Bonnie: 0:00 - I was really on that beach. There are so many stories about those days because it was a sequence that we shot over a period of a couple of weeks. And the line I love to say is, “So you go into the office on a Monday, and the note on your desk is recreate the D-day invasion.”
Mike: 0:23 - Hello and welcome to Red Carpet Rookies. My name is Mike Battle, a film production Jr. working for Studios in London. Each episode I bring you advice and stories from film, TV and content professionals to help demystify and democratize the industries for juniors and fans alike. Thanks for joining me. Let’s get started.
Today’s guest is PGA award winner and general producing powerhouse, Bonnie Curtis. After grafting in junior roles, Bonnie was soon noticed by a certain Steven Spielberg, to whom she became the assistant working together on Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, and many more. As a relationship developed, Bonnie rose up the ranks to become [a] Stevens producer, collaborating on “Saving Private Ryan” and “Minority Report” to name just a few. Following her studio successes, Bonnie made the decision to change path and pursue independent film, working with the wonderful Julie Lynn, Mockingbird pictures on titles such as Netflix is “To The Bone.” I have no idea how we’re going to fit all that into 40 minutes. And I don’t know if we’re gonna make it. But welcome, Bonnie, it’s amazing to have you.
Bonnie: 1:26 - Hi, Mike. Thank you for having me.
Mike: 1:29 - So, to start us off, I always love to ask my guests what did your parents do? And did this affect your decision for your career later on in life?
Bonnie: 1:37 - My father... Well, I grew up in Dallas, Texas. My father was an accountant, a certified public accountant. He worked for several different companies during my time at home. The main job being at a company called “Mark” which was a marketing research firm, and he was the financial Vice President. So, he was a very conservative, logical, sweet, dear man, and still living who was using the adding machine in the calculator a lot because... And he would do the books at church. And he was the accountant. My mom was a homemaker and blissful about it. So, she was a super mom, the mom that was making dinner every night, handling all the laundry, the ironing. We were expected to [get] good grades and keep our room clean. That was it. It took me a while in my adult life to realize I needed to do a little bit more than that. But wait, what was the second part of the question? You said...
Mike: 2:52 - Did that affect your choices, your career? Well, they may be artistic in their spare time or something?
Bonnie: 2:56 - Well, the way they affected the choice in my career is they basically said, we will support anything you want to do. They were incredibly great, both my brother and me. Because my brother is very successful in the advertising business. We knew that whatever we were passionate about, mom and dad were going to support that effort. And I knew from the time I was 10 years old that I wanted to work in film. Mom and dad, just... That’s what we talked about. Are you going to move to New York? Are you going to move to Los Angeles? Where are you going to go? What are you going to do? Okay, well, let me introduce you to this guy. And my dad tried to help me get summer jobs in Dallas that were associated with entertainment and film. He would pick up the phone and call people he knew that worked at a production company or at a studio.
There was a studio called Las Colinas Studios in Dallas, where they filmed “Kiss Of The Spider Woman” and “Trip to Bountiful.” And he at that stage, he called and hooked me up with a guy down there. And there was a moment where Dallas, Texas was going to be the third coast. It actually ended up being Austin, but that got my parents excited like maybe she won’t leave home. Maybe there’ll be a film career here. But there was never another career path even entertained or contemplated for me. It was always going to be a film.
Mike: 4:34 - So, you’ve packed your bags, you’ve got your suitcase, and you’re off to Lala land. How did you get your first job off the ground?
Bonnie: 4:39 - I slept on my brother’s couch. He was going to... My brother got a business degree. He followed my father’s footsteps. But my brother is an incredibly talented artist, and he [was] just born with it. And he wanted to get on the creative side of advertising. He was doing account work, and he hated it. So, he wanted to go back to art school to get a portfolio. And my dad said I’ll do that for you. I’ll pay for any schooling you and Bonnie ever want to do, I’ll pay for it, which I’ve been reminding myself of that during this pandemic. Maybe, I should just go back to school maybe, dad will pay for it. But my brother was at an art center in Pasadena which is a very respected art school. So, he was living out here, which made coming to LA the obvious path [for me], go out, share an apartment with my brother, try to get myself that first job.
I started making phone calls. I knew one person, my dear friend from Dallas, Jeff Nip. And he knew... He was working as an office manager to Imagine Entertainment, Ron Howard’s Company. And Jeff knew a woman that worked in product placement at Disney. He knew a woman who had worked on and off at a company called Amblin Entertainment. And I was a huge fan of Jane Fonda. And I don’t think Jane Fonda ever had a company of a bunch of employees, but she definitely pursued projects as a producer. And she had Fanda films, and I had their phone number. And I wrote a letter and I called. I never got any response back. There was... I just don’t think it was an organized effort. I think it was just a label. And I wrote a letter to human resources, I sent my resume to Amblin. I got a lovely rejection letter. This was 1988.
