In Memoriam: Jake Eberts

Jake Eberts

Originally published in the September 2012 issue.

Producer Jake Eberts died in Montreal on Sept. 6, 2012, from complications from a rare cancer of the eye that had spread to his liver. He was 71.

In three decades in the feature film industry, he produced dozens of highly acclaimed films that won 18 Oscars and were nominated for 28 more, including Chariots of Fire, Driving Miss Daisy, and Dances With Wolves, which all won Best Picture. He was co-author of a 1990 memoir about his career in movies, My Indecision is Final.

In 2002 he became chairman of National Geographic Feature Films and moved into documentary filmmaking.

In 2009 he served as executive producer for the giant-screen film, Journey To Mecca, produced by Cosmic Picture and SK Films, and he was working on Cosmic’s next GS title, Jerusalem 3D, at the time of his death.

Jonathan Barker, co-founder of SK Films, and producer on Journey to Mecca, recalls, “Growing up in Montreal, Jake was a family friend whom I always admired tremendously. But beyond the personal feeling of loss, this is a loss for everyone who creates, believes in, or enjoys…original films that can make a difference in this increasingly complex and challenging world. He dedicated his life to this cause and it is hard to imagine anyone ever matching his record.”

Eberts is survived by his wife, two sons, and a daughter.

Remembrance by Daniel Ferguson

When I began contemplating a career in film, someone gave me a copy of Jake Ebert’s memoir, My Indecision is Final. This blow-by-blow account of the rise and fall of Goldcrest Films, by Eberts and Terry Illott, had an enormous impact on me. It taught me that a producer should be someone who feels so strongly about a script that he/she is willing to risk everything on the belief that an audience will feel the same way. I also remember how astonished I was that one man could be associated with so many of the most seminal films of our generation (and some of my personal favourites): Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, The Killing Fields, The Mission, Hope and Glory, A Room With a View, The Name of the Rose, Driving Ms. Daisy, Dances With Wolves, A River Runs Through It….

I first met Jake through my efforts as a student to revive McGill University’s defunct Film Society. In our quest for funds, we sought out McGill alumni in the film industry. Jake was among the most prominent. Though he never gave us money, he did something even more meaningful. He created a fund to underwrite scholarships for promising McGill and Concordia film graduates to study at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He also gave several lectures, which inevitably always went well over the time limit and finished in the hallways with stirring anecdotes and pearls of wisdom. I was constantly amazed at how a man whose films had won over 30 Oscars and grossed millions could be so generous and humble. For those of us with stars in our eyes, he was proof that you didn’t have to sell out to become successful.

In 2007, Di Roberts and Jonathan Barker hired me to line produce the giant-screen film, Journey to Mecca. They introduced me to producers Taran Davies and Dominic Cunningham-Reid, whose infectious passion had recruited none other than Jake Eberts as executive producer. When he visited the set in Morocco, one of the first things I told him was just how many young people I knew had chosen to pursue film careers because of his book or his lectures. I’m sure he knew it, but I needed to say it.

On Journey to Mecca, Jake could have stayed at 30,000 feet, but he didn’t. He could have just helped raise money and lent the cachet of his name, but he took an active role in the script and in post production. As we began looking for a narrator, Ben Kingsley’s name came up. With a single call, Sir Ben agreed on the spot, saying “I’ll do anything for Jake.”

I will always remember Jake’s absolute assuredness in the editing room, when it came to delicate decisions. At one point, fearing the audience would be disoriented, he urged us to insert a map. Everyone else in the room was deflated, believing such a move would halt the story and upset the pacing. Yet Jake was right. When we tested the film with different age groups, the request for a map in that very scene was unanimous.

Jake’s instincts for what the public wanted were impeccably tuned. He never underestimated the audience or resorted to lowest-common-denominator thinking. Instead, he had an uncanny ability to clarify themes and simplify story without sacrificing quality. It was about reaching as many people as possible, but more importantly that each of them should have a transformative experience. Beyond the box office gross, Jake believed in the power of film to change the world for the better.

When Taran came up with the idea for Jerusalem , he brought in Jake again as executive producer. I will never forget when Taran asked me to go to Jake’s Montreal apartment and pitch him the story. For nearly two hours, Jake gave me his complete attention. Not once did he take a call or look at one of his multiple blackberries. He told me of his love of Jerusalem , where and his wife Fiona had honeymooned, and his many subsequent trips to Israel. He spoke of his experiences dubbing Gandhi into Arabic, and traveling in the Palestinian Territories to promote the merits of non-violent resistance.

