The University of Vermont

photo by Sally McCay

Talking movies with Jon Kilik '78

by Carolyn Sotka '94

When Jon Kilik returns to Vermont to speak with students, as he does every few years, he says one of his goals is to “demystify” his profession. The Class of 1978 alumnus has built a long and successful career as a film producer, making his way in that world of silver screen mystique. But as Kilik talks, soft-spoken and unassuming, his focus is on hard work, meticulous craft, and substantive storytelling, not bright lights and red carpets.

As much as Kilik is drawn to meet today’s UVM students and current faculty, he also returns to reconnect to his own undergraduate years. More than three decades ago, Professor Frank Manchel’s classes sparked his love of film and drive to pursue it as a career.

Kilik’s latest visit took place in late March when he came to Burlington with his new production, Miral, his fourth collaboration with painter/director Julian Schnabel. His schedule was packed: a fundraiser screening of Miral and Q & A with the audience on Sunday night; class visits, informal talks with students, and another screening/discussion the next day. Kilik also gave VQ some of his time on Monday morning, sitting down at the Davis Center with Professor Emeritus Frank Manchel and Professor Hilary Neroni, director of film and television studies, for a talk about film and his career.

Hilary Neroni: In their study of film, particularly when they have those experiences where their eyes are opened up to some new aspect of filmmaking, you can see the passion that our film and television studies students have. To what extent is passion important to the work you do now and the film industry, in general? Do you see that at this level in your career?

Jon Kilik: Not enough; I wish I saw it more. It becomes a bit of a job for a lot of people, and that’s ok, too. Because just to maintain it professionally as a job can be a real challenge. But the exciting thing for me coming back to campus these days is to see the passion from the students, because they now get the sense of what goes into making a film. I don’t know where it comes from, a combination of things–the “making of” extras on DVDs, access to cameras which enable them to go out and shoot their own movies, even on an iPhone. A lot of walls have been broken down; there is passion because it is now accessible. Right now I’m prepping The Hunger Games, and kids have already made their own versions of scenes from the book and put them up on the web. They read the book, they love the story, and they want to go out and shoot.

And that’s something that didn’t exist thirty years ago, because you had to get a Super 8 camera or a 16mm camera, you had to edit the film. It took a lot of time and money and equipment–things that even with passion you just couldn’t get access to. So now you see it can be done. You see young people who are becoming superstars because they have done it low budget. It’s almost as if filmmaking has become painting. You can go out there with a little iPhone and start to make your art.

Neroni: Every time you come back, Jon, I’m impressed by how much you enjoy the research that you do to start a new project. One of the things about the film classes here, though we do a lot of film history and theory and production techniques, we also study many different disciplines. They need to understand that background along with the history of film in order to better understand the films they’re studying. So I’m wondering what recent project has pushed you intellectually.

Kilik: It’s funny, because really all of them force you to draw from all of your skills. When I went to college, I was in the liberal arts because I wanted to be. I didn’t really want to specialize in one thing; that wasn’t for me. I wasn’t interested in being an engineer or being a doctor. I loved the idea of a liberal arts education–where you learn about history, poly sci, music, arts, religion, economics, English–and I enjoyed that during my first two years.

And when I found film, I found that it really was a combination of all of these things. And that has continued from the first class with Frank to my most recent film. Each time I step on a set or read a new script, I’m immediately plugging into my skills, and they’re not completely honed yet for whatever that new project is. And, as you say, I have to do more research on it–more reading, more understanding of photography references, architectural references, costume references, music references.

This is what I love about being a producer, it’s not a specialty in just one facet–I’ve got to interact with every single department. So when I talk to a production designer, I’m looking at blueprints, I’m understanding what his needs are to build a set. And when I talk to the music composer, I’ve got to understand how he is going to create an emotional experience through the music. And the photography, setting up the lighting, I draw on my early days in photography class here at UVM.

Frank Manchel: It’s one of the great myths of education– a lot of people think of movies as something trivial, a way to just go and kill two hours. They don’t realize why it is called the greatest art form of the twentieth century. The great films deal with the great ideas and the great ideas shape our journey through life.

