October 27, 2011

Making Things Happen (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Producing)

Arlene Nelson (left), cinematographer of <em>Troubadors</em>, and Eddie Schmidt

"Before I met you," one Emmy-nominated, highly skilled documentary filmmaker said to me, "I thought a producer was just an accountant."

Several years ago at the IDA Awards, an esteemed member of our community stood at the podium and made a crack about how when he takes a producer credit on his collaborator's films, "We all know what that means"--which is to say, he isn't doing much of anything. Everyone had a good laugh.

And I can't tell you how many pitch meetings I've gone into as a potential documentary director, despite over 10 years of producing credits that also include cinematography, interviewing and writing credits (and could include production sound, post-production supervision, voice and musician credits if I didn't think it was wrong for my name to appear that many times), four Sundance premieres and Oscar and Emmy nominations, where I would hear, "Well...but you only produced those films."

Perhaps the final insult came when a potential collaborator remarked that the good press that I (as producer) had received on a previous project had actually "hurt the film."

Ouch.

We value editors as Yoda-like oracles. We cherish cinematographers like spinners of gold. We laud composers for their ability to channel emotion and inspiration. And you know what? We should. Great editors, cinematographers and composers are fantastically talented and enormously valuable. They deserve every bit of praise--especially in nonfiction media. Without them, "reality" might be awfully dull.

But love for producers--even those who metaphorically pull a freight train with their teeth each day to move a project from concept to delivery--is in short supply. 

Critically speaking, the notion of Director as God is appealing to people. I can't speak for narrative films, where three people are on set just to get the star a Frappucino, but in docs, where there may be only four or five people (or less) actively getting their hands dirty to physically make a film over the course of a year (or years)--and everyone else you see in the credits only worked on it for a couple of days or a couple of weeks--all four or five of those people deserve a fucking medal.

I suppose I always thought that producers who, over time, were clearly contributing to what eventually wound up on screen would be acknowledged as true collaborators--co-filmmakers of some sort. I respected narrative producers like Robert K. Weiss, the Zucker Brothers' producer, who also produced The Blues Brothers, Tommy Boy and other comedy classics. Or Scott Mosier, Kevin Smith's producer, who's clearly a valued part of the Smith oeuvre. Or Peter McCarthy, the producer of an unmatched string of ‘80s cult films including Repo Man, Sid & Nancy, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, and Tapeheads, on whose directorial debut, Floundering, I proudly worked for free after arriving in LA from college nearly 20 years ago.

It's very different in series television. It's almost the reverse: The producers are the constant; the director is usually someone who comes in for a while, does his thing, delivers the goods in the field or on an episode and then moves on. Sure, he or she is contributing hugely during that intense period, but it's in service of an overall, slower-cooked vision, being borne out by the producers who carry the full load from start to finish, sometimes season after season.

Even in nonfiction TV, this is eminently true. Quick: who directed Survivor? Blank stares...You're possibly even asking, "Do they have a director?" But then, who produced the show? That's easy, right? Mark Burnett.

A few years ago, I thought I'd break this cycle. I was going to call myself, first and foremost, a documentary director. I procured and developed three seemingly commercial projects--two based on books (one of them my own); another based on a book and a stage show--quickly got two development deals and was commissioned to write the treatment for the third. All had story, character and humor--things that were important to my "vision."

Yes, I was on my way. I was going to be the documentary Woody Allen...Or John Waters...Or Al Yankovic. My auteur heroes.

And, one by one, these projects fell by the wayside. I had big muscle behind me: a movie studio, a premium cable network, showbiz legends, a live show drawing SRO houses of Hollywood hipsters. It didn't matter.

Over the course of three semi-torturous years, with only the fleeting joy of actually directing a few days here and there for presentation reels, these projects were not to see the light of day. During that time, I turned down several other interesting projects...to produce. They were going to take me away from what I had decided was my destiny! (Although, I did, for six months, step in as Interim Executive Director to run the IDA. What can I say? I'm restless.).

And then, an interesting thing happened. After cleansing my palette by spending a year in TV, writing, producing & directing lighter fare, I got a call from an old friend, the excellent documentarian Morgan Neville, with whom I'd always wanted to work. He was prepping a new feature doc on Carole King, James Taylor and the singer-songwriter scene in 1970s Los Angeles. There was just a vague idea of the story's trajectory, and we could travel down that road together to find it. Was this the one?

