Growing with ‘Tiny Furniture’ producer Alicia Van Couvering
by Erin "Queenie" Stegeman
Between film screenings and checking my twitter feed to see where Joe Manganiello has been recently spotted, I attend a packed independent film panel at the YouTube lounge. The topic is “How to Make Your Movie Pop,” led by a team of expert and experienced panelists on the subject matter. Of the seasoned producers, the amicably straight-forward voice of Alicia Van Couvering (Tiny Furniture, Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas) catches my attention.
The panel nears an end with an audience question regarding the struggle between making movies to satisfy an audience versus making movies to satiate the filmmaker. Each producer answers, all some variation of “If you want to succeed, you have to make a movie for your target audience.” Last to respond and the sole female panelist, Alicia takes a small pause before her response: “I don’t know,” she says, “I think if we keep making movies for a specific audience, the filmmaker and the audience aren’t going to grow.”
And that was it. Unafraid of her opinion, she had the shoulder-to-shoulder packed room and me at “grow.”
Erin Stegeman: You started out as an actor and have even been in a few of your films. What made you change course and move into producing?
Alicia Van Couvering: I grew up in New York, and of course like any 13-year-old girl, I wanted to be an actor. When I was 15, I was cast a drug addicted street urchin in Third Watch, and off of that got myself an agent. I was in Tadpole, I was in a play directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. But what I realized later is that what I liked mainly about acting was having a job, being part of something. I made a lot of money playing that sarcastic, natural-seeming teenage girl (laughs) — I could really only play myself. I went to NYU and I worked as a producer’s assistant for Mike Ryan and Derrick Tseng on a Todd Solondz film, Palindromes, which led to a job as the director and producer’s assistant on Junebug. Then I moved to L.A. briefly to work in commercials, came back, was a roving freelance producer’s assistant for a while and started producing music videos and shorts for friends.
ES: Would you say at that point people (and projects) started coming to you?
AVC: I became a production manager and a line producer, and at the same time I started writing little pieces at Filmmaker Magazine for its amazing editor, Scott Macaulay. Looking back, that really changed my life, because if I hadn’t been moonlighting as a film journalist (which I did solely for fun and also to get free badges to things), I just wouldn’t have had a reason to be interested in the film festival world, or undistributed films, or go to a million press screenings. And also I think that it opened up a way of thinking about myself as a person with an opinion instead of just the person that was helpful and good at jobs. Suddenly I had to decide what I thought was good, and explain why — that was different, that idea of your personal taste having value.
I met Lena [Dunham] around that time and we hung out a lot at South By Southwest the year that she had Creative Nonfiction there, which is where she also met a bunch of other people that worked on Tiny Furniture. A couple months later she was like, “I wanna make this movie in my house, do you want to help me?” And I did, and it was so fun and easy, which I know is quite infuriating. Consequently for a long time my co-producer Kyle Martin and I became the go-to people to hit up if someone wanted to know how to make a movie for $50,000, which was ironic because I could never do it now. You really just have to have no idea what you’re doing to pull something like that off.
ES: Have you experienced any challenges being a female in a male-dominated profession?
AVC: I’ve never felt overt sexism or held back in any way, and I’ve been welcomed into the sheltering arms of tons and tons of female mentors and groups like the Sundance Institute, which is devoted to gender equality in film. I’m opinionated, persistent and very direct, and when there is push back or undermining in the face of that, it can be very tempting to say ‘well, if I was a man, you would never…” Which I actually think is true, deep down, but in the end it comes down to strategy. It’s useless to just demand to be taken seriously, you have to strategize a relationship in which they take you seriously. But what I’ve found out throughout the years of being a producer is that helpfulness is important, but leadership is more important.
ES: Your latest film, Happy Christmas – you collaborate with writer/director Joe Swanberg again. What attracts you to his work?
AVC: It’s funny the way that I met Joe, very similarly, is that I interviewed him a lot on the festival circuits and we talked about working on something together. He just called me up and asked me if I wanted to help him make a “bigger movie.” I tend to do films that are director-driven. I like what [Joe’s] examining: the minutia of relationships.
I think that it’s very relationship-based for me. Something that I love about a lot of the directors I’ve worked with, like Lena and Joe, is they are just functional human beings. They’re good people and good friends, loyal and organized and clear, and they put life before work.
ES: Are there any particular filmmakers or projects on your bucket list?
AVC: I’ve always wanted to work with Lynne Ramsey and Andrea Arnold. I also want to make a musical. That’s a dream of mine. I think about it all the time. I think the movie Everyone Says I Love You really holds up. I’d like to do a musical like that.
ES: What’s your take on making a film stand out in the independent film and VOD market?
AVC: It’s very crowded which makes it harder and harder. What I want, and what I think people want, is something that feels different. What I don’t think works is a smaller, worse, cheaper version of a big thing. I feel like now that’s what I’m trying to do – embrace that risk in myself and try to inspire other people to take risks like that, within the framework of something that connects and resonates.
I really like the marketing side of things — it’s all part of throwing the party; you’re setting the table. When you’re working with a distributor about the personality of the materials, and the way you’re gonna talk about it, that all starts at the financing stage. It’s all so much a part of the movie experience: the context of the movie, what you know about it and what you don’t, what your expectations are. You want to make sure they know enough about the other people at the party that they’re going to feel comfortable. You don’t want to oversell. You make sure they feel in control of the experience.
ES: You come across very grounded. How do you maintain sanity with such a busy schedule?
AVC: Weekends become really important, and trying to set limits there, if you can. I think I realized a couple years ago that there was no winning. There was no finish line. It’s just staying in the game and continuing to make stuff for people that you like and think is important. I think I try constantly to take the pressure off myself and to remember that it’s just about the quality of work. Success is making something that you think is great and meaningful and getting it out in a big way versus getting the most awards, the most films, making the most money.
ES: What’s your one piece of advice to a budding film producer?
AVC: I would say to just watch as much stuff as possible. I had no idea how important that was going to be. You think that that’s just obvious or comes the easiest, and actually that’s the part that defines you and becomes the artist in you. Once you really start working, finding time to watch a movie becomes so hard. I wish I had known that when I was younger.
Also, I think you’re guided into your career through curiosity. You meet the people that you’re gonna meet based on what you’re curious about and what you’re interested in, not based on what your “goals” are. I was teaching last year, and all the students ask is ‘How do I get a job?’ So I reply, “Well, what do you wanna do?” and they say, “I have no idea.”
Put the curiosity part first, not the achievement part. All we will ever do is have jobs for the rest of our life, but finding stuff that you really love… that’s hard.