Frank Marshall Podcast | The Backlot | New York Film Academy

Eric: Hi I’m Eric Connor senior instructor at New York Film Academy and in this episode, we bring you a legend in the film industry the Oscar-nominated producer, Frank Marshall.

— The difference between the producer and the director is the producer asks the questions on the director as an answer and there are a thousand everyday at least.

I promise that if you love films you love his work. If you doubt me check out his IMDb page. The Warriors, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Gremlins, Seabiscuit, Benjamin Button and over a hundred other movies that helped shape modern cinema.

— I see dead people. They’re everywhere

Are you telling me that you built a time machine out of a Delorean?!

I’m setting booty traps! – You mean booby traps. – That’s what I said booty traps.

Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?

Great scott! 1.21 gigawatts!

Goonies never say die.

I’m not bad I’m just drawn that way.

We’re sending you back to the future.

Hey you guys —

Eric: Before his multiple Oscar nominations and his movies made billions of dollars. He began his career as a location manager where he never lost sight of the two most important parts of any movie: the director’s vision and the story.

Frank Marshall: I don’t think there’s any magic way to get there. You just do it. I actually was the location manager after her several movies but the key for me was I was working with the director and the production designer and I was understanding what they needed creatively what the vision of the movie was and I was learning the production side because I was working in production but I was also understanding as a location manager, I learned quickly not to show the director something I couldn’t get. Something that was fabulous and he’d say okay get it and then you go and you couldn’t get it. So I’d make sure that I could get it first and then I would show the director the location. But I also understood that if he found something that he liked and said we got to have that and then I found out we couldn’t get it I would then present them with an option that was equally helpful to the story. “I understood why we were having this one but how about this one? I know it’s a little different but I think it still works for the story.” So I guess when I look back I’ve always been driven by the story and what-what the story of the movie is and what the vision of the director is and there are things that you learn as you know simple things like don’t pick a location that’s right next to an airport, you know? Or something that’s far away from a place you can put the crew to have lunch, or – oh! I remember What’s Up Doc? 150 years ago. We were in the center of San Francisco and I had forgotten to find a place for lunch and I went to a school and I got permission to put our tables inside the schoolyard. It was on a Saturday and the school was locked. Somehow we got in and then we signed the papers later. But that’s what I love about making movies as you’re constantly solving problems or challenges. But it’s that balance of you’re not only solving problems, you’re also creating something and that’s what is exciting. When I get to sit here and see that shot of that boat and know that it was the second time we went there – the first time we only have one day and it rained. And it was a big problem and we had to go back four weeks later talking to the studio and who are saying the shot’s good enough. And my director saying, “no, it’s the last shot of the movie and it needs to be sunny and it wasn’t sunny.” And it’s the audience – has you know,  – all the creative arguments against the monetary financial arguments. It’s a give and take. And what battles do you fight for the director? You know that was one last shot of the movie. If it had happened earlier in that sequence back of the dock or something I wouldn’t have fought for it but it was the last shot in the movie. I understood why it needed to be that way and I was able to convince the studio that it was the right thing to do.

Eric: Mr. Marshall prides himself on a strong work ethic and doing the best work possible no matter the job. Years ago this caught the attention of a young up and coming filmmaker named Steven Spielberg.

Frank Marshall:  I think what I’ve learned most and I’ll tell you a little story of how I learned it, it’s always do your best no matter what you’re doing. Are you making the coffee? Make the best coffee. If you’re collating the pages of a script don’t put them out of order. I was doing a picture, I was an associate producer of a movie called Daisy Miller in 1972, Peter Bogdanovich. We were shooting in a little studio in Rome and I got a call on the set. There was a publicity fellow and he was a bit homesick and he said he wanted to see some Americans working and could he come by. I said sure absolutely. And it was Steven. And Steven was – Duel was being released. Duel, which is his famous TV movie with Dennis Weaver. So the next day we always had lunch in the cafeteria there. And I always had a bowl of pasta at the end of the table. And so Steven and this fellow Jerry came by and they were sitting there eating and I came up and I asked Peter a question and I said, “Oh! Nice to meet you.” And I went down, I had two bites of pasta and I went back to the set and Verna Fields later told me that Steven turned to her and said that’s the kind of guy I need. A guy who’s more interested in the next shot than lunch. Five years later when Steven was sitting on the beach in Hawaii the infamous story with George Lucas and they were talking about   and George said, “Who do you want to get to produce this movie?” Steven said, “let’s see if we can find that guy, Frank Marshall.” So you-you never know who’s looking or where they’re going to go, or what’s going to happen. And I got that call you know, the-the one I always remember from George’s office saying, “are you that Frank Marshall that worked with Peter Bogdanovich?” And they said, “could you come for a meeting?” I said, “Well, let me check my schedule.”

