How to Watch a Movie: The Producer

March 12, 2006

How to Watch a Movie: The Producer
They’re overshadowed by directors and misunderstood by actors and audiences, but just try and make a movie without ’em. The man behind The Graduate describes the producer’s one crucial function: to run the show.

By Lawrence Turman

(This article was originally published in the October 2005 issue of Premiere.)

With the sweet smell of my success still in the air, I thought I would give myself a break and get out of the trenches. Having just produced 1967’s The Graduate, I decided to executive-produce my next film, which meant trying the entrepreneur route—setting up financing for a film and choosing the creative elements, including a producer who would supervise the shoot. So I was a relaxed, happy camper at a dinner hosted by my friend and fellow producer David Wolper in the summer of 1968, bragging about how I had a picture, Pretty Poison, with a fine script by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (The Parallax View) and a superb cast (Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld), that was about to start shooting. I boasted that I wasn’t even going to visit the set. I had hired a producer to do the job.

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But before I had even started on my dessert, I was hit by a flurry of phone calls; my producer and the director tracked me down to tell me that their crew was in mutiny and they couldn’t start the film. I was on a plane the next morning to put out the fire—as well as to rub sticks to start new ones. First, I cajoled the assistant director to stay on board, then I axed the production manager and hired a new one. I did a lot of fanny-patting and got everyone on track emotionally, and, soon, the movie was off and running. But it wasn’t long before the neophyte director fell behind schedule. Each night I would have to go over his shot list with him for the next day’s work to ensure he could “make his day.” After we finished filming, I had to spend hours in the editing room and at the sound mix. Merely executive-produce!? I never worked so hard in my life.But nobody cares what goes into a film, only what comes out. Happily, the critics, including Pauline Kael, loved Pretty Poison. The director went on to bigger and better things (for a while). My young producer learned the importance of crisis management. And I learned you can’t always tell from the producer credits who did what on a film. Today, many films credit anywhere from 4 to 14 producers, some of whom are “baggage,” because there are so many categories of producer: executive producers, coproducers, associate producers, line producers, assistant producers. Line producers are physical production specialists—they are the guys on the ground, overseeing every day of the shoot. Executive producers get that credit for anything from arranging the money, being manager of the star or director, or being the studio executive overseeing the film. The associate producer title is a catchall, designating anyone the producer deems worthy. But the real deal is the producer. He or she runs the show. It’s the producer, and only the producer, who is called onstage to accept the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Even so, hardly anyone knows what a producer’s job is. You can see a director’s work, you can hear a writer’s work, and you can readily assess an actor’s skill. But the producer? Let me tell you: He or she just happens to be the cause, the reason, all the others are working on the movie. What you see at your local theater nearly always began life as an idea in a producer’s head. Sure, writers give birth to ideas and stories—some directors, too—but without our recognition and steadfast push, most films would not see the light of day. It is the producer who starts the ball rolling, and keeps it rolling. Do I sound self-serving and prejudiced? Well, I plead guilty. That takes nothing away from the talented, creative others I’ve had to convince, implore, and seduce to climb aboard my project. But even film crews often don’t fully understand or appreciate that the producer has busted his or her butt for several (or many) bloody, sweaty, and tearful years prior to the start of filming. I’ve been on set and heard them mutter about me, “Look at the slicker just standing around, and he gets the big bucks.”

Oh, sure, I’m hot stuff at the restaurants where I get the best tables, and at parties, where everybody wants to talk about my business, not theirs. But I only get a paycheck when/if I make a movie—and that’s not every year. My friends get a paycheck each and every month. I’m more like an oil wildcatter who sinks a lot of dry holes and once in a while, hopefully, hits a gusher, as I did with The Graduate.

Maybe a few stories will help show some of the things a producer actually does:

Getting Started: What’s the Big Idea?

Charles Webb wrote The Graduate, but his novel had only sold several thousand hardcover copies and was lying fallow when I spotted it and took an option for $1,000 of my own money—which was a lot for me in 1963. I then chose Mike Nichols to direct, before he became Mike Nichols. (He had directed one Broadway play, Barefoot in the Park, but had not yet done a film. I had already produced four films, the last being Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.) Together, we developed the script and cast Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, and then, together, became rich and famous. Of course, he a little more than I. (A few years later, a big New York Times story about me was headlined “But They Still Say ‘Larry Who?’ “!)

