NATALIE QASABIAN: Adapting to Challenges and the Beauty of Being Independent

By Barbara Twist

Dear Producer spoke with producer Natalie Qasabian about the evolution of turning a short film into a feature, what to cut from a budget and what to fight for, and the moment she truly felt like a producer.

Producer Natalie Qasabian
Photo by Andrew Jeric

You produced the short film JOIN THE CLUB, which inspired the feature ALL ABOUT NINA, which premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. Could you talk about that collaboration process and how one led to the other?

I met the writer/director of JOIN THE CLUB, Eva Vives, through Sev Ohanian, who’s my sometimes-producing partner, and always life partner. Eva was looking for a producer for her short film so we met up over coffee and immediately hit it off.

At the time I was the assistant to Jamie Patricof (THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC) and I was thinking of leaving my job and I told her, “You know, I want to produce and I want to quit my stable job and just try to go for it.” I was definitely nervous about making such a big jump, but I was young and really hungry.

JOIN THE CLUB felt like such a great short to kick off with. It was really well written, was only five pages long, and only had two characters and one location – aka it was cheap to produce. The short is about a female novelist in a therapy session who can’t decide whether to join a women’s writers group. It felt like an inside look into the female creative experience and it was super witty. It spoke to me.

All throughout the process of making the short it was an honest-to-God fun, effortless collaboration between Eva and myself. The short then premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016, which was an amazing opportunity.

And JOIN THE CLUB is what sparked the idea for ALL ABOUT NINA?

Yes, the idea for our feature film ALL ABOUT NINA came about during prep on the short. Eva and I were having a beer and she told me that she always had this idea to tell her personal history with abuse, but through a fictional character, someone similar to Nina in JOIN THE CLUB. But instead of taking Nina from the short who was a novelist, Eva wanted to make the character a stand-up comedian, which is way more dynamic to watch on screen.

Eva pitched me the rough idea for what would become ALL ABOUT NINA and she asked me if I’d want to produce. A couple months later, she sent me the first draft. It was really funny and honestly, a very, very strong draft. I encouraged Eva to apply to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. She got in and that kick-started what we jokingly referred to as Eva’s “grad school” because she ended up doing every Sundance lab possible including the Screenwriters Lab, Directors Lab, and her and I attended the Creative Producing Summit together.

Was the short helpful to you in raising money for ALL ABOUT NINA?

Even though the short wasn’t exactly a proof of concept for the film, we started to use it as one because it had a similar tone as ALL ABOUT NINA. Whenever we’d go out and pitch the feature, we would encourage people to watch the short obviously as a directing sample, but also as a guide to knowing the tone and vibe we were going for with the feature, which was really helpful.

Our first financier on the film was actually someone who had seen the short at Sundance and wanted to know what was next for Eva. After reading the script for ALL ABOUT NINA, the financier committed to financing the film. We started the process of casting and finalizing the budget. We had attached Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Common in the lead roles and were excited about the direction we were headed.

But of course, because absolutely nothing in indie film is easy – that initial investor ended up leaving the project because of creative differences.

Part of a producers job is to be the cheerleader, to always have a positive attitude and find a way. How did you put the pieces back together and remain motivated?

I was very much a junior producer up until this point. I had only co-produced two films for the Duplass Brothers, line produced, and UPM’d here and there, but I had never been on a project from such early development like this. But the moment this project hit rock bottom was truly the first time I felt like I learned how to actually produce. It was really devastating at first. I genuinely didn’t know how we were going to pull it together in the window of time when our cast was available.

Our budget was just above a million, which was proving to be too high for investors. Everyone, including our advisors, told us that if we cut the budget down we’d have a better shot. But that put us stuck between a rock and a hard place. Do we cut the creative? Do we condense the script? We didn’t want to compromise our vision for the film. But I remember a phone call with Eva, feeling something in my gut that said, “If you don’t cut this thing down, we’re not going to get it made. It’s not going to happen.”

At that point, I think we were 10 weeks out from production, maybe less. It was scary to only have that much time and not have financing in place and to have to make so many changes, but I pushed REALLY, REALLY hard to bring the budget down and to get everyone to agree to make a scrappier film.

That was the moment where I truly felt like I piloted the ship for the first time in a way where I thought, “I know that this movie’s not going to get made if we don’t do this. This is the right thing.” That was a big moment for me as a producer.

Once we came up with a plan everyone felt good about, we went back to a company who was previously interested in the project (but not at the higher budget level), Diablo Entertainment. We presented the new budget and revised script and timeline and we all jumped in and went for it.

How did you approach the budget cuts with your director from a creative standpoint? What did you do to make sure she felt like her creative vision was being honored while also navigating the tough cuts you knew needed to be made?

It was definitely a process. I had spent a lot of time working with Eva in development and going through different iterations of the script. I felt like I had a handle on what was very important to her and what the essential story elements were.

For instance, there is a scene where Nina, our protagonist, has an encounter with a gentleman while she’s drunk and it was supposed to take place in a motel. I remember pitching to Eva, “Couldn’t this just happen in the back of the comedy club or in his car?” The location was less important than the moment that happens between them. And that’s basically what we ended up doing.

It was many small things like that. Transcending the characters into somewhere that was more convenient for us from a budgetary perspective, but didn’t change the meaning of the scene.

It also became about adapting a different overall approach to how we were going to shoot it. Less money usually means less time so we had to keep our footprint lean and bring on department heads who understood the implications of that. Our director of photography Thomas Scott Stanton was integral in bringing the right aesthetic but also practical approach that kept us quick on our feet.

