Ted Hope, one of the most influential independent American film producers in recent decades, attended IDFA this year, joining in for an animated and insightful conversation with the festival's Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia on November 14 at ITA.
Hope came to IDFA with a documentary directed by his life partner Vanessa Hope, Invisible Nation, which had its international premiere in Frontlight. The film is a portrait of Taiwan and its first female president, progressive Tsai Ing-wen, and besides addressing obvious geopolitical issues, deals with the feeling that many Taiwanese had—that their culture was forbidden by China.
It’s the kind of topic that Hope is no stranger to, having produced the first films of such idiosyncratic auteurs as Ang Lee, Nicole Holofcener, Todd Field, and Michel Gondry; scoring several Academy Award and BAFTA nominations and wins, as well as a few Cannes prizes; and serving as head of production for Amazon Original Movies for five years. Despite these accolades, the celebrated producer says he came from humble means—but had "some good opportunities."
"My dad died quite young. So I spent that big part of my life looking for a mentor or father figure, and found virtually none. As a result I wanted to give people what I longed for myself, something or someone that would help me," he said.
His mother was a "single hippie woman of intellectual background in a conservative town" who taught at community college and took Hope and his sister to see films by Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx Brothers.
"And here comes seven-year-old Ted to school and starts walking like [Chaplin’s] the Little Tramp. And my friends looked at me and said, 'kid, you weird!’ I realized I'm gonna keep that in the closet, that's gonna be my secret pleasure," he laughed.
In retrospect, Hope sees that he started developing the skills necessary to become a producer already at home.
"My mom and my sister would get in big fights, and I was the peacemaker, so I figured out how to negotiate a settlement and build teams and coalitions," he said.
A few years later, he got a scholarship to a private boarding school and was suddenly exposed to privilege and wealth he had never experienced before.
"All those kids had the promise of a job from their family when they got out, so they felt no obligation. Meanwhile, my mind was getting blown by what I was learning. I felt like it was an opportunity to give back—they didn't have to do anything with it, but I did. So it was a very politicizing experience."
Even though it was a high school, they screened films like Clockwork Orange and Taxi Driver, which Hope says he loved, and they became part of his identity. Later, he was exposed to the works of Truffaut and Godard, and he "very much got into the way that they were depicting the time and place and mindset of the period, and kind of throwing everything they loved into the films. I wanted to be able to do that myself," he recalled.
He was admitted into the New York University Film School with a partial scholarship in 1984, the year Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It, Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise, and the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple were all released. Actually being at NYU and running into these filmmakers made him realize this is something he could do too.
Privilege and divide between fiction and documentary funding
Despite coming from humble means, Hope had mentioned privilege, which prompted Nyrabia to nudge this issue further.
"The United States don't like to think they have class issues, but I definitely got a serious class chip on my shoulder. And I found it super helpful, because I was always looking for my community and not feeling I had one, to be blunt," Hope said.
"Why did I end up going into film? It was definitely the coolest thing that was happening at that time,” he recalled. At the same time, what he called “different bits of cultural awakening” helped him recognize the question of privilege.
"And as somebody who was a bit shy, I didn't gravitate so much to the folks who the system rewarded, but those that were more on the side of it. So I felt there were many different ways that those stories could come up and be surfaced. And only one way was getting rewarded," he said.
"Now, narrative film in America has, like, 6% female representation behind the camera, but documentaries are pretty much evenly represented. Why is that? Because in the fiction film form, you're rewarded with a green light by being able being able to speak confidently and arrogantly about something you know nothing about. You're saying, 'this is what my movie is going to be.'
"But in the documentary form in the US, you're having to prove yourself many steps along the way. It's staged financing, you only get to the next stage by delivering the result of the prior stage. And to have people trust you, you have to show you've got the goods. As a result, you have the proof of principle and then it ends up with equal representation, which is totally predictable, as it should be.
"But you don't have that in the fiction form. I think that itself speaks to why you need changes in the system. And just recognizing that, I've been able to engineer myself into the right place at the right time, been able to get over 100 movies made. I guess that's the awareness of my privilege: knowing that it's not easy for everybody to get in that situation."
Managing complexity and engineering serendipity
"One of the things that I have enjoyed most in the way you analyze what you've done in your life, are two terms that you coined: one is 'managing complexity', and the other is ‘engineering serendipity’," Nyrabia said.
