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A Look Back: Marian Rees

Posted By Chris Green, Monday, September 10, 2018

Last week, the PGA office received word of the passing of one of its most revered members, Marian Rees.  One of the great producers of long-form television and one of the most dedicated members to have served the Producers Guild, Marian was an inspiring figure for generations of PGA members. A recipient of the Guild’s highest service honor, the Charles FitzSimons Award, Marian was a long-time member of the National Board, also serving a term as the PGA’s Vice President of Television.

In honor of her life and work, we here re-publish her Produced By cover interview, which ran in the Winter 2002-03 issue.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, Oct. 20 at 2:00 pm at Eagle Harbor Congregational Church, near her home on Bainbridge Island, Washington.  In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Eagle Harbor Church or the University of Iowa Foundation.

In Memoriam - Marian Rees 1927-2018


Some producers like to hear themselves talk.  Marian Rees is not one of those people.  Some producers waste no time in telling you how many awards they’ve won.  In a 90-minute interview, Marian Rees doesn’t mention a single one of her many honors.  Some producers dominate a room with their presence, their voices. When Marian Rees speaks, the room gets very quiet; the room comes to her.

Born, raised and schooled in Iowa, Marian Rees has the clear-eyed and plain-spoken directness that’s characteristic of her native state.  She has little patience for pretense, though she’s generally too polite and too dignified to let that impatience show.  The simply-appointed offices of Marian Rees & Associates, across the street from the CBS lot in Studio City, are a testament to her modesty, though that same modesty masks a tenacity that’s as deeply held as any in Hollywood.  She is a 50-year veteran of the entertainment industry.  She started her independent production company at a time when the conventional wisdom said that women weren’t cut out to be motion picture producers, much less company CEOs; she’s continued producing right up to this day, long after most purveyors of that conventional wisdom have hung it up and headed for the golf course.

“I liked her immediately,” says Fay Kanin, Rees’ one-time collaborator and long-time friend.  “She’s very talented, very smart, and modest about her smartness.”  Those qualities have served her well in her career, which began in 1952 with a job as a secretary/receptionist at NBC.  After graduating from the University of Iowa with a degree in Sociology—a distinction she talks about far more readily than her Emmys or Golden Globes—Rees found herself in California following the disappointment of not finding a position with her organization of first choice, the United Nations.  The NBC job was intended to be temporary, but she swiftly rose through those ranks to become an Associate Producer on legendary tributes to Frank Sinatra, Ethel Barrymore and Fred Astaire.  In the following decades, she spent seventeen years at Norman Lear’s Tandem Productions, Associate Producing the pilots for such groundbreaking series as All in the Family and Sanford & Son.

In 1981, Rees founded Marian Rees Associates, where she has since made her home and reputation as the gold standard of producing movies for television.  For the company, Rees and partner Anne Hopkins have produced over 40 films for network, cable and public television, including ten for the prestigious Hallmark Hall of Fame, and the five films that comprise The American Collection on ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre. Her work received many honors, including eleven Emmy Awards and 38 nominations, as well as a pair of Golden Globes, seven Monte Carlo Television Awards, Six Christopher Awards, the Humanitas Prize and a Peabody Award.  Asked to speculate on Rees’ recipe for success, long-time collaborator Dorothea Petrie pointed out that “every time out, she tries to do something special, special for her and special for her audience.  She knows that story is the most important aspect of any of her films, but they always include strong emotional content, and comedy, too.  Just like life does.”

This is the tenth in Produced by’s ongoing series of Case Studies of the careers of successful producers.  Produced By’s Chris Green had the good fortune to be able to sit down with Marian Rees and talk about Iowa, Hallmark, and the challenges of producing long-form television in a rapidly changing industry.

 

Chris Green: You grew up in Iowa, and I know that despite your many years in Hollywood, you’re still an Iowan at heart.  How has your background affected your career as a producer?

Marian Rees: Growing up where I did and when I did truly shaped my character, and that has been a fundamental part of the work that I’ve done.  Now that I have a body of work, I see it even more clearly.  You begin to see a pattern.  The character of Iowa is distinct, it truly is.  The educational system in Iowa has been historically the best, bar none.  Public education there is truly a heritage, a legacy.  The communities were dedicated to families, and education was at the heart of it.  Every citizen in that state has that birthright.  But when I first came out here I was very self-conscious about being from the Midwest.  I had not planned to enter this business at all.

