Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The amazing Tracey Becker, producer of Finding Neverland and the upcoming Hysteria, talks about producing, helping writers, and so much more!

My son Max grew up in Big Fun, this wild and wooly toy store that was right down the block from us in Hoboken. Since Max was there all the time, my family got to know and really like Joe Falzarano, one half of the owners. (He's also a producer who teaches comedy at LA Standups.) We never met Tracey Becker, his wife, but I heard about her all the time from people wandering in who would talk to Joe (yes, I eavesdrop), and always, always in glowing terms.Then I began to see her around town, and she always looked so incredibly happy!. I caught her waltzing with her baby at the Cabin Fever party at the local Elk's Club. I saw her exuberantly talking to someone on the street.  I didn't know her, and was too shy back then to introduce myself, so the opportunity just vanished. And then I heard that she had gotten famous. BIG FAMOUS. She had optioned a property which became the Oscar winning Finding Neverland with Johnny Depp. Then she was producing this big new upcoming film, Hysteria, and a film about Jerry Garcia, Losing Jerry. The whole family had moved to LA, and Big Fun was never the same. 
I started this blog, and the biggest pleasure for me has been in talking to people and finding out how and why they do what they do. Because I had also started writing scripts, as well as novels, I wanted to talk to film people as well as novelists, so I tireless began combing the web and FB, looking for the people I admired and whom I was dying to talk with--and to my delight, there was Tracey. You might think that someone this famous would brush me off, or simply be too busy to respond, but Tracey got back to me immediately, and was warm, funny and completely wonderful. I love the answers she gave, and I can't wait for Hysteria. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Tracey.

You have this amazing story. You started as an actress and then became a playwright, and now you’re an award-winning producer. What was the journey like to the other side of the camera? How do you feel that your training as an actress and a writer helped you as a producer? Were there any surprises?

I'm flattered to be called a writer - even if it is in error!  Yes, I started out in drama school at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York when I was 19, and quickly got to work as one of the most in-demand, completely unpaid actresses in the City.  Although emotionally ready to play Medea at 21 (she innocently believed), all of my film and tv auditions were for very perky cheerleader types.  Assuming I could bring great depth to those roles, and not the requisite amount of perk, needless to say I didn't land many jobs on screen, but theater was a different story.  I am a process whore - and theater afforded me constant access and involvement in the process, and I loved it.  I was blessed to work with many amazing living playwrights, and eventually realized that I had a capacity for understanding story and structure, and so ended up dramaturging many of the plays I was in.  
Eventually I grew frustrated of rehearsing for months with a core group of undeniably talented folks, only to perform most nights in front of seven wrangled audience members and a cadre of cockroaches on the fifth floor of a walk-up building on East 39th Street.  Thinking I could get a better audience and squeeze more money out of the non-existent production budget, I foolishly began to produce.  At the time, I was also a member of the 42nd Street WorkShop, a really wonderful collective of writers, directors and actors.  I partnered with actress/director Nellie Bellflower and we began producing a series of staged readings of new plays by both new and established playwrights in the Hamptons.  It was gorgeous - our first season was at MoMA's Art Barge in Amagansett, and the place was so old that they couldn't handle more than 4 or 5 clip lights, and we had NO budget, so the actors would sit on rickety stools full of paint drips in front of a row of slop sinks and we'd time the shows precisely so that the setting sun over the bay coming through the picture windows would be our stage lights.  Somehow we'd convinced Moet & Chandon to sponsor the whole thing, so our well-heeled guests sat on folding chairs sipping champagne and hearing new plays come out of the mouths of all of these fabulous actors we'd imported from our WorkShop and Broadway.  
Our second season we moved to the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall in East Hampton, and it continued to grow.  We produced an off-Broadway play to great reviews, and then realized that since we were neither "to the manor born" nor did we marry partners with deep pockets that perhaps theater wasn't the only thing we could produce.  Realizing that many of the plays we were getting were really screenplays in disguise, we decided to try our hand at developing screenplays, as well.  About that time, Allan Knee - one of the members of the collective - had written a play called "The Man Who Was Peter Pan" that Nellie and I fell in love with.  We optioned it, knowing that it would make a terrific screenplay.  We worked first with Allan, and then with David Magee - who we also knew from the WorkShop - to develop the script that eventually became the film "Finding Neverland".  I still think that my proudest achievement to date was when David was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film Nellie and I had in mind seven years earlier when we first saw the reading on stage. 
I love the story of how you optioned a property, and then suddenly, you were producing Finding Neverland, with Johnny Depp, and winning all sorts of awards, including seven Academy Award nominations. Did you know—and how do you ever know—that this or any project will garner acclaim? What do you look for in a story? 
You never really know that anything you do will garner acclaim.  Frankly, you never really know whether or not something you've spent seven or more years on will even get MADE, much less seen, much less win an award.  The real award is getting the sucker on screen.  That being said, however, I knew that we had a beautiful, magical screenplay that was quite unlike most of what was in the marketplace at the time.  That was both good and bad - good because so many people responded to it, and bad because most folks said "we love it, but we don't know what to do with it."  I've gotten that reaction many times since then!  
I wish I could tell you what it is that I look for in a story, but it's not yet definable.  Maybe in thirty years I can look back at my body of work and be able to find the thematic, but right now, I'm just attracted to the intangibles.  A character that moves me - that somehow reveals a part of myself that I hadn't recognized (or owned up to) yet.  A little bit of magic - something that makes me forget I'm reading a screenplay and totally transports me into this world.  And I need to want to (or have to) LIVE in this world, with these characters, for the next decade of my life - because that's how long indie films can take to get made, sometimes.  If I'm not willing to share my life with this story for the foreseeable future, it's not the right one for me.

