Shruti Ganguly tells us about Nylon, her new movie Yosemite and working with James Franco

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This edition of GUMworks, we talk to producer, writer, and director Shruti Ganguly. 

She is a young, prolific multi-hyphenate in the mold of her frequent collaborator and mentor, James Franco.

On top of that, Ganguly has created hundreds of videos for Condé Nast, Nylon, MTV, and many others. We caught up with her by phone while she was in Los Angeles for the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

GUM: Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Shruti Ganguly: I make movies and I make videos, in various capacities. I’m a producer, I’m a writer and director. Previously, I’ve run departments for different media companies and developed content in-house at Condé Nast – specifically on Vogue – and MTV. More recently I was a VP at Nylon, which I just left to form my own production company. In terms of the movie work, it’s been mostly with James Franco as one of his producers.

GUM: You hear the term “producer” all the time, but people who aren’t in the film industry don’t really know what it means. What is being a producer?

SG: I like to say that “producer” is the most abused word in the movie business. In terms of the way I approach being a producer, I work very closely with the writer/directors on realizing the project. I raise the financing, hire everyone, I focus a lot on casting. I put all the bigger creative pieces together. I was also briefly in the music business, so I leverage connections to get a specific musician to score for our film as well.

GUM: You did that with your new movie H., right?

SG: Yes. I got Blonde Redhead involved, and Nico Muhly as well. We’re using pre-existing music from Nico. We wanted him to do some original scoring, but was booked until, like, 2018 [laughs]. 

GUM: You mentioned that you were in the music business. About ten years ago, you were briefly at Island/Def Jam. What were you doing over there?

SG: When I finished undergrad, I moved to New York and interned in what was then new media. It was back when digital was called “new media,” which is funny now. I focused on the Def Jam side. I worked with Ludacris, Ja Rule, Ashanti, Rihanna. It was when Jay Z had just become president. I loved working there, but they couldn’t sponsor my visa, which I needed because I’m Indian. I had to find a place I could get my visa sponsored, which is not very easy in the arts when you’re starting out.

GUM: What similarities and differences do you see with the music business and the film world?

SG: They’re both businesses that have been greatly affected by technology in a profound way, where their business models have to evolve and change. The way the music industry makes money is through live performances and festivals, and branded content deals for the musicians as well. In the same way as music, the way movies get financed in Hollywood cuts the middle ground off. There’s big tentpole movies that are experiential and the ways people are making money are event-based models, trying to get people into the theater and get people to festivals. 

It’s cheaper to make movies and music, so a lot of music gets made, a lot of movies get made. But there’s a lot of noise, and it’s about sifting it out. That’s where curators come in. Those curators tend to be film festivals, or they tend to be the opinions of other artists themselves who are prominent. If Beyoncé tells you to pay attention to a new musician, you will, more than a record label spending marketing dollars. 

GUM: When you were at grad school at NYU, just getting one degree wasn’t enough. You got an MBA and an MFA. Looking back now, has it turned out you’ve needed both degrees?

SG: Yeah. I really benefitted from doing both programs at the same time, and I learned very different skillsets. From the business school I gained a network, and from film school I gained a community.

With the MFA program, I learned to pay attention to more details and read between the lines. With business school, you read what’s on the page, but you look at the bigger picture. You also get the skills of managing people and understanding the right type of people to hire to put a project together. At the same time, with an MFA you learn to appeal to the spirit of the people you work with. So it was a benefit to do both programs, and I don’t think I would have done one without the other. 

GUM: While in two graduate programs simultaneously, you somehow found the time to produce and co-direct The Color of Time. You were working with eleven other filmmakers on one project. What was that like? 

SG: I love how much research you’ve done! For that movie, which was my first, let’s look at the variables. It was made with twelve directors, for $200,000, in two weeks, in Michigan where we didn’t live, I was getting two master’s degrees, it was a period movie that spans four decades, and we had Hollywood talent. And I had children and animals [laughs]. And then I was also one of the directors on it. 

There were so many different parts, and I learned so many lessons. The first was the ultimate lesson in collaboration. It takes a lot of people to make a movie, but if you have twelve directors, you have to get everyone on the same page. You’re guiding a ship through stormy water, and I also had to learn how to navigate that and get everyone together, but also make sure that their visions for their individual parts were also highlighted. You have to find strength in those numbers and those unique perspectives.

