Every Picture Tells a Story
Lone Star Producer Maggie Renzi
For John Sayles, the praise comes easily and often. Besides directing his own films, he is a scriptwriting whiz -- uncredited for his work on Apollo 13, for example -- and acclaimed as a short story writer, actor, novelist, and playwright. For Maggie Renzi, Sayles' producer since 1978 and off-set partner for 23 years, the payback is a little more complex.
Renzi has not only produced or co-produced those eight films with Sayles dating back to Secaucus Seven, but she has also acted in a number of them, notably Passion Fish and Eight Men Out, as well as having produced three Sayles-directed videos for Bruce Springsteen, "Born in the U.S.A.," "I'm on Fire," and "Glory Days." Even when the rewards are rich and obvious, Renzi doesn't take them lightly. Each project will be followed by yet another project, and it's Maggie Renzi's job as producer to balance the various elements.
In person, Maggie Renzi is disarmingly handsome, a trim woman in her mid-forties whose inquisitive blue eyes shimmer with intelligence and humor. A big fan of the cultural underground, an affinity well-illustrated in her productions, she's as comfortable in Austin bouncing on the balls of her feet at Emo's during South by Southwest as she is at the Cannes Film Festival. Back home in New York from a publicity tour, Renzi was typically animated on the phone during a recent conversation.
Lone Star, Renzi's most recent collaboration with Sayles, was filmed last summer down along the Texas border around Eagle Pass, where Sayles wove his tale of the uneasy relationships between the whites and the Mexicans with stars Chris Cooper, Kris Kristofferson, Frances McDormand, and Matthew McConaughey. The film opened last week in New York to an impressive cascade of critical praise and sellout crowds on opening weekend. This weekend it opens in Austin. With crisp wit and eloquent wording that somehow befits her New England upbringing, Renzi is always pleased about such hosannas but, as usual, first talks about her next project.
"What I'm doing for the first time now is producing a movie [with current working partner Paul Miller] that John is writing but not directing. [It's] from a Doris Lessing book called The Fifth Child -- a great, scary book that women particularly find haunting, about the perfect family who has four children... and then the fifth one is a troll. We're gonna find an English director for it, which for me, is like finding a husband... I feel like I should be putting together a personals ad!"
That Renzi speaks of her job with such a humorously personal metaphor is indicative of her devotion to it -- a woman who likens her movies to children, unable to choose when asked if she had a favorite. But Maggie Renzi knows the priorities, she just has a little edge. "I do a lot of what all producers do -- locate the money. I make sure the money is solid, hire the crew, and especially the heads of the departments who hire their own crew. What's unusual about me is that I usually start with a script and a director, which is John. Most producers have to go out looking for those people."
"So I'm luckier than a lot of producers because I have this personal relationship with this really good writer-director, and I don't have to go hunting for that. And, also, my budgets are always lower because John doesn't demand the same kind of money that another writer and director would cost. The `above-the-line,' which means, among other things, the writer and director, is always lower on ours because John doesn't take that kind of money."
Renzi prides herself on this point with Sayles' films because his movies are so notable for their thoughtfully chosen locations, and for being economical while delivering an expensive look. Producer in this case also means that she looks through his eyes to determine what needs to be done.
"I've worked with John a really long time, so I can `predict' him. One of the things I can predict is that John wants to stay on budget and on schedule, so we don't have that adversarial relationship that producers sometimes have with directors who don't have the same vision. My job with John has always been to figure out what it is he wants and make that happen."
Of course, becoming a producer is not exactly something for which you study in school. In fact, it's not unusual for people to sort of fall into the position out of simple talent for organization and an eye for detail. "We didn't know what I was doing was `producer,' so I don't have a producer credit for Secaucus Seven, but when we finished it, we realized that must be what it was. It wasn't really until we started Lianna that we realized what I had done was a lot of what producing was. For me, a lot of it was that I had been living with John. He wanted to do this and asked me if I wanted to help, and help turned out to be this job that was like producing. And I liked it."
"Back when Ms. was an important magazine, I was being interviewed by this heavy-duty lesbian feminist who said, `So, you didn't go to film school, and you've produced two movies... what do you feel qualifies you to be a good producer?'"
"And I said, `Oh, my mother is a great hostess...' and I could just see the interviewer's face fall, like, that's not where it's supposed to come from. But it is where it comes from! You know -- everybody got a drink? Everybody got a chair? Are the right people talking to each other? That's a lot of what the real finessing of producing is. That and making sure everyone's having a good time."
