The producers

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They don’t receive the same fawning admiration that film journals lavish upon top directors. They don’t get the glitzy Vanity Fair photo spreads that movie stars regard as their due. But they’re the driving force behind the movie industry and none of your favourite films would have been made without their efforts.

film-finance

by Daniel McCabe, BA’89

Joe Medjuck, BA’65, is worried that he’s coming across as a little too negative. He just spent the last few minutes on the phone, patiently explaining why making movies is harder than it ever has been before. DVD sales have flatlined. Cable networks like HBO are much more interested in making their own shows than they are in buying the TV rights to films by other people. As a consequence, foreign markets are more vital to the movie industry’s bottom line than ever before, and that results in a bias towards certain kinds of movies—sequels and splashy action films. Movies that aren’t too complicated. Movies that cross cultural boundaries easily because they already feel so familiar.

Now, it’s important to realize that Medjuck isn’t exactly a snob when it comes to these things. This is the man who helped make both Ghostbusters movies and he’s damn proud of that. He has nothing against films being fun. But he is also the man who recently helped make Up in the Air, Chloe and Hitchcock—movies that all didn’t easily fit the cookie cutter mold currently favoured by Hollywood.

“There are still things that I love about movies,” says Medjuck, one of the most successful producers in the film industry. “With every film, you get to build a new community of people who are all very good at what they do and who are all working very hard with a common purpose. That’s always an amazing experience.”

The key to success, according to Robert Lantos, BA’70, DLitt’00, whose production credits include The Sweet Hereafter and Barney’s Version, is to never “lose sight of who you are making the film for. You don’t make films for yourself, your friends or your family. You make films for the audience, an audience that has a wide array of choices and no vested interest in your project.”

The job of movie producer does offer unique rewards. In one of the most talked-about Oscar acceptance speeches in recent years, Tom Hanks famously paid tribute to his high school drama teacher when he received his Academy Award for Best Actor for Philadelphia. Hanks also paid tribute to the film’s producers in that speech—including Edward Saxon, BA’82.

A surprising number of McGill graduates play pivotal behind-the-scenes roles as movie producers. The late Jake Eberts, BEng’62, DLitt’98, is regarded as one of the most successful film producers of all time for his contributions to dozens of movies, including Chariots of Fire, Driving Miss Daisy and Gandhi.

Other McGill alums who have made their mark as producers include Robert Cooper, BA’65, MA’68, BCL’69 (Amistad; John Tucker Must Die), Evan Goldberg, BA’05 (50/50; This is the End), and Michel Shane, BA’80 (Catch Me if You Can; I, Robot). Producer David Hamilton, BEng’65, earned an Oscar nomination in 2007 for Best Foreign Language Film for Water. More recently, Ted Schipper, BSc’90, BCL’94, LLB’94, took in the last Academy Awards proceedings with particularly keen interest—he was an executive producer for both Zero Dark Thirty and The Master, films that were up for a combined eight Oscars (Zero Dark Thirty won for Best Achievement in Sound Editing).

We recently contacted five McGill graduates active in the world of film production for their insights into a one-of-a-kind job.

Mila Aung-Thwin, BA’98

Films produced: Rip! A Remix Manifesto, Up the Yangtze, Last Train Home, The Fruit Hunters

McGill connection:

Aung-Thwin decided to devote himself to filmmaking during a documentary film course at McGill after being impressed by a presentation by director Daniel Cross, who showed the class his movie The Street: A Film with the Homeless. Aung-Thwin and Cross eventually co-founded EyeSteelFilm, which specializes in documentaries with a political edge.

Mila Aung-Thwin

Mila Aung-Thwin

What is the most misunderstood thing about producing movies?

I think most people don’t know what “producing” means at all. They certainly don’t teach it in school. It means, “make a film.” Find the money, hire the team, be responsible if anything goes wrong. And then, for the rest of your career, people will ask you what you actually do.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Choosing. There are so many good ideas out there, and so little time or money. So you say no to 99 per cent of the ideas. It’s very hard to know what the right film will be. And once you start, you can be working on that film for the next five years.

Have you ever been starstruck by someone you met as a result of your work?

Meeting Leonard Cohen and Joseph “DJ Run” Simmons from Run DMC. It’s amazing when you get to meet your idols – and they’re actually nice to you. I recently got to work quite a bit with actor Bill Pullman on The Fruit Hunters – what a fantastic person.

