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TNC INTERVIEW 2021
FILM

Peggy Rajski
Producer/Director
TREVOR

thetrevorproject.org
> Part Two

Trevor won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short (1993) and led to the creation The Trevor Project which remains one o the only LGBTQ+ Suicide Prevention Helplines for teens in the US.

 

Upon hitting puberty, a high-school boy realises he is homosexual and faces prejudice from his parents and friends.

Hi Peggy, it's really great to talk with you. How have you been able to use this time to get inspired to take up some new creative opportunities?

Well, when COVID hit the US at the beginning of 2020, I was serving as Dean of LMU’s top ten ranked school of Film and Television in Los Angeles, and it was an intense ‘all hands on deck’ experience.  We shut down campus in mid-March, navigated an overnight transition to online learning, managed to still keep students shooting with small camera packages we made available to students staying in LA—while honouring all the -mandated restrictions in place at the time, manoeuvred through budget cuts, hiring freezes and staff reductions. I’d say that qualified as a new creative opportunity!

All those years of producing — and the problem solving, flexibility and adaptability required in that role —served me well.  That, along with a healthy dose of optimism that we WOULD make it through and figure out what needed to be figured out, got us through.  I know the value of having the right people in place in key leadership roles in filmmaking, and the same is true in academia.  It took a while to build the incredibly strong team of senior leadership I had in place when this crisis hit, and boy, that team got us through unprecedented hurdles the pandemic threw our way.  Everybody was challenged and I laud the individual faculty and staff who met that challenge with grace, goodwill, inventiveness and creativity.  

My focus was first and foremost on delivering whatever we could to meet students’ needs.  The situation required people to go above and beyond, and they did.  I had a member of staff who drove to San Francisco to hand-deliver the computer hardware needed for one of our animation students to continue creating films remotely.  

Shooting restrictions forced everyone to focus more keenly on the story and I swear I saw some of the strongest work come out of the program as a result.  

What was it about the Indie filmmaking scene in the 1980s that interested you so much?

I felt a strong pull to be in New York, so when I finished graduate school in the late 70s, I moved there.  I wanted to work in films, and even though there really wasn’t a big indie scene there yet, I just knew New York was the place for me to be.  

My first job was as a receptionist at a corp communications place in midtown; within a year, I was producing and directing industrials for them. Through that gig, I started meeting folks making low budget indie films--that scene was just starting to take hold in NYC.  I met John Sayles and Maggie Renzi at a party—they’d just made RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN, a big indie hit—and we all hit it off, they were about to make a new film called LIANNA.  They needed a production manager, and even though I’d only helped do budgets and boards for some producer/production manager friends of mine, I told them I could do the job.  That was my first feature job ever.

We were all early in our careers and just figuring stuff out as we went along.  We combined some minimal feature film production experience with a lot of common sense, a strong belief in the stories we wanted to tell, and that carried us through. 

Each project got a little bigger and we all got better at navigating the growing indie scene.  

Was it challenging being an independent female producer during these early days in Hollywood?

I don't think I thought a lot about it at first. I and many of my peers just put our heads down, focused on the work and ploughed through.  Later, I began to realise some of the inequities I was operating under as well as the ones facing women and the BIPOC community. Things like pay and the fact that certain jobs were virtually closed to women. The stats on women directors were bad, and the ones for female DPS even worse…and when you take race into account, the stats get even worse.  

At the same time, it was a huge advantage being female as a producer because you get to hire other women!  I started producing early in my career and I get to look back with great pride on some of the women, like Sarah Green, I helped give breaks too early in their careers.  Also, THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET (1983) was my first producing credit, and John, Maggie and I were all committed to hiring as many Black crew as possible on that film.  It was harder than it sounds. There was only ONE Black grip in all of LA at the time which says something about where the unions were at that time.

But because we were a non-union production, we got to reach beyond that and, thanks to great recommendations from people like Spike Lee and the Hudlin Brothers, we found very talented people like Ernest Dickerson (Spike’s DP on his thesis film JOE’S BED STY) to work on BROTHER.  Ernie then came with us to shoot the BORN IN THE USA music video we made for Bruce Springsteen, and just kept going and is now an accomplished director.

For women, unfortunately, directing and cinematography have always been the most difficult positions to crack.  With producing, the barriers were less.  Basically, if you had a project that people thought they could make money on, and you had a director and cast that could help draw an audience, the gender of the producer was somewhat less relevant.  

