Remember when I told you about Tom Heller C’95, the alumnus who produced both Precious and 127 Hours?
Well, he was kind enough to speak with me recently about his films and his career, and he also shared some great photos (that’s him above on the right, posing with James Franco and 127 Hours director Danny Boyle).
With Heller’s next producing endeavor — Win Win starring Paul Giamatti — set to hit theaters on Friday, I wanted to share a few highlights from our conversation.
Your last two films have been huge critical successes. What generally attracts you to a project?
I just love movies that are entertaining but also have something interesting to say and stay with you and make you think. The Oscars are nice, and it’s great to get that validation, but for me it’s more meaningful when I speak to someone who’s seen one of my movies and I can see what kind of impact it’s had on them personally — whether it’s talking to someone who says that Precious helped them deal with issues of abuse they’ve suffered in their past, or with 127 Hours, when someone told me the movie made them decide to call their mom more often.
You were heavily involved in community service at Penn. Is that something that’s carried over into your current career?
I participated in the Community Service Learning/Living program at Penn, and I’ve always had an interest in making a difference and trying to promote some kind of change. To me, film is a really good vehicle to do that — it’s a very powerful medium [to encourage] change because it has such a huge reach.
When we started [my production company] Everest, the philanthropic angle was very important to me. For each film we produce, we give a portion of our profits to an organization or cause connected to the themes of the movie. For 127 Hours, we’re currently looking for an organization that creates prosthetic limbs for children. Since Win Win deals with a troubled teenage kid, we’re going to give a portion of profits to an organization that helps teenagers whose parents are dealing with some sort of drug problem or who are victims of abuse.
Film is a notoriously difficult industry to break into; how did you do it?
I’ve always loved film, and when I was a senior [at Penn], they were shooting 12 Monkeys in Philadelphia. I read that they were shooting, and somehow got a number for the production office. I called them up and convinced them to let me intern there. I spent a lot of time on set, and it was mainly a chance to observe. It was all just fascinating to watch.
Where did you go from there?
When I graduated, I wrote a lot of letters to different people working in the business and did a lot of informational interviews. My goal was to work at Miramax, but I ended up getting a job working at a talent agency. I became an agent for writers and directors, which was a great experience. I did that for three or four years, but I wanted to be more involved in making movies as opposed to putting together deals or projects; I wanted to be involved from beginning to end in a project.
I went on to work in Miramax for about four years in the heyday when they were making movies like Gangs of New York and Chicago. It was a really great learning experience. I worked right down the hall from Harvey Weinstein.
After that, I wanted to learn more about the business and financing side of the industry because I realized that was such an important part of it. I took a break and went to business school. I think that experience, combined with my background as an English major at Penn, has been really helpful.
How has your English major helped?
I really feel that Penn was very formative in my love for film and great storytelling, especially the English classes I took. Al Filreis is amazing, and I think about his classes a lot. I wish there had been more film classes at Penn when I was a student, but the English classes I took have really helped me with analyzing material and recognizing great storytelling
What are some of the moments you’ll remember most from the last few years?
There have certainly been some very surreal moments, whether it was saying a prayer with [Precious executive producer] Oprah Winfrey backstage at the Toronto film festival; having Mariah Carey sing “Happy Birthday” to me; or being at the Oscars with my parents [in 2010]. There have been a lot of times when I really just felt like pinching myself.
Can you tell me about Win Win, and how you got involved with it?
I’m from Summit, [N.J.], and the movie’s set in the next town over. Actually, the way I first heard about project is pretty funny: My dad was walking his dog in Summit and met [director] Tom McCarthy’s dad, who was also walking his dog. They just started chatting, and it turned out both their sons worked in the film business. That was my first introduction to the project. Then I read the script, and I loved it. It’s a great story – a family comedy/drama that involves wrestling and great, quirky characters. It’s a real crowd-pleasing film.