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June 28, 2013

Interview with Iain Smith, Britain’s Hollywood producer

Iain SmithAwarded a BAFTA in 2005 for Outstanding Achievement in Film, Iain Smith (OBE) has a list of credits as impressive as his never ending workload. From associate producer on the classic Local Hero, the controversial The Killing Fields and the breathtaking The Mission, to producer of big budget Hollywood fare like Wanted and Alexander, Smith has often been described as “Europe’s busiest producer”. And as if that’s not enough, his honorary work includes being a patron of the London Film School, Chair of the UK Film Industry Training Board and, more recently, becoming the Chair of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. I caught up with him during a rare break to talk about producers, producing and the future of film in Britain.

When you first got into the industry, who were the producers that you looked up to?

I owe a huge debt to David Puttnam because David and I grew to know each other while sitting 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 worked together on that and then he brought Bill Forsyth and me together. We already knew each other but David created a circumstance for Local Hero, which we made together. David gave me a lot of early-day wisdom about producing, and about how to approach the problem of making a film.

Different producers work in different ways. How do you see your role? Are you mainly a creative producer or do you focus on the business side?

For me, there is a lethal schizophrenia in producing, which is this separation of the business and creativity. Producing is, somewhat uniquely, the combining of art and money, of commerce and culture. The two things are actually interdependent, and I would say that films are inspired by talent and sustained by money, and the producer is the policeman of that. I came up through line producing, which is the nuts-and-bolts of putting things together and being very much on the front line of what you actually do to get the film on the screen. I became less interested in how things were done, and more fascinated by why. “Why are we doing this?” “What is this scene?” If you ask yourself those questions rigorously, then the answer is actually a multitude of typical problems that you get. I think a good producer is the partner of the director, inherently both commercially minded and creative.

Was it a hard transition, to come up through line producing and to be trained to worry about the mechanics, and then to suddenly shift gear and start worrying about the creative and development side of things?

The Fifth ElementI didn’t find it odd, but I found it frustrating sometimes because of this schizophrenic thing of saying, “You’re a producer so you don’t have any creativity to offer.” Everybody has creativity. One of the things that the French do particularly well is when you make a film, as we did on The Fifth Element with Luc Besson, you discover that they are much more open to people contributing ideas. You’ll find French crews are more active with the director. The British approach, and to some extent the American approach, is that the director is the boss and we all do what he says. I’m fascinated by systems, and by how things are done, and if there was a difficulty it was sometimes stepping out of efficiency and saying, “Hang on a minute, we’re being really efficient here but we’re making the wrong thing” or “We’re shooting the wrong scene.” It was really something that grew out of the line producing side. It was more of a natural development for me.


Between Britain, America and France there’s a great divide in the approach to filmmaking. Where do we sit in terms of producing?

The French are wonderful because they cleverly protect their home market. They understand the French people and are able to make films for this captive (French) audience. In Britain, we’re dominated by American culture. I think that’s because our familiarity with American films lies in our shared English language. Whereas the French see them as foreign films. British producers also tend to work more in the American model. If you look back to where we all as producers come from, our approach to producing is rooted in the 1930s and 1940s, and particularly in the post-war era. After the war, a lot of young officers found themselves getting jobs in filmmaking, so their approach was quite militaristic. If you look at the terminology of film production, a lot of it is military: we talk about “movement orders” and things like that.

“Tell a story well, make it entertaining, don’t try and be self-important in the work you do. Be strong, basic, clever, hard-working, all those things. If the audience decides it’s cinema in 50 years time, that’s fine.”

So our approach is very much a functional one, whereas the French approach is more intuitive. I don’t like to speak in cliché but I think that the character of the French is embodied in the way they produce films.

Such as the French word for editing is “montage” and of course “editing” is about cutting things out and “montage” is about bringing elements together.

Exactly. Isn’t that fascinating? I think that things like that tell you so much.


A lot of your early credits are as a coproducer, such as Mary Reilly and The Fifth Element. In those contexts, what does coproducer mean as a producing credit?

Mary ReillyI think producing credits are very misleading. I was basically line producing those films, but what was happening was that I was climbing the producing tree and becoming more responsible, and my producing titles were getting a bit better as time went on. On the films I develop myself, I get a producer credit, or when I’ve been involved in the early stages of a film. But back then I was really moving from being a line producer proper, and a “producer for hire” could mean a little more than that. Not that it did me any good, frankly.

In 2001, both Planet of the Apes and Spy Game were released. On Planet of the Apes you line produced, whereas Spy Game you executive produced; two credits that sit at opposite ends of the producing spectrum. How did your work vary between these two projects?

Planet of the ApesPlanet of the Apes was me helping them out of trouble. I didn’t line produce the whole film, but towards the end they had a big problem. 20th Century Fox called me and said, “We need you to help.” I put together a kind of rescue package and bailed them out. To be honest I really wasn’t expecting to get any kind of a credit on the movie but they were so pleased that they gave me one. So it’s misleading in that sense. Spy Game was more the main film I made that year with Tony Scott. I started developing it as quite a modest film way back with Beacon Entertainment in Santa Monica. When Tony got involved, the whole thing started to assume quite a significant size, and when Robert Redford and Brad Pitt got involved, the whole thing racked up. I was very much working with Marc Abraham, who was the guy who put up the development money at the very beginning, and we worked as a partnership.

“Producing is, somewhat uniquely, the combining of art and money, of commerce and culture. The two things are actually interdependent, and I would say that films are inspired by talent and sustained by money, and the producer is the policeman of that.”

What was the reason the executive producer credit was more appropriate than the full producer credit?

That was really a courtesy to Marc and to a couple of other people who owned the underlying material. When you get into setting up a picture, there’s usually a whole credit wrangle at the beginning. The main producer credit gets to go up on to the podium and collects the Oscar, so there’s always a scramble over who’s going to get that privilege. Frankly, I find it all rather tiresome.