Eric: This began a decades-long collaboration which spawned dozens of Hollywood’s greatest movies. It also led to his meeting future CEO of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy, the woman behind all the latest Star Wars films. She actually started out as Spielberg’s assistant when she met Frank Marshall and the two of them quickly joined forces as producers, not to mention they’ve also been married for 30 years. Decades after Mr. Spielberg indirectly played Cupid he continues to collaborate with Frank Marshall, most recently, on the Jurassic World franchise. Our moderator, Tova Laiter, asked Mr. Marshall what it’s like to work for cinema’s most famous storyteller.

Tova Laiter: Spielberg, what kind of a boss is he?

Frank Marshall:  Oh he’s incredible. I mean he’s so demanding it’s unbelievable. It’s really incredible. You know he just knows the craft so well that it’s sort of second nature to him to direct these movies. And he puts so much into it. And he’s ahead of you. And he knows so much that you’re trying to keep up with him all the time, you know. So it’s very exciting to be around him. We sort of grew up together so it’s kind of fun because people kind of go like that when I’ll say something to him that’s you know, sort of not appropriate but it’s-you’re like friends I mean we’ve known each 30 years now. Yeah I like to be outside. I like to be on the set. I like to shoot like these kinds of adventures. And you know I think for me as a director, I have to be incredibly passionate about the story. It’s really hard. I’m not like Steven. Steven can direct and produce nine other things same time. I can’t do that. If I’m directing and that’s where I am 24/7 in the tunnel. I’m not very fun to be around because I’m – maybe because I’m a producer too that I feel responsible for taking care of the production and using the money in a way that’s so productive. So I want to be prepared and I want to know because there’s a thousand questions a day. And the difference between the producer and the directors is the producer asks the questions and the director has an answer and there are a thousand every day at least. So I really need to be passionate about whatever story I’m telling as a director.

Eric: After working with Spielberg and several of Hollywood’s greatest Mr. Marshall has become adept at recognizing talented storytellers which led him to a little script that wound up being one of the biggest hits of his career, The Sixth Sense.

— I want to tell you my secret now. I see dead people. Do you ever feel the prickly things on the back of your neck? That’s them. When they get mad it gets cold. Please make them leave. —

Frank Marshall: I think the work kept me motivated. I loved making the movies and it became like my family and I love going to work every day. You know often I get asked well how do I get there. I don’t know. I tell a story about about a young man who-who lives in Philadelphia. He was the youngest of seven brothers and sisters his parents were doctors. The other brothers and sisters were doctors. He was the youngest he went to NYU to film school for a semester and dropped out because he wasn’t doing too well and he wanted to be a filmmaker and somehow his script landed on our desks. And that script was The Sixth Sense. And I don’t know how but the bottom line is he wrote a fantastic script in Philadelphia and somehow it got past this person and this person. And it came out here and there it was. And we read it and we bought it and the rest is history. So I don’t know how he did it but he did it and he you know he tried to go to film school but you know film schools give you a lot of things that you can’t get on the outside and one of them is, see a lot of movies, see a lot of old movies. You know there is a language that exists in filmmaking and sometimes you can break it. You got to know what it is before you can break it. So go look at the masters go look at Hawks and Ford and Welles and you know Renoir and study these movies and you’ll be amazed, you know. There is great things to learn in them and those movies should inspire you then to go do what you want to do.

Eric: Frank Marshall was so taken by M. Night Shyamalan screenplay that he risked going with the newer director, but he knew that the story would bring in the necessary talent. Spoiler alert! If miraculously you don’t know the ending of Sixth Sense, well, Frank Marshall is about to ruin it for you.

