Keeping the vision and fueling the engine – the role of a creative producer...

From the first creative rush of a new idea to delivery of the finished product, the producer shoulders the responsibility for taking a project to completion. Managing the collaborative relationships of writer, director and financier while staying true to the original artistic vision can be a challenging job requiring solid business sense and a passion for the creative process.

Screenwriter and producer Christina Milligan spoke candidly at the April Writer’s Room with Philippa Campbell (Rain, Black Sheep, No. 2, Rubbings from a Live Man), Fiona Copland (The Price of Milk, Topless Women Talk about their Lives, The Strength of Water, Matariki) and short film and commercials producer Nik Beachman (part of the NZFC Executive Producer group that produced Run, Fog and Nature’s Way all of which were accepted in competition at Cannes) about the role of the producer.

Christina began by asking the panel to define the ‘creative’ producer and clarify the role of the ‘line’ producer.

‘A producer is someone who facilitates the creative process,’ said Nik, ‘and is responsible for the production and delivery of the art form. When it comes to defining a ‘creative’ producer that realm is quite difficult – but the producer definitely has a creative role to play.’ Fiona felt there was ‘no such thing’ as a creative producer. ‘We’re all just producers, putting one foot in front of the other, trying to employ common sense which can sometimes be elusive. Maybe they think a ‘creative producer’ is no good with money but I think that everyone who makes a film is a ‘creative producer’ of some sort.’

The panel felt that some producers are more ‘creative’ than others and are indeed known for this and the directors they work with. However, all agreed that a producer’s primary responsibility is to deliver the finished product to the market which includes securing the finance.

In general, the executive producer’s role is to assist with raising the finance. The producer is responsible for delivering the film. He or she is present before finance is secured, keeps the project moving through development, pre-production, the shoot, post production, and always oversees ‘the big picture.’  Fiona said the number of producers associated with co-productions is increasing (she used The Strength of Water as an example), simply because finance is needed from multiple sources. ‘There may be a number of producers involved from several countries but there is usually only one lead producer whose job it is to deliver the film – and if you’re a New Zealander, it’s usually you.’ The line producer’s job is to manage the nuts and bolts of the shoot, reporting to the producer and freeing the producer up so they can keep a handle on the ‘big picture.

Christina asked the panel to define the dynamic relationship between the producer, writer and director – the ‘glue’ that holds a project together.

‘This relationship is the engine of a film,’ said Philippa, ‘it’s at the core of the filmmaking process and one of the roles of the producer is to go to the petrol station and fill it up. It can give you many sleepless nights.’ Nurturing this relationship can make finance elusive. ‘Nobody wants the films we make,’ laughed Philippa. ‘There is no money for them and our colleagues around the world have the same problem. As producers, we go out and inspire people with the stories we want to make into films and we must strategise between the relationships of art and commerce, thinking ‘how can I finance this?’ We have different relationships with investors, writers and directors. Financiers speak to us so we need to make them feel as passionate about the film as we do.’

Christina said she had often spoken with people who wanted to become producers but had little appreciation of the writer’s importance to the ‘engine room’ process. While working as an executive producer on short films, Nik felt it was important to ‘slow people down’ and allow for greater focus on the writing. ‘If people are funded to make a short film, documentary or a video clip they then want to make it immediately. It takes a lot of time to develop good material so I try to put them into development mode and foster healthy relationships within the team.’

Fiona related a story of her attendance at an Australian workshop for budding producers. ‘It was full of very smart entrepreneurs with big business plans and confidence and lines of credit,’ she said ‘but by Day Two it was clear some of them were in difficulty because they actually had nothing good to make, no relationships with writers. They’d read all the industry magazines but didn’t know how to respond to the material so good writers were not coming to them. You can’t just decide to be a producer because you’re confident and have a credit line – you have to be chummy with a writer and be driven by the work.’

Keeping the project moving can be one of a producer’s greatest challenges. ‘Films are so complex,’ said Fiona, ‘and there are a million ways you can make them really badly and a million moving parts that can go badly wrong. Trust your instinct and be passionate. Every year I say I don’t want to be a producer any more and then someone will come into my kitchen, tell me a story and I cannot help myself. I feel confident I can find finance for a film that I am passionate about, but I’m useless if I don’t feel that passion. You need that passion to keep your energy going right through the whole project, because it’s a long haul.’

Philippa said a producer’s job is to get people up in the morning and ‘… make them as passionate about the project as you are. That word ‘passionate’ is such a cliché but it’s so important. You have to know why you’re in the business – what attracts you to it. That attraction re-energises your colleagues.’

For those interested in becoming producers, Nik advised reading ‘a lot of scripts and watching a lot of films’ but not to underestimate the value of acquiring some business expertise, particularly in accounting and basic legal knowledge.  Although he acknowledged not everyone needs those skills as long as they have someone on board who does have them. ‘I like to work with a team of producers who have complementary skills,’ he said and Philippa agreed, saying an understanding of the market and distribution is also vital. ‘It does come down to tickets, people wanting to see your film. Find a way to educate yourself about the film culture here and internationally because this is a global business and people want to see good New Zealand films, both here and overseas.’

