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The Indie Whisperer: A Conversation with Independent Producer and Development and Production Consultant Christina Sibul

Christina Sibul shares with Script her journey from attending Yale School of Drama to finding her way working in the film industry in Los Angeles, collaborating with indie filmmakers, to her approach as a producer and development consultant, and so much more.

For many writers, directors, filmmakers, and storytellers alike, the dream of seeing their "babies" on the silver screen is far and in between. Yet, it's also rare that you'll come across a champion that emboldens your vision, with steadfast ambition. One of those rare cheerleaders, a needle in a haystack, is independent producer and development and production consultant Christina Sibul

Not only is she passionate about making movies, but she's also passionate about sharing her love of storytelling with budding filmmakers. She's taught at an array of colleges, one of which I attended, and continuously count myself as one of the lucky ones to have crossed paths with her during my filmmaking education journey. Her approach to analyzing screenplays is dizzying, awakening, and profound all at once and has pushed my own fortitude as a storyteller and as a cinephile.

Christina Sibul on set. Courtesy Christina Sibul.

Christina Sibul on set. Courtesy Christina Sibul.

Christina has had her hand in a bounty of successful and game-changing independent films, like Thirteen, Station Agent, Lords of Dogtown to Alexander Payne's award-winning film Sideways. This year, Christina produced two poignant and incredibly topical independent films, Butter, written and directed by Paul A. Kaufman, and the Venice Film Festival "Best Italian Film" winner Monica, directed and co-written by Andrea Pallaoro.

I had the great honor of unearthing all that Christina could share during our brief conversation about her journey from attending Yale School of Drama to finding her way working in the film industry in Los Angeles, and collaborating with filmmakers Andrea Pallaoro and Paul A. Kaufman, to her approach as a producer and development consultant and asking the important questions from both herself and the filmmakers she teams up with and what she's thematically attracted to. 

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie: In a nutshell, you're basically the indie whisperer and you have artistry in finding and teaming up with fantastic storytellers. And to top that all off, you work on projects that are conversation starters. Before we get into all of that, I'm very curious about your background and what inspired you to get into this business?

Christina: It was a total mistake that I got into the business [laughs] to be honest. I had gone to Yale Drama which, to be honest, has had an outsized impact on where I've come from since then, and in many ways, because you know that, the idea of graduate school, it's not even so much what you learn there, but it's the relationships that you make. And I was actually told about that, in terms of when I was about to go to graduate school, I remember when I was in undergrad, one of my professors who had gone to Yale Drama had said to me, ‘Don't really worry too much about your classes.’ God forbid, I would never repeat that but I am repeating it here [laughs] but he's like, ‘Don't worry about your classes, but spend as much time as you can on the cabaret, get to know the students and get to know your collaborators.’ And that's truly what I did. And that wasn't even intentional, as much. It was just what my interest was, in terms of the idea of working with people.

I've always been really interested in working through people to get to bigger ideas, if that makes sense, collaboratively. I went to graduate school was dramaturgy, so it is the idea of the study and structure of plays, but really in many ways for me, it was about the idea of working with collaborators, whether they're writers, directors or actors - to try to pull what story it is that they want to tell out. What are you actually interested in? What are you trying to say? Trying to find, in a way, the bigger conversation that they're trying to have, either with themselves or with something cultural. That almost goes beyond what the text on the page is. We know in filmmaking that there's the script, there's the director, and then the film is a tertiary conversation. It's the relationship between the filmmakers, and the script, and then the product that comes out is a more solid manifestation of the conversation; but in a weird way, the script passes through the collaborators to have a bigger life, a bigger idea. And that's one of the things I love about theatrical, filmmaking, screenplays, about that kind of aspect. It is such a collaborative medium. Even on filmmaker-driven stuff, the total is so much more than the sum of its parts just in terms of what it does culturally out in the world.

So all that to say is, I went to school for theater. And then I was in a relationship with a guy in New York who wanted to be a screenwriter. And I was like, ‘Well, you want to be a screenwriter, you should go to LA.’ [laughs] And I kind of came out here with the attitude of like, ‘Well I'll find work. I can figure out what to do.’ And I was really lucky to get a good job early on, and what I mean by a good job was it did pay, but it paid like crap. [laughs] As an initial sort of development executive; I joke around that I was Michael London's in-house development executive because I was literally working from his house.

Sadie: [laughs] Very literal.

Christina: [laughs] Oh, my God, super literal. And he was a really great mentor to work with and learn from because he had extraordinary taste in material. One of the first projects I touched when I got to LA was Sideways. And I touched it in its book form, it was that Spalding Gray monster in a box in a sense, in that it was just loose pages of a manuscript sitting in a big Kinkos box on a desk. [laughs] And I remember Michael asking, ‘Can you read the first 20 pages and give me your thoughts on who should play these roles?’ And I was like, ‘Sure, yeah.’

Strangely, I was immensely lucky to fall into a path and it was reasonably unintentional. I knew that what I did in graduate school in terms of dramaturgy, that idea of looking at words on a page and physical collaborators in the room and trying to figure out how these things blend together to make a physical manifestation of what the script is or what the idea is, that was exactly the same process of development of putting together work. It never occurred to me that it was actually different. And it is highly different in that now I can see over 20 years there's a much stronger structural discipline to screenplay writing and or television, but I've also been able I also cut my teeth at a time in indie filmmaking and with indie films that structure can go out the window, and that's a beautiful thing.

Sadie: Do you see that kind of coming back? There’s been a lot of back and forth these days on “throw away what you know from Save the Cat. Don't read X, Y, Z book” when you’re starting out as a new screenwriter. Are you seeing on your side, more indie filmmakers taking a chance by throwing structure out the window in their storytelling?

Christina: Yeah, I think I do. It is a hard conversation though, because I think no matter how far you run from traditional structure, you find yourself back at the starting point again, or you find yourself asking a lot of the same questions. Robert McKee, Save the Cat, whatever era of the gurus you come from, they're asking really good questions of a script. I do think a lot of times, no matter what those questions are, they are really salient and those questions are really interesting. And it's that idea of the hewing to the traditional structure.

I think we are going away from it a lot of times in more interesting and innovative indie films. I think that idea of the indie film is really embracing the voice of the filmmaker, what they see, sometimes just the physical manifestation of how they see their way into a character, how they see their way into a script or a story. I think we have a lot more visual tools and that is an amazing thing. The fact that we can include CG shots in an indie film - that's amazing. The fact that we can do things in gaming engines, and a lot of that kind of work is accessible to indie filmmakers - that's amazing.

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We've looked through social media in many ways, at TikTok, and Instagram, we've gotten much more tuned to almost the era of personal revelation. Of that idea that breaking a person open, a psyche open, I mean that in a positive way, of like a character that we're interested in personal revelation. So, we're interested in alternative structures and it's strange how our tools around us societally have played into that.

So to that end, I think that there's a much bigger book of tools that we have, that are not necessarily the traditional sort of structural tools of how you construct a script. There's a lot more tools to the storytelling kit. There have always been infinite tools of storytelling in so many ways, but now we have more toys and our popular lexicon is very different.

We were really interested in sort of the personnel and looking at the psyche of individual powerbrokers, individual personalities, things like that, and that is the domain of indie film, a lot of times. The smaller, more personal stories are diving in a little bit more deeply. And I find that really interesting. And I find that something that we talk about a lot more openly now; it is traditional character development, but we also really look at almost the smaller moments that tend to find the character.

Sadie: Yeah, and I am noticing more character-driven films, especially on the indie side. Following a singular character more intimately and a deeper dive into their psyche, like you're saying for us as an audience to be more engaged with them. And I think that adds also to what you're saying about social media, it’s another step further into who they are as these characters.

Christina: Yeah, exactly. Sometimes it goes on bigger platforms as well. I was having a conversation with one of my collaborators about the movie Spencer yesterday about the idea that that's a non-traditional biopic.

Sadie: Yeah, and such a beautiful film.

Christina: Yeah, right. It's a beautiful film, and it works so well. I don't want to say we have more of that now, but I think that was a really interesting film in terms of almost a contemporary take on someone who is a historic personality, and that was just a gorgeous treatment of a really remarkable woman.

[How 'SPENCER' Screenwriter Steven Knight Created Surrealism by Heightening Reality]

Sadie: Speaking of character-driven material, especially with your last two films, Butter and Monica – what was that process like working with both of those writer-directors?

Christina: Monica is an interesting sort of case. Andrea [Pallaoro] is an incredible filmmaker and an incredible talent. And when I first read the script of Monica, so much was there on the page. He also writes in a very, I will say, elusive fashion towards understanding what it is that the scene is, what it is that he's actually telling in the scene in some ways, because it's so much written in the visual text of the movie.

To sort of clarify the relationship in a sense – Trace [Lysette] and Pattie [Clarkson] were attached to Monica before myself and my producing partner on Monica which was Karen Tenkhoff, and she had brokered the relationship between us and the movie originally. And there was a trio of remarkable female producers that really initiated the project with Andrea and worked really hard for years to get that project made and that was Cristina Dow, Gina Resnick, and Eleanor Granata - they're three amazing women.

