Mark Lazarus, an independent-film producer, finds enchantment in screenplays. Not every one ever written. Not even every one he reads. And he reads hundreds until, like an archaeologist on a dig, he hits treasure. "When I read something great, a rare and wonderful experience, my body reacts," he says. "An antenna inside me vibrates. I get a frisson."
As a producer, Lazarus has shepherded three Australian movies. His first, Australian Rules, based on the Australian award-winning young-adult novel Deadly, Unna? (the title is aboriginal slang for "Cool, Isn't It?") is about an intercultural friendship in a remote, racially tense seaside town. The film won international accolades including an invitation to the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and six Australian Film Institute award nominations. Lazarus' latest, a horror film titled The Loved Ones, garnered the Cadillac Midnight Madness People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival this past summer.
"I'm not a horror nut, but I enjoy a little gore and suspense and tension," Lazarus says, adding that he also sought out horror to capitalize on the genre's current vogue.
Despite its gore, the film, written and directed by Australian filmmaker Sean Byrne, is also a quiet tale of teenage angst and coming of age in a small town. Lazarus says he was drawn to its spare but effective dialogue and its breathtaking narrative twists and turns.
Lazarus spent his formative years in Durham and, at Duke, majored in English, with a concentration in creative writing; minored in psychology; and edited Duke's literary magazine, The Archive. After graduating, he worked briefly as a journalist. He began his film career in the late 1980s as a producer of award-winning documentary shorts by his wife, Malla Nunn, an Australian filmmaker and novelist. He then enrolled in film school at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in Sydney, where he lives with his family.
At the heart of his work, Lazarus says, is finding a good story that translates well to film. But a film producer is a quintessential multitasker, and the job only begins with the right script. He must also acquire the work, find investors, handle personalities and details throughout production, and spearhead marketing and distribution.
"Mark had to juggle so many balls at once, keeping the confidence of the investors while protecting my vision," says Byrne.
Each film takes three to four years to complete, and, while some producers roll from project to project, Lazarus has found steady work between productions in other areas of the film industry—with private production companies and, currently, with the government's film commission, Screen Australia, where he evaluates the finances and creative potential of homegrown feature films and television dramas.
"A nation like Australia has to subsidize its film and TV industry," he says. "It must, so its people can see themselves on screen, which they consider an important part of the culture."