Hello ladies and gentlemen, your pal Muldoon here with another look behind the curtains of our favorite films. I'll be honest, we're roughly two months into this new column and yet MEET THE CREW has already surpassed my wildest dreams in terms of the types of individuals I originally thought I'd be speaking with. I've been incredibly fortunate to feature a number of talented individuals, people who's blood, sweat, and tears have created some of our favorite visual stories in recent years. A part of me thinks that it's simply becasue they love movies just as much as I do (as much as we all do actually) and even though they aren't necessarily promoting anything, they still enjoy sharing their thoughts on a wide range of topics circling around the filmmaking process. Each person who has been featured here has been an integral part of a number of films, films we've all seen and enjoyed. Sure, the degree of control they might have had on a film differs from position to position (or person to person), but we've gotten some great perspectives that add a whole new level of appreciation with some of our favorite pictures.
Today we speak with Producer Bonnie Curtis and while I'm sure you've read interviews with producers in the past, the special thing here is Ms. Curtis didn't come my way via a PR company. She's not talking with us in hopes that we will "go by a ticket to a film of hers coming out next weekend..." She took my call because she's the real deal, an honest woman who loves what she does and isn't above answering a few silly questions from AICN's biggest Jurassic Park fan. The fact that she's three weeks out from principal photography on her next film and took close to an hour to talk to a fan only highlights the type of person she is. In the interview below you will find answers to most all of the questions you've come to expect with MEET THE CREW, but there are wonderful gems of stories here today that I'm tickled pink (in the manliest way possible) she was willing to share, quite a few that paint a side of Steven Spielberg you might not have realized.
I say it each week and it's only becuase I do actually mean it - before we hop on in, I'd like to thank Ms. Curtis for taking the time to talk with me. It's appreciated as always when a professional sets time aside to talk for free about what they are passionate about. That's enough from me, I hope you enjoy the interview below as much as I did.
BONNIE CURTIS - FILM PRODUCER
So just to jump right on in, would you mind describing what exactly a producer is, I mean from where you sit? I know different producers have different duties, but for the folks out there who just might not have any idea what a producer actually does, would you mind explaining what is it you do? On that same thought, can you describe when you come on to a project and how you find the projects you choose to work on? I fully realize that’s a lot of questions all shoved together, so please forgive me.
Absolutely. I’m happy to do that. You know, I think the best way for me to describe what a producer does is my way into producing… When I just moved out to Los Angeles and I was on a film set for the very first time, I was looking around at all of the departments, sound, wardrobe, props, makeup, grips and electric, camera, just down the line like every single facet of the production with what each department did and there wasn’t one particular job that interested me. What interested me was trying to get all of those people to communicate with each other and be on the same page in regards to the vision that we were trying to put up on the screen.
For lack of a better way to say it, it was the communication and all the different personalities trying to communicate that I found myself sort of organically gravitating towards. My entre into this business, I mean worked at Disney for a year and a half, but where my career really kicked off was when I was hired as Steven Spielberg’s assistant in 1990. The first film I did with him was HOOK and I found myself… This was before cell phones. This is before texting and email. This is… I’ve got a beeper, you know, one of those old pagers on my belt, my hip, and when the production office needs me or someone back at Amblin needs me, I’m getting paged and I’m having to run and find a landline and call them back. (Laughs)
I mean it just sounds like I’m talking about the 1920’s, doesn’t it?
It does seem like forever ago, a different world entirely almost.
