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Filmmaker Spotlight: Producer Steven A. Jones

July 27, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Emily Morris

Steven A. Jones may seem like an ordinary name, but you’ll see it credited alongside such household ones as Michael Keaton, Martin Scorsese, and Michelle Pfeifer. And standing at the helm of these films, Jones is one of the people in charge.

Producers are to a film what maestros are to a choir; they orchestrate the little details that play a part in the director’s big picture.  They often get the film crew together, hire writers, take care of odd ends throughout production (such as scheduling, film titles and credits) and play a large role in promoting the finished work.

Steven A. Jones

Jones stumbled upon producing jobs through his other experiences in showbiz. Originally from Brooklyn, he studied animation and design at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology* and after graduation directed animated commercials (notably national Captain Crunch and McDonald’s spots).

But Jones made it clear he wasn’t as square as the kiddie cereal boxes he was selling.

“I actually was a drummer playing in a rock n’ roll band, and the animation was a way to make a living,” Jones said.

And thus started a key aspect of Jones’s producing career: making art while figuring out a way to pay the bills.

Jones’s big producing break came when he met director Jon McNaughton. The company gave McNaughton a mere $110,000 to make a horror movie, and McNaughton turned to Jones to help him get it all together. After Jones helped find a writer and much of the crew, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” was born.

What began as a ragtag project soon got bigger. The highly controversial film went on to receive a number of winning reviews from publications such as The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone magazine, was nominated for a slew of international film awards, and still appears in critics’ top ten lists today. It was also the beginning of a friendship and constant collaboration with McNaughton now going on 30 years.

After “Henry” the calls started coming.

Jones became attached to a project called “Normal Life,” which he has maintained was his favorite movie to work on. The film starred Ashley Judd and Luke Perry, and Jones said the entire cast and crew gave their all to getting the job done in Chicago with very un-Hollywood circumstances.

Things got even bigger when Jones and the other filmmakers were handed around $19 million to make “Mad Dog and Glory,” a movie starring Robert De Niro, Bill Murray and Uma Thurman. The larger budget made some of the crew feel like they had a big responsibility to the studio.

“Looking back, we were under insane amounts of pressure, unnecessarily. Because the one thing about success in the film business is if you’re perceived to know what you’re doing, they pretty much leave you alone to do it, which was the case with Mad Dog and Glory. I mean, we had Martin Scorsese as our boss, which is in itself a lot of pressure. But on the other hand, he’d say to the studio ‘Leave these guys alone.’”

Still from "The Merry Gentleman" (2008), directed by Michael Keaton. Steven A. Jones worked on the film with Ron Lazzeretti, who DIY interviewed in April.

Jones later worked on “Wild Things,” another movie made with a larger, Hollywood-sized budget. The film, released in 1998, is now infamous for some of its raunchier scenes. It’s another one of Jones’s films to deal with some extremely dark subject matter.

At this point, Jones knew he could move to New York or LA where the mega projects are and where the names “Murray” or “Scorsese” are synonymous with “Large paycheck.”

But Jones sticks to doing only the work that keeps him interested. Projects such as “Henry” and “Normal Life” inhabit the darker, edgier side of small-budget films. The producer’s love for Chicago has also kept him where he calls home, doing specialized films in what he thinks are purely Chicago conditions.

“For me, more than anything, it’s the people. The people that work on the films, the people that work on the crews, since we’re not the hub of the entertainment industry I think our people work harder and have a little more invested in doing a good job than people who are just punching the clock. There’s a high skill level of course in the East and West Coast, but there’s so much more work and so much more going on, that a lot of times if you work with a smaller budget you end up working with people who are not passionate about their work. Here I think the people in the film industry are passionate about what they do. “

In the producing class he teaches at DePaul, he tells students who want to break into the business that they need to have good source material and some great coworkers to help get the project done. Jones says being a great producer means keeping up a precarious juggling act.

“I think that a good producer knows the balance between the art and the money,” Jones said. “I’ve seen producers make financial decisions that really hurt the artistic end of the project and I’ve seen people make decisions that really hurt the financial side of the project. It’s a balance. You’re responsible to the people who are spending lots and lots of money, but you’re also responsible to the creation of the movie.”

*DIY previously reported that Jones studied at ITT, not IIT and we regret the error.

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