Production Values: Debbie Brubaker

Adrianne Anderson April 19, 2011

Bay Area Producers: Debbie Brubaker Debbie Brubaker has been a producer in the Bay Area for over 25 years. One of her recent projects, Miss Representation (directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom) premiered at Sundance this year and plays the San Francisco International Film Festival April 22 and May 4. Brubaker is currently working on several other films: She is about to finish post on Neon Sky, a narrative feature directed by Jennifer Juelich (and discussed recently in Michael Fox’s In Production column for She is in development on three other feature films, including 504 to be directed by Mark Breimhorst, (which received an SFFS/KRF Filmmaking Grant), BusTrip to be directed by Paul Oja, and I'll See You Again to be directed by Steven Charles Jaffe. Her next doc is a 3–D movie about the Napa Valley and its wineries. Debbie also regularly teaches classes on the craft of producing at City College San Francisco the San Francisco Film Society. What follows is the first in a four-part series on Bay Area film and television producers.

SF360: How did you get into filmmaking and producing?

Debbie Brubaker: Oh I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. I started in photography when I was 10 and got really hooked, so I then decided to make movies when I was about 12. When I was in college I shot a couple people’s masters thesis projects—and then after I graduated I started working in the camera department—on a lot of TV movies-of-the-week, and one of them really was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I wasn’t treated well and neither were my brethren. I decided that the only way that I was ever going to get treated well was for me to be the one that’s doing the treating. So I stepped over into production and I never looked back. I come from a family of writers; my mom teaches business college and my dad was a production manager and a writer—not with motion pictures necessarily—but it was sort of easy for me to take a step into the business end of it because I had a family with all the trappings of business.

SF360: Do you consider your role, as a producer, as more business-focused than creative?

Brubaker: When you’re working in independent film you have to be creative, you have to be a creative problem-solver—it can’t be all business, because you don’t have the money to make it all business. You only have so much money when you’re doing independent film so you can’t solve your problems with money if you don’t have it. That means you have to solve your problems creatively. And that’s the part I really like, being a creative problem solver.

SF360: What are some types of problems you’d be solving?

Brubaker: First of all, I like to try to ‘fix’ everything at the script stage. I work with a director, and most times they’re writer-directors, to really bring the script into control—into what I’d call a state of control. This is where the script can be realized for the amount of money we have to make it with. Because sometimes if you translate a script, the way it’s written into money, it’s gonna be astronomical. So you have to come up with creative ways to tell the same story, and not try to compromise the story too much—so it’s a matter of, well, do you really have to have a Hummer? Can you live with a different kind of vehicle? I mean, even on Darwin Awards, where we had a little more money than a lot of movies I’ve done, we couldn’t get a Hummer; GM wouldn’t let us use it. We ended up deciding to build our own vehicle—we made up a vehicle. So we actually took a bunch of different vehicles and put them together and painted it, we called it the Invader.

So it’s my job to help the directors come to find new ideas and support them in their new ideas, and then also try to figure out how to do their ideas without having to spend an arm and a leg. How to fake it, how to make the special effects work for not too much money. There’s a whole lot of different things you can do. For example, casting can be a huge issue. While directors get stars in their eyes, they have to really work with actors who’ve done independent film before, because you don’t have the same kind of amenities as on a big studio picture. You know, they’re not gonna get a big trailer to themselves, and they’re not gonna get to stay in a five-star hotel necessarily, and they’re not gonna get to have their own private cook all the time. Certain movie stars are treated like royalty here, and when you’re making an independent feature, you don’t have the money for that. You’re making it out of your pocketbook, or your uncle’s, so you can’t afford the champagne players.

SF360: So are you out on all the shoots? Or does it just depend on the budget?

Brubaker: It really depends on the project too. I mean certainly there’s gonna be a lot of times when I have to deal with business stuff and be in an office. Then there’s other times where I’m totally out there in the field working with each one of the departments, talking to the crew and seeing what can be improved by watching the way they work. Looking for what’s efficient and what’s not. And that’s my job, to sort of take it in and see who’s playing nice (or not). I’m sometimes out there making sure that nobody runs with scissors, you know, that kind of thing.

SF360: At the beginning of a production, can you already strategize where your time will be best spent?

