Oldenburg: Cassian Elwes on His Directorial Debut ‘Passenger C’

The plot line for Passenger C reads like an “only in Hollywood” inspirational tale. Big-time Hollywood agent and producer Cassian is on a red-eye flight back to Los Angeles when he agrees to take the seat next to Marco, an ex-Marine with PTSD. When Marco begins to flip out, physically assaulting Cassian and threatening the other passengers, Cassian tries to calm him down. After landing, when Marco is handed over to the police, Cassian promises he “won’t forget him.”

He never did. Cassian is the producer and big-time Hollywood agent Cassian Elwes, and the incident on the red-eye, more than a decade ago, changed his life. It altered the course of Elwes’ career, spurned him to back a project nobody in Hollywood believed in — a little Oscar winner called Dallas Buyers Club — and to set up programs like the Horizon program to help female filmmakers and, most importantly, to stand up for Marco at his criminal trial, where he faced a 20-year prison sentence.

For his directorial debut, Elwes retells the story of Passenger C in a sparse, black-and-white film that bares little resemblance to his previous work as a producer — Elwes’ long list of credits include Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Dee Rees’ Mudbound and Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon. But it fits nicely into the indie aesthetic of the Oldenburg Film Festival, where Passenger C is having its international premiere.

Elwes teamed up with long-time friend, German actress and producer Veronica Ferres, on Passenger C, and the pair spoke with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the film’s Oldenburg premiere on Saturday.

Before talking about the film, can I ask how the two of you met and came to work together on this movie?

Elwes: It was years ago. I was an agent for many years for William Morris, and I went to the Berlin Film Festival. We had a client there, Sharon Stone. And Sharon Stone asked me to go to a party with her. She saw Veronica and said to me: “You’ve got to come and meet her. She’s the Sharon Stone of Germany.” We immediately hit it off, and we’ve been friends ever since. That was, I don’t know, 20 years ago, or something like that. We’ve worked on a number of movies together, movies that she’s been in, and we’ve stayed friends. I convinced her to come to America and get an agent here and she’s been incredibly successful. So when I first started thinking about this movie, I immediately asked her if she would produce it with me.

Passenger C is centered on an encounter you had on a flight. What impact did the incident have on your life that you felt compelled to tell the story as your directorial debut?

Elwes: The event happened to me 10 years ago, but I’d been thinking about this film for quite some time. I realized I was having terrible PTSD myself over it, that things were happening to me psychologically that I wasn’t able to control and they were affecting my life, my personal life, my work and a lot of different aspects. All that started coming out while doing therapy. The incident itself happened when I was in New Orleans. We were in the middle of shooting The Butler and having a lot of issues in making that film. We had done a night shoot and it was Saturday morning, about 10 o’clock in the morning, where I’d just gone to sleep about two or three hours before when my daughter called me and said: “I know you’re going back to Los Angeles tomorrow but is there any way you can come to New York first and spend the weekend with me because I’m moving into a new apartment and I need to go upstate and get all my stuff out of storage.” So I said of course and changed everything and flew to New York and took the last flight out of New York City on Sunday night, which was this JetBlue flight out of JFK. I’d never been on JetBlue before. Of course, people joke with me now that this is what happens when you fly on JetBlue.

But, actually, the incident turned out to be incredibly important in my life; it triggered something very cathartic for me. I started to really think about my life and that, if I could affect one man’s life (Marco’s) could I affect other people’s lives? Initially, I had the glib idea of maybe going to work for Habitat for Humanity or something, but I had lunch one day with [Black List founder] Franklin Leonard, and he said: “You have this incredible knowledge of the film industry. What you really should do is help mentor people, help young people in a more meaningful way in your business.” And that’s how these programs started, like Horizon, to help female directors. And It’s really taken off. We’ve done it for 10 years now, where we bring young female directors out of colleges and film schools across the country and bring them to Sundance for mentorships. In the last four years, I’ve made maybe 10, 12 movies and at least seven of them were with female directors, most of those first-timers. I’m trying very hard not just to talk the talk but to walk the walk. And it all came from that incident on the JetBlue flight.

When Marco said “You’re going to forget me?

Elwes: And I said, “No, I’m not. I won’t.” But I did. I started working on Dallas Buyers Club, and then I moved to the next movie and the next. And I lost touch with him. But because I had sent all these tweets out about what happened that night — I wrote them in the cab ride on the way home, when it was all still fresh in my memory — and that had gone completely viral, something like 500,000 people read it or something, someone tweeted at me three months later and said: “What happened to Marco?” And I thought, “Oh my God, where is he? What’s happened to him?” I’m even choking up now, talking about it, but I tracked him down. He was in the maximum security in Denver. I went down there to meet with him, and I went to his trial to support him. I wrote [the judge], asking for leniency. And, right on the spur, he decided, to change the sentence. Instead of giving Marco five years of prison, he gave him three years of probation. I wrote to the guy; I made the effort, and it actually changed something. That’s what motivated me afterward. I was like, you might not be able to change the whole world but you can change one little thing at a time.

