This week, we’re profiling innovative companies that are making the world of film a better place.
If the titular character of the new comedy “Maggie’s Plan,” winningly played by Greta Gerwig as a hyper-competent schemer with a fine attention to detail and strong predictive intuition for human behavior, wasn’t so ensconced in her troubles on the rare occasion one of her best-laid plots goes awry — undoing an affair she has with a married professor (Ethan Hawke) to return him to his wife (Julianne Moore) without upsetting anyone’s feelings — she might be a good fit to work at Locomotive Media.
Founded by Lucy Barzun Donnelly, a longtime producer with impeccable taste for smart comedies such as Jennifer Westfeldt’s “Friends with Kids,” the production company is shaping up to be a major player in the movie business in the next few years, identifying a gap in the marketplace for movies that would entertain the long underserved female audience. As tough as it’s traditionally been to secure financing for films with strong female leads, especially comedies, Locomotive made it look effortless in the case of “Maggie’s Plan.”
“We were just actually talking about it the other day, saying we hope that all of our film experiences will be like this,” says Alexandra Kerry, the company’s chief creative officer. “It was in development for a period of time before we read the script, but to have a year-and-a-half from the first shooting day to opening day is an amazing timeline and it really has been a very rewarding experience in terms of the collaboration that was involved with the team.”
For a company that usually develops its own material, “Maggie’s Plan” came as a bit of a curveball, but indicative of the type of stretching Barzun Donnelly has done in expanding Locomotive over the course of the last few years. After initially launching the label in 2009 with the production of the Jessica Lange-Drew Barrymore starring “Grey Gardens” for HBO, Barzun Donnelly started looking for ways to grow the company as the drive towards franchise films started to leave the cupboards bare for the types of dramas and comedies to which she’s always been drawn to.
Of all things, a call to her mother put her in touch with Kerry, who had been working in documentaries and commercials before moving into producing, through her mother, as the families had known each other for years. (As it would turn out, this wasn’t the first time the Kerrys and Barzuns had worked together in a professional capacity since Lucy’s brother Matthew, the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, worked for Alex’s father, current Secretary of State John Kerry, coming out of Harvard.)
“There’s not a lot of New Englanders who are on the West Coast, let alone in entertainment,” says Kerry. “So [our mothers] were protectively saying, ‘Find each other and stick together,’ and we did.”
Adds Barzun Donnelly, “Around the time of ‘Friends With Kids,’ Alex and I sat down and looked at the way the marketplace was going, and we both saw a really big opportunity for female-driven entertainment.”
When the two started talking about the types of movies they wanted to make at Locomotive, Barzun Donnelly’s thoughts began to drift back to her very first experience of working on Peter Hedges’ “Pieces of April,” “a trial by fire,” as she describes now, that was made considerably easier under the guidance of Alexis Alexanian, who at the time had been running production for the pioneering digital cinema outfit inDigEnt, which produced the film. Not only did the film, which boasted a killer cast that included Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt and Derek Luke, give an idea of what the foundation for Locomotive could be, but also who might be able to serve as their president of production. Soon, she reached out to Alexanian, who in recent years has been working diligently to improve diversity in the entertainment industry as President of the Board of Directors for New York Women in Film & Television. Together, with Jonathon Kemp, the company’s CFO, Locomotive set about creating a distinctive slate of projects.
The first to come to fruition, “Maggie’s Plan,” wasn’t initially in the cards, but having worked closely with producer Rachael Horovitz on “Grey Gardens,” Barzun Donnelly was one of the first calls Horovitz made after closing deals for Gerwig, Moore and Hawke to star in the latest from Rebecca Miller (“The Ballad of Jack and Rose”). While it may have come from an outside source, the film, with its sharp wit and trenchant observation, fit perfectly within Locomotive’s own goals.
“We just loved the script because it tells such a unique story from such a unique perspective,” says Barzun Donnelly. “And [with] Rebecca Miller as the writer and director, it’s wonderful for the industry to see what happens when you give a woman the ability to tell her story.”