And then, I went to my friend, Jeff. He got me an interview with this woman at Disney. And I went and met her. And I did an interesting thing. The interesting thing for me is... This is who I am, I think the information was probably available to me if I had known where to get it. I didn’t really know what making movies were. I had... I knew I wanted to be involved in it. And I had snuck on a couple of sets in Dallas. I had watched the Academy Awards that was my Super Bowl every year. When I realized that there were actually a jobs associated with movies, oh, people do this for a job? Because we’re going for entertainment. I hadn’t... Once I connected the dots, I was like, well, that’s what I want to do. So, I came out here, and I sort of went on an informational journey.
And I realized there were a lot of different paths, and a lot of different departments on every movie. And what did I want to be, in wardrobe or sound or props or art department or camera or the ADE. ADE thing was attractive to me because of the organizing and planning. But I ended up with this one connection I have in the product placement department, and I start telling her, knowing me, probably very similar to what I’m saying to you, I have no idea what I want to do. I just want to be around it. So, I’ll figure out what I want to do. But I do know that I’ll do anything. I’ll get people’s lunches. I’ll sweep the floors. You didn’t have to pay me. And I had parents that were telling me to say those words in an interview. Like, you don’t have to pay me because they knew who I was. So, she said, Bonnie, it sounds to me like you want to be involved. You want to be involved in physically making these movies that sound like where you want to go. Let me walk you across the street to these ladies that work in physical production. So I went across the street, and I met Sharon Dean and Susie Fellows who I know to this day.
And two weeks later, I pursued it daily by fax and phone. Two weeks later Sharon called me to come in and answer their phones on the front desk that was just a reception gig for two weeks. When I was doing that... I’m from Dallas, I don’t even know my way around LA, it probably takes me 6 hours to do something that it would take a local 1 hour to do. And I remember spending a lot of time at the coffee machine, and a lot of time in the kitchen, organizing the grocery run and getting people’s lunches, and distributing call sheets. Because we didn’t have email, distributing call sheets, distributing production reports, distributing information around a lot. I was really learning people’s names, learning a lot, looking at the papers, I was distributing. What the heck does this need? And being on a movie lot, within 2 weeks, I got a phone call from a production executive who works in the next trailer, a man named Sam Mercer who went on to have an amazing career. And Sam had a woman working for him. Lisa [Unclear 10:08] ball. And Lisa gave me my first job in the business. My first full-time gig was as their staff assistant. I’m convinced because we discovered we’re both Cincinnati Reds fans. Baseball for you, Brit!
Mike: 10:21 - Haha thank you.
Bonnie: 10:23 - And I worked for them for a year and a half. And that was the first job. And it was all about... A script would come into the studio to the creative division at the studio, and they would send it over to our department to say, tell us what the budget is? What would we need to spend to make this movie? We would break down the schedule. And we would budget the film and send [it] back to them. Okay, well, we can afford to do that. Let’s do that. Oh, no, this one’s too expensive. And then, when they decide to make a movie, they would access us to [know] who they want to hire as their department heads. One of the first projects I had that was solely mine. My boss just handed it to me. [It] was a movie “Dead Poets Society” with Robin Williams.
Mike: 11:09 - I think a few people have heard of that.
Bonnie: 11:10 - Yeah. And Robin is the third line through my entire career. But Peter [unclear 11:17] directed it. And he and his editorial staff, they want the studio to come to Los Angeles to cut the movie, and none of them had visas. And Sam came up to me and he was like, we have to get these people visas in two weeks. And I had traveled a lot. I had backpacked through Europe. I had been to 16 countries, and 68 cities and crossed the Hungarian border without a visa. But I found a very helpful cab driver who took me to the embassy, and we got it handled. But traveling didn’t make me nervous. And I just got in my car and drove down to the Australian embassy. I found a woman who helped me to make it all happen. And within a matter of days, we had them on a plane on their way over. And I think about that instance quite a bit. And I tell young people that story quite a bit because it just... Going in person is even, in the age of the internet, getting in your car and going in person can get it done. Even more so, by the way.
Mike: 12:29 - So, you started doing your hard craft, you’re doing your lunches, doing your coffees, and you’ve had, incidentally, got a rejection from Amblin. How is it that you come through the door to Steven? I believe it was through a connection on arachnophobia with Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy.
Bonnie: 12:44 - Well, no. It was during that time [when] Frank Marshall and Kathy Kennedy were inching out of Amblin because Frank wanted to direct. And Kathy wanted to support her husband, and who was Frank and is Frank. I think, it’s just that they’ve been doing a 24/7 gig because... I mean, Steven is an industry unto himself, an incredible human being. I adore him. But I mean, it’s a full-time gig that he does effortlessly. But you’re trying to keep up.
Mike: 13:22 - Yeah.
