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BSS 2014: know what you don’t know

American producer Alix Madigan talked producing, reputation and morality at the Big Screen Symposium.

Alix Madigan

Alix Madigan
Photo: John M. Heller

Madigan didn’t start her career in the screen industry but in investment banking. It gave her a grounding and stomach for playing risky games with other people’s money, although she admitted she “left before I did too much damage.”

She was attracted to producing after reading Steven Bach’s Final Cut about the making of The Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino’s 1980 Heaven’s Gate, budgeted at $7.5 million, costing $44 million, and which returned $3.5 million at the US box office.

Madigan noted that men get repeated second chances when they fail. Within a decade of Heaven’s Gate Cimino had made three more studio features. It’s hard to imagine a woman getting that opportunity. In fact, it’s hard to recall any women director making three mainstream features between 1980 and 1990, other than Penny Marshall (Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Big, Awakenings).

Madigan got into producing herself in the 1990s, “a great time for independent film-making”. and her first real break was with Jonathan Nossiter’s Sunday, made for $440,000, which went on to win Sundance’s Grand Prize.

What did she learn? “Do your research, sound confident – talk as though the film will be made.”

Madigan claimed her main interest was in developing material. Although she considered she didn’t have a powerful voice herself, she was pretty good at enabling directors to tell the best story they could.

Having said that, she noted that her primary allegiance was to the film rather than any individual associated with it, but that she could add value by keeping the key players on track. Madigan also enjoys the editing process and looking at how to make a film work.

What did she consider important to keep a rein on as a producer? “Know what movie you’re making,” she recommended, and make sure the director was on the same page. If s/he thought they were making a $5 million movie, it could lead to a lot of tension if the budget was set at $1 million.

The key things Madigan looks for in a director is how well they listen at the initial meeting. If they’re not listening, she said, they won’t be thinking about the audience. Their ideas on casting, tone, comparable movies, notes on the script and ideas around what else they’re working on, would help give a sense of whether they would share in or seek to impose a vision for the project.

Madigan also stressed the importance of having confidence in material. She explained that distributors had initially considered Winter’s Bone bleak (surely not!). Distributors hadn’t been interested until it won the Jury Prize at Sundance.

In the development stage some of Madigan’s preferecens were also mirrored by Matthew Metcalfe’s, as explained in his Financing Masterclass.

Both preferred to package their projects with a director and actors before going out for financing, to make it as easy as possible for potential partners to say yes but also to make it more likely the vision would be preserved into production and out the other side.

Madigan noted some differences between the systems within and without the US. In NZ, for example, she understood it was common for the producer to have final cut, whereas in the US that control lay with the financiers – especially on larger budget fare.

As for casting, Madigan said she often looked at actors’ international reputations because overseas sales were becoming increasingly important for US indie productions. Chloe Moretz, who features in the upcoming Laggies which Madigan produced, was well-known in the US for Matt Reeves’ Let Me In (the US remake of Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In). In Japan Moretz was far better known for the two Kick-Ass titles, which sit considerably closer to the demographic Laggies targets.

On this issue of women in the business, Madigan noted she’d worked with a lot. She’d found them to be great storytellers (in a good way!) but observed, “As women, we’re outsiders.”

It was important to her to be part of a community from which she could seek advice or opinions when she needed them. “There’s nothing worse,” Madigan said, “than working with people who aren’t aware of what they don’t know.”

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