‘I have a great script, do you want to read it?’ That’s how Chris Jones began his interview on Friday. The occasion was a London Breakfast Club seminar at the Phoenix Artist Club in Charing Cross Road. And the guest was film producer Iain Smith.
It is the producer who holds a movie together, seeing it through from development to release, controlling budgets and egos and making sure that the movie remains true to the spirit that created it. It is a difficult and often uncelebrated job. We hear much about the director, the actors and even the special effects gurus. But how many producers can you name?
Iain Smith is one of the finest producers in Hollywood. He’s British, or to be more specific, because these things matter, Scottish. His cv is an enviable list of fine movies: Local Hero, The Killing Fields, The Mission, Chariots of Fire, The Fifth Element, Cold Mountain, The Fountain and many others that will be familiar to you. He is currently working with director George Miller on the latest Mad Max movie, which is now in postproduction.
Seventy or eighty of us had gathered at the Phoenix Artist Club to hear Iain talk about working in Hollywood. The dusky basement bar made a fitting venue with movie memorabilia scattered across its walls and nostalgia-laden posters hanging from the ceiling. Pictures of handsome Lotharios and Hollywood starlets looked down upon us from every corner. Come join us they said. Or maybe I just imagined that.
Highlighting the difficulty of being a screenwriter, Iain explained that out of 207 scripts he had personally seen, 6 of them had something about them that made them worth working. However, none of them ever got made. ‘That’s a reality check,’ said Iain, ‘and it’s as much a comment on me as the 207 souls who struggled to express themselves in scripts. It’s a very very hard business.’
Iain talked about what separated a script of note from the others, that special ‘added value’ that might get you into the 6 and the chance of being produced. The script is the beginning of the road. They need to be intelligent. Cynicism gets you nowhere. And there needs to be passion. It should be a movie that everyone wants to be made.
He cited Bruce Robinson’s screenplay for The Killing Fields as an example. The first draft was an impassioned rant about the injustice of the war in Cambodia. It wasn’t a script you could shoot. But it was a script that convinced people it was a story worth telling.
Previous success is no guarantee that Hollywood will make your movie. Iain described how it took 14 years to get Seven Years in Tibet made. It finally came together when Brad Pitt showed an interest. As soon as he was on board the movie was propelled into production. Hollywood is a commercial business and having the right cast is one of those pieces of ‘added value’ that will get a movie from script to screen.
For a moment it baffled me when Iain said that the writer can be the most expensive thing in the movie but he gave an illustration from the script of The Killing Fields. ‘It was scene number 7, which was one line. He drives in from the airport through the war-torn city.’ It was an important scene to establish the destruction of Cambodia. But creating a war-torn city is an expensive task and it is the job of the producer to find ways of getting it onto the screen without breaking the budget.
He said Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain is a movie that he is very proud of. The movie had a troubled development and had fallen apart at least once by the time Iain was brought on board. By this time the proposed budget had been halved. But Iain and Darren sat down over a weekend and figured out what they could do without losing the original spirit of the story. The Fountain is not an easy film. It’s a bold imaginative movie from one of Hollywood’s most creative directors. When The Fountain was finished Darren paid Iain the most tremendous compliment. ‘I got the film I wanted,’ said Darren. You could see the emotion on Iain’s face as he repeated the words.
Iain Smith came across as a charming man. Everyone in the room would have been very happy, and lucky, to have him on their side championing their scripts. He was deeply passionate about his work and, for a producer of his status, incredibly modest. He took questions from the audience and even agreed to read one person’s script. He gave a realistic appraisal of what it is like to work in Hollywood but also an encouraging one. You came out of his seminar feeling better than when you went in.
The talk was recorded and attendees could download the podcast a few days later from the members’ area of the London Breakfast Club website. For me one particular answer he gave set me thinking. If Hollywood is the centre of the movie business, should screenwriters and producers move there? Yes advised Iain. ‘You will always get a first meeting.’ Hollywood is always looking for the next big thing and they are very open minded as to where it might come from. It was a message that stirred my sense of optimism. Hollywood here I come!