A scene from Up the Yangtze

A scene from Up the Yangtze

What’s been the proudest moment in your career so far?

We won two Emmy Awards this year for Last Train Home. That was fantastic. But also, completing the film Rip! A Remix Manifesto was a major highlight – since the film was technically “illegal” to make due to copyright issues. And we made it anyway.

What three movies would you want to be stranded on a desert island with?

Endless Summer by Bruce Brown, Chungking Express by Wong Kar-Wai and Rear Window by Hitchcock.

What advice would you give to someone producing his/her first film?

Make sure you believe in the idea. Because on your first film, you’re more likely to go into debt than you are to make money. So when the thing is done, you want to be proud. Also pay attention to sound levels.

Who should have been nominated for an Oscar this year, but wasn’t?

I’m drawing a complete blank. The documentary nominee list was pretty good. Overall, I thought it was a forgettable year for Hollywood movies.

What are you working on next?

Our next big doc is about alternative Christmas music and the collectors who obsess over it. Believe it or not!

Robert Lantos, BA’70, DLitt’00

Films produced: The Sweet Hereafter, Being Julia, Eastern Promises, Barney’s Version

McGill connection:

Lantos and his friend Victor Loewy, BA’71, launched their careers in the movie business while both were still McGill students. The duo turned a tidy profit after investing $500 to show some of the works from the New York Erotic Film Festival to sold-out screenings at the McGill Film Society.

Robert Lantos

Robert Lantos

What is the most misunderstood thing about producing movies?

The credit of producer can be misleading. There is the producer who is the lynchpin of his movie, guiding it through all the stages of its life, from shepherding a screenplay through many drafts, to securing the financing and distribution for the film, to sitting side-by-side with the director and editor during the post-production process. Then there are “producers” who might simply be providing the money. Or the manager of an “A” list star who leverages that to wrangle a producer’s credit. Or the distributer who, in exchange for a marketing commitment, extracts a producing credit. The days of the maverick producer who navigates his project from start to finish are fading.  In a last ditch effort to preserve the dignity of the profession, the Producers Guild of America has been waging a battle to restore truth and meaning to the “produced by” credit.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Raising money and securing meaningful worldwide theatrical distribution.

Have you ever been starstruck by someone you met as a result of your work?

A Scene from The Sweet Hereafter.

A Scene from The Sweet Hereafter.

Only when I worked with older stars who had been part of my formative movie going years – like Robert Mitchum, Rod Steiger, Jeanne Moreau, Michael Caine and Dustin Hoffman. I always looked at them through the prism of a teenage film buff. I have never been starstruck by my contemporaries or those younger than me.

What’s been the proudest moment in your career so far?

Sunshine , because Istvan Szabo’s epic narrative shines the light on the story of my people, the Hungarian Jews, and because Ralph Fiennes is extraordinary.  Black Robe, because Brian Moore’s novel showcases the sheer beauty of Canada, my adopted country, and sheds light on the devastating impact of the Europeans’ arrival on the aboriginal population.  Barney’s Version, because it does justice to Mordecai Richler’s magnificent final novel brought to life by Paul Giamatti’s and Dustin Hoffman’s unforgettable performances.  The Sweet Hereafter, because Atom Egoyan’s hypnotic storytelling took the audiences’ breath away – as well as the Academy’s and Cannes Jury’s, resulting in my first encounter with Oscar nominations and the Cannes Grand Prix.  Being Julia, because witnessing Annette Bening and Jeremy Irons at work was sheer bliss.

What three movies would you want to be stranded on a desert island with?

Here is a list of the three absolute essentials, my own films excluded: Costa Gavras’s Z, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz and  Federico Fellini’s Amarcord.

What advice would you give to someone producing his/her first film?

Always be critical of your film, at every stage. Never get caught in the excitement of the moment and lose sight of who you are making the film for. You don’t make films for yourself, your friends or family. You make films for the audience, an audience that has a wide array of choices and no vested interest in your project. So pretend you are a blasé stranger and examine your project from that perspective every step of the way.

Who should have been nominated for an Oscar this year, but wasn’t?

The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

What are you working on next?

