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Steve Mao & The Road to the Oscar®

Hi Steve, thanks for accepting our invitation. How are you doing?

I am well. Thank you for inviting me. It’s an honor to speak with you. We are currently in the midst of navigating the new normal caused by the global pandemic crisis and the rapidly changing landscape of the film industry.

We know that you moved from New York to Moscow for a couple of years. Can you tell us a bit about your life journey?

My parents were immigrants from Shanghai, China. I was born in the USA. We lived in Palo Alto during the tech boom, in what is now known as Silicon Valley. It was exciting witnessing the development of companies like Hewlett Packard, Apple, and Spectra Physics. I later lived in New York City and held various positions in Corporate America before starting Studio Mao. In 2014, we opened an office in Moscow. Living here has been a great experience. The city is progressive and host to many film companies, both on the production and distribution side. It’s been great to be around such creative talent and see the strong optimism and entrepreneurial spirit of the younger generation.

Did you have any specific influences growing up that lead you towards the film industry? When did you first become interested in films?

I was involved with the children’s theater in Palo Alto. The experience of working on set design, sound engineering, and lighting was valuable from a creative perspective. My father liked photography and gave me my first camera. It was a Rolleiflex 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ format twin lens reflex camera. Then I moved to a Rollei SL 83 super 8mm video camera and started making short films and animations. I remember shooting stop motion animations and using a legacy cutter and glue to do the editing.

I was also interested in 35mm photography. My first camera was a Minolta SRT 101, followed by an Olympus OM-1. After being the yearbook editor at my high school, I started shooting press photography and freelanced for the Associated Press in Los Angeles. I have always shot on film, developing the negatives and making prints myself. The lessons from shooting through the lens of a camera and thinking about the power of light contributed to my understanding and passion for cinema.

I became interested in film at a young age. We would go to the movies as a family. I remember seeing classics like: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Katharine Ross), From Russia with Love (Sean Connery Daniela Bianchi), The Godfather (Al Pacino, Marlon Brando), and Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stars Wars, Jaws, and The Birds are some of the films that have influenced our style.

With all the artistic opportunities to choose from, why producing?

Although I consider myself to be more of a creative, I have found the process of producing films as a business very interesting. We focus on the importance of monetizing content and providing a return to investors through mitigating risk. Successful production encompasses the management of a film’s life from the concepting stage all the way through distribution.  

I believe strongly in building the best team we can and allowing them to be creative. Once filming has begun, we like to be, for the most part, hands-off and allow the director, cinematographer, and actors interpret the story.

Congratulations on winning the Academy awards’ Best Short Film in 2019 with “Skin”. How important is this award for you?

Thank you very much from the entire Skin team. The importance of a film we produced winning an Oscar® cannot be quantified. When Guy Nattiv’s Skin won the Oscar®, it elevated everyone associated with the film to a much more prominent level within the industry. Being nominated is a huge accomplishment in its own right but winning is a completely different experience and brings many opportunities with it. Winning an Oscar® is a defining moment for any individual or company. Everything changes in that instant. It is not only a statement that highlights the ability to discover the best stories and produce them, it’s also a validation of excellence in marketing and team collaboration. Winning an Oscar® is accomplished through a great team effort.

Can you tell us how did you meet the team of “Skin” and what was your contribution in the process of producing the film?

I met Guy Nattiv and Jamie Ray Newman through an introduction by Maven Pictures. I am one of the Executive Producers, and Studio Mao produced the film in association with New Native Pictures. The team that worked on the film was incredible. Guy directed. His wonderful wife, Jamie Ray Newman, produced. Sharon Maymon and Guy wrote it. Yuval Orr was our amazing editor. Celine Rattray and Trudie Styler were our producers at Maven Pictures, and many more amazing people who worked so hard on the film. The actors were fantastic, and although it’s impossible to list everyone, Jonathan Tucker, Danielle Macdonald, Jackson Robert Scott and Lonnie Chavis interpreted Guy’s vision perfectly.

I worked tirelessly during the release period and throughout the Oscar® promotion campaign. It is no exaggeration when I say none of us slept from the day the film was nominated until the moment it won an Academy Award. The campaign was relentless. I remember starting to work at eight in the morning (Moscow time), beginning calls with New York at 5:00 P.M., and then finishing calls with Los Angeles sometime around four in the morning.

It’s normal for producers not to be on the set all the time during production, but we review dailies remotely and give notes throughout post-production. My philosophy is that too many cooks in the kitchen is never a good thing. Maintaining a creative atmosphere and minimizing the workspace is an important factor in allowing a director the space to realize a film’s vision.

What inspired you to produce this film?

