Creative Producer Carrie Gooch taught at Michigan State University this past fall and I—luckily—took her course as part of my undergraduate minor in Documentary Production. The course was titled “The Art and Business of Making a Short Film” and covered information from the producer’s perspective. Her course was one of the most useful and powerful experiences of my educational career. The information she shared is invaluable and gave me a strong understanding of what to expect once I graduate in the spring and seek to join the film industry. Instead of feeling like I’m about to step off a cliff, I feel like I’m about to take the first step on an amazing journey. There are still a lot of uncertainties, but the future feels more concrete. A couple months after the course ended, Carrie generously answered these questions for me.
Having grown up in small-town Indiana, how did you get into the industry?
I started at Michigan State University as a double major in English and Film studies, what was then called Telecommunications: Digital Media Arts and Technology, which became the current Media and Information major in the Communications of Arts and
Sciences department. I worked on a couple of films made by Professor Jeff Wray and I was a goner. I fell in love with production and the entire process, screenwriting in particular.
When I graduated in 2004, digital was really just becoming affordable at the “prosumer” level. You could get a really great digital camera for about $4000 so my best friend and I took out loans and started a little company, making wedding and sports videos while waiting tables for money, then moved to Chicago.
We made our first short film and I realized I didn’t want to be a director like I had thought, which was difficult to acknowledge, but once I did it freed me to study the real film industry and find out what it was that was sucking me in. I got an unpaid internship in Chicago at a wonderful little production/post house called Radar Studios, which was my first production job. From there, I started working on commercials, and eventually, films.
What was your first industry project and what was that experience like?
That’s hard to pin down. It depends on what you consider an “industry project.” I’ll go with my first non-Michigan feature called Poker House. It was a small independent film shot in the Chicago area, directed by the actress Lori Petty, produced by comedian David Alan Grier, and starring the now super-famous Jennifer Lawrence at, I think, age 16.
I was in charge of craft service and it was one of the most physically exhausting jobs I have ever had in my life. I was one of the first people to arrive on set in the morning because I had the coffee. We shot in early April and it was still cold and wet outside. For a month I drove a cargo van for 45 minutes-to-an-hour each way to-and-from set to my apartment in downtown Chicago. It was full of small kitchen appliances and coolers full of food and drinks, giant trash bags full of dishes to unload up to my third floor apartment every night. The dishes had to be hand washed and the food had to be refrigerated and repacked for the morning.
We were already shooting 14 to 16 hour days almost every day, so I was getting about five hours of sleep per night if I was lucky. The budget was low but I knocked it out of the park. Nothing keeps people happy while working brutal days on an underfunded film like good snacks (secret to success).
I always had fresh fruit and vegetables and things people could grab easily while working. I made hot snacks twice per day, which I would walk around set and distribute to people who couldn’t leave their posts and I arranged for a second meal every time we would go over on time at the end of the night and had to feed the entire crew again. I also grocery shopped every day while everyone else took a lunch break. All this and I am NOT a cook. I barely even cook for myself, and I certainly didn’t cook for myself at age 25.
I was on the internet every night looking for new recipes. I got to know everyone very well; nine years later I still remember what each member of the lead cast and the director liked to have me make special for them. I was anxious and it was so far out of my comfort zone to be cooking for 60 people every day but it was my first industry film and I knew it would lead to other opportunities, and I was right.
You originally wanted to be a director when you entered the industry but you decided to instead become a producer. What made you change your mind?
I realized when my best friend and I shot our first short film that I wasn’t inclined to do the things a director should be inclined to do. I kept taking the camera and letting my friend talk to the actors. Because of that I thought for a while I wanted to be a DP, but I think that was just me searching for answers. I definitely realized at the time that if I wanted to be a director I should be much more interested in making the small projects that up-and-coming directors make.
If you think you want to be a director but have zero inclination in your spare time to pick up a camera and go make little shorts, music videos, webisodes, etc. and edit them together and put them out there for the world; you might want to reconsider. I didn’t realize fully what a producer even did until much later. I’m a planner, a politician, and a problem-solver. I’m also creative, which helps.
There are many styles of producers and I feel like each individual is sort of a mix, like when you play video games and you’re choosing your character’s assets like “speed” and “agility” and “striking power” etc. Some producers just get shit done, never put their phone down, know everyone in town etc. Some (like me) bring value when they are involved in the creative development process and see that through production. Line producers deal with budgets and management. Everyone is their own mix, and it took me many years to understand my own and how best to apply it. I’m still learning, really.
You have worked on some high-profile projects like Inception and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. What are the advantages and drawbacks of working in projects of that magnitude?
