Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner in the "Best First Job in the Industry” sweepstakes. No matter how cool your first gig may have been, you probably didn’t get to break in as a PA on Return of the Jedi
. Welcome to the movie business, Ian Bryce.
A transplant from his native England, Bryce found his way into the industry virtually by accident. Plucked from the ranks of LucasFilm parking lot attendants by a farsighted production team, the decision tragically derailed what might well have been a legendary career in valet service. Instead he produced Saving Private Ryan. Such are the whims of fate.
Bryce, like many producers, has compiled a filmography that spans a variety of genres; in addition to Ryan, his credits include Cameron Crowe’s heartfelt Almost Famous, the special-ops rescue drama Tears of the Sun and the forthcoming dark comedy starring Tina Fey, titled Fun House at press time. But Bryce’s true stock-in-trade has been the kinds of films that characterized his Lucasfilm apprenticeship: studio tentpoles, with all of the complexity, effects and high stakes that the genre brings with it.
Over the past two decades, Bryce has become the go-to producer for large-canvas blockbuster films like Speed, Twister, the first outing of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, World War Z and most of the recent work of director Michael Bay, including The Island, Pain & Gain and all four releases in the epic Transfomers franchise. If you need to have an entire city destroyed by a giant robot or overrun by a horde of zombies, Bryce is the guy you call.
Perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that one of Bryce’s keys to keeping a behemoth production on track is to run happy sets. And sitting down with the man himself—good-natured, easygoing, thoughtful and with a gratifying streak of self-deprecation—you can see why his sets might be happy ones.
editor Chris Green paid a visit to Ian Bryce at his offices at Paramount. (The producer was instrumental in bringing this summer’s Produced By Conference
to the lot.) After an hour, he knew a lot more about on-set communication, working with (and without) the U.S. military and the challenges of spending money wisely—on big and small films alike.
|Ian Bryce (right) with director Michael Bay on location at the |
Great Wall of China for Transformers 4: Age of Extinction.
You came from England as a young guy. What was your experience with movies as a kid? What got you excited enough to make you come out to California?
When I was growing up in England, there were literally three TV stations: BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. My earliest memories of film are of having Sunday lunch, and then I’d go into the other room and watch Westerns. That was my Sunday afternoon thing for as long as I could remember. I was also a very avid reader from an early age. I lived in the local libraries, reading anything to do with Hollywood—all the biographies and autobiographies. I remember reading about Sam Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer and the other studio heads. And I read biographies or memoirs of actors, like the David Niven books. So I developed an affinity and a love for Hollywood beyond simply the product. The studio chiefs were wildly interesting characters to me.
Was any of that behind your coming to California when you did?
No, I came to California because I needed to stretch my wings. So with some of my friends, we made a plan to go on a trip around the world and work and see and learn, and all of that.
Well, for their own reasons, everybody else dropped out. I thought, "I’m not going to drop out. I’m going to go.” I was 21. I bought a ticket, came out here and met some people that I’m still friends with. I saw just part of the West Coast, but enough that I wanted to come back.
I went home, sold my car, sold my stereo, sold whatever I could, got a job
to make some money and then came back to California.
The film business happened for me purely by accident. I took a job parking cars, and the valet job took me to LucasFilm. I literally got in through the back door. So I was parking their cars, and they asked, "Hey, what are you doing here, kid? Why don’t you come work for us?” And I turned them down at first, which was preposterously stupid. My roommate told me off that night and said, "You go back in and tell them you want that job.” So the next time they had an opening in the mailroom at LucasFilm, I beat the door down as best I could, and they gave me that job.
Ian Bryce on location in Albuquerque, New Mexico
for Fun House [working title].
What a very serendipitous parking gig.
It was Chuck’s Parking, so I give a shout-out to Chuck. He was the one that was nice enough to give me a job and encouraged me to go over to LucasFilm for the part-time job that set me on this path.
You walked into LucasFilm just as it really was elevating the game of studio filmmaking. What was the company like at that point?
It was a very happy, collegiate-style company. Everybody worked together and played together. It was completely happy, the job that everybody wanted. I was lucky that I fell into it. At the same time I worked hard, and they saw whatever they saw in me.
There were a lot of talented people there at that same time. Steven Spielberg was getting ready to direct Raiders. Kathy Kennedy and Frank Marshall were there; so was KC Hodenfield, who’s now a big-time A.D. We started the same day. That Star Wars/Raiders period marks pretty much the whole time that I was at LucasFilm.
