In memoriam: Jake Eberts
The September issue of LF Examiner included a remembrance by Daniel
Ferguson, but space did not permit publishing those by Taran
Davies and Steven Morris below.
Eberts died in
Montrealon Sept. 6 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
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.
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
Remembrance by Daniel Ferguson
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
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.
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
, he brought in Jake again as executive producer. I will never forget
when Taran asked me to go to Jake’s
Montrealapartment 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 ofJerusalem
, where and his wife Fiona had honeymooned, and his many subsequent
Israel. He spoke of his experiences dubbing Gandhi
into Arabic, and travelling in the
PalestinianTerritoriesto promote the merits of non-violent resistance.
In November 2011, Taran and George Duffield, my fellow producers on
, 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: “Hollywoodis 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
MontrealScienceCenter. 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.
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.
by Taran Davies
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
Meccamysteriously 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
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 fulltime. I travelled 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
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
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
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
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
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
ScienceCenter. Jake spoke about
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
“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
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
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
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
a film that will honour his commitment to improving the human condition.
Thank you, Jake.
Davies is the producer of Journey to Mecca
and Jerusalem and co-founder of Cosmic Picture.
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
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
McGillUniversity, 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
model, and stepping on to the pastoral campus is a bit like being
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
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.
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
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
Adieu cher camarade.
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 lMAX project off the ground.