Spirits at last Saturday’s “Movers & Shakers” panel were somewhat dampened, and it wasn’t just because of the intermittent bursts of rain providing the background soundtrack for the panel of producers that met in the Lobero Theater that afternoon to discuss their work. In attendance were Daniel Lupi (“There Will Be Blood”), Craig Zaden and Neil Meron (“Hairspray”), James L. Brooks (“The Simpsons Movie”) and Leanne Halfon (“Juno”).
As the producers addressed the crowd – if you could call the people filling less than half the theater’s seats that – the difference between this year’s festival and last year’s became clear. Whereas the producers last year were largely young, energetic and eager to engage with the audience and each other, this year’s producers were more reserved, somber and serious about the state of the business. And, whereas last year’s panel had plenty of people whose entry into the business came as writers, directors, assistant directors, line producers and the like, with the exception of Brooks, this year’s panel was pretty much all producers all the time.
Still, the panelists were clearly dedicated to their craft, a craft that Brooks pointed out early is getting increasingly difficult to do well and with integrity.
“In order to do a picture,” Brooks said, “you have to have some sort of temporary insanity so you believe it’s the most important thing in the world.”
In fact, Brooks did most of the talking during the panel, but the panelists did engage with each other during a discussion about the importance of finding a film’s tone, something they all agreed is as important as it is intangible.
“Nothing bedevils me more,” Brooks said. “Tone is everything. Tone ranks up there with story.”
“The key to making ‘Hairspray’ work was the tone,” Zadan said.
“I think the thing when you’re making the film is getting the pitch and making sure it’s consistent all the way through,” Halfon said.
The panelists also had some pretty interesting things to say about the industry as a whole, and particularly about its future given the current state of the writer’s strike and the potential strike by members of the Screen Actors Guild.
“I think everything is changing,” Brooks said. “There’s no questioning that first of all, there will be fundamental changes in what the movie business is.”
Zadan said he thinks the success of reality programs that have run in place of scripted television during the strike will result in studios deciding to make less of the more-expensive scripted dramas and more reality programming even after the strike ends. In response, Brooks – who produces “The Simpsons” television show – said he is not as afraid of the impacts of reality television on the entertainment industry.
“I’m not as worried about the reality shows,” Brooks said. “I think, if the freak show takes over the circus, the circus is going to be in trouble.”
Still, Halfon, who said she is married to a writer, said she thinks the strike portends much more strife in the industry, particularly for those people looking to break into the business.
“The thing that’s being discussed is a base salary, it’s base issues,” Halfon said. “It’s about the people who are writing independent films … you have to be able to go into this as a living that you’re going to do.”
The producers talked a lot about the business end of making films. As Brooks put it when discussing the way a producer mediates between the creative and financial concerns in making a movie, “The thing that we haven’t said about producing is that very often, it’s a job where your loyalties get confused.” A job that gets both harder and easier when directing and producing your own work, Brooks said. “The dream is to have a producer who will die for you, and I haven’t found anyone save myself who will do that.”
“You’re as good a producer as you are a psychologist,” Zadan said. “Because you have to handle everybody.”
Lupi, who has worked for many years with auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, put the relationship between producer and director in more simple terms. “Paul always gets what he wants,” Lupi said. “The studios really have very little to say if your finances are on track.”
Halfon agreed that keeping control of the financial end of a film allows filmmakers to take more control over their final product.
“[‘Juno’ director Jason Reitman] considers a smaller budget a license to be talked to less,” Halfon said. “They feel if you have a smaller budget, there’s less people to talk to and fewer people who feel they own that piece of real estate.”
But, no matter how many people are involved in making a movie, all the producers emphasized the importance of collaboration.
“I think everything’s okay if everyone’s doing the work,” Brooks said. “If everybody’s disagreeing, but they care about the work, you’re going to be okay. There might be blood on the walls, but you’re going to be okay.”