From the Apple to the Peach: An Interview with Producer Tim Bourne
To say that Tim Bourne came into the industry kicking and screaming would be no exaggeration. He was born into it. The son of Oscar-nominated production designer, Mel Bourne, and famed stage actor, Sarah Marshall, who herself was the daughter of two well-known actors, Bourne comes from a long line of entertainers. But the location scout turned producer has found his own ways to differentiate himself from his forebears. Despite his upbringing in the thriving production hub of New York City, Bourne made what was at the time a rather baffling decision: to leave his northern roots behind and head down South.
Now a resident of Wilmington, North Carolina, this Manhattan transplant has made a name for himself as one of the most sought-after producers in the Southeast, known for his work on dozens of films including The Blind Side, Ever After: A Cinderella Story, Drumline and Big. Today, Bourne splits his time between Wilmington and Atlanta, where most of his movies get made. His latest, Bastards, stars Owen Wilson, Ed Helms, J.K. Simmons and Glenn Close in a road trip story of two brothers seeking their biological father.
Oz was able to snatch an hour out of Bourne’s busy schedule to chat about his career, why Georgia reigns supreme for filmmakers, and why he has no regrets about leaving the Big Apple for warmer pastures.
How did you get your start in the industry?
All my family was either in theatre or some form of entertainment. My father was a production designer. He was very well known, sort of a New York legend. I kind of resisted getting anywhere near the business. My dad wasn’t really an easy guy. People liked him, but he was tough. My mom was an actress, and my grandparents were, too.
I didn’t want anything to do with film or theatre or anything, so I cooked from a very early age to my early 20s. I was cooking during the day but working in theatre at night. I felt like the people were nuts! But, you know, you get your first job and the money’s pretty good and you start getting more and more experience and by the time you know it you’re in the business.
The way it happened for me, I was a chef's apprentice in France. Then one day I went to visit my dad on vacation and found a location for a Woody Allen movie he was designing. I ended up working in Woody Allen’s organization for many years. I did all kinds of other stuff, but started out as a location scout, then became a location manager. The company asked me to stay on. My dad left and I stayed. So there I was.
How did your family feel about that?
My dad was happy. My mom was never really one way or another about it. She was an old school stage actress and never really warmed up to film so much. I became successful, and people liked me so my dad was proud of that. I don’t think he cared that I was in the quote unquote “family business” or not but he was glad people liked me. He was amazed I could talk to people without screaming!
You started your life and your career in New York City. Why did you move South?
I came here in 1988, having never been down South for any extended period of time. Then I found out I really liked it, so I stayed! To begin with, I was born and raised in New York City but was never a hardcore city guy. I always liked the ocean and the country more. When I got to North Carolina and saw the ocean, it was incredible. That was a primary reason I stayed. Wilmington is a beach community. Then I just started getting a lot of jobs in the South, long before the incentive sweepstakes. I was called a lot because I lived in the South and had a fairly good resume, so I ended up being a go-to for films shooting here.
Why did you stay in the South? What’s special about Atlanta in particular?
Work drew me to Atlanta. In 2000, I was called to do Drumline, loosely based on the life of Dallas Austin. That was my first job in Atlanta. Now, I’ve just completed Bastards, my tenth movie there. I live in Atlanta just as much as I live at home at this point. I often joke that if Atlanta had an ocean I would move in a second. Wilmington has an incredibly vibrant community on the water, so when people want ocean they come here.
Back when I started, film in the South was two places: Wilmington and Atlanta, the original film centers of the South. Louisiana was an afterthought. This was before Louisiana started the lunacy of the film incentive sweepstakes. I love Louisiana but for me it’s easier to get home from Atlanta. There are zero projects in Wilmington now that the illustrious governor has demolished the incentive. So most of the film affiliates have moved to Atlanta. A lot of Wilmingtonians are there now as we speak! I know several.
What can Atlanta offer the industry that other cities can’t?
The incentive tax is the major thing, let’s be honest. But even before incentives were involved in moviemaking, Atlanta had a great crew base and infrastructure. It’s centrally located, and has some history, with In the Heat of the Night and other shows that put Georgia on the map. But in today’s current world, as busy as it is now, Atlanta would be immediately empty if there was no incentive. The crew base here now would move wherever the work is. The producers are producing work here primarily because of the incentive.
That said, when you start to make a film, you get a script and say, “How can we make this in Georgia?” Because Georgia has the best incentive program. Of course they look at other places too, the question being, “Whose got what now?” One month one state will have a good program, then they’ll run out of money.
The other thing producers and studios look for is consistency and reliability. It would literally take an
act of Congress to get rid of the incentive program now because it’s a law; it would take a lot of time and require a lot of lobbying. But you’d be hard-pressed to find people against it.