When did you come out to California?

In 1952.  And with my B.A. in Sociology, I was going to do great social work.  And so being in the entertainment business was always intended to be a temporary job.

This is getting to be a long temporary career.

That’s right. (laughs) But the part of the industry I was in—live television—was very new on the West Coast and there were so many exciting people involved, young guys like Arthur Penn, Bud Yorkin, Jack Shea, John Rich, Norman Lear.  They were driven, and alive, and they were the ones that created and shaped that little industry out here.  They were all from the theatre, and I felt myself to be an outsider for a very long time.  But this whole component of a good education really buoyed me throughout all of that.  There were some instances when I realized I had an education that equipped me better than some I saw around me. For instance, one of the things that I’ve learned is that though I’m no English or literature major, I’m blessed with good grammar.  Now that may sound like a little thing…

Not to a magazine editor, it doesn’t.

That’s right.  You know.  If you’re working with writers, it becomes kind of a screening device.  When you read a script that is so lacking in that fundamental writing tool, it tells you something right away.

Marian Rees with Mario Machado and Tyne Daly
at the Emmy Awards

So, assuming the grammar is up to par, what’s the next thing you see in a script?

As a producer, the thing that has served me well is an ability to recognize a good story.  I’m more comfortable with my role in the community when we talk about ourselves as storytellers.  That’s a source of great security for me—I’m still insecure, even after all this time.  But it has to start with the story, and the best work is done when the producer has that passion and that vision, and allows him or herself to be guided by that story’s strength, its power. That’s when a film for me becomes organic, it has a life of it’s own; it will tell you what to do with it; it will tell you when you’re not paying attention to something; it speaks.  That may sound really quite odd but having made 36 films, you can find the voice in every film and every one will be different.

So, for you, what are the elements that make a good story?

Character.  It’s characters first, plot second.  There’s so much demand for plot-driven material now that it’s hard to persuade people to have the patience that character development requires. 

Did the medium used to be more character-driven, and it’s become more story-driven?

I think the sense of movies has changed.  I was talking with a colleague yesterday—a studio executive—and we were talking about the changing nature of the movie for television, the way the template is different.  It’s a genre that is really so vulnerable and threatened right now.  The way of telling the story is different; the pacing is different.  I think a lot of it is driven by demographics, so there’s almost a built in constraint.  Your movie won’t feel liberated.  You won’t get into the depth of character that will take you where the power of the story is.

Obviously, changing demographics have altered the way lots of producers frame their projects.  Are there other factors?

Well, the vertical integration of the industry has had more impact than anyone is willing to admit; it could have been predicted when deregulation happened.  We fought a losing battle on that, but the consequence was predictable and the vertical integration is clearly in place.  And so it’s not the storytelling that’s important as much as it is the ratings and the advertising revenue.  So we see programming where the story and the drama are eroded by added minutes for commercial time.  That’s a constraint on your story.  Instead of 94 minutes, the standard is down to 80 minutes, and it gets smaller and smaller.  That’s a real constraint.  You can’t let loose the power of the story through character development.  That takes time.

That’s an interesting metaphor: looseness versus constriction.  It sounds like a matter of giving a story room to breathe, room to find itself.

I think that’s true.  And that struggle begins to dissipate some of the strength that a producer can bring.  That’s why the producer’s central job is holding to that story.  That process requires constant vigilance. I keep coming back to passion and management.  I think when you do movies for television, you learn management; there’s no way around it.  The budgets are so stringent and you learn to manage the budget by managing the story.  You control the budget from the very beginning of the story development.  On our first movies, we would bring in our line producer, the late Bob Hudelson; we’d have him read the outline, the first draft and then say, “okay, Bob, where will this balloon? Understand we’re not going to change the storyline, we can’t distort characters, but give us a guide.” We did that to protect ourselves, as we had no contingency.  So it became crucial that we had a cushion, and Bob understood that.