Bonnie: 13:23 - But I was working at Amblin. I mean, Oh, there’s the Freudian slip, I was working in Disney. They had formed a new division called Hollywood pictures. My boss, Sam Mercer was promoted to run production at Hollywood pictures. It was a big deal and an exciting moment. And Lisa, the coordinator that hired me worked for Sam. We were a team of three. Lisa had gotten a job at Showtime. So, she had left. So, Sam promoted me to work with him at Hollywood pictures. [It was] really exciting moment. Now, Disney [notoriously] does not pay well. So, it was 5 cent raise for me. But I loved Sam. And I was going to be given a lot more responsibility. And I was really excited about it. So, I don’t even think I had been doing the new job for 2 months. When I get this phone call from... No, that’s not true. I’ve been doing the job for about 6 months. And I [was] sitting next to a woman named Kathleen Miranda who was helping in post-production for Hollywood pictures, but we were a new division. So, we’re all [cramming] side by side in the trailer. And we’ve gotten close. We’d gotten to know each other. And she had worked on and off at Amblin for many years, for Steven, never in the hot seat as we call it but as the second assistant.
So, she called me one day. They’d moved to another building. But she called me and said, Steven Spielberg has called me and he’s looking for a new assistant, and I wondered if you might be interested in the job. And I said, Kathlin, I can’t. Sam just promoted me a few months ago, I can’t leave him. That’s just not right. And she said, okay. I think that’s great and hangs up. So, the guy I’m working with comes walking, he’s out in the hallway, he’s heard the conversation. He came in, and he said, Who? What was that about? Well, Steven Spielberg’s looking for a new assistant. And you said, No? And I’m like, well, Sam. And he’s like, Bonnie, no one is going to begrudge you that opportunity. It just fell in your lap. You have to listen to that. I know you well enough to know you believe in that kind of stuff. And I’m like, I mean, by the way, what a good friend. That was just a defining moment in my life. So I said, Okay. So, I called Kathleen back. And I said, Okay. Jim Lindley says name, Jim has me thinking, I should be open to this opportunity. Because... Thank you, by the way, for thinking of me. And I would love to meet him. Great.
So, I went, and I meet Kathy Kennedy first. And I loved her immediately. I could just have hung out with her all day. Literally, I remember, even remember what she was wearing. And that’s rare for me. Some people remember that stuff I usually don’t. But I met her, and I had a great time. And they called me the next day and what they offered me the job. And I said, we’ll aren’t going to meet Stephen. And they said, Well, that’s not really how we do things around here. And I said, Well. I totally get it, by the way, great. This is Steven Spielberg. But I said, I can’t work for a man I haven’t met. By the way, he shouldn’t want to hire me. That’s just what if I remind him of some girl that broke his heart in high school? You know. I’m doomed, I walk through the door doomed. Or what if I don’t... And apparently, I did say this, that was a common phrase used in my [unclear 17:38] What if I don’t like the way he smells? Think about that. That would be a bad day at the office.
So they laughed, hung up, called me back half-hour later, and said, okay, you’re going to meet him on the arachnophobia set. This is where you’re connecting. And that’ll be next whatever day it was. So, I lied and said, I had a dentist appointment. And I went and met Steven. And he was lovely. And I’m not joking when I say, most of the interview, we talked about Kate Capshaw. Because he had divorced Amy. He and Kate were pregnant, going to have a baby soon. She had moved into his home, and I was such a huge Kate Capshaw fan. I just loved everything the woman had ever done, including some of her independent films. I could quote from them; this was real stuff. And I did it during the interview. I was like, so what’s Kate like? And do you know this and that? Then, he’s like, Oh, my gosh, you’re a huge fan. And I’m like, No, I really am. So, we get to the end of the interview. And I was not even sure to ask him one question about himself. And he just laughed. He told he told me several times that I hired you because of how much you loved Kate. It was one of the most wonderful [thing and it was just] great. Come on! Let’s do it. So, I started working for him 2 weeks later. My former boss at Disney called me Benedict Arnold to this day. But he didn’t begrudge me. He was very excited for me. And then, that started a 15-year journey.
Mike: 19:17 - This is a big question. But in 15 years, were there any key moments that Steven mentored you or lessons you took from him?
Bonnie: 19:23 - I know. I learned a lot of them in hindsight. Steven is not a mentor who is going to take an enormous amount of time to explain to you how to do something. And in fact, several times I asked him, his loving, dear response to me was you’ll figure it out. He never dictated. Well, you go up to the corner, you make a right and you... He was just like; you’ll figure it out. And I learned from watching him because he’s not only a phenomenal director, he’s also an incredibly talented producer and writer. I swear to God, you could lock the man in a soundstage by himself with the equipment, and he would come out with an incredible movie. He was just born to do it. And he is an incredible storyteller.
Bonnie: 20:23 - So, if I had to take... I think, probably there are things that come into my mind. When I ask this question, most of my really specific memories are things Kathy Kennedy taught me. Because Kathy would take the time to turn and give you the explanation of how to do it. And then, tell you to go make it your own. But Kathy had a lot of... She is just a good teacher. She’s just a teacher by nature. And she gave me incredibly great advice about Steven which was, don’t do what he says, do what he means. And I have taken that advice across the board in my career with directors. Because if I do what you say, I’m a robot. If I do what you mean, I’m producing for you. Because what I’m doing is I am interpreting “the why” behind what you told me to do. And many times, I don’t need to do what you said.
