Lee Nelson would have become a novelist if his first screenplay hadn’t been optioned straight out of college.
It’s the type of early success that prompts any artist to say, “I could do this,” and move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in filmmaking.
“I did a whole mess of commercials as an art guy and continued writing my screenplays. Then a friend of mine who was directing a film said, ‘Hey, I need a production manager. Keep your eyes out if you know anybody that would want to do that,’ and I said, ‘Well, what about me?’”
Fast-forward a few decades to 2016, when Lee’s latest production, a feature film called Mr. Church, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It’s a filmmaking milestone that wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t asked that question.
We spoke with him about producing movies—namely, the aforementioned one—a patchwork process he likens to solving a puzzle. It all sounds very complex, and we wondered if there is ever a moment when Lee feels that, as a producer, he’s got it—it, in this case, being that magical feeling when everything comes together.
“You know, that moment happens at all different stages,” Lee says. “You get it when you find a director that you love, when you read a script that touches you, when you find a financier who is interested, when you get a star big enough to greenlight the film, who you love for the role, when it’s the first day on set… Then, when the first cuts start coming in—when it’s working, and you believe the performances are real and human, and the actors have become the people on the printed page.”
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
Lee walked us through this process as it pertains to Mr. Church, and it’s on this printed page where he started.
“The actual writer of the screenplay grew up supported by a man very much like Mr. Church, who felt a paternal love (for her). When we first read the script, we were all very, very moved,” he says. “We developed it for a number of years, working with the writer on various drafts, zeroing in on exactly the story we wanted to tell.”
The premise of Mr. Church is specific, and personal: A dying mother finds that she is unable to continue caring for her young daughter, so she retains the services of Henry Joseph Church, a talented cook who quickly takes on a fatherly role. But at its core, Mr. Church is a story about finding family in ways we never would have expected. Lee maintains that part of telling such a decidedly human story is allowing each member of the team the room to bring their unique perspectives to the project, from the director, to the actors, to the cinematographer, and beyond.
“[The director] just flipped for the script,” Lee says. “We talked about his vision for the film—the gentleness with which he directs talent and the sensitivity he brings to his work… and then [the lead actor] demonstrated to us that he really understood, in a deep way, who this man was.
Every actor changes a character. When they bring it to life, it’s a little different than what you saw on the page—and it wasn’t always exactly what was envisioned by us or by the writer early on. It all starts to gather momentum, and that momentum is all the different ideas and viewpoints and humanity, in a sense, that each person brings to the party.”
Lee means this both literally and figuratively. The plot unfolds over several decades, and to foster a heightened sense of authenticity, the cinematographer shot each scene using camera lenses that were in use at the time.
“When you sit down and watch the film, as you move through—there’s a difference in the grain,” Lee says. “There’s a difference in the look.”
That mindfulness of the details extends to the score of the film, and for Lee, hearing that score come together is the final piece of the filmmaking puzzle. And this is where they add yet another very human touch to the film.
“It’s all subtle, but I think there’s a richness that you feel on a cellular level when you have a real orchestra, real musicians playing all together—when there are small, human discrepancies, (rather than) when it’s all synthesized and everything is exactly perfect,” Lee says. “Scoring the film is one of the last big creative pushes… and it’s almost more emotional than screening the film, because then, you’re still working on it… [With the addition of the score], I was feeling the characters and watching them and kind of channeling the characters’ experience in the film, but in a different way.”It’s that emotional peak of witnessing years of work come together that Lee treasures most—when, for an instant, the product of every script edit and financier call and orchestra cue and “CUT!” hangs, crystallized, in the air.
“When it’s over, it’s out to the public and it’s done, and every film is judged so subjectively—someone may like it, someone may not like it,” Lee says. “But at that moment, when you’re at the end of creating it, it’s still yours and still precious.”
For that moment, it inhabits that secret space between making and made. That’s the sweet spot.
We spoke with producer Lee Nelson about the art of filmmaking during the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival as part of The Lincoln Motor Company’s ongoing Film Uncovered series. For more, please click here.