You still had people giving you a harder time because you were female—some people’s backs just get way up if they think they’re having to take orders from a woman.  That’s why it’s been especially hard for so long for female directors and DPs.  There’s a great deal of chauvinism and misogyny present in the culture and the film business.  That’s where those accusations of being a ‘bitch', ‘abrasive’ (and other unprintable things) stem from. And btw, that attitude isn’t only present in men.  

As well as co-producing The Grifters you also produced Jodie Foster's directorial debut Little Man Tate, what were these experiences like?  

They were both incredible. GRIFTERS was the first film I shot in 'Los Angeles'.  What an amazing way to get to know the city, both the glory and its seamier side.  And everyone involved in front of and behind the camera was at the height of their game. Stephen Frears is one of the most talented directors on the planet.  I loved working with him and learned so much about storytelling and shot design from watching him work. For a movie that was so dark thematically, it was really a lot of fun to make. 

I still remember meeting Martin Scorcese for the first time too—he walked into our VERY funky production office, filled with funky second-hand furniture in a funky part of town. An unemployment office was right across the street and actors would keep dropping by to see our wonderful casting director Vickie Thomas. That man is so charismatic!  I was very happy when they asked me to come on board.

And Jodie?  Another remarkable human being.  We met when we were both on the dramatic jury for Sundance—the year of Soderbergh’s SEX LIES & VIDEOTAPE and Nancy Savoca’s TRUE LOVE. As a juror, you get to watch and talk about movies all day—what worked, what didn’t, why and how they spoke to you.  It’s a great way to get to know someone— what they care about, think about, are moved by —even if you don’t always agree.  That’s half the fun!

"While Jodie had been on sets since she was a kid, it was still her first outing as a director."

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I got a call from her a few months later that she was getting her first movie off the ground and wanted to know if I’d be interested in producing it.  Of course, I said yes!

 

Part of the art of producing is matchmaking—finding the right crew people who can mesh with the director’s style and personality, enhance the material, and work collaboratively, efficiently and financially responsibly ESPECIALLY on low budget films.  

 

While Jodie had been on sets since she was a kid, it was still her first outing as a director.  There was a lot on the line and I wanted to make sure she felt well supported and well served.  Plus she was playing a leading role as well as directing.  So part of my job was to know what she was going for in a scene, and if something wasn’t quite coming through in a scene she was acting in,  I was able to be a backup reality check and quietly give her that feedback.  HOME was a nice shift since Jodie didn’t have to act as well as direct. 

 

We brought along a lot of the same crew from TATE, and the cast we got for that film was stellar.  Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr., Anne Bancroft, Charles Durning, David Strathairn doing a heartbreaking cameo.  It was a little hairy working out talent deals. When you’re working on a film where you can’t meet everyone’s quote (i.e. what they usually get paid), that’s where negotiating gets both challenging — and artful. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. You try to figure out how to make all the pieces fit.  I’d find myself telling agents that, ‘for what it was worth, we’re going to pay everyone ‘equally badly’’.  Weirdly, it helped

How is your approach to producing different to directing?

Producing made me a better director and directing made me a better producer. The producing background helped me know how to stretch a buck and use my time and resources to the best advantage.  When you really understand what it’s going to take to execute something you’re asking for, it helps you get clearer on your priorities. 

Plus as a producer, you’re always thinking about the story, the big picture, and where you should invest more time and money. and where you can get by with less.  Like with MATEWAN and EIGHT MEN OUT.  These were two-period films with some big set pieces.  I believe if you invest more in selling the world in the early scenes, you pull the audience into the world, they buy into the journey.  After that, you can cheat a lot more and use tighter shots, less background, etc.  

The best directors I worked with knew their priorities— which scenes to allow for more time and coverage, and which to shoot in one setup and move on.  You learn from people who are good at it as well as from those that aren’t. That’s why I think it’s valuable for emerging filmmakers to work in different crew positions.  Not only do you expand your knowledge of the craft, but you also get to watch other people fumble and excel at directing.  

Most directors don’t get a lot of opportunities to watch other people direct.  Actors do, and I think that’s why so many actors have been able to transition successfully to the director's chair.  If you’re somebody like Jodie, you’ve been able to watch and work with some of the most talented directors around.  That’s an invaluable education.

Now, the stress is pretty incredible whichever hat you’re wearing. but I felt much more exposed—more naked, and more vulnerable— as a film director. It made me really appreciate what actors do.  

Directing for TV is a whole other ball of wax.  You still invest yourself as a director and bring your own take on the material. But the nature of the job—it’s a great exercise in style- and its emotional payoff is different.