Gavin Schmitt Interviews Effie Brown
When you think of people who work on movies, you probably think actors and directors, maybe the special effects crew. Very rarely do you hear about producers outside of certain big shots like Michael Bay.
Well, today is different. I was able to have a stimulating conversation with Effie Brown, producer of “The Inheritance” (new out on DVD and Blu-ray now). Effie has made a variety of films, from “In the Cut” to “Desert Blue”, of all genres and with many talented people.
We discussed some of those people she has worked with, got down to business with “The Inheritance” and then explored the idea of race in the movies. The topic is a bit heavier than our usual interviews, but I think it is well worth your time and may change the way you think about your viewing preferences. Let’s go to the transcript…
GS: What kind of producer would you say you are? More hands on or mainly in funding?
EB: I call myself a full-service producer. I take a project all the way from financing to production to distribution at the end. I’m signing every check, approving every call sheet. I am involved from the ground up. I came up through the ranks, I used to work in development with Tim Burton, then went to line producing. I like to get up in there.
GS: Explain for us the difference between line producer, executive producer, etc…
EB: The Producers Guild of America has the titles all properly laid out, but in my layman’s terms, executive producer has something to do with the financing or they put a critical piece of talent in the film. They are usually not hands on or on set. They show up at Q&As, you invite them to the premiere and tell them how fabulous they are. A line producer is more hands-on, they are in charge of the line items of a budget, making sure that each line stays within the particular confines of the budget. But they are usually getting their orders from a producer, and they are more a manager on the set.
GS: That makes sense. I think producing is a mystery field in film, because it is most behind the scenes.
EB: Exactly. And nowadays everybody wants a producer credit, but nobody knows what they are willing to do for it.
GS: Alright, next, I am going to list people you worked with in pairs. Because you have worked with so many, pick one of the two and tell us a story about that person.
EB: A story that can be printed? (laughs)
GS: Yeah. “Stripping for Jesus” (1998) starred Karen Black and was written and directed by Anne Heche. Pick one.
EB: You know, both of them were pretty great. Karen Black is such an icon, and the first time I met her, she was sitting on the floor of the set doing her own makeup, telling me stories about “Easy Rider”. She was someone I put on a pedestal, but she was very down to Earth. When a lady of that stature is sitting on the floor, putting on her own makeup out of a compact getting ready to go on camera, that’s my kind of lady.
“Striping for Jesus” was a short, the first thing directed by Anne Heche, at a time that we later found out from Barbara Walters that she was having a moment. But she was always great to me, and I loved working with her.
GS: You were supposed to pick one or the other, but that’s okay.
EB: I’m in trouble!
GS: Next, we have “Desert Blue” (1998) — starring Casey Affleck and Christina Ricci. Pick one.
EB: Once again, they were in the same category. There was no particular story. Casey Affleck, I just remember him being one of the guys. It impresses me when people are down to Earth, and we were in this place called Goldfield, Nevada, and it was super-cold. We were staying in a very inexpensive, divey hotel, and he really took it on the chin. I remember him hanging out with the crew after shooting, and we would hang out and eat in each other’s hotel rooms. And this was before he really started to blow up, he was doing really well with getting out of his brother’s shadow. He was very approachable.
GS: Next, “But I’m a Cheerleader” (1999) with Michelle Williams or “In the Cut” (2003) with Mark Ruffalo.
EB: Oh, okay, I love Mark Ruffalo. I love, love, love Mark Ruffalo. He is such a good guy. Sometimes you work with actors and there is something persnickety about them, but with Mark there was nothing. I think perhaps that is because he had that brain tumor and he was really grateful to be alive. That guy, the only thing I remember that might be okay to print, was we were looking to hire a male escort to explain how to pleasure a woman. That’s a fun part of the job. Me, Jane Campion, and Laurie Parker the other producer, we were interviewing what you might call male gigolos. “In the Cut” was about a woman that was really sexually turned out. We would go to these people, and Mark finally stopped us, and he said, “Hey guys, I’ve been married for years, I have children, I know how to pleasure a woman. I think I’m good, I don’t need any additional tips.” And so we stopped and said, “I’m sure you don’t.” It was good, he didn’t say it with an ego at all. And I have to say, after shooting those scenes, his wife is a very lucky woman.