Brubaker: It’s something like that. I think that it’s more ergonomic on a day-to-day basis, based on what we’re doing and how it’s going and whether we’re encountering certain kinds of problems. What happens is you plan for everything to go a certain way, and then you have an actor who’s one of your main characters and one of his family members dies—so he has to leave and it throws your whole schedule on its ear. And the first AD has to come up, almost overnight, with an alternative schedule and yet he doesn’t have time to deal with it. So it’s those kinds of problems and you sometimes need to step in more. It’s really a group effort, because you have to figure it out in a bigger way, with a number of people involved in the problem solving. There’s always so many things that are going to be affected by it, so you have to consult with all the different departments and see if they can swing in and make certain things happen—in a way they never planned for. And if it—a new schedule—makes sense. Because if they can’t….

Like for example, if you have to go to a location that you weren’t previously going to go to for two more weeks, and you’re gonna pull that location up, the art department has to be ready for that, and if they can’t be, you have to make another different kind of decision. So it’s not so much any one person making a decision about how WE are going to do it. It’s a group thing, and it’s all consulting, and yet it has to happen really fast because that’s the way it works. Time is money.

SF360: Do you love that pressure?

Brubaker: I don’t know if I love that pressure—I certainly feel comfortable with the pressure. People can run in a panic and I don’t. So I’m not too quick to get too excited about stuff. It’s just my nature. So I think it makes me good for this business because I’m not one to fly off the handle at all. I’m usually pretty calm and can make decisions under any conditions, pretty much.

SF360: What do you admire in other producers, and conversely what doesn’t work for a producer?

Brubaker: I like producers that can think well under pressure but that don’t get too hyper excited and crazy in the moment. You have to be able to keep a level head, and people that can stay calm and work it out are the best. A good producer stays calm because a lot of directors can really get excited and get really upset easily—they’re creative people and they get caught up in the moment and they’re already drinking the Kool-Aid…. I mean, it’s a hard enough job everyday to sort of reel them in, let alone if something catastrophic happens, and they get very flummoxed. You have to be able to come up with solutions. And help them with the solutions. And they have to be part of the solution—’cause it’s their vision, so it has to be a collaborative thing—but the calmer you can stay, the more they’re going to get out of it. They’re going to be able to be calm too. You have to be able to keep everybody on an even keel, I think is the best way to do it.

SF360: Can you help give a sense of roles on big productions—is the main vision coming from the executive producer, the artistic creative vision from the director, and then the producers are creative management?

Brubaker: I see the director as having the primary vision, it can’t be an executive producer that has the primary vision, or it’s not going to tell the story. The director has to tell the story, through the actors and through everybody else. My primary job, my number one role, is to be there to support the director. That’s how I feel about it. I feel like my job is to make the director’s vision happen in the best way that I can. So that means that if I have to twist myself into somewhat of a pretzel, I do. And I liken it to shoveling 125 pounds of shit into a 5-pound bag everyday. Because you don’t always have the resources you need, but you try to get as many of them as possible. You just don’t say no until you’ve exhausted—and really worked through the pile to find the pony.

SF360: What would you say are the biggest differences in your particular role producing for a fiction film vs. a documentary?

Brubaker: The fiction film, everything starts and ends with the script—what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis, where it’s going to go, what the story is, what the budget is. With documentaries, it’s a little more loosey-goosey, because you never know what’s going to come out of someone’s mouth. With docs, you don’t always know what direction your movie’s gonna go in. It will all be based on the interviews that you get. I mean, certainly you ask questions, and certainly you can ask leading questions, but it doesn’t always mean that it’s gonna go in the direction you thought it was gonna go in. It can really have some surprises and twists and turns, and I think it makes it really fun. I think in that respect you have this opportunity to tell a really interesting story that you didn’t even know you were gonna tell.

And the size of the crew is always different. Docs have a much smaller crew, and generally the budgets aren’t quite as big as they are with the narratives. Documentaries often take way over a year, or years to shoot and get finished. You know with documentaries you can shoot and edit and raise money, and shoot and edit and raise money. And I guess that’s sort of how some people are doing little narrative features. I’m working on one, a narrative feature, that we’re doing documentary style because we’re shooting and editing, shooting and editing, and doing it over a period of time. And if you can do that, it’s terrific, but it has to be the right group of people. The actors have to be amenable to it. So I’m seeing that it can be done, which makes it really exciting.

