Over his three-decade career as a film producer, Michael Nozik ’72 has worked with Hollywood luminaries such as Robert Redford and Martin Scorcese and been the driving force behind more than two dozen movies, winning particular acclaim for Syriana, The Motorcycle Diaries, and Quiz Show, which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1994. And yet, despite these achievements, the Holyoke, Massachusetts, native says the challenges of his career continue to test his confidence. “It’s hard,” he acknowledges. “There’s a lot of self-doubt. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, every day, and still asking, OK, what am I doing today? There are balls I have to move down the field, and the field is still very difficult, and doors are shut. It’s a process of always trying to find the fresh, inventive way to keep going forward.”
Nozik had followed his older cousin to Williston—his younger brother would also attend—and witnessed firsthand the school’s merger with Northampton School for Girls. Amid the social and political foment of the times, he discovered photography, contributing to Williston’s yearbook and befriending Mitch Epstein ’70, a photographer and filmmaker with whom he would later collaborate. His time at Williston helped him to develop “a point of view about myself” and “some understanding of the visual impact of images,” he says. “On an artistic level, I became aware of and sensitized to a certain kind of visual language. I got interested in looking at photographs, looking at art, hanging out with classmates and people like Barry Moser, who was an icon for us.”
After majoring in English at Skidmore College, Nozik managed the Athenaeum Cinema, in Hartford, and the Orson Welles Cinema, in Cambridge, where he made his first key connections in the film world, then moved to New York to pursue his dream of working in the business. After paying his dues as a production assistant, location manager, and production manager, he eventually got his shot at producing, a transition he attributes to “being in the right place at the right time, maybe a little bit of skill set, and working with other producers who brought me along.” He now lives in Los Angeles, where his latest project is a visual effects movie called Inversion, about the intermittent loss of gravity on Earth, and an adaptation of The Ranger’s Apprentice, a series of young adult books by Australian author John Flanagan.
People know what an actor or a director does, but a producer’s role may be less familiar. What exactly do you do?
I’m what’s called a creative producer. I find stories and develop them as scripts. I don’t finance the movies, but as a producer, you source the financing and you are ultimately responsible for how the money is spent. You sort of are at 20,000 feet, looking at all the problems and trying solve them before they happen.
Often, you’re the reason the movie’s happening. For example, on Motorcycle Diaries, which I did when I was in a company with Robert Redford, I saw the paperback in a Santa Monica bookstore. It had a really cool cover with Che Guevara on it, and I picked it up and started flipping through it. I thought, Oh, this is kind of cool, and started to pursue where the rights were, which were very complicated. Shortly after that, I saw a movie called Central Station that was directed by the Brazilian director Walter Salles, and I thought, Oh, that’s an interesting director for this. So, I put the director together, we went to get the rights, and then went to get the financing for it. That’s what a producer does: Pull all the elements together, try to guide the ship forward, and at some point, you pass the mantle to the director, who is the primary creative force. But you stay through the editing process, you take the movie to the distributor, you work on the marketing, and go to the movie theater after it’s opened to see how people are responding. My friend used to say, You’re the first one bringing the furniture in and you’re the last guy taking the furniture out.
Were any of these skills things you discovered about yourself at Williston?
I discovered my interest in, and probably some understanding of, the visual impact of images. I’ve always been interested in history and literature, and certainly learned that well at Williston. We were at Williston during a time of transition, politically and historically. We still had to wear ties and there were rules, and at times we wanted to rebel against them. In retrospect, those things gave us some perspective and helped you define yourself, because there was something in opposition—you know, rules. I remember someone said, “OK, we have to wear ties. They make us better people. Let’s wear three ties. We’ll be three times better.” And so, in protest, one day, we wore three ties: two on the leg, one on the neck. But those things help to define you, because you have something to clarify yourself against. When there’s nothing there and there’s no rules, it’s hard to define yourself as a young person who needs to rebel. So Williston was helpful to develop a point of view about myself, and that carries on in whatever you do. And I turned it to making movies.
Were any teachers particularly influential?
Definitely Couch, who was very helpful in photography. Couch was my dorm master, my first year at Mem dorm. The darkroom was in the basement.
You do films with a great deal of diversity: international films, action, drama. What is it that draws you to a particular project?
I look for something that somehow affects me, that shifts my perspective on something. I’ve been drawn to stories that are international because I think we learn from seeing things from another point of view. I don’t have a particular thing that I would identify as my genre, but I’ve often worked with the same directors and that affects the kind of material. In some ways, I think of myself as being like an editor. Not a film editor, but a book editor. Here’s a piece of material, how can I make it better, take the best things and bring them out.
Are you ever surprised by which films get the attention, or do you know early on that a project is going to be special?
You always hope, and I’ve been more disappointed than surprised. During the process of post-production on a film, you’re often putting it in front of an audience, and you get scorecards and comments. In the best of cases, those test screenings are helpful because you get comments about certain areas of the movie. Is it moving slow? Is something confusing? You can get a feel if audiences are really not getting it. I did a movie called The Next Three Days with Russell Crowe, and we never had such good scores. On paper, it should’ve been a gigantic hit, and it turned out to be just, poof, gone. And I don’t know why. Wrong date, bad campaign, who knows? It’s really hard these days. There are all these other factors.
We certainly hear about all the changes in the movie business, with streaming and new platforms. How are they impacting what you do?
Streaming is having a big, big impact. It’s a good thing, ultimately, because it’s allowing for more stories to be told. The theatrical experience is being relegated right now to these big tentpole and comic book movies, though I feel like there’s a glimmer of change coming. Audiences broadly are getting a little tired of that. They want a human experience.
But streaming is here to stay. It’s a big force. There’s a lot of money in it, and there’s a lot of content being generated. My own tastes, and I’m sure it’s the taste of other people, is I love to binge-watch now. It’s like reading a novel.
And from a film-producer side, I love that a movie doesn’t live or die on its first weekend. You spent three years, five years, working on something, and then it’s gone. That’s really depressing, and it’s happened more than once to me. The audience doesn’t show up, so the studio doesn’t support it anymore. They don’t want to spend good money after bad in marketing, because marketing’s very expensive. They just pull back to the ancillary rights of DVD, which now will be streaming.
So if some Williston grad were interested in doing what you do, what advice would you give them? Maybe run the other way?
No, there are a lot of Williston grads out there that are doing well in this business. Like anything, the biggest thing is, do you have the passion? You have to be self-starting and you have to have a passion that is bigger than good sense. Because, especially as you begin, there will be wall after wall. And that can be discouraging. But if you have the passion for it, you should, absolutely. Because the movie business wants and needs fresh and new voices. It’s always looking for the next big thing. Sometimes it’s hard to get your voice heard and believed, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
Do you still go to the movies yourself?
I used to go every week. In fact, that’s how I met Paul Haggis, who I collaborate with a lot. When I lived in Santa Monica, we would go every Friday night to see whatever was opening. But lately, I get screeners because I’m in the Academy, so I get lazy and watch those. And you can now get a big TV with good sound, so the experience is pretty good. But it’s not like a movie theater. That’s still the best way to see a movie. And I hope it never goes away.