If you’re a fan of the first four films in the X-Men series, Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, or the Fantastic Four movies, then you’re familiar with the work of producer Ralph Winter. The Giver, which starred Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges, is amongst the list of titles he’s executively produced, and the same goes for Netflix’s first original movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. He also has a number of indie credits to his name, such as the David Oyelowo-led Captive and the Christian Bale-starring The Promise. More recent work includes executively producing the pilot of Netflix’s Altered Carbon and the film Adrift, which starred Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin. Winter also just produced a pilot for a series at HBO Max entitled Tokyo Vice that shot in Japan and stars Ansel Elgort and Ken Watanabe. The busy producer took time out from working on a number of upcoming projects to virtually sit down with The Greenhouse Journal and provide a window into the person behind all the credits.
Thanks for taking the time to talk, Ralph, and I’d love to start at the beginning. When was the moment you knew that producing was for you?
It frankly built on a lot of experience that I had from serving in creative ministries at church, as well as doing industrial videos when I first started out. And when I really got going with working in film and TV, it took a couple of projects before I had that moment. I’d say it probably happened during Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. I was the executive producer on it, and it was all very hands-on. I was working with the director Leonard Nimoy, who is very collaborative, and my mentor Harve Bennett was overseeing everything. I had a moment during that project of really understanding that we were doing something worthwhile and meaningful. The audience embraced the film, which was really rewarding, and it came in on-schedule and under-budget. Plus, it overperformed at the box office. I still have a lot of friends from making that movie, and it was altogether a great experience. From there, producing became a career choice, and that project kind of lured me into it.
Wow, I can see why! You spoke of your mentor Harve Bennett. What’s one lesson you learned from him that you’d like to pass on?
It’s hard to think of one thing, and a lot of lessons I learned came from observing him. Harve just exuded everything it meant to be a leader and a statesman. He was intelligent, as well as kind and generous, and Harve knew how to work with everyone involved with production. I guess that’s the biggest takeaway — he demonstrated the importance of treating people right. The way you interact with people reflects what you value and who you are, and that extends to people at every level, from the studio execs to the production assistants. So, I took that to heart while working with Harve, and it’s an important concept for me as a person of faith, as well. I believe we should treat everyone like they’re worthwhile and like they matter, because they do.
Thanks for sharing such an important takeaway. And now I have to ask one of my favorite questions for interviewees. If there were a movie made about your life, which actor would you like to play Ralph Winter?
I never think about this so it’s a funny thing to consider. I’ll say that because of the movies I’ve made, I’m attracted to superheroes. Actors that embody those superhero qualities on and off the screen come to mind, such as Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, and Tom Hanks. There’s not going to be a movie made about me, but in this hypothetical situation, I’d want an actor who subscribes to the same idea of treating people well. And I think those three guys, in particular, live that out even when the cameras aren’t rolling. I find that to be rare in our business, and admirable.
Those are some great choices, and I like the reasons behind them. I’d love to hear next a behind-the-scenes story you can share. Is there a good one you can tell in which you helped keep production moving against all odds?
Weather often plays into those types of stories, especially when a director wants to unnecessarily go to rain cover and I have to push back. But one stands out in particular, which involves a really unusual weather situation when we were shooting Fantastic Four in Vancouver. Our last day of photography was two days before Christmas, and it started snowing, which rarely happens there. My set was suddenly covered with snow, but if we pushed shooting until it cleared up, production could’ve gone into the Christmas holiday weekend, and we could’ve gone $300,000 over budget. We’d planned everything to wrap that day, and I was racking my brain to figure out a solution. Could we invent some new superpower for the characters that involved snow? It was midnight at this point, and the entire crew was standing around wondering what we were going to do. I huddled with the director, Tim Story, and we decided to condense the dialogue and put everything into one tracking shot of the four main characters walking together. We swept the snow, waited, and it all ended up working out with that one shot. Sometimes, you have to sort of will things to happen and refuse to give up.
You must have to have nerves of steel to be a producer because I got anxious just listening to that story! And as we wrap, I have a “martini shot” question for you. What are you watching at the moment?
I’m an Academy member and have been getting all the screeners so I’ve been trying to catch up on those. But one that comes to mind is The Trial of the Chicago 7, which was really thoughtful and interesting. There were some historical issues, but it was still a well-crafted story and compelling. I also really liked the documentary My Octopus Teacher because it was fascinating and also more emotional than you would expect. Next on my list is Minari, which friends of mine made, so I’m eager to see it. Plus, I’m reading some good stuff that includes background material on projects I’m developing. One example is All Blood Runs Red: The Legendary Life of Eugene Bullard-Boxer, Pilot, Soldier, Spy. He has a very powerful story.
In his spare time, Winter is active in community affairs and performing arts projects. He also speaks at universities and film festivals across the U.S., as well as internationally. Winter serves on several film advisory boards and is an active member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Directors Guild of America, and the Producers Guild of America.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Cat Elliott is a writer for The Greenhouse Journal. After graduating magna cum laude from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a Bachelor of Journalism, Elliott moved to L.A. to work as both an entertainment news writer and a SAG-AFTRA actor. Her industry knowledge and TV/film experience lend themselves to both positions. Two of her favorite on-set moments include “giving birth” during a period piece entitled The Mistress and laughing her way through a fun Honda spot. Elliott’s on-camera work also includes a stint as a reporter and anchor for an NBC-affiliate news station. In an example of art mimicking life, the actor is often solicited to play reporter roles. She additionally has some casting and directing credits under her name and draws from this unique mix of entertainment experience to craft articles for The Greenhouse Journal.