Suzanne Joskow is 29 years old and the right hand woman of Stephen Gaghan, the man behind Syriana and Crash. As his Director of Development at Unsupervised Productions, she helps decide where to place their considerable influence, money, and support: picking new projects, hiring writings and shepherding big money deals. How did she get to be the woman beside one of Hollywood’s most interesting and successful writer/directors? By ignoring everyone’s advice, saying no to powerful people, and getting her hands extremely dirty.
Where are you from?
Suzanne Joskow: I grew up in Boston, a couple blocks from Fenway Park. People would park in our driveway for Red Sox games. It was a little bit like living near the ocean and its tides – we had the calendar on our refrigerator of when there would be big games so that we would know to plan accordingly.
What do your parents do?
SJ: My dad was a professor of economics at M.I.T. for 35 years and my mom was an English teacher, and then she worked at a non-profit that brings performing artists into public schools.
So art was in the mix early?
SJ: I’m an only child and my parents would have dinner parties a lot. I would go off to a separate room and I would get to watch a movie. I could sort of hear the voices of the party filtering through and I’d be all bundled up in a blanket. It was such a nice singular experience. More than being in a movie theater.
We’re the generation of the VHS tape.
SJ: And then later if you went on a date you went to the Cleveland Circle Cinema and you ate at the Ground Round next door, where you pay what you weigh. So you’d get on this big scale. We’d wait around for a college student to buy us tickets to an R rated movie. Your date would hustle to find someone over 18. So I had the experience of going to the theater, but in those early instances, my parents would go, “Oh my god, you haven’t seen The Graduate yet!” and they would sort of set me up.
So you started watching “films,” not just “movies.”
SJ: My mom is sort of a hippie. I remember at a sleep over she let us watch Animal House at like, 10, and also let us drink root beer in a sort of simulated-beer way, and that did not go over well with other mothers. My favorite movies are movies from the 60s and 70s, and I feel like she introduced me to that.
When do you start finding movies on your own?
SJ: I went to the movie theater a lot in high school, but probably in college at Yale. I worked in the Film Studies Center. I’d been taking some film classes and one of my professors also ran it. It’s sort of a glamorized name — essentially it was the school video store. But all the students who worked there were like the kids who would work in a video store; it had an Empire Records feel to it. One of the perks of it was that you had access to this massive film library, and you could also request to order something. Any film you could imagine, even out of print, you suddenly had access to. Even just shelving, you got a sense of what’s what and who’s who, the canon.
When did it occur to you that you could take film classes?
SJ: By the time I got to college, I knew that I loved movies, but it’s not exactly what I studied. I was an American Studies major, which ultimately ended up encompassing a lot of film, but I wasn’t a film major. I never intended to be. But that same advisor who ran the Film Studies Center taught a class called “The Films of Woody Allen, Spike Lee and Marty Scorsese.”
What made that class seminal?
SJ: The idea that you could analyze a movie the same way you do literature was new to me. And with auteurs, you wonder what was their intention, but also does their intention matter? So there was an awareness that someone was making this point of view. So I got interested in that, “Who is making this, where did it come from.” Not just looking at it as a complete piece.
What got you to Los Angeles?
SJ: There was a flyer in the Film Studies Center about an internship in Los Angeles, for a producer, and it does not say whom it was for.
Did you have any idea what that even means, what a producer does? How much did you understand about how movies are made at this point?
SJ: Extremely little. All of my film education had been about consumption and analytical academics. I didn’t know anything about process. I did do a summer thing with the New York Film Academy where we shot silent films on old WW2 cameras. We literally sliced film. I think at that point I wanted to be a science writer? I also did a biology summer program. I really didn’t think film was going to be my career.
So you had some idea of making a movie, but were ignorant of the business of making movies?
SJ: Yes. Technically, I knew the basics of filmmaking — I knew how to use a light meter — but knew nothing about Hollywood.
So you applied for this internship with a “Producer.”
SJ: I sent my resume. I think someone in the office had gone to Yale and were interested in giving back and hiring someone. I might have been the only person who applied. I was reaching panic mode of “What am I going to do with my life?” I had yet to find something like, “Oh, I could do this for more than a summer.” So someone e-mailed me and said, “When can you start?” And they were from Robert Evans’ office.
