Even amongst hardcore film fans Todd Lieberman isn’t a household name, but he probably should be. The Oscar nominated producer of The Fighter, his career started at Summit, where he was instrumental in getting Memento into production, as well as in the first film in the American Pie franchise. Since 2004 he’s been producing movies at Mandeville Films, alongside business partner David Hoberman; making movies as diverse as The Fighter, The Muppets and forthcoming zombie rom-com, Warm Bodies.
Right now Lieberman is in the UK, overseeing work on The Muppets… Again!, and a few days before the cameras rolled on Kermit and co, Lieberman took time out of his busy day to speak to us about his career, his eclectic taste in movies, and of course working with the Muppets (again).
We’ve broken the interview down into three parts, and will be running one a day until Friday. Today Lieberman discusses his career, the difficulties of getting a film off the ground, negative perceptions of producers, and the sting when a film doesn’t quite hit the mark.
HeyUGuys: How did you end up working as a producer?
Todd Lieberman: I take it back to when I was a kid. I think I said I’d been in theatre my whole life. Really young I think I knew that telling stories was something I just wanted to do. From a very young age I was acting and writing and directing theatre. Then I went to school, and college, and I studied psychology, but while I was there I did a bunch of theatre still, and the desire ever went away – to tell stories; even though my family would have been really happy if went off to law school and medical school, but I had no desire to do that.
I moved out to LA right after college, did a very brief four months as an actor – and realised pretty quickly that I was terrible at it; even though the minimal success that I had gotten – I booked some small roles and recurring roles on a television show – but I saw myself perform, and it was really grating to see myself on television, because I was terrible at it, and I didn’t have the passion. We’re going back to what I said before you need passion to be able to move forward. I just didn’t love t enough, I was skipping auditions. Then I got a job in publicity, for a company that does foreign publicity for soap operas. I didn’t know anything abut soap operas, I’d never watched a soap opera, it wasn’t my thing, but what it did teach me was [there were] all these international territories, and what the desires were of each of these countries.
So then from there I went to Summit, and started out as an assistant there, and really quickly realised that that is exactly what I wanted to do. There is where I started reading screenplays. When I started reading screenplays, that was a form of storytelling that – I’d always loved movies, but I’d never really read screenplays, and it was so interesting that you could take something – when you read a book, you can’t change the book, it’s published. But there’s a screenplay, and you sit with the writer, the guy or girl who wrote that story, and you can affect it, you can mould it. I just love that.
I started, with the Summit folks, bringing in and acquiring projects for them to sell. There were some really amazing movies coming through the doors back then, we had Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, we had Memento, we had American Pie, we had some other movies that weren’t as high profile as those. What I realised after that was, it’s amazing to be able to see these projects, but there’s a frustration level of not actually making them. Either they were finished films, or if they weren’t finished films, if they were screenplays, they’d be handed off to a producer to go make, and I wanted to do that. Several producers contacted me after the American Pie deal, which was a high profile deal; David Hoberman, my current partner was one of those people, and basically said, essentially, “the movies you’re finding over there as acquisitions, wouldn’t you like to make them?” and I said, “that’s exactly what I want to do”. So, I would always describe my tastes as ‘from Memento to American Pie, and everything in between’, and the goal was always – as a producer, to have that kind of range of movies that I’d made.
It was really working with David, who’d had a long career already – he’d been an agent at ICM, he’d worked at Disney, he’d run the studio, and now he was a producer, and he had just broken up with another business partner, and he and I got together, and partnered up, and established what is now this company. So I guess it’s a long way of saying, I got to producing circuitously, but it is – I think – what I was always meant to do, because my skill set doesn’t lie in anything other than being able to recognise other people’s talent, because I don’t have it of my own. I’m not an actor, I’m not a good writer, I don’t have the patience to direct, but I think I’m a good judge of talent, and I think I’m a good judge of ideas that will translate to wide audiences.
HUG: You talk about influencing writers. You’ve said you’re not a good writer…
TL: Trust me. I could write maybe a wedding speech, or a eulogy, not a screenplay.
HUG: There is a tendency amongst film fans and writers to demonise producers, particularly for the interference – not just producers but studios and execs as well. Is that not grating and annoying?
