Part 1 - Interview of David Womark, American Film Producer
David Womark is an American Film Producer who has worked on over 35 films including, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Life of Pi. With Ang Lee and Gil Netter, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Life of Pi. Life of Pi was also nominated for multiple Academy, BAFTA and Golden Globe awards including Best Picture and Best Director and was an American Film Institute official selection for “Best Movie of the Year”.
David also served as Producer on Pete Berg's highly acclaimed "Deepwater Horizon" film: depicting the disaster in April 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil-rig exploded--resulting in the worst oil spill in American history.
In this part of the episode we talked about:
David’s experience of Life of Pi movie
The similarity in creating a story and creating a product or a business
How a new project or new things should be implemented with different people, different cultures, from different geographies, different backgrounds what is the best way to collaborate as a group, so everyone's opinions heard, but yet a path is decided upon.
Talking about Hollywood-Bollywood collaboration
How new techniques & technologies are implemented in movies
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Disclaimer to the Transcripts:
The transcript was generated using an Artificial Intelligence program and then scanned over; we would like to thank you in advance for understanding that there might be some inaccuracies. While reading, one might also notice that there are times were the sentences are not grammatically correct and due to changes in advertisements, the timestamps do not always align with the show. We are keeping the text as true to the interview as possible and hope that the transcript can be used for reference in conjunction with the Podcast audio. Thank you and enjoy!
This is Silicon Valley Tech, behind the scenes, a podcast hosted by Shawn Flynn and Sunil S Ranka. Here's where we talk to the real heroes, to find out how decisions are made, and how they're executed to create the thriving businesses of tomorrow.
It seems you have to start similar with any product that it once you have your theme, especially in the creative endeavor, but I think it's also it back to jobs and the iPad, I want to create something that people will want to use, that's mobile, that's not a phone but it's something bigger, but my theme is it has to be aesthetically pleasing to me and hopefully, that will translate. And I think you need somebody always to be able to have that perspective, that seed start the journey. And then everything else kind of falls into place around that. It's never simple. But I think having a philosophy or a theme of what it is you're trying to achieve, and then slowly going through all the various steps of visualizing it.
Shawn Flynn 1:05
And that was David Womark, who's an American Film Producer and with Ang Lee and Gil Netter he was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Life of Pi. On today's show, we talked about David's journey to becoming a producer, we talk about the similarities between creating a movie, and a startup, and much more. So stay tuned for today's episode on the Silicon Valley Tech Podcast. Enjoy!
David, thank you for taking the time today to be at Silicon Valley Tech with Sunil and Myself. Now you've had this amazing career, this amazing journey for our audience at home that may not know you that well, can you give us a bit of a background on your journey up to this point.
David Womark 1:50
It's outside of the tech worlds. It's parallel to I started in the Motion Picture business 30 years ago, 30+, and it's now 30 years later, it's been a pretty amazing journey.
Shawn Flynn 2:03
What brought you to the movie industry, to begin with?
David Womark 2:06
The film business, why the film business. Subconsciously, I think there was a connection my grandfather was a survivor during the Hitler and Nazi period and he was a German film producer in Germany and once cables started to turn, and he knew we have to get out I'm going to back up for a second. And he had made into Hitler films, as the regime started becoming more and more powerful and once they took over, he escaped with the reels and made his way out all the way back to Portugal and then from Portugal to New York. It was like a subconscious thing that just sits in your head as a kid when you hear those thoughts so I think that that's my connection to following in some footsteps of a new him, he passed away when I was 11 or 12. But as a kid, I think we all get impressed with certain things that are your family or events that place and that's one of the things.
Shawn Flynn 3:07
When you enter the industry, did you find any mentors or any guides that helped you along the path or what was the knowledge that you gain to really move you forward in the career?
