Making Movies in Tinseltown: An Interview with Film Producer Ralph Winter

By Scott Young

Scott Young is co-founder and President of Culture Connection, a non-profit that generates programs and support for thoughtful creativity, media experiences, urban adventures, and spiritual exploration. He was previously a Campus Chaplain at USC, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine, UC San Diego, and most recently the Executive Director for the University Religious Conference at UCLA. Scott has been an Adjunct Faculty at Art Center College of Design, Los Angeles Film Study Center, and Fuller Theological Seminary. He was a co-founder and Director of The City of Angels Film Festival, and has served as a juror on the Ecumenical Jury at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Ralph Winter has proven to be one of Hollywood’s most profitable assets, producing motion pictures and television. Winter produced the first X-MEN films, Tim Burton’s PLANET OF THE APES, the FANTASTIC FOUR movies, and WOLVERINE: ORIGINS. In 2013 he Executive Produced THE GIVER, starring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes, Alex Skarsgard, and Taylor Swift, directed by Phillip Noyce for Weinstein and Walden Media. Also CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON: THE GREEN DESTINY, filmed in New Zealand for release with Netflix and Weinstein, starring Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh.

Outside the majors, Ralph has made various indie movies. CAPTIVE, starring David Oyelowo and Kate Mara, based on the true story of Ashley Smith, a single mom, taken hostage by a convict, Brian Nichols, after he escaped from jail. Released by Paramount Pictures in September 2015. Last year in Spain, Malta, and Portugal Ralph finished shooting, THE PROMISE with Christian Bale and Oscar Issac, and Terry George (HOTEL RWANDA) directing. An epic love story set against WWI and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, this is the story of the Armenian Genocide in 1915.

Last year Ralph produced a pilot, ALTERED CARBON (“Bladerunner meets Game of Thrones”) as a series for Netflix. And now beginning a movie in Fiji and New Zealand, ADRIFT, starring Shailene Woodley, directed by Baltasar Kormakur (EVEREST, THE DEEP, 2 GUNS) for release in 2018.

A graduate of UC Berkeley, Ralph is active in community affairs and performing artsprojects, speaks in the US, overseas at universities and film festivals, and serves on several film advisory boards. He is an active member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the DGA, and the PGA.

Scott Young.

Scott Young: Thanks for joining me in this Conversation series at JwJ, especially since you just returned from Fiji a few days ago!

Ralph Winter: Busy times, but happy to engage, and thank you for asking me.

What took you to Fiji?

I was scouting in the South Pacific for a movie called Adrift. It’s based on a true story, a woman sailing through a hurricane from Tahiti to Hawaii. But, of course, Fiji has better rebates! We have an aggressive budget, but it will still be tough — everyone relaxing at the beaches, the islands are quite rural and we have to deal with various tribes to get to waterfalls, and even tribal rights on the open ocean in various areas where we might disturb their fishing or farming of pearls.

Let’s start forty years ago. How did a history major from UC Berkeley become a Hollywood film producer?

I got a job after college at Broadway Department stores in the Training department. I volunteered for a new initiative on using video tape for training employees. So, I ended up making the first 50 videos for 50,000 employees in five states on how to sell, how to work the register, how to greet customers, etc. After three years, frustrated, I applied for a job at Paramount Pictures in post production and got hired. I worked in post production at the studio for another three years, where you meet everyone, and helped other producers get their work done, then I left post to be the Associate Producer on Star Trek III. I’ve been fortunate to work ever since.

I’m guessing that across forty years in the film industry you’ve developed a sense of calling and vocation to produce visual stories for both big screen movies and small screen television. Describe that for us.

