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Beating The Odds - A Leading Actor With Down Syndrome And First-Time Directors Guide 'The Peanut Butter Falcon' To Success

Posted By Tom Hymes, Thursday, February 6, 2020

The independently produced film The Peanut Butter Falcon was released last August and became a sleeper hit by the end of the year. It amassed box office receipts in excess of $20 million to become one of the most successful independent films of 2019. To say the movie’s journey from concept to screen was fraught with challenges is to define the state of most indie movies, if not all movies. But in this case the challenges—first-time writer-directors, a tight budget and shooting schedule, and a lead with Down syndrome—were so baked into the making of the film that they eventually came to explain, if not define, its success.

Making the movie was a transformative experience for Tim Zajaros of Armory Films and Albert Berger of Bona Fide Productions, two of six producers attached to the project, along with directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. Starring Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson, the movie’s titular character is played by Zack Gottsagen, a 30-something actor with Down syndrome, who is making his feature film debut. The screenplay was written specifically for Gottsagen.

“It all started with Zack,” recalls Zajaros. “The story of this film is that Tyler and Mike met Zack at an arts camp, while helping disabled actors and other people wanting to make films or art achieve their dreams. They learned he’d wanted to be an actor all his life, and they wrote this movie for him to star in.” That is the short version. The longer version tells the story of the special sauce that went into making The Peanut Butter Falcon.

“When Zack told the directors how he wanted to be a movie star, Mike and Tyler were honest with him at first,” explains Zajaros, who also has a cameo in the film. ‘We don't really have any connections,’ they told him, ‘and the reality is that it’s a tough business as it is, and the chances of somebody with Down syndrome ever getting the opportunity to be a lead in a movie is slim to none.’ Zack just sat for a second, thought about it and finally said, ‘Well, why don't you guys write it and direct it, and I’ll star in it?’ And being the great guys that they are, they just kind of looked at each other and said, ‘You know what, let’s do that.’”

That decision—as well as the decision to make a proof-of-concept short with Gottsagen in character—set the stage for everything to come, including cementing the directors to the project, along with their script and their star. It led to a production dynamic in which life and art would intertwine inextricably by creating a sense of community inseparable from the story itself.

“The sense of family on the set was on another level,” says Zajaros. “I mean, everybody. I don't even know where you start with the credit. With the script, I suppose, because that’s what brought us all together … and Zack. Every shooting day we would all go to dinner, cast included. There would be 10 or 12 of us, and that just doesn’t happen.”

Directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz confer on a shot on the set of The Peanut Butter Falcon
-photograph by Seth F. Johnson

The script itself incorporated elements from Gottsagen’s life, including his interest in wrestling, his passionate desire to do what he wants to do and his frustrations at any limitations imposed on him because of his disability. The movie is an adventure story featuring a young man with Down syndrome who runs away from the nursing home where he lives to chase his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. A small-town outlaw, played by LaBeouf, becomes his unlikely coach and ally. Johnson’s character, a kind nursing home employee with a story of her own, joins them on their journey. Their Huckleberry Finn-like adventure involves a raft with a pole and achingly gorgeous vistas representing the Outer Banks of Northern Carolina, although the movie was actually shot around Savannah, Georgia. A bevy of veteran character actors, including Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church and John Hawkes, anchor the film.

According to Berger, it was a spirit of generosity unique to this project that allowed the producers to stretch their modest $6 million budget to include such a stellar cast and uber-competent crew. In fact, it was the commitment of one cast member in particular that really made the difference. “Shia was a producer’s best friend on this movie because he did it for love. He did not do it for money,” explains Berger. “It allowed us to make deals with everybody else. That’s why you have the cast you have, because normally a guy like Shia would eat up all the money for the movie. But he didn’t. He did it for love, and then he had such a commitment throughout the whole movie.” Zajaros adds, “It was also because his commitment to Zack is real.”

Indeed, as explained by the producers, Gottsagen’s enthusiasm and honesty were in many ways the glue that bound everyone to the project and made the working atmosphere unlike any they had experienced before. For LaBeouf, his relationship with Gottsagen is there on the screen for all to see and appreciate. Without that bond, the movie would simply not work, and out of it came screen moments of unusual and quiet intensity.

“Shia is like an on-the-field coach in a way,” says Berger. “So you had Mike and Tyler, who knew Zack inside out and wrote this for him and had a real rapport with him, and then you had Shia right there, kind of reacting to whatever Zack would do and helping that process. Dakota also had a very strong relationship with Zack, so it formed a strong core.” Working with the actors required special patience, he adds. “Zack does not say the same thing the same way twice exactly, and neither does Shia, in a very different way. You have an actor like Shia who is all about honesty and finding it in the moment, and you have Zack.” Zajaros points out the combination is powerful, explaining, “Shia had a great partner in Zack because Zack isn’t anything but truth.”

The connection extended off the set as well. “Shia had an episode where he had something that kind of turned his whole life around on this movie,” says Berger. “There was a scene where he was supposed to drink, and he drank, and it carried on into the evening, and he ended up in jail. Out of that—and it’s been very well reported—came his whole dynamic with Zack and the disappointment Zack felt and how much he was depending on Shia. I think that not only turned Shia’s life around but resulted in Honey Boy. “It’s brilliant,” Berger says of LeBeouf’s performance in Honey Boy, “and I would say the only other thing that rivals it is his performance in our movie. I mean, these are monumental back-to-back performances.” 

Producer Tim Zajaros (pointing) of Armory Films on set.
-Photo by Seth F. Johnson

Producer Albert Berger of Bona Fide Productions with Zack Gottsagen,
star of
The Peanut Butter Falcon
-Photo by David Thies

Overcoming challenges was the story of this movie’s journey, because nothing about getting it from A to Z was easy. “We thought the movie was great and we believed in it, but we could not find a festival to take it,” says Berger. “We could not find a distributor to distribute it. And finally, after getting turned down by all the major festivals, we got into South by Southwest, where we won the Audience Award. Out of that festival, we were able to engage with a great distributor, Roadside Entertainment, but still Chris [Lemole] and Tim [Zajaros] and their company, Armory Films, supplied a lot of the money to release the film. Because of them, this movie could be everything it needed to be.” It was, adds Zajaros, an “extraordinarily hard shoot.”         