In November 2011, Taran and George Duffield, my fellow producers on Jerusalem , proposed a fundraiser in collaboration with the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Jake agreed to accept the prestigious “Key of Knowledge” award in recognition of his lifelong commitment to education. Kevin Costner was the honorary chairman, and another of my idols as a student, director Denys Arcand, presented the award. Costner was unable to attend, but sent a heartfelt tribute recorded on location, telling the room they had the right man: “Hollywood is full of people who either have intelligence or integrity, yet Jake is the only one I ever met with both.”

Perhaps my fondest memory of Jake was just a few days before the ceremony. I had offered to oversee an early morning technical rehearsal at the IMAX theater at the Montreal Science Center. To my surprise, when I arrived, there was Jake, sitting alone in the theater. So committed to the smooth running of the evening was he that he decided, on a whim, to personally ensure every clip was perfect. His son Dave had edited together a montage of scenes from some of his films: Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, The Killing Fields, A River Runs Through It, Chicken Run, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Open Range, Oceans, Journey to Mecca. Jake sat next to me in the empty theatre, offering a running commentary of vivid memories and stories. When the reel was finished, I was completely humbled — both by the body of work and the man.

Jake’s passing has left a void for so many who knew him. Selfishly, I will miss his presence in the editing room, his assured arbiter’s voice speaking on behalf of the audience, pushing us to make every scene better. Yet I would like to think that his spirit of humility, generosity, and integrity will guide us, and that at the moment when we need a map, we’ll know what to do.

Daniel Ferguson is writing, directing, and producing Jerusalem, served as line producer on Lost Worlds: Life in the Balance and Journey to Mecca, and co-wrote Wired to Win.

Remembrance by Taran Davies

When Dominic Cunningham-Reid and I founded Cosmic Picture in the autumn of 2004 to develop Journey to Mecca, we had a great abundance of passion, but a significant lack of experience making giant-screen films. Our single GS credit was Dominic’s role as George Butler’s ‘Making of’ producer on Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure.

Our initial meetings with potential distributors for Journey to Mecca were not especially encouraging. When we thought we had raised the budget for the film, our key financier suddenly announced that his investment was contingent on Nicole Kidman being its star. And the senior Saudi royal who had agreed to provide us permission to film in Mecca mysteriously did not speak to us for months thereafter. By even the most hopeful measure, we had little chance of success.

It was at this time I met Gordon Eberts at an art opening in Toronto, and told him of our Mecca project. Gordon suggested that his brother Jake might be interested, and offered to introduce me. I jumped at the chance. I called Jake and requested to meet him anywhere in the world, whenever might be convenient, even if just for a few minutes. On a cold winter morning in January 2005, we drank tea at his kitchen table while I tried really hard not to mess up my pitch — to one of the savviest film producers and financiers of all time — to be our executive producer.

I talked about the documentary films that I had made in the Muslim world and that Dom had produced in several conflict zones; my experience of 9/11; and our goal to make a movie that would present the Islamic world’s greatest public rite in the world’s greatest cinematic medium in the hope of bridging the gulf between the Muslim world and the West. I still find it difficult to believe that Jake said yes, right there and then.

He explained later: “As you get older in this business and you stand back a bit, you feel a compulsion to leave a mark and do something that will be important. Its not all about commerce, it’s not all about making money, it’s not all about movie stars, it’s much more about having an impact. Taran and Dominic had this idea that was impactful, it was important, it’s something that the world has to know more about. And so I was hooked.”

With new strength and hope we persevered: Bruce Neibaur joined our team as writer and director in the spring of 2005. Dominic moved to Riyadhto work on the film permits full time. I traveled the world to meet potential sponsors. Jonathan Barker signed on in October 2006, and bought Di Roberts and Daniel Ferguson on board to serve as supervising producer and line producer respectively.

Jake inspired all of us to live up to his uncompromising standards. Over the months and years I got to know our executive producer pretty well, at least as well as one could know a man who unfailingly answered every email he received within five minutes, and who is literally the world’s greatest multi-tasker — managing several projects at once, while always making you feel like you are the center of his world when he is with you.

Jake was a gentleman. When I asked what he would like for his compensation he said, “My normal fee is a bit of a shocker so why not propose the maximum you can afford and I will give no less than 50% to charity?”

Jake was tough. When we were pitching together, he sometimes told me to stop exaggerating so much, and then went on to use far more hyperbole than me. When I nearly lost a sponsor for Mecca to whom Jake had introduced me he gave me hell: “Don’t screw it up, Taran!” When I called to seek advice — or was it sympathy? — after I had been kicked out of a potential investor’s office for the hundredth time, Jake told me to “buck up and get on with it.” And when I complained about difficulties we were having with a colleague, he shared one of his key rules of show business: “Never worry about what other people think about you, because they never do!”

