The first two blog entries have been focused on new camera technology, and I was thinking about another entry, “To DIT Or Not To DIT – That Is The Question”, after my friend Dan Kolsrud suggested that I parse through this subject of contentious viewpoints. Even as he championed the DIT subject matter, however, he derailed his own suggestion by inspiring me to write about him instead – or at least first. Dan, for those of you who don’t know him, is a filmmaker in the true sense of the word. He started working at a local TV station, where he worked his way up to director, before going into motion pictures to become an AD, then a producer and, for a time, a studio executive. I had the good fortune of meeting him on “Serving Sara”, a film he produced for Paramount Pictures, and we have been friends ever since.
Unfortunately, I started in the film business too late to work on more movies with him, which I would have loved to do. There are certain people in this business, who inspire such loyalty and confidence, that it doesn’t matter what they ask you to do -‐ you do it. Dan could have asked me to sweep the floors in his basement and I would have been happy to show up with a broom. He inspires complete trust. What prompted me to write about him is, that he recently retired and the film industry has lost one of the truly good ones. Though his life goes on – probably with a lot less headaches – I wanted to write about the person who, to me, is the shining example of a perfect producer.
Dan is known as a producer (also sometimes credited as a UPM or executive producer) who is as good at shepherding film projects creatively as he is at overseeing them financially. Though his own projects, even the ones he sold to studios, didn’t make it to the screen, he is the guy the studios called up (and still call), when a movie is set up and they want to make sure their money is being spent wisely. If you had Millions of Dollars to spend on a film, Dan’s the person you can trust to make sure it shows up on the screen, and many people have trusted him: John Carpenter, Joel Schumacher, Donald Petrie, David Fincher, Curtis Hanson, Jay Roach, Chris Columbus and Reggie Hudlin to name just a few of the directors for whom he has produced. He has worked with all the major studios and recently ran the entire production department at MGM and United Artists, overseeing all production at the studios. But Dan was not a “suit” – though I’m sure everyone who made a movie at MGM during his tenure had the best kind of production executive they could have hoped for, a true ally to the filmmakers, Dan’s heart was always on the set making movies. From his beginnings as an assistant director on such classics as Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorky Park, Top Gun, Howard the Duck (yes, I love that movie!), Spaceballs, Men Don’t Leave and Goonies, to producing Falling Down, Grumpy Old Men, Seven, L.A. Confidential and 13 Going on 30, he loved making movies and being part of the creative process. He had been around filmmaking for so long, that he knew everybody’s job and could think of solutions to problems in any of the departments. I used to describe him to friends as the producer who never said “no”, because he either saw the reason for your request and agreed to do it your way, or he knew of and convinced you that there was a better way. Dan didn’t have to say no or shoot down ideas, because he is capable of coming up with better ones.
This isn’t to say that he never said no to anybody in his life – I’m sure he must have rebuffed plenty of people trying to take advantage of a production, but, if your intention was to make the film better and you were asking for something that was for the good of the picture, Dan would always find a way to make it happen. There aren’t many producers like Dan. Plenty believe that everyone, from directors to grips, are just trying to spend as much money as possible and reigning them in is the only thing that prevents budgetary meltdown. It is not uncommon for producers to slavishly stick to the line item figures in their budget, even if spending just a little more might save them money in the long run. Most producers understand that an extra crew member on a tough day for a few hundred dollars can save thousands in overtime for the entire company and may be money well spent, but with Dan these were not discussions you had to have. He would have thought through the day from everyone’s perspective and usually just asked what you needed, knowing the answer already. As he watched you thinking about your response, you could always tell by the glimmer of recognition in his eye that he had already been there. The stereotypical view is that there is an adversarial relationship between producers and the crew, but with good producers and the lucky filmmakers who have worked with them, this isn’t true. Dan once told me that coming in under budget was as bad to him as coming in over budget. Once the money had been allocated to the film, it was his duty to make sure it was spent to make the film as good as possible. He was not irresponsible, just as responsible to the creative success as he was to the accountants at the studio.
Working on a film is a little bit like being part of a family. When the film is completed, the family breaks apart and new bonds are formed on the next picture, but some of those previous bonds remain. I have, on occasion, had to ask Dan for referrals in the business and can say from experience that any time I said that Dan Kolsrud told me to call, the people I spoke to were immediately receptive. Dan’s name carries so much integrity, that an association with him immediately rubbed off. He is perceived by anyone I have ever talked to as a thoroughly honest and fair person, and being associated with him, even through a referral, bestows instant credibility. This is true in the reverse as well – I hired my favorite Canadian gaffer, Dave Tickell, sight unseen over the phone, because Dan told me he liked him. That to me meant he is good at his job, reliable and trustworthy and there was simply nothing else I needed to know before hiring him. When a producer suggests a gaffer, the cinematographer normally has to wonder whether this means the gaffer is being recommended for reasons other than being good at his job, such as being cheap or acquiescent. With Dan the thought never crossed my mind.
So when Dan told me that he had officially retired and was looking forward to spending more time in New York, taking photographs and building furniture, I felt the pain of loss as acutely as if I had been told a good friend had died. Happily, he is very much with us and still helping his friends in production with advice, phone calls and referrals, but the producer who treated everybody fairly, always made sure everyone was heard and managed the most complex projects without ever losing his cool -‐ that guy doesn’t work here anymore, which is truly sad. You think about how many producers you know, who would inspire such an outpouring of emotion as this; I bet there are few. His retirement may be a gift to carpentry, but it sure as hell is a loss to the film business.
Since I started writing this blog entry, I had to take a break to make a film of my own – a short film I produced, shot and directed – and (does it need to be said) had to ask Dan for help. I needed assistance finding locations – Dan put me in contact with Scott Logan, who, even while he was working on a huge movie for Marvel, took time out to drive me around for a day and found me the place I had been looking for. As we were driving through L.A., Scott and I were talking about Dan and he said: “Dan isn’t the guy you have to work for, he is the guy you get to work with.” It was the perfect quote to sum up the experience of working with him. I made sure that Scott knew Dan is retired, because I didn’t want him to go out of his way for me in the hopes of getting favorable treatment from Dan in the future, only to find out it was all for naught, but my worries were unfounded. Simply having mentioned Dan’s name inspired so much good will, that he not only insisted on driving me around personally, but later got his contacts to waive their fees for our permit processing and even managed to get us our L.A. River location, when it had accidentally been promised to two film companies. It was a big favor – a grand gesture – something usually reserved for a good friend, or, as in this case, to honor the bond we share through our respect for a mutual friend.