November 16, 2005

The Producer

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For movie producer Don Lee Jr. ’77, the best way to summarize his participation in creating Elizabethtown, the most recent film from writer-director Cameron Crowe, is simple: “It was two years of my life.”

On Monday night, Lee screened the movie for Cornell students, and afterwards took questions from the audience on everything from the who does what on a film set to how he sneaks references to his Alma Mater into films he has worked on. Lee’s films include The Perfect Score, Six Degrees of Separation, Vanilla Sky, and You’ve Got Mail. The Perfect Score was about students trying to cheat the SAT’s to get into Cornell.

“The director directs the stars; the assistant director directs everybody else,” said Lee, who rose through the ranks first as a production assistant, then as an assistant producer, and then producer. The industry has changed, now, however; the quickest way to get into the business “is to become a famous producer’s assistant, or an agent. If you want to direct, be a director’s assistant.” Most importantly, though, Lee counseled prospective filmmakers to be bold. “If you want a career, take risks. Make your movies, get them out there, give it a shot.”

Lee’s most recent project, however, has not been the triumph one might have expected (for all of the time, work and talent invested in it.) In five weeks of release Elizabethtown has garnered mixed reviews, and grossed a disappointing $26 million dollars, on a budget estimated to be about $57 million. It was a serious loss for Paramount Pictures, the studio behind the film. Lee was candid about the film’s lack of success, but saw it as a victim of the recent slump in the film industry.

“Did it fail for us? No. We’re in the worst time in the history of filmmaking,” Lee said. “My business is in such a transition, but you do your best. The movie didn’t make it, you know.” Lee went on to say that “Big budget movies are a thing of the past. It just doesn’t work that way anymore … it’s shifting so fast, it’s mind boggling to me, but I can see it coming.” A lot of the movie’s troubles may have had to do with the fact that its concept was not easily marketable. The film tells the story of Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom), a successful young shoe designer whose project of eight years fails miserably, costing him his job, his girlfriend, and his will to live. While in a moment of desperation, he is interrupted by a cell phone call from his sister; his father has died on a trip to Louisville, Kentucky, while visiting relatives. Drew must bring his body back to Oregon. On the flight out, he meets a young flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) and sparks fly. His trip back to an ancestral home filled with colorful characters is the movie’s base. Despite the youth appeal of top-billed stars Bloom and Dunst, “it’s about failure and redemption and rebirth. Those are themes more along the lines of people my age, in their 40’s and 50’s.”

Crowe’s signature style of never-ending classic rock playing in the backgrounds is pushed to its limit here, but it is clear that the music itself played an important part in shaping the film. “We spent two weeks driving around Kentucky, and we all brought our favorite CD’s,” Lee said. “600 CD’s later, we finished the movie.” There are some amazing musical moments in the film, not the least of which involves a truly awesome cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s rock anthem “Free bird.”

Most of all, Lee says, making the movie was a positive experience. “If you see the places we [shot the movie], they make you ponder your life.”

Archived article by Nick Jarcho
Sun Contributor