Unsure if your school is cool? There are few better measures of a school’s worth than the success of its alumni, and UVM has so many standouts that it’s tough to pick favorites. But since John Dewey is dead and the Academy Awards are right around the corner, The Water Tower sat down with prolific movie producer Jon Kilik, a proud Catamount who graduated from UVM in 1978, then gave the Commencement address 25 years later.
He’s produced nearly 50 movies in a career spanning nearly 40 years, including Malcolm X, Dead Man Walking, Babel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and The Hunger Games series. His latest drama, Foxcatcher, is based on the true story of Mike Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his brother David (Mark Ruffalo), Olympic wrestlers who fall into a strange relationship with bizarre billionaire and wrestling enthusiast John du Pont (Steve Carrell); it’s nominated for five Oscars. Jon visited Burlington in December to host the Vermont premiere of Foxcatcher on UVM campus.
Here is the full transcript of our interview with Jon; or, read the abridged version in print!
The Water Tower: How was your time at UVM?
Jon Kilik: I loved going to UVM. Once I got to Burlington I never left;it’s funny, I got there and stayed for four years, then worked another year at WCAX before moving to New York City. After high school in New Jersey, I fell in love with Vermont, the beautiful outdoors, the skiing, hockey, access to the arts, especially music and film. As an extracurricular I was head of the concert bureau, I helped choose and book the big music events on campus. I learned a little about ‘producing.’ We brought up Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen, all my favorites. I was in the CAS and ended up taking courses in Film Criticism and Production, two of each, which made me think there might be career options out there. I decided to pursue it, even though I barely knew what that meant and I didn’t know anyone in the industry.
WT: What got you into the movie business?
JK: I’ve always had the attitude of “just go for it.” Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, take that first step, take a chance, something will happen. Instead of going to grad school, I thought maybe I could find some work, even if it’s the lowest level job but at a place I wanted to be. Get in the door. I took an entry-level job at WCAX, worked on some commercials and industrial films, and got some on-the-job training. After about six months I moved down to New York City. I slept on a friend’s couch for a while, and ended up getting some production assistant work through another UVM alum who was working on feature films. She hired me on Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories as a Location Assistant.
The film industry is hard to get into, but once you’ve broken in and if you do a good job, they ask you back. They want to work with the same people. I moved up the production ladder in NYC from 1979-1986. It became my grad school. It was a great period in NYC. Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Alan Pakula, John Huston and other legendary directors were making films in NYC and I was fortunate enough to work with them. Then in 1985/86 the independent movement started with Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and the Coen Brothers. That’s what I wanted to do.
So at the same time I was working on the big feature set, I worked on my own projects on my days off with an old high school friend from New Jersey who went to Hobart College. We wrote a script together and produced an off-off-Broadway play. This was a whole other path. I had my day job on movie sets which gave me experience and helped me pay the bills, and then by night and during down time I worked with other young artists who wanted to workshop their ideas, with the hope of becoming the next generation of filmmakers.
It paid off, when one of our scripts was optioned and we were able to make our own indie film. It was my first break. I produced it and my friend wrote and directed. It was called The Beat, about a group of poor, lost, inner-city NYC high school kids who find inspiration from one of their teachers. Similar to Blackboard Jungle, To Sir With Love and Dead Poet’s Society. Our movie didn’t do well at the box office but it got released and put me in a position to produce films for other directors. That’s when I was introduced to Spike Lee and he asked me to help him make Do The Right Thing.
WT: What do you do as a producer? How has this role changed over time?
JK: As a producer you’re really responsible for the development of the movie, getting the script right, collaborating with the director and writer. Helping bring in actors and ultimately finding the financing. You’re really helping give birth to the movie, forcing it into existence; you’re taking a story you like and you have to make it happen. Then you try to help make it a little better every day until you finish.
WT: You’ve produced avant-garde films as well as big blockbusters. How are these experiences different or conflicting?