Most novelists I know spend about four years on their novels, though certainly it varies, and some can manage a novel every two years. Movies, of course, take a lot longer, and I read that Losing Jerry, the new film from your company, Beachfront Films, took five years to develop the script. I’m intensely curious. What’s the process of developing a script like for you?

I'm sure that films are sometimes like novels - the development of each one is its own, unique process.  I sometimes think indie movie development/production is like being asked to create the wheel, only being given a completely different set of raw materials, instructions and tools every time.  You know what it's supposed to do, and roughly how it's supposed to look, but how you make a wheel out of clay and a bulldozer versus how to make one out of steel and a toothbrush are two very different - and unique - processes.  That might be a bit of an exaggeration - but not by much.  
Sometimes an idea will come to me from something I read, or hear on the radio, or via something a friend says/tells me, and I'll know that there's a germ of a movie in there.  Most often, when friends who don't do what I do tell me that they know a story that would make a great movie, they're halfway right.  There's an interesting incident or an idea that could be used in a movie - either as part of the story or as a marketing hook - but the nuts and bolts of the story - the whole story - isn't there, and it's my job to figure out whether it's really a movie.  
For instance with HYSTERIA (insert shameless self promotional plug here...), my friend Howard Gensler - who is the Arts & Entertainment editor for the Philadelphia Daily News - came to me more than ten years ago with an idea.  "Did you know that the vibrator was invented in Victorian England by a doctor who used it to treat women diagnosed with hysteria?"  We both knew there was a movie in there somewhere, but what WAS that movie?  It took a couple of years to find the right team to figure that out.  Director Tanya Wexler came on board knowing that whatever it was going to be, that this was the movie she felt destined to make.  We then found screenwriters Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer.  By then, we had a two page treatment which used the vibrator as a device (yes, pun intended - but when you make a movie about vibrators, you can't avoid them), but that the REAL story was about social change and knowledge.   
We also knew that we had to tell this story in an entertaining way, and since we couldn't stop giggling every time we mentioned the "v" word, we figured it had better be a comedy.  What better way to fit all of this in than to develop a classic, old-fashioned romantic comedy, with the vibrator as the catalyst of the two characters coming together.  (Pun NOT intended, but...)  So every time, every idea - whether it's a book adaptation (like the amazing, gut wrenching adaptation of "Huckleberry Finn" I adapted with the HYSTERIA writers), or a screenplay that comes to me already written that I give extensive notes on - wherever it comes from - the process is always somewhat similar.  Find the story - decide whether or not there's a market for the story, figure out how big or small of a budget that market will bear, and then dive in to tell the most compelling version of that story possible.    
You also have a wonderful company Scriptswami.com, which offers screenplay consulting, analysis and coverage.  The site is packed with incredibly useful information and insider tips, but what strikes me most of all is how generous you are with what you know.  Why, with all that you do (and you also have a nine-year-old) did you also set this company up and how do you find time to do what you do?

