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Stars of Tomorrow One-to-One: Len Rowles meets Iain Smith

Veteran producer Iain Smith has moved between the UK and Hollywood with consummate ease over his career. He tells Star of Tomorrow and aspiring producer Len Rowles the secrets of his success.

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Len Rowles: What advice do you have for emerging UK producers, who would also like to do business in Hollywood?

Iain Smith: Los Angeles is still the power centre of the movie business. You have to work out a relationship with it; ignoring it or despising it is self-harming. It’s also not as unfriendly as people imagine. In fact, if you’re young, they could be really interested in you because you could be the next big thing.

The problem with Hollywood is that it’s a very serious business and there is a lot of money at stake. The risk-to-reward ratio is far greater than it’s ever been because the marketplace has become so diversified, and how we deliver content to the paying public is changing every year. And that’s what producers are all about: a producer is about getting something that the public wants. There’s a lot of constant investigation about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it.

At the moment the big sci-fi type/superhero movies are considered to be dollar-for-dollar safer. By definition it’s a big high-roller game, so you’re talking about movies that are $150m and up. That’s serious money, making it that little bit more difficult for younger people coming up to break in. Somehow or another you’ve got to find the experience where you can make mistakes and learn, and they won’t let you do that on a picture that’s costing so much money. That’s a difficulty you’ll have.

LR: You’ve seen the industry change so much. What would you say is the major challenge for producers these days?

IS: Technology is perpetually changing. You need to be looking at what technology does to the other part of the equation, which is ancient — storytelling. Understanding what people want, why they become entranced when you tell a story. Usually it’s because they identify and care about a character. Producing is a fascinating mix of art and money and culture and commerce.

Some producers see themselves as film-makers; I don’t. I see myself as an enabler of talent, who can do things I never could. I see myself a bit like a samurai, there to protect the prince or princess and to make sure that they are able to safely make the journey and achieve the objectives.

I’m very system oriented; I can be good with people and I can be tough with people. I like crews to feel safe but not to take that for granted. If you make people feel like they’re not going to be blamed, or they’re not going to be fired, all of a sudden they feel much safer and they give you that extra percent. And that makes a difference. If they feel safe, they’ll give you 100%. If they don’t feel safe, they’ll give 95%. So the 95% is the bit you pay for, that difference between 95 and 100 is the bit they give you as friends.

That’s what makes the difference between a mediocre film and a good one. Take something like Mad Max: Fury Road, which was a pretty hefty bit of film-making. We had 1,500 people on that because we were shooting live action, real vehicles — 140-odd.

When you make a film, it’s a bit like a village — everybody knows each other. You have to find a systematic way of creating a sense of community, a sense of the village. Those kinds of things fascinate me — how do you pull that off and also be unseen in doing that? Producing is the one job that disappears, the kind of producing I do anyway. If you’ve paid for it, you’re entitled to walk down the red carpet, but my view is we do the work we do and then like the stitches in a wound we fade away. For me, one of the most important things is to come out at the end of making a film with a director who is still your friend, but it doesn’t always happen.

Iain Smith Len Rowles

LR: There are so many elements involved in creating that environment — did you get better at managing all of those things so that you would all come out as friends?

IS: When I made small films we were all pals, then when I got into bigger and bigger films I thought my job was to go around looking worried — carry lots of paper and look concerned, which was really me providing myself with some kind of structure and identity. I survived various screw-ups and learnt how some things would be better than I thought they’d be, or that some would be worse than I thought they’d be.

You gain a sense of the wisdom and the first thing you learn to do is to look at yourself and ask yourself: “How much am I part of the problem? Am I getting attitudinal because I don’t like that person?” You have to be quite cool-headed but you also have to be passionate. You have to really care about the movie.

With someone like George Miller for instance, he’s a very powerful personality, and if you don’t understand the movie as well and perhaps better than he does, you will be in trouble because he will disrespect you. And if he disrespects you, there’s nothing you can say that he will listen to. So it’s a constant kind of reminding [the director] of the outside world and what the film is being made for and at the same time respecting their artistry. I think that applies at any level.

LR :When you are in the thick of it and things aren’t going to plan, what piece of advice do you cling to? What do you do in order to get back on track?

IS: Stay calm. Losing it doesn’t work and many times I’ve wanted to punch somebody and you must not do that — physically or emotionally. It’s very important that you maintain an overview. I’m always very in tune with the unit production manager because then I’m never out of sight of what the overall objective is. Sometimes something appears to be a crisis but isn’t, it’s part of the process.

I always describe working with powerful directors like it’s a tai-chi dance, as in they give you a problem and you let it pass to you, but in the meantime you reach out to give them something else. That is a trick that you have in you, or not, and you learn it, as a mechanism to get through the day, week, month.