JK: Whether it’s The Hunger Games or Foxcatcher or working on a film at UVM, it hasn’t changed that much for me. Producing a movie is a very personal thing if you are lucky enough to have control over the project, in partnership with your director. It can be a very pure and homegrown process. Even a big budget film. We made The Hunger Games the same way I’ve made smaller independent films and with many of the same cast and crew.
You use your instincts, your own style, to do the best you can. My bigger budget films still have a handmade quality. I tend to seek out and bring in many actors and crew that I have worked with on lower budget independent films. We come from the same place and speak the same language.
WT: At the UVM screening, you explained how the movie idea came from reading a news article about the story. Have any of your other films come about in this way?
JK: Actually many of them have. Most of the films I’ve done started with me and the writer/director sitting around a kitchen table talking about different ideas until we’d say, “Yeah, let’s do that.” Foxcatcher, Before Night Falls, Jungle Fever, the Lou Reed documentary, Dead Man Walking, and others all happened that way.
WT: Wait, how many films have you actually produced?
JK: By now I’ve produced somewhere between 40 and 50.
WT: Did you have a previous interest in wrestling before Foxcatcher?
JK: I have a really deep, deep interest in sports; it’s been a part of my life, my whole life. I wrestled a little in junior high and high school like a lot of people. But the training and discipline I saw wrestlers go through wasn’t so different from the discipline I went through for track or cross-country. To me it’s the sports psychology that’s interesting, but also as a metaphor for so many things. In Foxcatcher, this guy had to put in his 10,000 hours of hard work—blood and sweat and tears and guts to be a world champion and represent his country, but after he did that, he came home and didn’t find any opportunities, he had to struggle to get an assistant coaching job. I found that very tragic. And when you put him together with a very wealthy person, who is struggling in his own way with isolation, you start to feel that something shocking is going to happen. These two guys from opposite extremes meet, it’s fascinating but uncomfortable to watch. It’s a really bizarre and interesting story, and seemed to speak to bigger issues going on in the country right now, issues of class, of the 1% and the 99%, an American Dream broken, power and greed and corruption…it all interested me and seemed very timely.
WT: What was the best or most fun part about making it?
JK: The best part and the most fun part??…I don’t know if those are the same. The best part was when we finally knew we would be able to actually shoot it. Even with so many years of development, we weren’t sure if we’d be able to actually make it.
The most fun part??…it’s not fun until it’s done. With some movies you can have a lot of fun, Hunger Games was pretty much nonstop fun, but others can be very difficult, they’re intense when you make them, and it’s hard to have that much fun. You enjoy working with these talented actors and directors, but it’s intense. The fun part doesn’t start until it’s over.
WT: What was the worst or most difficult?
JK: I guess the worst part was the struggle early on to get it on the page. That took a long time. It was hard, because it wasn’t based on anything, it’s not based on a book, though the story existed it didn’t exist in this way. It even took a long time once it was down on paper, because even then it’s still not fully formed.
It’s not that it’s so frustrating or painful but it’s just a process that takes a long time to get right.
WT: Steve Carrell gave an incredible dramatic performance in Foxcatcher. Whether he wins or not, what do you think that will do for his career?
JK: It just shows that he’s got incredible range, dramatic range, after this you have to wonder what he can’t do.
WT: The same question of Mark Ruffalo:
JK: Oh yeah, he always brings a humanity to everything he does, that is just powerful, human, strong, sensitive, deep.
WT: Channing Tatum:
JK: He’s been doing a lot of work, and his performance in Foxcatcher gets a little taken for granted. He’s the guy that carries you through from the first frame to the last, and he does it without a lot of words, it’s his presence and his feel, he gets it right, especially if you know the real Mike Schultz.
WT: What movies or projects are in your near future?
JK: We’re getting ready to start shooting something in Louisiana, it’s a Civil War story based on a real person named Newt Knight. Matthew McConaughey plays the lead, we’ll shoot that in March.
