Joshua Astrachan in "Tramps"

Interview: Producer Joshua Astrachan on Cooking Up Something Special with “Tramps”

Because of the unique nature of how “Tramps” was made and what a special film it is, we’re devoting this week to celebrating many of the artists behind the scenes that made it possible with a series of interviews illuminating their work before its premiere on Netflix.

Joshua Astrachan had agreed to a small role in “Tramps” in addition to serving as a producer on it. After all, being behind the camera on an Adam Leon film inevitably puts one at risk of being in front of it as Leon’s pictures tend to become family portraits of his close-knit crews. In the case of “Tramps,” Astrachan was set to play the dad quite literally — the film called for an angry patriarch in Westchester whose house is unwittingly used as a bit of a bunker for Danny (Callum Turner) and Ellie (Grace Van Patten), who have fled the city while the heat is on after a botched hand-off they were supposed to handle for some low-level hoods, and as the producer-turned-thespian jokes, “Because I’m the only person over 40 working on this movie, I was going to drive the SUV up the driveway.”

However, the sequence of events in upstate New York didn’t quite work once the filmmakers got back to the editing room and it was decided that Astrachan’s role would become a little bigger, putting the fear of God into the kids as he drove his SUV down the driveway so that they’d have something to fear if he returned. Suddenly, he had lines.

“I became a character for reasons of storytelling necessity,” Astrachan laughs now, finding that the role suited him since that description sounds accurate as to what he does as a producer.

“His sense of storytelling is astounding,” says Leon, who credits Astrachan with helping him and co-writer Jamund Washington work out some crucial script issues early in the process on “Tramps.” “He makes things better. You talk to anyone who has worked with him and they will say the same thing. He’s going to make your movie better, he’s going to make your life better.”

With David Kaplan and Frederick Green, his partners in the New York-based production company Animal Kingdom, Astrachan has been a godsend for daringly original filmmakers from around the globe, specializing in nurturing budding auteurs to take the leap to another level of filmmaking, whether it’s affording “I Am Not a Hipster” director Destin Daniel Cretton or “The Myth of the American Sleepover” director David Robert Mitchell room to make the movies they want to make with recognizable casts in their breakthroughs “Short Term 12” and “It Follows,” respectively, or bringing “Reprise” director Joachim Trier stateside for the masterful “Louder Than Bombs.” No doubt his ability to create space for filmmakers while also providing a steady hand came from years of working with Robert Altman towards the end of his life, serving as a principal at the director’s production company Sandcastle 5 for the highly fertile creative period that yielded “Gosford Park” and “A Prairie Home Companion.” But as Leon suggests, Astrachan’s collaborators usually say what he’s best at, you can’t teach.

“Joshua is a great producer because he’s a great person,” says Cretton in an e-mail. “He’s kind, thoughtful, wickedly smart, and takes his job very seriously, while remembering that we’re all pretty damn lucky to be making movies. He’s a man with an opinion, isn’t afraid to share it, but always does so with respect and an open mind. He’s also got really good taste in movies and food, which is always a killer combo.”

Recently, Astrachan spoke with us about “being up for the adventure” with “Tramps,” a production with considerable challenges built in, given that it traverses the city with wild abandon as Danny and Ellie scramble to return the briefcase to its rightful owner to collect the cash that will change their lives, and he explains how he pulled it off with producers Jamund Washington and Andrea Roa as well as why the filmmakers chose Netflix as their distributor.

Adam Leon's "Tramps"When we were setting this up, you mentioned that “Short Term 12” was the start of what Animal Kingdom has become and it seems like you help filmmakers take the leap to another level – is that actually a focus of the company now?

We’ve been fortunate in finding our way into collaborations with two second-time filmmakers early on – Destin and David Robert Mitchell and then have both of those films land as beautifully as they did – that remains exciting and interesting to us. It was the summer of 2012 when we read “Short Term,” and we were really just starting this company. We didn’t have a name for it yet. Part of what we wanted to do was work with emerging voices and we were able to put it together with some people that [Destin] had been working with for a very long time already, so we were able to put it together quickly. With David Robert Mitchell [and “It Follows”], which was a year later, it also came together relatively quickly, and as different as those films and filmmakers are, they’re both expressive of our appetite to find these thrilling, original voices and help the filmmakers realize their films as well as possible.

