In this most trying of years, we looked to those in the film community who went to great lengths to bring joy to audiences and a reason to be optimistic for the future for Our Favorites series. We will be highlighting their efforts throughout this week.
It had been a long time coming, but Mynette Louie finally had made it to the top of the box office. The producer had known there was something special about Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ thriller “Swallow” from the moment her friend and producing partner Mollye Asher asked her to take a look at the script about an unhappy housewife who had taken to digesting strange objects to feel some kind of sensation in her humdrum life. That feeling had been confirmed by the deafening silence that immediately followed the film’s first screening at the Tribeca Film Festival where the audience had been completely leveled before bursting into rabid applause, as well as an eventual Best Actress prize for star Haley Bennett, the first of many during its festival run. But in a twist not unlike you’d find in any of Louie’s films, the path to the #1 spot on the charts was not in the way anyone could’ve expected.
“Of course, I tweeted that from the rooftops — but we knew it was just a fluke,” said Louie, after “Swallow” had topped the box office on the weekend of April 10th, almost purely on the strength of the drive-ins that stayed open after the coronavirus pandemic placed much of the U.S. in lockdown. “It’d be nice to have us on a Trivial Pursuit question in the future. What was the first number one box office film during the pandemic? It was ‘Swallow.’ That’d be awesome.”
Still, “Swallow” may have held a few other answers at a time when there was so much uncertainty in the air, and though Louie gives full credit to the film’s distributor IFC Films for seeing an opportunity to reach a larger audience in a form of exhibition that hadn’t been popular since the 1970s when traditional theaters were forced to shut down, it’s telling that her own happiness with the outcome is that it was able to open the door for others.
“We were the guinea pig basically,” says Louie. “‘Swallow’ had opened in theaters on March 6, and they all shut down a week later. The next month, IFC Films put us in a Florida drive-in and we became the first film for which a distributor bothered to report drive-in box office receipts. And then IFC used that method to earn significant revenue with ‘The Wretched’ and ‘Relic’ and ‘The Rental.’ The box office numbers on those are comparable to what you’d see in regular theaters for an indie specialty title, so I’m glad we were the first.”
She adds, “Many people in the industry had wishful thinking. ‘Oh, we’re going to have a vaccine in three months, so it’s going to go back to normal.’ But I knew it was going to be a long time and I’m like, we need to start talking about a plan B now. The hardest thing for me during this year was getting people to realize that contingency plans always have to be made, which is what I always do as a producer. It’s Murphy’s Law that some shit is going to hit the fan and you have to figure out how to put the pieces back together. An actor’s going to drop out or a house is going to be on fire — literally on fire — or someone’s going to forget a key prop. There’s always going to be something.”
If anyone was prepared for 2020, it was Louie, although that cuts both ways. While the producer’s adaptability made it easier for her than most to look for solutions when the film industry was falling apart in real time, with productions put on hold and release schedules being reshuffled, she was excited to launch The Population, a new production company with Asher and Derek Nguyen, completed production on Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour’s psychological thriller “Black Box” in New Orleans just before the lockdown and had been riding high on the Sundance premiere of “I Carry You With Me,” Heidi Ewing’s exquisite romance that had won both the NEXT Innovator and Audience Awards at Sundance.
“I had a dream the other day where I was with the “I Carry You With Me” cast and crew and we had just premiered our film in theaters and we were at a big, crowded dance party. And I woke up really sad that we didn’t get to do that,” Louie says of the film, now in the midst of an awards campaign with a virtual cinema run available to members of MoMA during the The Contenders series from December 29 through January 3rd, and of Film Independent from January 8 and 9 in advance of a planned theatrical release in the spring. “We had a nice premiere at Sundance, and I’m so grateful for that, but we were meant to travel the world with this film to share it with everyone and celebrate together.”
Louie hasn’t left the house much since, but still she’s seen it as her calling to bring the world to audiences, championing filmmakers of all cultural backgrounds and often doing the heavy lifting of introducing first-time filmmakers with their debut features. The fact that you’re not often conscious of this as you’re watching them has been one of the most distinguishing traits of her work to date, giving filmmakers with unique sensibilities the insulation from those wanting to water down their films and the resources to see their vision through, and it’s what made her tenure overseeing the film fund Gamechanger Films, aimed at advancing the careers of women directors during the mid-2010s, truly revolutionary — the films were seen as audacious on their own merits rather than for who they were being made by.
“Mynette is a profoundly brilliant producer, a paragon of innovation, bravery, and imagination who valiantly summons powerful cinematic stories into being, challenging the status quo and transforming our world for the better,” Mirabella-Davis told me when reached by e-mail. “She has a meticulously insightful ability to discern what narratives will strike a chord with the zeitgeist and will move mountains for the directors’ visions she artfully cultivates because she is motivated by a fearless ardor for aesthetically daring, societally impactful, intricately crafted cinema.”