I am editing a quirky romantic comedy called The Right Kind Of Wrong and developing Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here, Ondaatje’s In The Skin Of The Lion and a true story called 500 Keys, which began life here at McGill.

Joe Medjuck, BA’65

Films produced: Old School, No Strings Attached, Up in the Air and Hitchcock

McGill connection:

Medjuck credits the McGill Film Society for introducing him to a broader spectrum of movies. After graduating, Medjuck began contributing to Take One, a film magazine edited by Peter Lebensold, BA’65. One assignment, to interview a young moviemaker named Ivan Reitman, proved to be life-changing. Reitman and Medjuck have collaborated on several films, including Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters 2, Twins and Kindergarten Cop.

What is the most misunderstood thing about producing movies?

Joe Medjuck (Photo: Robert Pitts /Landov)

Joe Medjuck (Photo: Robert Pitts /Landov)

People don’t realize that we spend most of our time on films that never get made and that we rarely get paid for the time we spend on developing a project – especially if it never gets made. These days, outside of sequels or comic book movies, nothing is a sure thing in this industry.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Again, it’s the uncertainty in this business. When you’re never sure whether or not the projects you’re working on will actually become films, it’s very hard to plan the rest of your life. It’s difficult to know when you can take a vacation when things are always so unpredictable.

Have you ever been starstruck by someone you met as a result of your work?

No.  It’s a different sort of relationship when you work with someone. That’s not to say that I take for granted that I get to meet some incredible people. My wife once said it was worth it to be involved with Father’s Day, just to be able to have lunch with Billy Crystal and Robin Williams every day.  Almost as soon as I arrived in Hollywood, I did work with the great composer Elmer Bernstein, who was one of my heroes.

What’s been the proudest moment in your career so far?

That’s hard to say. I’m proud of a lot of the films that I’ve been involved with. Ghostbusters, of course, and Dave.  With the passage of time, several of the films I’ve worked with have become comedy classics.  I keep meeting college age students who grew up loving Beethoven and Space Jam.  With older people, it’s Stripes and Twins. Old School also made its mark.

A scene from Ghostbusters

A scene from Ghostbusters

What three movies would you want to be stranded on a desert island with?

Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, La Ronde by Max Ophuls, and The Manchurian Candidate.

What advice would you give to someone producing his/her first film?

Don’t do it? Actually, for filmmakers who are just starting out, this is a really interesting time. If you have some friends who can act, you can shoot something digitally and edit it on your iMac for next to nothing. If you can come up with a clever way to market it online, you can start a career that way.

Who should have been nominated for an Oscar this year, but wasn’t?

I was disappointed that our film Hitchcock didn’t get more nominations. I would have said Margin Call last year. That film got a little attention, but nearly as much as it deserved.

What are you working on next?

There’s the uncertainty factor again. I could be on a plane to Cleveland next week for a project. Or I might not be.

Christina Piovesan, BA’98

Films produced: Amreeka, The Whistleblower, The Lesser Blessed

McGill connection:

Piovesan collaborated with director and screenwriter Laryssa Kondracki, BA’99, a former McGill classmate, on The Whistleblower. The two are currently developing another project, an action thriller called Dissent.

Christina Piovesan

Christina Piovesan

What is the most misunderstood thing about producing movies?

That it’s glamorous and celebrities are my best friends. Neither is true.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Getting people to say yes. Financiers, directors, agents, managers … you name it. It’s hard to get people on board.

Have you ever been starstruck by someone you met as a result of your work?

I was having a meeting in LA and Denzel Washington came into the restaurant and sat at a table beside me. I have to admit, I was totally starstruck and lost track of my own meeting as I gawked. I didn’t meet Denzel, but he was amazing to look at!

What’s been the proudest moment in your career so far?

Every time I see a film I’ve completed on the big screen at some major fest, I have to admit, I feel proud. That we made something from nothing is an amazing feeling.

What three movies would you want to be stranded on a desert island with?

I know this dates me but, When Harry Met Sally. Without a doubt. The Ricky Gervais Show. I’m a huge fan of his early podcasts. And Blade Runner.

A scene from The Whistleblower

A scene from The Whistleblower

What advice would you give to someone producing his/her first film?

Know where you want the film to end up (film fest, distributor, etc.) and fight for the elements you need to get it there. There is so much product in the marketplace — so much noise — how do you break through? It needs to be part of your strategy early on.