But that forced me to interact with every single department constantly, because you’re still trying to… You’re making a movie, so there’s an enormous amount of communication that has to happen and I was also Steven’s assistant, so a lot of what he wanted funneled out to everyone – I had to run around and find people. What started to happen to me is I just started to naturally gravitate towards the management of a massive amount of information with a lot of different arms and legs of the production and a lot of different personalities and I found that I was pretty good at it. I was fairly good. They used to joke with me that I “spoke Spielberg,” because we would have a meeting with everybody and he would give some answers on things and because I had grown up being his assistant, I was fairly good at interpreting exactly what he meant and what needed to happen on any given problem or situation creatively or a choice on somebody’s wardrobe. Just whatever the issue of the day was, I was fairly sure the communication between everybody was reliable. So it’s kind of a long winded way of saying that really was my way in. I was sort of asking the same question, “What does a producer do?” Well, they sort of do what you’ve been running around doing. (Laughs) “Oh, Okay. Well maybe that’s what I want to do” and so it really kind of grew out of my natural position as his assistant and you know, Steven is so incredibly open about just giving people responsibilities past their pay grade. He is incredible about that and he just trusts, I’m sure with a vast amount of experience, that it’s either going to work out or it’s not. “If I entrust this task with this individual, they are either going to do okay or they are not, and if they don’t do okay then I probably won’t entrust them with another task. But if they do do okay, well then I’ll keep going.”
I had seen him meet people and immediately hand over an enormous responsibility to them and we’d see what happens, because you know you’re moving so fast… You’re on such time constraints on a set, you’ve just got to move, move, move and deal with consequences. So from the beginning he really gave me a lot of responsibilities that I would normally not think a twenty three year old girl from Texas might have. But he gave it to me, so I really had the rarified position of not only running around and communicating with everyone, but having some really important information to share with them. It became almost a lifeline to him, that communication, the content of the things that I was sharing with them. It also was an education on my feet, you know?
It’s so funny, I haven’t thought about this until this very second, I can remember so many times saying to people “I do not understand what I am about to say to you. I have no idea. I don’t have enough experience. I do not understand the words that I’m about to say to you, but I’m just going to say to you exactly what he said to me” and then I would say it. Then they would go “Oh yeah, no I totally get that.” Then I would be like “Okay, will you explain it to me, please?” (Laughs) I didn’t know anything. I had never made movies. I just didn’t know and now what I’m realizing as I say this out loud to you, Mike is I have not said that phrase in over a decade. I kind of learned a lot. I’m thinking to myself, “Wow, okay I haven’t had to preface something I was saying to someone with that in ten years.” That’s a good sign.
That’s definitely a sign of growth and considering what all you have produced, I would hope that’s the case now. In any department, in any field, it sounds like just asking a question until you find the answer is one of the most obvious, yet important things you can do. Always keep learning.
Forgive me if I’m answering all sorts of questions in my “General Patton speech” that I’m giving you here.
That’s absolutely not a problem. You’re touching upon some pretty interesting topics and I’d hate for you to be boxed in with a standard “Question – Answer.” This is great, but to change gears a bit - could you possibly shed some light on the differences between producing big studio films as opposed to independently financed films?
Well that… It’s part of the answer to this question… You know, every movie I see, when that “Producer” credit comes up on screen I guarantee you with every movie you see, the roles were very different. It’s varied amongst the producers. It’s varied from film to film. My role was very different on every film I’ve ever done. There are also a lot of similarities, but it depends on what the animal we are tackling in the moment is. When involved in studio filmmaking, an enormous amount of what I had to deal with as a producer was politics. An enormous amount of what I had to do while producing was making sure that studio executives and their counterparts were being communicated with respectfully, had their day in court creatively, and had access to as much information as we could provide them whenever they wanted it. One of the good and bad things about shooting in town, Los Angeles, you’re able to be around everyone and have immediate access to everyone, but they also have immediate access to you and that can become very challenging when you are shooting a film. It’s an intense job and it’s difficult when every five minutes someone else is knocking on the stage door and wants a tour. And god bless them, you know. They’re the ones giving you the money, all the friends and family who you love… That’s great, you want everyone to feel like a part of it and enjoy the wonderful adventure that making movies is, but then when you go overseas and you shoot a movie in a remote location and nobody comes to visit, it’s the greatest. (Laughs)
Sure, you can actually focus on your job and not have to worry about leading a tour of the set or handling other tasks like that. It can gunk up your day if you have to put things on hold in order to handle those duties – duties that might not be so obvious to everyone on the outside looking in.
