Thursday, January 21, 2016

Sarah Pillsbury on "Desperately Seeking Susan"

How did you get started with your first project, Desperately Seeking Susan?

SARAH: We were very lucky to find Barbara Boyle. She got Desperately Seeking Susan made, and she got Eight Men Out made. I would have to say that she is my mentor, but she actually scared me for a while. For that type of woman, from that generation, to get where they got, they were tough. They were strong.

It wasn't until I went to her 50th birthday party, where she was talking about working with Midge and me on Desperately Seeking Susan, when I realized what warm feelings she had towards me. Because she had a tough exterior, which I was never really able to develop. There were other women of my generation who did develop that exterior. But Midge and I were never able to do that, and it hurt us, not only in dealing with men, but also with some other women of our generation who were more successful at being players.

If you weren’t good at being a player, how did you get your projects off the ground?

SARAH: We found other allies to help us with other projects; I would say it was our ability to have a few really good.

I was on a committee with Kathleen Kennedy -- the Executive Committee of the Producers Branch of the Academy -- and she told me about a project they had that was languishing at Amblin. It was a book called How to Make an American Quilt and we were able to make that, but that was because we had a Godfather on it. Steven (Spielberg) loved the book and he was just so gung-ho about making this women's project. He was very happy with the writer and the director that we suggested. He was just pleased as punch.

Then through that we formed a relationship with Kate Capshaw. She actually came in and read, did a great job, she was wonderful. Then we did a movie, The Love Letter with her

So we've always had the ability to find people to help, but it was always hard to find enough of those people, because at the end of the day the business changed so much and it became driven by the marketing. The business became less entrepreneurial. Executives would say, "This is an interesting project, but it's not high concept and it's very execution driven." But that's what a producer does.

It's like my father, he came to the set of Eight Men Out and he was wandering around and he said to me, "So, you're kind of like the CEO here?" And I said, "Yes. And don't act so surprised." But that's not a role that gets acknowledged. Partly because we stand in the background. One of our main jobs is to run interference for a director, so to some extent financiers and studios don't necessarily want us there.

An executive actually said to a director -- an executive we've worked with -- he said, "Yeah, Sarah and Midge. Yeah. They're the kind of producers who support the director." As if that would be a bad thing.

How did you get interested in filmmaking?

SARAH: I'm sure I'm probably like you -- one of the millions of people who went to the movies every week. I was, really, just lucky to find that I really had a passion for something.

I went to school in the fall of 1969 and there was a lot happening. I was very politically active. Among other things, I got very interested in environmental issues and I was involved with the first Earth Day celebration. But I was also very interested, being a radical, was interested in the Third World. I started my sophomore year without realizing that I really didn't know what I was doing with myself. I started taking some Ecology courses, and as I flipped through the course guide I saw African History, and I thought, "That's it, I'm going to go live in Africa for a year."

Both of my brothers had taken a year off, so I had that luxury, knowing that my parents would support something like that. So I got a job working at the national museum there, which is actually a natural history museum.

I got involved with some filmmakers there; they had made a 30-minute movie about the Masai and they sold it to Rand McNally. And when you're twenty years old, that is really cool. At that age, you look upon that as a major success. So I was very impressed. So I started hanging out with these guys. We'd go to every movie we could find.

This 1971 - 1972, and there were some damn good movies coming out at that time. But I was stuck in Africa, so I couldn't see them. I came home for two weeks and I saw every movie. I just got really interested in movies.

And then by happenstance I got to know a couple of people who were from Los Angeles. I always liked LA. I had this fantasy, as a blonde, that if I were transported to California, I just might be the girl that the Beach Boys were writing those songs about. It could happen. If I could just learn to surf.

How did you get connected to Desperately Seeking Susan?

SARAH: That was back in a time when, in your early years as a producer, you're sitting at a dinner and you're talking to someone and they're telling you about a script they're writing, and you say, "I'd like to read it when it's done." Now you walk away from them, across the room.

But Leora Barish wrote this script and I opened the door one day and there was a manila envelope with a script in it. I read it and I thought it was really good, and then Midge read it and she thought it was really good -- and she had read many more scripts than me, so she was really impressed.

We had already started talking to some investors, so we plunked down a big chunk of change for an option. This was 1981. We optioned it for $15,000, which was a really healthy option back then. We were competing against some bigger companies, but we told Leora that she would be engaged for as long as we could keep her engaged. I don't think we used that language, because we didn't know what we were talking about and we thought we could actually keep her intimately involved with the project all the way through.

Little did we know that she and the director would ultimately not get along and after nine drafts the director brought another writer in and we brought another writer in to save it. But Leora was involved for a number of years as we looked for a director; it took us a number of years to get a director.

What was it that attracted you to the script?

SARAH: Well, first of all the main character was a little bit like me; not as much as it ultimately came out. The idea was that she was someone who was such a space cadet that going over into amnesia was just crossing a thin line.

The movie was actually like the experience of going to a movie. In the movie she gets a bump on her head. Now we don't get bumps on the head when we go to the movies, but it goes black and then we're in a different story. To me, the story was about what movies are about: you're taken out of your reality and you walk in someone else's shoes, and you then get plunked back down in your world and you're, hopefully, elevated in some way. Your mood is elevated or you leave with some new ideas.

We just loved the character of Roberta. And it's always about loving a character so much that it's like, when the actor finally gets chosen and comes in, you're like, "It's nice to meet you! I just feel like I've known you forever, and here you are!"