And that meant nothing to me.
Robert Evans, the larger-than-life producer behind movies like The Godfather trilogy, Love Story, Chinatown as well as the documentary and his personal memoir, The Kid Stays in the Picture.
SJ: Yes. The Bob Evans. I understand now that the kids with internships who go to college in LA have a huge leg up because they intern through the whole year. They get so much exposure. I was a terrible intern because I just didn’t know. I was scared of the freeway! I didn’t know where anything was. I had to get a Thomas Guide. So I got the internship, and thought, “Well, I guess I’m going to Los Angeles.” Where I really knew no one.
And you didn’t know who Robert Evans was?
SJ: No. The Kid Stays in the Picture had just come out. So I saw the movie first. I thought “This is so exciting, we’re going to be best friends!” I didn’t know what talent agencies were, nothing. I really can’t stress how ignorant I was. I had no idea of the infrastructure of the business. But I came out and found a furnished apartment, not at the Oakwoods, but run by the Oakwoods.
This is the second time the Oakwoods have come up in this column.
SJ: It’s a lot of people’s entre to Los Angeles because they do these furnished apartments. It was near the Grove, a huge mall in Hollywood, that had just opened.
In the movie, there’s a lot of emphasis on Bob’s office. It has this famous big wood door and when I was walking up to it, I really couldn’t believe it.
In the book he talks about a lot of crazy stuff – drugs, sex, drama. Did you think you were going into the lion’s den?
SJ: No, I was totally seduced and excited by all the crazy stuff. His old office has a bar, there’s a couch. Who knows what’s happened on this couch! I thought I would have a lot more direct interaction with him then I ended up having.
When did you realize how little you knew?
SJ: Very quickly. The assistant left and I had to answer the phones. Bob was never there, the director of development was never there, and the caller would say, “Leaving word.” And I had no idea what that meant. It was this whole new language. I thought I’d misheard them. It took me a while to get confident to say “I’m new, could you please repeat that.”
If an intern asked you now, what does “leaving word” means?
SJ: Well, you’d write on the call sheet, “LW” and it just means leaving a message on behalf of my boss. I very quickly got the idea that everyone’s in this huge rush, whether or not it felt created or necessary, but even just the rush of the assistant on the phone was a big adjustment. There were no niceties. Which now I’ve discovered you can have and not everyone is like that.
So what happened during this summer-long internship?
SJ: Well, one of the big things is that I had never read a screenplay. I got this big stack of them I had to do coverage on. Every place does it differently, but in the Evans office, there was a rating system for various elements: dialogue, characters, voice, and something else. You would rate it between one and five. Then you would do a summary of what the script is about and you would do a little analysis of what you thought of it and whether or not it was something to consider. I was so shocked that if I didn’t like something, it meant [higher ups] wouldn’t read it. That felt like a lot of power to me. They were probably just dumping things on me that they already knew what they were going to do with them, I don’t know.
What sort of things were you reading?
SJ: It was a huge range of things. The last thing that had come through that office which was made and released was How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days so they were reading romantic comedies as well as reincarnations of The Godfather.
But when I learned that talent agencies have huge scripts libraries, that you could had access to scripts of all their movies that had been made, I started to go get them. If I liked a movie I would think, “Oh I wonder how it is on the page.” I felt a responsibility: I had never had to make leap from this is how it is written to this is how it would be as a movie. It didn’t stop me from having strong opinions, but it was very helpful for me to supplement opinions. I started to understand what makes a script good and not, just by having a source of comparison. Some times things had really changed by the time they got to the screen, for the better and sometimes not.
What did you learn that summer?
SJ: How slow the process can be. That “hurry up and wait,” mentality. There was all this urgency. I had to get through this stack of scripts for coverage. But things actually move forward so incrementally. While this was going on, I was falling in love with LA, and the game of it. It was all so fascinating to me.
SJ: That it has its own language. That I didn’t know what CAA was. It’s such an industry that trades on information. All of that stuff was so foreign to me. By the end of the summer I felt like I was a foreign exchange student and I went home in love with France. It baited me, more than anything. I wasn’t disillusioned at all.
