Tony Bill (far right) accepts his Oscar for The Sting from Elizabeth Taylor, with fellow producers
Michael and Julia Phillips.

When a movie achieves critical success, the credit usually goes to the director, writer and/or actors. But what about the force of nature whose passion, dedication and vision see the project through from concept to distribution?

What about the ultimate multi-tasker, the backbone of the picture—the producer? The fact is that even the most successful Hollywood producers are usually not household names. And most moviegoers have only the vaguest notion of what a producer really does.

In search of some perspective on the producer’s world, MM recently spoke with Oscar-winners Arnold Kopelson (Platoon), Dan Jinks (American Beauty), Tony Bill (The Sting), Bruce Cohen (American Beauty), Stanley Jaffe (Kramer vs. Kramer) Saul Zaentz (The English Patient; Amadeus; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment). They gave us some insight into the power of collaboration, and provided some crucial advice gleaned from their combined 90-plus films and 150 years in the production trenches.

Shelley Friedman (MM): Should a producer be a visible presence, on and off set? Or should he or she stay mainly in the background, giving support to the director only behind the scenes?

“My advice to a new producer? Agree
on the rules and play by them. Treat everyone like an ally and
not an enemy. And don’t bullshit anyone.”

Dan Jinks (DJ): By being seen, the producer is supporting the director. It is very difficult for a producer to be able to make smart decisions if the producer is not there to know exactly what’s happening on the set. For instance, if you have a movie where you need more time added to your schedule, the producer is the one who would call the studio and argue that point. If the producer is not actually there seeing how the time is being spent, he or she isn’t capable of being a good advocate for the director on behalf of the film.

Arnold Kopelson (AK): I believe that a producer must make the best film possible, not only on an artistic level—he or she has a duty to the financier to ensure the return on investment and maximization of profits. To accomplish this, the producer should be involved in all aspects of the filmmaking, distribution and marketing processes. We are involved in the development of the screenplay and the selection of the director, cast and crew. During photography, we are on set all the time to support the director and cast, to keep the film on schedule and budget, to assist the crew with any problems and to act as a liaison with the studio. Thereafter, we are involved in post-production, audience testing, consultation with distribution and marketing executives regarding one-sheet preparation, theatrical trailers, television spots and first-run release dates for both domestic and international markets. We then participate in domestic publicity junkets and travel to international markets to publicize the film.

Tony Bill (TB): It depends upon the quality and the temperaments of the parties involved. One of the wonderful aspects of the movie business is that, for the most part, there are no rules. But as a director, I’d like to have the producer on the set (assuming I’m in business with a producer I respect). And, as a producer, I make myself available as required by the director. I’m of the old school that assumes the director directs, the actors act and the producer produces. But times have changed and those old definitions no longer necessarily apply.

MM: What relationship is most vital to the producer during the moviemaking process?

Producers Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks show off
their matching Oscars for American Beauty.

AK: The most vital relationships a producer must have are with the writer and director. When a writer is brought on to develop a screenplay, we will work closely with him or her to ensure that we are both making the same motion picture. Only with a great script does one secure a great director.

Once the screenplay is in a form suitable for delivery to a director, a relationship is developed with the person who is chosen.

I am an involved producer. I do not just set up the deal and walk away. Anne Kopelson, my producing partner, and I are involved in every facet of the filmmaking process. Part of that process is forging a partnership with the selected director. Just as we spend time with the writer to ensure that the screenplay delivered bears a close relationship to what we expected, we’ll spend a considerable amount of time with a potential director to make certain that we are making the correct choice.

Once we have made that choice, we will forge a partnership with the director in order to, as with the writer, ensure that we’re making the same film. Nearly each scene of the film will be discussed during pre-production so that when photography begins, there are no surprises.

DJ: I believe a big part of being a good producer is, throughout the entire process, respecting the writer’s vision. And a big part of hiring the director is making sure he or she sees the project in the same way the writer does. But once you start shooting a film it really has to be the director’s movie. The director, in effect, almost becomes the author of it, because he’s writing with his camera as he shoots the scenes.

MM: How much influence should a producer have in the final cut of the film? Does a producer put his/her complete faith in the director and editor?

AK: If the producer is all of what I have been talking about—has significant production experience, has lived the project from its inception and has been with the director throughout the process—such a producer should have a say on the final cut of the film. During the production of Se7en, David Fincher called Anne and me into the editing room each day to view the progress of the cutting for our comments.

MM: How do you go about matching the right director to a script?

