Olly Alexander in "Funny Bunny"

Interview: Laura Heberton on Making Truly Independent Films

“To me, that is what great art is all about: beauty that stays with you, that gets etched on your soul and refuses to leave you the fuck alone.”

This was how I was introduced to Laura Heberton earlier this year. Though I was taken slightly aback by such a declaration in just our second piece of correspondence – the first was trying to schedule an interview for one of two films she had at SXSW earlier this year – the boldness wasn’t completely unexpected. After all, by that point, I had seen both “Funny Bunny” and “God Bless the Child” and Heberton’s producing credit in a festival guide has become shorthand for the type of daring work that makes it well worth the trip to Austin, New York, Berlin or any number of places that her work has played in the past five years because once you get there, films like Josephine Decker’s “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,” Andrew Semans’ “Nancy Please” and Matt Porterfield’s “I Used to Be Darker” take you somewhere else.

“I feel like as a director, my job is to be a feeling machine. We feel things and then try to make others feel things and I think that’s what Laura is [as well],” says writer/director Alison Bagnall, who doesn’t believe she actually ever gave a script to Heberton before the two agreed to work together on her latest dark comedy “Funny Bunny,” instead just going over the beats of the story that Bagnall had worked on for over a decade over coffee. “Her only interest is insuring that the filmmakers’ voice is utterly pure expression of their deepest, truest voice.”

“She’s an amazing listener,” adds Robert Machoian, who with Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck co-directed “God Bless the Child,” a delicate coming-of-age snapshot that was filmed with his family in their home over years in the duo’s native Davis, California. “What Rodrigo and I were looking for in a producer is someone that would help us with our idea of the film, but also one that would protect us and the work environment that we’ve created, someone that would work as hard as we do for our film, and she did that and more.”

Famously in the case of “God Bless the Child,” Heberton did this without actually ever setting foot on the set — she’s based in Pittsburgh where she’s settled after stints in New York, Hong Kong, and London, and has become so taken with it that the name of her production company Hot Metal Films was coined after the bridge near her home where steel is processed. Perhaps that’s why a signature of her work has been how geographically diverse it’s been, allowing filmmakers to find the poetry in places that are so personally close to them. As Machoian recalls, Heberton would stay up into the wee hours of the night on the east coast to watch scenes at the end of a day of shooting from the west coast to provide feedback, giving input that was crucial without the feeling she was hovering over them.

The result has been a string of remarkable films of singular vision and as “Funny Bunny” is hitting theaters and “God Bless the Child” is available on screens everywhere, Heberton took the time to talk about how she got into producing, how to protect the voice of the writer/directors she works with and what her previous life in the publishing industry has contributed to her career in filmmaking.

A scene featuring the Hughes family from "God Bless the Child"
A scene featuring the Graham family from “God Bless the Child”

How did you get into producing?

I’ve been doing this about seven years or so. I was living in London, and I had a very good friend from New York [working] as a producer on a film that was being shot in England and he was staying with us part of the time and he told me I really should be doing this — so it was really someone else’s idea. It would never have occurred to me to become a producer. I know a lot of screenwriters, playwrights, and fiction writers whose work gets turned into films, so I’d see a lot of things prior to publication, and I’ve always been a great advocate for all of my friends and colleagues who are extraordinarily talented writers, so one thing about being a producer, it puts you in the position of being able to help artists get their work out there and seen–which is the coolest.

You were in the publishing industry?

Yes, I was an editor. I worked at Details Magazine, and a lot of different Conde Nast magazines over many years. When I first got out of school, I worked at the Wall Street Journal and all kinds of different magazines as a freelancer in New York. I went to graduate school there in writing and in English literature. I also have a lot of theater friends, so I’ve worked on a lot of theater stuff. Like most people in New York, we’re all jacks of many trades. I never had a job that was considered not creative.

Does producing satisfy some of the same creative urges?

