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MIKE FARAH - Funny or Die's CEO Considers How To Run A 12 Year-Old Startup

Posted By Chris Green, Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Back in 2007, as online digital video was taking its early steps into public consciousness, a new website gave its viewers an abrupt and unusual binary choice. Faced with a brief video clip featuring Will Ferrell getting berated by a foulmouthed toddler landlord, the audience was invited to render an ultimate judgment: Funny Or Die.

Throughout the 12 years of its existence, the content put out by Funny Or Die has more often than not been chalked up on the left-hand/funny side of the ledger. Some of that credit lies with the site’s founders—Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy. Another chunk of it lies with the talent the site has featured and nurtured, including Zach Galafanakis and Sarah Silverman. But save a healthy morsel of credit for the dude who was hired 10 years ago as the site’s first producer and today holds the operation together as its CEO. His name is Mike Farah, and he’s the original guy who started out making funny short videos with his friends and simply never stopped until it turned into a career.

When it launched, Funny Or Die was, pretty much by default, the premier website for comedy online. If there’s an achievement that Farah can take to the bank, it’s the fact that 12 years and a couple of tech revolutions later, Funny Or Die is still first in its class as an online comedy destination. Even as the company’s offerings have diversified into long-form efforts that have found their way to HBO, Netflix, IFC and other platforms more identified with “traditional media,” Funny Or Die remains a vital comic incubator, a place where emerging talent can find support for ideas and material that can generate big laughs and thousands of clicks in under five minutes.

Farah is keenly aware of—and just as grateful for—Funny Or Die’s unique position in the entertainment infrastructure, a talent-friendly shop whose deep connections to comic artists allow it to play by its own rules. Name another company that could put together a telecast featuring real-time coverage of the Rose Parade by a pair of fictional hosts played by Ferrell and Molly Shannon in what’s effectively an hours-long, character-based improv jam.

Farah is evidently the right guy to be curating the ever-evolving showcase of Funny Or Die. Grounded and reflective, he’s still a good-natured Midwesterner casting a cockeyed glance at a crazy industry he can barely believe exists, let alone has allowed him inside it. Hollywood is still very much a game to Mike Farah, one he excels at and has a blast playing in, but one he holds no illusions of being born to. That inside-yet-outside dichotomy is part of what makes for a great producer, with the job’s characteristic tension between the big picture and its granular details. He’s also pretty funny. But you guessed that already. After all, he’s not dead yet.

So how did you find your way into entertainment?

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and went to school at Indiana University in Bloomington. My whole life I thought I was going to go to Michigan like my brother and my parents. But I decided to go to IU, and it was a great decision. I was a finance major, and the key thing I learned was that I never wanted to work in the world of finance. I had a really awful summer internship in corporate finance. I got back to IU my senior year and, talking to a fellow I was friendly with, Josh Golsen, I said, “Oh, what did you do this summer?” and he said, “I interned in Hollywood. I had this internship with a production company at Warner Bros.” And my mind was blown. He showed me the Hollywood Creative Directory, a book that I don’t even know if they still publish. And I thought, “What is this? This book that lists all these companies that make movies and TV?” I didn’t even know that was a thing. It sounds so silly now, but coming from the Midwest I had no idea you could actually do this as a job. So Josh Golsen blew my mind. And from that moment, I just said, “Well, fuck it. I’m going to move to Hollywood. That’s what I’m going to do.”

I’ll never forget when I was getting close to graduating, I was out to dinner with my good friend Frank Parker and his mom. She was an administrator, high up at Ohio University. She asked me, “Well, what are you going to do after graduation?” And I told Pam Parker, “I’m going to move to LA.” She looked at me and she said, “Well, I hope you have a better plan than that.” And honestly, I didn’t.

You just showed up?

I showed up, and I’ve been here ever since. I drove across the country in fall of 2001. Within two or three days of being in LA, I knew I was never going to leave. I loved everything about it … The hustle! The competition! The weather! The artists! The business! The phoniness! It was a perfect storm of things that I really responded to. I don’t know what that says about me. [laughs]

Mike Farah (back, center) and team emmbers celebrate President Barack Obama's unlikely appearance on
Funny or Die's
Between Two Ferns. 
Photo courtesy of Pete Souza.

So after showing up, how did you work your way into production? As a guy having no plan, you could’ve gone anywhere, but you ended up producing.

My very first job in LA was working security at movie premieres. There I met a kid who called himself “Kowboi,” K-O-W-B-O-I. He was a busboy at The Standard on Sunset, and he helped me get a job there. I became a food expeditor. Not to be confused with a busboy. Or a waiter. I’m just the dude who brings you food. So I expedited food for 2 1/2 years at The Standard.

That was my graduate school. Everyone I worked with was an aspiring something: writer, director, actor, model, musician. I have the fondest memories of being a very poor food expeditor but getting along so well with creative and talented people. So I started producing the little short films that that group of people was trying to put together. I asked myself, “Well what can I add?” I didn’t want to be on camera. I didn’t want to be a director. But I love to organize things. I actually have a passion for logistics. I love to curate experiences to serve a story. So that’s what I brought to the party, a knack for getting things made.

Obviously at some point you moved beyond food expediting.

Oh I was thoroughly fired from expediting food, as I should have been. I was much more interested in meeting people and producing shorts than delivering food promptly. I worked at what felt like a hundred unpaid internships for different production companies, but my big break was getting a job at United Talent Agency in the mailroom. Peter Benedek, one of the co-founders of UTA, was and is a big University of Michigan supporter. A friend of mine from home, a writer named Yoni Brenner, was sleeping on my sofa at the time. He told me that Peter was having a get-together for the Michigan Film Department. I showed up to that reception, and I met Peter that night. I spoke to him for probably a minute or two. The next day was my 25th birthday. The morning after that, I woke up to a message from UTA telling me I had a job and to come in on Monday.

At Funny or Die's 10th anniversary party, from left: Will Ferrell, Billy Eichner, Mike Farah, Andrew Steele, Chris Henchy, Pauly Shore.
Photo courtesy of Pete Souza.

Hey, “happy birthday.”

