“He’s good luck,” says director Jim Jarmusch.
“He’s always ready to go to hell with me and back,” says Julian Schnabel.
“He was every day a warrior beside me,” says Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
Spike Lee has leaned on him through 12 movies in 18 years.
He’s based in Manhattan. He has never signed an overall deal with a studio. He has no staff. It’s just him and a BlackBerry.
Yet producer Jon Kilik, 50, is on a roll. He is now three-for-three in the Cannes fest competition, starting with Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers” in 2005.
Last year, Kilik came to Cannes with Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel,” which went on to score seven Oscar nominations. “Babel” was a long, arduous shoot on far-flung locations in Morocco, Japan and Mexico, where Kilik had to corral disparate non-English-speaking local casts and crews and meet his director’s standards of authenticity. But the producer fought hard to help Gonzalez Inarritu get what he needed.
“When he is married to a project he’s married to that project only. He has no interests clashing. He worked for eight months before he got a ridiculously low fee. He flies tourist; he considers every penny should be on screen,” says Gonzalez Inarritu.
Working with demanding directors is what Kilik does.
This year, he brought “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” to Cannes, and saw helmer Schnabel land the fest’s directing prize. Kilik produced Schnabel’s “Basquiat” and “Before Night Falls” as well.
“He protects me,” says Schnabel, wearing purple pajamas by the Hotel Martinez pool in Cannes. “He’s a great friend, a moral man. He’s committed to me the way I’m committed to him.”
Surviving “Babel” gave Kilik the bravado to convince Schnabel to shoot Ronald Harwood’s “Diving Bell” adaptation in French.
“Nobody wanted to make the movie in French except Jon Kilik,” says Schnabel, who was brought in to direct “Diving Bell” by Johnny Depp and DreamWorks producer Kathleen Kennedy. But when Depp had to keep his beard for yet another “Pirates” shoot, he gracefully withdrew. That’s when Kilik told Schnabel to do the right thing: Ditch the studio budget and go French.
Kilik was adamant: “I said, ‘If we don’t do the movie in French I won’t do it.'”
Luckily, Schnabel agreed with him. “A Frenchman wrote about a subject with universal sexuality and sensibility,” he says. “To try to reconstruct that in California with an American actor speaking with a French accent seemed absurd to me.”
It helped that French actor Mathieu Amalric had a role in “Munich.” Kilik was able to convince DreamWorks to let “Diving Bell” go (the studio kept some backend gross to recoup its development costs) and set it up as $13 million French production.
This is not your usual approach to getting ahead in Hollywood. Kilik keeps costs low and prefers independent financing. He inspires an unusual degree of trust from his collaborators.
“They’re not difficult,” he insists, hanging at a table under a blue-and-white striped Carlton Beach umbrella. “That’s an easy label to put on visionary, maverick, rebellious filmmakers. These are not studio-developed things that are made by committee. These directors force something into existence that wouldn’t happen without the persistence of the filmmaking team. We are each other’s lifelines.”
After two decades, Kilik has gained some clout from working with an impressive list of filmmakers. Besides his primary relationships with Lee and Schnabel, Kilik has produced films for Tim Robbins (“Dead Man Walking”), Robert Altman (“Pret a Porter”), Robert DeNiro (“A Bronx Tale”), Oliver Stone (“Alexander”) and Chris Ayre (“Skins”).
Distribs started circling “Diving Bell” after a trailer was screened in Berlin. Kilik and Schnabel were under pressure from financier Pathe to sell to eager buyer Harvey Weinstein before Cannes. But they were confident enough to refuse to sell the film until after its Cannes unveiling.
“It’s about hearing the strategy,” explains Kilik. “I don’t just want to take the money. I want the movie to do well.”
Miramax won the bidding war for “Bell,” paying about $3 million for North American rights — a hefty price for a French art film about a paralyzed man who dictates a book with one working eyelid. Plans call for a presence on the fall fest circuit and a full-court Oscar press.
Kilik made his first foray onto the Croisette 20 years ago with “The Beat,” a forgettable micro-budget punk film he produced with Julia Phillips. But he had made the leap from assistant directing (“Raising Arizona”) and production supervising (“Prizzi’s Honor”).
Since 1979, the New Jersey native — who studied film at the U. of Vermont — has lived in New York, where he produced Lee’s films, from “Do the Right Thing” to “Inside Man.” (Even though he refused to produce “She Hate Me,” the relationship survived.)
Kilik was introduced to Lee by producer David Picker in 1988. Lee planned to shoot “Do the Right Thing” with DeNiro and a $10 million budget on June 30. They ended up starting the film on June 30 — with Danny Aiello and a $6 million budget.
“When things get difficult, I stay cool,” Kilik says. “I’m going to get a cast, money, a studio. I call the directors on that. It’s got to be about the film. With Spike, I often said, ‘We can make a movie or sit on our thumbs. Let’s make the film and adapt.’ ”
Kilik maintains the freedom to just say no by keeping things simple. He’s never had a studio deal or a contract with a filmmaker. (“I want us to decide together,” he says.) He runs a small operation in his West Village loft that he bought as a warehouse and developed seven years ago. He reads scripts and answers his phone and emails. “I have no agent, no lawyer and no assistant,” he says.
And he really runs a production — communicating with all key departments, unions, guilds, Teamsters. “He understands a lot from the ground up,” Jarmusch says.
Jarmusch went to NYU film school with Lee, and grew to respect Kilik after visiting Lee’s sets. “He’s very strong, but he’s not aggressive,” Jarmusch says. “He’s a smart facilitator. I appreciate that the producer is there to serve the film, not the other way around. He chooses projects based on directors who know what film they’re going to make. He makes sure you do the things you need to do. And he keeps things away that you don’t need to be endlessly distracted by. With Jon, they stay invisible.”
Schnabel showed up on Kilik’s doorstep in 1992.
“I’m not sure he even wanted to direct a movie,” Kilik says. After four years developing “Basquiat” (they paid rookie writer Tim Cunningham just $5,000), Schnabel finally stepped up. “Everybody thought I was crazy,” Kilik says. “A lot of painters were trying to make movies — David Salle, Cindy Sherman.” Those films didn’t do well. Schnabel had to finance the $3 million film by putting up paintings as a guarantee. Miramax eventually picked it up.
Distribs also passed on “Before Night Falls,” a movie about a gay Cuban poet (Javier Bardem), which the filmmakers again made on their own. New Line acquired the pic out of the Toronto Film Fest after it won four prizes in Venice.
When Kilik leaves his art film niche, however, things don’t always go so smoothly.
Stone’s “Alexander” turned into just the sort of filmmaking by committee Kilik tries to avoid.
“Other producers had other agendas,” he recalls, “like getting money back on a certain day. You can’t release a film when it isn’t ready.”
“Are you sure?” he told Stone when the filmmaker wanted to make Colin Farrell blond. “I know it’s risky,” Stone told Kilik. “I want to be bold.”
The other filmmaker who refused to listen to the easygoing Kilik was Robbins, who shut him out during the filming of “Cradle Will Rock.” The film was a critical and box office dud.
Jarmusch says he is trying to “trick” Kilik into producing his next picture. The only trick will be finding an available window, as helmers Bennett Miller and Susanne Bier are lining up along with his regulars outside Kilik’s door.
“I’ve got five or six things, nothing definite,” Kil
ik says. As usual, he’s keeping his options open.