Producing 101 with Jon Kilik

Jon Kilik, one of the two producers on Babel, joined us for a discussion before the screening. Jon seems like an extremely modest and likeable guy and he talked about how he worked his way to up the producing ladder � the importance of being a line producer, making your contacts, and learning from great directors (in his case folks like Lumet, Spike Lee, Stone etc.) He encouraged aspiring filmmakers to focus on the learning and not the credit they can earn on the film – he recalled his own experience of working on several movies without getting credited (often working on areas outside the scope of his role), but he focused on doing a good work and was eventually recognized by the director and given the rightful credit.

And then he talked about Babel. Apparently he met director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu when they were both doing prior films in Mexico. He fell in love with the work of Alejandro’s DP, Rodrigo Prieto – the guy who also did the cinematography on Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Brokeback Mountain. They all kept in touch and while their schedules didn’t line up for 21 Grams, but they ensured that they made Babel together.

Jon talked about the cycles involved in evolving the script and how he worked with Alejandro on revisions, but he never mentioned the writer Guillermo Arriaga by name. There was one instance where he said that Alejandro and “the writer” worked on something, but that was it. Wow, I guess the rift mentioned by the NY Times is alive and well.

But anyway, back to producing. I worked with a couple of producers earlier this year. I could not have found more likeable or honest people to work with. But to me, the content of their jobs was highly frustrating.

If you are a producer in the Hollywood system and you have no money, you spend most of time acquiring great scripts and then packaging them. Packaging is a term used for putting together the director, the key cast members and the financing. It is a damn difficult thing to do.

Many actors take weeks (if not months) to read a script and either agree or decline. Even if they agree, it is often with a caveat “I will do it if you can also get Actor B”. So, then you need to go get Actor B. If you can’t get Actor B, Actor A might pull out and you start over.

There’s also a huge chicken and egg problem with the financing. To get the film funded, you need a package. But to make pay or play offers to the stars, you need funding. Hmmm. It is all about biz dev, but the deals have to be nurtured for years before they come together.

All this to say that it is very hard to be a producer and it a long slog to the top. And it is even harder to put together ensemble casts like the one in Babel.

All credit to Jon Kilik to making it the hard way. And for continuing to be a nice guy through it all.