Film producer Iain Smith OBE on forging a career in film production and the importance of continuing to develop your skills in the industry
The big turning point in my early film producing career was hearing Bertrand Tavernier on the radio. He had visited Glasgow and found it fascinating, and I heard him say he wanted to make a film there. I started sending him little letters, saying I could help. Three years went by and then I suddenly got a phone call asking me to meet Tavernier at the airport. I drove him around the city, and that’s how I became the Unit Location Manager on Death Watch. I made sure the city’s doors opened to the production, and if necessary the streets closed, so that we could film this huge feature in Glasgow.
It was a turning point for the city, as well as for me. Lots of things started after that. We started Filmbang, based on the Frankfurt Book Fair, to get the government to see that some of their public service filmmaking should be produced outside of London. There were a group of us who now had experience under our belts, and were ready to go on to bigger projects. Now around £15m comes into Glasgow through filmmaking every year.
Producing is part business, part creativity. You have to combine art and money, commerce and culture, to create something new. Art and money are always seen as clashing, but films are inspired by talent and sustained by money, and my job as producer has always been to smooth the friction between the two. Don’t ever let anybody tell you the producer doesn’t play a creative part. You’re not a good producer if you’re always looking for the most efficient way of doing something - you have to have an eye on what’s good for the story, what’s good for the film.
Production credits can be misleading. On Death Watch, the real producer was back in France and left me alone to get on with the job, which was great. I got more production experience than you might think from a Unit Location Manager credit. As you get better, so do your titles. I was line producer first, then co-producer, then executive producer. The actual job you’ve done could be anything from bailing the studio out of a major problem, like I did on Planet of the Apes and was pleasantly surprised to get a line-producer credit, to developing and managing the film from idea to screen, as I did on Spy Game as executive producer. Which might sound like a big important title, but actually I wanted the producer title to sit with someone who could take credit if the film went on to win awards. Don’t wrangle over credits, they’re often there for the sake of awards or courtesy. Avoid all that and concentrate on the job.
Skills and experience are everything. I graduated from the London School of Film Technique (now called the London Film School) in 1971 with a first class diploma, then started my career being assistant editor, assistant director or production manager on short films, commercials and children’s feature films. I formed my own production company with Jon Schorstein to make TV ads, documentaries, children’s films and dramas. Documentary filmmaking was the only way to survive in the Scottish film industry in the 1970s. I began my career through line producing, where you learn the real nuts-and-bolts of putting a film together. You’re on the front line. This was all before big feature films came along.
I met David Puttnam while we were both on the board of the National Film School. One day he said to me: “I’ve got this little film that you might like to look at called Chariots of Fire.” We ended up working together on that, and other films. I learnt a lot about producing from David. Making a film is a series of problems to solve, and it’s all about developing the right approach.
You have to think about how things are done, and most importantly why. If you can answer the how and the why, then you’re well on the way to solving that clash of art and commerce. You have to work with the director, and have a commercial and creative mindset. As a producer you’re the eyes and ears of the audience on set. I always try to keep in mind what the audience wants: a good story, well told. You have to put your ego aside and work hard to make that happen.
I’m passionate about the British film industry being a film industry, and not just servicing Hollywood, which is why I now serve on the boards of British Film Commission, Film London, Creative Skillset and UK Film Industry Training Board, amongst others. The reason I’m on so many film boards is because I believe developing our talent, and our film industry, is really important. Digital filmmaking is opening up more opportunities, and I hope that us Brits will use those opportunities to capture our unique worldview on film. We all need to embrace new ways of film making, producing and distribution.
It’s really important that we grow our talent, and don’t let amazing young people get lured to Hollywood, and swallowed up by it. The more we can develop our talent, the better we’ll develop our industry and audiences and have a vibrant film industry. And to develop films we can all be proud of, we need excellent infrastructure, which includes really good training to develop people’s skills.
That’s why I would urge everyone working in film production to take part in Creative Skillset’s major research, the Creative Industries Workforce Survey 2014. Fill in the online survey to let them know how you’ve come to work in film, and any training you might benefit from, at: http://panels.creativeskillset.org/s/playyourpart2014. The results will help them identify gaps in the industry that will inform future funding and programme development to keep us Brits working in film at the top level.
The Creative Skillset Creative Industries Workforce Survey 2014 is open online until 21 November 2014 and includes a prize draw to win one of three iPad minis. #PlayYourPart and fill in the survey at: http://panels.creativeskillset.org/s/playyourpart2014