The Writers’ Producer: My Interview With Tracey Becker
One of my favorite industry people, hands down, is my dear friend, producer Tracey Becker. Tracey produced Miramax’s Finding Neverland starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Dustin Hoffman, and directed by Marc Forster. Finding Neverland was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Her more recent film was Hysteria starring Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, and Rupert Everett which was released by Sony Pictures Classics in 2012.
Now, when I say that Tracey is my friend, I am not using the industry term here. I mean ACTUAL friend. I’ve been to her house. She’s been to mine. We know each other’s kids, husbands, even pets. Favored types of wine. We’ve cried on each other’s shoulders and celebrated one another’s successes. Tracey is not only a brilliant and passionate producer, but also a real champion for writers, and a thoughtful friend. She is the type of woman you want to have in your corner. In that spirit, I turned a few questions over to her, knowing that her advice and insight are something every writer could benefit from. Here is what she shared with me:
When you read scripts for new material, what do you look for?
This answer won’t win me any new friends, but it’s almost impossible to be specific about what I look for. In the big picture, if it’s a script from a writer that I don’t know, I’ll likely look at the logline and synopsis and see if the material is even in a genre that I’m interested in, and if the story seems engaging enough in a brief to warrant a read. If a script comes to me through a trusted source, though, I’ll likely read it regardless of logline and synopsis. At the heart of it, I’m looking to be moved. I’m looking for a character or character to speak to me in a way that I haven’t been spoken to before. I would categorize every film that I’ve been involved in as “character-based” rather than of a specific genre. Maybe having been trained as an actress early in my career led me to respond to scripts that are peopled with characters that not only “jump off the page” but that also crawl under my skin, or worm their way into my brain or heart and take up residence there. So it almost doesn’t matter what genre. I’m developing a thriller now – and that’s a genre that I never thought was up my alley. But it was the two characters in the story that I just decided I wanted to live with for a really long time.
Once you’ve taken a liking to a screenplay, what do you look for in the writer?
Assuming it’s a writer that I don’t already know and have a relationship with, I first look to see how they respond to notes/thoughts/ideas (read: criticism) on their script. If they get too defensive about their work, it’s a huge red flag to me. Because film is such a collaborative process, if you can’t start off on the right foot – with a writer recognizing that the Producer is just the first in a long line of people to suggest changes or introduce new ideas for a screenplay – then you’re setting yourself up for a very difficult working condition that is likely not worth it. There are actually a decent number of scripts out there that are equally worthy of a producer/director/actor/financier’s attentions, so if the writer can’t get out of her own way at this stage in the process, it’s probably not worth proceeding.
Less quantifiable but equally important is developing a sense of trust. A writer needs to know that if I’m willing to take a chance on his script, that I’m devoting a huge chunk of my life to his project for the next 2 to 7 to 10 years of my life, and he needs to learn to trust that I have the best interests of the film in mind. I may make some boneheaded decisions once in a while, and not all of my ideas are going to be brilliant, but if I’m putting my reputation on the line to promote his work, he needs to trust that I’ve got his back, and that he, in turn, will have mine.
Ideally, I also like to work with a writer that I’d also like to go out to coffee/lunch/cocktails with at some point, but that’s not a deal breaker. Personal chemistry doesn’t always work out, but it does make the whole process that much easier and more enjoyable!
What do you expect from the writers you work with on a project?
I expect them to take every note given to them seriously, and to respond in a professional manner. That doesn’t mean that I want my writer to make every change that is suggested to them. But if we’ve given the script to someone that might have some means of helping us move the film forward, and that someone has taken the time to not only read the script but to respond to it and to have notes or thoughts, then my writers need to listen carefully to those notes, and be respectful about how they respond – even if the note-giver is completely full of bananas, and their notes are laughable (which does not happen very often, thankfully…)
I also expect my writers to turn around changes and drafts as quickly as possible. Contracts will likely outline due dates, but because I am known as a material-driven producer, I typically work with my writers all through their re-write processes, and want to see material as quickly as possible. I need communication and status updates – let’s face it, I’d like the writer to move in to my house for a few weeks so that I can be the mama hen that I’m prone to being, but that rarely works out!
What should writers expect from the development process?
Years of waiting and frustration! No, just kidding. A little. Patience is what writers need. Sometimes the process happens quickly, other times it does take years to get a project off the ground. But I really like to share the process with my writers – and while I don’t keep them up to date on every phone conversation or email, if we get any tug at the line, I’ll let them know. Writers should also develop a thick enough skin so that they don’t hit the heights of elation when a well-known actor reads their script and the depths of despair when the same actor passes. It’s all part of the process, and you’ve got to learn to even it all out a bit or you’ll drive yourself mad.
They also need to remember what it was about this story that initially turned them on, and to continue to fan the flames of that core. A script and a film may change dramatically from the first draft a producer or financier signs on to what ends up on the screen, but ideally the same core will still be intact, even if the features change a bit. Remember what it was about the subject matter or the characters that turned you on, and while you’re being flexible to all the other demands on you, try and maintain the integrity of that passion.
Any advice about what writers who want to work with you should never, ever do?
Never be lazy. Never be afraid to step outside your comfort zone. And never hesitate to cash a check.
You’ve worked with a lot of writers over the years, most notably when you developed the screenplay for “Hysteria” with the writer from your idea, as well as turning a play into the Academy-Award winning “Finding Neverland”. What is your favorite part of the process?
I love the work. I love getting into the bones of the script with the writer, and making that script watertight. I love the frustrations of getting stuck or turned around, and having to fight our way out of it. I love it when those moments of brilliance happen – regardless of WHOSE idea it was, your barber, your barista, your boyfriend – and the writer instinctively knows that it goes into the script and makes it better. But I most especially love that feeling that you know you’ve all done your work diligently and with inspiration, and that the script is ready for the rest of the world. When I can confidently make the calls, take the meetings, and pull a script out of my bag that I know the person receiving it is going to read and respect.
Do you have any advice for writers looking to build a screenwriting career?
You mean aside from working with you?!
Write every day. This is your job. Your avocation. If there’s something else that you can do – any other marketable skill that you have that fills you up in the same way that writing does – DO IT. But if not, if there is something inside driving you to do this, then be a professional about it. You’ll write every day. You’ll read as many other screenplays as possible – both successful and unsuccessful – so that you can start to see the difference. You’ll learn the business – which producers and directors make certain kinds of films; which financiers fund which sorts of films; what’s happening in the current marketplace; you’ll learn that “commercial” isn’t a dirty word – and that if you have an idea that really revs your engines, why not take that idea in a direction that makes it an easier sell?? And you’ll even have to – ack – socialize! (This is a social business, and it will really behoove you to get out and meet people – really!)
But practice your craft. Be diligent about it. Your work is the bedrock upon which every worthwhile film is built – so don’t take that lightly. Be pro-active in your career, and take inspiration however it comes. I think one of my favorite quotes is really applicable here:
“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” – Herb Brooks