I expected more preachiness in the book. It’s a memoir. First, why did you write the book? Second, what was your process?
When I started the blog, I actually started a lot of blogs, and I tried to categorize. One of them was called Let’s Make Better Films, and I ended up not pursuing that mission — more for the art of business of cinema. But when I look at this — Telluride to Toronto to New York — I still think we have this real challenge of not enough movies that are ambitious, reaching, and trying truly to be transformative cinema.
Recent films where you find a new discovery and the chops are extraordinary are “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “’71.” But we often see a lot of talking-head and didactic films where financing limitations keep them small. Gonzalez Iñárritu’s “Birdman” is another on a bigger more ambitious scale.
It’s at the time where, because of the abundance of culture — not just cinema, but the abundance of culture in general — much more than even before, we need to differentiate ourselves from the marketplace.
Producers are part of the process. And they’re missing.
100%. The need to do it in the culture of abundance is at a much higher level. For us, as an industry, we get stuck in these legacy practices — and this is in all aspects: through a support infrastructure, film schools, film festivals, and funding institutions — without figuring out how to build a new apparatus that can really bring in and support different voices. The one real takeaway I had in writing the book — it was always something I felt strongly about, but came to believe almost religiously — is that you can’t apply a template to how you work with something or how you approach a problem.
I loved your learning process. You’re smart, and you quickly became a producer.
Let’s not say “quickly,” because even though I had a producing gig fairly early on in my career, like at 23 or 24, I did three years of being a production assistant and probably four years of an AD-line producing combo. Now, through that, I was gently starting to try to produce, but that was how I earned my living. So it took a while, both after that first film and Hal Hartley’s “The Unbelievable Truth.” Even during the production of “Trust,” I couldn’t get producing going full-time. It took a while to do the transition into that.
I do feel that it’s all one big ecosystem. The learning curve is the combo of having a bit of organizing background and, then, really, the gift of Sundance. That transparency of process, which is a community-organizing tool, was something I got excited about, partially because I felt when I was coming up, access to information was so damn difficult. I felt that I could give an honest look behind the curtain — in terms of the development and production process, the execution of getting the movies out — trying to find those moments where we do start to change.
Hopefully others besides myself would be able to look at the book and see that moment of recognizing that there are different ways. You can abandon some of the legacy practices and find new ways, and that can become a salvation, a solution. For me, the key moment to get me here now was the inability to land “The Wedding Banquet” with a sales agent. Because those companies turned it down —
You guys were forced to become your own.
Yeah. Trying to make transparent the thought processes; trying to show there’s no template; trying to help others see where the opportunity is at this point, like it was for us back then. But I knew I didn’t have the stamina to write the book. I had started writing the blog because I have that novel that I want to write. If I can get back into a writing routine, maybe I can get back to writing that book. It’s mapped out. Anthony Kaufman basically pitched me on the book— like, get started on it — and I said, “I can’t do it.” He offered help.
So the process became that he would interview me, he would transcribe it, send it to me, I would rewrite it, he would reorganize it, send it back to me, and I would rewrite it again. The structure of the book came about in that we got a sample chapter and an outline of the ten chapters, and I pitched an agent who had indicated interest. He first said, “I think it will work better as a self-help book. So, can you do it as an approach to a creative life?” That was definitely one of my areas at the time. But he said, “No, it wouldn’t work. Do it as a business-to-business book. Make it more business-y.” So we did a little polish on it and he was all, “Ehh. You’ve got to get to the sexy anecdotes.” I said, “I don’t have any sexy anecdotes!”
So we tried to do that and he told me, “I don’t think it’s a good time.” We put it away. By that point in the process, we’d gotten about four chapters done and refined it. When we were in San Francisco I’d met a publisher, pitched it to him, told him we were basically done with it, and could reach a certain date. He read the sample chapters, said yes, and, frankly, if I hadn’t resigned from the Film Society, I don’t know if I could’ve finished the book.
The other sort of pivotal moment occurs after you’ve founded Good Machine, with James Schamus and David Linde. There was this dramatic break-off that occurred. Explain why that was necessary.
The company kept growing. We had over 40 employees. At one point we had an incredible overhead deal — a million dollars a year. That helps a lot, particularly if the production side is chasing artists’ work. You start to shape working with a director. Many times they’ll have things that are counter to the way the industry likes to work, but are core to who they are. As much as I say “Wedding Banquet” was the one that shaped us, business-wise, Ang Lee comes from the theme of pushing hands. You better learn it’s the strong willow tree that bends with the wind, not tries to stand firm.
But as the company grew, the financial pressures on the organization became bigger and bigger. As a result, we had certain tensions. Like many folks unschooled in business practices, none of us were businessmen. When things really started working at Good Machine, we really weren’t prepared for success, in that money was flowing to the company. The challenges of attracting that and protecting the disbursements were huge. There was no software available to do that. We were, luckily, nervous and concerned about that as some of the other companies at the time weren’t. We knew that when we had millions of dollars in our account, it wasn’t ours.
James and I decided we couldn’t pay ourselves for what was almost a year, because we needed to make sure that everything got paid. It’s funny: that was always a Good Machine motto, to make sure we made regular payments on things. A successful film person came into Good Machine early on and said, “Man, you’re just like such and such was,” which was another L.A. version of the start-up company that was doing really well. I had worked for that company as a production person, and I said, “Yeah, except we pay our bills on time.” The guy turned to me, stern-faced, and said, “No one ever got rich paying bills on time.” Maybe he was right, but we did.
And you could’ve been lining your pockets more than you did. Is there a part of you that wishes you were richer?
