In Memory of Richard Brick

The following are the remarks I made earlier today at the Memorial for Richard Brick, which was held at Columbia University.

Richard BrickI 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.

7 thoughts on “In Memory of Richard Brick”

  1. This is a lovely tribute. I didn’t know Richard but really got a sense of him, and what he meant to you.

  2. Thank you for sharing this Ira. Richard changed my life. I was his TA when I was at Columbia and he hired me for my first production job on a Woody Allen film while I was still a student. Over the years he has been generous with his support and guidance. He had a great reserve of compassion mixed with determination, which affected how I approached my own work. I will miss him dearly.

  3. I knew Richard @ Columbia in the eighties. He wrestled together a Department that was really a mess – a terrific antidote to what was, at the time basically a drinking society for a bunch of wannabee screenwriters.

    Films are really unique in that they need both the inspiration of fine art and the hard logistic reality of a military operation. So you need to talk about films, write, waste a lot of time dreaming– and then make things actually happen.

    I remember Richard had a huge 3 ring binder – a “chron file” of every document that came into the department, and every document that went out. I still keep books like that.

    Richard Brick and Mike Hausman made a huge difference in this regard and I think Richard doesn’t get enough credit for setting the Department in a clear direction.

  4. A beautiful tribute as well as a story of great collaboration. I remember once asking Richard for advice about whether or not to accept a certain job and he told be about the resume he kept, along with his actual resume, the resume of all the jobs he had turned down. I also remember once being at Richard’s apartment and seeing all of his projects stored in three ring binders on his shelf. At the time, I was working for a director and I ended up organizing all his projects into those same, black, three-ringed binders that I had seen in Rirchard’s apartment. Richard was a great teacher and mentor and has clearly made lasting contributions to the film department.

  5. Thanks for this heartfelt tribute Ira. You captured Richard perfectly.
    To Joan: I had almost the exact same experience with Richard. He hired me when he Joined the Mayor’s office and despite my being completely incompetent, taught me more than I could learn in any classroom.

  6. I am in (Old) York, in England. I got an e-mail from my friend David Thomson on Monday, it said just “I see that Richard Brick has died.” My reply was, “A good man – I was lucky to find him in charge when I got there – I think I surprised him (and his colleagues – all eight-ten of them filed into my tiny office together because they had heard that a rich parent of a film-MFA candidate had given Columbia $50,000 and they wanted all of it) when I said that as far as I was concerned, compromise was not a dirty word.”

    I have a tendency to keep my thoughts to myself, but I can only hope that Richard somehow took in, over the years, how much I admired him and how exceptionally fortunate I knew I was to have him as my close colleague, at a time when the continued existence of the School of the Arts was by no means assured.

    Peter Smith
    Emeritus Dean

  7. I’m very late coming to the sad news of Richard Brick’s death. On seeing his name, I instantly was transported back to the spring/summer of 1982. The NBC mini-series, “Little Gloria…Happy At Last” was filming in and around New York – the production manager, none other than Mr. Brick. I was very young and very green, hired as an assistant to several of the leading ladies in the series. It was a difficult and complicated shoot but I observed Mr. Brick to be the king of cool, never flinching when the going got tough. Our time working together was very brief, but it was easy to see that Mr. Brick was a consummate professional and always fair. And someone you never forget.

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