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SXSW Q&A: 'Source Code' Producer Mark Gordon

The time-jumping thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan opens the SXSW Film Festival tonight.

Mark Gordon
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the rare producer who prides himself on being able to play in Hollywood sandboxes both gigantic and tiny.

In addition to being an executive producer of TV series Criminal Minds, Grey’s Anatomy and Army Wives, Gordon has ushered into theaters blockbusters such as The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 and low-budget indies such as The Messenger and The Details, which just had its world premiere at Sundance and sold to The Weinstein Co. for $8 million.

With 30 years of hustle and an Oscar nomination for producing Saving Private Ryan in his bag, he’s got two new projects ready to go: an ABC pilot called Identity that Gary Fleder is about to direct with Orlando Jones and Angela Bassett starring, and the Duncan Jones-directed Source Code, a time-jumping thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan that will have its world premiere tonight as the opening-night film of the SXSW Film Festival.

The Hollywood Reporter: What makes SXSW a good launching pad for Source Code?

Mark Gordon: To be honest with you, I wasn’t that familiar with SXSW. Obviously, I’m aware that there have been some interesting films that have premiered there in the past. But I’m not a regular festivalgoer, so I really wasn’t that familiar with what they did. But Duncan Jones’ first film Moon premiered there, and everyone felt that for that reason and the fact that it was a festival that was right before our picture opened, it would be a good thing for us. I’m certainly looking forward to it. There seem to be some interesting films that are premiering, and I’ve never been to Austin.

THR: Do you think there’s anything going on in the creative bloodstream that’s leading to more cerebral mind-game or fate-related stories like Inception, Source Code, The Adjustment Bureau?

Gordon: I think that just in Dr. Strangelove, there’s fluoridation in the water that is making people make certain films … I’m kidding. The fact is that we’ve seen it many times before, there seems to be something in the ether. There seems to be something in the zeitgeist, and maybe it’s a function of — I’m no analyst, nor am I a psychologist — when you look at things and say, What if I could go back and change things? I think we live in a world right now where people are asking those questions a lot. What if we could go back and change what we did? How would we change the way we handled things in the Middle East, and how would we change things with the banking industry, and how would we change economic and educational issues? I think there are so many people, both politicians and the rest of us all over the world, that wish they had done things different — armchair quarterbacking, going, God, if we had only done this … And maybe that’s the thing in the universe right now that is allowing these films to come out where you’re looking back and seeing if you could change things.

THR: You veer from giant tentpoles to low-budget indie films like The Messenger. What does that variety do for you?

Gordon: I’m very fortunate, and the movies that I’ve made, even from the very beginning, have been very eclectic. The thing for me is: Am I emotionally engaged in the idea? Is there something special about it? Does it capture my imagination? So everything that I do is simply something that turns me on. And I have the good fortune to be able to make bigger movies and television that ostensibly pay for the other ones. I don’t mean literally finance the movies. But they allow me to work on things for very little pay. I do these things because I love them. And some people don’t have the good fortune to be able to work on things purely from an artistic and aesthetic level because they have to make a living. It’s interesting, if you look at big movies like Speed or Day After Tomorrow or 2012 — particularly the last two — they are about something. They are big spectacles and they are certainly big popcorn movies. But they aspire to at least make the audience think in a very broad way. They have made lots of money, and that’s good for everyone that’s involved. Saving Private Ryan was a movie that was purely from my heart and that I worked on for a long time with Bob Rodat, the writer. And we were fortunate enough to have Steven and Tom jump on board. But that was not necessarily expected to be a big commercial movie, so when you can make something of it that is truly meaningful and it’s a commercial success, that’s the best thing of all. And then there are movies like The Details, which we just finished and premiered in Sundance a few weeks ago, and The Messenger, and some of the other smaller pictures that we’ve done that are all about love of film, and things that I just fall in love with. And those films have to be in a category where we say, It’s not about the money on any level. It’s all about feeling good about making something that we’re in love with. Very few people have the opportunity to do that, and I’m very grateful for that.

THR: What’s the plan for The Details release? Are you or Harvey planning to recut it?

Gordon: No, we’re testing the film, we’re making a few minor adjustments. It’s always great to have a different perspective. Harvey’s really smart, he’s been thoughtful about it. We had a great preview. We’re going to make a few tweaks, we’re going to look at it again, and then finish it up. Everybody thought that the movie was in very good shape when we screened it at Sundance. That’s been a very happy and collaborative experience.

THR: Are you going to target the fall with this?

Gordon: Yes. We don’t have a date yet, but we are targeting the fall. It makes sense.

THR: When you come off of a movie like 2012, is that shift from a $200 million to a $2 million budget ever difficult or confusing?

Gordon: Yeah, it is sometimes. It’s funny. It’s that and it’s television, when somebody goes, “My God, we’re $60,000 over budget on something!” And I’m like, “That’s craft service for a day on 2012.” I had to reorient my thinking to go into a different mode and realize that $60,000 on one movie is $600,000 on another — or $6 million! And you just have to go, OK, I’m playing in this sandbox now, and these are the rules here. But I will tell you that whether it’s a $5 million movie or a $200 million movie, it seems like no matter how much money you have there’s never enough. But that’s the nature of doing anything like this. Your aspirations creatively and artistically always somehow just reach past the number that you’re supposed to make the movie at and then you rein it in and you have to be responsible and that’s part of the job. And that’s also part of the fun, too.

