Toronto-born Michael Cerenzie started his career in New York theater as a playwright and producer. His theatrical honors include an Obie Award in New York and more than 20 Dramalogue awards in Los Angeles. He launched Unity Productions in 2001. His feature productions include Deuces Wild and the critically-acclaimed City of Ghosts, which prompted Variety to include him in their "50 Most Creatives to Watch." Besides Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Cerenzie currently has several films in various stages of production, including Black Water Transit, directed by Tony Kaye. Cerenzie has recently partnered with Christine Peters to form CP Productions. He graciously took time from his frenzied schedule to talk with me via phone.
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Michael Guillén: Though I've interviewed several directors and actors, you're my first producer, so please pardon me if I sound a bit ignorant. I have some basic questions regarding producers and am hoping—through your personal work—to gain a grasp.
Michael Cerenzie: Okay.
Guillén: When I think of producers I picture a crowd of people on the Academy Awards stage all jostling for the microphone. [Cerenzie chuckles.] And I'm frequently amazed by how many people are involved in the behind-the-scenes production of a film. Can you explain to me the hierarchy of production? What differentiates an executive producer from an associate producer from "just" a producer?
Cerenzie: Well, y'know Mike, it's gotten really confusing I think for all of us. In effect, we've seen over the last few years the Guild and the Academy getting involved in that. It's changed drastically over the last four-five years. The studios used to, as we all know, finance the pictures and definitely did not want any other financing involved in their pictures. They would really be financing a picture from the production standpoint and distributing and [they] would hire a producer that would be basically a lot producer that would be assigned to the picture. That's all really changed now. You're looking on the average picture—even on the studio level—co-productions and so forth. In the indie world especially, you're looking at probably at least one or two, if not three, people of different talent skills coming together to create a successful production, or any kind of production because not all productions unfortunately are successful.
I'm an odd person to ask about the hierarchy because—when I got into the business—I was coming from theatre. I was a theatre producer and an actor, writer and a playwright. So when I came into film in 2001, I was naïve in a good way I guess, looking back, thinking that you had to do everything. My personal approach was that you were responsible for the creative aspect of finding the material—whether it was an original piece of work or an idea adapted from a play or a novella—and creating the screenplay. The screenplay is the focus and the basis point from which you're going to build your production. It's going to attract your filmmaker; it's going to attract your talent; and in the end it's going to attract your financing and your distributions.
The title of producer today has become diluted. The producer should be an all-faceted individual who works all aspects and corrals all aspects of production through development to physical production and post-production, through distribution and marketing. What you see more of today is a lot of executive producers. Whether they're equity-financed people who are financing the film or components of distribution—which can be a foreign sales component—often they take an executive producer credit. Or it could be somebody who's put up some seed money. That typically could be your executive producer. That's a definition most people would agree with.
Your co-exec could be included in that but on a lesser level. Co-producer credits are typically going to be line producers or your physical production team that you feel have done the job. Usually, they've worked from a UPM to a line producer to a co-producer credit to actual producer, and we've seen that historically happen over the last 10-20 years.
The associate producer credit is hard to define. I don't know if anyone can define it. It's a credit that's been thrown and bandied about in a million different ways. It doesn't hold as much value as it did in the old studio days where an associate producer actually meant a lot, whereas today it's moreorless just a throwaway credit. Not in a negative way. It's usually someone who has contributed something from the production side that we feel deserves some kind of credit above what they've been actually paid to do on the movie itself. I don't know if that helps at all.
Guillén: Very much so. Thank you.
Cerenzie: My mother still doesn't know what I do for a living! [Chuckling.] I guess the way I look at it—and I've used this philosophy in explaining production, a producerial role in helping a film come together—if you look at an actor as a color, [let's say in The Devil Knows You're Dead] you look at Seymour Phillip Hoffman as the color red (or maybe black would be better) and Ethan as the color blue, and Marisa as the color orange, and the canvas is the script which Kelly Masterson has created, and Sidney Lumet, he's really the artist, the painter who's putting this all together—the producer is the frame, which holds it all together. In essence, there's a misconception about being the producer. Everyone thinks of the producer as being at the top but I look at it that the producer is more at the bottom. You're there to support everyone in their creative aspect, whether it's the director, the writer, the actors, the DP, or the production design team.
Guillén: I suspect that producers have received a bum rap from laypeople like myself because we think of producers as meddlesome suits who haunt a set; but, what I'm catching from you, is that you do much of your work well in advance of the set?
Cerenzie: I've worked on The Devil Knows You're Dead for about three and a half years with my partner Brian Linse and the writer Kelly Masterson in developing the project, reworking it, getting the script to a level where—after Sidney read it once—he said, "This is something I would really love to do." I'm definitely not a walk-on guy, though there are producers who actually do that. That's really what has given producers a bit of a bad reputation because there are, unfortunately in any group, people who take advantage of their position and title, or want a title, and that's where it's confusing for most of the general film-going public.
Guillén: Before we dive in to discussing the current film The Devil Knows You're Dead, can you talk a bit about your theatrical background?
