Mace Neufeld Interview

Producer Mace Neufeld on the set of The Sum of All Fears

You might not know Mace Neufeld’s name, but you’ll definitely know the films he has produced, including No Way Out, The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears. Chris Neumer chats with Neufeld to get into the art of producing big budget films as well as the death of the hands-on producer.

by Chris Neumer

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CHRIS NEUMER: I used this interview as an excuse to see The Sum of All Fears again.  I say this as a compliment, but it’s slower than a lot of other action films that are coming out today. If you compare it to The Mummy Returns or The Scorpion King or something like that, there’s considerably more brain activity in this one. It forces you to think.

MACE NEUFELD: Well that’s great, because we don’t really think of the Ryan movies as action movies. They’re either techno-thrillers or thinking man’s thrillers with action in them.

CHRIS NEUMER: It’s just a nice bonus to have the action scenes in them that are shot so well.

MACE NEUFELD: Well, in this particular one there was a lot after…

CHRIS NEUMER: All of Baltimore was blown up?

MACE NEUFELD: After the big bang, as I say. Actually, I’ve not seen it since we opened on May 31st. But I’ve seen it thousands of times before that (laughs). It would be very interesting to see it again, which I think I’ll do when the DVD comes out on the 29th.

CHRIS NEUMER: One thing that I was interested in and this seems to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind, so I thought we’d take care of it right away, you’ve produced all of the Jack Ryan movies to date–

MACE NEUFELD: Yes.

CHRIS NEUMER: Did you think it would be at all problematic to switch actors from Harrison Ford to someone 30 years his junior in Ben Affleck?

MACE NEUFELD: Oh yes, I did. I think I’d have to be totally oblivious to reality without thinking that there might be a problem. The approach was to totally ignore the fact that there might be a problem. Otherwise, I think we’d have been really handcuffed in making the movie. Phil [Alden] Robinson and the writers and I decided that the best way to handle the making of this movie was to pretend that there had never been a Jack Ryan film made from a Tom Clancy book.  If we didn’t do this, we’d be driving ourselves up the wall with the problem of trying to explain everything. So rather than take that approach which I think would have ended up really not making the film, we simply decided, “Here we are. We’ve got this terrific script and it’s the first movie about this young CIA analysts who is pressed into action by the head of the CIA.”

 

CHRIS NEUMER: Was there ever a thought–and I know a lot of people suggested this for A Beautiful Mind as well–that you just not call the lead Jack Ryan? Just give him another name and it seems as though that would gracefully side step all the issues.

MACE NEUFELD: We did that at one point, I remember discussing that at a meeting. There was even the suggestion that we get Harrison to do a scene where he introduces this young analyst. We dismissed that again because–we really felt if we made a good film the audience would get over their initial puzzlement and just enjoy the film. I think we were right.

CHRIS NEUMER: I didn’t even realize until later that Kathy in the film is Jack’s future wife.

MACE NEUFELD: Bridget Moynahan. Bridget Moynahan becomes Anne Archer. (laughs) We’d switched characters once before after the first one and nobody seemed to blink an eye. The problem in getting this film made was and the key to going forward was the casting of Ben Affleck, which was almost serendipitous. We did work with Phillip Noyce and Harrison Ford for a while and I worked with the two writers for well over a year and a half to try and bring some vitality and update The Sum of All Fears which had been written in–published in 1991. We kept running in to the problem that in the previous films that Jack Ryan had risen from being an analyst to the deputy director of the CIA and in the later Clancy book he becomes President of the United States. Well, it was awfully hard to get that character become quite static and the best you can do is get him out into some public places, but not without all his security and keep cutting back to him and that’s a very uninteresting character. So we, in trying to develop it for Harrison we were paralyzed by that, the chronology of it all–

CHRIS NEUMER: And when you say “Developing it for Harrison,” you’re talking about The Sum of All Fears.

MACE NEUFELD: Right. We finally just felt that we couldn’t lick that book with a screenplay that didn’t have a lot of baggage going with it. And couldn’t really serve a movie star of Harrison’s stature. So we actually almost abandoned the project when Harrison decided that he had to go and do another movie. Phillip Noyce had been turning everything down for a year and a half and he felt that he had to go to work too; one of his pet projects came through. I was left holding the bag, as they say. And frankly, I was about to move on, saying, “Okay, we gave it the old college try,” when we got a call saying, from Paramount, saying they’d heard from Ben Affleck’s agent and he was interested in playing Jack Ryan.

