LIZ CARDENAS: Spirit Awards Producers Award Nominee

By Rebecca Green

Liz Cardenas has enjoyed an influx of recognition over the last two years winning a 2022 Independent Spirit Award for the Duplass Brothers’ 7 DAYS and being one of four recipients of our inaugural Dear Producer Award. She is also a nominee for this year’s Film Independent Spirit Awards Producers Award. 

Racking up 10 producing credits in just two years, it’s not just the quantity of her work that is noteworthy. Her 2021 feature 7 DAYS garnered widespread attention and accolades for its compelling storytelling and powerful performances, as did her 2021 short BURROS. 

Liz sat down with Dear Producer to discuss the sustainability of independent producing, or lack thereof, what she does to stay in the game, and her strategy for making this role work for her, hopefully, for years to come.

You’re having such a big year! Some people think of the Spirit Award Producers Award as an emerging award, but it’s not at all. You’ve been working in the film business for quite a while. What do you think has caused you to peak at this particular moment?  

Well thank you! The first word that popped into my head was perseverance. You never know about timing. If you keep trying to do good work, continue to get out there, be part of the conversation, meet people, mentor, at some point, something will hopefully shift and you’ll turn that corner.

And when it’s your turn, it’s your turn, I guess. I have worked really hard. Many producers are also deserving. As with most things, when people have that “breakout” moment in whatever creative endeavor they’re pursuing, if you look back, you see they’ve been doing it for many years. I think you’re right, this award is considered an emerging award, even though I’m not really emerging. But at the same time, I’m not at the level of success as some big producers. Everything is relative. To some people, I’m probably still emerging.

You’ve racked up 10 credits in the last two years, between shorts and features. How do you balance so many projects at once?

Has it really been that many? It’s challenging, and I definitely need more balance. That’s something I constantly struggle with! I do love making movies, though. I truly enjoy the creative and collaborative process, and it feels empowering when I’m helping make a film I believe in. I work on many projects that I enjoy and with people I want to work with. 

I do have a lot of stress, though. There are down moments, of course. The hard part is when you love what you do and are passionate about what you’re pursuing, yet you realize the need for more work-life balance because it’s unhealthy. You and I have had numerous conversations about being an independent producer in general, and how it’s just not a sustainable career. Specifically in the lower-budget space. 

But I have a lot of creative freedom. And I work with talented actors and crews who are there because they love the project and with emerging directors with a unique vision or established directors with a personal, passion project. I work on films where there’s a tremendous amount of positive energy and spirit. Yet they’re so tough to make.

They take a toll on me physically and emotionally. After all of these films, I’ve realized there’s been no real advancement in my career like I thought there could or would be. If money wasn’t an issue, I might continue making these types of films because they’re so special –  artistic, impactful and unique.

Is that why you take on a high volume? Because these movies pay so little, so you have to take on more?

That’s definitely a factor. It’s a combination of responding to the story, wanting to work with the director, and thinking, “This producing fee will allow me to pay my rent for this much time.” I have to admit I do get inspired easily. A lot of times I’ll say I’m too busy, but then I read the script, or meet with the filmmaker, and I’m like, “Oh, this is amazing. I want to help you.” 

You continue to produce shorts while most check out of that space at a certain point. What is the benefit of continuing to work on shorts? 

I haven’t done that many in recent years, but honestly, they’ve been good for my creative soul. Mostly, I’m an executive producer, advising emerging producers and filmmakers – and from underrepresented communities. 

But one that I came on board as the producer was from a filmmaker who I met when a short I wrote and directed played the festival circuit alongside his. He later came to me with his short film concept for BURROS. It was a truly special project with such social relevance. It was a really beautiful story, too. The protagonists are two young girls, one Native, one Latina. We shot it on 16mm on the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation, which has land in the United States and Mexico, and it’s in English, Tohono O’odham and Spanish. I utilized my skills as a former reporter with the film’s development and all the reach outs I made in the community. I spent a lot of time on the Nation, which was incredible. This film really pushed me as a producer, it was a challenging film to make – in a good way. And it was also always meant to serve as development for a feature set in the same world, and the feature concept is amazing. The short premiered at Tribeca, and we’re planning to make the feature now.

Then, I produced a short in January of 2022 for a dear friend of mine from Texas. He’s also an actor and was in one of my family/kids films. It was a one day shoot, one location in LA, and it sounded fun. The cinematographer was somebody who I wanted to work with. She shot the film TEST PATTERN, which was also nominated for a Spirit Award last year! And I worked on it with a producer friend of mine. We were like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” It was at the beginning of the year, so we got to kick off the new year with something creative and fun with no real big goal other than that. 

Going back to your comment on sustainability… There is no clear path for a producer’s career. For a director, if you have a successful feature at a festival, it can lead to signing with an agent or manager who can help you get on a bigger film or direct an episode of television. But producing one episode of television is not a thing. If you don’t generate the entire series, there is no work for a producer in television. So how do you take this high moment in your career and turn it into career advancement? You’ve now had films at the major festivals, received award recognition, have done all the labs…   

I’ve thought a lot about this over the last couple of years because after some of the success I’ve had – working on movies distributed by A24, having films that premiered at Sundance, being nominated for two Spirit Awards, and winning one – I felt like something significant would happen. But I’ve just had more emerging filmmakers say, “I love your work, will you help me make my film?” And my writer/directors have tried to get me on their bigger films, but the studios say they already have producers. So I’m still here, and I can’t sustain a living like this.

