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“Make Friends with the Other Indie Producers Around You”: Producer Gabriel Mayers on A Different Man

On a stage with red sequins at the back, a man in a surgical mask is gesturing in front of a man who is has a disfigured face.Adam Pearson and Aaron Schimber on the set of A Different Man (Photo by Matt Infante, courtesy of A24 Films)

Premiering at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, A Different Man depicts a man who has a drastic surgery to alter his appearance, only to find out another actor is playing the person he used to be in a stage production. The film is director Aaron Schimberg’s follow up to the acclaimed Chained for Life and is produced by first-time producer Gabriel Mayers. Below, Mayers recounts some of the challenges in casting and makeup and sings the praises of her mentors and collaborators.

See all responses to our questionnaire for first-time Sundance producers 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?

Mayers: Producing is all about finding solutions and pathways to keep things moving. I realized early on in my career that the reasons why projects couldn’t progress forward was because people didn’t understand what other divisions did. So, I sought to learn how every aspect of the business worked to gain enough experience to be empathetic to the problems that arose within them. I did a little development work earlier on in my career, but I had no understanding of what happened between “I like this project; it should get made” to actually being helpful in making it. So, I reached out to people whose work I admired and kept asking them, “what are the steps you took to make this project happen?” I kept asking until someone gave me a job to shut me up. I spent the first part of my career observing how people acquired financing for provocative projects in the Sales department at Vice Media. I figured if I could learn how to get people to invest in documentaries about North Korea, I could learn how to make some of the more original stories I leaned toward feel like less of a risk. In the end I learned that sales is based mainly around charisma, reputation and experience—all of which I had little of right out of college. But I saw there was disconnect between what the creatives were asking for to produce the work and what financiers had to offer in terms of the value of the labor.

So, I worked in production for a year. I did a few PA jobs in college to get into the spirit of being on set, but living in a documentary budget’s salary for a year is where I got my true sea legs in understanding what it was like to make a living on set. It’s pretty common for producers to have no understanding of what it’s like to be on set. There’s a disconnect in how to communicate with your crew when issues arise, and I really valued my set experience in helping my crew, director and studio navigate issues that arose. After that, I did a few other finance gigs and consulting in how to get financing for original work with auteur filmmakers before landing at Killer and doing what I do now. The best lessons I took away from each of these jobs, though, is having a sense of empathy. Movies are so beautiful, but they can be so challenging to make for a myriad of reasons. If someone shows up to your project or set to dedicate their time to work on it, they’re doing it for a reason. It’s easier to navigate the mess of the problems if you can relate to your team members and figure out a way to solve the issues together.

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

Mayers: Chained for Life was one of the first films I saw during the pandemic—back when I thought we were just going to be inside for two weeks. Ha! The filmmaking was simultaneously nostalgic and so unlike anything I’d seen before and so unexpectedly funny. It stayed indelibly on the brain. When we were sent the script for A Different Man (I think it was the first script I read that year) I flagged it straight away as something we had to do.

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?

Mayers: Casting is what took the most time. A few financiers heard about the script before we found our cast, but it was such an unprecedented project that some companies wanted to see the full package before jumping on board. The role of Oswald was written for Adam Pearson, so he was always on board, but the role of Edward was a pretty hefty role to take on and we went on a search that lasted about 10 months until we met Sebastian. Sebastian brought Renate, who, at the time, was coming out of the buzz of Cannes. Our cast’s schedules were filling up really quickly, so we pulled together a production plan while we went out for financing. We emphasized that time was of the essence for our actors’ schedules and continued to do prelim location scouts and build our department heads while securing potential offers from financiers. By the time we landed with A24, we had most of our team in mind and worked with them to finish out our hiring. After attaching our cast, we were probably in pre-prep about 6-8 weeks later.

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

Mayers: I’m lucky that my bosses literally wrote two books on how to produce an independent film. But producing is hard to follow a guidebook for because every question or issue you’ll come across is unlike the ones before.

I learned from this movie that no one has all of the answers and so much of creating solutions is asking for help from people who have seen it before. I gathered a lot of help from people who I knew did it before me. I’d buy them coffee or a drink and specifically asked for advice on something I encountered. Then I just listened to them speak to hear their knowledge. It was the network of people I knew in my own community and around me who helped me through this film. Make friends with the other indie producers around you; we’re all each other have.

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

Mayers: After finding our Edward, the only thing that stood in our way were COVID and her costs…So so so many costs. It made our shooting time shorter, changed our schedule so many times, and condensed the resources we had by a lot. It made us scrappier, but we persevered.

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?

Mayers: The makeup was the hardest thing to pull off. It was a real question on our minds from the beginning of who could do it effectively for the budget we had. Sebastian was fantastic in finding Mike and making sure everything was aligned so we could get it right according to Aaron’s vision and the budget we had. And also, I’m proud we actually got to make it. There are so many films that get shelved, stalled or never make it off the ground. This film was such a unique premise and it’s such a layered story it took a bit for people to get on board. We made a truly original and unprecedented film in the middle of a pandemic. I’m honestly so thrilled that we got to make this one the way Aaron wanted to.

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

Mayers: How much therapy is involved and necessary to produce a film effectively.

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?

Mayers: Honestly, it’s really hard to get people to pay attention to you and trust your judgement if you don’t have a large reputation behind you. I think there’s been a lot of work done at the beginning of this decade to recognize what those causes of those barriers to entry are. But it feels like there are still fewer opportunities to learn how and enter into the business since the pandemic because of the shrinking of the entertainment industry in general.

The people I know who are breaking those barriers now are doing so because they’re collaborating with their peers. A Different Man is an example of one of these films. A lot of the crew members and actors in it have been collaborating with Aaron for awhile. I didn’t enter into film in the traditional mailroom to assistant way. I couldn’t have afforded to do it then. But I forged my way in by going around. I kept building recognition by building community amongst my peers. That eventually widened my community and my reputation to get enough appreciation to trust me to make my first project.

I’m hoping what this new decade is teaching everyone is that you don’t have to have a history or “the right association behind you” to believe in your ability. You just have to be hardworking and demonstrate continued skill in what you’re doing to pull it off. The rest is up to the cinemas gods.

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

Mayers: Plan for everything and relax your breaks when it falls apart. Rely on your community of peers who are in your boat. And be kind to everyone. Independent films are hard enough to make already. If people do not remember the paycheck, they will remember your interactions.

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