By Rebecca Green
Every year at the Spirit Awards, Film Independent honors an emerging producer (or producing team) with the Piaget Producers Award which is given to a producer(s) who despite highly limited resources, demonstrates the creativity, tenacity and vision required to produce quality independent films.
Before the winner is announced in February, Dear Producer wanted to take the time to get to know all the nominated producers and so we are launching a new series we’re calling Piaget Profile.
First up are nominees Jonathan Duffy and Kelly Williams who having produced 9 films in just the last two years, are one of the most prolific producing teams working in independent film. On the heels of their nomination and announcing that their film, LIGHT FROM LIGHT, will premiere at Sundance 2019, Dear Producer spoke to Jonathan and Kelly about their latest release, THE LONG DUMB ROAD, and how partnerships are the key to their success.
Rebecca: Tell me about THE LONG DUMB ROAD and how you came to the project?
Kelly: In 2014 we made a film with Hannah Fidell called 6 YEARS, which premiered at SXSW in 2015. Netflix acquired the SVOD rights worldwide and the ancillary rights were picked up by The Orchard.
6 YEARS started with Mark Duplass and Hannah. Hannah put their ideas on the page and not long after, they brought us on board. In no time we had a scriptment which we shot the film from. The Duplass Brothers were executive producers and we produced the film in Austin where I’m based and where Jonathan is from. We brought on Andrew Logan and the folks from Arts and Labor who also helped us with the film HELLION. We shot it in 16 days, very quickly and very low budget. The film really benefited from everyone’s support in every phase of the process.
So in many ways there were a lot of parallels between 6 YEARS and THE LONG DUMB ROAD. Hannah reached out to us as the momentum towards physical production of the film was really heating up. JJ Ingram who is a producer based in Chicago was already on board. The team also had the support of both Mynette Louie and Alicia Van Couvering who are both Executive Producers on the film. Together we all looked at the logistics such as the budget and what needed to happen on all fronts in order to realize the film’s logistical and creative aspirations. We were super excited to do this film because we knew it was a comedy and that Hannah co-wrote it with Carson Mell who we were friends with and fans of. We knew she could pull it off because we knew her keen sense of humor and we were excited to see her bring that to a film.
Jonathan: In addition to working with the team we were also excited by the challenges that the film presented. At the time it was out first feature to produce outside of Texas. The film premiered at Sundance this year (2018) in the Premieres section.
Rebecca: And you produced SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, which also premiered at Sundance this year and if I remember correctly you also had a short at Sundance this year?
Rebecca: How did you guys manage that workload?
Jonathan: Fortunately, we had partners on each film and everybody was able to share some of the load. At a certain point we had to recognize that we weren’t going to be able to make it to every festival screening or every celebration, but having had previous films screen at the festival, we had a pretty good feeling that things were going to work out okay. . We’ve gotten better each year at managing our time at Sundance in working to support the films that are screening while also making time to connect with our peers and hopefully imagine ways to get the next film made.
Rebecca: I’ve never understood filmmakers who say they’re not going to Sundance until they have a film premiering there. It’s hard enough to go there with your first film, but to also not know how to even ride the bus? Such a bad idea.
Jonathan: You’re totally right. I used to say that. I didn’t go and until our film PIT STOP played Sundance and I had to rely on everybody to tell me which way was North.
Kelly: They do make these handy maps for the buses [laughs]. I had volunteered at Sundance way back in 2001 and did that job where I tell you what bus to get on. I did that and I worked at the Prospector theater for two years too.
Rebecca: You both are much more prolific than I think anyone realizes. How many films have you produced in the last two years including shorts?
Jonathan: The films released in 2018 were SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, THE LONG DUMB ROAD and the short DON’T BE A HERO, all which were at Sundance. We were also associate producers on Yen Tan’s 1985, which premiered at SXSW this year.
Kelly: SWEET AND LOW is a short we produced last year.
Jonathan: We currently have two narratives features in post, one was shot in Tennessee and one was in Austin.
