Robert May: A Producer’s Process

Robert May

Robert May

Robert May is the founder of SenArt films, and the producer of several notable films:  BonnevilleThe War TapesThe Fog of WarThe Station AgentStevie, and the producer/director of his most recent documentary Kids For Cash. He has been an advisory board member for the Wilkes Creative Writing program since 2006, and the Wilkes Creative Writing department worked extensively with him on the production of Kids for Cash.

I interviewed him about his creative process, after several days of metaphorically tapping his shoulder and finally managing to acquire some of his time. I began our interview by asking about which kinds of stories particularly spark his interest. May enthusiastically replied that he is a man who is enthralled by characters and intense character development.

“I like to read nonfiction primarily, but something that is character driven fascinates me immensely because of my intrigue with real people and characters. The challenges they face and the ways in which they get themselves out of those situations interests me a great deal.”

May also insisted that he enjoys the unexpected in characters, “I like characters who initially appear as simple but who reveal themselves to be complex.”

Next I was curious about the elements of a story that are indicative of success for May. What inspires him to move forward with a project?

“Every film script, documentary, etc. has to have a hook for the audience,” says May. “If there is no compelling reason for an audience to be interested in a story then it doesn’t get made.”

This much would seem obvious to most people, if the script is not worth reading then it is certainly not worth investing in as a project. However, May continued to clarify:

“If it’s a script—narrative film—when I read the script I want to be really attached to somebody within the first ten pages.” May says that it is crucial that he is drawn to what happens next.

He also made it clear that, “this is not a hobby,” and that when he does move forward with scripts they do need to be “commercially viable.” He had once abandoned a script he really believed in because a similar movie was being produced, and he was concerned that it would create commercial competition.

Once May has decided to move forward with a project, a long sequence of events must take place in order to produce the final product:

For a fictional narrative, a script must first be sent to a reader who will write a synopsis that determines whether or not the script is fit for production. From that point, if the script is viable, it will go either to May or his production partner, Lauren Timmons (or both), to read.

For May, a script needs not only to be compelling, but also must have a meaning or a point. He’s not into goofy comedies made for pure entertainment value; he wants the audience to learn something.

If May likes the script, the writer will be contacted, and the script will be sent to a line producer, who assesses the cost of production down to the very day—taking into consideration variables such as time, location, etc.

After May evaluates the budget and decides if the film is financially feasible, the “script breakdown” will begin. During this process, speaking parts will be numbered, locations taken into account, and then actors will be considered for roles; May will have to weigh the importance of having a “big name” actor as opposed to one with less commercial success. (An actor with more fame may detract significantly from the budget in cost, but could also potentially bring in more money for the film.)

May will call up an agency, pitch the project to an actor’s agent, and if the offer is accepted, he will then have to negotiate cost. For some actors, they won’t even agree to be a part of the project until it is “green-lit” or fully funded. The risk that the project may not acquire enough money to finish is too high for an actor to compromise his or her schedule.

That being said, raising money for a film is a project in and of itself. “Sometimes,” May states, “if you are friends with an actor you can use those connections to raise money.” Otherwise, one must obtain a private equity loan, convince a studio to finance part of the film, or pre-sell international rights in advance, which May explains as a promise to finish the film in exchange for x amount of dollars.

Once the money is raised, pre-production can begin on the film. A team of roughly 25 essential people are hired and every single aspect of production is converted into a timed schedule. The schedules of every actor on the film are manipulated to make sure that they can be present for filming. Location scouts are sent out and the budget for the film is continually updated and reviewed during the entire process.

Once filming starts, at the end of each day footage is reviewed and, ideally, the editor is beginning to participate in the process as well. Editing, May says, can take up to about 14 weeks, during which time the editors manipulate the footage into a coherent, cohesive piece. The producer typically cannot even look at the film until ten weeks into the editing process, and then he or she works to help refine the material.

However, May was very careful to distinguish the process of producing a fictional film from the process of documentary film-making. He emphasized the dramatic difference between the two, to the extent that I feel it is necessary to divide the discussion into two parts. Cliff-hanger!

Next week: Documentary Film-Making and Advice for Aspiring Story-Tellers with Robert May

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