Rachel Song Talks with Farrah Kazemi About Her Production Company and Its Sundance Films: A Kid Like Jake and Nancy
In 2017, at only 28, Rachel Song started the production company XS Media. The company stood behind two hits at the 2018 Sundance Festival—Silas Howard’s A Kid Like Jake (starring Priyanka Chopra, Octavia Spencer, Claire Danes and Jim Parsons) and Director Christine Choe’s Nancy (starring J. Smith-Cameron, Steve Buscemi, Andrea Riseborough, and John Leguizamo).
A Kid Like Jake tells the story of a New York couple (Claire Danes and Jim Parsons) who learn to navigate the struggles of raising their non-binary, 4-year old son, Jake (Leo James Davis). Nancy, which stars Andrea Riseborough, tells the story of a lonely woman who lies to escape the reality of an unaccomplished life in a sad, small town. During the premiere, Choe revealed that she had written the film with the hope of creating a complex female character—one who’s moral ambiguity falls more in line with the type of roles usually given to men.
The stories told in Nancy and A Kid Like Jake struck a chord with Rachel Song and ultimately proved to have universal appeal. Both films generated a lot of positive feedback and were quickly picked up after the festival. A Kid Like Jake went to IFC while Samuel Goldwyn bought the rights for Nancy. At Sundance, I had the chance to chat with Rachel about each film, her experiences as producer, and her efforts to bring independent cinema to China.
Could you talk a little bit about what attracted you to Nancy and A Kid Like Jake?
When I first read the script of A Kid Like Jake, at the beginning of the year in 2017 I just fell in love with the script. The film, which came from Jim Parson’s company, That’s Wonderful Productions, was well written. It was adapted from a stage play by the same name that had run in a small theater in Lincoln Center back in 2013. The playwright, Daniel Pearle, also wrote the feature.
It’s a story about a New York City couple who have to learn to navigate the challenges that come with raising a son who’s different and how they deal with the reactions from society, friends, and family. What really spoke to me about the film was how universal the message is. It’s really about how people deal with difference. It doesn’t matter if it’s with your child’s gender identity or some other matter entirely. Living in this crazy world, we all have difficulty and differences we have to face. For me especially, as a minority in this society, I sometimes feel like an outsider struggling. The story really resonated with me in this respect, and that’s why I really wanted to be part of the project.
What drew you to Nancy?
Nancy is a very different project. I had been tracking Christina Choe’s work actually for a while because one of her shorts, The Queen, went pretty viral. It’s about a transgender Korean boy working in a dry cleaning store in a suburban area. It’s beautifully made, and I’ve been tracking her other work like her documentary about North Korea. She really has a different mindset and unique vision that come through in the stories that she cares about.
So how I got on Nancy was a very funny story. I was working on A Kid Like Jake, Amy Lo, one of the producer’s from Nancy has been a long time friend who I met while I was the co-founder of another financing consulting company. I left that company in the beginning of 2017 and started producing independent films. Amy reached out to me, she didn’t know I was involved in a A Kid Like Jake or that I had started producing independent films but she happened to reach out to me about Nancy. They had just wrapped shooting and one of the major financiers on Nancy fell through at the time. It was a risky project, no one knew where it might go. From a financier’s perspective it appeared like a risky project. But from a producer’s perspective, I loved the film, so I just came on board.
What made you decide to shift gears and start producing independent film?
Oh it’s a long story; I started in this industry on the sales acquisition side, so more on the business side of things. I was working on international sales for several Chinese companies overseas. I also co-founded the company, Vantage Entertainment, with my ex-business partner’s financial consultant. So I was dealing with a lot of high level, expensive projects. A lot of times, working on those types of projects can be very frustrating if you really like film. I came into this industry because I have a passion for film. However, as a broker, dealing with financing projects can be very frustrating because a lot of people involved in that part of the process are not filmmakers. Oftentimes, people outside come to the film industry to test the waters or to make some money or whatever, but the key to being successful in these creative industries is really about talent. You have to work with the right talent in order to have good films and in order to make money. That’s the dilemma. At the beginning of last year, I decided that I should really start focusing on what I love to do and stop wasting time on other things, so that is how I made the decision to begin producing independent films.