However, with Monica, Karen, and I, our specialties as producers are developing in many ways. And so the initial process always of working with the script tends to be obviously reading the script and reading any materials that are surrounding it, potentially if it comes from other material, things like that, and then sitting with the filmmaker and talking to them about what the movie actually is to them. And again, trying to understand in many ways the, 'why this material, why this movie, why put it out there?' That's always a really important thing to me, because one of the things that changed drastically over the decades is we make content now, in a sense, and I have no problem with that. But the idea for me is how do you make meaningful content? And it doesn't always have to have a social message. It doesn't always have to have a big overwhelming, I'm going to hit you over the head with a message, but that idea of the more subtle why? Why are we putting this out there into the universe? What conversations are we either trying to evoke, inspire or create? And that's really important to me.

[Using Psychology to Create Memorable Characters]

One of the first steps is that idea, sitting and talking with the filmmaker and really trying to get a sense of what the movie that they're seeing in their head is. And that always becomes fundamental. Do I understand what they're projecting in their head? If I could crawl inside their brain and try to see that mind screen [laughs] And then a lot of the development work, especially when you're working with a really talented writer-director like Andrea, is how do we make sure that what you're seeing in your head is actually on the page? And looking at it very critically, because filmmakers do this all the time and this is not a criticism, they make the connections far more firmly - between the words, between the lines, that a lot of times let's say a buyer, a financier, or even an actor will make.

Orlando Tirado was the co-writer on a Monica and Orlando brings a deep sensitivity to the work. He listens unlike any other writer I've really truly met and what I mean by that is it's not just listening to notes, but he feels the notes very deeply and thinks through them in a very emotional way and he knits things together in a way that he feels through them rather, in addition to thinking through them, in a sense. And that's a beautiful thing. That's a beautiful personality to work with. That's a beautiful writer's mind to work with. And so that idea of trying to crawl inside the director, the filmmaker's head and making sure that those connections on the page are translating to essentially the mechanics of the business. In terms of people that might pay for the movie, people who might kick in some money for the movie, actors who might be attached to the movie, and things like that. And so that tends to be a lot of it, is like trying to listen and understand and truly, authentically get on the side of the filmmaker in terms of what their vision is, and try to bring it forward in that realm.

Trace Lysette as Monica in the film Monica. Courtesy Fenix Entertainment.

Trace Lysette as Monica in the film Monica. Courtesy Fenix Entertainment.

That tends to be a lot of conversations. A lot of asking questions of ‘why’ And not necessarily ‘why’ in terms of challenging their point of view, but the ‘why’ of understanding how things are knit together so that you're listening from the piece from the inside.

One of the things that I referenced, and I'm sure I tasked this to you when you were one of my students, it was so long ago, that one of the most fundamental pieces of writing I ever read in terms of development has nothing to do with script development at all. It was Elinor Fuchs's article called EF’s Visit to a Small Planet.

Sadie: Oh yeah! That's ringing a bell.

Christina: It was this weird little funky piece that I think I when I had you in school, I probably photocopied from my graduate school records, but it's been reprinted since then. And Elinor had been a professor at Harvard, a professor at Yale, she was one of my professors, and she wrote this piece about entering into play criticism so that when you would write a critical response to a play, you were criticizing it from inside the work and that idea of almost criticism, as you know, those Jean-Luc Godard sort of sense of trying to expound upon something out of love, and not just the idea of tearing it apart. And EF’s Visit to a Small Planet, try to imagine when you first enter into a play, or when you first read a play, to try to imagine what that the atmosphere of the world is like. Meaning the way that the air feels, the images, things like that, and to really sort of sense your way through it.

In indie film producing, thank God, you've got a director that is doing a lot of that work for you. And you're trying to enhance, almost in a weird way, their gut reaction or emotional feeling of the way through to a structural surface - how do we make it translate? So that's a lot of the work and to be honest, that all sounds really ethereal and all in terms of the work, but some screenplays exist a lot of times in those theoretical conversations and the ethereal - the ask, the longer conversations. And Monica really truly was that. Karen and my contribution to that was reigniting a focus on some of the script work - and then there was a whole other round that I wasn't fully a part of. We always ask the question of how can we bring the budget down because that was always highly critical. The last round of script work, before they shot in Ohio, I think was really quite good in terms of the winnowing down at the very practical work of, 'what scenes do we need, what scenes can we absolutely not afford?' and things like that, and I think that for the most part, Gina Resnick, and Andrea did that very last round, but it was also super successful towards bringing clarity to essentially what the pieces were of the movie that you needed and could afford. [laughs]

