Actor and producer Adam Saunders recently helped to launch Footprint Features, which is dedicated to creating “character-driven stories that appeal to a mainstream audience.” In conversation with Film International’s Paul Risker, Saunders discussed his new endeavour along with his previous career in film.
Why a career in acting and producing? Was there that one inspirational moment?
I started acting when I was young. I was doing plays at the local community colleges and at the summer camps ever since I was seven years old. It was always something that appealed to me. Being a producer came later – originally as a way to generate acting opportunities for myself. The first time I ever produced was my junior year in college. I didn’t get cast in a play that I really wanted to be in, and my advisor said, “well, why don’t you just produce a play yourself?” I had no idea what that meant, but I grabbed a friend and we sort of figured it out. Our play opened the same weekend as the play I hadn’t been cast in, and our play was sold out and got a rave review on the cover of the campus newspaper. That entire experience was incredibly rewarding and made me realize how rewarding and exciting producing could be.
How do the two roles in front and behind the camera inform one another?
I think my acting training and background play a critical role into my work as a producer. Understanding the actor’s process plays such a critical role in building the kind of “artist friendly” productions that we want to create at Footprint. Simple things like making sure to build a shooting schedule that helps the actor – not shooting their most emotional scenes on day one for example – creating an environment of safety for the actor, supporting the craft, building a team that supports their craft, and then of course just having a deeper understanding and awareness of what we’re looking for during the casting process. All of those help so much. And then on the other side, obviously acting in a movie that I’m producing is a great experience. I’ve helped hire the whole crew, for one, so on the days I’m shooting, they’re all pretty nice to me.
About Alex is your second feature credit as producer. How did the experience of About Alex compare and contrast to Family Weekend?
I loved them both. Family Weekend was our first go around so everything was brand new. That lent itself to a real excitement, but there were also things we learned from that experience that helped a lot on About Alex. And then About Alex was such a thrill in its own right. Each story is unique, with its own set of excitements and challenges. But I really loved the process of making them both.
How important was the experience of the short Pickle Power which you wrote, produced and starred in as preparation for your following projects?
Haha, Pickle Power! You’ve done your research. Pickle Power was great. That was the first sort of attempt at a “professional” film project that we ever did. It taught me a great deal, mostly about collaboration, and the myriad of components that go into telling a story on camera.
The foundations for the film company Footprint Features being provided by the professional theatre company you co-founded reminds me of how the arts in some way are all branches of the same tree, whether it is film, theatre, literature or music. How did the transition occur from theatre to Film Company, and your thoughts on the above observation of these connections?
Well, it’s all story telling, right? In all mediums we have the same responsibility – to tell a story to an audience and hope that it resonates in some way. The theatre and film are similar in that both are incredibly collaborative and both require a whole lot of artists to come together one a team to create that story. One author can write a piece of literature, but you’ll generally need a lot more than one to create a piece of theatre, and a whole lot more to make a movie. But at the end of the day, story telling is story telling and if you can keep focused on that singular goal – to tell a story that resonates with an audience – they don’t seem so different after all.
Looking back over the decades and during your time producing how has the role of the producer evolved, and looking ahead to the future how do you see the role continuing to evolve?
The role of the producer has changed to some extent over time – you had these early Jack Warner type producers who made nearly every decision, but these days so much of it is a collaborative effort with the director. In each of the different mediums the roles are slightly different – in television for example the writer is often the primary decision maker, which is not usually the case in film (unless that writer is also the director or producer.) But the one constant it seems is that whoever is playing the role of the producer always has the responsibility to make sure that the final product is worthy – that it is deserving of the time and money spent to see it by its audience.
What are the significant challenges or obstacles facing filmmakers today? Is it more necessary than ever for filmmakers to work on the fringes or find innovative ways to finance, shoot and distribute their movies if they wish to reach an audience?
Finding a way to finance your film as an independent filmmaker can never hurt. Learning how to do it can only help you get your movie made.
Speaking with actors they always say that whilst their focus when reading scripts is on the characters, equally there is a need for a strong story – a blend of both. Of course characters are the tools of the filmmaker to tell the story, and so it is inevitable the two should be intertwined. Is this the same thing that drives you as a producer, to find those stories that have that combination?
Yes, we produce character driven movies so fully rounded interesting characters are at the critical base for the kinds of stories we want to tell. And then, yes, the narrative must be interesting and accessible, too, of course. The play’s the thing!
They say horror and comedy are the two most challenging genres because they require you to invoke a reaction from the audience. As an actor and producer do you find genres pose different challenges that stretch you in different ways or does coming to any new character or project represent an inevitable challenge in its own right?
Every project represents its own unique set of challenges. At Footprint we are focused on producing comedies, dramas, and thrillers – we don’t do much in the genre world. Whether one genre is “harder” or “easier” than another – I don’t know. Different people have different aptitudes in different areas, so what may be difficult to one person may come more natural to someone else. I think in general, Bruckheimer’s notion that you should produce the films you want to see makes the most sense to me.
One of the complimenting qualities of About Alex is comedy and pathos. Comedy is generally at some point anchored by drama. How important is it to be aware of the potential for comedy to reach a point where it overwhelms the story, characters and voice of the filmmakers?
I think a lot of this stuff is less cerebral and more just of a “feel” thing. Is the story moving? Are we interested? Are we having fun? Does it need some more moments of levity? That kind of thing. It’s less of an algorithm and more of a gut feeling.
Storytelling is an intriguing process and interaction. We tell and consume stories about subjects or events that are the negative chapters in people’s lives – adultery, divorce, the angst of circumstance versus aspirations etc. About Alex ties into this, and the reason we tell and consume stories is the means of a discussion of what it is to live – the good and the bad. It speaks of our interest in one another (possibly a voyeuristic interest in the way cinema allows us to peer in and eavesdrop on the world of the characters), but also our desire to confront what it is to live. Your thoughts on this observation?
I think people go to the movies to feel. They want to laugh, or to cry or to get scared. If they can hook into something in the story that feels like something from their own life, or something that they can at least relate to emotionally, than that goal of feeling will be much more easily achieved. So yes, we don’t shy away from subjects that may seem “negative”, all chapters are part of life, and as such all chapters are fair game for being a part of a cinematic narrative.
I wonder if About Alex could be described as a drama about finding the compromise between one’s own needs, desires and fears versus the welfare of those closest to them. Your thoughts?
I think there is always that balance in life of balancing your own needs with the needs of those whom you care about, around you. I definitely think About Alex addresses that head on – in the end the movie is both specifically About Alex, and specifically not about him.
About Alex played to rave reviews at Tribeca. How important is the festival circuit for filmmakers and distributors alike? If the festival circuit ceased to exist, what would be the impact on the landscape of modern cinema?
Well I’m sure something else would pop up. Film and film audiences seem to be incredibly adaptive to the times, and the new technologies that pop up. I’m sure the same would be the case if some major change happened with the way films are brought to the attention of the buyers. But at the moment, yes, the film festival is a critical component in that ecosystem.
Are you optimistic with the direction the industry is moving in or are concerns for the healthy future of independent cinema justified?
I’m optimistic. There are so many great artists working in this space, so many great storytellers willing to make independent movies, so many stories yet to be told, and now so many audience members who are used to and enjoy watching independent films. As a result, at least in my mind, the soil continues to feel very ripe.
Looking ahead, would you like to at some point explore your creative horizons further and direct?
I don’t have any real interest in directing. I think it’s important to know what your skillsets are and I feel like producing is where the bulk of my energy should be dedicated. If I can act in some of those projects along the way, even better. But if I just did those two for the rest of my career, I’d be absolutely thrilled.