Line producer Shea Kammer attended January’s Sundance Film Festival to support three films. He talks to Awards Daily about his connection to the films.
Most filmmakers consider themselves lucky if they take one film to Park City’s Sundance Film Festival. Line producer Shea Kammer found himself there with three – count ’em – three films. To the Bone, The Yellow Birds, and Newness all premiered at the festival last January. Shea Kammer supported them all.
“It was an amazing experience. Sundance is 75 percent socializing and 25 percent work,” Kammer said. “The line between the two blurs often, but it was a lot of fun I have to say.”
Marti Noxon’s (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) To the Bone takes a comic drama approach to a girl’s (Lily Collins) struggle with anorexia. Alexandre Moors’s The Yellow Birds, based on the celebrated novel by Kevin Powers, stars Alden Ehrenreich struggling with the horrors of war. Newness, directed by Like Crazy’s Drake Doremus, offers a modern Los Angeles-based take on social media and hooking up. The three films offer three very different stories, but they each have Shea Kammer in common.
Home from the swirl of Sundance, Kammer prepares budgets for a host of potential new film projects. He talked to Awards Daily about his experience on each film, what drew him to line producing, and which film was most personal to him.
So, Shea Kammer, tell me what a line producer does on a film set.
It’s interesting because there’s so many different producer-type credits that sometimes I have a hard time keeping track of what everybody does. From film to film, my job duties could be entirely different. The film producer who I directly work for could have four to five different projects that they’re focused on. They could have a script they’re developing, a film in pre-production, in post-production on another thing, or they’re dealing with a distribution plan for another film.
As line producer, I’m the in the trenches, boots on the ground producer only working on one film at any given time. My focus is the entirety of the physical production starting with doing the initial budget, hiring the crew, finding locations to shoot in… I’m heavily responsible in those aspects of filming.
So how does one become a line producer?
Most line producers that I know of come up either as an assistant director, sometimes location managers, or production accounting, which is the line I took. I went to film school at USC and graduated never having heard of the phrase “production accountant.” I quickly realized it was the absolute best training for producing. Every piece of paper for the project crosses your desk whether it’s the cost of a central prop or the director’s contract or a location agreement. That’s the path I took that led to production management and eventually led to line producing. I still go to USC and speak to producing classes about production accounting. It’s a little known fast track to line producing.
You had three major films at Sundance: To The Bone, The Yellow Birds, and Newness. How did Sundance treat you given the three premieres?
I haven’t been to Sundance in six years. I went there in 2011 with [Kevin Smith’s] Red State. This year was sort of insane. A good amount of luck went into the fact that I had three films that I worked on there. It usually takes 5-6 months to even make a film. One of the films literally wrapped two months before Sundance.
When you’re hired to work on a film, does the film choose you or do you choose the film?
I’d say it’s about 50/50. I try to work on quality films whenever I can. Sometimes you can’t. You still have bills to pay, so occasionally I’ll work on whatever I can. I’ve been blessed because of my track record that I’ve been offered more prestigious films, that Sundance-targeted indie film.
To the Bone deals with the sensitive topic of eating disorders. During Sundance press, star Lily Collins revealed she once suffered from an eating disorder. Is that something the production team knew going into the film?
No, it was fascinating for me because the first I’d heard about it was in her Q&A after the premiere. Well, I say it was fascinating but not a surprise. The percentages are so high in the industry that it’s never truly a surprise when something like that is revealed. But it wasn’t something that came up on set at all.
Tell me about The Yellow Birds. What makes this film’s vision of the Iraq War unique?
One of the first things that struck me about it was that it was completely non-political. The book and the screenplay make a big point about not even identifying it as Iraq. The city names we use in the film aren’t even real geographic locations. Kevin Powers [author] and Alex Moors [director] wanted to accentuate the universality of how tough war can be on very young people going overseas. That is one of the big things, I think, we tried to imbue it with – that nonpartisan look at the effects of war.
The other thing that struck me, even at the time we were making it, I thought this would be the most beautiful film I’ve ever worked on. It may be the most beautiful film I ever work on. It was so gorgeously photographed. It’s frustrating as a line producer because you want to move on and make the day’s work and not get bogged down in beautiful shots, but I couldn’t really stop it because we were doing such great work.
Do you ever find within you there’s the struggle between creativity and the mechanics of being a line producer?
I absolutely deal with that struggle. Like good producers, I find that the single most important part of the job is achieving that right balance. There are a lot of line producers out there whose patent answer is no. That’s the joke about the line producer – he or she are always saying no. You have to say no the majority of the time, especially when you’re dealing with limited budget. The art of it is figuring out when to say yes and having an open mind to work with individual departments to turn a “No” into a “Yes” without adding additional budget.
At the end of the day, we want to make as good a movie as the director and the rest of the crew, but we’re the ones on the line if it goes over budget. I find every film gets a little more sophisticated about how to put the money on the screen and achieve the director’s vision while staying on budget. It’s sort of an art that will never be perfected. Every film I learn something new.
The third film that you took to Sundance was Newness, which film tackles dating during the social media era. What drew you to this film?
That was a personal challenge to me because it was the smallest budget I’ve ever worked on. We shot it union in Los Angeles. Part of it was I wanted to see if I could do it. It was one of those scripts with so many locations, characters, and scenes. You say nobody could ever pull this off. It was too much script for such a small budget. The other thing was, again, working with talented directors, which I love. I had not worked with Drake [Doremus] previously. The great thing about working with an established director or somebody that has a loyal crew they work with makes it easier to do low budget stuff.
Most everybody involved on that production typically works on bigger films for bigger money, and, because of their loyalty to Drake and believing in the script, they were barely working for more than minimum wage. A lot of ways, I think that makes for a better set. I find that it’s almost inversely proportional the size of the budget versus how good of a time you’re having on set. With small budget stuff, people aren’t there for a paycheck. They’re there because they believe in something, which you don’t often see on bigger budget sets.
Of these three films, which one is more personal to you?
That is a difficult question in that I love so much about all three of them. I will say that I was incredibly happy that To the Bone ended up with the Netflix distribution deal because in so many ways I was worried that film was the least marketable of the three. It’s the same as my initial reaction before reading the script. It’s an anorexia drama/comedy. It sounds on paper very maudlin/tv movie territory, but I think it takes seeing on film to realize what Marti [Noxon] has done is so different from a TV movie. It could be enjoyed by a huge audience, and it has an important message to get out about eating disorders. Netflix is the perfect platform for it to attract younger audiences as it’s eminently clickable when you see it out there.