By Epiphany James
After producing the critically acclaimed MICKEY AND THE BEAR, Lizzie Shapiro continues her winning streak with her second feature film, SHIVA BABY, which won the John Cassavetes and Emerging Filmmaker Award at the 2022 Film Independent Spirit Awards. In addition, Lizzie won the Spirit Awards Producers Award, earning her an unrestricted $25,000 cash grant, which honors emerging producers who demonstrate creativity, tenacity, and vision to produce quality independent films despite highly limited resources.
Lizzie sat down with Dear Producer to discuss the pressure that producers put on themselves to maintain emotional perfection on set, the struggle to find a true producing partner in the storm, and what keeps her going as our industry continues to trek through the cave of the unknown by the faint glow of a handheld flashlight.
Everyone’s pathway to producing is different. How did you get started and what was your journey to where you are today?
I went to NYU for film school, so that was my first foray into having a filmmaking community around me. That gave me the ability to meet people and work on a lot of different projects, learning what kinds of projects I wanted to do, and the people I wanted to work with.
At first, I spent a lot of time working in different departments so I could have an understanding of how all the moving parts worked together. Then when it came time to make all of my friends’ thesis films, I was the one with that bird’s eye view understanding of production, and honestly just had the personality type to get it done.
I spent my senior year producing 9 thesis films, something crazy like that, and I really loved it. Producing is like building a ship so that the director can steer it. I like that role and how creatively involved you get to be, but you’re not necessarily the person making all of the creative decisions.
Once out of school, I started developing MICKEY AND THE BEAR with Annabelle Attanasio who I’d met at NYU. For work, I started coordinating, production managing, and eventually line producing on independent films to continue to learn how it all works. Then I got into the Film Independent Producing Lab, which was a huge turning point because until then, I’d really only had director mentors, I had never really had proper producing mentors. Meeting Rebecca Green, and a lot of the other amazing producers who were advisors during that lab, really gave me the gap in my knowledge that I needed to be able to pull a feature into fruition.
Then from there, it was just a blur of projects, and honestly just continuing to ask myself the same question, “Who do I want to work with, and what stories do I want to tell?” That’s definitely the quickest version of an origin story that I can give you.
You said something interesting about needing the lab to fill gaps in your knowledge. Having gone to NYU and produced several thesis films, what were those gaps?
The thing film school does do for you is it teaches you how to be a collaborator and flexes your creative thinking muscles. I learned how to give notes in film school and that’s such a great skill to come away with.
The things I really had no idea about were financial waterfalls, putting deals together, what a director’s deal should look like, what a producer’s deal should look like, how to pull in a major cast and get them to work in a way that allows for lower budget movies to be seen and thrive. I literally remember at the lab there was this day where Rebecca (who was our lead Creative Advisor) was like, “Everybody knows what a waterfall is, right?” and the six other producing fellows around me were like, “Yes.” I was like, “Absolutely not. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
It was things that are not altogether complicated, you just need someone to sit you down and tell you what they are, and it’s all fairly standardized. I knew how to lead a project, but I didn’t know how to run a business. That’s the thing I think that sometimes we forget, or willfully don’t want to talk about, because it’s not the romantic side of what we do, but when we’re building a movie, we’re also building a business that’s supposed to make money ideally. Usually, it doesn’t, but ideally, that’s what happens. You need this whole other education that’s not just what you like about movies. That was the thing that I really started to learn when I was in the producing lab. It’s learning how to protect yourself and protect your film, in both the creative way and in a financially sustainable way, the best you can.
What does balance look like for you? Is there a sense of balance in your life, both within the finance and the creative, but also holistically as a human?
I feel like finding balance is a journey where you think you see the end of the road and then you get over the hill to just see there’s more road on the other side. At this point, I found a way to be financially sustainable through having a fleet of features now that are pretty consistently going into production, so that’s helpful. Then in between, I have enough experience on the commercial and fashion side of things that I can pick up a fashion campaign, or a big commercial, and give myself enough money to make it to the next one.
I would definitely say, even though now money isn’t as big of a concern, I still don’t really have time to just do things I want to do, like spend the weekend with my boyfriend without picking up my phone, or sit down and read a book with no real agenda.
Things like that are really important to our, as you said, holistic needs as a human, I still haven’t found that balance yet. I guess the only thing I could hope for is that I get there one day, but this work is so demanding, and we’re all so exhausted. Every producer I sit and talk to or catch up with feels the same. We start our conversation the same way. We’re all so fulfilled and excited by what we’re working on, but we’re exhausted.
