Producers Keith And Jess Wu Calder Share The Biggest Lessons They've Learned After 15 Years In The Film Industry [Interview]

Keith and Jess Wu Calder have been going strong for 15 years now. The producers behind Snoot Entertainment set out to never repeat themselves, and mission accomplished because they haven't. Over the course of their producing careers, they've given the world Blindspotting, Anomalisa, The Guest, and more. They're the sort of producers who make the types of movies they actually love, including their most recent film, Little Monsters (now on Hulu). Directed by Abe Forsythe, it's a sweet horror-comedy with a lot of zombies, bloodshed, and Neil Diamond fandom.

Look no further than their body-of-work to know they're producers with good intentions and taste, both willing to take chances. Their most recent productions include Corporate Animals and Blindspotting, and they're now working with Starz on a TV show based on the latter. Recently, they told us about making the movies they love, experiences and lessons from their 15 years of running Snoot Entertainment, and the films that inspire them.

You started Snoot in 2004, so congratulations on 15 years. How does the company compare to what you envisioned back then?Keith: It's funny, I think of the company mainly as an extension of us as producers, so it was always us making movies we were interested in making. In that sense, I think it's successful because we're still making movies we feel like making, which is surprisingly rare. I think a lot of the time in the film business it's easier to start making the movie people feel like you should make rather than the movie you want to make.Is that something you still feel pressure about?Keith: I think it's always pressure. I think in any art form or entertainment if you have success, people have the idea to repeat exactly what you just did. I see the reasoning for it, and it does make sense, but for us, we have a very eclectic taste and there's a wide variety of films we like. If anything, it's about trying different genres and working with people trying to say something different or interesting. We're the same in that we don't want to make the same movie over and over again.Jess: I think that earlier in our careers we made the films we wanted to make. You know, the very first film we ever made was an animated movie called The Battle for Terra, and when you watch it, it's kind of an immigration story. If you watch it, it's a fun, hip alien movie, but if you try to peel it back and understand what we were trying to say with it, it was very much about colonialism and having respect for the people that lived there, and in that movie's case, the aliens that lived on the planet. I would say from the beginning we made movies with something to say, but the last four movies we made, we're shouting or talking a little louder than we have in the past if that makes sense.Absolutely. You've said before if you read a script that the challenges can be appealing. When you read a script for a movie like Little Monsters, what challenges stick out to you?Keith: One of the main reasons we wanted to make Little Monsters was because we were huge fans of Abe's previous movie, Down Under, which dealt with themes of racism and toxic masculinity in Australia in a way that we found really funny and successful at the same time. I think that the blending of genre, humor, and tone is something we're drawn to as fans of movies. Having done a few mixed tones and genre movies, we know how hard it is to execute on that, so that's a challenge we find really interesting. To get people to shift from laughing to scared to feeling moved emotionally, making that work and be satisfying is really interesting, as opposed to it's confusing or the audience is being jerked around. I'd say that's the biggest challenge with a movie like Little Monsters is on a creative level.

I think on a practical production level, we had never shot a movie in Australia before, and we were excited about that. I don't know if it's a challenge that attracted us to it, but it is a challenge having to work with tons of young children. It's a hard process. I loved all the kids and they were amazing, but there's definitely a lot of practical issues working with children, and for good reason. I mean, they're young and they shouldn't be working long hours, but it's challenging making a movie with a lot of kids.

