Veteran New York producer Andrew Fierberg has made more than 20 indie features, many of them low-budget. He produced the unforgettable Secretary with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal. He's worked with Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jnr, Matthew McConaughey, and acclaimed filmmakers such as Sally Potter and Steven Soderbergh. He spoke to IndiVision Lab director Megan Simpson Huberman about his film, Keane, which features in the IndiVision Screenings, and which was produced by Fierberg and Soderbergh, and directed by Lodge Kerrigan. Keane is the second film of Kerrigan's to be selected for Cannes.
MSH: How did you come to be involved in Keane?
AF: After Lodge completed his last film, he approached me to work with him on this film. I had just finished producing Sally Potter's Yes and had been talking with him about writing films which could be made within a limited budget. We both agreed to work with each other based on those conversations. I think Lodge is an extraordinary talent. It was a joy to work with him.
How was the script developed?
It was based on an emotion Lodge had while losing sight of his daughter in a drug store. We spent the better part of a year turning that into a narrative which we felt was as compelling as the emotion. The script went through many rewrites with notes and suggestions coming from both Steven Soderbergh and myself. The most important part of our involvement was to encourage Lodge to write the script as a project which could be made with limited resources. In exchange, we made the promise to go into production as soon after completion of the script as possible.
What do you see as the strongest qualities of the film?
The single biggest strength of the film is the focused point of view. This allowed its most obvious strengths - acting and camera work - to express themselves. This focused point of view comes from the writing and the directing. In the end, as good as Damian Lewis is, and as good as John Foster's camera work was, it is a Lodge Kerrigan Film.
How was the film financed? How are most low-budget feature films in the US financed at the moment?
Most low budget films in the US are private equity funded. This was the case with Keane. It was funded through Steven Soderbergh's company. Steve felt very confident in Lodge's vision and my ability to use our scarce resources to their best end. Both Lodge and myself honoured that trust.
The film has a lot of production value. We see lots of the streets of NY; there are crowd scenes; and the cast is quite big. How did you manage to make it for such a low budget?
We spent a lot of our time planning and rehearsing. I have been making films on the streets of NYC for some 15 years. Hopefully one learns something along the way. As to live locations, limiting the range of the camera allows you to achieve an illusion of being a larger film than it actually is.
The film was shot on 35mm. What was behind that decision? Would you shoot on HD? Will the new digital formats affect financing?
Big questions. Every film should have a defined look. It should be well thought out and specific to the film one is making. In this case, we felt we needed to be in the lead actor's state of mind. We felt we could only accomplish that in 35mm. As a result, we shot limited takes and did not print dailies.
As long ago as 12 years I made a film called Nadja, which we shot over 50 per cent using a toy camera - PixelVision. In Hamlet we used five different formats. In Sally Potter's Yes we intercut formats. Each film should use whatever tools it needs to represent itself as a completed work of art.
The film was shot in around 33 days, with a shoot crew of around 18 people, and a budget of around US$1 million. What factors determined your choice of crew size and schedule, and how did you manage them on this budget?
On a film of this size one has to make a deal with the crew, that if they get a better-paying job there are no hard feelings if they take it. Therefore we had a bit of shifting in crew personnel. In general, we crew up according to need. Since we were committed to shoot as much as possible with available light we were able to keep the size down. The worse thing you can do is go into live locations poorly staffed. Especially in NYC. You put what crew you do have at risk. This is especially true with the actors. A balance has to be found.
Do you think that there are certain kinds of story elements or production elements that should be avoided on a low-budget film? Or can any film be made on a low budget if you are inventive enough?
Exploding cars should be avoided. Making a film consists of thousands of little pieces. There is no reason one cannot exorcise a few expensive pieces and still maintain the integrity of the film. To a certain extent it is madness to assume otherwise. Every decision affects the cost of the film. If one is responsible about what is affordable, the scarce resources can be directed toward what is accomplishable, not what one's fantasy is. Unfortunately part of the industry is a bit mad. I think avoiding that part is a good first step.
When you are setting up a production, what do you have to do differently when you are working with a first-time director compared to someone more experienced?
I try to treat all the directors I work with as adults. The quicker both of us understand what each expects of each other the sooner we can concentrate on the making of the film. Working with a first-time director involves getting them to understand that this is a collaborative art form and that they have to trust and be trusted. Once one has gone through the process, the simplicity of that knowledge should be understood and embraced. If it isn't, I find it difficult to work with a director no matter how much experience they have. One is only as strong as all the pieces. How a director or actor interacts with 'production' speaks a lot about what kind of film they are capable of making.
You made the film Secretary with director Steven Shainberg, and you have just made another film with him, Fur. How has your collaboration with him evolved?
Steven Shainberg and I first met when he walked into my office some six years ago with a script called 'Secretary'. He had been pounding the pavement looking for a producing partner and had reached the bottom - my office.
I read the script and found the project very intriguing. It was very hard from reading the script to know what tone the film would take. It read very long and included many sub plots and characters which never made it into the final script nor the film. His first film, Hit Me, didn't provide many clues in this direction either. Based on my reading I made two preconditions to move forward. That it would have to maintain what I perceived to be its sense of humour and that it had to be under two hours in length. I felt as the subject matter was very challenging, the audience could not feel abused when viewing the film. It had to have moments of relief and be finished before the audience started reflecting too much on what they were watching, while they were watching. Get them in, engaged and out before they knew what hit them. He agreed to work with me on getting the script into shape and we began a rather long and interesting journey.
We worked for over a year to rewrite the script with Erin Wilson in order to get it in better shape to take out to actors and financing companies.
It was a film no one wanted to pay for, no one wanted to act in, no one wanted to distribute. The process of getting it made was extraordinarily difficult. People had a hard time wrapping their head around the subject matter. Very few people understood that at its root it was a romantic comedy. In retrospect this is hard to imagine, but it's usually how it works when a film breaks through in the manner of Secretary. In an odd way it has almost started a new genre.
Through the process we became partners on the film - both of us spending all of our energy to get it finished and sold. It created a close bond which we abuse to this day.
Not only have we moved on to his next film Fur together, but together with Christina Weiss Lurie we have set up a small development company, VOX3Films. The company has two objectives: the first to find additional projects for Steve to direct and me to produce, and the second to find smaller projects to work with writer/directors in developing and finding funding to make.
What would you say is the secret of your success? How many productions a year are you doing, and do you work with many different producers as well as different directors?
I believe in collaboration. I search out successful producers to work with as I know how hard it is to carry the producing load alone. I have been very fortunate to produce one to two films a year. One year I did three, and without working with other producers, I would have been dead.
What do you see as the future for low-budget films internationally?
Low-budget films will continue to be the format where cultures exchange their stories. Increasingly the larger films can only address large, almost corporate, issues. The day-to-day, the small story, is left to either television or the lower-budget films. This is why the film festivals have become such an important venue of cultural exchange. It is the venue where the real marketplace of ideas takes shape.
What's next for you?
I am in post-production on two films. The first is a rather large film for me: Fur, an imaginary biography of Diane Arbus, directed by Steven Shainberg, who I made Secretary. It stars Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jnr. The second is a low-budget film (well under US$1 million) by Matt Mahurin entitled Feel. It takes place in a massage parlour and is the intersecting story of four men who go to the parlour and the five women who work there.
I am also working with my partners in Vox3Films, Christina Weiss Lurie and Steven Shainberg, to develop a series of low-budget films which could go into production as early as the next few months. These include a film by Zoe Cassevettes, Gina Kim and Geoff Haley.