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Donall McCusker, producer of Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar Winning drama, THE HURT LOCKER reveals why filmmaking can be a war zone.
Starting his career as line producer for Dan Reed’s Channel 4 drama The Valley (1999), Donall McCusker has spent the last decade producing award-winning TV and film, and has worked on BAFTA-nominated docudramas The Day Britain Stopped (2003) and Death of a President (2006). His last three projects have all dealt with the realities of war in the Middle East, with McCusker serving as line producer on Nick Broomfield’s Battle For Haditha (2007), an investigation into the massacre of 24 men, women and children in Iraq, and Rowan Joffe’s The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall (2008), a look into the death of a young photojournalism student in Israel. But it’s bomb disposal thriller The Hurt Locker, on which McCusker is co-producer, that could see him accepting that coveted Best Picture Oscar. We met McCusker at the plush Soho hotel-a far cry from the remote locations he’s been navigating of late-to talk about producing such hard-hitting films and the challenges they bring with them.
How did you get started in the film business?
I started as a first assistant director in television, on stuff like ITV’s The Bill. I’d also done some big documentaries as a production manager. I then did The Day Britain Stopped with Gabriel Range for the BBC and the concept was, in my mind, the most boring film in the world; essentially a traffic jam movie! But we converted this into crashing planes over London, and it ended up winning an RTS award and a BAFTA. The whole premise was to shoot drama with a documentary crew-similar to the works of Shane Meadows, Michael Winterbottom and Penny Woolcock, who were doing films in unconventional ways. So I worked with Gabriel a couple of times, including Death of a President, then did a film with Nick Broomfield called Battle for Haditha, which brought me to Jordan.
Did this lead to your involvement with The Hurt Locker?
I was in Jordan when I met [screenwriter] Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, who had just arrived to do a recce for The Hurt Locker. There were a few incidents which meant the line producer who they had hired had to leave and they asked me to do it, because I had just wrapped Haditha. I thought they were a bit mad! I was more of a… I wouldn’t say guerrilla filmmaker, because I had always done films with budgets, but I hadn’t done a big film either. But Kathryn said to me she wanted to make this guerrilla style.
The bond people didn’t like the fact that their line producer had been asked to leave and they didn’t know me, so they insisted on putting an executive on board, Tony Mark, which meant that I could not legally be the line producer. It turned out that Tony and I got on very well and then I became the co-producer, which was a credit I bit their arm off for!
It’s arguably Kathryn Bigelow’s best film to date. Do you feel lucky working on such a highly acclaimed project?
I’ve been very fortunate to work with a group of directors who are all really shit-hot. Quite often working in production is very oddly female-centric and, as a consequence, if you’re male in production you get directors who are difficult to work with. Nick Broomfield has a reputation for being a bit contrary and I suppose Kathryn doesn’t take prisoners either, but I love working with directors like that. Particularly in the case of Nick, who doesn’t give a shit about anything other than what appears on the camera, and that gives you phenomenal confidence.
Most of the films that you’ve been involved with seem to have an element of danger to them. Are you naturally drawn to that?
I openly look for it! The filmmakers who make those controversial pieces in the Middle East are a small group, and I’m one of them. Line producing is a weekly salary; that’s a good thing to remember. If anybody out there is looking to produce a film, it’s hard without some form of financial support. Line producing is a really good way to do that. Someone once gave me a really good piece of advice: don’t try to be a producer and by definition you will end up producing. Partly by design and partly by coincidence the projects that come to me or that I want to create are, by definition, unconventional.
When you’re dealing with real-life people, how do you approach the legal aspects of the project?
The short answer to that question is, it’s complicated. You talk to lawyers and they assess these things. George Bush and Dick Cheney for instance, strictly speaking have an action against Death of a President; they can ask for minimum SAG scale for performance in a film because, under American law, if there’s an actor playing a real-life person, they’re entitled to be paid for it. We took a view that they weren’t going to do that, and thankfully they haven’t!
The thing about producing is to never admit you know anything and then find people who do. A lot of what I do is harrying people and putting teams together. If you’re doing a Nick Broomfield film, you need to find people that can work with him. There’s no point in getting a great DP that will want all the toys, because Nick won’t have the patience for that. You need someone who throws the camera on their shoulders and will follow the action regardless of where it goes.
You’re the chairman of the Production Managers’ Association (PMA). What does that entail?
There are two bodies that represent production in the UK. There’s the Production Guild, of which I am also a member, who represent a lot of accountants and line producers, and then there’s the PMA, who mostly represent television people and those who do documentaries in LA. Between those two organisations you have the whole gambit of the industry. There used to be a strong delineation between people who worked in television and those who worked in feature films. That’s now gone. There are probably about a dozen of us now who exist in this middle ground. Being chairman is not a paid position; you volunteer and get your arm twisted! It wasn’t a job I particularly applied for. What’s interesting about our membership is that as much as the directors get all the glory, production is what makes it happen. ♦
Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 16 (March/April 2010)
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