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Balancing Act - James D. Stern Juggles A Panoply of Passions

Posted By Michael Ventre, Tuesday, August 27, 2019

On the afternoon of June 20, 2019, James D. Stern waited nervously until the moment the workday ended and he could get home, so he and his son could don their team gear, tune in to the NBA draft and wait until pick No. 7.  That’s when his beloved Chicago Bulls—Stern has an ownership stake in the club—would choose. And while the team’s selection of point guard Coby White represents a quality reinforcement for the Bulls’ backcourt, it’s likely Stern may have to keep waiting awhile for the Windy City’s next championship.

But he’s used to waiting. He’s a producer, after all—hardly an instant gratification line of work. Case in point: Murder Mystery, one of Stern’s very latest creative offspring, which debuted in June and became Netflix’s biggest weekend opening ever when it was viewed in 30.9 million households in its first three days. That project, featuring the superstar comic stylings of Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, took about 10 years to get to the screen.

“You get lucky sometimes,” he opines about his business. “Then unlucky. Then you get lucky again.”

Murder Mystery, directed by Kyle Newacheck, is a fish-out-of-water comedy with an Agatha Christie setup about a New York cop and his hairdresser wife who go off on a fancy and long-promised European vacation, only to be ensnared in murder, intrigue and fine dining aboard a billionaire’s yacht. The one-sheet sums it up perfectly: “First-class problems. Second-class detectives.”

Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler in Murder Mystery

“I knew it was going to be huge, honestly, at the first preview,” says Stern, who is currently overseeing the Mike Cahill-helmed drama Bliss, starring Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson, and has several other plates spinning in film, TV and on stage. “It was a 500-seat theater, and nobody left. You can just feel it. When you do enough films and theater you don’t need something to open to know if it’s working or not.”

Stern first encountered the project about a decade ago, after James Vanderbilt’s script was put into turnaround by Disney. From there, the long journey began. It’s a familiar one for career producers: Sink your teeth into a project, and don’t let go until it reaches the screen.

James D. Stern and First Assistant Director
Dan Lazarovitz on the set of
Bliss

Murder Mystery wouldn’t exist without Jim Stern,” explains Vanderbilt, whose credits include Zodiac and White House Down.

“He just refused to give up on it. Refused,” he adds. “He got involved with it 10 years ago and put his money behind it just because he liked my script. The amount of times the movie came together and then fell apart was insane. Everybody gave up on it at one time or another. I gave up on it, and it came out of my brain. But not Jim. Every time another studio passed or we lost another actor or director, he just calmly put the thing back together.

“It’s like he and (producer) Tripp Vinson finally just willed the thing into existence. And I guarantee you if Netflix hadn’t finally come along, Jim would be on the phone today still trying to get Murder Mystery made.”

Like many projects, Murder Mystery came together when it came together. When Sandler and Aniston got on board for their first film together since 2011’s Just Go With It, the rest fell into place. The film was produced through Stern’s Endgame Entertainment, along with Happy Madison Productions and Vinson Films.

“Adam had been interested for a long time,” Stern says, “but because of schedules and whatnot, things did not align. But once he came on it went very fast. Then Jennifer came on and it was fast-tracked.”

Adding to the serendipitous turn was Netflix’s involvement. “For the last few years, we really wanted to do it with Netflix,” Stern explains. “It felt like the perfect Netflix movie. I knew the audience would coalesce around the movie.” Of the 30 million-plus who initially saw the film after it dropped, just over 13 million watched the streaming service in the U.S. and Canada, while another 17 million viewed from abroad.

Script supervisor Ronit Ravich-Boss, Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler, director Kyle Newacheck on Murder Mystery set

But it would be wrong to pigeonhole Stern as simply a purveyor of mainstream comedies and a basketball junkie. He owes much of his success to having a wildly eclectic palette.

Consider The Old Man and the Gun, released in 2018, which may have been Robert Redford’s swan song as a headliner. Co-starring Casey Affleck and Sissy Spacek, it was based on the true story of Forrest Tucker, a stickup man and escape artist whose career in crime lasted from his teen years to his sunset years.

