A Conversation with Murder, Anyone? Producer Dani Abraham
Cup of Tea Critiques has a chat with Murder, Anyone? producer Dani Abraham
Producers frequently have to wear multiple hats and perform numerous tasks. The versatility required makes the role hard to define from project to project. Additionally, many producers are strictly asked what it is like to work with star actors and directors rather than the actual responsibilities of their jobs. To get a better idea of what a producer actually does, Cup of Tea Critiques had a conversation with the producer of indie comedy Murder, Anyone? Dani Abraham. She shared with us her specific tasks in the fast-paced production, how working in film differs from working in branded short-form content, and what skills and personality traits have enhanced her producing abilities.
Dani began our conversation by contextualizing the director's motivation for Murder, Anyone? and why she considers it to be her first "true" experience producing a feature-length film.
[Murder, Anyone?] was my first feature where I was involved in the whole movie. I did a feature in 2021 called Tales from the Other Side, and it was a feature anthology. There were a bunch of different segments that made up one feature film, and I did one of those segments. In a sense, that was my first feature. But this one was my first real cohesive story feature.
The director of [Murder, Anyone?] made it and dedicated it to his dad. His dad passed away a few years ago, and his dad wrote this movie as a play originally. It ran in L.A. for a little bit, and [director James Cullen Bressack] wanted to bring his dad's work to life, kind of immortalize it and put his own little footprint on it as well. So this was really a passion project for James. That in and of itself was already a different experience than something I was expecting. Because ultimately, it was just making this movie so that the director was happy. We weren't making anything for a studio or a distributor. It wasn't for anyone else. I think that's what made it so special.
It was really scrappy, as a low budget movie. A lot of people pulling strings in a million ways to make things work. I think that made it different than anything I've ever worked on. I come from a world of branded content, like commercials; that's the stuff I do. There's 3,000 people who are putting all of their expectations on your shoulders; but also, they all have different expectations. This one wasn't that. Everyone knew what they were doing. I think that's what made it so fun, and so magical. The final product was something that everyone was so happy with, because we all knew that's what we were trying to achieve. I hope I get that kind of experience again.
Dani gave her insight into the pressures of working on a shoot with a small team (roughly 30 people) with tight timeframes for shooting, as well as how producer responsibilities were divided up.
According to Timehop [a smartphone application that collects old photos and distributes the past], we started shooting the same week exactly a year before it came out. We shot for 6 days, which is really short for an 80-minute feature film. Everyone did what they needed to do to make an 80-minute movie in six days with special effects, visual effects, improv and everything else, which made it a very fun 6 days. We're actually doing another one of those this summer and I'm scared, but I feel like if this taught me anything, it's that if enough people who are stoked about something come together, we can make it happen. You just have to work really hard and also be ready for compromise.
There were a couple of producers on the project. I was a co-producer. Jarrett Furst was our main producer. He's the guy who was striking all the deals with all of the actors. He's the reason why we got Academy Award nominated actress Sally Kirkland in the movie. She is a riot, she's so fun. She's got so many stories. Jarrett took care of all of that stuff: finding all of the crew, finding people who were willing to work on such a tight budget. Jared is a wizard.
What I was doing was managing the logistics of the day. That was everything from figuring out call times for our actors, making sure that they had enough time between makeup and their scene so that no one felt rushed. Basically, my job was to make sure that there were no wasted minutes, which was hard because again, it was a 6-day shoot. You don't know how things are going to shake out. So that was part of my day-to-day, the little things. Making sure everyone is fed and happy. I went to Costco on a Saturday for this thing; I hate Costco. But I made sure we had enough craft services [catered food], so it was a great experience.
Dani shared an anecdote exemplifying the producer’s experience.
I always joked even back in school that a producer's job is just everything that you didn't have the budget to pay someone else to do. That never felt more real than in this moment, because sometimes you just need this thing done. If there's no one to ask, then it falls on you.
For instance, we needed color contact lenses for a scene. And for whatever reason, we just didn't have them. The only place on this day that we could find them was in downtown L.A., and we were shooting [about 40 miles away] in Simi Valley. We don't have runners because we're that small of a crew, so one of my producers gets in a car to drive from Simi Valley to downtown LA to get a pair of contact lenses from one of those little stores in the fashion district, and then drive all the way back. Being a producer is a thankless job in that when things are going well, no one notices, which is a great thing. You don't want people to be noticing when things are happening like that.
That was such a learning experience for me too. I come from a digital world. I come from branded entertainment, where I was making stuff for clients like Nike or Sony Entertainment, which was huge, because that was in the movie industry. But it wasn't making a movie, and this was a complete pivot in so many ways. I love branded content, I think it's really cool and unique and special when it's done right and done well. But there's nothing like making a passion project and working with people who care so deeply about a story. Being involved at all was really cool.
Being well-rounded in hobbies and character traits allows creatives to take skills from one discipline and apply it to another. Dani dished on what aids her most in producing.
