Over the last few years, I’ve been able to interview producer Joel Silver a number of times. As the producer of almost 100 movies including The Matrix, Predator, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Sherlock Holmes, Speed Racer (one of my favorite films of 2008), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, V for Vendetta, and so many other awesome films, it’s always great to talk with him.
The reason I got to sit down with him this time was for his new movie Unknown. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan), the film stars Liam Neeson, January Jones, Diane Kruger, Bruno Ganz, Aidan Quinn and Frank Langella and it’s about a man who awakens from a coma (Neeson) only to discover that someone has taken on his identity and that no one believes him. With the help of a young woman (Kruger), he sets out to prove who he is. You can watch some clips here.
During our extended interview, we talked about why he always shoots in Berlin, how was making Unknown compared to other projects, and the casting of Liam Neeson. In addition, we talked about how he makes movies and the state of the industry. Some of the subjects he covered was how much time he spends on set, how many scripts he reads, are home video sales really as bad as everyone says, his thoughts on VOD, is foreign box office an even bigger part of getting a film made nowadays, his thoughts on 3D, and how hard is it to get a big tent pole movie made nowadays. Finally, for fans of Logan’s Run, I got an update on that. Hit the jump to either read or listen to the interview:
As you probably saw last week, Nicolas Winding Refn is set to direct the Logan’s Run remake with Ryan Gosling as his lead. What was not reported was that they’re talking about filming in 3D.
When my conversation with Silver turned to his thoughts on 3D he told me, “we are talking about making Logan’s Run now and if we make it in 3D in a totally incredible world that we create from scratch, and it’s designed to be shot, filmed in stereo, and made in 3D, then I would like to see that and make it great if that is the plan.”
While Hollywood often does remakes that feel like a waste of time, I’m completely sold on a Logan’s Run remake with the talent involved. I’d also be down with 3D if they’re shooting with 3D cameras.
If you’d like to listen to the interview (which I always recommend), click here for the audio. Otherwise, the complete transcript is below. If you’re curious about making movies or just what’s up in Hollywood right now, I really think you’ll enjoy this interview.
Finally, a huge thank you to Joel Silver for sitting down with me and for giving me a lot more time than I expected.
Joel Silver: You know what? I’m a guy that wants the movie to work. So whatever it takes or whatever you got to do – I’m happy to do. Press conferences are good. I have my own philosophy about press conferences. I usually think that when they don’t like the movie, they ask about other things. You know, “So, what restaurants do you go to when you’re here?” But they seem to like the movie and they seem to be asking a lot of questions about the movie, which made me feel good because I think the movie is good.
You guys filmed this movie in Berlin. You have done many films in Berlin. Is it because of the tax advantages? Do you have some sort of relationship there? What is the secret of you always being in Berlin?
Silver: All of the above. It’s financially advantageous to make a picture in Berlin, Germany. They have a very effective rebate system. There’s a lot of EU things, but Berlin is very good. We have a relationship with Babelsberg. They are actually a financier and a partner in Dark Castle. So they are in our lives. That was recent. Not to mean back with V for Vendetta or Speed Racer, but in the last year or so they have been a part of Dark Castle. I really like working there. I like the people, the process, the facility, and the city. It’s so hard and impossible to shoot in L.A. The costs are astronomical. You can do things in Berlin and people are happy to see us and have us there. It’s a good place to work.
The shoot was 40 something days. How often were you on set and what is your typical average for being on set?
Silver: It depends on where the movie is. I was only there a couple of times. I was there for the start of the movie and I came in the middle for a couple of days. I mean, we are in touch all the time. I’m seeing dailies and I’m talking every day about what is going on there. I know what is happening with the picture. It depends on where the movie is being shot. I was in England a few times with Sherlock Holmes. It’s hard to go back and forth. I’m trying to run a company and it’s hard to go back and forth and be there all the time, but we do cover it. If a movie is being shot in L.A. or here, I may be a little bit more present because I can be there. If it’s a trip to go somewhere – I’ll go for a few days at a time and see what is going on. You know, because of the way the internet works I can see scenes, things, and we can see previz of fight scenes. I can see stuff to collaborate on and know what is going on. It makes it so that I am available to do all of that. So it’s ok, but I’m not there taking the crew call. In my past I would that. I would get there at 5 in the morning and be there until wrap, but that was then.
How was getting this project made compared to other projects? Was it smooth sailing?