“I worked harder on this than I have on maybe any other movie, and everybody says the same,” concurs Berger. “It’s important for the PGA audience to understand this because the PGA does a great job in determining who should get credit and who actually did the work as producers. But it’s very important to also understand that sometimes it takes a group and sometimes that entire group contributes. And when that happens, everybody needs to be recognized.”

Continuing an industry trend, several production companies were attached to the Peanut Butter project, raising the question of how so many people with different ideas about what a film should be can come together to agree on a strong singular vision.

“This [subject] is very important to me, because sometimes Ron [Yerxa] and I are the only producers on a movie,” says Berger, whose credits number around 30 and include Cold Mountain, Little Miss Sunshine and Nebraska. “And sometimes you’re brought together with this new group, and you’ve got to figure it out as you go. Somebody at the PGA screening said, ‘How is it possible that six people all have the PGA mark?’ The simple fact is that if everybody is there for the right reason, and you put your ego aside, you figure out a way to work together where everybody functions to the best of their capability. They don’t jump out of their lane, and they figure out what’s best for the movie. That happened on Little Miss Sunshine and it happened on this one. I think it’s very important that people figure out how to work together in the best interests of the movie, and I’m very proud that our group was able to figure that out.”

“I agree,” responds Zajaros, whose 16 producing credits include Mudbound and Arctic. “It was film first for everybody. Egos were thrown out the door. Sure, I’ve been on movies where people have producer credits, but really didn’t do much and maybe shouldn’t have gotten that credit. But literally every producer on this movie brought something very important to the shoot.”

In the end, the filmmakers expressed a deep satisfaction with the experience of making this movie, combined with a slightly bittersweet sense of what could have been. “It’s run its course,” Berger says of the film’s theatrical run, which topped out at about 1,600 screens. “Now the DVD is on iTunes, and it’s really got a great life. Of course, the difference between now and when Little Miss Sunshine was made [in 2006] is that it’s much harder to get people into the theater, particularly for an independent film. People will go to the theater to see Batman, they’ll go to see Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, they’ll go to see the Marvel movie, but now streaming has taken over the whole province of film.

You know,” he adds after a moment’s thought, “Roadside did a magnificent job with this movie, but you have to wonder, if a big studio had really gotten behind it, the opportunities would have been limitless. This movie connects with people, and when a movie connects with people it doesn’t matter if it’s a $100 million Marvel movie or a $4 or $5 million movie.”

For Zajaros, producing the film brought many exhilarating moments that he savors. “The feeling I got from this movie—and I don’t want this to sound arrogant because it was our movie—but it’s why I got in the business. There are not that many movies that make me feel like that anymore.”

The word-of-mouth hit continues to soar. Gottsagen received the Rising Star Award at the 2020 Palm Springs International Film Festival. He was also the subject of a December Los Angeles Times profile with the headline, “Zack Gottsagen has Down syndrome. And a movie role. And a best bud named Shia LaBeouf.” This momentum is not lost on the producers, whose hope is that the buoyant flight of The Peanut Butter Falcon is a sign that Hollywood is serious about embracing diversity in front of and behind the camera.

“Storytelling is coming back, and what is changing now is new voices and diversity and people being able to finally tell their own story,” says Berger. “I think we are to some degree participating in that because of Zack and because Mike and Tyler saw this opportunity to work with him to tell a story that he would be comfortable with and would be able to deliver on, and I think the next frontier is Zack telling his own stories. That’s where it really starts to get exciting.”


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Producers Guild Awards Winners and First-Ever Red Carpet Live Stream

Posted By Administration, Friday, January 17, 2020

The 31st annual Producers Guild Awards take place January 18, 2020 at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles, CA.  One of the awards season's marquee events, the Producers Guild Awards celebrates the fine producing work of the year, and gives the Guild an opportunity to honor some of the living legends who have shaped our profession.  In addition to the competitive categories the Guild will present special honors to powerhouse producers and leaders who have left their indelible mark on the entertainment industry. The 2020 honorees include Ted Sarandos (Milestone Award); Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner of Plan B (David O. Selznick Achievement Award in Theatrical Motion Pictures); Marta Kauffman (Norman Lear Achievement Award in Television); Octavia Spencer (Visionary Award); and the Lionsgate film Bombshell (The Stanley Kramer Award).

Throughout the night, the winners will be updated below in bold.  You can also follow the action on social media with #PGAAwards.  

The 2020 Producers Guild Awards also marks the first-ever live stream of the red carpet.  You can watch the live stream starting at 6:30pm exclusively on Entertainment Tonight's youtube channel:



 

The Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures

      1917

      Producers: Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris, Jayne‐Ann Tenggren, Callum McDougall

      Ford v Ferrari

      Producers: Peter Chernin & Jenno Topping, James Mangold

      The Irishman

      Producers: Jane Rosenthal & Robert De Niro, Emma Tillinger Koskoff & Martin Scorsese

      Jojo Rabbit

      Producers: Carthew Neal, Taika Waititi, Chelsea Winstanley

      Joker

      Producers: Todd Phillips & Bradley Cooper, Emma Tillinger Koskoff

      Knives Out

      Producers: Rian Johnson, Ram Bergman

      Little Women

      Producer: Amy Pascal

      Marriage Story

      Producers: Noah Baumbach, David Heyman

      Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood

      Producers: David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh, Quentin Tarantino

      Parasite

      Producers: Kwak Sin Ae, Bong Joon Ho

 

The Award for Outstanding Producer of Animated Theatrical Motion Pictures

      Abominable

      Producer: Suzanne Buirgy

      Frozen II

      Producer: Peter Del Vecho

      How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

      Producers: Bradford Lewis, Bonnie Arnold

      Missing Link

      Producers: Arianne Sutner, Travis Knight

      Toy Story 4

      Producers: Mark Nielsen, Jonas Rivera

 

The Norman Felton Award for Outstanding Producer of Episodic Television - Drama

      Big Little Lies (Season 2)

      Producers: David E. Kelley, Jean‐Marc Vallée, Andrea Arnold, Reese Witherspoon, Bruna Papandrea, Nicole Kidman, Per Saari, Gregg Fienberg, Nathan Ross, David Auge, Lauren Neustadter, Liane Moriarty

      The Crown (Season 3)

      Producers: Peter Morgan, Suzanne Mackie, Stephen Daldry, Andy Harries, Benjamin Caron, Matthew Byam Shaw, Robert Fox, Michael Casey, Andy Stebbing, Martin Harrison, Oona O Beirn

