Producer Rob Cowan
I interviewed Producer Rob Cowan at his office at Irwin Winkler Films in Beverly Hills, June 19, 2002.
Rob: "I grew up in Victoria, British Columbia. My father was a lawyer. There wasn't much of a film industry in Canada during the 1960s and 1970s. When I got out of highschool (1974), it wasn't like I wanted to be in the film business. It didn't cross my mind. I took classes in architecture at the University of Victoria and I didn't like it. I started flipping through the school catalogue. I saw classes on writing and I'd always liked to write. I saw one course in screenwriting. I thought that sounded cool. At the bottom of the class description, it said for more information, look to the Film and Television Department, which I did not know they had.
"I looked over and there were all these courses on making movies. I graduated in 1980 with a Film major. I applied for work in the industry in Vancouver. I got a call one day from a small commercials company that needed somebody to run a video camera during a casting session. I'd actually never seen a video camera but I said that I knew how to use one. Thankfully, there was a guy there who showed me how to set up the session. I ended up working at this company, Circle Productions, for 18 months.
"Many of the people I worked with also did movies. I sent out resumes and knocked on doors. For about 30 months straight, I probably applied to work on every movie that came to Vancouver. I then got busy with these back-to-back commercials and I didn't apply to one movie and they called me. I ended up as third assistant director on this 3-D movie Spacehunter Adventures.
"Once people know you, it just makes the next job that much easier. The movie industry took off in Vancouver in the early 1980s. There was an increased need for crew members and I was able to move up quickly from a third to a second to a first assistant director. I did four Disney TV movies in a row and then a feature came in, John Badham's Stakeout. It was my first big feature as a first assistant director. After that, I started getting a lot of calls. I was doing four movies a year.
"I got a call from the production people on a movie that Irwin Winkler was producing, Betrayed. I did that in Alberta, where I met Irwin. While I was on Cocktail, I got a call from Irwin. He had a picture he was going to direct in Toronto. I agreed to fly down to Los Angeles to talk with him. I told him that I wanted to get more involved. He said, 'Great. We can't pay you but if you want to be more involved, we'll work on the script and the budget together.'
"Even though the movie never got made, it was a great experience for me to see a movie put together. We were four days away from shooting when the studio canceled the movie. Irwin asked me to come back to LA and we'd find something else to do.
"Winkler had a running deal with screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. We produced his Betrayed (1988) and Music Box (1989). Irwin gave me a desk and a phone and I looked for projects to develop. It was trial by fire. Irwin never sat down and said, 'Here are the hows and wherefores of how you do this.' But as the months went by, you picked up things. And I've partnered with Irwin since 1990."
Luke: "How do you divide up your roles?"
Rob: "Since Irwin has focused on finding projects to direct, I go out and scan the town for material. I meet with writers. We try to develop stuff in-house."
Luke: "I notice that many directors want to become producers and many producers want to become directors."
Rob: "Everybody always thinks the other guy's job is easier than my job. Directors want to produce their own material because they want the autonomy. Some directors feel that they don't need a creative producer, someone looking over their shoulder saying, 'What about this?' Irwin and I think it is always good to have someone else as a guidepost. When you're in production, you can get tunnel vision."
Luke: "What's the most meaningful film you've worked on?"
Rob: "Life as a House (2001) because it had a major impact on people. We've had letters. We've seen stuff on the internet. We've seen people at previews. It wasn't just that it was a tearjerker, but people made connections in their lives after seeing it. One guy left the theater halfway through a showing to call his dad, who he hadn't spoken to in years."
Luke: "Did Life as a House turn out as you envisioned it?"
Rob: "It did. Every element turned out exactly the way I envisioned. The only exception was the music. I loved the score but I'd always envisioned a less emotional score. But if we'd gone that direction, I'm not sure the movie would've had the impact. We knew we'd have to make it for a price. We were bound to do it for $19 million. We had one shot at getting that street and house and we did. We'd scoured up and down the coast for a place within reasonable driving distance."
Luke: "Did they really jump off?"