David Womark 3:20
I think in every journey you have in a career, in any field, there are people that you meet that impress you, some of them were actors, some of them were directors, some of them were producers and when you meet some of the most talented ones, you know, it's hard not to be impressed when you meet somebody that has a taker perspective that is outside of your own imagination and they have a different way of looking at things, so that always kind of by osmosis, you end up if it's something that interests you, you end up connecting to it. And I've been very fortunate in that regards, and on and off for five years was Ang Lee and even though this was midway to later in my career, besides being a great honor, I get to see the journey of a great filmmaker at work and I think like any artists, what makes Ang’s are so unique is that he believes in the journey of the protagonist. And many times, he will in his own imagination take that journey. And I think when you will look at storytelling from that perspective. Not only do you have the character's perspective, but you immerse yourself in the environment of the story you're telling.
Shawn Flynn 4:36
How similar is creating a story and creating a product or a business?
David Womark 4:41
Wow, I think there's a lot of parallels. There's some differences. But I'll start with the parallels. I think even with a business to be successful it comes from your gut. You know, this is something you want to pursue and you'll adjust and be persistent and but also just to get to your goal and I think that that's something also creatively, you have to know where you're going and I think the only differences is that there are so many parallel pathways in business that you can look at for guidance or reference. And I think sometimes with a creative journey for certain people that there's less reference.
Shawn Flynn 5:25
So many different ideas coming together, different people, different visions. In business, a lot of people might have ideas coming to the table of how a new project or new things should be implemented, what is the best way to collaborate as a group, so everyone's opinions heard, but yet a path is decided upon.
David Womark 5:46
I'm going to say this, even though this is a podcast, where there are no visuals, but I have a rule that over the years I've made up, but I call it rule number one. And it's a show-me business, not a talk to my business and I think that's applicable to tech, you know, I'm going on this journey now with the app, I see the difference when we have something to show versus something to say and it's a similar medium because if you think about it, you're still looking at things on a screen, right moving, not moving, it's still on the screen. So, since the goal has a visual element, showing things to people, is a much better form of communication that's why we you know, you look at all the classes in your world, the tech lectures, jobs, gates, it usually hosts, the annual rollout of new hardware and software is done visually. So to me, I think that's the biggest thing is making sure that we're all communicating visually, because the visual communication has more unity in terms of understanding, whereas words we all know, sometimes everybody looks at can look at things differently, I think, always having a visual element to any discussion for success.
Shawn Flynn 7:01
When you're working with international teams, where maybe a language could be more difficult than a situation where everyone's from the same geographic area, same background, how does that vision how does that visual picture get altered or changed?
David Womark 7:17
I have one huge advantage when we were doing live we were in Taiwan and India. Taiwan, Mandarin, India, thousands of languages, mostly Hindi, but I grew up into poachers, I was born here and at the age of 12, I had to learn Hebrew, different lettering system, different words, it's not Greek, Roman, there's no connection to English and I think once you have to battle through that, you when you're young, and especially since I was in sixth, or seventh grade, where you it's you're not young enough, where you immediately absorb it, you're not old enough, when you get stuck, you're in that middle zone, back to the visual cues, the visual cues, using hands, people's faces, how they express themselves just automatically becomes part of your own language. So when I go to other cultures, it's I'm used to just anxious to sell at a time when we would have a lot of meetings in Taiwan with dignitaries and politicians, I would be the only English speaking person there are so many times they would speak Mandarin for hours and I would go you never seem to get bored. I said no. So looking at how they're behaving and trying to figure out what they're saying and 50 you know, if you've done this long enough 50% of the time, you're right. I mean, in Hindi in India, having done two films, their entire crew good, you know, they'll speak English on occasion but the go to languages Hindi did some we made was in Hindi. The second one was Love Sonia. Sonia you're sitting around on the movie set with another language and you have to my favorite word, adapt.
Shawn Flynn 8:43
And David, you've mentioned a couple of things there that audience that hasn't done their research on you prior, don't know, you mentioned two movies, you also mentioned an app you got tell us about all three of those.
