This latest iteration of our Insider Interviews Series is with producer Patrick Crowley, one of the three judges of Industrial Scripts’ inaugural screenwriting contest, The TITAN Awards.
Patrick Crowley Biography
Patrick is a producer with $5.83 billion in box office revenue to his name.
It’s fair to say he knows a thing or two about working at the top of the film industry. He’s served as the producer on the Bourne and Jurassic World franchises, The Other Guys and as an executive producer on classic films like Legends of the Fall and Sleepless in Seattle.
From starting out working on independent films in 1970’s Hollywood, Patrick has become one of the go-to producers for Hollywood blockbusters, making consistently successful and legendary franchises and getting some huge hits under his belt.
We sat down with Patrick and talked with him about his career, the producer-screenwriter relationship and why he’s excited to judge The TITAN Awards.Embed from Getty Images
Interview with Patrick Crowley
Firstly, the thing that leaps out about your resume is that you currently stand at about $5.83 billion in career box office. Do you sometimes think: this is insane, how has this happened?
“I think that comes from getting involved in commercially successful movies. And that tends to be self-perpetuating because people either want you to be involved with their project or you tend to seek out projects that just inherently have some kind of commercial appeal. And there are many times in which I sit and I watch some esoteric, very personal film by somebody and I go: “I wish I had done one of those”.
But I just didn’t.
It’s when you’re driving in that traffic lane all the time, those are the kinds of people that you mix with. Those are the projects that you get offered. And I’m very glad, you know, I find most of the films I have done to be both entertaining and supporting positive characters with a moral code.”
Are these huge movies tough to say no to?
“What comes with a big picture or a complicated picture with enormous scale is that you realize to achieve it, you’re going to have to pull out all the stops.
Whether it’s calling in favors or going on location scouts to places which you wouldn’t go as a tourist because they might be too dangerous or unreliable.
Yet going and working in those places, working at that level with great actors or having the resources to be able to spend over $50 million just on visual effects, the sense of proportion is so satisfying because there are so many things that you can do.
If you sit down and say, “we’re going to shoot this incredible action sequence in Bourne and we’re going to do it in Moscow”. Then you go to a place like Moscow and no one has made a movie like ours ever at that time. You put your mark up on the wall and you say, “I’m really proud of what I achieved”.”
Do you feel like that has influenced your decision making? If you did a $3 million film now would it feel like child’s play compared to, say, the JURASSIC WORLD or BOURNE franchises?
PATRICK CROWLEY :
“I would feel if there was a $3 million movie in which I felt that it was covering a subject or telling a story that wasn’t being told, I would do it. It would be a scramble at the beginning because on something like JURASSIC or BOURNE I’m used to working with more tools.Embed from Getty Images
But if there was something that people had overlooked or you knew that people would be really interested in or that was incredibly topical or had great political consequences and it was $3 million, I’d do it in a minute.
If I trusted the people who were involved with it and knew that they have the same goals that I did…..or if it’s a comedy. Love comedy and have done too few.”
You have some family background in the business, don’t you?
PATRICK CROWLEY :
“My grandfather, who was a mild-mannered gentleman, was Alfred Hitchcock’s Dolly grip. He did all Hitchcock’s American movies and he was Orson Welles’ crane grip.
So he would tell me stories while he was out in the garage, and we were tinkering around doing something. Stories about what it was like to work with Orson Welles, or, for example, how he did not like Mr. Hitchcock at all and finally left him. Before Hitchcock went to do The Birds, he said: “I’m sorry, Mr. Hitchcock, I will not be working with you anymore”. Which Mr. Hitchcock really could have cared less about!
But yet I didn’t get the bug. It wasn’t as if I said: “I’m going to go to school and I’m going to then become a filmmaker or work in the film industry”. I saw it as a business, like a number of other industries, and I had a particular insight into it.
