Sundance Interview: Jenifer Westphal Talks Indie Film, Documentaries, and Launching a Production Company

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2019 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: The past four years have been full of learning and connection for producer Jenifer Westphal. Just a few short years ago, she decided to turn a family experience into a documentary. From there, she met and connected with filmmakers, launched a company, and served as an executive producer on films that include last year’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

That journey led to new and very unexpected places, including the mountains of Park City. Westphal attended this year’s festival in support of the documentary, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” We met there, on a brisk January morning, to talk about her work and career, what inspires her, and how she wants to give back to others.

Karen Peterson/AwardsCircuit: How have you been enjoying Sundance?

Jenifer Westphal: Oh, it’s been great! Really great! We had a nice year, a good year. The big film we’re involved with is “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” And that sold to Sony, which was really fun.

KP: Congratulations!

JW: Thank you! I guess it’s the second film I’ve been involved with that’s sold, so it’s really exciting.

KP: That must be really exciting. What’s that like for you, when you have been putting so much work into a project and you know it’s going out into the world?

JW: I started a film company when I was 52 years old, because why not, right? You know, it’s been an incredible experience. The first film that went out into the world was “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” That was a really exciting project to be a part of and really launched my company in a lot of ways. That has been extraordinary. I find working in this business, and especially in the independent film space, to be really fun. I love the people, the filmmakers, the producers, the companies, the production companies I’ve been building relationships with. My team, we have the best time.

I think, in addition to that, being able to put really important stories, these filmmakers work so hard on what they do. Every single one of them are so passionate about their projects. It’s hard not to get intoxicated and want to get into every film. But they make it all worth it. And to see their passion project out there in the world, up on the screen, and then someone buys it and it goes out to theaters and people are asking about it and telling you stories about how it’s impacted you. I’ve had people sitting next to me just ugly cry because they’re like, “You were in ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ You don’t understand what Fred Rogers did for me when I was a child!” And that, you know, that’s what it’s all about right there.

KP: When you know you can have such an impact on people, it must be so gratifying.

JW: It is so gratifying, yes. And as a female in the industry, I feel like I’ve walked in at a really important time. So I really have huge respect for everyone in the industry, female-wise, that has come before me. I feel like they’ve laid the groundwork for this time… in particular being part of the Sundance family, and how amazing they are at raising the bar and encouraging. They are so supportive of independent filmmakers, but also women and people of color. Challenging all of us to think deeper, go deeper, find those filmmakers that need our support. It’s such an exciting time. An important time, really.

KP: It really is. The 4% challenge has come up in the last week or so. What are your thoughts about that?

JW: I think it just has to be done. I have a lot of films in development, two are going to be coming out this year, hopefully. One film is co-directed by a [woman], the other is directed by a female team. It wasn’t like I set out to do that. It was just the right people for the film. But we have a new project in development and we are absolutely going to get a female director. And I hope a woman of color. Because I think if somebody doesn’t give people a chance, it’s very hard, especially women of color to get any financial support for their films. So we’re just going to do it. We’re going to start a fund this year. We’re going to give away a grant to a female director of color and… It just has to happen.

KP: A lot of critics say, “Oh, this is just affirmative action.” What would you say to that?

JW: Yeah, okay. But there were a lot of people of color who couldn’t go to college otherwise. You know what? I serve on a university trustee board, and I’ve brought this up many times. People really cringe at that as some kind of socialization or something. But if we don’t make it possible, especially us of white privilege, if we don’t make it possible for people of color to get even a chance, they won’t get a chance. They just don’t have the opportunity. I can’t ever know that experience, so all I know that I can do is make sure I can offer whatever opportunities I can.

KP: There’s only so much of pushing and pushing for women, especially women of color. At some point someone has to be there to pull them in and say, “Here you go. We’re going to let you make your film or act in this performance, or whatever it is.”

JW: There’s so much of this, and I understand the controversy. Why would you give someone money to make a film just because of the color of their skin and their gender identification? And I would say, there’s a lot of times I got an opportunity and it wasn’t based on the color of my skin, but it was, right? I don’t have to go through what they go through every day. I don’t have to walk into a restaurant and feel worried or scared. I don’t have to worry if the police stop me. There are just things I don’t have to worry about in my day. I don’t have the anger and the outrage that people of color must feel today. I can do anything. Even the littlest bit I can do to help, I will.