Adam [Leon], certainly, is parallel to that. His first film “Gimme the Loot” is so wonderful and was so happily received, and very different from either of those other two guys, but he’s a singular voice with a singular perspective. We loved the script, had ideas about it that he liked in turn and it was like, this is fun. Let’s see if we can keep talking about this movie until we’re making it and we got to do that pretty quickly.

Adam told me how influential you were during the screenwriting process – I understand there was an entirely different draft – or version of the movie that you were able to weigh in on.

That’s very generous of him to say, but those guys had a wonderful thing [to start]. I had some ideas that they welcomed, so we did get to collaborate a bit and Adam told us early on – and I never had a director say this to me – he knows his own process well enough that [he said] we should budget for reshoots, so we did from the get go. And as the film comes together, Adam loves this Mike Nichols quote, “The movie tells you what it is.” Of course it evolves, and he found things that he wanted to address, so we went back into the writers room – a very small writers room [laughs], which is really Adam working again with input from the producers to create a few different scenes, some of which quite dramatically changed some of the material that we had originally even shot in some instances.

Is a production like this intimidating with all the locations?

I give Adam so much credit and also Jamund [Washington], because Jamund had been a producer on “Gimme the Loot,” so he knew how Adam worked and helped us get a little ahead of the curve. Adam wanted to shoot this in the streets of the city of New York and it’s such an important part of the texture and the currency of the film, so [it was easy to say] “Let’s shoot it in the streets of New York.” There’s going to be a lot of stuff [going on] on the streets of New York that we can’t control, which is why the streets of New York are what they are, but [we said] “Let’s build this production engine – this super-small and super-lean crew, both so that we can be nimble and so that we can have more days than we typically get to have on this size of a film because we’re going to need to be patient sometimes. We’re going to need to let that train run by [while shooting in the subway system] or we’re going to need to scrap something and run to another block [for a scene set in the streets]. So let’s make sure we have that time built in because one of our principal actors is New York City and New York City can be very uncoachable.

Adam was so wise about that and he’s not officially a producer on the film, but directors of course, are always to some degree the producers of their own films, and that’s a very smart producer thinking. It was so insightful and accepting of his own process, like this is what this movie is – let’s protect the heart of it.
Really, I’ve never heard anybody say that before and to give credit where credit is due, it’s really Jamund and Andrea Roa, another one of our producers, and our line producer Corey [Deckler], who are really the geniuses mapping out how the shoot’s going to work day to day. You have to have the crew that’s up for that specific adventure.

This may be naive to ask, but when you say Adam’s protecting the heart of it, is it different working with writer/directors where ‎you know you’re talking to the ‎primary creative force behind the film?

I am really drawn to writer/directors, which just partly is my own prediliction and [you know] the creative direction is really coming from really only one place. But all directors are that, so what really makes that possible is that this is an independent film, so there’s no one looking over our shoulder that we have to clear things with. I don’t mean we’re foolish, I hope, or reckless, but it did make us very nimble. We had these three financing partners on the film – Animal Kingdom is one of them, if I can praise our investment partner Fred Green who allows us to sometimes finance, and Beachside and Rook’s Nest. We were frank with them about Adam’s vision and production plan for the movie and everybody was like, “Go for it.” And that kind of trust is so wonderful for a filmmaker.

It sounds like you had freedom to cast the best people for the roles as opposed to someone who might help sell the film later. Was everyone on the same page from the start?

Again, three hats off to our partners who really responded to Adam’s vision of it and to those actors, and the love affair that we have had with those actors has not abated. Grace went on to do Noah Baumbach’s film [“The Meyerowitz Stories”] and Callum went on to just do Marc Webb’s film [“The Only Living Boy in New York”] and I’m really proud of this legacy in our company – not that Brie Larson was an unknown actress by any measure, but still I think “Short Term” was very meaningful [in her career] and in fact, my joke about the whole cast of “Short Term 12” is it’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” for 2013 because there’s Brie, there’s Keith Stanfield, there’s Kaitlyn Dever, there’s John Gallagher Jr. – it’s just like whoa, what an amazing group. And we’re going to just keep watching them work forever. The same thing with Maika Monroe in “It Follows.”

For Callum and Grace, I adore those two people and those two actors. It was so much fun to work with them because they’re wonderful in the movie and because they were up for the adventure. That’s a big ask. [When we needed to do reshoots]‎ our wonderful cast was like, “Sure, I’m game. I’ll come back.” And we took Callum and Grace back up to the house in Westchester. [And thoughout]‎ those two, beautiful young athletic people [would] volunteer, “Can I carry that grip stand? What can I do?” I don’t know that we were as conscious of this as we probably ought to have been, but we were testing their character as well as themselves – we ended up just super lucky.