"I take it one step further now and say that I try to manage complexity and render it into beauty," Hope responded. "That's really the goal, how to break through the wall of trends, ideas, prejudices, and indoctrination that we're facing in creative arts and business. To do that requires developing a fairly elaborate system of how you manage the oncoming and finding the material that you can bring to screen."
As for engineering serendipity, Hope gave the engaging example of working as a production assistant on Alex Cox's Syd & Nancy, a project that he says was one of those with "a lot of winging."
"I would come home and, the know-it-all-PA that I was, I would tell my roommates how this DoP really didn't know what he was doing. And that was Roger Deakins—I think it was only his first or second movie. So I started realizing that I didn't know everything like I thought I did. And the different ways how you capture those moments, you have to know what those moments are to some degree, you have to stay open to them, you have to learn to have a wide gaze, and also a beginner's mind at all times, still finding the wonder in all things, but you have to already have been prepared for it."
This led Nyrabia to question the current model of documentary financing and project development that is becoming increasingly similar to that of the fiction film industry.
"This is all coming through a very well-designed production pipeline, which is the opposite of the freedom of creativity and imagination," Nyrabia said. "So you try to imagine a space where we end up with results where we can deliver close to the line, but we also have creative freedom. What is engineering serendipity? How do you guarantee that you deliver on time without becoming a massive corporate pipeline?"
Hope replied: "I've always loved the experiment more than the proof. There's an appreciation of the rough edges and the incomplete sentences. But I don't think that means it can't exist within a corporate world, and be a universal pleasure at the same time.
"The challenge in all of that is, can you establish a collaborative relationship? Both as an executive, and as a collaborative producer, I'm always trying to make the director's movie. On the other hand, I would argue, the first rule of the film business is that all everyone is really trying to do is hold on to their jobs. And you can see through that. Those three things—power, status, and employment—are a big result of that. The precariousness of filmmaking itself persuades us to lean into those things," Hope elaborated.
Films that compel you to talk about them
Nyrabia then observed that the art of making films today seems to be how to repackage the old tropes: "The system says, we already know what the bigger audience would like to watch, but in a way that they cannot recognize that it is the same film."
Hope replied, "It is the business which reduces cinema down to a single transaction, that momentary thing. And the best definition I find for what is often referred to as art cinema, and it's inclusive of documentary and all of independent films, is that it's a film that compels you to talk about it afterwards. I would also add to it that in this current moment, it's often one that the audience arrives at already having made their opinion up, because we're a self-selecting group that creates our identity through the things that we consume. It's about the transfer of our leisure time into intellectual and emotional capital when we see the film, and how we then transfer that into social capital. That's the triangle that we live in."
Hope continued: "This is a terrible situation, but it's actually one that we can emerge out of. You have to recognize that the streamers' business model is never based on one movie. We were all raised when filmmaking was often about the profit or loss of a single title. And audience aggregation is a whole other business; it's built on a portfolio of titles targeted to a specific audience segment. And ultimately, it's driven by people's long-term engagement on that platform."
A roadmap to utopia
There is, however, a way out, and Hope calls it a "roadmap to utopia."
"From the corporate angle, we've had 125 years of cinema made generally by white straight men of middle- or upper-middle-class background. And so when you tried to make a film that starred a person of color or was directed by a woman, the way to get over that was by recognizing cultural relevancy. So there's so much more we could use in the process of greenlighting a project, to build a sustainable, just system that actually creates the cultural course correctors that are needed in any vibrant system. We've learned those things, but we have to build into our processes a reward for them, so that people repeat that behavior, and we don't have it."
Nyrabia argued that the system, even when admitting people of color or women, rewards them for making another "old white man's film."
"And then we end up with the plan that the white old man should keep a little part of the income for supporting somebody to come up. I find this really to be a reproduction of the same system. So why don't we look for the opposite of transactional?" he asked.
"I think of the fact that all of us now can reach global audiences, can have access to a much wider field of expression," Hope responded. "When you like something, you can go down that rabbit hole and chase it more than I could when I just went to a well-curated record store in my city. At that time, I started to think that that all of us, in terms of our media literacy, will start to be much more welcoming to a wide variety of things. I see the younger audiences coming up with a similar aversion to corporatized aesthetics and storytelling that I had at age 20. And I think that that's got to give rise to a great blooming of expression that will aesthetically, narratively, and politically radicalize a whole group of audiences."