I absolutely LOVE working with writers.  It's my favorite part of the process, to be honest.  So when I'm not in production on one of my films (which is a little too rare, anyway) I find it cathartic to help writers get to the next level with their work.  Whether or not it's a script I have an interest in producing, I attack every script I read the same way.  I assume that the writer is interested in getting notes and feedback from a working producer, as opposed to another "reader for hire" that might be a film student or a wanna-be writer or a studio wonk that's not as invested in getting the script right.  Sometimes readers simply want to put their own stamp on the material - but I can't work that way.  Certainly I will have ideas that may or may not work, but I know that the genesis of the idea is what the writer should pay attention to.  If I'm coming up with a possible solution, it's because there's a problem - and that's what the writer needs to acknowledge and tackle in a re-write.  Whether he/she uses my idea or not is (mostly) irrelevant, so long as they understand where the seed of the problem lies, and are able to address it.  I feel that there's room enough in the pool for everybody, so why be so precious with what I might or might not know?  I'm no expert - I'm just a gal who's pretty passionate about helping tell good stories.  A lot of writers have had success working with me to help refine their work, and that's pretty gratifying.
What’s obsessing you now (besides Hysteria, your new film, which will be out in the spring)?

May 18th via Sony Pictures Classics in NY and LA, to be exact, rolling out to the rest of the country after that!  Right now, in addition to working very closely with a couple of amazing filmmakers on developing their next projects, I am producing a very cool, very sexy thriller set in the late 30's on the deserted island of Floreana called "The Galapagos Affair".  It's based on a true story and was written by the wonderful William Boyd - bestselling British novelist and screenwriter ("Chaplin").  I'm also working with Eric Howell on the feature adaptation of his Oscar short-listed 2010 film "Ana's Playground" about children in war and human trafficking.  It's a really powerful script and he's  filmmaker whose names will be on everyone's lips very soon.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have? 
Oh, I can think of so many....  not.  Writer's block?  Maybe.  How about... "How do you feel about adapting bestselling author's novels into film?"  Well, bestselling or not, books and film are really such different media.  There is nothing more satisfying to me than getting swept away in a novel - especially one that plays with its narrative structure a bit.  Because I'm so jaded, at this point, I tend to read EVERYTHING with an eye toward turning it into a feature screenplay, so I LOVE it when I get lost in a world that doesn't immediately scream out to me "I'm a movie in disguise!"  
On the other hand, knowing how to distill a screenplay (which ideally is 110 pages long -including scene descriptions) from a great novel is also thrilling.  My favorite book-to-screen adaptation (as of this writing) is John Irving's "Cider House Rules".  I am a huge fan of his - "A Prayer for Owen Meaney" is on my desert island list - and the work he did to distill one clear, definable, actionable story from his sprawling novel was beautifully executed.  I think you've got to have tough skin to be a novelist in the first place, and a double layer of callouses to watch that story morph into something that might resemble that book baby you gave birth to, but it might end up looking nothing like you, and that's not something everybody can handle.  Okay - that rambled on a bit and didn't quite get to the point, so maybe you should've asked me another direct question!

And finally, so do you miss Hoboken? Big Fun just isn’t the same.

I DO miss Hoboken - and I desperately  miss New York.  Thankfully, we have the world's greatest family and friends there, so need no other excuse to come and visit!  Big Fun (the toy stores that my husband and I owned in Hoboken and on Hudson & Horatio Sts. in NYC) was an excellent chapter in our lives, and a piece of us is still in every whoopee cushion we see...


Clea Simon said...

Thanks for doing this! It's really fun to hear what a writer (yes, you're a writer!) on the other side of the industry thinks like!

Anonymous said...

cool interview.

Jessica Keener said...

This is a fascinating view into a world that looks exciting and impossible from the outside. I love how movies and books work together, though. There's something thrilling the way they bridge and connect--how narratives on the page can work so well on the screen. Wonderful interview. Thanks.

ABOUT ME said...

I love her films. What a great interview!!! I'm putting a link to my blog and will tweet it!

Leora Skolkin-Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leora Skolkin-Smith said...

What an intimate and engaging interview..I'm an admirer of Ms. Becker's films and I really appreciated the candid questions!

Kimberly M. Wetherell said...

I love how small the world is! I met Tracey this year at Sundance, and she couldn't have been nicer or more generous - truly the mark of a good producer!

Fantastic interview, Caroline! Great fun to read!

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