David Womark 8:54
Okay, I guess I would start with Life of Pi, and Life of Pi, is a film that I produced. It's an Ang Lee film that I had the honor of producing, and I'd worked with previously on The Hulk and it was a pretty amazing journey because I think it was four years and three years for myself in the beginning end. But what made it so interesting was some of the challenges that we had to do systematically and the biggest one, of course, was making the audience feel that they're on the ocean with pie and that was one of the hardest decisions to make, you're working it's time to slide animals but not always. But when you start taking animals, kids, compounded by the fact we were the second film to use the 3D system that was first used on Avatar, if there were just so many complications we had to get to a place Frank felt comfortable doing it in a controlled environment, and we shot all the water sequences 99% except for one shot where he Pi arrives in Mexico on the beach we shot in Southern Taiwan and content everything else was done in what is essentially is, is a big swimming pool that was 300 feet by 100 feet, approximately 100 meters by 300 meters, and 30 meters by 100 meters and in order to get the waves to work, because what we had both done, and really felt it was important for the audience to experience, the drifting and the being on the water. And in order to do that trick is you do less cutting, you let the camera just lay there, and you see sometimes things in real-time and that gives you a sense that you're participating and you have a window into the real thing. But in order to do that the water movement for a long shot like that needs to look accurate and we've all seen those movies where they're filming and it looks like they're in a bathtub because the water hits one wall and hits the other wall but there are waves and you can get away with it. When you're in the open ocean, there really are no way. So the challenges when you're filming something in a pool, and you want to make it feel like you're in the middle of the ocean, in the middle of the ocean,
there are no waves, there are swells and what the swells do, usually on average, they're roughly 2-4 feet. And they cycle I think, 14-15 seconds, back sorry, 10-14 seconds. And what we measured in our pool was we would have had to build an order to get a cycle 10-14 seconds with 3-4 footways you would have had to build a pool that was almost a kilometer long, which would have been impossible to also tend to maintain. But we realize we're shooting everything against blue screen so all the backgrounds, we can move and adjust together with what's in the foreground. So if the waves are moving a little too quickly, by having the background move up and down at a different speed, you can make the swells and create the illusion that you're in the middle of the ocean. So that was one of the harder things to do, especially when you're doing a shot that's like 30-40 seconds long, where you can't cheat it. So again, what to pull dead, what the tank did is on one side of the tank, we had computers. And there were 14 blowers, and the blowers would pull in water and push out water and you could adjust the blowers in order to create whatever waves or swells you wanted to do in the tank. On the other side of the tank, we had these huge cement triangles that they use a structure that we dropped in the other side of the tank in the cranium, what they do is is when the water gets pushed to from one wall to the other side, they disperse all that energy, and the water tends to go underneath it so now you lose that bathtub water effect, and you're getting real, potentially real swells and real waves. And that was the hardest thing. I know both Ang and I took months to build the pool and it's one of those decisions that you make having had to make a similar decision with casting you always said this is like it's not Castaway with Tom Hanks. It's a Life of Pi with Stuart Sharma. So when you have a film like this, where basically the entire movie rests on the shoulders of your lead actor, that's a very critical decision, as well as the decision to do all your water work in a completely controlled environment when you're a realist, as a director, and I think that was a big challenge. That was one of our biggest challenges on the film, besides the creative challenge of interpreting what I would say is a somewhat complex novel.
Shawn Flynn 13:26
David can you also talk a little bit about implementing new technology in filming? I mean, right there you just came up with a solution to a problem that hadn't existed before with us. The ideas of those blue screen the building everything? How do you come up with new ideas to solve problems?
David Womark 13:46
I think the film world is very similar to the tech world we study other films and what came before us. And I was fortunate enough to be involved in iteration of Sea Wolf, the Ron Howard was going to direct many years ago, and we spent six months really studying stony on the water and had a lot of preparation time and then the gift was of course, we're working with somebody like Yang, who's very meticulous and detailed and patient so the execution, obviously was amazing. But going back to your question, I think we gravitate towards those challenges, but you address them by really doing a lot of R&D what came before you and then coming up with an alternate way because it's like in the tech world to each film has its own challenges, each application, each piece of software or hardware comes with its own set of challenges as well. So think you always want to look at your peers, and then build on that. And yes, sometimes like in this film, we went to a place where nobody had gone and the funny part of it was we actually were very lucky to work with Wave Park. A big group of guys that design wave parks all over the world. They actually have one in Taiwan, I believe there's a couple in Japan and then they in general, and the way part technicians were extremely helpful because they had to create waves that we were just asked him to create swell together with waves. So, but going back to what you asked, yeah, I think the challenge is what makes it fun. There's another film that I produced together with Mark Wahlberg and Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Mark Vahradian and Steve Levinson, called Deepwater Horizon, we had to address the challenge, putting everybody in fire, because we really had looked at a lot of the visual effects of digital work, and it didn't really seem to hold up, you could see the cycles of the digital work, it just didn't feel real and we realized that since backtrack, which was made, I think 30-40 years ago, Ron Howard's great film, nobody really done a full-on fire movie, because that is one of the complications in the film, technically and we wanted to make it as real as possible and the funny part of it is 30 years ago, the digital arena has grown and changed the progressed. But on the physical side, you still have man, Fokker, not a good combination. So was coming up with a lot of tricks and projection and special effects and we were very blessed because we got nominated for an Academy Award for the visual effects and special effects movie, the only movie and the long comet thing that really earned it based on a lot of the practical work as well as the visual work, not just the visual work. So that's always exciting.
