Austin Film Festival: A Conversation with Lindsay Doran

We dig into growing up in the business with super producer Lindsay Doran.
Lindsay Doran Universal Pictures
By  · Published on November 1st, 2017

We dig into growing up in the business with super producer Lindsay Doran.

The producer of films such as Sense and SensibilityStranger Than Fiction, and Nanny McPheeLindsay Doran has brought a variety of delightful films to our screens for years. Growing up within the industry, she always aspired to be a filmmaker herself but knew it would be a challenge considering the lack of women working as executives, producers, and directors. Now an established, award-winning producer, with an illustrious career, Lindsay Doran still works with stories on a regular basis, and attends various events where she provides her insight on why movies have such a strong power to make us feel happy, sad, overjoyed, and a mixture of all of the above.

Over the years, Lindsay has attended the Austin Film Festival, giving talks on subjects such as the writer-producer relationship as well as the psychology of storytelling. During the week of the festival this year, I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with her, and talk a little more about her career, her work with Emma Thompson on films like Sense and Sensibility and Nanny McPhee, and the role of psychology in movie-making.

You grew up surrounded by the film industry, both your father and mother worked within it, but did you always see yourself becoming a producer or working in the film industry at all?

I always wanted to. But I was very aware that at that time, everyone was a man. I have a picture of my father in his office from the 60s. Well, I don’t really know when it’s from, but it’s sort of the whole Paramount staff, and it’s all a bunch of guys. So even though I loved movies and I watched them all of the time, and I dreamed in a general way about making movies, I was very aware that the women were actresses and costume designers, and I wasn’t really interested in being either of those things. So yeah, if I had any dream it was to make movies in England. That was my main thing. I loved English movies and that was the goal. And I actually moved to England the minute I was done with college, literally within three days I was there. And I thought that somehow just being there would do the trick but it didn’t do the trick. It took me a long time to get back and actually start making movies there.

And now that you have had such an established career, and have produced wonderful films, what is that you find you enjoy most about being a producer?

What I enjoy most is the process of actually working on the story. It’s interesting how some producers can’t wait to get to the set. That’s just the part they love the most and they kind of rush the development stage because they can’t wait to get on set and do that part of the producing. I tend to spend a very long time developing screenplays. It’s not unusual for me to spend 3-4 years on a script. Sense and Sensibility took 4 years. Once in a while, they happen quickly, but most of the time they take years and I love that. And then I love the editing room, which is the same thing of looking at the story and figuring out where you can make cuts and new creative choices. So, even though the editing room is more the director’s space, it’s just a space I love to be part of, while the initial space is almost always just me and the writer.

So you would say you enjoy more of creating the story and piecing it together?

Yeah, and helping structure the screenplay. I mean that’s what I really love to do, and thinking about what makes them work. That’s why I love coming to Austin, to be around people who are interested in the same things.

As a producer what do you look for in a story? In a writer?

It mostly has to do with, and again if you asked different producers, they would probably have different answers to this question, because you know, some of them want to do true stories, and some want to do stories about social justice, and so forth. For me, the writers that I respond to are the ones who are laugh out loud funny and can break my heart. And know how to write a romance. And who like to write lots and lots of story. You know, there are certain movies where story is sort of the last thing on anyone’s mind, and there are movies like that I like a lot. In Marjorie Prime, which came out this year, there is no ostensible story, but it’s fascinating because they create a mood and a kind of mystery that’s not like anything else. That’s never something I would produce, as much as I liked it. I wouldn’t even know how to make a movie like that. I’m always adding more story. I need more. And I like working with filmmakers who say, “You know what, I bet we could have even more story going on.” So I like lots of narrative, lots of suspense and surprise. I always want to laugh out loud, and I always want to cry.

Going off of that, what has been your most challenging film to produce thus far, or perhaps what has been your most rewarding? And could you talk more about the difference in producing something like Stranger Than Fiction in comparison to Sense and Sensibility, which takes place in a whole different era?

Sense and Sensibility was difficult in the sense that, well first of all, it took me 10 years to find a writer for it. I think it was about 10 years. I loved that book and had read it way before I got into the movie business and kept thinking of what a great movie it would make. But I was trying to find somebody who could honor Jane Austen in that sense of being laugh out loud funny and being heartbreakingly romantic and know how to do it in period language. When I met Emma Thompson and saw some skits that she had written for British TV, even though she had never written a screenplay in her life, and had not even thought about it that much, I really thought she was the one who should do it. So it was challenging. It was very challenging for her, learning how to write a screenplay, and it was very challenging for me helping her to write that screenplay. But then she won the Oscar for it, so that was good.

