There is no shortage of so-called “hyphenates” in the entertainment industry. Writers who act; actors who produce; producers who direct; directors who make wine… But few people in indie filmmaking wear quite as many hats as MIRANDA BAILEY. She acts and directs, sure. She also produces (through her company Cold Iron Pictures); she’s a distributor (through her other company The Film Arcade); she’s even the founder/CEO of a website that offers a female-focused alternative to Rotten Tomatoes (her other other company, CherryPicks).
Bailey has become one of indie film’s most prolific creatives. Her producing credits include Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, James Gunn’s Super, Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Daniels’ Swiss Army Man, and Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice. Previous directorial efforts include the feature documentaries Greenlit and The Pathological Optimist. She’s had on-screen acting roles in the films Dead & Breakfast, The Oh in Ohio, Like Cotton Twines, and Body at Brighton Rock. And she distributed titles including Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight, David Wain’s They Came Together, Jim Strouse’s People Places Things, and Josh Mond’s James White.
Her many passions (and job titles) now converge with the release of the film BEING FRANK. The comedy – starring Jim Gaffigan as a man caught juggling two separate families – marks Bailey’s narrative feature directorial debut. The film premiered at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival (under the title You Can Choose Your Family) and will be released by Bailey’s The Film Arcade on June 14, just in time for Father’s Day.
Miranda Bailey recently talked to us about her many career achievements as a filmmaker, actor, distributor, and more.
COLIN McCORMACK: You started your career as an actor. Nowadays, it seems like a lot of actors are encouraged to create their own work. When did you start exploring other creative ventures in filmmaking?
MIRANDA BAILEY: That’s kind of what happened to me, I just wasn’t famous [laughs]. I moved [to L.A.] after college and I was acting. And I did some stuff that I didn’t love, so I started producing my own work outside of it, theater-wise, and that worked. Then I met up with someone and we worked on a film together and I was an executive producer on that. I was like, Well, I can just produce stuff that I can be in in small roles. Nothing to carry the film or anything like that, but at least then I can like the whole piece, the whole movie. Because I was in some real garbage. Like, Ugh! [Laughs.] I found that I was a very organized person and started producing. Then I had some babies and while starting a family it was basically easier to produce than it was to act because it’s all about how you look and whatnot. Although that said, I think I probably worked more when I was pregnant than I did any other time.
CM: As a producer, the projects you make tend to vary in genre and tone. Do you see a similar thread in the stories you find yourself drawn to?
MB: Yeah, I think it’s really about perspective for me. What always excited me was the voice that a filmmaker would have. I think Noah Baumbach was the first one that I got. It was before he was Noah Baumbach. He did Kicking and Screaming and people were interested, and then he did Mr. Jealousy and he couldn’t get arrested. I got on [The Squid and the Whale] and thought he had a special thing about him. Like you look at something like, Oh, that’s a so-and-so movie. You hope that the director you’re going to work with will have that kind of vision. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with people who are that way, so that’s good. Then, of course, I’ve worked with other people where it didn’t work out. It’s always that artistically, you never know what you’re going to end up with.
CM: As you were working with all these different directors on the producing side, were you observing how certain people worked and thinking, Maybe I could be a director as well?
MB: Yeah. I directed in college but I never necessarily thought that I would direct. But I was always like, Oh that’s interesting, that guy can’t make a decision. Obviously, he needs to be able to make a decision in order for this to work. Or watching James Gunn on Super was really enlightening because he knew exactly what he’d want, he’d set it up, and I was there right next to him the whole time. It was a really great experience. When I was watching James do Super I was like, “I think I would like to do this.” Because he wasn’t wishy-washy, he knew exactly what he wanted.
CM: How did you end up first connecting with your business partner Amanda Marshall?
MB: Well, she’s not necessarily my business partner, but I guess she is; she’s my producer. She was my intern when I first started producing.
CM: Oh wow.