There’s something very different that needs to happen for you to get the result that you’re after. So it requires you to do some research and talk to different people, and have a brain about it, and not be robotic. What I learned from Steven over the years is you don’t shoot the whole movie on day 1, that can be a really looming and stressful thing during pre-production. And you realize, Oh, well, we just have to shoot it one day at a time. And I learned the value of pre-production with him. By the time I showed up, he was an expert. And you see, when we would read a script, and he would come into you. And he would say, Okay, I want to shoot this one on so on, so days, I want it to be in this budget. And he would walk out. And that’s what we would do. We would go back into that number; we would shoot it in that number of days. And that was the movie. Now, I didn’t know the brilliance of that when I was in the middle of it, and how difficult it is to actually do that unless you’re Steven Spielberg. But it made me a really great independent film producer. Because all he had to do it made me a good producer. Because all you got to do if you’re the studio, and we have this relationship now with sky dance, just give us the number, give us the number in the days, and we will tell you the movie you can have.
Now, what was brilliant about Steven is he was actually telling you the movie he wanted, he knew the size you wanted it to be. He knew the scenes where he needed scope, so good producer, so you would literally go off and budget and craft the movie he was seeing in his head. And he’s constantly editing the movie in his head, constantly. But sometimes with the studio, they’ll give you a number that doesn’t match the script of the movie they want and it’s our job to go back and said, Okay, this is the movie that’ll buy it. So there is an extra step when it’s not Steven Spielberg giving you the number and the amount of days. But I think that he, I cannot even begin to tell you how much that man taught me, generously taught me by just the intimacy of the 15-year experience and being and the complete, throw you in the deep end and say you’ll figure it out, mentorship. I was 24 years old when we went over to make Schindler’s list. He gave me way too much responsibility. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no clue. And literally the only thing I can give, the only way to give words to it is I saw things that were going to fall through and not be ready on the day unless I engaged in them and made sure they were and I had the warmth and camaraderie and personal relationship with him that I could run over to him like that and grab him and say, “da, da, da” and he’d be like, “da, da, da.” Run, run. You know that in and of itself is everything. So it and just that ability to communicate with them.
It was lovely to come up as his assistant to because I knew him. I worked for him for a year before we were on set together and I knew him. So when he turned and spoke, they used to tease me that I spoke Spielberg because he would give his direction and walk away and they’d be start doing things. And I’d be like, “Guys, that’s not what he wanted at all. What are you doing? Do this, this, this, this this.” So, it was I couldn’t even have learned everything. I learned everything from him and Kathy and Frank, everything.
Mike: 25:31 - That’s incredible. You mentioned Schindler’s list there on that I know, it was a project very close to Steven’s heart. And to my knowledge, he didn’t even take a salary on it, calling it blood money. Did you feel as someone who was really there, the weight of the story on history on the project, to some extent?
Bonnie: 25:50 - We definitely knew that we were doing something different that we hoped would be important. I never really thought beyond the ... It’s interesting, because I’m sort of coming to this conclusion, as I’m talking to you. I don’t recall thinking beyond him. I knew it was important for him. I knew the child that he’d had, I knew the struggles that he had, I knew his family, and his ex-wife and his wife and the kids. And I was so immersed in the evolution of their journey, because I was just close to it, that this was a really good thing we were doing, so it felt like the right place to be at the right time, giving our energy to the right thing, and we were all going to come out the other side of it really proud of ourselves. And that, honestly, I just didn’t think beyond that. And in his way, I don’t think he really did either, you know, he stuck with it being black and white.
He knew it was making this movie was a fear he needed to conquer. And he tried to divorce himself from his bag of tricks, cinematically, he got in there and got rid of the dolly track and literally just tried to channel something different. And it was great to watch and I got it, I loved going to set every day. I got excited to see what we were going to do. It was such an alternative experience. We were living in a world of black and white over there it was, and we were so far from Hollywood, and Kathy and Frank have left Amblin so he was leaning on me in a really, I was gonna say, dramatic, it didn’t feel dramatic. But I was the one there helping to make the movie and Jerry molan and Bracco Lusting incredibly experienced producers, who were so generous to me and loved that they had me there because I had the relationship with Steven that I did. So it all just, I felt very valuable. I felt very valuable in that process. And when it did what it did, I just will tell you what I always say, “The making of it was amazing.” I have never been the filmmaker who, I couldn’t even tell you what any of these what they grossed. Or you know how many people went or what the sale was, I my mind is so on how we got it made and what the experience was working with the people making it. That’s why I do it.
Mike: 28:44 - Speaking of the making of things to take a bit of a segue, another true story you worked on was Saving Private Ryan. And there are certain things I have to ask her and guests to come on. And I have to ask you, Bonnie Curtis, were you on that beach? And please tell us more if you were?
