ALEXANDRA BYER: Pushing the Rock Up the Hill

By Rebecca Green

We often use the phrase, ‘making a film is like pushing a rock up a hill’ but producer Alexandra Byer took that phrase to entirely new level with her film, THE MOUNTAINS ARE A DREAM THAT CALL TO ME, which just premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. 

Shot in the Annapurna mountains in the Himalayas, Alexandra not only had to attempt the trek herself, but also had to train her cast and crew to climb the mountain, a feat most of us would never even imagine attempting. 

Alexandra tells us how she pulled off this adventure in 19 days, her thoughts on sales agents, and how her team is thinking of out-of-the box ways to get the film in front of an audience. 

Producer Alexandra Byer, Photo Credit: Taylor McIntosh

Let’s start with the basics… Tell me a little bit about yourself and your company, Rathaus.

I’ve been a producer for about eight years now. I studied film in college and while in school, worked on Matt Porterfield’s movies. The first feature I was a part of was PUTTY HILL and I was a boom operator, but I noticed that everything the producer was doing was what I wanted to do. From then on I made decisions that I thought would help me become a producer. Once I graduated, I started working at IFP and met some mentors through that, specifically Alicia Van Couvering and Craig Shilowich, they taught me everything I know. 

I consider myself more of a creative producer, but with a very strong background in line producing. I also do a fair amount of commercial work and line produce ads. I have a holistic view of filmmaking and develop the project with the director from inception or from the script stage. I then see the film all the way through production and post and sales. I like to be involved in projects through the life of the film as much as possible. It’s always felt a little funny to me when I come onto a project that’s already in motion. I feel like I’m not supposed to be there. 

I founded Rathaus Films with three close friends who I was working all the time on short films and music videos and commercials. We shared similar creative goals and aesthetics but found we were always working for a production company or agencies that weren’t set up in the way we liked and didn’t really have any creative agency. It dawned on us at some point that if we created our own company, we could have production insurance policy and with production insurance, you have a lot of power. It sounds a little silly now, but that was truly the impetus for us creating the company. We no longer had to rely on someone else’s insurance or take out multiple short-term policies whenever we had the itch to make something. We now had control of whatever we wanted to make, and for our ad work, we could take a production fee. 

So we created Rathaus and got production insurance and workers comp and then with that comes a lot more responsibility. Obviously having a production company, you have to have more of a mission behind your work, but it started from a place of best friends working together and wanting to make stuff that we all had the similar ideas about and really cared about. I think that we still hold that very much true to what we’re doing today. 

Rathaus also puts some of the money we make on commercials back into projects so we can invest in IP. We have a couple of projects in development that are books that we optioned. It’s a non-traditional approach and probably risky, but it’s working for us. 

We produced three features within the last twelve months. They’re going to really good festivals and doing well. It’s really exciting for us to see that the time and the effort that we’re putting into it is paying off and it’s been really fun.

We also represent a number of different directors and producers and consider them part of the Rathaus family. We call them rats, and we get to help them make a music video or a short film. A big part of Rathaus is supporting our community and making sure that our friends feel like they can come to us and feel supported. 

The benefits of having a company are fairly obvious, what are the challenges?  

So much accounting. We’re so small and right now, we don’t have the finances to have an even part time accountant. I’m going through all the credit card statements and making sure that things match up, I’m double-checking everything. I’m also doing this for multiple features and many commercials at a time. It’s a lot. 

How do you guys determine who’s the lead on a project or are you all fully onboard everything?

I have a producing partner, Madeleine Askwith, who is part of Rathaus. She and I are now more laterally working together, where she’s the lead producer on a couple of features or I’m the lead producer on a couple of features, and then when we’re in production, we very much share roles. In development, one person takes the lead, but when we’re in production we very much share a brain. 

There are four of us that make up the company, but I own it with my business partner, Kevin Steen, who is an executive producer and director. He doesn’t exactly have the same producer background as I do, but he’s very, very good with talking to people, he’s a good manager. He’s extremely helpful when I feel overloaded and need someone when Maddy’s on something else for example. We take it day by day, project by project, I would say. 

