Producer Ralph Winter: From the "X-Men" to "House"
Ralph Winter produced a series of Hollywood mega-blockbusters, including the “X-Men” films, “Fantastic Four” series, “The Planet of the Apes,” and “Star Trek III, IV, V and VI.” He has also been involved in the production of some horror/suspense films based on books by Christian authors Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker (Thr3e, The Visitation, and most recently, House).
A member of the Directors’ Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he speaks to groups around the country about faith and filmmaking. Married to wife Judy for more than 30 years, Ralph makes his home in Southern California while not on location in places like British Columbia, Australia, Poland, or Visalia, California.
House is your next project coming out. You were executive producer on that project. How much involvement does that mean on your part?
Ralph: Part of what it does is bring credibility when we’re trying to find cast and directors. So I bring the credibility of someone who has mainstream relationships. It’s also because of that that we get a 3-picture output deal with Lionsgate. Lionsgate makes the deal because they know that I’m involved in the making of the movie.
It’s involvement in the approval of the scrip and the director. I’m also involved with Joe (Goodman) and Bobby (Neutz), the producers, on the casting of the movie. That affects how it’s going to fit for our international sales and how that will work.
Physically, I wasn’t there in Poland during the photography of the movie. I think I was working on “The Fantastic Four” in a different part of the world. So you can’t always be physically be on the set every day on the picture. But there’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into preparing the movie, then the post-production of the movie, and the marketing and distribution of the movie.
In some ways, it’s the Godfather role. In some ways, it’s more active. It depends on the stage of the movie-making. When I was working at Fox, I was able to obtain a cutting room very cheaply and allow post-production to happen just down the hall from me so that I could check in on that process and help keep it going for a good price.
At other times, Joe had to be the guy on set in Poland. Like any other movie, you try to get it made in pre-production in terms of the script and knowing what you want for the casting and direction.
How would you describe the market or audience this film is made for? The artwork looks like it’s geared more toward a secular audience.
Ralph: It is. Our core audience is book readers of Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti. Both of those guys write darker material, both of them are not surprised that we have an R-rated movie. It’s dark. It’s the battle of good and evil, and it’s not surprising to them. It’s what they intended. They’re not movie-makers, but they understand that’s what’s out there.
Hopefully, we’re doing it with a worldview that will come through. We’re doing it without any unnecessary violence, no sex or horrible language that we know would offend their core audience. But we’re also trying to broaden that out to a secular audience that enjoys scary movies. There are a lot of young kids that enjoy that, so we’re sorry that they can’t go see it, but the movie is intense. It’s rated R, but it might be the mildest R in the history of entertainment. But it is rated R. I get it.
We went through a lot of fiery hoops to try to fix that for the parents who are on the MPAA, but they just didn’t buy it. Fine. The materials and art are intense, and that probably will prevent some people from coming and keep Christian some audiences away from the movie. That’s OK with us, because that’s the way it is.
We see the Christian audience as not all one monolithic group that likes everything. There are certainly Christians that aren’t attracted by Fireproof, and that’s OK. I think there’s a segment that is interested in the more intense, more scary movie, on-the-edge-of-your-seat, have a scare or fright and jump. There’s an audience that likes that type of film, and there’s an audience that doesn’t like that.
We’re hoping there’s an audience that will respond and allows us to continue making more movies of Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti books.
Your observation that the Christian audience is not a monolithic one is something every filmmaker who is a Christian should realize. How can that kind of conversation be encouraged?
Ralph: It’s an education. It’s a journey. It’s funny to me that we’re still having conversations about whether Christians go see R-rated movies. R-rated movies are successful because Christians go. From “Braveheart” to the most successful R-rated film of all times, The Passion of the Christ, Christians are at the front of those lines.
It’s a bit of a double standard. I think it’s an education process. In some ways, when I travel and speak, I’m surprised that people still want to ask that question, but they do, and it’s all right. It’s about being discerning about which R-rated movies am I going to go to, and why? And there are plenty of resources, like ChristianCinema.com and other sites that offer reviews about what the movie is about, as well as the intentions of the filmmakers.
Some people can see some of the R-rated films and some can’t. My wife can’t see some of the R-rated movies that I’ll go see because they give her nightmares. She’s too visual and they make her think about things she shouldn’t think about.
I think to make a blanket statement that you can’t go see any R-rated movies because there’s no value in them is an extreme position. And to say you can’t go see R-rated movies because you’re a Christian is silly.
What are some of your current projects?
Ralph: I’m finishing “Wolverine” for Fox, which comes out May 1, 2009. We finished shooting that in Sydney this past summer and are in post-production now, so we’re excited about that.
I’m talking with Bobby and Kevin Downes about a movie based on a Karen Kingsbury novel. I’m continuing to develop “The Screwtape Letters,” which is at Walden Media. I’m working on “Purpose-Driven Life,” which is a narrative and a documentary at Fox Searchlight.
There are a couple of other movies. One is a thriller called “The Surrogate,” for Fox Atomic, and another is a project for “Big Fox” (Twentieth Century Fox) called “Man and Wife.” Those are probably the most active projects that are out there.
