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'Short Term 12' producer Michelle Steffes: behind the scenes of the Best Short Film at Sundance 2009

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Michelle Steffes and Brad William Henke
Producer Michelle Steffes with actor Brad William Henke ("Lost") on the set of "Short Term 12."

Michelle Steffes is an award-winning filmmaker who produced the Best Short Film at Sundance 2009, “Short Term 12” starring Brad William Henke (“Lost,” “Choke”).

Steffes also won several directing awards, including one at the Savannah Film Festival, for her short film “Driftwood,” which was created in AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women. 

In this interview with Examiner.com, Steffes shares her insights about the production process, specifically for short films.

She will be leading a Filmmaking Workshop at Friday May 8 at TaylorUniversity in Upland, Ind. Contact Professor Kathy Bruner at ktbruner@taylor.edu for more info on the workshop with Sundance filmmaker Michelle Steffes.

 

What exactly does a producer do?

Producer is a really broad term. A producer can be the person who provides the money for the film and doesn't do anything else. Or they can be the person who decides which director they want or whether or not to hire another writer for a film. Or they see which actors would make a studio interested in the project. 

There is a “line producer” – the person who is actually on set – and does the scheduling. They are literally figuring out how everything works, asking questions like, “How are we going to get this location?”

 

What is the relationship between a producer and a director?

The line is blurred on short films, where they are often produced by the director.  The producer should be talking with the director a lot to make sure everything is getting done.

It's a management and a coordinating job. You give your notes on the script, but the director is definitely the one making the creative decisions and  running the show. Sometimes the producer is the auteur, and the director is brought on during the project where the producer has a lot of control. But the film should always follow the director's creative vision.

 

How did the production process work for “Short Term 12”?

“Short Term 12” writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton also helped produced the film. He picked his crew and got them together. I convinced former TaylorUniversity classmate Katie Taylor to be the casting director, and I helped out with casting a little bit.

Personally, I dealt with SAG to get paperwork done and I arranged extras for the film.

 

What is biggest challenge of producing?

Finding locations, especially when you don't have a lot of money. They are a huge challenge in L.A. where locations cost (a significant amount of) money. In other places it's not as much of a difficulty.

It can be hard trying to get the look you want for the price you want. It's also difficult finding a place that fits with your shooting schedule.

We shot at the same location everyday for “Short Term 12,” at the Clarence Children's Center.

For “Driftwood” – which we shot in five days – we had a new location everyday. We were all over the place, from Malibu to near Van Nuys in the Valley.

 

Why are you involved in filmmaking?

I grew up in a conservative Baptist home. There I had grown up not watching movies at all.

When I was 10, my dad brought me downtown and had me audition for “BigRiver.” I loved acting, photography, poetry and music (I played guitar and sang). If you love theatre and photography and music, you love what movies are.

In my freshman year at college, I had a film appreciation section of my freshman seminar. A paper I had to write opened my eyes to what movies are and what a powerful tool they are. And I had sort of been in love with them all along without knowing it.

This interview is a part of the “Film Industry Insiders” Series, where I present interviews with and advice from individuals entrenched in or breaking into the world of filmmaking.

For more info: Check out Michelle Steffes' films “Short Term 12” and “Driftwood” and come to her Filmmaking Workshop at Friday May 8th at TaylorUniversity (Upland, Ind.) in the Metcalf (Art) building room 002.

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