Do you have any great Bob Evans stories? I used to work a desk at Vanity Fair which he called fairly often and he never failed to say, “Elizabeth. Elizabeth! How are you?”
SJ: Bob very rarely came in. I got to go to his house a couple of times, which has a very “If these walls could talk,” thing. It has seen so much. Everything had the fading glamour of old Hollywood, that you hear about and I got a faint whiff of it. It was very seductive.
Did you feel like you were in the white-hot center of it all, or did you feel like you were with a fading power?
SJ: Just being on the lot and the fact that they were shooting movies there and I was allowed to walk by felt like there was a lot going on. I didn’t think I had a sense of yet of the greater hierarchy. I wasn’t tasked with getting anything made. I was tasked with consuming things, and having opinions and being wide-eyed.
Any great intern stories?
SJ: There was one guy there who was very loveable, but a tough boss. And for some reason I was the person who had been chosen to call him to wake him up in the mornings when his wife was away. At the very end of the internship I gave him an alarm clock. I started to get the idea that, oh people hire other people to do things for them that it had never occurred to me that you wouldn’t do yourself.
Like… wake up?
SJ: It didn’t bother me, I didn’t think I was above anything, but it was very different from the Puritanism of Boston. There’s a showiness here and a flaunting of it that’s very much the opposite of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” Boston.
But besides all of that, you decided, “This is the city for me!”
SJ: I did. By the end of the summer I knew I wanted to move to Los Angeles. I just knew I wanted to be part of it. I knew I wanted to be out here and be someone’s assistant. It’s like an apprenticeship. That’s how you learn stuff and get better. I graduated and I convinced one of my college roommates to move out here with me. It turns out, moving out without a job, you’re not going to instantaneously going to be handed a job.
What came next?
SJ: I looked up alumnae and friends of my parents. I did a few informational interviews, taking people out for coffee who had been here for a few years, and asked “What’s my next step?” A lot of people said to me, you’ve only interned at one place, you really need to go and be an assistant at an agency. That is where you get your street cred.
I don’t think that’s bad advice. In a lot of ways, it’s the epicenter of a lot of different elements of the industry. But it can be a really tough job. This was my first “real world job” that I was looking for, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing, to get a thick skin and to be calm under pressure.
So I interviewed at a couple agencies and CAA wanted me to come on as a floater, which means I wouldn’t be assigned to someone’s desk, but would eventually grow into [being someone’s assistant.] And I turned it down.
So for the uninitiated: CAA is one of the most powerful agencies in the business. People don’t say no to CAA, especially when they ask you come as a floater, which would mean skipping some entry level work. Why did you turn it down?
SJ: By then I had met with some people who were assistants there and it can be a really tough environment. I think people pride themselves on cruelty in a way – not just at CAA. There’s a toughness to it and also anonymousness: you’re part of a huge organization, which can be a rewarding learning experience, but it can also be very demoralizing. There’s an element that is trying to test you and see if you can survive. There was a piece of me that just knew that that’s not right for me. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be an agent. If I did, that would have been the obvious path. I just felt like, let me see if there’s something else I can do where I can still love my job. I wasn’t ready to sign up for something where [the attitude] is “Gee, if I can just make it through the next year, then I’ll be golden.” It felt like a strange move to make right out of college.
Most people who start at CAA start in the infamous mailroom. I’ve been told about the Red Zone, which is on the white board there. It’s for people who are really on the edge, where if one more person asked you to do something or yelled at you or belittled you, you were really going to crack. Not just quit, but really crack. So if you got to that point, you could put your name in the Red Zone, and your peers would leave you alone until you got your To-Do list in some sort of manageable state. Now, there’s a part of me that hears that story and is sort of…impressed because it’s a machine that understands itself, it has its own logic. But it also seems insane to keep people in that sort of emotional state. Because it doesn’t have to be like that. Or does it?
When people now come to me for advice, for the right person I say that they should work at an agency. I don’t think that it breaks everybody, or that it isn’t the right path for every body, but for some…
It’s like a whetstone. It’ll either sharpen you or break you.