“It is very much a movie about an artist who does not want to go gentle into that good night,” Stern says of the film, which was written and directed by David Lowery and based on a piece in The New Yorker by David Grann. “It was somewhat an homage to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. It’s a small movie that went flawlessly. It was a dream for me to get to know Redford.”

Then there’s Stern’s theatrical side. He’s won Tony Awards for producing Hairspray and The Producers, a Drama Desk Award for Stomp and has had many other forays into the footlights. Recently he obtained the rights to Silver Linings Playbook and is adapting it for the stage.

 “Once you get the bug, you never lose it,” he says. “I love the theater. I started in the theater; that came first. The immediacy and electricity—I guess I’m a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. There’s nothing like Broadway. And you don’t have to defray the risks to different territories. It’s all there.”

Finally there is James Stern the political animal. A staunch liberal and brother of former Obama adviser on climate change, Todd Stern, he nevertheless told friends leading up to the 2016 election that he knew Donald Trump was going to win. He discovered more evidence to back up his assertion when making his documentary, American Chaos—which he directed—featuring interviews with Trump voters about why they felt the way they did.

He took flak from some friends on the left for that project, but he felt it was important to explore Trump’s popularity. “I told my daughter Trump would win, and she said I was insane,” Stern recalls. “I said, ‘Come with me and I’ll show you.’” The rest, as they say, is history, which is still playing out with dramatic twists almost daily. Stern also has written and directed other projects, including So Goes the Nation, another documentary, about the 2004 presidential election.

One of the problems with being James D. Stern is that he has a passion for the theater, film and television, a passion for producing, writing and directing, a passion for politics and a passion for basketball—and they are all competing for his attention.

“My ADD,” he says with a laugh, “has served me well.”


- production photos courtesy of Amazon Studios/Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

 

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PGA Dodger Day 2019

Posted By Michael Q. Martin, Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Some 100 Guild members turned out on a beautiful evening at Dodger Stadium for our annual PGA Dodger Day. The Dodgers, who are on their way to a seventh consecutive National League West division championship, took on the Arizona Diamondbacks. PGA members not only celebrated a 4-0 Dodgers win but also enjoyed free food in the Coca-Cola All You Can Eat Right Field Pavilion.

Max Muncy got the Dodgers on the scoreboard with a solo home run in the second. In the third inning, Kristopher Negron singled to plate Russell Martin. In the fourth, the Dodgers tacked on two more runs as Martin singled to score Muncy. Then pitcher Kenta Maeda helped his own cause by bunting in Corey Seager and arriving safely at first. 

As the starting pitcher, Maeda bounced back from several poor outings and put on a clinic as he pitched seven scoreless innings. Caleb Ferguson and Joe Kelly kept the D’Backs scoreless in the eighth, and closer Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for the combined shutout. The exciting day at the ballpark was organized by the PGA Events Committee.

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SUZANNE TODD - The Prolific Producer Who Has a Love of Musicals, Plays a Mean Hand of Poker and is a Game-Show Nut

Posted By Peggy Jo Abraham, Friday, August 16, 2019

Quick—what do mischievous moms, dog parks, memory loss, the Beatles, a white rabbit and Dr. Evil have in common? If you said producer Suzanne Todd, you’ve been paying attention. These are just a few of the themes in the many successful films this creative talent has brought to the big screen. As if making it in Hollywood were not enough, along her journey Todd has somehow found the time to give back in a very meaningful way. Her calendar is packed with pitches, casting calls and shoots, but you’ll also find charity poker games and mentoring sessions on her schedule. Yes, Todd is one of those rare people whom you swear has more hours in her day than you do.

Consider this: she has not one, but three major movies coming out this year. In the fantasy adventure Noelle, Anna Kendrick stars as the daughter of Santa Claus. And Todd is making two films with Adam DeVine: Jexi, co-starring Rose Byrne, and Magic Camp, based on a story by Steve Martin.

