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Robin O’Hara, Longtime Indie Film Producer, Dies: Friends and Family Remember an Influential Figure

The producer of films ranging from "Gummo" to "Raising Victor Vargas" inspired a generation of New York filmmakers.

robin o'hara gummo

Robin O’Hara on the set of “Gummo”

Bruce Birmelin

Fierce, committed and above all, tough — these are the words that collaborators use to describe producer Robin O’Hara, a longtime fixture of the New York independent film scene, who died suddenly last week after complications from cancer treatment.

When O’Hara’s business and life partner Scott Macaulay of Forensic Films posted the sad news on Facebook last Wednesday, hundreds of prominent filmmakers, former crewmembers, and friends from across the independent film world offered an outpouring of condolences, remembrances, and testimonies about O’Hara’s importance in nurturing their art and their careers.

As “Saving Face” director Alice Wu wrote, “She was brilliant and mercurial and hilarious and terrifying. She gave no fucks — unless she did give a fuck — and then she gave everything. Anyone who has been lucky enough to be in her orbit never lets go. She pushed us all … and we became better people.”

Echoing Wu, critic Brandon Harris, who worked as an office manager and development associate at Forensic Films in the mid-2000s, told IndieWire that O’Hara was “a force of nature,” he said. “Intimidatingly intelligent, enormously generous, this tiny woman filled up a room with her sharp humor and broad humanity … and dared you to challenge your assumptions, escape your comfort zones and, in her scrappy, urgent way, learn to be a better, fairer person to those around you.”

READ MORE: Watch: New York Remembers Filmmaker Chantal Akerman at Touching Tribute

O’Hara, together with Macaulay, was crucial to the burgeoning New York indie film scene in the early ’90s, along with fellow guerilla producers like Christine Vachon, Bob Gosse, James Schamus, and Ted Hope. Over her decades of producing, she continued to launch important new talents, helping to produce an early short film by Michael Almereyda, and then with Macaulay, a short film by Tamara Jenkins as well as debut features by Tom Noonan, Harmony Korine, Jesse Peretz, John Leguizamo, Peter Sollett, James Ponsoldt, and others. Along with Macaulay, she won an Independent Spirit Producers Award in 1998 for her work on “First Love, Last Rites.”

Before forming Forensic, O’Hara and Macaulay met at the experimental art space The Kitchen, where O’Hara began as an intern and went on to run the Video Distribution program from 1985 until 1989, where she distributed work by avant-garde pioneers like Nam June Paik, Robert Wilson and Bill Viola. Her early producing work in the late ’80s included a number of dance and performance pieces directed by John Sanborn and Mary Perillo and featured the choreography of Molissa Fenley, Charles Moulton, and more for the TV series “Alive from Off Center.”

Scott Macauley, Robin O'Hara and Teddy Zee'SAVING FACE' FILM PREMIERE, NEW YORK, AMERICA - 23 MAY 2005

Scott Macauley, Robin O’Hara and Teddy Zee at the 2005 premiere of “Saving Face”

Allocca/StarPix/REX/Shutterstock

But it was during the ‘90s that O’Hara’s significance within independent film circles began to shine.

“It would not be an understatement to say that Robin O’Hara launched my career,” Oscar-nominated producer and screenwriter James Schamus (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) told IndieWire. While working on his first producing effort, Raul Ruiz’s 1990 micro-budget feature, “The Golden Boat,” Schamus recalled O’Hara’s “passion and precision.”

“Diminutive but always in charge,” recalled Schamus, “she moved swiftly though unevenly, burdened always with at least two huge production binders in one arm, and two bags on her other arm—one that held virtually anything you’d need in an emergency, the other containing one of the many tiny rescue dogs she adopted over the years and was never without.”

Many collaborators spoke fondly of O’Hara’s small dog Trixie as an extension of her tenacity. “Just like Trixie, Robin could be truly fierce, and just like Trixie, she always brought a smile to my face,” recalled producer Ted Hope, who cofounded Good Machine with Schamus and is now the head of production at Amazon Studios. “What you first always heard from Robin was how passionate and committed she was. Trixie may have believed she could stop someone from entering the door, but Robin believed — really knew — she could open all of the necessary doors.”

After making Tom Noonan’s “What Happened Was,” Hope said, “I would get asked how to make a great movie for $125,000 and I would bark out two words for them: Robin O’Hara.”

Stories about Trixie and her dogs often come up when people speak about O’Hara: that Trixie had bitten a studio executive in a pitch meeting and had even nipped Martin Scorsese.

“After Trixie, she got Bootsy and then Lulu — the older and uglier the dog, the more she loved them,” said French actress-turned-director and recent Sundance/NHK winner Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, who credits O’Hara with launching her directing career. “She gave me my first job as a sound intern on a movie set,” she said. “When I decided to act, she would help me get auditions even though she knew I was not that good. When I decided to direct she supported me unconditionally, with pride, like my own mother.”

