A Producer’s Secret: Take Every Opportunity That’s Presented

Guest blog: If you’re having a smooth experience on a film, then you are not pushing things far enough

Last Updated: March 30, 2013 @ 12:00 AM


A producer’s role is to wear many hats. It is all encompassing. I see it from the script, to the financing, to the casting, to the casting of the crew, to the production, to the editing, to the marketing, to the merchandising and beyond.

Every movie is a start-up company, and as a producer you are the COO of that company. Your business plan is the script. Other people might hire engineers, you hire production designers. You have to create a product and bring it to the marketplace and sell it in a much shorter period of time than Proctor & Gamble or Mercedes- Benz puts out a new product. That to me is both challenging and exciting.

On "Avatar," I was out merchandising and marketing the movie quite a bit. We would have a dog-and-pony show where we’d show material. But I was the dog, and the footage was the beautiful pony. I went to probably all but one continent in the world trying to sell them the idea of "Avatar" — the exhibition, the 3D aspects, merchandizing partners and promotional partners.

I think the most important skill for any filmmaker — and I won’t limit it to producers — is identifying the objectives of the movie at the beginning and never losing sight of those objectives as you go through the process. Nobody sets out to make a bad movie. Somehow on the journey of making a movie, people go off course. Somebody will say, “Gee we need more action in the movie,” and people respond, “OK, more action!” Some will say, “We need more comedy.” “OK, more comedy!” 

You get there and you’ve forgotten it wasn’t an action movie and it wasn’t a comedy. You can never bring it back. It’s about identifying a bull’s eye that is very, very far away. As you go down the course of making that film, you’re always keeping your eye on it. If you do that, you might not hit the bull’s eye, but you’ll end up on target.

It’s the responsibility of the producer to keep everybody else’s eye on that, too. People tend to become myopic in their own area. As a producer you have to step them out of that and say, “Hey, look at the big picture, this is why we’re making the movie and this is our goal in making the movie.”

I continue to learn things on every film. As I relate in the new book "FilmCraft: Producing," by Geoffrey Macnab and Sharon Swart, the learning doesn’t stop.

Take whatever opportunity’s presented — you never know what you’re going to gain. I was offered an opportunity to work as a producer’s assistant on a movie called "Beat Street" in 1984, which was really a launching point for my career in the film business. A couple of things happened on this film: The gentleman I was working for, line producer Mel Howard, had to take a leave of absence. Although they brought someone else in to replace him, I was the continuity and, all of a sudden, I was stepping up into a larger role on the production.

It was a great learning experience. Then, at the end of production, Kerry Orent, who was supposed to supervise post-production, wasn’t done with "The Cotton Club" (1984), which Francis Ford Coppola had been filming in New York. They asked me to stay on for post-production, so I said, “Yes.” They didn’t know I knew nothing.

I remember a time when the music supervisor came to me and said we were not going to be able to make our delivery date. We went to relay this to the film’s producer, David Picker. David didn’t get upset, he just very matter-of-factly looked at both of us and said, “I pay the two of you to tell me how it can get done, not that it can’t get done,” and he got up and walked out.

I will always remember that. Our goal is to figure things out.

Later, I was hired by RKO Pictures to make a movie for Paramount called "Campus Man," on which the director didn’t stay on to finish post-production. I got to sort of fill the director’s shoes as we finished this movie. Another great learning experience.

Later, when I became a studio executive at Twentieth Century Fox, to head up and establish their physical production department, I took the studio position with the express purpose of learning how a studio ran from the inside out.

I thought we were in a studio-driven business. On the outside, you can’t understand all the decisions that go into why a movie is made, why a movie is not made, marketing decisions, etc. I would also join the “weekend read” meetings. To me, you can’t separate physical production and creative production. Unless you understand the repercussions of one, you can’t make the right decisions in the other, and vice-versa. 

I was essentially the studio heavy. But the way I approach things in terms of the decision- making process, even as a studio executive, is: It’s not the studio’s side and the director’s side. To me, it’s always the movie’s side. I’m making this choice not because it’s what someone else told me to think or what I think is best for me, it’s what’s best for the movie.

I think those are the decisions that you continually have to make. When I went to "The Last of the Mohicans" set, Michael Mann was having trouble with the schedule and there were some budget questions. One of the first days down there, they were shooting a scene and they weren’t going to finish their day. It meant we were going to come back to a location the following Monday.

Michael said, “I’ve figured out a way to shoot this where I don’t have to come back on Monday.” I said to him, “Michael, don’t do that. That’ll hurt the scene. We’ll come back on Monday, we’ll do it the right way and then we’ll figure it out.”

By doing that, Michael knew that anything else that he and I might disagree on down the road, I was still making what I thought was the right decision for the movie.

I met Jim Cameron when I went to work with him on "Titanic," and I've now been with him for 17 years. That’s a long time to work with anybody. Especially in a business that is as intense as the film industry. So you have to find the opportunities where you can just step back. The role of a producer is both to be the Devil on the shoulder and the Angel on the shoulder. You just have to figure out which times to be which. 

Every movie is tough in a different way. "Avatar" was tough in that we were breaking new ground. There were times on "Avatar" where we had to stop to name something. Because if we did not name it, we would never be able to call it back and do it again.

On "Titanic," we had to build a ship, get it to raise and lower, and deal with the outside elements. We tried to do all of our due diligence in picking out the location to film. We had looked at the weather, the precipitation, the lighr — where the light would fall and how it would cast shadows throughout the ship. We looked at the wind direction: We built the ship into the prevailing winds so that we could blow smoke out of the funnels and it would blow back and make it look like the ship was under way — it would save us a couple of digital-effects shots.

The one thing we never thought about checking was fog. We were about to do our big sequence — two weeks on what we called “the tilting poop-deck” — and this fog rolls in. It was there one night, and the next night. We asked the locals about it and they said, “Oh, the fog? It’s here from November through February.” We thought, Oh my God, we’ll never finish this movie! Needless to say, it cleared up and we were able to shoot. We hadn’t checked it and there it was, it presented itself to us.

So I’ve never had a smooth experience on a film. If you’re having a smooth experience on a film, then you are not pushing things far enough. You’re not challenging yourself and you’re not challenging the others around you.

(Adapted from "FilmCraft: Producing," by Geoffrey Macnab and Sharon Swart)