Neal Dodson knows how to come out of the gate strong. The first feature film he produced with partners J.C. Chandor and Zachary Quinto was Margin Call, which was made for a pittance with an incredibly timely script and a smack-your-head- great cast (including Quinto himself, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, and even Dodson’s wife, actress Ashley Williams). That film won the Robert Altman Award at the Indie Spirits, and its script was nominated for an Oscar. His followup film, again with Quinto and Chandor, is this month’s stunning All is Lost, which stars Robert Redford. And no one else. Literally. His next project stars Javier Bardem and Jessica Chastain. Are you getting the picture yet? You can’t even say Dodson’s on the rise any more; he’s already there. Today is Part Two of a four-part interview we did with the producer. In Part One, Dodson told us about growing up, going to drama school, trying his hand at acting, and getting a job with a Hollywood producer. Today he tells us about how all that led to the opportunity to produce Margin Call. Come back for Part Three tomorrow.
Neal Dodson: So then, it was just the two of us. Which was when it really got fun. People would be calling to talk to Neal Dodson, the president of the company, but they would have to first speak to Neal Dodson the assistant. I would sometimes use funny voices to answer the phone if I knew the call coming in was for me in a more powerful position. I would literally use weird accents or a lady’s voice and be like “Just a second, let me get him for you!”
So that acting thing did come in handy for that.
Dodson: It allowed my former boss to have a much bigger staff than he actually had. He had an army of people. They all seemed to be from foreign lands. And sound a little Monty Pythonesque. But they certainly did let him answer the phone. It would literally be the situation where any given day I could be answering phones and fetching dry cleaning or chasing pitch meetings with the president of Warner Brothers or thepPresident of United Artists, or Paramount. It was starkly, exactly that. Which is a great opportunity. I learned some of what to do and some of what not to do from that experience. From my boss and from the people that we worked with and the people that we partnered with.
Over the course of three years, I did get to work on twenty or thirty different movie projects and we sold a pilot to FX and a pilot to Showtime and I got to make a movie. My boss had produced a movie called Cinderella Story with Hilary Duff, so my first feature film that I really got to work on was the sequel to that. Which starred Selena Gomez in her first real lead movie role and Jane Lynch played the evil stepmother and this guy named Drew Seeley played the prince character. We went and shot that in Vancouver. I got an executive producer credit on the movie and I got my name on a movie poster and I got to go to the premiere and it was released by Warner Brothers.
Look mom! I’m really a producer now!
Dodson: Exactly! I made a teen dance movie with Selena Gomez.
I bet it made a ton of money. I bet it was more successful than most films that people brag about, about producing being big shots about.
Dodson: Certainly. And it was a weird sort of thing, because it taught me about how that is very different than the kinds of movies that I’m working on now and the ways that we make them now. And in large part, those movies taught me that the studio system has a lot of smart people working in it, but that it’s very inefficient is overbloated financially and unnecessarily slow. Obviously that’s not true if you become someone who can force things to move quicker, but that list is very short. I knew that there was something about that—I don’t know whether it’s attention span or passion, probably a little bit of both, that it wouldn’t make sense for the way my brain works or that I like to work, but the idea of a bureaucracy that’s generally built to slow things down didn’t make sense to me. It’s hard for my sensibility when everybody I know got into the business because they like making movies. It felt backwards that people who love movies would be there and their job is basically to pick holes and make sure that no mistakes are made when making the movie. I just, in my gut, don’t think that’s the best way to make movies. You have to be willing to make mistakes and go with your gut. If you’re trying to use math to decide whether it’s a good idea, and it’s a creative endeavor—I don’t believe in being irresponsible, but I do think there are times when you just have to go with your gut. So, when I left there, it was a time for me to leave. And without a net, I knew that I had options. I had worked on a couple of movies and I had met some people.
I probably could have gone and worked at an agency, which is what my old boss thought I should do, to build these relationships and have an instant salary. He thought I could do really well, that I could be really good at it. But that didn’t appeal to me. I could have probably gone and taken a creative exec job at a studio, if I had really worked hard at trying to become really good at writing coverage and sitting in meetings. But instead I decided to go the entrepreneurial, go with yourself maverick route.
It turned out that my old friend Zach was in the middle of shooting the first Star Trek movie. He had just been on Heroes and had a little bit of access and success in his way. So we decided to take the stuff that I had just learned and had an instinct that I could continue to do better, and the access and modicum of fame that he was starting to build and bet on us. So we did. We partnered with a third guy named Corey Moosa, who was our third partner who also went to Carnegie Mellon with us as an actor and had been in New York for years producing theatre and acting in theatre and, I guess, had a little bit of a financial/accounting side to him.
We started our company. This was July 1st of 2008 that we opened the doors. We called it “Before the Door” which comes from an acting exercise at Carnegie Mellon, one of the first you ever do, which is sort of a dumb jokey name for a company but it connected the three of us and felt like a good metaphor for starting the company. Sort of standing in front of a door and who knows what’s on the other side and…. we were off to the races!
Let’s talk about this moment for a second; because a lot of people see Margin Call as a sort of inspiring, overnight success kind of thing. And while it certainly is very inspiring, and while there is certainly an aspect of coming to that level, in a big way, it’s important to think of the last fifteen minutes of our conversation which are… you went to one of the best acting schools in the world and did intensive training there and then you went and slugged it out in the trenches for a few years and then you spent…. well, there’s eight years between your last IMDB acting credit and the release of Margin Call. That’s a long time slogging it out and working for the man and doing shorts that you feel like nobody ever sees and a lot of grown up work… there’s a stereotype, you know, “It took me twenty years to be an overnight success,” or whatever. Can you talk a little bit about-not only the cosmic justice of why it took all that time where you could be this quote, unquote over night success, but also specifically what sort of skill sets where you building up during those years?
