By Rebecca Green
In June, Cinereach announced the four recipients of their 2019 Producer Award, which is part of the Cinereach Producers Initiative. The Award, which comes with a $50,000 grant, recognizes producers who demonstrate vision and integrity, contribute to the film community as mentors and leaders, and enrich the culture through their films.
Dear Producer wanted to take the time to get to know all the recipients and so we will be profiling each producer in our Cinereach Producer Award series.
First up, Kishori Rajan, who is an executive producer of the HBO series RANDOM ACTS OF FLYNESS, which was nominated for a Peabody Award. Kishori has also produced several feature films including THE SHORT HISTORY OF THE LONG ROAD, which premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. She is a 2017 Cannes Producers Fellow, a 2017 Tribeca All Access grantee, and the first ever American producer to be selected for the EAVE European Producers Network.
In my many conversations with producers, the one consistent takeaway is that there is no clear path to becoming a producer. Tell me about how you came into this profession.
I started making short films with friends in high school. I feel like that’s worth mentioning because I entered my college years knowing I wanted to do this, which I think was helpful for early momentum. I had a really great art teacher in high school who encouraged the early interest. I’ll always be grateful to him for that.
I majored in Film Studies at Columbia University. I had no idea what a producer was at that point, and told myself that I wanted to be a director because that was the job I had heard the most about.
The nice thing about Columbia is that there’s no classes on Fridays so it’s easy to take on internships during the school year. I did a lot of them – I think around 10 total – and they were all helpful in showing me distinct tracks within the industry. I interned for casting directors, publicity execs, post-production labs, script development departments. I learned that I preferred looking at the whole process of filmmaking – I liked engaging with every stage – and was less interested in burrowing into one specific thing.
I graduated in May 2008, exactly when the financial recession hit. It was nuts. Every single boss I had from those internships had been laid off themselves. So at 22, like most people around me, I was totally broke and facing the reality that a career in the arts was incredibly impractical. But I’m incredibly stubborn, problematically so, and became obsessed with figuring it out (coupled with the necessity to financially survive.) I was profoundly scared I wouldn’t land on my feet, but also learned that I’m pretty good at hustling when I need to.
Because of the financial crisis and the WGA strike that had happened recently as well, I entered the industry in a very shaken place, so my first real career lesson was that there’s no “need” for me – there’s no need for any of us. I needed to have a hard skill to be employable. No one really wakes up and says, “I’m looking to hire a creative genius”. People hire people because they themselves need help with something. So you need to have a hard skill so you can be concretely helpful, because there’s no shortage of creative talent out there. Development of your creative talent and the way you pay your bills are almost always two different jobs when you’re starting out, and that’s ok.
So I threw myself into learning how to do the stuff that no one else seemed to want to do in the microbudget world – I’d offer to do all the SAG paperwork and tax credit paperwork, for example. The recession seemed to generate a lot of restless, experimental, creative energy amongst underemployed people but there weren’t a lot of people who knew how to execute on stuff, so I used that as my in. I definitely pretended that I knew more than I did to get hired, and then learned quickly after. I’m a big believer in leaping first, learning after, if you’re willing to do the work and willing to take the responsibility if you fail. I find women in particular feel the need to be perfectly prepared before they take on something new, and I think that can be a way to hold yourself back unnecessarily.
I worked seven days a week during those first few years. I was just taking any gig that was offered to me, some of them film related, most of them not. I learned how to be on set during this period – I hadn’t so much used a walkie before this time – and found I was good at it. Crucially, I learned what not to do: I saw what abusive bosses looked like and saw how a mistreated crew and low morale hurt the creative process.
At the same time I was working these jobs, I produced a short on the side just to see what it was like to be a full producer on a project. I had no idea what I was doing and made a lot of mistakes, but it was a good, low stakes way to get started at 22. I applied to grad school but turned it down so I didn’t take on any additional debt, and learned the ropes practically as best I could. I also spent time living in India for about half a year working on a shoot and consulting within a Bollywood company. It was good to get out of the country and see how a different film industry operated.