Silver: The weather was really rough. It was really, really cold. You think, “Oh, yeah? So what?” I, personally, always prefer cold rather than hot because you can always make yourself warmer, but when it’s hot you can’t really make yourself cooler. But it’s still in real cold temperatures. What it was is that it was the coldest winter in 20 years, and a lot of the movie was outside. We had issues where we were trying to make this movie in the late summer or early fall, and then Liam said, “Look, I have an option to do this movie, The A-Team. and they want me to go then. Will you wait for me?” We said, “Ok.” and we talked about it. We knew it was going to be cold, but I think it works for the movie. It really gives the movie this kind of grayness. This kind of atmospheric quality that I think helps the story, but that was an issue. Being cold and it being difficult was an issue. But the actors are professionals and they are hard workers. There are a lot of times where actors can be a little precious sometimes, and then it’s difficult to put them in a situation where there is true hardship. When you are in that kind of cold you are in true hardship. They take your coat off and they say. “Ok. Do it.” but it’s still not comfortable.
I’m a huge fan of Liam becoming this action star. As he mentioned downstairs, it’s very funny that is happened when he is in his late 50s. Was this a project that really started gaining steam once Liam became this action star? Can you talk about when he came into the project?
Silver: He’s really kind of…that’s kind of not fair. You look at Batman Begins and he was fantastic in that movie. He was not the star of the movie, but he trains Bruce Wayne and then he fights him in the end. He had a lot of action elements. After Taken came out, and after Taken worked as well as it did, we were sitting around and we said, “Why not Liam in Unknown?” We were looking into how to make the picture and we were planning on making the movie, but it wasn’t until we hit on him that it really became clear what kind of movie we wanted to make.
I’m curious about the script for the film. How many scripts do you typically read? Are you still a huge script reader?
Silver: Not so much.
Does it sort of bubble up?
Silver: Yeah, it comes through the system. I like to at least hear the stories and what the scripts are about. When they become real I read them. When they become “We want to make this movie” then I’ll read it, and I’ll do my input, and everything. It’s a big group and a big operation now. There is a lot of people that work for us and we see a lot of material. Leonard Goldberg is an old friend of mine and he was very influential in my career. When I made Predator and Die Hard he was the head of the studio at that time at Fox. So he was the one who greenlit Die Hard and greenlit, at that time, a very controversial deal for Bruce Willis. He’s been a friend of mine for many years. He brought us the book, and we liked the book. When Dark Castle was just beginning we were looking for where we were going to go and he brought the book and we thought, “This could be good.” So we developed a script with him. Then Jaume Collet-Serra got interested, and I really love Jaurne – this is our third picture with him. When he said, “I kind of like this” then it became that we started talking about it. He said what he would do and how we would make it better. Then, we brought Liam in. It just kind of all evolved like that. Then, we reached a point where we kept refining it. I look at the finished movie and I’m really proud of it. It really is tight I think. I think if you watch the movie, see the ending, and then go back, everything works. Everything is legit and all of the pieces do fit together.
There has been a lot of talk about DVD and Blu-ray sales not being as good as it was many years ago and how it has been changing. How has that affected the movies being made for you as a producer? Are the sales really as down as everyone says?
Silver: Yes. There are a lot of excuses of why it happened. The fact is that there was a very strong rental business in America. A very strong rental business with all of those stores like Blockbuster. They were big rental businesses. The DVD kind of converted all of that business into a sell through business where they were purchasing, which cost more than renting. When the economic downturn occurred that business collapsed. So you’re seeing now with Netflix and all of these other organizations the rental business coming back with people renting digitally or renting for a…there is more rental activity, but it’s not what is used to be. It’s all a declining depressed business, but the Blu-ray had a very good year. Christmas was very good for Blu-ray. So there is hope for Blu-ray.
I’m curious about your thoughts on VOD. Do you think we will ever reach the point where studios will release films theatrically and VOD at the same time? Or do you think there will always be that theatrical window, whether it be 60 days or 120 days?
Silver: That is a note worthy discussion. I mean, people are talking about that a lot now. I don’t know. We are not there yet. I look at my…when I get a statement of a movie that I have in profits and I see the statement of where the money comes from. The money coming in from digital is this much. I mean, it’s not…the money coming in from theatrical is this much, from television it’s this much, and home video is this much Then, digital is this much. We have to assume that it will eventually become not the tail but the dog. Eventually, digital will be a big thing someday. It’s not there yet. You have theater owners who are not going to be happy if you are going to release movies at the same time they are released in theaters, and that is going to be an issue too. I think it is a time of change. We are all watching change, and we are seeing it.
I have to ask, have you ever downloaded a movie through VOD or watched something on Hulu? Or do you still only want to see movies in theaters?