GS: Last one — “Rocket Science” (2007) with Anna Kendrick or “Polish Bar” (2010) with Meat Loaf.
EB: Ohhhhhh! Those are both good! Oh, man. That’s hard. Anna was great. There’s no story. She was someone we saw before she had “Twilight” and “Up in the Air” and all that good stuff. Jeff Blitz, the director, and I, we saw it in her audition early on — she walked that fine line between ball-buster and… you knew exactly what kind of woman she was going to grow up to be. Not so much Anna as the way she did her character. A ball-buster, somewhat emasculating. She was able to nail that character, but she was also the teenage girl trying to find herself. We went through a lot of people, and she was the one that nailed it.
For Meat Loaf? Totally different situation. We were doing a little film in Chicago, and it’s Meat Loaf — he has a larger than life personality. Have you seen him on “Celebrity Apprentice” this year? Fantastic! That’s who he was. A lovely, lovely man. Super-humble, super-easy going. We were going a low budget movie, but when we needed him to turn it on, on camera, he was a raging lunatic. He was able to get that glint in his eye where you knew he was going to be intense. He’s a tiger. I have never seen a man who was so humble, but once the camera was on you saw a glint in his eye and he was kind of “crazy pants”. You knew it was for the character, but it was also something he was able to tap into. He was never abrasive on set, but as Joe the bar owner, he could take it there.
GS: Are you ready to talk about “The Inheritance”?
EB: Oh, maybe. (laughs)
GS: Well, that’s what we’re supposed to be talking about today. Get us up to speed on this, what should we know about “The Inheritance”?
EB: Okay. The idea is pretty well explained by the trailer, but what we were trying to do is… the director is Robert O’Hara, a black guy. We get asked, “An Irish guy directed an all-black horror movie?” Well, no. He’s a popular playwright and director in New York. We got together several years ago because we both love horror films. There’s the old joke that people of color die in the first fifteen minutes in a horror film, that we’re just a token. And we really do die, you know, in the first couple minutes. There are exceptions, like “Alien”, but I’m kind of a nerd about horror movies and I could go on… and Robert was saying he would love to make a film where it doesn’t make a difference that the cast is black, but just that they were. And we wanted to make our own Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees. We have Candyman (affiliate link), and Tony Todd did an awesome job. But there hasn’t been anyone since.
The film’s premise is that the family, during the slave days, made a pact. They made a pact with this entity named Chakabazz, where you could be free and wealthy, all you had to do was make a sacrifice every generation or so. And back in those days, that was a pretty good deal. Families were being ripped apart… and cut to years later, you have this family reunion of this family that has Bill Gates money, Oprah money. And the kids want to ask the elders for money. One wants to be a boxer, one wants startup money for a web company, but unknown to them, they are going to be sacrificed to keep the blood pact.
So, what we wanted to do is, we didn’t want to make it funny. Do you remember that Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy skit where he’s like, “Black people can’t be in horror movies because they’d just be ‘get out!’ or ‘peace out, we’re gone’.” So Robert and I asked, how would we get these people to a remote location where they really had no business being? One, they would do it if they felt safe. Two, you were going to get something. And that’s where he came up with the idea of having a black family reunion in the snow. We wanted to do an homage to “The Shining”, so we have this mansion in the snow. Which is strange enough in itself, because a black family reunion would not be in the snow, it would be with a barbecue. So, we’re already trying to turn it on it’s head. So we used “The Shining” and “Rosemary’s Baby” as archetypes.
So, that’s what “The Inheritance” is about. Am I going on too much?
GS: I think you covered the film, but you can keep going if you’d like.
EB: I can do this all day. Just stop me.
