When Anthony Bregman, Producer, says “it would be a lot easier for any of us to make our living any other way than making movies” just take his word for it. His film career began, inauspiciously enough, as a Production Assistant on Good Machine’s 1992 production Way of the World, a production during which he managed to get frostbite on three toes, stepped into an electrified puddle and found himself at one point volunteering to buy back stolen film equipment`from the mafia.
While it’s unclear whether the frostbitten toes came before or after he was forced to flee down the beach from a posse of double-breasted Russians, and while it is also unclear exactly what forced Anthony to flee in the first place or even whether or not the film equipment was ever returned, this much is quite clear: his boss and mentor, Ted Hope, must either have liked what he saw or felt compelled to protect this burly, Yale-educated, once-upon-a-Wall Streeter, once-upon-a-writer from himself by bringing him off the sand, out of the water and into the office.
Fast forward through thirteen years, right on past that little episode involving shit-shovelling, by a stint as Good Machine’s VP of Production and 30+ films, and it would seem that somewhere along the way Anthony’s fortunes took a demonstrable turn to the upside. September 2005 finds Anthony partners now with his old mentor along with Anne Carey in the Good Machine spin-off known as This is That. With producing credits under his belt that include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Tao of Steve and the soon to be released Thumbsucker with Keanu Reeves, Benjamin Bratt, Kelli Garner and Vince Vaughn, Gothamist can only say that the office seems to have agreed with him. So much so, in fact, that Anthony frequently tempts the fates and ventures back to set. A hands on producer to the extreme, we ran into him recently on the set of his latest film Fast Track.
You’re working on a new film Fast Track…
Yup, shooting on the streets of New York for Columbus, Ohio.
How did that come about? Gotham has a reputation as a pretty expensive place to shoot so it’s far more typical to fake other cities for here…
What’s allowed us to do this is the rebate that New York State and New York City are giving film productions that shoot in New York and do a majority of the stage work in New York. This program started last Fall. It was started by the New York film office, first the State office and then the City office.
So the rebate is really having a tangible impact?
It allowed us to shoot here. Otherwise it would have been the most expensive of all of our alternatives. And this way it’s actually, well, not the cheapest, but close to it. It’s still cheaper to go to Canada, but that’s far less desirable than being able to shoot here.
Do you believe the rebate is staunching the flow of film work leaving the city?
I think so. It’s difficult for me to say what the macro-trend is, but certainly in our case it’s made it possible for us to shoot a lot of films that would have to be shot in Louisiana or Canada and other places.
This is That films are union crewed. That’s a big change from the old Good Machine, no?
Even as Good Machine, we actually signed a National Agreement with the union years ago. We did a number of films that were non-union back when we were making $200,000 movies and $500,000 movies or $30,000 movies. And certainly when it came to $30,000 movies, the union wasn’t interested in that. Now the union is trying to make it possible to work on all levels of film. But even as Good Machine we were working with the unions as far back as, I think, ’98 or ’99.
But the reality is that the films we do now, their budget levels are higher than the ones we did 10 years ago. Fast Track, for instance, is over 10 million – and whether we were signed with the union as a company, Fast Track would have been a union film 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, because that’s the level at which the unions operate.
Was there a turning point, a line This is That crossed along the way where the non-union approach became no longer viable?
There’s never a hard line. But it’s certainly more difficult for us to work on low budget films now, because we have more people working for us, rent to pay, things like that. It’s not the same as when we had a 300 sq. foot office on 25th street between 10th and 11th back before that area was art gallery central and coffee central. Back then you didn’t need a lot of money to exist, so you had the luxury, the ability, to work on super low budget films.
Do you ever miss that?
I do. Kind of. But it’s really tough. It’s really difficult making low budget films. As a Producer you have to do much more than you have to do on a bigger budget film where you can afford to hire Production Managers and post-production supervisors who can take care of things for you. On a $200,000 film you’re often doing most of everybody’s job if for no other reason than because you are probably the one who has the most experience.
Do you think that coming from this low budget world has made This is That Producers more hands on than, say, your average Hollywood Producer?
I can’t speak for them, but we do like to be hands on. I think the formation of a film happens in the small details, so the ability to be on top of those small details so that it’s something that works for the director and the writer and the actors and the studio and the distributor and everybody else is very important. We want to be able to help all those desires and needs coalesce in the film.
By being on set or in the cutting room or at the storyboard meetings; by being involved in all the detail oriented processes, it gives us the ability us to keep all of everybody’s priorities at the forefront of the process.
You gave a talk a while back entitled The Business of Passion & The Art of Compromise. Now a lot of people have a pretty solid sense when it comes to the idea of compromise as art, but could you flesh out a bit this idea of "the business of passion”?