      Game of Thrones (Season 8)

      Producers: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, Carolyn Strauss, Bernadette Caulfield, Frank Doelger, David Nutter, Miguel Sapochnik, Bryan Cogman, Chris Newman, Greg Spence, Lisa McAtackney, Duncan Muggoch

      Succession (Season 2)

      Producers: Jesse Armstrong, Adam McKay, Will Ferrell, Frank Rich, Kevin Messick, Mark Mylod, Jane Tranter, Tony Roche, Scott Ferguson, Jon Brown, Georgia Pritchett, Will Tracy, Jonathan Glatzer, Dara Schnapper, Gabrielle Mahon, Lucy Prebble

      Watchmen (Season 1)

      Producers:Damon Lindelof, Tom Spezialy, Nicole Kassell, Stephen Williams, Joseph E. Iberti, Ron Schmidt, Lila Byock, Nick Cuse, Christal Henry, Karen Wacker, John Blair, Carly Wray

 

The Danny Thomas Award for Outstanding Producer of Episodic Television - Comedy

      Barry (Season 2)

      Producers: Alec Berg, Bill Hader, Aida Rodgers, Liz Sarnoff, Emily Heller, Julie Camino, Jason Kim

      Fleabag (Season 2)

      Producers: Phoebe Waller‐Bridge, Harry Bradbeer, Lydia Hampson, Harry Williams, Jack Williams, Joe Lewis, Sarah Hammond

      The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Season 3)

      Producers: Amy Sherman‐Palladino, Daniel Palladino, Dhana Gilbert, Matthew Shapiro, Daniel Goldfarb, Kate Fodor, Sono Patel

      Schitt’s Creek (Season 5)

      Producers: Eugene Levy, Daniel Levy, Andrew Barnsley, Fred Levy, David West Read, Ben Feigin, Michael Short, Rupinder Gill, Colin Brunton

      Veep (Season 7)

      Producers: David Mandel, Frank Rich, Julia Louis‐Dreyfus, Lew Morton, Morgan Sackett, Peter Huyck, Alex Gregory, Jennifer Crittenden, Gabrielle Allan, Billy Kimball, Rachel Axler, Ted Cohen, Ian Maxtone‐Graham, Dan O'Keefe, Steve Hely, David Hyman, Georgia Pritchett, Erik Kenward, Dan Mintz, Doug Smith

 

The David L. Wolper Award for Outstanding Producer of Limited Series Television

      Chernobyl

      Producers: Craig Mazin, Carolyn Strauss, Jane Featherstone, Johan Renck, Chris Fry, Sanne Wohlenberg

      Fosse/Verdon

      Producers: Thomas Kail, Steven Levenson, Lin‐Manuel Miranda, Joel Fields, George Stelzner, Sam Rockwell, Michelle Williams, Tracey Scott Wilson, Charlotte Stoudt, Nicole Fosse, Erica Kay, Kate Sullivan, Brad Carpenter

      True Detective

      Producers:  Nic Pizzolatto, Scott Stephens, Daniel Sackheim, Peter Feldman, Steve Golin, Bard Dorros

      Unbelievable

      Producers:  Susannah Grant, Sarah Timberman, Carl Beverly, Lisa Cholodenko, Ayelet Waldman, Michael Chabon, Katie Couric, Jennifer Schuur, Becky Mode, John Vohlers, Kate DiMento, Chris Leanza

      When They See Us

      Producers: Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro, Berry Welsh, Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay, Amy Kaufman, Robin Swicord

 

The Award for Outstanding Producer of Televised or Streamed Motion Pictures

      American Son

      Producers: Kenny Leon, Kerry Washington, Pilar Savone, Kristin Bernstein

      Apollo: Missions to the Moon

      Producers:  Tom Jennings, David Tillman, Abe Scheuermann, Chris Morcom, Rob Kirk

      Black Mirror: Striking Vipers

      Producers:  Annabel Jones, Charlie Brooker, Kate Glover

      Deadwood: The Movie

      Producers: David Milch, Carolyn Strauss, Gregg Fienberg, Scott Stephens, Daniel Minahan, Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, Regina Corrado, Nichole Beattie, Mark Tobey

      El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

      Producers:  Mark Johnson, Melissa Bernstein, Charles Newirth, Vince Gilligan, Aaron Paul, Diane Mercer

 

The Award for Outstanding Producer of Non-Fiction Television

      30 for 30 (Season 10)

      Producers: Libby Geist, Connor Schell, John Dahl, Rob King, Erin Leyden, Gentry Kirby, Deidre Fenton, Marquis Daisy, Jenna Anthony, Adam Neuhaus

      60 Minutes (Season 51, Season 52)

      Producer: Bill Owens

      Leaving Neverland

      Producer: Dan Reed

      Queer Eye (Season 3, Season 4)

      Producers: David Collins, Michael Williams, Rob Eric, Jennifer Lane, Jordana Hochman, Rachelle Mendez, Mark Bracero

      Surviving R. Kelly (Season 1)

      Producers:  Joel Karsberg, dream hampton, Jesse Daniels, Tamra Simmons, Brie Miranda Bryant, Jessica Everleth, Mary Bissell, Maria Pepin, Charlotte Glover, Allison Brandin, Laura Hoeppner

 

The Award for Outstanding Producer of Live Entertainment & Talk Television

      The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (Season 25)

      Producers:  Trevor Noah, Jennifer Flanz, Jill Katz, Justin Melkmann, Zhubin Parang, Jocelyn Conn, Max Browning, Eric Davies, Pamela DePace, Ramin Hedayati, David Kibuuka, Elise Terrell, Dave Blog, Adam Chodikoff, Jimmy Donn, Jeff Gussow, Kira Klang Hopf, Allison MacDonald, Ryan Middleton

      Dave Chappelle: Sticks & Stones

      Producers:  Dave Chappelle, Stan Lathan, Rikki Hughes, Sina Sadighi

      Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Season 6)

      Producers:  John Oliver, Tim Carvell, Liz Stanton, Jeremy Tchaban, Christopher Werner, Laura L. Griffin, Kate Mullaney, Matt Passet, Marian Wang, Charles Wilson

      The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (Season 5)

