What Does It Take To Be A Film Producer:
An Interview With Jason Gurvitz
By Alexander Ostroff
Ask the average person to describe a film producer and they’ll paint a picture of Tony Montana, had he decided to traffic celluloid instead of cocaine. Okay, how do you become a producer? You wake up one morning and call yourself a producer. With that in place you’ll just need some money, a script, and rudimentary organizational abilities. Well, that describes some of the so-called producers who have come and gone over the years. In truth, producing is one of the most misunderstood and sometimes underappreciated jobs in the entertainment industry. It’s also the most difficult. Producers can potentially make more films and more money than any other talent. Accomplishing this requires a unique collection of inherent and learned abilities, tungsten steel work ethic, and of course luck.
A true film producer is a polymath of cinema. He or she knows that the movie demons outweigh the movie gods a hundred to one. Films are severely allergic to getting made. Having the skin of an alligator and the tenacity of a honey badger is a given. A producer need not personally be a Kubrick or Daniel Day-Lewis, but must possess golden guts to discover talent and the (gender neutral) balls to invest in it. The producer uses an iron grip to keep the ship on time and on course, while never forgetting that art is not a democracy and that a suffocated vision always results in a horrible product. Above all, the producer must be able to understand storytelling better than any writer.
Producer Jason Gurvitz embodies all of these qualities. Gurvitz is a multi-hyphenated young artist with a passion for producing content that entertains and engages, inspires and elevates and allows the audience to see the world in a new way. In an industry full of extremes, Gurvitz is both a tough businessman and a passionate artist acutely aware of the power that film has to change the world for the better.
Jason, how did you get into producing?
Well, I fell into it pretty accidently. I started out as an actor and majored in theater in college. I did some theater in Spain and then acted in a movie in Spain. I got to a point where I got tired of waiting around to be cast in things. I was in an acting class with an amazing teacher named Jocelyn Jones. After I put up a scene one day she told that just the way I presented the scene and everything, that in her gut she felt that I was a producer. By that point I had already produced some events. I had produced a short documentary that I filmed in Israel. I produced small plays. I’ve always liked putting things up most of my life, so it made sense to me. I produced a play for the Beverly Hills Playhouse where I was studying at the time. That got me some attention and people started realizing that I could put some things together. I didn’t even know that I could do it myself. Then I finally decided to put on this charity benefit. It was a big concert with like six musical acts from five different countries. We had painters, dancers, a fashion show—I got sponsorship from Johnnie Walker. I brought in a whole team of people and the show was very well produced. It was right around that time that I was shopping this feature film, The Perfect Witness. I had set it up as a co-production with Spain, where I had lived for two years. The year before I went to the Cannes Film Festival and met a lot of Spanish producers. I could identify with them, because they were Spanish and I could speak to them with an understanding of their culture, not as some American who wanted to just tap their tax incentives or cheap labor or whatever most producers usually think about when trying to set up an international co-production. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but I knew I had to start the conversation with what was most familiar and that was our common connection to Spain. Those were the people that would probably want to talk to me. There was this one producer based out of Catalonia, and we kept in touch quite a bit. Then a project came to me that was a thriller and I felt like I could set this movie up as co-production with Spain. Keep in mind I had no experience doing this at all. I didn’t know enough people in the United States that would take me seriously. I had a good relationship with this very established producer in Spain, and he wanted to work with me even though I never made a movie before. With his help I learned how to get Spanish co-production financing through Spanish broadcasters and Spanish government money. I learned by doing and just moved along with whatever I thought was necessary and we finally ended up making the film. We got Wes Bentley as the lead and all these other great actors, and we shot the whole movie in Philadelphia. That was kind of my first break into the industry.
You’re also a linguist. Languages are a passion of yours, intellectually and professionally. How has this helped you as a Producer?
That’s a very good question. I lived in Chile on an exchange program when I was in high school. Then I lived in Spain for two years, and then lived in Brazil for a while. I lived in Colombia when I was making Broken Kingdom. My early years of living in these countries and really getting to know these different cultures helped pave the way for me to focus on putting together international co-productions. I loved working with these Hispanic countries. I identified with the people and really liked them. There wasn’t all the bullshit that I was experiencing in Hollywood. These were the kinds of people that really wanted to work with Hollywood, and I did represent Hollywood since I came from here. They loved that I loved their culture and wanted to speak with them in their own language. Most of the time people from Hollywood go to these other countries and sort of barrel through and treat local producers like, hey, I’m from Hollywood, I know what’s best and you have to follow my lead. They don’t like that. They don’t like American imperialist arrogance. They liked in [a] way that I really didn’t know. I was being honest. I was learning about filmmaking from them and they learned about Hollywood through me. It made the process of becoming a producer a very personal experience for me. It motivated me to focus on projects that really moved me in personal way, rather than just looking at them as business ventures.
Producing requires thick skin. You’ve experienced your share of disappointments along the way. How do you deal with setbacks?