Cerenzie: I started out as an actor in Toronto. Then I moved to New York where I worked in theater and studied under an amazing acting coach William Esper who lived with Sanford Meisner for about 27 years. On Esper's suggestion I went to work with Curt Dempster who created the Ensemble Studio Theater in 1971. It is still the foremost one-act forum in the country. When I was there, Arthur Miller was still bringing his one-acts there, David Mamet, Horton Foote—who I actually met there and was developing a movie with Robert Altman; unfortunately, just before he passed. I was fortunate to work with those types of creative forces. I was pretty successful producing theater in New York. I made a transition from acting to producing. I felt I had better skill sets that were able to—as I mentioned earlier—support these other creative people within their means. I moved over to the producing realm, first in theater and later in film.
Guillén: So along with creatively developing the script of Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, how did you go about finding financing?
Cerenzie: I spent the last few years developing a lot of good material, optioning bestselling novels, plays, and I do a lot of original work as well with writers, and at the same time learning those other skill sets that I thought were necessary, which were financial skill sets and understanding how to put a picture together financially and how to do it the best way, again keeping more autonomy as we went along. I spent several years literally splitting my time between creatively developing material like Before The Devil Knows Your Dead and at the same time looking for what I would call producing financial partners who had the same philosophy as me, which was yes, this is a creative medium and we want to make amazing film; but, at the same time we need financial business sense.
One of those partners I was lucky enough to meet was Paul Parmar who has a company that we did five pictures with last year, the first one being Before The Devil Knows Your Dead. Paul and I share the same philosophy, which is that film is a business. He's a brilliant young man who's been very successful in other areas.
The idea then is to build private equity partners that are, in essence, producing partners in a film and have the ability to go forth and make films like Before The Devil Knows Your Dead and so forth. It was interesting because, for instance, when I first sat with Sid, after me and Brian had done a lot of work on the screenplay with Kelly, the first thing for Sidney was—I think I appear very young to him doing this—and I'm not sure if he did or not but I think he actually at one time asked to see something I produced so I sent him City of Ghosts. He thought it was a well-produced, well-made picture and that Matt Dillon had done a good job as a first-audience filmmaker. I believe that everything triggered itself. Spending that time with Matt making City of Ghosts eventually drew in the ability for me to get other people to put money behind me and believe in me as a producer. It also attracted talent. It attracted other filmmakers who were perhaps not getting the opportunity they were looking for to make the type of films they wanted to be making by the majors at that time (and probably still today). Sidney's proof of that.
We were also working with a wonderful piece Horton Foote adapted and Robert Altman was working with us for about two years. We had just signed the agreement to go into production when a couple of days later Altman passed, which was very unfortunate because I think it was going to be a very special film that we were working on together. What happens is one thing continually builds on another and that's the way I've looked at building my career as a producer. [It's about] gaining the trust of the filmmaker and the talent and really understanding where they're coming from. I think that goes back to my theater background. I would give that most credit for understanding how the artistic mind works because—once you understand the financial; that becomes easy—but, understanding the artistic and the financial is a much more complicated situation. More producers are going to have to learn those skill sets or they're going to have to learn to partner with the people who have those skill sets.
Guillén: It's great to hear you discuss your initial skill set—your ability to interact with creative sensibilities—and how then on top of that you've added the financial skill set. Generally, when people think about producers, they assume all they do is come up with the money for a movie and that they don't have a clue what the artist is doing.
Cerenzie: That's changing. Look at the last couple of years of the Academy, films like Capote, Crash and John Singleton did a wonderful job producing Hustle & Flow, I think we're seeing it come full circle because it's actually showing up at the Oscars. They're not just critical acclaim pictures, meaning they're done creatively, they're done well, but they're actually showing some economic legs as well, which is important at the end of the day. But yeah, the theater skill sets I would still consider my strongest points in what I do, even though the financial is definitively by most people's standards the most important.
But the idea has always been to make great film and hope that you find your audience, which I feel is actually happening very specifically with Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. It's a film we did independently on our own and we financed totally without any studio distribution and shot in New York, which Sidney loves more than anything, and we made a film that pound for pound and scene for scene stands up to any picture this year.
As the producer, I look at it objectively and I look at an actor like Phil Hoffman who agreed to do this picture just after winning an Oscar for Capote. It was a risky proposition for him, given that he had many offers on the table. We spent a lot of time talking with Sidney about the importance of casting and we had very much the same philosophy. These actors had to live in the same world and deal in the same world and it just so happened that many of these actors came from the stage, whether it's Rosemary Harris coming from the British stage and Michael Shannon and Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei—who's brilliant in the picture—and Ethan, who's amazing, all coming from theater, as well as Amy Ryan, who's brilliant as well.
The Lumet picture was a wonderful experience in full circle because he comes from the theater and live television from the 50's and so his whole approach and his rehearsal process is theatrical. It's like melding two forms together. He likes to rehearse for the movie like a play. The actors are up and working and rehearsing. It's not table reading. They do a table reading in the beginning but they actually go off book and work their character, work on their arcs and stage the production so that—when they get to the set—he's so efficient. That's why he's touted as this director who's able to shoot scenes in one take, two sometimes. He knows what he wants and the actors are prepared when they get there. [To work with him] was an amazing experience, probably the most amazing experience I've had in my life.