The challenge of making a period piece is harder for an American producer than for an English producer, because a lot of English producers have been making English period movies for most of their career. What was hard for me and for the director, Ang Lee, to understand that there was such a commitment to making sure that all the period details were correct. So we had in mind that Alan Rickman would wear a mustache. We had seen him with a mustache in Truly Madly Deeply, and he had looked so incredibly romantic, and so when we hired him we thought he would wear a mustache. But we were informed by the hair and makeup people that was out of the question because men didn’t wear mustaches in 1800 when the story was set. And that was it. It didn’t matter that the producer and director wanted it a certain way, it just wasn’t done. Even Alan wouldn’t agree to it. It was really shocking to us.

Or there was a scene when Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant are riding horses. We found that location in the winter. Then when we went back in the spring to shoot, it was covered in these beautiful yellow flowers sort of like mustard plants, and we said, “Oh wow, that’s great, we can have them riding in front of those beautiful yellow flowers.” And the production designer said no, that everyone knows those flowers weren’t introduced to England until 1879 or whatever year it was. And finally, even Hugh Grant came over and said you can’t put the camera there, everybody knows about those flowers and when they were introduced. So it was very challenging for that reason. But in every other way it was great to have a Chinese director who was new to making an English period movie, and really new to making even an English language film. That made it really exciting.

So that’s a very different thing from Stranger Than Fiction which is set in modern day and shot in Chicago. Zach Helm had already written many plays and screenplays before that, so that was probably the quickest development of anything that I’ve worked on. But unlike Sense and Sensibility which began with a book, Stranger Than Fiction began with an original idea when Zach said that he wanted to write about a guy who has a narrator. So that’s all we had, building from the most basic level of a building block into that whole story.

So, did Nanny McPhee resemble Stranger Than Fiction in that it started with more of an idea which developed into a full story?

Nanny McPhee was a series of books that Emma had read as an adult, and she told me the basic story over lunch one day. And I didn’t really even need to read the books after that, I just thought the idea was so strong, and thought that we could just go from there. In a sense we didn’t even really use much of the book, but rather the idea of that Nanny McPhee character and the idea of very naughty children, and the idea that she uses magic to teach them empathy so that they can experience what it means to be on the other side of their naughtiness, and then they get better and she gets prettier. All of that is what I love. We used almost nothing else. The books didn’t really have much of a story. She gets uglier and prettier, and uglier and prettier, in almost every chapter. So it’s just a series of naughty things that the children do and what she does to improve them. So we built that story completely from scratch.

I attended your Psychology of Storytelling panel at Austin Film Festival last year and found the talk very fascinating. You said that your interest in positive psychology began after you read the book “Flourish” by Martin Seligman.        

No, it was after I read his earlier book, “Learned Optimism.”

Oh yes, that’s right. I’m sorry. “Learned Optimism” was the book. “Flourish” is his more recent book. So then could you talk a little more about how that has shaped your lens as a producer now? I recall you saying it felt like a bit of an aha moment.

Well, that book and then the later book and then getting to know the people who were sort of leaders in that field, just made me realize, you know, I think a lot of us believe that depression is necessary for art. That the great writers are all depressed, and are all drinking, and are all suicidal, and that movies that make you feel terrible are automatically better movies, and I never really questioned any of that. The Positive Psychologists made me question it. They asked, “Why is it that the most depressing movies win all the awards when our field is trying to make people less depressed? Why are you movie people trying to make people more depressed? And why do you think that depression is a good foundation for art when research says exactly the opposite? Our research indicates that you’re actually more creative when you expose yourself to more positive emotions, that if you’re trying to solve a story problem, you might be better off listening to ‘Despacito’ than listening to Leonard Cohen.” I mean that’s fascinating to me. These are the kinds of things that I want to share with people because I didn’t know.

And I certainly hadn’t thought about accomplishments and relationships and the sort of ballet that goes on between those two elements in our stories. Once I began doing the research, I realized that there are real preferences going on in terms of an audience and what they care about and that relationships are ultimately more important than accomplishments. I’ve also been reading a lot of evolutionary psychology, and what I’ve learned from those books is that we are programmed by evolution to pay attention to our accomplishments, to things like wiping out our opponents and winning, for example, but that relationships are equally important for our civilization to thrive. Relationships might not be as important for fight or flight situations, and they might not seem to be as dramatic as accomplishments, but they’re crucial to building the kind of community that’s required to keep civilization alive. So I found all of that research fascinating and very relevant to telling stories.

