Reinvention Test: Mark Abraham

Mark Abraham

Abraham has been a key producer in Hollywood for many years as an independent, first with Beacon Pictures in 1990, then as head of Strike Entertainment, which he founded in 2002.

Marc Abraham’s move from top film producer to film director hasn’t been without hitches.

After a career as a top-level producer, Marc Abraham directed two films about men tormented by the act of creation. The most recent, I Saw the Light, was a biopic about legendary country singer Hank Williams. Producing and directing are often two sides of the same creative coin.

Tom Hiddleston plays Williams, the founding father of country music who deserves to have his face carved on the Mount Rushmore of American music. The singer’s enduring fame and popularity, plus an outstanding performance by the young English actor, should have made the film a box-office hit. But this archetypal biopic, depicting a self-destructive artist destroyed by alcohol and other personal demons, drew fire from the critics, and I Saw the Light flopped at the gate when released a year ago. It was surely an unexpected glitch for Abraham, who wrote, produced and directed. You could see it as a mid-life crisis, or as someone still in the process of reinventing himself.

Abraham has been a key producer in Hollywood for many years as an independent, first with Beacon Pictures in 1990, then as head of Strike Entertainment, which he founded in 2002. His credits as producer read like a résumé of the best US cult classics of the 1990s: The Family Man (Brett Ratner), Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón), Spy Game (Tony Scott), The Rundown (Peter Berg). These pictures were all released in the US by major studios. But all show a true director’s hand, often of a filmmaker at an early stage in a career that was about to take off. And all are films made by artists, produced by the industry, with Abraham as hub and kingpin.

“I actually never envisioned the idea that I would ever be a producer,” says Abraham. “I started out as a sportswriter. I published a couple of books, worked for magazines. Then we tried to start a little movie company that would ultimately give us the opportunity to write and direct our own films. As it happened, the first movie that we got involved in turned out to be The Commitments. Some friends of mine had given me the galleys of the book, and Alan Parker was already involved as a director. On this first movie, I didn’t know what the f___ I was doing as a producer. I was just a kid, watching this brilliant filmmaker at work, trying to absorb all that. Then, from that success, I was suddenly a producer, making more films. In all, I think I produced 38 of them. But through all of those, I never gave up this idea that I would someday write or direct my own projects.”

In 2008, his first feature, Flash of Genius, about the man who invented the windshield wiper, seemed to set him on the road to a director’s career. He was over 50. I Saw the Light and Flash of Genius are both titles that reveal how he sees the creative act, whether it be musical or industrial. Something ignites (a light, a flash), a miracle happens, and a fleeting glimpse of it lingers in the eye. Is that significant, considering he’s spent most of his career on the more unseen side of the business?

“Yes, I guess it is,” he admits. “You know, I’m always drawn to the most outsider kind of creative people and how much fortitude is required from them to actually get done what they want to get done. People that are really obsessed and not willing to bend. The same goes with the film business. You’ve got to remember that there’s no one in the film that cares as much about it as the director, because the director will live with it longer than anyone, and he will live with it every single day, and with great fear and obsession. Someone [such as] Wolfgang Petersen, someone [such as] Alfonso Cuarón, or Alan Parker, believe me, those guys are crazy passionate, they are even a little maniacal about what they are doing. I’m drawn to that kind of people, people haunted by their vision. That’s why I find Lawrence of Arabia, that broken, obsessed guy, a much more interesting hero than, you know, Mission: Impossible.”

Such words may seem shocking coming from a Hollywood producer. Everyone knows that the producer-director relationship is the bedrock of the entire industry. They are the only two names in the credits who are considered as ‘filmmakers’. Their union has to be water-tight. The line between them may be open, but only in one direction: there’s a long list of directors-turned-producers (of their own films or those of their protégés), but few have gone the other way. Abraham is that rare breed.

“My producing was never a business thing,” he explains. “It was more about my skill set of helping the directors to develop their vision. In my company, I always surrounded myself with guys that were much better in business than I was. To this day, I can’t break a deal down in terms of back ends or whatever, I just can’t do that. But because of where I came from, I did have that ability to create deep relationships with other creative people, by proving to them that I cared about their movie almost as much as they did.” That is what sets Abraham apart: he deeply understands artists, what moves them and repels them, what keeps them awake at night, what threatens to consume them, as it happened to Hank Williams, who died at 29. He gained this experience on the outside from his first 38 films, before seeing the light and jumping across the line himself.

Abraham talks about his two lives. Experiencing the commercial failure of I Saw the Light, he concedes, was “much more painful as a director, because you never stop thinking about what you could have done differently. As a producer, it doesn’t stick with you in the same way”. He has been married three times and has “a lot of kids”. When asked which life is harder on the family, the producer’s or the director’s, he heaves a big sigh.

“That’s a really good question,” he answers. “I think it’s more difficult for a woman or a man to be with a director, because he will be gone more, he will be more mercurial, he will suffer way more pain when things don’t work. But that said, a woman or man is very likely to be more prepared for it, respectful of it, probably even a little infatuated with it. When you’re involved with a producer, they seem much more normal, they’re businessmen, they’re around a little bit more. But then, once they’re not around, their life partners won’t give them as much leeway as they would the director they fell in love with.” After a pause, Abraham continues: “Of course, I have no evidence of what I’m saying. But I think if you get involved with a director, you’re more likely to know what you’re getting into. So you’re more likely to last.” Here, he’s surrounded by his family, and knows exactly what he’s talking about.

Recommended For You

Related Articles