Great Books sat down with award-winning film and theater producer J. Todd Harris who will be speaking at the Stanford campus this summer to ask him about what lead him to his successful career. Harris is the president of the Los Angeles-based Branded Pictures Entertainment. Of the nearly 40 movies Mr. Harris has produced, highlights include Golden Globe-winning and Academy Award-nominated “The Kids Are All Right,” “Bottle Shock,” “Crooked Arrows,” “Jeepers Creepers,” and “Piranha 3D.”
GBSP: Did literature play a role in your childhood?
I went to Allen Stevenson, a fancy New York City prep school, so early in my education, I was reading fairly advanced books for 6th and 7th grade. Seminal for me was Catcher in the Rye, Lord of The Flies, Brave New World, A Separate Peace, The Pearl, The Sun Also Rises, and that type of mostly American (or British) seminal work. I was also a bit of theatre rat so I did see plays and musicals and read Albee, Miller, Wilder, Ibsen, Chekov, and the like. Sadly, since I’m now in the business of reading screenplays, I’ve become less literate as I’ve gotten older. Now, I rarely read books unless I’m interested in acquiring their film rights. Sad, I know.
GBSP: Did any parent, teacher, program foster a love of storytelling, whether through books or film?
My mother is a PhD in Comparative Literature, so I couldn’t help but be, ahem, “inspired” by her. She had (and still does have) quite the vocabulary and “inflicted” it on me (with love) often. Again, my prep school was formative in developing my appreciation for writing and literature. Stanford, back in the late 70s and early 80s, when I was an undergrad there, had a lame film program, though I probably did get some decent film history fundamentals in a few classes (Eisenstein, Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Sennett, Ford, Kubrik, Hitchcock, Bunuel, Truffaut, Wyler, Welles). When I was growing up in NYC, I used to love going to the movies.
GBSP: Was there a specific film or book that made an impact on you as a child?
As noted, Catcher in the Rye was formative and spoke to my rebelliousness. Lord of the Flies scared me for its insights into human nature. I think the film, “The Social Network” (a film I loved), is a modern day Lord of the Flies. Early seminal films for me were “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Heartbreak Kid,” “The Graduate” and, later, “Sex, Lies & Videotape.”
GBSP: How did you get into film? Did you always think you’d work with a visual medium?
I was into theatre in high school and college. The film medium didn’t feel accessible to me and it wasn’t – certainly not the way it is to young people now. I loved the process and immediacy of theatre. You only get that in spurts with film. It’s a different type of collaboration, for sure. I started in the film business as a reader of scripts after getting my MBA (appropriately!) and when I couldn’t get the perfect job climbing the development ranks, I just started to pursue what I really wanted – producing films. I raised a small development fund from my business school classmates (MBA pays off) and got a toehold working under the wing of a major producer. And it still took me 5 more years to produce a movie.
GBSP: If you could give one piece of advice to young writers or filmmakers, what would it be?
Be fearless but strategic. Decide on what the right piece is and then do it. Don’t worry about perfection. Get it done as efficiently as possible. And, honestly, network hard.