The décor in Reid Carolin’s expansive office is what you might call “sophisticated dorm room.” The wood floors are stained a weathered gray, a hammock hangs between two posts, and there are plot points scribbled in dry-erase marker on the white walls. Outside, near the open waiting area, a pool table sits in front of a wall covered in chalkboard paint that’s largely bare except for a drawing of Yosemite Sam.
For a year, this has been the home of Free Association, the production company Carolin cofounded with his partner, the actor Channing Tatum. It’s located in a building on the Sony Pictures lot, one floor up from where Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune get their mail. Not too long ago, Carolin was trying to get the company (then called Iron Horse Entertainment) going while working out of a spare room in Tatum’s house.
Then, in 2012, Carolin wrote and produced Magic Mike. Based on experiences from Tatum’s life, it was a critically acclaimed, invigorating, and unexpected film set in the world of male strippers in Tampa. Magic Mike also served as the alleged second-to-last feature film by indie cinema godhead Steven Soderbergh before his movie retirement. The movie cost only $7 million to make, but it grossed more than $167 million globally.
Carolin went on to executive produce Tatum vehicles like White House Down and 22 Jump Street, and in the fall, filming will begin on Gambit, the stand-alone X-Men movie starring Tatum on which Carolin is a producer. Following that will be Carolin’s biggest project yet, with he and Tatum scheduled to codirect their first film together. Carolin will only say there’s two possibilities of what it will be and that they haven’t figured out which one it is yet.1
But right now, there is Magic Mike XXL, the sequel that Carolin again wrote and produced that opens in theaters tomorrow. In a climate where it’s increasingly difficult to get movies made and paid for, this has been an impressive five-year run, especially for a pair as young as Tatum, 35, and Carolin, 33.
Tatum could have gone the predictable beefcake route of action flicks and sappy romances, but instead he’s been able to ingratiate himself by making unexpected choices, showing both on and offscreen how funny he actually is, being surprisingly candid in interviews, and typing “HA” 7,271 times in a leaked email about 22 Jump Street’s strong box office opening. In the last 18 months, he’s done voice-over work (The Book of Life), action comedy (22 Jump Street), award-fodder drama (Foxcatcher), and big-swing sci-fi (Jupiter Ascending).
Carolin offers career advice, but he’s hardly a Tatum whisperer. “We talk about everything,” Carolin says. “He does what he wants and so do I, but there’s certainly overlap in the sense that we’re friends and creative partners and we know we’ll get the most honest and direct feedback from one another.”
Producers have a reputation for being garrulous and brash, prone to shit-talking and self-promotion. The 6-foot-6 Carolin is decidedly more even-keeled, rarely uncrossing his legs during our two-hour interview. Dressed in a blue button-down and a vintage Cubs cap, he speaks like a young professor still getting his bearings. He circles around concepts but rarely drills down on them.
For his success, Carolin’s main reference points aren’t particularly commercial — or contemporary, for that matter. His perspective on film was formed when he was 14 and watched his cinephile mother’s VHS copy of Days of Heaven for the first time. Carolin already had some notion that he wanted to make movies. Terrence Malick’s film helped him realize that he might be able to do so. As he sat in his bedroom and took in the film’s tender and tragic love triangle interlaced with a poetic meditation on Texas wheat farming in the 1910s, he was astonished.
Unlike the summer blockbusters he’d seen, Days of Heaven had a strange, humanistic approach that overwhelmed Carolin. “Someone went into the world with a camera and observed and had a point of view,” he says. “It just felt like anyone could do anything in movies. If you could do something like that, you could make anything that was in your mind.”
Soon Carolin fell fully under the spell of old films about broken studs — movies like Cool Hand Luke, Midnight Cowboy, and The Last Detail. Plenty of aspiring filmmakers have come to Los Angeles worshiping the rebel Hollywood of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when major studios produced intimate films about difficult men raging at the systems that bound them. And we’ve watched enough dreamy, lingering shots of blades of grass blowing in the wind to know that just because someone knows the ingredients that Malick uses doesn’t mean he can cook a meal like him. But with Magic Mike, Carolin managed to make a film very much in the spirit of those ’70s classics. Despite its seemingly-good-times setting and Rihanna-tracked trailer, it’s remarkably honest and often gets dark. Remember, even Tatum’s iconic routine set to “Pony” is intercut with shots of Cody Horn frowning.
