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Disclosed: Producers and Therapists on Dealing with the Stress of a Demanding Profession

Image: Shayla Hayward Lundy

There’s a simple definition of producing that mostly has to do with developing and financing a production, overseeing the shoot, protecting a vision. But scratch a little deeper, and producers will open up with more personal responses. Producing is about love, for example — loving the movie, above all, and continuing to love it over the years and decades of its existence. Producing is about support — being everyone’s advocate, from the director to the actor to the crew. Producing is about protecting a vision, yes, but also assuaging the fears of partners who worry that that vision is too expensive. Producing is so the director doesn’t feel alone. Producing is the effort in the cracks and corners, the tossing in the mornings and nights. Producing is sweating in the dark and smiling in the light.

And producing is a job. But it’s a job, says producer Alicia Van Couvering (Tiny Furniture, Cop Car), that “is built to grind you to a pulp and take everything inside of you and use it and then throw it into a trash can.”

“If the director is the captain of the ship, the producer is the hull of the ship that gets smashed in the face with icebergs, and whether it even continues being a ship is up to the hull of the ship, not the captain,” producer Ben Wiessner (Thunder Road, The Grief of Others) says.

“Great movies are made right after you’ve paid them an ounce of flesh and sanity,” Esther Robinson, a producer (Memories of a Penitent Heart, Strong Island), director (A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory) and founder of the nonprofit ArtBuilt, says.

Though the producer is in charge of moving the movie forward, protecting the money and the crew, and delivering the final picture in the end, the role of the producer is often undervalued. What the public and even much of the industry understand to be valuable is what’s discernible, like a producer’s ability to raise money. But the less tangible components of producing, which are often the ones producers themselves spend the most time stressing over, are less understood. Those components often have to do with emotional labor, and there’s simply no way to quantify that.

In a blog post for Cinereach after receiving its 2018 Producer Fellowship (along with Effie Brown and Anish Savjani), Filmmaker editor Scott Macaulay referred to “producer therapy”—the informal support system producers provide to one another to talk through professional issues. Because the stress of producing is unique, producers often share struggles with others who naturally understand the demands of the work.

How might these exchanges, conversations every producer is familiar with, resemble actual therapy, from a therapist? Are producers unwittingly replicating the kind of dialogues professionals engage in with their patients? And what can producers learn from therapists whose work includes counseling those who work in the arts? Through a dialogue with producers and with therapists about informal structures of support and actual therapeutic practices, commonalities might unlock issues and reveal insights.

Ilana Simons is a Los Angeles–based therapist who mostly works with artists, and she’s also a filmmaker and a painter. She describes therapy as like working on a puzzle with another person. One person finds a piece, then the other person finds a piece, and then the picture emerges.

Alan Oxman worked in film as an editor (he cut several of Todd Solondz’s films, including Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness), founded The Edit Center and still produces, in addition to running a private psychotherapy practice in Brooklyn; about a quarter of his patients are artists. He describes therapy as listening. Listening, he says, “helps people have a witness and partner on their journey, which tends to give them a lot more resilience.”

Listening is the quality that not only makes for a good therapist, but a good producer, too, says Jane Reardon, a retired producer of many music videos and docs and current therapist in Los Angeles. “The difference [between the two],” she says, “is blurting out what I think the solution is and helping people find their own solutions.” Reardon left the film business not because she didn’t enjoy the work but because of its all-consuming nature. Even today, after years since she’s worked in film, she’ll dream that a crane didn’t show up to set, and she’ll wake up in a panic.

The issue of stress

One of the biggest issues producers have to deal with is stress. The job requires managing financial uncertainty, combustible personalities and so much pressure. Financing can drop out of a movie overnight, and an actor can pull out last minute, or a distributor can buy a film and then go under. All the while, producers will project a confidence that all will work out in the end.

“This is the stuff that sits in your stomach and eats you alive because you can’t tell anybody,” Wiessner says. But Reardon says stress is something producers need to actively manage. The “ice water in the veins school of producing,” she says, celebrates those who act cool and collected even when everything is falling apart. Producers who scream and yell are perceived to be inept; they are the ones who are losing it. But when they’re not screaming and yelling, they’re suppressing and internalizing the stress, and that takes a toll.

Decades of producing taught Reardon that people often self-correct by doing something self-destructive, which only impedes them further. Coping with stress by overeating, shopping, drinking, self-destructing in some way, says producer Effie Brown (Dear White People), is human nature. “I’ve had to learn that something’s got to give.” Today, Brown meditates and journals as a way of combatting stress. Journaling is something Simons recommends as well; she says that a dedicated window of time spent writing to oneself or writing down one’s ideas helps generate energy in a job where stress can overwhelm creativity. Reardon tells producers to make a routine and set behavioral goals — “little commitments to inspire yourself.”

Stress isn’t just a function of mental overwork. Before beginning therapy with her patients, Reardon asks them how they treat their bodies and brain chemistry, and the first thing she encourages them to do is cardio. “If I hadn’t been on this journey myself I wouldn’t prescribe it,” she says. Anxiety is held in the lower large muscle masses, she tells her patients, and so walking up a hill can help the feeling of being overstressed and creatively blocked.

