This month we had the privilege of talking to award winning producer Scott Macaulay from Forsensic films and Editor-in-Chief of Filmmaker magazine. In this interview Scott discusses the changing landscape of film production, his journey as a producer, and working on Harmony Korine’s Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, to his most recent production The Assistant by Kitty Green, which was released to great acclaim in early 2020.
ATL: You've made so many different films of varying budgets and different styles. Could you walk us through your journey as a producer, and give us some insight into how you select the films you want to produce.
SM: Every film is different. Forensic Films, the company I formed with my partner, Robin O’Hara in 1995, was and still is a very director-oriented company. We look for films that are really imprinted by a director's vision and that often involve some level of experimentation in the form of the film or the manner in which they are made. Or, many times, films that hail from and are informed by very specific communities. But every film has a different path and perhaps set of motivations as to how and why we became involved. Often as a producer, you can get typecast for doing a certain type of film and you want to do something different on the next film. When I worked with Kitty Green on Casting JonBenet, I was very excited to do this kind of hybrid documentary, which I had never worked on before.
The very first film that Robin and I produced was Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was…It was 1992, and we got involved through our good friends, James Schamus and Ted Hope, who had started a production company called Good Machine. Ted was trying to produce a TV series of half-hour dramas set in different subcultures within New York City and asked me to do some development work on that. He had put out a call to a number of New York-based writer/directors to submit concepts or ideas. One person, Tom, sent an entire 30-page script set in the world of late-night radio call-in shows. I read the script, loved it, met with Tom and learned that he had written and directed a play he wanted to turn into a film. So Robin and I went to that play and were completely blown away by it. I remember there were 11 people in the audience — it was one of those magic New York nights where you feel like you're seeing something totally special and undiscovered. The next morning, Ted called and said, 'What did you and Robin think of the play?' And I said, 'We loved it.' He said, 'All right, here's the deal. Tom's got $50,000, and I'm going to get you a free Panavision camera from Sundance. You and Robin have to figure out how to make the movie.” That was the first film we produced, and it went on to win the Grand Jury Prize and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Awards at Sundance.
SM: While we were at Sundance, we met with Michael Aglion — now an esteemed manager — from a French company called Ciby2000. They were financing movies by Jane Campion, David Lynch and many other people. They liked What Happened Was… and offered to do Tom’s next film, The Wife, which he had also developed as a play. So we were shooting another film three months later. Once we had those two films under our belts, people would send us material. That's how we started.
SM: After producing Tom’s two films, we decided to incorporate and form our company, Forensic Films. Producing is such a perilous and unpredictable business. You might have a film that you think is going in a few months, and then it falls apart and finally happens three years later. So, to sustain our income, we set up a production service division. From her days running the Video Distribution Program at New York’s The Kitchen, Robin had a lot of contacts in the European production world, particularly in Paris. We’d travel to Paris, meet producers and directors, and Robin would produce the New York shoots of their films when they’d come to New York. Among the directors we worked with were Chantal Akerman, Alain Resnais and Goran Paskaljevic. Later, we’d also act as consultant on U.S. casting for international films by directors like Olivier Assayas and Alain Berliner. We’d work with casting director Kerry Barden, do all the deals with the agents, deal with SAG, etc. With these films helping to cover overhead we'd then produce one or two American independent films a year — films like Jesse Peretz’s The Chateau, Peter Sollett’s Raising Victor Vargas and James Ponsoldt’s Off the Black.
ATL: I can't get over the fact that you made What Happened Was… for $50,000 and you were shooting on film.
SM: Yeah, and we shot on 35 millimetre Fuji stock for 11 days. The final budget was $116,000. Everyone’s salary was deferred, and I’m really proud we were able to pay a significant amount of the deferrals at the end of the day. But, you know, as you produce film after film, budgets creep up because on each one you learn more about all the things “you’re supposed to have.” On that first film we just did not know what we didn't know. Some of the departments were a little threadbare.
ATL: How has independent film producing changed over the years?
SM: It’s changed so much. The ecosystem that we grew up within — one that included a healthy mix of new financing companies and private equity investors; arthouse specialty distributors and mini-majors; and foreign sales companies who sold to arthouse theatrical distributors in the various territories — has been seriously disrupted by macro economic changes, changes in the culture, and the rise of global streaming platforms. There’s such downward pressure on non-streamer budgets even as labor costs are rising. And, as a category, independent film that’s anything other than heavily promoted Oscar-bait faces competition for viewers from long-form television drama as well as social media — TikTok, IG Live videos, etc. At the streamer level, algorithms and big data are changing the ways in which films get marketed and even greenlit. And now, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly accelerating these changes even further.
Speaking specifically of Forensic, it’s a really different company right now. Around the time of the financial crisis, in 2008, we made a decision to reduce our overhead and focus more on films and projects we were particularly passionate about, as opposed to maintaining a service division or moving to more commercial fare in order to keep the lights on. Robin passed away just over three years ago, and now I’m mostly focused on a smaller number of projects — features as well as docs and even some work that lives in the visual art world.
ATL: So you made films with Harmony Korine. I was just interested to know sort of how you work with such an avant-garde filmmaker.
SM: I love both those films that we made with Harmony. Robin and I co-produced Gummo. Cary Woods produced the film through his company Independent Pictures, and he brought us on. Harmony came to our office with Chloe Sevigny and interviewed us, and we were just blown away by his vision. He had this amazing lookbook, and this was at a time when not every filmmaker would come in with a lookbook.
