By Barbara Twist
As a huge fan of the hit indie film HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS, I was super excited to get on the phone with one of its producers Jordana Mollick. We talked about her experience as both a manager and producer, how she got her start in theater, and the recent launch of Semi-Formal Productions, a new company she’s launched with filmmaker Michael Showalter.
You started out as a manager with your own company. What would you tell people who say managers aren’t producers? How has your work as a manager influenced your work as a producer?
There are all different types of managers; some produce and some don’t. I always wanted to be a producer. I didn’t plan to be a manager, but I realized it was something I did naturally. It stemmed from getting excited about writers and filmmakers’ voices and not just specific projects and material. When I first started producing, I would send around material to different executives and if they passed, executives would say, ‘I really love the writing, but this isn’t something that we’re looking to do right now.’ My reaction was, ‘Okay, why don’t I introduce you to the writer and let’s find something else that we can do together.’ Writers started getting jobs based on this process, everybody would take me out for drinks to thank me, and eventually I realized that this was actually a career and I needed 10 percent, not free drinks.
I built my business this way, managing and producing with my partner of many years, Brandon Bragg. For both of us, it was a balance. There is a negative connotation associated with managers barnacling themselves onto projects that their clients are writing or starring in but not really doing any actual producing work. It felt pretty frustrating trying to prove to people that I actually am a producer, that I can fill both roles.
Being an independent producer is very hard as a sustainable career. Managing, even though it takes a long time to build a business and see money, allowed for some stability so that I could go off and produce the projects I was really excited and passionate about. That panic about the fee or lack thereof was reduced because I had another part of my business that was bringing in income.
They fed each other really well; I felt like being a manager made me a better producer and being a producer in some ways made me a better manager.
You have a background in theater producing and when you moved to LA, you started a play series called Unscreened. Can you share how that started and how it has served your career?
I really credit the theater for helping start my career. I was a theater producer before I knew anything about film or television in New York. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I kept meeting all of these amazing writers who had never gotten to see their work made. They had all of these projects in development at studios and had been hired to write scripts that often sat on shelves. For many of them, even if they had gotten something made, they were never given the opportunity to direct that script. So I decided to start a play series called Unscreened which took up-and-coming writers and directors and gave them an opportunity to write a short play, whatever they wanted to write about. They would write these plays, we would cast actors that we knew and wanted to work with, and we put them up for a month. It was really exciting.
Many Unscreened alumni went on to become really famous actors and really successful filmmakers. It was this great breeding ground for creative people. LIFE PARTNERS, which was the first movie that I ever produced, was born from the first year that I produced Unscreened. Susanna Fogel and Joni Lefkowitz wrote it as a short play. We went on to develop it into a movie, participated in the Sundance Labs with the script, and then made the film. (Interviewer note: LIFE PARTNERS premiered in 2014 at Tribeca Film Festival).
Unscreened really felt like it was a start to my career and a launching pad for a lot of people who are working in television and in movies. It helped me to build a community in LA. We did it for seven years and I still hope to do it again. It was a way to create my own IP and control IP by wonderful writers that we could develop into something more if we wanted to. It was very special.
Relationships are the key in being a manager and a producer, so it makes sense they would work well together. Thinking about producer-director relationships, you worked with Michael Showalter on HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS and, more recently, you came back together to form Semi-Formal Productions. You’ve also worked with Susanna Fogel and Courtney Hoffman on multiple projects. How do you identify good long-term collaborators and cultivate those relationships?
I have to love the material first and foremost. When I meet a filmmaker, I suss it out. I listen to their vision. I get to know who they are, where they come from, and where they want to be going. If I feel like it could work, I make the decision to collaborate with them and then I am wholeheartedly in it. I really trust my instincts on people and get along with a lot of different personality types. I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve made that decision and then thought, ‘Oh god, what did I get into with this person?’ As a producer, you make a choice whether or not you believe in someone’s vision. If you believe in it, you want to make that vision a reality. I kind of get tunnel vision for that.
It’s a classic story: director and producer collaborate on a breakout first feature, but when the director is offered their next film, the producer is not brought along. How do you handle these situations?