It was also interesting to end up having a film that came out in theaters, which is something none of us thought we were going to do. But we ran with it. 

We just knew that we were going to work really hard to get it done. I had flown to Michigan a month before to hire everyone. I’d never been to Michigan. I had to do my research and find the right type of team, and we all work together still. So it was a learning experience and the foundation of many things for all of us.

GUM: One other obstacle that you didn’t talk about is that you were creating a biopic of someone who was still alive.

SG: Yes. A biopic of a Pulitzer Prize winning person who was still alive, who was also very involved.

GUM: What involvement did the real C.K. Williams have in the movie? 

SG: Well, when we got the rights for the book [the movie is an adaption of Williams’ poetry collection Tar] , we asked C.K. Williams to do a reading for us of the poems that we were adapting. Just listening to him say his words grafted such weight to the project, and we had to respect this truth with some care. 

He had seen various versions of the edit, and I kept him updated on that. He came to a buyer’s screening. He unfortunately couldn’t come to our premiere in December because he was really sick, and he passed away a few months ago, which is very sad. 

GUM: The Color of Time got some pretty bad reviews when it first came out, in places like the New York Post and the L.A. Times. What was it like to have your work so poorly reviewed in major outlets like that?

SG: When you are making a biopic of a poet, that’s adapted from the work of a poet, you are making something that’s a little more experimental and lyrical, which may not follow a traditional commercial story structure. As much as we had an amazing Hollywood-worthy cast, that sort of cast sometimes indicates something a little more traditional. If someone was going in to watch something very traditional in terms of story and plot, they were bound to be disappointed. 

At the same time, we had screenings with the Bowery Poetry Club and various poets and academics, and that’s who the film’s for. They felt a great connection with the material. So ultimately, you find your audience. It’s not for everybody. If peoples’ names are on the bill, the expectation is for it to be a certain way. But ultimately, it is a very lyrical, beautiful film and it satisfies that job. I mean, C.K. Williams saw it and thought that we had done justice to his work, and that is very gratifying.

GUM: You have a couple projects in the festival circuit, gearing up towards wide release. Yosemite is getting its first couple screenings. What is that movie, and what’s your role with it?

SG: Yosemite is the third movie I worked on with James, and Gabrielle Demeestere from The Color of Time is one of the directors also. It’s an adaptation of James’ short stories about growing up in Palo Alto, and Gabrielle then wrote another story to craft this three-part film. It’s set in Palo Alto and Yosemite in 1985, and it follows two ten year old classmates over the course of a couple of days as a mountain lion is starting to threaten their town. 

It’s capturing a moment in their lives where they’re dealing with their own issues of loss and grief and disappointment. You’re also in a subtle way watching Silicon Valley become Silicon Valley, because that’s when Palo Alto changed.

With that project, James wanted us to work on it while we were still in grad school. Gabrielle and I went on a research trip to San Francisco in 2012. A year later, we were making the film. James is in it as the father. 

We ended up being the closing film at Slamdance, and Gabrielle won a female director award. It’s gone to various festivals. It comes out in January. We were just at Mill Valley, we got a great review in Variety, we’ve gotten some very good reviews in IndieWire and Twitch and so on, and there’s a lot of excitement around it. Also, the money we make from the film will go in part to The Art Of Elysium, which is a charity that James is involved in. It deals with teaching art to children who don’t have the opportunity. 

I’m going to Hawaii for a film festival tomorrow. I’m most excited about that. I’ve had a very good year at Sundance and Berlin and Venice and all the big spots, but I’m really excited about Hawaii [laughs].

GUM: I can imagine! Hopefully you’ll have some time to go to the beach in the middle of all those screenings.

SG: It is a priority, that’s for sure.

GUM: James Franco seems to be someone who is working on a million things at the same time. What is it like to be in business with someone that prolific and that constantly multi-tasking?

SG: He’s inspiring. He’s been a friend, mentor, colleague. My visa to stay in the States, my O visa, is sponsored by his company, so I am very grateful. He is very serious, he’s very loyal, and he works very, very hard. His spirit is very much an artist, and he’s very true to it, tirelessly.

GUM: You did some work with another enigmatic movie star, Keanu Reeves.

