Jameson Parker, director of development at Brightlight Pictures, gave inside advice to aspiring filmmakers at SXSW.
Parker appeared this year at SXSW as a mentor to producers, giving attendees 15 minutes of valuable face time. But first, he sat down with No Film School to talk about his background as an actor, the state of Hollywood North, what it was like to work on Sundance hit Summer of 84 and what he's looking for in material and pitches. His insight provides a unique look at someone who is working both in Canada and Los Angeles to produce well-received film projects.
How experience as an actor helps him as a producer
Parker has been on several different sides of the creative process. He actually began in the theater.
"I started as an actor, and went to theater school and spent a long time as a professional theater actor in Canada," he said. "Which means you make no money. Tens of Canadian dollars."
He dabbled in other avenues, working for Larry Sugar during college. Later, while in London, he found a stage play he liked and eventually secured the rights to produce it as a film. He started working for Shawn Williamson at Vancouver-based Brightlight, where he got that first feature made, Prodigals.
"I lean heavily on my experience as an actor," he said. "It's a creative business. It's a business, but to be able to have real down-to-earth conversations with directors and actors has been something I grew up in, and it's a very easy language for me."
His experiences reading scripts have also been formative.
"To work with a small steady company, that helps," he said. "But also too, I spent so long reading theater and scripts as an actor. The idea of storytelling from this inside-out approach really helped. It informs my taste and how we shape the development slate. It informs how we approach the development process."
On the Canadian entertainment industry
Vancouver is seeing a surge of productions this pilot season, and the city continues to be an affordable and flexible hub for productions. Parker pointed to the X-Files as being one of the earliest shows to put Vancouver on the map.
Practically, the city is near enough to Los Angeles to make sense, and actors generally like the area.
"You can shoot Vancouver for almost anything," Parker said of the city's environs. "You've got the mountains, the oceans, the beaches, the city, it's all there. That then allows the community -- the local Vancouver community -- it affords them the opportunities to work on these big, big shows and big, big films, and work with really great creatives, which is a phenomenal way in."
Summer of 84
If you like horror or are a fan of Stranger Things, you've probably heard about Summer of 84. The movie follows a group of teenage boys who spend one summer trying to figure out whether a friendly neighborhood police officer is really a psychopathic serial killer. The film shot in Vancouver in 2017 and premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Brightlight Pictures and Gunpowder & Sky produced.
"You hope and wish you are going to get it into a festival you like, but to get that call was just phenomenal."
For Parker, the movie's production was pretty serendipitous from start to finish. He happened to meet one of the film's writers, Matt Leslie, at an event in LA. Leslie pitched him the idea at the valet stand.
Intrigued, Parker asked for the script, and Leslie and co-writer Stephen J. Smith sent a lookbook as well. The lookbook provided examples of the vibe and inspirations for the project, and it resounded with Parker. Leslie joined Parker and Williamson as producers, and with director collective RKSS attached, they took off.
"It was a phenomenal experience," Parker said. "We had a blast making it. It was fast. It was 22 days, and we convinced them to give us a 23rd. It was fast and furious, but it was so much fun. And then Sundance was the icing on the cake. You hope and wish you are going to get it into a festival you like, but to get that call was just phenomenal. I took my mom, so we got to go experience that whole festival together. To see it through her eyes meant a lot too. It was really cool."
Summer of 84 was one of the first things Parker brought in to Brightlight as producer. Not a bad start.
What is he looking for as a producer?
It's a basic question that producers get asked all the time. What is it, exactly, that they want? For Parker, it's all about how a strong narrative with great characters aligns with his taste.
"It is about great story," he said, "but even more than that, it's about great characters that I resonate with. What it means is, as a producer, as any creative, you spend so much time pushing things. Sometimes years and years. You have to really fall in love and believe in what you do."
If that passion isn't there, Parker said, it's really hard to have the drive to get a project going. Sometimes scripts are simply not right for his taste and what he wants to do, but there might be another producer somewhere else who will really champion the project instead.
"As long as there is that passion and talent to do it, you know it's there," he said. "I can get behind it. Even if it's your first time."
What turns him off as a producer?
Parker talked about the process of filmmaking as being a collaborative endeavor. Everyone should be on a level playing field. For him, there is no room for a diva on set. His biggest turn-off is arrogance.
"If somebody says you are too arrogant, then you just know it's not going to be something special."
"You make the movie three different times with hundreds of hundreds of people influencing what goes up on the screen," he said. "And if you can't, in that very first meeting, collaborate?"
Well, it's probably the end of the line for you.
"I'm not saying you have to take every note that somebody gives you," he said. "Absolutely not. In fact, quite the opposite. But if somebody says you are too arrogant, then you just know it's not going to be something special."
He pointed out that even those with years of experience, no matter what part of the industry a person operates in, they should always have a hunger to learn and experience more. No one, no matter how arrogant they might act, knows it all.
His other advice to aspiring filmmakers
Parker is realistic about how often aspiring filmmakers and writers are going to hear the word "no." But if you are passionate about a project and are able to justify that passion in a respectful way, then he said that is something that cuts through the noise of other potential projects.
He emphasized that you should also know what your taste is.
"What do you like?" he said. "When you read it, when you go watch a movie, what gets you excited? Summer of 84, that type of film got me excited. I was like, 'I need to make this movie.' Prodigals was the same way but for a very different reason."
The aim shouldn't be to just make something you assume will be commercial.
"We all want to make a movie that goes wide," he said. "Absolutely. The trend seems to be with those people that they are then chasing what they think the market wants, rather than just saying, 'This is what I like, and there is going to be a bunch of people out there that like it too.'"
If you read a script and love it, chances are someone else will love it just as much.
He suggested keeping track of what your parents or elders are watching, and that can serve as a good barometer of public opinion. He said that he often calls his mom to get her casting advice. If she knows an actor, then that person potentially has more draw for wide audiences.
"I'm like, I better keep an eye on what they are doing," he said with a laugh, speaking of his parents. "I like that [advice]. Actually, I'm going to save that for somebody and use that."
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.