CHRIS NEUMER: That seems to be some prescient timing at work there. It just seems though on this project that there were a lot of situations that arose that needed diffusing. Not only was there the age shift, but you had to make the decision to make the bad guys neo-nazis, changing it from the book, and of course the unforeseen timing of making a movie that focuses on a major terrorist attack on the eastern seaboard.

MACE NEUFELD: (chuckles) Those were three major events. Three major considerations. Number one, the terrorist attack [on September 11] came after we were finished filming the movie, so that never really represented a problem to us. We finished shooting in June, we were editing and the attack came and we were still in the process of editing the film we had shot, the script we had shot. We had no intention or desire to change it or anything as a result of the attacks.

CHRIS NEUMER: So there were no changes that were made because of September 11?

MACE NEUFELD: No. Absolutely nothing was done. We had decided earlier not to show a lot of carnage in the film, the after effects of the weapon going off was more frightening. As far as the villain in the piece–there was a very complicated subplot in the original. The bad guys were a coalition of American Indian activists, a Russian a German and it really took a long time and a lot of explanation as to why they were going to try and start this war between Russia and the United States. We needed to find a way to cut through that as easily as possible and we ended up by–there was and continues to be a rise of neo-nazism in Europe, particularly in France with the recent elections. So we came up with the idea of making this a group of European neo-nazis and we managed to get that across to the audience with one shot of a watch.

CHRIS NEUMER: That was quite effective.

MACE NEUFELD: We needed screen time for other parts of the story.

CHRIS NEUMER: I have not read the book that this was based on, but I find it very hard to believe that anything Tom Clancy writes could be considered complicated and technical.  There was another project, and now that I’m thinking about it, I can’t think of the film’s name, but they changed their villains from Middle Easterners to something that was more politically correct. Was there ever the thought that the neo-Nazis might be a safer way to go than with the Muslim extremists?

MACE NEUFELD: When we were working on the script?

CHRIS NEUMER: Yes.

MACE NEUFELD: As funny as it may seem now, we thought that that was cliched to make them–more cliched–to make them Muslin terrorists or Arab terrorists. We’ve seen that in other films and it is in the newspapers everyday. We also started getting letters from the American-Arab League when the film was first announced saying, “Please don’t tar all American-Arabs as being Muslin Terrorists.” That was before 9/11, so we thought rather than try to get into the complicated politics or the book–the film isn’t about who the terrorists are–

CHRIS NEUMER: It’s about what they’re doing?

MACE NEUFELD: The film is about the results of what can happen and how misinformation and fear can escalate to a world conflict.

CHRIS NEUMER: What did your role as a producer consist of on this project?

MACE NEUFELD: I produced the movie! (laughs) Well, let’s see. Subjectively, I’m a very hands on producer. I find material. I develop material. I talk a studio into financing the movie, I hire everyone on the film. I set the budget. I sign the budget. I’m on the set every day.

CHRIS NEUMER: The very classical version of a producer.

MACE NEUFELD: That’s what I wanted to be when I started producing and that’s what I do. That’s why I don’t do three movies at once. They say, “I only have one place to sit down.” (chuckles) I can’t put myself into three or four doppelgangers at a time. Then I follow a picture through right through to the end.  I approve the campaigns, the marketing and then go out and publicize the film. The minimum time that takes, at least with things I’ve done, is five years. Sometimes it’s much longer, depending on how quickly all the elements fall into place.

CHRIS NEUMER: When did you originally land the rights to The Sum of All Fears?

MACE NEUFELD: The rights to The Sum of All Fears was about two years before production–two years before we went into production. We’d spent about a year trying to develop the other Clancy book, The Cardinal of the Kremlin, but that was even more difficult than this one. It all goes back to 1984.

CHRIS NEUMER: When you got the rights to The Hunt for Red October.