When I was back in NY, I started working with people who were generous with their knowledge, and basically were like, “Okay, here’s something you haven’t done before, but you seem hungry and smart and not crazy so go ahead and run with it.” That eventually got me into line-producing on features, which was a really good entry point for what I do now. Line-producing is helpful because you immediately have to understand how resources are allocated, how to hire a crew, and how to manage a team. You see up close how a script’s ambition and potential can be amplified or reduced by decisions made on set. I think people dismiss line producing as a technical job, but I think there’s something incredibly creative about making budgets. It’s the number translation of what you’re artistically aspiring towards. Line producing is such a big job even if it’s a small shoot, so it was a formative position for me to learn a lot.
Then for about two to three years, I was a development executive at a small film company where my job was to find projects for a very small team of investors who were interested in the indie film world. It was great in that I spent my days reading scripts and books, and meeting with filmmakers I admired, but I also felt restless because most of my job was saying no to people. But it was crucially helpful for me to look at projects through the eyes of an equity investor. I learned a lot about film financing through exposure on this job – how a waterfall is figured out, how equity and profit participation actually work, all of the basic ABCs. This investor would take summers off, so I would use my summers to help produce stuff that I liked. That’s when I worked on the movie FOUR and GIMME THE LOOT in production and associate producer-type levels, two movies I’m proud of and had talented new directors who were going through the process for the first time also. Both did good festival runs and got Spirit Award nominations and helped me see what the distribution process looked like up close.
In the summer of 2015, I produced AMERICAN FABLE and after that experience I felt confident in myself as a lead producer to try and do it full time. That’s when I left my development exec job and started freelance producing full time.
You mentioned that you went into film school thinking you were going to be a director, I actually went in thinking I was going to be a cinematographer, what caused the shift from directing to producing?
I think the biggest responsibility of a director is actor performance. Your department heads and producers and team are going to help you execute everything else but no one else is going to talk to the actors and explain to them what they need to do, how to feel, how to perform. I feel like to be a great director you have to be able to act at some level. I think speaking to an actor is the way a symphony conductor has to be able to speak to a musician, which is to say, you should know how to play an instrument. I didn’t have a big enough interest in learning how to act. I love actors, but directing performances wasn’t what got me excited. I loved script development and finding interesting IP, I I loved strategizing a plan to actually get something made, I loved getting something out into the world – I loved everything else, basically. It was process of elimination and the realization that I’d never get bored producing.
Did working for an investor influence how you choose projects you or teach you any valuable lessons when it comes to raising money?
One of the biggest things I learned is to never insinuate that your movie is going to be a financial windfall for a financier. We have to always remember that statistically speaking, any profitably successful movie is an outlier in the system. Be honest with them, and respect their intelligence. When I talk to investors I say, ‘this is what I’m going to do to protect your investment’ not ‘this is how we’re going to make you rich.’
You don’t have to over emphasize the risk, but avoid hyperbole. Don’t promise yachts at Cannes and a crazy profit windfall. Realize that most investors are investing in your film for reasons that are other than financial – maybe it’s to have a sexier thing in their portfolio or to form a connection with an artist because they don’t normally have access to this world. There’s usually an emotional reason for investing in an indie film.
Also, a lot of what you’re doing with new investors as a producer is educating them on how the process works. Don’t underestimate that investors find the process interesting and like feeling in the loop. If they don’t care, they’ll tell you or at worst, you’ve sent them more emails than they read. But often individual investors want to feel like they’re part of the team and they want to share in the wins when they happen.
Your work is mainly shorts and features, but your most notable credit is RANDOM ACTS OF FLYNESS on HBO, which just won a Peabody, congratulations by the way. I’ve seen it, so I know what the show’s about, but I went online to read the logline on IMDB, which reads as, “a mix of vérité documentary, musical performance, surrealist melodrama, humorous animation as a stream of consciousness response to the contemporary American mediascape.”
