Long before he was a Hollywood producer known for films such as “Pulp Fiction,” “Inglorious Basterds,” “Good Will Hunting” and “An Inconvenient Truth,” Lawrence Bender was a kid from the Bronx. He wanted to attend the University of Maine because it was in New England, had a great civil engineering program, and it was close to the mountains where he could ski.
“When I got there, I did what most people do in college, which is explore who I am,” said Bender, who will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree and deliver the commencement address at UMaine on Saturday, May 11. “You’re in between periods in your life — not at home, not in the regular world — so you can figure things out and try different things. And that’s what I did.”
Though he stuck with civil engineering, Bender also explored his creative side through dance, taking dance classes at UMaine and performing with the Robinson Ballet in Bangor for several seasons. By the time he graduated, he had unknowingly obtained the best education he possibly could have for his future career. By combining the logical, pragmatic field of civil engineering with the poetic world of the arts, he had prepared himself to work in the film industry.
“To be a producer, you have to be able to do two things: understand the creative aspect of it, and really master the problem solving, organizational aspect of all. You have to have a grasp on both,” said Bender. “I had no idea I had trained to do both.”
After graduating, Bender wanted to be a dancer and followed that dream for several years until an injury sidelined him. He then pursued a career as an actor, which eventually led to a chance meeting with the man who would become his creative and business partner for the next two decades: Quentin Tarantino. Bender helped get Tarantino’s first film, “Reservoir Dogs,” off the ground, and has since produced all of Tarantino’s films, with the exception of his most recent, “Django Unchained.”
He’s also produced documentaries, including the iconic climate change film “An Inconvenient Truth” and the nuclear proliferation focused “Countdown to Zero” — both topics that are important to Bender, who is also a political activist. In 2003, he co-founded the Detroit Project, which lobbied automakers to build more fuel-efficient cars. He is even a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Pacific Council. Bender has traveled to the Middle East with the Israeli Policy Council, received the ACLU’s Torch of Liberty Award, and was named a Wildlife Hero by the National Wildlife Federation.
“The three issues I think about are the nuclear issue, climate change and Israel,” said Bender. “There are so many important things to think about, but what I’m focusing on as far as climate change goes is putting a price on carbon. If we create federal legislation that can create pathways for innovation for whatever will be thing that will change this — solar, thermal, wind, whatever — then we can really be on the right path.”
Bender is a semi-regular columnist for The Huffington Post, where he blogs about the issues that concern him. In a post last year, Bender stressed the importance of engaging young people — something he plans to go on about in greater details in his commencement address. He recalled an event at UCLA a few months ago where his collaborator, Al Gore, gave a speech noting the similarities between the Moon Race of the 1960s and the climate change issue today.
“During the moon race, the people in Mission Control at NASA had an average age of 26. The important thing to learn from that is that anything really is possible,” said Bender. “I think it’s incredibly important to find the thing that you’re passionate about and work very, very hard at it. You never know how life is going to go — I’m a pretty good example of that — but if you know you want to do something, then follow that passion. That’s what will lead you to success.”