THR: Are the issues with corralling directors and actors much different?

Gordon: Look, most of the actors that I’ve had the pleasure to work with are very easy to get along with. And whether they’re getting paid or not getting paid doesn’t necessarily make a difference. Most people are easy to work with and easy to get along with, but we mostly hear about the assholes who are really a pain in the ass, and we’ve all had our share of working with them. If you really want to break it down, on a small movie everybody knows that they’re there for artistic reasons to do something special to make something amazing, and they’re not going to get their normal hotel and they’re not going to get their trailer, but they’re willing to forgo that — and of course the salary — because they want to do something really special. On a big movie, most people are getting paid a lot of money, and so they’re there to do the work. People who are difficult, whether they’re getting their $10 million or $10,000, are going to be difficult no matter what. It really just depends on the person. You’re not paid just for the acting, you’re paid for the waiting, you’re paid for promoting the film, you’re paid for traveling and going on tour and going on junkets. That’s what you hope for, and that’s what you get from the special people that I’ve had the opportunity to work with, and not from some of the stinkers that I’ve had the opportunity to work with.

THR: Half a dozen specs have sold in the last few weeks. Is that just a glitch? Do you see a real resurgence there?

Gordon: What it means is not so much what does it mean for the spec market, but what does it mean in terms of the studios’ appetite for bringing in new material, mining that. I don’t know that we’re out of the woods — or whether we’re ever going to be out of the woods or if the woods have just transformed into weeds or something — but the good news is that people are not acting day-to-day out of fear as much as they did maybe six months ago.

THR: Really? What accounts for that?

Gordon: The fact is, we need to make movies. People were paralyzed. I think that the studio heads were so frozen because they didn’t quite know what to do. The DVD market was going to hell, they were figuring out what was going to replace it, the costs were going up. Box office is still down, but movie companies have to make movies. They were able to rely on their older development and the things that they had in their trunks, so to speak, that were potentially bubbling up. And there was less of a surplus of material, and now it’s caught up with them and they need to start buying things.

THR: It may also signal a bit of desperation on the writers’ front, in that it’s been demoralizing since the strike and there has been much less work for writers, so why not write a spec?

Gordon: That part I agree with. People don’t want to pay for pitches. They want to see it. If you hear one more time, “Well, that’s execution-dependent.” Everything’s execution-dependent! If there’s something that’s going to be a little bit more interesting than The Untitled Slinky Movie, then I think that writers that want to do interesting work and at the same time commercial work need to put it down on paper. So agents and producers that writers are working with are encouraging them to get it on paper because the studios like to see what they’re buying rather than just imagine what it could be.

THR: What’s your biggest frustration working in the studio space?

Gordon: I know this is going to sound very sappy, but I’m not feeling frustrated. I guess if there was a frustration it would be that I wish that we could make movies that were a little more adventurous. Most of what seems to be bought are old TV shows, old toys, remakes of X Y and Z. But listen, I went to see The Adjustment Bureau last night, and the movie aspired to be different, aspired to be interesting and aspired to be special. I thought, How terrific that somebody tried to do something different.

THR: Is it true that Wayne McClammy is no longer directing Desperados, and do you have someone else on the hook?

Gordon: It is true, and we’re speaking with directors and we presume that we will have one very shortly and begin to move forward with casting and shoot the movie.

THR: Kay Scarpetta. What are the odds that you ever get Angelina committed to doing it?

Gordon: She spent time with Patricia Cornwell, they had a really terrific relationship. She, through her manager Geyer Kosinski, who’s my partner on this, has been engaged — I don’t want to overstate the case. We have a house advantage in that she’s been a part of this from the beginning. But in the end, like anything else, the script will be judged on its own terms, and if it’s good and she likes it then she’ll do it. And if not, God willing, somebody else will do it and we’ll make the movie.

THR: So you don’t have the script yet.

Gordon: No, we’re still working.

THR: Do you have someone writing Space Invaders?

Gordon: No. We have tried for over two years now to get the rights from the game company, and it’s been completely impossible. So, we haven’t given up, but you can imagine the frustration. It’s just ridiculous.

THR: Is there a writer on Day of the Triffids?

Gordon: Not yet. We’re just closing up the deal. It’s a very complicated rights situation, but we’re almost there. It’s been a complicated chain of title business, but I think we’re probably about a week away from finishing.

THR: What is likely to be next for you then?

Gordon: Desperados will come next. And we have a wonderful project at MRC, which we’re just getting ready to put a director on that Zac Efron is starring in, called Die in a Gunfight, and that should be this year. And then we have a project at Mandate that we’re doing that D.V. DeVincentis wrote called A Miserable Excuse for a Hero, and we’re close on a director on that, as well.