Movie Marker speaks to Fernando Sulichin, a renowned film producer who has worked since the age of 24 on films such as Malcolm X, Spring Breakers and At Eternity’s Gate while his latest – Flag Day, with Sean Penn, is currently in post-production. We talked about his work, his thoughts on the film industry and his future projects.
MM: For those who may not know, how would you define your role as a producer or executive producer on a project?
FS: Well, basically, I have two different roles:
In one sense, as a producer, we work creatively with directors. We develop the story by bouncing back and forth and making sure we do the manifestation of the story because we have the power of manifestation. Whatever is in the head of the director we try to get it to the screen as accurately as possible. We need to guide the director to make sure that the story makes sense.
In the other sense, as an executive producer. I have to structure financing, solicit financiers, sometimes put my own money in, in order for that dream, that is the movie, to become something that is going to the screens. Without any market considerations, when I take on a project it’s because I want to watch good stories, that’s what I like.
You’ve made a name for yourself working with some of the more visionary and mould breaking filmmakers we’ve seen in recent years… what do you look for in a project before joining it?
Firstly, I look for the director that I’m going to have a good time with. To make a film is physically painful because it’s very time consuming. Time consuming for something that people will go to a cinema, watch, and then go to eat pizza or something else and will forget. Plus you will spend two years of your life doing those kinds of things. What I want is to really produce something that is timeless… Regarding the directors, I think that I really want someone who is meaningful, and who is creative and wants to make an imprint. For example, Oliver Stone is a seeker of the truth; in his whole career he’s been exploring. Sean Penn is an impressionistic artist of moments, reality and pieces of a society. David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch – they are both creative geniuses and they have a creative vision which… So, I look for levels of truth within the artists that can do stuff with me.
You’ve had films affected by the pandemic, particularly Flag Day with Sean Penn and Oliver Stone’s White Lies. What are the plans for these films at the moment, where are they currently standing?
Well, White Lies is currently on hold and Flag Day is in post-production. We’re almost finished
And how have the largely virtual film markets impacted you? Is this a model you can see continuing more in the future, even when physical festivals can resume?
Yes, it affected us. People need the day-to-day contact. For people like me, who have almost thirty years of experience, we already know who we work for and who we work with. So, it’s a very close community to pull a film together – everyone knows each other. It’s quite simple. We know what to do out of experience. Virtuality and all these virtual markets are for new products and new filmmakers. But established people, they already have people which are waiting for their product.
You’ve been involved in some really fascinating documentaries with equally fascinating people, particularly with the Putin interviews and Castro. What are the difficulties in creating these projects with such divisive subjects?
Well, there is a lot of difficulties in making these kind of spicy projects in terms of that, sometimes, we give a voice to people that have a voice through an editorial board of a newspaper and that nobody listened to them previously what they had to say. So, it’s very impactful when suddenly people, for the right or wrong reasons, have been demonised so much and you don’t know who they are – to listen what they have to say. So, it’s amazing, and it’s mesmerising because the connection between editorial boards and what the subject has to say. Between facts and interpretations. It’s really a big gap, and in our documentaries, as Oliver he is a seeker of the truth – we managed to get that point across. We are against double standards. Some people like it some people hate it, because they don’t want to listen to what this person has to say. But at least we create the right awareness, some people change their point of views.
What do you predict for the future of film and cinema both post pandemic and with the increase of streaming platforms?
I predict – I’m not a fortune teller – but I think that these algorithms are something that will damage the film industry very hard. Algorithms will get us to see only very targeted films based on digital data. It’s good that there are many platforms. However, the only thing is that you don’t get to appreciate the film as an event – the way you used to do before. When I was younger and there was an Oliver Stone film or a Spike Lee film or a Martin Scorsese film – you really were looking forward to Thursday, to going to a cinema to watch that film. Now, in the Marvel algorithm times, your are missing out, you see it whenever – it’s not like you’re really looking forward to it. You are missing the “event effect”.
What would you say are some of your career highlights?
