July 31, 2023

Alumni Spotlight: Nicholas Hatton '09

By Olivia Kuhn

Nicholas Hatton ’09 is a twice Emmy-nominated television and film producer. He’s best known for producing Jury Duty (Freevee), which was recently nominated for four Emmys, Who Is America? (Showtime) and Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm (Amazon), the last of which won the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy Feature. He founded Swindle Pictures in 2022 alongside Jason Woliner (director of Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm and Paul T. Goldman).

Days after the 2023 Emmy nominations came out, I sat down with Nick in person at Sportsman’s Lodge — next door to the hotel that Jury Duty was filmed at — to talk about his journey into producing experimental projects, the lessons he learned from his time working on the show, and yes, what it was like to experience that big reveal behind the camera.

This interview has been edited for conciseness.

What inspired you to pursue a career in film and television?

I always loved movies and TV growing up as a kid. I was fascinated by them. I would avidly go every Friday to our local mom-and-pop video rental store. If I had been a good boy that week, I'd be allowed to rent a couple of VHS tapes, and I became obsessed with it from then.

I ended up going to college in the UK as an undergrad. I majored in economics and history because my parents said, “You have to get a proper degree and become a proper normal person.” I begrudgingly acquiesced. Then I realized about a year into college that everyone just wanted to talk about being in finance and working in The City, which is what we call Wall Street in London. Everyone was obsessed with how much they were going to get from Goldman Sachs in their first year and all this kind of stuff, and I was like, “Oh, I don't like this at all.” I realized that I needed to start thinking about what I really wanted to do after college. So I thought, I'm going to try and do this film and TV thing but I have no idea how one does that. It seems like a sort of make-believe business. And my folks fought me aggressively for a while, then eventually relented by saying, “If you can find some sort of formal education in this make-believe topic, we will not disown you.”

I Googled top film schools in the world and USC was there. Without really, truly knowing a whole bunch about it, I prepared my materials. Going in as a post grad, the Peter Stark program sounded like something I’d like to do. I read about it on the USC website where they talked about combining left and right brain, creative with practical, and captaining a ship—the whole filmmaking process. Lo and behold, in April 2007, I ended up getting a call saying, “Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to USC.” I'd never even been to LA before.

During your time at SCA, were there any classes, professors, or experiences that impacted you?

At my time, and I'm sure it's still the case now, [Stark] had some really, really great teachers and professors. Larry Turman, rest in peace, was a legend and really set the cultural tone for the program. Bobette Buster taught a development course, which was essentially how to be a Creative Exec. Truly, what she taught — the tenets of film structure, the three-act structure — I have never stopped using that. I still refer to my Bobette Buster notes. I'm very thankful to her. Jeffrey Korchek was an amazing teacher, he did Business Affairs. Those ones stood out, but truly, the whole experience was pretty great.

You’ve worked on projects that involve social experiments and altered reality. Have you always been interested in these kinds of stories?

I never in a million years thought I would be the guy who designs things for these weirdo kind of social experiments. Life is a river: you flow down it and find yourself in different, interesting places. As long as you can find the joy in that, that's the important thing.

I got into [Jury Duty] because I was working for a producer in the UK called Nira Park, who is fantastic. She produced Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver. We were making a movie called The Brothers Grimsby. I got to work with Sacha Baron Cohen, who was the star of that movie as well as the writer/creator, and his producing partner, Todd Schulman. When working with them, they essentially said, listen, if you want to come back to the US, let us know because we'll have a job for you. At that time, I'd been in the UK working in the business for about six or so years, and I felt like it was time for a change.

Moving countries is never the easiest decision. But I was 30, I had no children that I was aware of, and I thought, I might as well make the jump now, there's an opportunity here. By virtue of working with Sacha, I ended up producing Who Is America? for Showtime. Then I was asked to produce Borat 2, and because I did Borat 2, people offered me Jury Duty. And I sort of ended up being the guy who does these crazy things.

How did Jury Duty come into your sphere?

I was still finishing off the remains of Borat 2. Todd Schulman, who had been Sacha’s producing partner for a while, went off on his own. He and a couple of other guys (David Bernad, Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky) had come up with and sold the idea of Jury Duty, which at the time was essentially, what if you could do a sitcom, but if Jim from The Office is actually a real guy who was unaware that he was in a sitcom? And what if the story was essentially the story of 12 Angry Men? Can you create a Hero's Journey for a real person at the end of it? He's banging on the table for what's right and just.

Truthfully, after Borat, I felt like maybe that was the last time I would do something with real people. It's more challenging and stressful—there are many more ethical considerations.  After Borat 2, I was inclined to think, that will be my last dance and I’ll go out on a high note. Then when Todd told me the idea, the idea of actually really wanting to make people feel good about this real person's experience and come away feeling great. I thought, oh, no one's done that before. If we can pull this off, it will be the first time anyone has achieved it and I think it will feel very, very special to folks and resonate in a way. I was like, fine, I'll make your bloody show. And that's how I ended up producing it.

What was the process of green-lighting the show? Was it a difficult pitch given its unique premise?

I can't really speak to the pitching of it because I wasn't in those pitches — I was finishing Borat 2. But once it was effectively green lit, there's a bit of a dance around how much money you have, the budgeting of the whole thing, the scheduling for the whole thing. A lot of early soft prep work was about truthfully convincing the network that we knew what we were doing and that we had a plan to actually pull this thing off, because not many people in the world have ever worked in this space, like the Nathan [Fielder]  and Sacha space. When you're working with a network, they want to make sure that everything will be safe and no one's going to end up getting sued. A lot of it was making them feel comfortable about our plans and how we were going to pull it off, whilst figuring that out myself.

