Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell
The Produced By Conference was held October 28, 2017 at the Time Warner Center in New York City. Here are a few of the highlights from the day’s events.
The Power to Shake it Up
In this panel moderated by moderated by Stacy L. Smith, founder and director of the media, diversity & social change initiative at USC Annenberg, the discussion focused on ways to increase the representation of women both behind and in front of the camera. Panel participants included PGA president Lori McCreary (who discussed her behind the scenes work through Revelations Entertainment, her production company she co-founded with actor Morgan Freeman) and actors Jessica Chastain and Sarah Jessica Parker along with the presidents of their production companies Kelly Carmichael and Alison Benson.
Jessica Chastain stated that she started her company, Freckle Films because she felt like she was part of a problematic industry. “Sometimes I think with anything that’s happening, we don’t acknowledge the fact that we’re complicit in our inaction, that goes across many areas.” Expressing the need to move beyond the status quo for hiring women, she explained: “If we’re asking for a list of directors and a list of writers from an agency, in most cases you get a list and it’s all men and you have to kind of go beyond that. Men traditionally are paid more than women, and agents make more money when someone that has a higher quote gets a job. So we need to go beyond what the agents submit and find the artists because they are out there.”
Freckle Films’ President of Production and Development Kelly Carmichael stated: “It’s all about the research and the outreach and opening ourselves up to say, ‘This is our mandate.’ And, ‘Who are the writers in New York? Who are the directors in New York?’ Bring them in, let me sit down with them and having that openness is really important. It’s up to us to say we’re going to put our power behind this person because we believe in them. You have to lock arms because otherwise that same cycle will just continue.”
Chastain offered the example of finding Laura Terruso, who is directing a movie for Freckle Films, from seeing her name in the credits as the co-screenwriter for Hello, My Name Is Doris and then researching her work.
President of Sarah Jessica Parker’s Pretty Matches Productions, Alison Benson, said they rely on word of mouth from other women in the industry, including fellow female producers, as well as authors and comedians in New York, and she shares those names with others.
Benson (who along with Parker is an Executive Producer for HBO’s Divorce) talked about exceeding their mandates for women on set. “This year on Divorce, we had more female than male directors. It was incredibly female behind the scenes in terms of the writers room and department heads. It’s not just about filling the minimum of those mandates. It’s about exceeding that expectation.”
Chastain and Parker’s companies are working to increase the diversity in their projects to include underrepresented women, and specifically in Chastain’s case, indigenous women. Carmichael added that their company isn’t necessarily only seeking material for Chastain but they are acquiring books and looking to produce other stories for an underserved audience, including minorities and women of a certain age.
Chastain commented about the characters she portrays, stating she always wants “to move away from a stereotype, an old-fashioned idea of what a woman is.” She added: “I’m really interested in finding well-written female characters that I see in my everyday life. I’m very interested in women in history. I want young girls to know that there were many before them and it’s our destiny to widen the paths for those in the future.”
Regarding screenplay descriptions of female characters Chastain said “I want to get rid of superficial qualifiers such as ‘beautiful, 5’2’, 110 pounds’. These are things that are normal in scripts when they describe a woman in terms of something that’s not important at all. If you read the script, you have an idea of who the woman is. So we’re removing all of that stuff.”
Sarah Jessica Parker talked about the challenge she had pitching the character of the wife she plays on Divorce. Many of the male executives needed to be convinced that this woman could be multi-dimensional, and “they were very concerned that she was not likeable.”
Creating a Safe Space in Film, Pre-production and Production
In the Producers’ Masterclass: The Power of Creative Collaboration Part I moderated by Bruce Cohen, the discussion centered around ways to move forward in a safe space in film, pre-production and production.
Producer Peter Spears (Call Me By Your Name) stated: “There are a lot of intimate moments in this movie. When we were shooting that, there was always a consciousness of how to do it in a way that was respectful of their creativity but also their privacy. We wanted the film to have a sensuality about it, to be sexual, but also how to do that in a way that was respectful of the artists.”
Killer Films producer Christine Vachon, who has worked with director Todd Haynes for 30 years, and most recently on Wonderstruck stated: “It’s a big question. We make sure that the actors know that I’m there. Sometimes they’d rather talk to me than the director, because I’m female or maybe they’re a little nervous about the director, so I try to establish those lines of communication early and often. We’re not just talking about the actors; we’ve also examined our practices in the past few weeks. We’re a very female-run company (Killer Films) and it doesn’t happen very often, but it has happened where people come up and make complaints, and we’ve dealt with them as quickly and effectively as possible. I think producers keep their eye on the ground to be sure there’s no real toxicity happening. Even though we’ve made progress having more women department heads and more women DPs on our films, most film sets are mostly male. It’s just still the way it is.”
Graham Broadbent, producer of Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Mississippi (the film stars Frances McDormand in a story about racism and violence towards women) responded to how he approaches these issues both on and off camera. “These weeks made it very contemporary. I produce films because I like stories and I want the stories to be made. You want to make sure everyone feels included, happy and embraced. But there’s a tone you set that comes from the senior people on the film about what’s alright and what’s not alright. And I wouldn’t sit around a place that isn’t alright.”
Producers’ Masterclass: The Power of Creative Collaboration, Part 2
Moderated by Bruce Cohen, the panel included Mudbound (which I recently wrote about for this publication) director Dee Rees and her producer Charles D. King who talked about their collaboration, which began years earlier when King represented Rees, and the trust they formed in each other’s vision and work ethics.
Director and Producer Griffin Dunne and his editor Ann Collins (co-producer and editor of director Lara Stolman’s documentary Swim Team (see my interview for this publication) discussed their documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, which currently is on Netflix and the importance of collaboration and sharing ideas.
Dunne, who is Joan Didion’s nephew, explained that his inspiration for his documentary came when he realized that there has never been a documentary about the author made with her consent. “I pushed my luck and I asked and she said, she’s a woman of few words, and she said, ‘Uhh, okay.’” What I wanted to do was make a documentary that traced her life as a wife and a mother and what she was writing about and what was going on in the country and extend that all the way through.”