While it's always illuminating and inspiring to talk to filmmakers about the craft of making great nonfiction and experimental cinema, as an independent producer, I thought it would be equally as illuminating and inspiring (at least for me) to talk to one of the most prolific nonfiction producers working today. Julie Goldman is one-third of Cactus Three Films based here in New York City. Six years ago in 2003, Goldman and partners, Krysanne Katsoolis and Caroline Stevens, hung out their shingle offering a combination of production and co-production expertise. They develop projects, as well as secure funding and distribution for a full slate of films at various stages. They've produced works such as Easy Riders Raging Bulls, Doubletime, Once in a Lifetime, Darkon, What Remains and The American Ruling Class, among many others. They have also produced hit television series for HBO (Family Bonds) and the Sundance Channel (Office Tigers).
Goldman, Katsoolis and Stevens are currently developing a Neil LaBute film based on his play, "Autobahn," and an animation series from Ken Petti. Currently in production, post-production and release are several feature films such as Marion Barry: Not Down for the Count for HBO, Michel Negroponte's I'm Dangerous With Love, Goth Cruise, New World Order for IFC, CBGB's, Sons of Perdition, and 21 Below. If you click on their names above, you can see their full list of credits, individually and collectively. Prolific is the word that will certainly come to mind.
I had a chance recently to sit and have a weekday breakfast with Goldman, a New York native, in the midst of her everyday madness. She was also waiting to hear about the latest addition to her family about to be born in Argentina to one of her brothers and his partner (a healthy baby boy, it turned out). Goldman has a crackling sense of humor, an acute intelligence and an open, friendly demeanor. It's also apparent after talking to her for about five minutes that she absolutely loves what she does. Here's our conversation:
Still in Motion (SIM): How long have you and Krysanne and Caroline known one another?
Julie Goldman (JG): We've known one another for quite a while. We all worked together at Wellspring. (Goldman pictured right with another indie power hitter, Judith Helfand, at Hot Docs in Toronto, courtesy Ingrid Kopp.)
SIM: So many amazing people came out of that place.
JG: Yeah, it’s a riot, really. Wendy Liddell who runs International Film Circuit, Michael Thornton and Sheri Levine who now run Forward Entertainment, Richard Lorber, so many. That’s just from the last few years the company was around. I ran the production division with Caroline, Krysanne did acquisitions and Krysanne and I worked together on co-productions. The three of us started taking a look at the model that was forming then for most independent productions. In the meantime, mind you, the company kept going bankrupt; Winstar [the parent company] tried to spin us out to keep us out of the bankruptcy. It was a nightmare, a bad couple of years for the company. Professionally for me, however, those years were great; there was a lot of dot.com phony money to play with that was floating around, and that enabled us to get lots of projects off the ground.
We were doing these various projects and what would happen was that we’d get the funding through third parties, but then the company would, once again, go bankrupt. We also had to work within a very bureaucratic structure. So if the home video people didn’t like the project, it didn't matter that you had raised the money independently. You couldn’t take it and try to sell it elsewhere. It was a really strange time, actually, very frustrating.
What the three of us noticed was this kind of gap in the works. We were looking for gaps in the models within which we were working; we wanted to see if we could insinuate ourselves into one of those gaps. Where was there a chance for us to be creative producers? Filmmakers, in an ideal world, did not really want to go out and try to source finances for their projects themselves. They would, and could, if they had to, but it was a real burden. We knew that we had really deep relationships with a wide array of people in the business, both domestically and for international co-productions. We could put all that together and take the business onus off the filmmaker so he or she could focus on what he or she wanted to focus on, mainly the creative work. We also participate creatively when asked; we work in a liaison capacity between funders—financier, end-user, whomever—and filmmakers.
SIM: Is it as complicated as it seems, getting funding for an independent feature, be it narrative or nonfiction?
JG: It can be. You could have two financial participants that aren’t really interested in seeing the same final film. That gets really complicated—you have to make another version, deal with making everybody happy. But we know people really well, their tastes, what their needs are, the changing needs, the endless changing needs. We can anticipate those things. Whatever entity they work for, we can tailor a development deal in a way so that we don’t end up with that problem at the end of the day. Maybe we have to cut a film with a shorter running time, but we don’t have to make an entirely different version because we'll rarely, if ever, promise that. When you’re a filmmaker and somebody is telling you that they’re giving you this wad of dough. . .