Frank Marshall: It’s one of the few spec scripts we’ve made. We usually make books and magazine articles but his script read like the movie you didn’t know Bruce Willis was dead until the last two pages. It was unbelievable! I’m reading, it’s really interesting, “Oh my God!” When the ring hits the floor in the script is when it hit in the movie. And he was very clever about that. So he had kept the secret all the way through somehow. It’s really if you get a chance you should look at the script and that’s when I knew who – “This is – this is great we’ve got to have this.” And there’s a little bit of luck there too and a little bit of history in that he had a poster of E.T. and a poster of Raiders on the wall in his office and our offer was lower than a couple of other people. But those two movies – he wanted to work with us. So we brought him out here and the studio said, “OK we’re going to give you 10 million dollars to make this movie. All in, everything.” And that was a lot of money for him because he had just made this little teeny movie, Wide Awake. And I said to Night, I said, “OK, well when you wrote this I bet you wrote this for somebody. And who’d you have in mind when you wrote it?” He said, “Well, Bruce Willis.” I said, “really?” And, “I know Bruce. Do you want Bruce?” – “Well I can’t get Bruce we only got 10 million.” I said, “well, there’s ways to do this. Let me call him.” So this is what a producer does. So Bruce was shooting Armageddon at Disney which was lucky for us and he had a deal at Disney. So I called his agent I said I got the script for Bruce and he loved it and then became the sort of dance about how do we get him in the movie. And he was nervous about a first time director and so he asked me to be on the set every day. And that was sort of his security blanket. So he said yes, and we got Bruce Willis and we got a little more money to make the script.

Eric: As good as the screenplay was. It needed a test screening to really nail the landing and convince Disney they had a massive hit on their hands as long as the audiences kept its secret.

Frank Marshall: They still didn’t believe in the movie until we went to Woodland Hills. But the first Sixth Sense screening when that ring hit for the entire audience just turned to each other – “Oh my God! He’s dead. Oh god.” Yeah and there’s all this and they didn’t see the end of the movie at all. The whole end of the movie was completely lost. So Night was really upset. I said, “no, no, this is good. Let me tell you, this is a good reaction.” And I said to Night, “Well, what’s wrong?” – “Well, you know they’re not getting the catharsis of him letting her go.” – “OK. You’re right about that. So what do we do?” Night is very stubborn. And, “I just want to recut.” And so what he did, if you look at the movie again is – once the ring drops and there’s this realization that Bruce’s character is dead we cut back to three or four moments that are reminding the audience like when he goes to dinner and he sits down and nothing moves and she’s sitting there and you think he’s having a conversation with her and now you’re going, “oh look he’s dead there. Oh look!” And so you’re reminding the audience and giving them a chance to collect themselves before he then goes over and lets her go. So the value of previews. By the way you should always preview your movie. And the other great thing was the audience kept the secret. I don’t know if you guys remember but nobody told – they wanted their friends to go to the movie and have the same experience. A lot of people that, “I knew but I knew.” So it was really a great great experience.

Eric: Frank Marshall is no stranger to franchises, Back to the Future, Jurassic World, And of course Indiana Jones just to name a few. But bringing the Jason Bourne series to the big screen proved extremely challenging especially because they had an indie director at the helm.

Frank Marshall: The studio was pretty aware of Doug Liman coming in from a very very independent background he made two very small independent movies that were very good and coming onto this really big studio action driven movie on foreign locations in Paris and all these different places. And so they hired two producers. One more of a production nuts and bolts kind of line producer and then a creative producer. And at the last moment, the creative producer had to leave. They were already shooting they were shooting the scene, if you remember, on the boat in the water where Bourne is found floating in off the coast of Italy. They were already shooting and I got the call and they said, “would you like to go to Paris for six weeks?” I said, “sure!” And they had an apartment already and everything. So I read the script and I loved the script. Tony Gilroy wrote the script who as you know, did all of the movies wrote all of the movies and directed the last one. And so I went and the one thing that I can say is that if you’re coming from an independent background and you step up into the big leagues you have to then play by the big league rules. And that took Doug a long time to understand. He understands it now. He’s making these kind of movies now and he’s on budget and he’s doing fine. But he still had a bit of the rebel in him and he still thought that he could just grab his camera and put it in the trunk of his car and take his friends and go shoot, you know, – and it would be fine. But you can’t do that in Paris. You can’t take Matt Damon and Franka and go down in the subway and shoot. You-you will get arrested. That’s a simple example but it’s really about, you have to then take the talent that you have and the artistry that you have – and Doug really is responsible for creating this series. I mean it was his idea to go get the books. It was his idea to you know sort of update the character and you know there are all these stories. Brad Pitt was supposed to play Bourne for a while and then he went to do something else Matt was kind of a fallback guy. So there are all these – a lot of luck, there’s a lot of chance involved in these things. And then just what happened is we got off track and the story itself started to change. The script. Don’t change the script. Get your script right before you go to shoot. Big, big, big error that a lot of first time independent directors make because if you’re making a small budget movie you can be real flexible and there’s not a lot at stake. But if you shut down while you’re shooting on a big movie it costs a lot of money. And every day is very valuable so you want to know what you’re after.

