Jonathan Weissler is a highly experienced, versatile UK-based producer. After working his way up the ranks in the UK film industry and having success in the world of commercials, he began a fascinating career in international film production, working in Hong Kong, Japan, Israel and other locations. Jonathan then returned to his homeland to equal success. I spoke to him about his fascinating career and where it has brought him.
How did you fall in love with film?
I saw JAWS (1975) as a 5 year old. It was the summer of 1980 and I watched it on a pirate VHS at my best friend's house. The next day I watched it again just to deal with my fear. When Quint (Robert Shaw) fires the third barrel into the shark, the camera then cranes up to Richard Dreyfuss who's steering the ship, and he says "I'm coming around!!!". The moment John Williams' music peaks, it was then that I knew I wanted to make films.
What are some of the films that affected you growing up?
As a kid growing up it was Star Wars (1977-83) and the Indiana Jones movies (1981-89) and stuff like THE GOONIES (1985) and EXPLORERS (1985). Then as I got a little older I discovered filmmakers like Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone and James Cameron. I loved ALIENS (1986) and I knew every shot, camera move and line of dialogue from it. This was the age of VHS and I watched everything I could get my hands on.
How did you get involved in the film industry?
Growing up, I never had access to a Super 8 camera and I didn't know how to connect my love of film with making them. I was a smart pupil but I was not at all interested in school. I used to take a lot of time off and go to the cinema, sometimes three times a day. One day when I was 14 years old, I was walking along The Strand in Central London waiting for the cinemas to open when I spotted a film shoot. I had never seen one before and I was transfixed. This before DVD making of documentaries so I had no idea what an actual filmshoot was! I saw cameras and lights and a ton of busy people. It turned out they were shooting a commercial, and I decided to make myself useful. I was soon carrying boxes and doing small errands for them. I remember when the crew broke for lunch I stayed on set and simply stared at the camera on the dolly and said to myself "This is my future." At the end of the day, the producer came up to me and said "You should be in school. Obviously I can't hire you, but this is a call sheet. This is where we will be at 7.30 tomorrow morning." Even though it was at the other side of London, I managed to get there on time and spent the day helping them out. As everyone was packing up for the day, the producer came up to me and said "I obviously can't hire you but thank you for all your help", and handed me a fifty pound note. For a kid on £5 pocket money a week this was a lot of money! I was now hooked on the idea of somehow working in film. Continuing with school made no sense to me, despite me acing exams. Much to my parents shock, I drifted away from school and when I was 16 became a runner on movies.
What were some of the films you worked on?
I was quite lucky that I started on big movies. I was a runner on INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994), a third assistant director on BRAVEHEART (1995) and I worked as the visual effects floor coordinator on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996). In a completely optical workflow it was similar to a data wrangler today. I thought it was completely normal to work on massive films with big famous actors, 80 day shoots and massive cinema releases. I was also working as a production manager and location manager on short films, commercials and music videos and grabbing every experience I could get.
Was there a specific film that influenced you to become a producer?
I remember becoming very self aware that I could produce films after I saw RESERVOIR DOGS (1992). I was already in the industry but it was a total inspiration to me. It was a movie shot on 35mm in 4 weeks, with a brilliant script and brilliant actors. The film was so smartly made and Tarantino made it for the same money as a few days filming on some of bigger movies I was working on. It was a revelation as both a film and of what was possible as a producer.
What was your first producing experience?After MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, I was offered a unit manager job on another big film which was a step up for me but also I was offered a producer role on a much smaller British film. I saw it as a choice between being a King in Hell or a Servant in Heaven! I chose the small film which was TIME ENOUGH (1997) with Dexter Fletcher. Foster Marks was the writer/director. The film ended up winning Best Film at the Houston International Film Festival and we made our money back! At the age of 21 I was a bona fide producer in the British film industry.
What did you learn on that film about your capabilities as a producer?
I found it easy to understand the business and logistics of producing. As a producer and line producer I was responsible for controlling the money all the way from sitting down with the script and director at the beginning and planning the movie, through to the end of post production and all the delivery elements. It was a tremendous experience.
How did you follow on from that movie?
I went on to do a lot of small British movies with a whole generation of young, up and coming directors and crews. This was before digital cameras so we shot on Super 16mm for three or four week shoots, a five week shoot was a biggie, and our most expensive line item in the budget was the blow up to a 35mm negative. To be honest, none of the films were amazing, but it was an exciting time and I worked all the time. It felt like we were the Young Turks akin to the 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls' generation. There was a gang of us and we all had big dreams and big passions. However, looking back few of those people from that gang have actually gone the distance and many many fell away. One of the standout movies from that time was THE TRUTH GAME (2001), directed by Simon Rumley. We made a really good movie and we premiered in Cannes and played in cinemas all over the world. The only downside to that period was that the budgets were so low and my fees just as bad. So I decided to move into commercials where I thrived. I loved the travel and speed we worked. I was able to take a movie mindset and infrastructure and apply to that to commercials, which strangely few people were doing at the time as commercials tended to be more chaotic and wasteful than movies. I have now produced hundreds and hundreds of commercials, from noodles to cars to airlines and every other product and brand you can think of. From that, I ended up making films in Asia!