Producing is problem solving. And there are problems that come up in your day-to-day life. Every single day. How you deal with those problems are very much derivative of who you are as a person, what your personality is, and how you can handle bigger problems with bigger stakes, like when money is attached to it. I think what's funny is becoming a producer has made me a more patient person in life. Things that would have made me upset or irritated or given me a more emotional reaction have actually made me take a step back and say, “Look at the larger picture. Does this matter in the grand scheme of things?” If the answer is yes, then we deal with it. If it's not a big deal, you can figure it out later, and that's kind of what producing is. It’s problem solving in the moment and being okay when things have to be compromised or when something is ultimately not the biggest deal.
We make Tik Toks and social media all the time, right? And you always have to have that foresight of, “What kind of response are you going to get on the internet?” You always have to think two steps ahead of everything. So maybe that's made me a better producer; just learning to think ahead and be two steps ahead.
Managing personalities can be tough in any leadership role, especially for amicable people who have to deliver disappointing news. Dani shared her experience with making a difficult decision.
I am a nice person. I don't like to make people cry. I will never probably make anybody cry. I’m a people pleaser; I try to make it all make sense for everyone. Sometimes that's not right for the project. Something I'm battling with right now is letting someone know that we went in a different direction. I never want to be that person who ghosts someone on a job. Ultimately, we picked someone else for that job, and the other person is also a friend. Sometimes you have to put friendships aside, and it is what it is. It's nothing to do with their work at all. It has everything to do with the person that we're going to go with; [they’ve] worked with our director before. They're both really talented; just one of them has a rapport already.
While writers and directors can dream big, producers frequently have to be the voice of reason. Their job occasionally consists of vetoing certain requests that do not fit within the budget or time constraints, but Dani says that a good producer should first aim to compromise.
I typically don't say no; I just say, “Okay, well, how can we make it work?” And then we figure it out. Then you find people who are passionate and excited. I owe a lot of favors, but also a lot of people owe me favors. So sometimes this is a very interesting industry. It's a very favor-based industry. As long as you're a good person to work with and want people to work with you again, you usually can make stuff happen.
The project I'm doing this summer is a micro-budget feature. It's a $7,000 budget. It's very small to make a feature film. And I still said yes, and we're still going to make it happen somehow.
In spite of her inclination, Dani did have to pass on a particular project.
I got offered my first feature script during COVID. And it was an even smaller budget than what I have right now. And they said, “You can do it for $2,500.” And I said, “Let me read the script. And if the script is good, I'll do it. 2500 bucks; it was COVID, we weren't working, and it would have been me and two other people. So it would have been totally COVID safe. No one would have invested anything but our time and during COVID, we had all the time. So I said, “Sure, let me read the script.” And I was so insulted by the script. It was offensive. There were [derogatory terms] in it. On top of that, it kind of insulted my intelligence because there were just typos everywhere. I said, “You know, I think the next one will be it, but not this one.” The guy who gave me the script said, “Well, I will find someone to do it.” That was his response, his little Hail Mary to see if I would still do it. And I said, “Godspeed.” And he did; he found someone to do it… So someone else did it and good for them. And I hope that the movie turned out well.”
On occasion, personalities and egos can clash on a film set. Dani revealed her approach to conflict resolution.
One of the things that happens a lot on low budget stuff is that there's a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Everyone has equal footing in the game. We're not making money, but this is great for all of us. There’s a lot of fighting in that situation. I've never had to say, “Stop yelling” or “You're embarrassing yourself and everyone around you.” But I've definitely said, “Let's take a step back for a second and think about what's important. if you are that passionate about whatever you're yelling about, are you willing to compromise?” Mediating is hard, because people get feral in those moments. They don't think about anything else. They are just looking at this thing and won't let go, and sometimes you just have to let it play out. But I've worked with good people.
Producers often take the versatility gained from their role and apply it to other positions. Dani shared what other jobs she would like to fulfill on a film set.
I always wanted to go into development, do more film development, story and creative [roles]. I dabbled in directing for a while. I'm co-directing this [movie] that's coming up this summer. Because I just want to get a taste of it again, see if that is something I want to keep doing. You know, again, this is a story that I'm really into. And it's a little personal for me too. But those are kind of my goals; directing and producing is where I want to stay, writing is something I dabble in. I really wish I had the patience for editing because I do think that's such a cool position because ultimately, you are the one deciding what everyone sees.
But I love producing. I like putting things together. I've always liked puzzles. That’s all this is, big puzzle-making. Problem solving as a hobby equals problem solving skills in real life. And then problem solving skills in real life make you a better producer. That’s all it is. It's problem solving, making deals and figuring [things] out on the fly. And then being able to think multiple thoughts at once.
Are there more projects like Murder, Anyone? in Dani’s future or will she pivot to another genre?
I keep on doing a lot of horror stuff, because a lot of that stuff gets made. It's easy to make, it's cheap to make, and it's being made all the time. My whole goal has always been to make kids and family content. I still do that stuff. That's what I was doing with my branded content before; I was working with a company making science videos for kids, and I loved doing that. I do want to keep doing that.
To keep up with Dani’s future projects, you can follow her at https://www.daniabe.com/
Murder, Anyone? is available to rent or buy on Amazon.