Miranda Bailey's Don't Think Twice and Swiss Army Man

This week, we’re celebrating the people who made some of the best films of the year possible.

At the Toronto Film Festival this past fall, Miranda Bailey was walking out of a screening with colleagues when the usual industry chatter started to commence about what they had just seen. It wasn’t uncommon for Bailey to be part of such conversations as a producer – at Toronto, she could relax since Sony Classics preemptively bought the rights to “Footnote” director Joseph Cedar’s English-language debut, “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” before its well-received premiere – but since founding the distribution company The Film Arcade in 2012, she’s been able to come to them with an entirely new perspective.

2016 Moveable Fest Favorites“There were a bunch of different distributors standing around talking and [it was] about what they didn’t like about the movie and I was like, ‘Are you kidding? That movie is great,'” recalled Bailey. “It was far too big of a movie for the Film Arcade, but these companies that it was perfect for weren’t liking it and I thought that’s so weird. You just never know, and [being a distributor has] definitely informed my decisions about what we choose to produce and spend our time working on.”

Bailey, more than most, has used her time wisely. Carving out a path in the industry nearly as unique as the films she has decided to support, Bailey has been on a tear in 2016, shepherding the Daniels’ bittersweet, flatulence-fueled dramedy “Swiss Army Man” to the screen through her production company Cold Iron Pictures and developing and ultimately distributing Mike Birbiglia’s labor of love “Don’t Think Twice,” about the unraveling of an improv troupe, through The Film Arcade.

“It’s a pretty good year,” admits Bailey, in a rare moment to reflect during a very busy 12 months. “I hope 2017 is pretty good too. I’m kind of nervous. I don’t want it to end.”

Then again, it feels like Bailey is just getting started. That might sound odd for someone as prominent as she has been in indie film circles over the last decade, but after working in nearly every capacity in the industry, the multi-hyphenate has put it all together to make seemingly impossible films possible from writer/directors with both deeply personal visions and a different way of looking at the world.

This wasn’t what Bailey first thought she’d be doing when she initially moved to Los Angeles from Vail, Colorado. It had been her dream to be an actress ever since the age of eight when she first came to the city with her father, who had worked alongside Brian Dennehy during the future Golden Globe winner’s years as a stock broker and had a standing invitation to the set of his latest film, “Little Miss Marker.”

“I just remember we’re outside of this giant warehouse, this box that just looked like the ugliest thing ever, and the sun was really hot and blinding and then I walk into this warehouse and it’s this gigantic set,” recalls Bailey, who was particularly taken when Sara Stimson, the six-year-old star of the film offered up her seat to her to watch as she ran lines with Dennehy and Walter Matthau. “It was like a huge dollhouse [with] these live dolls on it and I was like, ‘Well, this is really cool.’”

Bailey left L.A. begging her parents for acting classes, but it would be in generating material for herself to perform that she’d come to learn the skills that would serve her well later as a producer. Throughout high school and college, she developed as a thespian as well as a reputation for being “hyper-organized,” not to mention the moxie that would generally come to define her work. (Though she chalks it up to youthful indiscretion now, Bailey sent ripples through her hometown when staging a play at 17 that was a thinly-veiled account of her parents’ divorce with her folks and their friends in the audience.)

“I just don’t feel like I have the constitution to sit around and wait for someone to tell me I’m hired,” says Bailey. “I’m the kind of person who thrives on just working and making my own projects. Whether they fail or succeed, they’re mine and that’s what keeps me happy…every time I do anything, it’s like a step forward. Every success and every failure pushes you in the right direction, whether you know it or not.”

While Bailey booked a few roles after coming to California, she found an outlet for her creative impulses as a producer, starting the production company Ambush Entertainment with the filmmaker Matthew Leutwyler where she championed the likes of James Gunn (“Super”) and Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”) at the time of their creative rebirths. She would experience the same when she decided to strike out on her own with Cold Iron, immediately taking chances on films that were hardly considered an easy sell, but she trusted in the talent. Her first production there, “Time Out of Mind,” followed a world-weary Richard Gere through the streets of New York as a homeless man, with writer/director Oren Moverman incrementally but pointedly recreating the unnerving and disorienting experience of how fast one can fall into poverty, and her second, Marielle Heller’s adaptation of Phoebe Glockner’s “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” with its frank, funny observations on female sexuality and mix of animated flourishes, she credits with a renewed confidence in pushing the limits.

“‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’ was my first foray into choosing a project by myself and whether or not anyone around me wanted to do it, I was going to do it anyway,” Bailey says. “It was really fun to make and the other producers, the actors and I became really close and it was just a blessing. And then it went on to win a Spirit Award, which I’ve got to say felt rrrreally good.”

The film emboldened Bailey to immediately say yes upon hearing the premise of “Swiss Army Man” and learning it was from the directors of the music video for “Turn Down for What,” a decision she explained in great detail in IndieWire. It was around this time she also began to reassess what she may be able to do with her other company, The Film Arcade, which she began with Andy Bohn and Jason Beck in 2012. Since its inception, the distributor had been created with the intention of putting filmmakers first, giving the creative team more control over how their film was released.

“One of the things that I’d notice [as a producer] is that we’d make these movies and then we would sell them to distributors and then often the filmmakers would have very little say in how they were put out there,” says Bailey. “So it was always like a hope to try to find a way to start a distribution company so it could work with the filmmakers – and not just say they’re working with filmmakers and be like here’s a trailer we like, let us know your thoughts and we’re still going to do what we want to do – but an actual company [where it’s] like, let’s all get together, including the filmmakers and the publicists and the poster designer, and figure out what’s unique about this filmmaker and figure out a strategy together of how to release this film.”

By giving their filmmakers that sense of inclusion, the Film Arcade has deftly handled the challenge of introducing distinctive new auteurs with films requiring special care, presiding over the release of the feature debuts of Jill Soloway (“Afternoon Delight”) and Josh Mond (“James White”). But after concentrating on acquisitions from the festival circuit, Bailey started looking for an opportunity to oversee a film from conception to distribution. For years, she had pestered Mike Birbiglia about a follow-up to “Sleepwalk with Me” and when he e-mailed her back with an idea for a film about how the chase for individual fame would upend a tight-knit improv troupe whose members each had different ideas about what professional success meant, the conversation that ensued wasn’t just about how Birbiglia and Bailey would go about making the film, but how they’d make an event of it when they’d distribute it.

Although offers from other distributors would come in following a raucous premiere at SXSW, Birbiglia and Bailey stuck to their plans of a roadshow tour across the country with the writer/director/star accompanying the film for Q & As and even giving free improv lessons to create excitement around the release. The campaign’s attention to detail paid off in a major way, filling the Sunshine Cinema in New York to capacity at almost every screening during its opening weekend and going on to collect over $4 million, an indie box office breakout with a grassroots campaign. The film’s success affirmed Bailey’s game plan going forward, recognizing the need to support filmmakers who have built a following early in their careers but that she can help take the next step with the infrastructure she’s built, allowing them the same artistic freedom they had when no one was looking but with the benefit of greater resources.

“What The Film Arcade is really good at is working with those specific filmmakers who have already had their first film, but haven’t quite jumped into studio land and are getting into their second film, making it a little bit larger and retain the audience from their first film,” says Bailey. “Then it’s about growing their audience.”

To that end, Bailey is currently developing “Raised Eyebrows,” a film about Groucho Marx to be directed by Rob Zombie and written by Moverman, who previously penned the refreshingly unconventional biopics “I’m Not There” and “Love & Mercy,” and is in the thick of post-production with Lake Bell’s sophomore effort “What’s the Point.” And despite having several other irons in the fire, she still finds time to act, appearing recently in Leila Djansi’s Africa-set “Like Cotton Twines,” which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival this past June with a role written specifically for her. In fact, it’s not unusual for the filmmakers she works with to pull Bailey off producing duties for a day and whisk her into wardrobe and makeup to be a day-player.

“[On] “Swiss Army Man,” there was no role for me,” Bailey jokingly laments of having to sit on the sidelines as Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe were stranded on an island. “But I had to make that movie anyway.”

In the new year, Bailey is looking forward to taking on the role of director, currently finishing up work on her second documentary, “The Pathological Optimist,” a profile of the anti-vaccine advocate Andrew Wakefield, and readying her first narrative feature, “You Can Choose Your Family,” about a teen who hatches a plot to blackmail his father after learning that he’s cultivated a second family, for a shoot in the spring. Whether she’s directing, producing, or acting, she’ll often asks herself the same question.

“[Is it] a unique film that can surprise people or bring something new to the table?” says Bailey. “There’s so much stuff out there, I don’t want to make anything that’s tired.”

And somehow, to go by 2016, she never rests.