September 20, 2023

Smartypants Talks Producing Their First Oscar Nom

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I know that you all were able to use Wrapbook actually on this production to pay cast and crew members. We're not gonna be talking about that at all. We're actually recording the interview for our podcast series called On Production. And with On Production, we wanna talk to producers who are the folks making the work that makes an impact in the world. And so we talked to producers from...


documentary, from commercial, from live events, festivals, producers of all kinds, who build and release culture into the world. So I have a number of questions for all of you, kind of like how you found the story and then the actual nuts and bolts behind the production itself. Suzanne, actually my first question is for you, which is, this is not your first rodeo in the world of documentary production. I'm curious,


how you found this story, how you came to this story and how you approached it as a producer. I sort of work on and off with Smartypants on various projects and as a freelance producer and director, I sort of bounce around into production companies. And when I came to Smartypants a couple of years ago, the director, Josh, had already made a five minute video of...


Richard McKinney just sort of talking to camera. It was part of his secret lives of muslim series and had sort of this idea that there was a big part of the story that was missing from this five-minute piece that he had already made with just this one character and what was missing was really the community that helped to shift his perspective and so you know I worked with Josh to


you know, Bibi and Saber and the rest of the community to tell their side of the story. And so, you know, I did sort of a lot of the development work sort of writing through the treatment, figuring out what those story threads could be, how to weave people's own personal stories in and out of the narrative of, you know, Mac deciding and then not deciding to blow up a mosque. And then did a little bit of


pre-production and then so it happens with freelance work, I got a call to go direct a feature doc and I couldn't say no and I handed it off to Connell. That's incredible. How much time were you spending Suzanne on the story and the production of the story before you ended up passing it off to Connell? Maybe two to three months, not too long, but one of the things that I really like to do


with a project is write through it kind of narratively to really understand like if I was writing this just as a print piece, what would the scenes be? What would the stories be? Who would be saying what and when? How do you sort of unfold the story to an audience? And so I spent a lot of time just writing. And I think when I left, I had, I don't know how many pages of a treatment written sort of in prose form. And it's a good kind of


guide, I think, for production to be like, here's what the story could be. And know that obviously when you get out into the field and you start interviewing people on camera, that the stories unfold a bit differently. And there's always surprising discoveries, but I think the treatment is something that you can use when you get out in the field and it's like totally overwhelming and you're doing 12 or 14 hour days. And it's really stressful. It's nice to have something to come back to, to be like when we were, you know, in an office in a car period.


What did we think this was again? It's like a good little reminder of what it could be so that you can mix with the variables a little bit in a field and still know you'll come back with something that'll work even when things feel a little bit crazy. Have you found in not only this work, but in other projects that you've done that the treatment that you wrote in the beginning aligns with the output in the end, or do you find that they diverge tremendously and...


I guess I also want to know when they do diverge, does that typically give you a more interesting end product? What has your experience been there between the treatment, the structure, the story, and then what actually happens in the field? I've experienced both. I mean, I think with Stranger at the Gate, there are some things that sort of followed through, but we knew the story already, so there were less variables that were going to change, but I think certainly structurally how we unfolded the story.


changed a lot once the interviews were done and they were in the edit sort of figuring that out. So I think it sort of was a bit modular. You could sort of move some things around. And also I just think when you, once you actually film with people and they're real living, breathing folks who tell their own stories, they add their own sort of elements to it. That's inherently gonna change. And I've also been on films that yeah, it changes very drastically.


because if you're shooting verite and something unfolds in real time that you couldn't imagine, obviously that's the case. Or there is a theme in the film where we didn't realize how complex it was and you really have to slow down a section to explain something to the audience so that they understand and that can take a little bit more time. But certainly I think if I wrote a treatment and it never, in the end result, never deviated from that, I would wonder how.


hard I was working or, you know, how interesting the story is. If it was like, oh, I could predict this entire thing before we even, you know, hit record on the camera. And that's exactly what we got. You know, I think in the scripted world, I think that happens much more often. It's a totally different beast. But I think in the documentary world, one of the most exciting things about the work that we do is that you go into the field with real people and there's always surprises.


