The role of the film producer is often obscured by the far-reaching definitions of the job—which are expansive to say the least. To coincide with the launch of the 2019 application for the Feature Film Creative Producing Lab and Fellowship, we checked in with 2017 fellow Lauren McBride—and her project, Selah and the Spades—to shed light on her journey of producing an independent film.
Selah is a film directed by Screenwriters and Directors Lab fellow Tayarisha Poe and follows 17-year-old Selah, who rules the student body of The Haldwell School with an iron fist wrapped in a velvet glove. By turns charming and callous, she chooses who to keep close and who to cut loose, walking the fine line between being feared and loved. We’ll be checking in with other Creative Producing Lab alumni and their projects in the coming months. Apply here to the Creative Producing Lab.
You’re currently in post-production on the film. Tell us about how you became involved in this film and what excited you about the material and also believe in your director? What was your own personal connection to needing to tell this story?
McBride: I knew Tayarisha in college, and we had stayed in touch after we graduated—she was a couple of years under me at Swarthmore. I’d always kind of had my eye on her—her photography was incredible. We took the same production class together, and all of us had the same equipment, the same time, the same tools, but she created this incredible short. It was so indicative of who she was and her artistic perspective. So, when we finished school, I was working in consulting and working with someone who was investing in films at the side, and I wanted to bring things his way that I thought were interesting and would be good to invest in.
Tayarisha mentioned that she was working on a project, and so I read the script—this was in 2015—and it was great. I thought this was something he might be interested in and might give some development funds to. It wasn’t a fit for him, but from there it was applying to grants together. My initial thought was to help her get some resources. Then it became: Well, maybe you should think about these things in the story, and then it became what’s your plan for production… maybe we should put a budget together. Somehow, three or four months in, I realized I was sort of producing this movie. And she said, “You’re kind of producing this movie.” It was really organic, which was nice.
For me, the film is so unique and so specific, and I love the character of Selah. In so many ways, I strangely identify with her and understand her perspective…just less to the extreme [than Selah is]. I’ve never seen anyone like her before. And I wish I had someone like her when I was 17 to look at in films and television. From that perspective, I knew this was something I wanted to help support in any way possible.
How did you choose your producing partners and how did you build your dynamic, your sharing of duties and information, and build a collaboration?
For me, one of my biggest lessons learned coming out of this is to think about that [collaboration] in the whole. What are my skills? What do I realistically have time to invest in terms of time in this project? Where will I be most useful to this project? And, from there understanding where the gaps are and where I can fill them in accordingly.
I lucked out and found Secret Engine, but I really wish I was more strategic earlier on, f we had involved other partners earlier on, we would have avoided certain pitfalls and issues. I also think that I could have been more intentional in thinking about what are my skills and where do they align with the problems, I could have contributed even more to certain parts of the project. It’s things like that that I wish I had been more strategic about.
Early on, it was the first thing I had ever produced, so I didn’t fully grasp what all the pieces were. In 2015, I was drafting the budget, I was doing all of our grant applications, I was doing story notes, I was doing everything and not really understanding that I had strengths in certain areas but maybe not in others. And this is where we could use some support. It went on like that.
Fortunately, I’m a relatively intelligent person and I work really hard, so I was able to work my way out of things that could have problems. But it was harder and more stressful than it probably should have been.
Where did you feel less strong and where you needed expertise?
Production planning and the budget—I felt officially out of my depth. I would pore over budgets—at this point in late 2015, I was reading scripts and then hunting people down to see their budgets so I could understand how these things come together. But it’s still a very magical science that goes into building a budget early on. So it was something I didn’t have the skills for yet.
The beautiful part is that Cinereach was a blessing beyond blessings. Early on, they were considering us for a grant, and we had a very rough draft of the budget I had made. And they introduced us to a line producer they thought was very good and could help us, and that ended up being Drew Houpt. That was summer of 2015, I think. [Tayarisha, Drew, and I] spent some time together working on the budget and thinking strategically about how we could get the film produced. Drew was really helpful in thinking about different programs we could apply to and helping with the budget. He proved himself to be such an invested part of our team.
We got to a point—when we were financed—where we felt ready to shoot, and I thought it was crucially important to have someone on the ground with us who had been through it before. At that time I had just moved to San Francisco for a job and it was really important to me for the security of the film, for the security of our financiers and their investment, that we had someone with experienced boots on the ground.
It ended up being really beautiful that we had Drew, and he was part of [the company] Secret Engine with partners Lucas Joaquin and Alex Scharfman. But, it was a difficult decision to make on who to bring on board our little boat.
What was your approach to finding financing, and what were the questions you had going through it? In addition to the script, did you feel there were other materials shared that made a difference in pushing interest to commitment?
