Baltimore native Greg Lessans couldn't see himself as an actor, writer or director. Some people, determined - as he insists he's always been - to make a career in the movies, might have been bummed.
But not Lessans, 32, who years ago embraced producing as his surest entry into the industry he loves. This week, with his first movie hitting theaters, he's convinced he made the right choice.
"If you'd asked me, on Day 1 at college, what I wanted to do, I would have just said, 'Make movies,' " Lessans says, fresh off Monday's Hollywood premiere of the first film from his Terra Firma production company, the R-rated comedy My Best Friend's Girl. "I don't think I necessarily understood what that meant. It wasn't until I actually started working in Los Angeles that I began to see that there are a ton of people out here who make movies, and they all do it in different ways.
"Besides," he adds with a laugh, "I love working with people who can do what I can't do."
Lessans, who grew up in Owings Mills and went to high school at Gilman (class of 1993), might have been expected to enter the family business, a lawn-and-garden distribution company founded by his great-grandfather in 1923. But his first love, even from when he was a kid, was always the movies. And his parents, Richard and Joan, never put any pressure on him to pursue anything else.
"From the time he was very young, he was always in front of a television," says his mom, "and that was always an issue. I always wanted to limit the time that he was in front of the television, but he was always looking for an angle. He'd always say that he was critiquing, or analyzing, or viewing something, that it was more cognitive than just entertainment."
That infatuation with visual storytelling has always been there, Greg Lessans remembers. "From the earliest days, I just loved the power of the movies to transport you, not only to some strange location, but also to give you the experience of being another character, of taking you on an emotional journey," he says from his Los Angeles office. "I came of age with Steven Spielberg. I was a little young when Star Wars came out, but I grew up watching those kinds of movies: Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T ., The Goonies, Back to the Future. Those are the movies I grew up loving."
While studying film at Northwestern University - back in the days he still saw a possible future in acting - he spent two summers interning at Tri-Star Studios in Los Angeles. After graduation, looking for a job, he sent a letter to producer and fellow Baltimorean Marc Platt. Lessans' grandparents knew Platt's parents. Platt, whose credits have included the two Legally Blonde movies and this summer's Wanted, put Lessans in touch with veteran producer Scott Rudin (Clueless, No Country for Old Men), who gave him a job as an assistant - and hardened his resolve to get into the producing end of the movie biz.
"I started to realize that all the things that I loved about moviemaking, I could find in producing," Lessans says. "What I love most is being around creative people, genuine talents, and trying to create an atmosphere where they can do their best work. ... The producer is the one who binds them all together and keeps the movie moving forward, keeps everybody on the same page."
Platt sees his former associate going far. "I remember being so impressed that this college student had such incredible acumen in developing material at such a young age," he says. "That's a quality he's developed in greater measure over the years, along with a real commercial sensibility and sound grasp of the business side of filmmaking. Greg is able to identify that often-elusive blend between art and commerce needed to make a movie work."
Five years ago, Lessans partnered with screenwriter Adam Herz (American Pie) and another rookie producer, Josh Shader, to form Terra Firma Films. My Best Friend's Girl, which stars Kate Hudson and Dane Cook, is the first film Lessans and his partners have shepherded from brainstorming with the screenwriter to release. (Jordan Cahan's original script, which he wrote while in college, was extensively revised.) The overall experience left Lessans stoked to do it again.
"For us, what's gratifying is to be there at the very beginning of any process, the hatching of an idea," he says. "For our next film, which is set at Mardi Gras, I spent six months in a room with the writer and the director, trying to come up with funny lines.
"It's funny that I get to call that my job, that that's work, sitting around and seeing who's the funniest.
"And," he adds, "the reason you know that I'm the producer is that it's never me."
My Best Friend's Girl was not screened for critics.