Sunil Ranka 16:29
Perfect, David! So you talked about your experience of shooting films in India. So Hollywood, Bollywood, I grew up with Bollywood, a big fan of it and interesting stories, what do you see as a cultural difference, anything which would excite us.
David Womark 16:47
You know, India is such a complex culture. And having made two films now in India, one Life of Pi and the other film Love Sonia and directed by Tabrez Noorani, true story about child sex trafficking, a major issue in India has been throughout history have gotten worse over the years, there's something I really enjoyed about working in India because you're coming at it from a different place, you're coming at it from a spiritual place and even on the films that I've worked there, I've heard many foreign crew company and say, Wow, we can shoot in the slums, we can shoot in some of the most luxurious apartments we can shoot and some of the most amazing landscapes but it all these different places I've always heard, especially the western proven filmmakers always go, wow, this was a magic one spiritual experience and which is funny, because then you bump into Bollywood, which is just plain full-on commercial experience. But I think the hidden gem of Indian cinema is that which a lot of people unless you're Indian, of course, on the outside, don't know is that India also has a very vibrant, independent film scene and a lot of the actors in Love Sonia, we should try to Manoj Vajpay, more, not the core, all grew up in the India world. And it's interesting when you're in an area that's 95%, conquered by Bollywood, to have the gumption and the courage, artistically. To put yourself out there in these smaller films, I think makes them some of the most incredible actors I've ever got to work with.
Sunil Ranka 18:22
How do you re-come from a product journey? Rebuild product in dispassion of what we see as the need, but in your case, you have to sell dreams? How do you embark on that journey to know what the finished product would look like? And what it should be? How do you take that journey of setting the dreams?
David Womark 18:45
Every endeavor, there's jobs, gates, there's a leader and Hank was a leader in that endeavor and I think what when I observe his journey, what first and foremost gets in through it is a perspective of pov, a point of view and I remember what gave me the book and asked me to read it, I came back, I thought it was very smart when he asked me what the theme of the book is, from my perspective and I said power of faith, a belief, number religion, so but just a belief in faith and he said, that's one way of looking at it. I see it is the power of storytelling. And I realized that what he was indicating was basically you watch an entire story, the way the book is structured, and its own only to discover at the end, that there is an alternate option that exists and you as an audience member, get to choose whether you want to embrace both of them or one of them and it seems like you have to start similarly with any product that it once you have your theme, especially in the creative endeavor, but I think it's also back to jobs and the iPad. I want to create something that people will want to use that's mobile, that's not a phone, but it's something bigger but my theme is it has to be aesthetically pleasing to me, and hopefully, that will translate and I think you need somebody always to be able to have that perspective, that seed, start the journey and then everything else kind of falls into place around that. It's never simple, but I think having a philosophy or a theme of what it is you're trying to achieve, and then slowly going through all the various steps and visualizing it, and materializing is is that's the journey, and everyone's a little different.
Shawn Flynn 20:31
And that concludes Part 1 at David Womark's episode. Now, stay tuned for next week as we bring you Part 2, we dive even deeper and find out a lot more about who this amazing man is. All right, we'll see you next week on the Silicon Valley Tech Podcast.
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