Interview : Mark Heidelberger

What makes a good movie? Mark Heidelberger, producer of such movies as Ninja Assassin, Comfort and festival hit The Basement, answers the question.

Your take: What makes a good movie and what doesn’t?

First and foremost, it starts with the script. You can make a so-so movie from a great script, but I don’t think you can make a great movie from a so-so script. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of slickly produced films with strong production values that stunk because the story wasn’t any good. And conversely, we have a tendency to forgive weak production values and other technical deficiencies if the story captures us. So, good script first. After that, it’s just all about execution.

And do you generally know what’ll make a good movie from the outset – as soon as you pick up the script? 

Well, ultimately, “good” can mean a lot of things. Is it a strong story? Are critics going to like it? Is the core audience going to respond? Is it going to make a lot of money? I mean I know what I like and what I think will do well based on the content of the script, but like the exalted William Goldman once said, “Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.” But when I’m reading the script, I do look for a few things that may set it apart. Are the characters engaging? Do they have intelligible goals, flaws and arcs? Are there clear protagonists and antagonists whose interactions are generating conflict? Is the plot interesting and fresh? Is there a coherent three-act structure? Who’s the audience and why are we telling them this story? When I’m developing a script with a writer, I have these 12 questions I always ask them involving many of the things that I just mentioned. If their answers fit together and make sense, I feel like we’re at least off to a good start.

And what do you think the strengths of, say, “Comfort” – to name but one of your many films that’s gotten good reviews – are?

Comfort had as its foundation a very personal and mature script by Will Lu, who also directed. And while Will had a clear vision of what he wanted, he was still very open to collaboration and improvisation and feedback. He let his actors try things that weren’t scripted. He trusted the abilities of his key crew, like his DP, editor and production designer. He knew that embracing creative input from others – who were all working toward his vision – would not only yield a better result, but also get those contributors more engaged because they felt valued. It was a prime example of a good story coupled with efficient execution. Many talented artists came together to make that film work. Aashish Gandhi’s cinematography. Scott Gilman’s music. Chris Dinh and Julie Zhan’s onscreen chemistry. Despite the fact that Comfort had one of the smallest budgets of any feature I’ve done, it’s also one of the films I’m most proud of.

It’s hard to make a movie these days, but where do you think that one excels in its originality?

One thing I consistently heard from audiences on the festival circuit is how much they enjoyed the unique portrayal of the two leads. Our actors, Chris and Julie, are both Asian, so some people had a tendency to pigeonhole Comfort as an “Asian movie.” And with that comes certain stereotypes about Asians that we’re used to seeing. But these two characters are as American as anyone and being Asian didn’t limit or define who they were. They didn’t have accents or struggle with identity issues or play into clichés about academic overachievement. These two kids could have been from any background or ethnicity. It just so happens they’re also Asian and, yes, can have experiences that have nothing to do with their racial identity.

Is there a moment in it that you, as a movie fan, especially enjoy?

There are a lot of great moments in that film, but one in particular stands out. The main character, Cameron, is allergic to sunlight, which is why he lives his life at night. He suffers from an actual disease called erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP). He subsequently meets Jasmine and they get close, but he’s disappointed because he’s unable to watch a sunrise with her. So, one night, she surprises him by setting up a projector on the roof of his building along with a blanket, and they cuddle as they watch the sun rise on the movie screen. It’s a really powerful moment that brings the two characters together and showcases our unique human ability to use imagination as a method for overcoming adversity.

Do you find that, when working on a heavier movie like “The Basement”, it affects your mood –  and that mood stays with you at the end of the day? One just imagines a comedy being a lot more ‘fun’ on set, whereas a genre film would seem to be quite a serious time…

I’ve done comedies that were a tough slog and I’ve done darker pictures that have been a blast. I find budget issues or getting behind on our schedule or dealing with an unhappy director can do more to affect my mood than the genre of the film. However, that’s not necessarily the case with everyone. Jackson Davis, one of our leads in The Basement, plays a serial killer who tortures Cayleb Long’s character throughout the film. I mean just hardcore stuff. Violent stuff. There are moments when Cayleb is literally pleading with Jackson to stop. One day toward the end of the shoot, Jackson told me it was keeping him up at night and that it was just taking him to a dark place. I think he was looking forward to wrapping up production and extricating himself from the character. Take after take of Cayleb just screaming and crying and letting it all hang out – that can genuinely affect you, no doubt, which is also a testament to Cayleb’s performance.