MB: We just hit it off and then she became my assistant and then she became an office manager and then she became a development executive. I guess I built my own producer, it just took a long time. I taught her how to produce and then I was like, “Okay great, now produce my stuff. I’m going to direct.” If you look at it in hindsight, I guess that’s what I was doing subconsciously, but I didn’t know it.
CM: People are going to read this and be clamoring to be your intern.
MB: It’s funny because the people who work here stay for a while and become something else. Everyone else that’s here was also my intern. It’s kind of crazy.
CM: When you moved into distribution, did that spring from a specific movie you worked on where you felt you could handle distribution better than the other offers that were coming your way?
MB: It’s not that I felt I could handle it better. Actually, Super is part of that; I think that’s when I started thinking, Huh, maybe there’s a better way to do this where the artists can have more control. I wanted to make a place where the artists were partners with the distributors. The first movie that we bought was Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight and I went into the editing room with her when we were trying to fix it for the MPAA, and she was a part of all of the poster designs and the release platform and all of those things. We gave her what I didn’t get as a producer on so many of the other movies that we would sell. You’d get “consultation,” but in the end, the distributors just do whatever they want anyway. I really wanted it to be a collaborative partnership.
CM: When I first started interviewing directors, I was surprised when I’d ask about their relationship or involvement with the distribution and so many of them were like, “I had absolutely nothing to do with it.”
MB: Yeah, it was kind of a shocking thing to learn. I kept thinking, “Oh, it’s just that movie and that distributor.” But after it happened on four or five, I was like, “No, this is the way it is and I have to change the way this is for my stuff.” To not have to take crappy deals on the stuff that I make, and also be able to have a release that the filmmaker and me as a producer know what it’s going to be if we don’t sell it.
CM: In all the different areas you work in, how quickly evolving is the distribution side of things? From the outside, it feels like as soon as there seems to be a consensus or a pattern on what works, the rules change again. How do you keep up with all of that?
MB: It’s the same thing with producing movies as well. You know, what does bend breaks. We’ve done it all from, Theatrical only, to, Now we’re doing day-and-date, to, Now we’re going back to theatrical and focusing on comedies. It’s always changing. You just have to be in the zeitgeist and always be following and paying attention and ready to do it. At first, we were like, “We’re not going to have any studio deals. We want to be able to go with anyone for ancillaries.” And we did, then three ancillary companies went out of business and left us high and dry and we’re in lawsuits with them and we didn’t get paid for any of the ancillaries. Then we’re like, “Okay, it’s studio time!” So now we have a deal with Universal, which is great. But our documentaries don’t go through Universal, so Amazing Johnathan we sold to Hulu and The Pathological Optimist we sold to Gravitas. We had to do those a little differently.
CM: Are you the type of person who obsessively looks at the box office returns after every weekend to see what’s hitting and what’s not?
MB: We look every week, yeah. We run the numbers every week and look at all of the movies for box office. But that’s just one slice of the whole pie. It doesn’t really tell you much. You have to compare it to how much was spent on the P&A and how much was spent on the movie and all that.
CM: Is there a project you look at where you feel like the pieces all fit into place perfectly in the way it was sold and received by audiences?
MB: Sold and received? No. I saw Mike Birbiglia’s first movie Sleepwalk with Me at Sundance and I wanted us to buy it. I wanted that to be our first buy– I wanted Jill’s movie too, but I wanted Mike’s. And the guys at the time – there were five of us, four guys and me, as partners – they were like, “Nah, he’s nobody.” I was like, “I don’t know, this guy’s got something–” No, no, no. And then the movie hit, which is great, and I got that, “I told you so!” Mike was actually unhappy with the release – although it went quite well – so I met with him and said, “I want to do your next project. I’ll produce it and we can distribute it however you want it.” And I just kept following up with him and then we did Don’t Think Twice. We knew we were going to be releasing it from the moment we were shooting it. We obviously said if someone else bigger wants to buy it and it’s something you can’t refuse, for a minimum guarantee we would take it, and that’s similar to my movie Being Frank. The offers just weren’t very creative. You have to get creative when you’re doing indie movies without big movie stars. You have to be able to have a plan and see what you’ll do and a lot of these places just want to stick it in the system: This is how much I’m going to pay you for it, these are the people, this is the kind of poster and kind of trailer; like it’s super easy. They don’t want to think outside the box. A24 is amazing, they think outside the box on a lot of their projects, so Swiss Army Man was great. But I think they should have platformed that more, personally.