How did that happen?
One of the directors on my commercials was a guy called Jackson Pat. He was a Hong Kong filmmaker living in London, and we did tons of commercials together. Through commercials we did out there, I met a lot of Chinese and Japanese filmmakers. We did a commercial for Japan Airlines and the next thing I knew I was making a movie in Tokyo called KILLER IN ME (1999). It did well and then I did the movie JIANG HU: THE TRIAD ZONE (2000), which we filmed in London and Hong Kong. In 2001 I produced the Hong Kong movie THE BRASSERIE, with Louis Koo and Gigi Leung and the film ended up being a huge hit and one of the top five grossing films in Asia of that year. It even spawned three sequels. I was definitely Mr. Asia for a while!
How challenging was it working in Asia?
It was culturally very different, but I have the philosophy that there are a thousand ways to climb up a mountain. It's that kind of mindset that gets you through anything. The art of producing is getting a lot of temperamental ideologies, different perspectives and techniques lined up, pushing forward in the same direction.
Hong Kong was this busy insane circus. Culturally very different from England or Europe but there was a massive contradiction between their drive for efficiency and a consistent inability to lock down a script. Without a locked script we were always in a state of flux and we spent a huge amount of effort and resources simply making each day of filming happen instead of using that time to enhance and better our shooting days and movie. I was working with the best cast and crews in Asia, and many of my team had worked with John Woo, Sammo Hung and all the other greats from that region. Despite working on the biggest and best films out there a lot of the stories we were telling were very simplistic comedies and action films. Although a ton of fun to make they were hardly the kind of films I would rush out and watch!
Shooting in Japan was hard for different reasons and Tokyo is probably one of the most unfriendly filmmaking locations I have been to. I had very good location and production managers out there and they dealt with a lot of the grass root issues like parking, permits etc but I remember those seemed unnecessarily hard compared to London. But it was a great life out there, living out a bag and always ready to jump on a plane.
Shanghai was a little more formal and probably a little more corrupt. I did a movie there in 2003, LIFE TRANSLATED and this was just before the whole Chinese film industry boomed. It took a lot of effort to get simple things done and you could definitely smell corruption in places that there shouldn't have been. Chinese crews, although hard working, lacked some of the refinement and skill sets I was used to working with in Europe and even Hong Kong. I remember Robert Richardson (the Oscar winning cinematographer), saying how on KILL BILL, which they shot in Shanghai, he saw how when they moved a piece of equipment, thirty people would swarm the set to do it in a really haphazard way. It sounded like he was describing some of my sets! But as I said, there are 1000 ways to climb a mountain!
But Asia was great. I had a great adventure there and I would go back there when I get the right script. I've got friends working on Michael Mann's CYBER and also on TRANSFORMERS 4 at the moment, and I know, ten years later and with the massive investment in infrastructure and far more experienced crews, they are going to have it a lot easier that we did back in the day.
How was your experience shooting the TV mini-series AGAINST ALL ODDS (2005) in Israel?
I spent most of 2004 shooting commercials, and at the end of the year I went to Israel to set up a movie, which unfortunately never got off the ground. As I was leaving for London, HBO were arriving to set up a miniseries. After getting a few friendly phone calls from them, I was suddenly flying back and spent seven months working on it. We were running around the Israeli desert with tanks and soldiers! It was such a memorable experience. It was big logistics in tough, hot places. We had 800 extras, six 35mm cameras, lots of stunts and lots of special effects. We rented 3000 costumes from London and Rome, and made another 4000 more. On a shoot like that you know how big you are by how many plates you go through at lunch. We were regularly feeding 1100 people a day. We had our own stables for 150 horses, our own power supply, air, carpool and a medical facility. We even had a helicopter pad! We took nearly every hotel room and guest house within 50km of our main location. It was a big show and we did all of this in the middle of the desert and in 120 degree heat!
Were there any particular problems on the shoot?
At one point we moved to a location about 20km north of the Egyptian border in the Negev Desert. After a few weeks of day shooting there we began two weeks of night shoots. On the second night I noticed a glow of light on the horizon that affected our ability to shoot in that direction. I asked the location manager what it was and he told me "It's the Egyptian Army doing a mirror. They've put spotlights in the air because they see Israel doing the same thing." When we finished filming in the morning, instead of going to sleep, I spent the next day on the phone to the English Ambassador in Israel asking him to tell the English Ambassador in Cairo to tell the Egyptian army that the lights in the sky were not part of a planned invasion but just a film shoot! I showed up on set the next night and there were no lights in Egypt. I managed to pull it off and no one on the crew even new what I did or why I was so tired!
