Trusting his instincts has been a successful formula for Jon Kilik 78, who has produced nearly 50 feature length films including “The Hunger Games” franchise, “Do the Right Thing,” “Dead Man Walking,” “A Bronx Tale,” “Babel,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “Foxcatcher.”
It was instinct that led Kilik to UVM after attending high school in Milburn, New Jersey. He had spent a few summers in Vermont, and visited a friend's older sister during a high school spring break who was attending Windham College in Putney, Vt. That was enough to put UVM on his short list of college destinations.
“Vermont wasn’t too far from New Jersey but to me it felt otherworldly,” he recalls. “Clean air, clean water, beautiful campus, great local flavor and so green. I couldn't believe it."
Likewise, Kilik is following his instincts for his latest film “Thank You for Your Service,” a coming home from war movie that centers around the effects of combat that are less visible. “Thank You for Your Service,” which opens in theaters on October 27, is based on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel’s 2013 book of the same title. The film traces the story of three young soldiers who return home after serving multiple tours of duty in Iraq.
Kilik read the book and was deeply affected by the direct and honest accounts of men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs says affects up to 20% of troops who served in the Iraq war.
“For me, to start a new project I have to care about the story enough to spend two years of my life inside it,” he said. “If I don’t feel that, I can't do it. It's not a job to me it's an obsession.”
Kilik is the producer of the film, working with Jason Hall (the screenwriter for “American Sniper”) in his directorial debut, and a cast including Miles Teller, Haley Bennett, Beulah Koale, Amy Schumer, and Scott Haze. Filming took place mostly in Atlanta, with battle scenes shot on location in Morocco.
“It's an important issue that effects 100's of thousands of veterans, “Kilik said. “It's a big responsibility to dramatize it and bring it to the screen. I'm very proud of the film. I believe we got it right. Thanks to so many of the real people who shared their stories with us."
Kilik studied film at UVM in the late 1970s, and faculty mentors Frank Manchel and Vivian Sobcheck were especially influential in his education. After graduation, he worked for the Burlington CBS affiliate WCAX-TV. He then moved to New York City to develop screenplay ideas with a friend from New Jersey, Paul Mones.
He received a key assist through another UVM connection, Yudi Bennett, who took him under her wing and gave him his first feature film job in New York on Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories."
Kilik held a variety of production jobs on some classic American films from the 80's including “Prizzi’s Honor,” “Sophie's Choice” and “Raising Arizona” before he and Mones secured financing for their first feature “The Beat” with Vestron Pictures. He views those early set experiences as a kind of graduate school education in the film industry.
Kilik has retuned several times to UVM to screen movies and meet with aspiring film students—he did a screening for “The Hunger Games” in 2012 and “Foxcatcher” in 2014. He is often asked what the career recipe is for becoming a producer and Kilik explains there is no textbook path.
“There’s a certain fluidity in producing that can incorporate whatever talent, experiences or relationships you might have. I came from a place that started with an appreciation for film history and experience writing and directing my own short films which happened during my UVM years. I kept that going when I moved to NYC and started developing movie ideas with my New Jersey friend who had just graduated from Hobart College. That, plus some on the job training in feature production on the streets of NYC watching some of the greatest directors who have ever lived. The door was open a crack and I went for it.”
Over the years, Kilik has produced movies directed by Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Bennett Miller, Robert De Niro, Tim Robbins and Gary Ross. Along the way he’s received two Golden Globe Awards: Best Picture for "Babel" and Best Foreign Film "The Diving Bell and The Butterfly,” and an Oscar nomination.
With “Thank You for Your Service” opening this month, Kilik is spending most of his time with promotion, marketing and distribution.
“We worked for the last two and a half years, seven days a week, to get it right. When you finally step away you should be proud of what you've made. Film lasts forever. I certainly am proud of this one.”