Producer-directors balance demands of art and commerce
Directors Peter Jackson, Clint Eastwood and the Coen brothers all hold Academy Awards, but not just for helming their movies — they’re also Oscar-winning producers. If the record books tend to emphasize filmmakers’ directorial duties, there are plenty of auteurs who deserve equal credit for their behind-the-scenes work as organizational gurus, focusing as much on their actors’ needs as their budgets.
Working double duty has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, producer-directors relish the opportunity for artistic freedom and pride themselves on self-control — though the latter might be hard to say for ambitious folks like director-producers Michael Mann (see “Public Enemies”) or James Cameron (“Avatar”). On the other, producing can potentially distract from the artistic process, drawing directors away from the set to focus on the financial or managerial demands of making a movie.
As producer-turned-helmer Lee Daniels says of “Precious,” “I was signing checks literally as I was directing my talent. It was very distracting.”
Daniels found his two roles constantly at odds with each other. Early on, he made a directorial decision to fire key crew people and start over with more familiar faces; as a producer, he says, it was one of the hardest decisions he’s ever made. During the throes of production, he would tell himself, “I love every frame, I love my actors, and I love the story. But as a producer, I’m thinking, ‘What the hell? Who is the audience for this, besides yourself, Mr. Daniels?
For many hyphenates, however, directing and producing are inextricably intertwined.
Truly, if you’re directing a movie, you’re always thinking that way,” says “It’s Complicated’s” Nancy Meyers, who earned her first producing credit on “Private Benjamin” in 1980 but didn’t try her hand at helming until 1998’s “The Parent Trap.” “It’s unlikely that the director is insisting on something that is unrealizable and unattainable; it’s just not how movies are made. You have to figure it out.”
On “It’s Complicated,” the production fell behind schedule at one point, so instead of shooting on location for a scene at a doctor’s office, Meyers and her crew transformed a conference room in their office building into the required set. At another point, Alec Baldwin’s character’s bedroom was turned into a hotel gym. “It’s not like I’m constantly arguing with myself that I want something but I can’t have it,” Meyers says. “It’s all about, how can we make it work? Let’s serve the movie first. And do it as responsibly as possible.”
Working Title Films co-chairman Eric Fellner, who has collaborated with many auteur-producers, including the Coens, Ron Howard and Paul Greengrass, says directors who also function as producers usually know what they’re doing.
Of the Coens, he says, “They are the most disciplined filmmakers and know more about what they want to do both creatively and physically than virtually anyone I’ve ever worked with. That’s their strength.”
Although early on, Ethan took the producing credit while Joel was listed as helmer, the duo have shared an obsessive concern for details — and now share all credits. On 1996’s “Fargo,” Fellner remembers the constant worrying and alternative planning for snow when the weather refused to cooperate; on “A Serious Man,” Ethan Coen recalls the challenges of finding the right suburban location — one with a minimum of trees. “It was the object of a lot of discussions,” says Coen, who eventually achieved the look through both digital and physical tree removal.
Another detail-oriented director-producer, “A Single Man’s” Tom Ford says he couldn’t imagine detaching the two jobs. “I couldn’t do it as a fashion designer either,” says the former Gucci creative director. “I could never design in a bubble. When I make a decision, it’s not only about the creative standpoint but also the effects (that decision has) on budget.”
From the outset, Ford went through his script, working with another producer, Bob Salerno, and reduced sections that were deemed too pricey — a car crash, for instance, was excised; now the film only shows its aftermath, which is arguably more effective. “Having the entire picture in my head was enormously helpful because when people said, ‘Are you sure you want to spend that much money for that?’ I was able to weigh the importance of the cost with the end results.”
Indeed, for Ford or Daniels, their low-budget films probably wouldn’t have been made if they hadn’t fought tooth-and-nail as producers as well, striving to bring their creative vision to the screen by working just as hard on such logistical concerns as packaging and financing.
Being your own producer is “powerful,” Daniels says, “but it’s a powerful curse.”