"Producing," says Megan Wolpert '95, senior vice president of Spyglass Television and a lively generator of conversational metaphor, "is like an appetizer platter. There's the directing bit, the production bit, the writing bit. Most people get bitten by one of the bits and make that the main course. I haven't been 'bitten' yet."
Which is roughly to say that Wolpert loves being a producer and plans to go on doing it for the foreseeable future.
She's also good at it. In less than three years with Spyglass Entertainment, the 29-year-old has co-produced feature films including the latest Al Pacino vehicle, The Recruit, which opened in January 2003. As a measure of the company's high regard for her acumen, when Spyglass recently started up its new television division, they chose Wolpert to head it. Her first television series, the primetime drama Miracles, premiered January 27 on ABC.
Although Wolpert loves movies, the transition from large screen to small has brought unexpected satisfactions, such as the quicker pace of television production, which suits her style. "With features, there are projects you will have on your slate for eight years that have yet to come together. At least with television if something isn't going to happen, you get that answer quickly and everyone moves on. It's sort of like picking a new roommate every year."
She also finds it gratifying to be working in "a writer-driven medium." Although she took lots of drama classes and won the Joanne Woodward Trophy for best performance by an actress her senior year, Wolpert majored in English and is passionate about working with writers to develop material. In this she swam against the Hollywood tide, which frequently and notoriously maltreats writers as so much flotsam obstructing the fish. In television, Wolpert says, "the writer is king. While films get started by pitching ideas and concepts, in television you pitch a voice and a style. So the writer really runs the show."
Wolpert hired a writer for Miracles whom she knew from feature films, Richard Hatem (The Mothman Prophecies). Because Hatem had previously worked only in movies, he was floored to be invited to casting sessions for the television series, and rendered speechless to discover that his was the most sought-after opinion in the room, as Wolpert observed with delight.
Last fall, Wolpert visited Kenyon to offer a talk to students on how to get started in film and television. "I wanted to focus on all the things that people don't mention to you when you get off the Greyhound bus, like the structure of how a project moves through the system. It takes six months to figure that out on your own, but I could explain it in minutes." Among other things, Wolpert shed light on the difference between agents and managers, what all those people on a list of film credits actually do, and how studios find material. "There is no freshman orientation for Hollywood when you get here. No one is waiting to explain to you where the cafeteria is. And it can take so much longer than is necessary to figure that out."
Wolpert gratefully remembers getting her own "freshman orientation" to Hollywood from a generous alumna, Susan Hillenbrand Avallon '85, whose name she found on a list in the Career Development Center. Avallon gave her scripts to read and taught Wolpert how to write "coverage," a summary of a reader's thoughts on a script. "Coverage is the mode of communication, the paper trail of a project. It's a beginning-level skill that all people in the business have to learn how to do. Susan gave me little homework assignments on how to do it, and workshopped them with me. She was invaluable."
Of producing, Wolpert says, "When you're really good, the job's got some creative juice like writing, but you're not writing; it's got some directorial elements, but you're not directing. It's kind of a little bit of everything"--that appetizer platter again--"so it's harder to find the internship or the equivalent of med school that can show you a path."
Drama classes at Kenyon certainly helped. In her former position as vice president of production at Spyglass, Wolpert read fifteen to twenty-five film scripts every week, and always, she says, went back to the method of analyzing a script that she learned as a first-year student in an introductory course taught by James E. Michael Playwright-in-Residence and Associate Professor of Drama Wendy MacLeod. "A lot of my job is being the first line of reader and working with writers to bring their scripts to the point where they can be turned into movies or television. Because I wrote so much at Kenyon, I know what I'm asking of them. The same thing is true of [Professor Drama] Harlene Marley's directing class. It taught me how to work with directors, how to understand what they need."
Two images recur as Wolpert talks about a producer's work: the translator and the warrior. Starting out in the business, she took a series of jobs that gave her experience with the varied groups who contribute to getting a film made--technical crew, writers, directors, producers, and "suits," the studio executives who control the money--so she could learn their idiosyncratic vocabularies. Wolpert wanted to learn these different "languages" before taking an executive job "so I would know what it is they needed, so that when I started really working with them and being their protector, their warrior--which is what producing is--I would know what their working life is like. A lot of the job is translating between these different elements. I needed to understand all their points of view in order to produce the way I wanted to produce."
"My primary responsibility is taking care of the writers and directors and making sure that their vision is realized, and that they have the creative space to do that, while at the same time being financially responsible," says this interpreter who successfully mediates among competing interests by speaking to each in their own language. Now that's production.
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