Jen Chaiken

Last year, Variety named San Francisco-based movie producer Jen Chaiken, along with her L.A.-based 72 Productions partner Sebastian Dungan, among the new “10 Producers to Watch.” This year, therefore, we’ve been watching Chaiken — or her films, anyway, which most recently include a pair of Sundance prizewinners: Jill Soloway’s comedy-drama Afternoon Delight, now playing, and Jake Kornbluth’s documentary Inequality for All, featuring former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, opening later this month.

But sometimes watching isn’t enough, so we talked to her too.

You’ve got two rather different movies going out into the world just now. In terms of your workload, is there a critical mass for you? How many projects are too many?

Prior to this past year, I’ve only ever been fully immersed in production on one movie. And when I partnered up with my producing partner, Sebastian Dungan, we would always say, “Well, what happens if one of these moves forward at the same time as another?” And when Afternoon Delight came up, when we were already thoroughly under way with Inequality for All, we really did look at one another and ask ourselves, “Can we actually pull this off?” Given that we’re a two-person production team — he’s in L.A., and I’m here, or back and forth — and we like to be incredibly hands-on, we had to think hard about that. So I feel now like I have an answer to that question, which is that there’s no way I could possibly do more than two at a time! It nearly wasn’t possible to actually do two. And we did them both within a year’s time, which is incredibly ambitious. And when I say we like to be hands-on, I mean the thing that is most interesting and most gratifying to me is to see a project from as early in the process as possible all the way through to the end.

So what does that look like, specifically?

So what that means for Afternoon Delight: Jill Soloway, our writer-director, had written a script that she even would concede was a work in progress, but she felt like there was enough there that people were going to connect with it. What was wonderful for us is that we sat down and talked about our ideas for how the script could be further developed. They seemed to spark for her. She comes from TV; she writes incredibly fast. So we would have a creative brainstorm, give notes, and two days later she’d turn around a version of the script. I mean, we could barely keep up with her. But it was fantastic to be able to develop the script. If you were to read the script that was originally sent to us, as compared to the script that we started shooting, as compared even to what the movie ended up being, it really changes. And that also speaks to Jill a bit as a writer-director. Even though she is a writer, I think because the words were hers to begin with, she felt very comfortable throwing those out, improving with the actors, rewriting scenes in the moment. For me as a producer, I’m working with Jill on script notes, helping her to really develop the team that’s going to support her during production, being on set and giving notes after takes, giving a lot of feedback on the edit. Certainly the director gets the director’s seat. But for me, if it were just the running of the show, on the business side, it wouldn’t be enough. I really like to be involved in the creative process and therefore the people we tend to partner up with are people we creatively spark with.

I can imagine that some people would be very grateful for that kind of collaboration. Others, not so much. 

What’s fascinating about film is that it is a business, but it’s also an artistic endeavor. And very often, unless you’re working with people you’ve worked with in the past, you’re diving into this massive business-creative endeavor with people you’ve maybe just met. And I certainly look forward to continuing to work with people that I’ve worked with in the past, but very often it has been working with new people. That’s just the way projects tend to come together. So it’s kind of a wild proposition. But I’m always clear on this when we’re kind of doing a little courtship dance of seeing if we’re going to be a fit for one another.

With that in mind, and in view of how moviemaking and distribution has changed in recent years, can you talk more about how you select your projects?

The first thing is that I have to really respond to it on a deep gut level. It’s so much work and time and energy that, first and foremost, I have to be passionate about it. Then I can bring in some more of the pragmatic considerations. But generally I try to identify what looks like it might be a step forward as opposed to a lateral move. How will it be a new experience? How do I get to push myself as a producer? On narrative films, that would be getting to work on projects that are bigger budgets, bigger name stars, perhaps doing something with a studio instead of doing something independently and selling it. Because it’s hard to do it independently. There’s great freedom, yes, but it’s a massive responsibility, and workload. I relish the idea of being able to have the support of a larger company’s infrastructure to really do it right. And I don’t want to do bigger-budget just because I want more money. It’s about the type of movies. We have a great period piece I’d like to do. But we can’t make that for a million dollars. It won’t fly. I want to be able to expand on the kinds of movies we’re able to do.