Also, my uncle, who was a well-known and very successful novelist, wrote two books that were made into movies. One was The Ugly American and the other was Fail-Safe. And the lead in the Ugly American was Marlon Brando. Marlon Brando and my uncle became very good friends. And when I was going to school in Northern California, I was staying in his (my uncle’s) house and Marlon Brando came and spent a month with them. It was fascinating.
Marlon Brando loved to talk about himself. Sometimes seven days a week. He could talk about himself at great length.
“When I was going to school, I was staying in my uncle’s house and Marlon Brando came and spent a month there…it was fascinating…Brando loved to talk about himself, sometimes seven days a week..”Patrick Crowley
But I still wasn’t really interested in movies. And when I went to undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1965 to 1969, I became a photojournalist. I would sometimes shoot for Rolling Stone or shoot for local papers but also for the Daily Californian, which was one of the premier college newspapers. We used to have combat helmets, gas masks and cameras. And I would go out every day because no one went to class for a whole year. There’d be protests every day, and fighting between the police and the protestors. I took a picture of a police officer with a shotgun shooting and killing a man. I had to testify in federal court for that.
I also started taking journalism classes and I was much more interested in that than in being a political science major. I really liked this documentary stuff. And I met all these TV news crews around and they were nice and generous to me and it was really exciting what they did. So I applied to film school at Stanford University, which had a documentary film program. And for some reason, I got in and then that sort of started the ball rolling in film.
I worked on a lot of documentaries, a couple of Academy Award documentaries, as a camera assistant or sound recordist. And then I set up with a new company that started up in the Bay area and I produced all of their television commercials. So I was really hands-on at that point. It was exciting and you were definitely a big fish in a small pond in San Francisco. And then in 1980, I said: “okay in San Francisco, you can only go so far”. There’s only so many opportunities because movies would come up there but everybody that came with them would be from Los Angeles. So I moved to Los Angeles.
And then I started working in music videos. I did a music video with the Eagles. I was working with a cameraman named Haskell Wexler, who’s one of the greatest cameramen of all time, and he called up and says: “we run a commercial production company, I just worked with you yesterday, will you come run our company?” I went down the next day and I met Conrad Hall, Haskell’s business partner and another phenomenal DP, and then Conrad and I worked together. I was Conrad’s producer on television commercials because all of the DPs at that time wanted to be directors, and one way they could do that was by directing commercials. I then did Conrad’s television commercials and he taught me how it worked. Because I hadn’t really worked on features and he said: “you’re going to be my first assistant director as well”. And so I learned about being a feature AD. Then someone called me up and said: “do you want to be a first AD on a low budget feature?”
Those were the days (this was the early 80s) that you learned on the job. You’d go and you’d be doing something you’d never done before, and someone would say “well we need to stop traffic in order to do this car crash in the middle of the street”. And you’d tell some PA’s to go out and stand in front of traffic, and they’d go and they’d do completely irresponsible things, but whatever it took in order to get the shot.”
And so during this period, were you thinking, in the back of your head “Okay, I’m heading towards producing” or did you think “Actually, I’d quite like to direct myself”? Did you have an eye on the grand plan for the future?
“Well, I wanted to direct because that was just the natural progression if you were smart and resourceful. That was the top of the pyramid. I was doing a movie with John Schlesinger, and he said:“okay we’re going to have a party for Pat, he’s going to go off and direct.” So then I started making calls and someone called me up literally four days later and said: “I’m setting up a brand new production company, I want you to run it.” As a producer, as the head of the production company, and I went “how can I turn that down?” Then I moved into producing.Embed from Getty Images
I mean, there’s regrets that I didn’t go down the other path because it’s so exciting. But after six years of working as an assistant director, I think I was more oriented towards the kinds of problem-solving that you do in production rather than you would do in direction.”
In 1990 you did RoboCop 2. Tell us about that experience. What was that like? Obviously the first was this gargantuan hit but equally a very good movie in its own right, a very original movie.