O’Hara often collaborated with foreign filmmakers — she worked with Polish Academy Award winner Zbigniew Rybcynski on several pioneering works, including “Steps” and “The Fourth Dimension” — and adored Paris, working on and off in France. She also collaborated frequently with European producers and directors in New York, working as a line producer and associate producer on such features as Chantal Akerman’s “A Couch in New York,” Dagur Kari’s “The Good Heart,” Alain Berliner’s “Passion of Mind,” Goran Paskaljevic’s “Someone Else’s America,” and Olivier Assayas’s “Demonlover.”

Filmmakers speak avidly of O’Hara’s tough-love support and unyielding commitment.

“Robin was endlessly supportive, lacked pretense, and convinced me that I should be directing,” said director James Ponsoldt, who made his debut “Off The Black” with Forensic. “She was a true producer. Her confidence in me, when I didn’t have any, meant more than I could ever express.”

Robin O'Hara

Robin O’Hara on the set of Chantal Akerman’s “A Couch in New York”

Dennis Yeandle

“She challenged me, provoked me, and thickened my skin,” echoed Peter Sollett, director of “Raising Victor Vargas,” which O’Hara and Macaulay produced. “She was also hilariously quotable: ‘Fuck that guy. Fuck him in the EAR!’ Often blunt: ‘Honey, that scene didn’t suck as bad as Scene 31!’ And ultimately overwhelmingly supportive: ‘You know Pete, the thing about this film is that it proves you can direct anything.’”

“As a producer Robin helped me clarify my vision of our film then worked tirelessly to provide us with the practical tools to realize that,” Sollett continued. “As a person, the faith she placed in me and the straight talk she laid on me gave me the tools I’d need to live the life of a filmmaker.”

For Sollett, and his producer Eva Vives, who both lived across from O’Hara and Macaulay in the East Village, O’Hara was particularly important to getting the much-beloved “Raising Victor Vargas” off the ground, and then completed in the wake of September 11, 2001.

Vives recalled that most producers either passed or tried to convince them to cast the film with recognizable actors. But Macaulay and O’Hara didn’t flinch at the idea of casting nonprofessional actors. “Robin just wanted to figure out how to make that work for us,” said Vives.

“Raising Victor Vargas”

Actor John Leguizamo worked alongside O’Hara and Macaulay as an executive producer on several films as well as his only directorial effort, 2003’s “Undefeated.” “She was not the typical low-key, under-the-radar type,” said Leguizamo. “She had seen it all and heard it all and could regale you with any anecdote from her long history of making film in New York City. She had a big heart and a bigger sense of how to squeeze the most of our budget to put it on film.”

Many filmmakers pointed to O’Hara’s commitment to the New York independent film as an art form, cultivating filmmakers as artists, even as the industry and its economic demands grew.

“She was tough,” said Harmony Korine, who worked with O’Hara and Macaulay on “Gummo” and “Julian Donkey Boy.” “Only did what she believed in.  We fought a few times but always for the greater good. She believed in the power of movies and art.”

Likewise, cinematographer Tom Richmond, who shot Jesse Peretz’s “First Love, Last Rites,” among many others, also remembered O’Hara as dedicated to the art of cinema, providing him “with a tantalizing, satiating taste of what it might be like to work on a European film, far from the dollar orientation of Hollywood,” he said. “Aesthetically uncompromising and immaculate in her taste, from my perspective, her tacit approval/ trust of Tom Richmond meant a lot to me.”

READ MORE: James Schamus on the Future of Filmmaking (with Tips for Filmmakers)

O’Hara was also dedicated to her crew. Editor Michael Taylor (“Day Night Day Night,” “Love is Strange,” “Elvis & Nixon”), who worked as a script supervisor for Forensic, credited O’Hara for inspiring him to become an editor after his work on Korine’s “Gummo.” “By putting my lot in with Robin and Scott I was guaranteed a great film adventure each time,” he said.

Joshua van Praag, a best boy electric, spoke of O’Hara as that “rare breed of producer: supporting the uncompromising vision of the filmmaker whilst making everyone on the crew feel that they were taken care of, that they were a part of the project.”

Noah Timan, a production sound mixer on several of Forensic films, was one of many who wrote passionately on Facebook, thanking O’Hara for her “endless generosity, for your unending belief in me.”

Others told of invaluable lessons they learned from O’Hara, or the pleasure of being toughened up by her. But for every filmmaker who spoke of O’Hara’s strong temperament, they always coupled it with a sense of her caring, commitment, and frequent memories of her contagious laugh.

“When she laughed, which was often,” recalled Schamus, “her dog would awaken and take a peek out of its bag; then, satisfied, it would disappear, curl up again, and go to sleep until the next burst of laughter.”

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