Film and television producer Stacey Sher opens up about her 30-year career in Hollywood, working with Quentin Tarantino and how FX political drama Mrs America was brought to the screen.
For three decades, producer Stacey Sher (pictured above) has been involved in making some of the biggest feature films to come out of Hollywood, from Pulp Fiction and Erin Brockovich to Get Shorty and Django Unchained.
More recently, her 2011 film Contagion found new audiences thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, while Sher also had a hand in one of the hit television series of the year, Mrs America, which dramatised the true story of the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and the unexpected backlash led by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafy.
Speaking during this year’s Content London On Demand, Sher, who is also the founder of Shiny Penny Productions, reflected on her career, her partnership with filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and the future of the film and television business.
Sher had just wrapped production on Respect, the Aretha Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson, and was in post-production on FX on Hulu series Mrs America when the pandemic struck the US earlier this year. Her last meeting was a reunion with director Steven Soderbergh and the team behind Contagion, the 2011 feature about a fictional pandemic sweeping the globe…
Stacey Sher: We were filming it 10 years ago. We all knew this [pandemic] was a matter of not if, but when. Obviously we engineered [the movie] for drama. But it’s ironic and heartbreaking that that scene with Kate Winslet, where she explains what the R0 number is and how transmission works, has basically become a primer for people to understand how to try to keep themselves safe.
What we never could have anticipated was the total failure of government public health in the US, and the person in the White House and their task force and their total disregard for listening to science and scientists. It was surreal seeing a film that came out nine years ago be number one on iTunes, and I’m happy the cast came together to make hand-washing PSAs and to talk about transmission and masks and all of those things. I’m super grateful to the entire team of scientists who are hard at work.
With the subsequent shutdown of movie theatres, distributors have started releasing films straight to streaming sites, and the question is when people will be able to go to the movies again – and if they will want to…
We’ve created this world where you can see anything at any time, wherever you want, on whatever device you want. But there is something magical about sitting in a room with a group of strangers and going on a journey. Maybe the industry has to look at itself and say, ‘How have we not done a better job to make that process more relevant and a part of a ritual?’
The question is, how do we use new means of reminding people how special cinema is and how important a communal art form it is for new generations? That’s on all of us to figure out because, otherwise, where do the next generation of filmmakers come from? Some of them are definitely going into television, and television has become really exciting. One of the things we get to look at is what is best suited for the format. Is it a two-hour movie or is it three hours? Is it a series? Is it two seasons?
Sher originally wanted to go into sports broadcasting but was encouraged by a film professor to join a film producing programme at USC. Her dad also inspired her love of movies, and she grew up watching the work of Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet and Sidney Pollack…
I was working for a music video director who did comedy specials and also was just starting to direct music videos, so I worked on the early Twisted Sister video ‘We’re Not Going To Take It.’ It was great because it was the Wild West and you had to figure out how to do things.
Because of that, I met an aspiring screenwriter named David Simkins, who had this idea called After Hours, a Martin Scorsese movie for kids, and that became Adventures in Babysitting. I was working on a trial basis for the producers, Debra Helen and Lynda Obst, and then spent about six years working with them until I left while we were about to release my first associate producer credit, The Fisher King.
I had the great pleasure of working with [The Fisher King director] Terry Gilliam, who I adore and was a complete inspiration. Then I began the 12 years I worked with Danny DeVito and Michael Shamberg in our company Jersey Films.
Sher went on to forge a partnership with writer-director Quentin Tarantino, working on Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight…
I had read Quentin’s script for Reservoir Dogs before he had shot a frame of film. There was this section of Variety called Future Films in Production and I used to scour it to see if there were writers or directors with well-known stars attached to screenplays I had never heard of, because I would know those were the really good new scripts. If you could get a star attached, then you could get financing. That really hasn’t changed.