Todd’s passion is also palpable when talking about motherhood. As a single mom of three, she knows a thing or two because just like the commercial says, “She’s seen a thing or two.” Once when asked about motherhood tips, she was quoted as saying, “Don’t be hard on yourself, like thinking that you could have done more. Even in small things like making the best lunches.” Now what parent can’t relate to that?

From her own childhood spent watching her favorite movies over and over to the improbable and original way she raised money for her first student film, this is one determined producer. And when Todd speaks of the unique qualities that women bring to filmmaking, you quickly understand her message because, of course, you realize these are the special traits she possesses and brings to her work. And then you’re really, really glad she had the good sense to take a gamble and sit across from Dick Clark on The $25,000 Pyramid. Read on …

Todd on set with the cast of A Bad Moms Christmas 

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You’ve done so many types of movies, and many of them have been hit comedies. What it is about those that makes you gravitate to them?

On the Bad Moms movies that I made last year and the year before, I find that people who continue to talk to me about having seen the first movie and the second movie is that everybody loves to laugh. It’s trying times right now, obviously. Going to a theater and having that shared experience of laughing in a room with lots of other people who are laughing is unique to movies and live theater and just a few other things. But I also find it really interesting when people talk to me, especially about comedy, that usually they’re not referencing the thing that made them laugh the most; they’re referencing the thing that touched them the most—that relatability of the characters and the relatability of the struggle and this idea, in the case of Bad Moms, that we all want to be great moms and great parents, and we all struggle to do our best, and we all judge ourselves too harshly for our mistakes.


Yes, and I can see how that resonates throughout one’s whole life because once a mom, always a mom.

True, and being a producer is in some way like being a mom to hundreds of people for short periods of time while you’re making the movie together. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are a lot of amazing female producers. There are a lot of amazing male producers as well, but I do think there are some aspects to the job that are inherently, particularly female. Mothering and caretaking, and problem-solving and all those kinds of things, I think apply to both motherhood and producing.


Producers wear so many hats. What do you like best about the job?

I generally like all the parts for different reasons. I will say when you’re actually making the movie, it’s probably more interesting than when you’re in your car driving around to the 12 places that you’re going to pitch the movie. That kind of “putting on your tap shoes” part of it is not particularly my favorite. I think really getting into the nuts and bolts of it in a room with a writer, developing the script, being on set with the directors and crew, making it happen in the cutting room, reshaping what you thought it was going to be into what it’s really going to evolve into. All of those, the marketing, the publicity—I like all aspects of it. If I had a least favorite, it’s probably the tap dancing/pitching.


You’ve been such a supporter of women, giving them so many opportunities to create content and to act. How would you assess the situation today in terms of what you’re seeing with female empowerment and influence within the industry?

I think it’s amazing. Maybe this is too honest, but frankly there’s a small part of me that feels jealous. I wish that I was coming out of film school today, because I feel like the opportunities are so very different. When I was hitting the industry in 1986, there were so few women in those top jobs, and few women directing and few women producing. It really did seem, not like an impossible goal, but like a very, very difficult goal. I remember Lauren Shuler Donner being so nice to me and kind of taking me under her wing. And Sherry Lansing, who I’ll never forget—the first time I had lunch with her, and everything that came out of her mouth was just a pearl of wisdom. But there weren’t a lot of women in those positions. When you look at the landscape of creatives, of women now, writers and directors, showrunners and other producers—it really has changed just in the space of my career. I hope that we are moving now into a next phase where the stories that women want to tell aren’t particularly women stories, and it doesn’t just have to be females directing very female movies.


Is there any other big change that you’ve seen in terms of what you do since you started in the business?

I feel like in the last five years, I want to say everything has changed, other than the things that will never change. So the things that will never change are the characters, the stories, the storytelling, taking a look at the human condition and the perspective that we bring to film. But 95% of everything else has changed, even the conversations. You talk about material and it used to be, “Is the story better suited for a movie? Is it better suited as a TV series?” That was kind of it. Now with every story you take on, with every character you come across, you’re looking at, “Should this be a 10-minute mobile series on Quibi? Should this be something direct for the web? Should this be a limited series on cable, or streaming or network?” There are so many different formats now. There are a lot of different ways to make it work, and so you’re looking at everything through multiple lenses of how to do the best version of it. I have projects I’m developing in all these various formats, but it’s also new territory. So it’s both exciting and challenging.


