Indie and art film producer Jon Kilik, unlike many, remains hopeful for the personal, mid-budget movie for grown-ups. “Those are the films directors love to make and audiences still love,” says Kilik, being feted this week at Poland’s Camerimage cinematography festival for work of special visual sensitivity.
Having flown in from a shoot in Rome, Kilik confesses he still loves being on set after a career spanning four decades, including work with Spike Lee, Julian Schnabel, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Jim Jarmusch and Oliver Stone.
His latest project filming in Europe, “In the Hand of Dante,” starring Gal Gadot and Oscar Isaac in a metaphorical journey through hell to paradise, is characteristic of Kilik’s lifelong passion for bringing challenging works of literature and art to the screen.
And he’s proven time and again that such films have an audience and are economically viable, he points out, if handled right – even if few in Hollywood were buying into that initially on many of the projects he’s produced.
His work with painter-turned-filmmaker Schnabel (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “At Eternity’s Gate” and “Basquiat”) has been a case in point, Kilik says, pointing out “all were financed outside the Hollywood system.”
“The Diving Bell” in particular, with its story based on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir about overcoming a massive stroke by learning to communicate only by blinking his left eye, was a tough enough sell even before Johnny Depp pulled out of the project, prompting Universal to follow suit.
After these events, Kilik managed to get French backing and cast for the film, taking it to Cannes, where it made a splash – and won Schnabel the best director prize.
But Kilik, who has also produced “Hunger Games,” says even films he takes on that are financed within the system are “done in a way to create freedom for artistic expression.”
His track record would seem to bear out that premise: Kilik-produced “Babel” (2006) by Innaritu was Oscar-nommed best picture and BAFTA-nommed, as was “Diving Bell” (2007) and “Biutiful” (2010). Kilik was also nommed three times for the Producers Guild of America honors for “Babel,” “Diving Bell” and “Foxcatcher” (2014).
Kilik was co-recipient of the special distinction award at Independent Spirit Awards for producing “Foxcatcher,” the true story of billionaire John Du Pont’s fatal obsession with sponsoring Olympic gold-winning wrestler Mark Schultz, starring Steve Carell and Channing Tatum.
And while he does look for unique artistic imagery in each project taken on, Kilik says, his goal as a producer is not to protect a filmmaker from commercial concerns “but to create a system where they can do what they do best. There is an audience for these films.”
Streaming giants also want artistic films, Kilik points out, and filmmakers like Spike Lee have proven adept at both going their own way and bringing in work on time and on budget. Lee’s “Da Five Bloods,” a thriller set among an all-Black former company of Vietnam soldiers and lensed by Newton Thomas Sigel, screened at Camerimage in 2020 before finding critical and commercial success.
Lee’s “Chi-Raq,” “25th Hour” and “Summer of Sam” were also taken on by Kilik, each winning critical and audience acclaim.
Kilik has also been willing to stand out from the crowd in his faith in the future of brick-and-mortar cinemas and the value of the genuine onscreen experience.
While in Europe, he notes, you often see posters for superhero franchise flicks alongside those for locally made art films when going to the multiplex. “Hopefully it’s the same in the U.S.,” he says. And while cinema may be dominated by tentpoles, there’s still room for more personal visions. “It’s all about films being able to reach audiences in whatever way they can.”
Kilik’s next film to open in the U.S., “Ezra,” is the story of Max Bernal (Bobby Cannavale), who forsakes his successful career to take on a far rockier one as a standup comic. It’s a project that features many of Kilik’s trademark qualities, set to hit screens next year.
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