Denise Di Novi has forged a moviemaking career by avoiding the kind of carelessness that often bankrupted her peers.
Instead, she developed and refined a keen sense for emotional character dramas, with a nose for box-office hits. Di Novi produced films like Heathers (the cult favorite which, in 1988, was an early indicator of her instincts), a string of successful Tim Burton films (from Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood) as head of his production company in the ’90s, and more recently, five Nicholas Sparks movies, Crazy, Stupid, Love. and Focus. The veteran producer has maintained a production deal with Warner Brothers for two decades, and when the studio asked Di Novi if she was interested in stepping into the director’s chair on a feature, she jumped at the opportunity. That film, the domestic thriller Unforgettable, stars Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl and is just the type of female-centric film that Di Novi hopes to keep making. With another directorial outing already lined up, Di Novi’s making it clear: This is not just an itch that needed to be scratched. We asked her some questions on behalf of independent producers and directors looking to build a film career as consistent and nuanced as her own. — Caleb Hammond
What does a producer really do on a film?
The most important thing a producer does is keep the macro in mind. For most roles in a film, to do a good job, people have to focus on the micro detail. Even a director is asked questions down to the minutest detail. The producer, on the other hand, has a lot of balls to juggle, and has to keep his or her head above water by asking, “What is this movie really about? Are we on track? Are we making the movie that we set out to make?”
Looking at a producer as an authority figure or the bad guy—mistrusting them—is a mistake directors make. Some feel a natural fear of that relationship. Some producers are not on your side; that does exist. But you need a producer. I saw that as a director. You can’t do everything. Having a producer whom you feel has everything covered and has your back is really valuable.
As a producer, I look at whether the film will be commercially successful. Do I think this movie will sell to my buyers, and do I think it’s going to be a hit? My fundamental feeling is, I want this to be a movie that people are going to go see. Some directors do not concern themselves with that. They want to make a piece of art, and they don’t care if people like it or come to see it—like painting a painting. But I like movies that people want to go see. Films where you have an intense emotional experience—my rule of thumb. Thrillers and action films are easier to get made. The human experience results in people wanting to experience them communally. That’s what’s going to continue to work in a theater: big effects extravaganzas, comedies and scary movies.
What does it take to get a film financed?
The key to financing is always how compelling a package you have. The more minimal the package, the harder it is. If you just have a script, without any attachments, or even just a director on the script—that’s hard. If you have actors, if the director has material to show—like a short or previous feature—and the more you can gild the lily, the easier it is.
Foreign pre-sales and film market festivals used to be a sure bet. That’s been replaced with a modern version of independent financing, of going straight to companies, or financing a film with private equity and then selling it to a distributor. You have to become knowledgeable about who is willing to take risks. It’s a matter of doing the research. And there are surprising avenues that come out of networking—people who know people who want to invest in film, who know new companies who are starting and working in film investment. You have to leave no stone unturned.
What should producers know who are considering directing?
Directing is like having kids—until you do it yourself, you don’t really know what it’s like. It was an eye-opener, how intense and laser-like your focus has to be. I was also surprised by how fun it was to have that intimate and direct a relationship with the storytelling, the actors and the creative key people.
I’ve worked really hard. I have always felt grateful to have a deal with Warner Bros., so I’ve tried to be as attuned as I could to balancing what they needed and what I wanted to do. It’s like any job: If people know that you take it seriously and you’re working hard, and your agenda overlaps enough with their agenda, they’re going to value that. I think the studio felt that I was a reliable person. A lot of people in Hollywood scatter themselves on different things; I like to focus on the projects at hand. They knew that if I was going to do a movie, they would not have any problems with it—that I wouldn’t go over budget; I wouldn’t go over schedule; I wouldn’t go off the tracks.
How can a moviemaker be sure to play well with others?
There are a lot of high-strung, difficult personalities in this business. It’s very high stress. So you’re going to encounter problems. A lot of the producer’s job is to be a mediator, a problem solver and a therapist. Being grounded in yourself and your own values is very helpful with that.
The good news and the bad news of movies is that they don’t last forever. They’re short-term, so you can pretty much get through anything. Yet you don’t have time to train someone, and you don’t have much time to work through problems. If something looks like it’s not likely to work out, you have to have the confidence and the courage to fire someone, because you may not have time to turn it around. Then there are people with whom you have no choice—you have to continue to work with them and make it work somehow. Sometimes it’s difficult every day.
Every director—including myself, now that I’m a director—feels that they’re an auteur. There are directors that are singular and specific in their points of view—Tim Burton being an example. Sometimes you have to point out that maybe they’re going too far, maybe something is not clear, and you need to be their sounding board. But sometimes you have to accept that those directors are going to do what they want to do. They can be less collaborative and more protective of their visions.
Two things are important when working with those kinds of people: One, try as hard as you can to understand what their vision is. Really try to comprehend it, as much as you can. Two, understand that your job as producer is to facilitate that vision as best you can. A film like La La Land is a good example: Damien Chazelle clearly had this unique vision, and the producers tried to protect it. Even though it was very original and probably hard to get made, they tried to bring it to the screen in the best way possible.
What’s next for indie, arthouse moviemaking?
People lament that the studios are making fewer smaller films, that they’re only making big films. I too lamented that for a while. But there are new outlets making more character-driven dramas, my favorite kind of movies. The limited series on cable is the greatest thing that has ever happened for filmmakers. You get great actors, directors and writers, because they don’t have to make a five-year commitment. They’re producing great stories. I think that’s really exciting. MM
— as told to Caleb Hammond
Unforgettable opens in theaters April 21, 2017, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Spring 2017 issue. Photograph by Karen Ballard.