A friend is going to do a new show based out of Hiram, Georgia. They have a place to build there. And where on God’s green earth is Hiram? Nothing against Hiram, but the kind of money that’s going to go into that small town is monumental. The state is paying out lots of money but it’s bringing in all these people, so Georgia is going to benefit even though on the face of it the math might not work right now. Fact is: the local economies are busting out. So I don’t see how Georgia would vote against it now.
The crew base in Atlanta is spectacular and gets stronger every day. Not only do you have the organic crew to Georgia that have been here years and years and years. We’re like a family now. They know I treat them nicely, have been around and probably will come back. We have a relationship. But you also have all kinds of new people showing up with every new movie because Atlanta is such a great place to live and work.
So to answer your question, he things Atlanta offers are: the incentive; an amazingly deep crew base; infrastructure including equipment and even specialty equipment like insert cars and cranes, we have all that stuff in Atlanta now; and location—we’re a third of the way to California, a three and a half hour flight to L.A. We have a major airport, so it’s not like going to some podunk place. Atlanta is hot! No pun intended.
What groups have helped make Georgia what it is today? How have these people inspired or influenced you?
Without any question, it started with the legislators bringing the message to the governor, the governor going along with it, and the people doing the economic development work, who see how valuable this industry is to the working people of Georgia. Their work and the people that make it possible for them to do their work. Georgia’s House of Representatives, our forward-thinking senators, every governor we’ve had. There’s a misconception that the film industry is a bunch of overpaid whining spoiled brats who have cocktail parties and bash Republicans. But the fact of the matter is that the film business is carpenters and builders and laborers who are making a lot more in movies than they would at dirtier jobs. It's a very clean industry and jobs pay a lot more than similar labor elsewhere. Even down to the guy sweeping the floor.
There are always going to be naysayers, but as long as everyone else is doing an incentive you either have to do it too or give it up. I respect the right of every state to determine whether they want it or not, but to think you’ll get productions without an incentive is delusional.
In North Carolina, we had four governors who supported film and then the new governor, McCrory. In just six months he destroyed it all. Film hubs take a long time to build up but can go away very quickly. Before it all got crazy, I did a job in Louisiana, one of the first to take advantage of their state incentive. It was a Disney film. Georgia called, and said if we bring you to sit in on a Senate hearing, can you tell us how it worked? They’ve been a very forward-thinking group.
What do we still need here? How can we make Atlanta even better for the industry?
It’s happening! You’re getting more stages built, not just warehouses. Like Pinewood, and more and more people going in and doing that. The more equipment the better. Perhaps the state could do better in luring more post-production facilities into Georgia. Another thing that would help would be to figure out a way to make other areas of Georgia viable. I don’t know how, but you need people who live there who are film techs.
One thing that’s really important: greed has to be capped. Because people will keep coming here until they’re not winning. Studios and producers don’t like to be taken advantage of and they have very long memories. The second another place draws close to what Georgia has, they’ll go elsewhere.
There are areas getting a little crazy. Locations are getting more and more expensive, costing almost as much as L.A. now. Let’s be fair. Supply and demand is what America’s all about, but there is a breaking point. I tell my crew that same thing: don’t get crazy. Let’s say the new governor in North Carolina reinstates the incentive. They were already starting to cut into Georgia’s business. The more you piss people off, the more willing they are to try something else. All it takes is a little competition somewhere else.
I have hopes North Carolina will come back. And there’s always a chance Louisiana or Michigan or Rhode Island or New York will come back. It’s not likely to happen in the next six months but in the next couple of years? Maybe.
But I will say that Georgia has always managed to stay ahead of the game. Georgia got into game early, did their homework and came up with a good program. The state is reaping the rewards of that program now. I’m hoping union leadership will advise their members to not get too crazy, and that the governor’s office can intercede and tell smaller towns not to outprice themselves. Don’t kill the goose! Right now, however, everything else is going in the right direction. The only thing that will kill it is greed or another state to compete. But there is enough work for both states. Hollywood loves to teach a lesson: you screw me and one day I’ll come back.
Personally, I have spent time in Hollywood but prefer to stay as far away as possible. I’ve been blessed. I’m one of the few people. People are like, “How did you do this? You don’t live in New York or L.A.!” Honestly, the secret is having enough courage (or stupidity) to not work for awhile. I wouldn’t say I was instantaneously off the hook busy after making that move down South. I went from working nonstop in New York to not a whole lot going on. There weren’t a hundred movies being made in the South in 1988. But when it did start picking up, I was in the right place. I have a needlepoint in my house that says: “I wasn’t born in the South, but I got here as quickly as I could.”