So what were some of the tricks that he taught you?

Bob was brilliant at suggesting ways to compress.  I think that a lot of what he could see—from that outside perspective—was non-sequiturs, or redundancies that you don’t catch sometimes.  He’d say this was a non-essential scene, and he was right.  But if you start with a story and everybody understands that that story is to be protected at all costs, then the adjustments can be made through a process that makes sense.  That’s storytelling.  That isn’t just making a movie, it’s telling a story.  To me there’s a difference. 

What is that difference?

You don’t tell a story with the goal of getting an Emmy.  You tell a story for its own sake, and you do the best you can.  If it’s honored and in other ways recognized, that’s a consequence; it’s not the goal.  But I have many colleagues—and they’re not to be judged—who make movies for volume, for the business side of it, and for reasons that are important to them.  And that’s perfectly legitimate, but that hasn’t been my experience and hasn’t been my goal. 

At the same time, that’s a tough way to make your fortune in the world.

You don’t make a fortune doing it this way.  That’s really one of the reasons I started my own company, to separate myself from the need to drive a volume for another company.  I simply couldn’t do it well.  It was so much more important to me not only to tell the stories I wanted to tell, but also to own those movies.  I knew enough to know that that’s where the real security was.  Otherwise you’re an employee without benefits, without equity.  We don’t own all our films but we have a nice library.  They’re all films that have been personally directed in their development. They are the ones that sit well in my heart, and I’m proud of them.


So, which are the titles that you feel closest to?
 

For me, Love Is Never Silent is the embodiment of that process, both its difficulties and its satisfactions. 


What were the challenges in putting that story together?

It was in 1982, and I just started the company; we had just finished our first film.  So the next one up was a book that was brought by Juliana Feld, who optioned Joanne Greenberg’s book In This Sign.  The book is about a young deaf teenage couple who find each other and marry.  They have two hearing children and one, the younger boy, dies when he falls off a balcony, his cry for help unheard.  And so the fate of this family was in Margaret, the hearing daughter.  That was the crux of the story: her coming of age, conflicted and ambivalent about her role in that family being the ears, the communicator.  And the conflict when she falls in love and wants to have her own life:  How can she leave this mother and father for whom she has been the door to the world?  She finally marries and does leave.  Her telling her parents her decision is probably one of the best scenes that I’ve seen in a movie.  It still moves me, and I’ve seen it recently.  That story went right to the core of me when I read it.  And I didn’t know anything about deaf culture except my own passion for it.  Because if I’d thought about it, I would have said, “Well, nobody’s going to make this movie.”  But you can’t say that, not if you really care.  But Dick Welsh from Hallmark Hall of Fame came and said, “Is there something you really feel passionate about that you want to do?” And I said, yes, I want to do this book.  And he listened, and I told him there was one caveat in it: I had made it a binding agreement with Juliana Feld, herself a deaf actress, to use deaf actors in those principal roles of the parents.  If it fell apart on that, then it would fall apart on that.  So Dick said, “I’ll go to Kansas City and I’ll go to Brad Moore and ultimately to Don Hall.”  That’s where the decisions were made.  They liked the story, and when they heard of the legal binder, they came back in 24 hours and said, “yes.”  They would honor that legal component. So the next thing was to get it to the network.  At that time all the Hallmarks were at CBS, and the head of CBS said that under no circumstances would there be deaf actors.  He would not approve it.

That must have put you in a very difficult position.

I had to hold firm.  I would not unravel the legal thread in all of this.  I couldn’t do that.  And to their great credit, Hallmark wouldn’t budge either.  They held firm.  And it came to a real loggerhead. I’d get calls that said, “he’s not going to let you cast [deaf actors] Phyllis Frelich and Ed Waterstreet, but he’ll give the green light if you get someone like Paul Newman and Joanna Woodward to play the parents.”  Long pause.   And I said, “Isn’t it appreciated that even if we could get these consummate actors to play these roles, they don’t speak one word in the whole 98 minutes of the movie?  And frankly, I’m not sure that Paul and Joanne would want to void the integrity of this piece.”  That was my opinion.  By this time, we had people already on location. The train had left the station, but we had no green-light.  And finally, again to the great credit of Hallmark, they jumped networks.  Carl Meyer and Brandon Tartikoff were at NBC and they liked it.  So I went to Dick and asked if there was any possibility that Hallmark’s passion and commitment to this was sufficient to go outside CBS and go to another network.” When the word came back, Dick said, “I’m going to go to NBC.” And in 24 hours we had a green-light, with a cast in place, and we went off and made the movie, told the story. It was a good story. It just needed somebody to care about it.  And it became history. [Ed. Note: Love is Never Silent was nominated for four Emmy Awards, winning for Best Picture of the Year and for Joseph Sargent’s directing.]