I saw this script, it had Harvey Keitel, it had all these great actors and it was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. I got his script. I read it and was trying to meet him. Then at a screening of Terminator 2, my friend Chris said, ‘Stacey, I’m about to make your night. Meet Quentin Tarantino.’ We were all talking to Harvey Keitel because Harvey had just finished doing Thelma & Louise, and I was with my friend Callie Khouri, who wrote Thelma & Louise. Quentin and Harvey were going to start making Reservoir Dogs. So that’s how we met.
I offered him a film to adapt, which he chose not to do and then we made a blind deal with him and [producer] Lawrence Bender for whatever he wrote next [which was 1994’s Pulp Fiction]. He had not even shot a frame of film at that point that we made that deal. But Danny DeVito, my former partner, was what was known as a final-cut producer. We were able to offer people the protection of their vision because Danny was never going to interfere with it.
Sher believes the quality of television is so high now because new programmes are not only competing with what else is on that day, but the entire history of filmed entertainment…
My daughter is racing to make her way through Grey’s Anatomy so that she can be ready for the new season, and has watched all of Friends. Our family went through Community but also watched Money Heist, Unorthodox, Dave and What We Do in the Shadows. You could see all the seasons of Better Things, which is delightful, or Schitt’s Creek. Everything is changing, which means there’s opportunity as long as you have a story to tell that matters – and that doesn’t mean important with a capital I.
We blew through Emily in Paris because it was so great to imagine what it might be like to be frivolous in Paris. It was like going on vacation watching that show. Streamers have shown that people have a hunger for a diversity of content. It’s not all seriousness or superheroes. It’s both. You can want to watch Moonlight and La La Land and also watch The Mandalorian, and you want to watch Hamilton or What the Constitution Means to Me or the new Borat movie.
While Zoom fatigue may have set in over the past nine months, video conferencing has opened up the opportunity to develop new projects with people you might not normally bump into…
There’s no difference between meeting somebody who lives halfway around the world and meeting somebody who lives a half a mile away, because you’re not getting together with them in person. I’m talking to people all over the world about projects now. That is a great change. You’re not just waiting for them to come in to LA or you go on a trip to the UK. I’m developing a French novel, I’m working with a writer in the UK on a network show and a writer who’s based in New York. It’s all the same now.
But what I’ve discovered is how much the theatrical landscape has changed in terms of what people will buy to develop. I was submitted a book as an adaptation and I thought, ‘Well, I really think this is a movie, it feels like Wall Street to me.’ But two small studios passed and said without an element – either a movie star or a movie star director with a take on it – it wasn’t something they could risk developing. It ended up selling to television.
On the other hand, we have been trying to develop The Devil in the White City [with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio] for 10 years, and it is going to get made at Hulu as a limited series. It just couldn’t be contained in two hours. That’s thrilling, but I don’t want to see theatres go away.
Mrs America was inspired by a documentary Sher saw in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, which featured Phyllis Schlafy, the conservative activist who campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s…
I’d always been interested in second-wave feminism and considered myself a feminist. And I was looking at what was going on in with the Hilary Clinton campaign and the intense misogyny that was being directed at her. I pitched it to [showrunner] Dhavi Waller and said, ‘Let’s tell the story of the ERA from the point of view of the spoiler.’
We were on the precipice of the first female president, we sold it to FX – and then Donald Trump won the election and we went, ‘Wow, OK, this is now going to be the story of how we got from there to here.’ It was an extraordinary journey. Cate Blanchett [who played Schlafy] always says it was a surreal experience because every day you’d go to set and you would be dealing with an issue like Roe v Wade, redistricting, the Supreme Court, all of these things, and every day they’d be in the news.
Understanding that women are not a monolith was really interesting and well timed. These women were all heroes and complicated and really cared about being inclusive. That’s messier than having a singular vision driving towards power for any price. Phyllis’s story for us was a story of what happens when you betray your own interests in the interests of other women.
Sher is striving for equality and diversity in the film and television business, with Mrs America’s directing team being mostly female and also including two women of colour…
There’s so much talent out there when you commit yourself and give somebody a shot. It was also amazing to go to the writers room and there were just two men in it. It was intersectional in gender, gender identification, race and also age. It made the show better. We have made progress, but we have to continue moving forward.