Rebecca: That’s seven.
Jonathan: Yes. Then we have two feature documentaries.
Rebecca: That’s 9.
Rebecca: That’s insane. Earlier this year I interviewed the Divide/Conquer producers and was in their office and saw that they have a full staff. They have someone running point on legal and they have coordinators and PAs, but I know that you guys don’t have all that. There’s two of you on 9 projects that in some capacity all need your attention. How are you managing that workload?
Kelly: We don’t have staff, but we do have great partners. We’re not single-handedly or double-handedly producing these films. Our most recent project we did with the Sailor Bear guys (Toby Halbrooks and James Johnston) and on LONG DUMB ROAD we worked with J.J. and that was a great team pairing. There is a team mentality on every project. You just can’t get a movie done on these low budget levels with just one producer. It’s next to impossible.
Jonathan: As a practical example, we shot a film earlier this year in Tennessee. Kelly was there from pre-production through wrap where as I was only there for a little over a week and then worked remotely in support of the project when needed while simultaneously keeping things moving on other projects that Kelly and I are working on or that are already out in the world. Essentially, that reflects our approach.
Whenever the heat is really intense on any one of our projects, we are both fully engaged or one of is heavily focused on that project while the other is supporting other projects. Of course it is the most ideal and the most fun if schedules and budgets allow for both of us to be there.
Rebecca: Have you ever encountered directors who feel that there are too many producers on a project?
Jonathan: One thing that I’ve struggled with is whenever you are the point on a project, the director gets very accustomed to talking to you. But when you see your producing partners as absolute partners, and you want and need their input, it can throw off your director. You’ve created that one-on-one space with them and then ask that they open up to the group for notes and other voices and that can be frustrating or confusing.
Rebecca: Do you have a checklist of what you want to see in a project that helps you decide if you are going to take it on?
Kelly: For me, it has to personally resonate with me. I look back on some of the movies we’ve made and can see in a weird way that they reflect something that was going on in my life at the time. That’s a big thing for me and knowing that the filmmaker is saying something or that the story is representing something meaningful. I also ask if it is a story that has a place in the market.
Jonathan: With every film, there’s this gamble that you’re making at the very beginning of the relationship. That period where you don’t know where the film is going to get funding from. You don’t know how long you’ll work on it before a single dollar comes in. One of the obstacles we’re facing is having made a number of films, we’re no longer considered emerging filmmakers so the grants we once relied on are not really available to us anymore, but we are also not so far along in our careers that grant and other forms of support are any less crucial. We have to rely more on full equity, which could present challenges to projects that really need that support.
Rebecca: I think it’s a really interesting point because the goal is for us to get out of making the sub-million dollar films because that life is not sustainable, but yet those are the films being made with emerging filmmakers, new voices, that do get supported by granting organizations. If we want to grow as producers that means we’re most likely working with a more established filmmaker who has probably already received grants so we don’t have that source of financing to rely on anymore. There is a big void in granting available to producers and definitely a void for the mid-level filmmaker. I’m feeling that right now in my work and not having development money to take on bigger projects and also having to continue to take side-hustle jobs as I develop bigger projects on spec.
Kelly: Every book you read on producing and every panel you go to is really more about how do you get to where we are in our career now. Then it’s like, “Well then. Okay, we’re all here. Now where do we go?” Once you’ve made as many films as we have, you have to make your own way in order to have a sustainable career. A lot of great producers either stall out or they make their own way by doing something completely different. They become a different type of producer.
Rebecca: Do you take on a high volume out of necessity – that because the fees are so low you need more projects – or do you enjoy working on so many projects at once?
Jonathan: When HELLION was released, we came out thinking that we needed to continue to work on films that we are passionate about and that were in various levels of the process. In order to be sustainable, we needed to have several things going on at the same time because there are no guarantees as to which project is going to get made or hit with an audience. We also do not want to feel compelled to rush the development phase. What we didn’t know fully, which seems obvious now, but we didn’t quite realize just how busy that would make us.
