For many hyphenates, producing, directing interchangeable
In winter 1960, Jerry Lewis, as was his habit, arrived at his Paramount office before dawn.
He was producing the biggest movie of his career, a $3.4 million comedy called “The Ladies’ Man.” The front-office brass had been enormously supportive, but he knew that behind their warm smiles, they were wondering if he’d gotten in over his head.
Lewis, in turn, was worried about his director, especially after seeing the previous day’s dailies. Lewis hated to second-guess the man, but he had too much riding on this picture to keep silent, so he hammered out a memo on his electric typewriter: “I saw the scene with Jerry and the girl. I think he dogged it. We’d better shoot it again.”
Some three hours later on the set, the picture’s director, Jerry Lewis, accepted a handful of mail from a studio errand boy, rifled through it, tore open the memo and unleashed a torrent of curses at his producer. “We’re not redoing the goddamned scene!” he growled at his a.d. “It’s fine.”
That night in the editing room, Lewis’ cutter, Stanley Johnson, asked tentatively, “Has there been any decision about that scene with the girl?”
“Yes,” Lewis said. “We’re reshooting it. The son of a bitch dogged it.” Lewis the producer had won that round.
The hyphenate life can be discombobulating and more than a little stressful. Lewis admits he was a nervous wreck from “the first day of shooting to the last” on every one of his pictures.
Why subject yourself to such torment? Talk to any producer-director and you’ll invariably get the same answer: creative control.
“For me, it started in 1966 with ‘The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!’,” says Norman Jewison, who has produced and directed 17 feature films since then. “It was my project. I bought the rights to the novel. Then I had long chats with William Wyler, Billy Wilder and Freddy Zinnemann. They all told me, ‘Listen, kid, if you really want to control your film and have the final cut, you’ve got to produce as well as direct it.’ That’s the way it started. It was strictly so somebody else wouldn’t change the colors of the painting.”
Final cut can have a hefty pricetag. In most of his producing contracts, Jewison has promised to deliver his pictures no more than 10% over budget. If he fails, he forfeits most or all of his salary.
Lewis went even further by kicking in his own money to pay for half or sometimes the entire budgets of the films he directed, in exchange for 50% or more of the profits and a level of creative autonomy that no screen comedian had commanded since the 1920s.
Jim Sheridan, who wore three hats on “In America,” wanted not only final cut but also control over the distribution and marketing of “In the Name of the Father” (1993), a politically controversial film about a petty criminal in Northern Ireland who is wrongly accused of a terrorist bombing.
“If it had been released in England first, it would have been so attacked, the tone would have been set in a way that I couldn’t control,” Sheridan says. “I wanted it to get a fair hearing outside of the political arena. I was more interested in the humanity of the story than the politics.”
So Sheridan put together the financing and distribution deals himself and opened the picture in the U.S. Producing doesn’t come naturally to Sheridan, but he has realized it’s a necessity.
“The trouble is that the longer you make movies, the more you realize that all areas of film are intertwined, so you can’t give up in the last 100 yards,” he says. “If you do, you’ve not only killed the film you’re working on, but the potential to make another one.”
Like most A-list directors, Sheridan has extended his reach even further to produce films by other directors–“Agnes Browne” (1999), “Borstal Boy” (2000), “On the Edge” (2001) and “Bloody Sunday” (2002).
A wider net
Directors have a simple explanation for this growing trend: You get to make more movies — movies with directors you admire, in genres you love but feel you have no aptitude for.
But producing for other filmmakers has its own set of stresses, as Sheridan discovered when he produced “Some Mother’s Son” (1996) for director Terry George.
“At one point there was a set that wasn’t ready in time, and we had to keep shooting while they got it ready,” Sheridan recalls. “I said to Terry, ‘Well, you can shoot it there, there and there.’ He thought I was trying to tell him how to shoot the film. There was a huge row. It was quite crazy. But the arguments are what bond you. If the director’s any good, you’re going to have arguments, because he’s in the middle of his vision and you have to accommodate that vision.”
Most hyphenates believe they are better equipped to do that than conventional producers.
“I have empathy for a director,” says Gary Ross, director of “Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit.” Ross plans to produce a number of features by other directors — including a remake of “Creature of the Black Lagoon” — through his Larger Than Life Prods.
“I know what it means to have 150 people looking at you at 11 in the morning when you’ve just found out the master doesn’t work! Only if you have directed can you totally appreciate that,” Ross says. “The knowledge that you have from being in those situations enables you to put yourself in a director’s shoes and help him figure out a creative solution.”
And taking on the job of producer can broaden your skills as a director. Anand Tucker, director of “Hilary and Jackie,” recently produced “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” Peter Webber’s feature directing debut. The experience gave Tucker a deeper understanding of logistics and budget.
“I’m directing a picture called ‘Shopgirl’ for Disney right now,” says Tucker, “and my producing experience has been a great help. I probably know more about budgets than some of the people would like me to know. I can say, ‘I know we’ve only budgeted 40 days here with this money, but I see a way to get 45 days for the same amount of money by doing this, this and this.’ That’s a huge advantage.”
Irwin Winkler, Oscar-winning producer of “Rocky,” entered the hyphenate field from the opposite direction of most of his contemporaries. He’d been producing films for 24 years before he directed his first feature, 1991’s “Guilty by Suspicion.”
Ironically, he was motivated by the same drive as his counterparts: creative control. “As a producer you develop a project, but you must turn it over at some point to the director and let him complete the vision,” Winkler says. “Well, I felt that was not something I wanted to do with ‘Guilty by Suspicion.’ I had a personal vision of it and I wanted to pursue it.”
Winkler went on to direct five more features, including “De-lovely,” a Cole Porter biopic now in post-production. He still produces movies by other directors and he, too, feels the hyphenate experience has made him a better producer.
“When I’m producing a film now, I offer my services in a more communal way,” he says. “I used to be a lot tougher on the directors. Now that I’m a director myself, I’m much more patient and understanding about the time it takes dealing with actors and the difficulty of getting a shot that you want. But I also have a lot of impatience with directors now when I see them wasting time, and I realize how many directors are unprepared. They don’t really have a sense of what they want, so they shoot everything they see.”
Two sides of the coin
“I don’t know of a way of directing a movie without also approaching it from a logistical perspective,” Ross says. “The logistical, the practical, the financial and the creative are all intertwined. Money is an integral part of the creative process. You have to understand where to allocate it and where not to. You have to grasp the intricacies of a budget so you know where to make a stand, where to fight for something and where to compromise. Ultimately, those are all creative decisions.”