Transcript of Episode 19
Dave: All right. So I’m very excited for today’s design build show. I have the famous Mr. Michael D. Roberts.
Michael D. R.: I have to live up to that now.
Dave: Oh, well you already have. Mr. Roberts has been in the film and television industry for 50 years, longer than I have been been around this planet so far this life. And he has an amazing career, you can see for yourself, but spanning movies, television, has been most recently, as I’m sure you recognize him from the incredible movie, A Star Is Born, with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.
Michael D. R.: Really incredible.
Dave: It was, man, it was, I love that movie.
Michael D. R.: That’s my second Oscar winning film. My first one was Rain Man.
Dave: Rain Man. That’s right. And has an incredible career, has appeared on Seinfeld, Friends, just to name a few, but just as illustrious and prolific as his film and television career, I would say his contributions as a humanitarian are just as prolific, if not greater. It’s how I had the pleasure of getting to know you and meet you. And so thank you, thank you very much for being on the Design Build Show.
Michael D. R.: My pleasure, definitely my pleasure.
Dave: Appreciate it. Yeah, so I’ve wanted to have somebody from the show business or this industry that you are in and have been for over 50 years, or 50 years, because I think it’s a great parallel to my industry in construction, because there is a planning period, you know, there’s somethings being written and then it’s being executed. There’s a similarity there and there’s also a similarity in just, there’s a lot that goes into it. Like a movie or a television show has a lot of people with specialties contributing to this purpose or this goal of this entertainment for folks. In my industry is similar, there’s a lot that go into it. And so in my industry, the thing I’m trying to do with the show is educate folks on design build. A lot of folks in this industry or in society when they look at my industry, they’re not really educated, because the architect used to be the top chief, the one in charge, but over time that definition has changed to be just a designer, analogous to a writer, I would think, in your business.
Dave: And so that org chart, that organizational structure has shifted, but folks don’t really know. And so they’re misinformed and when they go down a path to do a building, they should know. And that’s why I’m here. And I would love to hear about your industry because I don’t really know what the structure is, who’s in charge, who’s the top person. Has that changed over time? And I’d love to hear how it is.
Michael D. R.: Okay, cool. My question to you first is if the architect has been pulled away, then what does that actually do? What actually happens?
Dave: It leaves a void.
Michael D. R.: How so?
Dave: Well, a client is going to pursue a building or a project and so they’re looking for a professional to work with. What’s absent is someone who is like, “You hire me. I’m going to take you through from conception to completion and be accountable for it. I’m not just an advisor, but I’m going to own it and now I’m going to get this product.” That’s because the architect changed. That has been filled in lots of different ways. But there’s nobody there who’s in our industry that represents that anymore. And that’s what the design build movement is all about. And the design builder is all about is filling that void and bringing things back to the way they were. For the majority of civilized history, that’s the other thing, it’s been made to appear like it was always that way, like the architect was always just a designer or the emphasis. But that could not be further than the truth. These history books have been in modern times commissioned by the universities that really made the change, make it appear like throughout history it was always that way, but it’s not true.
Michael D. R.: That’s interesting. Well, the film industry is no different in the evolution. Right. But the film industry is rather young. It’s a really, really young industry.
Dave: That’s true.
Michael D. R.: Yeah, that’s a good point. It’s very, very young and so its evolution, the beginning of it is still very close at hand. We’ve only now just seen one of the most massive changes, which is digital, but we still use the camera, there’s still a cast. We didn’t start out with a story. We just started out with the brothers in France who basically were using it as a novelty. So you were just shooting trains running, people watering their lawn, and people would go into the dark room and see the train coming and go, “Oh my God, it’s a real train!”
Michael D. R.: So it was really just a novelty at that time. And matter of fact they didn’t think that anything was going to go any further than that. They thought it was just going to be a novelty. But it started to develop and its development really had a lot to do with editing and with storytelling because when that came about, when we all of a sudden went… Because a great cyber film called The Fire, I think it is, and it’s the first time in the films… Because if you just had somebody watering his lawn or a train coming in, people leaving work, that’s a big French film, people leaving work, believe it or not.