And now you now have to consider so many types of audiences.

True. You’re looking at the different ways in which people consume these different kinds of entertainment, and the person who’s going to watch the 10-minute show on Quibi, most likely on their phone, is a different demographic than some of the other places where you’re going to try and put material out. So then that becomes a part of the conversation. I never try to make anything for someone else. I like to think I’m always making everything for myself. Because if I don’t like it, I don’t want to make it. If it’s something that I wouldn’t watch, I won’t make it. I’m just never going to do that. I wouldn’t be good at it.  But I do think this becomes part of our business decisions now.  What is something that’s interesting to me that would also be interesting to people in these different shapes and sizes of entertainment? Which, like I said, is both exciting and terrifying.


You seem very independent and intent on charting your own course. I read about filming Austin Powers and how someone advised you not to do it because it would basically be the end of your career.

Yes. I had one head of a studio pass and say to me, “You have a reputation as a really nice girl, as a good girl, and this will ruin you,” which is kind of hysterical, of course, because that spawned three movies and a franchise. And I think there isn’t a day that goes by where somebody isn’t quoting one of the many, many memorable lines from those three movies.


Is there any type of film or project you haven’t done that you’re still yearning to do?

I tell you what I’m always trying to do more of because the funny thing is that I’ve only done one: Across the Universe. If you had asked me when I first came out of film school what I was going to do, I would have told you that I only wanted to do musicals. Because musicals are really my jam, my thing, my happy place. I, weirdly, know the lyrics to basically every Broadway musical ever done since the dawn of time.

Todd meets the dreaded Lord Zeedd on teh set of Mighty Morphin Pwer Rangers: The Movie (1995) 


Your sister, Jennifer, and you have been so successful together, and apart. What comes to mind for me is, “What was in the water at the Todd house when you were growing up that led to these amazing careers?”

Jen and I were obsessed with watching movies. We would record our favorite ones and watch them 50 times. I mean, I have probably seen Singing in the Rain from start to finish without stopping a hundred times. Our parents were going through a really bad divorce. We were working hard at our very challenging private school. And we loved movies. Our mom, who worked, would drop us off at this movie theater we had near our house.  On a Saturday we would watch one or two or sometimes even three movies. That was how we would spend the day. 


And those are such formative years when movies can have a big influence on your life.

I think for me it was that time of life we all go through as teenagers. Because being a teenager is difficult anyway and your life is changing, and your body is changing, and the world is changing. And as I said, with Jen and I and dealing with our parents’ divorce, I had so many feelings, so many worries, so many things I was trying to figure out. There was something about movies that gave me this perspective that was so eye-opening, that I could watch a movie and understand something better about myself than I had before I saw this film. I could watch a movie and see a character and understand someone else’s perspective in a way that I hadn’t before. Also just movies make you laugh, movies make you cry. They take you on a journey. Sometimes it’s escapist and a relief from the real world. And sometimes it actually helps you navigate the real world. So I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to be in this space for so long now.


OK, a random question here about something I read and loved, because I’m a big fan of classic game shows. Is it true that you became a contestant on The $25,000 Pyramid to raise money for your student film?

I did. I had a friend who had gone on the show and who had said to me, “Oh, it’s only a day. It’s easy money. Just go.” So yeah, I won the money, and that was what I spent it on. I think I won $28,000. Back then if you went to the top of the pyramid in the bonus round you got $10,000. I did that twice, and then you win a bit of other money along the way. When I did Pyramid, Dick Clark was still the host. After that, because I’m both a game nut and a game-show nut, I went on Password, and I got to play with Betty White, which was really cool. 


Speaking of games, is it also true you’re an award-winning poker player?