After Gamechanger had fulfilled its mandate of funding at least five films in three years — it ultimately funded ten — Louie had been eager to dig back into hands-on producing and only got a few pages into “Swallow” when she immediately connected with it. She already had fond memories of meeting Mirabella-Davis at Sundance in 2009 where he premiered his debut short “Knifepoint” and she had her first feature she had lead-produced, Tze Chun’s “Children of Invention,” and the two traded stories about NYU where he had gone to film school and she was an “interloper” who had “bummed a free NYU film school education” by producing three graduate thesis films after veering off the corporate media business path she was on after graduating from Harvard. As it would turn out, Mirabella-Davis unwittingly would remind Louie of this time in her life with the script for “Swallow” inspired by his grandmother.
“It’s about this woman feeling trapped and when I first graduated from college and I worked in corporate America, I knew I wanted to make movies,” says Louie. “I was working at Time Inc., doing marketing and business development, and bored out of my mind and I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be the rest of my life.’ I was just miserable, but I didn’t know how to enter the world of film. I just didn’t have any connections. Interestingly, my dad trained as a painter and he used to sell watercolor paintings in Washington Square Park when I was a baby, but he was also briefly a stock trader and tried his hand at various entrepreneurial schemes. So I guess producing is a natural fit for me because it’s really half-creative and half-business, and having a penchant for both seems to run in the family.”
In an industry where so many are skilled at one side, but not the other, Louie is an exception, taking particular pride in being able to share a language with both filmmakers and financiers, recognizing in films like “Swallow” that the peculiarity of the premise is its commercial draw and should be protected at all costs. After being brought onto the project by Asher, she was able to locate financing for the film in France where the sales agent Charades helped with the budget and would later become crucial in planting the seeds for its global success by encouraging its potential in places as diverse as Korea and Taiwan and Hungary and Poland.
Around the same time, Louie had been approached about “I Carry You With Me,” which was also going to require international coordination to pull off, not to mention a more complicated production process than most films. Its director Heidi Ewing, the accomplished documentarian behind such films as “One of Us” and “Jesus Camp” with Rachel Grady, had settled on a bold, expansive approach to tell the story of real-life couple Iván and Gerardo, who, against all odds, found success as restaurant owners in New York after taking a treacherous path across the border from Mexico, and Louie was initially introduced to her thanks to knowing the ins and outs of working with Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions, which had made an offer to acquire the international distribution rights to the film.
However, Louie was an inspired choice to help shepherd the unique production for other reasons. A daughter of working-class immigrants herself, the wrenching tale of Iván and Gerardo leaving behind the only life they had ever known to pursue one together in America had naturally grabbed Louie, but the producer also has a track record of bringing the best out of successful filmmakers for whom a narrative feature remains unchartered territory. For “I Carry You With Me,” Louie could lean on the experience she had on “The Tale,” a very different film from a very different filmmaker than Ewing in Jennifer Fox, who channeled her personal story as a survivor of sexual abuse into the Sundance-winning drama recreating the fragmentation of memory in its wake, but while both had a wealth of experience working in nonfiction, it was taking their strengths and creating circumstances for filming where they could thrive.
“Both of them are good producers because they usually have to produce their own documentaries, but I think that both of them had to learn how to work with actors,” says Louie. “That was probably the hardest part because it was least familiar to them but obviously, they nailed it – the performances in both movies are amazing and I think the documentarian instincts really helped. Over the years, they just developed an eye and ear for how real people are, so they infused that in their characters and they could sense when something rang false because of their experience interviewing and observing people all these years.”
In fact, Ewing had already spent five years filming Iván and Gerardo in New York for a planned documentary, but hadn’t quite cracked a way to do justice to their rich memories of their lives in Puebla until she sat down to write a screenplay. There was no way Iván and Gerardo could go back to Mexico as undocumented immigrants, so instead, Ewing and Louie engineered a shoot, aided by local producers Gabriela Maire and Edher Campos, and cashflowed by Black Bear Pictures, that would dramatize Iván and Gerardo’s courtship, with Armando Espitia and Christian Vázquez playing the duo respectively. Shooting a film spanning over 30 years, in six cities across two countries, was a challenge, but the perennial challenge of sticking to a schedule was another, especially when the director had never dealt with large crews and company moves before and Louie, a self-proclaimed “control freak” had meticulously planned out the production. Yet by the end of filming the director and producer had found a happy medium — one that ultimately made the film as special as it is.