Why did you decide to return to London to make films after that?
I realised that I was an English filmmaker living in London who was never in the country! I decided to be more UK-based and soon found myself shooting a film called IN YOUR DREAMS (2008) with Dexter Fletcher and Linda Hamilton. Working with Linda was fantastic. Everyone was a such a huge fan of THE TERMINATOR movies. Linda was fantastic and I remember one day we were three hours over schedule with another hour to go. The crew were tired and she could see it. So she came up to me and offered to pay for hotel rooms for the whole crew, which of course I couldn't accept. But it was lovely she asked in the first place. Such a sweet, classy lady.
Why do you think producing fits you so well?
Well, I'm obsessive and passionate about cinema. With my line producing background I have a really strong understanding of the physical filmmaking. I'm very driven. I love everything about the process of making films - from the developing of stories and scripts, through to financing, to the actual filming and post production, and I love the selling and marketing of films. I can walk onto any film set in the world and feel comfortable, and know instinctively what is going well and what isn't. I thrive on the adrenalin of having to constantly solve problems. I call it 'firefighting'. At this point, because I've worked my way up the ranks and have a lot of experience, I have a really good understanding of the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, and am able raise finance. Above all I recognise great storytelling. These are the skillsets all producers have.
What are some of the challenges of producing?
Getting great scripts and being able to pay for them at script stage is probably the greatest challenge I have. By the time a UK producer reads a script its already been turned down by the major studios in LA and a few other companies in London - because they have the money to buy. It doesn't matter how good your relationships are with the writers and agents, they will go where the money is.
Once actually filming, all kinds of challenges are thrown at you every day and you end up dealing with a massive gamut of problems and decisions. A single afternoon might involve sitting with an actor going over his concerns with the script, to trying to get sixteen trucks and six drivers to another location overnight, through to keeping a director or actor sane during or after a tough scene! You can be sitting with your accountant working on intricate cash-flow and cost reports, and the next minute planning complicated visual effects and special effects, and then auditioning an actor, and after that calming down a carpenter or driver because they feel hard done by. Its never the same day twice!
In 2009 I was producing RE-UNITING THE RUBINS with Timothy Spall and Rhona Mitra, and we were a week and a half before shooting when our financier got scared about bird flu, which had just started, and wanted to pull out! He wanted assurances, but no insurance or completion bond company in the world was going to insure us against bird flu, as no-one knew how big or bad this thing was going to get. I shot through the SARS crisis in Hong Kong in 2002, and told him life always carries on, but the financier had a genuine feeling the world could end! I thought the film was going to get cancelled. I found out that I could get us insured against bird flu under the clause 'Public Assembly'. This referred to a special clause when a government, to contain a virus, would shut down all public gatherings over fifty people, like sporting events, schools and in our case, film shoots. This would be covered by our Force Majeure clauses which meant my financiers could sleep at night knowing that if the world ended they would still be covered and I could make my movie! For 24 hours I was the world's leading expert on the bird flu experience. We were the first and I think only film in the world to have this specific cover. Although this has nothing to do with filmmaking, the fact that I had to do it and there was no Plan B is kinda representative of the kind of challenges we face on a daily basis.
What are some of your philosophies about filmmaking?
I always try to focus on the big picture: ''You can lose the battle. but win the war." I strongly believe that if the camera is not actually 'turning over' (filming), then we're not making the film. You would be amazed how much time is spent on unnecessary concerns when the clock is ticking and you have to shoot four pages of script that day! Of course you want your film to look and sound amazing, but with good planning, good art department, good locations and great lighting you can achieve a huge amount with very little. All we do on set is collect shots for the editing suite. That philosophy might not go down well with some people but that’s the cold harsh reality of grown up filmmaking. If you have the time then please explore your options or tinker with camera and lighting for days, but in the tough indie world where you have thirty to forty days to shoot a movie, you have to make it count. So if your doing a 35 day shoot with eleven hours on camera that’s 385 hours to shoot your movie. After all the years of developing and planning it all comes down to 385 hours - so SHOOT your movie!It's also important for me to have good relationships with all the key personnel, from the actors and the director, all the way through to the catering department and the transport co-ordinators, who in their own way hold the film together behind the scenes. I have to understand what everybody's job is and support them. I know a lot of producers that don’t even understand what half their crews do, let alone how to support them!
