The Journey of a First-time Feature Producer/Director

by Heidi Philipsen

The proverbial indie feature “ugly duckling” filmmaker, I admit that I had waited a while to embark on producing my own first feature film. Okay – twenty years.

Those were twenty great years in which I now see I was indirectly doing my homework as a future filmmaker: I had interviewed the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Oliver Stone, Jamie Foxx, Shirley MacLaine, George Clooney, Michelle Yeoh and David O. Russell while covering the Berlin International Film Festival in the late nineties and interning with Wim Wenders’ film development company, Road Movies, in grad school.

After I wrote, produced and directed the short A Fork In The Road, and received the Student Film Festival Award for Best Screenplay, I made a few more shorts, field produced a few broadcast TV gigs and directed a few local commercials.

As a production coordinator, I worked on a series of made-for-TV German films, three back-to-back in one summer and another four back-to-back the next summer. In between, I jumped on other indie films, such as The Better Angels and The Sisterhood of Night in upstate New York, as word had gotten out that I was one of the best coordinators the region had to offer.

All told, I worked on 13 features, four national commercials and a political spot – all in under three years. My roles progressed from production coordinator to unit production manager and line producer. I even acted in a few.

Finally I felt ready to approach my first feature. But I needed a script.

Not too long after putting the word out on social media, I decided to throw all caution to the wind and extend an invitation to one of my local indie film peers, Jon Russell Cring. He was the only other filmmaker in the area who not only talked the big talk, but would actually put wings to his words.

We competed with each other on every gig and every film project. I criticized him for not taking enough time to make his features the right way and he criticized me for taking way too long for one short film.

He and his wife, Tracy Nichole Cring, sent me a feature-length script called This is Nowhere, which filled all of my criteria and it was breathtakingly good, edgy and unique.

After reading and seeing true potential in the script, the first thing I did was option it. The second, copyright it. I approached one of my readers, an esteemed film critic, who was in the business of critiquing films and saw a plethora of them at some of the best film festivals in the world in the process.

Then I passed the script on to my friend and colleague Caroline Sinclair, a casting director with whom I had worked on countless occasions. She told me what I had already felt myself, but had hoped to hear from someone I so respected and admired: “Heidi, what you have here is a script with wonderful characters that great actors will want to act.”

And that was it… I knew. I knew that this would be the script I would lead and follow from beginning to end as its producer. Suddenly, all of the fear of feature film commitment fell along the wayside. If actors would love the script, the rest of the production would follow suit.

Working with Jon and Tracy on tightening This Is Nowhere turned out to be one of the most challenging – and enjoyable – collaborations I have ever embarked upon. We streamlined the script together and learned to respect and seek out each others’ input.

Now in post-production, the one thing that I’ve applied that continues to make all the difference: seeking out mentors who can give me the constructive critique I need to keep the project on track.

 This Is Nowhere is currently on its way to the next level. Follow the film on Twitter at @ThisIsNowhere_.

 

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