It was a rainy Sunday morning when Graham King (“The Departed”), Jon Kilik (“Babel”), Robert Lorenz (“Letters From Iwo Jima”), Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa (“Little Miss Sunshine” and “Little Children”), Judd Apatow (“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”) and Jay Roach (“Borat”) took the stage in front of a half-empty Lobero Theatre to discuss movie-going, movie-making and movie-producing.
The producers themselves were a varied group – although apparently not diverse enough to include women, a sad state of affairs that was unfortunately characteristic of many of the festival’s panels and events. Still, the filmmakers ranged from King and Lorenz, who are well-known for their longstanding working relationships with Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood, to Apatow and Roach, two producers more renowned for their work as writers and directors of mainstream comedies such as “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and the “Austin Powers” movies, respectively. Despite their diverse backgrounds, the filmmakers all found themselves agreeing on the same basic issues.
During a long conversation about the recent announcement that Berger and Yerxa would not be eligible to receive the Academy Award for producing “Little Miss Sunshine” because of Academy rules limiting the number of producers able to accept the award, the filmmakers all expressed sympathy for Berger and Yerxa’s situation. Berger himself said the Academy’s judgment does not affect his conception of the work he did on “Little Miss Sunshine.”
“We produced this movie,” Berger said. “We produced it with three other people; we’ve had partners on every movie we ever made. … On ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ the movie started when Ron and I found the script. … From the beginning, we were centrally involved in the movie. … Whatever the Academy determines, we produced this movie.”
The producers all agreed that it’s difficult to determine who is a “producer” in today’s industry, as so many different people receive producer credits for various reasons. In fact, what constitutes the act of producing a movie was the major topic of discussion during the panel.
Jay Roach said he thinks producing is largely about being able to keep the various other parties involved in making the film in line.
“That would be the most important quality in determining someone is a producer. It’s their ability to make people stay in the game,” Roach said.
He also said that, in the case of “Borat,” it was mostly the producer’s job to make sure that the filmmakers had a good exit strategy.
“Most of what you’re doing is figuring out where the state lines are,” Roach said. “You shoot really close to the state lines so if something happens, you can get out of the jurisdiction.”
Graham King said that, for him, producing is about making sure the director can focus on the creative process of filmmaking.
“Marty [Scorcsese] is someone that does enjoy having a producer around him on set every day,” King said. “Because he’s not focused on producing, he’s focused on directing the film. … Marty is focused on the shots and the actors and he looks to me to do everything else.”
According to Jon Kilik, the major challenge in producing “Babel” was making sure that Alejandro Gonz‡lez I-‡rritu’s vision was realized behind the camera as well as in front of it.
“We had to take what was on the page very literally,” Kilik said. “So we traveled to Morocco and Mexico and Japan until we found villages that were exactly right. … We worked with local people and they did an amazing job because it was what was right for the film.”
When asked what inspired them to do the work they do – whether it is traveling to Morocco, negotiating the tenuous relationship between finances and creativity, convincing a studio to take on the risky “Borat,” or trying to coerce Clint Eastwood into doing just one more take – the producers all agreed that they do it for the love of the films themselves. And, as Robert Lorenz said, “There’s nothing I want to do this badly.”