The panel agreed it was hard to produce for both television and feature film because a thorough understanding of different markets and depth of story is required. ‘I think it’s problematic,’ said Philippa. ‘Some producers work very skilfully between film and TV and I hope they succeed!’ Fiona felt, from personal experience, it was hard to work in both but there was little difference in the producer’s responsibilities. ‘You’re responsible in both TV and film for whether it works or not – it’s your job to find ways to cope with the inherent tensions in the process and keep people moving forward. If the project turns out badly, it’s your fault.’

Christina agreed, saying a producer must take full responsibility for a project. ‘You as producer must make the space for everyone to do their best work.’ Within that responsibility lies the ‘best of times and the worst of times.’ The panel revealed with stark honesty some stories from their galleries of triumphs and challenges, successes and failures.

Nik said running a business and developing films involves a lot of paperwork and overhead. It can take two to five years for a film to develop and there is very little to compensate a producer during this difficult time. Fiona laughed that once a director she worked with told her he ‘could not be creative’ when her ‘face looked like that’ and she had to search for ways to ‘mitigate that problem!’

Philippa said maintaining clarity of vision was one of the hardest aspects of the job for her. ‘It can be difficult to deal with a really conflicted situation and to then reconnect with why I wanted to make the film in the first place. There are so many things, so many interconnected wheels along the pathway, much challenge and frustration; it can be easy to lose that clarity of vision.’

Philippa said one of her turning points occurred after listening to a British producer who spoke of going on set with a director and pulling the plug out of the generator truck to stop the shoot going into overtime. ‘I learned then that I could pull that plug if necessary. I haven’t done it yet but I always know where the generator is!’

There are the good times too and Fiona said the best moment for her occurs during the very first part of the process when she decides to make a film, ‘… and then you feel in script development that you’re getting somewhere, people will want to watch this film. The flipside of that though are the night terrors, especially the one where you realise that the film going into the can is not quite what you saw originally.’ Fiona stressed that although during shooting the producer can feel as though things are not going quite right it is important not to load extra stress on the other key creatives at this time. ‘If you need to effect change you need to achieve it without destabilising the director because they are already under tremendous pressure. Figuring out what to do in that situation is one of the hardest things for me.’

Philippa agreed that intervention can be difficult. ‘The role is one of the interventionist. As producers we intervene in the creative process, we intervene to get money out of people, we intervene in the development process – we intervene all the way through with the responsibility for the whole project on our shoulders. We have to know a certain amount about a huge number of things and must step in sometimes to get everyone making the same film, the one we had the original vision of.’

Nik added, ‘You have to emotionally absorb and hold onto a lot of stuff that you cannot begin to process. A producer cannot vent emotionally whereas others can.’

‘No matter how good the film is, I angst over things,’ said Fiona. ‘My greatest fear is how easy it is to be wrong and I’ve had some quite spectacular experience of that. You have to have a lot of self belief.’

Surrounding yourself with supportive people can give much needed confidence and direction. ‘The more you can align yourself with those who support your ambitions, the better off you will be,’ said Christina. Fiona advised prospective producers to, ‘… find talented people, stick to them and try not to annoy them! We are only as good as the people we work with. I would make any kind of film with a person I feel is talented. You get a rush from their ideas; they have a distinctive voice and New Zealand films need that. You have to like the people too. Starting off, you feel quite exhilarated but then you enter ‘development hell’ and that takes years. The people who will get there in the end are the ones who have the stamina to pick themselves up from the gut-wrenching rejection and keep going.’

During question time the panel was asked to comment on why more NZ films are not being made. Philippa replied that a number of feature films are currently in production. ‘The industry goes through peaks and troughs. The Film Commission have small coffers and budgets will reduce due to the recession but it does feel like a buoyant time right now. The development process takes a long time. There is only a small amount of agency funding and certain protocols must be observed. The challenge for us is, ‘how do I make my film outside of the conventional avenues available here in NZ?’ Also, the more imaginative we are about the writing and storytelling process, the more varied and interesting our film industry will become.’ Christina said the Commission ‘… wants to make films as much as we do’ and this reflects what a complex process making a film really is. ‘Getting all the pieces right and the financing is just so hard – that could be a reason why we have slow periods.’

How is it working with a writer/director? Christina felt there were few true writer/directors and a script will usually reveal where the talent lies. ‘Work to your strengths.’ Philippa felt Toa Fraser was an exception with No. 2. ‘He gave people the sense that he could direct too. As producers we must persuade our investors that the heart of the story will also appear on the screen and Toa was very convincing when it came to that.’

Someone asked the panel’s view on current script development practise and cited Peter Greenaway as a filmmaker who works very differently, not using a script as the blueprint.

Christina commented that getting finance was extremely hard without a solid blueprint of a script.

Fiona talked about her first feature films being made without a script and said it depends on the people you are working with.  “If Peter Greenaway wanted to make a film with me I probably wouldn’t need a script either!”  Throughout the event Fiona stressed how important it is not to interfere with a project in development to its detriment.

Philippa said, “It is important to think about where the writing is happening and it should always be happening somewhere – even if that’s sometimes not on paper.”

When asked if writers can produce, the panel felt this was more common in television drama than feature film. Nik felt that if a writer needed to become a producer in order to advance their project and to see the story made the way they see it, then taking up a producer’s role was appropriate.

Philippa concluded by saying she had written in the past but made a conscious choice to become a producer.  “If you are trying to write and produce you have to seriously ask yourself why you want to do both.”

Written by Jane Bissell for Script to Screen

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