Yeah, and if you’re working with people that you love and have a rhythm with and have made a few movies with, it’s just this incredible experience and you are all focused on the same goals. It’s very intense and it’s wonderful. ALBERT NOBBS, the film that we did over in Ireland about five years ago that I produced with my producing partner, Julie Lynn. Julie and I met on that movie. That was one of those movies where everyone of us that were on that film, we all still communicate with each other, because the four months that we spent together in the winter in Ireland, over the holidays, with each other (Laughs), you know like getting snowed in… Everything that we did, we just won’t ever experience that again and so all of us still stay in touch. I’m still in touch with all of the people I made SCHINDLER’S LIST with. You know, there’s just something about being in that remote and distant location where life is not invading on a frequent basis, it really puts something incredible up on the screen. So again, a way of saying producerally you know one of the things I often think about is “Okay, is this a film that’s really going to benefit from going to a distant location and getting everybody out of LA?” That can be interesting.
With independent filmmaking, one of the reasons why I enjoy it so much and can’t seem to get enough of it, it’s not only all the creative material that I’m attracted to… It’s all found in the independence space these days. That’s the leading cause, but I also really enjoy the freedom, because there’s no one looking over your shoulder. It is really really the creation of art at its best and I love that. It’s also getting your hands dirty, really physically getting involved in the making of the film and not spending your days on set feeling more like a politician and a tour guide than a filmmaker. So I really enjoy getting in deep in all facets of the film and having an influence on the outcome more than doing the big studio stuff. Not to say I wouldn’t head back for more studio stuff, because one does have to feed your family.
That makes sense. You’ve covered quite a bit in just a little bit of time, which is awesome, but I did want to ask if there are any specific film producers out there that you respect as a film lover yourself. In other words, is there anyone who when you hear they are attached to a project, you get excited for?
That’s actually a pretty good question. You want to know the very first name that popped in my head?
Mike De Luca. I hear that question and I immediately think of Mike De Luca. “Oh my gosh, Bonnie! Why did you think De Luca?” (Laughs) You know what I mean? It’s because he is currently doing what I wish I was doing and what I aspire to do. Now he’s a few years ahead of me on “the path,” so maybe I’ll get there in a few years, but De Luca… I worked with De Luca closely for a couple of years when he was running Dreamworks and he’s a guy who loves movies. He had that great run at New Line. He had that run at New Line and I know a lot of people who worked with him at that time where they just made a handful of all of our favorite movies. I mean they just had a really, really… I mean HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH came out of that time, just this audacious, creatively bold, and commercial moment in time that I just… I love the humans that were behind that product, you know, and that era. Then he came over to Dreamworks and then now he’s been over at Sony and they just did SHADES OF GREY and now he’s got this first look deal at Universal. FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is not… God knows they’ve made a ton of money on that. That is actually not a film where I go “Oh my gosh, I want to do that movie.” What De Luca is doing that I love is he is figuring out how to still make the art film, but he’s doing it at the studio level and that’s where I really hope to be heading in the future, the movies when I was growing up and falling in love with film and spending all of my weekends at the local cinema in Dallas, I was falling in love with movies like TERMS OF ENDEARMENT and BROADCAST NEWS and FABULOUS BAKER BOYS. I would say of those three De Luca would have gravitated to FABULOUS BAKER BOYS. (Laughs). Just those classy, smart, auteur driven… or taking a risk on someone who possibly is an auteur driven film that just has that commercial potential.
Look at MONEYBALL; it’s that zone I’m talking about. It’s studio backed, so you get all of your marketing money. It’s the studio backed classy film that still has… You’re not making it for a hundred million dollars, it’s not a huge superhero movie or a franchise, it’s just a movie with real acting and real scenes and real character drama and depth of character and that’s just the zone he’s in and he’s making it happen at a studio level and that…
Posing that question literally made me say “Oh my god, I’ve got to go sit with De Luca again and talk to him about what else he has, other ways we can help him realize some of that…” I will… If that meeting happens and something comes out of it, I’m going to be thanking you in the credits.
