As a University of Vermont economics major in the mid-1970s, Jon Kilik envisioned a future in the restaurant business. Almost three decades later, his plate is full -- in the film business. Now 46, the New Jersey native has established a reputation as one of the most sought-after independent producers in the country.
Kilik says he was "never struck by lightning" in college, but a film history course junior year certainly electrified him. "Running a restaurant and making a movie have similarities," he suggests. "You need people-management skills and creativity."
This is a guy invariably attracted to meaty subjects. Kilik comes back to Burlington this Sunday from his current home in New York City. He will receive an honorary degree and deliver the commencement speech and his alma mater will acknowledge him for a remarkable body of film work: Do the Right Thing, Dead Man Walking, Pollock and Before Night Falls, to name just a few of his substantive projects.
"There's not a single film Jon could be ashamed of," says Frank Manchel, a UVM professor emeritus who first taught Kilik the essentials of motion pictures. "His instincts are wonderful."
Those instincts have now led Kilik to the biggest venture of his career, producing an epic on Alexander the Great for writer-director Oliver Stone. With a budget that exceeds $100 million, the biopic will feature newcomer Colin Farrell as the Macedonian warrior-king and veteran Anthony Hopkins as Ptolemy, a general who went on to become a pharaoh.
The conquest of the Persian Empire is historic, but it was Alexander's more humanitarian goals that drew the low-key Kilik to this high-profile production, which will be shot in Morocco and London for a November 2004 release. "He was trying to unite people, to bring cultures together 2400 years ago," Kilik theorizes. "He built libraries. This was a man who believed in education; Aristotle was his teacher."
Manchel isn't surprised by Kilik's nuanced take on a fearsome imperialist. "The first class Jon took with me, I remember he saw Citizen Kane," Manchel says, referring to the Orson Welles classic about another ambitious control freak who lived more than two millennia after Alexander's day. "And he realized that images can tell the story, that the story is only an excuse to hang ideas on."
Kilik's ideas have been geared to the big screen since his own graduation, in 1978. After a summer of unsuccessfully hunting for film jobs in Manhattan, he returned to Burlington to spend nine months as a stage manager and camera operator for the small screen, at WCAX.
"In May 1979, I went back to New York with my new resume and a list of eight UVM alumni to contact," Kilik recalls. "One of them gave me a chance as a production assistant on Paul Mazursky's Willie and Phil. I held a walkie-talkie while standing five blocks from the camera and asking the public to walk on the other side of the street."
The humble job had him "hearing my mother in one ear, telling me: 'It's not too late. You can still go to law school.'"
For his second assignment as a P.A., on Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, Kilik was only two blocks away from the camera. His next gig got him closer still. He was third assistant director on Alan Alda's Four Seasons, parts of which were filmed in Stowe.
Kilik then progressed to second assistant director on Crocodile Dundee, production supervisor on John Huston's Prizzi's Honor, and finally assistant director on the Coen brothers' Raising Arizona in 1987. But Kilik always aimed for the less glamorous role of producer.
In addition to finding the funds, he is something of a hands-on master chef who oversees the soup-to-nuts of moviemaking. "I like to be a partner in helping a director realize his dream," Kilik says. "My job is to create the right environment for bringing a story to the screen."
In 1986, he assumed the responsibilities of a full-fledged producer for The Beat, which was written by a high school friend of his UVM roommate. The $1 million flick, about teaching poetry to troubled high school kids, bombed.
But Kilik was undaunted. "When you hit failure, failure, failure, you've got to keep trying, trying, trying," he points out. "I like the hard road. I get bored easily."
In a stroke of good fortune, he met nascent director Spike Lee, whose approach to the medium suited his own topical sensibilities. Kilik produced Do the Right Thing, the first of 11 thought-provoking collaborations in a 15-year period.
"Everyone involved was young, about 30. It was exciting. We knew we had a good team and wanted to continue working together," Kilik says.
Along the way, he also took on Robert De Niro's A Bronx Tale, Robert Altman's Prêt-a-Porter and Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking, among others. But Kilik turned down two tempting opportunities -- Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York and Steven Spiel-berg's Catch Me If You Can -- in favor of Chris Eyre's Skins, a 2002 low-budget tale about Native American brothers.
Kilik joined forces with Julian Schnabel, a renowned painter whose 1996 directorial debut focused on self-destructive artist and Andy Warhol protege Jean-Michel Basquiat. Their second film together, the critically acclaimed Before Night Falls in 2000, concerns a dissident gay poet from Cuba.
"Jon is loyal, committed and intuitive," Schnabel observes. "He's got some kind of antenna for what's worthwhile. And he dances to his own beat. You think you know what he's thinking, but you don't."
After Basquiat, those antenna began to zero in on art. Kilik now owns a collection of 20 Andy Warhol drawings and silkscreen prints on canvas, all of which are on loan to the Fleming Museum through June 8.
"Jon has significant pieces that represent every phase of Warhol's career," says museum director Janie Cohen. "For example, there's 'Untitled (Foot with Crab)' from 1957, when Warhol asked friends and celebrities if he could draw their feet, and a 1964 portrait of Jackie O." Kilik is also presenting the museum with a gift: "Portrait of a Young Man," a black-and-white Warhol drawing from about 1956.
"In terms of the collection, he's made excellent choices, but Jon is so modest," Cohen says. "He really stays in the background."
Accordingly, Kilik responds to a question about being a connoisseur of visual arts by simply paying tribute to his school. "I've always loved photography," he says. "I took classes in it at UVM."
"The experience here changed his life, so ever since he feels obligated to give to future generations," Manchel suggests, noting that his former student comes to the campus a few times each year to lecture or visit film classes. "Jon has a passion for payback."
Kilik's passion for celluloid now includes a potential Hollywood blockbuster. Alexander, which begins principal photography in September and wraps in February, will be distributed by Warner Bros. A German company, Intermedia, is one of the financial partners.
Apparently, the Oliver Stone endeavor is ahead of the game in a competitive industry hankering for more world-conqueror fare: Baz Luhrmann of Moulin Rouge fame is planning a 2005 Alexander the Great film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicole Kidman.
The scale of Stone's production is new for Kilik. "We need to costume an army of 500,000 soldiers," he says. "There's a department for each need: military tactical people, sword people, armor people."
Spike Lee's 1992 Malcolm X may have prepared Kilik for the sweep of Alexander. "That was a period epic, of sorts, though contemporary by comparison," he notes. "I never did an epic of antiquity before. There's a lot to balance but, in fact, it's just as hard to do a small movie as a big one."
Nonetheless, this picture has already taken him to several exotic new locales. On the day war came to Iraq, he set off with Stone to scout locations in India, North Africa and Europe. Kilik expects to be on the set throughout the five-month shoot, then in the editing suite for much of 2004. "It's all-consuming," he says. "There are constant challenges. That's the magic of it: the unknown."
But it's the known that brings Kilik comfort. In his rare spare time, he tries to meld his hobbies with his profession, particularly while attending film festivals. "I ski at Sundance and swim at Cannes," he reports.
Kilik also has close family ties. Nine years ago he married Jennifer Lyne, screenwriter and co-producer on Skins. His father's an attorney, his mother sells real estate and his only sibling, Jane, is a Rutland school teacher with two children of her own. The entire clan will attend the UVM ceremony.
Kilik doesn't believe he deserves all the pomp and circumstance. "That kind of recognition is usually for presidents, Nobel economists or other big shots," he says, describing himself as an "ordinary person." He hasn't even decided on a subject for his keynote address. "I'll wing it," Kilik quips. "I'll be at the library cramming, like in the old days.