SUNIL PERKASH – THE FORCE BEHIND MOVIES LIKE SALT & ENCHANTED
Posted by Editor on June 10, 2011 | 2 Comment
It was Star Wars, which inspired this Indian American growing up in Palo Alto, California, to become a film producer. Now he is using the mantra from that movie as being the “knight” who has satiated the entertainment buds of the worldwide audiences, with wholesome entertainers such as SALT, ENCHANTED, PREMONITION and BLAST FROM THE PAST. What strikes you most about the man, is his earthiness, down to earth and straightforward nature and his absolute passion for the art and business of movies. Clearly he loves movies and that comes out clearly in his interaction with the audiences, through his films. They cross Geographies and take us back to why we go to theaters in the first place, to be entertained. We recently caught up with Sunil, in Los Angeles:
What brings a Stanford Grad, from a family of doctors, to becoming a Hollywood Producer?
I always wanted to make movies ever since I was a little kid. I grew up watching movies in Palo Alto, California. I remember seeing Star Wars in the theater when I was seven, and I think I ended up seeing it five times and loved the whole experience. Still remember taking the bus in the summers with friends and watching the movies growing up. It’s what I loved. My parents are both doctors, my brother is a doctor so Engineering, Medicine is what my parents wanted me to do. But all I wanted to do was to make movies, although I did not know at that time what it took to make movies. At Stanford I majored in Economics and Communications and as part of the Communications I took some classes in Film, film history, action films also ended up making a film on Super 8 and absolutely loved that process. I also did an overseas student program at Oxford where we studied British film and theater and loved it. So when I graduated I thought I would work in Hollywood for a couple of years, also in my parents mind that was great since it would look good on my resume since they expected me to apply to Law School or Business School thereafter. So they were supportive for about a minute. I literally moved to LA the day after I graduated and interned for this producer that not many people have heard of. I did that for about six months and at that point I realized that I loved this and I wanted to make movies. So that is what brought me here.
The challenges that you faced when you first moved to Hollywood and which was the first movie that you produced?
Challenges were enormous cause I had no clue what I was doing. Also my parents couldn’t help much since they did not know much about the business and unlike in the case of my brother who was on his way to becoming a doctor, they could guide him through his residency. Also I wasn’t sure at that time what role I wanted to play, did I want to write, direct or produce and early on the role of the producer started to catch my fancy. The producer is almost like the creative CEO of the project. They are the one with the material and overseeing it at a big picture level. Also during my internship, the producer I was interning for, did have a project with Hollywood Pictures a division of Disney, so I had got a sense of what a Producer did. Developing the project there trying to get it to a point where the studio liked it. I thought back then that this is really fun. What I did not realize is how much Hollywood really is an insider game. So I quit my job after six months and decided I wanted to produce, as in having possession of a material, the script and story that you have the rights too and something that someone else wants to make and finance. I would start by signing up for any seminars and see people pitch to studio executives and I got an experience of what ideas are flying with the studio system. I reached out to my friends in ICM, UTA, etc to send me 20 scripts a week and I remember in the early 90’s going to a café and reading scripts from like 6 to 11, every day. And by the same token sending out letters to whoever I could, now this was before the email, asking them “will you meet?” And luckily through the Stanford network and for a variety of other reasons, a lot of people would take a ten minute informational meeting and all would say if you have some decent material start sending it to me. I connected with a writer back then, we sent out three or four script none of them were selling, yet all were being liked, but this got me more into the insider game in Hollywood, because it is an insider game about who you know. Dec 93 I met a writer named Whimmer at a party and I liked his script, sent it to agents and people and this time a company actually ended up working on it. So here I was at 24, an Executive Producer. The project never got made but associated with the producer of movies like Fugitive and Seven, that is Arnold Kopelson. So that sort of put me into the system in terms of having legitimacy coming from my first project. So it’s certainly not easy, you are working your backside off, your writer is working for free, until such a time that the project does take off, if it does take off that is. You got to love what you do, for this whole thing to be worth your time. And then you sell it and you start to deal with the studio development process . What I really learned during this phase was how to develop a script to sell it into the system. A script written by my writing partner, Bill Kelly, that was not sold earlier, actually became my first produced film, because of the initial work done to get into the system. The film was Blast From The Past. New Line, since I already had a project there asked what else do you have and I said there is this other script that I love and they bought it and I ended up selling another spec to United Artists that same year. In 1997 Bill Kelly and I sold a spec that ten years later ended up becoming Enchanted. So in the 90’s I am selling these specs but no movie is getting made and I make a fee of approx $25K on these sales, for the first one I got half of that which is $12.5K which is what a producer makes for a development fee and that is paid out in installments. That is enough to make a living, not a great living but enough to a point where your Indian parents are like fine with it.