Ha! I’ll take it, the most undeserved credit to my name! So while Mike De Luca’s career is one that you find yourself admiring, getting back to yours – were there any individuals who at the onset of your career made a point to “give you your first break” or who might have taken you under their wing long before you were running sets of your own?
You know the other name that is literally like my mentor and the person who took that risk when maybe they shouldn’t have? That’s Steven. That’s 100% Spielberg right there and it’s not just me he’s done it with. He does it with people every day of his life. He’s incredible with going on instinct and giving people opportunities and he’s in a position where he’s able to do it in a really powerful way and I really credit him with that; he’s amazing in that way. Kathleen Kennedy is 100% my day-to-day mentor. I know for a fact she’s only a phone call away from me. It’s not a phone call that I have had to lean on on a frequent basis in years, but she still gets about one or two a movie. (Laughs) She used to get one a day and she’s always been there for me. She has a wealth of experience and has been so… just generous with direct mentorship and I feel very, very lucky to have had her and to still have her in my life. Kath, she’s run off and done the new STAR WARS and you know I don’t think that’s a movie that I would run to do. So when I would normally hear, “Hey, who do you aspire to follow in the film world?” Normally would say “Whatever Kathy is doing,” but she went off to do STAR WARS and I’ve got to be honest, I would not do that. That would not be me. I would not go do STAR WARS. I would go do TERMINATOR, you know? If Paramount called us up tomorrow and said, “We need someone to come do TERMINATOR,” I’d go do that in a heartbeat, because of the story. That whole time travel thing and the love interest and the son…. All of that. Those TERMINATOR movies are some of my all time favorite movies.
To interject a little bit; the movies that you’ve done lately, like I did see 5 TO 7 when it played at The Marchesa here in Austin, TX – it sounds like you gravitate towards good stories that also have an opportunity for a wide release. I don’t see you doing exploitation films or obvious cash grabs, as it sounds like you’re interested in films that have a shelf life.
Yeah, and a lot of what I seem to be attracted to has to do with identity and what your place in time is and I also think it’s a piece of material that when I read it, there’s at least been one scene or maybe more than has made me think about something in a different way than I’ve previously thought about it and that’s what 5 TO 7 did for me. That’s what ALBERT NOBBS did for me. That’s what THE FACE OF LOVE did for me. That’s what the one we just shot in the desert with Ewan McGregor, LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT did for me. I was raised in the Church of Christ in Dallas, Texas and I have a lot understanding of the bible and of the story of Jesus and the movie LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT… Rodrigo Garcia wrote and directed Ewan McGregor playing Jesus, but it’s a chapter in Jesus’s life that isn’t scriptural, it’s an imagined chapter in his life that occurs between his fasting in the desert for forty days and forty nights at the beginning of is ministry. Rodrigo literally wrote a script that’s four days in the guy’s life right there in the middle of the fasting in the desert and the beginning of the ministry. Well that’s intriguing to me. I’m like “Well I’ve never seen that. What’s he going to say?” He did it in a way that was so intelligent and respectful and interesting that I was like, “Okay, I’ve never seen this before.” That really pulled me in to that movie.
We are doing one now… We are actually in pre-production on a film we are going to start shooting in three weeks that for several reasons I’m interested in. One is I’ve never done the million dollar movie that you take and sell at Sundance. You know what I mean? Like the romantic comedy with two sexy wonderfully talented actors that’s funny and you just knock it out of the park and you take it and sell it at a festival. I’ve never done that before, so I would love to give that a shot. I’ve certainly seen those movies and from a business perspective I’m intrigued by a film… We will find out which festival seems most appropriate, but we just have a great little love story here and it’s not an extremely expensive film to make. “Let’s just make a million dollar and see if we can sell it.” That’s a really interesting challenge to me, but it’s also a love story about two people who save each other and it opens your mind up to a few concepts of life and death and again, I read it and I’m just like “Well, here we go again. They’ve roped me in again! I can’t not do this one!”
