How do you go from an being an engineering student to becoming Terrence Malick's producer? Sarah Green says she owes her career to five key concepts: fun, generosity, trust, tenacity, and patience.
Sarah Green's impressive producing career has spanned 26 years and includes powerhouse titles like The Tree of Life. She has five films being released in 2016: Midnight Special (here at SXSW), Knight of Cups, Weightless, Voyage of Time, and Loving.
At a panel at SXSW 2016, Green talked about her career trajectory, "failing miserably" at being a cinematographer, and her belief in following work that moves you.
"I wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t fun; it’s way too hard. If you don't love it, run away."
1. Find your niche
Green trained for 2 years as an electrician, studying as an apprentice under Nancy Schreiber, first woman in the union to become a gaffe (and later a cinematographer). From Schreiber, Green learned the technical side of filmmaking, but she admits she didn’t have the eye for the creative. Green tried everything on set — she pulled focus, recorded sound, drove trucks, dressed people, worked with props — before she fell into an ambitious feature documentary project that was being produced by the director. When the production started to fall apart, Green stepped in and started organizing. It was then that she found her footing.
"I worked my way very slowly from production manager to line producer to producing, and ultimately creative producing," said Green. "So I lost the whole skill set that I came in with."
2. Every project matters
"I learned early on how all-encompassing this work is," Green said. "To do it the way I prefer to do it, it’s full-on. Each project is years of my life and I work very closely with the team."
Because Green likes to go all in, she needs to care deeply about a project before she takes it on. "It’s going to be years — financing, developing, packaging, shooting, cutting, distributing — it’s a long haul. The picture has to matter, and the people also have to matter tremendously."
"We all want people that are lovely to be around and that gets things done. You have to stand out and prove yourself."
3. Crew is family
After she started working with the same people multiple times, and with her mentors Maggie Renzi and Peggy Rajski, Green started to understand the power of repeat collaborators. "It developed my understanding of how important family is and the value of working with the same people," she said. "You develop so much trust and understanding; the work goes so much smoother and is much more fun. I wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t fun; it’s way too hard. If you don't love it, run away."
4. In working with directors, it's all about trust
"One of the most important parts of my job as a producer is to understand how a director works," said Green. "I don’t try to change it; I try to understand it and support it." Green spends time with each director before production begins in order to understand their concerns.
"It’s all about the writer/director for me," she said. "I try to work with people who both write and direct because it’s such a singular vision."
5. Find a great mentor
Green said she was lucky enough to have mentors take her under their wing. With their help, she landed her first big job as an assistant production manager on John Sayles' City of Hope under Maggie Renzi. "I’m a product of mentorship," she said. "I was so lucky; I had one mentor after another. It’s less lonely and more fun that you have someone you can really work with and learn from."
But once you've made it, you have to give back. "My partner on Malick films came on as an intern driver on The New World and just quickly proved himself to be super smart," said Green. "I watched him and I thought, 'He totally gets it. He makes himself invaluable. He’s there to learn and there to help.' By the next movie he was an associate producer and then the next one we produced together."
"I believe in the apprenticeship business," said Green. "We all want people that are lovely to be around and who get things done. You have to stand out and prove yourself."
6. Put yourself out there
Green was a huge Malick fan from the beginning of her career; his films in the '70s made her want to make movies in the first place. At some point, she confessed to Michael Barker that one day she would track him down and tell him how much she just "needs there to be more Terrence Malick films in the world."
One day, she got an unexpected phone call (after Barker recommended her to Malick):
"Is this Sarah Green? This is Terrence Malick."
"Terrence Malick... the filmmaker?"
"I started to squeal and pulled the car over," she remembered. "We talked forever. We spent a year getting to know each other. I just started helping him. I said, I don’t need a credit, I don’t need money, I don’t need anything but to watch another one of your movies. After a time, he handed me a script and said, 'Do you want to do this with me?' That was The New World. So I ended up in his world and never leaving."
"You have to have an answer for every reason someone is going to give you not to make your movie."
Green offered another example of an audacious (but fruitful) attempt at connection: "Jeff Nichols wrote a letter to Michael Shannon saying he wrote a screenplay when he was still in college," she said. "Jeff said, 'All I ask is that you read ten pages; if you don't like it, throw it out.' So Mike said, 'Okay I’ll read 10 pages.' And of course he kept reading because Jeff is a damn good writer."
But Green cautions that the letter must be well-written and compelling. "Write a great letter if you’re going to try this: short, to the point, hopefully slightly amusing with good grammar and punctuation."
7. When working with investors, always have the answers
"I’m sorry for you all," Green said, "because it’s much harder than it was. I came in through a window where there was a lot of ways to finance a film. It’s changing by the minute. European financing has become less viable; it’s a risky, risky business. Investment in film is not easy and formulas change constantly."
In an investment market constantly reinventing the wheel, it's important to have a solid grip on your project. "Know why you’re doing it," said Green. "Know what kind of stories you want to tell. Don’t try to get anything financed you don’t believe in 100%. Everyone’s job is to say no to you. If it’s less risky, that’s easier. You have to have an answer for every reason they’re going to give you why not to do it."
And if you can take it one step further, by all means do. "The best way to go into the market is with a fully packaged piece," said Green.
"Agents are very tough to get to, but there are young agents at every agency. Their job is to find you; they have to prove themselves as talent scouts."
8. Forget the big guns; go for the up-and-coming agents
"Agents are very tough to get to, but there are young agents at every agency," said Green. "Don’t go for the big guns but the new guys, the ones who are just out of the mail room. Their job is to find you; they have to prove themselves as talent scouts. Networks are important, so stay in touch with them. Keep your connections."
9. Good communication is key
When there's an important issue, question, or problem to be addressed in a production, Green has a special email technique she likes to engage in with her producing partners. "One of us with write a draft of an email and then the other one will edit," she said. "We might go back and forth once, or five times, or not at all, but we'll [pass it back] until it’s saying what it’s meant to say in a way that will be heard by the person who needs that information."
10. Make an inexpensive first movie
For your first movie, "make a project that can be done very inexpensively," said Green. "Don’t jump into an area that you’re not ready for. Spike Lee’s first film was 3 people in a room, and that was a smart way to do it. Do it well. If nobody’s helping you, take your GoPro and your iPhone and do something. Make sure the writing is good and the acting is good and you'll have something to show."
No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom.