by Ali Coad, Senior Staff Writer
The Atlanta Film Festival recently opened up submissions for their 2018 Film and Screenplay Competitions. Kathryn Dean, who has worked on films like “Hell or High Water,” “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” and “Winter’s Bone,” was a Screenwriting Mentor for the 2017 Competition. She is working on a handful of exciting new projects here in Atlanta and elsewhere. See our interview below.
First things first: what exactly is it that you do? By this, I think most folks don’t know the ins-and-outs of what producer means.
HA! Funny thing is most people working in the industry don’t know! It is a position that can defy definition because producers take on all shapes and sizes. Some are financial support, some creative leaders, some are hands on pragmatics.
The best producers are hybrids of those elements. The producers I have been in awe of are agnostic leaders in the emotional and difficult task of movie making.
Me personally, I think the most difficult part of the job is balancing the reality of the business with never losing sight of the whole point of making the film.
What do you like most about your job? What’s the most challenging part?
I love bringing people together to work toward a common goal. I love problem solving. I love creating a space where a director can feel supported and inspired and where the creative heads can feel safe to do their jobs well.
The most challenging part of my job is doing all of those things every five minutes 20 hours a day.
How did you get into your line of work?
My start was an anomaly. I began my working life as a classical painter and sculptor…Which naturally lead me into state politics… And at some point making regional commercials in the Boston area.
It’s surprising how well prepared I was for indie filmmaking from doing small commercials. It was very hands on: from storyboarding to carrying dolly track to picking up garbage and handling casting. My first job on a film was working as a line producer on a very small movie in NYC. Usually people work their way up, or work through film school. I was lucky as no one else wanted the particular job I took- too little money, too much responsibility. That became my motto for the first few years: too little money, too much responsibility.
When and how did movies and television become a central part of your life?
I have been doing this since 2006! Over ten years. Wow. I am only now realizing that. It sort of sneaks up on you. When I was painting, I was alone. Which certainly had its benefits: I could control what I was doing completely, and begin and finish on my own terms. However I really enjoy working on a film: it is finite and cooperative and most of the time each day is spent trying to out-funny the rest of the crew. That or arguing over some amount of money.
Are there movies from your childhood that had a particularly strong impact on you?
I was not a big movie fan when I was a child. I was absolutely a book nerd. I read constantly. I still love reading. Making movies was never something that I thought I would be doing as a child. I strongly believed I would be a painter or Jesus (too much Catholic school) or you know a dolphin trainer.
Atlanta is a burgeoning home for moviemakers of all types. Why do you think this is? I know the tax breaks are endlessly appealing, but what do you think Atlanta has that the more traditional (NYC, LA) movie-making cities don’t have?
Yes, the tax credits. The crew is amazing: you have a whole group of people who really like making movies in Atlanta. Having spent most of my life in NYC: it’s a tough place. The crew is amazing there as well, but the city is pricey, locations are expensive, and the place is terrifically crowded with work.
Atlanta is a really special city. You have diversity in crew, a sustainable middle class, affordable housing, and some really incredible food. It is also a very pretty city: greener than most. And LA- well. That East vs West feud is not ending with me. SHAKE SHACK!
In your time working within the industry, what has surprised you most? What has surprised you least?
Surprised me the most: all the snacks! Oh my god so many snacks! No seriously: it is just so damn hard to get a movie off the ground. Like many industries, it is not necessarily the best material that wins what gets made. It is a combination of luck, good timing, right cast, motivated investors, great story, dedicated director, and the list goes on and on and even then it won’t be a greenlight! That is always surprising mixed with frustrating.
I am trying to wrap my head around the idea of something surprising me “least”. I feel like I have to make a list of all the surprises category and then rank it before I can get to least surprised…. Maybe we will never know.
You have quite a resume, working on projects like “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” “Hell or High Water,” “Friends With Kids,” and “Winter’s Bone.” Are you able to choose which projects with which you’d like to be involved? What do you look for in a project when deciding whether or not to be involved?