Carolin grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. His mother worked at a nonprofit that takes land easements and returns them to their natural prairie state; his father was a personal assets manager, dealing with other people’s money. Carolin went to Harvard and hoped to walk on to the university’s hockey team, but he ended up only playing on the junior varsity squad for four years. He discovered the Visual and Environmental Studies department, a well-funded program but hardly one of the school’s most prestigious. It’s a catchall for students interested in studio arts, architecture, and film, and Carolin ended up spending much of his class time in the basement of the Carpenter Center — a sore-thumb modernist building on campus — learning about documentaries from filmmaker professors like Hal Hartley, Ross McElwee, and Robb Moss.
After graduating in 2004, Carolin drove across the country to Los Angeles to try to become a director, but without much of a plan of how to do it. He interviewed for an internship at John Goldwyn Productions with fellow Harvard alum Franklin Leonard, a film executive who later started the Black List, the influential collection of Hollywood’s best unmade screenplays. Only a few years younger than him, Carolin landed a spot as Leonard’s de facto assistant — opening the office, taking calls, and reading scripts.
“It was always very obvious that he had the intellect and the maturity, and that he wouldn’t be an intern or an assistant for very long,” Leonard say. “What is sort of remarkable about Reid, and I think this is something that he and I shared, is we were both sort of amused by the way things were done and had a natural instinct and desire to do things our own way. He, in addition to having the talent to be able to do that, had the willingness to go and figure it out.”
A few months in, it became clear that Carolin wasn’t interested in being a producer in the conventional studio system. He had some friends from back home who had gone into the military after 9/11, and he heard about a film that director Kimberly Peirce was putting together about soldiers returning from the war in Afghanistan. Peirce’s girlfriend was Leonard’s former boss at Creative Artists Agency, so Leonard put Carolin in touch with her.
“That night we came up with the idea for Stop-Loss and it just became the next three years of my life,” Carolin says. He took on the dual roles of associate producer and Peirce’s collaborative assistant on the film, which followed a Texan sergeant played by Ryan Phillippe who goes AWOL after learning that the Army plans to force him into another tour of duty.
Peirce’s brother was enlisted at the time, and she and Carolin became fascinated with the amateur movies her brother would send them — shot by soldiers while in combat and then edited together back at the base. Carolin and Peirce traveled around the country, interviewing veterans for a documentary Carolin wanted to make. They collected their stories and passed them on to author Mark Richard to turn into a screenplay.
The process of developing Stop-Loss was long, and Carolin was soon out of money and deep in debt. He left California to enroll at New York University, but two months into pursuing a master’s in filmmaking, he got word from Peirce that producer Scott Rudin had gotten involved, so he returned to Los Angeles.
It was during preproduction on Stop-Loss that Carolin first met Tatum, then still a newbie actor whose performances in Step Up and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints weren’t even out in the world yet. Peirce and Carolin liked what they saw on an amateur-quality audition tape and brought Tatum in for a meeting.
“Kim has a very, very strong energy, and this big, huge tall guy in the back was sort of just running everything, running around being her manservant,” Tatum says of the meeting. “That was my first experience with Reid.”
Carolin and Tatum realized they lived near each other, so shortly after meeting, they got drinks at a since-closed dive called St. Nick’s. Afterward, the two were walking by the Beverly Center when Tatum dashed off.
“He just climbs up this massive billboard over Los Angeles, doing his ‘Life is amazing, I can jump and flip off everything I want’ thing,” Carolin says. “I went climbing up after him. I got up halfway and was like, ‘Nah, you can go up there.’ And I just remember thinking this guy’s insane, in a good way. He’s fun, and he’s not taking this business too seriously, and he kind of has the same core values that I feel like I have as a human being.”
Even back then, Peirce recognized the possibilities between the two. “I certainly saw in Channing huge charisma and the potential to be a movie star,” she says. “I also saw in Reid huge talent — savviness, great storytelling, and [being] really willing to roll up his sleeves and do the work.”
Stop-Loss finally got made, but it wasn’t easy. “There were lots of different personalities clashing on that film,” Carolin says. “It was a tough set.” When it was over, career doors were opened, but he was drained and needed a break.
