30 Minutes With: Jim Wilson

Jim Wilson may not be a household name, but his resume speaks for itself. As the producer behind films like Dances with Wolves and The Bodyguard, he developed a reputation for making films whose cultural impacts belied their modest budgets.


It takes a certain kind of genius to navigate the movie-making process with any success. Do it repeatedly, and your name joins an elite list of business savvy creatives. Jim Wilson may not be a household name, but his resume speaks for itself. As the producer behind films like Dances with Wolves and The Bodyguard, he developed a reputation for making films whose cultural impacts belied their modest budgets. His upcoming film 50 to 1, which tells the story of 2009’s unlikely Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, is no exception. Jim carved out a window from a hectic promotional tour to talk about making this film a reality, working with his longtime friend Kevin Costner, and even his thoughts on Avatar.

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Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. It’s a lot easier to always tell the truth than be looking over your shoulder.

Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. Speak to a congregation of friends at my father’s funeral.

Q. What are you working on right now?
A. Promoting our new film on the legendary race horse Mine that Bird. The film is titled 50 to 1.

The way things are going, I’m afraid cinema as I know it will die altogether.

Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
A. Hugs from my two daughters.

Q: Who or what influences you?
A: Nature influences me greatly. I often take my lead by watching how animals do things.

Q. What are you reading right now?
A. Mostly following the press we generate daily for 50 to 1. It’s fun to see how the media deals with our film.

Q. Name one thing no one knows about you.
A. That I am the best tennis player in the world.

Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. A 108-ounce margarita, rocks/salt with two chile rellenos, rice and beans.

Q. If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?
A. Dream big.

Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. I’m more concerned with how I am thought of now to tell you the truth. I don’t really care what you think of me when I am dead.

Q. How did you wind up in the movie business?
A. I made a short film when I was in high school and had a blast. I thought, if I could make a living doing this, I’m in. Never looked back.

Q. Most people out there don’t have a clear understanding of what movie producers do. Can you talk a bit about what the role entails?
A. Movie producers work in many different ways. My role has been to deliver the best film for the right price, no matter who is footing the bill. I am a creative producer, so my duties include raising funding, casting the film, choosing the director, working on the script and collaborating with all of the folks I hire. At the end of the day, it’s your show: you produced it.

Q. You’ve worked closely with Kevin Costner in some of his biggest hits as the producer of Dances with Wolves and The Bodyguard as well as with more recent films like Mr. Brooks. What’s it been like working together throughout your careers? What about his acting resonates with you?
A. Some guys are born movie stars, and I think Kevin is one of those. Look at his body of work: drama, comedy, and everything in between. We have worked for over 20 years and run a company together. We never had a contract between us. A handshake was good enough.

Q. You’ve worn a lot of hats in your life in seemingly disparate areas, from a tennis star who made the pro tour, to a successful Hollywood producer and director, to a race horse owner. Now your combining two of your long-time passions by directing 50 to 1. What has mixing your background in film with your love of horses and racing been like?
A. This experience on 50 to 1 is the best. At my age, all I want to do are passion projects. I don’t like working this hard on something that doesn’t excite me. I’ve always marveled at how man and horse can get along, what a phenomenal union that can be. Horse racing is that rare sport combining man and animal working together.

Q. How did the idea for 50 to 1 come about? How has the experience of bringing this project together differed from your other movies?
A. The idea came when I watched the 2009 Kentucky Derby on TV. It was the best race I have ever seen. I then flew down to New Mexico to meet with the owners and trainer. I met three of the most interesting folks, real cowboys who dreamt big and won the biggest race there is.

Q. Some of your biggest film successes seemed to straddle the line between indie and blockbuster. Can movies like that be made any more today?
A. It’s getting harder and harder to make films like 50 to 1. Every studio wants a branded piece to begin with. Sequels rule. It sucks.

Q. We’ve heard casting was a big challenge in 50 to 1, with both the lead actors and the horse. How did you find the right characters for each role?
A. I spent many months casting the film. It was not easy. I went with guys who fit the roles, not any huge Hollywood stars. I think when an actor gets too famous, it’s hard to accept him as someone else. As far as casting the horse, I looked at nearly 300 before finding just the right one. He is named Sunday Rest and we found him in Canada. He’s already a movie star — he has booked two more films since.

Q. How do you approach being a director? Are there other directors who’ve influenced your style?
A. My approach to directing changes daily, just as I do. I like shooting very naturalistically, real locations, real people. I think there is too much interference today in moviemaking. As I get older, I want to see what nature has created versus altering everything. The directors I have admired over the years are Coppola, Truffaut, Scorsese, Hitchcock — there are quite a few. More recently I have liked Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson.

Q. What tropes in cinema will never die?
A. The way things are going, I’m afraid cinema as I know it will die altogether.

Q. We hate to go here, but many people felt Avatar was simply a remake of Dances with Wolves set in space. Did you see it? If so, what do you think of the comparison?
A. I saw the film and wasn’t concerned about its similarities. Many films share; Avatar is no exception.

Watch the 50 to 1 Trailer | Rolling Out in Theaters Nation Wide Now

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