It’s rewarding to work on movies and TV, and to deliver entertainment that lasts. The best part of the job is screening the film on opening night and watching the audience. It makes it all worthwhile. Making movies is very collaborative, it takes a lot of hands, so it’s great to be a part of those teams. I’ve spoken in classrooms of kids who enjoy movies that I’ve worked on that were made before they were born! Great story telling can have a tremendous impact in our culture, so that’s what keeps driving me and who I work with. At the level of finding and engaging your own personal stories to get onto the big screen, it has never been harder to do that, but at the same time there are now more options and platforms for storytelling than ever before.

What does a producer do? How does it differ from the role of a director, a line producer, or the executive producer?

The Producer’s Guild of America describes those functions very well and in great detail. Here is the link. In brief, someone has to be the champion from the beginning to get the project started, gather the team, identify the resources, secure the underlying material rights, select and guide the writer, find the director, work with the financiers, and get the movie distributed and exploited. It is all encompassing, and that’s why the highest awards at the Oscars go to Best Picture and the Producer(s) of the Best Picture.

Who are some of the film professionals that you have most enjoyed working with and why — directors, cinematographers, casts, musicians, and editors?

Directors are the lead creatives in staging and visualizing the story telling, so that’s usually the most fun and challenging. Blending and organizing the vision to meet various creative and financial objectives is always a puzzle, but fun to work out. I learn a lot from directors of photography, and have some favorites I have been fortunate to work with several times. I grew up in post production, so I also have a special interest in editors and their work.

What are some of your favorite films and why?

I enjoy all my projects, but Star Trek IV and Xmen United probably stand out as movies I am most proud of — they deliver entertainment to an audience that does not necessarily fit the extreme core audience, but we introduced new fans to what we love so much. Both of those movies hit their stride, and were well directed, well written, and made at the right time and place for the audience.

What makes for a good movie?

I’m a fan of classic story structure (Joseph Campbell), and believe that structure gets bent around a lot, but has some basic truths that audiences trust. We violate some of those at our peril. For instance, a great movie has to show some character growth through the structure of the story, the events that happen to the hero. That hero has to be empowered through that journey or it is just not satisfying. Also, a movie has to engage the emotions in this journey — that is fundamentally what makes movies “work.”

Ralph Winter.

You have a well-earned reputation as a producer who specializes in bringing in big-ticket films on schedule and on budget. What’s your secret sauce?

Managing expectations on every side is part of it. Telling the truth up front is key. Knowing what you are doing helps. Building a great team you trust is important. But it’s still very, very hard to do.

Don’t most films run over budget and experience multiple delays?

I’m not sure where you get your information, but I don’t necessarily agree. You might read about high profile movies that go over budget for various reasons. But I don’t think the 400 films made in the US last year all went over budget. Making a movie is like building a house for the first time. Each one is unique, but many processes are the same. Some movies are made as an experiment in finding out or discovering the story as you go. But most movies do a lot of planning to manage limited resources. Studios that have the ability to add funding are the ones that can go over, and usually that’s due to a lack of clarity and/or rushing to meet a release date for the “product.” There are many complex things going on in those processes. But 250 of those movies are made by indies, and they simply don’t have the money to go over budget.

You have not kept your Christian faith a secret. I think of this as a secular call to a sacred city (Hollywood), or, if you prefer, a sacred call to a secular city.

There’s no hiding what you are, and I’ve been comfortable with that for some time. That said, I am not an evangelist, nor do I see my role or journey to save Hollywood or change Hollywood. I know all the language about “calling,” but I don’t really think about it in that way. I’m doing a job I love, and exercising skills and creativity that I love doing, but I also want to do all of that with integrity and adding value where I can. I am “called” in another sense to do excellent work — it’s not worth doing anything half way.

The poet-farmer Wendell Berry says in his poem “How to Be A Poet” that “There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.”

I do feel strongly that people of faith need to be in all areas of culture; this was not easy for me early on — many people felt that I was wasting my time and energy, when would I get over this Hollywood thing and get a real job?! If there is a calling, it is to be salt and light — preserving the world and adding value to it. I think that pleases God.

What have been your special challenges to Christian faith in your unique setting?

