DARREN DEAN: Turning Up the Volume on Unexplored Stories

By Rebecca Green

With two feature films at Sundance 2019 and his most recent film, THE SHORT HISTORY OF THE LONG ROAD, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival this past weekend, producer Darren Dean is having a big year. Dear Producer spoke to Darren about how he collaborates with producers to balance multiple projects, how he feels the business has changed since he produced his first film in 2008, and how the stories he wants to dig into most are the ones about people and worlds that have been unexplored or overlooked by society.

Producer Darren Dean

Ok, let me get my questions out.

Why are you talking to me? That’s my question.

[laughter] Why am I talking to you? No one ever asks me the first question. Well, you’ve been producing films for a while. I looked back at your IMDb page and your first feature was in 2008. You’ve been very prolific. You had two films that premiered at Sundance this year. I just wanted to check in and talk about your process and hear how you’re managing life and how you’re making these films. Why don’t you just start there? What are you in the middle of right now?

I’m in the middle of working on the sale of the two films that premiered at Sundance, THE INFILTRATORS and PREMATURE, and the third film that I made last year, THE SHORT HISTORY OF THE LONG ROAD, which will premiere at Tribeca. Then also prepping for whatever project is next, whatever that may be. There are a number that are in the pipeline.

I really enjoy making films. I got to a point at the beginning of last year and said, “Why don’t I try to make as many movies as possible, but using the same criteria,” because it’s not like films like TANGERINE, KINYARWANDA, or PRINCE OF BROADWAY, only come around every three years. They’re out there. They’re in the conversation.

What do you mean by criteria?

I want to tell stories about people that I’m not. For me, getting the opportunity to be in someone else’s skin or explore a world that is unexplored or stepped over by society, then I’m diving in. For example, THE SHORT HISTORY OF THE LONG ROAD, is about a girl who’s a van-dweller. I’ve seen bits and pieces of things that have let me know that this world exists, but it was a world I was not aware of going into the project. There’s definitely a subculture of people who live in their vans and not because of poverty, not because of their luck in life, but because this is what they choose. They’re living a nomadic existence. It’s a women’s story. It’s directed by a woman, shot by a woman. Most of the characters are women. It’s about a subject that I know nothing about, which compelled me to dive in.

With THE INFILTRATORS, We were talking about very topical subject matter with the ICE detention centers. Clearly, I’m not a Latino, I’m not an undocumented person. It’s important for me to educate myself and understand this world, that again I know nothing about.

Does that mean that every project needs to be limiting to just cultural stories or social impact? No. I’m happy to do a sci-fi film. I’m happy to do an adventure film. I’m happy to do a rom-com. Yet, it needs to be about a world that I feel light needs to be shine down on or made by a person who may not be getting the attention that they should, that’s what makes me want to dive in. I want to dive in and want to learn more, I want to work with new directors. I want to work with new and emerging producers and elevate them.

The bottom line though is the biggest criteria is I have to be attracted to the story and it has to be a good story.

THE SHORT HISTORY OF THE LONG ROAD

As I mentioned, your first feature was in 2008, what do you feel is the biggest difference in producing a film in 2008 versus today?

A lot of ideas have grown-up since then. With PRINCE OF BROADWAY, directed by Sean Baker, we ended up doing our own four wall self-distribution kind of release. The fascinating thing is that both Sean and I immediately rejected a distribution offer that was put on the table because we thought, “This is not how we want our film seen. We want the film to be seen in theaters.” It was the dreamy romantic notion of filmmaking. It was a day-and-date offer and I very much turned my nose up at that concept. However, I think that distribution model certainly has proven itself by now.

Even though I don’t love the day-and-date approach, I hate the fact that I turned my nose up at something that ended up becoming a proven model. Although that particular offer was from a distributor who had not really done it before. They were just getting into that space and it felt like an experiment.

Distribution is changing so fast and I think a lot of distributors themselves are really caught off guard by how aggressive some of the streaming services were going into Sundance this year. It’s really fascinating how quickly the business changes.

With everything changing so quickly, how do we convince financiers to invest in our films? We can’t offer comparable films when the distribution landscape is changing so drastically from year to year, which means the risk is high.

When I do workshops or Q&A’s or teach a class, I always get asked, “How do I get money for my movie?” I tell people, make a movie for next to nothing and keep building your resume because I can’t tell you how to find financiers right now. When you’ve built a resume that ensures people are at least going to get to be involved with a film that will receive critical acclaim, they’re more inclined to take that trip with you and go on that journey with you and explore those worlds that nobody’s gotten to see.

