Gretchen McGowan of New York Women in Film & Television: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker
Connect with the film community. There are great organizations like The Gotham and New York Women in Film (NYWIFT) with members who want to collaborate with you. As a board member of NYWIFT, I love to make connections between people, step away and watch things percolate.
As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Gretchen McGowan.
Gretchen McGowan is an award-winning producer and the head of production for Goldcrest Features in New York City where she oversees titles such as Carol, Mojave, What Breaks the Ice, Carrie Pilby and To Olivia. Gretchen has collaborated with Sebastian Junger on five films, and she most recently produced Hell of a Cruise for NBCUniversal, a feature documentary about the cruise industry’s handling of Covid-19. Gretchen independently produced Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control in Spain for Focus Features and she produced American Swing for Magnolia Pictures. She line produced the Oscar nominated Dancemaker, Buffalo ’66, Two Girls and a Guy, American Psycho and Heavy. While head of production with Mark Cuban’s HDNet Films, Open City Films and Blow Up Pictures, Gretchen supervised over 25 features including Redacted, Enron, Broken English, Bubble, Lovely and Amazing and Coffee and Cigarettes. She has been on the Board of Directors of New York Women in Film & Television for three years, and currently serves as its Treasurer.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
Well, I’m the youngest of four daughters and both our parents were teachers. In third grade I was the new kid in school, transplanted from Philly to the foothills of the Berkshires. We made our own entertainment in this tiny town, and on Sundays, I’d read the Arts & Leisure section cover to cover, plotting a life in New York City.
I did the responsible thing in college; I took the pre-med track. I thought I was supposed find a cure for cancer, get to the bottom of the thing that had killed my father when I was eleven. But I struggled with the smell of formaldehyde and a dead cat. All my lab-mates poked at the animal and identified the organs and veins, but somehow, I wasn’t seeing what they saw. Then I discovered the theater on the opposite side of campus where I met my tribe. I remember calling my mother to give her the news: I was switching majors. I was terrified she’d be let down, but she seemed to be expecting it.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I circled an ad in The Village Voice — an office manager position for a Chelsea-based company that supported its filmmaking habit with Manhattan real estate. At this job, I called the plumber, fielded complaints about broken boilers, and tracked down rent. Then I’d pick up the film crew, rack focus on the camera, and run film dailies to the lab. Eventually, I was staying late at night in the editing room. We hired a new office manager, and I began freelancing as an associate producer, a researcher and an assistant editor until I was offered the opportunity to line produce Heavy for Jim Mangold.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
Well, she’s not here to defend herself, but when I drove Shelly Winters to set during Heavy, she threatened to fire me. I had refused to pull over to buy her a pizza. It was 6 AM mind you, but she wanted pizza for breakfast. She didn’t care what my title was, she didn’t care that the shop was closed, she wanted the pizza. Or at least she wanted to delay getting to set and this was just another tactic. There was a lot of hollering from her side of the car, but I was stoic and steadfast. I’m pretty sure there was a breakfast burrito waiting for her when I dropped her with the 2nd AD. Shelley had more years of experience than our entire crew put together. The pizza was forgotten; she was a pro on set.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
One of the great benefits of working as a freelance producer and as head of production is that I haven’t been pigeon-holed into working with any one type of director. From James Mangold to Jim Ivory, from Mary Harron to Brian De Palma, Nicole Holofcener, Katherine Dieckmann, Steven Soderbergh, and Jim Jarmusch. To observe each director’s working style — none of them the same — has been a luxury, and the best part of this journey.
After landing in Amman, Jordan for Redacted, I was still jetlagged when I met with Brian De Palma and the producers in the Grand Hyatt lobby. We were talking about the challenges production was having. The military paraphernalia was held up in customs and we were just days away from filming. Brian turned to me and asked me what I was reading. What’s on your nightstand, right now? I flashed to a pile of scripts I’d packed (this was back when we used to print them). Scripts don’t count, he said, somehow scanning my brain. He was right! Scripts are just a blueprint. It’s the books you read that define you, inform you. That’s what he wanted to know. I told him I was reading Magic Mountain, which was true, well, sort of true. On the plane, I’d fallen asleep with Magic Mountain opened to page fifteen in my lap. Oh, we have a real reader here, Brian announced to the group, and I cringed. There have been lots of books since then, but it wasn’t until last year that I finally finished Magic Mountain. It took a pandemic to get me through it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
So many people — I’ll try to distill this….
Early in my career I was lucky to work with Toby Shimin, an exceptional film editor and storyteller. I was her assistant, and I threaded the fine cut reels on the flatbed to screen for the executives. When the executives left the cutting room, Toby looked through their laundry list of notes. I thought we were done — the film was perfect, and their notes weren’t worth the legal pad they were written on. Toby said most of the notes had value, and the trick was to figure out why. She said a note usually meant there was massaging to do on the scene or the moments just before the note. Something was off, and it was our job to find it. She reworked the notes six ways to Sunday, and like unlocking a secret door, she always found it. The film was better for it.