Dave: When did it start?
Michael D. R.: In the 1800s.
Dave: Later 1800s?
Michael D. R.: Yeah, the late 1800s was when you get the physical apparatus. Like I said, it’s a novelty. It’s like something you would see at a world’s fair. Right? And the camera itself, the idea of a camera goes back to Greece. But that’s a completely different thing because I don’t think anybody has one. You could probably build it. It’s just a box with a little hole and a big hole. And just the way that light works, it would pull it in and make an image on something. And then again, that was its extent.
Michael D. R.: But in the 1800s, matter of fact, one of the biggest film societies was in England. They made about 600 films. But just before that, like I say, about watering the lawn and all that kind of stuff, but then they made this film called The Fire, and The Fire was the first time that they went, we’re here talking, right? And then they cut the camera and went over to the restaurant and they saw your wife walking in. Then they cut the camera and they went down to the novelty store and they saw you coming out with a pack of cigarettes.
Michael D. R.: It started to jump in time, move from different location to different location. In The Fire, you see the fire burning, then you cut to the fire station where all the guys are sleeping. Then you come back to the fire and somebody out the window. Then you cut to the guys jumping up because you get a shot of the alarm, and then you get the guys coming down the pole. Then you get them running to the fire and back to the guys. That became the first story. We’re now telling the story, so we’re cutting from one place to another place to tell this story.
Michael D. R.: And as those things started to develop more and more. Then became more of an entertaining beginning to end. Like Spielberg says, “I’m a storyteller.” Well, that’s really what it is. It’s the hunt, sitting around with the tribe and the guy is saying, “Yeah, then the buffalo came out. And Little Feather, he ran over to get the other buffalo.” We can’t jump to one place to another, but it’s basically he’s telling the story of what what the buffalo hunt was like, because they were successful, they brought it back, and its a pretty keyed out time for them because it means survival, right? So they can tell their story. Well, film was pretty much nothing more than that, if you really look at it. It’s really our stories, our triumphs, our tragedies, our hopes for the future. And when it does that, it’s a tremendous medium. Right?
Michael D. R.: So with this things, you started getting different people coming on board and different things to be done. The camera at that time was a box, and you’ve seen them many times with the crank handles and stuff like that. And first time I realized that when the director said action and he started cranking, in most movies about that period, today you see a movie about that period and they’ll say action, and the guy will do this and then they will cut more than likely, because the audience definitely doesn’t want to sit there watching somebody cranking a camera. But back at that time, that guy was cranking that camera for 15, 20 minutes, maybe a half an hour, just cranking, cranking, cranking the film and getting it in. So he was the camera man.
Michael D. R.: And then there was a guy who was designing what it was going to look like. But we move on to a point where, what if it’s a gray day? What if you have no light? So now you have to have an indoor place where you’re going to shoot and you be able to bring in lights. Because Edison is rolling at the same time. So now we have lights coming about.
Dave: So is it fair to say that technology has driven a lot of the change in the industry?
Michael D. R.: I would say that. But here’s what I would say. I would say imagination has driven it. Because the director went, “Well, what if we had a giant ape? What if he was bigger than this building?” And then he sits down with the guys and says, “I want a giant ape that will climb the Empire State Building.” So Ray Harryhausen comes up with the stop motion animated figure to make King Kong move. That’s what drives it.
Dave: Is the director the boss man in the film and television industry? Because when you’ve been talking about it and Spielberg, Lucas, the guy with the camera, the guy in charge of that, and that’s the director, right?
Michael D. R.: It’s an interesting comment. What I perceive is, I think this guy’s the guy who has the vision, but the vision comes from something. He either wrote the script himself, you see, so now he is the senior architect and the guy who wants to see this thing go all the way through. He pulls in a producer, the producer, his job is-
Dave: So the writer, it starts with the writer?
Michael D. R.: Yeah. It starts with the writer. It starts with the writer.