SF360: Have you ever worked in Los Angeles or New York or any other big production city, or has most of your work been here?

Brubaker: Most of my work’s been here. I’ve done breakdowns and budgets for shows that have shot in other places, a lot of my bread and butter is [because] I’m good at writing budgets. But mostly it’s because I’m a single parent and I have a teenage son. I’ve been a single parent for most of my career, so I can’t really go anywhere for any length of time. I’ve gone out of town for jobs but not for very long, and when he was little, I took him with me. But for the last 11 almost 12 years, when he’s in school, I can’t do anything very much. He’s about to graduate. My life will be very different I think.

SF360: Does he make movies also?

Brubaker: No he does not. He has no interest in it whatsoever. Yeah I know isn’t that funny? Some of the people who I know, people that were in the business—some of their kids had shown no interest in it until they were in their ’20s, and then all of a sudden, something just sort of snapped. And they became producers, or directors or what have you. I don’t see that happening, I really don’t, not with him. He’s been too single-minded about what he wants to do since he’s been about three years old. He likes to write code and program and do computer engineering. And he’s passionate about it. That and music.

SF360: If someone wants to be working in the Bay Area in the next 10, 15, 20 years, as a producer, what are good habits to develop, good places to research, any advice like that?

Brubaker: First of all, you have to have a lot of patience because people don’t understand that sometimes it takes a couple years to develop a movie. And it does. It can take anywhere from a year to two years to ten years to develop a story. And I’ve seen it so I know. I’ve been involved in movies that took forever. And a lot of the movies that I’ve done, they were in long time development, so you have to have a lot of patience. And at some point you’ve got to figure out what your ethics are and what movies you’re gonna make and what movies you don’t really want to work on. But during economic crises like this one, I’ve talked to a lot of my friends who’ve said that they took jobs that they normally would have never taken, just because they needed to put bread on their table.

Being really good with money is the other thing. You have to be very responsible and that’s sort of hand-in-glove with the job as a producer, because in order to be good with somebody else’s money, you gotta be good with your own first. You gotta be organized, you have to understand banking, you have to understand a lot of things about priorities, and keeping money—you can’t be bankrupt and do what you do because…Look, when I’m looking to hire a production manager, for example, I pay attention to how well they manage their own money. Because if they aren’t good at managing their own money, they’re not gonna be good at managing somebody else’s. And that’s a real key.

SF360: For the independent films you work on, who are the investors? Are they associated with film or are they literally people who would just like to invest and try and make money off of it?

Brubaker: They’re a little bit of both actually. I think raising money for movies is really hard, because it’s not that tangible. You know, we work in an invisible factory, most of us that make independent films. You’re raising money and you can’t point to a building and say, ‘Welcome to my office here, this is where we’re making the movie.’ That’s a studio, and that’s a whole different ball of wax. And right now, people are hanging onto their money because they’re afraid. And they’re still afraid. And I don’t blame them, I really don’t. You know, you don’t know where it’s gonna go.

SF360: Where does the money come in for you? On the back end mostly? Is it DVD sales, or…?

Brubaker: I think, for me, there isn’t a lot of back-end money because basically when you’re making an independent film, you’re happy if you break even. To make money making independent films would be phenomenal. But we don’t really do what you call ‘make money.’ I mean we work for the money. But there’s no such thing as free money. I’ve gotten some residuals, which is nice, but that’s come through the Director’s Guild.

SF360: Can you talk about how you work with the unions? Are they associated with every project?

Brubaker: Well I’m a member of the Directors Guild of America. Which I think is probably (I’m biased) I think it’s one of the better unions. It’s one of the smarter unions. They negotiate their contracts early, they don’t wait until the last minute to try and figure out what they’re doing. And probably because there are a lot of producers and production managers in that union that run the union, it has a tendency to be more methodical and more business like. I’m not saying that actors can’t do business, but you know if you have actors running the Screen Actors Guild, it’s just a different thing. See, I’m very pro union. And that’s mostly because I think that people should be able to get health benefits when they work, just like anybody else. They should be entitled to it and they should be able to have pensions.

