Babel’ producer returns to Burlington

Art has the ability to speak for itself, as well as for the people behind it. First, the magic of a movie is created off screen and then offered to audiences on screen. Jon Kilik graduated from UVM in 1978 and went on to produce a number of successful and critically acclaimed films, such as “Do the Right Thing” and “Babel.” He requently comes back to get a feel for how film majors grasp the idea of making films.   The reason for Kilik’s visit to Burlington was the screening of his latest production, “Miral” (Julian Schnabel, 2010), but the reason for this interview is Kilik himself and his life partner, producing. His first encounter with the students happened over coffee. He was wearing his “Babel” cap which he hasn’t worn since the “Babel” shooting (directed by Alejandro Iñarritu, 2006). He offered relevant answers before we could even formulate relevant questions. “The thing I loved about being here was my liberal art education. I wasn’t just all about film; it was like a candy store,” Kilik said. “I wasn’t a real academic, but the whole thing about being able to pick and choose is that it all fed into filmmaking, because filmmaking is a combination of food, editing, literature, acting, music, architecture, lighting, engineering and economics. It’s about what happens when these worlds collide.” Spike Lee got a hold of Kilik with the “Do the Right Thing” script in his hands, and Kilik signed on to produce the film. Their collaboration began with this movie, which turned out to be bigger than anyone expected. “The first six movies I did with Spike were with a lot of people he went to school with. Those were the best movies he ever made and they were done with the people he came up with,” Kilik said. “Ernest [Dickerson] wanted to be a cameraman, Spike wanted to be the director. Ruth Carter wanted to be the costume designer and everybody kind of got together and made those low-budget movies like ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ and even before that.” Kilik’s collaboration with Julian Schnabel (“Before Night Falls,” “The Diving Bell and The Butterfly”) was a part of Kilik’s vision. “When Julian came to me and said that he wanted to be a director, I believed him because he wanted to tell the story of another painter, Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom he knew because he’s also a painter,” Kilik said. “It’s the first-hand experience, the instincts.” When Kilik graduated from UVM, he went to New York City in search of production jobs. A few days later, he came back to Burlington and got a job at WCAX. He gave New York City another chance later on, with a bit more experience under his belt and on his resume.    “Students come to me after a talk or a screening and ask me if I can produce their movies,” he said. “It is so much more important to find the person sitting next to you in your classroom, who’s got the time. You don’t need some big name; you just need a likeminded person, who’s going to have that same sort of passion and ability to just get started.” In Kilik’s movies, each directed by a unique personality, we remember the characters’ stories because they have a voice and a powerful social background, whether it is Iñárritu’s “Babel,” Tim Robbins’ “Dead Man Walking” or Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” “Communication is the key element in producing and working effectively with so many people,” Kilik said. “Everybody thinks they can communicate and it’s very tricky,” he said. “I’m a good listener; I started out as a listener for the first 20 years of my life and when you do that, you really understand the meaning of words. And then when you finally do speak, you choose your words correctly in order to be understood.”