Producer Susan Cartsonis - What Women Want

SUSAN CARTSONIS (producer) has served as president of Wind Dancer Films for the past five years, During this time, she has developed and produced an eclectic slate of large and small films for Wind Dancer principal Matt Williams and his two partners, David McFadzean and Carmen Finestra. In the past year, Cartsonis has produced with Williams and McFadzean "Where the Heart Is," starring Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, Stockard Channing, Joan Cusack and Sally Field.

Cartsonis' first film for Wind Dancer on which she served as executive producer was the critically acclaimed "Firelight," directed and written by William Nicholson. This film continued a relationship between Nicholson and Cartsonis forged during their work together on the film "Nell" at Twentieth Century Fox, where Cartsonis was an executive for nearly a decade.

During her time as senior vice president of production at Fox, Cartsonis supervised such motion pictures as "The Truth About Cats and Dogs," "Rookie of the Year," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Come See the Paradise," "For the Boys" and "Dying Young."

From Daily Variety 11/26/97: Wind Dancer's most recent dip into the feature film pool is "Firelight," the directing debut of screenwriter William Nicholson ("Shadowlands"), starring Sophie Marceau ("Braveheart"). Produced for Hollywood Pictures, the 19th-century-set drama screened in May at the Cannes Film Festival and represents the type of projects Wind Dancer will be pursuing as the company continues to grow.

"It has everything from eroticism to emotionalism," says Susan Cartsonis, Wind Dancer Films' president, "and it symbolizes our objective. We are defined by our choices, so we've opted to handle material that means something to all of us. It doesn't matter if the project is a (TV movie), a cable movie or a full-length feature. All that matters is the message."

And in keeping with the independent film world's ethic, those messages don't always have to be shaped with inflated costs. "The story often determines the budget," Cartsonis says. "If a narrative benefits from a less-is-more mentality, then that's the way we'll go."

From St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 4/27/01:

In the writing program at New York University, [Stanford Clarke] Seidel met the great love of his life, Susan Cartsonis. Cartsonis remembers him as the wickedly funny guy in the back of the room who was always muttering under his breath about the teacher. "Everybody in the front row would be leaning back to hear what he had to say."

In the mid-'80s they moved to California together when Cartsonis took a job at 20th Century Fox and Seidel sold a screenplay (which, like most Hollywood scripts, was never produced). In 1985, surgical complications left Seidel unable to absorb nutrition from food. But whereas such a condition used to be fatal, Seidel was saved by a new procedure called "total parenteral nutrition." Every night for the next 15 years, he was connected to a bag that fed nutrients and vitamins directly into a catheter in his chest while he slept.

In the early '90s, Seidel wrote for the television series "Where You Live" and "True Colors." Cartsonis says that around 1993, he rededicated himself to screenplays. The breakthrough came when he started writing to amuse himself rather than anticipating the whims of the studios. "One Night at McCoy's," a dark comedy about a thieving beauty who bamboozles three gullible suitors...

Last year, Seidel saw a rough cut of the film and was delighted. He had two other scripts he was developing, to complete a dark-humored "St. Louis trilogy." Cartsonis was also prospering, as a producer of such films as " Where the Heart Is" and "What Women Want."

Then, in July 2000, Stan Seidel died - not from Crohn's disease, but from a bacterial infection in his feeding tube. Until his death, many of Seidel's' friends and associates never realized he had been seriously ill for more than 30 years. Cartsonis says her grief was most acute during the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. "I could almost hear Stan's voice, commenting on the absurdity of the whole thing. He had this hilarious rage that was so Midwestern. He could be vicious but never mean."

Cartsonis describes her time with Seidel as a blessing. "Because he knew he could die at any time, everything was an adventure, everything was a bonus. He experienced life in such an immediate and appreciative way. It made our lives together very romantic, in the big sense of the word."

I interviewed Wind Dancer Films President Susan Cartsonis at her office in Hollywood on June 20, 2002.

Susan: "I grew up mostly in Arizona in a small town west of Phoenix, Litchfield Park. I spent two years of high school in Eastern Canada. My mother was a social worker and my father is an architect and urban planner. He helped plan the town I grew up in. I have four younger brothers and sisters. Organizing and taking care of them was my best training for being an executive in the movie business.

"I graduated high school at age 16. I wasn't that classic movie industry nerd. I've heard that theory that most people in the movie industry were nerds in high school who are now trying to make good by being successful. I recently connected with a friend from high school. She said, 'You weren't a member of any group. You belonged to everybody.' I moved between groups. I was an individual in a very conservative part of the world. I stood out because I was different. I was a B+ - A- student.

