Birmingham born Hollywood producer Mark Swift talks to Graham Young.
“I always say that if you’re from Birmingham, you can be anything you want to be!” says Mark Swift, producer of DreamWorks’ new animated blockbuster Madagascar – Escape 2 Africa (PG).
Once an Evening Mail delivery boy and still an Aston Villa fan, the Hollywood-based Manchester University graduate has worked his way up to a full producer’s credit for the first time after serving as co-producer on Bee Movie, associate producer on Shark Tale, animation production supervisor on The Prince of Egypt and production manager on The Road to Eldorado.
The son of a bus driver and a cleaner who moved from Ireland half a century ago, Bearwood-raised Swift is the fifth of seven children, only one of whom is a girl. A former pupil of Cardinal Newman Schoo and St Philip’s College, he describes himself as a lapsed Catholic.
After studying economics, he moved to London, where he got a job as a runner with Steven Speilberg’s then-new animation house, Amblimation. When the company relocated to the United States, he moved with it. He and his American wife saw their third son born two weeks ago.
“My parents, Jim and Eileen, are proud of me,” he admits. “I got them tickets for the London premiere and I didn’t think my dad would go all that way to watch ‘a cartoon’, but he did and they found themselves sitting next to people like Gary Lineker.
“I always used to love movies, but for a long time it seemed as if they only thing coming out of Brum was Crossroads and Central News so I had to move away.”
So what’s the secret of his success?
“When you go away to university, your world becomes less narrow and you meet people, which is the most important thing. You have to write everywhere, figure it out, make connections and try to get a foot in the door. Or one of the people you’ve met will and they will help you.
“Anything I learned at school was of no use for my career and it’s not about the best degree. The most important
skill I’ve learned is just getting along with people. The social side is so important and being able to get people to work together. You have to be prepared to start at the bottom, be dedicated and work your b**** off.
But, given that Mark admits he can’t draw – ‘I’ve got zero talent’ – how does he make a living in animation?
“My job as producer is to look after 400-500 people and to make sure everyone is making the same movie. You also have to look after the budget, know what the schedule is and meet the writers and directors every day.
Then there are the stars – and Mark can be cheeky when necessary. “When making Shark Tale, I set a mic up in a hotel room and asked Robert De Niro if he could do a couple of lines. He did them one way and I asked him to try again... “I thought: ‘This is absurd, I’m giving De Niro directions in acting and he’s taking my advice!’.
“I was really shocked when Bernie Mac passed away in August. We were working with him on Madagascar 2 two years ago and he kept saying he didn’t want to see the film until he could watch it finished with his granddaughter. Sadly, it wasn’t to be.
“The actors who worked on this film didn’t just give us their voices, they gave us their expertise. Sacha Baron Cohen came up with the line about learning to whistle. We reanimated to put that in with only two months to go before the film had to be finished.”
My chief problem with Madagascar 2 is the scene where a granny is beaten up – especially after an octogenarian lady was hit on a Birmingham bus last month.
“We discussed that scene and changed it a lot,” he reveals. “We left it in because we thought it was so preposterous that a granny would fight a lion. It’s very Tom and Jerry; you have violence but it’s very cartoony.”
My own eight-year-old son wondered why only Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) seemed to have real happiness compared with the male characters.
Mark says: “Well, Gloria is really happy because she thinks she’s fallen in love, but is Moto Moto (an hilarious male hippo voiced by Will i Am) the right guy. Or is it Melman (David Schwimmer), the boy next door?”
And if Mark had to pick a character from the film who was closest to him, who would that be? “I think I’d have to be Marty (Chris Rock), the optimist. He’s a dreamer!”
Like many people in his industry, Mark says he’s pleased that Barak Obama is president-elect. “The damage George Bush has done is immense,” he says. “But I think Obama is trying to solve things in a smart way and he’s been picking people to work with him who he doesn’t particularly like but thinks will do a great job.”
Given there are people who fear there will be assassination attempts on Obama, what does Mark feel about Hollywood’s love of a good conspiracy story. Does he not feel that films like Executive Decision, Murder at 1600 and Vantage Point can give terrorists ideas?
“I can’t believe 9/11 was inspired by a movie like Executive Decision,” he says. “If somebody wanted to assassinate a president, they would come up with a better idea than a scriptwriter.”