This happens a lot in filmmaking. I got involved in a lot of projects that never got made. But those projects that failed—so to speak—were in fact the most critical projects, because they lead me to projects that were successful. I worked on them for several years and ended up meeting very prominent American actors, directors, producers and agents. These projects were really a training ground for me. I learned a lot about deal making. If you’re a producer—or director, writer, actor—you have to be willing to go down the rabbit hole. There will be financially and emotionally unstable periods. If you love what you do and stick to it, it will eventually turn around. Sometimes the best way to learn how to get a film made is to not get it made.
All of your projects thus far have had strong social messages.
Yes, I’m really driven by socially conscious stories, but that’s not to say that I’m only making art house films. I really like scripts that make me think about the world in a different way. I like stories about people who are marginalized in society; whether that’s a horror film, thriller, comedy—I gravitate toward projects that also deal with culture clashes in some way. Stories that deal with a person out of their element, multi-cultures, multi ethnicities—but there are many ways to tell those types of stories. I like stories about people you may not hear about on a regular basis. They’re struggling with their own demons, struggling with the way society sees them. In a lot of ways I don’t really feel like I fit in Los Angeles and when I’m in other countries I don’t totally fit with them either, even though I love their culture. I always feel like a fish out of water somewhere, so in [a] way that’s why I like these fish out of water stories.
Your first major film was Broken Kingdom. What was it like filming in Colombia?
It was a great experience. I had never made a movie in Colombia before. I really love the country and the people are really nice. Colombia has such a stigma and I think it’s really misrepresented in the world. I was eager to be part of this country that I feel was changing for the better. Producer John Murphy and the director Daniel Gillies came to me through a friend. They heard I’m someone who could really help grease the wheels, to make it easier to shoot in Colombia—plus, I speak Spanish fluently. I also brought on local producers in Colombia. These were producers who were credible and really connected to everyone we needed at the government level, crew, locations and all that. I was this conduit between the Americans and Colombia—almost like a bridge, which kind of became my specialty. We were shooting in 2008, during the economic crisis, so already we had a problem with getting the money into the country. Colombia has a lot of money laundering regulations. It’s a big problem down there. The investors’ money had to come through another bank in another country, and that bank was not on the list of approved banks by the Central Bank of Colombia. When we finally managed to figure all that out, banks around the world started freezing their assets. One thing led to another and we had to leave the country because we just couldn't get the money in to shoot the film. We came back a year later when [we] had the rest of the money. That whole experience was so life changing for me that John Murphy ended up making a documentary about how we financed the film called Kingdom Come. It’s a great film for filmmakers. It tells the story of how, when people really want something, how badly they’re willing to go after it. Both Broken Kingdom and Kingdom Come aired on Showtime. Now they’re on iTunes.
Your next project was directing a documentary called Changing Lives.
I was approached by a group of anesthesiologists from Seattle, from an organization called Seattle Anesthesia Outreach and this incredible man named Dr. Richard Solazzi. He was working on bringing a mission to the Black Lion Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. They were going to bring in anesthesiologists, neuropediatric surgeons, surgical technicians, many different kinds of doctors and recovery nurses—bring them to this hospital to essentially teach anesthesiology. There are many deaths in Ethiopia because of poorly administered anesthesia. Dr. Solazzi wanted to turn that around and he wanted a documentary filmmaker to document this process. That’s what I did. I donated a hundred percent of my time and flew to Ethiopia for a month. I spent Monday through Friday with these doctors, documenting all their work. We build a post anesthesia care unit (PACU). We cleaned out their surgical tech facilities. We really got to know the Ethiopian people. It was an eye-opening experience. They’ve been using the forty-five minute documentary over the last several years to continue to raise money for the cause.
This brings up an interesting point. An independent filmmaker with a philanthropic spirit may not be able to simply write a big check, but he or she can use their talent to create content that brings global attention to a cause they wish to support.
Absolutely. Hey, I’m not rich. I don’t have hundreds of thousands or millions to give to these things. When I have time between my projects, if I have a month or two to dedicate to something I really believe in, I will donate my time. I’ll find people to work for free who also care about these issues. Telling these stories and exposing them to as many people as possible will help raise money for these causes. That will be my contribution to them and this is something that these organizations desperately need.
Tell us about your newest film, Savaged.
Savaged came to me through a very talented, visionary writer-director named Michael Ojeda, who is also an accomplished editor and DP. I was first introduced to him by another documentary filmmaker friend of mine. I read another script that Michael wrote. It was a very big action film set in 17th century Japan. We realized this was just too big of [a] film to make at this point, so he and I started working on the script and re-developing it. We both pounded the pavement and raised a little bit of money, put a little bit of money together on our own, and we shot the first 25 minutes of the film, to use that footage to raise money. It immediately got the attention of a sales agent in Canada who immediately committed a portion of the budget to us. With their help we reached out to more equity investors. After a long year we were able to raise the rest of the money. We had an incredibly talented cast and crew. Everybody really gave their sweat equity to this film. They worked for a lot lower rates than they really deserved, but they believed in us and the script. We shot the film over the course of a month. We had lots of special effects, lots of stunts, we were out in the desert far away from LA—it was just a really big movie to make for the little money that we had to make it with. Fortunately, the love that we put into it, attention to detail, the dedication, it all paid off. What I really liked about the story—I’m not going into it too much—I really liked that it’s a horror film about a woman who really kicks ass, but it also deals with deafness—the lead character is deaf—it deals with racism against not only Native Americans but also African Americans. It’s also a love story. It’s not just this typical horror film for young boys who like slasher films. It makes you think and connect. It’s a movie that even a lot of women like. It appeals to many different age groups and many different demographics.
