What is Producing? A Group of Sundance Producers Share Insights on Financing, Selecting Projects and Making a Career out of Making Movies
What is producing? I ask myself this question a lot, and the title on my business card literally reads “Producer.” I’m staff at a rad women-run studio in Brooklyn while also producing my own films as well as a handful of others. I say all this to reiterate just how amorphous the craft of producing can be. Because of its fluidity, it can also be a challenge to learn how to be better at it. Plus, producers rarely get interviewed in the industry articles that offer insights into filmmaking process. When they are featured, producing technique can be difficult to understand apart from its relation to a singular project. And while newcomers are often taught that “practice makes perfect,” anyone who works in film knows that we don’t all have the advantage of being able to “practice” making a movie.
This year at Sundance, there were a lot of risks taken in storytelling, from genre-bending comedies like Damsel to complex concepts pulled off with little prep time like Tyrel. I decided to talk to a handful of producers there who I thought were making interesting work and who demonstrate great taste. It’s not easy to get insight into funding and distribution for a number of reasons, but they’re both topics that everyone wants to know about. I applaud all those featured below for not only agreeing to be a part of this piece, but for talking so openly and honestly about their processes. Last year I did a similar article interviewing shorts filmmakers and asked, “What’s your secret?” This time at Sundance, I realized: there isn’t one. It’s not that mystical; it’s just hard work.
So here’s taking a machete through the forests of production with some companions that are, at least to me, some of the most intriguing in the game. And we had several of the different producers involved with Mandy jump on the interview, so getting multiple points of view on a single film was pretty darn exciting.
Here’s who I talked to:
Chris Ohlson, Damsel
Jake Wasserman, Piercing, Tyrel
Charlotte Cook, Our New President
Krista Parris & Elizabeth Rao, Madeline’s Madeline
Elijah Wood, Lisa Whalen, Daniel Noah, Josh C. Waller, SpectreVision, Mandy
Nate Bolotin, XYZ Films, Mandy
Martin Metz & Peter Bevan, U Media, Mandy
Filmmaker: Can you discuss how you funded this film, or creative ways you’ve discovered to go about funding a film in general?
Ohlson: Damsel was funded by a company based in the UK called Great Point Media. They’ve backed a number of recent projects, including Sally Potter’s The Party, Lady Macbeth and Christine. They were wonderful to work with and we had a very smooth producer/financier relationship throughout the making of Damsel. Jessica Lacy at ICM helped put the whole thing together.
Cook: Our New President began life as a short for Field of Vision, where I also work. When the director, Maxim [Pozdorovkin], carried on researching and decided he felt there was also a feature-length version of the film, Impact Partners came in and funded the majority of the film. It was an unusually simple funding process. The short acted as a proof of concept, and Max’s track record as a director created faith in the project. Impact Partners were simply incredible and made the feature version possible.
Wasserman: You have to find those financiers who are willing to go down the dark and bumpy road with you in making a movie and have expectations on what the reality of filmmaking is. The films that we’ve made, luckily, have had some traction and that attracts good money. I’ve found a few financiers who take the risk with me now. There are a lot of great companies that are filmmaker friendly and they get movies off the ground — Cinereach is a perfect example. Especially with first-time filmmakers and younger directors, it is this hodge-podge of financing and favors. Starting small and making it real enough to say “go” makes people feed off that energy and things start to fall into place.
Whalen: Dissect your project and view it from different angles. If you can’t find people who are passionate about your film, then find someone who is excited about a piece of the project. It could be the director, writer, location or some element of the material itself.
Bolotin: Mandy was actually funded in a fairly traditional way, cobbling together a combination of debt financing and a bit of equity. What made it a bit more complicated is that we structured it as a European co-production, and in partnership with uMedia produced the movie in Belgium. The debt financing was supplied by Piccadilly based on collateral generated from pre-sales to various distributors around the world, which gave us the buffer we needed to round out the finance plan. Easier said than done; it took a lot of smart minds, lawyers and individuals to close the financing.
