Saturday, May 10, 2008

Weekend interview 2 - The Producer

For the second interview in my new series, I've got a great one for you - a chat with Rob Speranza, who runs South Yorkshire Filmmakers Network, and is a very experienced producer of short films, including "King Ponce" directed by Sam Donovan, and Sue Everett's recently completed film "Mother, Mine". He was really helpful when I was trying to get "Echoes" set up too, and gave me tons of invaluable advice - well worth my £25 joining fee for SYFN! He's got lots to say about short films, so enjoy the interview:

Tell me about your involvement with South Yorkshire Filmmakers Network, and how that began.
First off, I got in through academic means, which I didn’t expect. I started doing a Masters but it grew into a PhD, on film and poetry. While doing that, I ran the video library where I was surrounded by great films, films by great directors that my tutors talked about. And there was one guy who used to watch 3, 4, 5 films a week, never missed a week, and come in and talk about them, and he asked me if I wanted to join a production company he was setting up. He’d got a corporate job lined up, and I thought that sounded like a good deal, so I joined him. We started getting more people involved, got more corporate jobs, and this became Sort Of Films, with Ed Cartledge, and the Network sort of took off from there. We didn’t make too many films in the network as such, aside from my film-poems, but we would have meetings, hold training sessions around sound, camera, music, and anything else people asked for. We’d talk about our favourite films, favourite scenes, cinematography, we’d meet in people’s houses or in the pub, and when 25 or more people started showing up each week we realised it wasn’t a production company anymore, it was a network. And South Yorkshire Filmmakers Network now has 600 members.

Then, I had to go home (to the USA) for a bit, and I worked on a few films as production manager, or 1st AD, which was really cool. Prior to that professionally I’d done only done script reading in the USA, and all this was great experience leading up to being a producer when I was back in the UK again in early 2005.

I came back to this country wanting to make short films. As a producer, I began to make business links, make connections with Screen Yorkshire, learn how to complete application forms, met directors I wanted to work with, and got a meeting with a Screen Yorkshire-funded director who needed a producer, and things went from there. I got a lot of “no”s - it’s a long process, and a little bit heart-breaking sometimes, especially when it’s a project you’re really close to, but you have to be persistent and hard-nosed.

Thinking about the process of making a short film, at what point do you get involved as producer?
In almost every case a writer or a director, or the two together, will come to me with a script or an idea. If it’s an idea I like, I tell them to go away and write it. If it’s an idea I don’t think I can work with, I try to send them to someone who I know is looking for something. If I don’t think I can do it, I try to put people in touch. It’s neat when you can put people together.

If they come to me with a script for a short, then I read the script. There’s one guy who’s sent me loads of pitches, great ideas, and I’ve said yeah, go away and write the script. But he comes back with a story about why he hasn’t done it, and a load more pitches and ideas. There is a level of frustration as a producer when people don’t follow up. I feel sometimes people are afraid to succeed, afraid to make that step. Suddenly there’s a little flavour of success, it’s going to emerge into a fully fledged project, and they don’t act, they don’t follow up. I’ve felt sometimes it’s difficult to get people to do what they say they actually want to do. Strange, that it’s almost like some people are afraid to succeed.

So, yeah, I read the script; if I don’t like it, I let them know. I ask who’s on board, who’s going to direct, can I see what else they’ve done. What else can they bring to the table, do they have their own camera, their own editing equipment, sound equipment; do they have any money or am I going to have to apply for money, go looking for funding? If someone’s got a really good idea and I like it, I’ll figure out a way to get it made. But, it should be noted, I’m not looking to make many more shorts right now.

What do you think are the most common weakness in the scripts you see?
They don’t know how to end. So many short films don’t know how to end. This is a common problem. I feel that there often is a great premise but not a great follow-through. It’s hard to get people to care about characters in a short time, and also wrap up their stories in a satisfying way. It’s not an easy thing to do. But the best short films do it.

In addition, it’s often the case that a short film could use script editing to help the writer. Someone that tells the writer that the story falls a bit flat here, there’s no real character arc here, and so on. Scripts for short films also often have clichés, a lot of clichés. I met a guy recently who wanted me to produce his film and the project ended up falling through because when I met him he was really reluctant to listen to ideas and change anything, really reluctant to work on it, and there were a lot of clichés in his script, stuff we’ve seen a thousand times. If you’ve got art at the heart of your film, you need to think of it as an artwork and how it all holds together. It’s amazing how many times characters in short film scripts look at their watches - “He looks at his watch.” No! We can find more creative ways to show the passing of time.

What relationship do you have with the writer in terms of how you work on scripts?
If it’s a writer and a director, then I let the director drive things with the writer. I’d work on a team to aid the process, script editing and so on. If it’s a writer/director, then I’d try to develop the script, maybe work on specifics like character arc, dialogue. Screen Yorkshire-funded films go through a script development process, with a script editor, five or six meetings with writer/director/producer to work on it and get it right. It depends, really - you build up relationships with people over time, directors and writers, and you get to know how people work.

What advice would you give to writers, as a producer, in terms of getting work out there?
Do the networking, go to events, talk to people. Know what your story’s about. Don’t start talking to producers if you don’t know your story. If you’re talking to them and your idea’s a little flabby, you may have lost an opportunity. Try to talk to people when you’re ready - don’t rush it.

Join organisations like SYFN, join Shooting People and Talent Circle, go to networking events, get comfortable with the idea of talking to producers so that you’re not intimidated when you’re talking to them about your script. If producers are there at these events, then they’re interested, they’re looking for ideas, and if they’re not, they’ll say so.

Don’t isolate yourself. Join writers groups, go on writers programmes. There are some good free ones, some you have to pay for. SYFN will be doing a ten-module course for entry level writers with some really top speakers, in the autumn, and it’s going to be priced reasonably. Get out there, don’t just sit in your room wondering how someone’s going to read your script.

Get on the Screen Yorkshire database, or whoever the regional film agency is in the area you live in, get on their radar. Find people to team up with, make those connections, get involved and be part of a team. A lot of schemes are easier to get into if you’re part of a team, whether it’s writer/prod
ucer/director, or writer and director, than if you’re just going in as a writer.

Don’t be afraid to take criticism; if you disagree with it and it’s at odds with the ethos of your film, fair enough, say so, but be flexible enough to take advice.

If you’re stuck, call SYFN, call the regional agency, get advice. Don’t just sit there.

Some great advice there, and good insights - hope you enjoyed reading Rob's thoughts. If you want to contact Rob, you can find him on 0114 276 2400 or at


Blogger Stevyn Colgan said...

Good advice indeed. I'm currently going through the agonies of the 'it's on - it's off' variety over a film I wrote for an Irish production company. Promised budgets come and go. But on the other hand, the BBC ar einterested in a drama I've written - and how did I get it to them? Networking. Meeting people. I cannot stress too strongly the importance of getting out there and meeting people. Isolation just creates lonely unpublished writers. At least by networking you make some friends and meet some interesting people. Lord knows I have.

1:03 am  
Blogger potdoll said...

Thanks Sal!

And I agree with Stevyn abou the isolation thing. x

9:01 am  
Anonymous Stacie said...

very interesting series... :)

7:00 pm  

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