Yes, I do play my fair share of poker and have won a number of tournaments and played at the World Series of poker many times. Over the years, after playing so much poker, I started hosting charity events of my own. So we just hosted our sixth annual tournament for a charity that I’m on the board of called Tia’s Hope. It raises money and provides services for children in long-term care in children’s hospitals. We started with City of Hope in Los Angeles, and now we have 11 hospitals across the country. And basically, what we do is when the kids are admitted to the hospital, they get a gift bag which is toys and stuff for them to do and a Visa gift card for their parents. It’s very expensive and time-consuming and painful to have children in the hospital, especially for long-term care.


I know you were recently honored with the Chrysalis Award and you have mentees at USC. As such a positive role model, can you speak to the importance of giving back, because it seems like you really do honor that a lot.

I really do. It’s so important to me. Through the years, it has shown up in my life in so many different ways. I served for six years on the board of the Archer School for Girls because girls and education are so important to me. I also work for the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement because Alzheimer’s affects women, unfortunately, so much more often than men. We’re trying to figure out why that is and what preventive measures  women can be taking to get ahead of it and understand it better. And Chrysalis is an incredible organization. Anybody who lives in Los Angeles or sadly, in America, understands what a crisis homelessness is. As Chrysalis points out, joblessness is the number one cause of homelessness. What they’ve been able to do for 66,000 people is put them on a path to employment, with support like resume building, practice interviews and job training. There’s something so powerful when you haven’t had this in your life recently or maybe ever. There’s something so powerful, just sitting down with a person who sits across the table from you and looks you in the eye and says, “I believe in you. You can do this. I’m here for you.”  


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She Definitely "Has It" - Tonya Lewis Lee Is A Fighter And Art Is Her Weapon

Posted By Sarah Sanders, Thursday, July 18, 2019

“I do think of my art as my activism,” says Tonya Lewis Lee early in our conversation—and it’s clear this core belief infuses all aspects of the many kinds of work she does. Whether as a producer, writer or entrepreneur, Lee is deeply committed to the power of telling stories that matter. “I’m very fortunate in that I am mostly able to pick and choose the kind of work that I want to be doing,” she says. “I do it with the intention of trying to make the world a better place, of trying to raise awareness and consciousness—especially around issues of race, issues of gender, equity, of health and wellness.


Lee has most recently been shining light on those topics through her work as executive producer for the second season of Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It, created and directed by Spike Lee (who is, yes, also her husband). The first season, released in 2017, was based on his 1986 film of the same name. Revolving around Brooklyn-based Nola Darling and her relationships with friends and multiple lovers, the film was groundbreaking in its depiction of an independent, sexually liberated Black woman. The second season continues to follow Nola, now grappling with artistic success and trying to balance her ideals with the demands of the corporate world.


While the first season adhered closely to the film, the second branches out, as we “go into Nola’s world and see where she leads us,” Lee says. “For me, it was just really fun to think about and look at a young woman who’s an artist and how an artist figures out how to make it today.  Being an artist is not an easy thing, especially when you’re first starting out.”


The show digs into the difficulty of balancing creative idealism on the one hand with commercial success on the other, asking, “Can you legitimately make money on your art and be true to yourself as an artist, or are you selling out to the corporate structure?”


For Lee, the two ideas are not necessarily mutually exclusive, especially in terms of access and reach. “I want [my work] to have commercial success because that means it’s reaching as many people as possible,” she says. That matters to Lee because the projects she works on provide complex, nuanced depictions of people of color—something she believes there should be more of. “Looking at television, looking at film, is how we are informed about who we are, what’s happening in our world,” she explains. “Seeing my children see themselves in this world, this majority-white world that we live in, through television, through books, I realized there weren’t enough books I was able to read that featured kids that looked like them or TV shows with kids that looked like them,” she says. “I want to be contributing to that in the best way possible, as much as I can.”