What do you see as the future for Atlanta?
I see a bright future, provided that things don’t get nutty and the competition remains sparse. And even with competition, I think everything’s good. As long as there’s no corruption, something weird doesn’t happen or people price themselves out of it, I think there’s a really bright future here. The talent pool grows every day. There is the idea that a place can get overly saturated, but that didn’t hurt L.A. They still make movies there. And Georgia has as much topographic diversity as the California area.
Let’s talk about you. How do you pick the projects you produce?
The phone rings, I answer. I’lI make my deal and we’re on! I pick projects that, hopefully, are legitimate and have some kind of message. I’ve just been lucky, I guess. My relationships with crew are very important. I was lucky to get on The Blind Side, but nobody knew it was going to as successful as it was. It’s mostly about the relationships you have with the company. There are a lot less films being made than there used to be, since the 2008 crash. People are not green-lighting movies like they used to. Somebody told me recently that there are 45% fewer films being made, but I do think the industry is coming back. Everything is coming back. But as a result of that crash, there are less shows going around.
There are a lot of shows I would turn down but mostly because it was a bad situation and they weren’t financially prepared for what they want to do. People want to pay for a VW and get a Mercedes. And that doesn’t usually work out.
What do you see as your primary responsibility as a producer?
I obviously have an allegiance to people I’ve worked with in the past who have treated me and others fairly. But one thing I try to do is to treat every director the same, because they are the director and my job is to help them make their movie, whether it’s Woody Allen or Mike Nichols or some Hall of Fame charter member or a brand new director who has never made a film before. I see myself as a core member of the filmmaking group, so I approach my job as a filmmaker, not a school principal. Before we start filming, I’ll sit down with a director, the core group, and say, “Okay, here’s where we’re at and here’s what we’re about to agree to. If we’re not on the same page, now’s the time to fight about it.” That’s what I try to do, to go in with an agreement as a team: this is what we’re going to do, now let’s do it. Very rarely have I been over budget but we’ve made some great films. It’s the word, the honor of what you want to do. You want to make a good movie and do it as responsibly as possible.
What has been your favorite project?
I don’t really have a favorite. Some are better than others. I love sports movies because I’m a sports fanatic and I enjoy interacting with sports folks. I have some movies I’m proud of for what they are. Awakenings [a 1990 film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams], was based on a book by Oliver Sacks. It’s a movie I was extremely proud of, but it had the misfortune of opening the same weekend as Desert Storm, the first televised war. So people stayed home and watched that instead. But I’m proud of that movie because of what it was and how it was made. Another favorite was A League of Their Own. Of course, The Blind Side
made more money that any other movie I worked on. It was a very successful movie, but that accomplishment is different. For me, my excitement comes when people say, “You made that for what?!”
What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
Everybody knows everything about me! I’m a pretty open book. Some people know things I didn’t even say or do... [laughs]. Let’s see. I love my family. I have five kids, ranging in age from 32 to four and a half. My oldest son actually teaches theatre design and construction at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. He was real close to my father, one of the few designers who actually drew himself. My son would watch that and really enjoyed it. Going the theatre route instead of the film route was his choice. It’s hard to get in creatively in this business, but it’s very rewarding.
What advice would you offer to Atlantans looking to break into the film industry?
Here’s what I say, and I believe in this 100% but you have to be careful about it. Especially in Atlanta, go straight to the production company. Bring a resume. Even if there’s nothing on it. And tell them you want to intern, that you’re willing to work for free. More times than not, unless you absolutely suck, you will ingratiate yourself to the group. People will look at you and think, you gotta give that guy something. Eventually you’re making something and your foot is in the door. There are a lot of people who want to be in the business, but less people who know how hard the work is. A lot of people decide that it’s not for them, that they’re not up for that kind of hard work. The misconception is that it’s very glamorous, but most of it isn’t. What happens is people see what you’re made of. If you suck, it doesn’t go well, but if it does, it’s a much easier way to get in the door than any other way. It won’t be a month before someone takes pity on you and gives you some money. You gotta start at the bottom and work your way up. That’s what I did.
You don’t even need to know anything. It’s all about common sense and attitude. If you have a great attitude and use common sense and stay out of people’s business, keep your head down and leave the politics and gossip behind, and keep your nose to the grindstone, you don’t need to know anything else. Those are very rare attributes to find nowadays. Be willing to work for free up to a certain point and you’ll go places, I guarantee you. I am definitely not a smart person but I’m a hard worker and my attitude [laughs], well, it used to be pretty decent!
This article can be found on page 28 of the May-June issue of Oz Magazine