I may be wrong to characterize it this way, but on many Animal Kingdom production working with these young filmmakers, it seems like you might be bringing a certain infrastructure. How do these collaborations work?

Every film has its own recipe. If we’re working with an emerging filmmaker, there’s often a producing partner that got them this far and we’re joining in. I’d love to work with Jamund [Washington] forever, and his contribution to this movie is, not just in the original story, but throughout can’t be overstated and Andi Roa is this spectacular younger producer [who] we’ve known for a little bit David Kaplan, one of my partners in Animal Kingdom, helped put the financing together for “Drinking Buddies,” which Andi produced with Alicia Van Couvering, and I worked with Andi the first summer of trying to put “Louder Than Bombs” on its feet. Andi wasn’t [ultimately] part of it, but that’s really how I first worked closely with her and then we made “Tramps” together and on Trey Shults’ film “It Comes at Night,” which we’re in post-production on now with A24, so I make the joke I’m the vampire – I get to work with all these splendid younger people and of course, hope to bring some perspective.

Again, I just really am drawn, as I think we all are at the company, to some of these younger voices and my partners are all the age of the filmmakers. I just had the privilege of working with Jim Jarmusch [on “Paterson”], so there I’m hardly working with an emerging filmmaker and that film was an unreasonable pleasure. Not that we made Jim’s movie for an extravagant budget, but because it’s Jim, we get Fred Elmes as our cinematographer and Mark Friedberg as our production designer. We just had this amazing experienced crew and that was much more like the Altman days for me, which was a crazy privilege, so I would love to be making those films too.

Was there a particularly crazy day of filming on this?

There’s probably a few answers to that, but the one that immediately comes to mind is a scene on the elevated train track.‎ If you asked Adam, he might say the same thing…

He did.

That sequence had so many ungovernable live component parts – there’s the train, there’s the crowds, there’s the… you name it – I love that neighborhood. One of the things I’m really proud of is [how] it shows neighborhoods and [different] facets of New York that we don’t often see in the movies. I love how alive that is and it feels to me like a valentine to New York in that way. Adam warned us in advance, “I like to do a lot of takes,” so we knew and that day he was asking the world of Callum and Grace, especially Callum in terms of scrambling with trains coming and traffic and pedestrians, We did more than 40 takes of that same shot, and I think the one we used is 39 or 41. It took that long just to [get] the serendipity of finding it all work. The train came at the right moment and we got it. The other answer I was going to give was shooting at Port Authority, you’re only allowed to shoot there after midnight, so that became its own particular trial. Night shoots are commonplace, so it’s not so unusual, but you are shooting in a cordoned off part of a very public facility.‎

Was Netflix an easy decision for you to distribute this?

Netflix was an easy decision, and honestly a pretty thrilling decision for us. Needless to say there’s this twinge of well, if we’re going all in with them, we’re not getting the theatrical release, which is still a meaningful thing for filmmakers. But I’ve been part of more than a couple films I love and critics love that have had a very hard time finding an audience in theaters, so it’s a big part of mitigating that loss. Being a part of Joachim Trier’s beautiful film “Louder Than Bombs,” and having a wonderful partner in The Orchard, we still had a very hard time getting people to come see that film in theaters and that’s true of many, many movies.

“Tramps” is a very different kind of film, but one of the things Adam said early is that he made this film for people to enjoy it, to put a smile on people’s faces – the fact that this movie should be entertaining was never out of sight. And people have got to see it for that to happen, so it felt like let’s go with Netflix because that’s where people will see this movie.

But because “Tramps,” I hope the world will feel, is so entertaining and so much fun, and because it’s so easy to fall in love with Callum and Grace, I hope people are conscious of the real artistry of this filmmaker – of Adam Leon -because the film feels effortless. It feels like “God, did you shoot that in 48 hours?” and indeed the city of New York got to play itself, and I think it’s easy to overlook there’s such a specific filmmaker with such a specific sensibility and vision.

I compare “Tramps” to a souffle. It’s really hard to make and not have it fall and I feel like that’s what Adam pulled off. We all did, but that’s a very particular magical recipe when it works and that’s because of everybody’s contributions – but it’s Adam who had this vision [of] here’s how I want to tell this story and here are the actors I want to tell it with and again, we’re really happy with the dessert he made us.

“Tramps” starts streaming on Netflix on April 21st.

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