Bruce Cohen (BC): It’s really an art much more than a science when matching up the right director with the right piece of material. It’s meeting people, talking with them. Certainly you have a sense of people’s work and you might feel that someone is perfect for a script because of a film they’ve done before. But you have to be careful because that could also mean that they’ve already made that type of movie. It’s one of the hardest and most fun parts of the job, to find the right director for your script.

MM: How different is it to produce a film that you plan to direct?

TB: It’s only different in that I’m likely to be much harder on the director.

James Brooks (JB): When you direct your own film you have the somewhat consoling feeling that the producer will kill for you.

James Brooks collects his Oscar for Best Picture.

MM: What is the best collaboration you’ve ever had with a director? And what dynamic made that relationship particularly enjoyable and productive?

Stanley Jaffe (SJ): In the right collaboration, it should be a producer and a director working to realize a picture they see, with a producer creating the womb around the director, so the director can function in a totally creative environment to make the picture he imagines he would make. But they better be on the same wavelength, or else it’s not a good collaboration. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had good relationships with the directors I’ve made pictures with. I’d have to say Bob Benton, who did Bad Company and Kramer vs. Kramer. And I’ve had a wonderful relationship with Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction) and also with Ridley Scott (Black Rain).

AK: In nearly every one of our films, we have had a fine collaboration with each director. The honesty between us and the demonstration by us that we are as passionate about making a great film as the director is—that’s the reason for a successful collaboration.

Producer Stanley
Jaffe (with presenter Charlton Heston).

BC: Working with Sam Mendes. Although American Beauty was his first movie, [he] turned out to be a true genius and an incredible director. Working with him to bring Alan Ball’s words to the screen was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

MM: How has your producing style changed over the years?

TB: I don’t think it has, although only someone else could tell you.

SJ: Part of [my producing style] hasn’t changed. My unwillingness to accept mediocrity, I hope, is what still distinguishes my work from others. I think what ultimately has changed is the market. There was a time when the producers used to be very important to the studios; then there was a time when the directors were the most important people. I was able to go through that transition without changing the way I work. I think today there’s more empowerment to directors. I think producers in general are not held in the regard that they should be in order for the process to work; a part of that is reflected in the cost of the movies. But this business was always made better by good collaborations.

AK: In the very beginning of my career, I was putting together deals. Platoon changed all that. I realized the awesome effect that my film had on its audience and was determined in the future to produce with the same passion that possessed Oliver Stone.

JB: The basics remain: we have never done a picture where the writer wasn’t a key part of producing.

Saul Zaentz (SZ): There’s been no change in my producing style. I’ve always been involved in pictures I’ve wanted to make—pictures that I thought I wanted to see. There’s no change, but as you get older, you should get smarter… hopefully. (laughing) And you do learn all the time, which is great… Different perspectives, different people. We’ve always had an open film where anyone’s ideas were listened to—and we’re not afraid to say no, as we are certainly not afraid to say yes. Because you’re looking for ideas and you don’t know where they’re coming from. You never know.

MM: What advice would you give to an independent producer just starting out?

“In the right collaboration…a producer will create a womb around the director, so the director can function in a totally creative environment…”

BC: Finding great material is the hardest part of the job—and the most important part of the process. If you can find a script that could potentially be a truly brilliant movie, it’s going to make your very difficult job of producing, if not easier, at least worthwhile, because you know that you believe in the material.

TB: Agree on the rules and play by them. Treat everyone like an ally and not an enemy. Don’t bullshit anyone.

AK: Persistence and determination are the mindset for an independent or studio producer to achieve success. Unless there is a willingness to devote the major part of the workweek to producing, he or she should choose another profession.

JB: My advice is to be loyal to the picture— that’s your real boss.

MM: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

SZ: The picture is the only thing that counts. You find you can ride through anything if you’re making a picture you want to make.

TB: Take a chance as often as you even slightly feel like it. Shoot a scene in one take, pick a surprising angle, choose an offbeat actor… Take a chance.

SJ: It’s in the script.

DJ: Read it yourself! A huge number of mistakes are made in Hollywood by people who rely on readers or whomever to do their reading for them, and you are so much smarter every step of the way if you’re reading your own material and making your own decisions.

JB: The best advice I ever received was to bring a change of socks with you to the stage because simply changing socks 12 hours in can really help your energy.

AK: On the very first day of practicing law, I was assigned an office to share with an older attorney. He said to me, “Get out of the practice of law and get into the business of making movies.” At the time, I was shocked by his statement. But it was the best advice I have ever received. MM