Just because you’ve got good taste in material that doesn’t mean that you’re a good investment. If financiers breakeven, they’re usually comfortable and they’re like, “Okay, we’ll do another film together.” But the truth of the matter is if even if you’ve done a few that breakeven, if you then have one that loses money, it is more difficult to go back to that investor, which is why so many films are financed by so many different financiers.

There are very few repeat financiers.

Yes. I’m very, very cognizant of the fact that right now an investor might trust me, but that dries up really quick. These films need to be successful not just for our directors, not just for actors, but for us as producers, because if there’s one thing that’s hard to maintain as a producer in the film industry, it is trust.

I hadn’t thought about it that way – that there are probably more producers that people don’t trust than they do trust. And that the ones that are being trusted, we are going above and beyond to make sure that we are trusted and that’s really exhausting.

It is extremely exhausting.

PRINCE OF BROADWAY Trailer

So speaking of exhausting, how are you managing volume?

Volume affects everybody differently. One of the things I’m very, very clear about with the directors I work with is that I will watch your film, I will give you my notes, I will hope that you make changes based on story ideas that I have, but beyond that, I really do not consider myself a post producer. I do not live in that technical world. I struggled on TANGERINE with getting through the post-production process. I would much rather have a qualified individual handle that part of the process and just be there as a creative voice for my director.

Now I partner with the right producers and we handle different parts of the process. For example, on THE SHORT HISTORY OF THE LONG ROAD, there were three producers and we all shared very different tasks at very different time periods in the film’s life. I was there on the ground during production along with Eddie Rubin, who was also an executive producer on THE FAREWELL, which was one of the big hits out of Sundance this year. I did the fundraising, I did the casting with Ani Simon-Kennedy, the director, and then when we headed towards post, Ani knew that I was going to be going off to work on another film. One of our other producers, Kishori Rajan, was working on HBO’s RANDOM ACTS OF FLYNESS and couldn’t be on the ground in New Mexico during production, then took over the post-duties.

I feel like volume is best gambled through partnership and surrounding yourself with people that you trust and I do feel like THE SHORT HISTORY OF THE LONG ROAD really was the film that was so well managed by that idea. We’ve been able to navigate as a team, which has been really, really nice, and we never feel like we were short-changing our director. I think that’s the biggest piece, you don’t want to feel like you’re short-changing your director, because these are relationships that we’ve built, and again, we’ve built them on trust. You want to walk off set and know that your director is left in good hands if you are not the hands that will be handling the next stage of the process.

I think it’s really smart though I think that there’s a fear from producers that if they are not involved in every single part of the process, every single decision, that it takes away their ownership in the project or that maybe their director will see them as less than. Do you find that to be the case?

I don’t think there’s a single person in a creative field anywhere on the planet that doesn’t suffer from some sort of paranoia. When you see an email that you feel you should have written, written by one of the other producers on the project, your brain’s automatic trigger is, “They like them more than they like me.”

It’s so important to turn that off, because if you have prepared your director that you work as a team so you each handle different aspects, they’re either in or they’re not. As long as you know that you’ve given what you can to the best of your abilities, you can’t think that way. But it’s really hard to turn off because I’m paranoid all the time.

I appreciate your honesty. I think it’s a fault that’s gets in the way for a lot of us. I asked the question because I know the feeling and I think it’s worked against me. I think that it could help a lot of us if we learned to turn that part of our brain off and allow ourselves to do the part of the job that we’re not just really good at, but also the part of the process that we enjoy the most.

Also, this is the hardest part for me in juggling multiple projects, I absolutely don’t want to say my directors are like my children, but the films are like my children. I want to care for them all equally, but the directors are part of that make up. They’re all talented human beings who want their work to be rewarded.

Try going to Sundance with two films that are competing against one another in the same category. That’s tough. And you know that that category has two awards, so you’re thinking like a parent, “Maybe the one kid will win this award and the other kid will win the other award.” That’s really what I was thinking. You have to turn that piece off, but you also have to turn that piece on because the more sensitive you are to it, the more your director is going to feel like you’re there for them.

There was a company that was talking to us about potentially throwing a party for one of the films and I suggested, “Why don’t you throw a party for both films?” I really wanted that camaraderie because we were all are there for the same reason, different films, but for the same reason.

I talk to a lot of producers about this idea of producing what a friend recently referred to as the director’s sample. You produce a director’s first feature, you put in all your blood, sweat, and tears, and then they have this amazing movie, and go make a bigger movie without you.

