By Rebecca Green
Nominated for the Producers Award at the 2021 Film Independent Spirit Awards, Kara Durrett produced AYAR, which premiered at SXSW 2021, and TOPSIDE, winner of Best Technical Achievement at the 2020 Venice Film Festival and the Special Jury Award for directing at SXSW 2020. Kara also produced SAVE YOURSELVES! which premiered in competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. In this interview, we talk about how being a wedding planner and working as an assistant to celebrities lead Kara to producing, how it felt to have two films at SXSW 2020, the year it was cancelled, and how she is pivoting to television projects faster than she expected.
How did you became a producer? What do you love about the job?
I didn’t plan on being a producer. I know everyone says that. My mom was a film and television producer for 20 years in Texas. She worked at a production company and she always told me, “Never be a producer.” I actually thought I was going to be in the theater world forever. I went to school for acting and theater and I worked with theater companies for about 10 years in New York. But then I started seeing friends cater-waitering and nannying in their 30s to make ends meet and I didn’t think I could do that. I wasn’t cut out for that world of waiting. It’s a brave decision but just didn’t work with my personality. So I made a list of everything that I loved about theater – collaboration, creating something from nothing, art, and connecting with audiences. What I loved about theater was putting together all the elements – essentially producing.
After that I moved to Los Angeles and the first job I got when I was in LA was as an assistant to celebrities because I knew how to interact with actors since I went to acting school. I started reading scripts for the celebrities I was assisting and realized that one great skill I had was being able to pick out a good script from the not so good script.
I got my first real job on a movie through a director I assisted. I got to go to set and I was credited as an associate producer and I had no idea what that was. I didn’t even know what a true producer was to be honest. Once I got on set I became friends with the producers really quickly. I remember thinking it was an instant love seeing them build the machine. The first week of prep, I thought, “Oh, I’m meant to be a film producer. All of my skillsets have led me here.” Those producers took me under their wing and I got mentors out of the experience. After we wrapped, I started expressing to my boss that I was interested in putting projects together for them.
Eventually I got bumped up in their company to a development exec – if you want to call it that – where I was focused on projects that my boss could direct, but we had such opposite taste that I could just tell it wasn’t going to work in the long run.
So to begin my own path, I started going to festivals. I went to the shorts programs at Sundance and SXSW for two years in a row and I would reach out to the short filmmakers letting them know I loved their work and wanted to talk about making something together. I’d work for free and just wanted to be a creative partner. I made about 6 shorts in 12 months with a bunch of really talented filmmakers from these festivals as I was still working for this director full time. Some of those shorts took off and we started getting interest about feature versions and then I started putting those projects together on the side and that’s when I left the company to officially start producing on my own.
Also when I was in the theater world, I was a wedding planner for seven years to make money.
Oh God, I’ve joked that my backup plan is to be a wedding planner except that I hate weddings!
Honestly, the way I made money when I was in my 20s and in college in NY was as a full-blown wedding planner. I would do a wedding a month. I would work one Saturday and I’d get paid a lot of money to do that one day and then I would do my theater work the rest of the week. I showed up to the producing very knowledgeable about how to put things together from a logistical standpoint because of that previous experience. Then on top of that, I had worked for celebrities. So I was already in the reading scripts mode. It was a weird path, but now that I look back on it, it all makes sense. I was meant to be a producer. All the things that interest me, and my skill set exactly lined up.
How are you feeling about the future of independent film?
I am not going to lie, I wish I could say that I was really optimistic right now. The first seven or eight months of the pandemic I watched all of these panels where people were saying, ‘It’s really bad out there’ and ‘indie film isn’t going to survive’ and I remember always feeling that it was all going to be fine.
I hosted a few of those panels. [laughs]
I’ve definitely switched to a really hard way of thinking in the last six or so months where I’m actually really freaked out that it is going to go away in a huge way and that it’s not going to come back. For a while I was sure that everything would work out, financiers will still be looking for projects, festivals will bounce back, and people will want to see these films, but lately I’m not so sure. It makes me really sad to think about.
Why do you feel that way?
Because you can’t search on a streaming platform for nothing. If your movie doesn’t have a celebrity or some major element that people can search for, then it becomes obsolete. It doesn’t matter what award you win, it doesn’t matter what festivals you premiere at, it’s truly about what streamer will buy your film and if people find it.
I have a movie that went to SXSW and Venice that won awards at both festivals. People call me crying after they’ve seen the film saying it’s one of their favorite movies of the year. But we can’t find a home for it, because there are no celebrities in it, and it is truly devastating.
