February 11, 2008
BLOOMINGTON, Ill.— In the snowy hills of Utah, Illinois Wesleyan University graduate Brian Udovich caught two things he didn’t expect – a cold, and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival for the upcoming film The Wackness.
“Going into the festival, you never have any idea what the reaction will be,” said Udovich, co-producer of the film that stars Josh Peck and Ben Kingsley. “After that first screening, I knew we stood a chance.”
The film, directed by Jonathan Levine, follows a teen drug-dealer (Peck) and his psychiatrist (Kingsley) the summer after he graduates from high school in 1994. “It’s a character-driven piece, and you’re never sure if people are going to identify with that, but the movie is also a lot of fun and people were entertained,” said Udovich, from his home in California. Sony Pictures Classics purchased the film for release later this year.
The movie is Udovich’s second to be picked up at a film festival. His first collaboration with fellow American Film Institute (AFI) graduate Levine, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, was purchased by Harvey Weinstein at the Toronto Film Festival in 2007. “It’s unnerving to enter that festival setting,” said Udovich. “There is so much glitz and glamour around you, but you have to focus and know that you are there for a reason.”
Handling the business of movies was not always Udovich’s plan. The business administration major, who graduated in 1998, originally landed a job as a telecommunications consultant for Chicago-based Ernst & Young. When Cap Gemini purchased the consulting division, Udovich found himself traveling the world. “It was definitely a very cool lifestyle,” said Udovich, “but it was easy to leave behind.”
With the demise of the dot.com industry in the early 2000s, the business world Udovich enjoyed faded away. “The feel of the 1990s, all the creativity and energy, slipped away,” he said. “Relaxed guys in jeans and T-shirts thinking of the next new idea changed into people in suits saying, ‘Here’s what I can do with your money.’”
Udovich decided to go back to school, this time to pursue a love of movies he discovered at Illinois Wesleyan with a friend, when the two watched films suggested by a professor. “I remember seeing A Clockwork Orange and I was blown away,” said Udovich. He enrolled at AFI with a focus on producing films. “It really wasn’t a tough transition,” said Udovich of trading in the business world for the business of movies.
A former defensive lineman for Illinois Wesleyan, Udovich falls back on football when asked to explain a producer’s role in a film. “A producer is like a coach who puts together a team and gets the best out of his players,” said Udovich. “In this case, you’re putting together a director, production designer, editor, cinematographer – and making sure everyone works together and everything runs smoothly from start to finish. You’re the first one on the job and the last one out the door.”
His love of teamwork fit well with AFI’s rigorous emphasis on collaboration. “AFI is an intense boot camp showing how the real world of movies works,” said Udovich. “In small films, you can have an all-in-one package with the writer also directing and editing a work. But that can’t happen on a larger picture. Everyone has to have a separate role, and the producer makes sure everyone is working to potential. There is a reason a Best Picture Oscar goes to the producer.”
Udovich said he learned more than just the business at AFI, he learned how to fail. “After I finished producing my first student film, I thought it was brilliant,” he said. “When I showed it to the other students for critique, they ripped it apart. Now either you learn from that or you give up.” Refusing to be deterred, Udovich continued to make films. “If you fail, what is the worst that can happen? You fall flat on your face?” he said. “If you want to succeed a little, you need to learn how to fail a lot.” A year later, one of Udovich’s films for AFI, The Monster and the Peanut, won the Emmy for best dramatic student film and was recently released for purchase on iTunes by AFI.
It was also at AFI where Udovich met acclaimed director Levine, and developed a team that has produced two films so far, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and The Wackness. “Jonathan has an amazing vision, and believes in what he does,” said Udovich. “Plus he’s just a really great guy and it’s fun to work with him.” That relaxed atmosphere leads to an environment of trust, said Udovich. “One of the great complements I received was from a grip on the set in New York, who had just come off of I Am Legend to work on The Wackness,” he said, after Levine and the cinematographer asked his opinion on a shot. “She said she’d never seen a team work so fluidly together. All of us try to enable Jonathan’s vision, and he is strong enough to feel comfortable asking for advice.”
During the shoot for The Wackness, Udovich also encountered something new – the paparazzi. “You see so many celebrities in Hollywood every day, that it’s like walking around an issue of US Weekly; you get used to it,” said Udovich, who was stunned by the photographers following actress Mary-Kate Olson around on the New York set. “It’s bizarre to think that people are standing 15 feet away from her all the time because legally they have to stand 15 feet away. That kind of unrelenting attention is tough to imagine.”
Flashing cameras aside, the challenge of making movies is a draw for Udovich, who loves the idea of conquering a summit, whether in Hollywood or in the heights of Mount Kilimanjaro. An avid hiker, Udovich and his girlfriend scaled the mountain several years ago. “Why climb it? Because it’s there,” said Udovich simply, laughing that he faced every environment possible while ascending to the peak. “You start out in the rainforest and end up in the Star Wars ice planet of Hoth,” he said, unable to resist the movie reference.
Adapting to change is easy, said Udovich, because of the lessons he learned at Illinois Wesleyan. “Call it the Minor Myers jr. influence,” he said of the late University president. “He always said life will change, professions will change and you will grow throughout your life. Just be ready for that.”
As for his next move, Udovich plans to make more movies and always be on the lookout for the next big change. He is finishing up the film The Key Man with Hugo Weaving due out this year. “I always thought my dream would be to either own the Chicago Bears or make movies,” he said. “Of course, if I make enough movies I can afford to buy the Chicago Bears.”
Contact: Rachel Hatch, (309) 556-3960