- By Thomas James Weaver
When Jon Kilik returns to Vermont to speak with students, as he does every few years, he says one of his goals is to “demystify” his profession. The Class of 1978 alumnus has built a long and successful career as a film producer, making his way in that world of silver screen mystique. But as Kilik talks, soft-spoken and unassuming, his focus is on hard work, meticulous craft, and substantive storytelling, not bright lights and red carpets.
As much as Kilik is drawn to meet today’s UVM students and current faculty, he also returns to reconnect to his own undergraduate years. More than three decades ago, Professor Frank Manchel’s classes sparked his love of film and drive to pursue it as a career.
From a first job as a production assistant, Kilik worked his way into the New York film world in the early 1980s. His career took flight when he connected with director Spike Lee for Do the Right Thing, beginning a long collaboration and friendship. Over the years, Kilik has earned nearly forty producer or executive producer credits on films that have received twenty-seven Oscar nominations, working with many of the industry’s top directors such as Oliver Stone, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and Robert Altman.
Kilik's latest visit to campus came the opening weekend of the 2012 blockbuster, The Hunger Games. It was an adaptation project Kilik took on before the book by Suzanne Collins or its two sequels had graced bestseller lists. No one expected the movie would have the third largest opening in North American box office history, earning an estimated $155 million. After traveling to premieres in Los Angeles, Paris, London and Berlin, Kilik spent Sunday evening at a Williston, Vt. theater screening the film and taking questions from the audience. On Monday, he visited classes and participated in another Q&A that evening on campus.
Kilik had last traveled to Burlington in 2011 with Miral, a smaller film than The Hunger Games, for sure, but one that also addresses political and social issues, a hallmark of his projects. As with the 2012 visit, Kilik's schedule included screenings, discussions, and informal talks with film students. He also made time for an interview/conversation for Vermont Quarterly magazine with Professor Emeritus Frank Manchel and Hilary Neroni, professor of film and television studies.
In that discussion, Neroni asked the producer about the extensive research he puts into his projects and the role his educational background plays in that work.
“It’s funny, because really all of the films force you to draw from all of your skills,” Kilik replied. “When I went to college, I was in the liberal arts because I wanted to be. I didn’t really want to specialize in one thing; that wasn’t for me. I wasn’t interested in being an engineer or being a doctor. I loved the idea of a liberal arts education — where you learn about history, poly sci, music, arts, religion, economics, English — and I enjoyed that very much during my first two years.
“And when I found film, I found that it really was a combination of all of these things. And that has continued from the first class with Frank to my most recent film. Each time I step on a set or read a new script, I’m immediately plugging into my skills, and they’re not completely honed yet for whatever that new project is. And, as you say, I have to do more research on it — more reading, more understanding of photography references, architectural references, costume references, music references.
This is what I love about being a producer, it’s not a specialty in just one facet — I’ve got to interact with every single department. So when I talk to a production designer, I’m looking at blueprints, I’m understanding what his needs are to build a set. And when I talk to the music composer, I’ve got to understand how he is going to create an emotional experience through the music. And the photography, setting up the lighting, I draw on my early days in photography class here at UVM.”