It just struck me when you spoke about Hallmark and going out to Kansas, that this is another Midwestern sensibility.  I can see that their steadfastness spoke to you with a kind of kinship.  

I can’t say enough about the integrity of that company.  And especially in today’s context, with corporate America being judged by the example of Enron.  These scandals speak to the lack of that very integrity, the ethics, that is at the core of Hallmark. They’re very modest, self-effacing.  They know their audience, and they’ve served it well for all these years.  It’s the longest-running dramatic program in the history of television—50 years of uninterrupted programming.  That’s a huge commitment, and you don’t make that unless you believe in it.  We’ve had the good fortune of making 10 Hallmarks.  And you’re right, I understood them, and they understood me.  It was and is a place to tell great stories and have them embraced and promoted.  It doesn’t get better than that. 

How does that compare to the series of films you produced for The American Collection, on PBS?  Was that a slightly different way of working?

Not slightly different, grandly different.  It was a wonderful idea that Dr. Carolyn Reid-Wallace had as the Executive Vice President of Development and Education at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).  She was having dinner in London with a guy who was head of the BBC who remarked, “You know, Carolyn, doesn’t it seem odd to you that all the dramatic programming on PBS has an English accent? Isn’t that odd?”   It really sent her home thinking and she came back to change that.  She went to the Corporation’s board and said, “We need to change this.  I want to do movies based on American literature and American writers.”  They supported her, and then she set about to find a producer to do the series. She wanted the movies to be like Hallmark Hall of Fame dramas.  So she sought us out.

Obviously this represented an incredible opportunity for you.  How do you approach a chance like that?

I didn’t seek the job nor did I audition for it. I just wanted to help her.  I was absolutely taken with this woman’s vision and her passion and her determination to see it come to fruition.  She single handedly nurtured that idea, selflessly put herself in some jeopardy, and you can’t help but respond to someone like that.  She had the task of getting PBS to come aboard.  That was tough, strangely enough.  I was surprised that there was the initial resistance to it. 

Really?  I have to say that I’m surprised, too.

Well, it was new.  Where did we fit?  Where was our place in all of this?  Here we were on the West Coast, and outside of the PBS community, in a way.  Regardless of our credentials, we were outsiders, and we began to feel that.

I imagine it’s just a very different culture than your usual network. 

It is.  I’ve met some wonderful people that I would have never met before, people who are truly committed to the public broadcasting system. They’re deeply caring, well-educated people and are comfortable without the affluence that sometimes is a demarcation in our community.  And that distinction was reflected in other ways.  Our budget for the five films was 15 ½ million dollars.  Though it was the largest single grant in the history of the CPB, that isn’t a lot of money in Hollywood terms.  That makes one low-budget picture.  So I knew we would have to depend on the good will of this community.  And they came through!

When you say this community, the Hollywood community? 

Yes, I introduced Dr. Reid-Wallace to the heads of agencies.  I felt if they got the story from her, they’d understand why I made my commitment.  And they came on board and said, “just tell us how we can help.”  Their clients were encouraged to be a part of it. We had to set ceilings, and everybody bought in; if they didn’t, they didn’t come aboard.  Wonderful talent came aboard!  They went out under Exxon Mobil Masterpiece Theatre, some very different titles that might not have been chosen by someone else. 

Hopkins and Rees at the Caucus for Television Workers,
Producers and Directors Honors. 

 

That’s true.  It’s a very unique collection of titles.

