"What does a producer do?" is the most common question I've heard during the time I've been in the movie business... it seems to be eleven years now. I always answer with "What doesn't a producer do?"
"Still Breathing", a script by Jim Robinson, came to me in the spring of '95 through a casting director, Susan Weider, with whom I'd worked on another film. When I first read it -- one of the things producers do is to read scripts to find future projects -- I loved its rhythm, its romance, its dialogue, and mostly its gentle heart... and to think all this written by a guy.
I sent it around to some studios (another thing producers do) to see if they would like to make it, although this film was to be made with a first-time feature director. Their reaction: We love the script but won't take a chance on a first-timer. Crazy thing about studios-- here's a seamless, very visual, very mature script- who better than the writer to execute it? Especially if you know Jim-- a very articulate, expressive, confident, capable gent. Ah well... they must have their reasons... but that's another issue.
Anyway, I was too swamped with other "challenging" projects needing financing (another thing producers do), so I told Jim how much I loved his project, but was not able to take on another project to finance independently. We kept each other's numbers... another thing producers do.
Jim called me in October '95 to say "I'm almost financed"; in December '95, "almost there"; and in February '96 to say, "got it". So then we started negotiating. I had to choose between a) producing an "independent" with a great script and a passionate writer/ director, or b) being the unit production manager for the parade sequence in "Jingle All The Way," the Arnold Schwarzeneggar Christmas release from Fox Studios. The budget for the parade sequence was way over the entire film budget for "Still Breathing." Although building a relationship with the studio could provide more security for me for future work, I followed my as-usual-wildly-renegade-so-what-if-I-never-make-money-heart and went with "Still Breathing" (another thing producers must do is make choices). My reasons:
1) I'd met the executive producer, Joyce Schweickert, the co-executive producer, Janet Graham, and the casting director, Amy Lippens -- all already in place -- and saw great commitment and passion. But I must say that Jim's love and enthusiasm for the project were especially alluring.
2) I've worked with first-time directors before and it's always a gamble if they will hold up in the very tough, unnatural process of filmmaking... or even have talent. I worked for team Jonathan Demme & Ed Saxon for the first five years of my film career. Since then, my focus has been to find a partner to be in business with -- a la Barry Levinson/ Mark Johnson, Brian Grazer/ Ron Howard, Quentin/ Laurence and so forth. That's another thing producers do. Jim had a great business and creative mix, so I figured: great partner potential.
3) As an aside (this is for you California readers), Jim was the third writer/director I would have worked with who was a male Sagittarius writer/director -- George Armitage ("Miami Blues") and Max Frye ("Amos and Andrew"). Some of the best guys I know. (Please note: This is probably not something producers do -- assess decisions based on astrology). Jim did turn out to be of the same, great "Sag" ilk.
Ok... Now it's March '96 and we're off and running. Over the next nine months, we created a realistic budget, much higher than first expected by the executive producer, but still lower than most would ever attempt. In the end, we achieved a "studio look" and gathered a pool of actor and crew talent that was and still is unbelievable, for little money. That's what producers should do.
We had a very dedicated staff of very talented and driven people, including ...An associate producer, Julie Lynn, who was new to production, but unstoppable. As one of her many jobs, Julie procured many useful and valuable items, from set dressing to beer to air freight services. ...And a production manager, Johanna Busby, formerly a commercial producer, who brought tireless dedication and energy to her friend Jim's film. By the way... she's now my friend, too.
Now, we had to cast the film. We did it using only "scale +10%" rates, but there were many terrific actors who loved the script. Another thing producers should do is get the actor who is best for the part, and who also draws audiences to the theatre, as well as other talent to the production. Additionally, we crewed up with quite excellent people in all categories across the board. We went to Texas to look for locations. Jim and Denise (his fabulous wife and production designer par excellence) and I went to San Antonio, and in 4 days knew where we wanted to shoot all of the Texas portion of the script. A rare feat, but it certainly helped that the writer wrote about a real place, with specific locations in mind. While in San Antonio, we met the owners of "Fletcher's house" -- Hall and Pat Hammond -- two of San Antonio's finest, and began a most amazing relationship with them, and with Jazz band leader and coronet player Jim Cullum.