You just wrapped production on your next film, The Submarine Kid.
Yes. There a lot of story elements I can’t give away at this point. The Submarine Kid deals with culture clashes and people who are marginalized. It’s a story about a United States Marine who returns from Afghanistan with PTSD. He’d rather come back into his old life again, but he has a really different perspective of the world now. His family doesn’t really recognize him as the same person who left. Like other soldiers returning home, he’s also dealing with the changing landscape of the United States. There are some really unique elements in the film that you wouldn’t necessarily expect in a story about PTSD. I was really proud to have worked with some really talented actors in this movie, like Finn Wittrock, from The Normal Heart and the upcoming Unbroken, and Emilie de Raven from Once Upon a Time and Lost. I produced the film with Deborah Del Prete, who’s made a lot of really wonderful films. It was the first time I came away from a movie really looking forward to working with every single person again on a film. Every other film that I’ve been involved with, even the documentaries, there were always personality differences were there was at least one person I didn't really get along with and that wasn’t the case on this.
What are some of the other projects that you have planned?
We have a film called The Gift Horse, which Deborah and I are doing together. Some of the money is attached and we have some really amazing actors attached. It’s a really cool heist drama set entirely in the south. I’ve never shot in the south before so I’m looking forward to it. I have a post-apocalyptic thriller that we’re looking to potentially shoot in the south as well, and maybe shoot in the Ukraine. We have another film that we’ve been trying to make for a while, that we’d love to shoot in Canada. It’s a thriller about five guys that go up into the mountains, and they all learn things about each other that they wish they hadn’t. We have the MadreMonte Project, which is a series of five genre films that we’re shooting entirely in Colombia, in English, with directors from five different countries. I’m working with an incredible producer there named Diego Ramirez from 64A Films. We’ve been in a long selection process of selecting scripts over the last year. It’s been very hard. We’ve received many scripts but have only selected a couple thus far. We have a documentary called The Three Hikers, which is about the three American hikers who were jailed in Iran. The incredible talented director Natalie Avital has been shooting that for the last four years and it’s finally coming to the end of post-production. I also directed a short documentary about a group of very special people who facilitate the rescues of American children, who have been kidnapped by traffickers for sexual exploitation and organ harvesting.
What is the current state of independent filmmaking from your perceptive?
Well, I think independent films have constantly been evolving and getting better over the last fifteen or twenty years. Digital technology is getting better and cheaper. Bigger directors and actors are embracing lower budget projects more than ever before. We have really big stars that are now writing and directing their own projects. For example, House of Cards is one of the greatest independent series ever made. Even though it was picked up by Netflix, it was essentially made the same way that independent films got made over the years, and it has a very independent spirit. House of Cards is not something you’d see on prime time television. I really feel that independent filmmaking has, in a lot of ways, morphed into what has become the greatest television of our time. A lot of the independent filmmakers who were making really challenging material that the studios weren’t making, migrated into television. They started to make content that the networks realized could be turned into a series. I don’t think we would have this ground-breaking television if those networks had gone to mostly studio writers, because they weren’t writing that kind of stuff.
Do you have plans to get into television?
Absolutely. I’m already working on some projects right now that we hope will land in the right place whether that be on the TV or the Internet, which will eventually be one and the same anyway.
You’ve been outspoken about the importance of keeping independent film production going in California. Do you think the situation will improve in the near future?
Well, I’m by no means an expert on this issue. I got involved by holding a fundraiser for Eric Garcetti, who is very passionate about trying to keep production in Los Angeles. But it’s a statewide issue. The state has started to do more but it’s not enough. Until the state begins passing the necessary laws to get these incentives in place in a significant way, independent film production will stay outside of California. California lawmakers are now giving this issue a lot more energy, but it’s a slow moving ship and a hard ship to turn. I hope it will improve in the future.
As a producer, you obviously look at a lot of scripts. What is your advice to screenwriters who are trying to get their script made into a film?
If you’re going to approach a producer, be sure that your script is truly ready. If you haven’t gone through at least five to seven drafts, with several layers of notes from somebody you trust, or a couple of people that you trust—if you haven’t done that then no matter what you think, it’s not ready. Period. I don’t care how many people told you it’s amazing. There’s always room for improvement. Experienced producers will ask you how many drafts you did. I’m talking about real re-writes. Is it possible that you can bang out a script, do only two or three drafts, and it ends up getting made? Absolutely, and I’m happy to be wrong. But that’s very rare. If you give the producer a script that needs a lot of re-writes, you’ll waste their time. If later on you come back to them with an incredible Emmy or Oscar caliber script, they’re not going to believe you could do it, and won’t look at it. Make sure your work is the absolute best it can be before; then you have a good chance of getting it made.