For me, it ended in 1989 after the third Indiana Jones movie. Their feature department was starting to … not shutter, exactly, but it was starting to shrink. I felt like that fire started to burn down and it was time to try to light something else.
My wife Taylor and I lived in San Francisco and decided we’d go to L.A. and check it out down there. We didn’t really have anything to go to, other than to keep chasing the dream. Not long after that, Frank and Kathy were involved in a picture called Joe Versus the Volcano. They put me onto that picture, and we’ve lived in L.A. ever since.
It sounds like LucasFilm was a very unique and probably self-contained culture. Was there any degree of culture shock coming into the corporate end of the industry?
Yes, for sure. I think I was slightly cloistered in the LucasFilm world. In Northern California, there was a Teamsters local, there was an IA local, and that’s all you had to deal with. So coming down as a young production manager on Joe Versus the Volcano, it was eye-opening.
There was DGA. There were all the IA locals. There was New York. There was Hawaii. It was a picture that shot all over the place, so it had a lot of pieces that I was unfamiliar with. That movie was hard. As somebody who hadn’t yet been trained in all of that, I really had to bear down and learn.
But I remember saying to myself afterwards, "If you could get that experience doing one film the hard way (which Joe was) or three the easy way, what would you pick?” And I thought, "I’m glad I took the hard way.” Just get it done. Get the knowledge and move on. I was hungry to learn and accelerate and be exposed to as many movies as I could.
|Ian Bryce (right) on location at the Great Wall of China for |
Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, with (from left) Paramount
Pictures President of Physical Production Lee Rosenthal and
Ian Bryce Productions Associate Producer Regan Riskas.
Once you got your feet on the ground in Hollywood, what was the next step for you, establishing yourself as not just a production manager but as somebody who can literally put a picture together and make production happen?
I think, as with most things in life, the timing has to collide with your own trajectory. There are lots of smart people in our business who haven’t gotten opportunities that others have. You have to have a certain amount of aggression about your career, a certain amount of drive and ego and ambition.
And then you need a little bit of luck to get sprinkled on it. Everybody’s career tends to go from one movie to another. Just depending on what those titles are, it can have a massive impact on your life and the balance of your career.
I was fortunate that I worked on some bigger movies, and so bigger movies led to other bigger movies. You can get pigeonholed a little bit. If people know that you can make a Transformers movie, they’re more likely to call you and say, "Oh, can you do a Spider-Man movie?” or whatever it is.
There may not be that many people that studios are willing to trust with a larger movie, except for the people that have done it before. So my progression was that I happened to be working on the slightly bigger, more commercial movies that had effects and stunts and exotic locations and bigger budgets and of all of that.
So once you develop an ability—and perhaps an affinity—for that type of movie, that becomes your experience, and it can naturally lead to similar types of movies. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve worked on a lot of movies that are complicated. And I’ve really enjoyed them. It’s been a ton of fun. It still is.
Having known and worked with them for decades, what is Kathy and Frank’s style like, on set? Is there a way you’ve drawn from them in your own work?
Among their many talents, they know how to run happy sets. I think that’s a big deal. In the casting of movies—not just the casting of the actors but the casting of the crew and all of the personalities—it’s important to handpick people as much as possible. You can’t always use the exact same people, because for a certain director they may not click.
So I think as you become more experienced you have the ability—and the requirement, honestly—as a producer, to speak up and say, "I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do; would you be open to trying this?” or "Are you willing to consider this person as a department head? I’ve done several movies with him/her, and I think they could be a good fit.”
I put a lot of care into that. How do you manage all the personalities and create structure, create a happy environment for people to for people to do their best work? You’ve got to create the right spirit on the set.
How do you do that from the start? Is it a matter of standing up on day one and addressing the troops? Or is it a more subtle process?
No—waiting until you’re shooting is too late. It should be part of your personality and your management style from the beginning. The very first phone call that you have with someone makes a difference. It sets a tone from day one. Return every phone call. Respond to every letter. Make sure that if people take the time to reach out to you, that you find the time to reach back. Everything is important in the evolution of a film. No detail is too small, no detail is too big.
Once you’ve set that tone, how do you sustain it through the inevitable ups and downs of production?
People have to feel that a producer is accessible on every level—on a story level, on a fiscal level, on a personality level, on a counseling level. I think that people look at the producer as a guide. It’s a role that I take very seriously.