I am certainly able to try and be involved in the projects I want to be involved with.
Early on it felt like I was getting this opportunity to work on projects that all felt like forgotten communities in America: Chop shop, Winter’s Bone, On the Ice, Goodbye Solo. These were all films that focused on people not often discussed. Getting to know and share in the real lives of the community in the Ozarks, living in the arctic circle and learning about the traditions of a whale hunting inuit tribe, even shooting right in the heart of Queens in the only place in the city that time forgot; those experiences were incredible and I loved being involved. Each one of those films changed me as a person.
When HELL OR HIGH WATER came up, it was about the same time as Manchester by the Sea. I had already been talking to David Mackenzie and was really excited to work with him and see that film come to life. I chose Hell or High water and have never regretted that choice.
I am equally happy to see Manchester do so well. The indie filmmaking world is a small community and most of us know and talk to each other regularly. Sometimes a project makes more sense for one producer over another. And it is honestly great when you see a colleague do well.
When choosing a project, I do have trouble spending the time and energy on a film that I don’t love in some way. I don’t look for any particular type of genre for that reason, but rather a story that I connect with and feel strongly about telling.
Which project of yours are you most proud of?
That’s a hard one. I will always have a soft spot for Winter’s Bone as it was such an incredible group of women making that film. Debra is a genius and almost too kind and cooperative. It really taught me compassionate filmmaking and I am grateful for learning that method early on in my career. It is not always the case that people treat each other that well in work environments, but I always strive for that.
You have a writing credit and in the spring of 2017 you worked with the Atlanta Film Festival as a Screenwriting Mentor for the festival’s competition winning scripts. What do you look for in a script? What makes a script good or bad?
I look for an honest story. It doesn’t matter what genre the story takes place, just as long as it is telling it the best way possible. I will say: I like a script that is smarter than me.
A disappointing script is predictable, the characters struggling to act as false prophets to move story along, anytime that you are aware the movie is talking to you about the movie. I hate this.
Similarly, what makes a movie good or bad?
The refrain I repeat in my mind on a daily basis is that this is a visual medium. I came from a painter’s background and love when the context of a scene is told through images.
There are films that are terrific, that are not necessarily visual stories. Or more specifically do not need to be told as a film. I enjoy the movies that take advantage of the medium. The stories that actually can not be told as a play, or book, or poem but need filmmaking to truly bring it to life. I enjoy material that depends and thrives on that perspective.
Hunger is a film that comes to mind when saying that. I can’t imagine the script was particularly compelling, but the film was arresting. Doesn’t hurt that Steve McQueen is a Turner Prize winner. Having achieved that honor as a visual artist is a beautiful legacy to take into directing.
Have you been to many film festivals? If so, what do you think separates the Atlanta Film Festival from the rest?
I have been to Sundance, TIFF, and a few others.
The Atlanta film festival from what I saw was a strong community. I was pleasantly surprised by the people attending and participating that came from all different levels of experience to share that time together.
What projects are you working on now?
I am currently working on a few things, the next project is a true story about capitol punishment.
I am hopeful that the one after that is a film I have been working on for almost two years now… But I don’t want to jinx it happening! It has been in the works for over ten years, maybe longer. It’s been a real battle to get off the ground.
Kathryn Dean was the co-producer of the critically acclaimed and four time Oscar nominated WINTER’S BONE by writer director Debra Granik. Dean began working with Ramin Bahrani on CHOP SHOP and GOODBYE SOLO. Kathryn has gone on to produce Berlin Silver Bear winner ON THE ICE, Cannes premiered LOUDER THAN BOMBS which was Joachim Trier’s first American film, and most recently produced HELL OR HIGH WATER which was just nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture. She is currently working on JANIS the story of rock star Janis Joplin starring Michelle Williams.
Prior to entering the film business, Dean ran for political office in New Hampshire.