Bevan: [Mandy] was funded via the Umedia Equity and Tax Shelter Funds in conjunction with debt finance from Piccadilly Pictures. We were fortunate enough to work with [filmmaker] Panos Cosmatos whose creative approach allowed us to find suitable locations in alternative settings. The film is set in the United States, but we were able to double it in Belgium for the entirety of the shoot. This shift is what gave us the ability to structure the project as European and therefore be able to bring in our particular financing.
Filmmaker: What was your previous relationship with Sundance?
Cook: A variety of different experiences really. One thing my mum always reminds me of right before I go to Sundance each year, and I’m usually already tired from the prep, is that not that long ago I was living in a really shitty eight-bedroom student house in South London writing my undergrad thesis about the second wave of independent film in the late ’80s and early ’90s, of which Sundance was a huge part. And I never even imagined I would go to the festival, let alone have made some of my dearest friends there, cover it as a critic, be on the jury and have films that I’ve supported and produced play there. I love that she always reminds me of this, as it takes me into this festival with extreme gratitude for what I get to do for a living, and creates renewed excitement every time.
Wasserman: I’ve had four films at Sundance: James White, The Eyes of My Mother and then Tyrel and Piercing. Sundance has changed my life. Even The Eyes of My Mother, we made it for $250,000 with no cast. Nick, [the director], was my best friend from film school. He was nobody, I was nobody, but Sundance took the film in and now Nick, two years later, has a film here and is directing one of the biggest horror franchises ever [The Grudge]. Sundance, even like with Tyrel, gives these tougher conversations a voice.
Filmmaker: Would you forgo a theatrical release for a good online home? Should they not be mutually exclusive?
Ohlson: This is definitely a project-specific question, I would say. Some films want and/or need the theatrical release for a variety of reasons. Others can land a great online home and that could very well be the best place for them to be shared with the world. We very much made Damsel for the big screen… it’s a big, adventure-style Western, shot in ‘scope, with the landscape and backdrop as a character in the film.
Cook: It absolutely depends on what the filmmakers want and also what’s best for the film. I would hate to lose theatrical as an option for filmmakers and also for audiences. There’s still no experience like it, and for me it’s only of the most enjoyable things you can ever do — block out the outside world for a few hours and be transported to another one. But the new avenues for online can be so great in the right way; being able to have your film accessible to people all around the world is an incredible thing, not only for the filmmakers, but also the audience. We are better people when we have a greater understanding of others’ experiences, and that’s one of the things I love most about documentary. So having this global capacity for that is an incredible thing.
Wasserman: Platforms like Netflix and Amazon, that’s how people are seeing stuff now. Netflix has the most diversity in directors — female directors, people that aren’t just white males. That’s also happening because Netflix and Amazon allow for an audience that wants that to happen. As someone who has made less than $0 on all the movies I’ve made, for me, it’s who is going to put out the movie in the best way possible? There’s nothing more tragic than a great film getting buried. Second is the sales price, always.
Bolotin: I strongly believe Mandy deserves to be experienced in a theatrical setting outside of its festival run. That doesn’t mean $27 million in P&A and 2,500 screens, but it does mean having a window whereby audiences are encouraged to get out of their homes and experience a movie that looks and sounds epic. The film will obviously have a digital life, but not allowing this film to be experienced in a dark majestic cinema would be a crime.
Noah: Every film is different. Films that are made on an intimate scale sometimes play better in the living room than they do in theaters, whereas more cinematic films demand a bigger, more communal experience. Gone are the days when “straight to video” meant an automatic fail. Consumers take in content in a variety of ways, and all are equally legitimate.
Filmmaker: What was the easiest, or most fluid, part of the process getting this film made?
Parris + Rao: Trusting the director [Josephine Decker]/DP [Ashley Connor] dynamic. Their history and shared language across two features prior to Madeline’s Madeline was essential. Across 20 days of principal photography, they thrived upon improvisation, rapidly trying out new ideas and figuring out what worked for each scene. The visual language of the film came together naturally without being held in stranglehold by storyboards but also without being insanely expensive to achieve.
