Scott Macaulay is a New York-based producer (Gummo, Idlewild, Raising Victor Vargas) and the editor of Filmmaker Magazine. Here, we talk about new media, favorite films, productivity tools, and some of the changes in independent film since the ’90s. As always with these interviews, because I can’t do pullquotes in any sort of ideal way, I’ve bolded select passages. Thanks very much to Scott for giving such honest and illuminating answers to my questions:
1. The film projects you’ve produced have been wide-ranging. Do you look for anything specific in order to create your own oeuvre, or do you evaluate projects on a case-by-case basis?
These days, three things are important. For the most part my partner and I work with writer/directors, or on projects that have directors attached, so I first want to believe that the director is talented and has an original take on his or her material. Also, importantly, the director has to be someone I’ll want to spend much of the next two years with. I look for good relationships and smart, engaging people who I’ll enjoy being around. Next, I’m interested in the kinds of material that I haven’t produced before. For example, I’ve produced some beautiful coming-of-age films, and I can’t imagine finding another that I’ll feel as strongly about as the ones we’ve already made. There are genres that I personally like as a viewer — science fiction, art-house horror — that I’ve never worked in, so those are of interest. And, finally, I like to be able to visualize a path towards getting the film made, whether that’s with industry financing and name actor attachments, or working through various European support systems, or just on a micro-budget level, which is something I’m opening myself up to again.
2. If someone’s pitching you a film, is a script by itself enough, or do you also like to see supplementary materials like a business plan, proposal, or trailer?
I don’t like to see business plans unless they are able to tell me something I don’t already know, or map a realistic course for the film I never would have been able to predict. So many independent film business plans are written by people who simply don’t have access to the industry data needed to accurately write those plans. I’ve actually been handed business plans that have my own films in them and that show that by all rights I should be a multi-millionaire! As for trailers, I’m generally not a fan… unless they are done very well. Too many times the acting and production value are below what I’d imagine as I read the script. But there are exceptions. I read a script recently that came attached to a short film that was based on its first scene. It was stylish, well acted, and made with a tiny crew, and it also found nuances in the material I wouldn’t have gathered from the script. So that short did prompt me to pay more attention to the screenplay.
3. Let’s talk new media. I think Zack and I were the first “internet guys” to make your annual 25 New Faces list at Filmmaker Magazine. Are you yourself interested in producing new media projects? If so, what do you look for in evaluating internet and/or interactive properties?
I’m really interested in producing new media. If I haven’t yet, maybe it’s because I’m still learning its financing and distribution landscape but also because I haven’t embraced Clay Shirky’s “fail forward fast” manta yet. I will soon, I hope, and will look for material that feels like it’s made for that medium with story content that is elevated by the interactivity. I’ve had an idea for a while for a multi-director serial story told via the web using a kind of crowdsourced production, so perhaps that will be the first.
4. It’s easy to get caught up in asking about new methods of production and distribution; I don’t want to forget about the films themselves. So, what are some personal favorites that you’ve watched (or re-watched) lately?
Like, as I read recently, Pauline Kael, I’m not someone who rewatches films a lot. I’m usually watching new movies or classics I haven’t seen. (I’ve also been catching up on TV recently — Mad Men and The Wire, to be specific.) This year I loved Exit through the Gift Shop, Carlos, and Greenberg a lot. Also: Tiny Furniture, Somewhere, Black Swan, Winter’s Bone, The Oath, 127 Hours and Enter the Void (which I saw last year in Cannes). This year in Cannes I liked Sophie Fiennes’ documentary on Anselm Kiefer, Over Your Cities our Grass Will Grow. If you’re asking me my favorite movies: The Passenger, Taxi Driver, Vertigo, The Mirror, Contempt, Night of the Hunter, The Man who Fell to Earth, The Conversation, Once Upon a Time in America, Blue Velvet, Three Days of the Condor. And Fassbinder — there are too many great ones of his to choose from… The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, In a Year of Thirteen Moons, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Veronika Voss, Berlin Alexanderplatz…
5. Along those same lines, what kinds of applications and tools do you make use of in your everyday life?
After a major bout of disorganization a few years ago, I’m now using a lot of tools that do a relatively decent job of keeping me together. For email I use Gmail and their new Priority Inbox. I’ve got my inbox filtered so that stuff that tends not to be time sensitive, like publicist press releases, bypasses the inbox and goes into its own folder to be reviewed when I have the time. I use Google Calendar and have email alerts set up one hour and ten minutes before every appointment. I am still on Blackberry, mostly because of the Verizon worldwide data plan and the physical keyboard.
