The Bronx native graduated from UMaine in 1979 with a degree in civil engineering and a passion to pursue a career in dance. He launched his Hollywood career six years later.
Chances are you know his films, but haven’t heard of him. That’s the plight of the Hollywood film producer, even one who is on the A-list, who has an Academy Award for producing former Vice President Al Gore’s global-warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and whose three dozen films have grossed more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office. Those films include the Academy Award-winning Good Will Hunting with Robin Williams, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, as well as The Mexican with Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt, Anna and the King with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat and, most significantly, nearly every film directed by Quentin Tarantino, from the groundbreaking Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction to the Kill Bill series and the recent Inglourious Basterds, also with Pitt. The producer? Lawrence Bender, who graduated from the University of Maine in 1979 with a degree in civil engineering. His other focus at UMaine? Naturally, dance.
How did studying civil engineering and dance at the University of Maine help to shape your career as a producer?
A degree in civil engineering trains you to be a problem solver. That’s one part of the brain. The other side is creative. In my case, I found dance at UMaine. Dance is this amazing thing that fills you up and expands you creatively. So, when it comes to producing, you’re creating an art form that requires an enormous amount of practical problem solving. In a funny kind of way, you would never say, “OK, I want to become a producer. I’ll get a degree in civil engineering, become a dancer, and then become a producer.” Um, no. However, I happened to have managed those two things and they are exactly what producing requires. It’s to be able to creatively tell a story and, at the same time, to solve all of the problems in order to tell that story.
You won the Academy Award for An Inconvenient Truth. You’ve also been an activist for years. What did winning the award for that particular film mean to you and how do you think it will shape what you do going forward?
Let me back up a few years. We screened Good Will Hunting at Camp David in 1998 for President Clinton, Mrs. Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, Senator Daschle and many others. At that point, I had been producing for a few years and was starting to feel as if there was something missing in my life: It was making a difference in the world. Even though as a filmmaker you can make a difference in the way we think and maybe feel, these people around me were actively making a difference in the way we live. That’s what I felt I needed to do. What was missing for me was to find a way to take what I do and leverage it to help make a difference in the world. So, I started doing that. When I saw Al Gore give his presentation on global warming, like everybody in that crowd, I had a visceral reaction. Being a filmmaker, I had this nutty idea to approach Al Gore and make a movie. I feel like making An Inconvenient Truth was the culmination of everything I was training for in my life — making movies and trying to make a difference. Obviously, winning the Academy Award is the dream of a filmmaker, but as a filmmaker, you don’t dream about things like the Noble Peace Prize. Still, there I found myself in Oslo with Al Gore, watching him receive it. It was probably as much a highlight in my life as any.
In your opinion, how did environmental issues fare under the Bush Administration? And under the current administration?
To be quite frank, the Bush Administration was a disaster for the environment in many, many ways. It’s a shame. You know, we had an IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report come out during the Bush Administration that involved 2,500 scientists and 130 countries, all agreeing with 90 percent certainty that global warming is occurring, that man is accelerating and helping create it, and that we have a very short amount of time to do something about it. Since then, the curves in the graphs have shown that we have surpassed the worst-case scenario for the IPCC report. The last eight years were a terrible, terrible thing for global warming. The only question is whether we can stop the dangers from becoming catastrophic. And that’s hopefully what is happening with the current administration. Most people are focused on the economy right now, which we should be. But what people don’t understand is that if you look at The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review that came out of London a couple of years ago, this economic problem that we’re having pales in comparison to what’s going to happen to the economy 20, 30 years from now, when the massive effects of global warming hit. The good news is that the solutions are abundant and usually involve jobs.
With so many of the world’s issues being overlooked today, which issue is most deserving of a documentary now?
There are a lot of important issues facing us. Access to clean water is a massive problem. AIDS, poverty, overfishing of the oceans. When we elected Bush, it seemed that everything was great. We had President Clinton, economic expansion, no real wars — overall, things were pretty good. Now, we see what eight years can do to the planet. I’m working on a documentary about nuclear proliferation because I and many others feel that we’re in the worst time — worse than even in the Cold War. If things continue in the pace that they’re going, we could destroy the Earth with nuclear weapons. But again, with Barack Obama and the new administration, it does seem as if we can reverse things. I feel like this is an incredibly important issue. And a lot of the Cold War warriors, the hawks, have reversed their position and are coming out from a legacy point of view. So, it’s not just the peaceniks who are saying, “no nukes.” That gives me hope.
You’ve produced every one of Quentin Tarantino’s major films. What has he learned from you?
That’s a good question. I feel like Quentin and I are great partners in the sense that we trust each other quite a bit, and in trust, you are able to expand. I think one of the things that Quentin probably gets from me is that he knows that I am there 100 percent for him. We just made Inglourious Basterds. Big movie, very short amount of time to get it up and running; obviously there were a lot of big creative decisions, but there were a lot of little creative things that happened along the way that he just couldn’t do. Quentin gave me the rudder of the ship and basically said, “get me to Cannes,” and he trusted that I was going to do that in a way that was going to allow him to make his best picture. I think some of the best work comes out of producer/director teams, where the director and the producer work really well together. This movie allowed for that.
Originally published in UMaine Today Magazine, Winter 2009