Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Producer and Director, Jonathan Sanger. Jonathan has worked on several films including Across 110th Street, Harry and Tonto and Next Stop, Greenwich Village. Moving to Los Angeles in 1976, Jonathan worked for Lorimar Television on network Television series' The Blue Knight and Eight Is Enough.
In 1978 he was Mel Brooks' Assistant Director on High Anxiety, which led to a long professional association. For Brooks' wife, Anne Bancroft's feature directorial debut film Fatso, Sanger served as Associate Producer. During this period he had acquired the rights to the script of The Elephant Man – his first production which led to a successful career in both producing and directing films – films such as Frances, Without Limits, Vanilla Sky, Flight of the Navigator, The Producers, and Code Name: Emerald.
Jonathan has also produced the Broadway musical Baby It’s You and created Chanticleer Films to encourage young professionals to direct 35mm feature quality short films to jump start their careers, often winning major awards for the resulting films.
He has had twenty Academy Award nominations and three wins, won a Christopher Award, a BAFTA (BAFTA Award for Best Film), a César Award, Scholastic Magazine's Bell Ringer Award, an AARP Movies For Grownups Award, and a Cine Golden Eagle Award CINE.
Jonathan was named Filmmaker-in-Residence at Chapman University's Dodge College of Film And Media Arts during the Spring semester of 2010 and was made Adjunct Professor in 2011, teaching a course in Creative Producing. He has been a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 1981 and is a member of the Directors Guild of America DGA), The Producers Guild of America PGA serving on its National Board, and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA).
Jonathan has recently published a memoir entitled: Making the Elephant Man: A Producer's Memoir.
Norm: Good day Jonathan and thanks for participating in our interview.
What do you consider to be your greatest success (or successes) so far in your career?
Jonathan: I’ve had many, but making the Elephant Man was surely one of the greatest, even if it was the first major movie I made. I loved creating the Discovery Program for the opportunity to give a lot back to the business, and I believe my greatest successes are yet to come. Look out for my new film, Marshall, starring Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, and Kate Hudson due out in 2017.
Norm: What has been your greatest challenge (professionally) that you've overcome in getting to where you're at today?
Jonathan: Certainly, the greatest professional challenge has been getting the financial resources to make the films I’ve hoped to make. It never gets easier and one must constantly be ready to support and cheer lead for your project.
Every movie is like a new business you have to create from the ground up, and it never really gets easier, especially in the realm of independent films. I have a project I have loved for over 20 years and I’m just about ready to finally get it made.
The biggest challenge is never giving up no matter how often you’ve been rejected until you can find the configuration that works. And you always have the knowledge that the next project is going to provide other challenges to overcome too.
Norm: If you could change just one thing about the movie industry with the wave of a magic wand, what would it be?
Jonathan: I think my biggest pet peeve is the great need for multi-film franchises, which is constantly expressed by all the major studios. I understand that the profit motive coming from known quantities is seductive, but it saps creativity and rarely leads to exciting film making. On the consumer side, I would use my magic wand to end piracy. It’s hard enough to get a film made without being able to profit fairly from your work.
Norm: Why do you think movies are important and do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the movie industry as it stands?
Jonathan: Movies still provide some of the strongest ways to form popular opinion world-wide, and American independent movies are at the forefront of this.
I’m specifically speaking about movies such as Spotlight, the Oscar winner last year, and may others, that help develop an understanding of issues and people in an entertaining and non-didactic way.
I’m optimistic that the industry, despite all the technological changes it is confronting, or maybe because of them, will continue to grow as long as people are influenced by great stories.
Norm: What do you think of movie criticism?
Jonathan: First, I think we must define our terms. There is a vast difference between celebrity based movie reviews and real analytical movie criticism.
The great critics still help us to recognize and understand the themes of the stories we view on screen and help us to put them into historical and personal context.
The past greats like Pauline Kael, Dwight MacDonald, and even as far back as James Agee, enhanced my understanding of the films I loved. And there are new and strong voices in the canon that are working today.
A great critic can influence artists and that also works to the benefit of audiences. Popular reviews can also be useful but are sometimes too much like People Magazine pieces for me to respect their point of view.
Norm: What was your first job in the movie industry and how did you get the job?
Jonathan: My first job in the industry was on a TV movie-of-the-week. My wife’s cousin was a producer and he asked the production manager on the project, The President’s Plane is Missing, to hire me as a production assistant on the location shoot in Washington, D.C. which was close to where I lived at the time.
