Yellow Bread Shorts spoke to Iain Smith, one of the most influential producers in Europe right now, responsible for the production of blockbusters such as “Mad Max: Fury Road”, “The Fifth Element” or “Seven Years in Tibet”. He is this year’s special guest at TIFF and he was honored at the closing gala, the Transilvania Trophy for Special Contribution to World Cinema. We discussed his career, the current blockbuster trends, short films and European co-productions among many other topics.
The list of your accomplishments and accolades is long and impressive. Where do the Transilvania Trophy and the acknowledgement you are receiving here at TIFF stand there?
Iain Smith: It’s a great honor! I’m very privileged and Romania has a special place in my heart because we made a movie here, “Cold Mountain”, and I think we changed things In Romania by coming with such a big movie. We made people outside of Romania realize that it was safe to make films here. So, I think that the international industry coming in here has grown a lot, particularly in Bucharest.
Your list of credits is also impressive. You’ve been called “Europe’s busiest producer”. Is that true?
I.S.: I’m not sure that’s true… But, I’m extremely busy and I’ve always kept busy. It’s an instinct even from childhood. I was always too busy!
What do you think of the recent trend in Hollywood of making superhero blockbuster after superhero blockbuster?
I.S.: It’s a trend that’s hanging around too long. And, I think that they discovered that they can make money without trying too hard. And, until they stop making money we will still see these CGI movies. But “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a different kind of movie and it challenges that; it was a very high-risk movie. It was difficult to make and it doesn’t hide from the realities of what life is. I think we will see a change in Hollywood, especially with China coming in. I think that that will start making differences and Hollywood will have more of a global reach.
In my opinion, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is an action film that redefined the genre and it’s a blockbuster at the same time, without being THE common kind of blockbuster…
I.S.: I think it’s an action movie but with a big heart and with ideas within it that do not normally belong to action movies. So, it took people by surprise!
What is a box office hit according to you? Does it necessarily have to be a blockbuster or can it be an independent film as well?
It can be an independent film. To me, a box office hit is a film that pays for itself.
And, independent cinema? Where is it going today?
I.S.: I think it’s getting stronger. We’re seeing a lot of new voices coming in – young talent getting a chance that maybe thirty years ago they would have never had that chance, particularly in places like Romania.
What do you think of the Hollywood studio system?
I.S.: It’s a wonderful invention. It was invented a long time ago only in the English-speaking world. They are very powerful in the distribution. It’s the source of their power and their ability to release a movie around the world. So, I think it’s not dead but it’s changing. At the moment, it’s in crisis as change happens and we’re seeing a move from movies to content and content means television, video on demand and games… It’s a much broader spectrum. So, from the creative point of view, artists and talent have more choice. They can make a movie or they can make a television series – you can do more interesting things in television than you can sometimes in movies.
What do you think of the “Golden Age of Television”?
I.S.: I think it’s wonderful! I mean, I don’t have problem with movies. I love movies! I love making movies! But, if you can tell a story and change people’s hearts, it doesn’t matter how you do it.
The situation women in the film industry is a highly controversial subject that is being thoroughly debated and discussed as of late. What are your thoughts on that?
I.S.: I think that there has been a lack of women in positions of directorial power and I think that there definitely needs to be a constant reexamining of that – not just gender but also diversity, culture and visibility but many things we should keep in mind. But, at the end of the day, the important thing is to make good movies or good TV. And, that’s difficult to do whether it’s a man or a woman. It’s always difficult to make films.
Short films are very underestimated in all aspects. Why do you think is that? And, would you produce a short film?
I.S.: I suppose I would produce a short film but they never make money. They’re only useful as a showcase really. The way that audiences consume short films is very restricted and so I’m more prone now to the long form. But, I would help. I have helped young filmmakers to get their short films made. Short film is the ability to tell a story in a very brief time – it has to be a complete story…
You have worked in many countries. Which one do you prefer? And, is Romania one of them?
I.S.: Absolutely! I loved working here! I came here to Cluj seventeen years ago for the first time and I saw the country and I said: “This is the place to make a movie!” Within two or three years, we were making “Cold Mountain” here and it was a very happy experience. I like working in countries where no one else has been to. I enjoyed working in Namibia for “Mad Max”. I enjoyed working in Thailand. I made a film there a long time ago. People wouldn’t go to Thailand. Now, everybody goes to Thailand.
What do you think of the co-productions that are happening in Europe and the co-production markets at film festivals?
I.S.: I think co-productions are essential, especially nowadays when everything is global. I think relationships are not just about money – they’re about cultural ideas and finding markets. So, I support that. Any Romanian filmmaker who wants to find a future finds it in co-productions.
How do you see your role? Are you more involved in the creative process as a producer or also in the business part?
I.S.: Both. You can’t be a producer without being both. You hold both art in one hand and money in the other…
Do you think the producing credits are a bit misleading? Why do some have more importance than the others?
I.S.: We get many, many, many types of producer. Many of them don’t produce but they raise money or they have money. Or, they’re the director’s best friend. There are all sorts of reasons why people get a credit, which is unfortunate because, actually, as you’ve said it devalues the position of the producer and it devalues the definition of a producer. But, legitimately there are different types of producer. There are producers who are purely in development and who build a script and there are producers who raise money. My heroes are people like Saul Zaentz who was a producer who made one film at a time. He was a very pure producer.
Tim Bevan from Working Title once said, “There are two types of movies. Movies that you make for money and you hope they’re good, and movies that you make to be good and you hope they make money.” Can you comment on that?
I.S.: I mean, when you’re making films, you’re never sure whether you are going to make money. You aim and hope to make money. And, you tell everyone that it’s going to make money. But, really, the truth is that it’s a huge risk. And, the bigger the risk, the better the movie, in my opinion.
Have you taken many risks?
I.S.: Many, many… Every time, every single time… “Mad Max” was a risk. Warner Bros. were very unsure about the movie. They didn’t know if it would work and they kept worrying, worrying, worrying about the movie until the audience got it.
What is your ideal/dream production? And, do you have anything in the pipeline right now?
I.S.: I have several movies in the pipeline. There’s no such thing as an ideal production! Everyone’s dream turns into a nightmare that hopefully turns into a dream again! And everyone is frightened and everyone is excited but everyone in production is different. You know a lot of stuff but you learn a lot of new stuff. It is a very challenging business!
Part of this interview was published in the issue #10 of the 2016 Transilvania International Film Festival daily, AperiTIFF, and in its entirety on Yellow Bread’s sister publication, The Film Prospector, in June 2016.