Kilik: And the impression that it leaves on you. I still remember as if it were yesterday when you first showed me films by Fellini and Orson Welles. Just like I remember when I sat in the theater and saw She’s Gotta Have It for the first time on my own, then was fortunate enough to later meet with Spike Lee, then have the opportunity to work with him.

Manchel: One of the great joys in teaching was to walk into a class and say, “How many of you have seen Casablanca?” And when I would only see ten or fifteen hands, I would say, “Oh my god, what you’re in for–” Often these kids would feel they didn’t want to see black-and-white, they wanted high-definition or special effects. But then to see their faces when they watched these masters. How do you feel about the things that are going on in film today with 3D and special effects, where the emphasis is on the spectacular rather than, say, the narrative?

Kilik: That is happening; I think it’s always happened. There has always been a kind of parallel track where there has been the entertainment side, and that means constantly trying to reinvent technology. It happened with Cinemascope, it happened with 3D earlier, it happened with sound, it happened with color. This is just another part of that history. At the same time, great narrative film, great drama has always been sort of the other half that has continued to evolve and change to reflect the society, the world, the voice of each generation of filmmaker.

Manchel: I can’t get over the risks that you take in your work. Don’t you ever get overwhelmed or frightened or intimidated? For example, with the economy the way it is, how difficult is it to raise money for a film project?

Kilik: Very. (laughs) It’s very difficult because there is so much at stake now. It takes so much not just to produce a film, but to advertise, to get it in the theaters, and to support it correctly. A movie like Miral is so risky on so many levels. You’ve got to tell the story honestly and hope audiences connect with it. Then it still has to be marketed, has to be released. Ultimately, you’ve got to get people, in this day and age when there are so many other choices out there of things to do with the limited discretionary income that they have, you’ve got to get people to put down ten dollars and spend two hours. It’s a lot to ask of somebody.

Neroni: I’m curious about how your experience as an independent producer has changed over the past couple of decades.

Kilik: On the one hand, it’s a little easier because it is so international. Now you can go around the world and find money from France, which financed Miral, to Spanish television and theatrical companies that invested in and financed the majority of Biutiful, which was a co-production of Mexico and Spain. Miral was a co-production of France, Israel, India, and Italy. So there are a lot of emerging markets, so to speak, and countries that want to invest in films. But on the other hand, as I said, it is such high stakes and high risk and distribution is so expensive that studios, in particular, are looking for the safest choice possible. You end up with comic books that are turned into movies or the big-tent-pole event films that are the potential blockbusters that can feed the big studio machine.

For me, it still comes down to stories about real people that all of us can relate to.

Manchel: With all the films you’ve done, is there still a particular project out there or an individual you’d like to work with someday?

Kilik: It’s so hard to predict. I’m always looking and I’m always hopeful. But I’m never locking myself into “wouldn’t it be nice if I could find something like this.” I try to keep myself open to take in something that’s good, instead of forcing something to happen. I never expected Miral to be our next film. We were at a gallery opening and Miral literally came out of nowhere and tapped us on the shoulder. Then it hits you–“Wow, that story needs to be told.” And if I don’t do something it might not ever happen. I look for a story that I feel is important and that gets me interested. If I’m interested enough to spend two years working on it, then maybe someone will be interested enough to spend two hours watching it.


A Jon Kilik production sampler

From a first job as a production assistant, Jon Kilik worked his way into the New York film world. His career took flight when he
connected with director Spike Lee for 1989’s Do the Right Thing, beginning a long collaboration and friendship. Over the years, Kilik has earned nearly forty producer or executive producer credits on films that have received twenty-seven Oscar nominations, working with many of the industry’s top directors.

Miral, Julian Schnabel, 2011
Biutiful, Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2011
W., Oliver Stone, 2008
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel, 2007
Babel, Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2006
Broken Flowers, Jim Jarmusch, 2005
Alexander, Oliver Stone, 2004
25th Hour, Spike Lee, 2002
Pollock, Ed Harris, 2000
Pleasantville, Gary Ross, 1998
Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, 1996
Dead Man Walking, Tim Robbins, 1995
Pret-á-Porter, Robert Altman, 1994
A Bronx Tale, Robert DeNiro, 1993
Malcolm X, Spike Lee, 1992
Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee, 1989

© 2011 The University of Vermont