June 2, 2010 — Marshall Herskovitz is an award-winning writer, producer, and director. He helped create such series as thirtysomething, My So-Called Life and Once and Again.
Among the films he has produced are Legends of the Fall, Traffic, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond and the upcoming 2010 release Love and Other Drugs. He also directed Jack the Bear and Dangerous Beauty.
In 2007, Herskovitz migrated to the Internet with quarterlife, the ground-breaking online series and social network dedicated to artistic, activist twentysomethings.
Herskovitz is president of the Producers Guild of America, which will be presenting the second annual Produced By Conference June 4-6 in Los Angeles on the 20th Century Fox lot.
Screen Actors Guild spoke with Herskovitz for a preview of Produced By as well as to get his advice for young actors and hyphenates.
Screen Actors Guild: What can we look forward to hearing you speak about this weekend? As president of PGA, we’re assuming the value of unions might be one of the themes.
Marshall Herskovitz: Mark Gordon and I are going to try to speak about the future of producing, but we don't have any crystal balls! The issue of unionization is always there in the background, but it would be very complicated for legal and political reasons....
SAG: You studied at AFI, where you met your frequent creative partner Edward Zwick, and began a successful career in Hollywood shortly after. Is part of the trick finding the right people with whom you associate and do business?
MH: Well, they always say it's "who you know," don't they? I think there's a skill in creating the right kind of relationships — ones that are mutually beneficial. Certainly that's been true for Ed and me.
SAG: Are the keys to writing, producing, directing and acting for great television the same as they were with thirtysomething?
MH: That's a good question! I think good storytelling remains the same. What's changed is who's controlling that storytelling. There are so many "cooks" now in the kitchen, so many people from networks and studios demanding control, that it makes it difficult often for the creative people just to do their work.
SAG: Are online productions really the new TV or is traditional TV always going to be a different beast? Will the differences evaporate?
MH: I've learned from painful experience that online production is not a business yet. Television is still a vast and growing medium. Cable television is the most exciting part of the entertainment universe right now, if you ask me. Look at the fascinating work being done there.
I think the whole concept of Internet over Television has been overlooked until recently. Now Google is jumping in in a big way. This in my mind is going to be the game changer — when you have limitless feeds over the Internet coming into your TV. No one knows what this will end up looking like!
SAG: Has the success of quarterlife played a part in changing the discussion?
MH: I'd like to think that quarterlife had some influence, but I'm not sure it has, frankly. It was still using the advertising-supported Internet model. And I think that model has shown itself to be inadequate for Internet-only productions. Let's see what happens with Internet Over TV.
SAG: How much of what you’ve learned as a producer did you learn by trial and error?
MH: It's hard to make errors in this business — your career often pays for them. One of the blessings of doing a TV series — like thirtysomething — is that your errors get covered up over time, because the next week's show must go on. We need to make mistakes in order to learn, but we can also be analytical about them, and not make them over and over again. Remember, John Ford did about 50 two-reelers before he ever made a feature film. I'm sure there were many errors in those early films.
SAG: As a producer/director, are you constantly scouting great acting talent?
MH: Yes. There are never enough great actors or great writers! The unsung heroes of this business are the casting directors because they are the ones going to the plays and the shows to find the new talent. I depend upon my casting directors to show me great new talent.
SAG: Have you ever written something simply because you wanted to work with a certain actor?
MH: Yes, and it was a mistake. Unfortunately, I can't reveal who the actor was, but he said no. And we were then stuck with a piece of material that wasn't right for anyone else. Much better to concentrate on telling a great story, and having faith that you will find the right actor for each part.
SAG: Good advice. What can an actor do to rise to your attention as a producer?
MH: I get asked this question all the time, and I wish there were a definitive answer. It's really about a kind of "critical mass" of connections, relationships, and opportunities. An actor needs to put him or herself constantly in places where he or she can be discovered — in plays, showcases, student films, etc. I also tell actors that they should develop their own skills as writers and directors and producers. If there's no opportunity handed to you, then MAKE one!
SAG: Much of your work has been socially minded. Is it a pitfall for young producers and others in the industry to take on social themes?
MH: The climate for social themes rises and falls in our business. I think it's a greater pitfall to base your work entirely on what other people are doing, to make films that just refer to other films instead of to the real world or your real concerns. What works, it seems to me, in the long run is an individual vision or voice. Spielberg had that. Lucas had that. So many great filmmakers had a passion for telling a certain kind of story. And if that story is on a socially conscious theme, it can still work.
SAG: Do you advise wearing multiple hats, as you have, or simply focusing on the one thing that a person does best?
MH: Good question. I was taught to be a “filmmaker,” which means writer, producer, director (and sometimes editor, gaffer, actor, etc.!). It really depends upon the individual. Play to your strengths. I will say that the business in general demands that we specialize — it wants you to declare that you're a writer or an actor or a director. It doesn't trust people who are "generalists." I became a hyphenate by moving from one stage to the next. First as a writer, then as a producer, then director. Then I hired myself to act!
SAG: Speaking of acting, why is it important for actors to attend the Produced By Conference?
MH: The Conference last year was just incredibly exciting — to be among so many passionate people who love storytelling. Again, in this world it's often not enough to just be an actor. You need to start creating your own opportunities. And there's no better way than by being a producer as well. The Conference is absolutely amazing in the sheer amount of information and expertise it offers. I recommend anyone connected to the entertainment business to attend -- you will find it transformative.