WT: How do you compare the Oscars to the other awards, the Emmys, SAGs, etc.? Or to the festivals, like Sundance, Cannes, etc.? Is there a particular one you trust or enjoy more?
JK: That’s an interesting question…you just have to trust the work itself, because that’s what lasts. As great an honor as it is to get recognition at film festivals and awards—and the movie’s been recognized by the most important festival, Cannes, and the most important awards, the Oscars—that stuff is forgotten pretty much five minutes after. It’s really not as important as whether or not the movie can hold up over time.
WT: Were you shocked that Foxcatcher was nominated for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Makeup, and Best Original Screenplay but not Best Picture?
JK: You know, I was up early, hoping that we’d get recognized, mainly because that helps get it seen, and that’s what we care about. Some were positive surprises, some were negative surprises. It is what it is, it doesn’t really matter a whole lot. I think we got enough, so I don’t have anything to complain about.
WT: Which awards do you think Foxcatcher is most likely to win?
JK: I don’t know that it’s likely to win any, because it’s not very flashy. I think it’s the hardest, toughest, most demanding of the nominated films; it’s not easy. It probably scares people a bit. It takes some time before people can appreciate how great it is. On the one hand I don’t think it’s going to win anything, on the other hand I think it’s the best movie of the year, and I’m a very tough critic about my own work.
WT: Let’s hear your outside opinion on the Best Picture nominees. Which are your favorites? Which do you think will end up winning?
JK: I really like all eight of the nominated movies. They’re all good. They all have little things about them that maybe I might be a little critical of, but I think they’re all really good. But when I look at Foxcatcher, we didn’t stop the process of making the movie until we thought every piece and every frame was perfect. I think about what’s inspiring and well done about the other movies, but I can’t help looking with a critical eye.
WT: There’s been a lot of controversial talk about American Sniper, Michael Moore has gotten a lot of flack for his comments on it. Do you think the movie is overly patriotic or propagandistic?
JK: I don’t think so, I think it feels like it’s truthful from the perspective of the filmmaker. That’s what matters. It’s Clint Eastwood’s point of view. If the politics of that truth are not in line with your own, then fine, that’s Michael Moore’s problem, they might not be in line with mine either. The movie itself feels like it’s honest, not exploitive; it feels like it represents the filmmaker perfectly. It tells a story in two hours and that’s always going to happen in an imperfect way. Filmmaking is always an extension of the artist. There’s just as much Clint Eastwood in this movie as there is Chris Kyle, and that’s okay with me. That’s what dramatic filmmaking is.
WT: You’ve worked with Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu on films before, like Babel and Biutiful, and now he’s nominated for Birdman. Does it feel strange to compete with a colleague like this?
JK: I don’t feel like I’m competing with anybody. It’s not an athletic event. You make your work, other people make their work.
I love looking at another filmmaker’s work who I’ve worked with, because I know them so well. I know what their approach is and what goes into it. I have a bit more insight into the film as a reflection of that filmmaker, but I can still be surprised by their work, so I get the best of both worlds.
WT: This year’s awards, unlike last year’s, have been criticized for their dearth of black actors and other minority representations, except for Selma. First, what did you think of Selma? Second, do you expect to see more movies like it, given this year’s resurgence of racial politics and civil rights rallies? If so, do you hope to get involved with these movies?
JK: I think Selma is an excellent film. Again, these things are just as much a reflection of the filmmaker as they are of the subject. You’re sharing your point of view when you make a movie. Every word isn’t going to be exactly as it was spoken. You have two hours to get your story told. There are things that have to be dramatized. In art there is no choice but to have the work be an extension of the person who is making it.
With my projects, race and class and American social issues have always been of interest to me. I’ve always gravitated towards those for as long as I can remember. I’m a child of the 60s and 70s. I want to tell the human story.
WT: What do you think are the unsung great movies of 2014?
JK: I’m sure there are films from this year that I’ve missed or haven’t even heard about yet. The great thing about movies nowadays is that even if you miss them in theaters you can find them later.