WantedIn total there are 19 different producers listed on Wanted. Was that a consequence of it being a studio picture?

[Laughs] No, there’s no particular reason. Often there’s a whole history with this kind of film, of people trying to get it going and failing, and a lot of people keeping their hands on it. To get them off the movie is such a big deal because of the whole legal system in the US, so it’s easier just to give them a producing credit and pay-or-play them. So you get a lot of names on a movie, but very few of them actually made it.


What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given about producing?

For me, it’s that as a producer you are the representative of the audience on the set. In other words, the process is so alluring that you get wrapped up in it and lose overall sight of what the overall purpose is, and it’s that overall purpose which is what the audience wants. I took my car to the mechanic recently, and he came out and listened to it and said, “I know exactly what the problem is,” and I said, “That’s amazing. How did you know that without opening up the bonnet?” He said to me, “For you, a car is one big thing. For me, it’s a thousand little things.” Producing is like that. The producer has to deal with a thousand different issues, and you have to be steering it to make sure it’s going where it should be going. Another good piece of advice I got was from Ned Tanen when we were making Mary Reilly: “When you make a movie, it’s a movie. If they’re still talking about it ten years later, it’s a film. If they’re still talking about it 50 years later, it’s cinema. You sure as hell don’t start out trying to make cinema.” I thought that was a really good piece of advice. Tell a story well, make it entertaining, don’t try and be self-important in the work you do. Be strong, basic, clever, hard-working, all those things. If the audience decides it’s cinema in 50 years time, that’s fine.

Tim Bevan from Working Title once said, “There are two types of movies. Movies that you make for money and you hope they’re good, and movies that you make to be good and you hope they make money.” Is that how you pick some of your projects?

The FountainOh, definitely. You can’t afford to be snobby, and you have to understand what is being attempted right from the get-go. If you are making something that is meant for thrills and spills, don’t go around deluding yourself that you are making Tarkovsky. On the other hand, The Fountain by Darren Aronofsky; there was no way that film had any chance of being seen by anyone as a commercially viable film, but I wasn’t working on that basis at all and it’s one of the films I’m most proud of. From the get- go we all understood what we were trying to do, which was to allow this man to take the complexity and the power of what he wanted to say, and express it on the big screen. The producing part of that was to make sure he did that on time and within the money that was available. The big “tent-pole” movies are all about capturing profits, and there’s no harm in that because it keeps us all alive—it keeps the business alive, and it keeps the studios going. We need to be dealing with the breadth of film and not be thinking that we’re one thing and not another.

What has been your biggest mistake so far? Any regrets?

In my later years, I have discovered that I have very few regrets. That’s not to say I haven’t made any mistakes; I’ve made so many mistakes, but I’ve always learned from them. I turned down Bruce Robinson when he handed me the script for Withnail and I. I’m amazed at that one, because when I read it I thought, “I can’t see this. I don’t get this.” Years later he invited me to the screening, and I sat there and roared with laughter and learned a lesson.


I was going to ask about your views on the British film industry, but looking at the films you’ve made and how much globetrotting you’ve done, how much do you feel a part of the British film industry?

I feel my Britishness very strongly. I’m a genuine admirer of the British film industry. I do worry about the term “industry”, because I think that, unlike the French, once we lost access to our own marketplace, way back in the late 1960s and 1970s, we became much more of a service industry than a genuine film industry. I do a huge amount of honorary work on committees because I believe that the film industry in all its manifestations is a really valuable thing, not only technically but also creatively. We have huge talent. We have a wonderful British eccentricity about us. I harbour a hope that with the digital opportunity there will be a way for British filmmaking to open up again and find its own audience. But having said that, I feel more and more that my Britishness is simply a passport into the international world. I like to work with the best possible people and to attempt the biggest possible dreams.

Should we have a stronger state system such as box-office quotas or levees to support British film?

We can’t now as part of the EU. We can’t do anything that would be prejudicial to other states within the Union. But I do believe that we need to incentivise rather than protect in the old fashioned way. I think we have to continue to create incentives in order to allow money to flow into Britain. We have a real separation between our indigenous business and the international business, and we are building bridges between the two. But at the moment young filmmakers with any manifest talent will get whipped off to Hollywood and paid a lot of money to fail more often than not, which is not a very clever idea. I think it would be better to have a stepping ladder approach where we grow our talent and allow talented people to actually make mistakes. In the existing structure, we don’t have the commercial flexibility to do that.

What do you think of the current tax legislation? Does it encourage film to come to the UK?

I think it’s very good that we’ve got it because without it our industry would be demolished and we literally wouldn’t have an industry anymore. Having said that, I think there are aspects of it that are well known to be imperfect, and one of them is the way it incentivises senior crew and cast to come into Britain, and deincentivises taking crew and facilities out of the UK. The effect of that over time would be to effectively diminish the film industry over here.


One of your current projects, Happy New Year, is a feature adapted from a student short film. How did that come about?

I met these guys in New York and liked what they were doing. I liked the idea and I could lend some weight to their struggle. I’m not doing it for them, but guiding them. I’m letting them fall down and pick themselves up again. They’ve got tremendous energy and I just want to see them flourish.

Iain SmithIt will be quite encouraging to people currently making short films, to see that someone of your experience would consider getting behind such a project. Often the road from shorts to features seems impossible.

It’s very important that people see the road. Nobody can quite define it, but there definitely is a road. But if people see me as someone who’s “got there”, which is not how I see myself, by the way, but if they do see that I’m just a guy from Glasgow who was dreaming of making films, it might make them think: “If he can do it, then I can do it too” and that is crucially important. This article was first published in Moviescope magazine.

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