We have always supported films with a social message, and Skin, the short, is no exception. Skin focuses on tolerance and the importance of parental role models in society. When we read Guy Nattiv’s script, especially for the feature film, it was clear that this was a story that needed to be told. The short was the proof of concept for the feature that starred Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald, and Vera Farmiga.

The short and feature film by the same name were produced during the period of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Everyone in the United States was saying that there were no white supremacists left in the country and that Hillary Clinton was going to be the next president. Well, we all know that isn’t how it turned out. Donald Trump became president, and the United States is more polarized today than at any other point in the nation’s history.

Can you share with us one or two events unfolded during the shootings or during the production of the film that will remain in your memory for a long time?

Skin was the first narrative film that Director Guy Nattiv had worked on in English with an American crew and actors. So, for Guy the experience was new and very helpful in advance of producing the feature version of the film. The snake monologue by Jackson Robert Scott was actually improvised from a speech he had given at school on his favorite animal. Jackson’s mother sent the speech to Guy who immediately knew that he wanted to incorporate it into the film.

Lonnie Chavis who plays the other boy in the movie was an actor Guy knew from the film This Is Us. One night on set the two kids has a break-dancing battle. Guy said, “It was fierce, and I’m still not sure who won. The two boys really loved each other, they were both enormous talents.

The making of Skin the short and Skin the feature traversed many sensitive zones. The film is controversial, and when we started filming, word of the film was reported in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. It was at this time that the threats of physical violence started coming in. The end result was law enforcement becoming involved at the highest levels. Without saying too much, the experience was harrowing for members of the team.

Without a doubt, we knew that we had a story worth telling just by the reaction from the extremist groups in the United States.

Tell us the story of getting the Oscar®. When did you find out that you will be in competition? How is the feeling to hold this prestigious award?

The interesting thing was, no one actually thought we were going to win or even compete for the Oscar®, but on August 18, 2018, Skin won the award for Best Short Film at the HollyShorts Film Festival. By winning at this festival, the film qualified for the 2019 season. On December 17th, Skin was selected from 140 films and made the Oscar® shortlist of ten films. On January 22nd, 2019, Skin was one of five films nominated in the category of Best Live Action Short. That was the moment we knew Skin would compete in the 2019 Academy Awards. Guy Nattiv and Jamie Ray Newman went on stage to collect the Oscar®. We met them directly after. The entire event and evening were surreal. It was an amazing feeling to hold the Oscar® for a film you produced. It is such a huge honor and achievement in life.

What was the feeling after Skin won the Oscar®?

Well, I remember waking up the next day in my room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The crowds were gone, and the parties were finished. I was standing alone in the middle of the room and it felt strange. I began to remember the people who helped me, the people who believed in me, and how I had stayed true to my beliefs, sometimes at a cost to my career. There were many failures along the way, but I never quit. The days of endlessly working waking up 6 a.m. until I could no longer stand made me remember that perseverance is a virtue. To this day, I’m deeply touched every time I see Skin, because I know that not only did we make a great film, but we also made a difference. I wished my parents who gave me everything in life could have been there to see my success. They were the ones who showed me the way forward in life. And in that moment, I was immensely proud of Guy Nattiv, on whose shoulders the entire team stood to share in his success. In the end, I never left my room the day after the Oscar® ceremony. It was a moment that I celebrated in private with the memories of those people who walked alongside me. It was as much their day as it was mine.

What does an Oscar® bring to the winners? Are they more visible and credible in the industry? Is it easier for them to get the next project selected for the production?

I can categorically say that the Oscar® is priceless. There is no monetary value that can be placed on an achievement of this magnitude. Some people ask how long the high lasts. I think it lasts forever, because the emotion of having your film win is so extremely powerful, that it is impossible to forget.

Any person whose film wins an Oscar® will have added credibility in the industry, but it would be an exaggeration if I were to say that it makes it easier to have new projects green lit for production. Every project stands alone on its own merits, so every project that comes after is evaluated purely on its own strengths.

Tell us about your projects after the Oscar®. We know you’ve made the feature film Skin. It was in your plans before the awards or you got the idea after the big success to produce the feature film?

I will tell you the story of Skin the feature film first. The short film was actually a proof of concept for the feature. Guy Nattiv was sitting in a café reading a newspaper article about the son of a racist man, who shot his own dad just because he thought he was an African American intruder when he came home late one night and was locked out. Guy and his collaborator Sharon Maymon came up with the idea for the short to produce it. The feature was based on the life of Byron Widner, one of the FBI’s most wanted white supremacists, who changed his life after meeting a single mother and her daughters. But the story was so “hard” and the subject matter was extremely dark. No producers wanted to touch the film because of the content. Guy made the short as a proof of concept piece to showcase his skills as a director and filmmaker. And from the short, the feature film was born. It is a textbook story of taking a short film and subsequently making the feature.