SJ: Exactly. Hollywood is high school, you rise up with a class. The people who are assistants when you’re an assistant are Creative Executives when you’re a CE, so there’s the idea of taking care of your own. You make bonds working a job like that, then they become real collaborative work bonds. Or enemies. It can bring out the worst in people. [The business] can become emotional in a way that you don’t expect. You can end up crying in the bathroom every day. People like to make a big deal about that being unique to Hollywood, and I don’t think it is. Jobs should be that rigorous at the bottom. This is a tough industry for a lot of reasons and it is helpful to figure out right off the bat if you’re up for that. But you have to know yourself, and I knew that wasn’t going to be my path – being an agent.
When I interviewed Chris D’Arienzo he told me his story of being fired from the film version of Rock of Ages, which he wrote the stage version of. What I so appreciated about Chris is that he did not hold back from how that felt as a person, as an artist, and how what happened was really personally devastating at the time, but he was simultaneously so pragmatic about how it happens all the time in this business. Megalomaniacs and bullies will always be a bore, but so are people who seem to have real chips on their shoulders about the business: “Fuck Hollywood!” You know what other businesses can be cutthroat and full of insane people? Industrial carpet sales. Organic apple distribution. Being a union teacher can be a ruthless business. Why do you think people have such personal reactions to the realities of the business?
SJ: People think of Hollywood as being really uncertain, which I think feeds that. It’s a project-to-project based industry, but the only other career that has the sort of certainty my parents would like for me would be academia, which is all that they know. You’re always on the precipice. It could be great and move forward or it could fall apart, and you’d be out of a job. So that adds a tension, which I think is reflected in how people act with each other.
So in 2005 you said no to CAA and everyone thought you were insane.
SJ: By then I had a bunch of friends who were artists: either they wanted to be filmmakers, or writers or actors, they weren’t on any specific track so I didn’t feel a bunch of pressure, like I was falling behind. For a little while I worked as a paralegal for an entertainment lawyer. Then I wound up working as an assistant to an independent producer, Mark Harris.
He was a producer on Crash and Gods and Monsters. Before, when I was talking before about how scary it was to get on the phone at first, he really gave me the confidence to get on the phone with anybody because he’s that way.
Let’s talk about the phone! Hollywood is a phone business more so than an e-mail business. What does it mean to be good on the phone?
SJ: So much business is done on the phone; almost all of it. Most of the time you’re on the phone with someone you’ve never spoken to before and you’re going to ask them for something. Or, you’re on the phone with sixteen people and you have to figure out how to join that conversation — or do you join at all? Sometimes those calls are actually just two people talking and everyone else is listening.
This is also the only business, that I can think of, where it’s the norm to have your assistant anonymously listening in on your phone calls. Readers, if you’re ever on the phone with someone in Hollywood, you can bet that their assistant is listening and taking notes.
SJ: Because so much of being an assistant is being the Overflow Brain for your boss, it’s valuable to them that they don’t have to relay everything to you – you already have everything. And as an assistant, it’s so valuable to have the information. It really is an apprenticeship. As much as it’s a business that you have to learn by doing, there’s no other way to understand how deals are put together, how notes are presented. That’s one of the things Mark really taught me: the way you talk to an executive is not the same way you talk to a writer.
Oh, any writer could tell you that.
SJ: That’s how I started: being the assistant on the line, making phone calls about certain things. This is something that I’m still grappling with, even when you asked me to do this interview: there was a part of me that wondered why would you be interested in my path, or my experience. I mean, do you think Harvey Weinstein ever wonders, “Do these people really want my opinion?” No. So that’s the beginning of learning to call up and say “I would like this.” Or “You should consider this writer.” If you say it with confidence, people will hear it and you hope that if it’s a good idea, it’ll come back to you. It is that leap towards authority, but it’s a slow process to get there.
So what were you and Mark working on?
SJ: The Black Donnellys was being shot for NBC in New York, but the writer’s room was in Santa Monica, so I got to go into the writer’s room. When you’re with a producer, you get all access.
What do you define as a producer’s job?
SJ: Oh god, the title can be so many things.
It can be just being the money. A lot of people who put up money for any of the stages, pre-production, production, or post-production, will take a producer’s credit. It can be someone like you, who is connecting people: writers with directors, directors with financiers, someone who finds distributors for finished films or pays for a film to be released. It can mean the person who keeps everything on budget.
