Behind every great director is a strong producer helping keep the whole film production in order. They're one of the keystones of each project, building their foundation even before the director and actors are cast. They wear many hats, interact with a large number of crew, and hopefully, are properly rewarded too when award season comes around.
This year at the 28th , some of the finest producers in film gathered under one roof to enlighten an eager movie-loving crowd about the ins and outs of their profession. Those on the panel included (Silver Linings Playbook), (Les Miserables), Michael Gottwald (Beasts of the Southern Wild), (Lincoln), (Django Unchained) and (Life of Pi). There were a number of deeply interesting topics discussed at the panel, one of them being a producer's expectation of the project they're working on.
Bruce Cohen: I think we've all be on films that exceeded our expectations and we've also been on films that didn't live up to our expectations. One of the exciting parts of the process is because there are, just by the nature of the art form, so many different shots and elements that come together. Until you see that first assembly, and often times until you've continued to do work on the film and get more towards your finished product, you really don't know what you have. So you know what you hope you have, you know what you might have, but you're not counting your chickens until actually at the very earliest the first time you've shown your finished movie to a real audience. That's when you first start to get a sense of, separate from what you're thinking, what do people who didn't make it think of the movie.
Debra Hayward: Les Miserables was such a well done piece of material before we started turning it into a film. Quite early on, when we had some of the actors in rehearsal acting out particular scenes, songs you knew were something quite special, but you don't really know until you show it to an audience. Normally you're often so close to it, involved in it, seeing it early, you do need that objective audience to know for sure whether it's working or not.
On the dynamic between directors and producers:
David Womark: It was one of those few movies where the director was also the producer. So I'm going to quote what Ang [Lee] said last week which I thought was very appropriate. 'As a producer I'm an adult. As a director I am a child. When there's a controversy between the two or conflict, the child always wins.' That's his function and I think for the other producers on the movie, you want everybody to kind of coalesce, to get together. Our whole function is to minimize the gap.
Stacey Sher: I think you certain start out really when you're fortunate to work with a writer/director, a real auteur like to want to serve his vision and get him what he wrote and what he wants to put up on the screen, give him all the tools he needs. I think ultimately the producer's job is to serve the film, and there's certain days where people can forget what that is and we have to always remember the big picture. So whether it's pushing to get it out sooner, if it's going to cut into your post time, or to get a certain actor whatever it is, I think we serve the whole film, in the case when you're working with an auteur, is serving the filmmaker.
Kathleen Kennedy: I think Stacey's put together what parallels a lot of my vision as a producer. I also think it's interesting because I've always believed that the producer is the only one who doesn't, or shouldn't, go into the tunnel. Everybody else, when they start making a movie, they begin to focus in more and more on what it is that they need to do within their role or movie. I think the producer is the one who has to step back and look at the bigger picture. I think it's also important to have your own way to do it. I certainly do. I can't go into any movie without having very strong point of view of my own. So then what's happening is I'm trying to deeply understand the vision of the director and at the same time, weigh my own feelings, my own sense of taste in and amongst the process, and at the same time because directors often begin to retreat from the crew, you end up being the one who's communicating to everybody. That's an interesting process, trying to find where the balance is between understanding what the director wants, understanding your own point of view, understanding the financial obligations, constantly looking ahead anticipating, offering solutions, offering different ways to help the director achieve his same vision but maybe go about it a little differently. Those are the building blocks of what frankly I think makes it creative, fun and exhilarating to do this job.
Michael Gottwald: One thing that could maybe be much lower budget situation is the way I think we all often feel with managing our resources. You try to understand so intuitively what Benh (Zeitlin) is trying to do. Maintain your own point of view on it but also try to help him come up with a solution. We're going to flood a town, we're going to do creature creations, we're going to cast the six-year-old. The whole set-up of our film is that all the pieces are complicated. It really becomes an incredible challenge of how you're able to deal with it. I really believe that the first AD should be on this panel.
Producer Bruce Cohen touches upon his previous producing experience, and the thrill of learning from a master producer:
Bruce Cohen: The first movie that I've ever worked on, I was a trainee on 1985 on The Color Purple, produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, directed by . Most of what I know about producing I learned from the three of them over the years. You could possibly not ask for better teachers. One of the main jobs of a producer is to get the vision of the director on the screen. That doesn't necessarily mean, as Stacey made out so well, that you're always supporting the director. You do need to have your own opinion but I have found that incredibly important and a guiding principal that especially if you're working with a brilliant auteur, your job is to get inside his or her head. I've had the incredibly magnificent good fortune over my career as a producer to get to producer for Sam Mendes, Gus Van Sant, Tim Burton among others. So when I had the chance to add to that list I jumped at it because I'm aware that not everybody I'm going to get to produce with is an auteur of that quality, but here was the chance to work with David. So I really felt that my job was to get inside David's head. Silver Linings Playbook... what it was about to him was real characters, emotion, the drama and capturing that.
David Womark and Kathleen Kennedy explain the progression of seeing eye-to-eye with an auteur.
David Womark: I trained myself by also working with Kathleen Kennedy! On a serious note, I look at it also from the director's side, because what Ang [Lee] had in front of him for a movie was a very complex book, very spiritual story. On top of that he has to deal with the unholy trinity of water, animals and kids along with 3D, along with Pi having to loose weight in real time so we had to shoot chronologically. We filmed in Taiwan and the last major movie they shot in Taiwan was a movie with Steve McQueen in 1966 called The Sand Pebbles. I think when you look at all these elements, they seem daunting but I think as you go through them, I think this is where an auteur comes in. They have a very clear vision of how they want to make the movie. The formula says that you go through the pre-production but in our case, one of the things that we did was that we started doing a lot of research about water, lifeboats and even looked up this Hitchcock movie called Lifeboat. He wanted to make sure that it had visual variety, but with having visual variety, you would also get a sense of time because Pi is on a boat for 223 days.
Kathleen Kennedy: As what David was saying, and I started thinking about this when I was watching Life of Pi. I started thinking what would I have done if I was producing that movie. I think what's interesting about Ang is I think he's the director that bridges east and west in a way that I can't think of anybody else right now. I think the interesting thing is, when I was talking about trying to get inside the head of the director, and you're trying to interpret vision, then you're intuitive sense of your own opinions about things, with somebody like Ang I'm sure you had to set that aside. Not entirely but because his vision is so unique, and I think what's extraordinary is that this movie's already done over $400 million dollars overseas so it's extremely successful.
Kathleen Kennedy gives her two cents on how to tell a big time director no:
Kathleen Kennedy: I think those conversations are all about what you've done with them before... If you have a clear understanding with your director, in this case with Steven [Spielberg], I've had the honor of working with him for 34 years. I can sometimes do things with a look, and that's all. But really it is because even with a movie like Lincoln, we started talking very early on about the approach was. We knew that we didn't want to spend a great deal of money on the movie, we knew there was certain boundaries we were going to put on ourselves. We arrived at a vision collectively of where that process was going to be. Everything that followed was in service to that. I think it can have strong communication early on and you go into that process with a clear understanding of expectations, then hopefully the process of making a movie becomes somewhat easier. You are constantly making adjustments every step of the way, and as you make those compromises, as you have to draw those lines, you want to be working with someone who best understands your side of the process while at the same time they know that you respect and understand theirs.