For me, it’s continually asking, “How do I find ways to not expend this energy all the time?” It’s also wanting to feel like a person outside of your career, which most of the producers that I’m friends with don’t. We’re all so entirely defined by the thing we do. Who is Lizzie the person other than Lizzie the producer, if that makes sense.
You were saying when you talk to another producer you’re able to have these conversations and feel seen, but a producer is not really able to have those same conversations with anyone else on their crew. Something that I’ve noticed, especially in production, is this self-expectation and standard of emotional perfection. For example, I kick myself anytime I let my ego flare-up, even for just a moment, and so it brings this reality that I can’t have emotions on set. Like I have to be above emotions in order to keep it together for everyone else on the cast and crew. I’m curious if you’ve ever felt like that?
Oh totally. You’re working the longest hours and yet you really can’t let yourself slip. I always have one moment on a production where I talk to someone in a way I’m not proud of, or something happens and I feel the ripples of that for the next week of shooting. It’s definitely a common feeling, I think, amongst producers.
I’ve been really lucky that on my last couple of films I’ve had a producing partner and we’ve been a really safe space for each other to bounce things off of and have feelings and vent. It’s different when you have a partner who really sees you and is willing to split not just the work, but the emotional labor as well.
Absolutely. I joke that we need a dating app but specifically for finding producing partners-
That’s so true.
I’m curious, when you’re talking about producing partners, emotions, and holding space for emotions, do you have any set boundaries or tools in your kit that you would want to share, as far as establishing a healthy environment on set?
Something that’s been really important to my producing partner and I on these last couple of movies was that anyone who needed therapy could set the time for it. As you know, being in production and finding an hour where you don’t have to pick up your phone is really hard. So everyone would get to choose an hour a week, and it didn’t matter if we were in production or in prep, where they could have that hour to talk to their person.
I found that being on a production that allowed the space for someone to prioritize an hour in their day for themselves and not for the production was life-changing to people. It set a whole tone that was really helpful and made people feel better. I think that was huge for us.
My partner and I are also really stringent about 12-hour days and 12-hour turnarounds. I think it all feeds into people’s mentality for the crew and producers. If the crew’s getting a 12-hour turnaround, you’re at least getting eight or nine hours yourself, which is huge. I’ve done movies where I got four hours of sleep and it really takes a toll. She and I are also really communicative and aren’t afraid to address things with each other since there’s a good foundation of trust there. It just changes everything. It takes the burden off.
The dating app idea is so interesting. I agree that there should be a dating app for producing partners because it’s so hard. You’re trying to find people with complementary skill sets and people who have the same ethos towards production that you do. For me, it’s really important.
I was doing a call with somebody recently and they quoted– they couldn’t remember which actor said it, but they quoted an actor who had said that when you close your eyes before you die, the thing that plays before your eyes are your experiences making all of your films, not the films themselves.
That’s why giving people a good experience making a movie is so important. That really spoke to me because it’s so important to me that people walk away feeling like they’ve experienced something and have found a sense of community through making a film and telling a story. I couldn’t produce something with someone who didn’t share that same approach towards pulling a production together.
You also need to find someone who also spends money in the same way that you do, because that’s always a big part of it. Who has the same creative approach? It’s so many boxes you have to tick. Some people have really big egos that need to be the boss and other people don’t like being the boss. It’s so many weird things you have to match up with somebody else’s, it’s like Tetris. I’m like how do we make this producer matching app? How does that come to be a thing?
Truly, how? [laughs]
I just got really lucky that the person I’m working with now has been really on the same page as me. It’s changed a lot for me because I had been used to being in it alone.
As we look at sustainability in the film industry, part of the question becomes, how do we create for ourselves now the changes and shifts we need in order to see a future for us to stay in the industry? With that in mind, I’m curious to hear what are the things that you would bring into this conversation moving forward? If we love what we do, how do we keep doing it?
When you take care of people, you get better work out of them, so then it ultimately is better for the movie. I mean, everyone’s going to feel tired and worn out to some degree, and of course there are going to be those days where you have to do overtime and you have to have a shorter turnaround. If people feel taken care of and they’re all in it together, they’re going to be more understanding when those things happen.
I think the difference is when it’s a pattern of constant asks. As the producer, your number one job over any other thing is to protect the film. It goes back to the first thing we were saying, there’s two factors to protecting the film. The number one factor is always the creative vision for the movie, because what are we doing here if we’re not telling stories the way we set out to tell them?