Well, what we’re doing is… see, it would be a lot easier for any of us to make our living any other way than making movies. But the reason why we’re making movies is because we’re passionate about these stories and we want to see them told. But, ultimately, what we as producers need to do, and its solely with the Producer, because the financers don’t need to get involved with the film, and the filmmakers, the writers and directors, they’re not thinking necessarily - and they probably shouldn’t be - about the economic aspects of the movie.
So, what our job as a Producer is, is to take something that we’re passionate about, a piece of art, a story, and find a financial reason for somebody to put millions of dollars into these stories to see them told. And that applies whether it’s a question of finding the right cast that makes a certain budget work or modulating the story so that it will appeal to a certain segment of the population or bringing budgets down so that we can ignore cast and all that. And these are all business decisions that have to be made in order to make it possible for these stories to be told.
Okay, old news here for you but not necessarily for our readers. Good Machine was bought by Vivendi a few years ago and merged with a couple other companies into Focus Features, but you and Ted and Anne Carey split off into This is That. What happened there? Is there any way it could have all stayed together?
The function of a Producer is separate from the function of a distributor. A producer collaborates often with a distributor and in that sense we are still working with James and David and all the people who are at Focus because a lot of our films are being made through Focus.
However, the conflict that would arise if we had all stayed is that our films that didn’t fall within the Focus business plan, or creatively… if we were working for Focus we would have been in the unfortunate position of having to call up another distributor and say, “Hey, this is Anthony from Focus. Would you finance this film?” And so at that point, well, distributors don’t really finance other distributors films so we needed to have an independent entity that could just focus on producing movies.
What exactly then did Vivendi buy?
They bought a lot of things. Principally what they bought was Goodmachine International which is an international sales company, one that had no domestic component. And they had already owned this company called USA Films which was a domestic distributor that didn’t have an International component. So by buying Goodmachine they were able to fuse the two. That’s what they bought in addition to the services of and savvy of James Schamus and David Linde who were two of the three heads of Goodmachine and who became the co-heads of Focus. They also bought the knowledge and savvy of all the staff members who went with Focus.
But they lost you and Ted and Anne…
I think it was always understood that we, as producers, couldn’t function in a company that was wholly owned by a distributor; that as producers we’d have to operate outside of that, but hopefully in collaboration with them. And indeed we did. Three of our first five films were financed and distributed by Focus, including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 21 Grams.
Where did the name This is That come from?
It came from a number of things, but essentially we wanted a name that was more of an adjective than it was a statement about how great we are. It’s something that can refer to movies or whatever else it is. This is that interview. Or this is that fax or email address or this is that office, so that it becomes a part of whatever it is that it’s describing.
Do you call it TIT for short?
We call it This is That, but if you’d like to, abbreviate it in your own perverted mind.
We talked briefly before about turning points. Did Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind take This is That to a new level in terms of what became possible for the company to produce?
It certainly didn’t hurt anything. But a lot of our current projects are actually projects we were developing, and that were in process before Eternal Sunshine. Thumbsucker, which I produced, and which is coming out in September, is actually a movie that we’ve been working on for three or four years, prior to Sunshine getting made. Friends with Money is also a film that we were developing before. And even Fast Track, the one we’re shooting now, is one we’ve been developing for five years.
Speaking of Fast Track. It’s a pretty straight comedy. Do you see that as a departure for This is That?
A departure from what? You mean as opposed to a gay comedy? Okay, you think I’m being facetious, but actually we did a bunch of gay comedies. We did Trick, The Wedding Banquet…
Fair enough, but I was thinking more along the lines of This is That as the offshoot of the company that produced Hal Hartley’s esoterically hilarious films, Todd Solondz’ dark humour and so on. Take Eternal Sunshine, for instance. The humour in that film exists on a pretty metaphysical plane.
Yes, and it’s a question as to whether it’s even a comedy. But, certainly, Fast Track is a broader comedy than anything we’ve done before. And I think it’s super funny. But by no means is it a comedy that is strictly just to get laughs. Mainly, what this story is about is a couple who have a baby and think that because of the way society is, the man should get a job and the woman should stay home with the baby, when in fact the man is totally unsuited for a job and the woman is totally unsuited to stay home.
And the comedy of the film comes from the two of them trying to make a go of it the other way. The Zach Braff character is someone who should never be allowed in an office and Amanda Peet’s character is someone who’s an excellent lawyer, much more a lawyer than someone who should be staying home with a baby 24 hours a day.
What are some of your favorite things about shooting in New York?
One, I get to sleep in my own bed. I get to see my friends. I get to see my family.
Two, I’d say that the kind of reality that you pick up in New York, the unique life that happens in the streets is something that you can’t reproduce elsewhere. And movies shot in Toronto, pretending to be New York, are very obviously not shot here. It’s difficult to put your finger on exactly why that is, why the art department can’t reproduce the trash that’s on the street or the particular decay of the buildings or the particular type of graffiti or whatever, but it just is.
Three, I’d say that the quality of crew you have in New York is just outstanding and geared more toward the craft of making a movie as opposed to it just being a job. I’m always so pleased with the production value you get with a movie that’s shot in New York. It comes down to that the crew cares about it.