CM: I was lucky enough to be at the Sundance premiere of Swiss Army Man. The press narrative obviously made it seem like a bunch of old fuddy-duddies storming out, but I think it was very clear people were watching something that was special. But I also remember thinking, How are they going to sell this?
MB: Well, it worked out!
CM: It really did. As it was rolling out, I realized it was definitely beyond my grasp of how to market it.
MB: But the reason also – and this was from the beginning – was that we had a high-caliber cast. Without a high-caliber cast, it’s too creative. Do you know what I mean? Then the distributors have nothing to work with. That’s why Daniel Radcliffe, getting him was really [important]. We got Paul Dano pretty quickly, which was great and very auteur and kind of prestige-y. But then we needed that foreign name that also had to be an amazing actor, so getting Daniel Radcliffe was great. We still made the movie for under what the minimum take for that script with Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe would be based on his “worth” with Harry Potter and whatnot.
CM: I’m sure you get tons of scripts and pitches sent your way. Were there other narrative projects you considered directing before the script for Being Frank came along?
MB: Yeah. Do you know Book Club?
MB: So my friend, the guy who directed it [Bill Holderman], he was working with Robert Redford at the time and sent me a bunch of projects. And that one he hadn’t put his name on, [even though] he had written it. I called him and was like, “Dude, I love this! But I don’t love it for an indie film. I love it for me to direct.” And he laughed and said, “I can’t believe that’s the one you liked out of all of them. I wrote that and I’m going to direct it.” [Laughs.] “Oh great! Well, good for you!” And he did and I’m so excited for him. I liked it, although the movie and the script were a little bit different in the end. I think that was really the only one. There was this other project that I liked, but it was just too avant-garde and too hard to make. I couldn’t quite get a consensus with my producing partners, and my agents weren’t like, “Yay.” They were like, “Um, this is a bunch of guys exploring a vagina. I don’t know…” It was this really cool feminist thing. It was before Swiss Army Man. But I ended up doing Being Frank and it was a great experience. I had directed some documentaries and a long short before it.
CM: What about the script made you excited to direct it?
MB: Well, it was called You Can Choose Your Family at the time and it was definitely a different project when it came to me than what it ended up being. I was actually writing this drama at home about this philandering father whose son was in on his secret. It was like Bad Parenting 101, but it was not funny. So when I read this, I was like, I could just do this, change it, and it will be so much more enjoyable because it’s funny and fun. So that’s what I did and I put the other one away.
CM: I heard one of the changes you made to the original script was to set it in the early-‘90s instead of present day. It made me think that from a storytelling perspective, that makes total sense. But from a cost and production perspective, you are kind of making things more difficult on yourself by making it a period piece. Was it ever difficult to balance those two arguments?
MB: I think it would have been had we not made The Diary of a Teenage Girl for $1.5 million [set] in the ‘70s, which was a much harder one. So I already had experience producing a period piece that I was super hands-on on, so I knew it wasn’t really as hard as people say it is, especially when you have the kinds of locations that I was able to get. A period piece like Downton Abbey is a very different animal than what I was doing.
CM: I guess campgrounds don’t look too much different from ’92 to now.
MB: They really don’t. Neither do lakes and houses. Frankly, they all look the same still. A log cabin’s a log cabin.
CM: Could you talk about the process of casting Jim Gaffigan? There are only so many people likable enough that you’re not going to absolutely loathe the character for being so deceptive. Were you working off a pretty short list of people to consider?
MB: No, not at all. I agree that that was going to be a challenge. I definitely wanted to think outside the box and go with comedians. There were a couple – thank God I didn’t end up with Louis C.K. – but we got it to Louis C.K. for a period of time, but his agent just dragged it along and we wasted probably four months waiting for him, checking in every two weeks. We were finally like, “He’s not even going to read this, so forget it.”