Were you working on any other projects at the same time as “The Basement”?

Well, I was also the line producer/UPM on The Basement, which means that when we were in production, it required my full attention since I was in charge of managing the day-to-day execution of the film. But a good producer always has multiple projects in varying stages, from development through distribution. Another film I produced, A Christmas in New York, had just locked up distribution, so we were handling all deliverables. Plus, I was overseeing marketing and PR on Comfort. I also had a really cool biopic called Walking on Palmettos about real life smuggler Myles Richards that I was developing with writer Jim Christell and screen legend Ed Asner. In fact, we’re hoping to get that one shooting by early next year.

Where does this one rank in terms of your projects? Is it up there as a favorite? 

I try not to pick favorites. I have favorite moments from each one for sure, but ultimately, they all have their pros and cons. With The Basement, I didn’t have as much creative control over the final product as I would have liked, as there were other producers involved, and there were definitely a few things I would have preferred to do differently, but in the end, I love what we were able to accomplish with the somewhat limited resources we had. We built the entire basement set on a soundstage in Burbank. Our production designer, Julian Brown, did a great job with that set and DP Ken Stipe shot it beautifully. Special effects supervisor Julia Hapney just crushed it. And our editor, Brady Hallongren, really brought it home during post. Oh, and the cast, some of whom I already mentioned, were absolutely fantastic.

Horror seems to be getting a lot more recognition thanks to “Get Out”. Are you finding more and more producers and studios are chasing genre fare?

I’m not seeing the horror genre skyrocketing any more than normal. Everything just comes in cycles. It seems that every few years, some horror picture comes out that breaks new ground and spawns a resurgence. In 1996, it was Scream. Then a few years after that, it was The Blair With Project. Then after that, it was, I don’t know, Cabin Fever. And then it was Paranormal Activity or whatever. Get Out is just the latest in a long line of ground-breaking genre pictures that has allowed studios and producers to realize that, yes, there are still original ways to utilize the format. I’m not saying The Basement hits that benchmark, but I definitely feel we were able to put a fresh spin on an otherwise familiar scenario.

2018 is just beginning but tell us, what’s the best film you’ve seen so far this year? And anything coming up that you’re looking forward to?

This year? Heck, I’m still catching up on films from last year! I’ve got a pile of screeners I still haven’t watched. The Shape of Water has literally been sitting on my coffee table for months. Ironically, I don’t get to the movies very often because I’m too busy making them. Unless it’s a special PGA screening or something. There are definitely a couple coming out this year that I’m looking forward to though. Gotta love the summer movie season!

How important do you consider marketing and social media when it comes to indie films?

It’s just as important as the big guys. That’s why some indies spend as much on P&A as they do on production. And rightly so. Without marketing, nobody knows your film exists. And social media has become a very big part of that strategy nowadays. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – they all offer a cost-effective way for filmmakers to reach their audience and spread the word without the need for more expensive print and television media campaigns. I find a well-planned marketing effort that effectively leverages PR, promotions, social media and limited traditional media can increase a film’s revenue exponentially. More than that, it’s something the filmmaker should be considering before they’ve ever shot one frame of film. It should be part of the strategy from the script stage.

❉ Winner of ‘Best Feature’ and ‘Best Actor’ (for Jackson Davis) at Horror Hound Weekend Film Festival, Winner of ‘Best Feature’ at Spotlight Horror Film Festival, Nominated for ‘Best Feature’ by Shriekfest Horror Film Festival and NoHoCinefest, ‘The Basement’ continues its run on the festival circuit and will receive a limited theatrical release in the United States in September 2018. Starring Mischa Barton, Jackson Davis, Cayleb Long, Tracie Thoms, Bailey Anne Borders, Sarah Nicklin. Directed by Brian M. Conley and Nathan Ives. Produced by Brian M. Conley, Nathan Ives, Sean Decker, Mark Heidelberger.

❉ Follow Mark Heidelberger on Twitter.

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