Finally, we were ready to begin shooting. The next few months were a blur. There were those who called our undertaking impossible. They had to be ignored. There were those who called our undertaking miraculous. We love them and will never forget them. There were those who tried to thwart us -- the Texas teamsters and some fussy neighborhood residents where we were filming. But, we overcame them. And there were the worker bees (at least a hundred of them) who ignored a Texas heat wave in June and came together and gave so much in the name of collaboration. And to those we will be forever indebted. We now have the final product: a most special, well-made, and well-received film.
After the blur of Principal Photography which you've read about on this Web Site, the next five months, into December, we edited and edited and tested and edited and mixed and tested and then, and only then, we were finally ready to be seen.
In the edit process, I was an ally (but also a "nudge") to the director who was having to cut major scenes from his movie because of the length. I was trying to contain costs in a growing post period and finagle deals for less-than-normal prices, and get into Sundance (no, it didn't happen) and find a rep for selling our film once completed (Cassian Elwes of the William Morris Agency and a lawyer -- the amazing Mark Stankevich of Greenburg, Glusker, Fields Claman & Machtinger) -- and test the film. We were so independent and frugal... we ourselves -- the director, editor, production designer, producer, and associate producer in Seattle -- recruited some of our audiences for screenings literally off the streets to watch the different cuts and give us their opinions. Why is it that all these things are what a producer does?
While we were mixing the film with a most talented sound crew headed by Chris Sheldon and with a score by Paul Mills, which is indisputedly one of the finest things about the film, I sat in a windowless room off the dub stage and called all the distributors who could possibly buy our film -- ranging from major studios to cruise ship companies -- and perpetuated the "buzz" already surrounding the film. I invited them to "one night only" unveilings of STILL BREATHING in New York City and Los Angeles.
The night of December 11th, 1996, at the Fine Arts Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles was the proudest moment of my young life (or maybe old life, since I live in LA). The film played like gangbusters to friends, acquisitions people, cast, crew, and even jaded Hollywood regulars. (Note: that's one of the best things producers get to do).
We had, starting that night and over the following couple of weeks -- even Christmas -- a bidding war over the international rights. We were picked up by a most wonderful company called Lakeshore International, who have great passion for our little gem.
Nowadays, over a year after that first day of pre-production, my job, along
with my wonderful partner Jim Robinson, has been to market our film in any
way possible; choosing posters with Lakeshore, creating a CD, watching this
incredible website grow at the hand of the thoroughly talented Bob West.
We've had great success at the American Film Market, a standing ovation
of 1200 at our SXSW world premiere in Austin, a northwest premiere in Seattle,
and a great response at Cannes in the market. All the while we are still
looking for the right domestic distributor who will do the best job of getting
our film out to the most people (another thing a producer and director must
do) because no one cares as much as the filmmakers do about how to market
their film and handle their release. By hook or by crook, the producer's
job is to get the film out there to the widest audience possible.
As you may now realize, the producer's job is never quite done. I'm writing this on a plane on my way back from Miami, Florida, where I've been scouting locations for our new movie, "Oh Carolina", with an old friend AND ANOTHER first-time writer/director Sandy McLeod (a female and a Leo). This one is to be financed by our same, most supportive and generous executive producer; but this time coupled with foreign pre-sales and perhaps even a domestic partner from the get-go. And so it's all starting over again while Jim is writing his next screenplay which should "go" in the fall.
For those who are wondering, yes, sometimes I can't believe I do this, and sometimes feel discouraged and wonder how this girl from Tennessee ended up producing movies in the most difficult way possible -- as an independent producer. But I guess it's the satisfaction of delivering a well-made, heartfelt movie -- the kind I seem to be drawn to -- and perhaps touching and enlightening some people along the way. God knows what went wrong in my upbringing; I actually have a very nice family that loves me and supports my efforts. Also, most importantly, a producer is only as effective as those many supporters with whom they work... and we seem to be blessed with many of those. Bottom line: I have an embarrassment of riches and don't really have time to question it anyway.
So, although I've left out chunks of what a producer does, you get the idea.