"I got my Bachelors Degree in Theater from UCLA. I did a year of graduate work at UCLA in writing. Then I transferred to NYU (New York University) where I received a Masters Degree in Dramatic Writing. That was the end of my formal education.

"I got a job in New York reading scripts for Fox. At the end of nine months, Scott Rudin, then a young president of production at Fox [in Los Angeles], called me up. 'I really like this coverage you did. Why don't you come out to work for me?' I said, 'I don't know. I have a good life here. What would I be if I came out to LA?' I didn't want to be an assistant. He said, 'You could do research for me.' I blew him off. I think that made me more appealing.

"I was doing good work for him. I enjoyed my job of reading and being paid for my opinion. I didn't know the parameters for a readers job. I was coming up with ideas for movies and handing them over. If I found a book, I'd write a treatment for it. Scott took notice of that and he kept calling me. I said, 'I'm not coming to be an amorphous thing.' He said, 'What would it take to get you out here?' I said, 'You will have to make me an executive.' He said, 'Ok, you're an executive.' I said, OK, I'll be out in two weeks.'

"I came out. He still didn't know exactly what my job was. Nor did I know what my job was. I had a little dial phone, answer machine and an office. I had no assistant. I felt my way. I was on the bottom rung of the ladder but I was at least on the ladder. I started the day after Labor Day, 1986 and I stayed at Fox until the day after Labor Day, 1995 [when Susan was Senior Vice President of Production]."

Luke: "So, it was a good experience?"

Susan: "'Good' is not a word I would use, though there were good times. 'Interesting. Educational. Fascinating. Insane. Hilarious. A life-lesson.'"

Luke: "What do you love and hate about Hollywood?"

Susan: "I love the idea that groups of people come together to tell stories that are sometimes profound, or sometimes just unite us by making us laugh together. I love the fun of it. I love to be part of a business that can transport people. Sometimes I love the process. Sometimes I hate the process. Sometimes I like the result and sometimes I don't like the result. I love movies. I'm a great audience. I can watch a movie like somebody who's never had anything to do with making a movie and just enjoy it. I can enjoy most genres though extremely violent movies can take me out of it because I am so repulsed.

"I hate and love that the intense competitiveness of the business brings out the best and worst in people. You get to see what people are really made of. You learn who you want to spend your time with. I love dealing with smart people and there are a lot of smart people in this business. I hate the devaluation of writers and producers. They are taken for granted. Writers want to do their jobs well to make actors and directors look brilliant. People forget so quickly there was ever a writer. Producers, if they do their job well, make it appear that there was never a producer on the movie.

"What I hate most in Hollywood is the blatant self promotion. It was ingrained in me since I was a small child that that is evil and abhorrent. I work for three Midwestern guys and I find that they are soft spoken and lead with their talent, rather than drawing attention to themselves. The sad thing is that talent doesn't always immediately draw attention and publicity can be an effective tool. I don't know what so disturbs me about self promotion. It's probably deeply psychological."

Luke: "What's the polite way of saying, 'Let's see who swings the biggest male organ.'"

Susan: "I'm a woman. I don't have to do that. I see a lot of it. It makes me laugh. I'd like to think that as more women infiltrate the business, there will be less ---- swinging and more collaboration."

Luke: "When did you last say, 'Love you babe.'"

Susan: "I don't say that. I come from a family where we didn't do that among each other so I would hardly say it to a stranger. If someone says it to me, I do feel the need to say it back. I can get the words out. My family tells me there's a certain amount of hyperbole in my speech. By Hollywood standards, I'm low on the scale."

Luke: "Do you find yourself telling people, 'I loved your last movie,' when you hated it?"

Susan: "Do I lie? I try hard not to. I try to lie only when it is about preserving somebody's feelings and to tell the truth when it is about business or something that will affect them in the long run. I don't like to be lied to. I love it when people tell me the truth, even when it is painful."

Luke: "What do you say after a screening when you hate the film?"

Susan: "If you publish this, I'm sunk and I will have to come up with something new. But I like to say, 'What an accomplishment! And congratulations.'

"You meet so many people in this business. Especially as a studio executive, because you're essentially a banker and people come to you for money to finance their films. It's hard to remember who you've met and who you haven't met, so there's become this Hollywood ritual of saying, 'It's nice to see you,' instead of, 'It's nice to meet you.' Because, God forbid, somebody make a mistake of saying, 'It's nice to meet you,' to someone they've already met.