“This might seem to deflate a therapist’s insight,” Simons says, “but the amount we sleep, eat and exercise determines an alarming amount of our mental health.” Oxman describes this form of self-care as a version of what we’re all told when we get on a plane — you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you help anyone else. “You support all these other people in your work as a producer,” he says. “At some point, you need to support yourself.”

The issue of balance

When producer Caitlin Mae Burke (Nuts!, Obit) produced her first feature, she slept with the phone next to her ear with the ringer on loud. Wiessner takes phone calls with directors late night any night, often until 3:00 A.M., and then he sets his alarm for 8:00 A.M. to return emails. Producers know that being available all the time to solve problems isn’t necessarily healthy, and yet good producers find themselves available all the time to solve problems—and then at some point face the issue of burnout.

Striking a healthy work – life balance in a job in which work and life can unhealthily merge is a one of a producer’s greatest challenges. “The happier you are and the more healthy you are,” Robinson says, “the harder it is to sustain the dysfunction of film.”

Perhaps setting professional boundaries is so difficult for many producers because the act can feel almost counterintuitive for anyone wired to put out any fire at a moment’s notice. But producers may also be frightened to draw boundaries, says Simons, because they’re afraid of losing or offending someone. “But I think people respect it when people in their lives can draw healthy boundaries,” she argues. Brown concurs, saying that when a producer doesn’t set appropriate boundaries on set, that producer could find him- or herself in a position of being disrespected or undermined by the crew.

Van Couvering says that boundaries are sometimes about saying, “Yes, I could do that, but no, I’m not going to do that. I could work for free even longer, but I won’t.” Such wisdom—and necessary leverage—can take time to cultivate, though. It can take years to wean oneself off the feeling of wanting to do more than is humanly possible, to accept that every task is not possible to complete, and to admit that one’s work patterns and behaviors are not sustainable. “A selfless producer who does everything for everyone is just a doormat,” says Robinson.

Reardon says she encourages her patients to do something almost like a cost-benefit analysis — to consider how much they put into a project versus how much they get back. She encourages her patients to be clear about what work they’re doing for joy, and what work they are doing to put food on the table. And she encourages them to find activities outside work that can provide nourishment. These could be anything from baking, to art shows, to reading a novel. “If you can identify what makes you happy other than work, then that’s your go-to.”

Simons tells her patients to remember that drudgery has an end point, and that the sense of burden and consequence isn’t actually as heavy as what we worry it to be. “When the worry about consequences is eliminated, then life gets a lot more fun,” she says. And sometimes we need grand reminders. “Sometimes, it’s as much as imagining if I were to have a sentence on my life, what would I do differently?” She says that feeling a sense of freedom can involve as little as spending the day at Coney Island — or as much as moving to a new city.

The issue of relationships

“With directors,” says Burke, “I like the intimacy of a friendship forged in fire.”
Charged by emotional exchanges, linked visions, aligned dreams, and a unified camaraderie to build something bigger than just one person, the partnership between a director and a producer can feel intoxicating. Perhaps this intimacy is part of the thrill of the work, but it’s also the burden. Producers often wind up working with their friends, or seeing directors as friends, or even as close as family, which can complicate necessary hard-nosed business decisions, such as abandoning a project or even severing a relationship.

Most producers can share at least one story of a terrible, disfiguring, gut-wrenching relationship failure. A producer might see a director at their absolute worst and not only never want to work with them again but also never want to see them again. A director’s name popping up in an inbox can, at a time of conflict, cause the pit in one’s stomach to shoot through the heart. A relationship with a director that’s motivated purely by ideas and creative process might suddenly become about money. A director might work with a producer’s rival. The director might move on from an independent hit to a larger-budget studio assignment and leave the producer behind. The director might spread rumors about a producer. Untangling one’s self from conflicts this painful, from relationships this fraught, can be difficult.

“I used to have so much guilt about leaving a project,” Van Couvering says, “but the older I get the more I realize, if I’m not serving a project or a relationship, I can very carefully and responsibly change the relationship.” Because producers aren’t typically mic droppers, a careful hand-off or responsible wrap-out report is the expected way to leave a project. The challenge comes when this moment is laden with anger, Simons says, when a relationship has reached its limit and a cord needs to be cut. The best producers are ones who don’t personalize in the moment of high stakes and fear, Robinson says. “Maybe the hardest thing about producing is knowing when you’re not the right person for the job,” she says. “Maybe there’s someone else who can step in to serve the role.”

There’s no one right answer in how we move through relationships, Simons says. We do our best and aim to leave our relationships feeling proud. If a relationship in the past is still lingering, she says, writing an unsent letter can help to organize thoughts about what happened. Sometimes, we need to pause and consider our behavior. Sometimes, we need to burn something to the ground. “Burning isn’t forever,” she says. “A lot of marriages end in fiery divorce and then years later they become friends.” When something burns, something new ultimately grows.