If Renzi showed a propensity for the producer's hat, she also took to acting. The lure of cast credits would seem to be ever-compelling, but Renzi has shied away from acting of late. "It's disturbing enough to see yourself on film. It's even more disturbing over the age of 40," she declares with a laugh. "You're playing another character but it's amazing and terrifying to see onscreen. Working with John is even harder. I don't act enough to feel secure about it and I need a lot more reassurance from the director than is appropriate to ask."
"I haven't really done any acting in a while and I've been saying to John, if you'll write me a really good part, I'll do it. But a lot of times, especially with these smaller parts, I often think, there's another working actress who would really love to have this part. To her, it could be an important thing, and for me, it's a kind of a lark. So... I'm interested in playing an older woman when I get to be older but now that I'm simply middle-aged, I would actually really rather produce. You have a lot more power. You're a lot less vulnerable as a producer than an actress.
"I think acting is the easy job. You just don't get much personal power day-to-day. When somebody congratulates me for a movie, I really know that it is my movie; it's marked and my fingerprints are all over it. Whereas acting a small part in a movie, you're one of the people who contributes but it's not... a Maggie Renzi movie in the same way."
It seems so simple, the way she talks, to creatively make the transition from idea to end. To listen to Renzi, the heart may be the best instinct. "One year, I went home to Williamstown and the library was having a sale... all these books on these long tables. I looked, and here were all these important books from my childhood being sold for a quarter! So I ran inside and said, `Have you already sold The Secret of Roan Inish?" I found it on the shelf and they looked it up and saw that it had been declared, you know, redundant. Not important."
"So I bought it for a quarter and carried it around for awhile and proposed to John that we do it as a movie. And he said, yeah, maybe sometime. Then, right before we were set to go down to shoot Passion Fish, he said `I'll write the script, then when we go back to cut, you and Sarah [Green, co-producer] can go to Ireland and start scouting for it. That'll be the next one we do.'"
Still, Renzi's passion is for production, and all the gratification it brings. Nevertheless, the relationship between the personal and the professional is a delicate balance, one that she treads "all the time. And I'm pretty used to it and it doesn't usually get under my skin.
"Part of it is that I understand that there is the hard side of it, which is there's not much distance between us. I'm close enough to John and he trusts me enough that it's possible for me to say, `We really need you to do this... we really need you to reconsider the location... we really need you to think about changing your schedule because we can only get this actor for these two days.' Because John trusts me and loves me, and has worked with me for so long, he's not going to arbitrarily say no. Like you, I read those horror-show stories about directors who misbehave and that just doesn't happen with us. I think it would be really hard if I wanted to be a director or if I were writer, but I do something John doesn't do.
"I don't think I have the talent to be a director. I'm a much better commentator from the sidelines. And I'm good up front. I'm good at helping to cast, for example. I take a lot of pride in our casts, which I think are really good. That's one of the places I'm most involved. John's big joke is that `creative producer' is an oxymoron, but I guess it is, in fact, quite creative. From the time John talks about a story I have input, and from the first draft he writes I can respond in a way that's more private than strictly professional. So I can do something insidious, I think... like the whole decision to make Lone Star.
"John had had a really difficult time with The Secret of Roan Inish, complicated by bad financing. It was hard to get it sold, nobody wanted to buy it for distribution, we had a hard couple of years. I realized it was time for us to make another movie, time for him to leave home and go on location. To do this thing he really likes to do, which is to make a movie from beginning to end. All he'd done in between was write for other people, which is satisfying for him but doesn't satisy the whole thing.
"That's when I decided to go down to Amistad [on the Mexican border]. One of the things John was talking about was this Texas movie, so I thought maybe if I get him out of our backyard and down to the border, he'll see something down there that will make him think it's time to make a movie, and this is the one to make.
"We spent about four days driving around Amistad, the border, and about a week after we got back home, John said, `Let's make the Texas one. I'll write it.'"
Renzi takes great pride in recounting these moments, these stills from their own story. She seems to delight in noting them, their details, and filing them away in her mind for future use. "Sometimes my job is to say, `John, tell the story about the soap opera star... the sheriff on the border...' because the more he tells it, the more he tells the story, the more he finds out if this is gonna be the next movie he makes, or if it's not quite working out. Part of his gestation is private and part of it is telling it to other people. It's part of the balance."
"My credentials, in my tiny world, are sufficient that it doesn't matter if I'm a woman or a man. All that probably matters is that I've got a line to John Sayles. You've heard that great line about Ida Lupino, that she fucked her way to the middle? Well, here I am! The middle will do for me."