About a year later I applied to the Director’s Guild of America Training Program for assistant directors and was accepted.
Norm: Why did you want to become involved in the producing of The Elephant Man?
Jonathan: I loved the script, which my children’s babysitter gave to me. I believed a story this good would have to be made. I knew very little about the economics of the business at that time. I actually believe that if I knew then what I know now about the business side of the movie business, I might not have even attempted it.
Norm: Why did you now decide to write a memoir of its production? As a follow up, what purpose do you believe your book serves and what matters to you about the book?
Jonathan: I was teaching a class in Independent Movie Production at the Dodge College of Media Arts at Chapman University in California. I found that many of the stories I told to illustrate different aspects of the process of film making came from my experiences on The Elephant Man.
I thought that they we so relevant to the process that it would be good for me to write them down to remember them for future classes. Once I started to write I realized that the book was taking on a different life from simply an instructive piece on basic film making.
I also realized that my distance and perspective on a film I made 30 years ago made my story very different from the book I would have written just after I made it.
While I think it works very well for film students, it has a broader purpose. It is the story about overcoming obstacles in any field and how you can profit from mistakes and not let them defeat you. It is also an entertaining story that can be enjoyed as a non-fiction novel.
Norm: How challenging was it to write the memoir and how did you overcome its challenges?
Jonathan: The main challenges to the writing were in remembering details that allowed me to create a true timeline to the history. Thankfully, I had kept schedules, budgets, production reports and other notes that jogged my memory of each actual day of the production. I also spoke to many of the principals involved, to check against my memories.
Norm: If you did not know Mel Brooks before you produced The Elephant Man, do you believe it would ever had been made?
Jonathan: Without the support of Mel Brooks, I highly doubt that I could have gotten the movie made. His sage advice, strong knowledge of the industry, and smart direction in how to get studios to react positively to a story about a deformed man in Victorian times was remarkable to me. Every novice filmmaker should have such a mentor! That was the first stroke of luck that helped to bring this project to light. It wouldn’t be the last.
Norm: How important do you believe were the acting cast of John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Michael Elphick, Hannah Gordon and Freddie Jones were to the film as well as its director David Lynch?
Jonathan: Clearly, David was a revelation. My gut instinct after meeting him, and the decision to get Mel to endorse him, happened again for a variety of reasons. I wanted to have a director I could work with, not a veteran who might not want my counsel or help.
David and I were both new to this and we supported each other. I learned how to be a producer by supporting David’s choices and allowing his creativity to reign free. My set experience as an assistant director and production manager on other major films helped make the process smoother for David.
We cast the film together and never excluded anyone from consideration by thinking we couldn’t get them. In London, the actors at that time moved freely between films, television and commercials which wasn’t as much the case in the U.S. at that time. Television and movie actors in America tended to be highly stratified. Every actor we wanted, met us and wanted to work with us. As I was to learn later on other films I produced, this is not always the case. I think the resulting ensemble cast was as good or better than any I’ve worked with.
Norm: If you had another set of actors and director, do you believe it may or may not have been as successful?
Jonathan: Perhaps a fine movie could have been made with another director or cast, but I believe in the magic of the moment and this was a really magical experience for all involved. All the choices—director, actors, black and white, but widescreen, music---these are intangibles that you can’t second guess. In my perspective from these many years later, I think we did pretty well.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and Making the Elephant Man: A Producer's Memoir?
Jonathan: Readers who are interested in learning about me can go to my WEBSITE to see clips from many of my films and learn more about me. You can also check my Wikipedia page.
Norm: What is next for Jonathan Sanger?
Jonathan: It’s been a busy year for me. I have produced a film entitled Chapter and Verse, A Harlem Story, which will be released in February of 2017. It has played in many film festivals in the past year. Please check its web-site at www.chapterandversethefilm.com.
I am currently completing another film, Marshall, starring Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, and Kate Hudson.
It’s a true story set in Connecticut in 1941, about the early career of Thurgood Marshall, future Supreme Court Justice. It is being released by Open Road, the company that released Spotlight last year. It should also be in theaters sometime during 2017. Please look for it.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Jonathan: What makes The Elephant Man a film that has significance for independent filmmakers today?
The Elephant Man was not a studio film even though it was released by a major studio (domestically), Paramount. It was a very early example of the independent model that is used by most entrepreneurial filmmakers today- a U.S. domestic deal, a foreign deal, and the use of ancillary markets (free television), and a local financial benefit (the English EADY plan). Almost all independents use a variation on this model today.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.