Hilary Swank, Blythe Danner and Taissa Farmiga in "What They Had"

Interview: “What They Had” Producer Keith Kjarval on Cultivating Variety at Unified Pictures

Keith Kjarval likes to keep things interesting, which is why when it became obvious he’d have three movies ready to roll before cameras in 2017, no two of them would be the same.

“Because I was doing them back-to-back-to-back, they couldn’t be similar because I was making them in a succession,” Kjarval says with a hearty laugh of a wild year in which he produced a trio of films that couldn’t be more different from each other with the future Sundance darling “What They Had,” the Bella Thorne vehicle “Ride,” and S. Craig Zahler’s epic noir “Dragged Across Concrete” with Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn as a pair of cops who learn of a bank robbery plot for which they could rob the robbers while on suspension from the force.

Wilder still is revisiting them now as they’re all making their way into the world within a month of each other, with “Ride” and “What They Had” recently arriving in theaters while “Dragged Across Concrete” premiered at the Venice Film Festival en route to raucous screenings at Beyond Fest in Los Angeles and the London Film Festival. Yet Kjarval thrives on mixing things up – he was attracted to producing as a career because of the ability to build the right creative team around a strong story after hearing how Michael Douglas did just that for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” – and it’s been an inherent part of Unified Pictures, the production company he started with Kurt Rauer in 2004. A regular presence on the festival circuit with such films as “The Driftless Area” and “Loitering with Intent,” Kjarval has cultivated strong relationships with filmmakers such as William H. Macy (“Rudderless”) and David M. Rosenthal (“A Single Shot”) that have resulted in eclectic, original films.

When your first credit is working with David Lynch, anything is possible, but Kjarval has paired a penchant for risks with the wherewithal to provide strong, sturdy casts and top-notch crews for his productions, something particularly evident in “What They Had,” in which writer/director Elizabeth Chomko fiercely grapples with the effects of Alzheimer’s on a family whose matriarch’s memory is slowly ebbing away with an ensemble that includes Blythe Danner, Hilary Swank, Robert Forster, Taissa Farmiga and Michael Shannon. Showing the grit that one would expect of its Chicago setting, the film nonetheless boasts an unusually soft touch and distinctive new voice in Chomko, which surely needed to be protected at all costs as it went through the process of bringing it to the screen. Somehow finding the time to talk in the midst of this very busy fall, Kjarval described how “What They Had” almost went unmade before coming in for the rescue, as well as putting his muscle behind “Dragged Across Concrete” and why each film has built on another with ongoing collaborations.

Is the diversity of these three films now coming out reflective of the production company you initially envisioned with Unified Pictures when you started it?

It’s absolutely what I envisioned. I don’t want to be bound by anything other than telling a great story – that’s why we’re making an animated film now – and at the core of our decision making from the beginning until now is [the question], are we attracted to the story that’s being told?It’s by design that we’re attracted to a plethora of things and I’ve just got a long way to go to get to where my goals at the beginning of this whole thing were, but I like where we’re at.

How did you get involved in “What They Had”?

I got involved because the film was set up with some other producers and it reached a point where it was sort of laying on the floor in turnaround, not getting made. It was sitting there and my agent said, “Look, this film has been dead in the water for a while now. Read this script. We’ve always loved it. It’s a Chicago film where you’re from,” and my agent knows my family and my background, so he thought I’d love it and sent it to Tyler [Jackson, Unified’s President of Development and Production], who read and loved it and made me read it immediately. I read it in two hours, met Elizabeth the next day and I made a personal choice to oversee every piece of building this puzzle so that it wouldn’t fall on the floor again.

What was it like working with Elizabeth on this?

She’s a sensationally brilliant writer and like any great artist, she wrote something that allows you to find yourself, your own family and your own experience in their story, so that was the first thing that made me fall in love with her. But then when you meet her, she’s such a warm and empathetic person and her willingness to bring me in after she had done a tremendous amount of thinking about this, and letting me become the lead producer, taking my guidance and my input, she’s an incredible artist that way where she’s not just flexible, but collaborative, so I quite enjoyed the experience.

