Produced By Conference: On the films that ‘won’t get made’

Blogging from L.A., Marc Almon listens in on producer Brian Grazer and producer/director Peter Berg's discussion of making their films in the face of major challenges.

Blogging from L.A., Halifax-based producer Marc Almon, attending the Produced By Conference with the support of Film Nova Scotia, shares trends and insights from the conference for producers.

Read Marc’s first and second installments.

Taking in the panel Passion Projects: Making Films Everyone Says Will Never Get Made, I got a chance to see mega-producer Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13) and producer/director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Battleship) discuss some of the challenges they’ve overcome to see their visions make it to the screen despite enormous obstacles.  Much of the discussion focused on Friday Night Lights, a feature film Grazer produced and which essentially launched Berg’s career as a director.

Friday Night Lights was in development for thirteen years, as Grazer struggled to find the right approach and the right director for the project.  He knew it ultimately wasn’t about football, or small town life in Texas.  Instead, he figured the film was about a boy’s identity, and how fragile that process of self-discovery is.

Brian Grazer

Discovering what the emotional journey is for the characters is essential to Grazer’s filmmaking process.  Grazer describes it as “working from the inside out, instead of the outside in.”

Berg shares this approach.  A director has to “get on the inside” of the characters so that they come to “own the story.”  “You have to be unshakable when the storm arrives” and there’s a need to know instinctively what to do.

“You have to find a point of view… I try to find the one sentence that describes what is it about,” states Grazer.  Berg agreed: you have to “reduce it to an essence.”  With the characters in Friday Night Lights, both Grazer and Berg understood the characters lose the big game, but they win a better understanding of themselves.

Although Grazer and Berg now knew how to approach making Friday Night Lights, they faced long odds in getting it on to the screen.  The story was “a downer” as the team loses in the end, the script was devoid of “typical teen drama,” and studios saw football as a weak draw in foreign markets.

Determined to convince Stacey Snider at Universal that she should invest in this movie, Berg convinced her and her team to fly with him and Grazer to Odessa, Texas to watch an authentic Texas high school football game.  Snider was not enthusiastic, and Berg was told by her assistant, “We’ll only be staying for two quarters.”

Peter Berg

The weather was cold and miserable; yet the stadium was packed, and as the game progressed, the energy in the crowd grew rapidly.  “The game started seducing them… everyone was pumped!” said Berg.  The game came down to a final kick, and when the home team won, everyone was on their feet, hugging and screaming, including Snider.

The night’s excitement wasn’t over, however.  On the flight back to Los Angeles, the jet Grazer, Berg, Snider and her team were flying on suddenly lost power.  As people began to panic, Grazer took control, and got everyone to focus on preparing for emergency measures.  “I’m panicked through 90% of my life, but when it gets really crazy, I get very focused.”

Moments before the jet was about to make a crash landing, the engines came back to life, and the pilot was able to maneuver the plane away from the fast approaching land below.  Instead of scuttling the deal to make Friday Night Lights, it actually solidified Snider’s decision to fund it.  “We had an experience that ignited the passion needed to get it made,” recalled Berg.

You have to “penetrate the skin of a studio,” states Grazer.  And to do this, “one is either crazy, a sociopath,” who will convincingly say anything to get them to make it – or they are someone “connected to the source” of the material.  They believe so strongly in the story, they become “savant-like” in their devotion to seeing it made.  Both Grazer and Berg admitted they probably have both qualities at times, which has allowed them to get projects made when everyone is “creating reasons to say ‘no’”.

So I have to be crazy or an idiot savant to get movies made as a producer, eh?  Somehow I do find that kind of inspiring.  After all, Grazer and Berg have gotten some pretty amazing projects off the ground…