[10 October 2011]
“I wanna be a producer, show the world just what I’ve got.” So sings Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks’ The Producers. Those working outside the entertainment industry probably don’t know much about producers, other than what they saw of Bloom and his mentor, Max Bialystock. Conniving, inept Max uses his creativity to develop the most unprofessional, offensive musical possible—and he wants his show to lose money. Frantic, frustrated Max doesn’t know what to do when he suddenly finds he has a hit on his hands.
Sage Scroope quickly dispels that image of a producer. Sitting in the ballroom where indie films are being screened at Comic-Con, she’s poised and confident as she fields praise from well-wishers who just watched the movie she produced, The Debt Collector. Within a few days of the San Diego screening, it would be named the film festival’s Best Action Adventure Film and go on to win awards at other festivals, most recently as the Best American Short at the International Film Festival of Ireland. Not bad for a film that blends the supernatural with the traditional Western, but then, this producer knows how to mix it up when it comes to genres. Scroope is indeed sage about her films and knows how to position them for greatest exposure.
She selected potential film festivals based on three criteria: “One focus was the large international festivals where you are competing with the best of the best. This will get your short great exposure, and you can see how you fare compared to other shorts currently being produced. Another focus was festivals based in the hometowns of our core team members, wanting their family and friends to see the fruits of their labor. And the final criterion was finding festivals that complemented our genre. Not all festivals can look past a western or a supernatural film and see the drama that is being explored.
“Alternate genres (other than straight drama) actually give the audience an access point to heavier subject matter. We wanted to participate in festivals that were open to this element. By utilizing the Western genre and engaging supernatural elements in our film, we give our audience the option to purely participate in our story on a light entertainment level, or choose to ride through the story with our protagonist in an emotional and dramatic state. These are the opportunities mixed genre films can give to a filmmaker and to the audience watching them.”
This strategy seems to be working well. Under Scroope’s guidance, The Debt Collector has become an official selection for 16 international festivals, including the Barossa festival in her home country. “It is important to me that the film is screened in Australia at Australian festivals, as the majority of investors in this film were Australian, and I want to make sure they feel validated in their donation to the project. Also, I wanted to have my short screened at home.”
Although Scroope is gaining quite a few frequent flier miles between Australia and the US, she now lives in Los Angeles, where she is dedicated to “completely immersing myself in the home of cinematic development and distribution—Hollywood.” With The Debt Collector’s writer, Nate Lane (not to be confused with Nathan Lane of the aforementioned The Producers), Scroope formed Foreshadowed Films. They develop films “about fascinating characters set in real life with something askew.” Scroope prefers stories in which the main characters go “on an explorative journey, struggling with themselves and their decisions, ultimately learning and moving forward, for better or for worse.”
That theme also is evident in the award-winning film, The Escape, which Scroope wrote. Because the best producers know the ins and outs of storytelling, scriptwriting is another skill that she has added to her repertoire. Scroope is naturally enthusiastic about this film, which “has also done quite well on the festival circuit,” winning Best Short at the NYLA International Film Festival and Best Drama at the LA Shorts Film Festival. Not only are these awards valuable on their own, but by winning them, The Escape can be considered for Academy Award nomination in the Short Film category. Scroope proves to be a master of understatement. Her response to The Escape’s many accolades: “Exciting times!”
Scroope’s projects are set in distant places or times and introduce intriguingly strange characters. In contrast to The Debt Collector’s Depression-era West, The Escape “is set in a filthy prison in the 1700s in England. Jasper is the hangman’s haggard and drunken assistant, who clears away dead bodies after they’ve seen the noose. When he learns that his estranged son has been imprisoned for petty theft, Jasper decides he must reconnect with his son William and find a way to break him free.” Jasper is yet another of those “askew” characters for which Scroope is becoming famous, and her successful record with short films explains a lot about this producer’s view of filmmaking.
A Producer Produces—What, exactly?