If we’re being honest, festivals only really work if you win the lottery – if you’re that one movie at that one festival that makes it big. Festivals don’t guarantee a sale. Like I said, I had a film that did incredibly well at festivals last year and had the best reviews of every major outlet out there, but it still hasn’t stuck and I don’t know what to do about that.
In order for your film to be seen, you have to have some distribution executive somewhere championing your film that deserves to have a life, but if you don’t get that one person who’s going to fight for you, then you’re just left in this weird desert of forgotten movies.
How do you talk to your financiers when you find yourself in this position? You had a film at SXSW last year as well when the festival was outright cancelled, right?
Yes, last year I had two features at SXSW. I heard this term recently from a sales agent, and I think it’s very true, that our film at SXSW last year is a “casualty of COVID”.
I’ve used that phrase when speaking to producers. The ‘lost films of Tribeca’ is another phrase out there.
I had never heard that and it broke my heart, but it’s true. I think it would’ve had an incredible life had it not been for the pandemic.
How are you evaluating your own work if you feel the future of indie film is unstable?
I have definitely started looking at how to get into television. I thought I would have at least another five years of really hitting the pavement with indies and making really cool work. Not that TV isn’t cool, but I thought I was going to be grinding it out for a bit more on my own in the indie space.
The problem with all of us saying we want to get into TV is that there is no path for producers to get into those rooms. It’s not like you get hired to produce episode of TV in the same way directors het hired. If we’re not generating the projects, creating our own job, there are not many opportunities.
Exactly, but even when generating a project, I have to go find a company that I’m going to partner with either because they have development money that I don’t, or because they have more leverage in the business and will be the reason the project gets financed. It often feels like you’re doing all of the work for free while also having to hand it off to someone with more clout than you, or someone with a deal, and you don’t know how to get to where they are so that you can set up projects on your own. How many films do you have to produce before you don’t need a babysitter? I think there’s some class in film school I missed along the way. [laughs]
A lot of the Dear Producer readers are early in their career or in film school. What advice do you give them? How do you find mentors, or how do you get into this space, or should you not given the climate and take a different route?
I definitely think the smartest route is working at a company as an assistant, because you learn the lingo and you learn the way things move in that environment. I got lucky and I got a job where I was able to learn without having to sit at a desk or work at an agency or production company, but sometimes I really wish I had. Do it for a year. Give yourself a time limit, so that you don’t get stuck somewhere, and learn how the machine works. There is a game to it. There is a language and a rhythm and there is a way you talk to certain people. There are moves and counter moves from everyone. Unless you see it happening right in front of you, it’s really hard to catch up later. I definitely had to catch up later, and I wish I wouldn’t have had to do that as much.
When I graduated college 2001, micro-budget movies weren’t quite a thing yet, we didn’t have Kickstarter, I didn’t come from a family with money or knew how to raise money. I went to LA and got a job and ended up working in the studio system for several years. It was out of necessity, but I’m really glad I did it because I learned how the system works and if you don’t know how it works, you won’t know how to navigate through it. I couple of years at a company is a good investment in your career.
I would also go to every festival you can and watch the shorts blocks first. Meet people and take general meetings with anyone who will let you. The people who I met at festivals are people I still talk with today. I met producers at roundtables who had done way bigger movies than me and then after the festival I would write them and ask if they wanted to get coffee or go on a hike. Most of them would ignore me, but one or two of them would say ‘yes’ and relationships would grow from there. This approach very quickly turned into how I got work and how I was able to integrate into the system. Don’t be annoying, but hustle to find connections when possible. And don’t ever lie about your experience. Be you and that will be enough.
Is there something that you feel the industry should be doing to better support and future producers?
I wish studios and streamers understood and acknowledged the importance of indie films as it relates to their pipeline and how producers play a role. They don’t seem to understand that if these small films go away, then there is no funnel of talent.
Indie film is the training ground for bigger budget films. It’s the minor leagues. If indie producers weren’t in the grind, who would have discovered Ryan Coogler or Ava DuVernay or Chloe Zhao, David Lowery, or Colin Trevorrow?
The directors of of the films I’ve produced, SAVE YOURSELVES! andTOPSIDE, both of them have gotten endless amounts of work after our premiere. They skyrocketed to the studio level instantly because they’re super smart and made great work with very little money. That skill won’t be taught if small movies don’t get made.