In terms of working with Paul [Kaufman] on Butter, it was from an IP by Erin Jade Lange. It's a really popular book within that sort of Scholastic Book Club mindset that really deals with some very big ideas. I was very hands-on with Paul in terms of the script work. Paul had a definite idea of what he wanted to do with the material; he and I might have diverged slightly on sort of the idea of tone on that material, but I'm happy with how that script came out and how that project came out. And that was not always an easy negotiation process in terms of understanding what that project is and could be. I love working with Ips and Paul is incredibly passionate about that project and the 'why' for that movie was so strong, not just from the subject matter, but from Paul himself, and carrying that sort of beautiful warrior almost attitude of the good that this movie can in fact do and that was incredibly motivational energy on that project and will continue forward in terms of its lifespan out in the world.

[How Art Meets Advocacy: An Interview with ‘Butter’ Writer-Director Paul A. Kaufman]

Sadie: Was the script already written for Butter when he approached you or did you develop it with him from the floor up starting with the book?

Christina: Yeah, that one he sent me the book and I think I read it in a day.

Sadie: Oh, wow.

Christina: [laughs] Because it is that thing, you have to be a fast reader in terms of getting into this. I read it in a day and I called back and was like, ‘This would be a really good movie.’ I was really blown away by a lot of the emotional depth and a lot of that sort of emotional reality that's happening for Butter as a character. And to be honest, I really responded to Butter. One of the things I really responded to was the fact that Erin as a novelist, also really understood the female character, Butter's love interest in a very profound way. The fact that she had made the same assumptions -- he had fallen in love with her based on her looks. And so, there was a beautiful flip to that. That idea of scratching the surface of someone - we all need to scratch the surface. And so, I thought that was one of the things that I was really attracted to about the book was the fact that there were assumptions flying both ways. I appreciate that the kids weren't as a gang of kids, that the bullying was a kind of bullying that we see quite a bit in high school populations nowadays, which it's kind of like negative cheerleading. And we see that happen a lot as again, especially in the Instagram era, where there's such enthusiasm towards negative behavior and we see that in TikTok challenges, like it's cool to disable a Kia [laughs] and I know that's a ridiculous example, but it's kind of similar manifestation of cheerleading bad behavior and demonstrating the consequences of that.

Butter. Photo courtesy The Kaufman Company.

Butter. Photo courtesy The Kaufman Company.

Sadie: And it's all reactionary. These kids want that connection, in an odd sense, emotional connection, but even though it's not positive, it's really interesting.

Christina: Yeah, I think that's fascinating because, that idea of any kind of interaction sometimes is good interaction that we see with teenagers, and we see with kids in a strange way. It looks at the idea that we're also siloed in terms of our emotional reality, and Monica deals with the same thing. I think that's actually the really interesting thing about so many movies, they deal with sort of that sense of emotional isolation. And the interior truth of who someone is, bouncing back to Monica for a second, I think it's really one of the things I love about that story is the siblings Monica and Paul. And by the way, I think the role of Paul in Monica is perhaps the most phenomenally difficult one ever because he has so little screen time to carry the weight of a lot of dynamics.

The interesting thing about Paul and Monica's relationship is that they both have such different interpretations. Monica is leaving and they both know more about obviously, their side of the family perspective. The audience is witnessing the sharing of different perspectives and the same as with Butter, in a much more simplified sort of approach in a sense but that idea of just that articulation of that - you get the sense that all these kids are just trying to do the best they can and looking for human connection. At that time, at that point in your age, you don't really have the tools - I don't have the tools. [laughs]

Sadie: [laughs] Same here.

Christina: [laughs] That's also sort of the recognition I think we all struggle with those tools - trying to find an authentic human connection. It's a theme that I find myself really interested in, this idea of how do people connect and what are we looking for in terms of that connection.

Sadie: Yes, it’s basically in all of your movies. I'm curious, for especially my readers, who aren't very aware of the other side of the business outside of screenwriting, you've had different job titles and I think they all kind of fall under the same umbrella but what's the difference between a creative producer and being a development consultant on a project?

Christina: I think more and more now, the idea of being a creative producer has gone, I don't want to say it's gone by the wayside, but we really do look at a producer to do all the things. So, when you are even as a quote-unquote creative producer, part of your responsibility to the creative is understanding the budgetary impact and the physical production procedures of how you're going to take the writing and see it all the way through.

