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21st CENTURY WOMAN - The Times May Change, But For Anne Carey, The Great Stories And Characters Remains The Same

Posted By Justine Neubarth, Tuesday, July 11, 2017

When I asked Anne Carey, independent film producer and president of production at Archer Gray, how her job had changed over the course of her multi-decade career, I suppose I was expecting a sweeping response studded with words like “the internet” and “Amazon” and also “Netflix.” But given the question, she considers for several moments—she is nothing if not thoughtful—and then responds that no, at its heart, her job hasn’t transformed much at all. “Where the money comes from has maybe changed, the number of distributors, and the ways it’s distributed has waxed and waned,” she explains. “But I think to some degree, to me, it’s remained pretty much the same: You find a great piece of material or what you believe is a great piece of material. And you begin the process of creating centripetal force.”

For Carey, who is behind beloved features like Adventureland and The Savages, and more recently Diary of a Teenage Girl and 20th Century Women, creating that force—and crafting a narrative—is at the core of what she does. The daughter of a schoolteacher (her mother) and an army doctor (her father), it was a requirement to always be reading a good book (her mom’s rule) and to always be able to tell a good dinner table story (her dad’s). “Out of that,” she says, “came a love of storytelling.”

And sure, she concedes that where the storytelling happens has morphed a bit, or as she puts it: “Television has become where people sit and talk, and movies have become where people in tights blow stuff up.” She points to shows like Transparent, which “15 years ago would have been a movie.” Still, her process has remained consistent. She parses it out: “You work with a filmmaker who’s got their idea, and you help them figure out the version of it that the world is interested in, and you have to do that at the right price point. And you have to have great roles. That part hasn’t changed at all.”

A product of the Midwest and “rust belt cities of grit and good food,” Carey initially studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art. There she began making shorts of her own, working with a friend on “Stan Brakhage-type movies.” In order to study film as a major, she applied to transfer to USC, UCLA and NYU. She got into all three, and then in addition, she got into a car accident. “It was like a sign from God that I shouldn’t have a car,” she deadpans. And so, New York it was.

Upon graduation from NYU as a film/writing major, she took a string of “completely unremarkable jobs,” including waitressing and writing “horrible” alliterative marketing packages for MCA TV. (The one perk of that gig: calling Lew Wasserman and giving him the Nielsen ratings every morning.) On the side, Carey wrote screenplays, but they were, in her own words, terrible. “I was undisciplined,” she admits.

The big break came when she landed a position as the assistant to Phyllis Levy, the in-house book scout at William Morris. Levy, a Radcliffe grad and “a classic kind of New York woman”, hunted down manuscripts from New York publishers and literary agents and sent them out to William Morris’ A-list clients. “We probably covered about 400 books a month,” Carey recalls. “We had a reader for comedies, a reader for thrillers, a reader for women’s fiction.

From Levy (who herself had championed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest back when she was just a publishing assistant at Viking Press), Carey learned how to look for movies within books. “It was really, I felt in some ways, my graduate school experience. It was very hands-on, and you could see what was going on in theater and TV and packaging. It was all at your fingertips.”

Carey still considers whittling a movie from a book to be one of her great strengths. She looks for decisive endings because, “If the book doesn’t have a movie ending, your movie will never have an ending.” Period. She also reads for castable parts, highly specific worlds and simply for “stories that I am interested in.” Admittedly, that “seems very basic, but it’s very true. You live with these things for a long time.” Recently, she lived alongside 2015’s Mr. Holmes for quite awhile, having optioned the 2005 novel upon which it was based, A Slight Trick of the Mind, before publication.

While Carey self-deprecatingly describes her early attempts at writing as “lazy,” even she will admit that she is a “pretty good” reader. So good in fact, that when Levy departed William Morris, they placed Carey in charge of the literary development department at just 27 years old. After a year, she felt that she had gotten the most that she could out of the experience. She wanted to be closer to film production. She didn’t want to be an agent. And so she left.

Carey notes a somewhat prophetic letter that her father had recently dug up in his house. She had sent it home during her very first month at NYU. It read: “New York’s going okay. I think I’m figuring out this film school thing. I met a kid named Ted Hope. He’s likely to be a friend.”

She had met Hope, now the head of production for Amazon Original Movies, during her first class on her first day at NYU. Right around the time that she left William Morris, Hope, along with fellow producer James Schamus, was starting up the production company Good Machine. Once they had gotten a first-look deal at Fox Searchlight and they could pay Carey (“I wasn’t someone who could be in the film business and not earn money.”), she joined them as their head of development. Eventually she produced her first film, an adaptation of The Laramie Project for HBO.