Jake was nearly always right. When he reviewed our script (which was no easy task, since it was rewritten 55 times) his comments would be limited to a list of a few bullet points, always crisp and concise. Jake did not offer his suggestions for us to debate with him. They were directives, which we had the option to ignore, but it was clear we would be fools to do so. We found that Jake was most often right. Another of Jake’s rules was that in show business a “leading authority” is a someone who has guessed right more than once. Jake was joking of course, and not thinking of himself, but in my book he was nearly always right, which made him a master of his profession.

Jake delivered. Not just creatively, with financing and talent (he introduced us to our composer, narrator, and Arabic director), but with other innovative and ambitious opportunities, all to provide the maximum impact for his films. It was Jake who created the multi-million dollar deal with Imagenation in Abu Dhabi to construct the world’s largest outdoor screen, stadium seating for 1,500 people, and a three-night multiple gala screening for Journey to Mecca’s world premiere, which was attended by close to 10,000 people (see LF Examiner, January 2009). Seeing one’s movie presented in such a manner was a filmmaker’s dream, and one I will always treasure.

When I thanked Jake for all his work on Journey to Mecca he told me: “Thank you for these generous words. Flattery will get you everywhere, and has to be laid on pretty thick before anyone starts to object to it.” Jake liked to say that the only way to escape the corruptible effect of praise is to go on working. I could not have been more honoured when he agreed to start all over again with us on Jerusalem .

Jake came on board when we started development in March 2009, with Daniel Ferguson as writer, director and fellow producer, and our new partner George Duffield.

From the beginning — even having just turned 70 years old — Jake set out to raise financing for Jerusalem with the same vigour as anyone half his age. On one occasion he actually carried a TV and DVD into a potential sponsors’ office so he could best pitch them with selects of his legendary films, and our Jerusalem trailer.

In November last year the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University — one of Jerusalem ’s key sponsors — awarded Jake with the very first Key of Knowledge Award at a gala event at the Montreal Science Center. Jake spoke about Jerusalem and his hopes for the film, and his remarks reveal his humour, grace, and commitment to excellence.

“I’m often asked how I could have possibly gone from being a chemical engineer who graduated from McGill University to being a film producer? Well it might help to explain things if you knew that my first chemical engineering job was as a sewage analyst in Stockholm, Sweden. Looking at many of the films coming out of Hollywood these days, some might say there’s not a huge leap between the two jobs.

“It is a sad commentary on today’s film industry that over 75% of the studio films this past summer were sequels, remakes, or adaptations of previous films. Most films these days are made for pure entertainment — a mere distraction in our daily lives, instead of making a meaningful contribution to the human condition. I think Walter Winchell was right when he said ‘Hollywood is a place where they shoot too many films and not enough actors.’ I believe that storytelling is at the root of every community, every family, every culture and telling the story of Jerusalem through the magic of the movies is one of the most powerful tools we as filmmakers have to effect change.

“One of the founders of Hebrew University, Albert Einstein, once said, ‘What I see in nature is a grand design that we can comprehend only imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility.’ Jerusalem could only have existed as part of a grand design. And it is indeed with a feeling of humility that I and my fellow producers are making this film.”

In typical fashion, Jake only discreetly let on that he was sick. I first heard he had eye cancer over a year ago, but he held his head high and never seemed to let his troubles get him down or in the way of his work. He shared his insights on our development up until just a week before he passed away, when he wrote, “Unfortunately my medical situation continues to decline and I am finding it increasingly difficult to even respond to e-mails. I hope you understand.”

I hope you understand. While we are still at a loss, and mourning the tragic and untimely death of Jake Eberts, we are honoured and grateful to have produced a couple of the many films in which Jake has been involved. We have been blessed by his support and faith. We have learnt so much from a master of the film profession, and we will redouble our effort to make Jerusalem a film that will honour his commitment to improving the human condition.

Thank you, Jake.

Taran Davies is the producer of Journey to Mecca and Jerusalem and co-founder of Cosmic Picture.

Remembrance by Steven Morris

To try and understand Canada, one must first grasp the notion that it is a nation of two solitudes. There is not much cross-pollination going on between the two communities. Not enough, anyway.

Within each of our solitudes there are minorities. The English of the province of Québec are an example. One thing minorities do to ease their anxieties is constantly sing their own praises. English Montreal will forever remind you that it is the birthplace of William Shatner, Leonard Cohen, Christopher Plummer (narrator of the The First Emperor of China) and… Jake Eberts, renowned film producer. It seemed that anything Mr. Eberts ever did within a career of considerable accomplishment was given lavish coverage here. That he spoke fluent French, produced some films in the province, was a graduate of McGill University, and maintained a pied-à-terre here, helped the cause. The English community was massively proud of Mr. Eberts.