The issue of sacrifice

“There’s this inherent narcissism of ‘serving the movie,’” Reardon says. “It’s like the movie is the patriarch.” Various forms of abusive behavior can be justified because there’s the sense that sacrifices must be made for the sake of the film.

But despite the clichéd image of the greedy, money-focused producer, producers, especially in independent film, often find serving the movie and serving themselves to be an inherent conflict. “This sounds so self-aggrandizing,” Burke says, “but when I’m trying to make a budget work, I take money out of my own rate.” Producers want to negotiate the best deals for their crew, but when it comes to negotiating their own rates and deals, they shortchange themselves and accept the things they know they shouldn’t.

Even after 20 years in the business and having produced more than 20 films, Brown says there are companies who pay other producers twice as much as what they offer to pay her. Maybe it’s because her background is indie film so they think she’s used to making a meal out of a crumb, she says, but over and over, she’s found that “people are horrible on deals, and they’ll get away with whatever they want to get away with. They’ll talk a big game about integrity and inclusiveness, but good luck—at the end of the day, human nature takes over.”

Feeling undervalued as a result of compensation, credit or back-end negotiation directly conflicts with how producers feel they should behave—grateful for the opportunity to selflessly make the film. Often producers negotiate their own deals late, or, like Burke, cut their fees to make budgets work.

To assert oneself could mean slowing down a project’s forward momentum, Van Couvering says. For a producer, advocating for him or herself creates a problem—the producer’s own deal. And this in turn provokes tension within a project’s creative team. Furthermore, it’s humiliating for a producer to have to advocate for credit and compensation to prove their value. So, too often, producers don’t speak up for themselves. “I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people heartsick over credit,” Robinson says, “and credit is just a proxy for being seen.”

“One of the trickiest parts of psychology,” Simons says, “is that so many people know in their minds one way that they’d like to act, but they’re just not there emotionally yet, and so they don’t act that way.” This discrepancy between how we want to act and how we actually act might seem incongruous, but it’s normal, she says. “Most of what we tell ourselves about who we are is a retrospective story justifying how we acted to keep a consistent story of who we think we are.”

The issue of loneliness

“It is your job not to let your mood affect the process,” Van Couvering says. “Producing is super fucking lonely, but I do think that is the job, and I don’t find that unfair.” Just like kids aren’t going to notice that their mother’s back hurts, she says, “trying to find reciprocal emotional caretaking from your employees is absurd.” The job of producing is to make the process seem effortless for everyone else and to handle problems before anyone knows a problem even exists, and so you can’t expect to be recognized, she says, for work that no one sees. “It’s like a doctor isn’t going to be mad about dealing with people and blood,” Brown says. “That’s the fucking job. If you don’t like people and you don’t like blood, you shouldn’t be a doctor.”

When faced with major issues during the filmmaking process, one of the most difficult challenges for a producer, Robinson says, is keeping those challenges to yourself. “There’s a requisite cone of silence around a project,” she says. “You have to have a code of honor around protecting a project even when you’re in turmoil about it.” But when you don’t have someone to simply talk with or express yourself to for a sustained amount of time without feeling guilty about it, the burden of that loneliness can be unbearable, which is where some form of producer therapy, professional or not, comes into play. For producers, having someone to talk to, says Oxman, someone who understands them and doesn’t have a hidden agenda, will make them more resilient and able to make strong decisions. “By thinking through a situation — and making a decision—in conjunction with someone else, you become smarter,” he says.

The issue of success

Stories of success in the film business are like fairytales or stories of somebody winning the jackpot at a casino, Wiessner says. “What they don’t tell you is that somebody’s been gambling at that casino for 18 years, and this is the first time they’ve won, and they’ve spent more money losing over the past 10 years of their life than they’ve just scored.” Just as gambling addictions feed off the promise of a win, filmmaking feeds off the promise of a hit (or at least a Sundance acceptance). To live or die by the applause, Brown says, “Well, there’s no greater line of cocaine than people loving your movie.”

Directors are in the constant state of wanting and needing more to feel heard, understood and whole, Robinson says, and it’s easy for them to blame their producer when they’re not feeling a larger love. “It’s very hard for people not to think their producer is part of the problem or not enough of the solution.” When cast, financiers, festivals or labs pass on a project, some directors, subtly or not, blame their producers. Says Robinson, “It’s much easier to love your producer when your film is very successful, but the odds your film is very successful are none.”

Benchmarks of achievement include the festival premiere, the sale, the distribution deal and the interest from an investor in future projects, but rarely is there a moment to recognize the achievement of simply having made the film. Rarely is there the opportunity for producers to look up from their work and take in that perspective. There is always the hunger for more. And so, producers should avoid getting hung up on words like “failure” or “success” because they are the impediment to working, and they might end up feeding what Reardon calls The Block — the fear that the work isn’t going to be good. Deconstructing work once it’s done, she says, in terms of the analysis of it, can be healthy. But seeing yourself as either a failure or a success is a tiring dichotomy. “Checking in with yourself about whether you’re a ’success’ or ’failure’ is just driving with the brakes on. If you just drive for a while without naming it, you’re going to find yourself somewhere interesting.”

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