I think in the past I was more abrasive and blunt in terms of telling people how I wanted things to be done, but I've learned how to work better. The better I can communicate to people what I want to achieve, the easier problems can get solved. I always tell my crew "Don't tell me when you have a problem. Tell me when a problem is brewing and we can fix it before its a problem." There are always curveballs on film shoots: locations can fall through, weather changes everything and certain scenes take longer to film than we planned. It's how you handle the problems that's important. Filmmaking is controlled chaos but you have to create a kind of grounded environment that allows people to be comfortable and confident to work at their best.
What parts of your job might surprise people the most?
People think its a really glamourous job. And sometimes it is. I've been to two film premieres in the last week, and had a lunch with a world famous actor! But mostly I work 100 hour weeks, often late at night talking to people in other countries. And when your actually filming - there is nothing glamorous about getting up at 5am and working an 18 hour day. On a more serious note the public might be amazed by how many films we develop that don’t get made. My company tends to develop eight to ten movies at a time, and we have a batting average of one movie in six or seven that gets made. That’s a pretty good ratio in the industry!
How do you feel about the state of the film industry at the moment?
The biggest problem in England is that we don't have structured and financed development. A lot of movies in the independent world get made because they have to get made instead of because they should get made. You can spend two years developing a movie, and if it doesn't happen, you're out of pocket for all the time and work you've done. Because of that, a lot of not so good scripts are put into production. Only big American studios or Working Title in the UK can afford structured and regimented development. Starting a film without a script that's 100% never works, and it's always reflected by the fact taht not many people watch the film. I'm not going to make a film unless the script is right. I'm committed to making films as great as the ones that originally inspired me and that’s something I've neglected in the past as I've travelled the world having these great adventures.
I think we're in a very dangerous time now in the film industry where digital technology has really changed the way films are made. It's much easier to make a film now. You could buy a Canon 5D and make a movie. But because of that factor, there's a lack of film set etiquette and discipline because you're getting a lot of inexperienced filmmakers creating big job titles for themselves running around making movies. The scripts are rarely good enough. We have a lot of movies made in the UK for under a million pounds and always with the same familiar faces in them, usually ex-soap actors or ex-gangster types, and they are consistently unwatchable. How many gangster films and trashy horror films do we need?
The huge legacy of state-sponsored filmmaking doesn't really help because people are so busy making films that they don't stop to consider why they're making them, what the films will do for their career, or whether the film can realistically recoup on its cost. They're not looking at the big picture. The trick is to figure out the market value of your film and produce it for less money, thereby making a profit. But the real trick is to decide on what films you want to make and figure out the steps to get there. Chris Nolan went from FOLLOWING (1998) to MEMENTO (2000) to INSOMNIA (2002) to BATMAN BEGINS (2005) in seven years!
Another problem is that digital distribution is diluting the market. Quite a few films are now premiering now in very limited cinema releases and on video-on-demand simultaneously. It's very difficult to recoup with such a short theatrical windows, a diminishing DVD market and lower TV sales. It's affecting the budgets of films. Films are now made as big fx studio films with huge budgets or for under $1,000,000. The middle ground of $8m - $12m budgets is getting harder and harder to operate in.
Who are some producers that you respect and admire?
I admire and respect people like Kathleen Kennedy, Scott Rudin, Mike De Luca, and the guys and girls at Working Title. They all make fantastic movies but also run a fantastic pipeline of projects in development. Of course that costs money, but they have the support of big studios to pay for this. Recently Working Title shut down BRIDGET JONES 3 very close to shooting as they didn't think the project was good enough. Universal shut down Guillermo Del Toro's AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS which had Tom Cruise acting and James Cameron producing, because of the R Rated script and its massive budget! While it’s easy to have opinions on these films from our sofas, these companies are in the serious business of making money and if they think that’s in doubt they will abort. I admire that. I think the real trick is to make these films for the right money. THE LONE RANGER (2013) did not need to cost $280m, but it did. That was ludicrous and of course it’s a massive write off.
What excites you the most about your future?
I'm excited about the opportunities to tell fantastic stories. In the last year I have turned down pretty much every offer with the goal of not wanting to make anything mediocre or just for the money. I have really focused on developing great projects. I now have some amazing movies ready to go. I always believe there is money available for the right projects with the right actors at the right budget.
I have a movie called BENSON CHILD CLOWN which is about African child soldiers that we're shooting in South Africa next year. It could be another KILLING FIELDS (1984). I also have a cyberpunk thriller called COLD SEA RISING that will shoot in London, and a movie called BLUE MESSIAH which is a horror film about a sociopath who meets the Devil in Jerusalem. We are formally announcing these projects in the next few months, so you are getting an early scoop!
Jonathan can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.
I spoke to Jonathan by phone on 14th July 2013 and would like to thank him for his time.
Thanks to Richard S. Barnett.
Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.
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