Bill Gerber: To be able to live and work in Hollywood you have to have a hippo skin. You are either born with it or have to learn and develop it.Written by Eva Csölleová, Vítek Formánek
Probably the most attractive foreign gust of Zlín Film Festival 2021 was an American film prod Bill Gerber. He not only managed various known bands such as DEVO, The Cars, Heaven 17, Scritti Politti etc but also produced such well received films such as Gran Torino, Very long engagement, JFK, You´ve got mail, A Star was born, Harry Potter to name but a few. His schedule in Zlín was very busy so we were grateful to Míla Řádová and director Markéta Pášmová for giving us a private space and few minutes for face to face interview.
Your career start is connected with music and managing the bands. Did you long for having a band of your own?
Well, I was playing drums very well but I kept on pulling gear to and from the venues and I didn´t like it. So, I told myself that I should enter music business, stablish my own company and release the records I like. Music business is a lot about feelings when you tell yourself “Um, this band could get fucking big” so I learnt to believe in my own instincts.
Elliot Roberts was a manager of Bob Dylan or Eagles and he took me under his wings and showed me the ropes in that business. At that time films like Saturday Night Fever or Grease had great success and big studios realized that big part of the success belongs to soundtracks. So, they started to approach musicians to help them make music for films which could strengthen its success and support the sales. That way I met film industry.
You also cooperated with iconic band DEVO. Was it just from commercial point of view or you liked their punky/new wave music and incredible artistic input?
Well, I saw DEVO just by pure accident when I knew nothing about them and I was gobsmacked. It was the best thing I have seen to that day. So, I started to cooperate with them and it was nice and pleasant connection of joy from great music and business. I started with them on third studio album and also on video clip Whip it.
How does one become a producer? Do you have to study economy school or you have to have a sense for things making profit?
You must have right taste and great perseverance. Some of them do have school, some of them don´t.
How about you, did you study?
No, I didn´t.
You must have right taste and great perseverance to become a producer You established your own production company but then went to Warner Bros and your company was dismissed. Was it according to saying” if you can´t beat them, join them” or you sniffed that you could have more money for lest work and stress?
No, my production company was more managing the bands and actors so it wasn´t competition to the studio. And I have never got more money for less work, I always worked a lot.
You were the production president for Warner Bros studio. How long did you have to climb onto the ladder to get to that position and what did you have to have under your belt to impress the bosses and get the job?
Well, I haven´t been to the bottom of the ladder since I had experience with managing the bands in music industry. So, when the studio offered me a position of executive producer, I had successful career in music business under my belt which was handy since I was a man who had different outlook at things and saw them from different angle. It took me ten years to learn my job there.
What were you in charge of?
It was in 80´s and there weren´t that many blockbusters as it is today. It was before Batman so our task was to look for potential profitable film and we didn´t always succeed.
When did change come to Hollywood Studios and big blockbusters started to be filmed?
I think it was at the end on 1989 when Batman from Tim Burton came to the movies. It had budget of 35 million and earned 10x more. Everybody was envious at such success and it kick-started the franchise which goes with all blockbusters today. At that time there were lots of good films in cinemas but after Titanic the Marvel comics movies started to be made. Those days there were couple of films about superheroes which had phenomenal success but it wasn´t the case, as it is now, that blockbuster was in the movies almost every weekend.
Big change in Hollywood production came after Batman movie Could you tell us how does it work in Warner Bros Studio, is it run by lawyers who decide what to film since they only look for profit?
Well, it was still a bit or normal business up until end of 80´s when Warner Bros merged with Time Inc and it became Time Warner Inc. If you persuaded a director, you have a good film, then he gave you a green light and you made it. Now……………………. hm, I think everybody in film business like film since it is very hard and too much work to make it only for money.
Who makes the final decision where invest 200 million dollars? It is at some business meeting and are those money bank loan, or studio actually owns them?
Films are financed by many different ways, sometime is it by studio that loans the money from bank, which mostly happens in Hollywood. The final decision is made after lots of different information and figures are obtained. They ask various people in various countries if they think this story with these actors and made by this director could be a success and will attract enough people. And then the final decision is made by responsible people.
If the film is a flop, whose head is axed?
It depends on the studio it is different everywhere. When I was working with Warner Bros, that were always bosses who took all responsibility and blamed only themselves, if it went wrong.