Bonnie: 29:00 - I was really on that beach. There’s so many stories about those days because it was a sequence that we shot over a period of a couple of weeks and again, I am who I am. What my brain does is it goes to how we planned it, the planning of it because that was the line I love to say is, “So you go into the office on a Monday and the note on your desk is recreate the D day invasion.” So, Ian Bryce, incredibly talented producer, who I also learned he was another incredibly generous mentor to me, he just let me follow him around that entire movie. I learned so much from Ian and we were trying to figure out how to do this.
When you’re working with Steven Spielberg, you’re always going to reach for the gold from the get go. Like, we are the people who asked if we could shoot in Normandy, like, that’s who we are, that’s just us, we want to be in the actual Supreme Court, we want to be in the actual Auschwitz Birkenau, we want to be where it happened. And I don’t think they laughed at me. But they definitely were like, it’s a national memorial, like, we’re not gonna let it film crew come here. So we started to scout. And in this there was this coastline in Ireland, that sort of a town called Wexford, that had a similar topography to the Normandy beach. And so we started to figure out, that was one accomplishment. And then, you start to look at films that have battle scenes that you respect and want to try to replicate. And the movie that had just come out was Braveheart. And there was a lot of bodies and a lot of chaos and capable chaos. It was a very well done battle. And we hired a gentleman named Kevin De La Noy who had put together that experience for filming. And one of the things that they had done was bringing the Irish army, a lot of trained soldiers who weren’t currently fighting, who could be the bodies on beach for you. And so we just all those things started to fall into place. And we have been trying to get Steven to storyboard the sequence for quite a while. And he was very frustrated about trying to do that. It’s D day where do you even begin?
There's there’s a fascinating thing that happens when you’re working with Steven, because it is my belief that none of what he’s doing is conscious. He’s not purposely not storyboarding, to get the result that we end up getting. I don’t think he’s logically thinking, “Hey, if I don’t storyboard, it’ll be such a chaotic disaster, that it’ll be great.” I don’t think that that’s what happens. I think he just organically is a genius. It’s like, it’s just the presence of genius constantly. It’s not pre thought. Logistically, strategized genius. It’s just genius. It’s just authentically, I don’t know. I’m not storyboarding, no, why? I don’t know. He’s just not. So we even had one of the military guys put some boards together. And Steven rejected them. He’s like, “I don’t know why I am.” So we all sort of show up the first day, and we’ve got the bodies, we’ve got the special effects, you know, stuff rigged, we’ve got a few cameramen, we’re just going to kind of see what happens.
Bonnie: 33:16 - And they’ve done some rehearsals and people have run up and stuff like that. But my memory is, and I think every human being you talk to will have a different version of what I’m about to tell you. But this is my memory. My memory is because it was a stretch. It was a high stress action packed series of days. And I think everybody had a different window into it. So the truth will lie somewhere in between, but I recall not getting one foot of usable film on day one. That’s my memory of it.
We all left incredibly frustrated. And Steven super frustrated, everybody, like it had just not been a good day. And I was walking him to the car. And he just was not, he was very upset. And I was trying to make him feel okay, and it’ll be better tomorrow. I don’t recall what made me think of it. But when he shut the door in the car, it hit me. He had been he did not want to organize this because it was supposed to be chaos. But we had to organize it. There was no giving him what he wanted if we didn’t organize it, and I think if I had been a better, more experienced producer, I would have figured this out ahead of time, but I wasted a day. He needed to still feel like it was chaos. We had to trick him. He needed to direct chaos we needed to plan. So I got Ian Bryce on the radio and I said, “Can we get all the department heads together I think I have an idea.” And he said, ‘Great!’ and so we all get together and I said, we need to give Steven a list of gags, this guy’s leg blows off this guy’s head this, we had like 17 or 21. I can’t remember the number was but Neil korbel are special effects guy had all these things. But he only had, he’d have it rigged for a specific thing. And we choose that and then he rigged this. I’m like, they all have to be rigged all the time. And they have to be rigged, like seven or eight deep. Like, it’s got to be like a video game. Like he just rigs them all, which was money. theirs, they call me Spendy Windy for a reason.
We had to throw money at it, we had to throw like $300,000 [unclear 35:51] like I need money, but bring it and so he received. I don’t remember the exact number. But like 17 gags six or seven deep. And then we made a laminate, I made a laminated list for Steven so that he could sit at the monitor and he could say give me a one, a six and a 10. And then we wouldn’t tell the cameraman where that was. Now I only come up with the video game idea. That’s all I offer, that everything else I’m about to tell you is other people start playing off of it. And they’re like, we won’t tell the cameraman because then their combat cameraman like, they don’t know where the gag is. And then what Steven did and I met Steven at the car the next morning and I said, “We’ve rigged these seven deep. You just say on each shot what you want.” And he literally, he grabbed ahold of me and was like, “Oh my God. Great idea.” So he goes to the monitor. And another Ian had brought in two more cameramen so with five cameras.
