2010 SBIFF Producers' Panel: Movers and Shakers
Illustration by Esther Peal Watson

Working with directors


2010 SBIFF Producers' Panel: Movers and Shakers

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Video: Working with directors

(Music playing.) Roger Durling: Welcome to the Producers' Panel. We have an incredible lineup of producers here this morning. Jonas Rivera from Up. Ivan Reitman, Up in the Air. Lori McCreary, Invictus, Jon Landau, Avatar.
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As a sponsor of the 25th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, lynda.com is delighted to put you in the front row of four fascinating panel discussions with some of Hollywood's top filmmakers, including a number of Golden Globe, Emmy, Grammy, and Academy Award winners and nominees. Join us for the producer's panel featuring Jonas Rivera (Up) and Jon Landau (Avatar).


Working with directors

(Music playing.) Roger Durling: Welcome to the Producers' Panel. We have an incredible lineup of producers here this morning. Jonas Rivera from Up. Ivan Reitman, Up in the Air. Lori McCreary, Invictus, Jon Landau, Avatar.

Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker. Lawrence Bender, Inglorious Basterds. And please welcome our moderator. He has a great column in the LA Times, The Big Picture, Patrick Goldstein. (Applause.) Patrick Goldstein: I'm doing this panel because I think being a movie producer is an incredibly unappreciated artform.

I've spent a lot of years on movie sets and I've seen the kind of stuff that goes on behind the scenes that producers have to do that they very rarely get credit for. And by the way as I think we'll discover, it's not just about what they do on the set. There is an enormous amount of work that goes on long before the movie starts that is often the crucial, really fundamental work of a film. But these are people that love movies and that also know how to solve problems and I think that's something that often is underappreciated as well.

So let me start with Jon Landau. Now the actor Bill Paxton, who goes way back with Jim Cameron, was doing an interview with The New Yorker about Jim and he said, talking of Jim, "the words no and that's impossible and that can't be done, that's the kind of stuff that gives Jim an erection." (Laughter.) So since it's usually the producers' job to tell the perfectionist filmmaker no and that's impossible and that can't be done, naturally I was wondering over the past 5 or 10 years how many erections have you given Jim Cameron? (Laughter.) Jon Landau: Patrick, when I read the piece this morning that said you were going to talk about sex at the panel, I didn't realize you literally meant it.

Mark Boal: Jon and Jim have a very special relationship which they don't talk about in public but. Jon Landau: No,I think that the things you said about Jim are true and I think that it's his drive for the excellence that gets everybody excited and when you could come and whether you're using the term figuratively or not and go to work and you get really excited about going to work, you get more out of people and I think that the role in terms of the saying the no aspect is, it's not about saying no.

It's about having alternative suggestions. And being able to not just have those suggestions but to be able to articulate the reasoning behind those and then ultimately it becomes Jim's idea and you say, "great idea, let's go for it." Patrick Goldstein: So because that's what I was getting at is when you have a filmmaker like Jim Cameron, who's trying to push every envelope possible, how do you bring a sense of reality to the process because you have to worry about the budget, the time constraints, about all the things that are less exciting than the wild creative ideas that Jim wants to execute.

Jon Landau: I think Jim is always pushing the envelope to serve his story and to serve his character and if you can bring it back to that and present alternative ways to accomplish the same thing, he's not about saying here's what I want to do and this is the only way to do it. He's actually very open to alternative ways to do it and we've discovered that as we've gone through, even going back to when I was an exec at the studio on True Lies and dealing with Jim. So it's saying okay here's the objective, here's the story point, here's the character point, here's an alternative way to achieve that for you.

Patrick Goldstein: Do you bring other people in as supporters of your ideas. Does it help? Jon Landau: I try and approach it the exact opposite way. I try and go to the other people first, so that they can go to Jim with the idea. So it's not always me coming with the ideas. Steve Rivkin, our editor described me the other day to someone as behind the scenes like a little puppet master and then rest of your crew are your puppets. The more that those people can go to Jim with ideas that we've shared, I'm not asking them to do things that they don't believe in, but that the better he'll hear it coming from other sources other than just from one source.

Patrick Goldstein: So I'm going to try to prod everybody here, what's an example? So you're in the midst of working on some of the animation, what's an example where you feel like you with some help figured out a way to solve something? Jon Landau: In the end battle sequence for Avatar, there was originally intended and Jim was very firm on it to have two shuttles. Two of the big craft going and one would go down and he would really build up to that and it was important for me that we make the decision to eliminate that before we ever shot any of it and not after the fact.

So it was about creating environments where Jim would screen a rough cut of the sequence or just the template version and talk to people in advance and say, hey Maria, Battle Campbell, talk to Jim about this and here's an alternative way around that and Steve Rivkin, and sure enough, enough people talk to him about it. We never went ahead with a second shuttle and it wasn't needed in the film. Patrick Goldstein: My question is so what, and maybe some other people can speak to this who have similar, what do you learn from the experience of having worked with someone before and how does that help you the next time around when you're producing? Jon Landau: Well I think that when there are moments where they would be the exact opposite where Jim would be howling on the walkie-talkie, "where's Landau?! Get him down here!" So it was really a back-and-forth and for the most part as you develop the relationship, you do have more of a role on the set and I feel that often times, I am Jim's eyes and ears when he can't be somewhere, even on the set to look ahead at what the next setup is. But I think if you look here I think all of us have in some way worked with or known all the people that we've been working with as directors in the past and I think history is important in a relationship as you work forward.