For task management I use Things by Cultured Code on both my desktop and my iPad. It uses elements of Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done system but in a loose, simple and non-dictatorial way that is appealing to me. Like many Things users, however, I am frustrated by the slow pace of the company’s development and am hoping promised features like cloud sync show up before I’m tempted to jump ship. As a kind of storage locker for everything from scripts to script coverage to notes I like Evernote. I’m using Dropbox to get files on and off my iPad. For Twitter, it’s Twitterific on the iPad, Ubertwitter on my Blackberry, and Tweetdeck on my desktop. For RSS I mostly use Reeder on my iPad; the combo of Reeder and Instapaper is great for finding and then reading long-form articles. If I am tempted to tinker with a screenplay, I use Final Draft. And for budgeting and scheduling I use Entertainment Partners’ Movie Magic.
6. I have a Sony eReader, and it’s good for reading books but terrible for reading magazines. The iPad seems like the perfect device for magazines — especially magazines about movies. How are you exploring the iPad form factor at Filmmaker?
Stay tuned on that one. We are exploring a couple of different options. I will say that I had expected the magazine publishing industry and the iPad to be in a more harmonious place by this point. But I love reading on the iPad — I just finished Franzen’s Freedom on it using the Kindle app — and think that tablet computing will fundamentally change media consumption habits in the coming years.
7. You’ve been editing Filmmaker for 18 years. What has changed in that time? Just kidding, that would be a huge question. But compared to filmmakers who broke into the industry in the ’90s, today’s filmmakers –-
Two big changes pop out. First, the economic situation is tougher. Mind you, independent film has always been a very tough business. It’s never been easy to make a living solely producing films outside the studio system. But when the general economy was healthier, more investment capital, particularly from individual investors, flowed into independent film. And I think it was easier to dream of an upside — that big Sundance sale, for example, or, perhaps, a lucrative overhead or slate-financing deal. Also, the studios could be more unpredictable.
Gummo, for example, was financed by New Line. I can’t imagine a mini-major financing that film today. On the more positive front, however, independent filmmakers today have amazing tools — digital cinematography, robust desktop editing systems, social network sharing and publicity tools, online and mobile distribution, and, now, crowdsourced funding platforms — that we couldn’t have dreamed of back then. And these tools are fairly democratic in terms of their accessibility. Those great things from the ‘80s and ’90s I listed were still mostly granted only to the few.
Taking all of this a step further, a few nights ago I was having a conversation about ‘90s independent film with a friend, and we talked about how we had a narrative for ourselves back then. We saw our films as part of a continuum and imagined ways in which both our filmmaking and the business of our filmmaking could grow. The cycle of production, business and even creative practices that developed out of that period has been over for a while. What worked then is now taken for granted, and what didn’t work has been discarded. So I think it’s time now for all us as filmmakers to think about our work and practices in the context of where not only the film business but also technology, politics, and our society are headed in the next decade and to figure out a new storyline for ourselves.
Scott Macaulay is a New York-based producer and the Editor-in-Chief of Filmmaker Magazine, the leading American magazine devoted to independent film. In this position, he directs the magazine’s editorial content, including special features such as its annual “25 New Faces.” With his partner, Robin O’Hara, and their production company, Forensic Films, Macaulay has produced or executive produced many award-winning features. They include: Peter Sollett’s Raising Victor Vargas; Harmony Korine’s Gummo and julien donkey-boy; Alice Wu’s Saving Face; Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was and The Wife; Jesse Peretz’s The Chateau; Bryan Barber’s Idlewild; and James Ponsoldt’s Off the Black. Last year, he produced artist Candice Breitz’s video and performance piece “New York, New York” for Performa ’09. He was formerly the Programming Director of The Kitchen Center for Video, Music, Dance, Performance and Film. Macaulay also currently sits on the Advisory Board of the Rotterdam CineMart.
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[Photo of Scott by Jamie Stuart]