William Horberg ’76 is the executive producer of “The Queen’s Gambit,” a television limited series on Netflix. He has an extensive resume as a producer for several exceptional films, including “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Cold Mountain” and “The Kite Runner.”
What is your favorite memory at Latin?
I have many favorite memories of Latin, but I guess the one that really stands out was this amazing trip we took on our spring break one year to the Appalachian part of the country to go to see bluegrass music. Dennis Sullivan, who was our anthropology teacher by day, but an amazing mandolin player in a bluegrass band at night, organized this expedition for us. And we spent a week or 10 days in Kentucky, in Tennessee and meeting all these amazing musicians and going to hear a fantastic kind of indigenous American music.
Tell us about your latest projects.
My latest projects are “The Queen's Gambit,” which I hope everybody has seen on Netflix. It's a limited series. I also have finished a movie called “Flag Day” that is directed by and starring Sean Penn and his daughter Dylan Penn that will come out in 2021, assuming that the world is still here and that movie theaters reopen.
How did you get involved in the film industry?
I literally printed up business cards that said I was a producer when I hadn’t done anything and hard to believe, but it actually worked.
William Horberg '76 Very circuitously. I dropped out of music school in Boston and I returned to Chicago to open the Sandburg Theatre with my Latin school, classmate Albert Berger. We showed classic and foreign films. So I started out in the exhibition side of the business. When the theatre closed, I decided to try to make movies like the ones that I loved and was screening. And I literally printed up business cards that said I was a producer when I hadn’t done anything and hard to believe, but it actually worked. The first thing I made was a series on Chicago blues music that we taped live at Chicago Fest on Navy Pier. I tried to write a few screenplays with a buddy of mine from Second City, and I got the rights to three novels that I loved. Two of which improbably eventually got made, “A Rage in Harlem” for Miramax and “Miami Blues” for Orion Pictures. In the meantime, I finally realized I couldn't reinvent the film business in Chicago, and if I was going to seriously have a go at it, I had to follow my friend Albert and move out to LA. I landed a job at Paramount Pictures, which really was my undergrad and grad school in the film business.
What are the responsibilities of an executive producer and how is it different from the role of a producer?
Well, historically there are a lot of different people who do very different things from finding the material to raising the money, to going to high school or being just friends with the movie star that have all gotten some form of producing credit on films. I was the chairman of the Producers Guild in New York for a number of years. And the Guild has worked really hard to define the role of a producer and to limit the people who get the credit to those who actually do the work, which is to have the primary creative and financial authority and oversight over the film. In movies, the produced by credit designates, that primary role in television. It is the executive producer credit.
What criteria do you use to choose your projects?
I have to fall in love, but I have a hard heart. So I don't fall in love too easily. I have found You better start from a place of passionate obsession, or you will never be able to sustain the effort it takes to will your project into existence.
William Horberg '76 that it can take years or even decades to get something made. So you better start from a place of passionate obsession, or you will never be able to sustain the effort it takes to will your project into existence. I also think of a Venn diagram. One circle represents the content that is getting made. Another circle represents the project I want to make. Where do they overlap and how big or small is that intersection.
What is your favorite project that you've worked on?
In some ways that is like asking who is your favorite among your children. You have put so much of yourself into each of them. As a studio executive, I felt really fortunate to work with masters like the Zucker brothers on the “Naked Gun” movies, Mike Nichols, on “Regarding Henry,” Francis Ford Coppola on “The Godfather Part Three.” And as a producer, my collaboration and partnership with Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella on “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Cold Mountain” and other films was a huge part of my life. And amazingly or amusingly or both, given that I don't really play chess, my first film is a producer, “Searching for Bobby Fischer” and my most recent production, “The Queen's Gambit,” were two of my favorite experiences.
How do you handle negative feedback or criticism on projects?
I am from Chicago. I pay people to intimidate or to silence my critics. No seriously, when I'm developing or making a movie, I welcome any smart person's candid critique, as long as it is constructive and respectful. But, once the project is complete and it's out in the world, I move on. There isn't anything I can do about it at that point. And there are always going to be those who get it and dig it. And those who don't for whatever reason.
The film industry has evolved over the years. Where do you see the future of film?
Paradoxically, change is actually the one constant in my business. The biggest change, as in every business, came with the advent of digital technology and the internet. Globalization, the hyper abundance of content, the migration from the prom primacy of the theatrical exhibition to the primacy of streaming content at home... Now, the pandemic has turbocharged the changes that were already underway. No one knows if movie theaters can even survive in this environment. So I try to focus on the things that are more eternal: the craft of good storytelling, creativity and problem solving, identifying and nurturing talent, and fresh voices.
What skills have you learned at Latin that you use in your career today?
The love of reading and the analysis of great literature and films has served me well. More than half of my films have been movies that were adapted from books. I was blessed with great teachers that Latin, like Greg Baker and Mitch Siskin and Steve Schwartz, that really pushed us to think outside the box. Greg even used to run 16-millimeter prints of classic films at his house on the weekends. It was a truly exciting environment for learning.
What advice would you give your high school self?
Try to maintain the attitude of a beginner that's enthusiastic... curious... eager to learn... questioning the certainties around you... willing to try... be unafraid of making mistakes...
William Horberg '76
This was one that I had to really ponder. In fact, it was fun because I reached out to other people to ask that same question too. Here's where I landed. I would say, don't look for advice from your future self. They have already made all the mistakes that you need to make for yourself. You already know everything that you need to know. You just don't know it. The journey is the destination, in my estimation.
What have you learned professionally that is the universal truth to being successful in any field?
For me, I would say, try to maintain the attitude of a beginner that's enthusiastic... curious... eager to learn... questioning the certainties around you... willing to try... be unafraid of making mistakes... for sure, to work hard and to persevere, but don't take it all or yourself too seriously.
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