KP: Yeah. And that’s something that we all need to be willing to do. To reach out. It’s funny because this is a conversation I have a lot with people and no one really ever asks white men about the merit of getting a movie with a $150 million budget.

JW: Exactly! And the stories of women and women of color, but in particular all women, everyone’s got a story. Is there a group of people that are more victimized or less victimized because of their skin color? Absolutely. Would I feel like if I offered an opportunity for a woman of color to come direct one of my films, do I feel like I’m racist against a white woman? No. I’m offering lots of opportunities for women of all colors. But I think it’s important at this point in time for a person like myself, and a lot of women in the film industry to step back and say we’ve got to support our sisters of color. We just have to. Yeah, it’s been a struggle. Yes, I’ve been sexually harassed, but does that make it so that somehow I can’t understand what it’s been like for someone else? No. And it’s really just that simple. We don’t have to make it so complicated. Why not? Why wouldn’t I [help]?

KP: You said you started your company at 52. What was it that made you decide to do that?

JW: I have lots of versions of this story, but I’ll tell you the truth. I spent 25 years with kids at home, but I wasn’t your typical stay-at-home mom. I ran a homeschooling program for our three kids. And then our middle guy, he was diagnosed as autistic when he was 5. And I ran an in-home program for him, so then he could join our homeschooling program once he was finished with that. Ironically, as I was very involved with their education, you know, you get very attached to your day to day life, then they did this annoying thing, which is grow up and go off to college!

KP: I hate when they do that!

JW: What is that about? So mean! I honestly did have a little bit of a breakdown and I gave myself a year. I said, you know what? I’m just going to wait and see what happens. And then my husband started dabbling in this idea of making a documentary about this, we call it unschooling. And we actually have a documentary coming out called “Unschooled.” And I thought, you know, I have this story of my son. He does not present himself as autistic. He doesn’t have a lot of the characteristics of an autistic person. Not that that’s bad or good, it’s just that there are a lot of behaviors for autistic people that really keep them in a home-bound state and he doesn’t have that. So he went to college, graduated, we have film of that. And I have archival [footage] of the program, and we’re putting all that together. So I thought, you know what? The world of autism is a tough place. They haven’t been, in the past, open to stories of success. And there’s a lot more stories of success than you’d probably ever know about. So I thought maybe this is the time to start thinking about doing a documentary film about my son’s story.

That was four years ago. I started my company three and a half years ago. And then I got involved with Sundance. I said to my husband, if we’re going to do these couple of films, we probably should meet some people in the industry. So we became donors of Sundance, and then I got invited to the Catalyst Program. It’s a really great program. They started about five years ago. They vet films, especially filmmakers coming out of their labs, and they match them with investors. And these are angel investors, a lot of them, who are just passionate about independent film. I went in 2016 and it changed my life. I went in a little terrified, like, what am I doing? My husband will tell you, I came home and said, “Okay! I’m going to start a film company and I’m ready to go.” And we have right now, currently about 25 projects on our plate. Ones that we’re doing ourselves, then I have some co-productions with people, and then I invest.

KP: That’s so great.

JW: It’s so fun.

KP: What type of producer are you? What’s your style? Do you like to be hands on or do you let the filmmakers do their thing?

JW: I do a little bit of all of the above. I have my producing partner, Joe Plummer. He handles a lot of the day to day, minute to minute production stuff. I come in, especially the ones we’re doing, because both of them are kind of personal stories. So I’ve been much more hands on producing in terms of, what interview do we need, how should the archival work, really kind of getting on the director about getting this interview, make this happen, we need them to say this. Because I know those stories cold. We have another film that we became the producing partner for the director and the producer. They’re young and they’re talented, but they needed help in terms of how to put a story together. So we’ve been pretty active in that as well.

