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“What’s So Bad About a Biopic?” Director and Producer Janice Engel | Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins

Molly Ivins in Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins (photo by Alan Pogue)

Whenever directors watch their own films, they always do so with the knowledge that there are moments that occurred during their production — whether that’s in the financing and development or shooting or post — that required incredible ingenuity, skill, planning or just plain luck, but whose difficulty is invisible to most spectators. These are the moments directors are often the most proud of, and that pride comes with the knowledge that no one on the outside could ever properly appreciate what went into them.

So, we ask: “What hidden part of your film are you most privately proud of and why?”

There is one thing I am most personally proud of in making Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins and it has to be with trusting your gut instinct. Making a film is a journey and there are so many twists and turns where you doubt your instincts.

“First thought, best thought” has to do with the trajectory of the story we were telling and how to best tell it. My initial gut was to tell Molly Ivins’ story in a classic three-act character-driven structure. But after being told and rejected early on by certain industry colleagues that I pitched to that “this is a biopic, and she’s dead,” I got spooked from following my gut instinct. I struggled to move away from the dictum I’d been given. I couldn’t change the fact that she’d died but biopic became my four-letter word. So for the next two years, I changed that structure from simple and straightforward to a complicated overly thematic mish-mash as I culled through the mountain of material of Molly Ivins’ life and interviews I’d amassed.

Flash forward two years: my dear friend, award-winning editor, Kate Amend said to me and my producing partner, James Egan, “What’s so bad about a biopic?” That’s all I needed to hear. It’s like I’d been set free out of the maze of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. I immediately stopped chasing what I thought would attract industry attention/grant money. On a plane ride across the US, I jotted down the plot points and ideas that were dying to erupt out of me. They were strikingly familiar so I dug out a photo of my original index card board from my initial structure pass that was five years old. It was exactly the same and that is the film that is premiering at Sundance.

Sundance Responses 2019

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