In some of the year’s most-high-profile movies, the buck stopped at the director’s chair — because the helmer also happened to be producing the picture.
If these hyphenates used their clout to raise financing for movies that might not have been commercially surefire, it was because they insisted on doing things their way.
Michael Mann not only directed and produced edgy thriller “Collateral,” but he developed “The Aviator” with Leonardo DiCaprio and writer John Logan before passing the reins to Martin Scorsese.
James L. Brooks wore three hats: writing, producing and directing the Bel Air family comedy “Spanglish,” co-starring Adam Sandler, Tea Leoni and Paz Vega.
Despite their track records, Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson struggled to get their latest pictures made, “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Passion of the Christ,” respectively. Michael Moore faced his own obstacles launching “Fahrenheit 9/11,” his documentary challenge to President Bush.
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And at 32, Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar emulated his idol, Pedro Almodovar, by seizing ownership of “The Sea Inside,” starring Javier Bardem as a quadriplegic who wants to die.
These artists stay in the driver’s seat on their films from start to finish. Ultimately, it’s about control.
Donning two hats
Mann: We’re filmmakers. We take the role of being a producer because we’re making sure that what we know ought to happen happens.
Amenabar: I wanted to be the owner of my own destiny. I’m not into mathematics or numbers. The scriptwriting and moviemaking is not really producing.
My first producer was a film director (Jose Luis Cuerda), we had a great relationship. He risked his money and was able to get money from other sources. For this film, I decided to be in his place, I wanted to be the owner of my films. I have the negative, 50%, like Pedro Almodovar.
Gibson: I’ve been producing since “Hamlet” in 1991. For a long time I had been ignorant of the underpinnings of what goes into making a movie. I wanted to understand what it was like, from go to woe. There is art in that. There’s a harmony you can achieve with doing both that eludes a lot of people.
I’ve produced at least 20 films I don’t even put my name on, it just says Icon Prods. It gives you artistic control, creative control, financial control. I’ve been allowed to make some movies that weren’t so commercial, including some real stinkers. Some movies work better than others. It’s important to take a risk on something.
Mann: It starts with an idea. The producer’s role is to figure out the best way for a story to tell itself. Is it a roving, central intelligence point of view, or totally subjective, through the eyes, behind the skin, in the shoes of just one guy?
Leo DiCaprio and I were working on “The Aviator” in ’97. With Howard Hughes, it was the big decision never to have the guy with the long fingernails and the long hair in Las Vegas. The end of the movie was the first day of the rest of his life. He’s been defeated by demons that have been his adversaries from the beginning of the film. It’s not a quantitative reduction of a life. That’s a dumb way to go.
Moore: (As a documentary filmmaker) you don’t know what you’re going to get, because you’re a journalist, finally. I’m going to go out and learn things and allow myself to be taken down roads I didn’t plan on going down.
Here’s the pitch for “Fahrenheit 9/11”: A film about how President Bush used the deaths of 3,000 people as an excuse to go kill thousands of others who had nothing to do with the deaths of 3,000 people. That’s a helluva story.
Eastwood: (Producer) Al Ruddy sent me a copy of the F.X. Toole book “Rope Burns” 3½ years ago. I read the story “Million Dollar Baby” and thought it was very moving. I set it aside, and all of a sudden he came up with the Paul Haggis script and it moved me again. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that.’ I just liked it and wanted to do it. He didn’t do a second draft. I started preparing it right away. At my age, I’m looking for things that I haven’t done before. The last picture (“Mystic River”), I was happy to just direct. I was lucky to find this (“Million Dollar Baby”) role. When a good role comes along, I can reach deep into myself.
Mann: “Collateral” went through a lot of directors. (DreamWorks production co-head) Walter Parkes came to me to direct. In changing the dialogue or characters somewhat and moving it from New York to L.A., I did a lot to the script, but not that much compared to the real uniqueness of what Stuart Beattie did in that screenplay, which has great bones. Ironically Vincent (the assassin played by Tom Cruise) becomes the agent of Max’s (cabbie Jamie Foxx) liberation: That’s all Stuart Beattie.
Definition of a producer
Brooks: I think a good producer protects the creative environment of the people who are doing the movie. So I guess when you are doing all three, you are trying to have some self-respect and do your best work. There is nobody who does this work and thinks they can survive without the work of everybody. In terms of talking about “auteurs,” these are team sports. Directors should have some respect for the script just generally. Actors always bring you back to the script a lot.
Mann: The role of the producer is to ensure that time and money are spent on the important story points, to make the movie work.
As a writer-director, I know the five to six pivotal scenes that have to have the right time and money. We can pull back investment on things that aren’t artistically critical. It’s like a writer’s analysis manifesting itself in allocation of capital.
The work I do as a producer is in the service of Michael Mann the director. The producer works for the director. I want to have the time to get the things that count right. In “Ali,” the Foreman fight, Malcolm X’s death and its impact on Ali, and the ending all had to be right. We make movies with time and money. That doesn’t mean as producer on films I direct that I exercise draconian control, it’s not finance that dominates the aesthetic — although the best-run films are usually the best films.
Eastwood: There’s all kinds of producers: Somebody who may have wandered around in the business over the years; some people who get credit for producing don’t do anything; some get credit because they sold or agented the script or knew the guy who wrote the script.
It can be the hands-on producer like Ron Lorenz who works for me, he’s also the assistant director; I’ve got everybody doing a lot of jobs.
The director is always involved in everything from the very beginning, the producer has to support him, making sure the finances are there, what you’re going to pay for the cast.
These last two films I worked extremely cheap. On “Mystic River,” I forfeited my salary until the picture was out there. On “Million Dollar Baby,” we were making itwe were making it for under $30 million. I didn’t want the actors to work for less than their usual price. We make the best deal we can. I told (Warner Bros.) that.
See Hyphenates page 33