Many people see film producers as being strictly business people. Do you consider yourself an artist at all? In what ways does film producing require creative thinking?
The best producers are very creative. Take the film Drive, for example - the main producer read the James Sallis book (which is terrific, by the way), bought an option on it, found a screenwriter (Hossein Amini) that shared and added to their vision, risked money hiring them to write the screenplay, worked with the writer on several drafts, found a director (Nicolas Winding Refn) that could add to this vision, hired the cast, raised the money, got the film physically produced, brought on a sales agent (Sierra Affinity) to sell the film to distributors and to market the film to the public. All in all, that’s pretty creative - the producer is the entrepreneur behind the film.
What are some of the most common challenges you face when working with directors?
The producer’s job is to create an environment in prep / on set where the director can thrive, to build the film around their individual strengths, and to push them to do their very best work. One of the biggest challenges is knowing when to leave them alone, and when to speak up.
You studied Industrial Engineering after your undergraduate degree and ended up in software development. How did you end up making your way into the film industry?
My dad founded and ran Canada’s first independent film distribution company, Film Canada - he released films by Jean Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Jutra, Jean Pierre Lefebvre, Don Shebib, Andy Warhol, Stan Brackage… So I was exposed to great film-making from an early age. I also took an Italian Cinema course at U of T together with Atom Egoyan, who’s an old friend from Trinity College.
You then moved to London to attend the London Film School. How would you describe this experience? What were your fellow students excited by? What did you learn from this period of time in your life?
It was quite cathartic - I moved to London not knowing anyone there at all and got to re-invent myself. I worked on 18 films in 2 years doing everything from sound recording to camera operating, editing, lighting, directing and producing. London was crazy fun back then, and I also played guitar in bands here for a long time (and still do!). My fellow students were mostly from overseas - Sweden, Mexico, Norway, the US, South Africa, Iceland… so there was an interesting melting pot of ideas going on. Some of my fellow students have gone on to great success (i.e. my Finnish friend Anders Engstrom recently directed Taboo, starring Tom Hardy).
You eventually landed a job as a film executive with the people who made Bertolucci's English language films. What was their filmmaking philosophy? What did you learn from them?
After a couple of years working intermittently at various crew jobs (production coordinator, production manager, assistant director, props master, producer’s assistant, director’s assistant, dialogue coach, director) on anything I could get paid for (TV, films, rock videos, a snooker programme…), I found myself at a dinner party sitting next to a Dutch accountant who ran Jeremy Thomas’s finance and sales company (Jeremy had just produced The Last Emperor and won 9 Oscars). I asked him how does one get a job with a company like his, and he laughed, saying they were actually looking to hire someone but they needed to know how to do computer spreadsheet work - this was towards the end of the 80s when it was still a fairly rare skill. I had long hair back then and had been telling him stories about playing in bands, so when I said I could do that, he laughed again. Not believing me at all but being nice, he told me to come in on Monday and if I really could do spreadsheet work I would get the job. Because of my computer science experience, I had actually done this before. So I got the job because I could do Excel - they couldn’t have cared less that I knew anything about film. And what I found there was a group of passionate film lovers who shared a wonderfully crazy entrepreneurial spirit. They didn’t have a “philosophy”, they just thought they could make whatever film they wanted to - simple as that. And they often did!
Your name now appears in the producing credits of some very successful films, including, most recently, The Dressmaker featuring Kate Winslet. Are the obstacles of producing any different when dealing with higher profile actors?
It’s harder to cast bigger films because the actors are in much more demand - so you need to convince the talent agents that you’re reliable. If your film isn’t fully-financed, it can be hard to get the actors to commit, but if you look at it from their perspective, they don’t want to set aside weeks of their time unless they know they’ll be paid. Also, bigger stars often want some kind of creative involvement in the film. Kate was a total pro and a pleasure to work with, btw.
On top of achieving great success as a film executive, you have pursued music in a serious way. When looking at a project of yours such as Festival Express, one wonders - does your musical life often overlap with your film world?
Yes, all the time - which is great. And I think (well, I like to think) that directors, writers, and actors treat me a little differently knowing that I’m a musician.
A film student graduates from film school, aspiring to a career in filmmaking that enables them to write and direct their own stories. What advice would you give them?
Make as many short films as you can - you can make them for very cheap (use your iPhone, like Stephen Soderbergh has just done on his new feature film!) and it’s great practice! Write full length feature screenplays on spec, and be prepared to sell them - that’s how Tarantino, for example, got started (he actually wrote one really long screenplay, sold the first half to Tony Scott, which became True Romance, and the second half to Oliver Stone, which became Natural Born Killers - it was originally a single 250 page script). Billy Wilder started that way too, as did John Hughes, and too many others to name.
What are some of your favourite films of all time?
Here are the first 20 that popped into my head, not in any order of preference:
Some Like It Hot, To Have And Have Not, La Regle Du Jeu, Touch Of Evil, Le Mepris, Day For Night, Persona, Trading Places, 8 1/2, Death In Venice, Rashomon, Rosemary’s Baby, Apocalypse Now, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, Vanishing Point, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, The Killing, Blade Runner, The Third Generation.
How do the creative communities of London compare with those of Toronto?
The Toronto community is wonderfully creative and exciting to be part of, but the London community is much bigger and better connected to LA. One of the most important differences is that British actors, writers and directors generally stay living in Britain even after they’ve made it in Hollywood. And British TV broadcasters invest substantial sums into British films (something like £60M - £70M per year in total), but only into films they feel have a real chance of worldwide theatrical release, so writers and directors are forced to be more in tune with the international market. London is also a base for many of the more important film sales agents, which is enormously helpful for this as well.
Do you ever long to be writing or directing your own stories?
I do write - I even have an agent who reps me as a screenwriter. In fact I’m writing a treatment now. Directing is too much work!
What are you looking forward to?
A 3 week holiday in Canada - a week in Georgian Bay followed by 10 days sailing up the BC coast and playing golf at Whistler!