Wood: Garnering interest from Nicolas Cage was a rare, organic and smooth process. Whilst working with Nic on The Trust, he and I would often discuss film and make recommendations to each other. I was humbled that he was familiar with Spectrevision and the work we were doing in the genre space, and I mentioned that we were producing Panos Cosmatos’ next film, recommending that he watch Beyond The Black Rainbow. Ultimately, he was moved by Black Rainbow and read the script for Mandy, which led to Panos and Nic sitting down together to discuss the film, and the road to production soon became far clearer.
Metz: We were able to assemble some of the best Belgian crew to help Panos in his vision, from make-up fx to production design, and from grading to sound design/mixing. On paper Mandy was extremely challenging and could have been an uphill struggle, but the combination of Panos’s very clear vision and the crew’s experience and dedication made it extremely fluid to get the film made.
Waller: I don’t think that any part of the process was “easy.” However, the production team really hit their stride quickly. They had to. We had very little rehearsal time and the whole team seemed to understand, “This is it”. So when the boots hit the ground, we really started to move smoothly. We of course hit little rocky patches, but managed to get out ahead of it. So it was more “bumpy” than “rocky.”
Ohlson: Making a period piece, on location, with almost every scene as an exterior (and with animals!) was no easy task. That said, we had a stellar design team in production designer Scott Kuzio and costume designer Terry Anderson, both of whom made the Damsel world come to life. Working with both Scott and Terry was a wonderfully fluid, creative collaboration. Both guys (and their great respective teams) had to continually revise their approach, budgets and plans due to an ever-shifting schedule, the weather and shooting locales. Working with both of them and their departments was wildly enjoyable and made for an easy/fluid process over the course of many months in creating the look and feel of the film.
Filmmaker: What do you look for in a project when signing on?
Cook: For me it comes down to wanting to work with directors due to their approach to film, and also what the driving ideas are behind a particular project. In this case, seeing how much fun Max was having with this format, one that was different to his previous films, was a huge draw for me. And I’m learning how important the environment also is. Max creates a working environment that is extremely collaborative, devoid of ego and one in which everyone’s voices are heard. It’s one of the most fun, creative, supportive and intellectually stimulating environments I’ve ever been in. I’ve absolutely loved working with the filmmakers I have so far, and am planning continue working with them in the future, but my main goal now is to work with female filmmakers next.
Bevan: Umedia produces across platforms and genres. If you look at our filmography, we have been involved in anything from The Artist to John Wick. Each project is so completely different from the next. If there is to be one unifying aspect we look for a singularly non-generic and highly creative voice while targeting a broader mainstream audience.
Wood: We often speak on this ourselves, in that we don’t really have a finite definition or set of guidelines for what makes something a Spectrevision film, beyond being in the genre space. We’re all looking for a heartfelt response to material or specifically to a filmmaker who we admire, as was the case with Panos, whom we reached out to after being enamored with Beyond The Black Rainbow. Ultimately, we’re looking for films that are unique and push genre in exciting and unforeseen places.
Filmmaker: What would you tell yourself as a baby producer that you know now?
Ohlson: I would definitely remind Baby Ohlson Producer that this is very much a marathon and not a sprint. I’ve been careful to try and think about collaborators and projects that I want to live with in the longterm. When I’ve deviated from that path from time to time, the outcome hasn’t been nearly as good. Pay attention, Baby Ohlson… this is a long game.
Parris + Rao: Making a film can be a long and intimate process so make sure you trust and respect and can laugh with your partners. Particularly on a low-budget film, this will be one of your primary relationships for several years. Ideally you have complementary skill sets — one of you relishes expense reports, another loves redlining deals — but at a core level it’s about trusting and bolstering one another through adversity, mistakes and low points.
Filmmaker: With this certain film, what were your specific strengths and skill sets as a producer that helped the production?
Wasserman: I’m a filmmaker first and foremost. I went to film school, and I started producing by accident! I approach producing like a director, and sometimes it’s problematic. I’ve had to restrain myself — the director is the director of the film. I’m not producing anymore until I make my film. But it starts with finding the directors I want to work with, the scripts that I love, and start to finish, protecting the integrity of the film that you start out to make. I encourage everyone: PA on a movie. I was a PA for five years and then an AD and a lot of what I’ve learned translated. Find the people that are making cool stuff that you want to work with and watch them work.