Eric: Even when working on an action blockbuster like The Bourne series Frank Marshall still keeps his focus on what matters most. The story.

Frank Marshall: One of the things that we have tried to do in the series of movies is take on these kind of challenges and go to places nobody’s ever shot before. And there are not a lot left. But that makes that kind of fun. Manila was one of those, but we were there for six weeks with the main unit another three with the second unit. So we were there a long time and it’s a hard place to work. And they’re not used to shooting people shooting and closing down the streets and you know just having lunch becomes a big deal. You have all these extras and you know just myriads of people everywhere. It’s hard to control and there are a lot of stunts and we tried to do as many of them as we could without C.G. You know we have a couple of rules that we would like to say. One is, “no action without being driven by the story”. And also that it has to be real and it has to be believable. And I think that what happens in a lot of these movies when they get bigger than life you don’t believe you have fun they’re fun. But they’re bigger than life and you don’t feel the kind of grounded reality that you do in this series. It’s making filmmakers lazy because in the old days – a simple example is when you’re setting up a shot and it’s a period movie and there’s a modern building in it. You would have to accommodate it by sliding the camera or putting something in the way or you had to get a little creative. Now you just go, “we’ll paint it out,” and you it makes you not as inspired in things as you should be. I think so sometimes we get a little lazy.

Eric: A student asked Mr. Marshall to discuss his biggest mistake in his career. With all the amazing projects he’s been part of it’s always the one that got away.

Frank Marshall: The biggest mistake, wow. You know I’m always a positive thinker. So I you know well maybe not sticking with The Lion Witch and The Wardrobe. We owned the option to The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe for seven years which was the length of the option and we couldn’t get it made mainly because it was too expensive every time we would do a budget. That world Narnia was too expensive. And so we abandoned the project in the 90s. And then two years later C.G. had really happened and all of that was possible. And so Kathy and I always look at that one and say, “that one. We miss that one.” And I think what I do now is I keep going. And where we have a perfect example of that we’re developing a project called Snow Crash. I don’t know if any of you know that book by Neal Stephenson. We’ve had that when we had lion witch and we didn’t give that one up and now it’s getting made. Joe Cornish is going to direct and he’s a really wonderful writer and director. So we’re getting that one up. So you know, we hung onto it. So that’s the lesson we learned.

Eric: One important message that Mr. Marshall wanted to convey to our students becoming a producer or director. It’s just one of the jobs on a film set. There’s still a lot of amazing work to go around.

Frank Marshall: I know you know everybody wants to be a director, writer, producer, actor but there are about 150 great jobs on a movie. You know there’s a person who spends a whole day just taking stills. That’s all they do. There’s the costume designer. There’s wardrobe people. There’s a guy who’s called “craft service.” You know don’t just try and hit that home run try and get on a movie. We’re all gypsies we’re a big family and there are really enjoyable careers to have. And you don’t have to have the big one. There’s a lot of ways to have a wonderful career, and artistic and really rewarding career and other departments than the above the line one. So volunteer to go on commercials and little shoots and things and get experience because that’s where you learn what not to do. That’s where you learn about you know, what you can do and what you can’t do and how a movie gets made. The more practical experience you have a movie or shooting your own film – that’s when you learn that there’s screen direction. You know when you’re making your own film you say oh those people look like they’re not talking to each other. They’re both looking away. Well, you shot that one wrong. So that’s how you find that out. So do a lot of experimenting. You know everybody can shoot on your phone now and cut it together. So do that.

Eric: I’ve always been a massive fan of Frank Marshall’s work. I actually tried to count how many of his films I’ve seen and I lost track around 60 to hear him speak with such humility about his career made me even more impressed. So thank you to Mr. Marshall for speaking to our students. And of course thanks to all of you for listening.

This episode was based on the Q&A moderated and produced by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As go to our youtube channel. YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me Eric Conner, edited and Mixed by Kristian Hayden our creative director is David Andrew Nelson who also produced this episode with Kristian Hayden and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See next time.

One final note Frank Marshall would be proud to know that this entire episode was done without any CGI. And I even did all of my own stunts.

 

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