GS: Well, let’s move from that just slightly and talk about the role of race in films. There is what might be called a subgenre of “black film”. As a white man, I find these films are not accessible to me, they do not click. Do you think that it’s good to have this seen as a subgenre or should the goal be to incorporate black actors into what is considered a mainstream film?
EB: Allow me to share my thoughts, with all due respect. What you just said could kind of be seen as reverse racism. Because it’s like saying that “Black Swan” was not accessible to me, as a black woman, because there was not one black person in that movie. How about “The Social Network”? Is that something I cannot understand? Or “The King’s Speech”? There are a lot of movies that are “mainstream” that don’t have people of color in them, and sometimes there aren’t even any women. And I’m not going to even go into women… but what you just said, or my interpretation of that, is, “Watching a film with all black people is not accessible to me.” And I think, if you put the shoe on the other foot, the films that I make… they aren’t black films, but they are films that I think should be accessible to people no matter what color you are. So I find it interesting that you, as a white man, find black films inaccessible, but white people all the time are asking me to give my green dollars to these movies I’ve mentioned. So, what does that mean? I don’t take it personally, but I think that’s a sad day.
What we were trying to say (with “The Inheritance”) is that these themes are universal. We’ve all seen these movies where a group of people are in the middle of nowhere getting killed off. That is an archetype of a horror film all the way back to “Nosferatu”. That’s a film with someone where they shouldn’t be, something happens to them, and how do they get away? That’s a universal story that everyone should be able to understand. Movies educate as they entertain, they give you glimpses into other people’s lives. Of the thirteen films I’ve made, this is only the second with a predominantly black cast. And I made it the same as I made “In the Cut” or “Rocket Science”. All of those films should be accessible to everybody.
GS: I don’t disagree with that at all. When I say “black film”, I am thinking more along the lines of a Tyler Perry film, not simply a film with a predominantly black cast. My question is whether the Tyler Perry-type films should continue to be seen as the prime example of a “black film”, or should there be a push to get more people of color, more women, and the like into what is called “mainstream”?
EB: Well, I agree with you. In my mind’s eye, I personally feel, black people will put their money down for “X-Men” and it doesn’t make a difference because we all like that. And with “X-Men”, people of color are represented. You’re not the hero, but hopefully you don’t die in the first bit. If those are the mainstream films you’re talking about, I applaud that, because they feature a diverse world and we are living in a diverse world. I will watch “King’s Speech” , and there are not many black people in the world that it took place in, but I can still watch it and enjoy it.
I think what we were trying to do with “The Inheritance” will appeal to horror fans, and we were trying to do something that hadn’t been done before. “Black Swan” wasn’t about the lily-white world of ballet. Race was never mentioned in “Black Swan” or “Social Network”, it was just a given that this was the world you were in. Same thing should be for “The Inheritance”. And the reason I am so passionate about this is because we want to franchise this. We want to make a second, a third and a fourth. A lot of time you see a black film and you have the “we hate white people” motif. This is not about that, this is about greed. We can all get that. Their being black is related to the underlying story, but it is not important for the themes of the film.
We actually had to do a bit of maneuvering to get the film to be seen as more universal. If you look at the poster or DVD cover, it’s decidedly ethnically non-specific. It could be a little bit of anybody. It’s sort of interesting in that this is what we had to do in order to get it into all the stores. Hopefully people give it a chance and get hooked.
GS: Oh yeah. My concern wasn’t even with “The Inheritance” so much as with the Tyler Perry films.
EB: Don’t even get me started with Tyler Perry. (laughs)
GS: All I’m saying is that he has his audience, and that’s great. And I don’t know if it’s him or the media or who it is, but somebody somewhere has painted his films as the standard for “black film”.
EB: This is totally off the record… (conversation redacted for the next five minutes)
GS: We have probably run way over time, but I thank you. I really enjoyed having a solid conversation for a change.
EB: No problem. I want to thank you for calling. Every little bit helps promote “The Inheritance”. I love horror and sci-fi. I’m a teenage boy on the inside.
Thank you, Effie, and everybody else… go pick up “The Inheritance”!