      Producers:  Stephen Colbert, Chris Licht, Tom Purcell, Jon Stewart, Barry Julien, Denise Rehrig, Tanya Michnevich Bracco, Paul Dinello, Matt Lappin, Opus Moreschi, Emily Gertler, Michael Brumm, Bjoern Stejskal, Paige Kendig, Jake Plunkett, Aaron Cohen, Sara Vilkomerson, Adam Wager

      Saturday Night Live (Season 45)

      Producers:  Lorne Michaels, Steve Higgins, Erik Kenward, Lindsay Shookus, Erin Doyle, Tom Broecker, Ken Aymong

 

The Award for Outstanding Producer of Game & Competition Television

      The Amazing Race (Season 31)

      Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Bertram van Munster, Jonathan Littman, Elise Doganieri, Mark Vertullo, Phil Keoghan

      The Masked Singer (Season 1)

      Producers: Craig Plestis, Izzie Pick Ibarra, Nikki Varhely-Gillingham, Rosie Seitchik, Stacey Thomas-Muir, Nick Cannon, Ashley Sylvester, Lindsay Tuggle, Pete Cooksley, Chelsea Candelaria, Anne Chanthavong, Zoë Ritchken, Deena Katz, Erin Brady, Jeff Kmiotek, Lexi Shoemaker

      RuPaul’s Drag Race (Season 11)

      Producers: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato, Tom Campbell, Mandy Salangsang, RuPaul Charles, Steven Corfe, Bruce McCoy, Michele Mills, Jacqueline Wilson, Thairin Smothers, John Polly, Michelle Visage, Jen Passovoy

      Top Chef (Season 16)

      Producers: Dan Cutforth, Jane Lipsitz, Doneen Arquines, Casey Kriley, Tara Siener, Justin Rae Barnes, Blake Davis, Patrick Schmedeman, Wade Sheeler, Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Elida Carbajal Araiza, Brian Fowler, Caitlin Rademaekers, Steve Lichtenstein, Emily Van Bergen

      The Voice (Season 16, Season 17)

      Producers: John de Mol, Mark Burnett, Audrey Morrissey, Stijn Bakkers, Amanda Zucker, Kyra Thompson, Teddy Valenti, Kyley Tucker, Carson Daly

 

The Award for Outstanding Producer of Documentary Motion Picture

●      Advocate

○      Producers: Philippe Bellaiche, Rachel Leah Jones

●      American Factory

○      Producers: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert, Jeff Reichert

●      Apollo 11

○      Producers: Todd Douglas Miller, Thomas Petersen

●      The Cave

○      Producers: Kirstine Barfod, Sigrid Dyekjaer

●      For Sama

○      Producers: Waas al-Kateab

●      Honeyland

○      Producers: Atanas Georgiev, Ljubomir Stefanov

●     One Child Nation

○      Producers: Christoph Jörg, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn, Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhan

 

 The following winners were awarded in the previous weeks:

 

The Award for Outstanding Short-Form Program

      Billy on the Street with Billy Eichner

      Born This Way (S5)

      Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (S11)

      Creating Saturday Night Live (S3)

      Under a Rock with Tig Notaro (S1)

 

The Award for Outstanding Sports Program

      Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Oakland Raiders (S14)

      Lindsey Vonn: The Final Season

      Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel (S25)

      SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt (S5)

      What's My Name | Muhammad Ali

 

The Award for Outstanding Children's Program

      Carmen Sandiego (S1, S2)

      Green Eggs and Ham (S1)

      Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (S1)

      A Series of Unfortunate Events (S3)

      Sesame Street (S49)


The PGA Innovation Award

      20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: An Interactive Adventure

      Artificial

      Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

      Bonfire

      Cosmos Within Us

      Eleven Eleven

      First Man VR

      How to Train Your Dragon: Fly with Toothless VR

      How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World Virtual Tour

      Interactive Play at Sesame Street Land, SeaWorld, Orlando

      Mesmerica

      Tree VR

      Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series - Episode I

      You vs. Wild

 

Suzanne Todd is the Executive Producer of the 2020 Producers Guild Awards. Sponsors include: Chevrolet, Official Automotive Partner; Delta, Official Airline Partner and sponsor of the Visionary Award; GreenSlate, PGA annual partner and Cocktail Reception sponsor; and William Grant & Sons spirits.


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Beyond 'Blood Diamond' - How Social Impact Campaigns Add Lasting Value To Productions

Posted By Bonnie Abaunza, Thursday, January 16, 2020

The civil war in Sierra Leone began in 1991 and lasted 11 years. It claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people. When it began, diamonds mined in the strongholds controlled by a rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front, were sold to finance the war effort or traded for weapons and military training. Journalists and human rights activists on the ground raised the alarm and alerted the international community about the sale of these “conflict diamonds,” or “blood diamonds,” as they came to be known. But it wasn’t until the 2006 feature film, Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, that the public learned the term and the role that diamonds played in the devastating civil war.

The film’s impact campaign, spearheaded by Global Witness and Amnesty International, helped to educate the global community about blood diamonds, as well as the Kimberley Process used to certify conflict-free diamonds, the complicit role of some international jewelry companies, and the specific actions that individuals could take to be responsible, conscious consumers of diamonds. Global Witness and Amnesty International mobilized their members to spread the word about the film.

Thirteen years after the movie’s release, jewelers still promote to customers that their diamonds are certified conflict-free. Like blood diamonds, the terms blood minerals, blood chocolate and blood gold are now also part of the progressive vernacular, in large part due to the film and impact campaign. Blood Diamond has been integrated into the curricula in high schools and college courses, and is referenced by organizations in international human rights legal cases. Numerous other documentaries focusing on conflict minerals and gold have modeled their social impact campaigns after Blood Diamond.

 

The Value of Social Impact Campaigns

In the most widely used structure of social impact campaigns, organizations partner with studios and filmmakers on projects that can be mutually beneficial: the films help raise awareness with the theatergoing public about the issues these organizations confront, and in turn, organizations help mobilize their millions of members to support the film during its theatrical release. The NGOs also provide a “seal of approval” about the film’s accuracy and help generate stories in both mainstream and nontraditional press about the film partnership. The same model of cooperation has been used for documentaries, TV series, streaming and other media.

When Jeff Skoll started Participant Media as a company with the double mission of producing socially relevant films that also had impact campaigns, the company set a high bar and firmly established the landscape of social impact entertainment. Campaigns for films and documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth, FOOD, Inc., and most recently, Roma, helped drive audiences to theaters and inspired people to take actions that led to tangible changes.