Yes, eclectic in scope and not driven by any demography at all.  I just felt that it was essential that diversity was a central component of the project.  I was somewhat mis-quoted by the New York Times saying that I didn’t want to do works of dusty, dead old white men.  What I didn’t want to do was to go into material that wasn’t relevant, that didn’t have currency.  I didn’t care if it was written recently like Esmeralda Santiago’s story [Almost a Woman].  That’s a very contemporary story, but at the same time, it’s also an immigrant story, and that’s the oldest story of America.  But they had to be relevant; they had to be doable.  You can’t make an epic on $3 million.  I thought it was important that we had a piece that dealt with the South and the Civil War, but I wanted a different aspect of it.  That’s why Langston Hughes’ short story [Cora Unashamed] spoke so clearly to me. He set it in Iowa, which is a different point on that whole compass that directs us to the knowledge and the history of the Civil War or of slavery.  It will always be a part of our life story as a nation; we can’t leave it behind.  Interestingly, Cora Unashamed became the highest-rated movie on Masterpiece Theatre in its 16-year history.  I just learned that about two months ago, and that was rewarding.

I want to ask about your years at Tandem working with Norman Lear and about producing things with a social conscience; that seems to be a goal that’s very close to you.  Especially since there’s often so much hesitation about including a social message in a commercial production.

Well, HBO is doing it.  NBC is doing it, with The West Wing.  You can find it.  It isn’t absent.  It’s the independent movie for television that’s absent; as a result of the vertical integration, there’s a lot of in-house production.  So there’s not that demand for the independent voice.

Norman Lear’s voice was and is as independent as they come. 

That’s certainly true.  Tandem was a comfortable place for me to be because it was risk-taking and challenging.  It was raising the voice of contrariness, and going to a different level of commentary through comedy.  That’s what Norman was: a social commentator.  And Norman was fierce, both fierce and graceful.  But he has that ability as a human being to invite others in and let them become a part of it.  I think about Bob Wood, who was President of CBS and who was the other hero of all of this.  He kept the shows on.  Norman found his voice, and Bob understood what he was saying and put his own job on the line.  They became partners in this commentary.  I think television will always attract people like that. Television is spontaneous, it’s immediate, you know that you’ve connected.  There’s vibrancy and vitality about that and it’s measurable in a far different way than the box office.  It’s compelling, it holds you because of that.  I think it’s the most exciting medium in our lives.

In the very beginning of the interview, you talked about sensing the pattern to your career, looking back on it. The last question I’d like to ask is, when you’re looking at that pattern, what do you see?

At the heart of every movie, there is that central family.  Maybe it’s dysfunctional, or incomplete, or non-nuclear, but it’s that which binds people together with the kind of common thread we find in family.  There’s a kind of human yearning to be connected.  And if we don’t get it in the family, all hell breaks loose.  I think that yearning is universal, it’s timeless, it’s where we need to be, where we want to be… to be “at home.”  And yet we need to be independent.  And we are, some of us fiercely independent, and yet in that fierceness we recognize our own dependency.  I’m not sure that that isn’t a part of almost every movie I’ve made.  In fact, your question puts me in mind of another interview I had many years ago.  And perhaps your question gives me solace in the same way that question did two decades ago.  I never ever felt myself credentialed in this business.  I never felt I belonged; there were always others by whom I was awed.  Fay Kanin awes me.  I was awed by Norman, by Frank Schaffner, awed as I sat in his control room.  Literally in awe… it’s an awesome business in a way, isn’t it?  And so I was asked this question: Aren’t you really proud of this work?  Don’t you have a feeling of real pride in this?  And I started to tear up and I confessed, “Jack, I feel like a failed sociologist.”  It was just a revealing moment, for me as well as for him, and he took a long pause and let me have my little cry.  And he said, “Marian, these films that you have made, look at them.  Don’t you realize that you are a sociologist, working in the field?  That’s what you’re doing.”  And I never had those doubts again after that day.  That feeling was spent, and as a result, I looked at the work differently, and I answer your questions differently. I have a place in this industry.  No one is going to throw me out except myself. I’m comfortable with the movies that have succeeded, and I’m comfortable with who I am.  Looking back, I’m doing exactly what I should be doing and I’m at home. 

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