So you got five cameras, you’ve got all this stuff rigged. None of the cameraman know what’s going to happen on any shot because we’ve got this code list. And on each take and Steven’s got his bullhorn and he’s yelling out what he wants and it happens. And then Steven adds this element where he starts calling the cameramen after each take. He calls the cameramen over to the monitor to stand around him. They play back the takes and he votes on who won. Then they start to figure out what the numbers are like the fourth or fifth time when he yells out a three that’s where that guy and they start competing to get the shot. So they’re bumping into each other. These guys are falling over stuff splashing and [unclear 37:42] there. Janusz Kaminski, our DP is like seems like, “Oh no, we got blood on the lens. Oh, no, we got water.” “It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful. Keep it, keep it, keep it, we want that.” And he had his, the shake through on the camera. And so it was literally, we started to get great footage. And it’s, sometimes I just watched that sequence just to remember, I remember getting that shot or I remember getting that shot. And in the Michael Kahn, Give Me a Break, friggin genius. But it was and John Williams, but it was a true communal effort. And I wouldn’t have known I was a human being that knew that because of how well I knew him. Kathy probably would have figured it out, too. She’d been with him so close to him for so long. But we have to create, we have to plan but it has to feel like chaos to him. And then it just, it was fun, then it just got fun. And those cameramen were competing to win the shot with Steven. So that day ended much more constructively. And then we just continued to improve and improve and improve our process.
Mike: 39:04 - But also was everything and wanted done more to change gear a little bit. Obviously you were doing all these huge studio pictures with Steven and you decided to take a different route and you are going now towards more independent movies. One of the first ones of which I can see was called the Chums Scrubber. And I’m particularly interested in this because I’d love to know, why did you change your path and also, I noticed in the list of cast for the Chums Scrubber, who you now work with regularly as I believe something like student number one was none other than David Ellison?
Bonnie: 39:38 - I know in that funny, funny I thought you were gonna say Glenn Close but David, it’s interesting. It’s not so much that I changed my path is that I got back on my path. I had grown up, loving character driven, smaller art house moves. They were the movies that made me want to make movies. I was not your blockbuster, big tent pole studio girl, like I was not I saw everything I was such a film fan that I saw everything that was out. But I was down at the art house as much as I was at the bigger studio cinema, theater, and I am in... So what started to happen to me, it was two things, it was also the fact that I had started working at Amblin when I was 23.
So I’d grown up, and as much as you love these people that you’re working for and with, there’s a parent child dynamic, that just you’re, I’m just ready to leave the nest, it was sort of a, they’re never going to make smaller movies here. It’s not going to happen. And I want to go try to do this on my own and develop material that I want to make. And so I had to go talk to Steven about it, which was very difficult conversation. He was great. I actually went out to his house to have the conversation with him. And it helped the Kathy Kennedy had a very similar conversation with him a few years prior, he was like, “Oh, you like Kathy did?” And I’m like, “Yeah, it’s actually exactly like that.” So he could not have been more generous. Let me still keep an office there and literally prep my independent film in one of his buildings. And Steven doesn’t miss a beat. He knew everything that was going on, and he would just smile. And then he ended up being a hero for me at the end of the day, because I had a distribution deal that was about to fall through. And he got DreamWorks to write a half million-dollar check. So and the CFO was like, “What? We don’t even do movies like this,” what he’s like, “I want to do it for Bonnie, do it.”
So I mean, thanks, Dad. But I had gone around all the agencies because when you work with someone that somebody like Spielberg, you really don’t need to know all the agents in town. You don’t need to know the business because he’s Steven Spielberg. So you call actors directly, you call writers directly, you don’t .... The Rolodex is like, everybody in town wants his Rolodex. So it’s just, it’s just counterintuitive to a lot of the way the business normally works. And so I’ve decided, you know what, I’m gonna go around town and meet all the agents. So, I literally went to every agency and basically said to them what I had been saying for several years at Amblin, which was like, I need to meet a young Steven, I need to meet a filmmaker, writer, director, preferably because those are my favorite films down the line. They’re all they all come out of one mind and get material and so I just said, I don’t want to meet your young filmmakers. I want to find that first movie. And so I met I kept a chart and I think I met 65 filmmakers over a period of several months. And one of the young filmmakers I met what he had written co-written a script called the Chump scrubber, to the dark comedy, great opportunities for casting a loved the ending, and completely removed from anything I’ve been involved in for years and years out in the business so far. And so in line with movies that I would go see as a kid. So I went Ari Posen was the writer director’s name, and I went and met ran I saw short film too, which I loved, and it had that you just tell he knew how to tell story with a camera. And it also made me laugh. And I had a couple of clever beats, there was a wicked sense of humor in it. And so I met him.
And it just really liked him because he talked about movies, he was a cinephile and reminded me, Steven in that way. So, we went to putting the money together. And I had no idea what I was doing, because it is literally completely different from anything you do in studio filmmaking. The way the financing is built, you know, the way you get a foreign sales company on board and you back into these numbers, and you have to get actors that are of a certain value to meet your budget number bla-bla-bla-bla. And I just had no experience or relationships. I’d never been to a film festival. Steven never went to film festivals. So it was just this whole part of the business. It was completely fascinating and very foreign to me. And so we sort of stumbled into eventually getting that movie made and getting it out into theaters. But it’s like new market was starting to not be around anymore. DreamWorks had come in as investor but really didn’t release movies like that. And so I mean, it’s gotten quite a following since we made it and I loved the movie, and several people showed up, like Ralph Fiennes, Ralph showed up for me. He’s like, “I’ll come how many days do you need?” I think I can give you nine days. I’m like, “We will shoot it nine days.”