Tell me first how you came to this project, but I’m really more curious to talk about how you pitched this project and got it off the ground. As much as TV is groundbreaking, it also is very safe. Everyone wants to be in TV now, but it’s much easier to get your feature made than it is to get a TV show made.
Yes, 100%. A sentence that needs to be put on billboards.
I’ll start with how the show got started. Tamir Muhammad, who used to work at Tribeca Film Institute, moved to Time Warner as an executive and started something called the 150 Fund. It gives tiny bits of grant money to artists who are early-to-mid career who are identified as having potential to crossover from the indie/art world into something more commercial. Terence got one of these grants.
Because the fund is connected to Time Warner, the artist would then have a chance to pitch a project idea to a Time Warner subsidiary, which at the time included everything from CNN, Adult Swim, HBO, TBS, etc.
I got a call from Terence Thanksgiving of 2015, basically saying, “I have a couple of bucks to make a proof of concept for an episodic series.” We had met prior to this through just general indie film world stuff and my producing partner, Jamund Washington, connected us as well for this, but we had never worked together before. At the time, Terence sent me just a two page brief of the idea. It had the title, RANDOM ACTS OF FLYNESS, but it was mostly just a document of what he didn’t want it to be. It had sentences like, “It’s not going to be THE DAILY SHOW.” A big thesis for him was to change an audience’s idea of what television could be. It was immediately clear that he had a very precise idea of what he wanted to make in his head. I love working with artists who have a level of stubbornness to their vision and Terence is that in spades.
It was an immediate ‘yes’ for me, I thought, “This sounds weird and wonderful” and I liked Terence personally and was a fan of his prior work. There was so little money to do it that it just felt very low stakes and fun. I was not at all thinking about HBO or anything like that. I just wanted to work with an interesting artist and make something idiosyncratic that matched my own taste.
If you’re familiar with the pilot, we filmed the part in the pilot that’s like a talk show scenario, that’s married with stop motion animation. Our set that day was so low budget that our craft services was like, water bottles from Dunkin’ Donuts and fruit from a Chinatown stall. I called in a lot of crew favors and we had a really fun, relaxed shoot with it. I remember watching crew members – like our ACs and sound mixers and PAs – on that set really laugh hard at moments we were filming and a few of them talked to me after saying the interviews we filmed really affected them. There was a moment then where I was like huh, maybe there’s something’s here. We also filmed the opening scene of the pilot where he’s riding a bike and filming on his iPhone (my producing partner Kelley Hicks wrangled that shoot day). We creatively embraced the lo-fi vibe because we had such limited resources at the time. So we strung together these moments and included some pieces Terence had already made and it was shown to the Time Warner execs and their companies.
To be frank, much to my surprise, not to Terence’s surprise, but much to my surprise, a couple of places, including HBO, put in an offer for us to make a full pilot presentation. I just wasn’t sure if they’d get it, but I think it so aggressively doesn’t fit most molds that people end up leaning in with curiosity, not away. What this means, offer-wise, is HBO gives you a tiny amount of money to make a sample episode. Then they review what they call a “presentation” and decide if it should go to series.
So from May of 2016 to May of 2017, I worked with Terence to make what became our pilot episode. I am really proud of it because the pilot you see on the air is the pilot that we made with that money. It was so, so low budget – every trick I had up my sleeve and every favor Terence could lean on got pulled out. Everything I had ever learned from my microbudget days was applied. It was a tricky producing balance because we had no money but we were also trying to land name actors and top-notch animators. We didn’t have HBO’s green light yet so we didn’t have that legitimacy to lean on yet, you know? It was like the scrappy-producing Olympics. But I had so much fun and was so energized because it was exactly the kind of content I always wanted to make. It was one of the few moments in my life where I didn’t obsess about the outcome, but just worked hard to make this joyful thing. Terence did all the editing and we raced to the finish line and submitted it to HBO in May. When it was submitted to HBO, I was at peace with whatever the outcome would be because I knew we had made exactly what we had set out to make, vision-wise. It felt low stakes in a weird way because there was something ludicrous about it getting the green light, even though I was so proud of what our team had done.