Ohlson: My ability to speak to each of the movie’s departments, specifically, helped the production of Damsel a great deal overall. In making the film, 99% of the crew was new to me, so I had to ramp up very quickly and get to know 60-plus people and their working styles and approaches. Having produced for over a decade now, and having made a number of smaller projects where I’ve worn a dozen different hats, I’ve built the skillset to be able to tag in and out of conversations with every one of the movie’s departments while understanding their concerns/needs/budgets/pressures/etc. I can speak sound and art as much as I can speak transpo and accounting. That all came in really handy on this one.
Parris: I began my film career working for Jonathan Demme and Ed Saxon’s production company during which time I worked on Adaptation from development through release, so I had started from a place of working on a multi-layered story about the alchemy of creating art, balanced with the responsibility of portraying someone else’s story. Following that, I produced several shorts, two narrative features and also spent several months line producing a documentary spanning several continents, accumulating practical experience prior to Madeline’s Madeline. Josephine embraces smashing orthodoxy, which comes through in her work, and enjoys soliciting feedback from a wide range of people. We started each shooting day with a ten-minute silent meditation with the whole crew. Putting together a team that relished being emotionally open and adaptive was key and, we hope, created an environment that allowed for creative expansion, taking risks and feeling valued.
Rao: This is the first feature I’ve worked on as a full producer so I was lucky to learn a ton from Krista and adapt my experience from short films and documentaries towards producing and co-editing Madeline’s Madeline. I think my background helped uniquel, during the development and the editing process: I worked for Tribeca Film Festival on their screening and programming teams for four seasons, and I also edited Maineland, a feature documentary that played in competition at SXSW last year. These vantage points — one being a bird’s-eye view of films completed in a given year, and the other involving attention to detail, narrative arcs, tone and the flow of a film experience — helped me keep seeing, interpreting and pushing the potential in Madeline’s Madeline during moments of doubt and difficulty.
Cook: Sheer bloody-mindedness? In seriousness, I hope that having worked in so many different areas of filmmaking I have a strong sense of story and editorial and how to help a filmmaker get to the place they want to go on screen. I really love learning new aspects to filmmaking I had no understanding of before, and in many ways that’s made me a jack of all trades and a master of none. But hopefully I have a broad range of knowledge of a number of parts to the process, which allows me to help assist the filmmakers in as many aspects of the film’s life as possible. But also being open to learn — I know without a doubt that I’ve learnt more than I’ve in any way put in. The collaboration is by far the best part of making films like this, and I have to say a huge thank you to the other producer of Our New President, Joe Bender, who is extraordinarily multi-talented. The sheer number of functions he served on the film (and he very much took on the propaganda mind-boggling a million times more than I did) — his contribution to the film is astronomical, and he’s such a generous and wonderful person.
Bevan: We specialize in the packaging of European productions, therefore for us the challenge of producing this specific U.S.-set film came from shooting exclusively in Europe. But this particular model we have mastered time and time again. We’ve achieve this by utilizing our dedicated in-house physical production and business affairs departments — that way everything from financing to VFX is handled in-house, as we’re a fully integrated film group. On smaller-budgeted pictures such as this, our broad skillsets help ensure the money stays on the screen. We also financed the project, so we have a vested interest in ensuring the end result is as high a quality as possible.
Waller: With Mandy, we were very protective of Panos’ vision from early on. We recognized his clear-sightedness in Beyond the Black Rainbow and then chased him down to try and partner on something. That type of clarity is to be protected. I think it’s important to acknowledge that protecting the film and protecting the filmmaker are (or should be) one in the same. That doesn’t mean sheltering a filmmaker from having to making creative sacrifices or from hearing the word “no.” That’s when some of the best work is done. Rather, it means deflecting any negative energy that could muddy that clarity. That could come in the form of production problems, financial constraints, wounded egos, miscommunications(!) — truly anything. It’s hard to take a specific approach with all filmmakers since all filmmakers are different, but I think the best approach for a producer to embrace is to be selfless. It’s not about you.