You never hear the term “paying your dues” more than in Hollywood. Someone coming off the street and immediately becoming a producer on a major Hollywood picture doesn’t happen too often — unless they’re bankrolling it themselves.
For John Walker ’78, though, the street he came from was the Chicago theater, learning the craft of production for 20 years, whether working the phones or working with actors as a no-nonsense producer. Those skills, along with the ability to juggle endless egos, got him paired with one of the most successful film directors working today and looking out from Pixar studios with one of the best seats in the house. Yet once he was just trying to gain a seat in an acting program.
In some respects it all began after college when Walker landed a place at The American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco to learn his original passion: acting. “That was a dream for me,” he says. “I’d been crazy about theater since I was a kid and just wanted to be a part of it.” Then he came across a producing class that he just had to take in addition to his acting load. The teacher felt otherwise.
“I had to beg him to let me in, and he said he would only do it if I observed him and gave him notes on his teaching,” Walker says. “I don’t know how helpful I was to him, but I’ll never forget the moment he gave us a 3-by-5 card that officially proclaimed us ‘a producer granted all the privileges and headaches therewith.’ He gave me one last piece of advice, which is also good to remember, ‘Put all assets in your wife’s name for when they come after you.’”
Walker then headed back east to Chicago in 1980, hellbent on breaking into the theater world. “It was a great time for that town,” he says. “The Steppenwolf Theatre was out in the suburbs then, and John Malkovich was still driving a school bus to make ends meet. I answered phones at the Shubert and during that time also became interested in managing theaters. I ultimately ran both the Royal George and Victory Gardens.” It was at the latter where Walker’s life would change forever — by changing his wife’s.
“An agent saw my wife, Pam, in a production and told her he’d represent her if she went to Los Angeles,” he says. “And guess what? She thought it was a good idea.” A bold move, considering they had a family to raise. John dutifully stayed behind while supporting his wife’s decision to fly solo. “We did that for a year, and finally I realized it was time for me to take the family out there, too. It was tough because I’d been a part of the Chicago theater community for years. There was also another problem: finding work.”
Walker proceeded to play every connection he could and was surprised to find that numerous people from Chicago theater were making worthy strides in Hollywood. Picking the brain of one of them, Pam Marsden, he was shocked to learn that she was producing for the studios.
What, he wondered, did being a producer really mean? “I came to see that it varies depending on the team assembled,” the 52-year-old says. “There are projects that require a producer to have a closer eye on the budget or raising money while others may need more management over people. Or sometimes producers are very hands-on in terms of the development of the script. . . . A good producer will take on what needs the most attention and resolve the problem.”
Taking in Marsden’s set-up, Walker was quick to say, “Sign me up.” Getting a producer credit isn’t quite that easy, however. For some, it involves first being an assistant to a producer or director for a few films and then rising to the level of associate producer. Or starting off as an assistant at a studio, then becoming an executive and then possibly making the producing move.
A giant disappointment
For Walker, his theater background served as a supplement to both of these common strategies. He snagged an interview at Warner Brothers, where he was paired with a first-time film director, Brad Bird, who already had made a name for himself on TV’s The Simpsons. They would be working on the animated film The Iron Giant, the main characters to be voiced by Jennifer Aniston and Harry Connick, Jr.
A few years prior it would have seemed odd to Walker to team on anything other than live action, but his daughter changed that. “I remember she wanted to see Little Mermaid, and I expected I would be bored the whole time,” he says. “But, you know, the songs were good, and I found myself getting caught up in the movie. At the end I could see why people would like it. Why I would like it.”
Working as an associate producer on The Iron Giant was an education and, he says, a humbling experience — especially when the box office numbers surfaced. According to IMDb.com the film cost $48 million and saw less than half of that during its entire U.S. theatrical run. “You would have thought my career would have been over before it started. It was a huge, huge flop.”
Still, Pixar saw talent in the film, at least in its director, and offered Bird a deal to come work for them. Walker says he almost tried to talk his friend out of it, partly because he felt that without being attached to the talented director, his own job prospects would be scarce. Then his conscience got the better of him, and he urged his partner to move on for his own good. Turned out doing the right thing was the right thing for Walker, too.
“Brad never gave up on the thought of us continuing to work together and got me an interview to be his producing partner,” he remembers gratefully. “They hired me, and we were working again.” And how they worked. Their first Pixar film would be The Incredibles, an apt title for the never-ending box office receipts that rolled in. In all, it took in more than $600 million worldwide.
“I wish I could tell you that I understood the success of it, but I don’t,” Walker says. “I felt just as good about Iron Giant, but sometimes something clicks and another thing doesn’t. It absolutely changed the kind of opportunities we had.”
Walker couldn’t even imagine what kind of marketing Disney was going to devote to it. “We had an international tour for The Incredibles that seemed to go everywhere: London, Rome, New Zealand. Every place we stopped in you couldn’t turn around without seeing something for the movie. It was translated into 36 different languages. Disney definitely doesn’t miss a trick.”
Director Bird says neither does Walker. “One thing that makes John stand out to me is he not only studied acting but he ran theaters for years in Chicago,” Bird says. “He understands both sides of the equation. He knows any artistic endeavor allows the artist a chance to create, but he realizes they’re not infallible. We can be babies sometimes, and he knows just the way to kiss our butt and also kick it.”
Bird relies on Walker to allow him the freedom to focus on the characters without having to keep budgetary track of every move. “John will take you aside and say, ‘It’s great you want to do this, but if you do just know we won’t have enough money for this other part.’ He gives it to you straight but only when you need to hear it. An artist can’t have someone looking over his shoulder every second.”
Bird went on to score another recent animated sensation with Ratatouille, so you’d think he’d want to stay with what works. Uh, no. 1906 will be the next Bird/Walker partnership, a live-action film surrounding the horrific San Francisco earthquake of that year. “We’re still working on the script, but it’s exciting to do live action,” Walker says. “You can’t just play it safe. And there’s no stopping Brad once he has an idea in his head. . . . Well, I have to stop him once in a while,” he says with a laugh.
What amazes Walker the most is how late in life he got his shot and, ultimately, his own midlife catharsis instead of crisis.
“To be 40 years old, that’s a little late to be starting over in the film business. Some people reminded me of that, but many were encouraging. Show business is serendipitous — it’s luck that it happened to be the right time for this particular industry and the background I had. . . . Looking back on my theater days, there were more people who saw a flop like Iron Giant in one weekend than saw all the shows I ever worked on. But without the lessons I learned on those stages, I’d never be sitting here at Pixar.”
That, to him, is the greatest reward of all. Long removed from Hollywood, the 20 acres of Pixar Animation Studios sits in the small town of Emeryville, California, taking up the space of an old pineapple plant that Apple CEO Steve Jobs helped to redesign. What goes on inside is nothing short of a daily surprise for Walker.
“Everybody’s young except for a few of us old guys. The mixture of artists and rocket scientists makes this as creative and technical a place as you’ll ever come across. The head of the studio, John Lasseter, says that art influences technology and vice versa, and that philosophy truly lives here. A computer graphic artist can make any cartoon image come to life, and someone else here could literally build me a rocket ship. We’re employing people who used to call NASA their home.”
Which still leaves Walker distant from his. Although he loves the opportunities of his present life, he says he’ll never forget his past one on the theater rows of Chicago.
“I always felt lucky to do what I loved,” he says. “The feeling of watching people in an audience connect to what you put out there, to entertain them, I just don’t think there’s anything like it.”
Eric Butterman has profiled musician Anne Heaton ’94 and designer Thom Browne ’88 for this magazine. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.