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Legend in his own lunchtime

How to land a job with Steven Spielberg, lesson one.

Don’t eat all your greens. Or pasta. Or anything else on the plate. On meeting him at lunchtime, bolt down some chow, utter a quick “hi”, and skedaddle.

It worked for Frank Marshall.

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Thirty years, 50-plus movies, and almost $5billion at the box office later, the man known as one of Hollywood’s “super producers” is here with the tale. Before we get to spaghetti, Indiana Jones, Bourne, or Marshall’s new project, a screen version of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, there’s The Last Airbender, out next week.

With an estimated production budget of $150 million, a lot is riding on M Night Shyamalan’s fantasy adventure, adapted from the TV series, about a young hero striving to unite a magical world. Starring Dev Patel in his first major role since Slumdog Millionaire, it is also Shyamalan’s latest attempt to regain the career high of The Sixth Sense after the lows of Lady in the Water and The Happening.

Marshall worked with Shyamalan on The Sixth Sense and Signs. “They like to put you up on pedestals so they can knock you down quickly,” he says of the critical reaction to Shyamalan’s recent movies. “I’ve seen that a lot, particularly when you don’t do the kind of projects they think you should do. This is not in his usual genre of horror and twists and scary movies. This is a family film that has a lot of heart and warmth.”

Marshall has been around long enough to acquire a certain perspective on careers. He got his break with Peter Bogdanovich on The Last Picture Show. After Picture Show and Paper Moon, Bogdanovich was variously dubbed the new Welles, Ford or Hawks, except it didn’t work out that way. Today, younger audiences probably know him best for playing a shrink in The Sopranos.

The first films Marshall made with Bogdanovich – there were nine in total – were his training days as a producer, and what an education he received, on everything from minding the budget to keeping a director happy (never promise anything you can’t deliver) and not forgetting the crew. “Always try to treat the crew like a family. Take care of them, look out for them, because they are crucial.”

It was while shooting Paper Moon that Marshall began an impromptu career as Dr Fantasy, a magician in the Tommy Cooper mould. With nothing else to do in the middle of Kansas, he was the Saturday night entertainment. Dr Fantasy is now retired, but Marshall, the son of a Hollywood composer, is still keeping crew boredom at bay as a DJ. Favourite floor filler? Play That Funky Music. “That’s kinda my theme song.”

Age 63, with a wiry build and a buzz cut, Marshall looks more like a retired astronaut than a grandmaster of funk. On his arm is one of Lance Armstrong’s LIVESTRONG wristbands. When we meet in London he’s on a break from making a documentary about the Tour de France winner’s comeback.

The Armstrong film is one of five The Internet Movie Database has him working on, including Hereafter, Clint Eastwood’s supernatural thriller, The Bourne Legacy, and War Horse.

War Horse came about as a result of a trip to the theatre in London with his wife, fellow super-producer Kathleen Kennedy, and their two children, now aged 12 and 14. To his amazement, no-one had bought the film rights to the work.

Marshall has worked a lot in Britain, and could be back here for Indiana Jones 5. “Steven and George (Lucas) are doing research and talking about it, there’s nothing concrete.” As for the next Bourne, all he can say is that Tony Gilroy, writer of the first three, is doing the script, and it is not a prequel.

The fourth Bourne has been a saga in itself. Paul Greengrass said he couldn’t direct because he was working on Green Zone. That came out in March. Is a Greengrass return now a possibility? “Yeah, yeah,” says Marshall, before adding, “It’s all about timing.”

Which brings us to Spielberg and pasta. It was Rome, 1972. Marshall was there making Daisy Miller with Bogdanovich. A young Spielberg was on a publicity tour with Duel, and called in at the set.

“I had a plate of spaghetti,” says Marshall, “took two bites of it, said nice to meet you, asked Peter a question about the next shot and left.” Spielberg turned to the film’s editor, Verna Fields. “That’s the kind of guy I need, a guy that’s more interested in the next shot than lunch.”

Years later, Spielberg and Lucas are on a beach concocting Raiders of the Lost Ark and conversation turns to who could possibly produce such a ripping yarn. Marshall’s long partnership with Spielberg had begun.

He and Kennedy started the production company Amblin Entertainment with Spielberg, before forming The Kennedy/Marshall Company. The two, dubbed “Hollywood’s power couple” by Time, are back with Spielberg for War Horse, which the triple Oscar winner is directing. Telling stories visually is second nature to Spielberg, says Marshall. He knows everybody’s job. Then there’s his imagination. “He’s very childlike in a lot of ways, and that childlike wonder comes out in his movies.”

With Spielberg, as with other helmers, the producer’s job is “to get the vision of the director up on screen”, whatever it takes. For the famous shot on The Bund in Empire of the Sun, Kennedy and Marshall made nine trips to China before securing filming permission. One Sunday, six hours, 5,000 extras to be clothed, fed and organised. “Exhilarating.”

Marshall has made five movies as a director, among them Arachnophobia (“The Birds with eight legs,” said a gleeful Radio Times). He finds directing tougher, largely because it requires a singular focus.

One of the biggest shifts in the industry, he says, has been the way studios, once stand-alone businesses with their own strong identities, have become corporate conglomerates. “They play it much safer now. They all want Jurassic Park. Well, there’s only one Jurassic Park.”

Gone, too, is the mystery that used to surround the movie stars of old. “Information is so instant. You can get on line and find out where everybody ate dinner last night.”

Given today’s watch-a-film-anywhere world, does he think people will still be going out to the movies in 50 years’ time?

Daft question. Only a movie, he says, can transport people to imaginary worlds. With Marshall planning the route, there’s every chance of getting to the destination.

The Last Airbender is out next Friday, August 13.

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