Absolutely, because we work on such tiny little films so much of what we do as producers is extraordinarily creative. I don’t know if I’d want to be a producer on a bigger film. I get to work with these extraordinarily talented people, so I learn so much from them in a creative way. That part of it is particularly exciting to me. When one is in the midst of a traffic nightmare, it doesn’t feel creative at all, but all jobs have that, right?

Kentucker Audley, Olly Alexander and Joslyn Jensen in "Funny Bunny"
Kentucker Audley, Olly Alexander and Joslyn Jensen in “Funny Bunny”

Do you seek out projects or do they find you?

Sometimes they seek me out, and sometimes I find them. Probably more people have come to me with something, but what unifies all of the projects I work on is that the artist has a very strong and specific vision, and their own personal way of telling a story. Nothing excites me more than fantastic storytelling that’s unique and original, and that’s something all of these people that I’ve worked with have. You know it right away. Not just when your reading the script, but also when you talk to them about it. They have an understanding that they’re the person who can tell that story and can get it out there in the world. The person feels extraordinarily passionate about their own ability to tell that story their way, and without that, it just doesn’t happen.

When I read Robert and Rodrigo’s script for “God Bless The Child,” which is very, very similar to what you see onscreen, that really blew me away, but in talking to them about it, it was very clear that this was a story that they alone knew how to tell in that precise way, and they delivered on it. I got to meet Alison from Gene Park, who is a sound designer who works on a lot of Matt Porterfield’s films, and he knew how much I had loved “The Dish and the Spoon,” so he introduced me to Alison. We just had coffee and from the second she started talking about “Funny Bunny,” I was hooked and we had this connection that’s almost a personal connection.

Was there a time when you were on one of these sets early on that you thought, “producing is what I want to do?”

I made a short with John David Allen called “Love And Roadkill,” that was the first thing I really produced. John Allen was James Ivory’s editor on many films, and he was directing a short from a one-act play. Just two actors in it, and it was just so exciting. The buzz really caught me quickly. It’s such a beautiful, beautiful art form.

When I spoke to Alison, she said you insisted on her telling the story the way she wanted, but you were helpful in figuring out certain beats. How do you work with a filmmaker to give guidance, but also latitude?

I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of cuts of things in post, so I’ve had a lot of experience listening to other people during that process when I first came in, more from an executive producer’s standpoint in helping people to raise the money. Like Johnny Lisecki, for instance, I sat in on the edit [for “Gayby”] some and got to watch how that process worked. The same thing with Matt Porterfield on “I Used To Be Darker” and Andrew Neel on “King Kelly” — all three of those films were happening pretty much at the same time in terms of cuts, and it was almost like an intensive workshop in how to think about how the film is doing its job. As someone who’s a long-time [literary] editor, I’m very comfortable in seeing the story as the pieces are coming together. With “Funny Bunny,” Alison was kind enough to let me give my opinion, but there were a lot of people working on that film and I was just one voice. With Robert and Rodrigo’s movie, there weren’t that many people at all — really only a few of us, so I was very much involved, even while they were shooting it, in terms of where the story was going. I’ve been very lucky to work with people who are open to my collaboration. I have learned so much from all of them.

Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas in "Gayby"
Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas in “Gayby”

You’ve actually gone from primarily being an executive producer to producer…

My big joke is that I’m working my way down to PA. [laughs] After this friend of mine put this bug in my ear [about producing] and got me very excited about the idea of doing this, I had an idea that I would help find small amounts of money for four projects, and I did that for Chris Mason Johnson’s “The New Twenty,” Johnny Lisecki’s “Gayby,” Matt Porterfield’s “I Used To Be Darker,” and Andrew Neel’s “King Kelly,” with the idea that I’d learn a lot about how this business works. I didn’t know enough and I wanted to produce, but I couldn’t just come in and be a producer. The idea has been to move into being able to produce my own films, which I am now doing. I had been working with some very talented producers whom I love on much bigger projects – a book adaptations, and this has been in the time after the markets had crashed, [when it became] very hard to make those $3 to $5 million dollar films.