Dave: Which is sometimes the director.
Michael D. R.: Sometimes the director, sometimes the producer, sometimes the actor.
Michael D. R.: You know what I mean?
Michael D. R.: Tarantino’s been in his own films. you know what I mean? But that script is your architectural template print.
Dave: Your blueprint.
Michael D. R.: You’ve got it, your blueprint. What you’ve got to go on. And that is going to be the driving force of the project. And what he does is pull in the producer who will help to manifest that by pulling in all the people we’ve been just talking about, depending on what the project is. We’ve been talking about with the boss, it would be that director has the book, Jurassic Park, reads it and goes, “This would make a really good film. Hey, brilliant writer, write something for me along this line.” Robert Towne with Chinatown, you get that thing, so that writer writes that thing and the director will meet with the writer, and tell him what he doesn’t like, what he does like, et cetera. If he’s powerful enough, that is.
Dave: So it’s not set in stone in terms of that industry, but there’s typically somebody where the vision starts, whether it’s going to be the actor, the producer, the director, and then has, I guess, the one with the most power oversees and has the most control and force over that end product.
Michael D. R.: Yeah, because you know, it’s a very big massive point, because you’ve heard times when a director has been fired, right?
Michael D. R.: He’s been fired because the studio is seeing what he’s shooting and they don’t like it. They don’t think it’s going along with the vision of what the studio idea thought they were going to be seeing.
Dave: The studio or the producer is like the client in a way, right? It’s like the developer in a building project, I get analygous, you know.
Michael D. R.: Yeah, there you go. And with the major studies this will happen.
Dave: But it was cool how you started with the history of it. Because for me, that gave me a lot of understanding for the person with the camera or controlling that camera, that’s what everybody’s going to see. That is the director, that person really analogous to my industry, it’s like the one building it because that’s the end product, that’s what everybody’s going to see in buildings experience and what have you. And so in my industry, their ovation of the architect is master built, which makes sense, because that’s the one in charge, and it’s builder, right? It’s not master designer. It’s master builder because that’s the one actually determining, “Hey, here’s how it’s going to be. I got that’s what was in the plan, but I’m now building it.” That’s the one with the real control of what the end product will be.
Michael D. R.: Yeah, well you see, that’s very, very cool. I’m glad you said that because people need to know that. And that is really, really what a director’s doing. This is the big thing too, because in this thing here, not unlike your business, what is the end product? You see, the end product is the building. But I don’t think that’s the end product. I think the end product is the person looking at the building.
Dave: Or using it. You see what I’m saying?
Michael D. R.: Totally, 100% I think that’s the end product, which is “Whoa!” You know what I mean? Or, “Uh.” Or whatever. And I think that’s in our industry, the end product is the audience going, “Oh, Ooh.” Or, “Ooh, ooh.” Or whatever. Because what you’re trying to do, what you are doing is creating an emotional response in the person who’s sitting there. And if you’re not creating an emotional response, then you didn’t hit it. But you want people to go, “Get out of the water, get out of the water.” Because you see the fin. Or you want people to see Vader and realize, “Whoa!” You know?
Dave: Yeah. I mean, the thing that’s my industry, like architecture is art as object, but it’s more than that too. You know, because you use it and there’s a function to it. Like I’m going to work here, I’m going to live here, I’m going to sleep here. And so there’s that, at the highest level, you’re pushing all of those. But it actually does start with function. Form follows function.
Michael D. R.: Yeah, totally.
Dave: Another analogy I just thought of is, in my industry you have the design builder, which is you can have that person design it, build it themselves as a person. You can also have a design builder as a team wherein there’s really just, he’s the director, he or her is the director and overseeing all of those specialties, and I think that’s an analogous to the actor, like Bradley Cooper was the actor and the director for A Star Is Born. So he was like the design builder who’s doing it himself. He’s not only like building the thing, he not only designed it, but he built it and he’s telling everybody else, the plumber, electrician, all everybody else what to do. How does that make a difference in your experience, those that have actually do both?