The second one is financial accountability for the thing you’re making. You’ve got to understand that if someone’s giving you millions of dollars, you have to take that seriously and, to the best of your ability, set those people up to get their money back and succeed, or else indie film doesn’t exist. We do exist in a capitalist system. If things don’t make money, we don’t get to do them anymore. Both have to allow the other.
When I’m making a movie and have to make hard calls about hours or budget, the question is always, what is best for the film? What are the future asks I have to make of everybody to finish the movie? What are the scenes that are so core to making the film work that if we don’t take the extra hour here, the whole movie falls apart and I’ve wasted all of these people’s time making it in the first place?
Rest is important, but it’s also important that if people are working on a lower salary than they usually do, they get something out of it and they can say to people I worked on that thing that they’ve actually heard of. It all feeds into the same equation.
Absolutely. I’ve found with every single film I add more new tools to my box. Each one is its own learning opportunity because there’s a new crew, a new day, and a new world we’re all operating in. There’s not really a copy and paste recipe where you just say, “And this is how much flour to put in to get this exact cake to come out.”
Having come off of production for THIS DAY, what did you learn about the process or yourself that you will take into your next film?
I feel like I’m still too close to THIS DAY to know what those things are. For some reason it’s hard for me to articulate, but I do have these thoughts all of the time of, “What can I do better? What went really well?”
Unfortunately, one of the things I continue to learn, regardless of how many women I have on set or anything, is that it’s really hard to be a woman in charge. People just treat you differently and talk to you differently. It’s a systemic issue. It shows itself in so many different ways. When I was so young and new I’d think, “Oh, well, I’m just inexperienced and that’s why this is happening.” As I become not so inexperienced and I actually know what I’m doing on my better days, it is this funny thing of people still talking to me like it’s my first movie.
That’s been a really interesting thing to try and figure out how to navigate, and not become embittered while learning how to exercise my authority in ways that are productive versus just getting upset. There’s been some things on a couple of these productions where I’m just like, “Wow, you wouldn’t approach an issue this way if I was a white guy in my 40s.” It’s not so much about who they are, it’s more about who I am. I’m 29 and mostly employing people who are older than me. That is a constant reflection process for me, learning how to be young and ambitious, in charge, and fair, and to not get hung up in the natural systemic things that work against you.
That’s been the biggest journey for me over the last year. Taxes were a huge mountain for me to climb last year as well, learning how to set up films properly for tax accounting and all of these things. That’s something I constantly work towards with my own organization. I’m definitely the more top-level fluid, crazy girl producer being like, “Yay, art.”
I think it’s important for all of us to continue to ask ourselves, “What can I do better?” Constantly being able to recognize where we’re really succeeding, too. I know I can really shepherd a director’s vision into fruition and put the money in the right places and make a 500K movie look like millions of dollars. Then on the other side, I struggle with organization and sometimes my place in the whole process.
It’s important to start to learn how to articulate that and keep working on it, because nobody’s perfect, and what we do is really hard and involves being good at a thousand different things at once. You were saying earlier, you do feel you have no room to fail, ever. I think it’s also important to give yourself room to fail because in the places where I’ve really fucked myself over the most, it’s because I’ve gotten so caught up in my own anxiety around something that I’ve avoided facing it, versus if you can just name the weaknesses and work on them on a more consistent basis, it just will, I think, ultimately make all of us better at what we do overtime.
I’m going to share this quote because I think it would be beneficial for any woman reading this article. When I was a scared first-year film student shadowing on a network TV series, I was so afraid to take up any space on that set. One day this incredible actor walked up to me and she said, “Listen, walk into the room with the bravado of a teenage boy.” [laughs]
She said, “Never apologize for taking up space. Never apologize for being here. You’re here because someone asked you to be here. You have every right to be here, and you have just as much right to be here as any other person on this set. Never apologize for taking up space–and unless you have done something actually wrong in order to apologize for, don’t apologize.” That has stuck with me all of these years.
The apology thing is so real. Women are always apologizing. I find myself doing it too. I stopped saying sorry over email. If I hadn’t gotten back to an email for more than two days, I’d write, “So sorry for the delay.” But why am I sorry? I’m a busy person like everybody else. I don’t know what it is, well, actually I do know what it is. It’s decades upon centuries of women being repressed, but there is just this instinct for women to apologize for everything in a way that men don’t.
I have one friend in particular who’s a female director who every time we hang out we have this conversation about women in film saying they’re sorry, so I just couldn’t agree with you more. It is just this thing that’s drilled into us, doesn’t matter how big or small, but we’re supposed to be sorry and that’s the thing that gets us through, whereas we shouldn’t really be sorry for anything unless we cause an actual problem.