I always say “Gayby” [specifically] is the gift that keeps on giving. Not only did I learn so much from Johnny on that film watching him and seeing what he did all the way through the process, but the shiny producing squad of Anne Hubbell and Amy Hobby, and my fellow EP filmmaker Zeke Farrow— everybody else who worked on that film was a filmmaker, and so much of my work can get traced back directly to all those different people–Laura Terruso, Lauren Wolkstein, Samantha Buck, Sophia Takal and Lawrence Levine — it is a who’s who of hotness in the indie film world. There’s so much that’s brave about Gayby and Johnny is a stellar filmmaker, so I’m really forever thankful for that film and everyone I met on it.

Deragh Campbell in "I Used to Be Darker"
Deragh Campbell in “I Used to Be Darker”

Then on “I Used to Be Darker,” Dan Carey, the producer with Touchy Feely Films, introduced me to Matt and that project  —Dan and Liz Giamatti and I had a lot of bigger projects in development — and it was really exciting to see what you could do with a much smaller budget. Matt Porterfield has taught me so so much: Dan Carey has explained the ins-and-outs of producing to me a thousand times over; Kyle Martin, the producer of Lance Edmands’ “Bluebird”, has been a tremendous source of support and inspiration. Also importantly, these films could not get made at all without the help of organizations such as the San Francisco Film Society, the Sundance and Tribeca Institutes and IFP–their support and the support of other such film non-profits makes my whole world possible. It is harder in some ways obviously, but I think it’s easier because there just aren’t as many people involved, and the filmmakers can go ahead and make their film, in their own very specific way. It is actually thrilling to behold.

A scene from Marcin Malaszczak's "Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills”
A scene from Marcin Malaszczak’s “Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills”

A lot of producers will come back to the same people to work with, but it seems like it’s been important for you to work with new people each time out. Is that actually the case?

It’s very exciting to me and I like working with different people but that has been accidental, not by design; I love everyone I have worked with. It is more the nature of the beast of how films come together–what you see are the projects that have been completed, not all the various ones I am working on. Some of that’s because if you’re an [executive producer] on projects, those filmmakers already have their core producing team intact, so they don’t really need me as yet another producer. So many filmmakers I’ve worked with, I’m talking to them about all of the things that they’re doing now, but these other new projects have just popped up, and they’ve been hard to turn down. I love the idea of collaborators like Merchant-Ivory who work with all the same large group people for forever, but it’s also particularly exciting to work with new people like Robert and Rodrigo because they’re just their own tight two-person band and it is amazing to get to hop on stage with them.

I’m working with them again on several things, and hopefully again with Alison and Marcin Malaszczak, [whose film ““The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills”] was at Berlin this year. That film and “God Bless The Child” are similar in that they’re docudrama hybrids, and I’m increasingly interested in that space. I would love to work with Josephine Decker again any day. She is just plain brilliant and her work blows me away. Dan Schoenbrun, now at Kickstarter, introduced me to many talents via IFP Film Week when he was there, as have his colleagues Zach Mandinach, Erik Luers, Gabriele Capolino and most particularly Amy Dotson. SFFS has also been instrumental that way, especially Michele Turnure-Salleo and Tamara Melnick, whom I am in contact with all of the time. And of course, one cannot discount the creative collaborations that burble up from meetings at film festivals–it is enormous. I am also indebted to Christopher Allen and Union Docs and the worlds that one place has opened up to me. Their programming is insane and each weekend is like a semester’s worth of film school. I am keen to make a documentary feature.

Right now, I have a project called “Freeland,” with two documentary filmmakers [Mario Furloni and Kate McLean] who are making their first narrative feature film, and we’re shooting that in Northern California next summer. That’s something I’ve been working on pretty much from early on and was also introduced to at IFP Film Week. I love [producing] so much because it’s so collaborative. And I feel like we’re in this particularly wonderful age of filmmaking, where I’m extraordinarily lucky to be working with these incredibly talented people. They’re all risk takers, and it’s wild to get to be a part of that.

“Funny Bunny” is playing in New York through November 19th at the Made in NY Media Center. “God Bless the Child” is now available on iTunes, Vudu, Amazon and Netflix.

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