Walking the Wire: A Conversation on the Director Producer Partnership

By Epiphany James

“What is the secret to a strong, long-lasting director and producer relationship?” Ruth Du (YOUR BABY IS MINE), the event moderator, asks with a smile. “Kim, please start us off.”

“Oh, am I supposed to have the answer?” Producer Kim Sherman (SUN DON’T SHINE, YOU’RE NEXT) innocently replies.

And with that, much like the meet-cute of a situational comedy, the tone for Marriage Story: The Director Producer Partnership panel is set. Film Fatales, a non-profit on a mission to generate diversity both in front of and behind the camera, starts a frank conversation about the complexity of the producer and director relationship, including the tightrope walk of who ultimately holds power and how does one delicately balance on the wire of both commerce and art?

Kim goes on to say that, for her, having a strong understanding of self makes all the difference with how she engages with her team. When she started off in her 20s, and was feeling lost, she brought that sense of lost-ness to set, which inherently impacted the collaborative process. Heather Rae (BULL, TALLULAH) adds that continual acknowledgment of what each other contributes to the team has been quintessential for her partnerships along with “clear, honest, and elegant communication.”

But what of the balance of power? Who ultimately has the last say? The answers become less clear and more situational. Avril Speaks (JINN, HOSEA) shares that for her, it depends on what topic the issue itself falls under. While the director leads over the creative vision, the producer has sway over budget, infrastructure, crew, and the like. Blurred lines can happen in the case of more fluid director-producer partnerships, but that is more the exception than the rule.

For Shruti Ganguly (H., INITIALS SG), the order of arrival on the project is key. For instance, if the producer purchases the intellectual property (I.P.) and then hires the director to bring it to life, that power dynamic looks different than if a writer-director hires the producer to bring his project to fruition.

After looking at the various variables that impact the producer director power dynamic, the larger question becomes, “What about when a studio is involved? How does that impact how you keep all parties happy?” Kim, who has experience working with large studios while also nurturing the director’s vision, is the first to share. Her approach is all about trying to “make sure that we’re all talking about the film in the same way.” This starts with frank and detailed conversations early on regarding “What is this film? Where do we see it going? What are the important pieces to hold onto.” Then it’s about keeping executive producers and the studio consistently in the loop, sending location photos, design sketches, etc. to both build trust and to avoid surprises for them when it comes time to see dailies or an early cut. 

In nearly every film, a time will come when traditional communication strategies are not working, and a new approach is needed in order to get back on the same page with your director. Heather observes that this often occurs when there is a point of contention between art and commerce. A good producer acts as a bridge between both, while some directors do not want to be burdened by the demands of commerce. She asserts here that working with a director that “possesses similar values is what makes a long-term relationship work well.”

Doubling down, Ruth asks Avril to unfold this even further—what happens when the commerce gets in front of the art? Avril acknowledges the inherent internal conflict, “As producers, we come on these projects because we’re passionate about it, too. We think it’s a great story. I desperately want to support what they’re doing, and yet because I understand the marketplace I have to look at those things, too.” Ultimately, the hope is that their director will acknowledge and respect a producer’s ability to understand both their vision and how to successfully bring it to the market.

Shifting from acknowledging a producer’s skillset to that of the director: which attribute is a priority when seeking a director? Their ingenious vision, or their willingness to collaborate and compromise?

For Shruti, she leans to the latter, preferring directors with “a common set of values and frankly, kindness.” Which begs the question, can a director possess both a strong sense of vision and still be kind? Kim firmly believes it is, but it’s all about balance stating, “The times that I’ve worked with people who were purely visionary but not collaborative I feel like the film suffered. That taught me a lot.”

Also on the side of preferring collaboration is Avril who, looking back, realizes the times she felt most fulfilled on set was when she felt “a part of something larger.” This means all voices are heard and everyone on the team is working towards a common vision.

Heather, believing that true vision doesn’t come every day, would choose a director with vision over collaboration. Offering that exercising “patience and really deep listening” is what has helped her navigate the sometimes tricky waters of working with a visionary director.

For the final portion, Ruth lays out scenarios for the producers to solve in real time.

First scenario: “There is a scene that doesn’t necessarily need to be in the film, but it is a scene that your director absolutely loves. However, the production is running late and you run the risk of not making your day should you film it. How do you handle this?”

“I think we’ve all been in this situation,” Heather starts, “You have to weigh the checks and balances, and if you have to lose something else, is it worth it?” Avril would look at the finances of the situation and assess if too much has already been put into the scene. “That’s when I’d be having the conversation with my AD, and figuring it out.” she says.

When Shruti throws out the “magical line item called contingency” as a potential Hail Mary, Kim is quick to point out that contingency doesn’t mean the same thing now as it did pre-COVID. Insurance does not cover costs if you have to go down for a positive test, even if it’s a false positive, and so, “we now have to hold on to every penny in our contingency line in case that happens.” 

For Avril, it comes down to trust. The director is not regularly looking at the budget the same way that she is, so if she says, “Actually we don’t have the money…etc.” then the director should trust her professional judgment of the situation. It’s about leaning into the value of having a producer on board. “We are thinking about the overall story and the visual, but we’re also thinking about the bottom line. We’re using both sides of the brain.”

Second scenario: “The director’s cut is not strong, and your director is not willing to kill any of her darlings. She’s taking over the editor’s mouse at times, the editor’s anxious, post staff is confused. You can’t show this cut to an investor or studio but you have one week to turn something over that is watchable. How do you handle this?”

Heather elects to bring in a trusted set of eyes, someone strong and objective, to help provide perspective and get them through. Offering that “sometimes a few days away is exactly what you need to come back fresh and see the film differently.”

Having worked with directors who have lost their way making the director’s cut, Kim advises leveraging the editor as another trusted collaborator in this situation. “Sometimes giving them the space to deliver a cut uninterrupted” is exactly what both the editor and the director needs, echoing Heather’s sentiment that space is vital for a clear perspective.

Shruti asks us to look at the problem in an entirely different way. What conversation could be had before production even starts to avoid this situation in post-production? If the cut is bad, and the director has clearly taken over, then what power does the producer have according to the contracts everyone signed? Referring to those roles outlined before production serves as a compass for how to best move forward.

Lastly, Ruth asks everyone on the panel, “How do you guys choose which stories to tell and what are you actively doing to hire diverse crew in terms of crew, casting, etc.?”

Kim: “It’s going to be a lifetime of learning and being open and listening to other people.” This means educating yourself, hiring intentionally, and avoiding having a myopic approach to creativity, which ultimately hurts the film as well.

Shruti: Chooses the stories she wants to tell by selecting “the type of stuff that I haven’t seen before and want to watch.”  Pushing for more authentic, complex stories is both what is interesting for her, and vital in terms of advocating for diversity in storytelling.

Avril: “I’m always drawn to stories that show a different point of view and are stories that we don’t often get to see—which brings up the huge issue of diversity. We have a real problem with the depth of what diversity really means.” It is more than who is in front of the screen, this also includes diversity in financing, distribution, and hiring of crews.

Heather: Fights for representation for native and indigenous stories, facing those who would say that they are not commercially viable. “The truth is,” she argues, “that it’s about the story and the universality of humanity. I truly believe that story is a way to liberate us all.”

After an hour of vibrant conversation, perhaps we are no closer to answering the question, “What is the secret to a strong, long-lasting director and producer relationship?” However, what is gained is the insight that each producer must create their own compass. How else does one best move forward in the subjective, and challenging world of independent filmmaking? Whether choosing a creative partner, handling delicate power dynamics, or selecting which stories to tell, we must be our own north star.