Rob: "No. There were rocks below there. Rather than doing the standard, 'As the actor runs, you cut to a wide shot,' I had this idea of Kevin [Kline] starting to run, and as he jumps, we morph one shot into a stunt guy. Even the effects guys were stunned when we did it because it was seamless. We ran the film frame by frame and could not tell where the change was. The jump was done over at Catalina. Kevin jumped five feet to the ground. When we shot the scene of Kevin, Hayden and the dog by the cliff, we wired them just in case they slipped."
Luke: "How did it do at the box office?"
Rob: "It did ok. It was frustrating. We felt like it was an extraordinary film. When we previewed it, people loved it. We got the highest ratings of any film we've done. It felt like a movie people could connect to, especially after 9/11. The marketing of films is so tricky and you only get one weekend to make it work. We got hurt by critics. I think there's an inherent cynicism with them that they can't embrace anything that isn't edgy."
Luke: "Was it a mistake to make it an R-rated film?"
Rob: "We tried to make it a PG-13. We went to an appeal and lost by one vote. It was a movie with teenage sex and drugs, so it was tough. It was a learning experience. It seems that with certain pictures, you want to be PG-13."
Luke: "It seemed like it should've been a heartwarming family film and it was just too edgy for that."
Rob: "I guess. I remember when we were doing previews and this woman said she was going to take her kids (eight and ten years of age) to this."
Luke: "Tell me about The Shipping News (2001)."
Rob: "It's not something we normally do and The Shipping News is proof of why. We usually develop our own ideas. We'll sit in this room and say, 'What if?' Sometimes it is only one line, like Life as a House. What if you're younger than you should be and someone comes along and says it's over. You meet a lot of writers and field ideas and you work with a writer and see it all the way through.
"We'd never gotten involved in a situation where someone came along and said, 'Here's a project. Would you help us out with it?' Columbia had Shipping News. They had Director Fred Skepsi and John Travolta was going to star. They had a script. They asked us to come on board. The original elements fell apart. We brought on Ron Bass to do a rewrite. Director Lasse Halstrom came back on the project. He'd just done Cider House Rules which stepped him up again. Lasse has his own producer.
"Columbia was having a hard time making certain types of movies work [like Life as a House and The Shipping News]. They let the project go and Miramax picked it up. We were shooting Life as a House and so we let it go. Eventually, I asked them to take my name off the credits. I didn't feel like I was watching a movie that I was involved in. They rewrote the script and went off to Newfoundland to shoot it."
Luke: "Enough (2002) starring Jennifer Lopez."
Rob: "It previewed gangbusters. Audiences loved it. It's a popcorn movie. And then the week before it opens, the reviews come out and they were harsh. Some of them took a malicious point of view. The movie was done with the best of intentions. We carefully researched the movie. We were disappointed with the reviews and the box office."
From Imdb.com: "An abused woman (Lopez) discovers that the dream man (Campbell) she married wasn't whom she thought he was. She and her daughter try to escape (such as to her previous boyfriend played by Futterman), but he pursues relentlessly. Fearing also for the safety of her daughter, she decides that there's only one way out of the marriage: kill him."
Rob: "We try to find a reason to make a movie. Sometimes it gets lost along the way. A good example is The Juror. Irwin and I had talked about doing a movie about the juror system. I'd seen this great Anna Devere Smith about the LA Riots and she had this great segment about one of the jurors she interviewed. It was fascinating listening to the behind-the-scenes of a jury. We'd read article in the New Yorker about a guy's experience on a jury. We mentioned it off-hand to some of our agents at CAA. This book came in called The Juror. I read it overnight and it was a great read and a good look at the jury system. As time goes on, the script takes on thriller qualities. We try to find things that have a backdrop to them.
"After Irwin produced Goodfellas, we got every mob script in the world sent to us. After we did Life as a House, we got every family script. After The Net, we got every computer script. But there were reasons why we made those particular films. You can spend two years at least on a project. It's a lot of work. And if you don't have a reason to go back to for why you're doing the movie, that's when you can get disappointed if you're just doing it for the fun of it. The fun can sometimes go away easily."