PATRICK CROWLEY :
“Well, what everyone does is go “oh you did RoboCop” and actually I did RoboCop 2 and 3. RoboCop 1 was amazing and genius and breakthrough. RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3 were less well-received. Not any less challenging in making. But the other producer, Jon Davison, had worked on Airplane and so there was this whole irreverent comedy aspect to RoboCop 2 that he wanted to explore more than the hard-edged, brutal world of RoboCop 1.
It was kind of insane what we did from a story point of view. But we hired Irvin Kershner as the director. And Irvin Kershner, who had done The Empire Strikes Back, was just this marvellous figure. He was in his mid-sixties and incredibly worldly, and he says “why are we doing this movie? Well let’s just take a chance and do whatever we want”. You could risk then. Orion Pictures made it. Orion Pictures were so hands-off and they really let people get away with crazy things. And if you watch the movie there’s some really daring and kind of insane stuff but it’s more of a comedy than the original RoboCop was.
Once they (Orion) approved the script you could do whatever you wanted. You were just sent off. If you went over budget, they would call you and they would be angry and they would tell you that you needed to control the budget, and they watched the dailies. But they just felt that what they were doing was taking advantage of all this exciting, creative talent that was in Hollywood in the 70s and 80s. And they weren’t spending much money on any of these movies, so they would just hope that they’d get a hit because they were giving these really imaginative, ambitious people the freedom to be able to make these movies.”
Sleepless in Seattle is the first time you had a global juggernaut hit to your name as an Executive Producer. What was that whole experience and time like?
“My wife, Cathleen Summers, had originally championed the project. And she was partnered with Dennis Quaid at the time. Dennis Quaid was going to do Sleepless with Meg Ryan but then he went and did another movie and Tom Hanks came in.
I knew a lot about the project, and I knew very little about Nora Ephron because she had done one movie which was not very successful. But Nora was a legend, if you knew anything about New York or anything about contemporary American literature, she was an important part of it. She was also a big player in New York, in New York politics and New York society.
But there was this real concern that: would she be able to handle someone at the level of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan? And Nora absolutely surprised all of us. Nora had also spent a lot of time with Woody Allen, in which Woody was very cavalier on the set, just in that he would sort of go: “Fine, we got it in one take, that’s great let’s just move on.” And Nora would do the same thing sometimes.
So the feeling on the set, which you need to have on a comedy, was that everyone laughed, everyone had a good time, and it contributed so much to the level of comfort that people had. Meg would come into work with Tom, and she (Nora) just made them feel comfortable, at ease, and they gave these wonderful performances.
When the movie was first shown at the first preview, it got a 94%. And 94% at that time was just out of the park.
All senior management just sort of said: “Ok Nora, just go back and finish it up. We can only mess it up for you”. Nora was incredibly talented in Sleepless, in terms of the work she did on the script, and her openness to making changes and to adjusting. Nora’s talent made Sleepless in Seattle the hit that it was. It was a great story.”
What contributory percentage to a film’s ultimate success, failure or mediocrity, would you say is the script?
“I would say that the script is 75% to 80% in terms of the eventual success of the film.
Because think of the storytelling that’s involved in Sleepless in Seattle. You could feel the movie when reading the script. I’ve worked on movies in which you go to shoot the script and the script got rewritten continuously, sometimes completely while you were doing it.
“The script is 75% to 80% in terms of the eventual success of the film…”Patrick Crowley
But the nut of the idea that made people want to make that movie, to finance it, that has never really changed. No one has ever said: “this movie is about a guy finding out who he is”, and then it completely changed into something else along the way. It’s the rhythm of the storytelling. I’ve never read a poor script that turned into a good movie.”
Was there the feeling of serious upward inclination on your career trajectory at that point?
“Making a successful movie is a very heady experience. It provides an entrée to a wider range of projects, more flexibility in making them, and more money.