They come in an all different stages of the process and play different roles. You’re either on the sell side or the buy side. I’m more interested about the sell side. There you’re part of the making, rather than the distributing.
What I’m doing now is my ideal version. I feel very lucky that I love all of the projects we have Unsupervised, the company I now run with Stephen Gaghan, whereas if I was an executive at a big studio I might get assigned to projects that I didn’t . Some people are very good at that, but again, it’s about knowing yourself and I like that I’m surrounded by writers and filmmakers all day and not other suits.
You skipped a BUNCH of steps. I don’t want readers to think, “Oh, I work one internship and then I’ll get to be someone’s Director of Development.”
SJ: The much more normal path is that you work several internships, you work at an agency for at least a year or more, then hopefully a client of the agent you were working with is looking for somebody for their small production company and you get along and you work for them for a few years, probably as an assistant, maybe as a Creative Assistant. Then either you grow up in their company and become a Creative Executive in development, or you have to go off and find another company with an opening, which doesn’t happen all that often. Then you work your way up seniority to Director of Development. It takes 6 or 7 years.
At least. If you don’t give up in your third month at CAA.
SJ: Third day! So yes, it was pretty unusual. And the “company” Mark had was just the two of us. So already, that’s an unusual experience. This is important: I tried to supplement the fact that I hadn’t worked at an agency. Because I was working so one on one, I was really diligent about getting drinks with people and going to stuff where I would meet other assistants and developing relationships. Having people at CAA who I could call if I needed something.
So you’d have a “class.”
SJ: Exactly. I guess I would say that I’m proof that you don’t have to go the agency route, that you don’t have to hate your life. But! I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I didn’t try to make up for that. I was on tracking boards that monitor what scripts are being made, I was making sure to read everything that was “hot,” and just stay informed about things, which happens just naturally when you’re at an agency. You have to work harder to have that if you’re not.
Other than getting you fluent on the phone, what else did you get from working with Mark?
SJ: I was just so lucky because he brought me to the Black Donnellys writer’s room. He didn’t have to do that. When you’re young and you’re starting out, you want to make friends with these people. When I was staffing a show last year, I met with people who I had met on that show. This stuff comes back around. If you’re lucky enough to get to be there in the first place.
Do you have advice that you wish someone had told you as an assistant, now that you’re a boss?
SJ: For lack of a better term, you have to know your place when you’re an assistant; you don’t want to speak out of turn. Secondly. I don’t know if this is advice, but the piece that I struggled with is that when you’re running someone else’s life, you know so much about them, and by design, it’s not mutual. You have to be careful not to let your job become your life. It happens to a lot of people. If you’re having nightmares about what’s happening in someone else’s life, you have to protect yourself from that. I mean, it’s part of job to some degree, a little of that will happen, but you can’t lose yourself.
That requires maintaining some serious boundaries with your boss.
SJ: Which you don’t always have the luxury of. You’re always going to be cancelling things last minute, that just comes with the territory. It’s a 24-hour business and your time is not your own. You sign up for that. If you are in a 9-5 job as an assistant, it’s not going to be interesting. That tells me that you’re not getting access to all the stuff that happens in the peripheries. You need to carve out space for yourself so that you can figure out what it is that you like best and have time to read for pleasure. If you don’t want to be an assistant forever, it can’t totally take you over.
The skill set of being very good at completing other people’s tasks doesn’t guarantee you’ll be good at making something out of nothing.
How long did you work for Mark?
SJ: A year. I was starting to feel isolated, I felt like I wanted to rack up more [experience]. I was itching to see more things get made. So we parted ways amicably.
I did a lot of things I would never advise other people to do, one of them being that I didn’t have a new job to go into, I just left and started interviewing. I think in a perfect world you would have the support of your boss to find the next thing, But I didn’t, partly because I wanted to give myself a beat to think about what I wanted to do next: more independent work? Did I want to be at a big studio? I very quickly found that I do not like being unemployed. I like getting up and going somewhere in the morning. Of course after deciding that I want to stretch my wings a little bit, I ended up working with Steve, and it’s just the two of us.