MACE NEUFELD: That was when I optioned that. That was Clancy’s first novel. Well, before he was a full time author. That was in ’84. The film was in ’89. That was five years. You also have to remember that in the succession of books that Clancy wrote, Ryan went from junior analyst to president to ex-president. While we were trying to develop [The Sum of All Fears], Harrison Ford had already played the president in Air Force One. There was a lot of baggage with everything. Going back to the functions on my films, associate producers are generally–my films are really hands on and people with me–the executive producer is a title you can give to the line producer who used to be a production manager.

CHRIS NEUMER: But your associate producers actually do something?

MACE NEUFELD: Yes.

CHRIS NEUMER: It’s always nice to hear that.

MACE NEUFELD: I think all credits should be earned.

CHRIS NEUMER: It’s just nice to hear that people in the film industry with offices in southern California feel that way. I know you started out producing a lot of TV shows and series’, was there much that translated over from TV to film? Was it helpful to start there and move over to feature films?

MACE NEUFELD: I think everything I did in my life relating to visual arts or entertainment, was helpful to me later on. I had a very successful career as a manager of talent.  It was a career I wasn’t happy with, but it was successful. That has always helped me with casting. My mind set is: when I see a new actor or writer and in the back of my mind say, “Were I still a manager, I’d kill to get this person signed as a client of mine,” that’s a great sign. And it works for me.

CHRIS NEUMER: That’s a good sign to work with them on the project?

MACE NEUFELD: I was a professional photographer for a while, I was a songwriter, musician, so all those things help. I can talk to my composer not just as a suit, but…

CHRIS NEUMER: As a guy who understands.

MACE NEUFELD: Understands how to read a score and music and I’m the same way with the DP. But my function as a producer is really to get the film made in the best possible way, at the budget that I set, so that it reflects the creative vision of the director and the people who worked on this big, this massive collaborative team of up about 200 people. That’s the challenge for me as a producer of making a movie. There isn’t a medium in the world that is more difficult to pull off. It’s miraculous when you make a really good film that becomes a hit–because you can make a really good film that doesn’t go because it’s been marketed badly or current events may hurt it–but to get everything to fall together, that’s a full time job. That requires a producer and if it’s a director/producer who has a strong hand that I have confidence in, then I step back. It makes my job easier.

CHRIS NEUMER: Just looking at the films that you’ve done, they’ve been in that same type of genre that we were talking about: the thinking man’s thriller. No overt, explosion filled films that junketeers will call “roller coasters of rides”. What is the appeal of working within that context?

MACE NEUFELD: The appeal is–well, it becomes less and less appealing, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unfortunately, people keep asking me to keep making the same types of films as I’ve been successful with before.  I can understand that from their point of view, but from my point of view, producing a movie, whether it’s a million dollar movie or a hundred million dollar movie is the same process. That process starts with trying to get a really, really good screenplay. Then it’s just a question of how much you pay for your cast and how many days your shooting schedule is, what your visual effects budget it. For instance, visual effects have gotten so prominent, that people have forgotten that the real reason for visual effects is to try and make–to try and do things on screen that looked real but that were almost impossible without using, what they used to called, quote, trick photography. There’s a symposium going on next Saturday at the Director’s Guild about visual effects and The Sum of All Fears. Many of the visual effects you don’t even know are visual effects.

CHRIS NEUMER: Those are generally the best ones.

MACE NEUFELD: Yeah. And now that industry, which is filled with talented people, has taken on a life of its own. Very often visual effects movies take you out of the story rather than holding you in the story.

CHRIS NEUMER: We can use Scooby-Doo as a great example of that.

MACE NEUFELD: Right. I don’t know how I got on that topic…

CHRIS NEUMER: Let me ask you this: are you looking to develop anything in a different realm? An overt comedy or the one million-dollar film you mentioned before?

MACE NEUFELD: I have a film called Asylum with Natasha Richardson that is a lower budget film. It looks like I may shoot in Ireland for Paramount Classics. I do have a plane thriller called Tell No One that Michael Apted is developing here at Sony. It’s a straight thriller, much like No Way Out. Then I have something that I haven’t ever done before is a big product that we’re developing with Frank Oz again at Sony called Powers which is a independent selling comic–not a comic but a comic novel.

CHRIS NEUMER: A graphic novel.