Michael D. R.: Well, I think that like your architect, which I really liked this analogy by the way, because this guy is seeing this thing all the way through, the director is in the editing room after the film is shot. He is looking at the premiers. If he’s a smart person, he is looking at the promotion ideas and what they’re going to come up with the studio. He’s looking at everything to bring this thing off. Just like the star, like a Harrison Ford. If a star is not really on his money, he’ll sit in his dressing room just waiting for his shot. But if he’s a Bruce Willis, he’s down on the set. He’s going, “What are you shooting? I don’t like the way that looks.” Because he realizes that his name is connected to it and that he now understands the business well enough to have a vision also, so he can give an input to a director or a producer or something like that.
Dave: He knows, he has knowledge. So he can have more control.
Michael D. R.: Exactly. And I think that’s why I started studying 25 years ago because I just realized that that’s what I was aspiring to, sitting in the director’s chair, or sitting in some chair, the star’s chair, and waiting in my mobile dressing room for them to call me, “Mr. Roberts, you’re needed on the set.” And somebody to have my cappuccino ready for me. And you know, the old, “I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille.” And I realized that, no, you have to know what you’re doing, everything that’s going on around you.
Dave: To the side of you, yeah.
Michael D. R.: Everything. You have to know everything that’s going on. And if you know everything that’s going on, you’ll be much more successful at it. Worked with Bruce Willis and he’s the same way. Just such a genius. Just knows so much about what he’s doing. And that’s Tarantino, he just knows so much about what he’s doing, what he wants, what this is going to be like, what the camera speed should be, what lens we should be using. When a director has that vision, you will carry it to Spielberg. He will carry it to success.
Dave: Yeah, but it’s also the team.
Michael D. R.: Yeah, definitely.
Dave: Because I think it’s a great example, you just said, the accomplishments of all those on that team with Bradley. That helps because you guys all have perspective. You’re not just, “Okay, where’s my shot? Let me go in there.” You guys have perspective. You can see and you know so much, you can help make this the thing to the side of you that is not yours better. And that makes a huge difference in that, design build makes so much sense because of that, because it gives you perspective, it gives you the broadest view of, “Hey, here’s the end product.” As opposed to, “This is just my role. I’m the subcontractor. All I’m getting in to do is the electrical, but I don’t care if that coordinates well with this or with that.” It can create problems. My industry has been, it’s an adversarial setup, it was 150 years ago, so this adversarial split came about. And it needs to get back to having the architect and builder as one.
Michael D. R.: Yeah, I can totally see where you’re coming from, because there’s a great book by Ken Follett called Pillars of the Earth, and they are building the cathedral.
Dave: Yes, the Gothic cathedrals.
Michael D. R.: You know?
Michael D. R.: And they’ve fallen down, the walls are falling down.
Dave: Master builder.
Michael D. R.: Exactly, exactly. I read that book of my respect for the ceiling staying up. It’s just like, “Wow, that thing actually stays up.” You know what I mean? And all the things that need to go into that. And I think that’s the industry. That’s why I liked the industry so much, because I’m that type of person that really should have been a director or producer, because I’m that type of person. When I was at Universal as a kid, I walked all over the set. I went to meet this person and that person all over the lot to see what was going on over here, because I just, I really feel that, you know, working with Bruce for instance, okay, Bruce really can create that group feeling, when you’re on the film with Bruce, it’s a team. It is totally everybody’s a team.
Dave: That broad view.
Michael D. R.: It’s like a family, you know, I think his niece had a baby or something like that, and Bruce went to see the kid and came back and everybody was talking about the kid. I think it’s that kind of just, we’re a team here. And if you can learn that early on, which I didn’t, I didn’t learn until later on, but I felt it, and I knew, I operated that way. Because I remember one night we were shooting Baretta and I was just, you know, really into it, just really giving it my all and being part of a team. And I think that that is very, very important for everybody in the movie to feel that most sets that I’ve been on it’s that way, where everybody’s really invested into the project. That’s when Spike Lee’s genius pops, or you know, Francis Coppola’s genius just really pops, because everybody’s like, boom, we’re on the same page.