SIM: Are we talking about potential broadcasters as the ones who are asking for different versions?
SIM: That must be tricky to navigate.
JG: It is. But it becomes easier when you’ve been doing it for a long time, as we have. You can cut through a lot at a certain point, the morass of whatever current thing is going on [laughs].
SIM: As far as your personal aesthetic about cinematic documentary—of which I can’t think of one you’ve produced that doesn’t have a substantive cinematic imperative—
SIM: Yes, ideally. What first sparked your attention or informed your sensibility to that way of telling nonfiction stories?
JG: Well, I started my career at First Run/Icarus. I worked for both Jonathan [Miller] and Seymour [Wishman]. [Miller bought out Wishman in 2008 and renamed the company Icarus Films.] So I learned the ropes under some pretty knowledgeable taskmasters. I was there for five years. I worked more directly for Jonathan, but we all worked in the same office so we had a lot of interplay with Seymour, as well. At the time, I was fascinated by the whole idea of the semi-theatrical release and knew I was working with some revolutionary minds in that regard. It was a fertile learning ground for a young girl [laughs]. Then I went out on my own and worked as an independent producer for many years—doing documentaries, some narratives, some music videos, pretty much everything, commercials, etc.
SIM: I come from that world, too, and you look at the budgets for the higher-end commercial projects and the end result—
JG: You think about what you could have made with that kind of money—two or three films, at least.
SIM: At the end of the day you have this hot-ass 60-second spot with all kinds of CG and all that jazz, having had something like eighty people working on it. When I did start to make films myself, more "art-based" projects, let’s call them, I realized what people were doing with so little and it just blew me away. I was so impressed and continue to be.
JG: On what amounts to the craft services budget for a commercial, yeah.
SIM: Exactly. And they’re such beautiful pieces of work, even more beautiful because you know that individual who created it took every penny they had really seriously, made a lifetime endowment in their project.
There’s this whole notion that every producer’s job is to raise money, that that’s a really key role for a producer. At this point in your careers, I think you’re well-positioned to do that, very fluid in the way you do that—bring in the money while also imbuing the project with all your creative contributions, connections and knowledge of production and distribution flow.
JG: It takes an enormous amount of time; the three of us have decades invested in doing this work. I went to Winstar / Nonfiction Films, which eventually all morphed into Wellspring, one of the many companies that Winstar was buying up. One of these places was expanding into making theatrical docs; that’s why I went there. We’d just finished this film called Mob Law [:A Film Portrait of Oscar Goodman, 1998]. They were also doing this film called Munich ’72 which was renamed One Day in September. [The film won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, 1999-2000.] So I was so excited to work there. The first thing I had to do was to get on the phone with John Battsek, someone I work with now but didn’t know at all then, and tell him that he needed to cut his budget in half. It was horrible! Then, for whatever corporate reasons, sadly, the company pulled out of the project. I then went on to work on a project called Gunfighters of the West. Eventually, though, the inmates started taking over the asylum and the more we learned, the more power we had to negotiate and finance some really great projects.
SIM: A group with good taste, thankfully.
JG: Yes, a nice group of inmates—it was a "King of Hearts" kind of coup.
SIM: Cactus Three has an incredible roster of films to its credit. Some kind of creative inspiration must be a difficult thing to go without if you don’t have to; that might be your company’s unofficial motto.
JG: We live with these films a long time—at least a year, in most cases, longer. You have to maintain your passion for the project and the only way you can do that over a long period of time is to love that project or the filmmaker that’s making it or, at the very least, have a strong belief in the filmmaker. It isn’t the subject matter that will sustain that necessarily, although sometimes it can be the subject that does. There’s no science to it: some of the films we’ve done have been very weird.