As another way of bringing politics into art, She’s Gotta Have It also dives into issues of gentrification, something apparent in a Brooklyn that has changed dramatically in the 30 years since the film was released. “Sometimes when I still go back to Fort Greene, I feel like I’m Rip Van Winkle. It’s unbelievable to me how different it is,” Lee says. She explains that showing the effects of gentrification on communities of color was crucial to the remake of She’s Gotta Have It, in a way that ties back to the idea of art as activism. “It was really important, and continues to be important in the show, to show what gentrification is like and what it’s doing to a community. It’s a serious issue and it’s a serious issue for underserved communities. I don’t know what Brooklyn’s going to be like in another 25 years. I mean, is there a world in which we’re able to work together to keep it at least at this point? Or is it going to be completely whitewashed?”


The series does not provide any miracle solutions to gentrification, but Lee says the show does present “an awareness, an awakening, to where they are”—and awareness is a necessary first step toward change.


Another way Lee is helping bring about change is making sure the She’s Gotta Have It writers’ room features many women, like Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (who also produces). Having women on both sides of the camera also matters. While Lee gladly acknowledges that Spike created the character of Nola, she’s been excited by the guidance that women creatives have been able to provide, and what that has brought to the show. “We wanted to put flesh and bones into who she is,” she says of Nola. “And men don’t know what they don’t know,” she adds with a wry smile. “It was really important to have a room full of women—full of strong women—who were willing and unafraid to say what we really thought about what it means to be a young woman today. To Spike’s credit, and the other guys in the room, I think they really came to understand that.”


Helping a director realize the most fleshed-out version of their vision is a large part of what Lee views her work as a producer to be. “A producer’s job is to really be able to listen to a director’s vision, understand what it is they’re really after and figure out how to help them get there,” she explains. Lee was enthusiastic about having that director be, in this case, her husband; while both have been in the business for years, the initial season of She’s Gotta Have It was their first time working together. “We found our groove and how it works, how we work together,” she says. “And I have to say, I really did enjoy it. Even though there were moments, I’m sure, where I was like, I’ll never do this again!” she laughs. In general, Lee’s admiration for her husband’s work and values is apparent, especially in the ways he has opened doors for new, diverse voices. “He’s brought a lot of people with him, and I respect that immensely, and I want to do the same: work with all kinds of people who are trying to do the same kind of work that we’re trying to do.”

 

Tonya Lewis Lee and Spike Lee on location reviewing footage from season 2 of She's Gotta Have It

In order to make more of that kind of work, Lee launched the production company ToniK Productions with her partner, Nikki Silver, in 2012. They have since produced several films, including Monster, which premiered at Sundance in 2018. While producing independently can be challenging, Lee

says there are also rewards. “As independent producers today, it’s not easy. You’re sort of out here on your own,” she explains. “But the flip side of that is that we do get to do the work that we want to do, in the way that we want to do it, with the kind of people we want to do it with. It may take a little longer and be a little harder, but you know, we fight the fight.”


And fighting is important to Lee, in a way that, again, comes back to art as activism. “It’s a battlefield out here,” she says. “What’s my part? How am I fighting? Because it matters to me. The sacrifices that were made for me to be here, matter. And so, what am I doing to further the human race?”


It’s a question that clearly guides the work Lee does away from television and film sets as well. “I joke with friends, especially in these days, we need to be army-fit. Because if someone says run, I better be able to run. I don’t want someone to have to put me on their back. I want to be able to carry my own weight. And I’m a survivor, we all are survivors—we’re here. So, being mentally, physically and spiritually strong is critical,” she says.


Indeed, Lee has been a public health and wellness advocate for many years. In 2009, she produced the documentary Crisis in the Crib, exploring the issues of infant mortality in the United States. She later launched Movita, a wellness brand offering organic vitamin supplements that address the specific needs of women. In addition to advocating for women’s health, Lee also aims to demystify health practices more generally. “The bottom line: eating well, moving your body and getting your sleep is everything. And when you’re young, if you can start doing that and make it become part of a habit, then you can continue to do the work at the level you want to be doing it … for as long as you want to be doing it.”