Dave: Yeah. And those individuals are given credit rightfully, but it is a team. It’s true, I think it’s a life thing like sports, you know that team, there’s a coach, but yeah, there’s this team.
Michael D. R.: The coach, there again, that is your architect, that is your guy who’s looking at it all the way through to everybody.
Dave: The director.
Michael D. R.: He is. And can bring it about. And the money and all the big producers and people like that, basically, if they’re smart, if they’re on the project, they should believe in it just as much as everybody else. If it’s perfunctory, they’re going to have trouble. But if they’re really invested in it, like Sherry Lansing, and she’s down on the set at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning when they try to get about freight marshall who’s down on the set when they’re shooting in the freezing cold in Berlin to get this shot with Matt Damon, you’re there because you’re believing in it, you want to see everything. You want to be there to handle anything.
Michael D. R.: And then, well, we didn’t get the permit to do that. You’re there making sure that this director’s project move straight on through without any stops. And that it comes in under budget on time, and that we get in the camera what we know in the end we can sell. We know that people are going to want to line up to see this and we’re going to come in with a very, very profitable project. As a produdcer, you want that, you want to be just as much invested. And I think the people who are called back and who get hired are the people who are that invested. You know what I mean? It’s like anything else in life. I don’t think this is a rare thing.
Michael D. R.: I think if you work for United Airlines and you consider that you are part of the company, that what you do is what brings the profit, that’s very important. The problem is, is that the world has become so snide that people in upper echelons have lost track of that. So they don’t see that, you know, I’m the producer, I’m Ford Motor Company, not to knock Ford Motor Company, or that I’m so and so. And matter of fact, I can tell you something about Ford Motor Company. I know Ford Motor Company is not like that. That’s a very good company to talk about because I can feel with Ford that from the top of the company all the way down, everybody is respectful of everybody. Everybody’s on the same page because that’s the way Henry Ford was. He would walk down on the floor where the guys were sitting there with the wrenches and stuff like that.
Michael D. R.: I think that’s the way Disney was. When you feel that the guy who’s putting out the trash is just as important as the guy who’s drawing Mickey Mouse, that’s when you really end up, to me anyway, with a company that you hear about later on.
Dave: I mean, it’s purpose. There’s somebody at the top who’s creating that culture and putting that purpose there.
Michael D. R.: Lee Iacocca, Lee Iacocca, and becomes such a leader that his flow, you know, the guy who started McDonald’s, you feel that thing coming down all the way through the line where Ray Kroc would walk into a McDonald’s and help clean up, and he’s Ray Kroc who’s the big guy with all the big money. Why are you in here doing this? Because he had a connection all the way down to all those people.
Dave: Yeah. I heard Tom Brady in an interview last night talk about the guy who cleans the uniforms matters to him and his job is really important because he needs to do his job, for them to go out and play, and it makes a difference.
Michael D. R.: Well there you go. See that? That’s why you see a champion there. That’s why you see a successful project because from the coach on down, what’s being carried out on the field, what’s being carried out behind the scenes is that same vision.
Dave: And then what if you don’t have that? Because that’s the main thing in my industry, and that’s problematic, because on projects you get into a construction project and there’s nobody owning it. Like if there’s a thing that comes up, “Oh, this wasn’t right.” Well there’s finger pointing and the client’s left in the middle because there’s nobody who’s there who’s owning it.
Michael D. R.: Well, I don’t know how to remedy that in your business. What I would do is start a little TV show and start interviewing people and talking about it.
Dave: Oh thank you. That’s brilliant.
Michael D. R.: I’ll just give you that as an idea, okay?
Dave: Thank you, sir. Well, that’s the design builder. That is the solution we’re bringing back, the architect of old is a design builder of today, and we’re re-implementing that accountability. That’s what design build, if I had to break it down in its core, it’s about embracing accountability.
