Behind the scenes on screen, who has the vision thing?

The Producers

May 26, 2006

Anybody can become a film producer. There is no craft to practise, no specific skill to acquire, no essential knowledge to gain. Why do we need them? Because somebody has to find a subject or option a book, commission the screenwriter, choose the director, draft a budget, raise the finance, negotiate with agents, cast the actors, select the crew, oversee production and sell the film. No one person can do all this well; a successful producer has to do what he can and at least make sense of the rest. Nonetheless, producers exert considerable influence. If anybody, they say, is the auteur of a film, surely it is the producer? Tim Adler, a film journalist, argues their case.

In his introduction, Adler cites some famous producers from Hollywood's "golden age" before giving a chapter each to seven of today's leading figures. He acknowledges that cinema is a collaborative business, but he quickly succumbs to the power and control that producers can exercise. He is a bit of a romantic and believes that "no good film has been made without screaming and abrasiveness". (A lot of very bad films are also made that way.) He is most beguiled by David O. Selznick, producer of that great wallow Gone with the Wind . Selznick controlled everything. He sacked with abandon and spilt more blood, metaphorically speaking, than Caligula. The director was as vulnerable as the rest: Victor Fleming was one of four directors of Gone with the Wind and survived to take the credit and an Oscar. But if Selznick is the auteur, what exactly has he authored? Adler does not really let on, apart from quoting, approvingly, a French critic who saw Gone with the Wind as "the Sistine Chapel of movies". Trump Tower may be nearer the mark.

Adler avoids writing about film as film. He rightly emphasises the producer's role during screenwriting, and he makes a few references to performance, some to design and throws in a comment or two on cinematography, but there is nothing about mise en scène - or about what the audience actually sees. Some producers intervene at the editing stage - the influence of their families and friends at screenings is underrated - but by then structure and rhythm of shooting have set limits. The producer's "total control, total authority" that impresses Adler is a sword that stays in the scabbard because few producers know what to do with it.

The Producers is strong on the producer's "vision". Adler uses the word promiscuously. If a producer has an idea for a film, instigates research, acquires a book, supervises the screenplay or if his films have some common theme, that is proof of his "vision". All other aspects of the making - in the craft sense - of a film, except for screenwriting and possibly casting, are downgraded.

Curiously, most of his roster of modern producers do not claim to have "vision". Michael Douglas ( One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest , The China Syndrome ) insists that "talking and talking" about everything binds the creative team of which he is just one member. Dino de Laurentiis ( King Kong , Dune ) says: "I select the director. I select the cast. Then I leave the director alone." Duncan Kenworthy, who partners Andrew McDonald on some films ( Notting Hill , 28 Days Later ) likens himself to the hub of a wheel with associates as spokes. Jeremy Thomas ( Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence , The Last Emperor ) confesses to being a groupie of auteur directors. Michael Karmitz (the Three Colours trilogy) sees his role as "a mediator and supporter, never the enemy, of the director". Only Christine Vachon ( Boys Don't Cry , One Hour Photo ) demurs: "The producer as auteur, the producer as creative force, is sadly maligned."

The auteur theory of films is flawed: the truth is that few directors have an identifiable style (in Lindsay Anderson's sense that "the way it is said, is the thing said") and can bend the the film-making machine to their own ends. Adler's alternative theory is even more flawed. Producers make films happen. Without them, there can be no film industry. But auteurs ? No producer ever created a style or a language of cinema.

Mamoun Hassan is a film producer who recently produced Machuca (directed by Andres Wood). He was formerly head of editing, National Film and Television School.

The Producers: Money, Movies and Who Really Calls the Shots

Author - Tim Adler
Publisher - Methuen
Pages - 287
Price - £16.99 and £8.99
ISBN - 0 413 77151 2 and 77152 0

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