"The people who've been around a while are really good at faking it. Faking it is something one has to both hate and admire. When I was a young executive, I once heard a famous Hollywood producer give notes [to a writer] on a script he hadn't read it. And I knew he hadn't read it. And he started out by saying, 'I love the idea. The first act is spectacular. I love the way the characters are developed. And then in the second act, it loses its way. Around page...' And then the writer chimed in, 'Around page 50?' The producer said, 'Exactly. From page 50 to 75, I lost sight of the focus of the story. And the main character... What's his name?' 'Bob.' 'Bob! He just wasn't funny enough. He wasn't emotional enough. And there wasn't enough action. The ending was good but there was something missing.'

'At which point, the writer chimed in, 'Well, maybe this or this.' And the producer, 'Yes, yes.' The producer did a brilliant job of faking it because what he said could be applied to almost any script in the dead center of development and not quite ready for production. Every script needs help with the second act. Every script can have a better ending. And most scripts are good in the first act. It was the most wonderful, incredibly inspiring, episode of bullshitting that I've ever seen in my life.

"But then, I had another meeting with the same producer with a writer who was experienced and had won an Academy Award. And I wondered, how is he going to get out of this one? How will he pull the wool over the writer's eyes. This time the producer had read it. Whenever the producer would give a note, the writer would have ten questions, narrowing and honing in on what exactly the problem was. The writer was like an experienced shrink trying to get to the core of a problem, or somebody running a focus group after the marketing screening of a movie. This writer was incredibly astute. I thought, 'If I ever become a writer, I will want to do exactly what this writer did.'

"It's a good question about love and hate because it's a question I think of constantly. It's a balance sheet."

Luke: "Have the movies you've produced and developed turned out as you envisioned?"

Susan: "No, they've all turned out differently. In some cases it was most painful. My time at the studio inured me to it. I learned that yes, it is a collaborative process and it is led by a director's vision. And once you sign on with a director, you've made your bed. Then you just go with it and see what it is going to become. It's like having a baby [Susan has no children]. You don't know how a baby is going to turn out."

Luke: "Were you happy with What Women Want?"

Susan: "I'd be an ingrate to say that I was anything less than happy with the way that the movie turned out. Every producer dreams of a movie as successful as What Women Want. It was a short development process to the release of the film - three years. The writers came up with such an original idea that they executed wonderfully. Director Nancy Myers shaped it and made it more sophisticated. Who could ask for a greater gift than Mel Gibson in a movie? He's a gift to the audience because he's a pleasure to watch, and charming and willing to try anything on screen and afraid to throw himself into the fray. He's a gift to producers because he sets a tone on the set. He's incredibly professional and has no snobbery. Everyone is to be dealt with with respect. What Women Want is the highest grossing romantic comedy ever."

Luke: "You said in a 1997 interview with Variety, "We are defined by our choices, so we've opted to handle material that means something to all of us. It doesn't matter if the project is a (TV movie), a cable movie or a full-length feature. All that matters is the message.' What did you mean by that?"

Susan: "I don't know. It sounds like meaningless hype. If there were ever a message that I'd want to convey, it would be about humanity, whether it's a broad stupid comedy or a dark sensitive drama. What does it mean to be a human? And I know that is something that is shared by the guys who own this company."

Luke: "Do you guys talk about 'message'? As in, 'What's the message in this film?'"

Susan: "Never."

Luke: "What words do you use instead of message?"

Susan: "Nothing like that. I don't know what I was thinking. That was five years ago.

"We do ask ourselves what's the movie about. What's the story we're trying to tell? What's the lead character trying to do?"

Luke: "Are there messages you don't want to send?"

Susan: "If it is saying something disgusting or drag people down and make them want to commit suicide, yes, we'd ask questions about it."

Luke: "Has that come up?"

Susan: "We've been offered projects that are too dark. We ask ourselves, 'Why would anyone want come to see this? Why would we want to spend years of our lives making this?'"

Luke: "Would you make a Lolita? Brilliant art about a middle aged man with a 13-year old girl?"

Susan: ""I never studied that story. I know the book is a brilliant piece of writing. I know there's a story to be told there that has value. I don't know if I would be the person to tell that story since I haven't studied it."

Luke: "Do you need to relate to the movies you make?"

Susan: "Yes, in a visceral way. I don't think I could get financing for a film unless I was excited about it."

Luke: "So you loved all 20 projects you developed at Fox?"

Susan: "I loved every one of them. There was something about each of them that spoke to me."

Luke: "Have you worked on a film that's changed you?"