I think the most painful thing was losing shoot days. That’s the easiest way to cut down your budget.

What was the post process like for the film, how long was editorial, did you oversee post or did you have a post-supervisor?

We started cutting in October 2017 and then we premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, which was in April 2018. I started off basically as the post-supervisor working with our two amazing editors, Saira Haider and Susan Littenberg.

At the beginning, the two of them were cutting the film in separate spaces because we couldn’t afford a proper edit bay with all of us in one place. I oversaw post for the first couple of months, but I was also in post-production on SEARCHING at the same time and I was also working on a digital series for the Duplass Brothers for SnapChat.

Honestly, I got quite slammed at one point and needed to come up with a different plan. ALL ABOUT NINA had received a grant from the San Francisco Film Society so I decided to use some of our contingency and some of the grant to bring in a post-supervisor to help me through the finishing process. I wanted to do it all, but I really couldn’t at a certain point.

Writer/Director Aneesh Chaganty, Writer/Producer Sev Ohanian, and Producer Natalie Qasabian on set of SEARCHING (2016)
Photo by Elizabeth Kitchens

I think that was a smart move. There’s so much minutiae a producer has to manage, especially in post, but you also want to be able to step back and watch cuts and contribute creatively.

Totally. I’ve done a couple of features where I was the post-supervisor through the end. It requires such different parts of the brain to oversee the logistics and the nuts and bolts. Then to have to switch to watching a cut and giving notes, it’s a whole other part of your brain. It was truly such a weight off my shoulders to be able to pass the post logistics hat off to someone. In many ways, having that support allowed me to better contribute creatively because it freed up that brain space.

One of the hardest things about independent producing is that, as a producer, if there’s no line item in the budget allocated to a part of the process, you naturally become that person and fill that role. I’ve been a music supervisor before, post supervisor, and more. At a certain point, the creative part of your contribution suffers, but the creative part is what I find most fun, it’s why I do this. 

As you move forward with more experience do you think that you’re going to work to protect these line items in the budget or do you feel like you’ll most likely still end up in situations where you’re going to have to fill these roles?

You always go in with the ideal budget. Even NINA started off with a post-supervisor in the budget, but we took it out and used that money for other reasons.

I just produced a feature film with the team from SEARCHING for Lionsgate and we had so much support and truly had the resources that we needed to make the film we envisioned. Because of that support, I got to be the most creative I’ve ever been. I really want to fight for that on future projects.

The line items in a budget that are important to producers usually get cut, but we have to protect them the way we protect money for color and sound, because it does ultimately make a difference. It makes the project stronger when the producer can be engaged 100%. I’m definitely going to try to protect those areas of the budget which help me do my job better, but check in with me in a year and see if I hold to it.

Going from producing independent films to a studio film must have been quite the experience. Do you feel that’s the direction you’re headed?

There’s a beauty about being a freelance producer, which is that no one can really tell you what you can and can’t do. I would love to bounce between indie and studio films. I’m not going to lie, doing a studio film gives me financial freedom as an independent producer so that I can continue to grow and create new work. There was period of time when I was still a very junior producer and doing a lot of line producing and nuts and bolts type jobs and working nonstop. I think I had a year where I did three features and a commercial and a music video just to make ends meet.

You think of that energy and that stamina, it’s really hard. In a perfect world, I would do a mix of both. I think more than anything, doing a studio film here and there, if that can give me the freedom to do a smaller million dollar film every year or two years, that would be the dream. Because, then I can do it without having to cram in extra jobs and projects just to pay the bills. That would be the dream.

My last two questions that I always ask: What tools or things make you feel like a producer?

I guess if I had to say, I’d say I have one secret weapon: the ability to appear so calm on the outside in moments where I’m genuinely panicked or incredibly stressed on the inside. It definitely comes in handy on set when there’s a fire. I always know that I have my shield up and I can keep a calm exterior in those moments of panic. Oh and Google Sheets, being a Google Sheets wiz definitely feels very producer-y.

And the last question: what is your morning routine?

I don’t wake-up at the same time every day, but usually I’ll wake-up around seven and then allow myself 15 minutes of scrolling through news on my phone. Then, it’s coffee and email, and then, depending on wherever I have to be, jump in the shower and head out. My morning 15 minutes of news and bath is like my peacetime. Even though the news has not been very peaceful lately. I feel like I’m going to have to change my routine. I almost don’t want to look at the news anymore because I wake up with a pang of anxiety after that. Scrolling is not a good way to jumpstart your day, but #adulting. We should probably all just get off our phones…

Natalie Qasabian is an independent film producer based in Los Angeles. She graduated from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 2014 and after working from producer Jamie Patricof she decided to start producing on her own. The first short film she produced JOIN THE CLUB premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016. Her feature credits include three Duplass Brothers features: most recently DUCK BUTTER directed by Miguel Arteta. She also produced ALL ABOUT NINA starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Common, which premiered at Tribeca and was acquired by The Orchard. She recently produced SEARCHING, a thriller starring John Cho and Debra Messing. SEARCHING premiered at Sundance 2018 and won the Audience award and Alfred P Sloan award and went on to gross $75 Million worldwide at the box office. Currently she’s producing RUN starring Sarah Paulson for Lionsgate alongside SEARCHING producer Sev Ohanian and director Aneesh Chaganty.  Natalie also recently earned her MBA from Pepperdine University.