CM: A blessing in disguise.
MB: Yeah, luckily. So two years later, after we’d been going from trying to be creative but have enough of a name, that wasn’t really working. Then we were going to bigger names or past– not “has-beens” or whatever, but, Oh that guy was famous once, kind of thing.
CM: Like a comeback role.
MB: It was getting to the point where I was like, “I don’t know if this is going to get made.” It just takes time and patience and that’s why I was producing and acting at the same time, which was great. When I did Mike Birbiglia’s movie, one of the producers on that was working on The Jim Gaffigan Show. So I turned it on to support my friend and I see this guy and I was like, “Oh my God, that’s Frank.” I didn’t know who Jim Gaffigan was; I didn’t know his standup or anything. Then I Googled him and watched some stuff and realized, He is perfect. This is who I’ve been waiting for. And the offer was out to somebody that I didn’t really want in the first place, but we were partnered with Imagine [Entertainment] and it’s a collaborative thing. So we pulled the offer and got it to Jim through my friend Danielle and voilà! It worked out.
CM: One of your main actresses had to drop out of the film weeks before shooting was set to begin and you had to find a quick replacement. Was that a new fire you had to put out or had you dealt with something like that before on a previous production?
MB: Oh yeah, totally. It’s different dealing with it when you’re a producer than when you’re the director. Because also we had already cast the kids, so Samantha [Mathis] had to dye her hair brown. I was like, “You have to dye your hair brown because the kids have brown hair and Jim is like an albino.” [Laughs.] I think you’re always kind of ready for that stuff. The hardest thing as a director was we lost the last location for when all the shit hits the fan and every family member is there and there are tons of extras and it’s this huge party. We had scouted it for a different place and I had blocked it and storyboarded it for a totally different location that had hills and rocks, so there were more spaces to hide. Then we lost that location the Friday before the Monday that we were shooting it. So that Friday, shooting one of the other scenes I had to go to this one park that they’re like, We can get this for Monday. Make it work during lunch. Take pictures with your phone and storyboard it over the weekend and make a plan and shoot it there on Monday. And this is the finale! I didn’t know if it was going to work out or not. I remember when we finally put together the assembly of the last scene, I was jumping up and down. It was not perfect at all, but I ran to Amanda and was like, “Amanda! It’s gonna work! It’s gonna work! You’re not going to believe this, look!” And she watched and was like, “Oh my God, it totally works.” I don’t know how. It was really exciting, but you’re always under that stuff. There’s always something crazy. That’s what I like about this business, actually, is that you’re always on your toes. You’re always ready to get the rug pulled out from underneath you and you have to be creative in how to stay standing.
CM: Like you said, the film was previously titled You Can Choose Your Family. I could imagine a lot of directors might be precious about changing their movie’s title, but since you’re also a distributor I assume you probably came at it differently. How did that decision come about?
MB: I actually never liked the title after we changed the [script] because the original movie was more about Philip wanting to go and live in the other family. I had him kind of blackmailing his dad to go and live with the other family. So that came from there and we just couldn’t come up with another name. When we got into SXSW I hadn’t finished the movie yet, so we had to finish it quickly and go to SXSW. It was really great because I was able to have this cut that went to the festival circuit and got six reviews or something. So I was able to take the four good reviews and enhance those moments that were good and pepper it more, and take the bad reviews and be able to go, Okay, let me fix this. Like, This guy thought it started too late; this girl thinks this is an issue; let me go in and fix that. Then talking to audiences and asking, “What parts didn’t you get?” So during that time, as I was figuring out how to change the movie, it became Being Frank.
CM: It’s funny you mention reading reviews. A lot of filmmakers sort of pretend they don’t read reviews or don’t find them important. But obviously, you paid enough attention to notice the disparity between the films male critics and female critics champion. Was there one project in particular that led you to launch CherryPicks, or was it a build over time of seeing the environment and that disparity?
