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Ghosts Of The Future - Bringing Performer And Audience Together In VR

Posted By Curtis Augspurger, Friday, March 15, 2019

At first it looks like theater. From a Victorian-appointed parlor, you are invited into a fully dressed foyer, all dark weathered walls and period furnishings. An actor greets you, declaring herself a physical manifestation of the ghost of Charles Dickens’ Marley, from A Christmas Carol. She engages you curiously, eventually directing you to a small writing desk on which rests an old, leather-bound ledger. Your name is already scribed into the weathered book.

 Seated at the desk, you see your reflection in a mirror. Marley gently places a VR headset on you. If there’s a moment when the theatrical illusion breaks, it’s gone as soon as you see precisely the same room around you, fully replicated in VR. The desk before you, the mirror, the one-to-one nature of the room—everything correlates, marrying what you see with what you feel. The sounds of horse carriages on cobblestones begin to filter in. Marley whispers to you, now beckoning from the other side of the wall.

 “Are you ready to cross over? Yes? You may not recognize me when you do … You may even think yourself an apparition.”

 After a show-stopper moment that seamlessly blends VR with the real world (I don’t want to spoil the surprise for future audience members), you are transported to a different time and place. Seeing is believing, but “feeling what you see” raises the bar to new heights.

 Now alone, you find yourself in Scrooge’s grand sleeping quarters. Thick velvet drapes. A large, intricately carved four-poster bed. An old smoking chair beside a warm fire. Reaching out to touch the digital bedposts, you find that they are physically there. Wandering over to the smoking chair, you can feel the gnarled, walnut arms and soft velvet back. Light filters in through tall windows; 1860s London is outside.

Just as you begin to feel comfortable in the space, you sense the eerie presence of another, whom you cannot see. In a swoosh of smoke, Marley gasps frighteningly to life (or rather, the afterlife) before your VR eyes. You are now in the presence of Marley in her ghostly digital form, being driven by an actor in motion capture gear. Flowing hair and tattered clothing expose the vacuous empty shell of what once was her body. She addresses you by name, reaching her chained arm forward, placing an empathetic (if decaying) hand on your shoulder. She informs you that on this night you will be visited by three spirits.

And so your journey begins. Over the next 20 minutes, you are immersed in the most memorable set-pieces of A Christmas Carol … Scrooge’s (and your) envisioned past, present and future, ending in an iconic Victorian graveyard, where you’re compelled to confront your own mortality in surprisingly personal fashion. Throughout the show you’re guided by the spirits, each of them rendered by motion capture actors, fantastical avatars who react and speak to you in real time. As with any kind of interactive theater, the more you give in response to the performers, the more you get more back from the experience.

This is Chained: A Victorian Nightmare, a one-of-a-kind dive into a fully immersive world that pushes the boundaries of storytelling possibility. The brainchild of creator/director Justin Denton, it’s a single-person immersive theater experience that marries VR technology to live actor-driven performance for a dark reimagining of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I was proud to produce Chained for its sold-out inaugural run in downtown Los Angeles this winter and was thrilled when Produced By invited me to reflect on the challenges of creating this unique show.

Chained is a new entry pushing the boundaries of the emerging Location Based Entertainment/VR market. To date LBE has been dominated by first-person-shooter experiences, esports and ride games. Early adopters have flocked to these experiences, powering a market that came close to $1 billion in revenue in 2018 and is projected to eclipse $12 billion by 2023 and comprise 11% of the VR industry. To encourage the audience’s adoption of this new market, the major challenge before us as producers is to create engagement models that place the technology at the service of storytelling, rather than vice-versa.

Developing and rehearsing Chained, from left: cast member Michael Bates, director Justin Denton,
interactive story producer Bruce Straley, cast member Haylee Nichele. Photos courtesy of Curtis Augspurger.


