John Norris Q&A

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John Norris

John Norris (Photo by Renée Vernon)John Norris, Los Angeles

College jobs:
I worked at the university art center, where we made posters and whatever other salt of the earth jobs came our way. That was the year we got Photoshop. I also worked at The Cupboard health food store for years and as a bartender at the local video arcade on Fry Street across from the Delta House. My favorite job was at Recycled Books, now on the square. Hi, Don and Lucy and Becky and Miles and Don Eno! I used to work barefoot, and all the students, professors and local crazies came there. Where else but Denton, Texas!

Lessons learned from studying music:
As a music student I learned teamwork. Everyone in the College of Music is highly competitive, but it’s in a way that inspires you to be better at what you do. I also learned that your strengths, whatever they are, make you stand out in a crowd of amazing players. If you don’t have amazing chops or a giant vocabulary but you can write a great simple song or sing truthfully about what you know, you stand apart from everyone else. If you are comfortable standing out, you are in the minority, and people want to see that.

Traits of a good filmmaker:
Making films is about being an entrepreneur, adventuresome and willing to take risks. It’s also about being naïve and single-minded. Never give up, never surrender.

Toughest part of being a producer:
The hardest part of being an independent producer is getting the money. Always the hardest task! Then story, director, actors, production, but unless you have financing, you have nothing. Since The Help, money hasn’t been as hard as it was, but it’s still always a challenge. Having a business plan for a movie is like reading tea leaves. And every time you start a new movie, you are starting a new business from scratch. The hardest part about producing a “studio” movie is the teams of executives that have to weigh in, and how slow and fearful that process is. It almost makes producing an indie look easy, except the distribution built into studio features and the rewards one can reap are often better.

Favorite professors:
Pete Gunter with his French accents and character impersonations in class made for a healthy perspective for young philosophers, which all college freshmen are. But at his core, Pete is a serious conservationist who is driven by his passion for the environment. This is a man who spends time in the weeds in East Texas, under the sun, and this passion flows into his enthusiasm for life. This is what I admired: a man who loves what he does and has the strength of conviction to pursue his passion and take the time to relay this to others in a spirit of joy.

George James is the same way, but crazy, and adventurous. Any man who dives into the unanswerable blackness and tries to create a structure within it to understand it is potentially “on the edge” in my book. I literally had a panic attack in the middle of a class discussion over Edmond Husserl’s Phenomenological Reduction and had to leave. What George has that astounded me was a desire to ‘Know’ the basic things of life, so much so that it drives him and challenges his own formidable ability to absorb and categorize. This man’s capacity to dissect and understand is way beyond me.

Which is why I ultimately didn’t continue philosophy. I realized that my desire was to express myself in a broader way, to use my hands and my will as much as my brain, which needed to make up for what I lacked as a student. I wasn’t a great musician, I wasn’t an actor or a director, not an academic, but I did have something to say and I admire those who know how to say what they are compelled to believe.

What an executive producer does:
An executive producer puts together the team, facilities, the relationship with the studio, clears the path for the director and manages from behind the scenes.

Most rewarding part of being a producer:
This is a director’s game for me. I absolutely love working with a director with a force of vision. Because this business is so collaborative, there is much more opportunity to establish your own voice in whatever role you choose for yourself. Helping to nurture and develop that voice in a director, or simply defend it and fight for it is what drives me. Working with people who show me a side of the story I didn’t know or understand and why, or being surprised by what I didn’t know is a wonderful state to be in. As Willa Cather wrote: “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” And you learn just as much from telling them as by reading or watching or hearing them.

High school job:
One of my first jobs in high school was at the first video store in Pantego, Texas, at Video World (not kidding). I took the job so I could watch movies every day. I went through every section from foreign, documentary, sci-fi (my favorite), drama, comedy for months and months.

Advice for students considering a career in film:
Pick up a camera, write a script, build a set or find people who do and convince them to do it for you (that’s what a producer does!). Never neglect the story and always assume your audience will anticipate whatever thing you are trying to hide from them. Turn it on its head. Make it better. Fight for it and win. Make fair deals so you can work with people again. Be honest about what you love and own it. Get on a set and do every job you can. Work for free at first (that will guarantee you a job!). Find the department you like and become the best you can.

About The Help
Tate Taylor had started working on the draft for The Help before all the money was in place to produce the film.

“The book suddenly hit No. 1,” Norris says. “Our credibility started rising on that point.”

But they hoped that Taylor would also direct the movie — even though he was an unknown at the time. Stacy Snider, a principal partner/co-chairwoman/CEO of DreamWorks Studios, took a chance on Taylor because his script was so good, Norris says. Then they got the nod from famed movie director Steven Spielberg, principal partner of DreamWorks.

They also traveled to Mississippi to shoot a documentary in which they interviewed 90-year-old maids and the family members they worked for. They brought the set designer to shoot the places they wanted for the movie. Taylor put together a “lookbook” with his vision of the movie and they showed it to a boardroom full of executives. The room was in tears, Norris says.

“They gave us a green light,” he says. “So suddenly this kid from North Texas had this DreamWorks movie.”

The movie, which starred Emma Stone and Viola Davis, was shot in Mississippi in the hot summer sun.

 “It was a truly magical summer,” Norris says.

He says when he was in the editing room with Taylor, they were concerned that the movie was too long at more than two hours. But when they screened it for an audience, they received an unheard of high score of 89.

“Tate really knows what he’s doing,” Norris says.

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