We’re also looking at putting together a package on “Same Kind of Different as Me,” which is a book that has been read a lot in the Christian community. I’m also talking to Bruce Wilkinson about “Prayer of Jabez.” We have a screenplay, so we’re trying to get that made into a movie.
So there are a lot of things; some are based on Christian books, some are straight ahead entertainment. We’re out there packaging those things and trying to put them together.
Hugh Jackman said he didn’t want to do “Wolverine” without you. Why do you think he said that?
Ralph: We did three pictures together, and he made that personal appeal to me to come down and help make the picture. He said he didn’t want to do it without me, and that’s a kind gesture. In reality, he probably could make the movie with anybody. He’s a big enough star.
But I think in his first role as producer he wanted someone that he trusted and someone who had delivered for him before. I think he wanted someone who would take care of him on the set. I take it at face value that what he said was true. It’s trying to take care of people and treat them with respect. I tell them the truth with no candy coating.
We’ve seen some success, and been through some hard times together. I think Hugh and I have a good relationship and he wanted me to help him guide this one along, and I was happy to do it.
You have mentored a lot of younger producers, bringing them along on projects. Why do you do that?
Ralph: Part of it is that you partner with all sorts of people. Certainly with Bobby and Kevin, they’ve got great source materials and demonstrated their ability on smaller movies like The Visitation. They are the ones that came back to me to see if I were interested in the Karen Kingsbury novel.
It’s about finding people that you want to partner with, and a little bit of it is giving back, and a little is staying connected to a younger element in the business. It’s also finding people that have good instincts, good sensibilities, good material, and just don’t have the experience in getting some of this done. That’s a perfect balance where I can provide the experience and maybe a little bit of clout. It helps them not fall into a pothole on the road and get their project made at the level they want to get it made.
What are the major responsibilities of a producer?
Ralph: Someone has to be the champion for the project from beginning to end, and that’s what the producer has to do. The Academy honors the producer with the Oscar for “Best Picture.” Someone has to find the story, find the financing, find the distributor, develop the story, find the director, cast it, and develop all the infrastructure to make the movie.
The producer has to have the sensibilities about what is commercial in the marketplace and know what the audience wants to see, and then drive that across the finish line. Some person, or persons, or group of persons, or team, needs to be that champion, that cheerleader, that entity that makes it happen. That’s what a producer does.
Sometimes you have to change the actual story to make it more commercial, but most producers have the kind of integrity that says, “I want to do that without destroying the core material.”
In the X-Men movies, the director, along with the studio, and us as producers, didn’t want to put our characters in yellow spandex suits. That’s what the comic book fans wanted, and that’s what the core material was.
But in making a commercial movie, you can’t do that. It just looks silly. So we made those kinds of changes, which some people didn’t agree with us about before the movie came out. But after the movie came out, you didn’t hear that kind of dialogue at all, so I think we made the right kind of changes.
You’ve got to do that in a way that makes it commercial. It’s a different art form than a comic book or a book. But it’s always a concern. I think “Harry Potter” fans are pretty happy with the adaptations. Narnia fans may or may not be happy with the adaptations.
You’re just finishing a working relationship with Fox. What are some things you learned while working with the studio that are invaluable to the rest of your career?
Ralph: Certainly one of the things I’ve learned during my 10 years at Fox is an even tighter skill of fiscal responsibility. In that environment, they are very good at making the most out of a dollar. I think I knew that before from working at one of the other studios, but I’ve learned it to a finer degree. I hope to continue to take that kind of fiscal discipline on to other projects I do.
I think I take away as well an appreciation for how big movies get made and where the money should be spent. I have a greater appreciation for the marketing and distribution of these big movies. I realize that’s so much larger a proportion of how the movie gets made than the actual shooting of a movie, and I have a greater appreciation for that.
Overall, I’ve had a deepening of the respect that it takes and the working relationships it takes with everybody to get a movie made. There are just so many moving parts. You can’t take people for granted, and when people come through for you in the end, it’s because you built a relationship and you treat people fairly, and they respond in kind.
You were a history major in college, and now find yourself a sought-after Hollywood producer. What was the process from one to the other?
Ralph: It was really God’s plan, not mine. I didn’t attend film school, don’t have any relatives in the business, and never thought about it. Out of school, I got a job in a department store and ended up writing, directing and producing 50 industrial videos.
They were on topics like teaching employees how to read customers, how to ring the register, how to manage employee benefits, how to prevent theft, etc. That was sort of inadvertently my film school. I was learning how to tell stories, how to do it for an audience that demanded some kind of measurement and response. I actually did well at it.
From there, I got a job at Paramount Pictures in post-production. At that time, there was a new technology in video, and I did post-production on all their television shows (which included Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Taxi, and Mork and Mindy). I also learned film and wound up being more of an expert on film in post-production.
After about 3 or 4 years, I left and went out as an associate producer on “Stark Trek III” in 1982. I’ve been able to leverage relationships and jobs and grow as a producer ever since.
Your career is very interesting because you’ve been involved in some huge projects, but are still pursuing smaller pictures and projects as well.