Ultimately, Tayarisha and I were outsiders in a big way; this is both of our first features. It was crucially important that we had people in front of us that were saying, “These women are capable and smart and have a great project.” That was a big reason why we made sure to find not only grant support but development support from a lot of institutions. I know for a fact that our movie wouldn’t have gotten made if we didn’t have the weight of Sundance and Tribeca and Cinereach and others that were really pushing for us.
And putting us in front of financiers. Especially without a track record, [this advocating] is often the only way that financiers pay attention, in my experience. These organizations are also really helpful in pointing you in the right direction towards financiers that would be best aligned for you. As much research you can do by looking at films they may have made, the organizations will know more about what their priority is now.
At the same time, it was also this big learning curve. I was understanding what these different financing entities do, how they think about financing films. I wanted to make sure that, at any stage, we were never taking whatever offer that presented itself. Not all money is good money. We were really fortunate to not only have folks introducing us to folks but, as we met and considered offers and thought about opportunities, we could bounce it off of some of these mentors and advisors and really understand the implications of it.
For us, it was looking for people that were aligned with the story and Tayarisha’s vision and made films with first-time filmmakers before. That were committed to giving Tayarisha some artistic freedom and artistic authority over her project, and also saw the movie thematically and in terms of character, and also financially and in terms of market and audience in the same way we did. That just came out of a lot of conversations.
What was your experience sharing materials shared with financiers?
The thing about Tayarisha’s previous work—specifically the Selah and the Spades “Overture” is that it works well in the platform on which it’s consumed. So if you go on the [Overture] website, click through and go to the vignettes, photo essays, and everything else, it’s a really great experience and, I think, speaks to Tayarisha’s style and the world she was working on building.
What doesn’t work as well, and what we were floating around as her shorts, was the video parts of the [website] cut together. It worked to show her visual style and her voice, but not really the kind of narrative space that she creates. It wasn’t shot to be a short, and you lose the through line and the space she builds. She builds narrative worlds, and you don’t get that when you chop together one-fourth of the whole landscape she creates.
I really wish we had had a concept short that built a narrative within three to four minutes and was a snapshot of what Selah and the Spades was [going to be]. That would have been hugely helpful, and I think that’s why a lot of first-time producers and directors always say this: it’s great to have something that says “here’s a mini-version of what the movie is going to be.” I think it gets you to “yes” a lot faster.
What challenges did you not anticipate going into production on the film? Conversely, what worried you going into it, but then turned out to be great?
I took 3 ½ months off work and came out to [location in] Massachusetts when everyone else did. But I was remote for a lot of the late prep, and so things like a lot of our location scouting, some of our casting calls and things like that I was not physically present for. So I was very worried that I had put myself at a disadvantage from knowing everything that’s going on, having control over the set and control over the team. I thought I had missed the boat and that [my producing partners] Secret Engine would take it from here.
I was really struggling with that, and I thought that would set the tone for the entire three months on set. Fortunately, I was wrong. The lesson I learned here is, obviously, that remote prep is essential. But once you’re physically on the ground, things happen so quickly that if you’re there from day one, you really know everything that’s going on. And so I was able to have enough information and have enough understanding and insight that I felt that I was contributing and still an integral part of the team. And that felt really good.
Things I thought would be difficult? First, I’d never been on set before. The thought of getting all of these people together to make a movie, I was terrified that attitudes and personalities and how do people work over nights would be tough. But that was the other thing that worked out beautifully: we had the best crew that I’ve ever encountered. They were exceptional, they were kind, they were extraordinarily talented. The fact that we weren’t managing personalities was an absolute miracle. Those two things were some of my concerns going in and did not materialize, thankfully.
And there are the usual things in production—night shoots, dealing with ticks and mosquitoes—things you don’t think about in the minutiae and are really irritating and annoying.
In looking back, what is the one piece of advice you’d give yourself going into making this film?
A piece of advice I’d give specifically to me is: You’re working. I’ve been thinking about this as something I care so much about, and I saw it from a perspective of give give give give give. How can I give to make this thing exist and make everyone’s life easier. I think I didn’t fight some battles that I wish fought on my own behalf. I had this mindset of, “Oh it’s not about the money, it’s not about this or that…it’s about realizing this thing.”
And it is about realizing this vision. I consider the core job of a producer to make a path for a director and make a path for a story. But that takes a lot of work. And I don’t think I did very good job of advocating for myself at every turn. And in some places, by extension, I didn’t advocate so well for the project at every turn. I wish I fought a little bit harder and a little bit more. That’s definitely something I’ll take to the next one, which is to be more of a fighter. That said, given the inputs, I’m very, very proud of the work we’ve done so far.
Lauren McBride is an independent film producer based in San Francisco. Born and raised in Atlanta, she studied Film Studies and Economics at Swarthmore College. Lauren has been developing Selah and the Spades with Tayarisha Poe since its inception, which led to her selection as a 2017 Sundance Creative Producing Lab Fellow. She was also selected as a 2018 Film Independent Producing Lab Fellow.