As an example, we did Orthodox Stance about an Orthodox Jewish boxer and that boxer, that guy, was incredibly charming and riveting and lovable. He drew us in right away. And then we’ll have something like Black Sun, which also captivated us in a different way. Sometimes it's a very ineffable factor. There's something like Once in a Lifetime [: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos], which isn’t really about characters but says so much about a certain era in New York. Our catalogue is very broad in that way. For three women, we have a lot of sports films. There’s something immediate about sports docs: you get what's at stake right away. That’s why When We Were Kings [Leon Gast, 1996] and Hoop Dreams [Steve James, 1994] are some of the greatest docs ever made. It’s not necessarily about the sport.
SIM: It always plays, to me, as a really grand metaphor for life—becoming victorious over every obstacle, even if that victory is a mixed bag. Incredibly inspiring.
JG: Exactly. It’s a story of someone playing "against the odds" but in a very different way than we generally encounter. I’ve seen abysmal sports docs as well, ones that take all that's given with the subject matter and still, somehow, manage to make a staggeringly boring piece. Which means the storyteller also needs to bring that same passion. A film like Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo—
SIM: I’m a huge Bradley Beesley fan—he has one of the best eyes and instincts in the business.
JG: He really does. His Flaming Lips doc is one of my favorites. He has a great sense of how he wants to tell a story. Sweethearts is about the rodeo--but it’s really not about the rodeo.
SIM: This is a filmmaker who definitely falls in love with his subjects and they, in turn, fall in love with him. There’s a relationship there, one beyond “getting the story.”
JG: That was exactly the case here. There was a lot of trust and that was important, especially because he was a guy insinuating himself into a female world, a tough one at that.
SIM: Have you ever had directing ambitions?
JG: No, I can’t imagine directing anything. I’m very locked into my producer duties, paying attention to details, watching over the whole production. No way; I couldn’t do it.
SIM: How do you see the independent film landscape right now? Are you optimistic about things, in general, despite the economic downturn, hard times, etc.?
JG: It’s always been hard. Yes, it’s particularly hard now but it comes in waves. Sometimes it’s harder when distribution dries up as it’s doing now and it’s a shitty period. Sometimes, despite everything, it flows and you have a number of good films at once and doors start to open. But it’s always going to be on one side of that curve. Right now we’re on the downswing. However, as more funding sources dry up, there are new ones that crop up unexpectedly, as well. You have to be creative and clever and really work at finding those sources.
SIM: What about the filmmakers who won’t do that, who refuse to look for money themselves? They’re fine being on the fringe and doing their own work, self-funding, just getting by. Mind you, at the same time, they’re complaining about it all and how hard it is.
JG: It’s not unlike any business or industry in that way. There are always going to be people that have a lot of incentive and initiative, that really make things happen. And, there are going to be the people who just want to talk about how everything sucks or who feel entitled to something without doing the work, just assuming that a fabulous idea is enough to get funders to come running. Some artists are too insecure or nervous to try to delve into that, convinced that that’s not what they do. A lot of people really feel that you are either a creative or you’re a businessperson. The most successful people are those that find a way to meld the two. And the two do go together—it’s essential. But there’s a fear, a real turn-off for some to spend the time and energy learning how to do that. But this business is one of relationships. You have relationships in a creative way and you have relationships in a business way and they mix and mingle.
SIM: Talk a bit about the producer/director relationship and the aspects of that relationship that you enjoy the most. What brings you a lot of satisfaction in these relationships?
JG: It’s exciting when someone comes to you and tells you, “Look, this is what I want to do.” It’s a blank slate; that's where you get to begin. We love that. The ideas of how we're going to help create something out of nothing and support that effort from inception to completion—just that concept alone is what makes it exciting and challenging. It’s actually the best part of it for us. It starts with the question, what do we need to do to get this from right here to distribution, to getting it seen? I love clean slates. Once it’s out there, that’s when I just get kind of nervous, even though I’m confident in the work. I know it’s a good film and I know that it’s a matter of taste whether audiences like it or not. There can be a wide array of arbitrary factors. We love the films but we're also not blind to the fact that there are going to be criticisms and we can agree with those criticisms sometimes, in fact.
SIM: In a film like The Cove, for instance, where you’re credited with a consultancy role, what does that kind of involvement entail, where you’re not necessarily there from the clean slate-stage but asked to come in at a certain point to help a film find its true north?
