Hollywood on the Hudson with Film Producer, William Horberg
William Horberg is a producer and writer, and the chair emeritus of the Producers Guild of America on the East Coast. He is the Emmy-Award Winning Executive Producer of the Netflix hit The Queens Gambit, which won a total of 11 Emmys, including the top prize for Outstanding Limited Series, at the 2021 Ceremony held September 19, 2021. Some of Horberg’s other notable credits include The Kite Runner, Cold Mountain, and The Talented Mr. Ripley. His latest film, Flag Day starring Sean Penn and his daughter Dylan Penn, is in theaters now.
As part of our Hollywood on the Hudson series, we caught up with William Horberg and Woodstock Film Festival Co-Founder and Artistic Director, Meira Blaustein, to discuss the role of technology in film (and why he was an early adopter of Zoom), how he considers his new film Flag Day the last great film of the 1970s, and why living in Woodstock offers a creative mind the best of both worlds.
Read the Full Interview Below
HOLLYWOOD ON THE HUDSON
With William Horberg, Film Producer
Hosted by Meira Blaustein, Co-Founder, Executive & Artistic Director Woodstock Film Festival
Meira Blaustein: Hello Bill. So, we’re here to talk about you– one of my favorite subjects. Your career did not start in film, per se in terms of filmmaking. You were an exhibitor first, correct?
William Horberg: Yes, I actually went to music school and dropped out in the late 70s. I moved home to Chicago and ended up opening a movie theater with a buddy of mine, my best friend from high school. So, I got into film through exhibition, which was kind of not an obvious route. We showed classic and foreign films, made popcorn, killed the rats, and wrote the program notes. It was a great time because you could only see movies on TV or in the movie theater then, there were no DVDs. So that kind of gave me the bug.
Meira Blaustein: Was there a particular incident, moment, or person that made you feel like making movies?
William Horberg: Well, that’s a good question. A lot of my close friends had moved out to LA, and I kind of resisted. I wanted to stay in Chicago, so I tried to start making films from Chicago. I was one of those guys who just printed up business cards that said, Producer, but I had never produced anything. I was always hustling and kind of entrepreneurial, so I ended up doing what I could there. I did some music videos, I did some shorts, I distributed short films by other filmmakers. And, because of my music background, I produced some music shows for television– a whole series on the Chicago blues scene with Muddy Waters. But I was trying to make movies in a place where that was not really happening. I wrote a couple of scripts with some friends who were actors, and I ended up optioning the rights to a few books, which eventually got made as my first independent feature films.
Meira Blaustein: Was that your breakout moment, so to speak?
William Horberg: No, I would say honestly, for me, I bit the bullet, and in ’86, I packed up and got on a plane and flew out to LA. I thought I had a job waiting for me as somebody’s assistant on a film and when I got there, the film had tipped over. So, to pay the rent and put gas in the car, I became a reader, which was the only kind of freelance job I could get. It paid $35 a script. I read about 10-12 scripts a week, and I thought that was my undergraduate education because I didn’t go to film school. Reading all those scripts and analyzing them and synopsizing them was, in retrospect, a great education even though it was tough work for no money. In the middle of that process, I landed an interview at Paramount, and I got hired to be an entry-level executive in the production staff at Paramount. So that was a big, big break for me, you know, there were hundreds of people competing for these jobs! I was suddenly inside a major studio. I was exposed to an incredible range of top filmmakers, from Francis Ford Coppola and Mike Nichols to the Zucker Brothers. So that was kind of my grad school. I had never been on a film set, really, until I was a studio executive going on location on behalf of the studio to stand on-set with a junior management role.
Meira Blaustein: Before moving to Woodstock, where you live now, you lived in LA. What brought you here?
William Horberg: I was in LA for almost 30 years. I have children, and all my kids were born there. It was a really great place and probably the only place for me to live and work and have my career as a studio executive and an independent producer. I also partnered with Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella for a dozen years. At some point, my wife and I reached a point where we were talking about where to spend the rest of our lives; in LA or elsewhere. My oldest son had graduated and left, and for my two younger kids, we were thinking about raising them closer to nature. My wife is a fine artist. We started talking about the East Coast, a New York kind of footprint for our family. I wasn’t thinking of Woodstock, per se. It was more coincidental. I knew a couple from England who had come over here on a sabbatical for a year, and this guy was building his own house here, so we came out to visit them. It coincided with your Film Festival, so I suddenly saw this cool cultural place. I came home and said, “there are some beautiful places Upstate. Maybe the idea of being close to New York, but not in the city, and having the ability to travel in both worlds would be ideal”. So, we came back on a mission.