On Gummo, the biggest job was to help produce the film Harmony wanted to make within all the constraints, which were not just budget constraints but legal constraints and oversight restraints. I mean, this was a studio film financed by New Line. It wasn’t an independent film with private investors who said, ‘We'll meet you at the premiere'. There was a production executive on set, there was a bond company, and then there was the desire to have a production that could allow for the creativity as well as the unpredictability that Harmony, Jean-Yves Escoffier, the DP, and everyone else wanted the film to have. And all within a very traditional type of production structure. When we did Harmony’s second film, julien donkey-boy, with Cary later, Harmony wanted a totally different type of production, which resulted in a Dogme ’95 film with a tiny crew riding around in a van, hidden cameras, and only a skeletal script.
ATL: Another filmmaker you've worked with is Kitty Green. How did you come to work with her?
SM: I met Kitty at the True/False festival. They have a mentorship program, and she was there with her first film, Ukraine is Not a Brothel, which I really liked. We had a meeting there, and then would meet up on her trips to New York and discuss possible projects. She then made an amazing short film called Casting Oksana Baiul, that has elements of the Casting JonBenet concept. She pitched me Casting JonBenet, and we set out making the film — the two of us as producers. She had raised development money from Screen Australia and went to Boulder and Denver Colorado with her production team and was able to shoot what turned into the first part of the film a very small amount of money. That footage became a sizzle reel, we pitched it at CPH:FORUM, got grants from Sundance, Cinereach, Rooftop Films and other places, and then were joined by James Schamus, who produced alongside us and brought his company Symbolic Exchange on board.
ATL: You made The Assistant together, which came out earlier this year, which is an incredible film.
SM: Thank you. After Casting JonBenet Kitty was researching a film dealing with sexual assault on college campuses when the Harvey Weinstein story broke. She pivoted to developing The Assistant and started by interviewing a number of people in the film business and also in other industries, looking for commonalities and patterns of behavior that spoke to sexual harassment and abuse within toxic workplaces. And Kitty, James and I were really fortunate to partner with Jen Dana and Ross Jacobson at 3311 Productions, among our other collaborators.
ATL: So pivoting a bit from film production, what motivated you to be part of Filmmaker Magazine?
James Schamus’s name has come up several times, and I’ll bring him up again here. IFP, which now publishes Filmmaker, had a precursor magazine, The Off-Hollywood Report, that James was asked to edit. He hired me as some kind of co-editor, and we did a few issues together. Later, IFP and IFP West, now Film Independent, decided to merge their two magazines, and I founded Filmmaker with Publisher Karol Martesko and West Coast Editor Holly Willis. The idea was to approach film journalism from the point of view of the working filmmaker, to demystify the ways in which films are made, and to seize the energies of the emerging microbudget and ultra-independent filmmaking movements. It was a point of view that, at the time, was not being found in the existing film magazines.
Nearly three decades later, we have survived many changes in the film business as well as the publishing business. We still do a print magazine, which is kind of incredible. Of course we have a website, but the print magazine is kind of like the beautifully-designed vinyl edition existing in the world of streaming. And as much as Filmmaker still covers the world of production — our new issue, for example, has a feature on the new crew position of COVID Safety Supervisor — we focus just as much today on how to think about film and filmmaking as how to make it. And on preserving the voice of the filmmaker within an environment in which marketing imperatives can often dominate. In a world where a film drops and everyone's tweeting about it for two days and then forgetting it three days later, I think that we perform a really vital function in terms of standing for quality and focusing attention on films that might not otherwise receive it.
ATL: You do a lot of mentoring through talent labs and festivals. Why do you feel these opportunities are so important to new filmmakers? And why are you so eager to be involved in those programs?
SM: To answer the second part first, I'm eager to be involved because, honestly, I get as much from these workshops and mentoring situations as hopefully the filmmakers do. As a producer its imperative to be open to new young points of view and to understand how filmmaking is being approached by new generations. A film like Elisabeth Subrin’s A Woman, A Part, which I produced a few years ago with Shrihari Sathe and a brilliant young co-producer, Taylor Shung, was very much informed in its production by the youthful energies of the kinds of producers I meet in the labs. As for the first part, labs and mentorships offer young filmmakers the opportunity to learn so much that’s not taught in film school or in books. I always try to be very honest and transparent about the film business, and my colleagues always do too. Also, labs and workshops comprise a kind of feeder network into the larger independent film ecosystem. In addition to all the practical instruction, they offer votes of confidence that financiers and producers take notice of.
ATL: What qualities do you need, in your opinion, to be a successful film producer? And what you think is the key to having that longevity in your career?
SM: Well, I think having some ability to tolerate risk is important because it is a really unstable profession. Being able to handle rejection, because for every film that you make, you'll get dozens, if not hundreds of passes from people. Being flexible in your thinking so as to envision a film being done in different models for different financiers and maybe even different formats. Being able to identify talent and good material, and to know what needs to be done to protect during the financing, production and distribution process all that’s good in that talent and material. And then I would say the other thing is to really understand what you're good at as a producer, to understand what your particular skills are and know how to make the kind of alliances and collaborations with people who can augment your skills or complete the producing picture.
We'd like to thank Scott for being so generous with his time and sharing his thoughts with us. If you'd like to see more interviews like this or learn more about film producing, sign up to Above the Line at: www.abovethelinefilm.co.uk