and that you get to capture those in the making of the film. It's not just what you write on paper. Absolutely. The true magic of the improv of reality occurring in real time and captured on film. It's amazing. You know, one of the things that has just really blown me away is the power of the story when you watch it. In fact, before jumping on to this interview with both of you, I actually watched the film again. And for people listening or watching, you can actually see the entire film on the New Yorker.


it's available to view. And YouTube. And YouTube, perfect, Connell, thank you. So you did a lot of this work, you set up the production for success, and then you just mentioned that you passed it to Connell. What was the relationship like? What was that pass off like? Give us the insight from one producer to another about passing on such like an interesting and intricate project to another producer. What was that experience like? I can take the first little bit of that, and then I think Connell will probably have more to answer than me.


So, Connell and I have known each other for, I don't know, over a decade. Yeah, I think about 10 years, yeah. So when I left, I don't think Josh had found sort of a replacement producer and that I touched base with him a few weeks later. And he was like, oh, it's got Connell Jones is starting. And I was like, perfect, Connell's who I would have recommended. So I felt like the project was in incredibly good hands. Connell and I worked on


a TV series, Morgan Spurlock Inside Man for CNN a long time ago when we were both pretty green and went through a lot of different sort of tenuous situations in production and beyond. And I just knew that there was not a doubt in my mind that it was gonna be in like the best hands. So I don't know, what was it like to receive my big treatment? Also, I have to say that


when I found out Suzanne worked on the project and had created this treatment, I was like, thank God. Like we were in good hands too, because we had her treatment was like our Bible. Obviously I agree with everything you just said about leaving the possibility that things will change in the field. But like that, I think four to five pages that she had written was so strong. We actually tried to change it a few times.


Like Josh and I would, there were some other characters we talked to and we're like, oh, what if we move this here or there? And then every time we tried to move it, just like snap back into place, like where she wrote it. So I was very excited to hear that Suzanne had written it. And yeah, her work was solid. So we relied on that throughout. And also there was all the pre-interviews. I think they were transcribed. And so like a pre-interview, I don't know if...


people know about it. But in a documentary, you call people and you talk to them ahead of time because you don't want to do a six hour interview, they're going to get exhausted and talk about things that aren't interesting for the project. But you do still want to talk to them to figure out what is interesting and what kind of things they have going on. So we do pre interviews, we call them and sometimes we'll record those calls, and then transcribe them so we can look back and think about, Oh, what did they say about their uncle that had a similar similar experience or their hobbies or


Stuff like that. So Suzanne did a bunch of those with the main characters. So you relied on those. You did these pre-interviews. So once Suzanne had, you know, left the project and passed it over to you, like kind of what were your next steps? Like you had pre-interviews and then like you actually start going into production. Can you describe kind of like your process going from, okay, we have a story, we have a beginning, a middle, and an end, we have a direction to run. What was the actual...


standing up and then execution of the production against the plan. So what I did was like, there was sort of like paragraphs for each of the beats of the story. And like one, for example, was like talking about 9-11 and its effect on the community. So it was thinking about like, what are we actually gonna say during that block and who's gonna say it? And then...


breaking that out into questions for people. What are we gonna film during that period too? What can we shoot that would represent that? And going through the outline and kind of pulling all of that out. Like what's the visuals, what's the interviews, what are the scenes? And then putting that into a giant document and looking at it and going like, okay, how many days is this gonna be? Where are we gonna go? What are we gonna shoot? How many people are we interviewing and how long are those interviews?


It kind of envisioned what each of those, those, those blocks would be like and broke them out. And so it came out to like, I think it was five to six days, five and a half days. From there, did you like literally build a budget and then like crew up? Like, what did you do once you knew it was time to go? So it was more blocking out like scheduling. Uh, and then it was. So we had, we had the full like dream scenario schedule where it's like, okay, well, let's just do all the interviews all at once. Let's fit. We'll do.