Mike: 45:14 - That makes sense. Because I was looking at the cast list going. This is a mad cast list for this movie. Is this what was happening?
Bonnie: 45:20 - Yeah. So I was just calling people ask them to come help me. Glenn Close. I didn’t know Glenn. She’d done a cameo and cook. So I had met her briefly one day, but she came because she just wants there was one part she read her agent had given her the script. God bless him, a good friend of mine, I loved him to death. And England loves to work with first time filmmakers like Glen loves. She’s from the theater. She’s loves the experience of all of it. So if she sees something in the part, a morsel in the part that she wants to play Sure, she’ll get on a plane and come to LA for four days and meet a bunch of artists and work with a first time filmmaker and see if she can play that moment. It’s a great week for her and so that was just the best when she came on board. I was just like, “You gotta be kidding me.” So and that I love Glenn’s one of my best friends. I adore her. And we’ve worked Julian, I’ve worked with her four or five times, but Albert Nobbs. The next movie we made where Julie and I partnered, Glen handed me that script on the Chump scrubber’s set. So just that organic thing that happens.
Mike: 46:28 - Before I finish with my little questionnaire, my quick-fire questionnaire, one more question I would love to ask is, given that you do have both sides of this brain, now you’ve done the big Brighton checks moment, and you’ve also gone through the independent world, what would be your advice to, I’m essentially you when you’re going into Amblin. So for people similar to me out there who listened to this, what’s your perspective on, advice, maybe either production focused, or also people who maybe want to be an assistant like you are?
Bonnie: 47:01 - I don’t think there’s, I think there’s 73,000 different paths you can take, when I first moved out here, I was trying to figure out what’s the way to do this. And by the eighth or ninth conversation I’d had, I very quickly assess that nobody had done it the same way. And there were many, many different paths. And if you know what your ultimate goal is, I didn’t know I wanted to be a producer, that I discovered that I was a producer, I found the first couple of sets I was on that what I really loved doing was making sure that everyone was communicating towards the same vision. And that the vision was out of the director’s brain, and everybody understood it. And so everybody was trying to achieve the same thing. And then helping them communicate so that you know the same thing is coming. It’s everything. And directors who learn how to concisely, finitely and consistently give you their vision. And they don’t waver. Those are your best movies. Because if they’re changing their mind every day, or can’t make up their mind, it’s just pardon my French a rat fuck. So you really, you’ve got to create that. And sometimes, even if you have a filmmaker that can’t make up his mind, you certainly have to come up with something decisive to give people so that you can make your shoot day and that you’ll eventually use what you shoot that day.
I mean, I think the advice I would give people is, don’t overthink it. Because I watch a lot of young people. Today, they come out here and they want to be a director or they want to be an actress, so they want to be a writer. And I think you have to figure out a way which is much more doable today than it was 30 years ago. You got to figure out a way to be engaging in that dream that you have, in some way, stretching your acting muscles, stretching your writing muscles, stretching your directing muscles, even if you’re going out and shooting something on an iPhone, or just sitting in scribbling in your journal or helping a friend with a short film as an actor, getting your foot in the door, in any capacity at any company that you respect the work of, is also a great thing to be simultaneously doing. Even if you want to be an actor, and you get a job as a receptionist at a brand and a company that has been making a ton of product that you love. Just do good work, work, work hard, and when you see that opportunity come up on that film. Try to get that job on the film and beyond that set, meet that casting director or if you want to get that job in the production office you know, it’s the first couple of jobs don’t have to be the job. The first couple of jobs need to just be the way that you get in the soup and start to meet people and start to figure out what it is you don’t want to do.
So I don’t like, I’m very turned off by young people who have a sense of entitlement. But more than that, honestly, it I really mean this are young people who haven’t seen cinema, who haven’t studied cinema and I don’t know if I’m a rarity in that way. I actually will deal with entitled pretty well because I’ll just tease you out of it. But the lack of respect for the history of cinema is fascinating to me and I’ve had young people I’ve talked to, I’ve asked to go see these 10 movies and call me back. Maybe one of them did it and you’re just like, ‘Really?’ So actually you don’t want to be in film that, you actually don’t want to I know now, I know you just want to be famous or you just want to be next to famous people or you want to have more people on your Instagram account or whatever the hell is going on. But show me that you love the love it. Because there’s nothing like sitting with people who love movies as much as you do. That’s what I love about the sky dance people by the way, David Ellison, Don Granger, Dana Goldberg. They love movies so much, we will sit at dinner and just geek out on movies for like three hours. David can quote everything done pretty much can to Dana’s the same way. My quoting abilities aren’t what they used to be but just love movies. And David Ellison, there was a chapter when he was trying to be an actor. And I can’t remember who it WME. Somebody asked [unclear 52:19] if he could come do a part. And we were like, ‘Sure.’ David and I never, I think David and I had a joke about that at one point. I love David. There’s a lot of people who’ve come to this town with money and tried to like, you know, establish themselves in some sort of position, but they haven’t been willing to do the work. David works harder than any five people I know. We’ve really enjoyed I mean, that association with them, which came out of the movie life, that’s really been wonderful for Julian May, just because you’re working with really good family, people who love movies live Kathy, Steven and Frank, by the way.