Ferres: When Cassian came to me he said, “I’ve had this experience, and I really have to make this movie about it; maybe it could change people’s lives.” I immediately said I have to produce this film. Firstly, because I’m just very proud to know this genius who is so much more than just an agent or a producer; he can really inspire filmmakers, directors, writers, actors and put them together in a way that is the best to make a great film. When he said he wanted to direct, I told him I wanted to be the producer of Cassian Elwes’ first feature.

Elwes: And Veronica, God bless her, she’s been an angel in my life. She gave me a lot of notes on the shoot and in post-production, in the editing room and she’s continued to help me, through getting this film to the Oldenburg Film Festival. She’s been the kind of producer to me that I try to be to other filmmakers.

What were the biggest challenges in telling this story?

Elwes: Well this is not a classical three-act story. It required a very unique form of storytelling that reflected what was happening in real time. And I wanted to include things, like the daughter-father story, that were very important to my emotional arc. I’m going to get very personal here. My daughter got married, about five years ago and I gave a speech at the wedding in front of maybe 200 people. And I started telling this story. I was saying, “This thing happened to me, and I could have died, and if I had, I wouldn’t be here today.” Afterwards, I was so mortified that I said that, in front of all these people. That was what started me thinking about what had happened and when I started to go to therapy about it.

I wrote the script over a three-year period when I had broken up with my second wife and I was living alone. I was sitting at my dining room table up at my little house, which is depicted in the movie, and I was writing this script out in longhand. It was at first just flashes of moments that would come to me in the middle of the night and I’d write down. It wasn’t really a script. When Veronica looked at it, it was just a series of thoughts and notes. She really helped me turn it into a movie.

What surprised me is how the film shifts from the incident on the flight, which plays almost like a real-time thriller, to the period afterward, which shows the behind-the-scenes business of Hollywood as you try to put together financing for Dallas Buyers Club.

Elwes: When I started writing, the actual conversation that I had with Marco on the plane, which was still very vivid in my mind, was the first thing I wrote. And once I’d written that was like, well, that’s 25 pages, that’s not a movie. And then I started thinking about how Dallas Buyers Club happened to me, the opportunity to get involved in it, happened right after that. It didn’t actually happen the next morning, like in the film, that’s a bit of bit of poetic liberty, but I got back on Sunday night, and I got the phone call on Dallas Buyers Club on Tuesday. I thought I’d throw that in because it might be interesting for people to see what my life is really like.

It’s a much smaller, lower-budget film that you are used to making as a producer.

Elwes: This was a COVID movie, we shot the whole movie in eight days, mostly at my house, at my office, at the Starbucks on Sunset where I go as a regular. I didn’t have a permit. I just went out there with a camera and the actors and said, “Let’s do the scene.” There were people going in and out, getting coffee and the people behind the counter were like: “It’s OK, it’s just Cassian trying to make a movie.”

Was it odd seeing your own story play out on screen, with an actor (Jon Jacobs) playing you?

Elwes: Well, strangely enough, back before I became an agent, I produced exploitation horror movies, I did four of them, even directed one, but I don’t count that. Passenger C is my real directorial debut. But one of the four films was called The Girl With Hungry Eyes. And it was directed by and starred this young British actor-director called Jon Jacobs. I when I started thinking about Passenger C I thought of Jon, because he kind of looks like me, and because he’s a director too, he could actually help me with the performance stuff, about where to put the camera and so on. Jon continued to make low-budget movies and produce low-budget movies and his partner, Michael Kastenbaum, is an excellent low-budget line producer. So I basically recruited them together to come and help me do a budget for the film. And getting Jon to play me really helped with getting the thing made.

What was that experience like, going back to the roots like that?

Elwes: It was ultra-low budget, shooting quickly, and I have to tell you: It was so much fun. It was like my first experience, making my first movies, when I was 23, making very low-budget movies for $200,000, $300,000. And when I look back on it, even though the films themselves weren’t, you know, amazing, they were made for the right reasons, which was for all of us to learn how to make films. It was so much fun making those films. My wife recently said to me, “The version of you making this movie [Passenger C] was the first time I saw you completely let go and have the greatest time being an artist and not think about the business.” The version of me that made this movie was the greatest version of me. I loved it.

Can you talk a bit about the Horizon program, which you started in part because of this incident?

Elwes: The big change came after I wrote that letter to the judge. Because you always think: “This is a huge problem, I can’t do anything about it.” But you don’t have to solve the huge problem, you can solve one little problem. Or you can try to help with one little problem. And maybe that might make a difference. I didn’t think the Horizon program for young female directors would mean this great change in our business. But I thought maybe I could show by example, that if one person tries to do something, others could follow. Now you see a lot of programs like this out there and I’m happy about that. We were the first.

How do you feel about premiering the film in Oldenburg?

Ferres: Oldenburg is a festival I have a history with. And it suits this film, because one of the main themes is about criminal justice reform, and Oldenburg is known for its prison screenings. It’s close to one of the biggest European prisons, the most modern prisons for male criminals. When my film [2013’s Gefährliches Schweigen] premiered there, there was a serial killer sitting on one side of me and a rapist on the other. And I was talking to them about my movie, what it did to them, and also about their lives, the events in their lives that led them to this place. It was a tremendous honor just to be there, to be able to have that experience.

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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