But while you were interviewing, you started producing your own stuff?
SJ: Yes. I was living in this house with all these other creative people. These people didn’t just skip the steps like me, but the whole “path” entirely. They were just making things for themselves. So I started helping people on their gigs. I helped some musician friends on their music videos, and really getting that first hand production experience on a really small scale: working with a budget of $800, rounding up people to work for free, finding a camera to borrow, tracking down a friend-of a friend’s sound guy. Mostly hustling stuff of how can we find all the pieces that we need.
There was something about having something to show for my time: “I made this.” It was also so important to spend time with people who like to make things, as opposed to people who like to talk about things. There is a lot of talking about making things out here. I needed to fulfill the part of me that wants to get my hands dirty. And it was fun.
All of that work just grew. People I had helped out started getting real gigs. Directors started to ask me to produce for them and suddenly we were working with a budget of $10,000 and then we were working with a budget of $30,000 and these were artists I’d heard of, bands like Sia and OK Go. There was a little bit of “Really? Me? I don’t know what I’m doing!” But I was learning to do things on the fly, which has it’s own language — getting permits and that sort of thing.
Right around then is when I started working with Steve Gaghan who wrote Traffic and Syriana. What tied the small, independent stuff I was doing with my new job was that he’s a writer/director and those were the relationships I was starting to make and really love, working along side people who aren’t themselves producers, necessarily, but people who make things.
In what capacity were you first hired?
SJ: I met Steve through a friend of a friend, an old assistant of Steve’s who is a writer in his own right. Stever has a pretty good eye with his employees. Many have gone on to be writers, but Wolfgang Hammer, now co-president of CBS films, is also a former Gaghan employee. Anwyay, I started off as his assistant, but with the understanding that he was bringing on someone who wanted to produce [with his company, Unsupervised] rather than someone who would go off on their own to write their own things.
And what did you learn at when you first started at Unsupervised?
SJ: As much as Mark taught me how to get on the phone and wrangle people, Steve was the beginning of my master class in storytelling.
Did you realize that, yet again, you had hit a sweet spot wherein you were, yet again, skipping a bunch of steps?
SJ: Not entirely. It sounded great, but looking back, I really had no idea how to get us there – to this place where I am generating new projects and getting them made.
So this is your second official job, and you’re sitting in your own private office —
SJ: But we weren’t here when I was hired. I was just an assistant then.
Right, but this is still your second official job and you have your own office in the historic bungalows on the Fox Studios lot. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s office is two doors down.
SJ: I mean, I hate to put it that way, because the path to success really is a very squiggly, confusing line, and I was hired as an assistant over five years ago now, so a lot has happened. But yes, that is fairly accurate. He wanted to grow the company and he wanted a producer to work with, and that’s incredibly unusual because if I had gotten a job at a production company already run by a bunch of producers, they’re not looking for someone to grow with them.
…To unseat them.
SJ: You hear horror stories of incredibly competitive environments. It benefits Steve for me to get really good at what I do. Nothing is more important than the fact we like the same stuff and we want this company to be the same thing: a safe space for writers where he could put his name behind younger writers who are doing risky things. That’s always been extremely appealing to me – being in a more writer-friendly creative place.
What do you think Stephen saw in you that made him invite you into his professional life in such a generous way?
SJ: I know it felt like a good fit, there weren’t a whole lot of growing pains. I don’t want to speak for him, but there was this end-game of the bigger production company that interested both of us. It took us a long time to get here, to this bungalow. There were definitely points where I wasn’t sure. I even went off right before we shot our first pilot and then came back. Steve was amazing enough to call me and say, “Come back, someone wants to buy this.”
You left because you wanted things wanted to get finished? When was this?
SJ: About two years ago. There were a few months where Steve was writing something and I just threw myself into producing commercials and music videos. I was getting that itch of “We’re not making things and I don’t know how to help us generate new projects.” We’d developed this pilot Metro which Steve wrote and that we owned. We were working with Steve McPherson who was President of ABC on it but then he was no longer with the company and things slowed down. When Bob Greenblatt became chairman at NBC it was one of the first thing he picked up. And that’s when Steve Gaghan called me and invited me to come back.