Some films have had lasting social impact long after theatrical release or broadcast and are still being used by organizations, educational institutions and community-based groups. An Inconvenient Truth continues to energize people to engage on the issue of climate change, Blackfish assisted the animal rights movement in compelling Sea World to end its captive orca breeding program and phase out its orca shows, and Super Size Me and FOOD, Inc. led to changes in the fast-food industry. The documentary The Hunting Ground continues to be screened by colleges as part of their Title IX commitments to combatting campus sexual assaults. The music video for the Oscar-nominated song “Til It Happens to You,” written by Diane Warren and Lady Gaga, was an initiative of the film’s social impact campaign. It has been viewed more than 47 million times, and the Sexual Assault Hotline number included at the end of the video resulted in an increase of 34% in calls during the first 48 hours after the video premiered. The music video is still being viewed, and survivors of sexual assault continue to call the hotline.

 

Developing and Executing Impact Campaigns

Social impact campaigns bring together filmmakers, production companies and distributors with nonprofit organizations, think tanks and foundations. Collaboration is vital from the beginning. It is also critically important to define initiatives, metrics and goals in partnership with the people doing the work on the ground, on the policy side, and in agencies that have the power to effect change. Working with organizations helps filmmakers analyze issues from different perspectives. NGOs have credible experts who understand the complexity of the issues in the films and provide valuable insights.

Building a strong coalition behind a movie takes time, partly because securing NGO support requires many levels of approval. This is one reason why it is essential to give social impact campaigns a long runway. It allows the impact campaign team to see the film far enough in advance to start partner outreach, develop a strategy with initiatives and goals, and execute the campaign.

In terms of budgets, a social impact campaign for a studio feature film averages around $300,000; documentaries and independent films between $75,000, and $150,000, depending on length of campaign (6–18 months), number of initiatives, and domestic and international events. Filmmakers and distributors should consider the fact that campaigns can bring numerous additional benefits to a film’s release and can create value long past theatrical and into other platforms.

American Factory directors/producers Steven Bogner and Julie Reichert with President and Mrs. Obama

 

Delivering the Message

Filmmakers sometimes express concern that an impact campaign will politicize their film or will cause the public to perceive the film as a “message” movie that will lecture rather than entertain. In general, documentaries lend themselves to hard-hitting messages while some feature films benefit from a more nuanced “Trojan horse” approach to implementing a campaign. In both cases, the campaigns should complement the marketing and advertising for the film, and should be aligned with the goal of driving box office attendance or drawing viewers to broadcasts or streaming services. The organizations and groups supporting the impact campaigns are a built-in audience that can be mobilized to turn out for the films and to be active partners in promoting them through social media.

 

Current Campaigns

Two critically acclaimed Netflix documentaries have robust campaigns in progress:  Knock Down the House and American Factory.

Knock Down the House, produced by PGA members Regina K. Scully and Stephanie Soechtig, follows four extraordinary women—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin—as they take on the congressional establishment by mounting grassroots campaigns and building a movement during a time of historic volatility in American politics. Knock Down the House’s campaign focuses on the importance of civic engagement, voting, and inspiring young girls and women to pursue elected office.

The outreach initiative has formed partnerships and alliances with a broad base of nonpartisan organizations, community groups and schools. To date, there have been 400-plus high school, college and community-based screenings, and more than 40 nongovernmental organizations are supporting and promoting the documentary.

American Factory, presented by Higher Ground Productions and Participant Media, is the first title from President and Mrs. Obama’s production company. It documents the revitalization of a factory in Dayton, Ohio, and provides a startling glimpse into the global economic realignment playing out in cities across the country and the world. The documentary serves as the launching pad for a national campaign to seed a conversation around the dignity of work, bring visibility to the fractured compact between workers and employers, and build support for a future of work that benefits everyone.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and students from the documentary Knock Down the House

Its social impact campaign include a national tour with film screenings in communities across the country. The tour kicked off in Louisville and will continue on to Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Boston, Detroit and Seattle. Experts from the AFL-CIO, New America, and Working America have partnered to create discussion guides and an impact tool kit. Screenings are also being self-organized by individuals and groups in 35 states across the U.S., Italy, Luxembourg and Puerto Rico.

Knock Down the House and America Factory are resonating with a wide variety of organizations and people who are taking action through the impact campaigns. Judging by the engagement metrics, both films are poised to have short- and long-term impact.

This past spring, The UCLA Skoll Center published its landmark report The State of Social Impact Entertainment that maps this landscape, examines frameworks for evaluation, establishes best practices and highlights key issues in the field. With contributions from studio executives, distributors, filmmakers, impact campaign producers and others analyzing the campaigns of narrative and documentary films, television, theater and emerging forms, the report finds that “the financial and critical success of social impact entertainment proves that audiences have a real hunger for stories that entertain, engage and inspire.”


- Photos courtesy of Netflix



Bonnie Abaunza has been an impact campaign producer for 20 years. She is founder of the Abaunza Group, which develops and executes campaigns to help films move the needle on critical social, political and cultural issues. 

 

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Once Upon A Film Fan - Bill Hader Sets His Sights on Story

Posted By Katie Grant, Friday, January 10, 2020

The Jaws T-shirt was a clear giveaway when Bill Hader showed up to work as a PA in the early 2000s on sets like The Scorpion King, Collateral Damage and Critical Mass. A giveaway that he is, was, and always will be a film nerd. Since those days, the former SNL cast member has earned more distinguished titles, such as multiple Emmy winner (for acting and producing), DGA winner, WGA winner, showrunner and producer. Most importantly, Bill Hader can now finally call himself a filmmaker. Well, as he puts it, he can do that—but only when he’s “alone in the shower.”

Hader headed to LA from Tulsa with the singular goal of making movies. “I just want to see how these things are made,” he remembers thinking. That spirit of curiosity and humility, still very present, made way for Hader’s climbing success. After all, he never meant to be in front of the camera. He ended up on SNL purely by chance when Megan Mullally saw him in a backyard performance with his four-man improv troupe—which he landed in because he simply wanted something to do, something creative. Mullally called Lorne Michaels, Hader auditioned, and the rest is history.

Hader started making his own films as a teen chasing his willing sisters through the woods with a camera for action scenes. Without an editing system, he would try to cut his work between VCRs but mostly edited in camera on the VHS format. The positive feedback he got from a high school teacher who said, “You’re really good,” combined with the creative high he felt, kept Hader going and fed his drive to make movies.

