TIPS AND TRICKS: Making a Movie is Like Making a Shoe

I’m fortunate to work with producers who are knowledgable about all aspects of the motion picture business.  Making a movie is a process, always difficult, sometimes bordering on the impossible. It requires a Ship Captain with vast knowledge of just about everything, able to see the broad picture while at the same time able to focus on microscopic details.  A knowledgable producer sees the writer’s vision, helps to clarify it, then assembles the team to bring this vision to a reality. This journey is long and difficult and fraught with many obstacles that can derail it. The screenplay is akin to a business plan. The producer must get “creatives” experienced in a wide range of disciplines to read the script.   Some will want to join the team, others will need convincing, and then negotiations with their agents will begin.  Money issues and conflicting schedules must be worked out.   The wise producer will create an enviroment that allows all of these people to flourish.  I could go on and on about the important duties of a producer and maybe one day I will, but this is enough for now.

Then there are those would-be producers.  Unfortunately they don’t comprehend what the creative process is about, let alone being totally ignorant about the nuts and bolts of production.  This is very frustrating and demoralizing for an artist whose passion is to make an entertaining and artful motion picture.  Every motion picture is a unique creation, an amalgam of art and science, and it is reflected as such in the name of Hollywood’s most prestigious organization, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. There is no magic formula for making motion pictures, let alone good ones.  Imagine, if you will, being asked to design a new aircraft that not only must fly but must be pleasing to the eye. The conversation might go like this, “No, make the empennage (tail assembly) more curved and a lot bigger.”   There are many would-be producers out there who end up creating more problems than solutions, and sooner or later you’re bound to run into them.  When you do, you’ll be frustrated, your blood will be boiling and you’ll be feeling the need to immediately embark on a long vacation.  Here’s a suggestion. Remove one of your shoes and set it on the desk right in front of this would-be producer. Remember don’t be confrontational. Using a calm but authoritative voice, the first question you will ask is, “Do you think you can make this shoe?”* You already know what will happen next.  There will be no reply, just silence.   This situation begs you to ask a second question.  Be courageous, go for it:  “So, if you don’t know how to make this shoe, what makes you think you can make a movie?”  Be prepared for a very long period of silence.  I must warn you, Mexican standoffs don’t come without a price. The would-be producer’s angry stare and evil eye will be directed right at  you. So what comes next?  You may be fired, you can quit, or because you’re receiving a stipend that’s next to nothing, you might be allowed to continue to work on the movie. If you haven’t been banished to the street and you do remain on the job, it will likely be a rocky road.  You’ll be asked to work long hours — come in earlier, leave later.  And if that’s not enough, you’ll be expected to work harder than the others.  And be prepared, because you will not receive any praise for what you do. However, there is another side to the coin.  You’ll learn, really learn from the inside, how the complex, illusive and mystifying process of making of a movie comes about.

So, now you’re on to the next job.  Confident and secure in your ability,  you’ve worked “in the trenches” and you survived.   You’re young and enthusiastic and  you think you know more about the movie making process than that incompetent “would-be” producer you recently worked for. This is only your second job.   So what?  Deep down you know that you’re now a producer and a “damn good one.”  No self-doubt is allowed here.  “I am a producer. A damn good producer.”  Say it over and over.

Early in the pre-production phase, there’s a very good chance someone you are meeting with will remove his or her shoe and set it on your desk.  You don’t panic. “Ah-hah!  I’m prepared.” You ‘re relaxed because you already know the question: “Do you think you can make this shoe?”  You remain calm and collected as you smile at the person across from you.  They’re very uncomfortable, and you pause for effect and draw out this moment because your loyal and trusted newbe assistant has done mounds of research for you.  You will be able to answer in great detail about how to make a shoe.  This is your moment.   You’ve passed the test! You have gained respect from the person across from you.  They now think of you as the producer you are.

There’s a lesson here.  It’s important to pay attention to everything that’s happening, no matter how big or small, no matter how challenging or stressful.   You can learn lessons that will pay off during your long career.   But, more importantly, I wish you “good luck” as producer on the start of principal photography on your first motion picture.

The inspiration for this story dates back to 1962 when I met  an A-list producer by the name of Edward Lewis, through a friend of a friend of my father.  Ed Lewis had just completed production of “Spartacus,” and he had an office in a bungalow on the lot at Universal Studios. The company was Bryna Productions, owned by Kirk Douglas. Ed mentioned something about using a blacklisted WGA writer on “Spartacus” as well as his upcoming movie “Lonely Are The Brave,” for which he gave me a copy of the screenplay to read. But the implication about the Blacklist and this writer went over my head.  The writer was Dalton Trumbo who was forced to use a pseudonym because of the Red Scare and McCarthy Commission hearings in Washington, D.C., and his refusal to testify, not because he was guilty of anything but because he refused to rat out his fellow Hollywood writers.   Unfortunately the House Un-American Activity Hearings led by ringmaster Joseph McCarthy ended the careers of many unfortunate people called to testify.  Ed pointed at the “Lonely are the Brave” screenplay he had given me and the pseudonym on the cover page, and said that’s how we got this movie made at Universal, but Kirk and I are going to demand that Dalton Trumbo’s name appears on the screen.  Then Ed and I talked about what I wanted to do in the business. I told him I wanted to be a Director of Photography, and that “my heart’s  been set on that goal all my life.” He frowned, “You have no chance of getting into the camera local. “What about another type of production job?” I asked. “Almost as difficult,” he replied. The problem is there are not a lot of jobs right now. And if there is a job opening, you can’t get the job without being in the Union, and you can’t get into the Union without having a job; and on top of that you will be placed at the bottom of the IATSE seniority system, so it will be next to impossible to get another job.  I was disheartened and as I was ready to leave his office,  he said, ala Steve Jobs, “But there is one more thing, you can be a producer.  You might not be very good at producing but you can call yourself a producer starting today.”  At the beginning of the meeting with Edward Lewis I was a schlub who couldn’t find a job in Hollywood, but I left the meeting as a producer — same as Ed — albiet not a very good one.

At a meeting with the servicing director at Showcase Entertainment, Renee Black, we were discussing  producers and I told her my fantasy of setting down a shoe in front of a second-rate producer and asking if that person thinks he or she can make this shoe?  She literally fell on the floor laughing and the more I thought about it so did I.

Seven years later, while under contract to Universal City Studios,  I resided in bungalow 70 with Frank Price and Peter Saphier.

In 1971 I was hired by Freddie Weintraub and Paul Heller at Warner Bros. Studios to write an original screenplay, a western, “The Sun Grows Old.  This is how I became a member or the Writers Guild of America, and I am still a proud member to this day.  The Western Genre was effectively killed by Transamerica’s over-budget, flop movie, “Heaven’s Gate.”  “The Sun Grows Old” was never made  and languishes in a dusty  file cabinet at Warner Bros. Studios.