Canadian producer Erika Olde is making waves for women in Hollywood
The producer behind TIFF '17's Woman Walks Ahead talks about carving out a career by being unapologetically yourself
I grew up watching movies with my late father. We’d watch them together, even though our tastes were the polar opposite of one another. He loved Braveheart, Last of the Mohicans, and Hoosiers: real guys movies, whereas Pretty Woman is my favourite film of all time. It didn’t matter, films moved us both. I realized from a very early age the power of a medium which could reduce my otherwise impenetrable, mountain-man father to tears.
He worked in the financial services industry and our family was constantly on the move. We were never in one place long enough for me to enroll in schools, so, as a result, I was homeschooled. In my nomadic life, movies became my constant touchstone; the films of Nancy Meyers, Gary Marshall, and Nora Ephron were the architects of my entertainment and escapism. These filmmakers became my unwitting tutors who ultimately inspired me to pursue my dream to create movies in which you can lose yourself for a few hours, no matter what else is going on in your life. Like Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman, I too wanted "the fairytale."
The first three movies I produced, The Female Brain (starring Sofía Vergara), Woman Walks Ahead (starring Jessica Chastain, it premieres at TIFF '17 on Sunday, Sept. 10 at Roy Thomson Hall), and Home Again (starring Reese Witherspoon), all feature strong female leads and were crafted by the immensely talented female directors Whitney Cummings, Susanna White, and Hallie Meyers-Shyer respectively. On Home Again, I had the extreme honour and privilege to be part of a project which saw Hallie Meyers-Shyer helm her first movie. She was the same age as when her mother Nancy directed Private Benjamin in 1980, thus creating a piece of cinematic history.
"I want the fairytale." — Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts), Pretty Woman (1990)
The coolest thing about my career so far is that it’s all been very organic. From the time I started out, my company Black Bicycle Entertainment has forged an identity as one that works with very strong female filmmakers. I'd never thought of producing with that goal in mind, I just wanted to make movies with heart and gravitated to the projects which spoke to me. I find it now gives me a purpose in this business. I believe that the statistics for women in the industry are so damning because we are part of a larger socioeconomic cycle that spans many generations. We operate in a multi-billion-dollar industry and progress towards equality will be slow until more women are put into power positions in the boardrooms. Let’s see if that comes about anytime soon.
I’m not about beating some political drum, or driving a feminist movement. My movies are about strength, passion and reviving the lost art of storytelling, but they are also about finding the right people for the job. As a producer, I feel like you have to genuinely believe in the message each of your films articulate and work fearlessly to protect them. I came on board to produce Woman Walks Ahead because I loved what Susanna wanted to do with the story and believed in her vision. We all wanted to tell an unconventional love story, one with characters who could learn and grow from being in each other’s lives. It was one about freedom, understanding, and mutual respect. That message was something Susanna, Jessica, and I wanted to protect at all costs. I urge filmmakers to ignore those voices advising you it’s either “too commercial for a film festival,” or “not commercial enough for a theatrical release.” Just go with your gut. If guys like Barry Jenkins had listened to the naysayers, La La Land genuinely would have won the Oscar, and the world would've been deprived of one of the industry’s all-time greatest and most entertaining cock-ups!
Unlike many of my peers, I didn’t go to film school and wasn’t formally educated in the mechanics of filmmaking when I decided to create my company Black Bicycle Entertainment. I’m a nostalgic person and think the simplicity and the art of a good story is getting a bit lost nowadays. So I choose to develop projects I love and feel passionate about without being governed by what is and isn’t perceived as "commercial." As a filmmaker, I want to take risks and push boundaries, but also want to feel like I’m making a difference. That’s why I started IRIS-IN, a program for female filmmakers at the prestigious Ghetto Film School, the Los Angeles/New York non-profit which provides educational opportunities to high school and college students who are passionate about making movies. I find our students as inspiring as any great script. My message is always clear: choose your own fairytale and walk your own path. Decide what’s right for you, not what people expect of you. Talented female filmmakers who can’t afford film school should not be deprived of opportunities which were afforded to others, including myself. IRIS-IN is also about giving back, which I believe we should all be trying to do.
When I give talks, I always start off by asking a simple question, which has no right answer: "What is a producer?" For me, a producer is a project manager, a friend, a parent, a protector. When I’m producing a film, I tend to take on a very protective approach. I’m unashamedly unapologetic for that because a producer’s job is to look after the overall well-being of both the film itself and every single person involved. After all, you are creating something with a beating heart from words on a page. It’s your baby and you have to do the right thing by it at all times, not just creatively. The business side of filmmaking is often overlooked when filmmakers are just starting out. Students need to learn (and fast!) that as a producer, the buck stops with you. The work you commit to (and the finances you are responsible for) from development through your film's post and release is intensive and often highly stressful. You’re not just responsible for the strategy of the film, and the money, talent, and crew, but answerable for what ultimately ends up on screen.
Home Again (2017), directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer and produced by Erika Olde.
If I can leave students, or aspiring filmmakers with some final advice, here are the three things anyone who wants to make a movie needs to know:
Do what's right for your film, not what's right for you. There is no room for egos in this business. (Although, you’d never know it.)
Stay true to yourself and your beliefs. Pick the projects and go down the paths you feel the most passionate about because you are forever tied to your films, which will have lives that last much longer than your own.
Enjoy the moments. From development, through prep and production, time flies and it’s an intense, often stressful process. But making a movie is also one of life’s most rewarding emotional and creative experiences, one you’ll find is over way too fast. Breathe it in – if only for a second.
In short, nothing prepares you for the workload you’re about to take on. But after you’ve fought those countless battles to get to your first day of shooting, you get to the moment when your director says “action" on your very first scene. Everything you’ve only ever known on the page and in your imagination becomes a reality then and there. It always sends a shiver down my spine.
Erika Olde is a Canadian producer. Her film Woman Walks Ahead will premiere at TIFF ‘17. Donate now to TIFF's Share Her Journey campaign, which advocates for the visibility of women in film and helps to raise funds for the next generation of female-identified filmmakers.
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RE: ISSUE 52 Wise Words Well-Spoken
Thank you to Lina Rodriguez for sharing her story, I really connected with it in many ways. Lina found the perfect words for feelings I’ve never known how to express. I didn’t know her work before reading her piece, but will make sure to watch her films now. I hope one day to be able to express myself as well as she did, through my words, films, or any other medium. Thank you again to Lina for sharing her journey and thank you to TIFF for giving her a platform to do so! — Manon H.