Well, from personal experience as a film lighting technician, I’d say that when you talk about caring from the crew perspective, the quality of the project definitely makes a difference. Wouldn’t you agree?
That’s true, but I think if you take that same quality of project and shoot it somewhere else you won’t get the people who are desperate to make a meaningful film signing on in Toronto. You’ll get whoever’s available. And unless you have a big budget, you’re not even getting the best person who’s available, whereas here you can actually have a film that isn’t the very biggest budget, but you can still find people who care about the making of the movie.
Ever had any James Cameron “I’m King of the World!” moments?
I think those moments… you know, they don’t happen in such a dramatic way. I love the process of making films. You know, on Fast Track we had this set that we were worried about over in Long Island City, this big expensive set and we really didn’t think we had enough money to make it work. We didn’t think we had enough time. And walking in on that first day when you’re ready to shoot and everything actually looks great. That was a huge moment.
Or you’re on set, doing a scene with these lines you’ve been working on with the writers for five years, and then an actor puts a particular twist of humanity on it. That puts you on top of the world.
Or you’re at a screening and you see something that you’ve been working on for years and years and its actually eliciting an audience’s response. These are the moments when I feel like, well, that’s what carries you through the difficult times.
But I think I’m most overcome with my love of making movies in the editing room. When things are all coming together correctly. I think if I weren’t a producer I would want to be an editor. It’s a puzzle, a complicated chess game of emotion where you’re creating these characters that the audience has to respond to, sometimes laugh at, sometimes cry at, and you’re stringing them together. And there’s almost this limitless number of ways that they can be strung together; and by moving this or modulating that, just by changing these tiny little elements, you can change the entire nature of a scene, whether it’s funny or aggressive or sad. It’s an incredible process and, ultimately, its what makes a movie work or not work.
Any downside to shooting in New York?
Extreme temperatures. Eternal Sunshine was, I think, the coldest time of my life and Fast Track is maybe the hottest time. Another thing is that New York is expensive. It’s a constant war that we have with the financiers. The financiers are always disinclined to shoot in New York because they think it can get done, dollar for dollar, cheaper elsewhere. But I don’t think you get the same movie.
Ever had any of those “why didn’t I just stay in bed today” moments?
Well, here’s a story. The first movie I produced was Love God in 1997, which was one of my favorite production experiences. It definitely was a pioneering film. It was the first digital film ever made. We had an enormous amount of special effects shots and the budget was 300. maybe 400 thousand dollars. It was also incredibly out there subject matter, basically an escape from monster, sex, love story.
It was about this guy with mental issues, released from an overcrowded insane asylum and he comes to a hotel in the Meatpacking district - this is before the Meatpacking district was a destination for trendy restaurants - and he starts to have hallucinations of, among other things, dinosaur parasites that have been released into the sewers of New York and come up through the toilets. And part of what happens is that when the parasites would come out they wrapped themselves around people, attacked people and spit them out as fertility figures, like giant phalluses and so on, kind of zombie-like.
Good lord, sounds like a Troma production.
[laughing] Let’s just say it was our nod to a Troma production. But it was a really difficult production. Really ambitious. We worked for six months creating monsters. We had a monster factory in a garage on 25th street. And we shot in, like, crack hotels with two cameras most of the time. The surroundings were just very difficult.
Now, the day we started shooting, Ross Katz, who is a producer, a very big producer now and… he worked at Good Machine with us for many years, but prior to that he had been an assistant for Lindsay Duran, who was the producer on Sense & Sensibility and I was the post-production supervisor on that movie. So, anyway, Ross, he had been working out in Los Angeles, working for Sydney Pollack’s company, living pretty well, but he wanted to move to New York and I said “come on over and you can work at Goodmachine. You can start off as post-production supervisor” on another movie we were producing at the time called The Myth of Fingerprints.
So he came in and it was his first day working with Good Machine and my first day of shooting Love God . We’d had a 16-hour day shooting in this crack hotel and that night I came back to the production office, which was also our moster factory and Ross had kept calling me during the day saying, you know, “I have no idea what I’m doing. You said you’d explain to me what a post-production supervisor is supposed to do” and I kept saying “I can’t talk right now. We’ll be able to talk later when I get back to the office.”
So, at the end of the day I get back to the production office and the toilet, which is an illegal toilet, had overflowed and, basically, everyone is so tired and the toilet is overflowing and turds start pouring out and everybody says “Well that’s it. I’m going home ” and I’m left there at midnight on a day we’d started shooting at 5 in the morning and I’m brooming shit out the front door into the street. And it’s right as I’m doing this that Ross comes by. And he says “Do you think we can talk today about what I’m supposed to do tomorrow?” And my response is basically “I’d love to talk to you about that, but at this point if I stop brooming we’re going to get overcome with shit. So, if you want to hang out, great… grab a broom.”