Free Advice From the Oscar-Winning Producer of ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Silver Linings Playbook’

By  · Published on December 18th, 2014

This article is presented in partnership with Cadillac

This summer, Cadillac and the Producers Guild of America launched Make Your Mark, a short film competition that challenged producers to create compelling content with limited resources. Contestants made a short film over a single weekend in late June, and you can watch the semi-finalists’ films at the Make Your Mark website. The 30-second Cadillac spot featuring the grand prize winner’s film will air during the 2015 Academy Awards.

One of those filmmaking teams was lucky enough to receive mentorship from Bruce Cohen, the producer behind American Beauty, Big Fish, Milk, Silver Linings Playbook and more. He has more than three decades of experience, and for semi-finalists Tim Wen and Chidi Onyejuruwa, all of that was a phone call away.

Cohen speaks with us about his approach to mentoring aspiring filmmakers and shares some advice about finding a balance between the height of your creative imagination and the practical limits of putting them on film.

Could you explain how you saw your role as a mentor figure in this competition?

It was left pretty loose by the Producers Guild about what that would mean exactly, but my two filmmakers, Tim and Chidi, sent me the treatment they’d prepared for the short film they wanted to make, and I loved it. I was very impressed with it. I thought that it was a really exciting way for them to fulfill the different requirements of the competition, and so I jumped in and tried to help wherever I could.

I’d give them some script thoughts; they ended up running location photos by me; I looked at the casting tapes for them to make casting decisions; answered production questions wherever I could; and looked at the edit and gave them editing notes for the cut. I tried to be there for them however they needed me and wherever I could help.

Sounds like it was full service. From conception to completion.

I like that description because that, of course, is the producer’s job: to be there from beginning to end.

In a short amount of time, and in a very small way, I suppose I tried to perform the functions of a producer just as you would on a film or television show.

Can you talk a bit about recognizing problems and finding solutions at the script and production level?

One particular problem was that the script initially called for the finale to happen in a forest, but they were having trouble finding one that would work for them creatively and also be affordable and logistically possible. I did kind of a cliched development note which was, “Does it have to be a forest?”

[Laughs] Right.

In this case, the more they thought about it, they realized that it could work out quite nicely for the finale to take place on a bluff overlooking the ocean, and so that widened the location search for them, and they found a location they really liked that worked for them financially and logistically.

What’s the lesson creatively from a big change like that?

There are conflicting ideas that should always be at work. On the one hand, you always want to stay open to a new and exciting idea that might work better for the project, but on the other hand, you never want to make any choices that will compromise your artistic vision if you don’t have to. So the trick for a filmmaker, and I certainly believe it’s a producer’s job to help directors with this dilemma, is to make sure that if you’re making these changes, you’re not sacrificing the overall creative effect of the project.

Of course, the tricky part is that you don’t really know for sure, because once you make one decision, you’re never going to shoot the movie the other way. You’re only going to have the one way. So it’s always a best educated guess. You look at all the pros and cons of the original idea, you look at the pros and cons of the new idea, and hopefully you can make a decisions that you feel confident about and move forward.

Then you don’t look back. You put all your focus and positive energy on making the path you’ve chosen work as best you can.

What’s it like to have a script you love show up on your desk, especially for a competition like this?

It was a really exciting moment. I wasn’t expecting to get as excited about it as I did, and that certainly made it more fun for me to get more involved. I thought, “These two are really talented.” I felt like they should be rewarded for having a good creative concept, and you always want to help in those cases to bring something to fruition as best as possible.

I have my best ideas and give my best notes when I respond to something creatively and am excited by it, which is a little counter-intuitive because in some ways you think that something that’s really bad might need more notes and more help. However, I find it harder to give smart, helpful suggestions on a script or project that I don’t connect with or understand, whereas if it’s something that I already like a lot, if it works for me, if I see it, I find it’s easy to give specific, helpful suggestions on how to make it even better.

You have a strange credit early on in your career that some may not be familiar with. Can you explain what a DGA trainee is?

Absolutely. The DGA trainee program is to train you to be an assistant director, which of course is the person who runs around with a walkie talkie organizing everything, so it’s not necessarily a career path for either directing or producing. Assistant directing and production managing are really careers and job descriptions all unto themselves.

I loved the trainee program, and I loved assistant directing. I actually found that the skills I learned as a first assistant director were invaluable to being a creative producer, and I feel like I have an advantage over a lot of creative producers who didn’t come up on the set and didn’t learn a job description like assistant directing.

The First Assistant Director is really the general on the set. You’re in charge of every facet of what the director needs to make each shooting day happen. I was only First Assistant Director on two movies, and then after that I started producing, but the second movie I was the First AD on was Hook directed by Steven Spielberg, so you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the experience I got First ADing for Steven changed my life. It was such a huge advantage for me when I started moving into producing.

When you’re trying to solve problems on set, do you find yourself looking to specific examples from other productions you’ve been a part of, or is it more like tapping into a general subconscious of experience?

That’s a great question, and I find that specific examples are a wonderful way to make a point and to explain something in a clear way. I can’t remember any exact specific examples that I used with Tim and Chidi, but I’m sure I used some because it happens constantly. You’re in a situation and it reminds you of a situation you were in on a previous film. You think about how you solved that or how you didn’t, and it helps.

Even now I’m shooting a film, and everyday situations come up where I need the specific experience I went through on a previous film to help me figure out a good way to deal with the situation I’m faced with in that moment.

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