JG: It could be anything: helping to raise more funding, any number of things. In the case of The Cove, they had shot the majority of it and Fisher Stevens had come on as a producer and brought us on as consultants. He and I have worked together before and he was just completely devoted to this film. It’s a tough film in its complexity; the cut at the time that we came on board was pretty messy, not at all close to completion. Look, Louie [Psihoyos, the first-time director and a world-renowned photographer] wants to save the oceans; that's his explicit agenda. This film is only one step in a very ambitious agenda. At that time, everything had to be pulled together to carve out the story; it was all over the place in trying to showcase this crazy group of people who got together to go off and make this film. The first question was, who would be a great editor? And that’s how Geoffrey Richman was brought on. Extra research was also needed. We needed to find someone who was willing to go out and live in Colorado and work out there for a time. So it was finding all these elements, pulling them in and getting everything organized so there was a workflow in place. We also arranged lots of test screenings in New York and LA for feedback since it was changing so rapidly at that point.
SIM: What about our domestic film festivals, particularly documentary-centric ones, and the transformations we’re seeing there?
JG: I think festivals here are trying to be part of the distribution chain. With all the specific festivals, as well, like the Jewish ones, gay/lesbian, etc., a filmmaker can get a pretty healthy run for a film. The really sad thing, for me, is that I rarely get to see films at festivals. It’s the singular biggest disappointment about the festival experiences I get to have. I mean I go to my films. But sometimes we'll have three or four at a festival and with two screenings each, maybe more, I’m always in those screenings with the filmmakers. It doesn’t leave time for much else with everything else I’m doing there.
SIM: I’m lucky enough to make that a priority and see quite a lot since I love sitting in the theater with the local audience. There are sophisticated audiences outside of New York and LA, really hungry for great documentaries and strong small independent narratives with wonderful scripts, stellar performances, etc. Festivals are also the only places where there is a real interplay between filmmakers and audiences--probably the most impactful.
JG: I think a pretty sophisticated film language, in general, has become common everywhere you go. People "get it" in different ways.
(Goldman pictured with Hamptons International Film Festival director of programming, David Nugent, courtesy Ingrid Kopp.)
SIM: At Cactus Three, you have this hands-on philosophy where all three of you spend inordinate amounts of time on each project. Do you see that changing as you might grow in future years? Do you have ambitions for the company to become more like a mini-studio, so to speak?
JG: It’s always been the three of us with a great, but small, support staff. We beef up when we have to. We have talked about growing into something bigger and becoming more of a mini-studio. But becoming more removed from the hands-on process is a concern. A big part of who we are is in the relationships we have and having that day-to-day contact and connection with filmmakers. I think, most likely, I will always stay in that kind of role, no matter what happens. We’ll continue to split up things in different ways but I don’t see that aspect changing.
SIM: Talk more about this threesome that has formed over the years. Three is a very strong number; there are lots of possibilities for dividing and conquering.
JG: Well, Krysanne was a lawyer for many years and concentrated on acquisitions, co-productions, the business side of things. Caroline has a production background and I have a combination of the two. So it’s a very good balance in that way. We can take up the slack for one another, but we really complement one another's skills. All three of us are executive producers for about ninety percent of the productions Cactus develops. Sometimes, we do projects individually, as was the case with me and the Sergio film—our solo albums, so to speak. But to your point, on every project, there is one of us that takes the lead role. But then sometimes it shifts organically. If it’s something with music clearance, Krysanne is likely to take the lead on that. Caroline works on production-oriented issues. I tend to deal with the broadcasters. Projects flow very organically between the three of us.
SIM: What’s a comfortable slate for you in terms of numbers of films you complete in a year?
JG: Currently, we’re finishing, on average, about eight to ten projects a year. But that means that eight to ten films happen to be finishing at the same time—some projects may have been started several years ago, another might wrap up quite quickly, within a year’s time. Just this past year, we happened to have had four films go out into the world simultaneously. You can never predict when a documentary will actually be finished, no matter how much of a soothsayer you are.