As a freelancer, I have to take care of everything myself. And I haven’t been in the DGA long enough for it to really make a huge benefit for me even though I’m the vice executive chair of the SFCC which is the Northern CA chapter of the DGA, so I’m politically active with it. When you’re making a movie for $100,000 you can’t afford to pay anybody very much. So you’re not gonna be paying them pension, health and welfare. But people aren’t going to be making those movies everyday anyway. I’m not. But I think unions are very important. I think if you approach unions as an honest producer, unafraid, and you go in and you truly do try to make it work, negotiate the terms and conditions, within reason, there’s no reason not to go union all the way. I think it’s important.

SF360: I heard someone joking recently that everybody’s a producer now. And to him, the title had sort of lost its power. But it seems like in the work you do, producers have much more distinct roles because you work on bigger productions?

Brubaker: That’s a good question because I think that the producer title has gotten somewhat muddied. I’ve gone to networking things and seen people that are you know 19 and 20 years old hand out a card that says they’re a producer. And I beg to differ. Because unless you’ve had x amount of years of experience, you really can’t take that title on with any kind of certainty. I can’t say that for everybody but for a lot of people, it’s something that you have to work into. Producer, for me, means somebody who’s going to be in charge in some way or shape or form—and not screw it up. Sometimes movies will have as many as four different producers, and you sort of have to divvy up the work. One of the producers might be in charge of the talent, those are the ones that are the movers and shakers in Hollywood, they know everybody, they’re the ones that are going to bring in the talent, so they’re gonna be a sort of ‘talent producer.’ And then you’ll have the producer that’s going to be wrangling the money, they’re gonna be in charge of handling the money that comes in from the executive producers. And then you’re gonna have maybe a nuts and bolts producer, which is what I do, is I put everything together. You know from top to bottom.

You know I work with the other producers, we make decisions about priorities, because really when your primary job is to support the director, your other job is to set priorities. And that’s what I do. And I’m pretty good at knowing where to take risks, where not to take risks. You don’t have a lot of money, so you have to be really good at risk management. And I am good at that. But you definitely have to know something about this business I think, to call yourself a producer. Some people will say, ‘Oh, OK, I’m going to produce this,’ and then they hire me or they hire a whole bunch of other people; if they’re smart, they hire people around them and call them producers too, you know, and let them do their job. But a lot of times somebody like that is not gonna be super effective because they don’t know the business well enough, they don’t know how to make it happen.

For me, for the kind of producing I do, if you don’t know how to negotiate unions, you’re not a producer. If you don’t know how to solve problems in the middle of a crisis, you’re not a producer. If you don’t know how to get a hold of an actor, and what the protocol is for finding a movie star, you’re not a producer. There are certain things you have to be able to do to be a producer. And I think that people do take the title and sort of just say ‘well that’s what I am.’ But the reality can be a whole different story.

SF360: So do you think it’s more effective, for someone who wants to be a producer, to learn every aspect of filmmaking first— the filming and editing and shooting first? Or should they just start on a producer track?

Brubaker: I think it’s better to learn the whole thing first. I actually think going to film school’s a really bright idea. I think taking classes in editing, taking classes in sound production, taking classes in lighting, taking classes in cinematography, taking a directing class, doing a little bit of acting, I think all of that is important. I’ve done all of that. I’m the world’s worst grip. But I know that. At least I know what the gear is. I know what its function is. I know the difference between some of the different pieces of gear and what they’re called. I think that that’s important. It’s just like, how do you be considered an expert in your field if you don’t know the minutiae? And believe you me the devil is in the details. I’m not kidding either. In this business, it’s full of devils. Some people call it Murphy’s Law. But I think the devil is in the details and you have to know your details. That’s important.

SF360: You had mentioned you know where to take risks. What does that mean for you sometimes?

Brubaker: When I talk about risk, I’m talking about money risk, generally speaking. But there’s also, actually, risk involved with keeping people safe. That’s also why there are unions. The unions exist to keep people safe. It can be simple as working hours that are too long, which I don’t believe in, to any kind of stunts or effects that are gonna happen that maybe aren’t thought all the way through. And that’s also about risk. You have to be really good at deciding what you can do, because you have to put everybody’s health and welfare ahead of what you’re doing, because it’s only a movie! When it gets down to it, it’s only a movie….

To learn more about Debbie Brubaker’s current film projects:

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