It’s a little more public, and frequently as a leader of several hundred crew or more, you are watched and observed and analyzed. So, my actions and decisions are scrutinized. And as that kind of leader, I look for opportunities to bring out the morality of the story or the process of our journey together making the movie (how we treat each other), but I’m also very careful not to impose what I believe on others. Who we are comes through, and there have been plenty of faith discussions outside the work place, which I think is fine and appropriate.

Which of your many films reflect your Christian influences?

I’m not sure I think of my career in that way. But I do see characters that point to the kinds of truths that the Bible declares. Even in a movie like Hocus Pocus, the older brother is willing to sacrifice his life to defeat evil and save his sister. Not explicitly Christian, but a powerful emotion and force — where does that sacrifice come from in a movie about witches and spells?

You and I co-founded the City Of Angels Film Festival, whose primary mission was to spotlight significant films previously distributed (revival programming), and that examined the spiritual/urban/aesthetic dimensions of human living. Why are such film festivals important?

Cinema is becoming even more important, and we were ahead of our time, I think. With the splintering of platforms, movies become even more significant as a two hour experience that’s uninterrupted by social media or gimmicks. You get to experience a specific journey, and with City of Angels, we were looking for reflections on faith and God in the city. The screenings and the discussions were and are unlike any other.

There have been many pronouncements about the death of cinema. What is the future of big screen theatrical presentations in light of the radical changes brought about by the small/micro screen delivery systems that are now so prevalent?

The presentations will vary and change. Screens are getting bigger and smaller at the same time. What lasts is good storytelling, no matter the platforms, and there are many experiments going on right now. Cinema will always exist, but it might become more elite and less common. I’m not sure. Like the theater that was proclaimed dead with the advent of TV, movies will continue to exist. If for no other reason that teenagers can get away by themselves for two hours, or with a horror movie, you can get a girl to hold on to you for two hours. For a variety of reasons, movies are not going away.

How and why are the visual stories of cinema important for the church?

The power of visual storytelling in movies is that they can convey complex truths with power that simple lecturing or fact-based attempts to convince don’t. The human experience, the journey, and the emotions with it, are all something that the church should have mastered by now or engaged more deeply. Lecturing to people in church will not change the world. But engaging in their stories can. To be clear, many churches recognize this and are trying. But many other churches are becoming less relevant while the culture races forward, telling its various stories. We don’t need to become like the world, but we should be interpreting the Gospel in relevant ways to our culture.

And for our broader culture? Do movies reflect culture or change it? Perhaps both?

I think it’s both, and complex. Again, that visual aspect, the journey, and the emotional power are hard to dismiss. But there’s also an element of powerful stories and movies within our culture that press in and shape us as well. Either way, we need to be better and smarter and more strategic consumers of media and stories. Witness the fake news of politics, and figuring out what is true. We need the same in our entertainment.

In his book Sculpting in Time (1986), the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky wrote that “the allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”

Wow, good quote; it needs more reflection. Certainly, we cannot live without art, but we are not very analytical about it. A good movie softens us and makes us think about life and our role in it, no doubt.

What contributions do you see yourself involved in, assuming movies are alive and well for the foreseeable future?

I can see the end of active, location-based producing in a day to day capacity, so I do look for more reflective and empowering ways to be creative, to leverage what I have learned, and engage in more conversation and mentoring that can help the next generation not fight the same battles. I’m not sure exactly what that looks like, but I have some ideas. I would also hope to find a vehicle that would help churches and faith communities figure out better story telling and better engagement with the cultural stories being told. For instance, Big Bang Theory is the highest rated and most viewed comedy on TV. They have a Jewish character, a conservative Christian character, and a Hindu character. Religion and its impact is in nearly every show. But rarely do Christians engage with that. The culture is watching, their congregations are watching, and we don’t need to make videos, the studios are doing that already. We just need to reflect and engage on what is there.

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