And then it’s about making those connections so that new people see you as someone with talent, responsibility, ambition, vision, people skills, whatever it is that would qualify you to move up.Embed from Getty Images
The ceiling had sort of been blown off of Hollywood in the 70s and all the old-timers who had been at their jobs for like 40 years, they retired or vanished, and an entire new generation of people came forward. When I was teaching film in 1973, there were two textbooks on film. I remember going back and doing a lecture somewhere 5 years later and somebody showed me there were 70 textbooks. Because everybody wanted to be in the movie business.
And so as you clambered up in whatever area you were in, whether it’s commercials or television or features, you then were always looking to connect with somebody who could lift the scale of whatever you’re doing up.”
You worked with Brad Pitt on Legends of the Fall very early on in his career. Were you watching it thinking, “Oh my God, this guy is going to be global, iconic, massive?”
“When I watched Brad Pitt get on his horse with that kind of lazy posture and sly smile, you just knew he was going places. He was so casual and easy.
I had the feeling when Matt Damon became Jason Bourne. Matt was perfectly suited for that character. Watching Bourne struggle with who he was, his survival, learning his talents; Matt was the perfect everyman and he made it easy for every viewer to inhabit the character with him.”
Do you think it would be a struggle to get a mid-budget movie like Legends of the Fall made today?
“I think it would need to either have a star or director attached to it. Because remember, particularly at a place at a Netflix or even studio level, often there are movies that get made because of the relationship either of the actor or the director to the studio. So there may be a movie in which you go “I don’t quite understand why they made that movie”.
But if you understand that it was this director, who’s got a great relationship with this studio, you then find that there are movies that get made of which you’re not quite sure why. Today, Legends of the Fall, with its sprawling story and family setting, might be a stronger candidate for a series.”
Let’s talk about the Bourne franchise. How did you first get involved and what were your initial thoughts on the material?
“The Bourne Identity was one of the books that Robert Ludlum had written and he wrote a number of books with Bourne as the character. They had made a television adaptation at ABC about the Bourne Identity. Robert Ludlum was not pleased with it. He didn’t like it and didn’t ever want to make one again. But Doug Liman chanced upon it and felt that he had a different way of doing it. He got in touch with Ludlum and convinced Ludlum that he could make it in a way that would be more true to what Ludlum felt the character was about. And when I got involved, there was a draft, and the process began of who was going to rewrite it. Doug himself wanted to write some of it. So he was working on it.
Soon after I came on board, we had two or three versions of the script going at the same time. Now the good news is you already knew who the character was. And basically, the script was about what the character went through. My attraction to it was that I hadn’t really seen a character finding out who they are done in such a compelling way. And also in the context of something that was really exciting, which was the CIA at that time.
What was the CIA doing? What was happening in terms of the kinds of programs that they had? Because we had all been learning that what the CIA said was not exactly what the CIA did.”
Looking back, it had far-reaching implications for action cinema, generally. It returned action to a kind of hyperrealism.
“Doug Liman brought this off-hand shooting style in which he was the operator on a number of scenes. People had done vérité before, but never in this sort of a movie. It felt so documentary that it gave a very strong reality to what Bourne was doing and going through. His struggle was chaotic and so were the images. Bourne is always being surveilled, visually threatened.
The editing was sort of all over the place. By the time we got to Bourne Supremacy, the editing was nailed down, but Doug really didn’t care about medium shot, close-up etc. He would just go in between all of them. And it became a completely new style. Particularly after The Bourne Supremacy, every procedural police television show that you saw had a handheld camera and jump cuts.”
What would your advice be to a new screenwriter working with producers when they’re not a proven entity as a writer?
“If they have their first script option, they’re probably going to be asked to do some rewriting. Because there may be a great idea in the script but they’ll be told: “we need it to go in this direction” or “you need to tighten up the third act” or “you need to do something”. Make sure you do everything you can to make the script great, because that script can be taken away from you just like that.