Who should have been nominated for an Oscar this year, but wasn’t?

I have two little boys under the age of two. I have to be real, I haven’t been the most active moviegoer in the past couple of years. I had the pleasure of working with [composer] Mychael Danna on The Whistleblower and was thrilled to see him win a much-deserved statue.

What are you working on next?

I’m focused on business development as I aim to grow my company, so lots of business planning and financial forecasts. Project-wise, I’m in the midst of financing four films and I just delivered three pilot episodes of a news magazine show on app culture called Swipe to Firefox Mozilla. I’m very excited to launch them online and see how they play.

Edward Saxon, BA’82

Films produced: The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Adaptation, Enlightened (TV series)

McGill connection:

Saxon co-founded Tuesday Night Café, a McGill student theatre company that continues to stage productions. He gives the other co-founders, Peter Grossman, BA’79, and Veronica Brady, BA’80, most of the credit and is happy to report that the three remain friends.

What is the most misunderstood thing about producing movies?

Edward Saxon

Edward Saxon

Most people think that the producer is the money man. In reality, creative producers are often the first people on a project identifying a screenplay or story that they carry all the way through the marketing and distribution process. Producers often hire the writer and director and are an integral part of shaping the story all the way through the film.

What’s the hardest part of the job?

The hardest part of producing is working on many things that don’t end up becoming films. Producing is the research and development part of the business and it is often the case that you work on a script for a good long time only to find out the script isn’t good enough to justify spending millions on it or it isn’t commercial enough for what it would cost to film it.

Have you ever been starstruck by someone you met as a result of your work?

I have frequently been starstruck by people I have met. I remember meeting Meryl Streep, whom I worked with on Adaptation, and having a wave of emotion, because I identified her so strongly with characters who had moved me on screen. She was Sophie from Sophie’s Choice and Joanna Kramer from Kramer vs. Kramer.

What’s been the proudest moment in your career so far?

A scene from Philadelphia

A scene from Philadelphia

The proudest moment of my career was being part of Philadelphia. That picture had an impact in the real world and was some tiny part of a change in people’s attitudes about AIDS and homosexuality. When we were making the film, we always said we weren’t making it for our friends, but were making it for people who were living in fear of people who were gay and those with HIV. It’s a real gift when you can make a film that touches attitudes in that way.

What three movies would you want to be stranded on a desert island with?

My desert island movies are The Godfather Part 2, What’s Up Doc? and Magnolia. An epic gangster movie, a really funny comedy and a film for when I just want to feel something sad but also funny.

What advice would you give to someone producing his/her first film?

The advice I would give to someone producing their first film is to surround themselves with people who know more than they do. It’s a complicated job and you need experts in the various roles — if you can find and afford them. For the first film, be content to let people do what they do well and to weigh in with your opinion.

Who should have been nominated for an Oscar this year, but wasn’t?

I think the Oscar nominations this year were pretty spot-on. I especially loved Beasts of the Southern Wild. Moonrise Kingdom was a big hit at my house and I was sorry it didn’t make the cut for Best Picture.

What are you working on next?

I’m in post-production on a film called Elsa & Fred, directed by Michael Radford (Il Postino), and hope to be in pre-production shortly on a film called Last of the Tribe about hydro-electric dam developers in the Brazilian Amazon and the “jungle cops” who are charged with protecting indigenous peoples. It’s a big adventure that also has contemporary relevance.

 

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Ruth Chiang takes Hollywood, one stunt at a time.

Actress Mackenzie Davis takes center stage at Sundance.

 

 

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One Response to “The producers”
  1. Myrtle Macdonald says:

    The best documentary I have ever seen is “Fruit Hunters”. The global, historic, nutritional, sensual and environmental perspectives are highly inspiring. I say this from the point of view of having an M.Sc. Applied in Nursing from McGill 1971, and of having worked more than 50 years in 6 provinces and 4 countries overseas in many kinds of situations, such as in public health on reserves in Canada and in outpost jungle clinics overseas. I have nursed in city hospitals in a variety of specialties, and have taught nursing in universities and community health in villages to semi-literate women, and in a refugee camp to young men and women.

    Yes I took thousands of great stills, but no movies. I admire our documentary film producers and wish them well in their hard work and dedication.