If you can’t put the script down, that should tell you something good.
Yeah, for me it’s all about the story, and a fresh story, a story that… The stuff that we do on a daily basis to get a film made, there’s a lot of stuff that’s second nature. “We know how to budget that. We know how to get that truck there and get that actor there and get hair and makeup…” We know all of the crew people… There’s a lot that we just know how to do – The only thing that’s fresh every time is the story we are telling. So if that’s not grabbing me… If I’m not really intrigued abut life and film and everything by this story, well then all I’m doing is doing something I’ve been doing every day of my life for twenty-five years and that just gets boring.
That’s what started happening to me on studio films. I mean Steven saw it on my face. We had a wonderful conversation one day where I just needed to get out there and get my hands dirty and really learn about filmmaking from the bottom up or I wasn’t going to continue to be fed by it. I had never had war stories and with making a few of these independent films I now have enough war stories to fill a museum.
I don’t doubt that.
So now I’m like “Can I please make a studio film again?!?!” (Laughs)
To jump in before we have to wrap up (I’m honestly just being selfish here) – do you have any stories from THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK or the first JURASSIC PARK that you think some of the readers might enjoy? I can’t imagine talking to you and not touching on the franchise that got me into film (writing about film/working in film) in the first place.
So I was Steven’s assistant on the first movie, JURASSIC PARK and then I was Associate Producer on THE LOST WORLD and I have a very vivid memory of doing both films. Mainly they are in and around how much I loved all of those actors. Laura Dern remains one of my all time favorite people. I think she is just a force. I love Laura. Obviously what we were involved with there and what Steven was sort of leading the charge on was this creation of these dinosaurs that come to life in a way that make you feel like they are real and I’ve got to say, even when I re-watch, it still completely stands the tests of time. There are a couple of the puppets where you’re like “Eh, I don’t know about that one.” But for the most part, especially the T-Rex sequences and the raptors, I mean it’s just chilling.
So all of that. The technological advances and the actor relationships, all of those things with both movies… They were both really, really great experiences. The most dramatic thing I think that anyone involved in both of those movies would talk to you about is when Hurricane Iniki hit the island that we were filming on during the first movie and I would assume… I mean have you heard stories about that?
I’ve definitely heard stories about how it pretty much shut the production down, like to a halt I believe you were holed up in a hotel? There’s a shot in JURASSIC PARK that involves waves crashing on a bank and my hope is that someone nabbed that shot, making the best out of a pretty terrible situation, but that’s just an assumption.
That all happened. We had one day of filming left and in the middle of the night before that final day of filming we were awaken by the chairs down by the swimming pool being folded up and put away, because they knew the hurricane was coming. It had made a ninety degree turn and was headed straight for the island. So you know we of course knew we weren’t going to be filming that day, so we all got in the ball room and sort of battened down the hatches so to speak. There are two really distinct memories that I’ll share with you. The first I would say is that if you are ever going to get stranded on an island, do it with a film crew. We had our own generator. We had craft services. (Laughs) We really kind of set up… Now, we were on the last couple of days there, so we didn’t have lot, but we did have stuff that got us through a couple of days and we all had each other and a lot of people had brought their families to Hawaii to have a few days there during our final days of filming there, which was both good and bad. It was good because a lot of people didn’t have to be home in Los Angeles worrying if their husbands and wives were going to be okay, but also we had all of these kids who were going through a hurricane with us and so it was a very odd experience in that way, because it wasn’t just the crew, it was a lot of the crews’ family in their entirety there too. So I have this very vivid memory of Steven getting on the phone and giving an interview with the local news here in Los Angeles and part of me… (Laughs) of course it’s my movie mentality and I’ve turned it into the “fact” that he was talking to Walter Cronkite. I have no idea if he was talking to Walter Cronkite or not… He was talking to somebody and he went through and did a few interviews on the phone right when the hurricane was about to hit and he’s like “Yeah, we’re on the island. We are stranded. We were filming here for a few weeks and…” So he did these series of interviews and right in the middle of one of the interviews they connection got cut off. The whole island lost connection and so boom! right in the middle of the interview and he’s like “Oh well… Here we go!”