What happened with Metro?
SJ: We shot the pilot in Los Angeles, and Steve directed it but it didn’t get picked up for series. In movies, if you make a studio film that Warner Brothers is going to release, you typically work with WB from the conception of the idea through the distribution. In television, it’s different. Traditionally, it’s split so that on the selling side there’s a studio that makes the show. They sell it and do the syndication, and that’s how they make their profit. The other side is the buying side where a network will buy the show, broadcast it, and make money off the advertisements. That’s over-simplified, but it usually is that studio/network model. So, even though Metro was shot for NBC, they’d bought it from 20th Century Fox studios.
From Metro we got our original over-all deal with 20th and suddenly I was looking for office space on the lot. Now we’re developing a mini-series for FX about the Vietnam War, They Marched Into Sunlight from David Maraniss’ book of the same name, which I’m really excited about.
What else does Unsupervised have going right now?
SJ: Stephen is directing a feature that he wrote, The Candy Store, with Robert DeNiro, which is tentatively shooting in New York or Boston in the fall.
We have a movie with Warner Brothers that another writer is doing – it’s based on a series of LA Times articles about drugs smuggling which are being adapted for screen by Patrick Keefe, a journalist with The New Yorker.
Growing the feature side of the company was always going to be slower, which is just how feature development is. But television, by nature, is a different thing – much faster development turnover, writers coming up together, so that’s exciting. That’s where Unsupervised is strong. We’re also thrilled about the next “Call of Duty” game from Activision, which Stephen scripted. It’s called “Call of Duty: Ghost” and will be out November 2013.
How would you describe Stephen?
SJ: I’ve learned so much about storytelling from Steve. It’s been invaluable really. Like a master class. In terms of working with other writers, Stephen doesn’t feel like he has anything to prove, so he’s a wonderful collaborator. He’ll jettison his own thinking for someone else’s better idea. There’s no ego involved, so he’s able to bring out the best in other writers, when it’s the right match. So even though we’re a small unit, that makes us somewhat special as a company, I think.
The general consensus is that we’re in the golden age of television while features struggle not to be Napster-ed into oblivion. Do you agree? As a producer, do you feel like the place to focus on real story telling is now on television?
SJ: Do you have to choose? My first love was movies and I’m lucky that I’m in a job where I get to work on both, but there’s something really great about the longer form of television, the intimacy of going into someone’s home, getting to grow with a character, the way you would do in a novel. With television, I had to school myself in it because I didn’t have any history with it – I’d come from features. It was executives I’d never met before, agents I’d never talked to before.
The first thing we did for network television, that pilot Metro, showcased everything Stephen does so well: storytelling that lives in the gray areas. It didn’t take a side on the characters, it just showed who they were. But because of that, there wasn’t that macro victory that you get on network dramas: a criminal is found, a patient is saved. There’s a lift that people want, even if it’s not wrapped up in a truly procedural way. Network viewers don’t want to be challenged in how they feel, they’re looking for an escape. And I get it. There’s a reason no one came home from a long day at work, cracked a beer and watched The Wire. Literally, no one did that. It’s one of my favorite TV shows, but it got consumed in completely different way. I’m fascinated by how Netflix just released all of House of Cards it wasn’t even serialized in the way that we think of television being serialized.
David Fincher did House of Cards, Eli Roth has Hemlock Grove. With Stephen’s propensity for long-form, big cast, heavy dramas, do you think there’s a space for Unsupervised in the new systems of content delivery?
SJ: We’re very interested in it. The name “Unsupervised” comes from the fact that we do our own thing, and also because it’s a meritocracy. It’s about collaboration and everyone getting a voice. We’ve developed things that interns have brought to us. It’s all about the team and the idea. So, we’re super fascinated by all the new ways of delivery content and also the growing way of developing shows almost like how a movie would be made and then sold. Like, True Detective which is going to be on HBO or even House of Cards there was outside money in it before Netflix came on board. That’s not so relevant to us in that we have Fox which supports us, but all of those options are just new opportunities for everyone in the business.
And I think all of this has made people more sophisticated, more open to the way Stephen tells stores. Because television has made people way more comfortable with the interwoven narrative.