Do you ever feel like there’s a role that you have to play where you need to almost embody someone else in order to get it done?
Yes, 100%. You have to be all these different people. There’s definitely a separation. I bring a lot of myself to what I do of course because you can’t be in a position like this without empathy, but when you’re dealing with an issue, whether it be with a director, a financier, your editor, a crew member, whoever it may be, when you’re talking to that person, the first thing I ask myself is, “Who does this person need me to be right now?”
Do they need a therapist, do they need a stern mom, do they just need someone to tell them the thing they’ve already heard a thousand times? What does this person need from me? You do to some extent take yourself out of that equation. You take out your own needs because you’re focusing on what that person needs from you. I think that I’m good at filling that role. It doesn’t really bother me to take myself out of it, but over time it definitely wears away at you. It’s like death by a thousand paper cuts. I think that producing will always take that. You always need to play a bunch of different people like you’re an entire Shakespeare cast.
It’s about checking in with yourself. I have a pretty strong inner monologue, so I’m always checking in with my inner monologue and having releases that are healthy enough, that allow space to not have to be something for somebody else for a little while.
It’s also learning about your pace, your needs, and what actually is fulfilling to you out of the whole thing. I thought that I just wanted to do odd art-house movies, but then what SHIVA BABY showed me is how powerful it is when a large group of people connect to your work, so I found that I want to do really meaningful work that connects with people on a larger scale, so I’m like, “What does that mean for me now?”
Paying attention to how you spend your energy and what’s creatively and financially fulfilling you is what allows you to put on all these different hats and not feel used up at the end. Someone should be looking out for you and the reality is, that person is you. For everyone else, it’s the producer who’s supposed to be looking out for them, but for the producer, you’re the one looking out for yourself.
When you were talking at a Film Independent panel recently, you said that you felt like the future of independent filmmaking is uncertain and I’d like to bring this all home by hearing more specifically about your perspective. It feels like we’re in a cave in our industry right now where we can only see as far as the flashlight. We don’t know what the future looks like and we’re trying to shape it as best we can. For you and the flashlight shining ahead, what are the things that you’re focusing on so that you can keep going down this cave of the unknown?
I think that I’m just trying to embrace change as it comes and continuing to adapt. Film is so funny because it’s such an artistic medium that has all of this history yet it’s so ever-changing and based in technology that’s changing around us all the time. I think some producers feel really at odds with that, that this changing digital space we work in is at odds with the arts they’re trying to create.
In a lot of ways, there’s so much hope for indie film. There are all of these creative ways people are starting to finance movies through things I don’t understand yet. NFTs and crypto that allow for a freer marketplace. Then there’s the streamers. On one hand, they’ve killed the indie film as we knew it, but they’re also going to someone like Jane Campion and saying, ‘Here’s all the money in the world you could possibly want to do whatever you want and go wherever you want to make it. You don’t need to worry about box office receipts, or anything else.’ That’s such artistic freedom. Who would’ve done that for Jane Campion five years ago? No one. There are all of these really cool things happening. There’s more content than ever being made. I think as long as you look forward and try to work with the times rather than letting a model that’s becoming archaic for indie film take you down, then the future’s actually really hopeful. I think that it is uncertain, but there are more ways to make things and put things out than there ever have been before. That is a fact. I just think the more we can lean into that, the brighter that flashlight will look, and the more options we’ll have around us and the more creative freedom and audiences to reach.
We’re starting to break out of a mold that we’ve become really comfortable with. With festivals going away over the pandemic, what we’ve learned is that going to Sundance or Cannes is an emotional experience for people. It’s so tied into what all of this means to them. We need to free ourselves from those feelings a bit and focus on the thing we’re actually doing, which is telling meaningful stories that are supposed to reach people. I think if we stay true to that mission then the future’s really bright for all of us. Even if it’s going to happen in a way that’s divorced from the things that we usually hold dear to our experiences.
Is there anything that you wanted to share that I didn’t ask about?
The one thing I will just say is, because I know there’s some negative things and some positive things we’ve talked about today– I do love this work and love what I do. I feel really lucky that I’m getting to a place where I get to do it all the time.
Right now for me, that’s the sunshine every day, so to speak. I get to do what I love and get some respect for it. I’m getting to work on cooler and bigger projects. We’re just really lucky that we get to do this. I mostly feel lucky to be where I am, even though there’s really hard things and lots of things to deal with all the time. I’m just so stoked. I get to produce movies. It’s crazy. I’m still like, “Oh my God, we get to do this. We’re doing this. Look at us doing this.”