SIM: How do you navigate with broadcasters who do have definitive deadlines? That must be difficult in terms of timing since you don't want to rush or compromise a project in any way. Perhaps there’s a financier that’s expecting his or her returns by a certain date and it’s taking a year longer than it’s supposed to.
JG: Oh yeah, that’s natural [laughs]. Happens all the time. Having said that, we are pretty good at staying on track. What I’m saying is you can’t predict the glitches that crop up, or you can't predict that a film will get into a certain festival in which you expected it to be in—those kinds of things present challenges, certainly. Deadlines and dealing with deliverables is complicated.
I love delivering to HBO; I love working with them. Everyone there is wonderful, in particular, Nancy Abraham, an amazingly supportive person and a center of calm. Even if they’re just on the acquisition end of things on certain projects, they’re so incredibly easy to deal with. They try and help you figure it out, a true partner, as opposed to some of the more corporate-minded entities with which one has to deal. We work with them a lot—I’m currently delivering the Marion Barry film and Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo. I deal with the same group so we’ve been able to develop a fluid working relationship. Plus, we did a series there called Family Bonds, a very long-term project. Over the course of those couple of years, we were able to develop very deep relationships. We know what to expect from one another. When I’m dealing with a filmmaker, I can advise him or her in a very clear way about where we go for E&O insurance and the costs attached to that, for instance, and we can work out the whole thing clearly and easily. Believe me, it’s rarely that way. And getting to work with Sheila Nevins is a dream. We were really lucky—during Family Bonds we got to meet with her for a whole day once a month going through footage, working on scenarios we wanted to develop. It was an absolute treat. Like a laser, she can pinpoint things that no one else is paying attention to. Just a really wonderful talent, so incredibly supportive.
SIM: At this point, you must have tons of filmmakers wanting to work with you.
JG: We’re pretty open to hearing from people. We get everything from cold calls to recommendations from people with whom we’ve worked in the past or people who know those people—again, established relationships, some kind of personal connection. We’re also actively looking; we’re at the markets, conferences and festivals. Our body of work is essentially our calling card for the kinds of projects we’re looking for. We had a period where we were working with a lot of first-time filmmakers and I think we’re going to streamline that process a bit [laughs]. An amazing idea, incredible passion and all of those things are great, but it’s really time-consuming and stretches you very thin. We’re running a company, not a mentorship program. It has to be irresistible, that's the bottom line, whether it's from a first-timer or a seasoned director.
SIM: Have you ever had to make a decision to extricate yourselves from a project you've taken on and if so, what was the reason?
JG: There have been a couple of instances where we really love and respect the filmmakers tremendously; however, the project starts to go in some direction that is really untenable for us, becoming a very different film from what we understood it would be. There was one instance where Caroline and I watched a cut of something we wanted to be involved in very much. But after viewing it, we decided that we couldn’t do it. It had gone in a direction we didn't anticipate and really became more about the filmmakers struggling to make the film and the personal issues inherent in that. It made sense for those filmmakers to make it that way but we had to tell them how we felt and we parted ways. It was really hard and somewhat awkward given the insularity of the community. I had never done that before; it was very painful.
I’ve also had instances where the financier is the one letting go of the filmmaker mid-way through a project and we had to switch to a different director—another very difficult situation, hard on everyone, but ultimately it worked out great for the film. In one certain case, it was a film company that was the financier. These days, especially, we try and find money where we can find it—sometimes the financier is in the film business, sometimes they're not. There can be a pretty wide range of financing sources. I still think television is the steadiest source of funding for documentaries.
SIM: What would your recommendation be to a mid-career filmmaker who’s done a couple of projects, essentially out of his or her own pocket, they’ve had a modicum of success, perhaps making a bit of their money back, at least enough to do the next project, but they’re ready to kick it up a level? They want to have seed money, a pot from which to begin pre-production and production, a good producer attached who can help oversee everything through distribution and sales.
JG: The first thing I would do as a filmmaker is research producers out there who have done projects you admire and respect, and that have done fairly well commercially.
SIM: But what does the filmmaker need to bring to the table in order to work with producers such as yourselves?
JG: If someone comes in with a great story, total and complete access to the story and/or subjects, something written up, and, ideally, something shot from which a reel or trailer can be created—that’s the best-case scenario.