Blast got green lit in 1997, it was in production in 98, we shot it here. Business back then was booming and studios needed to get movies made so everything went with the flow. So that was smooth, but then business turned really hard in 2000. The Studios were folding, you had three Disney (Disney, Touchstone, Hollywood pictures) divisions and then that became one and of that you had some with Pixar, etc, so the number of movies fell.
So I had one movie made and business got tougher and that is when I had my second renaissance, if you will, of learning. I realized I knew how to sell specs, I had sold at this time like ten projects to studios, I had one movie produced, but now I’d been here ten years. It’s a good track record, not a great one. So here I am having some projects with actors and directors attached, some were being made by studios, some were independently financed, but nothing was coming together, but something about that struggle made me realize that you just have to keeping going and in early 2003, things began to really fall in place. Bill Kelly and I developed a script called Premonition and we sold it to Hyde Park, Ashok Amritraj’s company, ironically I did not know Ashok back then, so it was not on account of the Indian connection. He had a tie up with MGM, it took us two years but we got that up and running. I went to the set of Premonition in Shreveport, Louisiana, worked on the post, then went to New York for the set of Enchanted, this all really taught me the nuts and bolts of production. It’s not just having a good script, it is getting it into production, dealing with the budget, all the way to marketing. I made my mistakes, but learned a ton in the process. I’m a big believer in learn from yesterday how to do it better tomorrow. But that is what producing is all about. Directing is very myopic and that is how they should be, but the producer has to keep juggling if you want the movie to be good. The other day somebody was saying that the difference between a good and bad movie, is the producer. You can have a great movie but in the absence of a good producer, it falls flat. The best of the best directors need someone they can trust. Both Premonition and Enchanted were a success. Enchanted made 340 million worldwide with unbelievable reviews. I won’t forget that day when reviews start coming online and when Blast came out, the internet was just new and I would get the reviews online before Disney would actually get a copy. Variety, LA Times, NY Times, suddenly started to just flood with their reviews. You are like wait a minute how did this happen. I read the other day that when JC Dugard, got back from being kidnapped, she wanted to watch Enchanted, cause that helped her dealing with her kidnapping and the realization dawned that is why you make movies, to do something great for people to love cause that’s what movies were for me, when I was growing up.
So how did SALT happen?
It was written by Kurt Wimmer, whom I have known for years. We developed the script together. We sold it to Sony cause they were asking during Premonition what else I was working on. I told them I had this old script that Kurt was going to direct, but not any more, that it was was awesome and was about a CIA agent accused of being a Super Spy and the movie is about is he or isn’t he? It was a HE, as opposed to a SHE, when it was written. They read it and the chairman of Sony said that he wanted to do it. It was written for a guy and Tom Cruise was attached to it for some time and then for various reasons that did not work out. One of the execs at Sony recalled a meeting with Angelina at that time, who had told them that don’t get me a Bond movie to play the Bond girl, get me one to play Bond. So the script was sent to Angelina and she responded, we did a rewrite and that was SALT. We are so proud of that film. I went to New York once more, I love New York city, it’s a fun place.
On being South Asian American in Hollywood?
I wasn’t thinking about it. In fact it was my argument with my parents, that most of their peers were Doctors and Engineers, but as Indians in America we have to branch out. We have to do different things and wear diverse caps. My interest has always been though, mainstream Hollywood films. I like Indian films but it was about me making American movies, since I was born here and am American. If I had grown up in India I probably would be in Bollywood.
So would you ever think of collaborating with a Bollywood film?
I would if I thought we could make something fantastic for a worldwide audience. It is about showing a story worth telling. Yes, we want to make money and be successful, but at the same time when we look at the great movies of the times, I mean nobody wanted to make Star Wars, it almost killed George Lucas, I saw that in a documentary, but yet, it was about telling a story. People in Hollywood are not excited about making great movies, it is purely a business, however, I do believe that it has to be both, an Art form and a Business. Yes, I would love to make a film in India.
During the struggle days, was there ever that thought, what am I doing here with my Stanford degree?
Yes, absolutely. I think I have that moment even now. I think we all do in our respective lives. In fact it is not a bad thing at all. Also I’ve worked for myself the entire time, minus that six month internship so I’ve never had a legitimacy outside of what I do on my own. So what I did was almost overcoming all the odds. The business is getting tougher, studios are cutting their marketing and development costs. I think most people in this business have a mindset of “what’s easy in the moment.” The academic background that I come from is based on merit, so your script is good and the real business world is somewhat different. So its not a business where you work 9 to 6 and then move on. That was the biggest thing that I probably had to overcome.
Would you do Television producing?
Being a creative producer, only if it involves great story telling. Unfortunately networks are so worried about how you act out a story before the commercial breaks, that it takes away from the whole process. I think around 89% of television is horrible, it is not watchable. There was a pilot I sold to ABC, they loved it, except they felt it was a little riskier. My view is that anything original or different they are scared of.