I think the perfect scenario would be having a couple of projects a year that are budgeted at a high enough level that pay the writer, director and the producers a fair rate all the way through the process. I would like to get to a place where we’re doing two larger budget films a year and maybe then we’ll have the space to do one smaller film or maybe be executive producers on that film with a larger team where we can afford to make that bet.
Rebecca: When did you guys officially start working together?
Kelly: We actually met working together at the Austin Film Festival back in 2003. We became friends first and then we didn’t work together until I left the festival in 2011. After I left, I had lunch with Jonathan and he asked what I was working on, which at the time was PIT STOP. He offered to help with some aspects and that grew into producing the film together. Then Jonathan came onboard HELLION and then after that we just felt like this was a good partnership and something we should pursue and move forward with.
Rebecca: Kelly is based in Austin and Jonathan you’re in Oakland, how do you manage working in different time zones and not having a lot of face to face time?
Kelly: We spend a lot of time on the phone. It’s somehow more effective and faster than emailing or texting even. It does give us that ability to divide and conquer in that sense too though, being in two different places. We both have our own separate day to day stuff as opposed to having day to day stuff in an office together. We’re both very self-motivated so that’s helpful too. I find being in different places is actually beneficial, as far as covering more ground.
Jonathan: I agree, it’s also how we meet a wider range of filmmakers. I think it also gives us a broader perspective on what’s going on in the country and what’s going on with different film scenes. It’s got its pros and its cons, but it’s a relationship we’ve made work.
Rebecca: Getting back to THE LONG DUMB ROAD, what does the release look like? What are your expectations? Who’s releasing it? In my opinion, the biggest struggle right now in producing indie films is distribution and I’m curious to hear how you guys are feeling going into the release.
Jonathan: Having just been at the Austin Film Festival screening of the film and seeing Jason Mantzoukas and Hannah onstage and seeing the crowd’s response, I feel really excited about the release. It’s just that question of, “Okay, well, then how do you get people to see it?” It’s got a really fun cast and the story is compelling so there’s a lot for audiences to get excited about. I think Universal is getting behind it so I feel optimistic about it.
Rebecca: That’s a phrase that we hear and say a lot, “the distributor getting behind the movie” but what does that mean? What I’m seeing is distributors getting behind a movie in an industry-centric (with industry press) way but not in an audience-centric way. Which distributor other than Netflix has an amazing Instagram account? Aside from throwing out the trailer and getting Jason Mantzoukas on a few talk shows that young people don’t watch because they don’t have cable, how are people hearing about the film?
Kelly: One thing that I’m happy about is that Universal is not ignoring Jason’s fan base. They’ve done other films with him and he’s amazing in the movie. I was reconfirmed how much people really love Jason at the Austin Film Festival screening last week. It was a crowd full of high school film nerds just like I was. There was a younger audience there.
Jonathan: One thing that I want to start doing, because I’ve heard enough people doing it, is to have some resources to supplement a distributor’s marketing campaign. No matter how good intentions are, you’re reliant financially on the distributor in terms of whether or not your film will perform and that might not be what’s best for the film.
Rebecca: I’ve been saying in every interview I do that for a film under one million, I feel we need to be allocating at least 50k for distribution. Even if you do secure a distribution deal, as filmmakers, we often come up with great marketing ideas for our films, but if the distributor doesn’t want to spend money on those ideas, they won’t happen and we could lose out on hitting a key audience. I’ve experienced this on several of my films with some distributors even telling me that they don’t feel social media is worth the money.
Like you said, you’ve seen that there is an audience for your film, but I hear many filmmakers complain that distributors aren’t taking the feedback from festival audiences and are simply taking the same approach they take on every film rather than put together specific campaigns for each film.
I wanted to ask about casting because from the standpoint of raising money, Jason isn’t an obvious casting choice, but I think sometimes, the less obvious choices are the better ones. It is also very smart to cast actors who might not have have the widest audience, but have a specific one, which can be targeted when marketing the film.