Tell me a bit about your latest film THE MOUNTAINS ARE A DREAM THAT CALL TO ME. 

The director, Cedric Cheung-Lau, is also a professional gaffer and cinematographer. He and I met on a feature called LOVE AFTER LOVE, Russ Harbaugh’s film, five years ago. I was the line producer on that movie, he was the gaffer. Then we worked on a movie I was producing called SOLLERS POINT and we became very close friends.

Looking back, throughout SOLLERS POINT, he had been hinting at this movie, but I was probably just too busy and didn’t totally recognize it. Then after we wrapped, we went out for dinner and he pitched me the idea asked me if I would produce it for him. He had seen my producing style and work ethic before and knew the other films I had produced and believed I was the right fit for this movie.

When he pitched me the project, there was no script. It was a really beautiful photobook of medium format photos that he had taken on three different treks in the Himalayas. It took me a little while to figure out if I could take it on and what it really was. Part of that process was pushing Cedric to develop a script. A lot of the films that I’ve made don’t have real scripts. With Tim Sutton’s earlier films, we called them scriptments. They’re not exactly treatments, they’re not really scripts. They’re somewhere in between.

It took Cedric about a year to put together a script. Then at that point, once he did, it really spoke to me and I really loved it. I also truly adore Cedric and wanted to do this for him. The film was extraordinary wild. It shot in the Himalayas and we had to hike the Annapurnas. I signed on and then we had to figure out what that looked like and what that meant from a production standpoint. One of the first steps for me was actually doing the trek myself. Cedric took me to Nepal and we did the trek together. At that point, I think it was his fourth time doing the trek.

Logistically, he was like, “I don’t know if we can do this. I need to have a producer tell me if we can do this or not.” Over I think 9 days, we climbed this mountain and climbed down. The trek was unlike anything I had ever experienced in my life. I grew up in Massachusetts, I’ve hiked and climbed and trekked a number of places in the U.S., but I’ve never been in a place as beautiful and as powerful as the Himalayas.

It was a crazy idea. Even when I was on the trek with him doing this director scout so to speak, I was like, “Man, I don’t know. This is going to be hard. Yes. I think it’s going to be crazy, but we can do it. Let’s do it. Let’s figure it out.” 

To be clear, it’s not Alpining. It’s not like Everest. It’s not summiting, but it’s very extreme hiking. Obviously, at a very high elevation and with very little resources, but at the same time, while you’re climbing, you see these locals bringing refrigerators and solar panels up on their backs up to the villages, so you know there has to be a way to bring up your film gear too. 

I loved Cedric, I loved the place. I really loved the idea of the script, the narrative that he wanted to put on film, but it was in some ways, more than anything, I wanted to capture the energy of experience this trek. It was truly sacred. Where we were shooting is considered sacred sanctuary to the Nepalese. 

I did the scouting trek and killed my knees and then pretty much exactly a year later, we had enough financing to make the film. It was very little amount of money. We had found nine people from the U.S. for our crew to come with us, all of whom worked unpaid. We flew them out. We really had no money, but we were like, “You can come climb the Himalayas and do this crazy thing!” 

After experiencing the physical strain of the trek, I decided to work with a company to train our cast and crew. There are companies that train all sorts of people to do all sorts of climbing and hiking and Alpining. The company we worked with specifically had a program that trains city people to go climb the Himalayas or Kilimanjaro. It’s hard to force a crew to work out in preparation for a shoot that they’re not getting paid to do, but I think most people took it seriously.  

On many of the Himalayan treks, there are switchback trails they can be rocky or trail like, but they are inclines that circle a mountain and you slowly make it to your summit or get to your base camp. But to get to the Annapurna Base Camp, where we were, the way the mountain formed it didn’t allow for switchback trails. Because of this, local people over many, many, many, many years created stairs to each village and to the base camp, so basically the entire trek is stairs. Think about every stair you ever walked into your entire life and that’s what we were doing in a short period of time every day. You’d start your morning and you’d look out over this amazing beautiful valley and Cedric would say, “So see up there that little red house on the Ridge? That’s where we’re going to end today.” Then you would start walking down.