When you're dealing with that many kids and VFX, is every day just an obstacle course?Keith: Honestly, there was a complication every day. It's an ambitious movie with a lot of action, special effects, kids, singing, movie stars, animals, and a lot of things traditionally hard to do on a lower budget. Every day we'd have to deal with one of those things, if not multiple. You know, we had a really wonderful producing team and fought our way through the chaos.Obviously, kids and animals are notoriously tricky, but what else reads as a red flag in a script? What are maybe more subtle things that are really difficult to film?Keith: Traditionally, I'd say driving stuff is a hassle to shoot because you want to shoot it real, which generally looks best, but it's hard. I mean, it's hard to watch what happens and the actors and directors aren't in the same vehicle, so how do you communicate back-and-forth? It's just slower. Then if you do a more green-screen approach to driving it's a lot easier, but for me, it tends to look a lot worse. It's always surprising to me how much conversations in cars are way more complicated than the average viewer would assume they would be to shoot.Jess: On our film Blindspotting, there's a fight and argument between our two leads, and Rafael [Casal] and Daveed [Diggs] have been best friends for a long time. The scene required a long fight, for them to shout at each other six to eight hours. It's one of my favorite scenes in the movie, but on the page, I knew it'd be an emotionally draining day for everybody. You know, having said that, it came together as amazing as on the page. For both of them and everyone there, it was very emotional and it was about creating an environment for them to do their best.Keith: If I'm reading a script we're about to do and I think, "Well, this section doesn't work so well, but the next part will get cooking and hook people," then I know it's stuff I'm dubious about. That stuff will be hard to figure out how to get to work on the day. It'll be a challenge on the day, through the edit, and the whole process. Now when we start to see that stuff in a script, we try to work with a writer and director on it before we get on set, like, "We all love this project, but we gotta figure out if there's another way to get through this character or story requirement, because it feels like a lull section." It's a creatively challenging thing to make everything work the best that it can.When people say they'll figure out a problem later or when they're shooting, does that ever work?Keith: I think a lot of the time you'll hear, "Oh, we'll figure that out in post," which you hear on a set. The people you usually hear say that haven't spent much time in post-production. Really what they're saying is, "I don't know how to fix this. Let's make this someone else's problem." And so, I do think there are certain types of things that are easier to fix down the line, but it takes a lot of experience to understand which things are that versus someone trying to pass the problem to the next person.Jess, I'm happy to hear you mention Blindspotting, which I still think might've been the best movie of that year. I hear people talk about it often, too, so it's still resonating strongly. Looking back now, what was most satisfying about making that movie?Jess: Oh wow. Thank you. Keith wants me to answer first, so he has time to think of a great answer [Laughs]. I think we can say since it's been announced that we're making a TV show, but I'm super proud of that film. It warms me whenever someone says they've watched it for the first time, and that it's emotionally affected them. Obviously, we would've liked it if it was bigger when it was released, so I think now that we have this amazing chance to continue the life of that story through a TV show. I'm really excited that, hopefully, we'll continue to tell this story for more years to come. When we heard Starz wanted to make a TV show we felt there was so much more that we could say. We're excited to hopefully touch more people through the show.Keith: For me, I'm incredibly proud of the movie, and it's so hard to make a good movie. Really, for me, I think you go through the process of making a film and realize there are people on the film you'd be happy to work with for the rest of your career. With Rafael, Daveed, and [director] Carlos [Estrada], I think that friendship and the professional working relationship could go beyond even the movie itself, which I think is one of my favorite movies we worked on.You've said before how much it matters to enjoy working with a director, so say if you really loved someone's vision but realized, personally, you all might not be the best fit, would you still go forward and work with them?Keith: I'd say earlier in our career we would've gone forward, and I think now, we're self-aware enough to know that the way we produce, which is very hands-on and collaborative, we really need to feel that we can work with that person. We also need to feel that we would be helpful to their process. With some filmmakers whose work we love we'll come out of a meeting and say, "We love their movies and will continue to watch them, but I don't think the process of making a movie with them we or they would enjoy, or we'd help each other make the best version of the film." That for sure happens. I think we're better now at identifying that earlier than later.For Little Monsters, does Hulu tell you the viewership numbers?Keith: They don't give you much data, but they give you a wink and a nudge as to whether it's going well or not well. We've definitely gotten quite a few happy winks and nudges.Did you both see Dolemite is My Name?Keith: Yeah, we loved it.It's great in a theater, but I like the idea of it being on streaming because it could get to live