With documentary, I’ve done a couple films with HBO, and I love working with them. It’s a great for the kind of documentaries I do. But for me, I’d never had one that made sense to be released theatrically. Some people might want to kill me for saying this, but I am a producer who thinks most documentaries are not going to be well served by playing in theaters. Especially given how challenging the theatrical marketplace is today. So I think there are a few select documentaries that tend to work in the theaters, particularly documentaries about an issue that takes place here in the U.S. that’s on people’s minds and they want to understand better. Inequality for All falls under that category. We conceived of it as a movie in that vein, with the ambition that it could and should be shown theatrically, so we worked with very high-level production. We really put money into production values because we wanted it to hold up on screen. Not just for television. So we really made that movie thinking theatrically.

American wealth disparity seems like, uh, a difficult subject. 

Yes, it can be daunting to an audience, but let me tell you, as filmmakers, it was a hard movie to make, and part of why it was so hard is that we wanted to make it accessible. And so we wanted to take this mammoth topic and distill it so you can understand it, and you can enjoy yourself. After Sundance, somebody said something very pleasing to me: “I laughed a lot. And I cried. In a movie about the economy! I don’t know how you did that.” I said, “You have just made my year.”

Is that the secret of the Reich-Kornbluth combo?

Oh yeah. Humor was a big talking point for us. Bob is very charismatic, and funny. So as the person who’s going to guide you through this issue, he’s great. And Jake doesn’t come from documentaries, he comes from comedies. I love working with people from different genres, because they don’t come in with such a rigid mindset about what a film can or should be. Jake and I met, and he had this idea, and we worked really hard to realize it.

Right, so Afternoon Delight just opened, and Inequality for All opens later this month. What are your work days like right now? Are you on to the next movie?

Right now we’re just working with our distributors on every aspect of release. We are looking forward to laying the groundwork for future projects, but don’t want to shortchange these two, because really the most important thing is doing our job as producers to make sure the movies have the best release they can possibly have.

Presumably the success of any given release will only help facilitate those future projects anyway, is that right?

It remains to be seen. We’ve done well at Sundance, and won awards, and we’ve had a great round of meetings after Sundance, so it seems like the door is largely open. But our world hasn’t changed entirely. People are open to hearing about our projects, but we still need to package them up. How the releases might change that, I’d be curious to see. But I think for producers the world sometimes changes a bit less than it does when a director has a movie that’s sort of popping. It changes in more concrete ways for directors, or maybe for actors. But I would love to be wrong about that. I’m not holding my breath, but I’m excited to see what’ll happen. It might just be a producer’s mindset that it’s kind of on us as producers, and kind of our job description, to bring projects to the fore and get them done.

Have you always had the producer’s mindset? Where did it come from?

I started off in film as an intern, and became an associate producer. And it was one of those things: I graduated college, didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I started in documentary, and right away I thought: Oh my God, this is great. It’s collaborative; it’s project-oriented; every project is different; I can explore things that I’m personally interested in, issue-wise. I tend to be a very organized person. I like to think strategically. I can’t help but think of the hundred things that need to happen in the time they need to happen. My brain just works that way. I started out by trying film and it was a great fit. I stuck with it and tried to run with it.

Can you put a value on what the Bay Area means to cinema right now? 

Hm. I’m from the Bay Area, and I love it here, but it’s not necessarily been the easiest professional choice. To be very honest, I moved back here in the late ’90s, at the height of the dot-com boom, and then we had the crash. And on the film front, it was a bit of a depressing time to be here. There wasn’t enough going on. The conversation for so many years has been New York, L.A. I’m excited to think that San Francisco is is starting to be part of that conversation. That’s why I got involved with being on the board of the San Francisco Film Society, which does so much to foster local filmmaking. I wanted to see a more robust film community here. I’m happy now because not only do I think it has stabilized, but I think people are beginning to gravitate to San Francisco. I know of filmmakers who are moving here. It certainly is a place where people are allowed to think outside the box, which seems very much in keeping with the Bay Area mindset in general. I think San Francisco is just its own unique place, and people are being allowed and encouraged to make the kinds of movies they want to make. The narrative community’s been growing more as of late. It feels like there’s finally a new generation brewing here.