Behind the Lens at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival 2023
As the US’s largest university-run fest, the SCAD Savannah Film Festival (October 21-28) smartly caters to an overwhelmingly collegiate audience, which means bringing in loads of celebrities for red carpet events (Kevin Bacon! Ava DuVernay! Eva Longoria!) balanced with veteran Hollywood craftspeople for numerous nuts and bolts panels (this year’s Artisans series included “The Creators of Worlds: The Artisans of Oppenheimer”). Not to mention there’s a puppy dog enthusiasm with which these young industry aspirants gobble up the eight-day “celebration of cinematic excellence.” It’s both contagious and, for someone like me long past their dorm room years, dauntingly exhausting. (FOMO on steroids is the cliche that most comes to mind.)
That said, even the most jaded critic (i.e., me) can be impressed. Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon showed up this 26th edition for the “homecoming” of their Savannah-shot May December, which boasted an impressive 80-plus Savannah College of Art and Design students, faculty and alum behind the scenes. And also in front of the lens—D.W. Moffett, who plays Tom Atherton, ex to Julianne Moore’s Gracie, is the chair of film and television at the school. Moffett also played host to our (too-early-on-a-Monday-morning) Hollywood backlot tour, the centerpiece of which was an impressive replica of…Savannah. (Luckily, there was also enough coffee and catering for my brain to digest this surreal touch.) One would think a fake Savannah might be superfluous when you’re living in the real version until one realizes that so many Hollywood productions are competing to shoot in the city at any given time (closing night’s Origin was also partially filmed in Savannah) that this is really the only means to accommodate both professionals and students alike.
Though it was hard to choose between all 165 films, it was equally difficult to decide which of the 16 panels and workshops to attend between those screenings. The 49 narrative and 17 documentary features included most of this year’s buzzy Oscar contenders, from opening night’s Nyad and the new (Savannah-shot) The Color Purple, to nonfiction fare like The Mission and Beyond Utopia (the post-screening Q&A of which I had the honor of moderating at the lovely SCAD Museum of Art). Discussions ranged from the perennial “Behind the Lens” program (no longer titled “Wonder Women” but still firmly female-focused) to the brand new LGBTQIA+ storytelling series hosted by Amazon MGM Studios.
Of the panels I caught, “Behind the Lens: Producers” was once again a true standout (and once again held at the light-filled Gutstein Gallery). Moderated by the equally topnotch (and perennial) Darrien Gipson, ED of SAGindie, the informative discussion included Karen Rosenfelt (Twilight series, Percy Jackson series, Me Before You), Janine Nabers (Swarm, Atlanta, Watchmen), Robbie Brenner (Barbie, Call Jane, Dallas Buyers Club), Alison Owen (Back to Black, Ghosts, Elizabeth), Elizabeth Raposo (Creed III, The Broken Earth, Rainbow Six) and, of course, Christine Vachon (May December, Past Lives, Carol), who along with British producer Owen is a repeat “Behind the Lens” participant.
Gipson began by asking Rosenfelt about working in the realm of adaptations and the process of bringing a book to the big screen. Rosenfelt (also the force behind The Devil Wears Prada) responded that “What is the journey I want the audience to go on?” is always top of mind—and that may deviate from the book. Also, “Do I want to see it—and why?” She reflected on reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s New Yorker portrait of the Sacklers, and how the pharmaceutical dynasty struck her as “the ultimate villains.” (Which ultimately led her to develop Dopesick.) That said, she also needed to know the who, why and what before tackling a project: Who is it for? Why does it need to exist? What is the urgency?
After Rosenfelt spoke about working with Owen on Me Before You, Gipson turned to the BAFTA Award-winning producer herself to ask what draws her to certain material. Owen said that it’s “all about story”— and that she’s not a cinephile. Indeed, Owen said she was just as happy doing a half-hour TV episode as working on a feature film. It was “the message, not the medium,” she declared. (Gipson later pointed out that the ability to determine the best medium for a project is a skill unto itself.) The industry vet added that she has two requirements that have to be met before she will sign on: It must be something she personally wants to see, and she also needs to “see a way to get it made.”
Which led Gipson to jokingly warn against pitches like “It’s Gladiator meets the Chipmunks movie” (“don’t make that”) before bringing Nabers into the convo. The Swarm and Watchmen producer spoke of pitching the idea of “reinventing the wheel.” She basically told execs, “That’s okay if you don’t understand the story, but people will.” That said, Nabers likewise lamented that those same powers that be are “in their cocoon holes again,” especially since the pandemic. In other words, they’re scared, and yet the demand for diverse stories hasn’t gone away. “Shit or get off the pot,” she urged all nervous higher ups, as audiences will simply stop tuning in if you don’t give them what they want. Gipson added some sage advice for producers of every medium: Never be afraid to say, “This is what I want (to see) in the world.”
