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David Thomson on Films: What Does a Producer Do?

What does a producer have to do to get noticed by film critics?

It’s not enough to raise the money, order the cars, serve the lunches and make sure the location latrines are in working order—all of them. A producer may be the person who tracks through 19 drafts of the script (taking it from lousy to possible), and then finds that, on the third day of shooting, the lead actress and the director have started adding scenes from their pillow talk because they’re having an affair while the director is waving around a French film magazine that says he is “un premier auteur” (the guy knows this, because he hired a translator). The producer may be the person who has to make reassuring calls to that actress’s husband, for the producer has seen location romances come and go in the past, and because the husband delivered 22.5 percent of the budget. And we have hardly begun.

Such a producer died last week, and she was special, pleasant, and fun. Her name was Laura Ziskin, and, if you like to think that producers are just money people, remember that on Spider-Man, Ziskin was principally responsible to Columbia Pictures, Marvel Productions, and her own company for a budget that went to $139 million in 2002. But this was on a picture that eventually grossed $821 million. So, you say, she must have been rich. I hope so, but don’t forget, in the week she died, the Broadway show Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark opened at a current running cost of about $75 million and slender chances of multiplying that investment by six. Laura Ziskin had nothing to do with that show (she was fighting breast cancer in that period and produced a telethon, Stand Up to Cancer). But, if she had been involved, the stage show might not have suffered all the misdirections that are now notorious. Good producers count, and they know danger, as well as the occasional need to turn off the light, just as they must have the nerve to write a seven-figure check on Friday night and trust that the funds will be covered by Monday morning.

Producers get things done. So it’s important to note that Spider-Man the movie was a project that had been in development for over two decades with names like James Cameron, Roland Emmerich, Tim Burton, Chris Columbus, and David Fincher attached to it, but without anything quite happening. Ziskin led the team that hired Sam Raimi to direct, which cast Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, and James Franco (all of whom were called suspect at the time) and who took David Koepp’s script and got a rewrite from her husband Alvin Sargent (who had done Paper Moon, Julia, and Ordinary People).

Spider-Man had generally good reviews, as did its two sequels (a fourth film in the franchise will open in 2012). No one in film criticism thinks of these as Laura Ziskin films, and no one argues that they are “masterpieces.” On the other hand, they follow the pattern of American film-making: highly successful mainstream entertainments that exhibit unusual wit, personality, and edge. That was evident in the 2002 Oscars show, which Ziskin produced, and where she hired Errol Morris to do a series of interviews with a range of people on what the movies meant to them. These quick takes made that clichéd event fresh and different.

You could say the same of No Way Out (the Kevin Costner suspense mystery, directed by Roger Donaldson), the hilarious To Die For (with Nicole Kidman, directed by Gus Van Sant), As Good As It Gets (the James Brooks film, with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt), and that small sensation, Pretty Woman, which made a star out of Julia Roberts and encouraged our sentimentality about whore-princesses. Laura Ziskin was a producer on all those films.

No one would suggest Pretty Woman was made tidily the way a loaf is baked. Once upon a time, it was meant to be a much darker story. Several other writers were involved beyond the credited screenwriter, J.F. Lawton. The Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg led the thrust to make it a sweeter fairytale. And Pretty Woman has always been subject to charges of Hollywood compromise and the way American film likes to have its cake, eat it, and then say cake is bad for you.

But it worked as a transparent fable on America before the fall. It’s not a work of art or an enduring social document—it’s a movie. But Ziskin was surely correct when she said Pretty Woman and several other films she made could not get done today—because the cunning recipe for edginess and charm has gone.

Laura Ziskin was 61, and she was an amiable woman. Gunnar Fischer, who also recently passed away, was 100. For a long time now, the orthodoxy has prevailed that Sven Nykvist was Ingmar Bergman’s director of photography. Nykvist was a master, who did many other films beyond Bergman’s. But Gunnar Fischer had preceded him, and he was responsible for Port of Call, Summer Interlude, Summer with Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and The Magician. These were black-and-white pictures that move from the naturalism of Swedish summer to the passionate, engraved dreamscapes of Wild Strawberries.

Fischer and Bergman had a falling out, and I daresay they both regretted it later. All they needed, of course, was the kind of producer who knows that creative people do not have to fight each other. A great producer is someone who handles the money, the schedule, the weather, the unions, the locations, the script, the studio, the phone calls, the delays, the desperation, and the maniacal egos and gets the damn thing made so that sometimes it works—for us.

There is a justified lament in American film these days that we don’t have enough auteurs of character and courage. But that has to do with our not having producers who understand their own thankless (if sometimes profitable) place.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.