And the question you’re posing is something I’ve not only thought about but also had numerous conversations about with my fellow indie producers who are in the same situation. What I’ve come to realize is what you’ve pointed out, there is no bridge for independent producers like there is for writers, directors or actors. Even on a small level, emerging directors can shadow bigger directors, and there are opportunities for writers in writers rooms. There are even pathways for cinematographers and costume designers because directors can bring them on to their bigger projects. But it’s like we, the indie producers, are the talent scouts, discovering or shepherding these incredible voices whose careers take off. So, yeah, I’m thinking now, how do I go forward if I want to advance my career?

And, yes, part of it is financial, as far as being able to sustain myself, make a decent living, and then part of it is being able to make bigger films so I have enough resources so I’m not killing myself making them. One possible path is aligning yourself with a successful director or actor. The problem I have with that is it doesn’t really suit me personally. I enjoy creating with a group of collaborators, but I want freedom and independence and not be tied to one individual person or talent, even if I like working with some of the same filmmakers.

That’s why I am an independent filmmaker. I like being able to choose my projects and who I work with and have more autonomy. I could get a job at a studio or big production company, but I’d be working for someone. And I’ve wanted to stay independent for as long as possible, or forever, ideally. So I’m trying to figure out my next steps. But I do know, I have to turn down the smaller films in order to be able to try to work on the bigger ones, which still have the elements I’m drawn to creatively, character-based stories. They just have a bit bigger scope and appeal. The reason I continued working on these smaller films as long as I did was because of Covid. I thought I might as well use my unique skills to make art during these difficult times. 

And something else I’m doing is focusing on my writing. I actually started off as a writer and actor. As I briefly mentioned, before producing, I was a journalist. So if I write the script, and therefore own the IP, and produce it, the power dynamic has shifted as opposed to the writer-director hiring me to help them tell their story. So that’s a path I’m trying to go down now – more of a writer-producer. 

The business is very much IP driven, but unless you have development money, it’s impossible to compete. Even if I get a free book option, how do I pay a writer? It’s very challenging, but also necessary to figure out in order to advance. 

I know. That is a real thing. And I don’t know the answer. But because I genuinely love writing, and it somewhat addresses that, to a degree, I’ve been setting aside time to write in addition to my producing work. 

But that doesn’t solve the bigger issue we’re talking about for producers in general. And I would really love to develop pathways for my fellow indie producers and those who walk behind me. It’s vital for the industry. We’re the ones who really know how to make movies. We’re the ones out there, so-to-speak. As creative producers, we’re there from A to Z, making creative and logistical decisions throughout the life of the film, including being there on set, overseeing everything. We help maintain the director’s vision, we’re the liaison between Hollywood agents and managers and our talent, and we’re the advocates for our crew. We’re the ones championing these unique, diverse and important stories. All of this is crucial for independent film, and independent film is invaluable for the world and humanity. Maybe that sounds melodramatic.

Not at all. Making these films is so hard, you have to believe that they have an impact on the world. 

I had two movies released in 2015 that were both success stories. IT FOLLOWS made 17mil in the box office and I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, which was only a 500k budget, made 8mil in the box office. I also was nominated for the Producers Award and was on Variety’s Producers to Watch list and I thought, ‘I can sit back for a minute and people are going to come to me and send me projects and want to introduce me to the filmmakers they represent…’ But that never happened. In asking you how are you going to seize this moment, what I learned during my moment in the sun is that you have to take the initiative. You have to call and knock down the doors yourself, they don’t just automatically open because you had success. 

That is so true. I saw it happen for my writer/directors and my actors. Hollywood came to them after the movies we made together. And I thought at some point it would happen to me. But I have to admit, I never went and pitched myself. And that’s on me. And that will also change now.

Something I’ve thought about briefly before, but then it just came to me… When there are elements in movies, let’s say the sound design, for instance, that’s so good, you’re not even aware of it, but it really makes the film. It brings the film together, drawing on your emotions in such a subconscious way, that you’re not even aware of it. That may be similar to producing. When producing is done well, it’s almost as if you’re invisible. 

When a movie goes smoothly, in prep, production and afterwards, as smoothly as it can given all the obstacles, very few people understand how much work you’ve done to make that happen. And then, when some success comes out of it, the writer-directors are praised, the actors are praised, even the production design or the music or the cinematography is highlighted, but nobody’s really singling out the producing or the producers. I have often felt hidden or invisible. I’ve had to stand up for myself to even be included in photos, Q&As and interviews. 

It’s just hard. Up until recently, some big festivals didn’t even list producers when they were crediting the films that were playing. That’s inherently a problem. When you do a really good job, it’s almost like you become more invisible.

What do you wish people knew about producing?

