recorded january 23rd, 2016
published february 11, 2016
Melissa Silverstein: You're listening to Conversations with Women in Hollywood. I'm Melissa Silverstein, your host. I'm here today with Zeta Fontaine, producer of films like Zero Dark Thirty, Her, and Joy, which is currently on the awards circuit. Welcome, Zeta.
Zeta Fontaine: Thank you for having me.
MS: I've been trying to pin you down for a pretty long time, right? Two or three years?
ZF: Uh... somewhere around there, I guess.
MS: I think so, because I tried to get some time with you in the early days of the podcast, before I knew it was going to be a podcast. It was around the time that American Hustle was getting awards, I kept calling and e-mailing and it was like trying to get into Area 51, no one had any information.
ZF: Yeah, I don't really... I say no to a lot of stuff, let's put it that way. I'm here now, though! That should count for something.
MS: It does, I can accept that. Let's get right into it, I have a ton of questions prepared and we've only got so much time. First of all, I wanna talk about your development as a filmmaker. Both of your parents are doctors, and you've spoken before about the opposition you faced from them regarding your career choice, but I'm curious as to what made you pursue it in the first place.
ZF: I actually wanted to direct. I used to direct short films in high school, but they all had to be parent-sanctioned, so they were mostly made for my science classes. My first real exposure to studio production actually came from my parents, because they wanted budget approval on everything. They'd be looking over my prop list like, "we see here that you're planning to order a hand-blown glass globe, and we're thinking you can paint a dollar store fishbowl instead." And then I'd show them the final cut and it'd be, you know, Jodorowsky teaches Biology. They hated it. The thing is, my parents were always patrons of the arts, but not in the sense of treating it like a viable career option. We would go to the MOCA, the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art, and see all these cool film exhibitions. It was a lot of local, experimental stuff, but I always wanted to learn how to make them, rather than just watching them.
MS: So what drove you to make the leap from directing to producing?
ZF: Uh... college. [laughs] I went to USC and learned pretty fucking quickly that directing was not what I wanted to do. It just wasn't involved enough for me. [pauses] No, I won't say it wasn't involved enough, just not in the right ways.
MS: I would actually love to see you direct a film, just based on the idea of Jodorowsky teaches Biology. Can you make that a reality? I know there's a ton of stuff coming up on the Sette Bellezze roster...
ZF: We're gonna get a distribution deal for my high school science projects. You know, I never got an A on a single one of those films.
ZF: Why do you think I don't direct anymore?
MS: Wow. [laughs] Moving forward, although I do wanna circle back around to that in just a minute, let's talk about your role as an industry woman.
ZF: "Industry woman" sounds a bit like a sex worker, I think.
MS: Okay, [laughs] let's talk about your role as a woman in the the film industry. Is that better?
MS: We've seen a lot of forward movement in recent years, as far as women are concerned. There is, of course, still a long road ahead of us, but there's been an uptick in female studio heads, producers, even directors. Do you believe that any of your accomplishments have had a hand in that at all? You and Bonnie Rutherford were, of course, the first women to receive two best picture nods in the same year, putting you in a boys' club with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Scott Rudin.
ZF: I think it would be really presumptuous of me to say so. A lot of the progress has to do with us just being aggressive about change. Women aren't making mediocre films. We can't, because we're held to a different standard, where we have to be twice as good as men to get half of what they have. So we're taking that double standard and using it to our advantage by making incredible works of art, like Appropriate Behavior and The 33, and we're seeing results. Instead of sitting back and waiting for men to drop scripts into our laps or to give us the recognition we know we deserve, we're just going on the offensive and taking it, and I think it's amazing.
MS: That was really well-said, and I appreciate you mentioning those two films because they're both such wonderful works, but they were also made by women of color.
ZF: Yeah, we've had a banner few years in that department. Infinitely Polar Bear was really great, too. All of those women deserve astronomical success. Shame about those Oscar nominations, right?
MS: I was going to ask that next, do you think-
ZF: Trust me, we don't have nearly enough time to get into that. Ask me something else.
MS: We're gonna talk about that, even if it's not on the record. Are there any directors you'd really like to work with, going forward? Or even actors, for that matter?
ZF: We're working on a new project with Kathryn Bigelow, which is really exciting. She's great, and it's a project I've really been trying to get underway for a while.
