Sundance: Producers are key to empowering filmmakers in ‘Controlling the Narrative’
Saturday’s panel will stream Jan. 24-29
One of the challenges filmmakers face is telling the story they really want to tell, rather than watered-down versions that may or may not resemble their original dream — especially when it comes to culture-specific tales.
Producers Diane Becker, Eugenio Derbez and Tommy Oliver addressed this conundrum during the Sundance Film Festival’s Cinema Cafe panel discussion “Controlling the Narrative,” Saturday at the Filmmaker’s Lodge.
The panel, moderated by Producer Effie Brown, known for works such as “Rocket Science,” “Real Women Have Curves” and “Everyday People,” gave empowering advice to filmmakers regarding how to tactfully maneuver the gatekeeping while maintaining the integrity of their projects.
For Derbez, who starred in and directed “Instructions Not Included” that made more than $100 million to become the most successful Spanish-language film in the world in 2013, it meant adding to his resume.
“I started as an actor,” he said. “I just wanted to act, but then I started getting offers for roles that I didn’t like. So, I realized that I had to start writing.”
Not a trained writer, Derbez recruited the help of some of his close friends and began writing scripts.
“I started producing, because I realized that (while) I was writing and acting, it was not my voice, my real voice, because there was someone else controlling the thing,” he said. “So I knew I needed to start producing and directing.”
When Derbez, who made a name for himself as a comedic actor in Mexico tried to find crossover success in the United States, he kept hearing producers tell him his projects were “too Mexican.”
“I was like, ‘And?,’ because we in Latin America and in Mexico have been consuming Hollywood films forever,” he said. “We love ‘Erin Brockvitch,’ which is about a woman in America. So, why not do a story about someone in Mexico.”
So. Derbez, who is at Sundance this year with Christopher Zalla’s film “Radical,” began producing out of necessity to keep his own voice in the projects he was doing.
“Producing is not exactly my thing,” he confessed. “I mean, I like it, but I don’t like all the numbers and the political parts.”
To help buffer that chore, Derbez created a production company, 3Pas Studios, with his business partner Ben Odell in 2014, and he has used the company to help amplify other people’s voices with integrity.
“I feel it’s important to give people like me a voice,” he said. “So we’re opening our company to give people like me a voice.”
Becker, who mainly works with documentaries, added her thoughts about the role of a producer, which is something she and her business partner Melanie Miller, have done since founding Fishbowl Films in 2009.
“For me, producing is about the people you partner with, the creative collaborations you come in contact with, and the storytelling,” she said. “I have my own saying and philosophy of life, which is ‘It’s the people in the project.’ And I love all kinds of stories that have distinct visions or a distinct point of view.”
That philosophy comes through even when the projects Becker backs are as different as “Tina,” Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s 2021 documentary about Tina Turner, to “Navalny,” Daniel Roher’s 2022 project about assassination-attempt survivor Alexi Navalny.
“Every single project is different, (and) every single director is different,” she said. “I love to partner with directors who have that distinct voice or who are working on things that sparks my curiosity about life and storytelling.”
Becker is at Sundance with Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s new documentary “King Coal,” which looks at the culture of coal in Appalachia as seen through the eyes of a miner’s daughter.
“I have described ‘King Coal’ in many ways as my soul,” she said. “There is something beautiful and poetic about that, and it was such an enriching experience to help Elaine McMillion Sheldon take this singular vision that only Elaine could have created and bring it to life.”
There is no rhyme or reason to how Fishbowl Films selects projects, according to Becker.
“I just instinctively kind of know,” she said. “Sometimes I ‘m brought in to those things, and sometimes I seek those things out.”
While a producer’s role is to work to help keep the director’s vision intact, a financier also has the power to control the narrative, and Tommy Oliver, as both producer and financier, has seen both sides of that coin.
Oliver is involved with four Sundance films this year — Erica Tremblay’s “Fancy Dance,” Themi Banks’ “Young. Wild. Free.,” Qasim Basir’s “To Live and Die and Live” and Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson’s “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project.”
“I find myself in an odd position of being a filmmaker and financier, where I’m a director, writer, cinematographer and editor, so the conversation I can have with other creatives is very different,” said Oliver, who with his producing partner and wife Codie Elaine Oliver started Confluential Films production company in 2012. “We, as a company, are filmmaker driven and filmmaker supportive, so to be that person who believes the director should have the place to tell the story themselves and enable them to do that and figure out how to block and tackle ways that they may not even know.”
The term “block and tackle” resonated with Becker in terms of supporting the filmmaker she backs.
“As a producer, your job is to build a protective fence around them, and do everything you can to support that,” she said.
Directors can also do their part to preserve their voices, by sticking to their guns, said Derbez.
“In my case as a director, there is nothing more stressful and frustrating than someone who does not understand your mission,” he said. “It happened to me with the film ‘Instruction Not Included.’”
Derbez worked for 12 years on the film, and midway during the process, Sony told him they were interested in producing the film on one condition — that he would change the ending.
“That was the core of the movie, and I wasn’t going to change it,” Derbez said. “And they said, they weren’t going to produce it. I preferred not to do the movie rather than change the ending.”
By sticking to his principles, Derbez told the story he wanted to tell in his own voice, and the film became a huge success.
“The guy who told me to change the ending contacted me just a week after we opened and invited me to dinner and said, ‘I’m sorry. I was wrong,’” he said.
Unfortunately, the perception that culturally specific films can’t be successful is the result of decades of those who controlled the narrative, Oliver said.
“For so long in this industry, there was one type of person who said yes, and it was a white man,” he said. “If a film didn’t fit the perspective or the understanding of it, then it didn’t get made or it got bastardized.”
That happens when filmmakers have to compromise again and again in order to get their films made.
“It ends up not the movie it should have been, and producers say, ‘These movies don’t work,” Oliver said. “So, saying No is so important.”
It’s also important to understand when to say No and when to compromise, Derbez said.
“You need to know the difference between saying No because you are defending your point of view and being stubborn,” he said. “You should always listen. You need to know when to change what they ask you to change.”
A good producer will work with filmmakers so they will develop that knowledge, Becker said.
“The talent and superpower of the producer is to be able to see that stuff, and then be able to communicate with the director,” she said.
Producers need to tell directors that they will protect their vision, while discussing reasons for making changes, according to Becker.
“Is it reasonable, or is it understandable, and how does this affect what you’re telling,” she said. “As a producer, you’re hovering above, while the director is in the mire,” she said. “If you’re a good producer, you can fly in and out and have those conversations.”
Saturday morning nature walks are held at 8:30 a.m. every Saturday at the Swaner EcoCenter. The cost is $10 per person and $5 for local residents.
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