Well, maybe we'll film near the mosque. Maybe we'll, we strategize it all and just compress it as much as we can so we can get as much footage and material as we could. And then once we had that, we'd start thinking about, okay, these are the scenes we're gonna film. Who's gonna be the best TVP to shoot those? Is it Verite? Is it more, are we gonna do recreations? And then finding crew that are the best for those. Then we're getting, I think they originally.


thought they would shoot four days. And so we're doing five or six. We're like, okay, let's hire more locals instead of flying people in. So those were considerations we took. So we did hire a lot of locals. We flew into DP, we flew in a production coordinator, and I think we flew into AC, but that was it. So how big was the crew? Um, it's like seven almost maybe. Seven of you over, you said like a six, seven day period? Yeah. Are you guys allowed to say, what was the production budget? Are we allowed to say it? I don't, I don't know.


But I would say let's not just in case. Yeah. I'll see that. No, not a problem. Okay, so- It wasn't huge, I'll say. I will say a lot of it was in post. I think it's okay to say that. Then trying to do, once we shot the story, it was tricky to figure out how we were gonna compose it in post-production, so. So, Connell, I'm assuming you were there. You were in Indiana, is that right? During production. Yeah.


You have like a seven person crew over about a week. Anything surprising or any interesting hiccups that you had to like go and produce during the course of principal photography? Finding a convenient location was key. Like I flew in a couple of days early to figure out where we were gonna do these interviews. Cause we wanted to look like this ominous space that maybe Mac was incarcerated and maybe he wasn't. And so I scouted out like some theaters and some empty buildings.


And then I went to the mosque and happened to go down in the basement and it was like perfect. And so befriending Bebe and getting her buy-in on the documentary was like key for us. I mean, in general, just for her telling her story but she ended up helping us so much with the production. She also, she like wanted us to stay over at her house. She cooked for the crew. She opened up her doors and the mosque doors. So that was like, that was big. Cause sometimes people are resistant.


or like, oh, I'll give you an hour or two in the mosque or I'll give you an hour or two of my time. But she literally just like handed us keys and said, go for it. So that was a welcome surprise and made the film possible. There was a crew issue. There was sadly one of the crew members, their dog died while we were filming and we lost, I think it was our grip. And so we were down one person for a couple of days, but like they were so passionate about the story.


that they stepped up. It was like, I think the second AC became our grip. And then he like called the friend and had them come last minute. So the crew really believed in the story and it helped us. The most nerdy among us are gonna wanna know like what was this shot with? Was this like Alexa minis, like LED panels? Like what was the setup? I think it was an area, wasn't it? I actually, I don't know why I'm asking you, Susanna. No?


Wait, the B cam for the interviews was a Canon. I think it maybe it was an ARRI. I will say we'd shot it full frame, but the end product was anamorphic. So we actually didn't shoot it anamorphically, we faked it. Nice. We faked it in post. But I think it was- It was so interesting, right? Like for a producer, it's like in many ways, your role is to build the conditions for something very good to happen.


Like it's not necessarily digging into the specifics of the camera. Like that's what the D is for, right? But you built these conditions to kind of allow some interesting story to emerge. Something that's really striking about the film is the vulnerability and the openness of the subjects on camera. You mentioned pre-interviews, but what were the conditions that you helped set up so that people could be so...


human on camera, like it really, really shows. Thank you. One thing that Josh, okay, Josh is really great at this. He did most of it- Josh is the director. Yeah, he did most of the interviews. I did, I interviewed Emily and the mom, like basically half of the mom's interview, but Josh is fantastic because he will interview people and he allows there to be space and it creates this like vacuum where they have to like fill the air. My impulse is to immediately,


like move on to the next question if someone's not answering, but he'll like wait. And then they'll just start talking and talking and talking. And it, it creates there's a lot of footage. There's a lot of material to go through, but they're vulnerable and they're open and there's these really intimate conversations. Also part of it, we, the lighting setup was really elaborate and it was huge. And there's all these like cameras and everything is really intimidating, but we created like a big flag in the back. Um,


And so the crew, most of the crew was hiding. It was just Josh and the interviewee. And I think that the DP was off to the side. So they only saw two people, which I think is really important on set to make it feel intimate. And then also Josh had, he mic'd himself and he had a speaker near the interview subject because they were actually kind of far away, like an awkward distance. I think it was like 12 or 18 feet. And so they could speak at a normal level.


and hear him and he heard them. And so that also helped. That's a super interesting setup. That makes a lot of sense in order to even be able to get that sort of visual intimacy in camera with the subject. I mean, you mentioned about a crew member, unfortunate like disruption because of the passing of their dog. That's extremely challenging, especially with a tight crew, you need to get in, your budget is limited, your time is limited.