SG: Yes. I’m working with Keanu on a movie now. The way that came about is, Keanu was making a documentary called Side by Side, which about how digital has affected the film business.

I was in grad school directing a film, and I got a call saying that Keanu wanted to come on set and interview me. That’s how we met. I was filming on the Upper West Side, and I sat on stoop and he sat with me for about forty minutes. 

He actually was quite upset that I was producing so much. He heard that I was working with James as a producer, and he said, ‘You’re really a director. I see how you work with your actors and you have to keep directing.’ And I assured him that I was, mostly music videos and some branded content. He was very encouraging, and I am writing my first feature, to direct next year. But Keanu and I are producing a movie that is by Chris Kenneally, who was the director of Side by Side. This will be Chris’ first narrative feature, and it’s called The Green Dolphin.

GUM: You put a lot of emphasis on trying to create opportunities for women in the film business. Can you talk about your efforts towards that end?

SG: We have to be aware and acknowledge that there is a gender gap. At the same time, if you know that there is one, then you have to do something about it. With me, it ultimately comes down to strength in numbers. Of course, it takes women to support other women, but also men supporting women. 

I seem to be attracted to projects now that are directed by women. I hire a lot of female crew members – also just because they’re the right people for the job. I have a collective with friends of mine from NYU.

And something else happened just last night. I’m in L.A. right now at AFI. The last time I was in L.A. a few weeks ago, I was meeting all these amazing women who didn’t even all know each other. When I came back this time around, I wanted all of them to meet. I threw a completely spontaneous drinks thingy at NeueHouse, which just opened. About thirty amazing women came, that ranged from actors to execs to music managers to musicians to filmmakers. I just wanted all of them to meet. There was no real agenda other than, you guys are all doing amazing things, you should know each other. We can’t work in silos.

GUM: One of the most popular things you did was the “73 Questions” series for Vogue. It was a wacky, rapid-fire, 73 questions in four or five minutes. What was it like to see your idea done with the biggest of big stars – Daniel Radcliffe, Anna Wintour, Sarah Jessica Parker?

SG: I’ve made over 600 videos at this point, and they’ve ranged in content and personalities and platforms. It’s really exciting to work with people who you’ve respected for a while, and you build up relationships. I worked with Daniel Radcliffe on “73 Questions,” and then when I went to Nylon, his team said, Dan will make any video for you. So this idea was pitched to me that I really liked about a celebrity being a receptionist, where we prank the office. I reached out to Dan, and said, ‘You said would do anything for me. Will you do this?’ He did, and it ended up being Nylon’s biggest video to date, with just under five million views on YouTube alone.

My approach is relationship-building. You have to keep finding things that are newer and fresher. Even when did “73 Questions,” we wanted to make the process a little different every time, because it also made it interesting not only for the crew and the director and myself, but also for the talent.

GUM: We’re talking on behalf of a studio space. When you’re working on a project, what kind of things do you look for in a studio?

SG: So many things. It depends if I make a movie that needs a New York State tax credit. That’s one thing. 

Ultimately, it’s of course the space itself, but I’m very particular and specific about the vibe and the people who are involved. When it comes to crew or location or vendors, I like finding people I can work with and build relationships with. I always look at the teams and the people involved, and their previous work and previous relationships, so I have a sense of how we can work together and hopefully keep working together. I also want to make sure that there’s a space for the talent to have some privacy, but also it’s really important for there to be music. So great speakers are important. Because when you’re shooting at a studio, your in-between moments need to have people going at a certain vibe and excitement.

GUM: One final thing before I let you go. You wrote a great list not long ago of thirty life lessons. What’s the newest lesson you would add to that list?

SG: The newest thing I’ve learned this year? That’s such a good question. I feel like I have a new attitude this year in general, and it’s working with truth. When it comes to my work, I try to be as transparent as possible. But I’m very particular about working good, working authentically, working honestly. I’m a big advocate for working with truth. It’s definitely been a lesson in doing that, and in getting people around me to do that. 

Another thing that I am actually really particular about is, I don’t use the word “busy.” I’ve eradicated it from my language. Whenever people would ask me, ‘How are you doing?’ I’d be like, ‘Busy.’ And to be honest, who isn’t? It’s a bit of a crutch, or an excuse. I swear I gained a couple more hours in my day when I just changed my use of that word.

 

Interview by Shawn Setaro