Guillén: All the more so, perhaps, because of your familiarity with the theatrical stage. You have a three-picture deal with Sidney Lumet, don't you? Can you talk a bit about how you got hooked up with Sidney in the first place?
Cerenzie: Sidney was someone that myself and Brian always had in our mind to do the film. When we felt that the script was at the time where it was right, Brian and I had a meeting and we decided to go for it. We called Jeff Burke—who I knew somewhat because we had done City of Ghosts at ICM. Matt was at ICM at the time and they were aware of the movie. [Burke's] response was, "Well, send it over and we'll get it to him." They read it first of course and they thought the material was good and strong. No one was really sure if Sidney was going to want to do this type of picture in his career. Sid received it—as he jokes about—"in the mail", read it, and called me up after he read it and said, "Let's meet. You may have something here." That started the process.
Kelly had written the back and forth structure and the retellings of the story from the different point of view of the character, giving us more and more insight into the character, but the genius of Sidney's contribution was that he made Hank and Andy brothers. They weren't actually brothers in the original screenplay we sent over to him. By making them brothers the film became a melodrama in the pure sense that Sidney defines melodrama. It not only heightened all the stakes in the film; but, it gave you that modern day Greek tragedy, and [touch of] Cain and Abel, that [transformed the script] into a melodrama, which is what he was wanting to do with the picture, and which he did brilliantly.
Guillén: Yes, he did. One of the visual techniques of the film that complemented the fractured narrative line was the staccato cut-up montages. As the producer, did you have anything to do with that?
Cerenzie: That was in the original screenplay from Kelly, [though] it was in a different form. It was very close to what we saw. Sidney made it more seamless. I can't take credit for any of that. Lumet's brilliance was that—when he shot the sequences—what a lot of people don't understand and most wouldn't even pick this up; but, every time you go back to that picture and see the robbery or one of the scenes from, let's say, Hank's point of view or Andy's or Charles' point of view, it's shot from a different angle with different lighting and has a different feel to it. That is part of the design that is brilliant about the picture. It's seamless. The reason why it's brilliant is because it is seamless. You pick it up sensorially. What complements that tremendously is Carter Burwell's score, which carries you through those scenes.
Guillén: Speaking of scoring, I forgot to mention how much I enjoyed the soundtrack to City of Ghosts. That was a soundtrack I went out and bought right away because I was so impressed. As producer, do you have any say in the scoring or is that a directorial flourish?
Cerenzie: It's something I have input in. Whether you're dealing with Matt who's first-time or with Sidney, you're dealing with two different situations. Yes, you have input into it, of course, because it's part of the process; but, it goes back to my belief in helping the filmmaker find his vision. The scoring of a project is driven by the director's view of what he's trying to tell us as an audience; not just the themes of the film but if there's a point to be conveyed. The brilliant thing that Matt did was to bring the original music from Cambodia and Thailand into the picture and doing it in an intricate manner. That music brought you into the film and gave you an authentic feeling. It was music that most people had probably never heard of before. We actually shot in Cambodia. We were the first Western production to go into Cambodia since 1965.
Part of what we've always tried to do, especially in that case, is support the director. It comes down to—as I said earlier—it's a simple quote but it weighs heavy. Anybody who's read Lumet's book, he has a thing of, "Are we all making the same film?" It really is about knowing as a producer that you're in harmony with your filmmaker and in that way you can make your choices and get through it. Whether or not it wins [critical] acclaim or economic acclaim, you can look at the picture and say, "This film makes sense to me." The general movie-going audience has become more educated than they even maybe realize, in that—they could be watching a picture that has been rewritten by six different writers and they might not know that one scene was written by one writer and another has been written by another writer—but, they do know or they feel when something's not working, where something is disjointed in what they're seeing. Whether it's conscious or not, it breaks your suspension of disbelief at some point. What I try to do as a producer is to always always always try to keep the original component intact, whether that's being based on a graphic novel or a comic book or on a novel or screenplay. We never want to replace the creative person who started that process for us.
Guillén: How does a person like yourself with such an eclectic slate of diverse projects organize your time? How do you know what to work on?
Cerenzie: I don't sleep. [Laughs.] I need eight hours more in the day. It's passion. It's what drives me. Since Christine and I have started the new company, it's gone into overdrive. Creatively, each time we talk, we drive more forward than we would if we were working independently; it's been an amazing partnership. Last night we were at the Variety screening of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and she worked with Bob Evans for a long time and, through her, Bob and I became friends. I invited him and he came to the screening last night, which was a big deal for me. At the end of the film, he said he thought it was amazing and powerful and brilliant and he loved the film. As he walked out, I was thinking, "You know what? That's pretty amazing to hear that from someone like Bob Evans." It's been a trip. Someone asked Sidney last night, "You're 83 but you seem like you're 60. This is your 46th movie and you're not falling down." And he goes, "Why would I? It's what gets you up in the morning, you know?" I have the same philosophy.
Cross-published on Twitch.