Being a development consultant, one of the main differences is while depending on my relationship with a filmmaker and depending on my relationship with the production entity, rather than taking the long view and overseeing the full development process from beginning to end, as a development consultant, I tend to jump in and out of it a little bit more. So as steps of a project go through, the various rewrites on a studio level, different writers coming in, sometimes different directors passing through a project, different creative elements coming in and out, a lot of times as a development consultant you come in, you come in and do a specific targeted addressing of a project or what it could be. I would say the main difference is a creative producer, you are driving the focus of the project from beginning to end in many ways. You are understanding and being proactive and pushing through all the steps.

As a consultant, I get the benefit of being reactive many times. Somebody might come to me and be like, ‘Hey, can you go and put together a list of writers or list of collaborators for this project?’ Or a list of writers that could do this book or filmmakers that could do this book. And then, a lot of times at that point, if I was a producer, I would probably do the primary reach out either to the filmmakers or to the representatives, and have the initial conversations and sort of broker those relationships with who we're going to go after. As a consultant, I get the benefit of perhaps maybe helping with that initial list, and then once they decide to go down the line with somebody, then maybe jumping back into it.

I'm really lucky that I get to do either of those things in life. I always enjoy solving problems too. I love what you said in terms of being an indie whisperer, sometimes you're also just the Ray Donovan, you're the indie fixer. [laughs] It's how do we get $2 million out of the script? An extra pair of outside development eyes can really look at the storylines that are no longer the threads of a story, the scenes of a story that perhaps you don't need, and what are the meaningful cuts that you can make that are not just production cuts, but are development cuts, what characters can come out things like that. Those are the things you never really want to do. You wish you could shoot it all, [laughs] but sometimes you can't. The main difference basically is as a consultant, you get to jump in and out and you get to come in when needed. As a producer, you're not allowed to look away. You got to look at the entire mess from beginning to end.

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Sadie: It’s so interesting, both job aspects. But also solving this puzzle with a script, and sometimes that means trimming the fat. Any advice for writers and indie filmmakers who are about to step into that development phase and work with someone like yourself - what is something they should be open to or be prepared for?

Christina: That's a really hard question. [laughs] It's hard to say to keep yourself open. You need to have a very strong sense of what you're trying to say with the work that you're doing. And two completely contradictory statements, to have to try to meditate on your authentic truth, this might sound very “woo-woo” but find that authentic truth of what you're actually trying to say with that project. However, also being very open because I just love what you said, the statement about trimming the fat, sometimes the fat is where the interesting stuff is. So, also being very open in the early development process; we have a lot of conversations to figure out what the project really is, who the character really is, and those exploratory conversations. Sometimes that authentic truth that you're trying to get to, the destination that you're trying to get to, the way of getting there is not the Waze put you on or not the way that Google Maps put you on necessarily. And the way to get there might be through a different character, through a different technique, through a different kind of something. So, to both, stay focused and open at the same time. It’s kind of like an athlete, right? Like a baseball player, they’re ready for a ball to come their way, but they have no idea which direction the ball is going to come. So, it's both being focused and open at the same time.

And honestly, to have done the research and done the work. And what I mean by that is, it is very rare that a screenplay bursts forth from your head, like Athena burst forth from Zeus' head fully formed, you know what I mean? There's got to be a deep well of other stuff that you're drawing from. There's the old adage that ‘you're not a writer unless you're a reader.’ That idea of keep feeding the well, so to speak, in terms of stuff that you're reading, stuff that you're watching, and to keep that bubbling mass of ideas going.

Also, to realize simply that this is not brain surgery, the patient is not going to die on the table. [laughs] And I actually understand that for creators, we want to respect all the work going in and respect the dedication, and in many ways, directors truly will project into existence because it's a miracle to get a movie made. But also, keep a healthy perspective of other things that you have going on in your life. Some of it is that you have another project, that you have fourteen other projects but you know, you're chasing down this one, you're fully focused on this one in many ways. But also realize that you also need to you need to keep a healthy perspective of life, a healthy perspective that this project, as hard as we fight to get this project going, it can't be everything in your world, because that just gets to be unhealthy after a while.

Sadie: You need to have that balance.

Christina: Yeah, and it also makes you better as an artist that you have other things. It's hard to say that because I don't want to come across like I'm saying, ‘don't focus.’ You need to focus, you need to deliver, but then there's also that idea that you can't do it to your personal detriment.

Sadie: Don't be a starving artist just to be a starving artist.

Christina: Exactly! That idea suffering for your art. Don't be a victim to it. We want to bleed a little bit but not bleed out.

thin black line

Monica premiered had its festival premiere at the Venice Film Festival on September 3, 2022. 

thin black line

Butter is now streaming and to learn more and join the conversation, visit buttersfinalmeal.com