I do a lot of story consulting now, so let’s say I’ll come in the middle of a project. And I will say to everybody, “What is the most important relationship in this movie?” And I will sometimes get 6 different answers. When people realize there are 6 answers, they realize something is wrong. It might be better if there’s a sense of the centrality of a specific relationship.  It doesn’t matter if that relationship is between 2 people or among a whole group as in Hidden Figures or Pitch Perfect, but you have to say in the end, this story is about these people; this group, this friendship, this couple. The script will probably work a lot better if you can identify that central relationship. And, weirdly, that’s the note we got from the studio on Sense and Sensibility. They said, this is great, but we’re not feeling the relationship between the sisters strongly enough. And they were actually right. It made it so much better when we went back and made sure that the sister relationship was the central thing despite all the romance that was going on.

And you say it’s not necessarily that a story needs a happy ending, but rather a positive ending. Could you explain maybe the difference between these two a little bit? And how important do you think it is that audiences take away something positive from a film?

It’s two things. I don’t think that people should just watch positive movies. There are lots of movies that I like and admire that are tragic. I never want anyone to think that what I’m doing is saying that you shouldn’t make sad or tragic movies. I worked for Sydney Pollack for 8 years, and he specialized in love stories where the two people don’t get together. That’s what he did for a living. But they’re wonderful movies that will live forever. It’s a lovely way to make a movie. So I would never say that people shouldn’t do that. The trick is to have a satisfying ending whether the feeling is positive or negative, and that’s what Sydney was able to do time and again in his movies. But I have become aware that we are making fewer and fewer cheerful movies. Those that make us happy from beginning to end. That used to be a standard thing in Hollywood. We were making On the Waterfront, but we were also making Singin’ in the Rain. There was a balance. So you could go to a movie for escape or you could go to a movie to think seriously about social issues. It was all there. Now, I feel as if that genre is disappearing. It’s there sometimes. It’s there in Momma Mia, it’s there in Talladega Nights. But it’s there less and less often.

Somehow this idea that movies should be darker has really been taking over, and what I have learned from the positive psychologists is that the mental and psychological health for people who are going to the movies might be improved by that kind of escapist humor that makes us laugh in an un-cynical way. I just want to make people aware that we need to be making that kind of movie too. There are lots of good movies that end sadly and end in a devastating failure. And I’m not saying that’s wrong at all. But I do think there needs to be more of an understanding of the importance of escapist comedy and romantic comedy. We are not as aware as we should be of the importance of making movies that make audiences happy, movies that make ourselves happy. As I said, it turns out that writers might be much more creative after watching a scene from Singin’ in the Rain or listening to Andy Grammar sing “It’s Good to Be Alive Right About Now” than if they were to watch The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or listen to Leonard Cohen. It’s not that there is no place for Leonard Cohen. I love Leonard Cohen. It’s just that we have to realize we need the whole spectrum of emotion in our entertainment and that positive emotions are crucial building blocks of mental and emotional health.

And as television gets darker and darker. I mean let’s face it, what do you watch on Sunday night that makes you feel good? It’s all getting very very dark and cynical. I just want to make sure that movies are doing their part to balance that darkness.

So thinking on this, throughout your career, what are some films that have inspired you most? Or have made you feel really strongly about something, or that you wanted to emulate, or any of the above?

There are so many. I always come back to Seven Samurai, the Japanese film. I feel that it has everything. It has amazing drama, amazing action, there are parts that actually are funny. And it is very deep philosophically and very entertaining. So it gives you whatever you want from the movies. Great storytelling, great acting, great cinematography. So it’s the whole package in that way. I love that movie.

I also really really love Singin’ in the Rain. I love His Girl Friday. I also really love this silent film called Sunrise, which is a romance film that I think is one of the most emotional things I’ve ever seen. I also love Shoot the Piano Player, which is one of Truffaut’s films from the 60s and is one of my favorite films.

I’m sure if you asked me tomorrow, I would give an entirely different list. I love Sleepless in Seattle. I love Love Actually. I love romantic comedies in general. It’s one of my favorite genres and again, it’s a genre that disappearing. And I think that’s so sad. Something that’s been with us since the beginning of movie making is just not happening much anymore. What happened? People didn’t want to stop seeing love stories, and people didn’t want to stop laughing. So how did that happen? I think it’s really really sad.

Lastly, what advice would you give to upcoming filmmakers who aspire to be producers and screenwriters?

See a lot of movies. I’m kind of shocked at times by how few movies people have seen. So many people are watching television right now and that’s fine because the writing in television is great right now, but if you want to make movies, you should see a lot of movies. And you should see silent movies, and movies from the 30s, 40s, 50s, and all the way through, because they’re not just old-fashioned black and white films you have nothing to learn from. There is some stunningly good storytelling from films in every decade, including silent films, and it’s so important to have seen all of them. Just see more movies. See them more than once. I draw on old movies all the time. I solve problems with scripts I’m working on today with something I saw in a movie that was made in 1934, 1959, etc. They are full of solutions.

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