February 13, 2009

From the Hill to Hollywood

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Film producer Scott Ferguson ’82 has worked on some big-name movies, like Brokeback Mountain and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This Saturday at 7:15 pm, he will be at Cornell Cinema to introduce a sneak preview of Gigantic, a new comedy which he executive-produced. In anticipation of his campus visit, I was able to chat with him on the phone about producing a low-budget film, filet mignon and discovering his love of filmmaking on our very own Arts Quad.

The Sun: First of all, thank you so much for your time. It’s a real pleasure to be talking to you. I was given a screener of your film Gigantic, and it was really intriguing to me.
Scott Ferguson: Oh, good!
Sun: How did you get involved in this project?
S.F.: Well, I had a friend who was friends with Mindy Goldberg, the producer who developed the project. Mindy interestingly enough had a child in the same grade school as my son here in New York. She sent me the script maybe a year before the movie actually got made and I really liked the material, but at the time I was busy doing Recount for HBO. I came home for Christmas and I was at the Winter Music Assembly, where I ran into Mindy again and I said, “Hey, how are you doing with your movie?” And … she said, “Well you can join me on the producing team.” (Laughs.) … So it was kind of a combination of the right time, the right people and the right material.
Sun: What was it like working with the cast, namely Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel and especially John Goodman?
S.F.: You know, it was a great cast. And just like me, I think they all just really felt when they read the script that they wanted to be a part of it. Paul was actually the first person to sign aboard, and he had a pretty good year last year coming off There Will Be Blood. Once he was involved, the rest of the cast kind of started to assemble around him. [Director] Matt [Asleton] did a wonderful job guiding them through the story and their performances. Obviously you know this is a very low budget movie — we only shot 23 days. We were in New York City and then we had a couple days in Connecticut. The cabin where they go mushroom hunting was in Stamford.
Sun: Stamford? I was born there.
S.F.: Oh, no kidding. So yeah, we didn’t have a whole lot of money, and these actors had all worked on enormous movies, whether it’s John Goodman or Paul Dano or Zooey. I think they all enjoy doing good work and being part of something that’s kind of fun and a little different and [has an] original vision. We just had a really smooth and exciting time with it. One of the smoothest, most pleasant working experiences I’ve had, and I’ve had some good ones! (Laughs.)
Sun: Just one final question about the movie — I couldn’t help but notice during the final attack scene where he eventually overtakes his assailant that there’s a bystander wearing a Cornell sweatshirt. Did you have a hand in that at all?
S.F.: You know, that was written into the script. I was happy to see it, and I suggested that they contact Cornell and see if they’ll give us permission, and they did, and so I was very happy. But it wasn’t my idea. (Laughs.)
Sun: That’s funny. So on this film, you were both the Executive Producer and the Unit Production Manager. You’ve also been an Assistant Director a few times. Which role would you say that you’ve preferred throughout your career?
S.F.: Well, I learned the business actually working with a wonderful producer who’s also a Cornell grad, whom I met at grad school at Columbia, Michael Hausman [’57]. I was lucky enough to connect with him really from the beginning of my career. I started as a P.A. and worked my way up, and I learned the business from him. Producer and production manager is kind of an overlapping, complementary term, so that’s what I tend to do more and more these days. But if Mike were to call, I’d drop everything. I’ve gotten to work on some pretty good movies with him.
Sun: You’ve worked with some pretty impressive names: Milos Forman, Ang Lee, Michel Gondry. Which director would you say has been your favorite to work with?
S.F.: You know, that’s a tough one because I’ve really been lucky. That’s like “What do you like better: lobster or caviar or filet mignon?” They’re all really great.
Sun: I’ll take one of each.
S.F.: You know, they’re all wonderful, different flavors. They’re all the best filmmakers in the world. (Laughs.) Nobody can do an Ang Lee movie like Ang. Nobody does Milos Forman movies as well as Milos. And nobody else can do a Michel Gondry movie, certainly.
Sun: When exactly did you know that you wanted to go into the film industry? You said you went to grad school, was there a specific moment in college?
S.F.: Yeah, yeah. It was in Lincoln Hall, when I took Marilyn Rivchin’s 16mm filmmaking course at Cornell. I had no clue going into Cornell what I was gonna do when I got out. I switched divisions and spent a little bit of time working my way into the Theatre department from various parts of the Arts Quad. A couple of friends of mine were taking this cool-sounding course called “16mm Filmmaking.” It looked interesting, and I ended up liking it better than anything I had ever done. And so that’s where the bug bit me. It took me a few years after I graduated to figure out my way in, but that’s where it all really started.
Sun: One final question: What advice would you give someone looking to go into film someday?
S.F.: Well, I would say it’s great to know the filmmaking courses they now have [at Cornell], but don’t overspecialize. You know, I had to do all the distribution requirements — taking classes in subjects like Roman History, Geology. But all of them enriched me, maybe something I learned in Roman History somehow would come in at some point in some movie that I was making. It made me see things from different angles that I wouldn’t have if I had been working in nothing but film the whole time. Particularly for undergrad, I’m a big believer in the liberal arts approach; do the thing you love but also give yourself a broad base because that will really enrich what you do in interesting ways that are kind of subtle. After Cornell I got some real life experience working a variety of jobs — waiting tables, retail and then I got into television in Pittsburgh, where I grew up. It worked out quite well, I went to grad school at Columbia, and the rest is history.
And the other thing is, spend that time while you’re in school talking to people like me, maybe trying to get an intern job over the summer, figure out what part of it all you really like. We’ve all at one point or another thought we wanted to be either actors or writers or directors … and some of us are lucky enough to cruise right along with those aspirations and dreams. For others, life opens other doors that may have been better for you all along. There’s a lot of different places for people to make a contribution. Figure out what it is that gets you most motivated to get up in the morning, and that’s probably where you want to start trying to get your foot in the door.

Check out Gigantic tomorrow at 7:15 p.m. at Cornell Cinema in Willard Straight Hall. Ferguson will also give an Independent Film Producing Discussion on Monday, Feb. 16 at 4:45 p.m. in the Film Forum of the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.