Ralph: I’m interested in stories. I want to make movies that I want to see, and all those projects I mentioned before are projects that I want to see make it to the screen, and that are interesting to me. It’s not that I’m not interested in the bigger projects. I think if I can find and develop them that would be great. But particularly, I like to flex the more creative muscles about producing movies.
I look at the marketplace and say, “What isn’t being made? What isn’t out there that should be out there?” and that draws me to some of those stories.
You once wrote that some of the projects you did were difficult for your family when your kids were younger. How has that dynamic changed in the last few years?
Ralph: My wife travels more with me now as other family responsibilities allow. As I look back, I think if I had pushed harder to take my kids with me on location when they were younger, I might have avoided some of that pain. There’s no question this business requires a larger time commitment, and the feature film world requires that you be on location a lot.
You have to find creative ways of making it work for the family. It’s not impossible, but there are choices. Choices about how successful you want to be, what does success mean, how much you travel, what projects you take, etc. Some of those are high-class problems and it’s nice to have a choice. Some people don’t have a choice.
It gets down to defining what does success look like emotionally, financially, spiritually, intellectually. What is it that stimulates you to say, “Yeah, I’m happy. I’m happy I did this project. That’s great. I’m happy I made this amount of money. This is terrific.”
It’s about defining those things. It’s a journey to figure that stuff out.
Who are moviemakers that really succeed at telling good stories and creating good productions you would encourage other filmmakers to study?
Ralph: We might be better off having that conversation when we see what comes out for Oscar consideration. There are plenty of thoughtful filmmakers. Again, the audience is not monolithic.
That being said, I like to go see Jerry Bruckheimer movies at times because it’s pure entertainment and a two-hour escape. Steven Spielberg is someone you want to watch and see all the kinds of movies he makes, what he’s interested in, and what he does, because he’s probably one of the greatest living filmmakers of our time.
I’m encouraged by a lot of the quality you see on television. My wife is a fan of all of these police procedural shows, and some of those are pretty good. They’re pretty interesting, quality shows. I’m recording, but haven’t seen yet, Entourage, Mad Men, and True Blood. Apparently there’s some good writing on those shows.
I’m probably not a fan of High School Musical, but then, I’m not a 14-year-old female. But Kenny Ortega (director) is a good guy and I’m glad he’s finding some success in making these movies for Disney. I made a movie with him about 15 years ago called Hocus Pocus, and he’s a thoughtful guy. He’s a lot about dance, so it’s perfect what he’s doing. He’s working in his strong point, and it is creating a fun story with song and dance.
This is an example of the monolithic thing – you can’t look for great meaning in every movie that comes out because films are made for all kinds of different reasons. We’re trying to tell a story with House, but Kenny is just trying to have that enthusiastic romp with high schoolers dancing, and he’s hitting a niche that no one else is doing. So it’s great.
What do you think of the trend to write study guides and try to dig deep meaning out of every new and popular film that is released in theaters?
Ralph: As filmmakers, sometimes we do public discussions and questions, and people will come up and tell us about these different meanings in the movie, and we’ll say, “What are you talking about? That wasn’t our intention at all, and we weren’t trying to say that.”
Movies are popular, and people are trying to dissect them and read into a lot of things, and while some of that is healthy, some of it is overblown. Our whole fascination with the movie business is overblown. Why are we tracking box scores like a baseball game? Why do we care on Monday morning what the box office scores were? Outside of people like us who work in the business, what does it matter? It’s kind of silly.
I think churches are pretty aware of what’s happening, and I don’t think they’re going to let themselves became a marketing platform for the studios to get their films out to the Christian audience. Everyone wants to take advantage of the audience that came out to see The Passion of the Christ, and that wasn’t a business model, it was a one-off.
That happened to be an extraordinary picture about an extraordinary time and an extraordinary subject. It was a slice of 12 – 18 hours in Jesus’ life. That’s not a business model. You can’t go out and make a sequel to The Passion and be just as successful. It’s sort of disturbing to see that people want to do that stuff.
I think the church is smart enough to look at things and say, “Come on. I don’t want to promote a movie from the pulpit every month just because I get a screener.”
I think there are some movies that are worthwhile and would be good for some audiences because we are a culture that is interested in movies. But that also may be a little more regional, more about people on the West Coast than people in Oklahoma City. They may not be as “movie mad” as we are.
What sort of advice would you give to a younger generation of filmmakers?
Ralph: If you want to be a producer, it’s about controlling the story and controlling the material. I wish I’d known that earlier. I think if you’re really serious about this and want to produce the movie, you have to control the material.
You’ve got to find the material, figure out how you can get it to the screen in a unique way that no one else can, and get it to the screen in a way that the audience will want to see it. It takes commercial instinct, but it’s really about controlling the material.
It’s also about integrity, what our journey is, how to get close to Christ, and what does it mean to follow him. What does it mean to be in community with other believers and build relationships? It’s about character building. That’s what the Christian life is about. It’s never about the actual products we make; it’s about the people we’re becoming.
You won’t take those projects with you when you leave; it’s your character. Those are the driving forces to me. They’re the things important to me right now, and I wish they had been important to me all of my life. It’s always a struggle to keep the compass pointed to True North.