Forged by an education at Duke and Yale, Adam Saunders career has allowed him to explore writing, acting, producing and soon, directing. As the CEO of Footprint Features, Saunders recently produced Darby and the Dead. Wanting to learn more about his thoughts on producing as well as Darby and the Dead, I was able to interview him for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved? Are there any you enjoyed revisiting?
Adam Saunders: I always loved character driven stories with heart, although of course I didn’t think of them in those terms back then. I always say my favorite movies as a kid were A Few Good Men or Shawshank Redemption or Back to the Future or Major League — But I also deeply resonated with teen comedies with tones similar to “Darby” —- movies like Can’t Buy Me Love or Some Kind of Wonderful.
Yanes: You were formally educated at Duke University and the Yale School of Drama. Reflecting on your education, what are some key lessons you took away from Duke and Yale?
Saunders: Duke was incredible because they didn’t have any type of graduate school drama program for us undergrads to compete with — so we really had the run of the place.
Duke was instrumental in my evolution as an artist because it was there that I started my first theater company. I started it because I had tried out for a play that I really wanted and didn’t get cast and my advisor said, “well why don’t you just make your own play!” and I looked at him blankly, and then I did just that. It was like a lightbulb went on that has never gone off. We ended up producing a play, and I acted in it, and the play opened on the same day as the play I didn’t get cast in, and ours got a rave review in the student newspaper — and from that moment on I thought, “I don’t have to wait for anyone, if I want to do something, I’ll just do it myself!”
Yale by contrast was this incredibly storied MFA program, with these legendary acting teachers.
We did something like 10 plays a year and it was just drinking from a firehose. I loved every second. I got to try things out as an actor: characters, preparation styles, classical texts — I could succeed wildly, fail miserably, and everything in between. But there is nothing that can replicate just working that consistently for that period of time — I really came out of there a totally different actor. So for me it really was the combination of the two — the self-starter entrepreneurial producer thing I cultivated at Duke with the classical acting training from Yale that really contributed so heavily to the artist I have become today.
Yanes: On this note, given that you’ve been in the industry for a few years, what are some of the realities of entertainment production that college didn’t prepare you for?
Saunders: I mean look, no one can really teach how hard you’re going to have to work. How many times you’re going to have to hear “no”. How even when you’re “succeeding” the very real fear that you may not ever find the next project is always breathing down your neck. You can’t possibly be prepared for the idea that you’re 24 hours away from starting shooting when one of your lead actors drops out. Or how if you change two scenes in your screenplay the whole thing might fall apart. Or the movie that played so beautifully with temp music now plays terribly when you drop in your actual score. It’s only by working that you start to figure all these things out — all the nuances of making movies — and really just learn — more than anything — to stay calm.
Yanes: In addition to writing and acting, you are also a producer. How did your career evolve into this direction?
Saunders: I moved out here after Yale to act but was really just working as a waiter and a doorman. My agent at the time said I was best suited for “terrorist” roles. It really felt bleak. So it just came back to remembering that feeling I’d had at Duke — the rush of creating my own work. I basically took that same entrepreneurial spirit and applied it to film. I said I want to act in films. I want to write films. I want to direct films (although that came later).
Let’s start a production company. I had no idea what it meant to be a producer but I was determined to learn. One day when I was working my doorman job, a successful TV producer asked me to “hold his dog” (as in his actual dog on a leash) while he went into the bar for a beer. When he came out an hour later I asked him if I could take him to lunch and ask him a few questions about producing. He agreed. He gave me advice that I never forgot and which still remains the backbone of what I think of regarding producing: “Whatever needs to be done: you do that.”
Yanes: Modern films and television shows tend to have a lot of producers listed. For you, how do you define a good producer?
Saunders: My job, as a creative producer in film, is to make sure we’ve made enough good decisions in prep to put the director and the actors and the crew in a position to succeed. I’ve got to manage the limited resources we have to make the very best version of the story we’re telling. Sometimes that means hiring a certain person.
Sometimes it means firing a certain person. Sometimes it means allocating resources to something that seems minor. Sometimes it means facilitating conflict between key members of our crew. Sometimes it means just being a safe space for someone, anyone to bring their complaints to. Always it means reading drafts, watching takes, watching cuts, and giving creative notes that can improve our story. Whatever needs to be done, I do that.
Yanes: The latest film you’ve produced is Darby and the Dead. What was it about this story that attracted you to the film?
Saunders: Darby and the Dead had a hook (the Mean Girls meets Sixth Sense concept) that I found fresh and commercial. It had a throwback tone in the vein of some of those great high school movies from that I grew up with, but more than any of that it was also about a topic — grief and death — that I felt was a topic our society tends to shy away from. It was a way to discuss that topic in a fun and a palatable way that I thought might really resonate with its target audience.
Yanes: Darby and the Dead was produced through your company, Footprint Features, which is focused on producing films that address various social issues. For this film, how did you find the balance between touching serious topics without being preachy?
Saunders: I feel like film has this great power — and responsibility — to address issues that people are dealing with in society— but I prefer to do it in a lighter way that is more entertaining than anything else. When someone sees a Footprint movie, my first goal is that they had a good time, but then, whether they realize it or not — maybe they start thinking about some deeper things that they might not otherwise have thought about before.
Yanes: Darby and the Dead has a lot of great moments. Do you have a favorite scene or line?
Saunders: Gosh so many. When Taylor asks Piper for a tampon and Piper says “Still trans”. I love when Auli’i is giving Tony Danza and Wayne Knight a hard time for “going on and on about network televison.” I love when Derek Luke and Riele are watching home movies at the end in a Sixth Sense homage. But my favorite moment has always been when Alex breaks the fourth well and then says “and I see you, Darby Harper.” In a movie about who is seen and who is unseen, that line always brought it all home for me.
Yanes: When people finish watching Darby and the Dead, what do you hope they take away from it?
Saunders: That we only have a limited time on this earth, and that we need to be brave enough to stop hiding, stop judging others and ourselves, and join, unabashedly, the land of the living.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Saunders: My directorial debut, Dotty & Soul which I also wrote, produce and act in opposite Tony and Emmy award winner Leslie Uggams is coming out next March. I’m so proud of the movie and I can’t wait for audiences to see it.