How have you grown in your job at Unsupervised, beyond going from being an assistant to Director of Development? How many people work at Unsupervised now?
SJ: The number of people at the company has fluctuated, but we’ve always been extremely small. Right now there are three of us full time, as well as three interns, who are all at the film program at USC.
Metro was very much “fake it till you make it,” which, by the way, I don’t want to want to apologize for. I think that’s everyone’s path. When I said earlier that I don’t think that Harvey Weinstein is wondering if people really do want this opinion, you do that hear Brian Grazer squatted on the lot and just pretended he was a producer, and Steven Spielberg has a similar story. I think it’s natural, and it’s important to say that’s what you did, to give other people permission.
If you were talking to someone who just off the plane and has no idea how the business works, how would you describe your job at Unsupervised?
SJ: Well, aside from being the Director of Development, I’m an Executive Producer on projects like They Marched into Sunlight. It’s many things because Stephen continues to write his own stuff. One of things I so enjoy now, because it’s what I did when I first started, is getting to be a sounding board when he’s working on his own material.
That’s a piece of what I do that I don’t think a lot of producers do, but because of that, I’ve been on both sides: I’ve been the person who gives notes, and I’ve seen Stpehen have to make adjustments after he’s gotten notes from some other executive. So I hope the notes I give to the writers I’m working with, that they take the extra step, or have a different quality to them. Because it’s hard when you’re not a writer, there’s only a certain type of note you can give before its, “Well, who are you to say?” Those walls fall down because Stephen gets to get in there with another writer, and me as well through his experience, in a way that we just wouldn’t be able to without his experience as a writer.
A big part of what I do is to read and meet and find those writers that we’re gonna work with, who are maybe up and coming and need someone to vouch for them or who makes sense for them to work with us. The development hustle.
So you’re 29 years old. You’re soft spoken and your energy is very “the glass is half full.” What’s it like to be a young woman like you in this business?
SJ: I have been told, so many times, by so many different people, “you’re too nice to succeed in this business.” People who would surprise you. Men, women, old, young, I have heard it a lot. Not ever in reference to something specific that’s happened, but just in terms of my demeanor, the way I am, I guess. Someone told me once that to succeed in this business, you have to have a hole inside of you that’s impossible to fill, which is just such a depressing thought. I don’t have an insatiable hole in my heart that’s impossible to fill. So does that mean that I don’t have what it takes? I don’t think so, not at all. Being kind and looking like a young girl, as I am and as I do, none of those things are the same as not being assertive or not having an opinion. I’ve just come round to the idea that my demeanor makes people underestimate me. Which I’m okay with, as long as when I speak, they hear what I have to say. Then they’ll change their opinion.
And in terms of my working relationship with Stephen, he has done an incredible job of vouching for me. Even back when I was just his assistant, he would take me to all of his meetings with him. He would do this offhand thing, almost like a joke where he would say off the bat, “Suzanne is here because she’s smarter than all of us.” And I was 24 and everyone would laugh. But he made it a point to validate that I was there.
The producers we hear about are the huge personalities, the Scott Rudins or the Weinsteins. A lot of the women you meet are trying to emulate that, or feel they have to talk a certain way, or be “ball busters.” This isn’t a business for the faint of heart, I’m not easily offended, but I’m never going to be effective trying to put on a version of myself that I’m just not. I’m sure Scott Rudin is very scary when he’s yelling. I wouldn’t be. That doesn’t mean that I can’t expect a lot from the people that we’re working with and the material that we have. It doesn’t mean that I don’t expect people to take my call. It’s not mutually exclusive with being a kind person, and a lot of people will tell you that it is. But it’s never been the case with me. I’ve been the only girl in the room a lot of time – luckily now we’re working with some female producers and I really like and learned a lot from. It’s yours to make a problem out of.
There’s a moment in The Kids Stays in the Picture – when Bob Evans, who used to be an actor, was sure he was going to get fired from a movie, and some guy from behind the director said, “No, the kid stays in the picture.” Bob knew wanted to be that guy – the guy who made the call. So there is that element to what I do. Where I say “This book should be a miniseries” and then I get to work to make that possible. But it takes so many people to make it happen, and I’m just happy to be at the center of it.