Yeah. That amazing gesture really changed my life. I worked at UTA, for an incredible agent named Shana Eddy, who represented writers and directors. Shana and I hit it off very well, despite my being quite immature and probably not ready for the job. But I loved the agency. Before I was kind of on the outside looking in. But when you get inside an agency, you’re in the game.

It doesn’t get more inside than that.

And I loved it. The competitivness, the delusions of grandeur, all the people! [laughs] It’s all so silly, so funny. Only Hollywood can make entertainment a real job that’s taken seriously. It’s incredible. Less than a year after I started there, I went with Shana to the Sundance Film Festival; it was the year that Hustle & Flow, Craig Brewer’s movie, premiered. January of 2005. That movie blew me away. It really resonated with me, because it was about this guy with a dream who would do almost anything to make it happen.

After the movie I saw Craig out on Main Street, and I introduced myself to him. We kind of hit it off and chatted. It turned out that Craig and his producing partner, Stephanie Allain, were looking for an assistant. I interviewed with Stephanie and we got along great. I’m still good friends with both of those guys. I left UTA to go work for Stephanie and Craig. Stephanie is a total badass. I’m really fortunate to have had these two talented, smart women, Shana and Stephanie, as my mentors starting out.

So what sort of stuff did you take from them that you still bring to your job today?

Both Shana and Stephanie were great with talent. They had great taste. They worked hard. And they were both very comfortable in their own skin, which I really responded to.

What work did you find yourself doing for Stephanie? What stuff was she working on that you got to be a part of?

Very soon into the job, I got to be on set with Stephanie. She made a movie called Something New, with Sanaa Lathan and Simon Baker. Sanaa Hamri directed it. So I was on the set. I got to see the whole process and met so many people. A great crew. A diverse crew. All the stuff that people are trying to do now with hiring inclusive crews … Stephanie was ahead of that curve by decades, as was Sanaa Hamri.

I also got to be a part of the whole Hustle & Flow juggernaut, because Paramount got behind the movie in a big way. Obviously I didn’t work on the production, but because I started working with those guys so soon after Sundance, I got to see all of the marketing process, the distribution plan, the release strategy and all that. That was terrific.

They got a deal at Paramount. Brad Grey had recently started there. I believe one of the first overall deals he gave was to Craig and Stephanie. So then we got to be on the studio lot.

Nothing like being on a lot.

That was the best. My only other time working on a lot was an unpaid internship on the Fox lot at New Regency. I was actually fired as an unpaid intern. This is because I was a terrible intern. I mean, they put you in a room and they tell you to make copies all day. And right next to your room is another room with these big filing cabinets. There was one whole cabinet that just said “Fight Club.” And I open it up and, oh my god, there are all these emails between David Fincher, Brad Pitt and Ed Norton talking about the script. So obviously I’m going to be reading that stuff all day and not making your copies.

I don’t see that you had any choice.

Yeah I was fired. Justifiably so. [laughs] So then to actually have a job on a lot that I loved … this was new to me. So we got some stuff set up, and we had a nice little run at Paramount. But on the weekends, I’d sneak on to the lot and shoot my own stuff at the office. I still loved putting together these short films and different comedy projects. This was around when Upright Citizens Brigade opened in LA. So I got to know Seth Morris, who was the Creative Director at UCB in LA, and started going there to meet comedians and shoot their stuff.

When the writers’ strike happened in fall of 2007, Craig and Stephanie kind of went their own ways. And so I started focusing completely on producing comedy videos. At the time people were actually paying for web series, which was crazy. It was way too early, because no one really knew how to monetize any of it. But at that moment, during the strike, I started producing all this stuff. Sometimes we’d have money. Sometimes I’d pay for it, just because I wanted to see it get made. Nothing cost a lot of money… $500 or something like that. I was on unemployment. I was living with four people and two cats in a two-bedroom apartment. So we just did it. Why wouldn’t we?

So how did you ultimately hook up with Funny or Die?

My first contact with Funny Or Die was Owen Burke, who’s now an executive at Gary Sanchez. I started shooting stuff with the actor Jerry O’Connell, who’s one of the all-time great guys. I produced some stuff with Jerry that did pretty well. Jerry knew Owen Burke because Owen was a PA on Joe’s Apartment, the MTV film. Jerry connected me with Owen, and that’s how I got my job at Funny Or Die as its first producer in 2008.

So in terms of being the first producer, at Funny or Die … what did that mean? What was in place before you got there?

They mainly had writers. Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy founded it. They had recently hired their buddy Andrew Steele from SNL to be the Creative Director. There were super-talented writers here. One of them was Seth Morris from UCB, who I mentioned, and Jake Szymanski and Eric Appel and Ryan Perez … a great group. I can’t speak for what it was like before I got there. But when I got there in the summer of 2008, I just knew I could sell Funny Or Die.

There was so much talent they had put together that I knew we would have ideas that people would want to do. In many ways, as a producer you’re only as good as the talent you’re working with and the stories and the jokes and the ideas that people have. Ours were great. I felt like I could get traction with this company. And, by the way, when you have Will Ferrell as the founder? Yeah, that helps. No one else had that. Even now no one else has that. I give Will a ton of credit. Not only is he one of the all-time great guys, but he is still right there in it with us all the time, as is Chris Henchy, and I love him. So I knew, “Yeah, I can do this.” I saw it. I felt it.

What was the nature of the job then as opposed to what it is now? Is it just a bigger version of the same job? Or has it evolved in different ways as the brand has grown?

There’s definitely been an evolution. Thematically there’s some things that are similar. When I got here, I was asking “How do we make as many great digital videos as possible?” I knew I could help extend the company. I felt like we could expand to athletes and musicians and other folks who weren’t necessarily known for comedy. I focused on trying to merge outside talent with inside talent. My schedule was basically 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., six days a week. Sundays I’d only have to work half the day. But it was email, set it up, get there, shoot and on to the next one, over and over again. Sometimes we’d have three celebrity videos going in one day. It was bonkers. And that’s the way it should be. I loved it.