MB: I think it was Lake Bell’s film I Do… Until I Don’t. It wasn’t so much the [Rotten Tomatoes] score, necessarily, as that’s when I started looking in like, Huh. There are way more dudes than there are girls. I wanted to see what did women think about this. How can I find that out? And there was no way to find that out without going through all of them. So that’s where the idea came from. But I noticed the way women wrote about what they did and didn’t like, as opposed to the way men wrote about what they did and didn’t like, was quite different. I just wanted a place where I could find out what women think because there are lots of places I can find out what women think about these shoes or this restaurant or this school or this hair salon or whatever. You can’t really do that with film, especially when at that time 78% of the critics were male and 83% of Top Critics were male. They have opened it up since then. When I started building it, it was before #MeToo and #TimesUp. It was three months before Harvey Weinstein. I remember when the Harvey Weinstein thing [broke] I was like, Whoa, this is really good timing for me. [Laughs.] Holy crap! We were literally building the website when I think it was Jessica Chastain or somebody – it was before Brie Larson, it was somebody else – they were like, “The critics are so [male-dominated].” I was like, “Oh my God! You guys, we have to get this up! Everyone! We have this thing!” But it takes a really long time to get a working website. We’re just now at the point where we actually know how we’re operating, we know our plan, we have the nice design that we like, and we know how to monetize it. Now it’s just about getting audiences and we’ll go from there.
CM: You premiered Being Frank at SXSW and I’m sure you’ve been on what sometimes feels like a never-ending festival circuit. Do you have any in particular that you enjoy going back to?
MB: Oh yeah, of course. No matter what, I always go to Sundance and Toronto. That’ll happen no matter what. But I love going to SXSW. I just have the best time there. And with Being Frank – because when you produce a movie, nobody brings you to any festival; you go to the festival premiere and that’s it, then the director goes everywhere else – so it was really fun, I have to say. Like, “I like this directing thing!” Because they want you to come, they fly you out, they put you up, it’s just great. People are happy that you’re there! It was a really great feeling. The Nantucket Film Festival – I’d never been to Nantucket before – I went there and brought my family and it was so beautiful. That place was amazing.
CM: Are there any fests where you find yourself meeting new filmmakers? Any you recommend people looking to break in go to?
MB: It’s funny because today Amanda and I were talking about our project with Suzi Yoonessi, and we have another one we’re talking about with Kat Candler. We met them at the Producers Roundtable thing at SXSW like ten years ago. We met them at one of those speed-dating things and we just liked them and then we met up with them again. They were on different years, I think, but we stayed in touch with them and now ten years later we’re all in the same business and we’re working together. It’s kind of cool. So I’d say doing those roundtables at SXSW, I have proof that it works. It may not work right away; I didn’t make their projects that they were pitching, but you can tell who you might like working with later, you just don’t realize it at the time. The Daniels’ Daniel Scheinert, his favorite movie when he was in college was Dead & Breakfast. He saw it at a film festival. That was the first movie I ever really hands-on dealt with every emergency – and there were a million emergencies on that one – and it’s funny because he was like, I like whoever made that, and I ended up making Swiss Army Man. It’s kind of fun and unique.
CM: This might not be a short answer, knowing your career, but what’s next for you?
MB: Ah. Well, I’m directing a film called The Assistants, which is based on Camille Perri’s novel. That’s what’s right in front of me right now. Then I have a bunch of TV projects that Amanda and I are producing together and a couple of other film projects we’re producing together.
CM: Is TV new for you guys?
MB: Yes, it is. We’ve been trying to do it for like four years and we’re actually getting kind of close now. Everything takes five to ten years to really get somewhere, I think, so we should have something up by 2021, for sure. And if not, who knows. I’m certainly not going to quit, because that’s just not me.
A big thank you to Miranda Bailey for talking with us about the many facets of her career. Learn more about BEING FRANK at beingfrankfilm.com. For more information about Miranda, visit her website or explore her work at Cold Iron Pictures, The Film Arcade, and CherryPicks.
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