True to form, Hader can’t help but use a film reference to explain how he sees producing: “Well, it’s kind of like Lee Marvin’s character [Major Reisman] in The Dirty Dozen. He pretty much puts everyone together. He’s the person that says, ‘We need an explosives guy. We need this. We need that. We need this so we can pull that thing off.’ And sometimes the filmmaker, the producer, will oversee that aspect.”

Currently as co-creator, co-executive producer, writer, director and star of Barry (HBO), Hader tries to think like a producer, but admits that after all his years in the business, it’s “instinctual. That’s the hardest thing about all this. You have to have the experience in order to get the experience. You have to kind of win the lottery.”

Bill Hader on the set of Barry 

And win the lottery he did. Landing SNL gave Hader the ability to reach out and meet, or better yet, work with, artists he looks up to. As a big Pixar fan, Hader asked to collaborate with their visionaries and Pete Docter, in particular. That turned into a writing credit on Inside Out, the Oscar-winning animated feature on which he played the voice of Fear. He was actually asked to play Fear after recording a temporary voice track for the animators to work with that featured all the characters. Speaking in that voice of Fear, Hader has become an unofficial and very vocal spokesperson for anxiety, citing the terror he experienced working on live TV for SNL.

Hader also worked with the writers of South Park, aiming to hone his story structure. That stint became his first producing credit and his first Emmy win. If working as a PA taught Hader how to run a crew properly, SNL showed him how to produce his own work, suggesting costumes, makeup and basic set pieces for the sketches he wrote. And then South Park let him see that producing stories is really about finding the emotional heart of the piece rather than a three-act story structure or the hero’s journey.

“I used to think it was that stuff. And it's not. What I learned at South Park is you follow the emotion and have a logic. And I think that's why Alec [Berg] and I write really well together. I’m like almost all emotion and he's almost all logic.”

Berg is Barry’s co-creator and co-EP whom their mutual agent paired Hader with in hopes they’d nail an idea for Hader’s HBO deal. They happened upon the premise of a hit man, which Berg famously did not like at first. But once Hader explained that it would be him, not the slick, skinny-tie-wearing idea of a hit man we usually see, they were off and running—straight to an acting class for research. And therein lies the brilliance of Barry, because placing a hit man with PTSD from his military years in an acting class so he can get in touch with his emotions is unexpected, interesting, dramatic and funny.

That acting class was taught by Howie Deutch—famous for directing films like Pretty in Pink and Grumpier Old Men—at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. Hader had plenty of experience in improv classes but not acting classes, which are a whole different animal. Between Deutch’s consulting on the first season and a cast full of actors playing actors with decades of class time between them—not to mention Henry Winkler, who studied with the famed acting teacher, Stella Adler—the show is so true to form that it adds to Barry’s already disturbing nature. And that combo of Hader and Berg playing off the right and left sides of their respective brains is, literally, a winning one. Sixteen awards later, the team is currently working on season 3 of Barry.

Hader, Stephen Root and Barry co-creator Alec Berg

Hader learned on the job how to make hard production calls like the one he cites from Barry season 2’s final day of shooting. They were slated to film a big shoot-out scene on location as well as a three-page monologue for Stephen Root’s character, Fuches, Barry’s crime boss. But it was raining, so sound was an issue. The suggested plan was to do the shoot-out, wait on the rain and do the monologue, hoping to make it in between storms. Hader said, “I don’t want to do that to Stephen because he’ll be in his head going, ‘I have to nail this. I have to get it right.’”

Hader made the costly decision to bring the entire crew back for a half day at the end of the week when it wasn’t supposed to rain. He says he was met with an “awful, dead silence. That was a big one where I felt like I dropped a bomb and then walked away. It was really for the actor… I didn’t want him trying to give a long monologue, and then instead of listening to him, we’re looking at the sky.”

Hader credits keeping it simple and taking things one day at a time for getting through days like that. “It’s kind of the mountain climber thing where they have to look right in front of them. It they look at the top, they’ll just freak out. So you have to look in front of you and not see how much longer you have to shoot.”

Besides Barry season 3, next up for Hader is a feature film called Henchmen that he wrote with four other people. It’s about “two guys who learn they are henchmen for a bad guy.” He also continues to contribute as a writer, producer and performer to the Emmy-nominated Documentary Now!, a farcical mockumentary series he created with Fred Armisen, Seth Myers and Rhys Thomas for IFC. “Documentary Now! is like an ultimate collaboration between people who have their own shows. Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, those two guys make that show happen. We make the jokes and stuff and talk about the recipe basically. But they have to go and make it. So I give them most of the credit for that show.”

Hader is also a dad helping raise three girls and, when asked to compare parenting and producing, he offers, “I think people just like feeling heard. You try to do things with as much respect as you can and hear people as much as you can, even if you think you know the answer to something. The flip side is if you’re too nice, people feel like they can take advantage of you. So you have to just be nice but really honest and no bullshit. And that might involve saying, ‘This isn’t working.’”

Hader’s advice for up-and-coming fellow film nerds is simply to fail. “The big thing for me was failing and learning from failure. When I was coming up, it was so expensive to make something and make it on a professional level, but now you can do it with your phone. So you don’t really have an excuse.

Henry Winkler with Hader in season 2 episode

“I think the thing that holds people back is fear of failing. They get nervous and I just would make it, see what happens and learn. If it comes from your life, then it’s easier to write because you know how you felt. Everyone starts off copying the stuff that they like. You do that for a while and then slowly, you start to know what you like, and you start just being honest in your storytelling.”

Honest stories, Hader says, must include both the dark and lighter sides of life. “Life is like that if you’re open to it. You have bright moments and terrible moments and that’s just how it works. So when you don’t have that, it feels weird. I always feel like when something’s too light, I kind of roll my eyes at it. Or if something is too serious, I roll my eyes at it.”

Casting Barry was another exercise in authenticity for Hader. He says Anthony Carrigan won the part of NoHo Hank because of the way Carrigan listened in the audition. “Sometimes people like to cut out the listening and I like to watch it. I like seeing the thought enter someone’s head. I love just sitting and watching someone behave.”

One of Barry’s casting directors, Sherry Thomas, was hired partially because she, like Hader, happened to have Winkler on her short list to play acting teacher Gene Cousineau. She came in to the interview with that list, admitting presumption, but that bold move was a sign to Hader they were on the same page.