Silver: Oh, no. I have an iPad. I love my iPad. I’ll see television shows that I have missed and I’ll download them through iTunes. If there is an older movie that I want to watch right away, I can download that movie and watch it. I watch things on Hulu. I use all of that stuff. I prefer whenever I’m trying to see a movie and I’m looking at my office to see the movie they’ll say, “Well, we can get you the DVD.” I’ll say, “I would like the print. I would like to see the print or digitally watch it in a digital format.” You know, I rather would prefer to see the movie theatrically, which I have the ability to do. I prefer to do that than watch a DVD, but I watch the screeners when I get the DVDs at Christmas time and I see them like that
Everyone I have spoken to say that foreign box office is now a huge dominator for making a picture move forward. Was that a huge factor in Unknown and how is foreign box office dictating maybe what future Dark Castle stuff is happening?
Silver: For years a lot of our movies have done twice the gross internationally than domestically. I mean, that is just true. For years it has been like that with films like The Matrix movies and lot of pictures like Sherlock Holmes. A lot of these movies have done huge foreign. Sometimes twice of what domestic is, and that has just been good. It’s just a bigger market. Domestic drives it, though. Rarely do you have a movie that doesn’t work at all domestically. I’m sure there are exceptions where it is then a huge success internationally. Usually, it is driven domestically and then it kind of crosses over into foreign. Look, I think we think about it. I mean, yes, we thought that Unknown would have a big foreign appeal because it’s filmed in Europe and has a lot of European stars in it. But I think that’s not…the script took place there. The script, I think, took place in Paris. We put it in Berlin, but if it had taken place someplace else we would have maybe shot it there. It worked to shoot it in Europe because it was a European story.
It looks like more and more films are shooting in 3D. It looks like theater owners are embracing, but there is a debate on the consumer end. What is going on with you and 3D? Do you think 3D is a fad or do you think it is really going to be here to stay?
Silver: I think both. I think it is a fad, but it is here to stay. I saw Sanctum last night and it was effective. It was an effective movie in 3D because it was shot in 3D. It was designed in 3D. Movies that tend to be converted or tend to be 3D in a late decision are not effective. The most effective 3D movies I have ever seen are the animated movies because they are designed. Well, Avatar is very good too. Out of these animated movies like Tangled, these movies are great in 3D. To watch a movie in 3D when it’s not really planned in 3D is disturbing sometimes. There were parts of Clash of the Titans that confused me. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be seeing, you know? I think if you are shooting in stereo, and you’re shooting in the 3D format, and you’re intending to go with a 3D movie – I think that’s great. If the story will function in that…we are talking about making Logan’s Run now and if we make it in 3D in a totally incredible world that we create from scratch, and it’s designed to be shot, filmed in stereo, and made in 3D, then I would like to see that and make it great if that is the plan. There was some discussion about Sherlock Holmes 2. “Maybe we should make it in 3D!”, which was silly I thought. The studio said, “Analyze it! Do it in 3D!” Well, yeah, to charge more for tickets. I understand what they are saying, but it didn’t make sense. It was the wrong kind of movie for it. It’s not in 3D. It was a few days conversations, and then it went away. I think if it’s a viable piece of material that can really thrive in that format then I think it should be done, but if it isn’t, then there isn’t a need to force it into it.
There’s been a lot of talk about how the mid range $70 to $100 million dollar movies are sort of going away.
Silver: That’s not really mid range. I would say that $40 to $60 million is more of a mid range movie.
Sure. I’ve been noticing budgets and a lot of movies moving forward are $30 or $35 million and then there is the mega budget tentpole. Have you found that out on your movies or have you heard about this?
Silver: It’s all over the place. There is no real kind of specific genre of cost of movies. I mean, the first Sherlock Holmes was $86 million. That’s what it cost, which was not hugely expensive, but more than this movie that was $32 million. It depends on the movie that is being made. I think that tentpole types of movies are costly. To do that kind of big, visual effects, CGI, green screen activity tends to be costly. Yes, a movie like The Hangover cost $35 million and it was very successful. So it depends on the kind of movie. I think we are at a time now with Paranormal Activity at $3 million and you have Transformers 3 costing who knows. You have all of these movies existing in the marketplace at the same time and they can all be hugely successful movies.
When you have something like Logan’s Run, which is going to be world creation and really big. Is it harder to get a studio behind those big tentpole movies and do you have to show more? A lot of people tell me about how they do the previz and they show a reel and what they are thinking about doing. Has it always been that way or has it been changing over the last 10-20 years?
Silver: If you are always doing something big and…we did The Matrix in 1999 and we had to show them what it looked like. That was 12 years ago. If you are doing something new that has never been seen before – people want to see what that is. I had to do previz on Swordfish. If it is a big movie, you have to do previz. Not that you have to, but people want to see what it’s going to look like, and we all want to see what it’s going to look like. It is a time when people are…when you are creating big movies and big worlds, it’s a time when people like to see what they are going to look like and it’s important to have that presentation for the studio.