SIM: And a prepared budget or something to show they’ve addressed the dreaded business side of things?
JG: If, in fact, there's interest on our part, we can look at the budget together and review costs at that point. Those other factors are the important ones. There’s no need to come to me with a budget. It’s always either ridiculously low and the maker is not anticipating what the real costs are going to be, or it’s ridiculously high and you just can’t get those budgets anymore unless you’re Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock or a name talent like that.
SIM: Of the filmmakers with whom you’re familiar, who are you keeping your eye on? Who do you think will go the distance and make a career of note? Who would you like to work with again that you’ve worked with before?
JG: I think Jeremiah Zagar is definitely someone to watch. Gary Tarn is another really interesting guy; he’s got another really wonderful film to follow Black Sun. I know what he’s working on and it’s very ambitious. He’s determined and talented. Of course, now I’m blanking when you ask me to come up with names—the usual suspects that most people are watching, I guess. Eva Weber is an interesting filmmaker; it’ll be great to see what she’ll do in the future. Gemma Cubero and Celeste Carrasco have a really fantastic film in Ella Es el Matador (She Is the Matador)—I loved it; I think it's gorgeous.
In terms of people I’ve worked with before, I really like Matthew Galkin. We’re finding something to do together. He did the Pixies film and we worked together on Family Bonds for HBO. He’s super solid and very smart. And I would definitely want to keep tabs on Brad [Beesley] and whatever he might be working on next. I would also love to continue to collaborate with producers John Battsek, Nikki Parrott, Ryan Harrington and Amy Dotson.
SIM: What kind of stock do you put into the modern-day pitch session? To me, even though the projects are interesting and there are a number of intelligent and adventurous commissioners sitting around the table, it smacks of more of a floorshow than anything else.
JG: Yeah, they kind of remind me of watching the high school archetypes playing out their destined roles. It’s kind of funny. What I do very much like is what Sheffield does which are the Meet Markets—one on one meeting sessions.
SIM: IFP does that, as well.
JG: They do and they get better and better every year with the Independent Film Week and the labs, etc. It is exciting to see emerging talent be fostered in that way. They also have great instructional sessions where they take documentary filmmakers through absolutely every stage from pre-production to distribution. They bring in great people. I was really impressed—they presented what amounted to “Documentary Filmmaking 101.” Knowing how to deliver a film is so key and no one ever teaches how to do that. It’s invaluable information. Also, knowing who key players are is essential. So many filmmakers send their films to the wrong people; it’s a waste of time on everyone’s part. Save relationships and connections for the appropriate time and the appropriate project. Don’t show someone an hour-long cut when you should be showing five or ten minutes, just really practical stuff like that that could make all the difference.
SIM: What would you say to independent producers who are constantly approached by first-time filmmakers who a) want you to work for free because they don’t have any money, also known as “working deferred,” and b) want that producer to, essentially, do all of the fundraising work for them? I’m obviously asking this from personal experience and, I have to tell you, as a creative, independent producer, it’s a challenge. I’m talking about something that goes beyond consultative or advice-driven meetings. It’s watching cuts and doing the detailed work that helps to get a piece into watchable shape. I think there’s a gross misunderstanding of what a producer-director relationship entails to a large extent.
JG: It’s difficult. We all come across projects that we don’t want to get away. And also the opportunity of being part of the initial creative process is important for some, having a role in putting together the creative team—editor, composer, etc.
The bottom line is that life is short and, as producers, we want to do the best work we can with the best people out there. There’s so much talent out there to be tapped into. If you know exactly what it is you want, it means you’re apt to come across it sooner rather than later. And, in turn, when a filmmaker is serious about finding a good producer, he or she will find the resources to hire one. Believe me, when someone needs to find a publicist or someone to do PR and marketing, they find the money. They need to realize that if that money can be found, then finding resources to hire a producer shouldn’t be a problem either. It doesn’t make sense to expect a producer to work for free, particularly if that person is instrumental in helping to find funding for the project. It took me a long time to be firm about that but if someone is serious about working with you and it’s really meant to be, and they need you and they realize that, then they’ll find the money to hire you. It’s important to legitimize these relationships.