Santa Barbara film lovers packed the Lobero Theatre Saturday for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Producers Panel. Although one of the speakers joked about having to explain to Mom what a producer actually does, the audience seemed to know, as attendees sat rapt listening to the often-entertaining stories of the struggle of movie-making. Despite large budgets and years of industry experience, things sometimes go wrong, and sometimes ingenuity is the best weapon.
Los Angeles Times film writer Glenn Whipp sat down with six producers of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees: Cathleen Sutherland (“Boyhood”), Teddy Schwarzman (“The Imitation Game”), Robert Lorenz (“American Sniper”), John Lesher (“Birdman”), Jeremy Dawson (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and Lisa Bruce (“The Theory of Everything”). Jon Kilik of “Foxcatcher,” also on the panel, didn’t get a Best Picture nomination this year but took his “snub” with great humor. (He was nominated in 2007 for a Best Picture Oscar for “Babel,” so he’s in the club.)
Mr. Dawson spoke of rising through the ranks of Wes Anderson’s film family, starting with “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” where he worked in visual effects. It was his chance to dabble in several jobs that made producing fun for him, he said, as it’s all about problem-solving. He shared an anecdote from “The Grand Budapest Hotel” where the crew was unable to find a suitable train station for a shot of an old engine pulling in. In the end, the crew made a train out of cardboard and pushed it like a giant theater prop. And nobody has noticed it, he laughed.
Mr. Lorenz has similarly worked with director Clint Eastwood ever since “The Bridges of Madison County,” and he grabbed the chance to work on “American Sniper” when Steven Spielberg dropped the project. The film took very little time to get ready and shoot, just over a year.
The opposite of that was “Boyhood,” which took 12 years of shooting on and off. Ms. Sutherland started as a production manager on the project, then continued as producer without hiring a new manager. “Never show that you’re competent at doing two jobs at the same time,” she jokingly advised. “Then you’ll end up with two jobs.” She talked about going to IFC (formerly Independent Film Channel) every year for a budget to shoot each section, and one year when IFC “forgot,” director Richard Linklater used some fire insurance money.
It took Ms. Bruce eight years to get the rights to Stephen Hawking’s former wife Jane’s book. The reason: “I think it’s kind of scary to have your life turned into a movie,” Ms. Bruce said. “And we’re trying to tell the truth of the emotional life, not the actual life … It’s almost like a poem representing somebody’s life … and when Jane saw it that way, it was easier for her to let go.”
Asked how they as producers have learned to say “no” in the best way possible, Mr. Dawson said he is a fan of “How about …? ” instead, suggesting different ways of doing things. Mr. Lesher reminded everyone that at this level of the game, directors know what’s possible and what isn’t, even if they pretend otherwise.
Mr. Lesher also detailed the weeks of rehearsals that went into filming “Birdman’s” fluid, roving shots, and how to distract tourists when they went out in to Times Square (Michael Keaton’s character walks through it in only his underwear): They hired a marching band to come down the street.
There were many more tales of producing “magic,” resulting in an enjoyable but short afternoon for film buffs.