Huge credit to Lauren Anderson and Christel Miller over at Freevee for buying the thing in the first place and supporting us as we made it. They were robust and diligent in terms of being thorough with the process, interrogating and making sure that they were satisfied with all that we needed to do. Once we'd managed to convince them that we knew what we were doing, they gave us (and gave me) enough room to actually pull the thing off. You can't make a show like this with the usual sort of network protocols where people are on set, having execs coming in all the time. It’s such a controlled world. The subterfuge and the trickery of it is so important. They completely understood and they gave us the room and the resources we needed to pull it off.

The personal investment in a production as this one is very different compared to more traditional productions. How did you prepare yourself to take this on?

Once Todd and David offered [Jury Duty] to me in the first place, there was a year between me saying yes and then actually starting the writers’ room. I spent most of that year putting myself in our hero’s shoes(I didn't know who that was going to be at that point) and starting to mentally map out their journey from day to day. I started creating Truman's world for that year before we even started writing. I thought endlessly about that hero's psychological well-being. What used to keep me up at night and really put a pit in my stomach was if they came away from this experience feeling in any way negative about it. There was a show called The Joe Schmo Show back in the early 2000s, which was probably the closest thing to [Jury Duty]. Years later, the guy who was the Ronald of the first season really talked about how, whilst the first year he was okay with it, he increasingly became more and more distressed by what happened to him. It really affected his life and really hurt him. That was on my mind constantly because to me, this is silliness. It's entertainment, it's make believe, it's just nonsense. It’s kind of a cosmic joke, what we're doing, and it's just going to entertain us whilst we circle the sun and then eventually die. The idea of traumatizing someone for that sits so uncomfortably with me.

I've never felt more personally invested in a show. I wanted to build it in such a way that not only our hero felt good about the experience at the end of the day, but also that every single cast and crew member would believe in the mission. I knew that you can only make this kind of show if every single person buys in. People can't half-ass it and they can't be there if they don't want to be there. Everyone has to be at the top of their game and do stuff that they've never done before. You have to think about how our sound team works or how our production assistants work; they have to be hiding and only moving in certain moments and had to have a sort of noise discipline — all of this stuff that you do not need on 99% of other shows. I also wanted the cast, who were doing extraordinary things with no safety net and very little information, to feel heard and to feel seen and to be respected in the process. I'm very proud that that's what ended up happening. It really resonates for me, and that's probably the thing I'm proudest of: the fact that everyone felt good coming out of the experience.

What was your favorite moment on set? Also, what was it like to experience Ronald’s reaction to the big reveal that the show was fake?

I can rank terrifying days of producing, like the day on Borat 2 when we crashed CPAC, the big Republican convention, when Mike Pence was on stage, and we had to best secret service multiple times to get Sacha in there. That was very, very terrifying. Giuliani was extremely terrifying. But honestly, the reveal to Ronald might be the most nervous I've ever been in my life. I sat in the courtroom because I wanted to be right there on the floor, just in case anything went sideways. I had gotten to know the cast so well — seeing the looks on their faces as Judge Allen is going through the motions and building up to his speech. Then the final moment, the tension was really insane, because for [the actors], they put so much into it as well. They really wanted Ronald to know that, as people, they truly loved him and it wasn't all fake. There is an element of deception in this whole thing, but they only connected with him because they loved him on a personal level. They've made lifelong friendships, which is really wonderful.

If you make one mistake, the whole thing, which is now massively high, comes tumbling down. That was the real terror of doing the show, that you could be two and a half weeks into a three week experience and if you make the wrong move, or you don't consider such an eventuality, that Ronald would turn around and be like, “Wait, am I Truman, what's going on? Is this like a goofy TV show?” And then you'd have nothing. So that was bloody terrifying. The fact that it worked on the reveal day made it incredibly satisfying.

In what ways will you carry this experience forward with you in your career and in life?

It's cemented for me my belief that when it comes to doing anything, I think it should be done with very well thought out intentions. And there has to be tremendous respect for the person that you are centering this experience on. Moving forward, if I'm going to be in this space working with real people, I want them to have that same feeling that I did. Building a show in that spirit, respecting everyone that you work with, and empowering folks–when they know that you respect their work and input—that's the way I want to make stuff. The fact that the universe received the show in the way that we intended feels awesome, and it feels like a sort of sign like this is this is the way you can do stuff. It doesn't have to be hellish and fraught. You can do it in a different way.

What advice would you offer to those hoping to break into the industry?

You can only control what you can control and the rest of the world takes care of itself. So all you can do is determine how hard you're going to work and how you treat other people. You just don't know where the opportunity will come from. And it might not work out exactly as you thought it was in your mind. You have to be passionate, too. And I'll say this, there are plenty of times and there are plenty of job interviews I bombed. For the worst positions, for truly terrible companies that never really existed in the first place. And were probably just shell companies for like, unknown overseas fraud. And I couldn't even get a part-time receptionist job working for them. I remember vividly thinking “Wait, is it me?” Probably yes, was the answer. But I kept plugging away. And so often when one door closed, others would open—and it was even more exciting and more thrilling than I possibly imagined. As long as you have the passion and really want to do this more than anything else in your life, just remember: work hard and be nice to people.