Then a month later, we got the ‘yes.’ I still have the screenshot saved of Terence texting us in capital letters that we got the greenlight. I literally woke up at 6am to that text. It felt unreal. I still remember the feeling of seeing that text.
This is my only TV experience and only TV green light experience, so I don’t have profound insight into the process. I will say that a lesson I’m going to carry through the rest of my career is what creating that pilot felt like – in that, if you are trying to do something that’s new, if you are trying to go for something that’s shoot-for-the-moon weird or unique, really lean into it and don’t think about the audience when you’re doing it. Just go for the thing you want to do without apology. It’s hard to have regrets that way.
You had a unique opportunity to prove your concept, even though you were given such a tiny budget, you didn’t have to pitch something that most likely never would have made it through the traditional pitch process.
There was never a verbal pitch or even a real pitch deck. Terence was basically like, “I can’t explain what this is, I have to just make it and show it to you.” And thankfully they said OK to that. It helped that it was a very small amount of money.
We get this question a lot, perhaps more than any other – ”What did the pitch look like?” There wasn’t a conventional one. We had to just show what we wanted and hope we’d stick the landing.
Reading about the show, the phrase ‘shift of consciousness’ is used and how ‘we need to start a conversation’ and I’m curious from your point of view, what does ‘start a conversation’ even mean for a film or TV show? I feel that we’re at a point where the phrase, along with saying, ‘now more than ever,’ is overused so much so that it has lost its meaning.
Pretty much every topic or theme that came out of the writer’s room was born from someone’s personal lived experience. It wasn’t like we were sharing think pieces, you know? It was such a talented group of people in that room that have all known each other for a long time, and that helped a lot – Darius Monroe, Mariama Diallo, Nuotama Bodomo, Shaka King, Nelson Nance, Naima Ramos-Chapman, Jamund, and Terence – and Kelley and I were present every day as well. Our writer room assistant was Missy Hernandez who did a great job keeping the million ideas organized.
The powers that be like to think that it’s very trendy to talk about – insert the blank – experience now, but our lives are not a trend. Black and brown people have been here for a very long time! It’s always amazing to me when people say to my face, “It’s so good to be a brown woman right now.” It’s enraging. It implies that my right to assert my identity in any real way has the potential to expire.
We’ve spoken about this before in other interviews but one of the main rules of our writer’s room was to not centralize the oppressor. Meaning, if we’re going to talk about blackness, don’t talk about it in the context of, ‘well let’s make sure white people understand what’s happening.” It sounds simple but if you look around, pretty much all media is shaped with that explanation in mind.
So, what if we just talked about ourselves? What if the writers just talked about blackness, and within that, queerness and poverty and polygamy and joy, without addressing the gaze of whiteness and straightness and wealth and monogamy and joy-in-spite-of-oppression? What does that look like? What does that feel like?
For example, if we look at someone who’s trans and say, okay, as a culture, narratively, the most interesting thing that will ever happen to them is their transition, then we’re never progressing, even if you have an all trans cast. We have to ask, what happens next? Or more personally for me: how do you talk about an immigrant experience without it just being about the challenges of assimilation? Immigrants have other things on their mind. So this rule was an important anchor in the process.
I sort of reject a lot of the grant language and the feel-good language of our industry. Giving us platforms shouldn’t make you feel morally good. We’re not charity. We’re talented and we’ve been here. I also don’t wake up every day thinking, “I’m going to change the world through this work.” That’s not how I view what I do. If I really wanted to change the world, I’d go into policy or activism or something. I recognize that cultural shifts are hugely important to making political change, but as artists, that can’t be the goal. The work has to stand on its own first – has to stand on its own artistic merits. Political change by way of cultural change is a cherry on top, a byproduct.
I think about impact a lot. It’s such an independent film thing, as you said like in applying for grants. We’re made to believe we have to have impact in order for our work to matter. However, now that I’m living outside of LA, I see that saying that can sometimes turn audiences away, that saying your film has impact can feel like homework.
