SVFF Video: Oscar-Nominated Producers In the Spotlight (But Won't Sit in Directors Chairs) 

"Ron and I share Alexander Payne as a creative partner. Ron has made two movies with Alexander (Election, Nebraska) and Alexander and I are producing partners."

click to enlarge Producers Jim Burke (left) and Ron Yerxa (right)

Sun Valley Film Festival

Producers Jim Burke (left) and Ron Yerxa (right)

When Oscar-nominated producers Jim Burke and Ron Yerxa walked to center stage of Ketchum's NexStage Theatre to participate in an early morning "coffee talk"—part of the 2014 Sun Valley Film Festival—they sat in rather traditional folding chairs. It wasn't lost on anyone that on either side of Burke and Yerxa sat two vacant canvas-backed director's chairs.

"I always thought it was a bit of cruel irony for a producer to sit in a director's chair," said Yerxa. "You feel a false sense of being elevated, as if you had some power."

"But they're still rickety," said Burke.

Burke and Yerxa held court in the packed theater, to talk about what they called their "friendly rivalry," their respective Oscar experiences, and a lot of inside-the-ropes information that had the audience anxious for more when the all-too-quick hour had wrapped.

Burke's producing credits include Kingpin and The Descendants (Oscar nominee). Yerxa's producing credits include Little Miss Sunshine and Nebraska (Oscar nominee). They co-produced 1999's Election.

In talking about his journey with The Descendants, Burke said as a producer he looked "for champions" of the film.

[ Video is no longer available. ]

"When a producer is a salesman-in-chief, you're looking for those select people, and sometimes critics, who gave praise about the film after our early screenings, but they didn't necessarily have a personal stake in the film's success," he said. "Ron and I share Alexander Payne as a creative partner. Ron has made two movies with Alexander (Election, Nebraska) and Alexander and I are producing partners."

Burke said the best actors on the planet want to work with Payne.

"I'll tell you about how George Clooney was cast in The Descendants. Not many people know this but George wanted to play the Thomas Haden Church character in Sideways. But Alexander turned him down," said Burke. "A few years later, Alexander came back to George with The Descendants."

Which resulted in Oscar nominations all around—for Payne, Clooney and Burke.

"By the way, George Clooney always says, 'I'll act for free. But it's the publicity that you'll have to pay me for,'" said Burke.

Yerxa's own journey as producer to Alexander Payne's latest film, Nebraska, also took them to the Oscars.

"Maybe I'm still a kid in a hallucinogen-like state, and we didn't win anything, but it was terrific," said Yerxa.

"Nebraska was made in black and white; it didn't include any major stars; and it was filmed in Nebraska," said Yerxa. "But a lot of people responded to the film and it was all a very pleasant experience."

More than a few attendees wanted to know how Burke and Yerxa had climbed the Hollywood ladder to become two of the most respected producers in the business. But Yerxa said he hadn't even read a film script until he was 33 years old.

"Oh yes, it took me a while. I was on the far-end of the counterculture in the [San Francisco] Bay Area. I ran a street school for a while. It wasn't until later that I started hanging around the American Film Institute and began working with independent filmmakers," said Yerxa.

As for the future, Yerxa said he was spending a great deal of time scouting for new scripts.

But those scripts are pretty hard to find, according to Burke.

"It's very rare," Burke told Boise Weekly. "In fact, it's like finding gold."

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