The Dark Horse and Everything We Loved producer Tom Hern put on his best fanboy for his In Conversation session with Jon Landau, introducing the producer of the two highest grossing movies the world has ever seen with a smile that never left his face all session.
Opening with the potted bio, Landau explained his parents were producers, adding that their career advice had been, “Do anything but.”
Landau outlined his glamorous introduction to set life (spending six weeks five blocks away from the action, stopping traffic), his time in the studio system (I wanted to learn, leave, and work with not in a studio), and why his relationship with James Cameron has lasted so long (I get to go home at night).
Hern asked Landau to define what sort of producer he was.
“Very hands on,” Landau said, before explaining that he would always delegate what he could. “I’m aware of my limitations and I try to bring on people who will do their job better than I ever could.”
He also admitted that whether he was standing in a lecture theatre in Auckland or on a stage accepting an Oscar (as he did for Titanic), “I’m well aware I’m standing on the shoulders of hundreds if not thousands of other people who’ve worked on our movies.”
Landau explained how he was able to work with Cameron and, in some instances, in place of Cameron, taking decisions about aspects of production that needed to advance.
Cameron always started a movie with “a target that’s very far away” and never lost sight of it, Landau said. “That clarity of vision lets me do my job because I know where he’s coming from. Jim and I have a pretty good shorthand. Jim dreams the dream and I have to make it a reality.”
On the subject of studios, Landau talked about how lucky he and Cameron felt to work with Fox. It wasn’t about who owned something, but who ran it on a day to day basis, he noted. Some studios were run by accountants. At Fox, Landau said, “The people who run it come out of telling stories.”
He noted that when Avatar had been screened in London for Rupert Murdoch, his response had been, “Even if we don’t make any money on the movie, history will show that we made it.” Another good reason for being at Fox for Avatar was that its wide range of media outlets across many platforms in many countries allowed opportunities to promote the film.
On the subject of technology, Landau said, “We have to let technology follow story. We think our stories can inspire tech development. We want to make movies that have themes that are bigger than their genre.”
Asked what advice he would give to a producer from, say, New Zealand who, perhaps, might want to find out more about the studio system, Landau talked about the type of projects that suited studios. There was, he suggested, no other way to have made something like Avatar than through the studio system (and even then he had had to pitch Fox’s investors to go beyond their comfort zone to finance the film). Other projects might easily get made without a studio.
“A studio can’t get on board a movie that will play one or two territories,” he said. “Cultural stories are OK, but the theme has got to be universal.” Landau cited The King’s Speech which, he reckoned, “couldn’t have been any more British”. The theme, however, a person’s struggle to overcome a particular challenge, was easy for everyone to relate to regardless of their nationality or culture.
In the Q&A winding up the session, he was asked about plans for more work in TV. “You can only give 110% of yourself to so many projects at any one time,” Landau claimed. While he shared one of Cameron’s beliefs (If you only work a twelve hour day you’ve run out of good ideas) Landau also noted there was a limit to what anyone could do. “TV takes that 110% every episode.”
Most of the questions focused more closely on the NZ experience and Landau’s part in it – and although Landau spoke about bringing the next three Avatar films here, nobody asked when.
On the subject of the Screen Advisory Board, he noted that industry growth needed to come from the bottom up, which meant more international projects coming here and offering more people more opportunities on more projects. That, he believed, would be a lot easier if there was a studio in Auckland “with real stages”.