Independent film producer Jim Lemley added a little razzle-dazzle to the University of Idaho commencement ceremony and encouraged graduates to worry less about figuring everything out right away.
“Contrary to what my grey hair might suggest, I definitely do not have life figured out…but the one thing I’ve learned is that’s OK,” said Lemley. “Life is messy and that is the part that is hard to see through the certainty and righteousness of youth…But if you listen to it, life will give you the tools to deal with the messiness.”
Lemley, a 1988 marketing alumnus and second generation Vandal, called himself a spectacularly mediocre student. While he was never an academic all-star, Lemley said after graduation, it’s not their GPA that matters, but what they do. Lemley went on the produce critically acclaimed films, most recently “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.”
“The three things I now know to be true are magic is all around you, life is one giant improvisation and death is a destination we all share,” said Lemley. “The sooner you accept, and more importantly understand these truths the more fulfilling your life will be.”
After listening to his first CD in 1987 and seeing the Island Records label on the CD, Lemley knew that was what he was meant to do. It was the same magic that drew him to music as a child. He encouraged graduates to find and follow their passions.
“I knew no matter how outrageous it sounded, no matter how ‘unrealistic,’ I was going to do that. Magic,” said Lemley, who over the next year convinced the chairman of Island Records to give him a job.
After graduation, Lemley packed up his car and headed to New York City to work at Island Records. There, he worked on a musical documentary and discovered filmmaking. Magic stepped in again, and he headed to Los Angeles to follow his dream.
“Life will tell you what you need to hear, it will tell you the truth,” said Lemley. “You just have to open your ears and hear it and practice hearing it and get better at interpreting what it’s telling you…The harder part of the equation is having the courage to follow the path it is telling you because it might fly in the face of all that you think you know.”
After meeting and working with Mel Gibson at Icon Productions for 11 years and rising to the level of CEO of the company in London while learning to make movies, Lemley said one of the main lessons he learned was problem-solving and improvisation.
As a producer, he has been faced with “insane” problems, including an upset Russian president in front of the Kremlin wanting 250 extras, 50 carriages, 50 horses, 5 acres of snow the Russian army had trucked in and hundreds of crew members to clear out immediately.
“Life is constantly testing you. You will find yourself in difficult predicaments with no answers,” said Lemley, who orchestrated a five-hour debate while filming continued. “The key to navigating them is to keep your head screwed on straight and work your way through them. You have to get good at improvising. Because life will take you on a journey that not even the highest paid Hollywood screenwriter could imagine.”
When Lemley was 29, and when he thought he had life figured out, he was diagnosed with cancer. He experienced an epiphany and what had seemed so important and necessary before became insignificant, as well as the fears that had held him back. He decided to strike out once again and become an independent film producer, with great success.
“You have to live your life understanding that it has a finite amount of time to it,” said Lemley. “You will be challenged, you can’t avoid this I’m sorry to tell you. What you do have some control over is how you react to these situations and what you learn from them and how your struggles make you better.”