Now it’s different. This year I’m trying to get back to some of my roots, but back then I was the producer. Later I became President of Production, then 2  1/2 years ago I became CEO. Staying successful is still about working with great talent, creating opportunities for talent and storytelling, at the same time that we’re thinking through how to position the company in this ever-changing and exhausting media landscape. I don’t love the word “disruption” but things are being disrupted nonstop. And so you try and navigate this, all while making good stuff, and having a business, and treating people well. It’s a combination of knowing who you are, sticking to that core of talent and taste. But it’s also, hopefully, stretching those muscles in a way so you can grow and evolve the best you can, despite not really knowing where any of this is going. [laughs] So it’s a worthy challenge.

Certainly I’ve seen the Funny or Die brand on a lot more content than just funny videos on the internet.

Yeah. We’re very fortunate in that we were able to diversify organically years ago in a way that I don’t think many digital-first companies were set up to do, because we had backgrounds in “traditional Hollywood,” TV and film and things like that. We were also fortunate to work with really good talent who we could grow and develop material with. For example Brockmire started off as a Funny Or Die video with Hank Azaria. After a lot of work and many years, it became a show on IFC.

It’s still a matter of trying to take advantage of the relationships we’ve built, take advantage of the brand and the heat, when it’s there. Heat in Hollywood is a real thing—it’s crazy, but it’s true. Perception really matters. So we try to extend what we were doing to TV and film and other things, while also staying true to our digital roots. Sometimes we’ve succeeded, sometimes we’ve failed, but today our business is 50% digital and 50% what we call “long-form.”

The biggest part of our digital business is the custom content that we make for brand partners. Last year we did over 60 original campaigns for different brand partners, whether it’s Walmart or Kroger or someone else. We create a lot of content around our own TV shows that we make. It’s a great, diverse portfolio. We’re also able to license our content to different platforms. Amazon, in particular, has been a great partner for us. The Funny Or Die library on Amazon Prime, I believe, is some of their most watched content.

So that’s our digital business. The long-form business is more of the traditional production company model, where we do series like American Vandal, I Love You America, Brockmire and No Activity, as well as the two movies that we produced last year, both of which should be coming out this year. And so it’s a matter of balancing those two things—digital and long-form. We can’t just become a production company, but we also know that the world of digital publishing has changed dramatically. We still want to be a publisher. We still want to have production capabilities. I’m really excited about the Rose Parade special we did this year with Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon. Will grew up in Orange County. He always loved the Rose Parade in Pasadena, and he seriously wanted to announce it. He came up with a character and asked Molly to be a part of it. It took a few years to work through everything with the Tournament of Roses, our partners in Pasadena, but we got it done. The first time we did the special, we did it with Amazon. The second time we did it, this year, we wanted to do it on our own and own that content and add to our library. We got four different brand partners to help deficit finance the special. Something unique about Funny Or Die is our ability to talk to brands. We have a sales team that raises money. We also have the ability to distribute our content on our own through our website and all of our social platforms. Because we have an audience north of 40 million people, we were able to market it directly to consumers. And we were able to produce it at effectively a premium TV level because of all of our long-form production infrastructure. Will and Molly trusted us to do it right, and I think that trust paid off.

That’s a model for what we want the future of Funny Or Die to be—as many of these hybrid projects as possible that take the best of digital and long-form and create great options and ownership for talent. I don’t think any company out there can combine the digital and the long-form in a way that allows these opportunities for creators. American Vandal is another example. I’m very proud of that show, and part of me still can’t believe it was canceled. But a big reason Netflix canceled us was because Netflix didn’t own the show themselves. In the short term that’s disappointing, but in the long term it means a lot more opportunities for us. I look forward to working with our partners to bring back an entire American Vandal world/ecosystem. I think American Vandal can become the Law & Order of comedy. It is a true premium procedural show that can have so many extensions and create so many worlds. I get fired up thinking about it. So really I think the cancellation was a blessing in disguise, letting us own more of that show.

That’s the key. I’m focusing on how Funny Or Die, with the right talent packages, can create more ownership for creators. The streaming wars are coming, and with the amount of money being spent on all this disruption, I think it’s important for producers and creators to be thoughtful about how to position their work to create as much ownership as possible. Think through the ramifications of whatever deal you’re making, because if you’re getting “X” amount, you can bet that whoever bought it, whoever owns it, is getting 100 times “X”, somehow, some way.

Farah (right) consults with director Chris Henchy on the set of Funny Or Die's upcoming feature film Impractical Jokers.
Photo courtesy of Boris Martin.

Other than expanding the company in new directions, how has the basic business of making funny content changed over the last 10 years?

To some degree that answer has remained the same. There’s always the combination of the talent, the idea and the timing. But there is so much content out there that only the best things have a chance to pop. That’s how we looked at videos back then, and that’s the environment that helped create Between Two Ferns and Drunk History and Billy on the Street and The Presidential Reunion and Prop 8: The Musical. They all felt special and unique but still accessible to audiences.

For me that was really the heyday of premium digital comedy. Now, because social is such a big thing, and people can self-document and basically create their own channels with their phones, it’s different. There was that moment where the MCNs and “the influencers” arrived. These people would just talk about their lives on camera and other people seemed to like it. That was a moment. Then there was the question of, “what goes viral?” For a moment talk show hosts getting emotional about the state of the world was going viral. The reaction to Trump made a whole bunch of things go viral. Now what’s gone viral? A picture of an egg. So sure, why not? I mean, the egg should have its moment.

But it’s a little sad for me, because with everything going to social platforms, I think to some degree, that golden era of digital sketch comedy is overthe kind of stuff we were able to do when digital video became much cheaper and creators could write and edit and direct very quickly. These young filmmakers were taking advantage of it, the timing was right for it. What is the ecosystem now? I mean, I would argue content still needs those basic ingredients, but the audience has been so spread out that there’s just not as clear of a formula for success. For example, digital publishers were forced to move to Facebook, because that’s where the audience was going. Then you’d see, “Oh, my god, we just got a hundred billion views on Facebook, but we made $14.”