Mike: 52:59 - To wrap up, I like to do a little quick fire questionnaire, which is my own Ode to any active studio, which I’m sure you’re well versed in.
Bonnie: 53:06 - Oh, yes.
Mike: 53:07 - So they’re just quick-fire. So whatever comes into your head, just go with that. The first one you may have kind of already answered. So I’ll go with it. But tell me if you want to skip on. Are you ready, Bonnie Curtis?
Bonnie: 53:18 - I’m ready.
Mike: 53:19 - Number one, what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Bonnie: 53:23 - Don’t do what he says, do what he means.
Mike: 53:25 - Number two, do you have a favorite film?
Bonnie: 53:28 - I have several favorite films, Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, Fabulous Baker Boys, somewhere in Time and [unclear 53:36] Those are the ones I’ll give you.
Mike: 53:38 - And then the second part of that question is if our listeners were to watch one of your movies tonight, which one should they watch?
Bonnie: 53:47 - Oh, that would be different if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, I think. I think if you’re in the mood for like the pandemic experience, I would watch Life, six astronauts trapped on the International Space Station with a creature that would be I just thought that that would be pretty funny but if you want something light hearted and escapist, I think probably the most. I mean, of course you could watch Jurassic Park for an adventure but I think probably one of the most escapist sweet movies we’ve ever done is 5 to 7, which was a romantic comedy we did in New York. That Anton Yelchin started it was one of his last movies but that’s a lovely escapist couple of hours to spend.
Mike: 54:35 - Perfect answer. Number three, what gives you a reason to get out of bed every day for an early call time, if any at all?
Bonnie: 54:43 - And I think for every movie, it’s different. I find my way in very differently. What got me out of bed every morning on this last movie we did Terminator Dark Fate was that we were bringing Sarah Connor back, and that as a cinephile, who had lost those movies so much and had completely fall in love with Linda Hamilton, within a matter of minutes. That was literally like the creative reason to get out of bed every morning. What gets me out of bed continually during the long process of filming is the people. You just, the people that you’re working with. And if you’ve hired correctly, and in our extending the effort required to do it, well, it ends up being a really wonderful people experience.
Mike: 55:32 - I think number four, which job in the industry would you do if you weren’t doing yours?
Bonnie: 55:37 - I think it would probably be music involved. I think, like music supervisor, that is one of my favorite parts of filmmaking is figuring out the source music to put with certain scenes and I definitely would love before I leave this earth to do some sort of music biopic. I’ve been obsessing lately on all these music documentaries, but that’s, I think it would be music. Yeah, for sure.
Mike: 56:08 - Number five, if you could work with one person living or dead? Who would it be? This is a hard one.
Bonnie: 56:13 - Jane Fonda. Yeah, that’s actually easy for me. She’s been such a hero to me in such an inspiration to me, since I was a little kid. So I think if I had an opportunity to work with her, that would be great.
Mike: 56:32 - Number six, what is a book that everyone should read?
Bonnie: 56:35 - What is the book that everyone should read? The last thing I read was called White Too Long. I think the guy that wrote its name is Robert Jones. Wait, I have it on my phone. I’ll tell you real quick. So all the people that want to go out and read, White Too Long can do so. Yeah. Robert Jones. It’s a great book. It’s about the history of racism in this country associated with religion. So it’s just a very timely book that I just happened to read. I’ve been telling everyone to read it.
Mike: 57:08 - And finally, if you want an Oscar, who would you thank?
Bonnie: 57:11 - My wife, Kim. The only bummer about an otherwise really great job is the time away from your family. And that has been a real challenge, Kim and I’ve been together 22 years. And I mean, I bet if I sat down and added up the hours that I have not the weeks, the years that I have not been present in the home with her because of my career. I bet it’s 50% of that. And it has, it’s only gotten worse, because the film business doesn’t really happen in Los Angeles anymore. So you live here, and your kids go to school here and your lives and friends and family are here. You’re half the time going overseas, you’re going to Canada or you’re going to London or you’re going to Budapest or you’re going to Australia, Atlanta, New York. I haven’t made a movie here in a very, very, very long time. So that’s hard. I would definitely thank her.
Mike: 58:21 - Thank you for that touching answer. And that very sadly brings our time to a close with Bonnie Curtis, thank you so much for your wisdom and your amazing stories of Avery enviable career that I can’t believe anyone else would have. Thank you so much for doing Bonnie.
Bonnie: 58:32 - Thank you. It was great. I really enjoyed talking to you, Mike.