And then, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” for example, I came in as a grantor. I was brand new to the world, and then you have a team of Morgan Neville and Nicholas Ma and Caryn Capotosta, and they’re the A Team. So I really looked to them and said, “Listen, I don’t know what I don’t know, so I’d love to learn from you guys.” And they were fantastic with me. I was in edits, they talked me through when they were going to sell the film and what that all looked like. I got to do notes. It was such a great experience.

I’m a big supporter of just going out there and learning as much as you possibly can. Just dive in, make mistakes. I love my role as Executive Producer. And I really don’t ever want to be directing, I don’t want to be producing. But I love to get in and talk through the story, take it apart, figure out what else we need. I think I have been able to contribute some really creative ideas to a bunch of the stuff that we work on. And sometimes I give a grant and I say, “Good luck with your film. Show me a cut if you want.”

KP: Who are some people, or what are some films that have really influenced you?

JW: In the doc world, I have really fallen in love with all of Morgan Neville’s films. I have always been a fan of films that are human-centered. And I particularly love the flawed humans, you know? Because it’s just about human beings doing human being. I find those stories fascinating. Matt Tyrnauer, I’ve developed a fabulous partnership with Matt and his producing partner, Corey Reeser. So I was in on “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood.” I love that film. To me, that is a perfect documentary because it really shows the good, the bad, and the ugly of a very simple man who had a huge impact at a very important time for gay men in Hollywood. While other people might not find that interesting, I find it fabulously fascinating.

And now with “Roy Cohn,” I love how Matt puts the story together. I’ve also become a huge fan of people who really know how to work with archival footage. Because you can do a very bad job of that, or you can use it to masterfully tell a story, and I think that’s what Matt did with “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” So I love that.

In the world of narratives, I love indie films. I could watch “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” like 12 times. It’s just such a beautiful film. “Moonrise Kingdom,” I love that film, I probably watched it ten times. The other one [Wes Anderson] did with the hotel, “The Grand Budapest Hotel!” I love irony, humor, a beautifully crafted story about humans doing human things in whatever kind of crazy, ironic way.

Not a fan of violence, really just have a hard time with that. My joke is when someone asks have you seen my movie? I’m like, can it be shown on the Weather Channel? Because if it can’t I probably didn’t see it. I love “Native Son,” but the end of that was tough. I understand the beauty of the film, and I was hoping it was kind of like “Moonlight,” so you might think something violent is going to happen but it never does. But, unfortunately it does. That being said, my children, I tell everybody parental guidance is really for the parents! It’s not for the kids. They can handle it. I just don’t want to be scarred for life.

But there are some amazing indie films, “Juno,” Oh! And “Benny and Joon!”

KP: I love that movie!

JW: And “Little Miss Sunshine!” The ending of “Little Miss Sunshine” is the most brilliant filmmaking I’ve ever seen. Who would have seen that coming, right? That the grandpa is teaching the little girl a strip tease? I just weep from laughter.

KP: But when you get to that point and you see that’s what’s happening, it makes perfect sense!

JW: You’re like, “Of course! Why didn’t I see that coming?” It’s perfect. To me, that’s what filmmaking is all about. It’s hard to explain, but I know it when I see it. My son’s in film. He’s been a film master since the very beginning. I mean, I used to argue with him when he was nine years old about why he couldn’t watch R-rated movies. Finally I gave in and said, “Fine, you want to go to that film, you have to find someone to take you.” So he did! He found my brother-in-law.

KP: I was going to say, I bet it was an uncle!

JW: I learned early on with him that this was in his blood already. Give it up. He’s not watching it to become a terrible person. He’s watching all of this because he’s fascinated by the filmmaking.

KP: What’s some advice you would give, particularly to women who want to get into the industry as filmmakers, as producers?

JW: Don’t apologize and don’t let up. I can’t tell you how many persistent calls I get from men. For money, to get involved, whatever. And I don’t get the same from women. I get a nice phone call or a “Would you be interested?” We gotta put ourselves out there. Don’t give up and just be persistent. Don’t take anything personally. We’ve gotta let that go. Stop apologizing and just go for it.

We would like to thank Jenifer Westphal for her time speaking with Awards Circuit.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” premieres Saturday on HBO and HBO Now.

Be sure to visit our Official Oscar Predictions Page to see the current rankings of all the nominees.