By Rebecca Green
Fresh off of winning the 2020 Film Independent Spirit Award Producers Award, Dear Producer spoke with Mollye Asher, who most recently produced Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ SWALLOW which premiered at Tribeca 2019 and Chloé Zhao’s THE RIDER, which premiered in the 2017 Cannes Directors Fortnight, winning its top prize.
A classically trained vocalist, Mollye speaks with Dear Producer about the beauty of working with non-actors, her love of solving difficult production challenges, and how growing up in a family with strong political views has driven her to tell stories with social impact.
So you have a really full plate… You just wrapped production Josef Kubota Wladyka’s film, CATCH THE FAIR ONE, you are in post on Chloé Zhao’s film, NOMADLAND, and you’re in the release phase of SWALLOW. How have you been balancing the workload?
Ultimately, it is about having the right partners. For example, when we were in post on SWALLOW, I was also in production on NOMADLAND. Mynette Louie was my producing partner on SWALLOW and while I could continue to give notes on the edit, she knew I couldn’t give my full attention to other post production elements because I had responsibilities on NOMADLAND. Similarly, when we were in production on SWALLOW, Mynette had a project that needed her attention and so I carried more of the load on set. It’s about creating an even back and forth with your partners so you can juggle multiple projects.
How did you and Mynette meet and when did you become official partners?
I worked for Gamechanger while Derek Nguyen was on hiatus making his first feature and I took his place for around a year in 2015/2016. I loved working with Mynette and learned so much while at Gamechanger. I knew I wanted to find a partner for SWALLOW and she was my first choice and I was so happy when she read it and wanted to join the team. Mynette, Derek and I just recently officially partnered and started our company The Population.
What do you look for in a producing partner? What are the things that you find most valuable?
Most of my experience was in hands-on production, so with SWALLOW, I wanted to partner with Mynette because of her strong financing background, her experience raising funds, liaising with financiers and negotiating contracts. I look for someone whose skillsets and experience are not exactly the same as my own so that our collaboration is well rounded. It is also important to me that my partner be a hard worker and honest.
Is there anything in particular that you look for in a director?
I look for someone bold and unafraid to do things differently.
Do you have any advice for people who’ve never raised money?
My advice would be to network and do as many programs with organizations like IFP, Sundance, SFFILM or Film Independent. With SWALLOW, I attended the Sundance Catalyst program where you pitch your project to potential investors and it truly was a catalyst to our funding. However, whether the people you meet at these events are right for the current project or not, you maintain those relationships for future projects. I’ve also found that my colleagues will make introductions to investors for me. I was very, very grateful with CATCH THE FAIR ONE to have had a friend who introduced me to a few investors who were just getting checks from a previous film they produced. My friend didn’t have a film at the moment to pitch to them and was generous enough to bring them mine. So, it’s about networking, being involved in the community, and helping one another.
Tell me about the distribution process for SWALLOW.
It’s been tough, in a sense, because while that film has a logline that sparks interest, it’s gotten rave reviews, and the visuals are striking, the film straddles genres in that it is a thriller, horror and drama. Because of this, we ran into some trouble with distributors who said, “We love this movie but we don’t know how to market it.” That was the biggest hurdle, finding a distributor who understood the film. IFC is releasing the film and, I feel, really do seem to get it.
When you read a script, are you thinking as far ahead as, “Who is the audience? Who is this distributor? How are we going to get this out in the world?” Or, are you more focused on, “This is a story I want to make,” and put blinders up?
I should probably think more about audience, but I tend to go more with my gut. Often it’s more about the filmmaker than the story itself, especially if I find a filmmaker who’s exciting and has an interesting way of viewing the world, whether I see that in their past work or how they’ve expressed themselves in the script.
Something I learned at Gamechanger was how to put on the lens of an investor and ask, “What is the marketplace right now? How does this budget fit into the current market? Where could this film go? Is it a film that’s going to do well on the festival circuit and be a feather in your cap prestige-wise or will it reach audiences in a larger way?” When I read SWALLOW, I saw that it had more commercial potential than other projects I had produced, but it wasn’t the overarching reason why I worked on it.
We’re in a time right now where most indie films do not recoup what they spent. Do you have any thoughts about the current market? How are we going to be able to keep making original, independent films when we know the likelihood of recoupment is so low?
The answer used to be to make the film for less money, but that’s not necessarily the answer anymore and there are certain films where you just can’t do that.The film that I just wrapped, CATCH THE FAIR ONE, is an action thriller with many stunts and special effects. You can only go so low. So, I’m looking at how to diversify my slate, doing smaller films that might not have a huge release, while also looking for bigger films that need higher profile talent and therefore (in a sense) maybe less risky for investors.