MS: You haven't worked with her since Zero Dark Thirty, right?
ZF: Right, and we're developing a project based on the 12th Street riot in Detroit.
MS: Oh, wow.
ZF: It'll be fifty years next year, so we really wanna commemorate it in a respectful way, but also educate people who may not be aware of it and the lasting impact of those five days. [clears throat] Mark Boal's been working on the script a long time, and now we're finally putting the whole thing in motion, so I'm excited.
MS: Is there anyone else you wanna work with?
ZF: Uh... Ava Duvernay, maybe. Amy Heckerling. Oliver Stone, but, like, mid-90's Oliver Stone. Natural Born Killers-era Oliver Stone, cause he's getting old and boring now. It's really hard for me to name people directly, because I'm not really as interested in working with specific people as I am finding a cool project and choosing whoever fits. I wanna work with Michael Rapaport, and the Baha Men. We're gonna develop a documentary about who, exactly, let the fucking dogs out.
MS: I think I speak for everyone when I say that's a much-needed project. You should crowdfund that, your turnout would be insane.
ZF: I promise you it's happening. Trust me.
MS: What would you say is your favorite film of all time?
ZF: Natural Born Killers. I really have a thing for Woody Harrelson's godawful haircut.
ZF: No. I mean, yes, but no. I do really love that movie, but my favorite film of all time is probably either 8 1/2 or Eyes Wide Shut. Anyone who's been to my house on multiple occasions will tell you that I'm almost always watching one of those two. I put them on in the background while I do other stuff.
MS: What is it about them that draws you in?
ZF: 8 1/2 is really the quintessential film school movie. It's probably one of the first ones you're made to really study as a film student, but it's a brilliant piece of art that's always stuck with me. And honestly, I just really appreciate the lighting concept on Eyes Wide Shut. I find it weirdly comforting.
MS: The Christmas lights make everything so hazy and dreamy, I've always thought that was interesting.
ZF: There was no studio lighting. None. It's incredible.
MS: Are there any projects that, looking back, you wish you hadn't done or maybe had done differently?
ZF: [pauses] I... you know, we spent a lot of money buying the rights to Terminator. [laughs]
MS: Did you at least make the return on your investment? Am I allowed to ask that?
ZF: It's probably better if you don't.
MS: You went to AFI, right? Have you been on any of their panels or podcasts yet?
ZF: They've asked a few times, but the timing's never been right. They usually ask when I'm either out of the country or right in the middle of production. It's not even that I don't want to, my schedule's just impossible to deal with.
MS: What kind of advice would you give to current students there? Or even prospective students? Anyone who's just starting out in your field, I guess.
ZF: Just be smart about it. Not everything is gonna do well commercially, but the thing that's really important is making films that you believe in. So don't just go dumping your time, effort, and money into projects that you don't firmly believe in or love just for the sake of getting your name out there. The goal is longevity, not just recognition. Also, hire an assistant as soon as you're able. Don't try to fight it, you'll just drive yourself crazy.
MS: We're running out of time, but really quickly, I do wanna ask: earlier you mentioned that directing wasn't involved in the right way, what did you mean by that?
ZF: Well, when you're directing, your job is to bring the story to life in the parameters that are given to you. You get the script and you're handed your DP and your production design team, and you just have to work with what you've got. And sure, it's involved in the sense of having to make sure every shot is exactly what you want, negotiate angles and shit like that, and then having to make sure the second unit is doing what you need, etc. It's a big job, but my job gives me a hand in absolutely everything. I get to see it through from the conception to the very end, and I get to be involved as much or as little as I want to. It's like Bonnie and I are the parents, and directors are just babysitters or teachers, but the weirdly maternal kind of teachers. The kind Hilary Swank or Drew Barrymore would probably play in a movie.
MS: And of all the things you get to have a hand in, what do you find to be the most fulfilling?
ZF: The awards. [pauses] No, I'm serious.
MS: And, on that note [laughs], I think that's all the time we have today. We'll have to do this again, though, because there are so many other things I'm dying to ask you now that we've actually gotten to have a conversation.
ZF: History says you'll get to ask me those questions in about three years, so you'd better hold onto them. [laughs]
MS: [laughs] Thank you so much for your time, Zeta. This was a lot less scary than I thought it would be. Everyone had me thinking you were gonna be terrifying!
ZF: Well, what can I say? You caught me on a good day.