Lee practices what she preaches: she meditates, eats a mostly vegan diet and exercises regularly. In fact, members of the She’s Gotta Have It crew would frequently encourage each other to go to the gym after wrapping for a day. “I’m like, my god, if the camera operator can be in the gym after he’s been holding that camera all day, then I should be able to do that!” she says with a smile—though not for vanity’s sake. In addition to the practicality of taking care of one’s body for career longevity, Lee insists that self-care has a political component. She admires writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde and cites her quote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”


“I do love that, because again, it goes back to art as activism,” she says. As part of that self-care, Lee says she is also working on “going with the flow of life” and not letting herself get stressed about intense production schedules. “I try really hard to be kind to myself,” she says. “I’m at an age where I know what I can deal with and what I can’t. And if I can’t,  I’m not going to deal with that.”


As for other words of wisdom, “My advice for producers would be find your team, find your people,” she says. “I think it’s great to have collaborative partnerships, people that you trust, who you build relationships with, who you enjoy working with.” She also says to remember that things take a long time: “Never give up. You just gotta hang in there. And if it doesn’t work one way, you’ve got to figure out another way.”

 

 

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Live From DC... It's A Capitol Night! - Producer Michael Colbert Continues The Family Tradition of Honoring Our Country and its Heroes

Posted By Rona Edwards, Friday, July 12, 2019

As producers, we like to tell stories that have something worthwhile to say and that touch people’s lives. We also produce movies, television and transmedia purely to entertain, and that is also very satisfying. However, it is rare to contribute something so meaningful that the legacy of what you produce has a lasting effect on the people you work with and the people you do the show for—year after year.  


In the case of Michael Colbert, he’s lucky enough to executive produce not just one, but two shows a year that celebrate our nation and its military heroes … and he has one shot to do it each time, because it’s all produced live. Colbert is the producer of A Capitol Fourth and the National Memorial Day Concert from Washington, D.C., which have become yearly institutions since 1981 and 1989, respectively. Both are ratings juggernauts for PBS.  


Though the National Memorial Day Concert is a more solemn event, A Capitol Fourth is a celebration of independence and our democracy. Both concerts bring out bipartisan support from the political arena, stars from stage, screen and the music industry, and well-known military veterans. Despite our differences, these two occasions unite us with one goal in mind: to honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice and to celebrate our freedom from mad King George.


Let’s rewind a bit to how it all began. Colbert’s father, Jerry, was House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s media adviser. He taught O’Neill all about television. However, his patriotism for our soldiers and this country dates further back. His family used to run the Memorial Day events in his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts. They would place flags at graves and organize the annual parade.


The meaning of Memorial Day became lost after Vietnam. “That was his mission … to try to bring it back. And now these shows have become national traditions,” says Colbert.


“I remember so well the first concert in 1981.” Colbert was a wide-eyed 13-year-old surrounded by legends Pearl Bailey and the great actor E.G. Marshall, who hosted the inaugural show. When the downbeat hit and the national anthem was sung, the teenager looked up at the flag blowing in the wind, the Capitol dome behind it and hundreds of thousands of spectators below, and it took his breath away. “It’s something you never get over,” he says. “My hair still stands up at the back of my neck.”


Not wanting to be an SOB (“son of a boss”), Michael ventured out on his own to learn his craft. He worked on variety and awards shows in Nashville, New York and Los Angeles. During that time, Michael met his wife, Jill Jackson, when both were involved with a Grand Ole Opry special, and it was love at first sight. The two still work as partners now via their nonprofit company that produces the shows, Capital Concerts.


Since the passing of his father in 2017, Colbert heeds his dad’s advice to trust his instincts and stay true to the mission. It’s a massive undertaking and a great responsibility to get it right every time. They produce these concerts for a fraction of the cost of other such comparable shows. The money is raised publicly and privately. Capital Concerts does all the promotion and TV and radio spots, down to social media outreach and websites. They also have to deal with more than 20 government agencies. Their company is small, but they get a lot of help from friends throughout Congress on both sides.