With the proliferation of platforms, there’s almost too much content being made. I don’t know how long it can sustain itself. It also means that right now, the power is with the platforms. And honestly they’ve earned that right. They’ve succeeded. They’ve disrupted distribution and consumerism enough that creators are now trying to play catch-up.

But don’t get me wrong, Funny Or Die has been lucky. We are a startup, right? Most startups go out of business. A very few get bought. Even fewer achieve the “unicorn” status of being bought for huge multiples and becoming self-sustaining businesses. We, on the other hand, are still independent, and still going strong. There are not many 12-year-old startups, but we are a 12-year-old startup. That gives us the freedom to produce all these different types of exceptional premium content. It also naturally creates challenges. But I don’t think Will and the guys would have it any other way. It’s crazy and it’s stressful and it’s the best and it’s the worst. But it still doesn’t really feel like work. I still can’t believe I get paid to do this.

I gotta say, it doesn’t sound like you have many regrets.

I’m far from perfect. I’ve made a bunch of mistakes, but I don’t have any regrets. I believe in staying positive. I love betting on Funny Or Die. I get fired up just thinking about how many opportunities are out there for us. I would take our staff, our group of creators into any situation and know we’ll make it work. That’s why I’m here. The people and the work and the challenge, they’re everything.


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PGA East: Documentary Screening Salon

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The PGA East Documentary/Non-Fiction Committee presents the Documentary Screening Salon, an exclusive monthly curated program designed to enlighten audiences and spur discussion.  Once a month, the committee behind this lineup screens a documentary, presents a Q&A featuring the filmmakers, and concludes with a reception to encourage more conversation.


The Documentary Screening Salon is managed by members of the PGA East Documentary and Nonfiction Committee, and focuses on documentaries with small distributors, self-distributed, or without distribution.  This subset of qualified members aspire to choose documentaries they believe should have the opportunity to reach a larger audience, thus providing an exclusive look for members, as well as a venue for filmmakers to showcase their work.  The program aims to provide not only the experience of viewing the film, but enrich the issues brought to the surface by surrounding them with informed discussion.


In 2018, the Documentary Screening Salon screened several highly acclaimed independent documentaries: Minding The Gap, On Her Shoulders, Our New President, Chi-Town, and House Two.  Each year the program runs from March through August, and invites for the evening are sent to all 1800 members within the Guild's East region. Screenings are not open to the public or press, and the venue is provided at no cost.


Although the Documentary Screening Salon is not a member screening program, members are strongly encouraged to submit their documentaries for consideration.  All documentaries should be submitted a minimum of 8 weeks prior to release date. This is a very competitive process, and Documentary Screening Salon selection panel decisions are final.


If you are interested in submitting your documentary for consideration, please complete the Documentary Screening Salon submission Form.


PGA members interested in joining the Documentary/Non-Fiction Committee, please request membership at:


For questions regarding the Documentary Screening Salon or information regarding the official PGA screening program, please contact Mitzie Rothzeid, Director, PGA East ""

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No Script? No Problem - "Roma" Wasn't Built In A Day - Or With A Script

Posted By No Script? No Problem - "Roma" Wasn't Built In A Day - Or With A Script, Thursday, January 31, 2019

Nearly every film director who’s known for being a true master of their craft has a personal film up their sleeve that longs to get out. Typically these intimate and compelling films are showcased at the beginning of their careers. The filmmakers are catapulted to fame and elevated to bigger budgets, bigger stories, bigger stars—so much so, they never quite get back to their roots, seduced by the rewards of Hollywood success. However once in a while the stars line up, and that special story they’ve held close to their heart sees the light of day. Think Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972), or Louis Malle’s Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987). Sometimes the timing is right and voila! A masterpiece is born.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma stands in that lineage. A highly personal, semi-autobiographical memoir of growing up in Mexico City in the 1970s, raised by his mother and their live-in housekeeper, this intimate film will be among the first beneficiaries of Netflix’s new awards release strategy, receiving limited theatrical exhibition before appearing on their streaming platform. One of the season’s most eagerly awaited films, it’s already taken the festival circuit by storm. That success is in no small part thanks to its producers, Gabriela Rodriguez and Nicolás Celis.

After having won an Oscar for Gravity in 2013 and known for relatively dark, large-canvas features such as Children of Men (2006) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Cuarón returned to his Mexican roots for a highly unconventional production. He hasn’t directed a Spanish-language film since Y Tu Mamá También (2001).

The story of Roma started percolating 12 years ago. Two years before that, a young intern joined his company, Esperanto Films, in New York City. She had just graduated film school and was anxious to work in production. Gabriela Rodriquez hails from Venezuela and has been with Esperanto for her entire career. After interning, she became Cuarón’s personal assistant before her promotion to running the company itself. She has worked by his side through his biggest successes. So when Cuarón approached her to produce his passion project, telling her she was “ready to do this,” she all but had to say, “yes”—though she admits she was apprehensive, “because I know what letting him down feels like,” she confides.

Meanwhile Nicolás Celis has been working in Mexico as a producer and unit production manager for more than 12 years, collaborating with such Mexican directors as Tatiana Huezo and Amat Escalante. He found his way into Cuarón’s orbit when he produced Desierto (2015), the feature film debut of Cuarón’s son, Jonás. Aside from a few phone calls during Desierto, Gaby and Nico (as they came to be known), never worked together until Roma. They quickly found out that one was the yin to the other’s yang. Celis loves dealing with people, aligning the Mexican officials to get on board, though none of them had read the script or even known that it was Cuarón’s movie until later. Meanwhile Rodriquez knew the director intimately, understood what he needed and, even more importantly, knew what she needed to do to stay one step ahead and keep him focused. On this shoot Cuarón wore many hats. He, too, was a producer but he also served as director, writer, cinematographer and editor. With so many roles to play, he needed both Celis and Rodriquez to make production happen while he worried about the actors, lights and camera angles. Fortunately neither of his fellow producers was afraid to get in the kitchen and do whatever was necessary to make his creative vision a reality.