Well, I wish I had a little more freedom, you know? We sit down with Sam Goldwyn who says, “I need to understand something about you two guys: are you businessmen or are you artists? Are you businessmen or are you filmmakers?” And James and I looked at each other like, “No, we’re both.” He said, “You can’t be both.”
As the independent specialized side of the business has matured, we have a new opportunity. Digital is a key component of this: to really make art, the brand, in a business. But we have the opportunity, culturally, to start saying, “Reach higher. Push this further.” So much of what I did as a producer was that: “Be true to yourself. Push this further. You don’t have to compromise in that way.” And when I look at the way movies are coming together now — the compromises that you have to make to get your movies made undermine the core value proposition of the film. And it’s precisely that: you don’t have time to shoot. You have to cast because of this value.
The foreign sales agencies. And they’re all wrong and out of date. It was exciting at Telluride to see “Birdman.” Credit Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for recognizing that he had to move forward with the form he was using so well. He’s still evolving.
And when you think of an art film, that’s about showmanship. I’m looking at movies through that filter of showmanship. How do you put showmanship in an art film? Julianne Moore’s performance in “Still Alice.” To me, particularly like that scene in the frozen yogurt shop, it’s a great moment. Ultimately, her performance allows it to be everything. Ramin Bahrani’s turn in “99 Homes”: the muscularity of the first 40 minutes of that film is kind of exhilarating, particularly when you put it through the filter of him. It’s like, “Wow, that’s a big change. A really big change.” It’s a huge step for him. It’s showmanship.
Yes, he’s definitely figuring that out. But you’re always going to make those sacrifices — which is why you left Good Machine.
Yeah. As we grew there was one battle we had, David James and I, not bad-bad, but David did the Michael Bay-Platinum Dunes deal, where he was going to remake classic horror films as a producer — you know, pre-branded work. The first one was “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Producing fee would have been $350,000; my producing fee on “In the Bedroom” was $35,000. They were competitors. And I was like, “I’m not doing it. I’m doing ‘In the Bedroom.’” That film ended up making money for the company. It was a long road, and everything had to go right in order for that to happen, whereas the other one was more risk-averse, as you said.
Look, I make mistakes. I haven’t been a saint, I haven’t been able to keep my head as much as I would like at times. I feel I was corrupted in things, we were getting knocks on the door. It was a period of consolidation. I wish we would’ve held out so we’d have gotten a similar deal to what Mandate got.
And it was also hard, production-wise. Basically, about eleven companies came along the way. We never said we were for sale, but eleven companies inquired. We got fairly deep with some of them, and, in the due diligence process, how clear it was we would not maintain our autonomy is what led me to blow deals out of the water.
Because Sony Pictures Classics is the living example of how that autonomy can work.
But where their autonomy really exists — and it’s the most important piece — is in terms of their acquisitions and their theatrical release strategy. But it doesn’t extend beyond that in terms of platforms. They’re part of a huge corporation.
You’ve always been supportive of female filmmakers in a way few people in this industry have.
One of the reasons I get up early is so I can look at news online, because I wouldn’t have time to otherwise. There was an article in the New York Times Magazine by Ezra Klein’s wife, the Vanity Fair new establishment round-up of middle-aged white guys. Her point was, you can easily pull together a list of twenty women and people of color who deserve to be on that list that are not there. She speaks of our business and culture bias to think that white men are management. That’s at root in the same sort of thing, of “who can lead your team through the course of making a movie?”
Well, there are plenty of women producers and studio chiefs. But what they do, because they’re risk-averse, is end up learning that they are better off going with what’s proven, that no one can question them on. It’s about fear.
It’s a bullshit concept. And on the independent side, you want to make it part of your mission to drive new voices. Wherever it comes. I don’t think I did it as well as I could have, frankly. I could have been more demanding on that point.
Well, Tamara Jenkins and Nicole Holofcener are great filmmakers. But partly they were writers, too.
That definitely has always been an indie solid: when you don’t have money, find the people who are committed to getting the script right — and those are the writer-directors. It is why dialogue-heavy films dominate, for better and for worse, the indie side of things.
You got disenchanted about production. Upset enough to want to leave it. It became too hard.
There’s definitely truth to that. I was sitting with two producer friends of mine — one who told me they’d done four films in a row without earning a fee. Period. And they had the ability to make them. And the other said they’d done seven films in a row without generating a profit on any of them, and that’s okay because these are billionaires investing in art and culture. Profit wasn’t their first motive, but I don’t think either one of those are healthy.
It’s becoming a gentleperson’s profession, where it’s an avocation, not a vocation. You have to support your “habit” with a real job. People do commercials or music videos or teach — like Kelly Reichardt.
That’s my first advice, now, when I do lectures on how to have a sustainable creative life: have a second job as your primary source of income. And it’s infuriating to me, because I feel like I am at my top storytelling powers now. I know I can make better movies than I made before, but I’m not making them under those circumstances.
So how do you make movies that don’t require compromise in order to get made well? How does that happen?
Well, some people go out and raise the money. There are investors there.
The next two or three years are going to be really where things start to transform. I still come to the business side of it with the idea that, first and foremost, I love great cinema, and I want that to succeed as a business. Two, I want to put artists at the forefront. There’s no secret that specialized film, how we’ve done it for the last 20 years, that the emotional part of it is on the backs of the directors who aren’t compensated for that year-long run, other than getting hired again — which is no small thing.
I love talking about movies. I deeply love my wife because of her ability to talk about movies! We sit and we talk: how it reflects our lives, our aspirations, where we want to go to, our reflections on culture, art, our family. It’s such an incredible utility, cinema, how it gives voice to all that, but you need all of those things. At the same time, how do we build in better rewards, so that those folks who reach high, that really do deliver that transformative experience, are rewarded. More than just getting a gold statue.