The following are the remarks I made earlier today at the Memorial for Richard Brick, which was held at Columbia University.
I would like to share a few words about my colleague, my mentor and my friend, Richard Brick.
Some people are born with the exact personality traits for a specific vocation. Richard Brick was born a Producer. His long-time course at Columbia was titled “Pre-Production.” The central pedagogy was that the only way to avoid disasters was to anticipate them, and to have a Plan B, a plan C and so on. In other words, plan for the worst. It was not just a class to him, it was a philosophy of life. He lived his entire life in a constant state of Pre-Production.
My first encounter with Richard was in 1987, when I received a cold call from him, asking me if I would like to teach a course at Columbia. He was the newly installed Chair of the Film Program at the time, and he was sitting in on every class that was offered in the program to evaluate its effectiveness. He determined that the class in Marketing & Distribution wasn’t working and he wanted a quick fix. It was a perfect Richard Brick moment. See a problem, fix it. Never having taught before, I said yes, and thus, in one stroke, Richard had set me on the road to a teaching career that I never anticipated.
Richard was an alum of the Columbia Film Program, from a time when its emphasis was much more on history and theory. Years later, when he became Chair, he started moving the Program toward a more professional, rather than academic environment. He set the stage for the changes that were to come…an MFA that focused on the actual making of films, rather than theorizing about them. He also set in motion the Columbia University Film Festival, which now 27 year later has grown into one of the most exciting events staged by any university film program anywhere. These are pretty major contributions, but perhaps his greatest influence was more fundamental. Richard insisted that all filmmaking be done in a safe, ethical way. He didn’t believe in getting it done at all costs. He believed in doing it the right way. You couldn’t take a class from Richard without having this instilled in you. And it became part of the ongoing culture at Columbia, now stewarded by our head of production, Maureen Ryan, who was one of Richard’s students.
I should also note that when Richard decided last summer that his health would prevent him from being able to teach his class, he hand-picked his successor to teach Pre-Production. Scott Ferguson, another former student, and a very successful line producer very much in Richard’s mold has taken over the class.
Richard was very demanding and had no patience for incompetents and even less for fools, dilatants or assholes, and lord knows there are plenty of those in the film business. He had no appetite to give in or suck up. To Richard, what mattered most was integrity, and that choice probably cost him opportunities at times.
His lack of patience could sometimes be read the wrong way by people who didn’t know him very well. In his attempt to be as efficient as possible, he could at times seem brusque. It was just his style.
One year in the ‘90s, Richard and I went to Sundance together, and one very late night, after a few bottles of wine, Richard told me an absolutely hilarious story about something that had happened on the latest Woody Allen film that he had been working on. The story lasted at least 15 minutes, and I swear he never used a single verb. Well, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. But, I can tell you that the delivery was as hilarious as the story. Richard had taken efficiency to a new level, by leaving out all the unnecessary words.
Richard was wired for action, not for tactfulness. But all you had to do is scratch the surface to find out that Richard was a complete sweetheart. He truly cared about everyone around him, and wanted the best result for all. He took a particular interest in his students, and became very close to many of them over the years. He hired students to work on every one his projects, and in some cases to work for him personally. He pushed them into jobs in the industry and kept helping them long after they had graduated. But in return, he demanded that they start acting like professionals, which meant being on time for class, no excuses for absences, getting assignments in on time, etc. These were perhaps more important lessons than the material that was covered in class.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Richard’s can-do, no-nonsense ethos is a legacy that is infused in everything we do at the school.
And speaking of legacy, just this past fall, Richard endowed an annual prize that is called the Richard Brick Award for Distinction in Line Producing, which will be given out each year at the Columbia University Film Festival. It was an incredibly generous gesture that only underlines how much he loved his students.
Over the years, Richard and I became close friends. He was my consigliere on matters of producing curriculum. I gave him advice on projects that he was working on. Eventually it led to our collaboration on a film that we would develop together, a film that is still in the works and that I pledge to Richard I would see to fruition. Our skills were complimentary. Richard knew physical production inside out and backwards, and I came more from the business and development side. Richard would push to get things done in his inimitable way, and I would be in charge of diplomacy. He would write drafts of letters and emails, and I would soften the language before they went out. We were a good team.
At some point a number of years ago, Richard and I realized that we were teaching our classes at the same time on the same nights, and we began a ritual of going out to dinner after class. Every Thursday night, we showed up at Hi Life on Amsterdam Avenue and it got to the point where the wait staff knew us. These weekly dinners lasted until Richard retired from teaching this past fall.
We would talk about everything… what was happening at school, the projects each of us were working on, but also more personal matters. We compared our cholesterol levels, our dissatisfaction with our doctors, talked about politics, sports, our latest gadgets, you name it. We argued about movies, one particularly fierce argument was about “Zero Dark Thirty.” We spent a lot of time talking about baseball, in spite of the fact that as far as I could tell, Richard seemed to have little interest in it other than to indulge me. But it lead to us going to baseball games together, and a particularly fun trip to Chicago in 2008 for a Cubs playoff game.
At one of our dinners, I mentioned to Richard in passing that I had been riding my bicycle around the city, and the next thing I knew he was berating me for not wearing a helmet. When we met a week later, he presented me with a gift—two clip-on lights for my bicycle—one for the front and one for the rear. If I was too vain to wear a helmet, at least the bicycle lights would make sure I was visible to traffic. He went right to Plan B to protect me from myself. He was pre-producing my life.
Just this last January, I was going skiing at Sundance and suddenly I imagined Richard popping up on my shoulder like in that scene in “Animal House.” For the first time ever, and I’ve been skiing for a long time, I rented a helmet.
I suspect that everyone who knew Richard, his family, his friends, his many collaborators and the many, many students who have taken his courses, will have moments like that. Moments where Richard will be their conscience, and will make sure that everything they do is safe, ethical and productive. That’s quite a legacy. He’ll always be with us.