As a creative, my answer would be much different but I’m going to approach this question from the aspect of a crew member in production, I think that’s what you mean. I love to work on the big films in the production phase. You have money, which mostly means you have a slower shooting schedule, which as a director and creative team means you don’t have to rush and you can take more time to set up the shots you want, more takes, try new things etc. This is one thing students often mistake about big-budget features. They think more money just means glossier post, explosions and big name actors, etc. etc. but the luxury of money is TIME. Along with sleep, better catering and craft services, more comfortable accommodations for a traveling crew, longer turnaround times, two-day weekends, shooting in cool and interesting locations, and more.
The drawbacks of a big-budget feature, I think really only come from a creative perspective. Those drawbacks really happen mostly outside of production in prep and post: compromising creative vision to studio requests, endless pitching and prep, notes from studio executives that have never spent a day working in production, dealing with marketing concerns, too many cooks in the editing kitchen, and so on. That list is a mile long, but as far as “working on” a film, the more money, the merrier, usually.
As a crew member, it’s pretty much the same process regardless of budget, so do you want to be well-rested and well-fed or exhausted and sick of Doritos? The crew, big or small, is going to be a team for “X” amount of days and the director and producers will set the tone of the set. I’ve worked with jolly and lovely above-the-line people on big budget films and independent films both, and I’ve worked with assholes on both sides of that line, too. The biggest determiner for me on whether I’ve enjoyed working on a show has been how much fun people are having doing their jobs. And I don’t mean whether everyone laughs and jokes, but whether people have the time, the rest, the energy, and the trust from their department heads to do their jobs well and to their own standards of excellence.
This mostly comes down to how tight the schedule is, how good the producers are at their job of keeping everyone’s needs met, and the temperament of the director. It’s much easier to put all those pieces in place on a bigger budget, but not impossible by any means to accomplish on a small one.
From the course you taught at Michigan State, I learned a lot about the industry and about you. The semester seemed too short and I was left wanting to know more about your career path and the projects you’ve worked on. You once mentioned that besides working on feature films, you work on side projects when you get the opportunity. Can you tell us about some of those side projects and how they are different from working on studio films?
The side projects I’ve worked on as a producer were almost exclusively with a production company called The Masses, co-owned by a friend. We’ve made music videos, a short film, and a short documentary. Once or twice I’ve done low budget pilots or commercials. I think I answered the question about the difference between projects like those and studio films above for the most part insofar as production goes. Above that, the major difference is control.
On studio films you have people to answer to even if you’re at the top. Even if you’re Producer Número Uno, you answer to the studio every day. Yes, we got this shot. No, we didn’t get that one Yes, we are over budget this week. Yes, we will make it up next week by doing A, B, and C.
As a director on a studio film you have creative conversations with your team and you prepare to defend your creative choices to the studio. And that’s what it’s like, to be on the defensive all the time. Maybe you get lucky and you see eye-to-eye with your studio executives all the way through – usually you don’t.
On these small projects, for better or worse, there’s no one to answer to. Your choices are your choices. As a producer, you make your budget work; as a director, it’s all you, baby. For small projects that control is nice because it greases the wheels, you can just do the work, and everything gets done faster. For larger projects you’d usually trade some control for some money if you could.
What do you think are some of the main differences between producing for a feature film and a documentary?
I’ve never made a feature documentary, so to be honest, I have no idea what that process is like. I know that a feature film’s creative development and financing can take years, but likely so does a documentary’s.
However, shooting is completely different. Even on a lower budget film or TV show, you have a crew of 30 to 50 people present. On a documentary there’s a shooter, a director, a producer, and maybe a few PA’s and camera assists, etc. but I imagine a much smaller crew to be managed. It’s just an entirely different process altogether. Documentary is capturing something, feature is creating. Documentary is right place right time, crafting a narrative from what your subjects give you, which would come much more in voice overs and editing and preparing questions, etc. Feature obviously is fully scripted and everything planned meticulously by a large team of experts. Documentary seems much more personal to the filmmakers, a feature film is a team effort. Again, though, I’ve never made a feature documentary, so I’m just offering thoughts.
You’ve worked as an assistant for different people with different job—screenwriters, actors, directors. How do you use your skillset as a producer to adapt to the needs of people with such different occupations and needs?
That’s what a producer is best at. A producer is a chameleon, absolutely, and a problem-solver above all. They are a diplomat, a shopper, a sage, a financier, a maid, a friend, the bearer of bad news, a writer, a manager, and a negotiator. You never tell someone above you that something can’t be done; even if it can’t be. Whatever is being asked for, whatever their needs are, whatever their occupation is; you learn to facilitate them. It can be something seemingly silly like how do I get nine people from point A to point B in one car with seven seats in “X” amount of time or something seemingly important like how do I help facilitate the enthusiasm between this director and this actor who aren’t seeing eye-to-eye creatively right now. What you learn as an assistant and eventual producer is that ALL of this is important. It all feeds into this channel of meeting needs.