Because we’re coming from the desert, I wanted to bring everybody out here in the dead of winter; to get them to know what that was like, and to experience life in all four seasons. We scouted around the schools and the many different communities here. They all have their own character and their own, you know, east of the river and west of the river, so it was like scouting for a movie. I was driving around and checking out all these different towns, and I think something kept bringing us back here. We moved to Woodstock in 2014. We sold the house, packed up the car, drove across the country. It felt like a rite of passage in some way, and it was very good timing. The greatest irony for me was that I ended up finding something that I didn’t really know was there. Had I known, I would have come here for that reason. I just stumbled into it, which was this whole film scene, like Hollywood on the Hudson, but also this incredible music scene with the legacy of the creative music studios. And Ulster County, I guess, is the most populous county in America in terms of writers, musicians, artists and filmmakers. So, that wasn’t top of my mind, but when I landed here, I felt like I parachuted into a field of clover, let’s say.
Meira Blaustein: Beautiful. Do you take inspiration from life here when it comes to your work?
William Horberg: Yeah, very much. A lot of what I’ve been trying to do is balance my life a lot more. I mean, LA is a super, super workaholic city and most of your social life there revolves around professional colleagues and peers–a kind of 24/7 life and not by choice. But my career involved a lot of international production. So, for 25 years, I was probably out of the country, 50-60% of the time. I worked in China, Vietnam, Romania, Serbia, Italy four times, and Germany. And so, it was part of a whole package, I would say, of changing and realizing that I could work remotely. This was years before the pandemic, but I have to say, I was an early adopter of Zoom. It’s funny; half the people didn’t even know I wasn’t in LA for years. They would just talk to me like I was in my office there, but I was in my office here. And it worked out beautifully.
I’ve always tried to find things that I love and hope there was a space in the industry for those stories. I haven’t changed that much in terms of being pretty picky. I have the projects I love and the kind of people I want to work with. I feel very invigorated being here, and I really do feel a nice sense of community. In fact, more people have moved out here, so it’s been nice to see some old film friends and have them as neighbors.
Meira Blaustein: Bill, as a veteran of the film industry, if there was one thing that you would change in the current state of the film industry, film, media, new media, what might that be?
William Horberg: That’s a biggie, Meira; there are probably too many things!
Meira Blaustein: OK, let’s take one.
William Horberg: Let me speak as a producer because that’s who I am. And that’s what my whole career has been. I think that there’s a desperate need for a shift in terms of how producers are treated–the way they’re compensated and empowered. I think that producing is less respected in the industry now than when I came into it, which was a low bar. As the tech companies have taken over and all media has moved to be content and IP distributed through these platforms and this algorithm-driven technology, that whole culture is outside of Hollywood. So even a basic understanding of what producers do: how they are creative and essential, and entrepreneurs, storytellers, and managers;–the people who go from A to Z in terms of the lifespan of a project. And they’re the people who are passionate about diversity and inclusion, different voices, and different stories. And yet, right now, we’re basically treated as employees without any of the benefits of being an employee. We don’t have a union. We don’t have pensions. We don’t have healthcare. We don’t have residuals. We don’t have minimum basic wages. It’s tricky because there are so many of us. There are so many different people of different skills in different genres of work that are all identified as producers. But even the top producers in the industry, I’ve been on many calls just in the last couple of months with major players, and everybody recognizes this. Even a group of producers now were trying to form a union, which is hard to do because the National Labor Relations Board (there was a lawsuit about 25 years ago that was lost) recognizes us as management and employees. It must be turned into something that is not a hobby for billionaires or something you could do when you’re a student with no kids, no mortgage, and no overhead. It must be a real profession; I think it’s the essential element. There are so many times when I get the call, “we need a real producer to come in and help guide this ship to the finish line.”
Meira Blaustein: Can you talk about how you envision the future, the trajectory of film, independent and commercial, and everything that’s happening with the streamers and television, and everything else in between that we are now experiencing as consumers of visual storytelling?