This is a conversation I’m having with all of my producer friends constantly because it is a source of stress, frustration, and also excitement. You work with these filmmakers, you put everything behind them, you believe in their vision 100 percent, and often work for years to get a movie off of the ground with them. Then when it’s over, if it’s a success, often the director gets bigger opportunities and doesn’t have the ability to bring their producer with them. It’s very hard and it’s heartbreaking.
I think that as a producer, when you do the work and you come out with something successful, your directors want to work with you again. It’s just a matter of whether they are in a position to be able to do that and fight for you as a producer like you fought for them when producing their project.
Thinking specifically about my relationship with Michael, it was sad that I wasn’t able to produce THE BIG SICK but the project already had a great team in place. Yet, because the film turned out to be a success, Michael was in a position after the movie where he could bring me back in to start Semi-Formal Productions. It means a lot to me that he did that. To me, that is a sign of having a successful working relationship. I intend to work with all of my filmmakers as often as possible. It’s always the goal, but sometimes you do have to go off and do different things to build your career before coming back together again.
When you’re not working on a specific project together, what are some ways that you nurture your director relationships?
I am notorious for not having boundaries. I started a company with Michael Showalter, Susanna Fogel is my roommate, and Courtney Hoffman is also one of my best friends. For me, it’s just organic that I stay deeply involved in the lives of the directors that I believe in. We’re blessed to be in an industry where we do get to choose a lot of the people that we work with. Especially as producers, when we are building our careers for such little money, we want to be working with people who excite us and treat us well. I don’t even have to think about how I stay in the lives of these directors because I never fall out of their lives to begin with. I read most of the things that get sent their way and give them my opinions, bounce my own ideas off of them, and share other people’s work that excites me with them. When you have people that you respect, you just want to keep them in your circle because I get as much from them as I think they get from me.
Since there are so many aspects to producing, I’m always interested to hear what producers did specifically on a film. On DORIS, what were some of your day-to-day responsibilities during production?
It can be different for every project. With DORIS specifically, I was the on-set producer. One of my partners at that time, Kevin Mann, produced it with me and was on set day-to-day with me as well. Daniela Taplin Lundberg and Riva Marker were the producers through Red Crown Productions. I had worked with them on LIFE PARTNERS. They sent me the script and I read it and I loved it. Daniela produced Michael’s first feature and I was a fan of him from WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER and all of his earlier work. I could tell it was going to be something special and I wanted to help bring it to life.
I came on board and there were certain parameters like ‘we can’t spend more than X amount of money’ and ‘we have to shoot in LA even thought it’s set in New York’ and ‘we need to shoot these months because Michael is having twins.’ These little things seem annoying but producers love parameters because the parameters allow you to give other people parameters.
Having seen and loved the movie, I can’t imagine anyone else playing Doris. How did you manage to get two-time Oscar winner Sally Field involved?
Sally read the script and loved it and then met with Michael and loved him. She had never been in a movie this small before and was in basically every scene, every day. We wanted her to feel comfortable and to know that our crew would take care of her. We put together a pitch document that showed examples of some movies made in this budget range where either the stars have gotten Oscar nominations or were financial successes. We added key bios for our department heads who were all really impressive.
Brian Burgoyne was our director of photography. He had done LIFE PARTNERS with me and has since gone on to do THE BIG SICK and CRASHING with Judd Apatow. We had Melanie Jones, the production designer who had just done WHIPLASH, which was also shot in LA but set in New York.
Sally was really the mascot of this film. Her professionalism and her hard work made everybody grow up very quickly on that set.
Let’s talk about your new gig: you’re working with Michael Showalter at Semi-Formal Productions. You just moved into your new offices this week. What’s going on day-to-day?
The new offices are very exciting. Michael and I both have assistants that go above and beyond. My assistant Emily and his assistant Devon have been rock stars. They have really helped us to get this company off the ground. We have a first look deal in television with Annapurna, which helps to cover the overhead of our company. With Annapurna, we’re taking a lot of television shows out to pitch. With features, we have a bunch of projects set up at different studios as well as some independent projects that we’re trying to get moving.