The Pitch: Hope Springs Eternal

Every producer pitches a story to the studio his own way. I’ve seen some practically jump on the executive’s desk and act out every role. I myself use a low-key, straightforward approach: Here’s my project, here’s why I like it, here’s what I think its potential is, I hope you share my enthusiasm. And they usually don’t. I always expect a no and am rarely disappointed. But all it takes is one yes, and then I’m in the game. So we producers live on hope, and it does spring eternal. After all, a project is only dead if the producer quits working on it. I hate to admit it, but I quit on Amadeus after my enthusiasm from seeing the play in London was thoroughly dampened by categorical turndowns from every single studio. But the dedicated, tasteful Saul Zaentz didn’t walk away from that project, even though he had to cobble together the financing. And he produced a great, Oscar-winning film.

Developing the Script: A Slow Road

How does a producer develop a script with a writer or director? Very carefully. Nothing is more important than the script. I work on the simple premise that I’m an audience of one for the writer. I always ask who is doing what to whom and, very important, why. As I did with novelist Bill Goldman—yes, the one and only future Oscar winner—when I arranged to meet him long before he ever wrote a screenplay, in the early 1960s. I was a big fan of his novels, and we became fast friends. He offered to write on spec what became the movie Harper. In my infinite wisdom, I turned him down, but in turn offered to have him write the screenplay for The Graduate. He turned me down. Bill then wanted to write an original script about the last of the outlaws, The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. We worked together on it for two years, and although I got him to reverse the title, to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and got Paul Newman interested (okay, in fairness, the script did that), I didn’t even get to produce the movie. Bill’s agent (whom I had set him up with) got muscled by his biggest client, who wanted to produce the picture. So I was out. Whoever said life, or producing, was fair?

Crisis Management: If I Had a Dime For Every Headache

I was on a soundstage in England producing I Could Go on Singing (1963), starring Judy Garland and Dirk Bogarde, longtime pals who then were pissing ice water at each other due to Judy’s mercurial mood swings. So I was ready for another gripe about Dirk when she came up to me, but instead she started bitching that director Ronald Neame was exhausting her by demanding too many takes. Trying to soothe her and to just get through the shoot, I took Neame aside and encouraged him to ease off. The very next scene, after only one take, Neame yelled, “Cut! That’s it. Perfect. Let’s move on to the next.” I let out a sigh of relief, until Judy rushed up and said, “So that’s the game the son of a bitch is going to play.” Sometimes, the producer can’t win.

Each film has its own unique problems. On The Graduate, my brilliant director, Mike Nichols, fell in love with a church as a location for our story’s climax, but the church refused to let us film there. The Graduate was racy, sexually provocative; this was 1967. So I told Mike, “No go. We have to find another church.” His reply? “But, Larry, that’s the only one I want.” Shit! I maneuvered a meeting with the church elders in which I told them our film was dealing with the very issues (purpose, morality, etc.) that the church itself should be dealing with. Chutzpah, yes, but the truth. They relented, and their church is the glorious centerpiece of our climax.

How to Watch a Movie: The Producer

Minding The Budget: The Buck’s Got to Stop Somewhere

Producing is largely about balancing your artistic desires against the financial means you have to achieve them. In the middle of filming The Young Doctors in 1961, starring two-time Oscar winner Fredric March and a young Dick Clark, we began slipping over budget. Our director was from the Hollywood studio system and was used to taking orders, so my then partner and I sat him down and told him, “Remember that nighttime ice skating sequence with two hundred extras? Well, it’s now a daytime scene with twenty-five extras.” The old pro agreed, putting the camera up high and pointing it downward to create a tight shot that made it look like we had zillions of extras on location, and, presto, by the next week we were on schedule and budget again.

Hopefully, that gives you a sense of just some of what a producer does on a film, and yet, still, we are thought to be irritating, money-obsessed, artistically devoid trolls. Serving as I do on the board of the producers branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and having formed a board of 40 producer mentors for the Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California, which I’ve chaired for 14 years, I talk a lot to my kind. And they all echo the same Rodney Dangerfield complaint: “We don’t get no respect.” And, frankly, it’s damn unfair. The best producers have the taste and creativity of an artist, the mind-set of an entertainer, the people skills of a politician, the business acumen of a CEO, the insight of a psychotherapist, the ebullience of a cheerleader, the tenacity of a pit bull, the charm of a snake-oil seller, the delegating ability of a five-star general, the malleability of a chameleon, and the dedication of a monk. It’s not happenstance that Zaentz produces quality classics that also have commercial appeal, that Jerry Bruckheimer has one blockbuster after another, that Brian Grazer can eclectically go from producing A Beautiful Mind to The Cat in the Hat, or that Scott Rudin could mortgage his house to tie up a story he loves. Or that younger newcomers like Laura Bickford and Michael London produce gems such as Traffic and Sideways.