Dodson: I think during the time when my acting career was not going as well, but I hadn’t quite yet been able to move on to something else and just put my time and energy into something else, I did a lot of weird stuff during that time. One was certainly, writing bad screenplays, and I did a few of those… which remain deep in a drawer never to be opened again. Just figuring out how a movie might be made. My gut was that I always approached them from a production standpoint. I always approached them from a “what can we do?” not “What do I want to write?” so I don’t know if I’ll ever write a movie or not. I definitely pounded out a few of those when I was housesitting at that house I mentioned in Los Angeles. My friends were always coming over to the house to barbeque and hang out because it was a really beautiful place to hang out, and we were always talking about “well, we should make a movie about this!” So I wrote a whole movie. It was about what we had access to and what we could film for a dollar, but what would look really cool, and who did we know who had just did an episode of this, or who was on this, or who had just done a Broadway play, because we all knew actors who were on their rise and could we get them to come and do a day on our little movie. That was always how my brain attacked things. Part of it was the early exploratory before you commit to things. Sussing yourself and your own skill set out.
Certainly, I spent time reading other people’s screen plays, once the short had been produced and had done well. Where they would say “I’ve written something. Maybe you can take a look at this,” and figure out whether there was something to do there. I think the answer to your question is, it sucks and it was hard. Largely because I had a certain stubborn part of my where I was like, “Well, my parents spent a fortune to send me to drama school.” What possessed them to do that? They sent me to drama school so I was supposed to be an actor. Did I fail at this? Am I giving up on this thing that I am supposed to love doing?
That was the main thing, I think, that held me back from doing it sooner, frankly. Now, the way that I look at it in retrospect is how it’s absolutely been a process that I needed to get there, and everything that I learned from that time whether things were going well or whether they weren’t going well, I put to use today. Me coming from an acting background, it’s an enormous asset to me as a producer still today.
But yeah, those years were hard. I certainly had bad bad bad bad bad feature scripts sent to me by friends that I would pretend for like, two months, that we were going to make. My buddy Victor, we ended up making his first feature last year, he probably wrote ten or fifteen screen plays I loved for their own reasons and many of which were entirely un-makable. But every time he would write one we would have this long sort of talk about how we could do it and who we could pull it off with and how much money would we need and all this kind of stuff.
I never had a time where-this is why I’m really grateful I never went to work at an agency, because there’s a part of me that thinks I would have hated myself while doing it-it’s just not in my gut to be a salesman all the time. There’s obviously a bit of producing that is sales but I’m not that guy. If I’d gone there and gotten comfortable with that salary and a bit more of a nine to five life, I may have never found what I was truly meant to do. I believe that I’ve found that now.
I think that, instead, I basically worked pay check to pay check on little acting gigs, and occasionally picking up some bartending shifts, and honestly collecting some unemployment and all that kind of stuff and being a pool boy at this house I was house sitting, which allowed me the time to goof off and figure out what being a producer was until I actually went to learn it. The first year of the company, we focused on trying to find the right material for us to make our début with. We sold a TV project. I had written a Nashville based television series. My wife’s sister married a country star, Brad Paisley, who I had become really good friends with, and I went on the road with him with an actor buddy of mine, Matt Bomer, who’s the star of that television show White Collar, he’s in Magic Mike and he’s doing The Normal Heart right now with Ryan Murphy. That’s one of my best friends from college, and he and I wrote a pilot when he and I went on the road with Brad and his band for a couple of weeks and decided that country music could be great. So we wrote this pilot, Brad and Zach Quinto and Matt Bomer and I went into all the studios and networks and pitched it, and sold it to the CW and it never turned into a show. It was called Nashville and it was about a young, blonde country star and years later a much better version of that show ended up on ABC. Not ours at all, not connected to us in the least bit, but it was funny.
Our gut instinct that there could be a great show about that was right. It didn’t end up being us that figured out how to do it. So we sold a couple of TV projects. We sold that, we sold another TV project to TNT, we sold another TV project to the Sci Fi channel that was sort of an unscripted thing. Then we focused on comic books, weirdly, in our first year. Which is why we don’t have any IMDB credits at the time. We spent a lot of time on this comic book world.
Zach Quinto’s fan base from Heroes and his fan base from Star Trek were very much rooted in fanboy stuff. So, he was a huge presence at Comicon. They announced he was Spock and he did these huge panels for Heroes and then when we were there, it was the time when vanity labels for celebrities to do comic books was a big deal. So, we were entertained by fifteen or twenty different comic book publishers to do some comic books with Zach’s face in them. We found a smaller publisher called Archaia which we really liked and didn’t want to put Zach’s face in them, which we found refreshing. So we just focused on finding a story that we wanted to tell. We published two graphic novels, one called Lucid. The writer was an actor named Michael McMillian, who has been on True Blood for years. He plays the Reverend on True Blood, particularly in the third season and then in this last season, I guess he met his maker. He wrote this great comic book about a magic James Bond. So, we published that for Archaia and then we sold it to Warner Brothers. It’s still in development at Warner Brothers to turn into a movie. Aand there’s another graphic novel called Mr. Murder Is Dead, which is a riff on Dick Tracy. Dick Tracy got old and all his arch nemeses head off and then he has an existential crisis about what it meant if your opposition is no longer there.
It’s a beautiful book. That one in particular-the artwork is amazing. We put a lot of focus on that while we were looking for the right feature project. We tried to option a play and we would meet with people and J.J. Abrams’ company, Bad Robot, was very kind to us and offered their help. The agencies were offering help, but we couldn’t quite realize what our first project was, and then suddenly there it was. That was Margin Call.