Kevin Turen isn’t your typical filmmaker.
As an independent producer, and more recently as President of Phantom Four, Turen has brought to life a number of enthralling films, including Arbitrage, 99 Homes and All Is Lost. He’s now working on several new projects, including Miles, Assassination Nation, and the long-anticipated adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.
In a conversation in Los Angeles moderated by IVY member Bradley Gallo, Chief Creative Officer of Amasia Entertainment, Turen discussed the dynamic nature of dealmaking in Hollywood, the primacy of passion in filmmaking, and the under-appreciated power of listening in the entertainment industry.
Along the way, Turen also touched on the tenets of his producing philosophy and how they lead to richer, more effective storytelling.
There Is No Template for Creating a Successful Film
Turen touched several times on the ever-evolving nature of dealmaking in Hollywood. There is “no direct formula” and “no specific process,” he stressed, for making a great film. A large part of a producer’s job is navigating the uncertainty of the development process with openness, creativity and resilience.
Take, for example, The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s period historical drama about the Nat Turner slave rebellion. “There was no financial model” for the film before it got made—Turen, Parker and the team essentially invented it in the process of raising funds. Without a template to rely on, Turen had to focus on relentlessly championing Parker’s vision and selling the aspects of the film most compelling to investors, all the while staying true to the bold and original story. Financing ultimately came from 18 different parties with no formal business plan, and the film born without precedent sold to Fox Searchlight for $17.5M.
Without a fixed template, a producer’s conviction becomes essential. Trusting your instinct, he said, is paramount in a long-term game predicated on aesthetic decisions and strong relationships—which is how he stays true to a vision while effectively “putting all the pieces together.”
Passion, Not Money, Is at the Heart of Great Projects
Turen’s biggest priority in partnering with filmmakers is finding storytellers with deeply personal projects—stories that resonate on a “gut” emotional level.
“You can only do a good job on things that are personal to you,” he explained, in discussing his strategies for developing great screenplays. Using other approaches — such as chasing the market in an attempt to mirror creative trends — is “risky.” Turen also tries to place creative needs above commercial considerations. “I try not to think about marketing,” he explained, and “I try not to let it drive any decisions.”
Turen also believes that emotional commitment to a story is central to a filmmaker’s reputation. Working without “integrity,” he argued, is ultimately damaging in an industry in which “you are judged based on your decisions.” The same principle applies to writers and directors, whose greatest pitfall, he says, is “writing characters they don’t understand” or “don’t have the life experience to understand.” To Turen, empathy and emotional resonance are the lifeblood of truly powerful stories.
Listening Is an Essential and Under-appreciated Skill
Turen touched several times on the power of listening — the discipline of setting aside your own interests and focusing on the needs of a project or partner.
This quality is especially important in first-time directors who, he says, must be able to consider new ideas and collaborate with a creative team. Strong producers must also learn to listen — to the needs of a script, to the vision of a filmmaker, to the interests of investors, and to their own instincts, depending on what a project requires. That capacity, he says, is also at the heart of another key producorial talent — empowering creatives and “making everyone calm around you.”
Listening, in a broader sense, is also critical for anyone looking to break into the industry. Turen had to read “several hundred scripts” to learn what makes for a great story, a period in which he also learned how to articulate ideas that lead to meaningful improvements. It was the ability to listen that allowed Turen — who rose through the ranks of coverage, assisting, and acquisitions before his current role — to understand this complex industry before he tried to shape it.
All three principles, he stressed several times in the conversation, are essential for great storytelling and successful filmmaking.
Gabriel Mizrahi is an IVY member.