Everyone needs to feel safe to create his or her best work. So what do they need to make them feel safe; a script rewrite, a green juice, a meeting with the president of production at Sony, or an In & Out burger? A few days where they take zero phone calls and you field everything and take the heat? As a producer it’s your job to keep everyone safe (and that means everyone; studio executives, crew members, actors and director, and yourself); emotionally, psychologically, and physically.
This way everyone can do his or her job well from development through production all the way to release. From that perspective everything is vital and part of the same pie, no matter if they are an actor, writer, or director. As an assistant you just pick these things up little by little. Your daily duties might change where you might not have to pick up groceries for a boss anymore, but the goal still remains. Ultimately, keep needs met.
During your interview for our #FavWomanFilmmaker Campaign we asked you to discuss the biggest challenge you face as a woman filmmaker. You said you tend to observe until you’re ready to speak, but that since you’re a woman it’s often perceived as you being quiet or submissive. Can you expand on this now that you can talk about it in more than 140 characters?
It’s hard to tell how much of this trait (in me) is my being female and how much is just a personality trait, or how much is because I’m from such a small town. I know that growing up I spoke my mind quite often, but at some point in college I started to realize that something in my brain likes to sit back until I know exactly what I feel about a situation. And sometimes figuring that out takes too long and I lose my shot at speaking up. The added fact of being a woman means men—even the well-meaning ones—automatically assume they’re going to be heard.
Often they speak and step over one another and carry on, while as the (often only) woman I sit there with the right answer in my head and wait for them to stop and for myself to figure out how to best communicate my thoughts.
I’m getting better at this, but many an opportunity has passed me by in this way because I didn’t think quickly or speak quickly enough. I think that often comes off as a passivity and I promise you that is not what I feel inside, ha ha. I know women producers and executives who speak up first every time as a tactic, whether they’ve thought things through or not, just to make the point that they are there and they are going to be heard.
How do you overcome the misconception people have of you being shy. As someone who has met you, I know you’re anything but shy!
I think, as a general rule, everyone just needs to learn to be okay with who and what they are. This sounds a little “kumbaya”-ish but at its heart I think that’s the issue. I’m not shy; I just don’t like to reveal much about myself until I trust the company I’m in. After I get comfortable, good luck getting me to shut up. I don’t like to be judged and that has been a major obstacle for me in this industry because everyone is judging you ALL the time.
Love yourself in a deep and compassionate way and learn not to adopt the attitude of IDGAF if someone important thinks bad things about you. If you let this stop you and you don’t share; you will not grow. That’s really it. If you don’t take risks and share yourself you will not get the promotion, you’re not going to have your creative work produced, etc.
So over the years I have worked to sort out what exactly it is that I think I have to offer the world specifically, and to appreciate that in myself the same way I would if I saw it in someone else. I have no problem admiring the best in other people, so why not myself? And so once I do that I push myself to be open and let my qualities speak for themselves. If I come off as shy, then I’m not doing my job in a room. It still happens sometimes, but it’s a work in progress.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re working on that you can share with us?
I’m still working with VICE Media on their LNTV project with Live Nation. Several of the pieces I researched and developed have aired. I have another web project with a friend in New York that I can’t really talk much more about. I’m very excited about it, but it’s in very early days. I’m also working on a script, which you know about, Lindsey, but I’m not ready to talk about to the public. This all sounds too cryptic! Ha ha, sorry. It’s the nature of the beast.
Do you have any advice for young women who, like myself, are trying to make their way into the film industry?
BE BRAVE. The industry needs women. The industry wants women. There is a place for you. Figure out what you love about filmmaking, work really hard to identify that, but then be open to doing anything at first. Have specific goals and tell people what they are. Be confident that you are capable. Take on small projects if you can, they will introduce you to new people and you will always learn something about the process and about yourself. Work on the biggest budget films you can, too. You will learn just as much there about how it’s done. Don’t be shy. Battle the shyness or you will be overlooked again and again. Work harder than everyone around you, but laugh too, be fun to work with. Be the kind of person people want around when everyone is horrible and hard. Stay in contact with as many people as you can. Be generous to your classmates and colleagues. Be discerning, learn what works and why it works. Don’t just say I didn’t like that movie/tv show/character, etc. Figure out what didn’t work about it and think about what would have made it better. Don’t be attached to what your success has to look like. Follow your gut, not your expectations or anyone else’s, including your parents. If you hate what you’re doing, do something else. There’s always, always another way. It’s true that women have to work harder than men for the same amount of recognition and success and augment that for minority women. So work harder. Be tough and fierce, but be wholly yourself. Admit your mistakes then never make them again. Choose your friends wisely. Have fun, BE BRAVE.
Thank you for the lessons, Carrie. Go Green!