Getting Here

As with many of our origin stories, before I discovered my passion for film and digital media production, on a different path. As a graduate student in the School of Architecture at Columbia University, I was quick to realize that I couldn’t draw as well as I could see. We were still being taught with the traditional tools of the t-square and triangle, which gave me the foundation of spatial understanding but didn’t allow the freedom and interactivity I desired. Finding access to the highest-end software and computing systems (now less powerful than the phones in our pockets) at the time proved difficult, as the costs were in the neighborhood of $500K for a system. The Apple IIe had just been released, AutoCAD was just coming onto the market and the 3D visualization tools we take for granted today were then just a concept.

While working for architect Richard Gluckman on the Whitney Museum’s Breuer expansion project (now the Met Breuer), I brokered a deal with leading software and hardware companies and convinced Gluckman and the Breuer’s Director David Ross to take a risk. After several months of hard work photographing and then digitizing the Whitney collection (for the first time) and integrating it into Gluckman’s design on the computer, the board was allowed to see inside the design and take a ‘virtual walk-through’ with the collection in place, which helped the project win the build contract.

A demo of the Breuer expansion led to an alumni donation of a $10M computer lab to Columbia’s School of Engineering, where I then taught these same visualization tools to the next generation of student visionaries. The class eventually caught the eye of Hollywood, and after switching coasts from NYC to Los Angeles, I found myself immersed in building digital set extensions for Wayne Enterprises in Batman Forever, the digital swamp that Shrek called home, and ultimately producing animated features for Disney and Fox. Fast forward 25+ years, and we are still using bleeding-edge technology to strengthen the connection of story with the human experience.

“This project is actually not possible without having a live actor in the space with you. It’s at the core of how we wrote it and how we workshopped it with the actors. The technology of having the motion capture actor there is the reason why we can adapt to you as the guest and make it unique every time.”

~Justin Denton, Creator / Director


Bringing Chained To Life In Real-time VR

Not only would this type of project not be possible without the live actor in the space, but the technical ability to make this type of narrative experience didn’t exist a few short years ago.

The immersive tech Chained required is still in its nascent days and fraught with bleeding-edge incompatibility problems. So to produce a project of this scope, a faithful team of visionaries, a small village of talented artists, actors, set fabricators and engineers had to be pulled together to bring the curtains up in just under nine months.

With Chained, we were fortunate to have an experienced producing partner in Executive Producer Ethan Stearns and Associate Producer Christine Ryan, of Madison Wells Media Immersive, along with the support of Executive Producer David Richards of Here Be Dragons. MWM Immersive put tremendous faith in the project early on by backing it as their flagship immersive project. When our milestones slipped or our technology failed (as it did more often than not), Stearns’ previous experience producing Carne y Arena helped us keep the focus on prioritizing the audience’s experience with technology, in service of the story.

For example at one point in Chained, the story calls for a prop to be handed to the audience member by our mo-cap actor. Sounds simple, but it ended up being an enormous pain point—one that was more technical than story-driven. We needed the prop to feel as real as it appeared in the VR rendering. This required a tracking solution. With today’s tech, the two basic options were passive tracking (marble-sized reflective dots) or active tracking (tiny embedded LED emitters). Of course the passive solution is cheap and clunky, which could pull the guest out of the experience; while the active tracking solution is elegant and complicated, but at 10 times the cost. With an already challenged budget, support for this solution could have gone the direction of cheap and clunky. But in this case, our experienced partners’ commitment to stay true to the audience’s experience of the story led us to trim costs elsewhere and go with the more elegant solution, creating one of the more magical takeaway moments of the experience.

Actively tracking audience-held props notwithstanding, there were a large number of unknowns and unproven challenges we would encounter to achieve the narrative path. In an effort to control the complexity of the challenges before us, we chunked our goals down into a series of weekly sprints and milestones. We looked to align the project’s technical requirements with the conceptual design by adopting a game design pipeline. The milestones were broken into a few achievable categories; a minimum viable product (known as a ‘grey box’); vertical slice; green light; and ultimately a final EXE deliverable.