Were there other big challenges during the like principal photography that you had to overcome in the production organization? We were in, so Muncie is an hour and 15 minutes from Indianapolis and they're all Indianapolis locals. So it was figuring out those call times that was a little difficult because most of them didn't stay in hotels. I think there were a couple of nights where we got hotels because we ended up going late with the crew. So it was navigating that and making sure we didn't like totally burn everybody out.


Um, and besides that though, I'm trying to think if there are any other issues. It was pretty smooth. Everyone was very excited about the story and the fact that they were locals, I think helped because they like, they're like, yeah, an Indiana story. And this is like, it has a positive message. They, we had total buy-in from them. Um, and they, they would like do anything for us and they would like quickly respond to any issues we ran into, ran into on set and like I said, you know, crew.


member dropped out, they filled that person in immediately. So I think that was key, but there weren't any other big issues that we ran into. Not a lot of great food in Muncie, but that was a small thing. All right, so we hit pre-production with Suzanne. We've now hit production with you, Connell. What happened from here? So like you guys are wheels up, you've got lots and lots of footage. What happened in the post-production process? How long was this film in post?


Can you kind of walk me through your kind of engagement with the story as it kind of went through the editing process? What did that look like from a production standpoint? We shot it in, it was late July, early August, and then the goal was to submit it to Sundance, the deadlines in September. And so there was a cut that was done in September, but to be honest, it was kind of a rush and the story needed more time and the topics are super sensitive. So.


that edit, we ended up changing it after that point. Josh showed it, he likes to collaborate with a lot of people. He showed it to a lot of people and got a lot of opinions. He was also working with MPAC, which is the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Hollywood. So he was like getting advice on how he was representing the Muslim community in Muncie. And so some of that led to changes. Also,


Maybe it's too, we can talk about this, Suzanne, you talked about it on the panel. We didn't get into Sundance. We didn't get into Berlin. We didn't get into South by Southwest. We, I think submitted to Tribeca and it was like a cold reception, not a warm reception and we were very nervous about it. And so Josh, to his credit, decided there's something going on with this edit that needs to change. And he like sat down and thought about it. And it was...


we needed to emphasize the community even more than we had already done. And so we kind of re-edited the whole film. So it was done in the fall, then we did another edit starting in December, and then I think we finished it in March. I wanna really put a pin in that for a second, because I think the power and the wisdom and the experience that you all had as a production team to not stop on a story, to rework it until it-


worked is really, really interesting. And for many filmmakers that maybe haven't had as much experience of getting work out into the world and seen, it's so easy just to give up and say, okay, well, the edit didn't work. It's time to move on. But to really pump the brakes because you believe in the story and rework it and then redistribute it and get more feedback and see how it resonates.


is extremely powerful. I mean, this film is nominated for an Oscar. It likely will win. I've got my money on it. If I was a betting man, I think this movie wins. So, and even if it doesn't, its impact is astounding. And for you all as producers to say, wait, we gotta do it again. That is really awesome. So kudos to all of you as a production team for doing that. That's awesome. That's like an incredible piece of advice for any producer that is like,


dealing with, wrestling with a story. Yeah. Obviously, you don't want to work on films too long. I don't know, Suzanne, you can speak to this. I've had projects where I re-edited them like five, six, seven times, and it just never worked. But this one, it was good to just take a minute, step back, really look at the feedback that we got and figure out what was going on and re-approach it. I think that it was, there's a few things going on. One,


we had the luxury of not having, this wasn't going straight onto a streaming platform. Great point. We had time to be like, yeah, what isn't working? And let's make sure we're really getting this right because there are so many people who really do believe in this story. And I think the fact that, you know, so many filmmakers, myself included, it's like you submit to Sundance and you don't get in because most people who submit to Sundance don't get in. It's like, oh, now like, well, I'll, you know.