I think that if producers had a more of a tag team approach to producing these smaller films and actually let go of some of the ownership, it could ease some of that resentment we feel when our directors go off to the next project because we would also have other things going on as well, we wouldn’t have all our eggs in one director’s basket.

Right. I completely agree. When I produced KINYARWANDA the then egocentric Darren was like, “I can be the only producer on this film.” But then I started to realize what currency the producer title holds, which for me is the ability to bring something to the project that I can’t deliver that is crucial to the film’s success. For example, there was a person on set of KINYARWANDA, who kept asking for a producer credit. I was like, “No, I’m the only producer on this film.” Then he went off to Kenya, drove a truck through the jungle back to Rwanda with equipment and got a deal that was a third of what we would have paid had we negotiated ourselves. He got off his truck, and I’m like, “Dude, you are a producer.” It’s the currency. He brought something that I couldn’t do. His name is Tommy Oliver who needs no introduction now. That was a real learning process for me.

KINYARWANDA Trailer

You just summed it up in a really interesting way. When you think about bringing on other producers, ask, “What are you bringing to the table that I can’t bring?”

For me, in terms of that division of labor, what I’m looking for is a good line producer and I’m looking for somebody who can really focus on post, and then the three of us together can balance the other parts of the film. Really, those are big things for me.

I don’t usually bring up age in any of my conversations, but you reference your age often. I think we’re in a business that feels like it’s a young person’s game. I’m 40 and often feel on the wrong end of the spectrum. Do you feel that at all?

I think that there are folks who would like us to think that age works against us. I started making films when I was 41, 42, something like that. I shot PRINCE OF BROADWAY back in 2007 when I was about 41. I had gone to school for communications with the intention of making films coming out of college. I ended up dropping out to take care of some sick relatives and went back at my wife’s request so that I would have a degree to fall back on.

I had given up on the whole filmmaking thing until my senior year when I had an opportunity to do an elective, which was a screenwriting class. I wanted to be a journalist because I thought, “It’s too late in my life to do this and it’s not responsible. I’m getting married. I can’t pretend to be a filmmaker.” Sean Baker saw the short that I ended up directing as my thesis project. He was like, “Come write with me. Come write this movie PRINCE OF BROADWAY.” Every little thing that I did at this stage in my life at was, “Well, this is the last straw. This is the final swing at the fences and just have a good time of it.”

When I made PRINCE OF BROADWAY with Sean, I made it as if I was making a movie in my best friend’s backyard, but it just kept growing and then suddenly, we were at the LA Film Festival. Suddenly, Guillermo del Toro is handing Sean an award. Suddenly, we’re on the red carpet at the Film Independent Spirit Awards.

Finding ourselves on that red carpet at the Spirit of Awards, suddenly, I’m like, “Well, maybe this is real. Maybe this is reality. Maybe this is not the last swing for the fences. Maybe this is something that I could get used to.”

I was the oldest living production assistant in New York and I can tell you during that year, when I was PA-ing, every second I could spend on set behind a camera, behind a director, behind a producer, watching what they do, behind craft services, the sound guy, whoever, just watching what they do, added to both my results and my education. That was the best year that I’ve spent in the film business, quite frankly. I feel like I would have had a different mindset if I had started 20 years before that. I would have been too overconfident and would have made a lot more mistakes than I’ve already made and I’ve made a ton.

I feel like, yes, I think that there are people who think that people like yourself, myself can be pushed out of the way or overlooked or maybe not be the best person for the job because of their age. I disagree and the proof is in the pudding. I’m not at a loss at the moment because I’m able to continue to bring strong material and good ideas to investors, production companies, directors, and actors.

Darren Dean is an American producer, writer, and director. A three-time Film Independent Spirit Award nominee, Dean is responsible for producing the award-winning features PRINCE OF BROADWAY (which he co-wrote), KINYARWANDA, H.O.M.E., TANGERINE, and THE FLORIDA PROJECT. He also produced the Clio Award-Winning short SNOWBIRD, as well as PIONEER HIGH. Dean has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award (KINYARWANDA) and won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Feature (TANGERINE).

In 2016, Dean’s body of work was recognized with a nomination for the Film Independent Spirit Awards Piaget Producer’s Award.

For 2019, he’s most recently produced THE SHORT HISTORY OF THE LONG ROAD, PREMATURE, and the Sundance-winning feature, THE INFILTRATORS.

This year, he is producing MO and SINGULAR. Dean is also directing his first feature in 2018, NO SUGAR TONIGHT, as he continues to develop his adaptation of Will Eisner’s legendary graphic novel, A CONTRACT WITH GOD, for the big screen.