By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act February 10, 2013 at 8:40PM
TO - Speaking of the story being on the page, before we get too far ahead, let's actually go back a little bit, because I want to make sure I get some back-story here; I know your background is as an actor; so how did you, Ron, get to the point where you decided it was time for you to form your own production company? What was the inspiration for creating SimonSays Entertainment and how did it all come together?
RS - I was an actor, based in New York for a number of years. When I graduated from college, I then moved to New York like many actors do, to follow my career. So I started doing stage work, it took me a couple of years to get an agent, and once I got an agent, I started doing TV shows, as well as some plays; But then I talked to some really amazing writers and really amazing actors, an really amazing directors, and people who were about the story. And so I met these artists who were so gifted, whose scripts ended up in this continuous circle of readings, but never quite made it to the stage or never quite made it to the screen. And, at the time, about 2008, is when I decided that I wanted to do something about these stories, because I had decided that the stories I hadn't seen, but wanted to see were not being given any kind of exposure. So in 2009, I said to that I was going to start putting my money where my mouth is. I said, I'm going to start helping to get these stories out, and put them on the screen, and on the stage, and so I kind of put that out there into the universe. And at the time, I really didn't say that I wanted to start a company, or had any long-range goals of being a big producer type. I just wanted to make sure these stories were told. So I put that out there, and then I started working with a friend of mine. I commissioned him to write a screenplay in the sci-fi genre, which is one of my favorite genres. And while we were doing that, a schoolmate friend of mine said to me, Ron I heard you're thinking about producing; I think you should read this screenplay called Stringbean & Marcus, which is being produced on the east coast. So he made the introductions and I read the script for what was to become Night Catches Us. And I thought, wow, this is a story I have not seen. And I got really hyped about this project. I thought, this is really well-written, the characters are really interesting. It's tragic, it's funny, it's unnerving, and I said that I was going to work with the existing producers to see what I could do to make it happen. Initially I was just going to come on as an associate producer, because I thought, what do I know about producing? And then, after several more months, the writer/director Tanya Hamilton came to me. We met at a Starbucks in New Jersey, and she said, Ron I want you to produce this film; will you consider producing this yourself? It already had some producers, but they eventually dropped out. And I said, well, Tanya, I don't really know anything about producing. But maybe we can hire someone to work with us, etc, etc... and maybe we can figure it out. And then, basically, after weeks of back and forth, I said, you know what, let's do this. I then went and bought 5 books about producing, and read them all. We did find another producer that we hired, and next thing I knew, I was negotiating contracts, I was reviewing scripts and giving feedback for characters and story. By the way, as an side, April and I are more of what you'd call Creative Producers. There are the producers out there you just hire to help you make your film. We can do that; but that's not our wheelhouse; our wheelhouse is actually storytelling, and that's where our priorities lie.
AYT - I remember, we were walking through Union Square [NYC], Ron and I; I think Ron was working on Night Catches Us at the time, and I had just finished writing, directing and producing my first Off-Broadway play, and we were talking about all the things that went into that, and what I learned, one of them being how to negotiate contracts. When I first got this offer to produce my own show, and I got this 25-page contract - standard contracts are 10 pages maybe - but this was 25 pages. I was an English major in college, and I didn't quite know what to do with this. So I called every produced playwright that I knew, and I asked all these questions; and every single one of them said something like, oh, I just let my agent handle it. And I said, what? You don't read them? I said, I actually need to understand this. I was discussing this with Ron, and I said, I'm very disturbed that we as a people don't know much about the business side of things. That's disturbing to me. My story is being told up there on the screen, but I don't have a beat on how the money is being distributed, and other people are going to get all of that money? I need to understand that, and understand that really clearly. You need to be able to control your product on the business end of it. Another conversation we had that day was how frustrated I was about the work we were being seen for as actors. I told Ron about being a sophomore in college, when Wole Soyinka came to speak, and he said, if you don't remember anything else I tell you today, remember this: when you're telling a story, you're either the subject, or you're the object. The subject has a journey, they learn and they solve their problems; all the objects exist to help the subjects tell their story. So you ask yourself, are you the subject or the object. And I said to Ron, we are always the object. We need to invest in some stories in which we're the subject. And that began our ride.
TO - Are you primarily interested in films that tell stories about subjects, if you will, who belong to under-represented groups - Blacks, Latino, LGBT, etc - or do you plan to expand beyond that?
RS - Well I see us as expanding from what we know. I think that's who we are at the core, but we're always looking to expand beyond that. For example, there was a screenplay that I was considering becoming the producer for, which had to do with Japanese cowboys in the Midwest. Now, I don't know about you, but I'd never even heard any stories about Japanese cowboys in Japan, let alone Japanese cowboys in the USA Midwest. And I got really excited about that story, because I hadn't heard that story before. I'm not Japanese, I'm not a cowboy, though I am from the Midwest. But that's definitely an example of the kind of story I would be interested in telling. But with almost anything, you always start with what you know, with who you are, whether as a person of color, or from the LGBT community; you know what rings true, or false, and then you go from there. So I think what you've seen so far is where our wheelhouse is, but we're hoping to expand beyond that, to tell other stories that you rarely see or hear.