like that must be Sundance's problem and who will find another festival that understands my film or whatever. But I think that, so there was time that we knew we could take and yeah, I mean, I think I really, I credit Josh a lot for being like there's a smarter way to do this, there's another way to do this and the film is in here. It's not like we need to go shoot. It's just like, it was purely a post.


problem solving expedition. And I think there's, you can also do it with a short so much easier than you can with a feature documentary to open something back up again. And I, so yeah, I think if you do have the time to do it, but be, I mean, my advice for other film makers to open films back up, be really focused about what, why you're changing it. You know, I think the first mission is like, do no harm. So it's like, what is working here? Figure out.


what isn't working and just sort of go in and move those pieces because yeah, you'll re-edit something forever if you just take it all apart. So can you talk about the soundtrack or the musical score to this piece? It adds a layer of humanity to it as well that helps really bring the narrative to a very satisfying level. And I'm curious, I know you had to tear up the edit a number of times, did the soundtrack stay constant? Like what was somebody like?


the meat and potato, the guts of the edit on this thing? So we actually, we use tracks from like libraries for the first part of the edit. And we were just swapping those in and out. There was a focus on like Americana and we used a lot of violin and like, I think there's even like a fiddle at a couple of parts. And we got so attached to that music that by the time we got to the, to dealing with the composer,


We were, it was so hard to divorce ourselves from like what the edit was and what the old music was and what the composer was making. So that was actually pretty challenging because we had sat with the film and edited so much. But she, the composer, Meredith Zinma Ramsey, also known as Zinma, did a really fantastic job. She resonated with the film too. She's from Nebraska and she did this cool thing where to her,


it was all about trauma and how love, it trauma in her mind was the inverse of love. And so she would do, she would play violin and then reverse some of the violin tracks. And so she was like inverting some of the music in the film too, which is, it was cool. She put a lot of thought into the story and what she could do musically. We did, I will say she did an amazing job. And like, I think eight, 90% of the music is hers.


but there are a couple of library tracks in there we just could not let go of. I love that, I love that. Okay, well, Suzanne, I mean, maybe this is, you'll know the answer to this. I mean, do you know from start to finish of Josh discovering the story until this thing is released and shortlisted for an Oscar? Like how long has this process been? I mean, I'm not sure when he first made the Secret Lives of Muslims piece about Mac, but several years before.


or we made Stranger at the Gate. I mean, there's always like a few little short projects floating around Smartypants where it's like, this could be a bigger thing. And this was one of them. But I mean, like, I mean, the original story was that one of our executive producers, Anna Rowe, found the story of Mack McKinney in like US News College Edition. Like it was like a really obscure thing that she found. And-


Then it went to Secret Lives of Muslims. But I mean, years from start to finish, from the time I worked on it till now is, you know, over two years. And I would say it was at least a year or two before that the story first came to Smartypants. That's awesome. So when did you start getting back involved, Suzanne? Like, you know, you worked on the treatment, you were on it really aggressively in pre, passed it over to Connell during production and then into post. It sounds like you came back in.


Oh, I think you froze a little bit, but yeah, I came back in during post just to give notes on some cuts. I remember there was a lot of debating about which music track should go where, but yeah, I came back in a post to give cuts and then have been lucky enough to be a part of a lot of the film festival screenings and other sort of encore screenings and things like that to sort of champion the film. That's great.


