on a mission to stop their teen daughters from having sex. The script ended up at various studios, but Fenton said they were “pushing the envelope a little too far.”
“The title was definitely a little risque and, to top it all, it was all males involved,” Fenton said.
Eventually the script found a buyer with the production company Good Universe, which was founded by Nathan Kahane and Joe Drake. Fenton and Kahane are good friends. One day they were at an open house at their children's school in Hancock Park watching their daughters on the playground.
“We were talking about the 'Cherries' script and I said, 'You got to admit some day our daughters are going to be in high school and we are going to fear the way boys behave around them. Heaven forbid, one day they lose their virginity in a way that they're not happy about and their hearts are broken,'” Fenton said. “That was the day where he was like 'let's figure out a way to get this movie made.'”
Good Universe financed the film, which was later picked up by Universal Pictures to distribute. While the script was being developed, they decided to add a female voice. Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg came on board to produce, along with other producers, and brought on Kay Cannon for her directorial debut and Leslie Mann to co-star with wrestling star John Cena and comedian Ike Barinholtz as the desperate parents.
They also cast newcomers Kathryn Newton, Gideon Adlon and Geraldine Viswanathan as the teens looking to lose their virginity before going off to college.
“You want to find what are essentially relative unknowns and know that the chemistry is there, that they can all work together, improv together when needed, and bring to life these amazing characters in a way that makes people laugh and also feel emotional ties to them,” Fenton said.
Fenton grew up in south Florida, not far from the Kennedy family compound in Palm Beach. He and his family are lifelong Democrats as is his wife Jennifer.
“I would have never in a million years have been excited about being involved with a movie that slammed the Kennedy's, an Oliver Stone type of movie,” Fenton said. “What was remarkable about this film was that the screenwriters (Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan) took the actual police records and adapted a screenplay from them. They created this really compelling dramatic thriller that takes place over that weekend and really shines, I think, a very human side to what was very tragic and what is very easy to look back in hindsight and go, 'How could he do such a thing?'”
Controversy still surrounds the night of July 18, 1969, when U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne left a party on Chappaquiddick Island. After the car landed in shallow water, it reportedly took Kennedy 10 hours to report the accident while the 28-year-old Kopechne was trapped in the car.
“Chappaquiddick” stars Jason Clarke as Kennedy and Kate Mara as Kopechne. Because of the sensitive nature of the film, Fenton said there was a lot of fact checking.
“The Kennedy’s are very influential in Hollywood … there are a lot of people that are really about artist's rights and freedom of the press and freedom of speech and all the things that go into the making of a really strong film community inside of a free nation,” Fenton said. “There have been big advocates for the Kennedy’s who are also very supportive of this movie.”
Career in film
Fenton, who was born in Florida and went to high school in Connecticut, said he always wanted to live in California. He graduated from Cornell University with an engineering degree and never expected to be in entertainment.
When Fenton moved to Hollywood, he met a number of people in the entertainment industry. “I didn’t know there was a business eco-system around it; I thought either you were an actor or director,” he said.
Fenton landed a job in the mail room at the William Morris Agency, which represented some of Hollywood's biggest stars. He worked his way up, becoming an agent and building a roster of actors and writers.
The agent eventually built his own business, H2F Entertainment, and sold it to DMG. At DMG, Fenton became known as an expert at negotiations with China. He was in charge of everything from developing to distributing the company's films.
In February, he announced he's leaving after 17 years. According the Hollywood Reporter, DMG grew from 35 employees to more than 900 on his watch and the company's value increased from $100 million to close to $5 billion. DMG was involved in producing films such as “Iron Man 3” as well as “Chappaquiddick.”
Fenton said he's headed to Saudi Arabia this week to maybe help launch the country's film initiative, which was reported earlier this month in Variety.