Jonathan: Most of my favorite films this year are films that don’t have one of the eight people that you know can automatically trigger financing. It’s always been those surprise performances from actors that made me love movies. As a producer, I want to cast people that are surprises. It’s just the process of convincing financiers and agents to support those ideas.
Rebecca: And this plays into the conversation about diversity and our responsibility as producers. I feel like the onus is being put on us, but I feel it is the distributors and financiers who are blocking diversity in-front of and behind the camera by not financially backing higher budgeted movies with diverse talent. How do we get out of the sub-million dollar budget and also diversify our teams?
Jonathan: Since we made several films that were under the half-a-million range, we’ve had a number of financiers come to us and say, “Let’s do that model/movie again,” but we don’t want to make the same movie time and again. Having had the chance to make films with slightly larger budgets and see what we’re able to do with those extra resources, it does put you in a place where you’re really wanting to work with financiers who also aspire to do more. We’re not in a widget-making business so we’re not just going to repeat on an assembly line. We want to do something that feels ambitious.
Kelly: There’s no formula for doing these low-budget movies and making a lot of money. Just like there’s no road map to the intersection of art and commerce. For someone to come to us and go, “Let’s do that again,” you can’t. It’s tough every time and it’s something that you have to assess with every project that comes along.
Jonathan: We’ve come up in this period of, “Don’t wait for people’s permission,” which, in a way has a great value, but can also lead to great ideas with unsupported means.
Rebecca: I think that’s a great point because the number of films being made every year keeps growing largely due to the fact that it has become cheaper and more accessible for anyone anywhere to make a film. But just because you can shoot a film for nothing, it doesn’t mean that you should. You have to evaluate whether or not you have the tools needed to make a great film, not just any film. If your film doesn’t reach its true potential, it will also have a hard time reaching an audience.
A little more general question, what do you guys think makes a great producer?
Jonathan: As a producer you have to have the ability to utilize your experiences.
Kelly: To me, a key asset is as a producer is recognizing your misjudgments and acknowledging your mistakes. Just like life in general, but it’s applicable in producing because you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to misjudge things and you need to be able to absorb that and learn from it and then move forward so that the next project’s even better and the next project goes smoother. That’s so important in my opinion.
Jonathan: Yes. I think it also helps to have a really solid community as well. We used to feel like we were on Producer Island, but now that we’ve made several films, we’re not there anymore and we are able to reach out to industry partners and financiers in a way that we weren’t able to earlier in our career. We bring more tools to each film than we once did. I also think you have to have the desire to want to have really strong relationships with people.
Kelly: Your director specifically.
Rebecca: That’s a really interesting answer and one I hadn’t thought of. Being a producer requires a lot of commitment to other people and deep connections and understanding of others. If you’re somebody who likes being on the island and don’t respond well to commitment then it will be very challenging to work as a producer.
Jonathan: One of the benefits Kelly and I have is if one of our personalities is fitting better with somebody in terms of supporting that relationship, that person takes the lead. If I know that Kelly’s got it, I don’t have this need to insert myself into that particular part of the process and then I find another way to be supportive.
Kelly: Yes, that’s the trick. We don’t micromanage each other. Just like we wouldn’t want to be micromanaged, just like the relationship with the director shouldn’t be that way either. We’re all in it for the end goal of making a great film.
Rebecca: How are you guys managing the personal side of your lives as well? I think most producers are overwhelmed with the amount of responsibilities we have and get caught up working seven days a week. What steps have you taken or should you be taking to find a little better work-life balance (though I hate that phrase)?
Kelly: It’s a difficult balance. It’s probably the toughest balance because sometimes it’s easier to just bury your head and work because you love to work.
Jonathan: At times we have for sure pushed ourselves too hard. I would say this year we’ve been trying to find more time to figure out how to be more healthy outside of work. It’s a learned behavior.