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Natural Born Producer - Indie Veteran Lynette Howell Taylor Takes Aim At The Heart of Hollywood

Posted By Katie Grant, Tuesday, June 12, 2018

“The truth is I feel like I’ve been producing since I was five, or maybe three. My mother was the one who always said to me, ‘When you were in preschool, you were the one telling everybody where they should play and organizing everybody. So in some ways, it’s just kind of in your nature.’”

Lynette Howell Taylor sinks into the oversized denim-covered easy chair in the white brick-walled conference room at 51 Entertainment (her latest production company)—no makeup, a long sweater coat, hair down, bottle of water in hand. Everything about Howell Taylor—her attitude, her environment, her willingness to share—seems easy. There is no artifice here—not in the room and not in this very successful indie-turned-Hollywood producer who already has over 30 credits to her roster before hitting 40, including indie hits Half Nelson, Blue Valentine and Captain Fantastic. This fall marks her biggest credit to date, Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born, starring Cooper and Lady Gaga.

Howell Taylor, of course, backs up her mom, “You recognize that there is a confidence in your ability,” she says. “You’re not afraid of being in charge. You’re not afraid of making decisions on behalf of yourself and other people, and I think that’s something that you can certainly learn, but it’s also something that a lot of people are just kind of born with.”

Howell Taylor’s love of story began in Liverpool, England where she grew up in a blended family of five kids and her working-class parents. If her head wasn’t buried in a book, escaping into the worlds of The Lord of the Rings or Sweet Valley High, she was performing with her brothers and sisters in the backyard—and by age 11, charging for tickets.

She spent her formative years acting in musicals with a youth theatre and might have become an actor if she hadn’t been rejected from the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts’ acting program. The head of the drama program passed her application on to the head of the Music, Theatre and Entertainment Management program, and she was promptly accepted.

In retrospect, it was a fortunate turn of events. “Oh my god,” she declares with palpable relief, “thank god [producing] is what I’m doing and not the other … I just didn’t enjoy performing as much as I enjoyed the other side. It’s a very entrepreneurial program. And to me, that’s the cornerstone of producing—figuring out how to manage not only yourself but also a business and other people and situations and projects. I really learned the foundation of those skills while I was at that university.”

Producer Lynette Howell Taylor (left of center) consults with director Matt Ross (seated) while on location for Captain Fantastic.

After receiving her diploma from Sir Paul McCartney himself, founder of the school, she worked for an agent and then a casting director in London. But casting fell flat for her, and she was itching to get into production, specifically musicals. So that casting director put a call in to a producer and got her a job as an assistant. “I was so lucky that I had these incredible mentors that just helped me,” she adds.

The musical she went to work on was financed and produced by the company East of Doheny, which eventually provided her ticket to LA. She arrived in Southern California and was overseeing the various shows the company produced in the West End and on Broadway, loving every minute. “I was working in musical theater. I was working for a producer, and it was awesome.”

The jump from theatre production to film was prompted by watching every hour of the behind-the-scenes footage for Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, the book she regularly escaped into as a kid. “The reason I got into the movies was pure escapism,” she admits.

“I was just fascinated by how that [film] came to be,” she continues, “and how as a storyteller, you could make that. I was obsessed. ‘Wow, how did they do this?’ I love big fantasy, I love Star Wars, and I’m a big science fiction fan. I love the escapism of it, the notion that stories can take you to this other place.”

Howell Taylor has made all kinds of movies and considers herself “platform agnostic,” but when asked about the common thread among her varied credits, she has a ready answer. “That’s easy. It’s character. Genre to me is irrelevant. We all want to feel like we care about the people that we’re watching. It’s not just about the plot or the events or the story. It’s about human nature and the specificity that defines us and makes each individual character who they are. So I’m always drawn to the projects that have strong characters. The plot is so secondary.”

Guided by that conviction, Howell Taylor has assiduously sought out collaborators who can match and extend her passion. “For me, producing is the practical application of making somebody else’s vision a reality. I’ve always seen that as my role, an enabler of someone else’s idea … I can love a script, I can love the story, but if I’m not excited by the filmmaker, then it’s not for me, it’s not the right project, and I’m not the right person. But it’s incredibly exciting to me to find a short, meet the filmmaker and [go on] to help them become the filmmaker that they are destined to be.”

She helps a burgeoning filmmaker achieve that vision by instilling a realistic understanding of their budget, walking them through decisions that will directly affect their vision or sharing her knowledge and experience to let them “be the best that they can be” without overwhelming their creative voice. She calls to mind a “visionary Sherpa,”someone who easily carries your heavy load and tends to your every need but is unflinchingly honest about the rough terrain you are about to enter. She especially loves working with first-time filmmakers and directors, like Andrew Okpeaha MacLean (On the Ice), Brie Larson (Unicorn Store) and of course, Bradley Cooper.

Lynette Howell Taylor reviews footage with director Derek Clanfrance (center) and cast member Bradley Cooper (right)
on the set of
The Place Beyond the Pines. 

Howell Taylor was brought on relatively late in the game for A Star is Born, joining the already robust team of producers that included Bill Gerber and Cooper himself. That kind of collaboration is what brings her the greatest joy. “[Bradley] and I had worked together on The Place Beyond the Pines and he called me out of the blue. There [were] a lot of great, competent producers on the movie, but there was a lot to do, and Bradley wanted to bring me on … to really have a voice creatively. So I was deeply involved in the script development work with everyone else.”