Also, I’m always very clear with investors that they are taking a huge risk. Most investors I work with come onto a project because it is about an issue that is important to them or they want to get in on the ground floor with a filmmaker who they believe will make it big down the road. For some, it’s also about seeing the inner workings of how a film gets made because they’ve started a new fund or want to be a producer. Investing can also become a learning experience.
Tell me a little bit about your new film if you can.
CATCH THE FAIR ONE is the second feature for Josef Kubota Wladyka who was in my NYU grad film class. I’m producing it with another classmate, Kim Parker, who executive produced THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO. Josef’s first film, MANOS SUCIAS (aka DIRTY HANDS), premiered at Tribeca in 2014 and won Best New Narrative Director. Then he went on to direct a lot of television, including many episodes of NARCOS, and the first two episodes of the second season of THE TERROR.
CATCH THE FAIR ONE is about a female boxer whose sister goes missing and she plans her own abduction to go and find her. It speaks to the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women. The boxer is an actual professional middleweight boxer, Kali Reis, who is Native American and an advocate for addressing these issues both as a speaker around the country and in the ring. She says that when she fights, she’s “fighting for all Nations”. I was really drawn to the strong female character, as well as getting the chance to work with Joe again. I produced all of his shorts when we were in school. He’s one of the loveliest filmmakers to work with.
Any thoughts on finding new filmmakers versus continuing to work with classmates from college? When I teach at films schools I often say, “Don’t limit yourself just to these people around you. There’s a whole world of filmmakers.” On the other hand, there’s such a special thing about continuing to work with the people you went to college with.
When I went to NYU, I went with a mission. I went knowing that I wanted to go and find the people that I would work with because I started film a little later in life and I didn’t want to waste time. I was watching, from the very beginning, whose work I responded to and who I liked working with. Then I made a point to maintain those relationships, not only because I might work with them, but it’s also therapy in a way. My friends from grad school are people I can go to to commiserate with, bounce things off of, and we also pass jobs on to each other. I have yet to work with anyone who I did not meet at NYU. I want to, but those are the projects that happen to come my way that I seem to connect with the most.
What are the benefits of working with people that you are so close with? How do you keep a balance and make sure that you’re not just looked at as a producer, that they don’t forget there’s a friendship there too.
It can get personal. Chloé Zhao and I have worked together so much, we started as friends and then became partners. It’s all individual to different people, but one of the hard aspects is that sometimes what friends say can hit deeper than what colleagues might say. At the same time, I also think of these friends as family. With Chloé, we can just come back together again and be like, “Okay, we had that little fight, but it’s all fine.”
I’ve been hearing from a lot of producers this last year, myself included, that people are feeling really burned out. I think part of it is coming from just a genuine burnout of working too much, but I feel it is also from the heightened challenge of trying to make indie films right now. I feel like it’s getting harder and becoming more exhausting. Are you feeling any resistance in the work that you’re trying to get off the ground?
Actually, no. I feel like I’m finally able to make movies. It was such a struggle to find financing for all of my past projects. It’s only as of now that I feel like it’s getting easier, probably because the success of THE RIDER has opened up some doors. With SWALLOW, Mynette said that it was the hardest film that she’s ever tried to finance, and I was like, “Uh oh, well, don’t stick with me because this was much easier for me than anything else.” [laughter]
That’s interesting. Elaborate on what was challenging.
With SWALLOW, we had many people who were interested in investing (which was new for me), but the investors had requirements that wouldn’t fit with what other investors required. Like, someone wanted to be first money out and other people were going to drop out if that was the case. It’s like putting together a puzzle. We, unfortunately, had to give up some investors because their needs didn’t fit with the needs of the other investors.
All of your films seem to have a social impact quality about them, what is it that attracts you to those kinds of stories?
I come from a family that has very strong political views. Around the dinner table, we would often be talking about the news, but I always had a desire to be an artist. I have a need to make a difference. I think that’s probably where it comes from, it’s my way of trying to make a difference in the world.
Why film? There are multiple ways you could make an impact, what is it about film and storytelling?
I started as a singer and a dancer and trained classically at the New World School of the Arts in Miami for voice. I always thought that I wanted to be on Broadway so I went to NYU undergrad for musical theater. However, once I was studying, I realized that I had never actually been in a musical and that I hated them. But, I discovered that I really loved acting, which I then pursued. Ultimately, though, I realized that I’m in the arts because I want to communicate with people and theater audiences are so limited. That’s why I started to get into film and then discovered that I loved it more than anything that I’d ever pursued.
Was there a particular first project that you remember?