He moved to New York in 2007. There he produced Earth Made of Glass, a documentary about the Rwandan genocide, for his friend Deborah Scranton. He got representation as a screenwriter and picked up gigs here and there, like adapting the Philip Caputo novel Acts of Faith, about United Nations aid workers in Sudan. He also developed a show for HBO about a half-white/half-Hopi family that moves back to the reservation during the recession. Carolin soon realized that no one had any real intention of making these projects; because he had no name recognition, they were basically audition pieces.
He had remained close with Tatum, who was at that time facing his own career frustrations, appearing in the weepy Nicholas Sparks adaptation Dear John and rote action flicks like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Looking to take more creative control of his career, Tatum decided to team up with Carolin. They would develop projects that Tatum would want to star in, while Carolin would work on things that might actually get made (unlike his spec script work) and could actually make him money (unlike his documentary).
A hot, young actor starting his own production company is not the most original idea. But Carolin went along with it because he had faith in Tatum’s commitment. “Everybody in this business intuitively knows if you want to get something done, do it yourself. There’s a lot of people who have that mentality but don’t have the wherewithal or the status to get it done,” Carolin says. “What I recognized in Chan is that he would do the work. He was like, ‘Hey, let’s meet at my house at eight in the morning, and we’ll sit around and come up with ideas until two in the morning, when we’re so tired that we can’t talk anymore and we’re angry with each other for even having done this.’”
They gave themselves a 12-month deadline to get a project off the ground and just made it with 10 Years, a little-seen high school reunion rom-com that features Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Oscar Isaac, and Justin Long, and felt like a lot of called-in favors from friends. But even in their first brainstorming session, the story idea at the top of the list was something based on Tatum’s experiences as a stripper in Tampa, back when he was just 18. The actor had been cautioned by his PR people to keep that time in his life quiet, but he recognized the cinematic possibilities. Then footage of him performing surfaced in Us Weekly, and his past became public.
Tatum was understandably protective about mining that period in his life for a movie, but he was confident in what Carolin could do with it. “Reid and I get along because there are no limits,” says Tatum, sounding particularly Tatum-ish. “I work better being truly honest, and that might unsettle some people, or people might not understand that, but as long as we can get past the honesty line, then we’re going to be friends. I don’t surround myself with people I wouldn’t trust in their portrayal of how they see me and my life.”
The pair would bring the male-strippers idea to countless meetings with directors and executives, but nobody seemed to understand the appeal of telling this story in a grounded way. One person wanted to turn it even grittier and play up the drug use to a debased level; another envisioned the characters spontaneously bursting into song.
In 2010, disillusioned with the offers he was getting, Tatum took whatever role was available on Soderbergh’s Haywire.2 He was only on set for five days, but at a bar one night Tatum told Soderbergh about his stripping adventures and the movie he wanted to make about them. Soderbergh told him it was a great idea, but Tatum figured he was just shining him on. The following year, during a Q&A after a screening of Haywire, an audience member asked Soderbergh what it would take to get him to make another movie. He replied, “Channing Tatum’s stripper story.”
As soon as they heard about that comment, Carolin pushed Tatum to email Soderbergh to see if he was serious. Soderbergh replied that he was and set up a meeting the next day at Carney’s Restaurant, a hot dog spot inside an old railcar on Sunset Strip. After talking for more than an hour, Soderbergh told Tatum to get Carolin to come up with a plot.
Carolin recorded all of Tatum’s stories and stayed up for a week, outlining a narrative about a young guy who throws himself into this new world and destroys all of his connections to his previous life. After Carolin walked Soderbergh through the film’s beats, the director told them this could make a good movie, except that the kid should be played by someone else and that Tatum’s character would serve as his introduction into this world. Soderbergh told Tatum they should split the financing of the film — a decision that nearly bankrupted Tatum — and that Carolin needed to have a script in a few weeks so Soderbergh could take it to Cannes Film Festival, and that he planned to shoot it at the end of August. It was already April.
Despite all of those challenges, Magic Mike became a critical and commercial success. Tatum’s payday landed him on the Forbes Celebrity 100 list for the first time. As for what it did financially for Carolin, he only says, “I lived job-to-job before Magic Mike. It certainly has meant a lot to me from a financial standpoint.”
“[Reid] claimed that he didn’t even want to spend the money on a new suit for the premiere because he didn’t think it was going to be a success,” Leonard says. “I thought that was the dumbest thing that’s ever come out of his mouth, but I believed him because he is, to a fault, modest and humble. If he could have turned off his own natural humility and looked at it objectively, he would have realized he’s got a movie with a bunch of good-looking guys taking their clothes off. It’s going to go well.”
Three years later, even the man whose life it’s based on doesn’t totally understand why Magic Mike transcended its indie roots. “I really wish I could say that we had a full understanding of what people went to it for. We found a really interesting ’70s movie, like Saturday Night Fever, in it,” Tatum says. “I do think that people probably thought after they watched it, ‘Well, that was not exactly what I expected, maybe not even what I wanted, but it wasn’t bad.’”
Later he adds, “I think the second movie might be more of what people were expecting on the first go-round.”
The driving force behind the making of Magic Mike XXL was Gregory Jacobs, Soderbergh’s frequent first assistant director and producing partner, who helmed the sequel. Jacobs always felt that one of the best aspects of the first film that didn’t really come through was the chemistry and friendship among the crew of strippers. With original supporting characters played by Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, and Cody Horn now gone, the tertiary characters played by Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez, and Kevin Nash have been elevated to the point where their glistening torsos made it to the Magic Mike XXL poster.
Initially, Carolin and Tatum were unsure about making a sequel, especially since doing another Magic Mike would mean pushing back other projects they wanted to pursue. But after a year and a half of prodding from Jacobs, Carolin finished the script. If you ask those behind it why they decided to do it, no one really mentions that it sounded like a fun couple of months, or that studios don’t make enough movies marketed toward women and gay men in the summer, or that it could make them a lot of money. Instead, they emphasize the storytelling aspects — that there were parts of the bigger narrative they still wanted to tell. It can feel like a cautious answer disguised as a noble one.
Magic Mike XXL follows Mike as he rejoins the men of Xquisite for one last trip from Tampa to Myrtle Beach for a strippers convention that promises 3,000 women and a storm of dollar bills. It’s been described as a male stripper odyssey, as the crew make stops at a redneck drag bar, a members-only club that caters to African Americans, and a mansion outside of Charleston populated by older women and divorcées.
There are no villains in the film, except maybe the inevitable passage of time and the realization that trying to fill one empty hole in your life will only open another one up. But don’t worry your existential little heart — the climactic strip performance is so involved and intense that it is not unlike the increasingly elaborate and expensive set pieces of most summer blockbusters. Instead of a car crashing from a skyscraper into an alien warship, the gyrating crotches go from Matt Bomer singing D’Angelo, to a sex swing, to a tag team lap dance set to Jeremih’s “All the Time” that looks like it may legitimately cause some of the extras in the audience to faint.
Last year, Free Association added Tatum’s manager Peter Kiernan as a partner to take on more of the traditional producer duties, freeing up Carolin to do more creative work. Some ideas Carolin is developing seem to be a fit for Tatum, like the one set in the world of modern mercenaries. Then there are projects — a historical take on imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier, and another about Janis Carter, who brought a humanized chimpanzee to live with her in the jungles of Gambia — that have no place for Tatum in them. Carolin says Tatum hopes to do less and less acting, and fewer Free Association projects will revolve directly around him.
Even if Carolin won’t always have the advantage of having Tatum tied to his movies, he doesn’t seem concerned. Asked if there’s a larger story he’s interested in telling now, he gives an abbreviated explanation of a script he’s finishing up about a man who falls in love with a woman from his dreams. “It’s about the nature of subconscious and how there’s magic in the world,” he says. “I’m really obsessed with this idea that we’re living in this environment where there’s always magic around us that we are not perceiving.”
Looking at how his career has developed, Carolin appears to have always been able to connect with the right people in the right time in both their life and his. As to whether he thinks there’s been an element of luck in his success, he writes, “I wonder if luck is the best word. Magic Mike is about guys learning that sometimes you can’t control your life, you have to trust your intentions and instincts and let the road take you where it wants to go. It’s about trusting that things will make sense when you look back, not when you look forward. I hopefully try to find people and projects that my gut instinctively points me towards, and hope that there’s some type of rhyme to them later.”
Eric Ducker (@ericducker) is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.