While the principals at Locomotive aren’t making movies with a certain gender quota in mind – as Barzun Donnelly notes, “Grey Gardens” was directed by a man (Michael Suscy) yet was co-written by a woman (Patricia Rozema) for two female leads – they are committed to giving a platform to films about women and by them, something that may coincide with the recent surge of activism for equality in the entertainment industry but is part of the mission at Locomotive simply based on longheld beliefs and taste.
“Everyone’s talking about [how there’s] so few women directors, and the women’s film initiative started by Sundance Institute, and USC, and all that — this is all bubbling around us,” says Alexanian, who’s clearly encouraged by the ongoing conversation. “But what has become clear to me recently is that at Locomotive, with Alexandra and Lucy, we are doing this innately. Now that we have this infrastructure, the material that’s attractive to us happens to [come from] women. We’re going to do it by showing, not necessarily by telling.”
Locomotive has built quite the infrastructure to develop such projects. In addition to hiring Alexanian last fall, they struck a development deal with New Regency, the behemoth behind “The Revenant” and “12 Years a Slave,” to jointly finance films after Locomotive pitched a comedy called “Undergrads,” which Barzun Donnelly describes as a “Bridesmaids-meets Back to the Future-type” script from Gemma Burgess. That led to the two companies teaming on that film, “One Night Stand,” written by Joel Egerton and directed by “Hysteria” helmer Tanya Wexler, and another, “Look Away,” the story of a woman with selective blindness (Shannon Tarbet) treated by a doctor with mild Asberger’s (Benjamin Walker) written by Jennifer Schuur and directed by Andy Delaney & Monty Whitebloom, which wrapped production last year.
“Our taste runs all the way from a small, serious drama to a big, raucous studio comedy, so we are very delighted to have a partner where we can bring those larger studio films,” says Barzun Donnelly of the deal. “And if New Regency finds a movie that they like, but it’s maybe based in New York or needs a little bit more tender, loving care in the under $10 million zone, then maybe we can produce it.”
While the connections they’ve made have put Locomotive in a position of strength, much of Locomotive’s dynamism comes from within, given the different yet complementary production backgrounds of Barzun Donnelly, Kerry and Alexanian. After introducing audiences to digital filmmaking with such films as “Tape” and “Personal Velocity,” Alexanian has seen the promise of her groundbreaking days at inDigEnt come to be standard operating procedure on most film sets, while most of the people who worked with her then have since risen to top jobs at distributors, whether it’s Ted Hope at Amazon, Peter Friedlander at Netflix, and Amy Israel at Showtime. Meanwhile, both Barzun Donnelly and Kerry had developed skills that would serve them well in the future, with the former first working in television with stops at “60 Minutes” and CBS Sports, where she helped produce the coverage of the 1998 Olympics in Nagano before shifting over to movies with a move to Miramax’s marketing during the company’s golden “Shakespeare in Love” age, as Kerry honed her craft behind the camera, working in all manner of production jobs culminating in writing and directing the 2004 short “The Last Full Measure” as well as producing and directing documentaries for MTV before segueing into advertising as the film business constricted.
“It’s great for us to be able to bounce the ideas off of someone who is really looking at it from more of an artistic perspective in a very truthful way,” Alexanian says of Kerry. “Lucy and I are very well versed in [production], but I find it all the same, art and business — there’s just a little science but a lot of art to all of it.”
“I care deeply about story, and understand, hopefully, how a director can envision a film, and share in that vision, so sometimes that means I can be annoyingly saying, “But that’s not fair for the director!” laughs Kerry, who notes that having worked in production, both she and Barzun Donnelly saw the benefit of having ownership over what they were making. “We both had enough experience in the industry that we thought there must be a different way to do this, and in so doing it also empower other people.”
“We’ve all been around long enough to have lived through ebbs and flows in the industry, yet we haven’t been around long enough to be jaded,” says Barzun Donnelly. “We’re still excited by it, and I feel like now is incredibly exciting.”
Especially with Locomotive, in Alexanian’s words, “firing on all cylinders.”