forever. It'll probably always be available to stream and be preserved. Keith: Yeah. It's funny, we saw Dolemite in a theater on the big screen, and my takeaway was I hope a lot of people see it on the big screen because it's an amazing theatrical experience.Jess: It's a communal kind of experience. Comedy, for us, it's more fun to watch it with an audience, but I totally agree that I like the fact that's available to the whole world, you can stream it, and have it forever. I see both sides.What are some other perks about a movie going to streaming? What's the main appeal? Keith: I think the most appealing thing is that when a streamer really gets behind a movie on their platform, it's pretty immediate how many people are watching it. You can see that with the Netflix movies they really take a big crack at, obviously with Roma and movies like that. I'm being somewhat cautious in saying that because clearly, that doesn't happen with every movie. I think there are a lot of movies that show up on a streaming platform and then kind of disappear. As a producer, it's hard to know which version of that you're going to get.What are the movies you've both really enjoyed recently? What have you found inspiring as producers?Keith: I keep a list of all the movies we watch on my phone, so let me pull it up. I'd say Dolemite we did really like a lot, and we think Parasite is incredible.Jess: Incredible.Keith: I think it's Bong Joon-ho's best film, but I need to see it again. I really think it's amazing, though. We liked Jojo Rabbit a lot, but Parasite I'll keep going back to as the most inspiring movie we've seen lately. Oh, Hustlers we really liked a lot. It was exciting to see a movie about women of color who work in a field normally portrayed dismissively on film, and in a way, it was empowering and exciting with a strong cinematic technique behind it. I loved that movie.Jess: Well, it's not a new movie but it's recent in my mind, but I'm still really inspired by Into the Spiderverse. I was so excited when I saw it on Netflix because then I could watch it every day. It's a film that continues to inspire me, even though it's been a year.Keith: Oh, we saw the Dolby remastered anniversary release of The Matrix, which blew our minds. Just unbelievable.What about the movies that inspired you in the first place to produce? Keith: For both us, I think Jess and I were teenagers in the '90s, so movies from the '90s had a big impact on us. I know the movies I went to see multiple times in theaters were not just to see the movie again but to watch the audience, analyzing how the movies worked. In that regard, Jurassic Park and Scream were big movies to me. Oh, Toy Story, too. Those were movies I not only loved but really started thinking about what made those movies work and how they played with an audience. Those movies were all important in that sense. I'd say on a more personal expression side, I'd say the two early Wes Anderson movies, Bottlerocket and Rushmore.Jess: I'm such a James Cameron fan and have always been. I love all of them, but the only movie of his I haven't seen is The Abyss because I'm waiting to see it in theaters. I keep trying to find a print. I'd say the other filmmaker who, as a Taiwanese-American, I found Ang Lee's work to be incredibly inspirational. I think it's very funny when my parents say, "Can't you just call Ang up? Like, 'Hey, what's up? Want to work together?'" Not exactly how it would work. I remember seeing Crouching Tiger on 42nd street in New York and just being blown away that it had subtitles and it's not all that American, but it was a full audience loving it. I only remember one guy complaining, like, "Fuck this," but everyone else applauded and loved it. It blew my mind. It was incredible and such a groundbreaking moment for Asian-Americans.I just interviewed him recently, and it was such a bucket list moment, but I found it really telling and inspiring how much he still doubts himself.Keith: I think someone like Ang Lee especially does. I feel like once filmmakers get to a point of extreme power, they have to doubt themselves if they don't get it from people around them, if that makes sense. I think you need to have your own sense of needing to push yourself.We started talking about the beginning of Snoot Entertainment, so I want to end with asking about the future of the company. What do you both hope to accomplish in the next few years?Keith: I'd say we've been talking a lot about television, which is something we want to do more of, and Blindspotting is a start on that. I think the golden age of television we're in now has shifted to the types of movies we actually love. There are ways to tell stories in that space I find really exciting. On the other side, we feel like there's a lack of movies about the true diversity of the world. I feel like a lot of movies will focus on specific communities, but as people who've been throughout major cities in the U.S. and around the world, I think reality is a lot more cosmopolitan than that and a lot more diverse, in the sense of representing multiple cultures in the same story. That's something we're really excited about.What about you, Jessica?Jess: To work with Ang Lee [Laughs]. As much as I love what we do, I'd like the opportunity to work on a bigger scale and be able to still tell the same types of stories, in terms of the thematic content but in a bigger way. I think that's one of the things that continues to inspire me about Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. In so many ways, it was a brave film across the board with the animation style, the story they were telling, and how it's multi-cultural. It's basically everything I would hope from a big-budget film, and it was. I'd love to be able to work on something on that scale... with Ang Lee [Laughs].