Are you working other jobs now to pay the bills? How are you sustaining yourself?
The last few years I’ve learned to line produce. A fellow producer advised me early on to learn how to line produce but not to tell anyone otherwise I’ll only be known as a line producer. He told me to do it for commercials and for branded jobs. So I started doing commercials a few years ago and I do a commercial every two to three months and it pays for about three months of my life. The end product isn’t always something I’m proud of, but it’s a job and work is work. I’m lucky I’ve been doing films so much the last few years, I get to do less and less of the other stuff.
What does the Spirit Award nomination mean to you?
It was a very big shock. I did not feel qualified enough for this recognition. The people who have been nominated before me were years ahead and I feel very lucky. I have no doubt that the reason I was nominated is because TOPSIDE is an incredible film. It’s an amazing feat from a producer’s standpoint and it’s an incredible film from a filmmaker’s standpoint. It is undeniably fascinating how it even came together. We shot an entire movie in a tunnel underground in Rochester, NY. We built an underground city and used real-life people. I know I got nominated because of what we accomplished and I’ll take it. It actually makes it really special to me because that film has such a special place in my heart.
I had already made four shorts with those directors, I had been working with them for years on TOPSIDE. We had found financing and then we lost financing over and over. In the end, we brought on multiple partners who all ended up being great in their own different way. However, by the end of the movie, I definitely felt like I had lost my place a little bit because there were so many people involved who are more experienced than me and had bigger names. So being recognized for this film is super special.
Is there anything you’re optimistic about in terms of what we’re looking forward to in film or art?
I said this in my Spirit Award essay they make you do before you are nominated. I wrote that I’ve worked years in different jobs to hopefully try and make a living at something that I love and last year was the first year I ever really did that. I feel very grateful that I’m even here because I don’t know how I got here, I don’t know how I even became a producer. I’m very grateful for the collection of producers that I’ve met the last two years who are out there doing the hard work which has given me a community in a way that I had never had before.
I always thought I’d be alone in this journey, bouncing from film to film. But now that I have friends like you, and so many producers to talk to constantly, it’s clear that I’m not alone. We’re all going through the same struggles, just in different ways, and at different stages in our careers. There’s a group of people who believe that independent film has a place in the world and that art is not just going to be commerce. Its very inspiring and honestly makes me want to keep doing this as long as it makes me happy.
I believe we’re going to get through it. I think it’s going to be a rough for several more years, but sometimes you need to lose something to know how much it means to you.
I will also say that as much as I feel worried about the future, I keep getting called. I keep getting people who have projects that they are pushing forward. And I’m continuing to learn.
I recently did a job as a line producer, as well as being the on-set creative producer. I had never done that before. I’d never done both. I’d never done a DGA job. There were a lot of firsts on the project. My husband told me not to worry about taking the job if I didn’t love the creative, but I wanted to. I wanted to practice, I wanted to learn. I wanted to see what it’s like to shoot during COVID. And it was great. We made content (that hated word). We made something fun. We had a great crew. I loved the production company. So much good came out of it. Is it the thing that I’m going to go to Sundance and weep on stage with a director about our craft? No. That’s okay, it doesn’t all have to be that all the time. Sometimes you can just make something because it’s fun and we’re lucky enough to get paid to do it.
Kara Durrett is a 2019 Sundance Producer Lab Fellow, and is a 2021 nominee for the Independent Spirit Piaget Producers Award.
Most recently, Durrett produced Celine Held & Logan George’s TOPSIDE, winner of both Best Technical Achievement at the 2020 Venice Film Festival, and the Special Jury Award for directing at SXSW 2020; Alex Fischer & Eleanor Wilson’s SAVE YOURSELVES!, which premiered in competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival; and Floyd Russ’s AYAR, premiering at SXSW 2021.
SAVE YOURSELVES! sold to Bleecker Street / Hulu, and is in development as a television series based on the film with Universal and Keshet Studios. Upcoming projects HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL Written and Directed by Adanne and Adamma Ebo and Produced alongside Daniel Kaluuya and 59% percent. Celine Held & Logan George’s CADDO, and Brian Crano & David Craig’s I DON’T UNDERSTAND YOU, alongside producer Joel Edgerton.
Durrett’s short film work has been nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, and has screened in competition at Sundance Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, New York Film Festival, and in the Narrative and Midnight Competitions at SXSW. Her award-winning short film CAROLINE was short-listed for the 2019 Academy Awards.