The Memorial Day concert is a hybrid of theater, film and performance. “It’s almost like the process of producing a movie or a Broadway show,” explains Colbert. “Every moment must fit perfectly into the next as you put this complicated puzzle together.”

 

John Stamos thrills the crowd

In keeping with the original vision, Colbert and his talented team ask these questions at the beginning of each production: “What do our veterans or their families need today, and what important anniversaries are there?” This year it’s the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The team worked hard to find powerful stories of veterans and their families. One such story is of that of medic Sgt. Ray Lambert. Prior to landing on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, Sgt. Lambert was awarded two Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts for his bravery saving his comrades in North Africa and Sicily. At 98, he is still in great shape physically and mentally and was able to see Sam Elliott tell his story at this year’s concert.


In addition, a lineup of Vietnam veterans populated the stage and were introduced by General Colin Powell—who served two tours in Vietnam and is the recipient of two Purple Hearts—so the country could finally say what it hadn’t properly said 44 years ago: Welcome home. “They sure deserve it,” says Colbert. “They fought the war they were given. And many are still struggling. But to be able to say that at the Capitol ... we’re very humbled to do so.” The concert always ends with one of the most intimate and solemn moments on television: A lone bugler playing Taps.


Top: Marines stand guard over the celebration on the National Mall
Below: Michael Colbert, Sean Fogel, Jon Macks and Jill Jackson

A Capitol Fourth has a very different tone. Because so many cities no longer have July 4th events due to budget cuts, Colbert and his team share an immense obligation in bringing this great celebration of freedom into people’s homes. This year they’re doing a special segment about wounded warriors who learned to play musical instruments during their recovery. It’s also the 50th anniversary of both the first moon landing and Sesame Street, so there will be special tributes to those milestones of American life.


Also on the program will be an homage to the incomparable Aretha Franklin, who performed several times for A Capitol Fourth. Colbert feels strongly about bringing the great music legends of our time along with younger stars to the concert stage. All genres are covered, including Broadway, country, classical and “lest we forget, patriotic music,” a jovial, upbeat Colbert adds. And to cap it off, of course, will be the perfectly timed 1812 Overture with fireworks exploding over our capital’s monuments and across the Potomac. It’s like covering the Olympics, with cameras all over the city, capturing everything. “All eyes are on Washington, D.C., as Washington becomes America’s hometown.”


There are a lot of moving parts to producing these complicated shows. When you’re dealing with five military services, the mayor’s office, the Capitol and D.C. police, the National Symphony, the National Park Service and the congressional leadership, it really does take the precision and teamwork of an army to pull off the broadcasts.


During our interview, members of Colbert’s producing team, Sean Fogel and Barr Weissman, stop by to say hello as does Colbert’s wife, Jill. One thing becomes crystal clear: They love what they do. With A Capitol Fourth celebrating 39 years and the National Memorial Day Concert 30 years, they give shows like Law and Order and The Simpsons a run for their money in longevity.


“These aren’t for us. These are for the nation,” Colbert stresses. “And when you look at it, it’s the memorial event for the United States. It’s the official July 4th for the country, and that gives you a lot of perspective as you put these things together.”


Though it’s always a wild ride, this is what attracted Colbert to live television—the immediacy of it, having to think on your feet ... and no post production! But they’ve had their challenges to be sure, particularly with the weather. Rain has caused cancellations and delays through the years, so they employ a meteorologist to predict where, when and if the weather will affect the show. There was also the time when Ray Charles missed his flight, causing producers to panic until he finally arrived and blew everyone away with America the Beautiful. Or the first year, when they used an old converted bookmobile as their TV truck, and the program monitor went out. The quick but difficult producorial decision was to broadcast a documentary on the monarch butterfly until they were up and running again.


“These shows are as much a way of life for us as anything and, as with any kind of producing, there’s always obstacles and challenges,” Colbert says matter-of-factly. “You just have to trust that you’re doing something that’s good, that you’re doing something that’s right, and you’re going to get through it.” Then he humbly concludes, “If we weren’t doing this, we ‘d find some other way to make a difference.”  



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