It was a show that, by the way, Hader couldn’t believe anyone was actually watching until Barry got 13 Emmy nominations for the first season. Those accolades won’t keep him from working hard, though. Even when he’s called a “TV auteur” by the press, Hader offers, “It’s nice, but you can’t look at yourself that way. It doesn’t make you better at your job. You’ve got to just keep trying to get better.”

What he’s improving on now is point of view. As an 8-year-old boy, watching classic films with his dad, Hader realized he “was always moved by scenes that had a very strong point of view, like the scene in Taxi Driver when DeNiro’s on the phone with Cybil Shepherd after their disastrous date, and while he’s talking to her, the camera just kind of dollies off of him. It’s almost like the movie can’t watch what’s happening.”

On Barry, holding to that point of view gets harder with all the hats Hader wears. “You have to do it all as one job. You’re telling a story, then you get out of the way of it and then everything else, the acting and directing, it’s all just enhancing that point of view, that story. Every aspect of filmmaking is to harness that and to try to foster it or get out of the way of it.” Judging by his work, Bill Hader is one film nerd-turned-filmmaker who’s mastering that process.


-photos courtesy of Isabella Vosmikova/HBO

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MARTA KAUFFMAN - The Wildly Successful Producer Makes TV History, Creating Seminal Series and Iconic Characters

Posted By Peggy Jo Abraham, Monday, January 6, 2020

Producer and writer Marta Kauffman attributes the success of her mega-hit Friends and her current Netflix favorite Grace and Frankie to the fact that the shows are comfortable, exude warmth and are easy to relate to. Upon meeting Kauffman for the first time, one immediately realizes these are the same characteristics you could use to describe her. Although Kauffman says her days shooting all 16 episodes at once for the final season of Grace and Frankie is a bit like “being on a hamster wheel,” she appears calm and organized.

When asked what she would be doing if she weren’t in the entertainment industry, Kauffman says she would have probably been a teacher or a veterinarian—interesting choices, especially given the paths her three children are on. Her oldest daughter is not only a producer in Marta’s production company, but Kauffman says she was actually the one to come up with the original premise for Grace and Frankie: two women who don’t really like each other whose husbands end up getting married. Her son is a composer for the show, and her youngest daughter is an equine studies major. It’s clear the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

What is also clear is that Kauffman is grateful for her success. Hers has been a career predicated on the philosophy that it’s important to only pour your heart into projects you feel passionate about. That dedication has resulted in seminal series and iconic characters that will forever be part of television history. It is why the PGA is so proud to name Kauffman the recipient of the 2020 Norman Lear Award, the Guild’s highest honor for TV producers. “I am deeply honored to receive this award from my peers at the PGA, particularly as it's named for a legendary producer who has impacted my career from the beginning,” says Kauffman. “Thank you to the Producers Guild for this meaningful recognition.”

It is truly our pleasure, Marta.


 

Marta Kauffman directs Lily Tomlin on the set of Grace and Frankie

I want to start with the fact that you created you production company, Okay Goodnight!, well before the “Me Too” movement, and it’s an all-female company. What were some important factors that went into that decision?

Well, I’ve always been a feminist. And having a company that tells women’s stories was not only intriguing to me but felt necessary because women’s stories aren’t told as often as men’s stories are. When my company started, we pitched an idea that had a female lead for a film and the man we met with said to us, “Unless it’s Meryl Streep or Sandra Bullock, it’s not getting made.” So that just made me mad and I thought, “All right, I’m going to take that one on.”

 

In terms of parity with men, where do you think women are now in the entertainment industry?

I think it’s much better. There are more women, more opportunities, more writers’ rooms that have a good percentage of women in them. There are more female showrunners and more female producers. Where I think we run into some problems is on all the roles that used to be considered secretarial, like the script supervisor and the coordinator. They work as long of hours as anybody else and work harder than anybody I know, yet they don’t get equal pay to most of the men on the crew.

 

What if a man was a script supervisor?

Well, I’ve never met a male script supervisor. I’m sure they exist, but I’ve never met one. And so I don’t know.

 

Well, there you go. The fact that you’ve never met one is very telling.

Yes, and I’ve been doing this for a lot of years.

 

Turning to your work, I read that after getting involved with Grace and Frankie, you were surprised at how funny you were.  And I thought, really? Friends was so hilarious. I couldn’t fathom the fact that you wouldn’t consider yourself a truly funny writer.

I feel like my strength was never the jokes. I can write humor, but I don’t write jokes. And I feel like my strength in storytelling is the reality of the story, the shape of the story, the emotional content of that story. That’s always where I felt I have been most successful. I have a hard time calling myself a comedy writer. I think I am a generally witty person but because I don’t write jokes, I don’t think of myself that way.

 

Well, fair enough. But Grace and Frankie don’t tell jokes and they’re both really funny. 

But there’s a lot of people in the writers’ room, so that comes from many people.

 

You did Friends, and now you’ve created a show with 70- somethings, and it’s also being watched by millennials, both male and female. Who does that? How does one do that?

One does not go into it thinking that’s how it’s going to happen.  That’s for sure. I mean, when we started the show, we really thought we would have a very narrow demographic. And I think it was one that Netflix was interested in encouraging. The fact that it has reached beyond that demographic is thrilling and surprising. I think one of the things that this show does is that besides being aspirational—we all want to be like that or have a friend like that when we’re their age—it has a quality of warmth.  I think it’s comfortable. Someone once called it comfort food. And I think that is what it is. These people love each other and none of them are awful.

 

Were the roles of Grace and Frankie written with Jane and Lily in mind?

No, no. We had Jane and Lily first.

 

 Wow. How did that come about?

It was just a fluke the way this all happened. I was having lunch with Marcy Ross, who runs the TV department at Skydance. And she said that Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin want to do TV. I thought she meant together. I called my agent and I said, “Is it true that Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin want to do a TV show together?” and my agent said, “I don’t know. I’ll call you back.”  She made a bunch of phone calls, got back to me about 20 minutes later and said, “They do now.” So we had Jane and Lily first.

Kauffman and cast discuss a scene at Grace and Frankie's beach house.
Photo courtesy of Ali Goldstein/Netflix

 

That’s crazy because when I watch I think, “How could you write this and then find the most perfect people in every way, shape, and form?”

No, fortunately we got to do it the other way around.