Particularly if it’s a green writer, the producer needs to give the writer some perspective on what they’re being asked to do. Because for a writer who’s been locked up in a room for a year or who finally has realized their vision, they may not understand that there is a very complex group of people that they’re going to have to start to answer to if their script is either optioned or if it gets greenlit. Because they were just dealing with the producer and getting notes and now suddenly they’re dealing with the director. Now they’re dealing with the studio. Now they may be dealing with an actor.
The director and the producer are the writer’s best partners. The producer gives them insight that’s realistic, that they can achieve, and the producer needs to be their companion as they go through all these new influences”.
There tends to be two, polarized pieces of advice for writers. One is ‘write what you know’, the other one is ‘write what you want to see’. Which of those do you think is better advice for a new writer?
“There are certain personalities of the people who write what they know and the people who write what they want to see. You can have a writer who has an insight into a setting, a situation, a world, that they’ve lived in or that they’ve immersed themselves in. That may be the strongest thing that they have going for them, their interpretation of it.Embed from Getty Images
And there are writers around who are the ones who can sort of go ‘this is what you want to see’. If you’re doing a Jurassic movie, you might want a writer who says ‘write what you want to see’. Because you’re also dealing with the genre and you’re continuing a whole story and narrative that’s been around for 20 years.”
As the budgets for your films have gone up and up in your career generally, do you ever focus on the pressure of it? Or have you had so much experience that the pressure is just inevitable? And you just focus on the next task next, next task, next task, rather than the job as a whole.
“I think it’s more the latter. The pressure is significant. If it’s the last Jurassic movie, you’re spending up to $350,000 a day. But you also need to have a plan that you can put in place. And I think this is also one of the reasons that people like myself get hired is because we can come up with a plan based on years of experience all over the world and we can organize things and lead people so that the work gets done. The director, the actors and the studio feel protected. You serve the script and for us to be able to tell these stories at this level, at this scale, that’s just the price of doing that kind of business.
We all know how much money we’re spending. And it’s an incredibly imprecise industry. Stuff can fall apart at any given moment. The notion that your actors should show up every day for 18 to 20 weeks and that somebody doesn’t get sick or something. I’ve been on a show where an actor broke his leg, then on a show where an actor got deathly ill, I’ve been on shows where things got washed out by storms.Embed from Getty Images
But one of the coolest things about the movie business is that ‘you’ll find a way’. You will figure out how to solve these problems. And you’ll end up with a movie and maybe you’ll have to do reshoots. But it does find a way. I’ve never, knock on wood, been in a situation where I went “This is it. It’s the Titanic. We’re all going down”.”
As judge and ambassador of The Titan Awards, how do you feel about reading the winning projects? And, more importantly, how important are talent identification programs now? We’re in a globalized world. It’s not like the old days where you have to move to LA or New York or have an aunt in the business. You can be discovered from anywhere. So how important are bona fide talent identification programs like The TITAN?
“I think contests such as The TITAN force writers to focus. They give them a deadline. They know that they’re being judged against thousands of other competitors. I think that level of competition will force people to do their best.
You don’t have to move to Hollywood anymore. So these kinds of contests are really, really important. Particularly with something like TITAN in which it’s recognized that the skills of thousands of people are being represented because it’s also a responsible entity that’s putting on the event.
So it gives an opportunity for people’s work to be read. There will be people that the scripts will be shared with. There will be knowledge that people will get about the writers, which gives them an opportunity they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
This is a really golden moment for people to get their work up in front of other folks, people who have judgment and experience. So I think it’s a great time.”
Patrick Crowley was speaking as a judge of the inaugural TITAN Screenwriting Contest, by Industrial Scripts. Read more about the contest and enter at the link below.
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4 thoughts on “The Insider Interviews – with Mega-Producer Patrick Crowley”
Pretty cool. Thanks for sharing.
Most welcome Bob!
Amazing, what a career.
And props to IS for managing to get this level of judge in the first place, definitely entering The TITAN with my pilot “Soulcatcher”.
Thanks Sam, imagine being able to say: “my movies have grossed over $5 billion dollars…”
Look forward to seeing your script progress in The TITAN!