Gabrielle Neimand is a development executive and producer for Strike Entertainment, the production company that created Dawn of the Dead, Children of Men, The Last Exorcism, and In Time among many others. We sat down with her recently and asked her all about how she worked her way into her very cool job and what it is, exactly, that a development executive does within the filmmaking process. And how do folks in her position make use of science and scientists?
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to want to make movies, and what led you to your current position at Strike Entertainment?
My parents made the arts an important part of my brother’s and my education growing up: museums, theatre, etc. When I was home sick from school my mom would rent me the blockbuster I wanted to see and then a classic from her youth she thought I SHOULD see. I knew from a pretty young age I wanted to create entertainment, but growing up in South Florida, far from the industry, I had no idea what that might mean or what possibilities might exist. So while I had dreams of working in the movies one day, in the meantime, I worked behind the scenes in school theatre, interned for a local production company making real estate videos (yes, videos), and produced concerts. I spent summers interning in New York City and Los Angeles where I had some great bosses and one of them told me about an opening for a Lit Agent at CAA. I did not know what a Lit Agent was, but as I was moving to Los Angeles with neither an apartment nor a job her word was good enough for me to apply. I knew so little about how this town worked and am so grateful first to have had someone to help point me in the right direction, and second, to have ended up getting the job and working for an incredible woman who I still consider a mentor of mine today. My time there really solidified that I wanted to have a foot in both the creative and business side of entertainment. After the agency, I was an assistant at 20th Century Fox where I got to see every step of making a movie. Then I came over to Strike as an executive 7 years ago.
What memory or experience stands out as a turning point early in your career?
I will go back pre-industry but to a lesson that always comes back in this job. At registration for my freshman year of college, I found out I was not going to get into my first film class until the next quarter. So I tried to sign up for a stage management class in the theatre department; however, you needed teacher permission. I could not register for anything until I had that one permission. Day 1 in college, I go find this imposing teacher who explains to me that I cannot be in his class because (a) I am a freshman and (b) I am not a theatre major. I do not know what got into me – maybe frustration … definitely frustration – but in an out-of-character move I explained to him that he was right, I was not a theatre major, but I intended to be doing work with his theatre department. Did he not think it was better for me to learn from him as a freshman, than from just helping myself as I pleased over the years? He just stared at me, and after an awkward minute I walked out. By the time I got back to my dorm room he had called and left a message giving me permission to join the class. On the first day of class I realized there were a handful of seniors and me. I also realized that you are going to have to fight for anything you want in life and anything you really want is absolutely worth fighting for.
Most people do not know how stories and characters for films are developed. Can you tell us a little about the process? How does a film start as an idea and get to production? What is a development executive’s role in that process?
Ideas can come from anywhere. When you have the idea, you work with the writer to sculpt it into a screenplay. While there is no formula for what makes a good script, there are certain guidelines you can follow that tend to make for more successful film storytelling. Once you have a solid script, movies can also come together in a million ways. By in large, the next step is to attach a director, who also does some work with the writer on the script. One of my favorite aspects of this business is that while no two stories are alike, neither is the process of putting any two movies together. Every day is different and you can have one idea early in development while at the same time one is shooting and another can be casting. My job is to handhold a project through all of those steps – get the script to a good point, find the financing, put together the right creative team, and support everyone as they come together to do their job on the film.
What role can science play in the development of a film? How do you know when you need advice from a scientist? At what stage of the development process is the decision made to seek input from a science consultant?
Scientists can be invaluable in helping get details of the story right at every stage of filmmaking – not just in the details of the writing. Is the lighting accurate during a big action scene that is supposed to look like it is happening during an eclipse? Does the effects team want to create a bigger downpour for a scene that is supposed to take place in the first hour of a hurricane? As a result, every member of a filmmaking team can do research to ensure they are creating an accurate portrayal on screen and often times they will turn to a professional for advice.
Then there is what science can do to help advance the technical side of filmmaking. It feels like the technology is changing by leaps every year.
What are the advantages of working with a science consultant? How does having accurate information keep an audience engaged in a plot?
The more detailed and familiar the world you create on screen, the easier it is for an audience to lose themselves in the story. If you are not setting a story in our world as we know it, then you need to quickly set up the rules of the universe your story exists in so the audience can orientate themselves and play along. For example, as a viewer you are not going to be amazed at what a superhero can do if everyone in the story has powers, but if he is living in our world then the audience knows to be impressed if he can fly or see through walls. That is all science: does the world in which this story lives operate with the same rules as the world in which we live. If the answer is no, a storyteller is going to explain the world in the story by using science that is familiar to us. For example, we know the sky to be blue so a writer can tell us we are in a different time or place by having his sky be red. Or we live in a world with gigawatts so the writer decides 1.21 gigawatts of electricity are needed to send the DeLorean through time. The advantage of working with a professional is that you have the opportunity to have your information – or your starting point – be correct.
Why do you think filmmakers seem to be increasingly interested in getting the science right?
The answer is twofold. First, the importance of orientating an audience. We are more likely to believe the fantastical if it is based on the familiar. Second, while we are entertainers, I do think there is also a sense of responsibility to the truth. Things might get changed in the interest of storytelling but science itself is such an adventure and can color a story so vividly with its truth that doctoring it is almost more work.
What do you think you learned from the scientists you met that has made you a better filmmaker?
The truth is science and storytelling are not that different. Both depend on the curious, the dreamers, and asking “what if” or “why not” to advance.
What can you tell us about your current project? Your next project?
We are getting ready to shoot The Last Exorcism: Part II and are just getting our feet wet in television, which has been a whole new great education.