Cuarón moved his company to Mexico nearly three years ago to begin pre-production on Roma, which lasted more than 10 months. A long prep allowed the producers to research every aspect of the director’s early life in Mexico City, right down to the family dog, Borras. All the research came in lieu of breaking down the script … because they had no script. Cuarón shared the script with just one person—David Linde from Participant Media, who financed the film and served as an executive producer on it. (We only hope Linde was up on his Spanish. Cuarón provided no translation.) Cuarón’s intense secrecy was a safeguard against anyone slipping pages to the cast. He would be working with a lot of non-actors in addition to well-known Mexican talent and wanted the process to be fresh and something he alone had control over. It was the producers’ job to allow him his creative process while still prepping the production as best they could.

“We all agreed to participate on this project without a script,” Rodriquez tells me over a cappuccino at The London Hotel. “It’s like when a kid is told he’s not going to have any more cookies. At some point you realize, even if you’re crying, you’re not going to get the cookie. Let’s just see how you get on with your day without the cookie. That’s kind of how we felt.” The team was compensated with the extremely long pre-production period to provide the time for research, scouting and consulting with the director, discussing shots and scenes. Their location scouts grew bigger and bigger, sometimes bringing in excess of 30 people on a scout. They wanted every department represented at the earliest stage so Cuarón could explain what he would need from them. They had a skeleton of dates, so they knew on a given span of days they were going to shoot “the riot,” while on another day they would be shooting “the birth scene.” They were still given zero dialogue.

Hiring a team of collaborators to shoot a script that no one was allowed to read created its own set of problems. Those fell to Celis to solve. “I remember during the first meeting I met Alfonso, I asked him, who’s going to be the script supervisor? After all this is someone who works closely with the director. Then when we didn’t have a script—it was like, how are we going to hire a script supervisor if we won’t give her the script? Even the [job title] says it!” When it came time to interview Natalia Moguel, he asked, “Hey, are you willing to work without a script?” Moguel naturally asked Celis what he meant. Nonchalantly Celis told her, “Yeah, yeah, we do have a script, but we haven’t read it, so you’re not going to read it either. So are you willing to do it?” As everyone did on this shoot, Moguel decided to trust the process, trust her belief in Cuarón and gave it her all. In Moguel’s case, that meant developing a completely new way of tracking blocking and continuity without it.

“Once we knew this was the way we were going to operate, we knew we had to be ready for everything,” Rodriguez explains. “So we have our wardrobe truck. We have it there all the time. We have backups. It sounds crazy but it’s the way we gave Alfonso the freedom for his creative process to flow in case it needed to take a different direction, which it rarely did.”

In addition to shooting without a script, Roma also shot in story sequence, which presented another series of problems. But there were plenty of happy accidents that happened along the way. Celis notes that the house they found was an exact replica of Cuarón’s childhood home in his old neighborhood, which gives the film its title. It served ideally as a stage, given that the owner told them he was planning to demolish it, so the team could do what they wanted to the structure as long as they left him the lot in good shape. Rodriguez and Celis took full advantage of the permission to knock down walls and open up ceilings without having to put them back in working order.

Cuarón’s creative vision lived its details. Everything had to be as it was in 1970, down to the clothes and shoes that the thousand-plus extras wore during the riot scene. A big avenue leading to the cinema as well as a street where the mother is stuck between two big trucks all had to be built, because so much had changed in the urban landscape, mostly due to the earthquake and modern technology.

“I think it was the biggest set ever built in Mexico. But I cannot guarantee that,” Celis laughs. “But since I’ve been working, I’ve never seen such big construction.” Rodriguez confirms that the size of the set took up roughly four city blocks.

The producers and their crew learned to push past what they thought were their limitations. Creating hailstones for a storm scene was another adventure. Cuarón wasn’t happy with the fake hail available in Mexico because, while the stones could be different sizes, they were still all the same shape—in other words, not authentic enough to meet Cuarón’s standards. There was a company from Canada that made it perfectly, but their work was very expensive. Rather than saying “no” to the director, the producers created a “hail unit” and tried to figure out how to engineer Cuarón-approved hailstones. The production manager came up with the idea of cutting up glue sticks, then melting them a little on hot metal, to create individual, unique hailstones. Rodriguez recalls, “One day Alfonso walks in the office to find five people from production literally sitting there with buckets, cutting glue, dropping them into the buckets, and then those buckets would go out to the truckers who helped us burn them into the different shapes and then those went into a different bucket … hail-making!” Two hundred kilos of glue sticks later, they had their handcrafted hail.

That effort was typical of the team’s “Anything for Alfonso” approach. As Celis explains, “If he had an idea he really liked, we tried to make it happen, find the means. That’s something I really learned for life, that sometimes something looks like a mountain you will never be able to climb by any reason or any excuse you might find. But [Cuarón] really pushed us to find the tools to do it and find the way I think this could be solved. He makes you, instead of saying ‘no,’ to be ready with alternatives, always.”

“I don’t believe he is a director that separates himself from stories,” Rodriguez reflects. “He really does nurture them, carry them and work with them from beginning to end. But I think, in this one, even while he trusted us and said, ‘Go ahead—this is what I want, I trust that you will make it happen,’ he also had to trust himself even more to say, ‘I’m going to do this the way I’m going to do this.’ He wasn’t expecting anyone to necessarily love or hate it. He wasn’t thinking about how to market it while he was making it. He was just thinking, ‘This is my process and I’m going to do it’ … and that takes courage. When you’re already in that place when you have the commercial and critical success—all that hoopla that’s generated from everyone telling you you’re great—it takes some courage to say, ‘OK. I’m going to do this and whatever happens, I’m going to be OK with it.’”

The buzz surrounding the film is just icing on the cake for these two producers. They put one foot in front of the other, enjoying every step of the process, even when it was daunting. Now they are reaping the unexpected fruits of their labors and find themselves delighted by the amazing reception Roma has received. “I’m super excited with this movie,” proclaims Celis. “That it’s in black and white, that it’s in Spanish … That all of this is happening, for everybody. It’s ‘The Little Engine That Could’! We just never expected it to blow up and that people would identify with and find it so accessible.”

“To me,” Rodriguez continues, “that this has been received the way it has around the world … I thought Latin America would get it, but the reception worldwide—wow—this is already so much more than I was expecting.”