Okay, so both of you have extensive experience doing unscripted, doing, you know, not reality, but doing documentary filmmaking, all kinds of projects across both of your careers. I'm curious if, you know, this one felt different from the start. I'm curious if there's any contrast with Stranger from your other work, just because it's resonated, you know, so profoundly and has been celebrated in a really unique way, obviously, in the film.


film world. Well, part of it, there's a lot of thoughts. I mean, the message of the film to me is just like incredible and it's something I really believe in. But beyond that, as far as reflecting on my own career, I did like five years of true crime work and it was like painful. It was so it was it was rough to go through that industry. And every true crime story ends with this like terrible incident. These awful things happen. And it's like


We always tell ourselves, oh, it's a cautionary tale. But I don't know if people come away from true crime thinking that great about themselves as a community. So it was a huge coup for me to like make this film, build it, use some of the true crime techniques I learned over the years. And then at the end, nothing happens and it's all about love and kindness and compassion. So like reflecting on my career in this film, like that felt really satisfying. That's awesome.


That's super great. So, you know, the film is finished. It's out in the world. You guys do a re-edit. Where did you get the film scene? Like, you know, it got turned away from a lot of these big festivals you wanted. Can you tell the story of like the distribution of the film and then how it kind of picked up momentum to where we are now? Like in a few days, we'll learn if it's been honored with an Academy Award or not. I don't know all of the dealings of when it actually happened, but we found out.


that it got accepted to Tribeca. And at the same time, there were parallel conversations with the New Yorker to acquire it. And I think getting into Tribeca helped with them acquiring it. And so they came on board and then we plotted out a release that kind of made sense to build momentum to the film. We didn't want to just release it right away. And so it came out this fall. And then up until that point, it was in other film festivals like


River Run, Docklands, Mountain Film. Oh, Indie Shorts, of course. That was actually the one we got into Indie Shorts and we won Indie Shorts, which is the Indiana Film Festival and that's what qualified us for an Oscar. And so it had a really fantastic festival run and it kept building momentum. Like we've gotten a couple and then we were submitting the festivals and eventually we didn't have to submit anymore. People were reaching out to us to have the film and film festivals and it still is happening. And then it ramped up.


And once we qualified for an Oscar, it was like, Josh had done it before. He had done an Oscar campaign before. And there was a moment, it was like, do we really wanna do this? Because it's a huge commitment. And the company decided to do it. And that all of those screenings and everything is an entirely different podcast that we could go into, but like we would strategize screenings in New York and LA and then how to...


you know, contact doc branch voters appropriately and get them involved and make sure they see the film. Cause there're 98 short documentaries that qualified for an Oscar that year. Wow. All those doc branch voters that vote on those films. And so you gotta make sure that they see your film. Yep. So it was a campaign of just making sure we're seen. And it still is like with the Oscars, we've heard that people don't.


may not watch the short documentaries. So we've just been like pushing and pushing and making sure people watch the film. That's a paraphrased version of it. There's a lot more I could say about it. You know, it's an interesting thing because like the story is so good and people should see this film. And so the incentive structure of like saying, hey, we want this film to be recognized because it deserves to be recognized, come see this film. It's a win-win on all sides. So that's super awesome. Part of it, obviously with qualifying for Oscars and trying to get Oscar was like,


it's gonna shine a light on this film and its issues. Like, why don't we take this opportunity to get it out to more and more people? Like now there's so much press about it, people are seeing it, it's in theaters, it's going international. So we knew that was obviously part of the Oscar campaign that it would elevate the film and its message. That's fantastic. Well, before I let you both go, any words of encouragement, of wisdom?


Any funny jokes to say or to tell to your production colleagues here that watch on production? I feel like you gotta be on set for that kind of... I'm trying to think of eating them up on this job. Well, how about this? Instead of this awkward silence, although I shouldn't be taking the advice of Josh. It's Josh, see? Just let it wait, you know, just see what goes. How can folks follow both of you? I mean, they can follow the film. It's at...


Stranger at the Gate, all spelled out on Instagram. Instagram's good, we have Facebook, Stranger at the Gate. We have a website, you know, places you can donate, get involved. What else, follow Malala. Follow the film, not us. The film's more interesting than we are. Yeah, I love it. Awesome, well, thank you both for speaking with us today. I really appreciate it. And best of luck, I'll be rooting for you. Thanks for using Wrapbook. And yeah, see you on the next one, huh? Thank you so much.


Thank you, Cameron. Bye all. Bye.

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