Bishop’s University, founded over a century and a half ago by the Bishops of the Anglican Church of Québec, is the most charming campus down in the heart of the province’s Eastern Townships region. The University’s design is based on the Oxford and Cambridge model, and stepping on to the pastoral campus is a bit like being transported to England. This is where I did my university studies. Several years ago, the Alumni Association organized a fund raiser and invited Mr. Eberts to present trailers of nine of his films, speak about the production of each, as well as open up the floor for a Q & A for each title. There were, as I recall: The Dresser, Black Robe (a personal favourite), Driving Miss Daisy, Gandhi, Dances with Wolves, A River Runs Through It, Chariots of Fire, Grey Owl (shot in part near the campus), and one more. Bishop’s Centennial Theatre was packed, and the evening went on for several hours. Mr. Eberts was highly anecdotal and at times extremely funny. It was one extraordinary evening.

I hope it will not be taken as telling stories out of school, but Mr. Eberts suffered from a terrible stutter, I learned that night. To stand alone in front of about four hundred people, the focus of everyone’s undivided attention, speak at length, answer endless questions and improvise one’s responses, must have been terrifying. But there was no backing down. This man was obviously a risk taker.

The cardinal rule is never try to finish a stutterer’s sentence. Somehow, instinctively, the crowd knew never to interrupt and waited patiently, silently, as he regrouped and found his words. As the event unfolded, it became less and less a problem. The most charming aspect of the entire affair was his reading of poetry he had composed related to his experiences while producing some of the films. To be allowed into this man’s intimate world was a privilege.

During the intermission I noticed Mr. Eberts standing alone, nursing a drink! I guess people were intimidated by him. I knew the situation would not last long, and that he would soon be surrounded. In a nanosecond, I went up, shook his hand, and told him that my date and I were having a fantastic time. It was the only time I ever met him and it was a fleeting moment.

But the story does not end there.

LF Examiner has often recounted that Imax Corporation started at the National Film Board of Canada in Montreal. A few years after that evening at Bishop’s, it was announced that the Film Commissioner of the NFB was retiring. I had left the Film Board by then, but a mentor of mine called and over lunch asked me to lobby on behalf of a candidate he was supporting for the job, a political appointment. I had no idea how to help, but promised to think about it.

What the heck to do? I am about as close to the Prime Minister of Canada ’s office as I am to the United States’ Office of the President.

Taking a long shot, I wrote Mr. Eberts a letter. It explained the Film Commissioner context and asked him to support our candidate. I then mailed it general delivery, care of the postmaster general in North Hatley, Québec, not far from Bishop’s, where I had read he had a home. And I proceeded to forget all about it.

Two months later, I was seated in a bar on a Friday night, all alone, knocking back gin martinis as prep for a rock concert to which I was headed, when my mobile phone rang. It was Mr. Eberts saying he’d received the letter only that day, as he’d been away on a production. He added that the Film Board was an important institution and he wanted to talk to our candidate. Time was tight, but they spoke at length, and Mr. Eberts henceforth lobbied on our behalf. The job went to someone else with certain political alliances, but Mr. Eberts had had a contact in the Prime Minister’s office and had done his share. This for me, someone he didn’t know from a hole in the wall.

That was twelve years ago.

After my first trip to Africa in 2004, someone I knew handed me Mr. Eberts’ e-mail address and said, “write, use my name and he will respond.” Twice he and I then flirted around IMAX film projects. The first was turned down with a flat no, as he said he was discouraged with the medium; the second he declined based on a conflict of interest. To my chagrin, I never managed to work with him. But I cherish those e-mail exchanges and his comments about the industry and film in general.

Last late fall, Mr. Eberts was presented with, “La clé de la connaissance” (the Key of Knowledge) Award, a prestigious prize, by his friend, Oscar-winning director Denys Arcand (Les Invasions barbares), during a special ceremony at the Montreal Science Centre. I wrote to congratulate Mr. Eberts, and for the first time I never received a response from the man. In hindsight, one can imagine that he was quite ill then.

This article started off as somewhat of a lament for a nation, which will soon celebrate its 150th anniversary. One of the reasons it thrives is because there is the odd individual who comes along that straddles the two cultures, thus creating a link until the next special person can do the same. They are a scarce commodity. When Mr. Eberts passed on this week, the outpouring of affection on both sides of the linguistic fence was staggering.

Monsieur Eberts just may have been the most important independent film producer of his era. But when you think that his passing made two solitudes put aside their differences and shed a tear “ensemble,” it makes one ponder the true meaning of the man.

Adieu cher camarade.

Steven Morris’ career in the “movies” started in 1988 as a film librarian in Québec City, working for the National Film Board of Canada. Since 1998 he has been an independent producer/distributor of large format films. Currently he is working with Arnie Gelbart at Galafilm in Montréal, getting that company’s first IMAX project off the ground.

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