A producer’s name is prominently displayed in a film’s credits, but the nature of this job is about as clear as other terms like “best boy electric” (which, by the way, refers to the assistant who oversees the lighting department’s daily activities). What exactly does a producer “produce”?
The answer is more complex and specific than the job title suggests. Scroope explains that “a film can begin and end with the producer. More often than not, producers find the material, develop it with a writer, find financing and distribution opportunities, bring a director and crew on board to create the piece, do casting, coordinate pre-production, manage the film while it is being shot, monitor post-production, are involved in the edit and how the film will finally be presented, launch the finished film, begin a festival run, and enact distribution avenues.” Calling such intensive, long-term work “a large task” seems to be another understatement. Scroope likes the idea that she can be involved throughout a film’s evolution from concept to festival screening. “As a producer, you really live and breathe your film, and that’s just the way I like it.”
Scroope learned a lot about her career preferences when she was brought on board as producer of The Empire Lights, a story about “two lost souls: one girl stuck in a small town dreaming of Hollywood, and one man endlessly mourning the loss of his wife who was tracking down UFO phenomena in Joshua Tree. These two souls connect in the most unlikely fashion and find a way to move forward together.” For this film, the director wanted to manage many of the producer’s traditional tasks, including promoting the film and submitting it for film festival consideration. Scroope’s job was to “facilitate the physical production of the film.” Although she was attracted to the story and specifically chosen by the director to produce the film, this job taught her that she prefers “to be a creative producer, where I can contribute to the evolution of a story and then take on the production responsibilities through to completion.” To date, short films have provided the in-depth, hands-on experience that Scroope craves.
The Beauty (and Necessity) of Short Films
For some producers, the full-length feature is the be-all, end-all of filmmaking. Scroope, however, believes in the power of short films. They are “an integral part of any filmmaking career, and the more you participate in them, the more you learn. Elements of physical production, safety, collaboration, editing, story creation, location restrictions and freedoms” are crucial to successfully bringing any story to life.
Furthermore, working on a short film teaches young producers “how much you can squeeze out of a budget, how far you can push favors from people, how LA works, and how to support your fellow crew members… I think it would be impossible to work on a script that you didn’t believe in, or with people you didn’t trust. Those two elements are crucial in giving me the gusto to move forward and work hard.
“In short filmmaking, the challenges are endless. You want to keep the same production quality and values of any feature, but you have restricted resources, time, and money. The onus is on you and your team to make the audience feel like they are watching the same level of presentation as they would in any feature.
“I believe we have achieved these high quality standards in both The Escape and The Debt Collector, pounding the stories into submission and then working with amazing production designers whose work is stunningly presented by talented cinematographers. These shorts stand out from the crowd. The finished products are the rewards themselves, and being able to showcase all of our talents in such a brief format is only helpful in this day and age of commercial-length attention spans.
“I believe it is crucial for filmmakers to learn how to tell a story intriguingly, succinctly and emotively before graduating to a longer format–and this is what the process of short filmmaking teaches.” Her current job involves “representing some Australian literary properties for development both in the States and in Australia,” and she hopes to continue working between her native and adopted homelands. For Scroope, true success is the ability to do what she loves—make movies internationally.
Within a few years, Sage Scroope has moved geographically from Australia to the US and professionally from AFI graduate student to film producer and writer of award-winning indie shorts that, fingers crossed, just might win her an invitation to the Oscars in February. Her recent success foreshadows a productive future in the film industry. She is in the business of merging the supernatural with the everyday to create intriguing dreamlike realities. Even without Scroope’s penchant for the supernatural, there’s no earthly reason why these award-winning independent films won’t make her own dreams come true.
Lynnette Porter is the author of Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition: An Unauthorised Performance Biography (MX Publishing, 2013) and The Doctor Who Franchise (McFarland, 2013), and the author/editor of Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century (McFarland, 2012), among many other books and chapters about television or film. She writes the monthly PopMatters column Deep Focus and wrote two essays published in PopMatter's Joss Whedon book (Titan, 2012). Dr. Porter is a professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.