People will respect you when they feel that they can come talk to you, and you know and understand their job. So it’s important for me to know what goes into people’s jobs. When people understand that you know what they’re talking about and what their concerns are, it’s so much easier for them to come and have a conversation.
I immerse myself in production and the story and how to help the director(s) and the whole team make the best movie that we can. It’s all about what goes up on that screen and being able to try something different, take advantage of inspiration. "What about trying this? That could be super cool.” And if it costs a little bit more money, okay, we’ll spend a little bit more money, but let’s not forfeit that opportunity.
It’s about production value, basically. It’s hard to quantify, but you know it when you see it and add it where you can.
Right. For instance, I have a lot of experience with the military and the Department of Defense. On the movie I just finished [currently untitled; working titles include Taliban Shuffle and Fun House], the story required, several scenes where Tina [Fey] gets into helicopters and goes off on missions; she plays a journalist embedded with the military. Because I have healthy relationships with the Pentagon and with the Department of Defense (and because they approved our script), we were able to get a lot of aircraft and a lot of access.
You have to establish a level of trust with the military. When a film crew comes around, they can get nervous.They’ve got a lot of assets out there that they’re trying to manage, just doing their own job, let alone have a film company come in and add complexity to their operation. When you’re allowed into that world, you show them that you can do exactly what you said and agreed to, and not ask for a bunch of changes just because you changed your mind.
Fortunately, I’ve done several films with the military, so it’s perhaps a little easier for them to say yes when they see a face they know.
I can imagine that CAME in handy in the case of Saving Private Ryan.
Actually, not so much. We had to shoot that film in Europe because of the specific requirements of the beach location and Western European locations. But because it was over there, there was no real military cooperation from the Pentagon. So at the beginning, I was asking myself, "What am I going to do? How am I going to staff an invasion of Normandy without the U.S. military?” So I figured we had to get our own people. We ended up getting the Irish Reserve Army to come and participate.
The Other IRA.
[Laughs] Yeah, that one. They actually staffed the invasion, for the most part. For equipment, we started putting word out around Europe. We started with one phone call to one contact, "Hey, we’re looking for some U.S. World War II landing craft and other military hardware.” Believe it or not, it came out of the woodwork. One call led to 1,000 calls.
Those landing craft? One of them was ferrying sheep up in the Scottish highlands off the west coast. They said, "We’re not using it for sheep right now. So if you want to pay us, we’ll drive it down and you can load soldiers into it.” It was one of those happy occurrences where what we thought was going to create a problem wound up creating an opportunity.
Every classic movie needs a few strokes of good luck. But it brings to mind that you’ve worked with a lot of different directors who have wildly different styles. How do you tailor your approach to suit their needs?
Movies are a director’s medium. I embrace that and always have. So we have to be chameleons, in a way. When you’re meeting a new director, you have to understand what it is that they want, and what do they expect out of a producer? What are they looking for? How do they work? Obviously everybody wants the schedule and the budget and the practical execution of the movie. Some of them really want creative input and collaboration, some less so. So I think it’s about finding that level of collaboration, in a way that gives the director and the film everything that they need and is also going to be satisfying for you.
|Ian Bryce on his home turf, the Paramount Pictures lot, with |
Regan Riskas, Associate Producer, Ian Bryce Productions.
Once prep and shooting have begun, how do you facilitate collaboration and communication?
The producer’s office is like Grand Central Station. It’s the clearinghouse for information. There’s a piece of advice I got, literally, on day one in the business, and it has stayed with me ever since.
One of the co-producers on Jedi was giving me some assignments, and some notice came in. He said, "Always ask yourself, when a piece of information comes your way: ‘Who does it affect?’” I never forgot that. Information, to me, is not power to be hoarded; information is required to be shared. If a piece of new information comes in, my gang knows. We fire it out there.
You can apply that in all kinds of ways. When Michael Bay walks on the set, it doesn’t matter if he sees me first or the AD first or the production designer. He’ll unload a note onto whomever he sees. Because everybody is well trained in terms of sharing information, it works really well.
Everybody knows the mantra: "Who does it affect? Spread it around.” It may seem like a small detail, but it’s the foundation of good communication. A crew thrives on information.
So as a facilitator of that, you’re enabling them to overachieve in each of their respective fields. That’s what they want. You’re feeding a hunger. You’re flogging a willing horse, so to speak.
I’m going to steal that: "flogging a willing horse.” So when it comes to franchises, does the willing horse remain willing? After four Transformers films, for instance, is keeping the challenge fresh a challenge in itself?
