What’s in a Word?
“Adele Romanski is an
independent producer who, Academy Award– and Golden Globe–winning producer whose …”
This is what my assistant, April Moore, sent back to me in March of this year when I asked her to please take a pass at revising my bio. (I needed to provide it as part of closing a loan against the tax credit for a television show I was producing.)
It had been about a year since I had updated my bio. April made quite a few changes to the document, but striking out the word “independent” was the one I obsessed over.
Why did it cut so deep to lose those four syllables? After all, how much of my identity was really tied up in this adjective and the suggestion of the filmmaking community to which I belonged?
I challenged her.
Why can’t I keep that in there?
Because you aren’t independent anymore. Moonlight just won the Golden Globe and the Oscar. You have two TV shows in development under the new company you just formed — plus Barry Jenkins’s next film. That’s not what an independent producer’s lineup looks like, in my opinion.
Ultimately, I acquiesced. Not because I agreed with her assessment, but because I couldn’t find a more elegant way to include all the adjectives.
The box had been opened, though. Was I no longer “independent”? What did “independent” mean anyways?
I recall a dialogue around this issue in 2009 — the year Barry’s first feature, Medicine for Melancholy (a $15,000 film), was nominated for several Independent Spirit Awards. Looking over some of the higher-budgeted competition that year, we were curious about the rules for eligibility, and I remember our surprise in discovering that the budget cap for eligibility was $20 million. Similar to April, I remember thinking, “That’s not what ‘independent’ looks like.”
Here, one might conclude that “independent” simply equates to very-low-to-no-budget filmmaking? My 2009 self seemed to think so. But, what else? Is it an attitude? Is it about working outside the studio system? Is it about having the ability to be a renegade because you don’t have a boss?
In an effort to better understand who was right — me or April — I attempted to excavate my younger self. I went back through the Filmmaker archives, re-reading any contribution I made directly or indirectly to this magazine over the years. At the start of this internet time capsule was a group interview for The Myth of the American Sleepover, which the gang (director David Robert Mitchell, DP James Laxton, editor Julio Perez and myself) had done with James Ponsoldt. A piece from April 2011.
In a way, six years is not a long time. Not by the standards by which we measure time. It’s not even a decade.
Re-reading that piece, though, I’m struck by how young we are — in experience. Vividly younger. As I re-read, inevitably, present-day me begins a commentary on my younger 2011 self …
The interview begins as Ponsoldt asks when the project began:
Romanski: I think it was the beginning of 2006 when we said, “We should do this thing.”
Mitchell: But I wrote it in 2002.
Romanski: The year is 2011.
Mitchell: [laughs] I know, it’s crazy! Time flies.
ROMANSKI 2017: It was almost as long from that “We should do this thing” moment to this 2011 interview as it is from this interview to today’s present moment. But sometimes it does just take that one thing. For me, Myth of the American Sleepover, my first film as a producer, was the first “one.” Moonlight is now “one” more. I feel like one thing can still change everything, in that “overnight” sense. Myth didn’t open all the doors, of course, but from that moment forward David was a director and I was producer. It was no longer theoretical. I remember feeling great power in that idea at the time, in the ability to hold people’s eyes when they asked “What do you do?” and I could say, “I’m a producer.”
Ponsoldt asked me what David first told me about the project, and here’s how I recalled our conversation:
Well, my memory of it is that you sent me Myth to read and give notes. And you also sent me this thing called Pop Beach, which was a short film that you wanted to make. I read them both and said, “Let’s not make this short because you’ve already done that very well before. Let’s just do this feature.”
ROMANSKI 2017: Well, that is totally insane. Also, I very much want to make short films again.
Mitchell: It was right when I came out to L.A. I thought, “Oh, I’ll be able to take these short films and get this [feature] done within a year.” And then it just wasn’t happening. I had set it aside, and then I showed it to Adele —
Romanski: I thought, “This will be easy! I’ll produce it.”
Mitchell: [laughs] And it was not. It was hard. I guess I thought it would be easier than it was.
Romanski: You still think everything is going to be easier than it is.
Mitchell: That’s true. Maybe that’s an aspect of my personality.
ROMANSKI 2017: Mitchell still thinks everything is going to be easier than it is. Which is one of the many things I still admire about him. If he didn’t possess this trait, if we were realistic with ourselves about how hard his new movie, Under the Silver Lake, was going to be (shooting in Los Angeles with no tax credit, sprawling party scenes in iconic L.A. locations, 90 speaking roles, 46 shooting days on half the budget any sober person would tell you was needed), would we have shot it? Well, we did. And I’m glad we did. I can’t wait to share it with an audience.
