Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Movie Recommendation: Something, Anything

Yesterday I wrote all about a film that recently resonated with me: Something, Anything. I feel fortunate that I had a chance to interview the producer, Ashley Maynor. Here's what we talked about:

How long have you been a film producer and what exactly does being a film producer entail? 

  • I’ve produced films since 2005—both my own and those of other writer/directors. The easiest way to explain the role of a producer is through this metaphor: If you think of the writer/director of the film as a birth mother (with the film as the baby), then the producer is the midwife. You can birth a film without a producer—or even produce it yourself as a director—but it’s far better to have a guide and advocate along the way to help make the process less painful. In a film’s credits, the title “producer” can mean a lot of things—from someone who raised the financing, to the manager of the film crew, to the person responsible for the schedule and budget. I do all of those things on the films I work on, but I’m also what you’d call a “creative producer”—I’m a partner to the writer/director. I get involved early on in the project, giving feedback on the script and story. On set, I offer feedback on the performance and other creative aspects, and I’m present through the film’s entire edit. My job is to make the film better, to problem solve any logistical issues that arise, and to support the director’s creative vision. 

When did you first realize you wanted to be a film producer and what was your journey like to become one? 

  • I didn’t ever set out to produce films. It was quite a detour that I began making films in the first place—I actually dropped out of a PhD program in Comparative Literature to go to film school! But, once I got there, I realized I had a talent for producing. I’m super organized; I know how to stretch a dollar; I’m a creative problem-solver. So, in a way, producing sort of picked me. People saw I could do it, and I just kept getting asked to work on projects. My producing skills really solidified, though, after I was selected for the Sundance Institute’s Creative Producing Fellowship in 2012. This program offered me incredible mentorship from great independent film producers like Anne Carey, Lynette Howell, Paul Mezey, Alex Orlovsky, and Pam Koffler and I’ve learned everything I know through their generous guidance. 

Can you give examples of times when you had to muster up immense courage in order to pursue your authentic path? 

  • I’m of the opinion that every moment I spend making creative work demands immense courage. Even though I work a 9-5 schedule (I’m a digital humanities librarian by day), I try to touch my creative work each day. And each time I do, I have to face a lot of fear: fear of failure, fear of disappointment, fear of just how hard the work will be. I keep Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” close at hand and think: what else would I rather do with my “one wild and precious life”? I’ve often had to make some hard decisions to pursue a life of integrity and intention. I’m a first generation-college student, so when I quit my PhD program to pursue the crazy dream of making films, it was a big risk. I also left a position teaching as a university professor to try out film producing full-time for a while. Freelancing in that way was a terrifying but invigorating experience. Even now, after having some success producing fictional work, I’m starting to turn back to focusing on documentaries as a writer/director and on my work as a digital humanities librarian. This seems like a crazy move to some people that I’d switch gears just as I’m having some success and recognition. But, I like to think I’m just following what Tony Kushner calls the Great Work, that which “always has to do with healing the world, changing the world, and, as a necessary predicate to that, understanding the world. […] It’s always calling, sometimes in a big voice, sometimes in a quiet voice.” There’s an episode on Radio Lab called “Help” that also gets at the same idea of following a kind of muse. To me, the work I’m supposed to do somehow calls out to me and my job is to answer the call, no matter how terrifying that may be. I’ve been lucky that ever time I’ve taken a leap, a net has appeared. That’s not to overly romanticize things, though. Sometimes my “net” has been working six part-time jobs to make ends meet! But I’ve always managed to find a way. 

Why did you want to produce Something, Anything? 

  • As a Southern woman, I’d experienced first-hand the pressures that Peggy, the film’s protagonist, goes through. There’s a kind of implicit checklist for young women in the South: get married, buy a house, pursue a career, make babies. There’s nothing wrong with doing any of these things, but there’s an immense pressure to do them and to do them quite young and without questioning. So, when I read the script for Something, Anything, I knew this was a film I wanted to see made. It’s also a film that questions our habits of consumption and that chronicles a woman’s spiritual (but not necessarily religious) awakening. These are not topics that usually get screentime in any meaningful, non-superficial way. So, for me, this debut feature from writer/director Paul Harrill is one of the most sensitive and insightful project’s I’ve had the honor of working on. 

Another topic that doesn't get screen time in a meaningful way is miscarriage. Can you talk a little about why you and your team decided to portray the protagonist's miscarriage the way you did? 

  • Because the loss of a child is integral to the main character’s journey, it was important that we portray it in an on screen way that felt real, palpable, and yet not melodramatic or exploitative. Both the film’s writer/director Paul and I have had close friends and family experience miscarriage, so we wanted to touch on this topic with sensitivity. We consulted with one of my family members, in particular, who is also a paramedic, and who was willing to share her experience openly with us to help craft the scene in a realistic way. What’s perhaps most powerful about the scene is how many people, including friends and other people we’ve known for years, have come to us after screenings to share their own miscarriage stories or say, “That happened to me, too.”

What do you think keeps so many people from pursuing their authentic paths? 

  • Fear of failure. Worry about disappointing others and not living up to expectations. Fear of not making enough money—especially for those of us who have come from modest means and know what it’s like to really not have enough money. These, at least, are the roadblocks I have faced on a regular basis. 

What advice do you have for those who are at the start of the process of identifying and pursuing their authentic paths? 

  • I’ve gotten two really great pieces of advice in my life that have become like mantras I need to remind myself of over and over again: A classmate in film school told me during my first semester: “Don’t get caught up in what everyone else is doing.” When I’m feeling Facebook envy, or getting jealous of other artists’ success, or considering signing on for a new project, I try to step back and think about those words. Do I want to do this because it’s meaningful for me, or because I want others’ approval? Am I shaping my life according to my own beliefs or because of how I want others to perceive me? It’s very hard to put your blinders on with our cell phone and social networking addictions, but when I do, I experience such great relief. The other is a piece of advice my Roanoke yoga teacher gave me during a class several years ago before heading home for the holidays. She said just two words: “Less resistance.” She was actually talking about a yoga pose, but I felt like she was talking about my whole life. Often, we are the ones that most stand in our ways—our patterns, our holding on, our insistence on things not being as we think they should. It’s that little voice that tells you, “If only ____, then my life would be better” or “When ____ happens, I will be happy.” When we can accept where we are and truly believe that here and now is good enough, the resistance will naturally fall away. This, at least, is one of the teachings of yoga and is something I’m still trying to teach myself. 

Thank you for sharing your journey and wisdom with us, Ashley!

You can find Something, Anything on iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, and Vimeo-on-Demand. 

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