From the time it opened its doors in 1990 until its acquisition by Universal Pictures in 2002, Good Machine was a force in independent filmmaking, championing features like The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. “It was a great, great, great group of people,” Carey says. “One of the things I always say to students now when I teach is this idea of ‘the independent producer’—it doesn’t mean that you’re alone. You can’t really produce alone. I think I’ve had great partners, whether it was Phyllis Levy or the people at Good Machine, who were just great collaborators.”

In the midst of Good Machine’s rise, Carey also had children. Now that her sons are grown—one is out of the house, and one is a teenager—she’s eager to speak to the delicate balance of being a mother and handling a producing career. “I would tell anybody who asks that it’s hard. Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s not hard,” she warns. “Find the balance that works for your family. Like, I didn’t ever want to come home and have my kids be asleep, so I’d have my kids take a nap and then we’d all have dinner at 8 o’clock. Whatever works for your family still works for your family, and don’t worry about what other people tell you should work for your family.”

She remembers calling up the offices of Good Machine even on her way to the hospital to give birth to her first son and telling them offhandedly to read a script that she thought was good. When she came back to the office a few months later, she discovered that they hadn’t just read the script but had optioned it, for no other reason except “They felt like ‘if she’s calling on the way to the hospital, she must be really serious.’” Carey sighs. “It was never made.”

Carey arrived at Archer Gray, a production company founded by venture capitalist Amy Nauiokas, in 2013, with a “sort of Willy Loman suitcase full of movies.” In the four years since, the company has produced seven films, and Carey is now working on the upcoming Can You Ever Forgive Me, starring Melissa McCarthy, directed by Marielle Heller and with a screenplay by Nicole Holofcener.

Anne Carey hosts sons Nico and Jack on the set of The American
Right: video assist Mickey Bergstrom

I asked Carey about the importance of buoying women in the industry throughout their careers. “I don’t know that I’ve actually set out to help women filmmakers more than I’ve set out to help any other filmmakers,” she responds after another thoughtful pause. When she produced The Diary of a Teenage Girl at Archer Gray (in conjunction with Caviar and Cold Iron Pictures), she greatly enjoyed the singular atmosphere that arose from the sheer abundance of women on the set, including the line producer, the first AD and the second AD. “There’s something about that that I think is lovely, because I think it’s a different environment.” But Carey observes, she felt like she could also help men be better artistic partners as well. “I think the men need to evolve,” she suggests. “I think the women are fine. We have the skills, we have the talent, we’re equal. I actually think we should start concentrating on fixing the men.”

I want to be clear: Many men get it,” Carey continues, pointing to filmmaker Mike Mills and her experience producing last year’s acclaimed 20th Century Women. For Carey, who believes it is her “responsibility as a mother of two boys to raise evolved sons,” the mother-and-son story resonated with her, as did the late-‘70s period. “My mom knew many of those same kind of women, in the same kind of era. I felt like I had two possible contributions to make in this, in that I had been both this side of the story and I had been that side of the story.” She had worked with Mills on the script development for his first feature, Thumbsucker, and she spent a lot of time— a few hours every other Sunday for a couple of years—developing the 20th Century Women script with him. “A lot of it is just listening to him and helping him talk,” she said. “Mike talks to a lot of people and has a lot of influences, but I was excited to be invited into that process. It was super rare and intimate.”

And when it’s all said and done, Carey views her job in straightforward fashion: “It’s fun making movies. It’s not coal mining.” Her husband is an editor at the Wall Street Journal, and he provides a nice foil to her film life (or as she puts it, “He laughs at my fake world.”) And his line of work gives her additional insight into just how dramatic the news is in this particular moment in time. “It’s very hard to get people away from the news right now, right?” she tells others. “For something to be more interesting than the news, it has to be pretty interesting … We have to make things that resonate.”

And while so much has changed, much remains the same. The current discourse reminds Carey of when she was in art school and film school in the 1980s. “I remember thinking about Reagan and Koch and New York and thinking, ‘I just need to make stuff that chips away at that.’ And I think now is a really exciting time to make movies that, without being overly heavy-handed, improve the conversation and improve the dialogue.”

-Photographed by Ricky Rhodes

- This article originally appeared in the June/July issue of Produced By magazine.

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