We have the short-term goals of getting a series on the air and making a really successful movie. All of the things that you do when you are starting a new company. For us, it’s really important to create commercial content with heart. Projects that are socially aware and have unconventional main characters like HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS and THE BIG SICK so we can keep expanding our horizons and our audiences as we move forward. In five years, we want to be a company that is larger than either of us. We want to have a stable of great filmmakers and great producers who we can empower and work with. We want to be able to look at a piece of material that we’re passionate about and decide where it exists and how we can shepherd it to success.
This last set of questions is really just for me. As someone who perpetually questions if I am a ‘real’ producer, I’m always on the hunt for that one thing that will make me a bonafide producer. I bought myself a pair of Red Wing boots before I came to Columbia University. I wear them on set in the hope that one day I’ll be known as that producer who wears those boots.
I love it. I think that’s super important. When I work with the very talented director, Courtney Hoffman, who used to be a costume designer and still has costume designer running through her blood, she will always be very specific about what she thinks I should be wearing on set, like what makes you look professional but is also functional. I’m the person who is in a floral sundress and sandals on set when you’re not really supposed to be, but it’s how I’m most comfortable.
I would love for someone to design a line of professional yet comfortable outfits for women to wear on set. Dudes can get away with suits, but I’m not particularly flat chested… I can’t wear suits, I can’t wear a blazer. But then you try to wear a dress to look professional and the comments start coming…
Courtney and I talk about that all of the time. When we did THE GOOD TIME GIRLS, we had umpteen department heads in a mostly female crew. We could wear shorts when it was hot without feeling uncomfortable or without feeling like someone is going to say something to you. How do we as women get to be women and be comfortable but still functional? I hope and think it’s changing, but it’s a real discussion point.
Okay, back to the actual questions. What are those key elements that you think no producer should forgo, even when the budget is really tight?
Kindness, good food, and fun. No one is happy when they’re hungry and there is no reason to not be kind to one another. And we get to make art and entertainment for a living. That’s fun!
What are your go-to tools of the trade? Do you use Google Docs or are you more of a pen & paper person?
I wish that I did. I am a person who thinks that my brain is the most organized space. I’m sure that I’ll run out of space in my brain sooner or later and need to refer to Google Docs. For now, I feel like I keep it in there and have great help. But you will never see me without my iPhone attached to my hand.
Final question: what’s your morning routine?
I wake up every morning and I get my 10,000 steps in before I start my day. I usually go on a walk or run around the Silver Lake Reservoir, which is close to where I live. I sometimes listen to books and podcasts, often I do phone calls for work. I schedule a call during that time just so I can be moving and outside and breathing air and seeing water. I do meetings that are walks. I will meet with a writer in front of a coffee shop near the reservoir and I’ll do a lap with them and that’s my morning meeting. That’s the way that I have found to squeeze in exercise while also working. It’s meditative and starts my day off right.
This is so great. The last producer I interviewed, Sev Ohanian, does the same thing.
It’s the best.
Thank you Jordana for taking time to share your producing experience with us. Looking forward to seeing your upcoming projects!
Jordana Mollick is a Los Angeles-based producer. She has been a partner at Haven Entertainment since 2013, but has most recently joined forces with Michael Showalter to form Semi-Formal Productions.
At Haven Entertainment, Jordana produced HELLO MY NAME IS DORIS starring Sally Field and directed by Michael Showalter. She Executive Produced NIGHT OWLS starring Adam Pally and Rosa Salazar. Jordana also produced LIFE PARTNERS, directed by Susanna Fogel and starring Leighton Meester & Gillian Jacobs.
In addition to films, Jordana has produced several shows in the digital space, including PLAY BY PLAY, EMBEDS, & IN THE VAULT for Verizon’s streaming platform (Go90) and I LOVE BEKKA & LUCY for Warner Brother’s streaming platform (Stage 13). Jordana has also produced for the stage. She created the UNSCREENED play series, an annual development and presentation of four world-premiere short plays by some of Hollywood’s fastest rising screenwriters and television writers.
Jordana was a 2012 Sundance Institute Creative Producing Fellow and a 2013 Women at Sundance Fellow. Jordana was also the recipient of the Piaget Producer’s Award at the 2017 Independent Spirit Awards. Up next, she is producing Courtney Hoffman’s THE GOOD TIME GIRLS feature based on the short film, which she also produced, and Will Graham’s THE OFF SEASON.