Sometimes that person is different than what you imagined. We didn't think Susan was going to look like Madonna. Susan, to me, was the hippie chick that I knew when I was in Africa who could travel around the world with ten cents in her pocket and never worry about where her next meal was coming from. With the perfectly faded blue jeans and some guy's shirt.

And then suddenly we have this incredibly highly-sexualized person who was really almost at odds with my sense of that character and also with my zealous feminism.

Did you resist the casting of Madonna?

SARAH: Yes. But then she grew on me. She did a really good screen test. And she was wonderful to work with. I came to really admire her and she sort of changed some of my ideas. I think it was she who quoted Marilyn Monroe, who said, "If I have to be a symbol of something, it might as well be sex."

Initially, in the early years of Madonna, she was a bit of a poseur. She liked playing with different identities. But I really loved it. It was fun being around her when she got her first Rolling Stone cover. And then she brought a song to us, a basement tape, and we had a little fight with Warner Brothers, in order to make a music video with it.

So then the DJs started playing the song, Into the Groove, taping it off of MTV, and then Warners later released a disco version and put it on her greatest hits.

And then you made Rivers Edge. You couldn't have made two more different movies back to back.

SARAH: People always say, "Why did you make that movie after that one?" It's what we got money for. We were also developing Eight Men Out.

But it was very fortuitous for us, because we didn't get a lot of credit for Desperately Seeking Susan. Susan Seidelman had made a movie, Smithereens, that had gone to Cannes. Therefore we didn't get invited to the main festival, we got invited to the Fortnight with Desperately Seeking Susan. And Madonna was a big hit. And so we didn't get any credit for the years of developing it, or finding Susan, or putting together the whole thing.

Then we did Rivers Edge, and the reaction was like, "That's interesting. Who are those producers?" So then we got some more attention, particularly from other filmmakers, not so much from studio executives.

So after the success of Desperately Seeking Susan and Rivers Edge, how were you two perceived by the Hollywood establishment?

SARAH: It was so frustrating. We'd go to one meeting after another, and everyone was talking about Desperately Seeking Susan and wanting to make a movie like Desperately Seeking Susan, but they didn't want to actually hire us. They wanted to make something like Desperately Seeking Susan. And we didn't want to make a movie like Desperately Seeking Susan, having just made that movie.

We did have a project that was kind of in that arena, which we finally got development money for but we were never able to make. Once again, the hook for the story was a woman who escapes from her life by fantasizing about another woman. Which is actually a character device you don't see in many movies. All About Eve, for example, is one of the few movies you could name where a woman is objectifying another woman. Which is actually so common in real life, but is not that common in the movies.

So, 25 years later, do you think you're treated any differently as a female produce than when you started out?

SARAH: Now it's hard to say, because I'm just an old person. And I haven't made any money in a long time. So people say they respect me, but I've always felt that respect in Hollywood is something you can do without. I mean, I'm happily respected by people who I actually respect myself. As for the others, I'd rather that they hated me. Or feared me. Just fucking return my phone calls.

I just feel lucky to do what I did. And I don't know how to do it in today's marketplace. I want to do something where I'm using all my muscles and I wasn't. Looking for money is really hard. When I'm actually on a set and making a movie, I'm using all my muscles.

Now they've shifted things for producers. It used to be that you could actually get development money, or if you had a good script you could get them to buy it. Then you had to have a script and a director. Then you had to know who was going to be in it. And then you had to have some money already attached to it. And then you needed domestic distribution. And as a producer, now you have to be able to line all that up.

I can't support myself in the movie business anymore. But you can't turn off the brain that is thinking about what would be a good movie or what story you'd like to tell. I can't turn that part of my brain off. So I think about it. But I can't turn off that part of my brain.

Given the current state of the industry, how do you advise young people who come to you and say they want to get into the business?

SARAH: By being young, they have the advantage that it's easier to pull together a group of people to do something.

When I speak to classes, I always say that the most important person you may ever meet in the business might be sitting right next to you. I've seen that all throughout my career: the careers that have been built based on the relationships that people have with their peers, and identifying those people among you that you really want to work with.

I also beg them to not check their values at the door.

The fact is, there are some people who have had great success because they are able to think about things that will make money. But the movies that we thought would be projects that would make money we never got to make. And I tell people, don't waste your time on trying to second-guess. Instead, really think about what you want to see.

I taught this class at UC Santa Barbara. It was called The Anatomy of the Industry, and I got to bring writers, directors, actors. But I also brought in agents and executives and make-up artists and script supervisors and music editors and DPs, and that told the students that if they wanted to be in the movies, there are a lot of different ways to have a relationship with the movies that aren't writing, directing, producing and acting.

When my friend Adam Smalley, who was the music editor on The Lion King and a lot of other films, came in, people were blown away. Kids were saying, "I like music. And I like movies. But I don't think I could actually direct a movie and I don't think I could actually write a song. But I could maybe do what he does." I encourage people to look at it that way, because I think one of the biggest problems in the business is that people don't find something that really suits them.

Another thing I'd tell the class is that they have to ask questions of us. I mean, if you can't open your mouth and ask a question in this classroom -- I don't care if there are 200 people in here -- just don't be in the movie business at all if you can't put yourself forward in here. Because, believe me, no matter what you do in this business, you have to be able to put yourself forward. There are so many people who want to be in this business and to succeed you have to get noticed.

I would say to my class, "I know why I wanted to make movies, but why do you want to do it?" With the movies I saw when I started, I had every reason to believe that I could do something important. 

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