I think about, ‘What’s my access point?’ and I think your show is an interesting example of something that looks so bizarre and crazy and deep and entertaining that people are going to turn it on just to see what it is. Then, in the experience of watching, they’re going to take something meaningful away through Terence’s voice and vision.
For me, I’m looking for projects that have something to say about the world, but also have an access point to get a mainstream audience to tune in. I think that so many filmmakers are just making things for our own industry, for our fellow filmmakers, for critics. But it’s just as hard to make a film no one sees that everyone sees.
Absolutely… It is absolutely the same level of work and usually, it’s more work to create something that people don’t come out easily to see. I also think anyone who’s definitively telling you ‘this is what audiences will pay for and champion’ is blowing smoke up your ass, because audiences want to be surprised at some level, and that there’s an inherent randomness to finding that. If the filmmaking team manages to make something that matches their own ambition and standards, then it’s succeeded. If audiences see it and like it, that’s wonderful but ultimately out of your control and impossible to truly predict.
A lot of how development works especially in LA is very stupid, because there’s this feeling that okay, GET OUT was really successful so now let’s figure out who the next Jordan Peele will be and repeat that again and again. But audiences don’t want a diluted Jordan Peele – they want Jordan Peele. I don’t hear people say to each other, ‘ok, who can fill in for Tarantino?” But there’s this idea that black/brown audiences are more monolith; that we can stack black/brown talent as if they’re Russian dolls or something. So I think our job is not let those blanks harden. Our role as creative producers is to be very unafraid to take up space and be very unafraid to say, “Jordan Peele and Barry Jenkins proved that x and y assumptions were wrong. Let me then disprove how these other assumptions are wrong as well.” I think MOONLIGHT and GET OUT specifically did a lot for the conversation when it came to non-studio financing for minority content. At least, it genuinely shifted convos for me. But we still have a ways to go.
What does sustainability and scaling up look like for you? Hearing the kind of artists you respond to, how do you turn that into a career? I think most people are doing this work as a hobby and are paying their bills by doing other work.
That’s 100% true. I don’t think I can do another sub-million dollar movie in the immediate future until we figure out how to monetize them better. I worked very hard to get where I am, but I also got really lucky in that a show I produced got picked up and I had a normal person’s salary for the first time in 10 years.
It’s incredibly hard for producers/directors in particular. I think producers are particularly suffering – we’re the ones who are the most underpaid when you add up all the unpaid development and post work we have to do. We have no protection. We have no union. The PGA doesn’t provide even a base minimum salary for us to even reference when negotiating our deals.
What are the things that keep you inspired and keep you going?
Seeing good art in any form. It’s always the most energizing thing. Other movies of course, but books, museums, plays, – it’s all important. It gives me ideas and it keeps me optimistic. I think any person working in the arts needs to absorb as much as they can, and support work that’s not their own as much as they can, too.
KISHORI RAJAN is a producer who develops work under her newly formed banner, Reverse Osmosis Films. She’s the Executive Producer of the critically acclaimed HBO series RANDOM ACTS OF FLYNESS. The show received a 2019 Peabody Award for “breaking the mold of what TV can be”, and was renewed for a second season. In 2019 she also received the Cinereach Producer Award for her “remarkable commitment to complex and authentic films”. Kishori views the independent film world as her professional home and has produced several feature films including the upcoming THE SHORT HISTORY OF THE LONG ROAD (Tribeca Film Festival 2019), THE PRINCE (Samuel Goldwyn Films), and AMERICAN FABLE (IFC Films); credits also include the Spirit-nominated films FOUR and GIMMIE THE LOOT (IFC Films). She’s a 2017 Cannes Producers Fellow, a 2017 Tribeca All Access grantee, and the first ever American producer to be selected for the EAVE European Producers Network. Kishori contributes as a writer to Filmmaker Magazine and has guest lectured on feature film producing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the Made in NY Media Center. She’s served as an industry panelist at several conferences, including SXSW and IFP’s Screen Forward Conference. Kishori received a BA in Film Studies from Columbia University, and resides in New York City.