Susan: "Yes. The first film I was thrown into at Fox - How I Got Into College [1989]. It was another executive's movie. He got sick. I was asked to take it over. It was tremendously troubled. The director was replaced [credited director is Savage Steve Holland]. There wasn't enough money to finish it. There were production problems. I learned how to be a producer and how to create comedy from nothing.

"For the Boys [1991]. I worked on it with Bette Midler, [Producer] Bonnie Bruckheimer and [Producer] Margaret South. There were a couple of creative choices made on the film just to be expedient in getting it out there that were not the right ones. We made the choices together. The movie came out the same week as the Gulf War and nobody had a stomach for a war movie. And the movie tanked. And the lesson for me was that it would've been better to wait for the casting to come together in a better way.

"The Truth About Cats and Dogs [1996]. We had a tough production. I spent a lot of time on the set. I rolled up my sleeves and worked side-by-side with the producer and the director to help out. It was the kind of detailed work that executives don't normally do. And during that time, somebody on set said to me, 'Susan, I've never seen an executive do what you did.' That sent a message to me that I shouldn't be doing what I was doing. That I should be a producer. That wasn't a compliment. That was somebody telling me that I was doing the wrong thing. It was a huge moment of change for me.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer [1992] changed my life. I thought we were just making a cute mixed-genre movie. A short time after it came out, I realized that it was a cultural phenomenon. It sent a message to young women that you could be both cute and powerful. I speak at NYU from time to time and girls in their early 20s say, 'That movie changed my life.'

"I'm much happier working as a producer. I went through six regime changes at Fox. They were fascinating but grueling.

"The most profound experience was working on Where the Heart is [2000]. It was a book that I read while working at Fox. I fell in love with it and saw the movie in my head. There's something about the story that taps into my own experience."

From Imdb.com: "Novalee Nation is a pregnant 17-year-old from Tennessee heading to California with her boyfriend Willie Jack, but is abandoned by him at a Wal-Mart store in Sequoyah, Oklahoma. Novalee has no job, no skills and only $5.55 in her pocket, so she secretly lives in the Wal-Mart until her daughter Americus is born six weeks later. Novalee decides to raise her daughter and rebuild her life in Sequoyah, with the help of eccentric but kind strangers. Based on the best-selling novel by Billie Letts."

Susan: "Stan and I joked that Where the Heart is and One Night at McCools, made at the same time, were the same movie. They were the story of a young girl who wants more than anything else to have a home of her own. And goes to any lengths to achieve it. Firelight is about the same thing. A woman unanchored looks for a home. She finds a family in this unusual way.

"Where the Heart is changed my life. It was the first time that I was a full-time onset producer. It was stressful because we made the movie independently. We only had four weeks of preparation. We had a first-time director [Matt Williams]. It was grueling. The heat in Austin, Texas, was intense. The personalities on the set were intense. Matt had a vision of the movie fueled by his personal experience that helped rally the troups and got us through the process. Everyone shared a passion for telling the story. The script by Lowell Ganz and Babloo Mandel was great, and though the shoot was hard, everyone felt a part of something special."

Luke: "How have you kept your moral compass on due north?"

Susan: "I don't know if I always have, but I try. I made a decision in the first year that I came to LA as an executive. I looked around at the people in senior positions and asked, 'Who do I want to be? How do I want to succeed? On what terms do I want to succeed? On what terms will success be meaningful to me?' I made decisions about how I would and how I wouldn't behave. I had a good sounding board in Stan.

"I decided that I wasn't going to suffer over losing a project or fight with a colleague. If I did my work that which was meant for me would come to me.

"If you don't make a conscious choice to keep your compass on due north, you will slip into telling yourself lies. If you are able to lie to yourself too well, you won't be able to tell the truth about character and stories."

Luke: "I've heard that females are particularly suited for producing because it is a nurturing position."

Susan: "True. Some men have those qualities too. Women are trained from an early age to collaborate and there's a natural nurturing quality that women have that lends itself to producing."

Luke: "Why do you think Hollywood is so afraid of stories involving organized religion?"

Susan: "I don't know. I've never been a member of an organized religion. I've often wondered why Jewish executives are so afraid of Jewish material. That was a very strong feeling in me when I was starting out but with movies like Schindler's List that's lifted. Maybe organized religion feels exclusive. Movies about a specific faith may shut out large parts of the audience that are not in that faith. Maybe it's a marketing decision."

Luke: "When PG-rated films make more money than R-rated ones, why does Hollywood produce so many R-rated films?"

Susan: "Maybe because human experience is R-rated. Oedipus acted out on the screen in a contemporary way... Do you think it would be PG-13? I don't think so."