Since Skin, we have released several films, notably Andrew Ahn’s Driveways starring Hong Chau and Brian Dennehy in one of his last films. The film has scored one of the highest ratings on Rotten Tomatoes with a 100% fresh score from more than fifty industry reviewers. We also just completed the Liev Schreiber/Marisa Tomei drama Human Capital that was one of the most popular online streaming films during the pandemic. And coming soon is Amy Koppelman’s A Mouthful of Air (Amanda Seyfried), the first film in cinema to address post-partum depression. And, a great sci-fi film, Warning (Alice Eve, Annabelle Wallis, Alex Pettyfer, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Kylie Bunbury and Garance Marillier).

What advice do you have for filmmakers who aspire on winning an Oscar®?

The advice I would give filmmakers would be to not think about winning awards. Think about making great films. Focus on being selective about choosing your scripts, because a great script is the foundation of a great movie. And don’t forget about the sound which is the backbone of the cinematographic experience. I see so many films where the sound does not do the film justice. The aural effect on the viewer is equally important as the visual experience, as it helps tell the story when words and images cannot. A great director will always pay meticulous attention to the soundtrack of a film. Quinten Tarentino is a great example of a director whose films are perfected in post-production. In addition to his trademark, fully staged, wide cinema shots, the sound often mimics the smallest movement onscreen, like a button on a gun holster unsnapping (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). If a film is 102-minutes, then every second of the 102-minutes must be produced and scored to perfection.

What should a screenwriter know about working with a producer, in terms of managing their expectations when they’re pitching them?

Unless there is a preestablished relationship, most producers would not speak with a screenwriter about a script that is already completed. If the discussion is about a script that has not yet been written, then it’s important for the screenwriter to research the producer’s style and films so that he or she can talk intelligently and knowledgably. Producers need to have confidence that a scriptwriter understands the conceptual basis of a subject and that they have the ability to transform an idea into a great script.

What criteria do you use to select a script, screenwriter, director, etc.?

Well, arguably the most difficult part of a film is to find a great script.  A large majority of our time is dedicated to finding the one script that stands out from all the others. There are many great scripts, but there are only a precious few outstanding scripts. The script is the backbone of a great movie. Without it, a movie cannot be exceptional.

We have a team of readers and development people who seek out amazing projects. Our process is standard to the industry where we have readers that provide coverage reports. The coverage scores each script in categories such as the films concept, strength of the storyline, depth of the characters, etc. We also score every script in terms of diversity and equality, using measurables like the Bechdel Test and other criteria to ensure we are more accurately reflecting the world we live in.  

Does the ability to fund or sell a film come into your decision-making process when choosing projects?  

Yes and no. Because many of the films we produce are either strong social message films or are about difficult subject matter, our budgets and production schedules are very conservative. It is important to protect our investors and the ability to sell a film and recoup costs is a top priority. The majority of our films are shot in 23-days, and we are able to produce three to four films a year. However, the overriding factor in the decision to greenlight a script is the quality of the script and the force behind the story. If you have a great story the funding equity and sales will come.

When you start working on a film, you obviously think you’re making a great movie, but when do you know you’re making a great movie?

Usually we know we have a great film after the majority of filming has been completed and the dailies are where we want them. However, it is difficult to predict how good a film will be before post-production is at least half completed. There are so many factors that go into how a film plays ranging from the editing, to color grade, VFX, and sound. Often times, the intensity and emotional force of a film cannot be determined before seeing an almost locked version. I remember we were shooting a film The Kindergarten Teacher with Maggie Gyllenhaal. The film is a psychological drama about a kindergarten teacher with a prodigy student who composes poetry. The script was phenomenal but shooting the film was extremely challenging due to the budget, an extremely hot summer (much of the film was shot in a school without air conditioning), and a large cast of child actors. There was a great deal of discussion surrounding how the film should be edited, and our director Sara Colangelo considered all the notes. The moment I knew we had a great movie was at one of the final audience test screenings. We screened for 20-people and gave them questionnaires to complete at the end of the film. Almost every audience member had a different perspective on the film. At that instant I knew we had a great movie. The film sold to Netflix, and I heard that the unconfirmed number of streams was in excess of 10 million.

What are your thoughts about the future and what are you expecting from 2021?

This is a difficult question, because we have neither the guidance nor the answers to accurately forecast the future. We have several large projects ready to go into pre-production, but if the situation materially changes, scheduling will still depend on the availability of talent and crew. We are planning conservatively and are in a state of readiness should the opportunity present itself to film in 2021.

The pandemic will result in a reduction of business with only the healthiest organizations surviving. Long term, we are hugely optimistic that the film industry will thrive again.

Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts with us, it was a real pleasure. We wish you all the best and good luck with your next Oscar®!

It’s been a pleasure to be here. A huge thank you from the team of Skin.