To top it off, this young, self-effacing woman, who has worked long and hard for Alfonso Cuarón, may very well become the first Latina woman to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. “I feel grateful for the opportunity,” she says, “and grateful for the faith that Alfonso put on me to push me and not give me a choice or a way out. The fact that there’s a movie out there and it’s finished—it’s there! We did it! That means the most. To me, what I learned is that I can do it.” Both producers reminded me that Roma spelled backwards is Amor—an appropriate grace note that sums up the entire crew’s feeling for the unique production.

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A Race Lost And Found - How Helen Estabrook And Aaron Gilbert Got Behind "The Front Runner"

Posted By Kevin Perry, Monday, January 28, 2019

Politics have become synonymous with division. Toxicity abounds, animosity trumps altruism, and truth is just a carcass in the rearview mirror as we careen further down the forked road of our bifurcated democracy.

So how do you navigate this divisive landscape to tell a political story in the age of us vs. them? Answer: You have the audacity to be human.

That is the brilliant subversion of The Front Runner, the new Jason Reitman film produced in partnership with his trusted collaborators Helen Estabrook and Aaron Gilbert. Their movie revisits the sex scandal that derailed Gary Hart’s political aspirations in 1988, but the producers eschewed the exploitation angle in favor of true intimacy.

“I think that we get used to talking about stories in a certain way and forget that we’re talking about people,” explains Estabrook. “One of the things that I like about this film is that we’re not talking current politics … Being able to look at this through a different lens and have these conversations and ask relevant questions, also to talk about them in the realm of past events is really helpful.” It was a creative challenge fraught with obstacles and opportunities. “The nice thing about a story of this era is that we actually have a lot of resources to look at: documentary footage, interviews from that time, all of the actual videos from the Gary Hart campaign. So we could really look at what was most authentic from that time and find the right cameras and  find the right look of the sets.”

“It’s movie magic! It’s movie magic!” Gilbert exuberantly concurs. “For me, The Front Runner captures such an important time in the history of America … a man who literally could have been an incredible president of the United States was taken down because of this situation that happened over a few weeks’ period.” Gilbert surmises, “Everything that took place around Gary Hart at that time during the presidential election had never been experienced or talked about in that way before.”

Striking a reflective tone, Estabrook adds, “We were exploring how someone could go from being the presidential front-runner to leaving politics in three weeks. We were exploring how it felt for journalists and a candidate to find themselves in a dark alley for the first time and no one having any idea what to do.”

Estabrook is not being metaphorical; that actually happened. One of film’s most jaw-dropping sequences recreates the moment when Hart faced off with reporters in the shadows of his D.C. townhouse—a historic flashpoint in the eternal struggle between politicians and pundits. “This is the first moment where tabloid journalism and political journalism really drove into the same lane,” assesses Estabrook.

Their writing team reflects this chaotic dichotomy. The Front Runner was scripted by Reitman, veteran political reporter Matt Bai and Democratic strategist Jay Carson. “Having those two not only co-write the script but having that direct experience for all those years together, they just brought so much real life into these roles,” says Gilbert.

“Accuracy was always key for us,” asserts Estabrook, who details how painstakingly every background actor was prepped. “They were all given packets of magazine and newspaper articles from 1987. Everyone was really focused on trying to create this reality of that time period.”

Aaron Gilbert (center) discusses a scene with cast member
Hugh Jackman (right) and writers/executive producers
Matt Bai (left) and Jay Carson (back left).

Reitman takes it a step further, recalling how they edited together vintage clips for his cast to study on set. “When an extra comes in, a background actor, and they’re gonna be doing a scene on a plane that morning, they watch footage of journalists on planes in the 1980s, so they know exactly what to do. It’s about the prep work and being dedicated to this larger sense of truth … We wanted this to be a movie that just dropped the audience onto the campaign trail.”

To replicate the epic sprawl of a presidential trek across America without actually spending a billion dollars, the producers cobbled together a peachy plan. “We shot this entire film in Georgia—in Atlanta and in Savannah,” reports Gilbert. “We were able to find and dress and create an environment that had the scope and had that feeling of indeed crossing the country, and showing Colorado and showing New York and showing Florida and showing all of these other things. It’s really just a testament to Jason’s eye, of course, and the incredible team that we had around him.”

Reitman himself singles out one noteworthy member of said team, production sound mixer Steve Morrow. “Steve was wiring 10 to 20 actors at a time, every single day, and live-mixing all of these different conversations. Oftentimes the mix that you hear in the finished film was the one that Steve was doing on the day, and it was kind of surreal to be on set with our headphones on, hear the movie come to life and already feel ourselves as an audience trying to pick which conversation we want to follow.”

But the pivotal scene depicting Gary Hart’s inaugural rendezvous with mistress Donna Rice features no dialogue at all. Their words fade away, yielding to the strains of the pointedly chosen selection “Foreplay”, by Boston. “Jason is always very specific about the music that he wants in his movies,” chimes Estabrook. “I think the trick for this movie was finding the music that felt of a time but didn’t feel too on-the-nose ‘80s because I think we’re all so aware of what ‘80s music sounds like, and it almost puts it in a less authentic place in a weird way because it just blasts those synthesizers.” Instead their goal was “keeping within the emotional scope of the film and finding the music that works there while also being of a certain time. I think that we ended up leaning more on ‘70s music because there was a sort of ‘70s aesthetic to the film.”

The result is a soundscape worthy of Robert Altman, a comparison that Reitman graciously welcomes. “We wanted to make this film in as analog a way as humanly possible and try to use technology that was available in the ‘70s, similar to the films we were trying to emulate. So almost all the things that happen on screen were done as real-time playback that the actors could watch.”

A standout example of this dynamic is the scene featuring Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart, alone at home, watching TV as he’s being skewered in a classic Tonight Show monologue. “It’s a weirdly intimate scene because it really is just him in a room by himself with the television. Filming that felt much more intense than I expected it to,” admits Estabrook. “Often in screenings, the monologue gets a big laugh, and it’s always amusing to me how timeless Johnny Carson can be.” Of course comedy may be the great equalizer, but the film slyly utilizes our ease with laughing at Carson to make us complicit in the public spectacle that unraveled the career of a public servant.