Ponsoldt asked about what every independent filmmaker reading these interviews wants to know: how we financed the film. Did we meet famous financiers and producers? Here’s what I said:
No, because nobody wanted to talk to us. At the time I was a 23-year-old kid asking for $1.5 million to make this movie by some guy they’d never heard of. Nobody was really interested in that. But we set out very idealistically with this big budget and this business plan. And it kind of became clear roughly a year later that we needed a new strategy. So we decided to push everything one year, set a date and then scrounge together whatever the fuck we could from friends, family and ourselves. With whatever we had in the bank at that point, we were going to go to Detroit and shoot this movie. There was a certain amount of naïveté.
ROMANSKI 2017: I wish I didn’t curse. But, apart from that, I still wholly support this approach. As naïve as these kids were (and, wow, 2011 Romanski, you say it, but you don’t know how naïve you really were), I respect and admire their ability to barrel into the unknown that was making their first movie. There is a lot of power and freedom in not knowing the “right” way to do things, which is accompanied too by a certain fearlessness that allows us to achieve impossible things. I hope to keep meeting today’s version of these kids, and I hope they pull me back into this way of thinking.
Having said that, and knowing what I know now, I don’t know how I would go to Michigan with hardly any money and make a movie. The budget for If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry’s next film) is 161 pages. On Myth, I could count the things we spent our budget on using two hands.
But something I’ve tried to hold onto from this chapter in my life, now that I’m working with more resources, is to challenge the “because that’s how it’s done” orthodoxy. It’s easy when a director pushes back on protocols or precedents to fall back on “because that’s how it’s done!” Rather than fall into that trap, I remind myself to embrace the question. “I mean, yeah, why not? Great question!”
Ponsoldt asked about why we shot in Michigan:
There was one primary factor for us: That was where David envisioned the story when he wrote the script. That was where he grew up. It’s that simple. Coincidentally, the [film tax] incentives kicked in before we headed over there. If we shot the year before like we intended to, they wouldn’t have existed at all. But, because of the scale of our project, it didn’t change very much for us.
ROMANSKI 2017: I still fight really hard to shoot films in the locations they are set. I experienced a short spell of producer shame over not taking advantage of tax credits, but it is now a source of pride.
Ponsoldt also asked about casting:
We were meeting up in Detroit starting about nine months or a year out. We would do these open-call auditions in church basements and colleges. We just put the word out in the local paper, to the local community theaters and college and high school drama programs and told everyone they were invited to come and give it a shot. And David would run the camera, and I would read the sides, and we’d read a hundred kids. [David’s] mom and his sister would check people in and help advise them on which character they thought they should read for, which was interesting.
ROMANSKI 2017: I love being this intimately involved in casting. Sometimes, I fantasize about moonlighting as a street-casting agent for other friends’ films. Barry and I went out in Miami and held open-call auditions. That was just two years ago, but sadly now my day-to-day scheduling borders on a breakdown, and, realistically, I don’t know that there will be time on future projects to indulge this fantasy.
And about that budget: When you make an ultra-low-budget film, you’re not supposed to say the number because you want people to pay more for it. But I didn’t care.
Yeah, I’ll say it because I’m proud of it. We shot a film, we had $30,000 in our bank account when we shot that movie. And I’m fucking proud of what we did with that. I know it’s taboo to talk numbers, but …
ROMANSKI 2017: Stop cursing, you dummy. The internet is forever.
End of Commentary.
While some (a lot?) of the above is mildly embarrassing — and I curse too much, clearly — I still support these 2011 kids and their approach. I’m taken, too, by the realization that we are in many ways still the same people: same personalities, same basic attitudes. I mean, we know a little more. Just a little. Maybe just a little too much to barrel into it in this way ever again, but in re-reading, I see our 2011 selves still present in our 2017 selves.
I won’t pretend that some things haven’t changed. These days, there is a lot more noise. There are greater gravitational forces at pull, more temptation. There is so much incoming. A lot of it is pretty cool. And sometimes there are people attached who we have looked up to and admired for a long time and would be truly honored to work with.
There is more on my reading list than I could read in a lifetime. If I’m not careful, some days it starts to feel like I’m operating from a solely reactive stance, and I have to pause and remind myself to be active, to focus in on my passions and get back into that boulder-pushing posture.
Something, too, that I like about this first Myth article is that it’s told from the perspective of a team. The Moonlight story was very much about a team (some of this same Myth team.) All these years later, team feels synonymous with family — a family I am reminded daily has an even stronger gravitational pull, which overrides these new temptations.
So, am I still independent? I hope so. If nothing else, I haven’t produced a film yet that would be ineligible for the Spirit Awards. (ROMANSKI 2011: Yeah, but you’re still a