For most moviemakers, the only place to go after winning an Oscar, ACE and Emmy award is down—or rehab. But multi-hyphenate Paula Mazur is changing the rules. Best known as a producer, Mazur has spent the last three decades building a reputation as a moviemaker with a discerning eye for high-quality content, whether in television or film, fiction or documentary. After shifting gears to make her directorial debut in 1992, Mazur is adding a new title to her business card, this time as a screenwriter on Nim’s Island.
Jennifer Wood (MM): You’re an Academy, ACE and Emmy Award-winning moviemaker—which says a lot about the diversity you’ve shown in this business. From shorts to features, documentaries to narrative films, you really seem to have done it all. What is the one thing that connects your work? What is the most attractive feature in considering any project?
Paula Mazur (PM): I guess I have defied being typecast! My work seems to cover many formats and age groups. I’m completely material-driven and am continually attracted to stories that comedically explore the human condition and comment on our more difficult issues, whether it be a musical tract about the state of America in Home of the Brave,” a comedic drama about a black-white love relationship in the 1950s in Corrina, Corrina or a piece about violence towards women with The Vagina Monologues. My current film, Nim’s Island is a comedic action-adventure family film that explores three characters who transcend internal and external forces to conquer that which seems to be insurmountable. It also explores environmental themes, as Nim’s Island is a pristine paradise threatened by crass tourism. I have found you can talk seriously about any issue, be it the environment, racism, agoraphobia, or vaginas, if you do it with comedy.
MM: Though we often hear from moviemakers who got their start in documentaries and made their way to narrative features, your early resume includes a very specific type of documentary film: The performance film. Laurie Anderson’s concert film, Home of the Brave; Jonathan Demme’s Swimming to Cambodia, featuring Spalding Gray; The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, John Bailey’s big-screen version of Lily Tomlin’s Broadway show. How do you think working in this very specific documentary subgenre—which relies so much on “character”—has helped you in the transition to feature moviemaking?
PM: The great aspect of producing all these performance films was that I was working with artists who really understood character, or in Lily Tomlin’s case many characters, and were able to make these characters come alive through superb writing and brilliant performances. They were all very specific about every visual aspect of their characters and every word those characters said. What I learned was that a character on the screen must be completely true, must have complete credibility and must have a story or conflict that lets their human-ness (good and bad) leak out all over the place. It’s fantastic to be privy to this as an audience because it is universal, we can all relate to it, see bits of ourselves in those people. I have definitely brought that into the narrative work I now do.
MM: Though you’re best known for your work as a producer, you did indeed direct a project—the music documentary Bakersfield Country—for PBS in 1992. Why did it take you so long to sit in the director’s chair? Do you have any plans to do so again?
PM: Directing Bakersfield Country was a complete blast. It was nominated for six Emmys and won three. I actually had directed theater, which led to PBS asking me to direct for them, but I had never actively sought out film directing… aside from my fantasy life. But after I had children I was not prepared to make the 24/7 commitment that directing demands, and got my creative kicks through writing and producing. But it is something I want to do again, now that you mention it!
MM: Now you’re about to add another credit to your filmography as both producer and writer of the upcoming Nim’s Island. How did you get involved as a writer on this project?
PM: I had written a few scripts prior to Nim’s Island (which did not see the light of day), and had worked closely with writers for years. As soon as I read Nim’s Island, which I found in the library for my kids, I felt I knew exactly what to do with the story. Walden Media agreed to my both producing and writing after fellow writer Joe Kwong and I pitched how we would adapt this big print, third-grade chapter book. Frankly, adapting it was non-negotiable for me. If they wanted the project, they had to let me write it.
MM: As the film is an adaptation of Wendy Orr’s novel, was it helpful to you to have a piece of source material to which you could refer? Are there ways in which this being an adaptation limited you in any way?
PM: It was a brilliant way to gallop out of the gate on my first public run. The book has spectacular characters, very strong themes and the narrative foundation for a great film. It was a wonderful arena to play in. I felt incredibly lucky to have both Wendy Orr’s book, and Wendy Orr herself on the other end of the phone in Australia, when Joe and I wanted input from The Source herself. I love working from literary material. If the story is effective enough for me to want to make it into a movie, I find it easy to hold true to the book’s essence while making the changes necessary to create a successful screenplay. I have already adapted another book called Tangerine and have optioned several more that I want to write.
MM: How does your process change—if at all—once your actors have signed on? The movie features a pretty powerful cast—Jodie Foster, Abigail Breslin, Gerard Butler. Did you find yourself writing for any particular actor when you were able to put a face (and filmography) to your characters?
PM: At the point that we took the script out for casting, the script was basically complete, with writer-directors Mark Levin and Jen Flackett having taken the script to its final form. The actors we made the biggest changes for were two sea lions that played the character Selkie, Nim’s animal friend on the island. After our animal trainer had them do a show and tell for us, we realized the sea lions could do way more than we had written and we proceeded to write in much more behavior, including a hokie-pokie dance.
MM: Now you’re in development on your second project as writer-producer, Tangerine, which is another family film. I know that you have two kids of your own, but from a professional standpoint, what is it that interests you about this genre—as a screenwriter first and a producer separately?
PM: I think family films are having a resurgence from a great heyday in the 1960 and ’70s. But I found myself sitting through some pretty dreadful family fare, wanting to leave the kids in one multiplex theater and sneak into another to watch something that wouldn’t leave an adult braindead. That definitely prompted me to make films like Nim’s Island, which serve up a classier, smarter level of family film fare. It has strong filmmaking, great casting, a core story that has emotional resonance, action-adventure, comedy and maybe even something to think about after you leave the theater.
MM: Any plans for what will be happening after that?
PM: Sky’s the limit! I just want to keep making films.