Lawrence Bender: It's interesting because when you're making a movie for the first time, it's like a first date and then when you're like Quentin and I, we are just like an old married couple, still in love. And so yeah, it's not about saying how can you find a way to say no. It's like Jon said and it's sort of like presenting-- The director obviously is so, he's so concentrated in such a tough job, and he doesn't see the waterfall approaching that you're on a canoe and there's a waterfall up ahead and so it's your job to kind of see that waterfall and figure out how to get around and port around it or find other alternatives and like Jon said, have the different people on your crew depending on what area it is to go, in this case, Quentin, go to the director and talked about other alternatives.

I'll give you one example. I don't want to say the scene, because I don't know if Quentin would want me to talk about the scene particularly but the last day of shooting on our movie. Sometimes it's that to reverse because it's like what Mark said is true is that every producer on here has worked on their particular movies, the directors have been doing this for a while and so they have the bigger picture for sure and they definitely have the economics of the movie in mind as well as the creative. I think long-- I was about to say long gone are days we can go over budget, right Jon.

So I can't quite say that. So we're in the last day of shooting and we shot 13 hours, we are on day 73 and and it's like 11 o'clock, we've been shooting 13 hours. I forgot what day of the week it was. I think it was Tuesday actually. But anyway so I go to Quentin and say, well how many shots do you have left for this sequence? And we go through it and we add up the shots, and we add up the other shots we have left to pick up and that we have 13 shots left and we've been shooting for 13 hours and it's 11 o'clock at night.

And so I kind of smile and I say okay and so I said, look why don't we just get this shot and wrap and we'll find the money? We'll just come back another day, come back tomorrow and finish the scenes. This is too important a scene, we've been thinking about the scene a long time and you're under a lot of pressure and I know you want to finish but we'll find the money for another day. And he looked at me, and he said, no I want to finish this scene tonight, and And he said you know what we're going to do? Instead of this and this is a big thing in the script and he said, "I'm going to cut all that out." I was like, Quentin, I mean, we've talked about this scene.

This is like, this is one of those culminating moments in the movie where you wanted, you really love this. He said, I know it works in the script but I don't know if it's going to work on screen. So I said okay. So I give him a little breathing room. I walk around and I go to my DP, Bob Richardson, And then I go to my AD, and I see now Quentin is thinking about cutting this, and I am second guessing myself. Quentin is thinking about cutting this particular piece out. So what you guys think? "Like you know, I don't know man." "It's a great piece of cinema on the page." So I go back to Quentin and I said, look, I really think you should think about this.

Why don't we just? So he said, why don't we do this? Well let's get this shot and then we will regroup, and then if we really think we need to finish this scene the old way then we'll come back tomorrow. And instead, we got that shot and it was the most beautiful shot. It was one of my favorite pieces in the movie, and we ended up looking at each other, going we don't need this. We just don't need this other thing. This other thing that works so well in the script, we don't need it. And it's much better this way and so 13 shots ended up becoming like 4 or 5 and we still got out at 5. It was a 20 hour day, We got at 5 in the morning but we finished.

We got done and it's one of those amazing scenes in the movie. So it's an example of the actually reverse, it's the reverse of kind of what you're saying. The producer's always saying well cut, cut, cut, and in the actuality is all of us up here work very much with our directors and trying to get the best storytelling. Sometimes that means finding ways to trim, rob from Peter to pay Paul, and sometimes it's to pay Paul in a sense. Jon Landau: And I would have to imagine that's easier with a Jim or Quentin than it is with our own son.

(Laughter.) Ivan Reitman: Are you talking about me? Jon Landau: Oh, no, no. Ivan Reitman: Producing is all about establishing trust. It's all the things that the gentlemen have already talked about. But its one thing to work for Jim Cameron and it's another thing to have Quentin Tarantino in front of you. These are men with established careers and the studio knows what they're getting into. Really as a producer and of course I've directed as well, but in my career as a producer, I've mostly produced first time or sort of directors early in their careers and so the relationship with the studio is not quite as comfortable.

The budgets are usually a fraction of the budgets that you had and there's this extraordinary pressure to try to get the best possible work done against really impossible odds and as a producer you're facing a director and I'm not speaking about Jason Reitman right now. You know that's what brought me into this conversation and I will get to Jason in a second. But you're often facing young directors who are just trying to figure out and trying to get through the day and who are often making compromises in fact that they should not be making and I found that my job as a producer in that situation is really to renew their confidence in the screenplays that we have and also just try to find the right solutions to getting through the day and then beyond that sort of fight the battles with the studio because there's inevitably that tension going on.

There's never enough money, there's never enough time and often time, there are subtle and sometimes not so subtle differences of opinion about the creative focus of the piece you're doing. When I had the good fortune of being able to produce Jason Reitman, I knew right away first of all, I couldn't be his father on the set. I had to be really an effective producer and I was working this time with an extraordinarily, even though it was only his third movie, he's an extraordinarily accomplished director already.

He wrote the screenplay with Sheldon Turner and it was just a brilliant screenplay. I had it actually. My company had the screenplay for Up in the Air, because we bought the book about five or six years ago in development with a number of different writers and it wasn't until really Jason, just after Juno, and I bought it because Jason had said "I read this book. You ought to look at it, it's maybe something you want to direct" and when I read it, I didn't get it at all and I knew secretly that this is something that he wants that he was still too young in his career to --.

So we basically just held onto it and really after Juno, right at the Toronto Film Festival, after it premiered, I went to him and I said, look you're ready to tackle this now, because really you're the one. This is not for me, this is for you and he went off and in about three to four months wrote a first draft screenplay that just was amazing. And after that everything sort of came together very quickly. He was the one who brought in George Clooney. The studio read that sort of a revised first draft and said oh yeah, we want to make this.

And everything came together and he moved very quickly and I knew my job was really just to be someone he could trust and bounce things off of.

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