What was the budget? 

The current total budget is $160,000. Our production budget was $85,000 for 19 days. 

That’s so impressive.

I have to say it’s a huge testament to Cedric. He is the nicest, most even-keeled generous person I’ve ever met and everyone who meets him falls in love with him, though I think he would be horrified if he heard me say that. He’s very humble, but I think that people wanted to do this for him. 

And I assume people wanted to be involved for the adventure?

Yes, there were some who thought the idea sounded like hell and others who said, “Sign me up!” 

When Cedric pitched this idea to you, did you think about who goes to see this movie? Who distributors this movie? Your budget is so low so recoupment is not as inconceivable as it is for other films so maybe you didn’t think that far ahead?

I’m struggling with this to be totally honest about the films I take and how marketable they are. Obviously, it has to be film that recoups for the investors, but just knowing the landscape of things right now, it just seems like very little does, very little gets bought. I don’t want to stop caring about these smaller movies just because I know they’re not going to recoup. But every time I submit one to a financier or agent, they’re like, “We love it, it’s great, but we can’t do anything for this.” It’s really hard. 

There’s the recoupable aspect, but the bigger issue with these films is that most often, nobody sees them. It’s one thing for your investors to not make their money back, but you’ve put so much into making a film that if it doesn’t push through and it get meaningful distribution, it can be devastating. That’s the thing that really hits me. 

And even when you do get a coveted Sundance slot, that doesn’t guarantee distribution, and distribution doesn’t guarantee people will see the film. All that said, with this film in particular, we maybe didn’t have the forethought of that. We always knew it was going to be a more difficult film, distribution wise. I don’t think that’s changed from conception to where we are now, but we have always thought about out-of-the-box ideas such as partnering with museums or having it exist more in the art world, which is something I’ve always been really interested in doing.

I’m really curious about the intersection between film and the art space. I don’t know what that looks like yet with this film necessarily, but we’ve been realistic about what level of theatrical distribution this would get and how to get it out in the world. I will say that we have CAA representing and selling the film at Sundance, which honestly was a massive surprise to me when they said they wanted to come onboard the film. 

What’s been really great about CAA is that they came at this not saying the things that I hear every single day when I talk to sales agent, which is, “We’re getting NEON and A24 in the room.” I’ve been doing this long enough to know that A24 and NEON don’t want to buy this movie. Sure, let’s have them in the room. I want them to see it, but they’re probably not going to buy this movie. I’m also paying attention to what they make, what they put out, which is really good work, but it’s not this.

Instead, CAA came to us and said, “We are really interested in Cedric and you as producers and how we can help you outside of Sundance.” Ideally, we’ll sell the film at Sundance, but most of the conversations we’ve had with CAA are about the life of the film outside of Sundance, which is comforting as we know the life of the film won’t die post Park City. 

That’s fantastic and it’s true, all everyone talks about is A24 and NEON. Usually, if sales agents don’t feel they can sell the film at Sundance, they don’t take it on, so you’re lucky to be in a situation where it sounds like they’re in it for the long haul.

Our conversations haven’t just been about what distributors are seeing it, but how we can think about the film differently. How do we get people to watch it? To your point before, we’re talking about the lack of people seeing these smaller movies and how we can change that for our film. For example, one of their first ideas was potentially partnering with a brand and how to get it out to audiences with brand participation, companies like Patagonia who might really connect to how we made the film. 

To wrap up and because this work is so hard, I like to ask everyone, what is the thing that keeps you going, why do you love this, what keeps you in the game?

As hard as it is, I love the process. I really do. I love making something concrete that we then get to exhibit. Seeing the process of getting something made from soup to nuts is really special. Despite how hard it is, I love the creative process and the way a movie transforms so many different times along the way. Collaborating with artists and different people at every step. Sometimes I think about doing something else or focusing more in just commercials, but it doesn’t satisfy the same way. There’s a real satisfaction of making an art. I really love doing it for better or worse.