Asked what makes a story good enough to remake, she answers, “I mean, love is timeless. It’s a love story and, as Bradley says, ‘What better way to express love than through music?’ Because you can’t hide in music, and I think it’s, like anything, specificity of character [that makes] any story fresh.

“And that, to me, is what this new incarnation is,” she continues. “I think it has enough about it that the fans of the original will feel that we’ve paid homage to those films. But [Bradley’s] done his own version.”

We discussed how A Star Is Born shot at live concerts like Coachella, Stagecoach and Glastonbury to capture the true crowd feel and avoid prerecorded singing per Lady Gaga’s suggestion. Howell Taylor reports, “It was complicated. It was a lot of coordination and a lot of relationships. But that’s why it took a lot of us to make that movie.

“Bradley was the true leader of all of us,” she elaborates. “He had very clear vision for what he wanted to do, but more than anything, such a deep passion for the material and a commitment to excellence. When you work with somebody who is committed to that level of quality, it makes everybody rise to the occasion.”

With this current studio piece under her belt and Oscar buzz starting already, will Howell Taylor ever return to the indie fold? “Yes,” she answers. “The primary reason I will always do indies is because that’s where you discover new voices.”

Those new voices, however, still come at a price when talking financing. She contends, whether she’s working with an unknown filmmaker or big names in the business, the fight to finance remains the same. “I’m still dealing with the same issues I was dealing with when I started. I’ve made a lot of movies where no one wants to finance them before they’re made: Half Nelson, Blue Valentine, Captain Fantastic. People that do want to make them, want to make them for a lot less than what they need to be made for. I am forever trying to figure out how to deal with that gap, between financial safety and what the movie needs to be.”

She’s constantly trying to get the script that’s on the page made for the budget it demands. The usual objections—it’s too risky; can we change the cast?; and can we do it for this budget number instead?—haven’t changed. “[Like in 2010] … when no one wanted to buy Blue Valentine, and then it ends up getting distributed and it gets nominated for all these awards, suddenly, everybody loves it. So then you go into all these meetings with financiers and studios and they’re like, ‘We really want to make a Blue Valentine.’”

Howell Taylor learned about financing from the other side of the table at East of Doheny, who were financiers as well as producers. She found “being the first stop” for investors a fascinating role, learning the best ways to approach people for money, and more importantly, the best ways not to.

“Ultimately,” she reflects, “I realized that every company and every individual that decides to finance something has their own reasons for doing it. And you have to figure out what their reasons are—you can’t talk them into your reasons for why they should do it. Learning that lesson early on was really the foundation for me figuring out how to go and find partners for the movies I want to work on.”

Working on a film, for Howell Taylor, even meant venturing to the other side of the camera on one occasion. The experience only reinforced her deep love and respect for actors, when she was tapped to play a role in The Place Beyond the Pines for Derek Cianfrance. (Sadly for her fans, her character ultimately didn’t end up in the film.)

“Derek is so committed to truth and his actors really embodying their characters,” she observes. “He wants to do whatever he can to make those experiences in front of the camera as honest as possible. Even if he has a script, he loves to improvise. So he asked me if I would play a role that was in support of Bradley’s character … just to provide more color.”

Howell Taylor said yes and approached the challenge with total focus, leading the improvised scene with Cooper and Emory Cohen. “It wasn’t scripted, and I was fucking terrified,” she admits. “So I said, ‘Okay, I cannot be a producer today.’” Howell Taylor was picked up by a teamster to get to set, sat in hair and makeup, was fitted in wardrobe and was greeted by the first PA, who walked her to set like any other cast member. “I rode through the full process and I’m terrified the whole time. And what I realized was that every single interaction I had on that day helped me. So when I stepped in front of the camera, I was able to do what I was there to do.

“It really made me appreciate what kind of conditions you need to provide for your actors,” she continues, “in order for them to do what ultimately is the most important thing. You can prep your movies every which way but, at the end of the day, if your actors don’t have a space to work within that allows them to do their best, it’s literally all for nothing. Getting to know the other side of that was the most incredible experience, and I’m so grateful to Derek for giving me that.”

Howell Taylor with director Matt Ross on the
set of
Captain Fantastic

Howell Taylor also feels fortunate to be in a position where she can consciously choose content that’s more representative of the diversity of her audience. I asked her if she sees a creative cost to that choice. “I don’t think that there’s a cost to doing it at all,” she answers. “I think that the cost, if anything, is just the continuing effort to educate the industry that there’s a benefit to it. But it doesn’t feel like a cost, it feels like a responsibility.”

And she is determined to carry that responsibility to her crew. “In front of camera, I’ve always had a pretty good commitment to inclusivity and diversity. But she admits, “Definitely behind the camera, I have not had the same level of representation. So I have a deep commitment to the projects that I’m producing, moving forward, to making sure I improve that. But there’s no cost to it. There’s only opportunity.”

What’s next on her plate? Howell Taylor is moving into heavy development. She plans to “really focus more on optioning books, optioning articles and working with artists earlier on [in the process].” Perhaps that will help her fulfill her wish “to contribute positively to the content that [my daughter] watches.” She sees everything her kids watch and doesn’t worry about the strong protagonists available to her son, but her young daughter, although a tomboy and fierce soccer player, is already obsessed with princesses. Howell Taylor aims to solidify the notion that “she can do and be anything.”

It’s a notion she’s clearly taken to heart when she reflects, “I think if I hadn’t gone into the arts, I would have tried to be an astronaut.” Let’s be glad she stayed here on earth and managed to find another way to reach the stars.

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