When I was hired as Open City and Blow Up Picture’s head of production, I was impressed by Joana Vicente and Jason Kliot’s love of cinema. Walking down the steps to their SoHo offices was like entering a 19th century brick submarine, a hideaway where other film lovers hung out. They’d just produced Chuck and Buck and their motto for the new slate was, “Surprise us. Show us something we haven’t seen.” Even the bathroom walls were covered in Film Forum screening calendars. They treated the whole office to popcorn dinners on movie night (we were cheap dates), all of us parading west to the Film Forum to see Band of Others, Z, or The Battle of Algiers. Appreciating these films was essential when making films with Jason and Joana, and it was infectious.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Bob Dylan’s lyric “Don’t stand in the doorway/Don’t block up the hall.” My husband — he’s a film technician — he jokes that if you’re looking for the producer on set, look to the doorway. The producer’s usually having a conversation there, blocking access, while the grips are trying to push the dolly through the doorway towards set. So, yeah, literally get out of the way so your crew can do their jobs.
But all kidding aside, getting out of the doorway means that you might be confused or even threatened by the pronouns, or the #MeToo movement, but it’s happening. It’s progress, even if it doesn’t yet look like your version of it. I think you should run towards things that confound you, that shake your world. Because otherwise… as the song goes, you’ll sink like a stone.
I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
Radiolab featured a story about a forester recently. She observed how various types of trees competed, pushing each other aside to reach the light. But when she cut down the spruce that stood in the way of the fir, the fir tree withered and died. She realized there was a giant highway of tiny tubular fungi connecting the forest, that these trees, all sorts of trees, survived and thrived by sharing the resources surrounding them.
We make better films when we’re inclusive. During the frenzy of pre-production, it can seem difficult to take the extra time to find the right production designer, or the right camera team for the project. But we must. If we don’t take care to diversify the cast and crew, the film itself suffers. We make better films; we build a stronger film community. Better community, better world.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I just produced Hell of a Cruise, Nick Quested’s doc feature for NBCUniversal/Peacock about the early days of the pandemic aboard cruise ships. It’s cool because it’s shot by the passengers and crew as the situation deteriorates. They’re the stars. Nick’s now directing a project about the 64 days between the election and January 6th.
At Goldcrest, I have an arm’s length involvement on a few narrative feature projects too: the upcoming Lilly, a suspense drama about the fair pay activist Lilly Ledbetter; Cat Person, a feature based on Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker story that went viral; and Wilderness, an episodic series out of Vancouver. All three projects are directed by women.
Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?
We’ve made five films with Sebastian Junger at Goldcrest. He’s a huge advocate for combat journalists and the veteran community because he’s been there, and he knows what it’s like to come home from that. Here in the US, we’re good at getting things started. We recruit young men and women and we send them off to war. But when vets come home, we don’t have a solid plan, no real plan on how to cope with the culture shock of returning home. My father was rattled by the Korean War. His fuse was permanently shortened when he came back. And my mother was the aftercare program in that story, not a veteran program. So, it’s good to see these stories, to show how others are coping, because there can be comfort in that, and perhaps some progress.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Connect with the film community. There are great organizations like The Gotham and New York Women in Film (NYWIFT) with members who want to collaborate with you. As a board member of NYWIFT, I love to make connections between people, step away and watch things percolate.
- Try everything. If you got an offer to catalogue wardrobe after wrap, take it. Take the camera class at Abel. Learn the art of each department and you’ll be a more empathic, more effective producer.
- Pair up with another producer. Producing is so many things, one person can’t possibly be good at everything. When I produced Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control in Spain, I worked alongside Stacey Smith, Jim’s longtime producer. We’d worked together before on Coffee and Cigarettes so I knew my skills would complement hers. Stacey was fearless with contracts and negotiations, knowledgeable about art clearances and of course Jim’s storytelling style. I was considered a veteran producer by then, but I still had so much to learn from Stacey.
- Get a hobby outside the business or film will become your entire identity. Rescue dogs, knit, run, get your hands dirty in the garden. Otherwise, before you know it, you’re working 14-hour days and you’ve nothing to go home to. New York wasn’t always a company town, and when we had to cobble together a few side hustles to make a living, we got creative. The gaffer on your show might have been a muralist and the boom operator played lead guitar in a band.
- Breathe, because it really is just a movie — but the stakes are high, the hours are long, and conflict can arise. About 15 years ago, when I was spinning plates managing five demanding films at once, I took a course on Transcendental Meditation. The 20 minutes each morning seemed to help things fall into place. Now I’m less stressed, more effortlessly organized, more creative. I try to wake up earlier to allow time for it, because if I don’t do it, that time is wasted later in the day anyway.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The big dream? I’d redirect all the brainpower behind bitcoin manufacturing, behind cyber hacking and billionaire space travel. I’d channel that brilliance towards the things we’ve got to solve, like harnessing energy from the ocean. Maybe it could be a game show like Shark Tank.
But in the filmmaking world there’s a simpler mission: the business of hours. The efficiencies on set can be better realized. It’s punishing, and it’s dangerous to be working such long hours. Just because I went through it doesn’t mean the next generation needs to work consecutive 18-hour days. We can look to Europe as our models for a more civilized workday. Of course, this means the crew’s day rate goes down, because there’s not the commitment of expensive overtime. But a shorter filming day means the cast and crew can often be home in time for dinner and be healthy enough to live a better life.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I’d love to meet Melinda Gates. Her commitment to dismantling systemic barriers and promoting gender equality is unparalleled. I’d bring her in to meet the excellent NYWIFT board and staff, to collaborate on a few projects. There is still so much work to be done, I know we could accomplish a lot together.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Thanks for the opportunity!
Gretchen McGowan of New York Women in Film & Television: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.