If I have something I have to say that is going to cause problems, what I do is I put it on the table and I say: “We can’t do the church scene, it’s not going to work, it’s in the wrong part of town and it’s too expensive,” and you lay that on the table and then you look in the other direction because what you want is for the film-maker to think: “Bastard, fucking me up here.” And then you say: “What do you want to do about this?” Then they start to engage and they go: “How can I possibly do that?” Then they think: “Well, mind you, maybe not the church but maybe the school?”

What you find is that you’re being respectful and informative and haven’t shied away from telling bad news but you told it in a compassionate way. They often come back with a solution. It will be different to one you might have thought of if they’re talented and they own it. And it’s their solution, so they still feel integral — you haven’t bullied them.

LR: What made you want to be a producer?

IS: I wanted to direct. I saw movies and loved them, and used to take my pals to the Saturday cinema and afterwards we’d go to the local park and try and re-enact the film; we were aged nine or ten. Then the logical thing was to save up and get a little camera and make little films and that changed a little.

When I started to be a bit more ambitious, I would say to people, “Listen you, you, you and you meet me tomorrow morning at the old mill and shoot this sequence.” I was never able to complete it to my satisfaction because people wouldn’t turn up! While I wanted to become a director, I became increasingly interested in the system and I remember watching Seven Samurai. I was sitting in the cinema in my late teens and thinking, “How the hell does he do that?” It was one of the most fluid film narratives of all time, it all felt like it happened in the same moment.

So I was becoming more and more excited by that side of things but still wanting to direct, and I’d got to direct a little sponsored film, a drama when I was about 24. Everybody was very kind about it but to me it was a horror show because I knew that I’d made something that was ordinary. There was nothing exceptional about it. I thought my life in film was at an end, and then I realised after some time that I was too rational.

Oscar Wilde once said that a man who sees both sides of a problem sees nothing, so I started to think, “What can I do to be useful?” A very important turning point was when I started to think, “How can I serve the industry?” rather than, “How can the industry serve me?”

I started to see that I had the power in me to help, promote and protect people who couldn’t do it for themselves. That was the time when my friendship with Bill Forsyth started to come together and I was part of the development of a film we called Singles at the time, which became Gregory’s Girl. So I got the directing thing out of the way. I’ve got no resentment of directors because I know how difficult their job is and I know it’s the loneliest job in the world. And even though sometimes they behave outrageously and are really horrible, I’m able to find the forgiveness to help them get through and that’s the producing bit.

LR: What kind of material are you attracted to? Do you feel like you’ve always been drawn to the same thing? Is there a heart that has remained the same or do you feel that your taste and voice as a producer has changed over the years?

IS: I’ll tell you what it is: I desperately like to make films that I’ll be proud of. I’m drawn more to the film-maker rather than to the material in a funny way because I believe that, if you have the right film-maker, even material that’s struggling can be improved greatly. Not always the case, but I love large canvases, things like The Killing Fields, where you’re on location and you’re recreating something like that — I love it.

A lot of people can’t hack it, like going to Namibia for nine months for Mad Max: Fury Road and Sydney before that. For this type of film-making, it’s long-distance running and you have to learn to use your energy appropriately. Don’t sprint when you’ve got a mile and a half to run, just let things roll through. You have to know the difference between the problems that need solving immediately and the ones you can just let roll on.

If you take on every problem equally, you’re going to have a nervous breakdown; you can’t do that. You’ve got to sleep at night and maintain a reasonable health and good humour. If you do that, amazing things happen; people come to help and support you. It’s about giving, not taking. Give, give, give all the time and people walk in and you help them and guess what, it comes back in spades.

I like the adventure of it, I’m a consensus manager. I like to keep the balance and films are full of that. If you have a big production meeting, you’ve got a bunch of feral cats in there fighting for their bit and you can try to get them all to work together — the resulting power is extraordinary.

Another function of the producer is to represent the audience because it’s very easy in the film-making process to become entranced. You know this thing inside out, you’ve read it and read it and re-read it, measured it, weighed it, costed it, scheduled it and so you’ve lost any sensibility of the totality of the thing.

A good producer takes it on board to say, “Wait a minute, why are you shooting it that way?” It may not be important, or it may be critically important. When you think about it, when you watch a film that’s really good and you’ve really enjoyed it, the thing you take away from it are moments in the film rather than sequences. Those are the moments as a producer you’ve got to help the director remember. The process is alluring; lots of equipment and lots of people, famous beautiful people in front of the camera, and you can be lulled into that. The really great film-makers maintain separateness and remember why the scene is important.