Michael D. R.: Yeah. Well I think that years ago you saw that you could get a temperamental director, or a star, a lot of the stars would do that, not during the ’30s and ’40s when the companies were owned by Louis B. Mayer and his guys who laid out what the vision of the company was. You saw a Universal film, it looked like a Universal film. You saw a Disney film, it looked like a Disney film. You saw something from MGM, it looked like something from MGM. Well that’s Louis B. Mayer and his guys giving that vision. Right?
Michael D. R.: But then you also had in there every now and then a temperamental star who wouldn’t do this and who wouldn’t do that or something of this nature. In the studio system they could be controlled or whatever and they got into fights or whatever, stuff like that. But in later years when a person would become temperamental, it would be like, “Oh my God, he’s temperamental, or he’s drunk.” Or whatever’s going on. And it would break it up.
Michael D. R.: You don’t see that a lot nowadays because people are not that tolerant. You know, people are not like, we have a team here. We’re going to make something. You’re on board, I’m on board. If you start to not be on board, you’ll be gone very fast. The studio will not have you back. You will be fired immediately because the game is just different now, they’re not willing to go, “Well, yeah, but you’re the big dog here.” They’re willing to just go, “No, you’re not the big dog and you’re fired.” You know what I mean?
Michael D. R.: And the other thing that has happened is that I think very sensible people like Harrison Ford, especially in my estimation, Bruce Willis, these guys have really great ethic when it comes to the project. They are not walking on the set with, “Here I am. I’m the big star, here is my ego.” They are here with that Tom Brady viewpoint going, “We’re doing this thing, a team we’re working together here.” And that was, when I first talked to Bradley at Warner Bros when we had a table reading, and you know our scenes are cut throughout the movie, they’re not big star scenes and closeup on me and Lady Gaga for 20 minutes, but we had this one scene together. When I was on the set with him, when I was at Warner’s with Bradley just as an example, the Tom Brady analogy you gave, and things of that nature, and we finished the reading and I shook Bradley’s hand to leave and he just went, “We’re really going to have some fun, huh? This is going to be great.” I was like, it overwhelmed me. I was like, “Whoa. This guy is like, yeah.”
Dave: Oh wow, that was an early reading.
Michael D. R.: That was the first meeting, first time I ever met the man, I was like, “What the heck?” And I think that is indicative of a man who is an absolute genius. I think that’s a burning vision to put that thing out that he can see it, and I think that’s your architect. Your architect, if he’s going all the way through on the line of that thing, I think what you’re doing is absolutely brilliant. I figure you’re going to see some amazing things happen in the world if this connection comes back in, because that’s the enthusiasm of it.
Michael D. R.: What the guy says, “I want a thing that looks like this.” And he starts drawing, and he starts drawing and the guy goes, “Yeah, that’s what I want it to look like.” And he goes, “Got it.” That architect has pulled that of ideas and things that he’s learned over the years and seen, and he’s put that thing together, and now the guy with the money is going, “Yes, yes. Can you build that for me?” And he comes on and he takes that thing all the way through. I think you guys are going to have an absolute Spielberg ball.
Dave: Oh, thank you, sir. I agree with you. And it’s going to happen regardless, because it just makes so much sense. It’s intuitive, it’s natural. I’m just trying to speed it up and get folks educated on this subject, and I thank you so much for your time.
Michael D. R.: Oh sure, sure, it’s great.
Dave: And helping you spread that word.
Michael D. R.: Yeah, let’s do it, man. I think what you’re doing is absolute genius. Whenever things like this happen in the industry, what is done? Because our industry is an international industry nowadays, it always has been in a way, but it didn’t start out that way. But it is an international industry and people are making films all over the world now. And I think it’s so vital, I think it’s so important, because what you’re doing is you’re getting back to the artist, and the artist and what he’s bringing all the way through. And you are literally going to spark a Renaissance. So thanks for having me on.
Dave: Thank you, sir. Thank you Mr. Roberts.
Michael D. R.: Okay, brother.