Thursday, February 10, 2011

“An Independent Woman: An Interview with Indie Producer Amy J. Moore”

Part of the VFF’s commitment to independent film is to promote and exhibit the work of talented women like Amy J. Moore. Amy is an innovative Emmy-nominated producer and cultural activist who has successfully created and implemented worldwide programs and independent productions to inspire social change. The first female president of the University of Michigan student body, Amy has gone on to win the George Foster Peabody Award, an NAACP Image Award, and the American Film Institute’s TV Program of the Year award.

Her most recent credit is The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, a series which aired on HBO and BBC. She is currently developing "Amani: The Shadow Warrior," a new African superhero universe targeted globally to young men to reinforce the necessity of taking responsibility towards justice and wellbeing. As a fledgling acquisitions assistant, I first met Amy in the mid ‘90s, when she was the Senior Vice President, Head of Production at Unapix Entertainment. Unapix specialized in the home entertainment market, with an occasional low budget theatrical release, during what I remember as the quixotic heydays of independent film. I have had the good fortune to call her a friend and mentor ever since, and want to share with you her fierce and fearless outlook on independent producing.

MV: How and when did you discover Ladies’?

AJM: The first book in the Alexander McCall-Smith series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, hadn't been published yet when I discovered it. I was the CEO of the first black empowerment film company in South Africa called New Africa Media Films and I was on the lookout for material that had a resonance with Africa, not particularly South Africa, because I didn't want to do apartheid movies, but rather wanted to get under the skin of the emotional content. What it felt to be a South African or an African at that particular time. I like movies that inform us about living, not about dying. Most Hollywood movies are about entertaining special effects and violence. Anyway, it was August 2000, a cold bright blue winter South African day, and I sat reading, trying to catch up with a never-ending pile of script and book submissions. I read No. 1 Ladies’ in one sitting. Towards the end--when I got to a description of the main character, Mma Ramotswe as mother, Africa, wisdom, understanding, good things to eat--I knew that I wanted to make this movie.

MV: Why did you fall in love with the story and when did you make the commitment to yourself that you would invest the time and personal capital in fighting for it?

AJM: The level of a commitment is always a crucial thing for me. I'm not the one-night-stand type of producer. I don't go to parties and try to attach my name to anything that's walking. I don't network nor look for things to jump on or put my name on. To me, that's not producing. It takes me an enormous amount of time but I like to grow projects myself. So when I look at material or germs of ideas, I always ask if I can spend ten years of my life on a particular project. Is my passion at that moment worthy of ten grueling and miserable years of my life? Most times the answer is no. I remember once looking at No. 1 Ladies’ and saying, "Well ... if it were a child I had given birth to, I'd be walking that child to first grade now." We still weren't in pre-production.

MV: When approaching producers to work on your project, what was your strategy to get them involved and keep them involved? How did you woo them?

AJM: I don't woo. I focus purely on the content and try to get that right. Then I present it saying, "You're stupid if you don't do this." No one believed Anthony Minghella would write and direct No. 1 Ladies’. I was always - like - well of course he will. He’s not an idiot. Naivety well placed is a virtue in our business.

MV: When you get producers involved who are more established and powerful, how do you prevent your voice from getting overwhelmed? How do you preserve your voice and vision for the project?

AJM: I could say pick your partners carefully - but no one ever does. I try to build in pockets of influence through increasing the quality of my contribution. My attitude is to contribute and to make that contribution worthy of persuasion and influence. I firmly believe this. And it's a bunch of baloney because the egos will always run you out of town. I have structured influence around raising the money too. At the end of the day, you become the one they reluctantly invited to the pick-up football game because you own the ball but nobody wants you on their team. It's really difficult and there are all sorts of bad behaviors out there.

MV: How much should a junior or first-time producer get compensated in relation to the more "name" producers who come aboard the project? What is an equitable amount in terms of work put in versus what their "name" might bring to a project?

AJM: I don't believe in the names. It's all rubbish. If a rose were not called a rose would it still smell as sweet? I think so. I think that one of the big problems in the industry is the attachment of 25 billion producers. It deflates the value of what we do. Where's the essence? Name-only producers are not even one-night stand producers. They should be ashamed.

MV: When did you see the light at the end of the tunnel?

AJM: I'm hoping it will be this year sometime.

MV: What were some down moments when the project had stalled or you thought it might never come to fruition and how did you overcome them?

AJM: Well, I drank a lot. I put on weight. I came back to New York (from South Africa) and looked out the windows and turned up the air conditioning while everyone outside was having fun and frolicking at the local café called Edwards. I watched Oprah and wondered what had happened to our society. I got her on that day she gave all those cars away. I did a theatrical show in New York called Drumstruck that was a huge success and I called Sydney Pollack every day and he phoned me back, leaving jolly messages on my answering machine. I sank my teeth in and I did not let go. I sank my teeth into every aspect of the project and tried to play everything off that center.

MV: Is there ever a time to call it quits on a project? When does perseverance cross over into the realm of unproductive obsession?

AJM: If you don't have the rights to something or can't get them but need them - then give up. If you're bankrupting yourself - something I've seen people do - don't do it. If absolutely everyone says the same thing about your material - - I always wanted to make a remake of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana but change the scenario to having the main character, instead of being a Hoover salesman, be a film producer who is making an imaginary film in a third world country. I suppose that's because I have been that character, puttering away, making imaginary films in third world countries. Of course, the people I can't abide by are the ones who are passionate, passionate, passionate about their projects - I read and comment and spend time with ideas - and then one day, they turn and say, "Oh ... I'm not doing that now." Why did I waste my time?

MV: Are there moral victories in trying to get a project produced that ultimately never comes to fruition? What lessons or value can be salvaged from a project that fails to launch?

AJM: If you're really producing, not just putting your name on something - then a well-timed failure that doesn't destroy you, can really help you to learn. Think of Roger Corman and all the opportunities that he gave to our leading filmmakers of today. Those were "failures" but the guys got to practice, practice, practice. Film stock is so expensive that it's hard to practice anymore. One of my favorite movies is Zorba the Greek. He makes this contraption purely for the joy of making the contraption. I think of that movie a lot. There’s a lot of joy in that movie which is really about the joy of doing. Hollywood's got to get back to the doing not the talking.

MV: How did you convince the author to let you acquire the rights and adapt the story?

AJM: He called me. He had known of my work in Africa. He offered me the rights over the phone and I said no. I insisted on flying up to Edinburgh to see him, knowing that optioning somebody's work is on par with taking over their baby.

MV: What were the main obstacles in selling a script with an African female as the main protagonist to an American creative team for an American audience?

AJM: The creative team was so good that there were few obstacles in the selling of the material. The adaptation itself was difficult. The place depicted in the books was not the place of reality.

MV: Is having international appeal more of a requirement now than ever before?

AJM: The US market still drives the business, like it or not. Having a good idea is the biggest requirement now more than ever before.

Matthew Valentinas is an entertainment lawyer and literary manager who travels between Boston and Los Angeles.

1 comment:

Barbara Albin said...

A wonderful review with a woman whom I call my friend. I had not read this before, because Ms. Moore is a woman of few words and did not tell me about it. I connected to Ms. Moore while trying to get a second season of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and she was kind enough to answer me. We have stayed in touch since, going on several years now, still waiting for a second season, but I have not given up.