Brenner stressed the importance of having an “original voice.” Referring to Barbie, she declared, “It’s a very complicated story, and Greta and Noah had a vision for it.” Gerwig specifically “saw a Birkenstock and a high heel” and knew the film “would exist somewhere in between.” Brenner continued that she actually fell off her chair reading the script (the first page of which warned that it was “very long but that the characters would speak very quickly”). Though Mattel was obviously involved from the start, it was likewise important to Brenner that the film itself “not be about selling toys,”which prompted Gipson to inquire about the qualities she looks for in a director. The producer reminisced about first meeting Jean-Marc Vallée. The fact that he was a DJ allowed the late filmmaker to approach Dallas Buyers Club in a “musical sense.” He had “conviction in his vision,” Brenner stated. And specificity is always a crucial element for her as well: What’s the tone? The casting? She enthused about wanting to work with Romain Gavras, as his 2022 epic drama Athena got “under her skin.”
Gipson then asked Raposo about “finding her people.” Unsurprisingly, since Michael B. Jordan is Raposo’s producing partner, she said she seeks out projects that might have a role for the star. A bit more unexpectedly, however, Raposo also spoke to the emphasis the two placed on “world creation,” from billionaire art thieves (The Thomas Crown Affair) to a fictional boxing dynasty (Creed).
Posing the same question to Vachon, the inquiring moderator was quite curious to learn about the veteran producer’s longtime partnership with (this year’s Outstanding Achievement in Directing Award honoree) Todd Haynes. Reminiscing about first encountering Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Vachon half-joked that she’d made “the original Barbie movie” with him. (Though she didn’t actually produce the controversial cult film, she did help Haynes to finish it.) With genuine earnestness, Vachon admitted she “couldn’t believe the performance that doll gave,” so much so that she also couldn’t wait to help Haynes make his next film.
Vachon likewise enthusiastically credited her Killer Films cofounder Pam Koffler as a crucial key to her success. Indeed, she believed those two partnerships have completely defined her career, which led Gipson to point out that this is one of the reasons creatives choose to go to film school—“to find those people.” She then turned directly to the audience to urge, “Keep in contact, because this is your peer group,” before adding that relationships should not always be transactional: “Give, not just ask.”
Rosenfelt then chimed in to suggest that you have to be comfortable enough with your partner to argue with them. “Everyone is risk averse—but there’s always risk,” she stated. Gipson agreed, and went on to stress the importance of “friction.” That said, Raposo chose to emphasize that trust is equally important; while Owen wanted to see “flexibility,” as well as “conviction,” in her team—a “balance.”
“You never want to get to the place where you’re not learning anymore,” Nabers encouraged, before noting that everyone a producer is working with is in the same boat, “so trust each other.” Gipson then asked to hear more about Naber’s unusual background for a TV writer. The longtime playwright-librettist admitted that playwriting is “scrappy,” and that you’re writing for yourself. You’re “writing to learn your voice,” while television involves a different part of the brain: “The sharing of a character’s voice with other people, who are echoing that voice.” She comes to TV with “so much respect for another person’s voice.”
In closing, Gipson asked every participant to simply express what they love about producing. For Brenner, it’s something she just has to do, as she was “born to spin plates.” She loves everything from problem solving to reading a script, and also figuring out how she’ll get from beginning to end (i.e., the journey). The head of Mattel Films then gushed about wanting to make movies that have “something to say” and that “give back.”
Owen loves collaboration and referenced the old Orson Welles quote: “A writer needs a pen, an artist needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army.” She, too, loved “figuring out the Rubik’s Cube,” though the “rewards” are also crucial to keeping the vet in the producer’s chair. There’s a “romance” to finally seeing something she had a hand in on the big screen. As for Vachon, she enthused about working with first-time directors (much to the young audience’s delight), as it prevents her from becoming cynical: “They are making the movie they spent their whole life trying to tell.”
Switching to the Q&A portion, Gipson took a question from a SCAD student/aspiring producer who wanted to know the secret to navigating all the inevitable roadblocks ahead. Rosenfelt responded that filmmakers face obstacles every single day, so just keep pushing the boulder up the hill. “You defy gravity.” (Owen added that the unusual day is when a producer doesn’t face an obstacle!) Gipson then urged, “Just be willing to learn.”
Seeking further inspiration, another young audience member asked about “the moment when it clicked.” A collective silence fell over the panel. There was no such moment! Raposo instead advised just staying focused and passionate. Moviemaking does not follow a Hollywood script. Which led Nabers to bravely disclose that just the other day she’d been in her kitchen, “shoving a donut into [her] face,” and thought, “Should I go into real estate?”
Brenner then reflected on Dallas Buyers Club, and the time she had to tell Matthew McConaughey that she wasn’t sure they’d actually be able to make the movie—this after he’d already lost 40 pounds to play Ron Woodruff. McConaughey calmly responded that he’d be there for the shoot, so she should “just figure it out.” And she did. In other words, the real magic happens behind the scenes.
After Raposo mentioned that she’d been a director’s assistant to Darren Aronofsky, working her way up by gaining experience with every step, Vachon advised, “Walk through the doors that open for you.” Nabers added that being nice to everybody was another key to success—“Treat people the way you want to be treated”—and if you have to “play a part” to get a gig, then you don’t want that job anyway.