I had the good fortune to be around in the old days, and, I have to admit, they were better. Every studio had dozens of producers under contract, each getting a hefty paycheck, and, to boot, a story department that would send around a memo saying the studio just bought such-and-such Pulitzer-winning book or play, and to please register interest if you’d like to produce it. Ah, where are the snows of yesteryear? Today, a producer has to full-time hustle, beg, borrow, and/or steal to nail the hot script or book that is the cheese to bait the trap to catch the money mouse (read: star, director, studio).

The old-time producers were lords of the universe, whereas today they’re high-priced peons. I’m not talking about the top elite, who still have the perks of studio-paid plush offices on, or off, the lot, plus plenty of staff, ample expense accounts, and even discretionary money to unilaterally buy a script or a book. But too many producers are working out of their homes, suffering the daily frustration, the indignity, of not having their phone calls returned in a timely fashion, if at all. And today’s fat cats, like Kathy Kennedy, Neal Moritz, Gale Anne Hurd, Joel Silver, Lauren Shuler Donner, and Doug Wick, don’t have the same power and control that David Selznick, Hal Wallis, and Darryl Zanuck had. As legend has it, two-time Oscar-winning director Joseph Mankiewicz once said, “I been tilling the fields a long time and I know who is the massa,'” regarding renowned producer-turned-studio chief Zanuck, who had recut his Cleopatra. And Selznick, when asked why he didn’t direct, since he controlled every other aspect of a production, said, “I’ve got more important things to do.”

That was then, this is now. Hollywood has embraced the French Cahiers du Cinema theory that each film has an author, and that author is always, and only, the director (unless a critic’s darling like writer Charlie Kaufman is involved). The studios think the director is the only one who can have a “vision” for a film. And the ripple effect? When was the last time you saw a producer mentioned in a film review? Robert Dowling, publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, got it right when he said, “Producing is the only job where you hire the person [the director] from whom you take orders.”

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How to Watch a Movie: The Producer

0306_american_history_main.jpg A still from 1998’s American History X, which author Lawrence Turman exec-produced.

If producing is so tough, why do we do it? I asked a dozen top producers—who I interviewed for my book, So You Want to Be a Producer—if they liked producing. To a person, they replied, “I don’t like it, I love it.” Many years ago, I was asked about the joys and sorrows of the job by a young reporter named Curtis Hanson. (Yep, before he was the Oscar-winning writer-director of L.A. Confidential.) My reply? “Nothing could be more rewarding or stimulating. Each day has new challenges, new struggles, new frustrations, new satisfactions. Each day I figure I’ll walk into the office and get hit with a right to the heart and a left to the kidney, but I love it.”I feel the same way today. Nothing beats sitting in a crowded movie theater showing one of my films, hearing the audience laugh and hold its collective breath, seeing tears flow, and, perhaps, hearing some applause. And that’s just the icing. The cake, for me, is my personal expression: the idea behind each film I do, my conscious or sometimes unconscious signature with which I express my values. I like to think—I do think—that I can affect the world, or at least a few people in it.

Sure, seeing my name when the credits roll is nice, but knowing how I help shape a film is more important, like with American History X, which I exec-produced. Because he was so eager to play the part, Edward Norton volunteered to test for the lead role of the tattooed skinhead. Here was a guy who had already received an Oscar nomination for his first film. I was elated, and his test knocked my socks off. But not those of our director, Tony Kaye, whom I had also championed, and who was king in the world of commercials but helming his first film. He wanted to find a nonactor, an authentic street person. All studios are director fornicators; thus, to my dismay but not surprise, New Line agreed. After five weeks testing dozens of hopefuls, Tony screened his top choices for us. None of them had the right stuff, so New Line and my producer partners and I put our foot down, and Edward was in our film, for which he rightly earned his second Oscar nomination. Two weeks into shooting, Tony sidled up to me and whispered, “Edward is the best piece of luck I ever had.” His luck was having smart producers.

Lawrence Turman has produced 30 films, and is the author of So You Want to Be a Producer, from Three Rivers Press.

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