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Santa Barbara Film Fest: Ten Takeaways from Movers and Shakers Producers Panel, Award Winners

Festivals
by Justin Lowe
February 3, 2013 10:44 PM
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Santa Barbara Day-Lewis

SANTA BARBARA, CA – As the 28th Santa Barbara International Film festival wrapped 11 days of screenings, panels and awards events on Sunday, SBIFF executive director Roger Durling and programming director Michael Albright announced the fest awards winners at an invitation-only brunch ceremony. (Daniel Day-Lewis Tribute coverage here.)

The top Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema (which includes a $60,000 camera package) went to “Babygirl,” about a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx trying to adjust to her mother’s unsavory new boyfriend. Gerhard Ertl and Sabine Hiebler’s “Coming of Age” from Austria won the Best International Film Award for its depiction of a blossoming relationship between two seniors. “More Than Honey” by Markus Imhoof took the Best Documentary Film Award for its compelling perspective on the global decline of crucial honeybee populations. The full festival press release follows below – check the SBIFF website for announcement of the festival Audience Award winner on Sunday night: http://sbiff.org/

Ben Affleck
Ben Affleck

On Saturday, SBIFF hosted the “Movers & Shakers” panel at the storied Lobero Theater, this year featuring a full lineup of producers nominated for the Best Motion Picture Academy Award. Panelists included Bruce Cohen (“Silver Linings Playbook”), Dan Janvey (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”), DreamWorks’ Kathleen Kennedy (“Lincoln”), Stacey Sher (“Django Unchained”), David Womark (“Life of Pi”) and Working Title’s Debra Hayward (“Les Misérables”), replacing fellow producer Eric Fellner. Conspicuously missing were any of the three “Argo” producers, which after winning PGA, SAG and DGA awards is looking like a strong contender opposite “Lincoln” for the top prize.

In a wide-ranging exchange briskly moderated by The Los Angeles Times’ film writer John Horn, the six nominated producers discussed everything from on-set personality dynamics to the key qualities of successful producers. Among their more notable comments were these ten takeaways:

1. A Movie Production Functions a Lot Like a Family – An effective producer needs to strike a productive and creative balance with the director, the panelists agreed, and sometimes that’s a lot like managing family dynamics. “If you have the right director for a project, your job is getting inside his/her head,” Cohen asserted. “My job was to get inside [David O. Russell’s] head.”

SBIFF's Roger Durling
SBIFF's Roger Durling

Kennedy’s experience has been similar: “I’m trying to understand the vision of the director,” she said. “The producer is the one who steps back and sees the big picture.” Sher takes an approach that’s distinctly inclusive: “I think ultimately the producer’s job is to serve the film” and everybody working on it, she noted. Womark cited director Ang Lee, who has observed that “The producer is the adult and the director is the child,” in one of the film’s primary creative partnerships.

2. Utilizing Transferable Skills -- Producers often bring a mixed set of creative, business and logistical skills to their projects, but sometimes even the combined experience of multiple producers may appear inadequate, requiring some inspired workarounds. Going into his first feature on “Beasts of the Southern Wild” with producers Josh Penn and Michael Gottwald, “We had zero experience,” Janvey said. “We wanted to make a film on the scope of a Spielberg movie,” but they couldn’t afford a high-wattage cast. What the producers did have in common, however, was experience working on Obama’s 2008 presidential bid. After learning on the campaign trail that “empowering other people can change the world,” they used their skills developed while canvassing electoral districts to cast a wide net for actors throughout Louisiana, settling on what turned out to be an awards-worthy cast.

3. The “A-ha” Moment -- Sometimes even the film’s producers aren’t quite certain that the team they’ve assembled with the director is capable of pulling off the vision they’ve conceived. In the case of “Lincoln,” famously reclusive Daniel Day-Lewis opted not to share any of his preparation or rehearsal strategy with the cast and crew. So it wasn’t until the first day on set that he unveiled the character and everyone could see what he’d accomplished. Watching Day-Lewis reveal his interpretation of President Lincoln on the camera monitors, “You really felt like you’d gone back in time and were seeing Lincoln for real,” Kennedy recalled about the performance that’s likely to win the actor an Oscar.

4. Trusting the Process – As with any collaborative creative process, differences of opinion emerge between directors and producers that need to be resolved, often quite quickly, and every producer has a method for working things out. “We tried to banish the word ‘no’ from our conversations,” on “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” said Janvey. “It was more of a dialogue” that happened during the preparation and shooting of the film he explained. “The underlying principle is a profound trust.” Sher said that by collaborating with Quentin Tarantino, she’s observed that “He still thinks of himself as an independent filmmaker, he still has that perspective.” What’s more, he’s incredibly responsible, she said, and when there’s a difference of creative opinion, “you have to let people make mistakes or they’ll hate you” for enforcing restrictive limitations.

5. The Undertow of Current Events – Even for experienced producers, generating enthusiasm and financing for a film can become a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Despite working with Steven Spielberg for 34 years on his most prestigious and successful movies, Kennedy says that with “Lincoln” there was initially “not a huge amount of support for the film from financiers.” Then, with Obama’s 2008 election and ongoing Congressional discord mirroring the historic debate over abolishing slavery, “The pull of history put things in place,” she commented. “It’s just been an incredible thing to see it connect with audiences this way.”

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