So the hurricane hits and I mean it was hours we were there, hours where you’re waiting for this thing to blow over, like water is starting to leak in through the ceiling and I just have this memory of looking over and seeing Steven… We had taken a bunch of mattresses and set them on the floor, so that everyone sort of had an area to sit and lay down if they wanted to or whatever, just sort of a communal area, and I remember looking over and Steven was sitting cross legged with all these kids who were there for the reasons I explained earlier, the children of our crew sitting around Steven and Steven just telling stories. For hours he was sitting and telling stories to these kids and I remember turning and thinking “Those children have no idea that one of history’s greatest storytellers is hanging out with them and to keep them from being scared is telling them a story.” I mean he didn’t stop. He told stories for hours and I will never forget about him getting that group of kids through that scary experience with his storytelling capability, which is what he’s been doing for all of us for years.
When I look back on JURASSIC PARK and THE LOST WORLD, I see Steven cross-legged in the middle of that hotel ballroom with all of those kids sitting around him just enraptured with his stories until the hurricane passed. There was a moment when the eye of the storm came over, like I remember that moment, because we all went “It’s coming over! It’s the eye of the storm!” And we all ran out in the hallways and looked to the sky so we could see it and experience it and then we all ran back in, because you know pretty soon ‘here comes the back half of the hurricane and you’re going to have to wait a few more hours.” Then the next several days were about commandeering the right equipment and stuff and getting a plane to come get us off the island. Steven and Kathleen Kennedy sort of led that charge and they put together a lot of supplies that we brought to the island. We packed a place… Universal Pictures, Steven, and Kathy… they packed a big plane with a bunch of supplies, brought them to the island, gave the supplies to the island, and took the crew off. So it was just… Those kinds of things that happened in and around that. We were shooting the movie again by Monday. We were in Los Angeles rolling camera again by Monday. So we only had to claim one insurance day.
That’s incredible. Everything about that story is an eye opener. There are more important things than movies and I’m sure you all felt it while being stuck in that hotel. To hear Spielberg told stories to kids in order to keep them from being upset… that’s one for the books. That’s a true leader, a guy who actually cares about people, so it’s no wonder his films feel so human. Well I clearly would love to eat up more of your time, but I know you’re knee-deep in prep, so I guess we better call it. Thank you again for your time, I really do appreciate it and I know the AICN readers will as well.
Thanks, Mike. It’s been a pleasure.
There we have it, ladies and gentlemen, a little perspective from one of Hollywood's most efficient Producers. I really hope you fine folks enjoyed the interview and were able to click on a few of those little trivia-based easter eggs I dropped in at random spots. Again, I'd like to thank Ms. Curtis for her time. I hope to keep this column alive, but am not big enough not to ask for help. I'm on the hunt for folks who might want to chat a little about what they do, a job they're passionate about. If you work in film or have a friend who does, it doesn't matter if you're/they're a PA or a Studio head - I'd like to talk to everyone I can. The more perspectives you read/hear, the more you get a glimpse of the whole picture, ultimately (with me specifically) the more you can appreciate this pretty cool art form we all seem to love.
If you work in film or television and feel like shedding some light on what exactly your position entails, then please feel free to shoot me an email with the subject line "MTC - (Your Name) - (Your Position)." I'm not here to get scoops or dirt on anyone, simply here to educate and ask for advice to any of our filmmakers in the audience.
If you folks are interested in finding out what other positions on a film are like, then check out any of the links below:
- Mike McCutchen