Helen Estabrook confers with writer/director Jason Reitman.

Jackman’s performance humanizes Hart, imbuing the philandering presidential candidate with a quixotic blend of charisma and regret. “One of the greatest things that we got from this experience was working with Hugh Jackman, who is one of the most amazing actors but also just such a great presence on set,” recounts Estabrook. “If he ever runs for office, we’re all volunteering for his campaign, I’ll tell you that right now.” Gilbert echoes her sentiments with a hearty, “I’m in! I’m in!”

His enthusiasm extends well beyond Jackman to the rest of the ensemble. “It’s sort of an embarrassment of riches, this cast. All the way through, everyone was so wonderful.” The roster includes veterans of Reitman’s troupe like Vera Farmiga and JK Simmons. Estabrook quips, “We sort of half-jokingly say that JK is Jason’s muse, because he’s managed to be in almost every one of his films thus far.”

Reitman is fiercely loyal to his cast and crew, heaping the lion’s share of praise on his producing partners in particular. “When it comes to Aaron Gilbert, he has been a savior on my last couple of films. As you can tell, I don’t make easy films. I don’t want to make easy films. I want to make films that are tricky and complicated, and Aaron has been a thoughtful supporter of filmmakers and actors and complicated projects.” Summing up, Reitman deems Gilbert “a real director’s producer.”

And his admiration for Estabrook dates back even further. “Helen Estabrook and I have been working together since Up in the Air, and she challenges me on every film to be a better director. We’ve been having, specifically, a conversation about gender since basically from the moment I met her … I think it’s the reason why the women in The Front Runner are as compelling as they are. Helen would say to me, ‘You have to remember the particular burden that lands on the shoulders of women in the midst of a scandal.’”

As if finishing his sentence, Estabrook elaborates, “We talked a lot about the emotional labor that is expected of women because they are often asked to do the caretaking, whether or not they asked to be put in that role.”

Extrapolating, Reitman applies the greater gender conversation to the considerable achievements of his friend and producing partner. “We talk about what it’s like to be the only woman in the room, whether it’s at a newspaper or on a campaign and how challenging it is to feel like you’re representing your entire gender.

“I’ve just been very lucky that I met both Helen and Aaron,” extols Reitman. “They are supportive of me as an artist, storyteller and filmmaker. I don’t know how I would do this job without them. At the end of the day, finding your producing partners is like finding someone to fall in love with.”

Reciprocating the feeling, Gilbert beams, “There’s a difference between a director and a filmmaker and to me, Jason is the latter.” Theirs is a mutual respect galvanized in creativity, and their work ethic infuses the crew at large. Gilbert opines, “You sure as hell better love what you do in this business, ‘cause it ain’t easy. That’s the same thing with these incredible men and women we follow in our film; they were all driven by something a little bit bigger than themselves.”

Estabrook triples down on the humanity of their endeavor. “We’re not trying to make anything that’s an allegory in any way. It’s really just ... seeing this pivotal moment in American history, what that looks like for all of the many people involved, not just the people who are most often talked about but all of the journalists, all of the campaign staff, all of these people who were part of this moment.” Surveying a job impeccably done, Estabrook concludes, “I don’t think we even knew we were going to make something that felt so relevant.”

The Front Runner is a modern reminder that our empires are mere sandcastles, and we are the grains. Each wave systematically tears us down as much as it brings us together. “Our hope with our film is that we provoke our audience to take a stance and look a little harder at who our leaders are and what makes somebody a leader. What are the traits that we want?” Gilbert asks prophetically. “What are we OK accepting from our leaders? What kind of behavior is OK?”

Invoking the medium’s immense powers of community and curiosity, he makes a final declaration. “We always hope that when people leave The Front Runner, they’ll start having conversations and asking questions. That’s really the power of what film can do.”

- First two photos were taken by Dale Robinette
- Third photo taken by Frank Masi


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Swan Song - Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey Saved The Best For Last

Posted By Michael Ventre, Thursday, January 24, 2019

Los Angeles contains a handful of enclaves especially renowned as dream incubators to those with the entertainment industry in their career crosshairs. Beachwood Canyon arguably is principal among them. Nestled in the hills beneath the Hollywood sign, Beachwood is where Nathanael West set a good chunk of his nightmarish Tinseltown classic The Day of the Locust. It is where Harry Bosch occasionally roams in the Michael Connelly detective novels. Don Siegel shot parts of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers near Beachwood Market. It is where scores of writers, actors, directors, musicians and other artists migrate to in search of a creative community.

It is where Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen began Temple Hill Entertainment, the film and television generator behind the Twilight franchise, current releases First Man and The Hate U Give, and much more. Godfrey and Bowen have ended their 10-year partnership, but this is one of the rare occasions when the happy ending belongs in the lead: Godfrey is now president of Paramount’s Motion Picture Group, and Bowen plans to move with Temple Hill to Paramount to make pictures there when the company’s deal with Fox runs out.

“The shorthand of knowing how he does his job and how people at that company do their jobs will give me great confidence that, when they’re producing movies for us, I’ll know what I’m getting,” Godfrey explains. “I have a feeling we’ll still be working together.”

The company began as a dream, the result of four ambitious young dudes—Godfrey, Bowen and two roommates also entering the business—sharing a house on Temple Hill, working their way up the industry ladder and hoping the seductive glow of the Hollywood sign would brighten their respective futures.

“The work days were exciting,” Godfrey recalls of the mid-1990s. “We’d come home, sit over a glass of bourbon or a beer and talk about what we did that day. We’d trade stories. There was such excitement about being in the business and figuring out how to help each other get ahead.

Marty Bowen (right) on the set of First Man with fellow producer
Isaac Klausner. Photo credit Daniel McFadden

“Certainly those conversations,” he continues, “and our wondering ‘Where are we going to be in five years? Where are we going to be in 10 years?’ were origins of Marty and I thinking out loud that maybe someday we could have our own company.”

