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“Treat People Well and They’ll Treat You Well”: Producer Chris Kaye on Thelma

An elderly Black man and an elderly white woman are sitting on a red electric scooter.Still from 2024 Sundance premiere Thelma

Thelma spins a real-life experience of director Josh Margolin’s grandmother into a comedic action film. The eponymous character, played by veteran character actor June Squibb (The Age of Innocence, Scent of a Woman, Far from Heaven) falls victim to a phone scammer claiming to be her grandson and begins a literal quest for justice. The film also marks the first producing credit for Chris Kaye, who recounts his long road to the gig, which began in earnest just as he was ready to throw in the towel and embark on a new career.

See all responses to our annual Sundance first-time producers questionnaire here.

Filmmaker: Tell us about the professional path that led you to produce this film, your first. What jobs within and outside of the film industry did you do, and what professional experience best prepared you to be a producer?

Kaye: I’ve wanted to make movies since I was really young, but never found my place in film school—I went to four colleges and didn’t finish my undergraduate until I was 26. I made zero connections along the way, created no in-roads for myself and was staring down a non-existent career path. Throughout that time though I worked service jobs—retail, barista, bartender, kitchens—and after a long, anxiety-ridden time of being broke with the movie work going nowhere, I decided I needed to give up on the dream and find a new one: I’d become a cook. But as soon as I made that decision, I was lucky enough to be introduced to a studio exec at a concert, which led to an internship, which months later led to a new internship at a dream company working for fantastic producers, where I later became their assistant, their executive, and then, amazingly, their colleague. I learned the realities of the industry from those two producers—the ups and downs—and just how fulfilling and creatively uplifting independent film can be despite the obstacles that stand in the way.

I found a passion for something I had no idea I was passionate about: helping others tell their stories—Something I took into my work at the AFI Conservatory, teaching story development to the next wave of endlessly impressive and refreshingly honest writers, directors and producers. When I finally had the opportunity to produce Thelma, my first project—10 years after graduating college—with my ultra-talented producing partner (and friend) Zoë Worth by my side, it felt like all my history had prepared me for it. I knew that so much of moviemaking is problem solving and an unshakable belief in the movie itself from my producing mentors, I knew that treating people well is really the only way to treat people from working in service for so many years, and I had come to firmly believe that there’s a meeting place between hard work and luck that one needs to take advantage of. I’m so happy Thelma is my first feature and so happy to have made it with friends, old and new.

Filmmaker: How did you connect with this filmmaker and wind up producing the film?

Kaye: Zoë, my producing partner at Bandwagon, has long been a good friend and creative collaborator of the writer-director of Thelma, Josh Margolin. Years ago, I joined a writers’ group she started up that Josh was also in (that we collectively called Rock and Roll Universe), where we and the other members shared material with each other, helped with development, leant support and kept ourselves accountable. It was in this writers’ group that I first read Thelma, and it wasn’t too long afterward, when Zoë and I decided to try to produce a project together, that we both knew we had to make it. Thankfully, Josh agreed.

Filmmaker: How long a process was it to produce the film, and if you could break it into stages, periods of time, what were they?

Kaye: Zoë, Josh, and I decided to make Thelma together in April 2021. We shot the movie at the end of 2022 and finished post at the end of 2023. All told, from start to finish, it took a little more than two-and-a-half years to pull off (not counting all the writing time Josh put in before Zoë and I came aboard). Stage one was development and packaging (that took about a year); stage two was finding the right creative and financial partners in Invention Studios and Zurich Avenue to help us support Josh’s vision and bring the movie to production (that took about 6 months); stage 3 was the actual making of the movie (which took another year).

Filmmaker: Did you have important or impactful mentors, or support from organizations, that were instrumental in your development as a producer?

Kaye: I was fortunate enough to be mentored by producers Lianne Halfon and Russ Smith. They defined what a producer is to me and I’ll always be grateful I had the opportunity to learn from them.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult aspect of producing this film?

Kaye: The elements we couldn’t control. Whether we found ourselves inadvertently shooting a heavy dialogue scene under the Burbank Airport flight path or, true story, across the street from an active crime scene—it was the moments where I was reminded that we can’t plan for everything that I found most difficult. This was evidenced in the saddest of ways when Richard Roundtree passed away during postproduction—one of the sweetest, warmest, and most talent people I’ve ever met, whom we all miss dearly.

Filmmaker: What single element of the film do you take the greatest amount of pride in, or maybe were just most excited by, as a producer?

Kaye: Thelma is based on writer-director Josh Margolin’s real life grandma Thelma, and I’m so proud we as a team—along with the incomparable June Squibb—were able to weave so much of her DNA throughout the movie. We shot in her real condo, on her furniture, in the rooms Josh and Thelma spent so much time together in. It means so much to me that we were able to give the real Thelma and the whole Margolin family this beautiful lasting gift.

Filmmaker: What surprised you or was unexpected when it comes to the producing of the film?

Kaye: It shouldn’t be surprising, but I never really got to experience it before—when you put wonderful performers in a room together, it’s one of the most exciting things to witness first-hand. June Squibb, Richard Roundtree, Fred Hechinger, Clark Gregg, Parker Posey, and Malcolm McDowell! It’s like magic.

Filmmaker: What are the challenges facing young producers entering the business right now at this unique historical moment? And what could or should change about the film business to make producing a more sustainable practice?

Kaye: In my eyes, the jump from script to finding financiers remains one of the more difficult barriers to entry for young producers with good projects. It took me 10 stressful and financially insecure years to build the partnerships and community I needed just to get in the same room as potential investors, and the current system is pushing out way too many talented artists before they’ve even had a chance to show what they can do. The increase in fellowship and artist programs is absolutely a step in the right direction, and I think especially in independent film, I’d love to see more platforms that connect young scriptwriters, directors, and producers with actual investors to find ways to finance first projects at sustainable and responsible budgets.

Filmmaker: Finally, what advice would you pass on to a future young producer preparing to embark on their first production?

Kaye: Treat people well and they’ll treat you well. And remember to step back and take it all in every once in awhile… you only get to produce your first movie once.

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