How We Did It: Amy Robinson and Eric Steel, producers of Julie & Julia
Movie producers, like entrepreneurs, need a strong stomach for risk. It can take years of planning, pitching, negotiating, coaxing, hoping, and praying to go from a germ of an idea to a box-office hit. Julie & Julia, which opens in theaters today, is the 16th movie that Amy Robinson has produced. It's Eric Steel's fifth. Robinson, who has been an independent producer in New York City for more than 30 years, started out as an actress. She played Teresa in Mean Streets -- before producing films such as For Love of the Game, starring Kevin Costner, and Martin Scorsese's cult classic After Hours. Steel, on the other hand, came up through the studio system, working at Disney for producer Jeffrey Katzenberg -- now CEO of DreamWorks -- before venturing out on his own to produce a documentary. Julie & Julia is Steel's second feature film as an executive producer. Though Robinson and Steel came to the project from different starting points, they both agree that their jobs as producers are as creative as they are entrepreneurial. "Every film is like starting a new company," Robinson says. "You may work with some people who you knew in the past, but each experience brings its own set of issues and problems, triumphs and failures. Each project is its own little war."
Robinson: I'm a producer because I love to read. Even as a kid, I'd envision books I read as films in my head. That's what happened when I read Anne Beattie's book, Chilly Scenes of Winter, which I optioned for my first film. I learned that finding good material is the most important thing you do as a producer. The next important lesson I learned was, Hold on to the rights for as long as you can. When I was working on Once Around, it got pushed back for a year because Dustin Hoffman wanted to be in it, and then he wanted to take it over. [Ultimately, Hoffman was not in the film.] At the time Cinecom, an independent New York-based film company, was financing the film, but then they folded, and Universal stepped in. When a studio brings financing, they take over the rights. Which brings me to the next important lesson: Have a good lawyer.
Steel: My grandparents owned drive-in movie theaters in New Jersey, so I grew up listening to people talk about movies. My first job was as a production assistant for Stanley Jaffe's film Without a Trace. I graduated from Yale on a Sunday, moved to Los Angeles on Monday, and started work for Jeffrey Katzenberg on Tuesday. I didn't take a day off for a year and a half.
I moved to New York and met Amy when I worked at Cinecom. I was one of the people asked to read and help shape Once Around, which was a complicated movie to put together, like a Silicon Valley start-up. I then went into book publishing, as an editor, for six years before Scott Rudin [who has produced more than 80 films] offered me a job finding book properties to turn into movies. Together, we did Angela's Ashes, Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead, and Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow. In 2001, I decided to start my own company.
I read about Julie Powell [the inspiration for Julie & Julia] in The New York Times in 2003. She was miserable, working for a government agency in Manhattan. So she decided to start a blog called The Julie/Julia Project, in which she set out to cook every recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of one year. I thought it was a great story. I found Julie Powell in the phone book and left her a message.
Robinson: Earlier that spring, I saw an A&E biography of Julia Child and was amazed to learn that she didn't know how to cook until she was almost 40. So I started noodling around with a movie idea based on that. And then I saw the New York Times article on Julie Powell and thought, What if you combine these two stories? But, not being the good producer, I clipped the article and went on vacation. The week I got back, I saw a book editor and asked, "Any hot projects?" And she said, "There's a big bidding war over Julie Powell's blog." I made an offer and later learned that Eric won it. I hadn't seen Eric for years, but I called and said, "I've got an idea."
Steel: I learned from Scott Rudin that the best time to buy film rights for a book is before the book gets published. Julie Powell didn't even have an agent when we first spoke. She did when I made an offer, but I was not alone. You're not supposed to know who's bidding against you, but I was told it was Julia Roberts's company. Maybe the Julia-Julie-Julia thing was too much for her! All I know is that I was working out of my apartment with no studio backing but kept upping the money because I so believed in this project. So the check to Julie Powell for the rights to make her book a movie came out of my savings account.
When Amy called, I was interested in working with her, because though I had worked with producers and in the studio, I had never really taken a project from beginning to end on my own. I valued her experience. Plus, I really liked her idea of combining the two stories. In fact, the more we put Julia Child into the story, the more sense the story made.
Robinson: I was so glad he agreed. Producing is a lonely job, especially in the early stages. It's like pushing a boulder up a very steep hill. Once you get to the top, it kind of rolls down. But you want help with the pushing part. We put together a pitch and approached a small independent movie production company. After it passed, we approached the studios. Amy Pascal, Sony's co-chairman, didn't even let us pitch. She started the conversation saying, "I want it."
Steel: I found it anticlimactic! We worked so hard on the pitch!
Robinson: We pitched other studios and had two interested buyers, which is rare and great. We chose Sony and got development money to have the script written. Then, they drafted a contract with "points" indicating when and where they could pull out at any stage. But we knew Amy was committed when she said, "This would be perfect for Nora Ephron. She loves food." Nora had just finished Bewitched and said, "I could write this." And she could! Meanwhile, Julia Child had died and Alex Prud'homme's biography that he co-wrote with Child, My Life in France (April 2006), came out, which meant we had to option that book, too.
Steel: Nora wrote the script fast -- from the start, she thought Meryl Streep would be the perfect Julia Child. I remember her telling us a story that she had seen Meryl at a dinner party and told her that she was working on this project. Meryl did a quick turn around and reappeared as Julia Child -- not just the voice but also the expression and even the height. Suddenly, she grew to 6 feet.
Once Meryl said yes, we could move forward with casting and a schedule. But not until Meryl said yes.
Robinson: That was the moment when all the elements clicked into place, and the movie started to feel like a movie. Sony requested a budget -- Eric and I worked on that with Nora and Don Lee, our line producer. He breaks the script down scene by scene to decide, "Are we shooting in Paris? Or Montreal?" Our budget was $40 million, which meant we stayed in New York and shot all the Paris interiors there. The scenes at the Cordon Bleu and Julie's apartment were sets we built on a sound stage in Queens. These decisions inform your budget, and that breakdown becomes your bible.
Steel: Your job as producer is to give your director the sense that everything has fallen in line exactly the way she wants. Nora is not wishy-washy. She knew from the start what she wanted, and so part of our job was getting out of the way.
Robinson: We also look for ways to help. If you see distress in the art department, you say, "Hey, what's going on?" There are dramas almost every day.
After we finished filming, things got quiet again. Nora showed us her first edit, we gave her some notes, and then we took the next cut to L.A. for a preview. That's the scariest moment for a producer -- the studio executives are all there, and you are holding your breath. For this movie, it was clear in the first 15 minutes that the audience loved it. And I felt total relief.
Steel: The studio paid me back for the option when we signed the development deal. But as producers, we don't actually get a salary until we go into preproduction. And that's why I worked simultaneously on a few other things, including a cable show with Julie Powell that Amy and I are co-producing.
Robinson: This film took five years to make, which is not unusual -- I've been working on one project for 12 years. That is why you have to do more than one project at a time. You try to keep sticks in the fire. Or be smart about real estate.
People often think that you have to know a ton of people to be a producer. But the truth is, you have to know good material. Finding the project is entrepreneurial -- whether it's out of print or self-published. And since it will still take years to make a movie, I first ask myself, Will I still like this in three years? It's a gut check and a realistic question. Can I afford to keep doing it? The one question I ask people who are thinking of going into the movie business is, "Can you live a very insecure life?"