Interviews: Mark Heidelberger Talks About What It's Like To Be A Producer

Mark Heidelberger, producer of the upcoming films The Basement and Walking on Palmettos, talks us through his – rather exciting – day job.

TMS: How did you get into producing, Mark?

MH: I went to film school at UCSB in the late 90’s where I had produced and directed some shorts. When I moved to LA, I met up with an old school buddy who asked if I wanted to produce and maybe direct some music videos with him. I didn’t know much about producing since UCSB’s curriculum was more critical studies than production, so I learned a lot just by doing. But I still wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do. I decided to apply to UCLA’s producing program and AFI’s directing program, both of which are master’s degrees, and told myself that whatever one I got into would be the path I pursued. (No idea what I would have done if I didn’t get into either.) Well, AFI rejected me, but UCLA accepted me, so that helped make things easy. While I went to UCLA, my passionate for producing grew and I realized that’s what I wanted to do. It was during that time that I built my company, Treasure Entertainment, which I co-ran until 2011.

TMSHow does producing and directing differ – and is there a reason you took the former route than the latter?

MHThose two positions are as different as the pitcher and the outfielder. They both play on the same team, but have vastly different duties. The director is entrusted by the producer to translate the script to the screen – to guide the actors on set and figure out how best to shoot what’s on the page. But when the director delivers his cut, he’s basically done (with the exception of some publicity duties later on). The producer, on the other hand, is the film’s creative and fiscal gatekeeper, protecting the integrity of the story and the film’s finances from inception through release. He is the only person who’s on the film the entire time while also typically serving as the ultimate decision-maker. The producer finds and develops the script, hires and collaborates with the director, helps select key cast, guides production and post, finds distribution and helps oversee the marketing process. That ability to call shots and shape the entire project is what ultimately attracts me most to producing.

TMSI assume with a producer that your responsibilities increase with each film. Is that correct to say?

MHNo, not necessarily. Every film is a different animal, and my involvement really differs from film to film depending on the circumstances. I work freelance, so I’m often hired by an outside company or individual to shepherd the project. In some cases, there’s already a production-ready script that requires almost no further development, but I still have to find a director. Sometimes there’s only a director with an idea, but no script, and so I have to help craft the material from scratch. Sometimes I’m only brought on to supervise one aspect of the project. For instance, on Pray for Rain, I was mainly involved with development and production, while I only handled post on Mississippi Murder. On Comfort and Ninja Apocalypse, I was a true “produced by” producer with my hand in every aspect.

TMSAnd what about on Comfort, what were your main responsibilities?

MHComfort is one of the films I’m most proud of. Despite its limited budget, it did very well and was roundly applauded by critics and audiences alike. I served as the sole producer, although writer-director William Lu was very hands on, and we worked as a great team together. I first helped Will turn his screenplay into a shooting script, later bringing in fellow screenwriter and friend Erik Martinez to tighten the dialogue a bit, and then consulted on casting decisions. I was also the line producer/UPM, so I hired all the key staff, secured the vendors and locations, managed the schedule and budget, and oversaw the day-to-day execution. Later, I supervised post, found worldwide distribution for the film and assisted with marketing and publicity.

TMSWhen is a film – like Comfort – successful for you? is all down to how much money it makes?

MHThere’s a reason we call this “show business” and not “show show.” It is a business, so yes, money is a major factor in determining the success of a picture because it tells you whether you were able to reach your audience or not. But there are varying types of success, right? And film is interesting because it’s also an art. So, a film could be financially successful, but maybe not critically successful or artistically satisfying or its financial success could be limited to certain territories. In the case of Comfort, I loved the story, characters and themes of self-discovery as well as the production value we were able to elicit, so it was an artistic success in my eyes. Considering the strong reviews it got, I’d say it was also a critical success. And checks continue to roll in, so I suppose we’re finding our audience.

TMSWhat was your toughest day, as a producer, on that film?

MHThe shoot went pretty smooth overall. There weren’t a lot of major hiccups. But there was a big one on the day we shot the doctor’s office and conference room scenes. We shot the first five days at the main house location, so the caterer was used to going there to set up lunch. Day six was the first day where we were elsewhere, and I suppose they didn’t check the call sheet or maps or something, because the driver went back to the house. When he found out no one was there, he called his boss who told him he was at the wrong place. Well, he was booking it down the highway to get to us on time and got pulled over for speeding. Meanwhile, I’m flipping out because we had no lunch. We went into a 15-minute grace period while I was blowing up the caterer’s phone, but no one was giving me answers, and I finally had the AD call lunch even though there was no food. I had no choice but to dole out all my petty cash and send the crew on a one-hour walk-away lunch to a restaurant down the street. Finally, the caterer called me back and told me what had happened. Needless to say I was pretty angry, but they finally made good by reimbursing me for the petty cash I was out.

TMSIn terms of casting or creative choices, are there ever disagreements between you and the director?

MHThere weren’t on Comfort – Will and I saw pretty much saw eye to eye – but on other films, there definitely have been. As a producer, I don’t typically concern myself with day players or smaller roles (unless it’s a star cameo). But the lead roles are important not only because they must carry the story, but also draw an audience. So, I’m not only looking at whether the actor is creatively right but also whether they bring a certain level of financial value, as I also need to protect the investor. Sometimes I have to ask a director to put on their “producer” hat for a moment in order to understand why a choice that’s only great in one way, say because of their look or audition, might not be the most inspired choice all around.

TMSCan you give us an idea of what you’re working on next?

MHI’ve been in development on a $30 million film called Walking on Palmettos for the last two years, which I’m co-producing with screen legend Ed Asner and hoping to get off the ground this year. It tells the true story of Myles Richards, this privileged but restless surfer who managed to build a marijuana-smuggling empire in the 1970’s that made him a millionaire, but also estranged him from his disapproving father and drew the attention of an FBI agent who stopped at nothing to bring him down. I’m also attached to a boxing drama called Worth the Fight, which I’d like to shoot next year, about an underground bruiser recruited into the legit boxing world by an over-the-hill coach. It’s a great story about struggle and the importance of family, as the hero must overcome his seedy past and his own insecurities to find success or risk losing his siblings to the welfare system. However, my next project will likely be a techno-thriller called LITU for TDP Films about helicopter parents who buy a digital AI to tutor their ten-year-old twins, but soon find themselves in a struggle for supremacy, as the machine is smarter than they are and controls their entire home. It’s very cool stuff that plays on people’s fear today of AI’s growing dominance in our lives.

TMSHow many films do you juggle at any one time? I imagine it’s quite a few?

MHIt depends. I would say I juggle about a half dozen on average. I work freelance, so it just depends on how many clients are hiring me at any given time. In addition to production, I also do budgets, business plans and script development as a service. Plus, I produce content other than features – things like music videos, commercials and documentaries. Last year, I was a producer on a four-episode new media series out of China called The Offer. I’m pretty much a soup-to-nuts guy, and I don’t discriminate when it comes to the type of content. My website () gives a little more detail on what I do and what I’ve done.

TMSAny projects that you’ve wanted to do that, for one reason or another, fell through?

MHToo many to count. I had a vampire-Western called High Midnight that I had worked on for a decade that never got made. But part of being a good producer is taking your licks and getting back up on that horse. You come to realize that you’re never going to get all of your babies made. If you develop 10 projects and get one into production, you’re doing all right. Just keep plugging.