 

Jane and her co-star Sam Waterston have been making news lately for getting arrested in D.C. while protesting climate change. Talk about relevant …

Actually, the writers and I have been talking about going to Washington to protest with them. Jane is really something. She puts her money where her mouth is, and she’s amazing. She doesn’t stop. She’s the Energizer Bunny.

 

What is the biggest challenge of working on all 13 episodes of Grace and Frankie at once?

We start with preproduction which means we start with the writers. And that’s all it is for the first 10 weeks—the writers trying to figure out how this is going to work, what’s the arc going to be, what’s the through line, what’s the theme, how do we shape the season. And once we start production, we’re also doing post. So, the process for me, who is here from the beginning of preproduction to the end of post, it takes about a year to do all of the episodes. This season will be even longer because we’re doing 16 episodes. I have a notebook I use and every morning I write down what I have to do for the day. And I can’t tell you how many days I have something to do on every single episode.

 

So that’s the new normal with streaming now, right?  I mean, that’s not how you did Friends.

No, it’s not how we did Friends. First of all, Friends was multi-camera, which is a little different. And the schedule was different too. There was a hiatus every three weeks so that we could catch up. As far as this goes, it’s like being on a hamster wheel a little bit. Once you get started there is no stopping until it’s finished. It’s a crazy, wonderful, jam-packed day.

 

It sounds exhausting.

It is a long day. And as executive producer/showrunner, I do a bit of everything. I have to check costumes. I have to go to post.  I have to do a spotting session for music. And we’re still writing this episode while we’re rewriting that episode. Plus going onto the set for all the rehearsals and all the masters.

 

There is so much multitasking involved.

It is a lot of multitasking, and it’s actually an area where I’m hoping that between the Writers Guild and the Producers Guild, we can figure out a way to give a showrunner a different title.  Because executive producer seems to be a title that goes to a number of people who don’t function like this in a day-to-day way. But people like to get the executive producer credit, and it’s the only credit we have. So, I have that credit, and then there are people who have that credit who don’t fulfill that role. It’s a little frustrating.

 

How involved are you with the music on the show? I think it’s so good.

Oh, thank you. We spot the music with the composers. We listen to every cue. We give notes on every cue. And then we have to do the mix playback where we listen to all the cues and all the sound as well. We’re involved every step of the way.

 

Here we are 15 years after Friends ended, and it’s still this huge commodity. An entirely new generation is watching. How are they different from the original audience in the way they view the show?

Well, I think one of the big differences is—and I think it was David Crane who said this—if the show were to be done today, they’d all be sitting on the couch on their phones. Young people are enjoying the warmth, the conversation and the shared experiences. My youngest daughter is 20. When she was about 15, someone at her school said to her, “Have you seen that new show called Friends?” They thought it was a period piece. So that’s also how they’re looking at it, like it’s from another time frame. It too is aspirational and extremely identifiable. You can identify with the characters. You can identify with what they want, as opposed to some of the darker comedies, which are harder to invest in emotionally.

 

And it’s still funny.

Yeah, I hope so. [LAUGHS]

 

I recently read where Jennifer Aniston joined Instagram with just one photo, from one reunion dinner, on one night, and 812  million people viewed it. She set a Guinness World Record!

That is unbelievable. As you said, they are still in the zeitgeist.

Photo and lead photo by Kremer Johnson Photography

 

It was common knowledge back in the day that when the cast was renegotiating its salary, they were negotiating as one entity for the leverage it brought to the table. It was a unique situation at the time.

I think it was more than just for the leverage. I also think it was because they were an ensemble and deserved to be treated equally. You know, one shouldn’t make more than another in an ensemble cast. So, the fact that they were negotiating as a group, I thought was great.

 

So even though it might cost you more money, you were good with it?

I thought it was fantastic. I thought it’s exactly what it should be. It didn’t make negotiating any easier. But we got through it.

 

Is there a character you’ve created who you most identify with?

I’m a real combination of Grace and Frankie. So, I identify with pieces of them very strongly. But I think it’s Monica. I can be bossy, too. And I can also be anal about things like making you hear the click when you close your marker. Marshmallows in concentric circles on the sweet potatoes. Stuff like that.

 

I’d say being a combo of Grace and Frankie is not a bad thing to be.

[LAUGHS]

 

When you started Grace and Frankie, what was the toughest part of writing without your longtime collaborator, David Crane?

After working with him for 27 years, this was like a whole new profession. David and I wrote everything together. He always sat at the keyboard. I felt like I wrote out loud. When I had to write my first script by myself, I had to have conversations with myself, like, “Is this a stupid idea?” Then, “Yeah, Marta, that’s really dumb.” I felt like I had to imitate that dynamic. I’ve gotten better at it. I don’t need to do that anymore. I’ve learned that I have certain rhythms which I didn’t know before, that I have rhythms in my writing. I have to sort of ride these waves of inspiration and then I have to walk away from it for a little bit and let things percolate, and then I go back to it. It was definitely a difficult transition. But I have to be honest—it would have been worse if I lost him as a friend. He’s still my dearest, dearest friend.

 

Now Grace and Frankie is the longest-running series on Netflix.

That’s right. It will be when it’s over.

 

Can you talk about what that distinction means?

Well, they don’t do long-term series anymore. Everything is three seasons and out. So, we feel it’s very special that we have that to claim.

 

Looking ahead, what do you have in the pipeline? Are you interested in writing a dramatic series at all?

Yes. As a matter of fact, we wrote a film based on a book called We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which is quirky but it’s dramatic. We’re working on another project that’s dramatic, and a one-hour that’s a comedic drama. And we’re developing a pilot about drag queen nuns.

 

Drag queen nuns?

Yes. It’s based on a real order called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Obviously, they’re not accepted by the Catholic Church, but they do all the good work that nuns do. And it’s really fun.

 

So you’re fine with going in any direction.

I am. I’m good with any of it as long as I feel passionately about the project. That is what we look for, not just to get a bunch of stuff on the air, although that’s nice too. But it’s really the stuff that we are deeply passionate about because you work too hard not to be invested.

 

Is that a luxury you have now due to your past success?

Actually, I’ve always felt this way. This isn’t something that’s new. When David and I were doing Friends, we realized back then that when the projects weren’t from our hearts, they never turned out as well. And that to me is the big lesson. If you aren’t wholly invested in your soul, it’s never going to be as good as if you are.

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