IndieWire’s Springboard column profiles up-and-comers in the film industry worthy of your attention.
Sara Murphy didn’t always know she was going to become a producer. She initially went to school for engineering, before trying her hand (or, well, feet) at tap dancing, eventually landing a gig as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s assistant. That gave her a start as an associate producer for 2010’s “Jack Goes Boating,” directed by and starring Hoffman. From there, she was a co-producer on God’s Pocket” (also starring Hoffman) and a full producer on “Land Ho!,” both of which bowed at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Murphy has followed those projects with a series of well-regarded indies, including the charming “Morris From America” and the SXSW winner “Hunter Gatherer.” Her upcoming slate includes “Gemini” (from “Land Ho!” co-director Aaron Katz) and Mia Lidofsky’s “The Strangers,” starring Zoe Chao, which Refinery 29 will distribute on their platform later this year.
Right now, though, she’s most excited about her latest Sundance premiere, Dustin Guy Defa’s “Person to Person,” which features a cast of established and rising indie stars, including Michael Cera, Abbi Jacobson, Ben Rosenfield, Tavi Gevinson, Michaela Watkins, Philip Baker Hall, and George Sample III. It’s a story mostly concerned with New Yorkers searching for connection in various ways, and the kind of warmhearted feature that Murphy seems to produce
Ahead, Murphy sounds off in her own words about why Defa’s new film is so special, her weird road to becoming a producer, and how she connects with her filmmakers.
“Person to Person” is, like, the warmest movie. Dustin is one of the most emotionally connected people I’ve ever met.It’s an ensemble piece about a group of New Yorkers over the course of a day, it has an amazing cast. It’s a micro-budget film, we shot in a very short amount of time.
I didn’t know exactly how the film was going to come together, just because the storylines don’t necessarily interconnect. Somehow, it feels so cohesive, a complete piece. Dustin is an incredible writer, he’s so funny, he has the best timing. The script is loaded in a way that you feel, versus that you think about. It’s about life, it’s about connecting, it’s about joy. I think those are things that are important to Dustin in his life, and that immediately comes through in the film.
It’s about embracing individualism, but also the importance of connection, the importance of how we affect each other, the importance of sharing our feelings. It’s kind of what we need right now. My hope is that everyone feels like that when they walk out of the movie.
[With filmmakers], I’m looking for the relationship first and foremost. Just because you’re with them for so long! You really have to believe in the material, but you mostly have to believe in the filmmaker, so you can defend them and get behind them and believe in them at every step, even if you don’t know if they’re making the right decision.
[My slate] has been specifically writer/director-driven, and really based on that relationship and wanting to work with that person, and then finding the material. Or they already have it, and it’s like, “Okay, I want to do that with you.” I am looking to develop IP and have more control on the producerial side and then really package a project. But I’m always going to look to that relationship. The process is too long and too hard not to enjoy it while you do it.
I was all over the place in terms of my upbringing, but in film and television, I didn’t really know my ass from my elbow, walking into it. I worked with Philip Seymour Hoffman for four years as his assistant, and then started working in development at his production company. It was sort of an all-encompassing education, just because Phil, he directed, he acted, he produced, he worked in theater, he worked in film, he developed TV. It was a wonderful opportunity to dive in and see different angles of the business.
I was his assistant for four years, but then I quit, because I was like, “I hate this business!” I left, and I was going to go back to grad school, and then he offered me a job in development and I came crawling back. I thought, “Maybe I’ll like this aspect of the business!” It was all very internal and collaborative, and I think from that, I was like, “That’s what I want to do.” It’s fun and rewarding and relationship-based.
I think the reason why nobody ever really knows what producers do is because we can participate in so many different ways. I love the process from the beginning all the way through. And I’m still learning — I think that’s the great thing, because every project is so different, every filmmaker is so different, you are constantly learning every day and having to teach yourself something every day. It’s constantly stimulating.
You just have to be adaptable as a producer. The tendency is, “Oh, you did a film one way, now you know how to do it,” and if you apply that to the next one, you’ll struggle the whole time. Definitely be willing to reinvent the wheel each time. It’s a difficult thing to do, because you’re winging it the whole time.
You’re always nervous [when you premiere a film] and you never know exactly how people are going to react. You can test it all you want and get reactions all you want, but I think that [theater] is a magical thing that can easily tick either direction.
I think a wonderful experience [making a film] directly translates to the screen. That’s what I’m continuing to look for.
“Person to Person” premiered in NEXT at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19 – 29, 2017 in Park City, Utah.