MACE NEUFELD: Yes, a graphic novel. And I have very high hopes for that. That film will have a lot of visual effects because it’s set, it’s a procedural thriller set in date in the future where our hero, who’s name is Powers, is a homicide cop who only deals with crimes involving super villains and super heroes. It’s very interesting project. And I’ve got comedies, but even though years ago I was in partnership with Buck Henry, and my clients included Jay Ward and Don Addams and Gabe Kaplan and the old Get Smart show–I’ve done a lot of comedy but, (laughs), I still have to get down on one knee and beg at a studio. They say, “We’d love to have you do one, but how about a big movie?” Unfortunately because of the economics of marketing the major studios are cutting the number of pictures they make every year down and looking to make bigger budgets.

CHRIS NEUMER: There also seems to be an art to being a producer of a truly big motion picture. There don’t seem to be many people who can pull it off and pull it off with the same consistency that you do.

MACE NEUFELD: I hate to give away a trade secret, but I think if you–one big part of it is finding great craft and department heads, which goes all the way from gaffers to stunt coordinators to DPs and editors. Just putting the best people together, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to make the best movie, but what it does guarantee is that it’ll be a best effort. I think one of the problems is–I think one of the advantages of the old studio system was that units were put together and they worked together all the time. They’d make six films a year.

CHRIS NEUMER: And they could develop a rhythm.

MACE NEUFELD: Right. And it’s very hard today because, particularly with run away production and the fact that Hollywood is no longer an industry town–even though it was built to be one. So it’s hard to hold onto people unless you’re making one picture after another.

CHRIS NEUMER: This again comes down to being able to find the best people available in the field that you can continue to work with.

MACE NEUFELD: I remember we were doing Patriot Games and half way through the film Harrison and the director and I were sitting were sitting together–we’d had a particularly great day–and we said, “Let’s get everybody together and do the next one as soon as possible.” That word spread like wildfire throughout the set. Crews that I have worked with were on the phone always calling and saying, “Is this reality? I’d be happy to wait three months and not run out and get another job, if we know that we’re going to be prepping another movie.” That crew loyalty is great. It’s not a trade secret, but it applies to a lot of general things.

CHRIS NEUMER: It seems almost like common sense. That’s one trait you might just find missing is several instances.

MACE NEUFELD: You’d think that everyone would do that, but films get rushed into production without a script that makes any sense, productions get rushed into completion from studios setting release dates that are not really doable without sacrificing quality. There are so many factors. I have to again go back to the fact that making a good film or a great film is kind of a minor miracle.

CHRIS NEUMER: You had said something earlier, something about doing other kinds of films but people ask you to do the big budget thrillers that you have become synonymous with. Have you found that studios reliance on formula–if it works once we’re going to rehash it again and again–has influenced your choices or cramped your style?

MACE NEUFELD: Well, (pauses) I’m reluctant to criticize studios because they have their own set of problems. They’re parts of big conglomerates these days and there are all kinds of pressures, bottom line pressures.  The movie industry is not a cottage industry anymore. But as to cramping my style? Sure it has. For four or five years it’s been kind of a rule of thumb: don’t walk into a studio with a western. And they are so much a staple of our moviemaking. Suddenly now–and I have one of the best westerns I’ve ever read–but the theory was that you can’t sell a western overseas. The overseas market has changed and even though there was a fantastic western that won the Academy Award, The Unforgiven, you’d think there’d be a lot of westerns coming after that, but no. They were afraid of that. I notice now that with cable doing westerns and there have been announcements of westerns at various studios, that hopefully may come back.
For a long time, studios didn’t want to do period pieces. If you came in with anything that took place (laughs)… I’m sorry, I have to laugh, that took place fifteen years ago, they referred to them as period pieces. They certainly didn’t want to go back to costume drama and historical pieces, which had been a staple of the movie business and what the movie business can really do very well, until Gladiator came along, or until Titanic came along. And some people consider Titanic a contemporary film because it had a contemporary wrap around. Now you see every studio developing major period films. So it comes in cycles and, yes, it does cramp your style. The good thing is to try and be the first one to start another cycle.

CHRIS NEUMER: What does it take to become the first one to start another cycle? And I realize that I’m asking you to give away even more trade secrets here. You had mentioned how studios weren’t really making westerns, what would it take for you to get yours made?

MACE NEUFELD: It would probably take–a great script, a name director and irresistible cast who hopefully are box office stars who had agreed to work for substantially less than they normally get because it became a passion project.

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