“It was funny working with Heidi because she was like, ‘Can’t we just grab the camera and go shoot the actor walking in the sunset?’ And it’s like ‘No, you can’t just bring 80 people down the street to shoot the sunset. You have to put it in the script,’” recalls Louie. “But the experience of shooting with Heidi did teach me to not be so rigid. There was a day we were shooting in the subway and we finished an hour early and Heidi says, ‘I’m done.’ And I’m like, ‘Wait, we have an extra hour, let’s just keep shooting.’ And she’s like, ‘But I have it.’ And I’m like, ‘But we have an extra hour. Shoot the company move back to basecamp, at least!’ And she laughed, ‘Uh oh, I’ve infiltrated your brain!'”
During her time at Gamechanger Films, Louie had time to reflect on how she could best elevate the voices of underrepresented filmmakers. The film fund, which has recently been relaunched under the stewardship of Effie Brown, had success well beyond its intended purpose, not only leading to numerous accolades and some career traction for the filmmakers it backed such as Karyn Kusama (“The Invitation”) and Sarah Adina Smith (“Buster’s Mal Heart”), but even ended up in the black, suggesting an emphasis on diversity wasn’t only good for the culture, but good business. Still, while Louie had access to the holy grail of the film business — green light power — she did have four founders and 36 investors to appease and report back to, taking time away from the creative work of collaborating in the trenches with a director, cast, and crew that she really relished.
Louie saw an opportunity to create the kind of independent production company that has the taste and filmmaker relationships to stand out in an industry where more consolidation and deference to algorithms and data are bound to encourage more films that adhere to a formula of what audiences are thought to want rather than what they might not know they want yet, and she found a kindred spirit in Asher, the producer of “The Rider” and “Fort Tilden,” and most recently “Nomadland,” who had worked at Gamechanger for a year when her longtime right hand Derek Nguyen went off to direct a feature (“The Housemaid”). Once the two solidified their partnership on “Swallow,” they brought in Nguyen to form The Population, which already counts “I Carry You with Me” and Josef Kubota Wladyka’s eagerly anticipated follow-up to his acclaimed debut “Manos Sucias,” “Catch the Fair One,” as part of its slate, and although there might’ve been initial plans to have a film fund component like Gamechanger before the streaming wars and the pandemic upended the business, Louie is just as happy to be able to give the company’s full focus to the development and production side of things.
“It’s really difficult to be a production financier,” says Louie. “It’s amazing we had that decent return on investment at Gamechanger because it is typically really hard for independent films to recoup. Nowadays, there are more and more distributors financing smaller movies — Amazon and Netflix are even financing sub-$5 million movies. So [we thought] why don’t we just focus on what we like to do and what we do best, which is partner with writers and directors and make stuff?”
Louie makes this sound easier than you know it ever has been for her, let alone nearly anyone. Then again, when watching “Swallow,” “I Carry You With Me” and “Black Box,” which made it onto Amazon as part of Welcome to the Blumhouse anthology series a mere eight months after it was filmed, it all seems so effortless to make such daring films. In fact, there may be a smoother road ahead for The Population than most after recently securing a first-look deal with Topic Studios, a rarity for an indie production company, even in good times, and when getting back on set has been all but impossible, Louie, Asher and Nguyen have doubled down on development while in quarantine with plans afoot to expand beyond films. However, there’s inevitably been some disappointment in producing so many of the year’s best films, only to be unable to celebrate their releases properly or attract the kind of attention that a traditional theatrical roll-out would’ve generated.
“I’m happy that ‘Swallow’ is getting some recognition, thanks to the fact that it’s been accessible to everyone on VOD since March. But for ‘I Carry You With Me,’ which Sony Pictures Classics has understandably been adamant about releasing in physical theaters, it’s just been a long mourning process for all of us who made the film and for Iván and Gerardo, who have been waiting so long to tell their story to the world,” laments Louie, who has seen several release dates for the film come and go, with plans now for a 2021 release following the awards run that was already set in motion before the latest COVID-19 surge pushed the release date again. “I really believe ‘I Carry You With Me’ could make a big impact once everyone is able to see it. It’s so moving, artful, and urgent, and has proven to be life-changing even for our own lead subject and lead actor, whose families finally understand and accept each of them as gay men after seeing the film.”
The lack of attention for “I Carry You With Me” has been especially disheartening for Louie when Latinos continue to be marginalized in mainstream cinema and the recent election showed how little knowledge there is of their experience. But that only seems like fuel for the producer to carry on and as long as Louie is making movies, she wants people to be able to see themselves on screen, no matter where they come from.
“Our hope with The Population is to change the status quo of whose stories are told, and who gets to ultimately influence society and culture,” says Louie. “‘Diversity’ is not just a trend for me. It’s life.”