You worked at Harry Potter series. Who decides that sequel will be made and when, after the first box office figures are known or already during making the film?
When I got Harry Potter for Warner Bros, it was just a book. There was no director, nothing, just producer sent me a book. We thought it would be a good movie but before it all got underway, I left the studio. During first film the book got massive following and it became a hit so the sequel was obvious thing. And since she wrote eight books it was known where it is going so the choice wasn´t that difficult.
Is in Hollywood still a place for independent movie? How do you personally look at the superhero films which Hollywood feed us with all over again?
I like to give people what they want to watch and I don´t care what it is, it is their choice. Today nobody is really interested in political drama lasting 150 minutes, all they want to see is action, action and action. If they don´t want to go to cinemas, again it is their own choice we can´t force them, so if any blockbuster with some superhero enters 150 cinemas at once and they want to stay at home and watch stream, it´s up to them. So, I think that independence in the future will be in streaming channels.
I think that independence in the future will be in streaming channels. What kind of films do you like s producer? Did it happen that you read the script and already knew it will be a hit?
For me the good bet are the dark films, I liked watching them on streams. When I read the script for JFK I Knew immediately it will be a smash hit. The same was with Gran Torino, it was second script which was perfectly written and I knew the success is guaranteed. Writing scripts is not the highest form of the literature but in order to write good scripts, you have to write and write to know what belongs here and what doesn´t belong here and what is not good. Only getting practice by writing is the way how to learn it.
What is your attitude to director whose film you produce?
As a producer I am very quiet on the set where are I am far too often. I monitor shooting and keep my ideas to myself and then speak to director face to face and discuss them. I see where the problems could be and I speak to director before they become reality. I don´t want to be producer whose others are afraid of, but the time is a luxury you never can afford so all must in on time. Basically, every day you have to move mountains in order to shoot film without problems and don´t overstep the budget. As a producer I work on more projects at the same time while director works on one film for 2,5 years and rarely sees his family.
In Hollywood it is a hard job and practises aren´t always fair. How can you live and work there?
You have to have a hippo skin. You are either born with it or have to learn and develop it.
We read that studios and film companies often fiddle with figures and if the films head to profit they put extra expenditures there so it never gets out of red and producer doesn´t earn a dollar. Could you comment it?
History of financing films and showing profits is very long. Accountancy in studios is as difficult as in big companies and some people fiddle and some don´t. We try to be as transparent as possible.
You as producer, do you get any salary during making the film or some slice of the profit, if there is any, so it´s hard for you to make ends meet for two years?
I would say that we eat what we kill.
It is said that director is as good as his last film. How does it work in producers´ case, how is success measured?
I think this saying is more about producers than directors. When director makes one bad movie, it doesn´t mean that you won´t like his other movies. But when producer makes two back to back flops, the studios won´t pick up his phone as quickly as they used to.
How did you like working with Clint Eastwood on his movie Gran Torino? After all he is a successful actor, director, producer so he knows all ropes? Why did he need Warner Bros to finance his film when he has production company Malpaso Production?
Everybody would make anything to work with Clint Eastwood. There is nobody better in the business. I was sitting and chatting with him once on the set, it as lunch time, and Clint got up, picked up his tray and went at the very back of the queue, no star manners. He is the humblest and modest man I have ever met in my life. Malpaso is his production company that supervised filming and stunts but it was the money of Warner Bros that were invested into the movie.
How do you view the film makers´ possibilities at the beginning of 21st century?
Good news for the film is that things are much cheaper and this is the best time ever. Almost anybody can afford to film, not only studios. The hardest thing is what is good story and it is bad story.
How do you view the new rules set up by Academy which any film that wants to compete for Oscar nomination must able by? Isn´t it direct contradiction to artistic freedom?
To be honest, I haven´t read them yet. But I don´t have a problem with it. I personally think and in film industry isn´t and never has been enough diversity and any change that helps to make a good film is positive. As for women, I think it was always our secret weapon and that we should make films in a way they really should be, if the female is to play a lead in it, so be it. I was always for making good films and women should get a chance. I think that many films became hits just because a female played a lead in it, e.g. Julie Roberts in Erin Brockovich which showed the character of woman that goes her own way and it is good.
Thank you very much.