TL: I think, by nature, and also the training that I’ve had – both David and I, I just don’t think we’re intrusive people. The way that I view my job is as a support system to whatever the vision of the movie is, and it’s generally supporting the director in what he or she needs, so I see myself as a helper, a facilitator. There isn’t going to be much of a time where I’m interfering or getting in the way of the vision, I’m there to support the vision. If we get to the place where we’re making the movie, I haven’t done my job properly if I haven’t fully vetted what that vision is, and made sure it’s in alignment with my own. Hopefully the director’s vision and my vision is aligned, therefore it’s easy to support. It’s been vetted.
Someone asked me a couple of months ago, in a situation much like this, it wasn’t “how did you get into the business?”, it was “why do you do what you do?” My first answer was that I love movies, I’ve always loved movies. “But why do you love movies? Lots of people love movies, what drove you to want to be in the movie business?” and I thought about it, and I said, “Well, I guess it really boils down to one thing: I want to make people feel something. More specifically, I want to make them laugh, and I want to make them cry, and I want to make them o those two things together. That’s my goal, to be able to make people feel something”. That goes hand-in-hand with being a facilitator, you want the visions to be aligned, and if the visions align with the director, it should be – no situation of making a movie is simple, but if I’m there interfering all the time, I didn’t hire the right director.
HUG: It’s got to be a kick in the teeth when it goes wrong. Something like the Muppets hit the mark, but you’ve had films like Beverly Hills Chihuahua that wasn’t as well received by critics, and didn’t do as well box office wise. It’s still the same amount of effort, still the same amount of work, so how do you take that when it happens?
TL: That’s an interesting example because, in a way it did accomplish what we wanted it to accomplish. Maybe not for everybody, but there are people that I talk to that love that movie in the same way that people I talk to love the Muppets. And frankly, actually it did fairly decent at the box office. So much so that they keep making more of them for DVD.
A better example of a movie we worked on that didn’t exactly hit the mark is a movie called Surrogates, which was an unbelievable concept – it was a graphic novel that a friend of mine had bought, it was an incredible idea, and we were a little bit hamstrung by the writer’s strike. The writer’s strike hit, we had a first draft, and we couldn’t really work on the script. The movie went into production, and it just wasn’t what we hoped it was going to be. So yeah, movies like that, when they don’t live up to the potential you think they could live up to, it hurts a little bit, but what it does for me is it makes my resolve stronger to make another one in that same world that really works. So I’ve been – frankly – searching for, and now we’re in development on a few sci-fi things because I want to hit that genre right.
HUG: One of the things that I did want to bring up, because of your background in financing, is: how hard is it to get something off the ground.
TL: Disney’s one of the studios that does fully finance, because they don’t like laying off – they don’t like splitting any of the rights, because they [like to] control the different foreign territories. But getting something off the ground, it’s not easy. The same thing I say to students when they come through my door saying, “what does it take to become an actor/writer/producer/director” it’s really just passion. What I’ve learned about myself, and this may be different for other people, I can’t pretend. I’m a terrible salesperson when I don’t love something, but if I love something, then it’s not work to fight for it, because it’s in me. There’s a passion for that.
What it takes to get something made is a whole lot of fight, and a whole lot of passion, and that’s really it. I firmly believe that, going into a project that I love, I know that I’ll get that movie made. I don’t know how, or when or why, but I know I’ll get it made. Because if I love it that much, I’m not going to stop until it does. I like to only work on things I love, for that exact reason. We have a book that we’re very close to losing the rights on, that’s very, very complicated to get made, but it’s amazing. It’s an unbelievable book, and it’s one of those books that has a message that I desperately want to get into the world – going back to my whole Karma idea – and it’s tricky, it’s going to be very tricky to get this movie made, but it’s one that I have to do, and I’m absolutely passionate about it. And I know in my heart that we will get that movie made, don’t know exactly how, but we’ll get it made.
HUG: You talk about the message there, and that again gets back to the producing thing, because all too often Hollywood product doesn’t have anything to say, so I take it it’s important for you that your films do.
TL: It’s not important to be preachy. I like to put good things into the world, that’s just me personally. I have two boys, two children. One’s almost eight, one’s almost four. You wouldn’t find our company, or me particularly, being involved in something that devalued human life really, that was like a slasher movie, or that took life for granted. There has to be some kind of an uplift somehow, or a triumph. It goes back to the fact that I want to make people feel something, I want to make people feel good, I want to make them feel good about their lives, I want to inspire, I want to make them laugh. It’s all those things. It doesn’t necessarily have to have a message, but if it’s not a fun experience going to a film I’m involved in, it’s going to hopefully be a reflective one, and an uplifting one.
Check back tomorrow for part two, where we discuss all things Muppets