Yes, I made a short film with some friends. We were all frustrated theater artists. I performed in the film, but found that I loved putting it together even more. I had a friend that had just started Columbia Grad Film and she encouraged me to apply to film school. At the time I thought I would never get in, I didn’t have any experience and the only person who could write me a recommendation letter was the manager at the restaurant I worked at. At the time, I was with a boyfriend who was also applying and I thought, “He’ll get in and then he’ll just teach me everything that he learned and I’ll help him pay for it.” My friend was like, “Don’t be an idiot, Mollye, apply.” She wrote a recommendation letter for me that was a total lie. I guess I’m outing myself now to NYU that it was all a lie. [laughter]
That’s a great story.
I think filmmakers, in general, are quite reckless in terms of our own financial sustainability, only thinking about the immediate future, working paycheck to paycheck, project to project. How far out do you plan? Can you see the future of your career?
I’ve never been a planner, which I feel like sounds strange for a producer. I just have gone where the doors have opened. I’ve always worked really hard, but I’ve never been strategic with my career path. Starting this company with Mynette and Derek is part of planning for the future and having an ability to greenlight projects and not have to depend on others. That was something that frustrated me when I was an actor, that I felt like I had no control over my career. In a sense, it’s similar to a producer when you’re looking for money.
What do you love about producing?
I love the problem-solving and the challenges. I’m not going to say I like emergencies, but I like coming face-to-face with something that seems insurmountable and finding a way to make it work.
NOMADLAND was not hard to get going, but the actual production itself had many challenges. For example, once a year, nomads will get together for a Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, otherwise known as RTR, where they gather in the desert, and share tips and experiences of living as a nomad. For example, there’ll be a course where they talk about female hygiene on the road, or how to change a tire, or what you do if the police knock on your door. We needed to re-create an RTR and gather over 50 people, including all of their mobile homes. That took months of planning. We wanted to be selective about what kind of vehicle they had and who they were as people. So it took me time to reach out and get to know everyone. This is what I love, though and is one of the reasons I like working with non-actors, because I get to go into worlds that I would never know existed and meet people I wouldn’t have otherwise.
When it came time to set up the RTR, the art director along with the director of photography designed where all of the vehicles would be placed and I wish that I could have videoed the production team bringing in all of these vehicles, their beautiful organization of it. It was definitely a challenge, but that’s a perfect example of what I love to do.
In terms of working with non-actors, I do a lot of application reading for organizations and working with non-actors is something that gets thrown around a lot and is starting to feel like a gimmick. I’d love to hear from your perspective, having done it more than once now, the reasons for choosing to work with non-actors. What’s the thing for you that says, “Yes, that is the way to do this”?
For one thing, authenticity. For NOMADLAND, we wanted real people that would come with their own homes. The homes are so specific to each person and their personal stories are also so specific. All of the non-actors I’ve worked with come with real experience having to do with the story that we’re telling. They’re often playing a version of themselves. It’s incredible, actually, how actors will train all their lives to be themselves in imaginary circumstances and then we come across these unique individuals who just naturally can. Kali in CATCH THE FAIR ONE, brought layers and layers and layers of experience that an actor wouldn’t have had.
What are you doing to help them get to the place of being able to pull off a performance?
Well, a lot of it is the director forming a bond and relationship and getting to know them personally. On CATCH THE FIRE, Joe had Kali take some acting classes, as well. Just so that she had some tools to fall back on because it was a tough role. As a producer, it’s about making sure that they’re comfortable and feel safe and feel like they’re being taken care of. Not that you wouldn’t do that with everybody on the film, cast and crew, but I think with non-actors, it’s such a different, new experience for them. It is about making sure they know there’s someone beside them that’s their friend. That’s important.
Mollye Asher is a Spirit Award and Gotham Award-winning producer based in NYC . Most recently, she produced Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ SWALLOW (Tribeca 2019) and Chloé Zhao’s THE RIDER (Sony Pictures Classics). THE RIDER premiered in the 2017 Cannes Directors Fortnight and won its top prize. The film went on to be nominated for four Film Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Picture. It was selected as the 2018 Best Picture by the National Society of Film Critics and won Best Feature at the 2018 Gotham Awards.
Other credits include the 2014 SXSW Grand Jury Prize winner FORT TILDEN (MGM/Orion), by writer/director team Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers; Anja Marquardt’s SHE’S LOST CONTROL (2014 Berlinale, SXSW, multiple Spirit Award nominations); and Chloé Zhao’s debut feature SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME (2015 Sundance, Cannes, multiple Spirit Award nominations, Kino Lorber).
She is currently in post-production on Chloé Zhao’s third feature, NOMADLAND, starring Frances McDormand, to be distributed by Fox Searchlight, and she is in post-production on Josef Kubota Wladyka’s CATCH THE FAIR ONE, executive produced by Darren Aronofsky’s Protozoa and The Population. The Population is Mollye’s production company with Mynette Louie and Derek Nguyen. Mollye earned her MFA in Film from NYU and is a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures.