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November 18, 2008

CU: Jason Shuman

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes…

By By Mel Cowan

Jason Shuman, B.A. Production ’96, had a plan after graduation from the USC School of Cinematic Arts: to goof around for a couple of months. But a shared vice led to a slight change in that plan.

The executive producer of the Paul Rudd-starring Role Models, which opened number two at the box office on November 7, and the upcoming horror western, The Burrowers, shares the occasionally illicit tale of his success.

You have an interesting anecdote about how a cigar changed your life. Explain… I was interning at Arnold Kopelson’s company. I knew he liked cigars, and even though I’d been interning there for nine months, I wasn’t sure he knew who I was. They let me go to the premiere for Eraser, so I brought two Cubans for which I’d paid an ungodly sum of money and waited to approach him. He’s in the lobby with Arnold Schwarzenegger, so I congratulated him on the movie, offered him the cigars, and he said, 'I can’t take those.' But Schwarzenegger knocked him on the shoulder and said, 'Take ’em!' So he took them, and he and Arnold disappeared out the back of the theater.

Role Models Executive Producer Jason Shuman, '96.
Monday morning, I get a call from one of the VP’s asking me what I was doing after graduation. I said, 'I don’t know.' The VP said, 'Kopelson wants to offer you a job.' Foolishly, I didn’t ask what the job was. I thought it would be an assistant job, but when I came in the first day after I graduated, the VP showed me to my office. Long story short, I ended up going from an intern to an executive over a cigar.

Your résumé shows a wide range of films: horror, comedy, television drama. How do you pick your projects?
A lot of it comes from loving different kinds of movies as a kid. I never tried to focus on one kind of movie, which in Hollywood can hurt you. People like to know what they’re going to get from you, so it can be difficult if you don’t brand yourself, but creatively, I love doing it my way. I can spend months on a horror movie: getting the script together, being on set, working in the editing room, then a few months later, be on the set of Role Models. This way, I get to exercise different creative chops.

How did your time at USC prepare you for your career? The great thing about USC is that they make you take everything. After genre and historical classes, plus editing and cinematography, then you move into 310 and 480, where you’re totally on your own; working on the script, getting permits, everything from start to finish. You have to have it in you to go do it on the next level, but USC is a great blueprint for the real world.

How do you and William Sherak [Shuman’s producing partner] divide the labor on your projects? We work on pretty much everything together: two heads are better than one. As we got busier and busier, we stopped having both of us on set for every movie. Now we just have one of us on set, while the other one is in the office working on the rest of the movies that are in the pipeline. When we’re both in the office, we do everything together: work on the script, cast the movie, find new projects, but when it comes down to the movie being ready to go, we decide at that point who’s best suited to be on set for that movie and who’s best to be back in the office. You’re only as good as your last movie, so we have a fluid partnership that helps us stay moving forward.

How has getting financing changed in today’s economic climate? I don’t think any movie we’ve done outside the studio system has been financed the same as any of the other ones. The movie we did over the summer called I Hate Valentine’s Day, a reteaming of the people from Big Fat Greek Wedding, was financed through several banks, which we’d never done before. For Middle Men, with Luke Wilson and Giovanni Ribisi, we found a private equity person. From a consumer standpoint, Hollywood is still thriving. There is still a need for product. You just plow through and find the people who don’t want to put their money in the stock market. At this point, investing in a movie is smarter than putting money in the stock market.

Plus, investing it in the stock market, you’re not going to get to meet Giovanni Ribisi. Exactly. There is a kind of magic in being involved in the movies. I was recently in South Africa, taking a tour of the ghettos, and being shown around by a kid who lived there. He asked me what I did and when I said, 'Movies,' he got really excited and said, 'Do you know the Coen Brothers? They’re my favorite filmmakers.' Turns out, this kid halfway around the world in a Soweto slum, every year he saves up enough money to go to one movie in the theater and he waits for a Coen Brothers movie to come out. I think if that’s not an affirmation of the power of movies and why it’s great to be part of making them, I don’t know what is.