To be fair, Lorenzo Di Bonaventura and I have produced all of those films together. But Transformers is very much Mike’s brainchild. It’s so singular in terms of its visual style and storytelling. I think there are other stories or franchises where it might be a little easier to change one of the key components like a director or a producer. It’s a lot more difficult with something that has started with Mike and enjoyed so much success with Mike. Of all the franchises, I feel like Transformers is one of a handful that are deeply reliant on a single person.
I’d never thought of it that way.
It’s been an incredible 10-year journey to make those four movies—very rewarding in a lot of ways. But in order to take something of that scale into the number of places we have—including China, Hong Kong, Egypt, Jordan, France and many U.S. states—it requires taking that machine and transplanting it on a schedule that is super precise.
One of the things Mike and I are very tight about is not wasting time. We hardly ever have a travel day. We’ll travel and shoot, or we’ll shoot and travel. I’m not saying that everybody should do that. That just happened to work for us. We’re very aggressive about the schedule and about how to move quickly, and there’s a lot of precision that goes into that particular franchise in its scheduling and its budgeting.
How does that affect your ability as a producer to deal with contingencies? After all, no shoot ever goes exactly the way you thought it would go on day one.
Yes, completely. You can’t be totally locked in. There are certain aspects you can be locked into, and those just have to be accepted by everybody at the outset.
For example, we may know that we have to shoot at Cape Canaveral on specific days. That cannot change. But what’s around it can change. So if we have a hiccup, then we’ll pull something up in front of it to fill the hole. And then you make the Cape Canaveral days work.
So there are always going to be those things that you can’t shift, and you’ve just got to make sure that you have a plan that can adjust some other way. We’ve always been able to find our way through that. We’ve been on schedule on all four of those movies.
In terms of the story itself, you have to try to find the right balance of growth, in terms of spectacle, but also in terms of character, which is why on the fourth film it was time for [Mark] Wahlberg, the new cast, new bad guys and some new vehicles. Look, it’s a robot movie. We’re not trying to kid anybody about that. There’s always going to be some degree of sameness. But just like we were talking about the schedule, something has to stay put. In this case, it’s the robots. So then it’s about asking, who do you place around that story? Is that going to be interesting to an audience, and to us as filmmakers?
Is it a relief, after doing movies that work on such a scale and after so many millions of dollars, to do a show like Fun House that’s relatively small?
Yes. [Laughs] Yes. To some degree, the challenges of producing are always the same. You have the same subsets. You have to have a good script. You have to get the best cast that you can. You have to budget, you have to schedule.
On a smaller film, the money is tighter, so you’ve got to be more careful. But that doesn’t mean you can be shortsighted. You still have to spend money wisely. I try to make that a core question: How do I spend money wisely? Doing a smaller movie can be less strenuous on a physical and stamina level, because the big movies require an enormous amount of stamina and pacing, and a sort of agility, just to get to the finish line.
Fun House shot for 47 days in New Mexico. It required a lot less stamina, physically and emotionally. But the truth is, your focus is sharper on the smaller movies because it needs to be. You’ve got to figure out how to give the movie and the directors and the studio the bang for the buck despite a smaller purse. So it takes the same producing skill set.
|Bryce supervises production on location in Detroit for |
Transformers 4: Age of Extinction.
It goes back to finding that production value.
On Fun House, one of our sets was an Afghan street, a beautiful marketplace.It was a significant set—our biggest one in the movie. But once we got in there and scouted it, we realized, "I don’t think we have enough extras.”
When you talk about adding 100 extras for three days on a smaller movie, it’s not insignificant. It’s period. They all have to be dressed. Some need to have beards. And then they all have to be fed ... it’s a bit of a deal. So when that conversation came up, luckily I had put a little money off to the side for unforeseen needs like this. When the movie is genuinely better for having put those additional 100 extras in there for two or three days—or whatever the example—that’s money well spent, and wisely spent.
Otherwise, if the set looks empty, you see it when you’re looking at dailies. And you realize, "That was a mistake. We should’ve spent more.” So sometimes you’ve got to do that. You just hope that if that comes up, you’ve always got some flexibility to adjust to give the movie what it’s asking for. You have to tailor your approach to the individual movie, to its own circumstances and its own needs.
It’s really an extension of what I was saying earlier about casting the crew. That’s no joke. It’s incredibly important. A big part of what a good producer can bring is to line things up so you can have a happy, rewarding experience and make a great movie. Because you can make a great movie and be unhappy, but who wants to do that?
-Written by Chris Green