What is an “Executive Producer?”
"It isn't easy to claim the title 'artist' or 'executive producer.'"
I have always been amazed at how readily and easily some people will claim to be an artist. I have drawn all my life. I have a university degree in art. I’ve provided countless book and magazine illustrations. I have worked professionally in many different types of art, but only recently have I been able to tell someone that I’m an “artist” without feeling somehow untruthful. I feel much the same about adding the title Executive Producer to my business card.
In the film biz, terms mean something or mean something else or mean nothing. The word producer is just such a word. There are producers that actually know what they are doing and are really good at it. There is a common practice in the film industry that if you don’t know what else to call someone, just give them the label “producer.” According to some friends who have worked on features, too many “producers” sit around drinking beer when that money could have been used to pay or better feed their crew.
However, “executive producer” does have meaning. This person or persons embraces the idea from conception to sell-through on the film. They hire and fire everyone dealing with the project. In feature film or documentaries, they raise the money and run the crew. A thousand and one things can go wrong and someone has to be there to take the arrows or get the train back on the track. In television, this title is often reserved for head writers or what is called a “show runner.” Once they have been elevated to “show runner status” there is no other term like “supreme, exalted writer of writers.” A long running television series like “Law and Order” has a bunch of executive producers. That list of associate producers, producers, co-producers, co-executive producers and executive producers runs a good ways into each episode.
If you are like me, I always watch the “special features” portion of a DVD rental. The director looks like the big-man-on-campus. It seems that every kid who wants to go into the film industry wants to be a director. Everyone praises and talks about the “great” directors. This is mostly because there isn’t much behind-the-scenes action to put on film until the director gets on board. Say what you want but a director is just a hired-hand. There is often a love/hate relationship with the crew and the EP because this position is considered an authoritative, parental role. People tend to confuse the word “rebellious” with “creative.” They want freedom and they feel the “suits” are there to bridle them. Historically, folks were given the title “producer” and sent by the studio to supervisor how the money was being spent. That did not necessarily entail knowing anything about the storytelling process. It was a way of conforming the film making adventure into an assembly line for making widgets on time and under budget. In the early days, genius filmmakers such as Chaplin and Keaton scripted as they went based on humorous situations surrounding a simple plot. They shot as much footage as they wanted. It was nothing for Chaplin to burn through 100,000 feet of film to get a story just right. Today, if a movie has a big star attached, he or she can tell just about everyone what to do because it is believed that that person is the driving force for bringing in the viewers. Even the big star can fall if the EP says so.
In my case, I have the title because I’m willing to do what it takes to will this documentary into existence. I don’t have a big crew. It is just my daughter Allison and me. We know each other’s strengths and we know how to do what we do best. Others will be brought in for music and sound editing but that is later in the process. There is a temptation to let outside forces dictate the direction of the finished product. For example, someone suggested adding more emphasis to Louisiana’s vanishing wetlands as a connection to the story in order to improve my odds of receiving a grant. In truth, this subject is a very important but it has little to do with this story and my decision making process. As someone wise once said, “Keep the main thing, the main thing.”
As I go through a Blockbuster and look at all the titles, I have often asked myself, why did people commit their time, talent, money and heart to this subject? Making a film of any kind is really hard work. That was the question I had to ask myself. What did I want to spend every spare moment of my time to make a film about?
I first found out about the Louisiana connection to Tarzan about a decade ago. The hook was set in my mouth when I learned that possibly apes had been left behind after the film was completed. A film about this film didn’t really occur to me until Allison began work as a documentarian. While surfing the internet for information about Tarzan of the Apes, naturally, I ran into the wealth of information provided through the websites of Bill Hillman. As exciting as the monkey business may have been, it was not enough to merit the cost of making this documentary. It didn’t take much research for me to see that this was a project that I wanted to dedicate several years of my life doing and doing well.
One afternoon as Allison and I were driving back from a series of interviews, she asked me why I seemed to be “obsessed” with the Tarzan documentary. I told her the story from the Bible where a man was walking through a field and discovered a very valuable pearl. He could have looked to see if anyone was looking and just stolen it. However, as we know, taking something that doesn’t belong to you is wrong. Not matter how things appear in the short-run, wrong is wrong and never has a sustained positive outcome. Instead, the man sold everything he had and then purchased the entire property where the pearl was deposited. Owning the land, he also possessed everything in the land. This story is commonly referred to as the “Pearl of Great Price.” In order to ever succeed, one must find a “pearl” and be willing to give a lot to possess it. Of course, I don’t mean to give up things like your family. I don’t mind saying that in some ways, I am obsessed with this product. I am 57 years old, I have searched a long time for a story to tell and “Tarzan: Lord of the Louisiana Jungle” is that story. This means that my wife and I are willing to put our own money at risk. I can’t stand around waiting for someone else to catch the vision. I must do the research, find the interviewees, get permissions, schedule everything and be present for every step along the journey. I will stay with this project from concept to distribution and beyond. I will keep the main thing, the main thing.
"Traveling by air is easier than walking but just as tiresome."
Allison with brother Aaron
"A fringe-benefit of interviewing in California was to see our oldest son Aaron and his wife Christine.
He is a Cobra helicopter pilot in the Marines. He just returned from a deployment in the middle East."
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