That day came more quickly than they perhaps expected. Bowen had been an agent at UTA and wanted to move into producing. Ordinarily the traditional path toward that goal moves slowly. Bowen opted for the express version: lunch with one New Line executive; the impassioned pitch from Bowen about the company and a partnership with Godfrey; immediate interest; quickly scheduled dinner with Toby Emmerich, then a top New Line executive; shortly thereafter, plans for the first project.

“The script I talked about in the pitch, I hadn’t even spoken to the writer yet, and I hadn’t talked to Wyck,” Bowen remembers. “I just kind of did a ‘ready, fire, aim,’ as they say.”

Next tiny detail: letting Godfrey in on the plan. “In wonderful Marty Bowen form,” says Godfrey, who was producing for John Davis at the time, “he called me while I was shooting a movie in Hungary (2006’s Eragon), nights, in the middle of the winter, in a frozen quarry. I had just gotten off work and put my head on the pillow at 5:00 in the morning. He called. I said, ‘Marty, I’m going to bed.’“

Undaunted, Bowen filled him in on New Line and their new partnership. “That was the first time I heard that we were starting a company together,” Godfrey laughs. “He agented me. He basically sold me externally before he sold me internally.”

Their first film, greenlit from the formation of the New Line deal, was The Nativity Story, directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Since then, under the stewardship of Godfrey-Bowen, Temple Hill has churned out five installments of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga; the sleeper smash The Fault in Our Stars; three editions of The Maze Runner; The Longest Ride; the TV series Revenge, Rosewood and Mr. Mercedes; and earlier this year, the groundbreaking gay teen romantic comedy Love, Simon and Dan Fogelman’s intricate family saga Life Itself.

The book on Temple Hill is literature. The guys love a good book, and they especially love one that makes you cry. “I was an English major. I loved reading growing up,” Godfrey says, “so for me the natural inclination was taking books I loved and figuring out how to do the best adaptation of those books. We’re both from the South, we always wanted to make movies that were fundamentally from the heart and not from the head. That was a guiding principle. We’d rather be corny than cynical.”

From left, producers Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Robert Teitel and executive producer/UPM Tim Bourne take a moment to relax
on the set of
The Hate U Give. Photo credit Erika Doss.

A prime and current example of the written word transformed into wondrous cinema is First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle, adapted by Josh Singer and starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy. To give you an idea of how long a journey it took from book to screen, Isaac Klausner was Godfrey’s assistant 10 years ago when Temple Hill first acquired the rights to the James R. Hansen bestseller about astronaut Neil Armstrong. Now Klausner is Temple Hill’s film president.

“They’ve been incredibly supportive to those eager and ready to take on responsibilities,” Klausner says of the Temple Hill culture. “Everybody participates in staff meetings and has a creative voice.”

Selling Oscar-winner Chazelle on a project is not easy these days, given that since his success with both Whiplash and La La Land, he can typically be found chased by unruly mobs of producers waving scripts in his face. But Temple Hill managed to turn his head.

“When I first met Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey and Isaac Klausner, they asked me if I was interested in Neil Armstrong,” Chazelle recalls. “I told them honestly, ‘Not really.’ But because of their persistence and their passion I agreed to review some documentaries and other materials they sent me about this story. Within days I was obsessed.

Wyck Godfrey confers with cast member Ryan Gosling
on the set of
First Man. Photo credit Daniel McFadden.

“Working with this team of producers has been an incredible experience,” he adds. “They supported my vision for the film and added to it with their wealth of research and knowledge of the subject matter. They fought for the movie, championed it, worked on both the macro and the micro, put out fires left and right. They were there every step of the way.”

Obviously the Twilight series represents a very different set of characters and ideas from First Man. But again, it’s a penchant for adapting books that move people that brought the Temple Hill team to the popular collection.

“Despite the fact that neither of us is a 16-year-old girl, I think doing a movie and a series of characters as beloved as the ones from Stephenie Meyer brings with it a responsibility for making sure they came out well and making sure the girls love the movies and continue to love them,” Bowen observes. “That’s a responsibility we took very, very seriously. That was a special time in our lives.”

The Hate U Give, released this year, is a different kind of young adult title that drew the interest of the Temple Hill collective. Written by Angie Thomas, the novel tells the story of a young African-American woman and how she deals with the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend at the hands of a police officer. Adapted by screenwriter Audrey Wells and directed by George Tillman Jr., it opened to glowing reviews.

“Getting to work with authors like Angie Thomas, with first-time authors who have never had a book turned into a movie, to be the kind of conduit that allows them to take that journey, is incredibly gratifying,” professes Godfrey. “To me the baseline is that if the author loves the movie, then we’ve done a great job. And, even better, if that movie represents a different experience for them of the story they’ve created … my goal is to take the movie beyond the book audience to a whole new audience.”

The Temple Hill catalogue is lengthy and impressive. But the Temple Hill story continues to be told, despite the partnership split.

“I’m a psychiatric cliché,” admits Bowen. “I literally went through all the emotions after you lose somebody. All of them, from nostalgia to sadness to anger to relief. I did them all. At the end of the day, Temple Hill is not about two people. It’s really not. There are still 10 or 11 of us doing the same thing. We probably just don’t laugh as much."

While Bowen finishes his Fox deal and prepares for the long traipse in cross-town traffic from the Fox lot to Paramount, Godfrey settles in as a studio honcho. “It’s exhilarating,” he says. “I’m probably too dumb to be scared, although I probably should be. As a producer you just focused on the movie that you wanted to make and you let your passion and creative energy push the project up the hill. You didn’t have to worry about an entire slate of films in every genre, across multiple years, that you’re mapping for the future. That’s been a great challenge but a really exciting one, and I feel blessed to be able to tackle a new job at my age.”

Says Bowen: “I told him I don’t mind him dating other people for a while, but if you ever want to come back here, your office is available.”

And to think it all started with a dream in a town famous for them, in a neighborhood steeped in them, in a house that realized at least a couple.

“That house,” Godfrey says of the one he once shared with Bowen on Temple Hill, which then begat Temple Hill, “provided the platform for us to become friends.”

- Lead photo and last photo by Monica Orozco

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