December 20, 2014

‘Hunger Games’ producer Jon Kilik comes home

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By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

Jon Kilik, a 1978 graduate of the University of Vermont, fields audience questions at the Majestic 10 movie theater in Williston on March 25, after a screening of the Kilik-produced ‘The Hunger Games,’ which set the opening weekend box office record for a non-sequel with gross receipts of $155 million. (Observer photo by Luke Baynes)

You might think that the producer whose new movie just had the third most lucrative opening weekend in motion picture history would take some time to relax. Perhaps he could treat himself to a dinner of caviar and foie gras, or maybe just put his feet up on the desk in his palatial Hollywood office and enjoy a cigar and a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue.

Think again.

Instead of wining and dining with Tinseltown’s beautiful people, producer Jon Kilik was at the Majestic 10 movie theater in Williston, politely answering questions after a screening of “The Hunger Games,” which took in a staggering $155 million in domestic box office receipts during its weekend premiere and trails only “The Dark Knight” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” among opening weekend coups.

The March 25 event at the Majestic 10 was a homecoming of sorts for Kilik, a 1978 graduate of the University of Vermont. Perhaps best known for his longtime collaboration with director Spike Lee, Kilik also produced such distinguished films as “A Bronx Tale” – the directorial debut of Robert De Niro – and the Julian Schnabel-directed “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” which critic David Denby of The New Yorker referred to as “nothing less than the rebirth of the cinema.”

The screening of “The Hunger Games” was preceded by remarks from Kilik’s former teacher, UVM Professor Emeritus Frank Manchel, whom Kilik credits with inspiring his career in the film industry.

Before turning his attention to the man of the hour, Manchel paid tribute to Lucille Jarvis, the matriarch of Vermont moviegoing and former co-owner of the Majestic 10, who passed away in 2010.

“She represented the highest ideals of film exhibition in Vermont and in many parts of the country. The people who met Lu admired her; the people who knew Lu loved her,” said Manchel of the woman in whose honor proceeds from the event were donated to the UVM Film and Television Studies Program.

Regarding Kilik, Manchel stated: “Jon, for me, is a visionary. He sees an imperfect world, he identifies dangers we don’t see and he creates films with responsibilities that we cannot avoid. … He is justifiably considered today one of the finest motion picture producers in the industry.”

Shifting his comments to “The Hunger Games,” Manchel told the audience that they should view the film in the context of the science fiction genre, which has traditionally been based upon social criticism.

“My concern is that no one seems to understand the science and the social criticism in the film,” Manchel said. “At the very time we are watching a movie in which innocent children are forced to kill each other by a sick society, we are also witnessing an enraged America demanding justice for the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whose only crime was that he was black.”

While Suzanne Collins wrote the source novel, “The Hunger Games,” well before the recent controversy surrounding the death of the Florida teenager referenced by Manchel, Collins has acknowledged that the inspiration for the book came while channel-surfing between a reality television competition and footage of the Iraq War.

The movie, which takes certain dramatic liberties while remaining generally faithful to its source, concerns a 16-year-old girl (played by Jennifer Lawrence) who saves her younger sister by volunteering to participate in her place in the “Hunger Games” – a barbaric competition in which one boy and one girl from each of the 12 districts of a post-apocalyptic nation fight to the death until one survivor remains.

While the premise sounds tailor-made for such chronic bloodletters as Sam Peckinpah or Quentin Tarantino, Collins intended it as a young adult story, and many of the audience members at the March 25 screening were pre-teens.

Kilik addressed the question of the film’s depiction of violence by referencing the title of Errol Morris’ 2003 anti-war documentary “The Fog of War,” suggesting that the direction of Gary Ross – whom Kilik previously worked with on the 1998 fantasy “Pleasantville” – utilized hand-held cameras to subjectively portray the blur of combat, rather than objectively show its bloody reality in long-shot.

“It’s a war story. And when you’re in battle, you’re not in a wide shot,” said Kilik. “The camera was what was violent.”

Although Kilik is no stranger to prestige – as evidenced by the Kilik-produced 2006 Best Picture Oscar-nominee “Babel” – “The Hunger Games” is his first bona fide blockbuster.

But Kilik said he approached the material no differently than any other project.

“In a way, it is like every other movie I’ve ever done. I can’t change how I work, or my taste, or how I approach making the movie. I only know one way,” Kilik said. “But this one is definitely striking a nerve. People are seeing something in it, and yet it’s made very artistically, I think. It’s a very sophisticated type of filmmaking.”

Bringing the conversation back to his nascent years under the tutelage of Professor Manchel during the American film renaissance of the 1970s, Kilik stressed that character-driven stories have shaped his cinematic sentiments to this day.

“It’s about people, and that’s what all my movies have been about,” said Kilik, “and to have a movie be about people and have it be indie, alternative, sophisticated filmmaking with complex visuals and sounds and editing and cinematography, it proves that an audience isn’t as stupid as Hollywood says it is, and people are going to come out like crazy to see it. That’s what this weekend really proves.”

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