Are there certain criteria that you look for when making a decision to fund a particular project?
I think for me, I really need to work with good human beings; I need to work with good people. Also, I like projects really driven by filmmakers and also working with first-time writers and directors. It’s exciting to work with upcoming, young talent for the future.
Have you faced any hardships or difficulties trying to establish yourself so far? What challenges come from being young, female, and a minority in an industry still dominated by older, white men?
Yeah, I feel like first of all, being a woman in this industry, isn’t easy to begin with. Also, I am Chinese, and I came to the United States five years ago for graduate school. It’s hard, you know, but I think I was lucky because I got to go to a good producing program at Carnegie Mellon University. I felt really nurtured by the professors there and had so many amazing mentors. Paula Wagner, one of my professors and mentors, is a very inspiring woman. She produced the Mission Impossible franchise, and she was the former agent of Tom Cruise. Also, another producer, Janet Yang, she’s the most successful and experienced American-Chinese film maker in this industry; I learned a lot from her.
Being able to work and learn from these incredible women and other people is really exciting to me. Being an outsider and a minority in this society does create blocks and anxieties, in some ways. But I just focus on the things I feel passionate about and do what I can. In this current moment, I feel so empowered by the solidarity of women within the entertainment industry. I feel so great about it, and I hope this spread to different places in the world, including China. I really hope it’ll travel all over.
What advice do you have for filmmakers who are looking to fund a project? How can they get the attention of producers looking to invest?
That’s a really great question; I love that! First-time filmmakers or filmmakers who are still making shorts can have a really hard time getting funding. It is important to not give up on the story you feel most passionate about and the message you want to deliver and communicate with the audience. Just hold on to it. Sometimes it’s hard for filmmakers to find the right producers who understand their vision, but don’t give up because there are producers out there who are looking for new, exciting talent. I would say these upcoming filmmakers should definitely submit their work to Sundance Labs. I would say the same for Tribeca; they also have a really good shorts program. Oh and South by Southwest! In Asia, there’s the Shanghai Film Festival, and they also have labs for upcoming filmmakers.
Just don’t give up on your work. Get your short film to different festivals. There are always producers there looking for these first-time filmmakers, and they will find you. Also, if you’re working on your first script for your first feature, just be patient. Give it time and get a lot of notes from mentors and experienced people, and don’t rush it. It took five years for Nancy to find its producers and financing. That’s a long time, so you just have to learn to give it time and patience.
Do you have any projects in the works right now?
Oh yeah of course! I’m working with a first time Chinese writer/director for his feature debut film; it’s called Yoyo. We’re aiming to shoot in August in China. It’s a dramatic thriller set in China during the mid-‘90’s. Our hope is to shoot a film, finish it, and bring it to international film festivals. We’re looking at Sundance and other European film festivals.
Right now, China doesn’t have a healthy independent film market. My goal is to work with more local and up-and-coming filmmakers in China and bring their work to international audiences, then to help grow the independent market locally, within China. I think that’s a very important thing to do. The audiences in China are dying for this kind of content. So, it’s really the right time.
What factors do you believe make it so that there isn’t as much room for independent cinema within the Chinese market?
In recent years most of the local content has been pretty low quality. I think part of it is not only about the market itself, but it’s really people working in this industry like distributors and studios. A lot of people don’t want to take risks. They want to stay in a safe zone.
I think what nurtures the independent film industry in the United States are festivals like Sundance or Tribeca, which also open independent artists to commercial possibilities. China lacks these sort of opportunities, and we don’t have any sort of nurturing system to find new talent. I think this really needs to change, and it’s the right time. The audience is mature enough and local filmmakers are really trying to do higher quality films. I’m so excited to see what it’s going to look in the next 5 years.