My first film was Malcolm X which was quite an insane debut for a 24-year-old kid. So, I see myself at the beginning of my career, a 24-year-old Argentinian filming in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and you know South Africa – a memorable film with one of the strongest minded filmmakers that ever existed and the first big African American filmmaker. That set a precedent for a career in which adrenaline and vertigo are necessary, if not I get bored. So then, I got into a bigger ride with Oliver Stone which decided a documentary that I did, which are all, imagine to be yourself in the middle of a war in Ramadan or to be talking for days with Fidel Castro or to be inside of Putin’s Kremlin, interviewing and having these people to ask them questions or being in a war between horses and elephants and in Alexander. I think I had a lot of fun doing this. That addiction, in the age of the Marvel numeric sequels is quite hard, so I don’t know what’s going to be next in order for us to have fun. I would love to make the North Korean head of the state – I would love to interview the President of China. Those are people that they have never expressed themselves to the Western audiences. Those are challenges to come, but I had a great time by doing film. I’m very lucky and fortunate to work with tremendous artists. These projects whether you want it or not, they’re really, from Malcolm X to The Untold History of the United States. They’re mind-openers, imagine doing this biography of Malcolm X at 24 before all Black Lives Matters and all these social movements. We were quite hard-core back then, another one of my highlights of my career was to do two movies with Abel Ferrara who is probably one of the most creative geniuses but quite hardcore to work with.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to face over your career?
Financial difficulties, a couple of times… high levels of anxiety… Again, it’s very time consuming. The kind of projects that I do are rides or trips that you go on – it’s like a train not like a bus – you don’t have stops… You need to until you finish, right to the final line.
…would you say that that’s changed on how you do your projects?
Now it’s all or nothing, especially in this moment when we have a lot of fake news, social media and the message that we have is not based on academic knowledge. It’s more important than ever, to make meaningful and truthful stories, the old way, in a gourmet way, like couture, instead of making it just fast because we need to please the market. It’s extremely important because those are the things that will stay in history not like all the fast responses to emotions and to things. We want to go all the way now doing the opposite, to go for everything, with all the directors. I encourage directors, and I support them to be as free as they can with their style. It’s not that we are going to make a film just to please a demographic or a market. We want to make a story that will really touch the heart and increase the dignity of the viewer and make a difference.
How would you say the industry has changed since your first feature film Malcom X in 1992?
I will tell you something which I really believe. When I went to movies when I went to University, I had a period of magic where there was a company called Carolco run by the wonderful fantasy Lebanese gentleman Mario Kassar who did movies like Terminator, Total Recall, Rambo… like Basic Instinct … They were wild guys, they have no fear, they had a lot of fun. On the other side as well, you had some people like Jon Peters and Peter Guber who created Midnight Express, the first Batman with Tim Burton. Those producers and heads of studios, they were visionaries. Now, I’m afraid that people have ethics committees on their Zoom calls. Example, there is a major cinematographer who was fired from a big project just for saying the word ‘fuck’ in a Zoom. And I’m talking about one of the best Oscar-winning cinematographers. All the social movements are doing great for equality, but we need to relax a little bit, because we are making movies, we are not saving lives, so we need to let people express themselves in any way. Some people, they want to make Black stories, some people they want to make Jewish stories, Gay stories – the most important thing is that they are good stories and we need to let good stories take off; we don’t need to have another algorithm. The most important thing is: Get the good stories onto the screen. Either by documentaries, by features, by series, you whatever means… Also, something that’s changed, now we have outstanding TV-series’ that keep us awake at night because we want to see them all.
We run a feature called Movies and Memories, I wanted to know what your first ever memory of film is?
The first one was Solaris by Tarkovsky because it’s the first breast I saw in my life. I only remember the breast, I don’t remember the movie. I was very young – leaving school to go to the cinema to see all the classics – I was probably 8 or 9. I saw The Godfather as well when I was that age and it blew my mind. Then I think that JFK was a before and after cinematographically and now we’re celebrating 30 years of that masterpiece and I’m so privileged to work with Oliver in numerous situations and then you know like Goodfellas, Casino, those are movies that I… and The Wolf of Wall Street. If now I see any Oliver Stone film, I love it. You know, I love it! It doesn’t have to be my films; I love to see movies.
And another one for Movies and Memories, what’s your happiest movie memory?
Scarface. Michelle Pfeiffer going down the elevator in Scarface. That’s a high standard. Scarface, it’s very high standard. It’s very hard to repeat because it’s very hard to make a film. People criticise films but it’s so multi-dimensional: music, timing, script, story, photography. When you get it right it’s like Beethoven, in terms of a symphony or something like this; it’s beautiful.
What does the future hold for you and which project should we be keeping an eye out for?
I think that we’re doing a documentary about alternative energy and how, you know, what can we do for the world not to melt down, which is the next pandemic that people are overseeing. It’s a very thoughtful film documentary, that we’re working very hard on. In terms of a feature, we have a couple of ideas… Like I said, ‘all or nothing’, we’re going full on. Maybe we’re going to crash against the wall, which we welcome, which it happened few times. Hopefully the impact is going to be less this time, or we’re going to make something along the levels that these film makers did things before which is fantastic. We need to enjoy failures and we need to enjoy success, it’s all part of the same coin.
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