William Horberg: Well, I’ll quickly say, Meira, that, yes, technology has changed everything. The way films are distributed, the way they’re consumed. The advent of social media, I mean, everything and not just the film world, but has been completely disrupted and upended in our entire world. I spend most of my time focused on things that I think are eternal, you know, so things are constantly changing. And technology’s always changing; people’s consumer habits and binge-watching, whatever. But inside constant change, some things are always the same, like what makes a good story and what grips you. And what makes you care about characters and inspires you to keep turning the pages, or keeps you glued to the seat and evokes an emotional response. Who gets to tell these stories and whose voices do we get to hear? These are the things that interest me the most, kind of the, let’s say, dramaturgy of just storytelling. Whether it’s a seven-hour limited series or short film, you’re always thinking– what is this about? How do we make it the best version of what it’s trying to communicate? And who is the audience for it? We need these things no matter what you’re doing.
Who knows what it’s going to be five years from now? Are we going to still have movie theaters? Are people going to still go out to watch things on the big screen? There’s just no way of knowing; it’s so unpredictable. But I think in terms of a career, whether you’re a writer or a director or cinematographer or involved in any aspect of creating visual content, there are other things you’ll always be engaged with.
Meira Blaustein: It’s the story.
William Horberg: Yes, it’s the story.
Meira Blaustein: Bill, I remember we talked about a film that you were going to shoot in Winnipeg, and the film is about to hit movie theaters. I also know that the project came to you a long time ago. Can you talk about where you first were introduced to the film and something about its production?
William Horberg: Of course. I like to describe Flag Day as the last great film of the 70s coming out in 2021 because it does have a little bit of the quality of an undiscovered or forgotten classic. It’s set in the 70s and 80s. The films of the 70s, which was where I really grew up and came of age, were a big inspiration to us in the making of it. Sean Penn directed it. He’s starring in it with his own daughter, Dylan Penn, which is a little bit of a tip of the hat to Paper Moon if you remember Ryan and Tatum O’Neal. It’s about a loving and abandoning father. It’s a book written by his daughter, and it’s kind of her perspective growing up and her slow realization of the criminal nature of her father and the complicated legacy that he’s left for her in terms of her own identity. Badlands was definitely on our mind. It’s a middle America story, a little bit like Sean’s Into the Wild. I read the book in 2003 when I had a producing deal at DreamWorks; they actually optioned it for me. We hired an amazing writer, Jez Butterworth, who won the Tony Award just two years ago for his play The Ferryman. He adapted the book, and it was a great script. And unlike a lot of projects that take a lot of time, you know, they often go in the freezer for years and then you pull them out and defrost them, and you try to bring them back to life–this movie was literally about to get made every single year. I wasn’t delusional. There was an actor, there was a script, there was some money, and there was a plan. It just kept being an almost that never quite came together and got to the finish line. Sean read it, probably eight or nine years ago at this point, and he really wanted to do it, but he had another film to make before he could do this. He asked me if I’d wait for him. So, it was just one of those things, a little bit like The Queens Gambit. I felt it took a long time to make, but somehow it came into the world at just the right time, so I’m really excited. It was selected in the main competition at Cannes. We had a fantastic screening over there; it was like a five-minute standing ovation. Jennifer Vogel was there, which was beautiful because it’s her book and her life. That was a big motivation for me to keep going for all these years, knowing that she kind of entrusted me with telling her true-life story. And the film is beautiful; it was shot on 16-millimeter film, another nod to the 70s.
Meira Blaustein: 16 millimeter
William Horberg: Super 16.
Meira Blaustein: Oh wow!
William Horberg: So, it just has that grain. Danny Moder, an amazing cinematographer, shot it. And the big revelation is Dylan Penn! Of course, genetically, who would doubt that she had the ability, but everybody who’s seen the film has just been kind of blown away by her performance in it. So, I’m really happy that you’re screening it here in Woodstock and in Rhinebeck, in conjunction with the festival.
Meira Blaustein: Yeah, looking forward
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The 22nd Annual Woodstock Film Festival will be back in action from September 29-October 3, 2021.
Enjoy in-person screenings, panels, and other special events! Don’t miss out, tickets are available now.