Fast Talk: Screen Gems

Movies may be sheer entertainment for most of us, but for many passionate, creative people, they’re also a lot of work. With Oscar season here, we turned to a cast of film-industry characters for fresh wisdom on managing teams, coping with rejection, and implementing the visions of others.

A Plum Partnership

Celine Rattray

Co-CEO, Plum Pictures, and coproducer, Lonesome Jim

New York, New York


After graduating from Oxford, I worked for McKinsey doing strategic projects for media and entertainment companies and later, for HBO. I’ve always wanted to work in film, but I never had the experience. So a year and a half ago, I persuaded two friends to help me found our production company, Plum Pictures. We each bring different skills to the partnership. One is good with the creative process, the other is good with production. My strength is the business perspective.

You have so little leverage when you’re a small company. No one likes to work for low pay, so the challenge is to motivate people. On a small-budget film, you offer typecasted actors different roles. You offer crew members a position above what they’re used to doing — the makeup assistant might be the lead makeup artist. And we compensate writers by including them more in the production. We paid nothing for one script; a studio might have paid $10,000. The writer is helping choose a director and cast. It’s an exchange.

The film industry requires a huge amount of persistence and luck. We got lucky with Lonesome Jim — Steve Buscemi was our first and only choice for director, and he agreed to do it. But that’s incredibly rare. Rejection is a major part of our daily lives. Whether it’s a director or an actor who doesn’t want to do a project or an investor who doesn’t want to finance us, we field anywhere from 10 to 100 rejections a day. When you manage to sell a pitch, have a movie green-lighted, or get Lonesome Jim into Sundance, you have to savor those moments of victory. An incredible amount of struggle goes into getting them.

The Confidence Inside

Merideth Finn

Director of acquisitions and production, Fine Line Features/ New Line Cinema

New York, New York

There are two highs in my job. There’s the fast-moving, how-much-money, highly competitive business deal of purchasing a finished film to distribute in theaters. Then there’s the adrenaline rush I get when I go to a screening, and by the time it’s finished, I think, I love that movie, I want to buy that movie, I want us to distribute that movie.

That’s how I felt when I saw The Sea Inside. I typically see films with colleagues, and we’ll debate them heatedly. But all three of us cried during this screening; we’ve never agreed so vehemently about a film. We saw the movie in the morning, made our first bid in the afternoon, and reached a deal by 3 a.m. The talks were very competitive, but I tend to stay calm during negotiations, which is useful. Losing a movie over hurt feelings is a huge mistake.


In my work, it’s so important to remain confident in my own ability. I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t know I was going to work in film, but I’ve always been very opinionated and passionate. It’s other people’s role to question my opinion; they wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t doubt me on some level.

I first saw American Splendor at Sundance, before we owned it, and I was so proud of the movie even though I had nothing to do with making it. But not everyone on my team was as passionate about it as I was. When that happens, I have to be able to say, “This is right for us, I think this director’s going to pop, or I think this movie’s going to resonate, and this is why.” To take a risk on a film, you have to believe in it so much you’re willing to risk being identified with it whether it fails or succeeds.

Refusing to Bend Sideways

Michael London

Producer, Thirteen, House of Sand and Fog, and Sideways

Los Angeles, California

A producer is sort of like a contractor on a construction site who hires the electrician, the floor guy, and the plumber. He has to know a little bit about all of those skills, because he’s responsible for the work that’s done under his watch. Like a contractor, I’m guaranteeing the people I hire. So I have to assemble the right team, to look for people who have the same values and who care about the same things.

It’s also my job to balance a film’s financial needs with its creative vision. When we were trying to finance Sideways, we got offers from two big studios and Fox Searchlight, a specialized film distributor. The big studios were offering more money, marketing, and resources, but we were nervous they would put pressure on us during the filming and might give up if the film didn’t make a ton of dough early on. We went with Fox Searchlight because they understood in the long run it was less about aggressive marketing and more about a really careful strategy of being clever, agile, and patient.

There were many battles over the casting of Sideways. All three of the leads — Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, and Virginia Madsen — were seen as wildly unlikely choices, but our director felt these were the right actors for the roles. I’m the one who had to deliver the bad news to agents, financiers, and studio executives who kept pushing me to change his mind. In this business, there are so many moments when you’re tempted to make compromises or take on projects that don’t mean much to you. The lesson you learn over and over is that you have to follow through on your instincts and not try to bend to anyone else’s notions of how you should be operating.


Directing the Workday

Paul Weitz

Writer and director, About a Boy (with brother Chris) and In Good Company

Los Angeles, California

Working with my brother as a screenwriting team sort of happened by accident. He had intended to join the State Department, and I was an unsuccessful playwright. But we started writing together for a laugh and then got hired and kept on doing it. Over the years, we’ve learned that in order for a creative team to really work, you have to genuinely respect the other person and feel like they’re offering a different perspective. If two people are coming up with the same ideas again and again, what’s the point?

After writing for 10 years, I was used to being alone in my head. And so I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy managing people until I became a director and started dealing with a couple hundred people on a daily basis. Leading a team is one of the rare cases where you can affect what kind of workday people will have. If you’re organized, then generally the shoot’s going to be organized. If you’re polite to people, everyone’s polite to each other. I love that aspect of setting the tone for how people will work.

One thing I do before the first day of shooting is get the crew list — often 75 names — and try to memorize it. Even if I don’t get it right, it gives people a sense that I care, that I’m treating them with respect. They’re usually pretty stunned that I’m even trying, and I get an inordinate amount of credit.

Directing forces me to make so many decisions in any given hour. Someone will ask, “Should this bottle of beer be brown or green?” and then, “Should his collar be buttoned or not?” At some point you realize it’s more important to make a decision than to worry about making the right decision.

The Importance Of Being Local

Christian McWilliams

Location scout, Elizabeth, Alexander, and the upcoming film Syriana

Marrakech, Morocco


What I’m really doing as a location scout is interpreting someone else’s taste. On most films, the production designer will give me an illustration of what the director is thinking. That’s always frustrating, because it’s never 100% accurate. There’s no point in hearing the creative vision for the film from anybody but the person who owns it. The production designer is only hired to do the movie and then walks away; he isn’t invested. But with the director, it’s his movie. You have to go to the source.

But a director still has to be specific, clear, and logical. Oliver Stone had spent 14 years planning Alexander, so he knew what he wanted and communicated it well. He wanted it to be up in the mountains. He wanted nothing modern. But at the same time, he was reasonable; he knew the location had to be near his hotel if he was going to travel every day with the crew.

Having connections in the local community is absolutely crucial. For Alexander, I was asked to find landscapes that would work for nine different countries — backdrops for Alexander‘s march from ancient Greece all the way to India. All nine of them had to be within spitting distance of cities where a crew of hundreds could live.

I began searching along the north coast of Morocco, but it was hopeless because there were modern white villas everywhere. Fortunately, I’ve lived here for four years, and I’ve been building relationships since I arrived. I had some fantastic local scouts, and one suggested looking near Essaouira on the Atlantic coast. We made the trip, and suddenly we were in ancient Greece, without a villa, house, or satellite dish in sight. It was exactly what Stone wanted: olive trees and unspoiled landscape and wonderful views of the sea.