Well, I grew up singing those songs. King's is one of the first voices I ever remember hearing on AM radio as a kid in New York in the '70s. I was in.

Creatively, Troubadours was one of the best projects I ever worked on (later, of course, we hit some rough patches, but never between the two of us). It was a terrific collaboration. I was there for Morgan day in and day out; he gave me room to do what I did well and wear a number of hats; I supported him and his vision, going the extra mile every time. I've always said, I'll do the business stuff if I'm involved in the creative stuff. It's worth it to me--and hopefully, worth it to those with whom I work. Really good documentary-making reminds me of my background in sketch comedy. Everybody plays a part (or three), and you make the other guy look good.

Left to right: Morgan Neville, director, <em>Troubadours</em>, singer/songwriter David Crosby; Eddie Schmidt, producer, Troubadours. Courtesy of Tremelo Productions

Listen, if you get the chance to shoot B camera inches from Jackson Browne's guitar neck while he's fretting an improv'd Bob Dylan tune, do it. If you decide days before the mix that two pieces of score in the film aren't working and you and the director both play guitar, go into a studio...and do it. And if you can stand in the middle of a packed arena filled with icons playing timeless music and tell a 35mm film camera operator to pan over for a drum fill at just the right moment...do it.

Land both Steve Martin and Cheech and Chong for your production, when no one could have conceived how pivotal they'd become to the overall flava? Wire up and do the sound on James Taylor's main interview because no other crew besides you, the director and the DP is allowed to be there...even if your hands are shaking as you pin the lav? Bring your own 12-string Martin acoustic guitar to the set for Bonnie Raitt to play on camera...despite the fact that, oops, it's missing a string, but we really need a great ID shot? Yes, yes, yes--do it all.

This is not to say there aren't fires to put out, hurdles to leap over and compromises to be made. (The location will charge us every 15 minutes if we go into overtime? I have to shoot an interview and am sweating profusely from food poisoning? The temp mix somehow wound up on reel 5 of the broadcast master--really?) It's a stomach-tightening tightrope-walk of logic, time and money to get the thing done and finished, particularly with some megawatted cooks in the kitchen. But that's the job. You do that stuff so you can do the other stuff I just told you about.

So I came to realize something important.

You can direct a total piece of garbage, and you can wait around for years just trying to make something at all. Or you can actively work at what you do well, giving the mathematically impossible 110 percent to something you love, with talented people.

I'll pick the latter.

I'm the guy who will toss and turn all night trying to think of a solution to a structural problem, agonize over every word in a pitch e-mail until I'm convinced it's a slam-dunk that'll get the recipient to do my bidding, or wake up at 5:00 a.m. with the solution to a complex bit of legal or logistical wrangling.

As I've broadened my horizons, I've also realized that not everybody who produces wears quite so many hats as I often have, and that maybe I can actually "produce" more by taking different, less hands-on, but still crucial roles on other projects that could benefit from my expertise. I might even wear new hats that challenge my brain, such as orchestrating the release of someone else's worthy (and finished) film, as I did earlier this year for the great Harry Shearer and his feature documentary, The Big Uneasy. Who wouldn't want to work with someone as smart, funny and committed as Shearer, especially if he has something important to say? Sign me up, and let's start scrutinizing the ad buys, rollout strategies and grassroots integration! I can still help worthy endeavors get birthed into the world, even though I may not be able to attend every Lamaze class.

The great David Wolper deemed a producer as "someone who makes things happen." Indeed. When you're knee-deep in a crisis, and you've got to think your way out of it for sheer survival, then maneuver it all toward completion, well...that is producing.

It's perhaps ironic that lately I've been putting my creative energies into--yep--series television. Maybe finding an inner Mark Burnett (or more likely, an inner Chuck Barris) is, in fact, my destiny.

By the way: the Emmy-nominated, highly skilled filmmaker I mentioned at the beginning? She's also been my DP whenever I can manage to hire her ever since. In fact, she and her husband were in the audience with me when that producing crack at the IDA Awards happened.

And do you know how she got her Emmy nomination?

Shooting Troubadours.

 

Eddie Schmidt is the producer of Troubadours, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Twist of Faith and Chain Camera (among others), the executive producer of Candyman: The David Klein Story, and has written, produced, and directed documentary and comedy programs for the likes of HBO, IFC, PBS, E!, GSN and Current. He is also the Board President of IDA. Most of all, he hopes you found this digression in some way useful.

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