The grey box version merely showed temporary, untextured volumes representing the spaces, props and their interactivity (one month). For the vertical slice milestone (two months), we selected one of the scenes and gave it an approximate finish as a textured, lit environment. The grey box and the vertical slice demonstrated that the technology could marry the look/design with performance interactions, while still supporting our actors in the interactivity of the narrative.

To further complicate the design process, the visual effects from live-action events needed to be triggered (on the fly) during the performance, from a handheld tablet. Actor workshops held in VR headsets were used as an iterative back and forth, helping to get the actors comfortable with the technical demands of bringing the art to life. The story team also used these workshops to refine the story and staging for the mo-cap actor and their counterpart. Our live-action Marley thus transitioned to the stage manager, whose role was to orchestrate the live performance effects, trigger live-action visual effects and cue scene transitions on a connected tablet.

To streamline this intertwined production/performance process, we set up our ‘sandbox’ workspace and motion control camera systems at Aaron Sims Creative. ASC is the powerhouse design shop responsible for some of the biggest AAA character work in the film industry and who we chose to lead the creative design and the engineering of the EXE delivery. With imaginary walls lined in tape on the floor and tracking cameras in the ceiling, we were enabled to iterate directly with the VFX supervisor, Ryan Cummins, and his ASC engineering and creative team to bring the digital design work in line with creative goals. Cummins’ team collaborated with motion capture vendors Ikenema and Dynamixyz to integrate the body and facial capture in real-time to drive our spirits’ performances.

Beyond the one-to-one tactile relation of the space and their visual cues, the acoustical surroundings were critical for full audience buy-in into our immersive VR world. In most film productions, the sound is geared to the element of time, whereas in VR, the sound has the added component of spatiality and becomes more complex than a normal stereo mix. Making audio cues play from sources (diegetic sound) or from the ambient environment (non-diegetic sound) in a VR scene adds exponential science to the audio mix process.

To help us solve these equations, we partnered with composer and VR sound design wizard Dražen Bošnjak and his team at Q Department. Bošnjak and his talented team scored and mixed to make our London exterior and interiors sound like 1860s London. They created the entire audio landscape and score to work in concert with your spatial relation in the rooms and its objects. As you walk toward the fireplace in Scrooge’s bedroom, the crackle of the fire grows louder and the sound of the ticking grandfather clock responds to your position.

When soaring over London, the sounds and whooshes of the wind and passing clock towers surround your ears. You’ll hear each entry and exit that the spirits make into your virtual world, and as they finally usher you to the end of the experience and you reenter the world of the living, the familiar sounds of the clattering horses on cobblestones bookend the journey from where you began.

Immersive media has us all looking ahead to what is possible; what is next. As producers it may feel as though the years of learning the craft of storytelling are being overshadowed by the breakneck speed of technological advancement. However far we have progressed, the core techniques of storytelling, even in the face of modern technology, have not changed fundamentally. The latest headset experiences with either Magic Leap, Oculus, Halo Lens, Vive and whatever comes after, all continue to expand our ability as storytellers to move forward, reimagining legendary tales and new content to deepen the connection with our audiences in exciting ways. These emerging technologies not only offer the expansion of opportunity but simultaneously reinforce the foundational needs of the storytelling craft.

In this new frontier, the point to remember is that our role as producers has not changed. The fight to make story our primary focus, regardless of medium or technology, lives on and will carry the growth of the market.

As the epitaph of a life is being prepared and the birth and death dates are carved, Chained’s take-away message for the audience member is that only “the dash between” counts. How far we’ve come, and just how far we can go with storytelling in the digital age is solely up to what story you can dream up. If you dream it, there will likely be a new technology ready to bring it to life. Make the story of your dash count. 

PGA member Curtis Augspurger is currently finishing work on a 6DOF (six degrees of freedom) VR version of Othello with Oculus, Here Be Dragons and JuVee Productions, and embarking on a passion project to bring Light Immersion Therapy VR to PTSD sufferers.

- Artwork courtesy of Aaron Sims Creative

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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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