Indie film producer discusses her choices
Superstar indie film producer Sarah Green’s advice for young producers is both very easy and very hard: Do your best to work only on films that you love.
“I just work on projects that I can get behind,” Green says. It’s that simple. It’s that difficult. On March 9, Green, an Austin resident and longtime producer for both Terrence Malick (“The Tree of Life,” “Song to Song”) and Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Loving”), will be inducted by the Austin Film Society into their Texas Film Hall of Fame. Nick Kroll — who worked with Green on “Loving” — will be doing the honors. The gala, which will also honor Shirley MacLaine, Hector Galán, Nichols and Tye Sheridan, is the unofficial kickoff to South by Southwest.
In addition to the visionary Texas directors above, Green’s worked with, among others, John Sayles (“Passion Fish,” “The Secret of Roan Inish”) and David Mamet (“The Winslow Boy,” “The Spanish Prisoner,” “American Buffalo,” “Oleanna”).
Malick and Mamet. Sayles and Nichols. You’ll notice that while this is a 30-year-long murderers’ row of American indie cinema, these folks don’t exactly make blockbusters.
“I tell young producers that it
is incredibly important to do work that you really care about, that you understand, that you can pitch with great passion and enthusiasm,” Green says. “Because enthusiasm is something that you will need during the production process when things go wrong or go slowly.”
After all, the act of pro- ducing a film is both incredibly important and incredibly vague. It can range from simply raising money for a project to acting as a director’s advocate and sound
ing board and counselor and protector. It involves getting a film across the fin- ish line by whatever means necessary. It means that you have to know a little bit about everything and, well, Green fits the bill.
Originally from Massachusetts, Green became a serious movie nerd in college at Emerson (class of ’81) in Boston. She thought she was going to be an engineer but got the movie bug after taking a little Super 8 class. “I completely got into it,” she says. At the same time, she immersed herself in the late ’70s and early ’80s art house scene, seeing all sorts of stuff at Boston’s famous Cinema 733.
Unlike many who find themselves in production, she never thought she would be a writer or director. “I have a math brain and an artist’s heart,” Green say. “I have no skills as an artist, but I really value them.”
So Green got into film to be a technician. “I thought I could learn to be an electrician and then hopefully a gaffer and eventually a cinematographer and I can become a creative force,” she says.
Green worked for sev- eral years under cinematographer Nancy Schreiber and came up through the
electrician and grip ranks before realizing, as she puts it ,“I just wasn’ t great at it. I could be a good technician, but I didn’t have the eye” to be a director of photography.
She started doing anything she could to simply be around films. “I pulled focus on something, I drove the trucks, I got the food, I helped the art department. I did anything I could, and I just kind of fell into production,” moving over the course of a few years from production managing to line producing (managing a picture’s budget) to creative producing.
Green, who calls herself a bit of a vagabond at heart, got to know folks from Austin years earlier while on a location scouting trip in Louisiana for Sayles’ “Passion Fish.” She found herself here after principal photography on Malick’s “The New World” wrapped in late 2004.
“I came in to check and see how editing was going,” she says. Malick “invited me me to stay. I never expected to stay that long, but Austin is just such an easy place to live.”
She executive produced Nichols’ 2011 debut feature “Take Shelter” and, as she puts it, “that kind of sealed me being here.”
In the independent world, each director has a differ-
ent way of working and prioritizes different things. Green’s job is to learn what that is and figure out how to spend the resources to support that. “What is so fun about working over and over with the same directors is that you get to know the way they work. The shorthand becomes easier the more often you work with the same people.”
She has worked with Malick for decades. “We spent a long time getting to know each other before we really settled into work, and I think that was time well spent because we fig- uredoutwhatwev alue in the work a nd how do we
communicate and all those things, ”she says.
Green says she was really pleased when she met Nichols and learned that he had a similar take on such rela- tionships, that he values understanding and the connections on set that come from using the same folks over and over. “It makes the work so much easier and so much more fun,” Green says.
That said, decades in, Green says she still gets the jitters right at the start of a production. “There’s that moment where I forget that I know how to do all this, especially if I have a little break between movies,” she says. “Every shoot can be overwhelming in some ways.”
She notes that Malick’s nature/birth of the universe documentary “Voyage of Time” was partic- ularly challenging logistically. Seeing as how it was shot over years, “it took a lot of work figuring out the pieces,” Green says. As a documentary, “Voy- age” was far less specific in terms of what needed to be shot. “We would send out a crew and say, ‘OK, we need this from Africa,’ and they worked until they got the footage. We really had to be on our toes to make that one work.”
On the other end is Nichols. “He writes very specif- ically, and so it’s very clear from the script what we need to do, and then it’s just a matter of meeting that vision, so that’s a dif- ferent kind of challenge,” she says.
After all, you never know what steps are going to be easy and what steps are going to be hard. Sometimes a movie comes together quickly, and sometimes it takes years.
“As a producer, your job is to stick it out and make sure it happens,” Green says, “so I am very careful
about the content of the work that I involve myself with but also the people. The people you work with and material you work on has to align to your own heart and vision. The work is just too hard otherwise.”
She pauses. “I know it can be done, working on something you don’t completely believe in,” Green says. “People do it all the time, they make movies all the time that they don’t care about and they make a whole lot more money than I am. But I am all about getting satisfaction out of my work as much as making good movies. This is not for the faint of heart.”
“Song to Song” was directed by Terrence Malick and produced by Sarah Green, who is one of this year’s inductees into the Texas Film Hall of Fame. “Song to Song,” which is set in Austin, will make its world premiere Friday as the opening film for South by Southwest.
Austinite Sarah Green has been a longtime producer for both Terrence Malick and Jeff Nichols.
Sarah Green produced Jeff Nichols’ film “Loving.”