New York Film Academy was proud to welcome Producer Rob Cowan to the Los Angeles campus this past week. Cowan brought all the knowledge gained in his thirty-five years in the entertainment industry, as well as the pulse-pounding San Andreas. Denise Carlson, a Producing instructor, hosted the event.
Cowan’s lengthy career includes producing Life as a House, which netted Hayden Christensen and Kevin Kline a Golden Globe nomination. He also produced the Cole Porter musical bio-pic De-Lovely starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd. From there he transitioned into horror and action films with Enough, starring Jennifer Lopez, and the Robert De Niro and Al Pacino led thriller, Righteous Kill. He next sought comedies with Tammy and The Boss, both starring Melissa McCarthy. His biggest win was in producing The Conjuring, the fourth highest grossing horror film of all time.
After the San Andreas screening, Cowan sat down for a Q & A with the students. The first thing they spoke of was the logistics of filming the scene. “Every big sequence that there is in there, even the smaller ones are a big challenge on many levels. How do you make something look like it’s shaking when it’s not shaking? So we had to sit down with all of the teams and ask, ‘Ok, what’s visual effects? What’s special effects? What’s a real part of the set we need to do?’ Normally when you’re doing a movie you have to dress an entire set but the CGI guys would tell us ‘just give us a little rubble and we’ll destroy the rest,’ so that was nice.”
“Even up to the day we were going to do the shot the special effects guy wasn’t sure it was going to sink.” It was moments like these that Cowan described as, “the most fun.” He also mentioned a complicated one take where the set would be completely destroyed after the take. They only had once chance to get it right.
They only had about seventeen weeks of prep. This may sound like a lot of time, but Cowan said, “I’m working on a similar film now and we have thirty-two weeks of prep.” Cowan was worried about getting the movie made so he sat down with the director, Brad Peyton, and asked, “Can you get this film done?” Peyton had a simple answer, “I’ll be decisive.” Instead of asking for multiple examples or tweaking last minute, Peyton trusted his team to give him the best options possible, then, he picked one and moved forward. This was key in finishing on time.
Denise Carlson asked about Cowan’s background as a writer and how it affected his producing work. Cowan divulged that initially San Andreas was written as an homage to Irwin Allen, who directed disaster movies like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno in the 1970’s. These films would cast A-list actors and give each a storyline. But Cowan felt that left the story a little flat. He brought in Chad and Carey Hayes, who wrote The Conjuring, to punch up the script. They cut some of the characters, instead choosing to focus the story on Dwayne Johnson’s character. Then, they layered in a heart-wrenching story of a lost child. Suddenly the film was more than just a disaster film, it was a story.
Next, they spoke about the two largest challenges in filmmaking, money and time. Cowan relayed the story of Rocky. The scene at the ice skating rink was originally supposed to have multiple extras. The extras needed skates, prop food, a catered meal, all things that cost money the production no longer had. The producers went to Sylvester Stallone with the bad news. Stallone sent the extras home and decided that Rocky should just walk Adrienne around the rink. “It ended up being one of the best scenes in the movie. I always feel that story has value because you realize there’re different ways and better ways to do things when you’re challenged.”
“James Wan, the director of The Conjuring, is great at that. If I tell him, ‘ Look, we can’t do it this way’ he energizes the team and always comes up with something better.” Cowan said, “One of your biggest challenges is time and money. We sunk it all into the set. And it was something we weren’t sure if it’s something we could pull off. That’s a character in the movie and we’re going to invest in that character.”
The investment paid off. The Conjuring 2 was released nation wide in June 2016. New York Film Academy would like to thank Mr. Cowan for sharing his expertise with our students. Look for Cowan’s forthcoming films Aquaman and The Hollow Season.