Vanessa and I were invited by Michael Hausman and Sandy Lieberson this past month to teach in Cuba at the National Film School. It was a truly great experience and we look forward to returning soon. The students were great, as were our fellow instructors. In addition to producer legends Sandy & Mike, we were joined by Uruaguayan producer Fernando Epstein and Argentinian Producer Veronica Cura.
We were there to discuss film producing in the 21st century. At the center of producing, remains the relationship between producers and directors. It is always a hard thing to explain or even to capture. It doesn't seem to have evolved that much since the dawn of cinema. I felt Veronica got close when she told this joke (fable?).
A man on board an air balloon realizes he’s gotten himself lost. He lowers his altitude and sees a woman in the middle of a big field. He gets closer and yells out:
- “I’m sorry, miss. Would you be so kind as to help me? I promised a friend that I’d meet him an hour ago, but I have no idea where I am.”
The woman answers:
- “You are on board an air balloon, which is propelled by hot air, at an approximate height of 33 feet above sea level. Geographically speaking, you’re position is between 40 and 41 degrees latitude north, 59 and 60 degrees longitude west.”
- “You must be a producer,” says the man in the balloon.
- “Why, yes, I am,” says the woman, surprised. “How did you know?”
- “Well,” says the man, “everything you said is correct, technically speaking. However, I have no idea how to take advantage of the information. And the fact is I still have no clue where I am. Honestly, you haven’t been of great help.”
The woman thinks for a moment and then says with certainty:
- “You must be a director.”
- “Yes,” says the man. “How did you know?”
- “Well,” she replies, “to begin with, you have no clue where you are or where you’re going. You’ve elevated yourself to where you are thanks to a huge amount of hot air. You’ve made a promise you don’t know how to keep. And you expect that I will solve the problem. The fact is, you’re in the same situation you were in before we met, but now, for some reason, I’m to blame."
When Veronica told this joke, there was a good laugh of recognition from everyone, including myself. Nonetheless I felt the joke had to go further still...
The Producer continues, "Well, no bother, I am used to that from directors, and I want to help you get to where you want to go nonetheless."
"Great!" says the man, "I must go to the top of The Right Mountain." So the woman assembles a team of hundreds and builds tunnels, bridges, and roads, inventing new tools in the process. She picks the man up and carries him on her back-- but it's not to The Right Mountain, but The Left Mountain top that she brings The Director, and there he meets his friend. The Director rejoices: "I did it! I did it! I did it all by myself. I shall call this My Mountain, my road, my bridge, and my tunnel.".
The Producer just smiles, leads the crew back down the hill, thanks them, gives them a t-shirt, dinner and a nice pay check, but wondering all the while how to pay her mortgage and health insurance.
A large company puts up a toll on The Left Mountain Road and charges the people who have lived there on Left Mountain to use it, sending The Producer statements saying that despite generating far more revenue than the road cost to build, it is at a deficit. The Large Company then agrees to pay The Director's expenses for the next two years and charge it to The Producer's road.
Is this really how it is? Is this how it needs to be? And is this what the director/producer relationship is? Where's The Script in this process?
And how do directors tease producers? What would this joke be when directors tell it? How about when actors do? Or investors?