There are many different types of producers, in terms of their style or approach and their strengths, and you also produce in different ways based on the picture and the filmmaker. People don’t realize that it’s not a one size fits all thing. I’m talking about creative producers, not line producers, in fiction, I should clarify. I also don’t think people realize how much you’re doing behind the scenes and for years on each film, whether it’s emotional support for your director or the level in which you’re contributing creatively, such as helping with rewrites, casting, notes on the edit. Even when you’re working on locations and determining where to film, those decisions are logistical, financial, and creative, all at the same time, through the lens of what best serves the story. People aren’t aware of how much goes into it. But, again, that’s often what we really enjoy as producers. It’s this weird thing of working way too much, but at the same time, loving what you do. So it’s tough. Also the responsibility we carry – the safety and well-being of the cast and crew and the financial responsibility to the investors. It’s a lot. 

On a side note, going back to how to seize this moment, one thing that I haven’t done is go to some of the producers who have made the transition from lower budget to bigger and sustaining a career in this business and ask them what advice they would give me. Ask, “How did you do it?” But it’s tricky because I know when people ask me, “How did you get to where you are?” I can’t possibly explain the 50 million steps that got me here. I don’t have a clear-cut answer so why would anyone else? But I’m still going to go ask now and get a different perspective than my own. 

It’s hard though to turn to the generations before us and ask for advice. It was a completely different market 10-20 years ago. Chances are, the ones who were able to make the jump did it in a different decade. Not to say they wouldn’t have some words of wisdom, but it’s apples to oranges. 

You’re right. That’s a very good point. There are some producers, though, who ended up having a hit and were somehow able to translate it into something greater. But they’re the exception. I keep coming back to it, I wish there was this bridge. 

I’ve had these conversations, specifically, with some of my directors like, “Look, you helping me doesn’t mean that you bring me on as the lead producer on your next big-budget film. That’d be great, but it doesn’t have to be that.” It doesn’t have to be so black and white. It’s the same thing that I would say to Hollywood. If I shepherd a smaller feature, and it turns out well, maybe when the filmmaker gets the next opportunity and says to the studio, “Here’s my producer,” if they come back with, “Sorry, we already have producers,” the conversation doesn’t end there.

Maybe I’m not the lead producer, but I could co-produce and get my foot in the door. I know I’d bring value to that next project, and then I could also learn more. I also feel I’d be an asset to the film having already worked with that director. Knowing a filmmaker’s process and needs is a huge advantage. I understand the studio or the production companies want to hire who they know, who they trust with the budget, so they could still have that. But then they’d also have someone like me, too. And I have no doubt about my abilities. I would just have more money to work with, more days, and more resources. If studios would open themselves up to a new group of producers, they would also be opening themselves up to all the amazing filmmakers we know and are nurturing. It could be really beneficial for the industry, in general.

To round out our conversation, despite all the challenges we’ve discussed, I would say you’re probably the most positive producer I know. Even if you’re feeling down, you still see good and a silver lining, which I believe is also part of your success, not just perseverance, but that ability to see the good and not be taken down by the system. What are you hopeful about for this year ahead? Are you scared, are you hopeful, are you unsure?

Well, thank you. That means a lot to me. And my answer is all of the above! I have a mindset that always comes from a positive place. Some of the lessons my parents taught me were that there’s a solution to everything and tomorrow is a new day. I always come from a place of, “How can we make this work?”

And right now I’m maintaining my optimism and hopeful attitude, and coming from a growth mindset, but recognizing that if something isn’t working, a change needs to be made. That applies to me and my career and to the state of independent cinema. Because you don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over again if it’s not working. 

This is the line in the sand for me. It took me time to get here. I’m going to try some new things. And as I said, I’m going to do more reach outs than I’ve done in the past and fight for myself more, and I will look to people whose career I aspire to, seek out advice and insight from them and then try to utilize my own unique skill set. That involves my writing, and I’m excited about that. I plan to hone in on what makes me different and what I, specifically, can contribute. 

And it’s probably because I simply love films and making them that gets me through everything. I just have a sense of belief or faith that things will work out. So I’m going to keep moving forward, hustling, learning, growing and evolving. I feel similarly about independent film. It’s increasingly more difficult to raise money, to sell your film, to get adequate PR and marketing, etc. The landscape keeps shifting rapidly. The pandemic really hurt the industry, but we were talking about a lot of these issues pre-Covid. The beginning of the Producers Union started before the pandemic. Thank you for that. And how the streamers have affected independent film has been an ongoing discussion. However, I am hopeful people will want to go back to the theaters, and I have to believe audiences are craving truly original stories. I read an article recently about there being this opportunity to have another Hollywood revolution like the 70s. I’ve talked to filmmaker friends about this. I’m hopeful for that! I don’t have the answers, but I want to continue to ask questions and be a part of the conversation on how we can evolve.

Do you have a 2023 New Year’s resolution in terms of producing?

I don’t make a singular resolution, what I do is cultivate philosophies, mindsets, or attitudes that I want to go forward with throughout the year. So, as I lead into the next year, I’m focusing on the ‘power of no’ – turning down things, being more cognizant of my time, and really encouraging the artist within me.