What does a movie producer do? Graham Swon, a producer and the director of The World Is Full of Secrets, wrote this advice for producers for the Spring 2020 issue of MovieMaker Magazine —before COVID-19 shut down film sets. His advice for producers is timeless, and remains timely for producers in pre- and post-production.
In the ever broadening horizons of low/micro/no-budget film production, the exact role and function of the producer is often unclear, even to those working in that role. I’ve noticed that many in the independent filmmaking community have a rather vague idea of the actual role of a producer, beyond assisting in securing financing or general organization. The job description is rather flexible, as it requires you to rapidly identify any given problems and find viable solutions, and is regularly diluted by being torn between the many alternative roles that may need to be fulfilled—i.e., people you really should have on set but you cannot afford to actually hire—such as production manager, line producer, assistant director, production assistant, festival coordinator, publicist, and caterer. All of these can be part of the producer’s role, but they can also obscure the producer’s true and most essential work: to act as a physical and emotional caretaker for the film.
I’ve produced six (extraordinarily, painfully) low-budget features and about as many shorts at this point, and I still consider myself largely a neophyte. Every production feels just as confusing and overwhelming as the first. Anxiety increases as the awareness of possible catastrophes grows. False confidence in the months before production usually evaporates into cold sweats and the panicked feeling that “there is no way on earth this will ever work and we will all die and/or go to prison” in the 48 hours before shooting starts. I know enough at this point to realize that every production will feel like starting over from scratch. Whether you are about to start on your first production or your fifteenth, I hope the thoughts below can give you the false sense of security necessary to get yourself to the point where, well, you can’t really turn back.
So if the question is, “What does a movie producer do?,” my advice for producers is: Whatever the movie needs the producer to do. Here are 12 roles every producer should be prepared to play.
1. An Overseer
The goal of the producer and the goal of the director are not identical. The director should strive to make each individual moment, scene, and shot interesting and meaningful, and thus assemble into a good and meaningful whole. The producer, meanwhile, must strive to have a finished and complete film. While these roles are usually harmonious, in the course of any production they will eventually come into opposition. Most commonly this happens when the production does not have the time or money to spare on continuing to improve a given shot, or to execute an idea in a particular way. While the director is always “in charge,” the producer should have absolute veto power, and directors should trust producers when they use it.
You have to trust your gut on this. On the one occasion I can think of that I felt we should radically change direction during a shoot and I backed down due to pressure from the director, the result was an extreme loss of time and money.
Continue reading for more of Graham Swon answering to the question, “What does a movie producer do?” and his advice for movie producers.