You’ve supported so many first-time filmmakers throughout the years. Do they require anything different?

They do. I worked with first-time filmmakers back-to-back on “Ride” with Jeremy Ungar and then “What They Had” with Elizabeth, and in both cases, you have to be very present and hands on. On “What They Had,” [casting] Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Blythe Danner and Robert Forster, all of those were on my watch, and the DP, the designer, the editor, all of those were people I put forth and told her she should use. Part of this process of creating the human experience is being around human beings that you enjoy and trust and know will perform and [“What They Had”] is very, very true to that.

To her credit, she took my suggestions and we really melded this thing together, and the same was true of Jeremy Ungar on “Ride.”
It’s that kind of relationship [where the director has] got to guide the story and the actors and as a very, very smart artist, [they] knew to allow their producer, in this case me, to really help assemble the pieces they weren’t accustomed to putting together, having never made a film before. [For instance on “What They Had”] I tell everyone [Elizabeth] why Chris Stull right to design the [sets] or why Tom McArdle is right to edit it or why initially when Sam Rockwell, who’s a really, really good old friend of mine, [had to leave the project], I then called another really good old friend of mine, Michael Shannon, [and explain] why he’s right for it, and she listens. She can hear the specific things I’m saying about why they’re right and as the caretaker for the story, she trusts her gut and fortunately we saw eye to eye.

When I spoke to Elizabeth earlier, she spoke of what a logistically challenging shoot this was with a relatively tight schedule in Chicago during the winter? Was it tricky to navigate?

Anybody that makes a film, particularly one that’s not a big budget film is going to experience challenges. This is what makes great producers and great filmmakers and part of what makes them great is the ability to navigate the lack of resources – not just necessarily with money, but weather and time and man power. I ended up calling in an absurd amount of favors from local friends and given the film is being talked about so warmly in terms of the award seasons, I think we prevailed. It’s really, really hectic and I’m very proud of [Elizabeth] for persevering.

It must’ve prepared you for the gauntlet that was “Dragged Across Concrete”. How did you get involved there?

“Dragged Across Concrete” was sent to me by my agent and I had been a fan of “Bone Tomahawk” and what Craig Zahler had done in that film. I thought his take on telling that story and colliding genres was very unique and incredibly bone-on-bone real, so I was attracted from the jump on that. Craig is a very different kind of storyteller from some other filmmakers I’ve worked with. He has a very specific vision for what he’s looking for and the support you give him is making sure that you’re able to accomplish such specificity with exacting results, and that comes with its own pleasures as well.

Is it intimidating when you get that 175-page-plus screenplay?

I made a three-and-a-half hour David Lynch film early in my career, so I was softened up pretty well. [laughs] But one of my favorite films of all time was Michael Mann’s “Heat” and this film had so many subtextual similarities, so I thought that the film would be able to sustain that kind of length because of the gravity of the subject matter with these two cops, not dissimilar from DeNiro as a criminal and Pacino as a cop, and the moral intersection they cross. I was fascinated by that and I wasn’t intimidated by the script length because ultimately you want to shoot your script and when you’re editing your film, you have to really see what that feels like much more than what the script felt like.

What have the last few weeks been like for you with the premieres of these three films?

A whirlwind. We’ve had a busy last year and we have another three that are getting ready to go very shortly that’ll be announced very soon, so it’s very difficult to juggle the entrance into the world of your previous three films and then prepping and getting ready the next ones, but it’s a fun juggling act, especially now the fruits of all of our labor is starting to pay off. It’s been very rewarding to see the reaction that people are having to “What They Had” and “Dragged Across Concrete” and “Ride.” It’s been really, really a humbling experience to put your neck out there and tell three very different stories and yet it come back the way that it has.

“What They Had” is now in theaters, “Ride” is available on iTunes, and “Dragged Across Concrete” is now playing the festival circuit.

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