May 23, 2008

Interview with Mary Jane Skalski, producer of The Visitor

There aren't many movies that come along in a year that really move me. That shake me. That make me say "now that's what a movie should be." Last year I felt that with Away From Her, and this year, remarkably there have been two: Then She Found Me; and now The Visitor. I know, I am digressing from my usual topic of female centric films, but this one is worth it. It is sooo good.

Tom McCarthy, who is a familiar face as an actor, made his screenwriting and directing debut a couple of years ago with The Station Agent, has taken his work to a whole new level with The Visitor. The film tells the story of a Walter Vale, a college professor (played by Richard Jenkins, who will get an Oscar nomination) just going through the motions of life without really living. On a trip into Manhattan for a conference he shows up at his seldom-used apartment to find a couple, both illegal immigrants, living there. He lets them stay, they become friends and Tarek reopens Walter's world to music again. The film takes a turn when Tarek is picked up and sent to a detention center exposing America's post 9-11 way of dealing with illegal immigrants. Walter's world is jolted again when Tarek's mother Mouna shows up and she and Walter develop a special relationship that neither of them thought they would find again.

I highly recommend this film. It is playing nationwide and more information on where it is playing in your neighborhood can be found here: The Visitor

Mary Jane Skalski talked with Women & Hollywood about the film and her work as a producer on The Visitor.

Women & Hollywood: What exactly is a producer?

Mary Jane Skalski: A producer is the person who is the director's partner however that works for each director. It can be helping to find the money and structure the deals and being involved with casting decisions. Some producers may not be involved creatively, but they will always do the deal including putting the crew together, making the logistics happen and keeping enough space around the director so they can do their job.
I could never be a director because I don't have that find of focus. When I'm on the set my mind is thinking, is catering going to be here on time, or did that person look unhappy. The director has the whole movie in their head and has to look at each shot thinking how does this fit in, day after day, for 14-16 hours a day, and my mind cannot work that way.
W&H: You see people go from writing to directing but not so much from producing to directing.
MJS: It's really different. The people you see go from producing to directing are really able to take the producer hat off completely.
W&H: Why do you think there are there more women producers than women directors?
MJS: Because you can prove yourself as a producer as you work your way up. You can inspire confidence even before you are a producer. To be a director, you can't prove you're going to be good until you direct, and you have to have a great deal of confidence in yourself and be able to toot your own horn. I think that women are less comfortable with that.
W&H: Is that generational?
MJS: I hope so. I think that as women see other women directing and it's not so unusual, it will be easier for a woman to say I am the director because you need to say that even before you've directed. I teach at Columbia and I feel like I see more women now. I feel like it's changing.
W&H: How did you become a producer?
MJS: I was working at a production company Good Machine and I found a project that I didn't think was going to get made if I didn't champion it. It didn't get made. Then I produced some short films.
W&H: What do you want people to get out of the film?
MJS: I hope people get the human part of the story. That if you just do the smallest thing beyond your comfort zone, you can change your life in a profound way.
W&H: What advice would you give to women who want to become producers?
MJS: Try and find other producers that you can work with. That's the best way to learn. Be someone's assistant or work in someone's company for a while.
W&H: What are you doing next?
MJS: I am shooting a new film in Philadelphia and have another film in post production. Hopefully they will both be out next year.