For Jennifer Davisson, who runs Appian Way Productions with Leonardo DiCaprio, the mark of a worthwhile project is plain: If you make something compelling, people will watch it. And their latest, the limited series “The Right Stuff” (which premiered last month on Disney+), is compelling seven times over. Based on the novel by Tom Wolfe that was turned into a 1983 film, the episodes track the Mercury Seven, a group of astronauts who were thrust into the spotlight amid the country’s Cold War–era space race with Russia. Needless to say, in addition to being captivating, the material doesn’t lack timeliness.
How do you define the role of the producer?
It’s a thought-provoking question, because I think, in some ways, it’s incredibly defined; and then, in other ways, it’s completely unpredictable. Ultimately, I would say the biggest part of producing is just being as much of a protector and steward of the project as possible, in whatever form that takes. It’s finding a piece of material you love and you’re incredibly passionate about, and then doing whatever it takes to support the people you’ve entrusted to push it forward, to write it, to direct it, to act it, and just supporting them as much as possible under the guise of your passion and belief in the underlying material. It’s a big job, but the No. 1 job is to support the people you’ve entrusted to be part of the journey with you.
How was it that you even started producing?
I started working in representation, working with writers and directors and actors, and through that, started working with Leonardo. And he and I have very similar sensibilities and are attracted to a lot of the same stories [and] the same material. He was in the beginning of starting a production company, and all the pieces kind of fell into place, and I started finding things for him. And then that ultimately turned into building out our company and finding things for our company.
Has the industry changed since you first got into the producing game more than a decade ago?
Oh, 1,000%, and more than once. In some ways, it’s an amazing time to be a producer because there are so many different ways to get stories told. We spend a lot of time in the documentary space, and the rise of streaming has brought out this unbelievable market for documentaries—which is wonderful because they used to be this very tiny, niche market, and now they’re very much in the mainstream. That’s a change in the business that is really kind of extraordinary. Obviously, there are so many different streaming platforms and channels and ways in which you can consume entertainment. It means there’s a lot more. There’s a flip side to that: The cinematic experience, [as it] is becoming harder and harder to find movies that really can live in big theaters, putting COVID-19 aside. And that, I think, is going to be the challenge of the next few years: making sure people remember how specific and wonderful that experience is. But I think it is specific and it is wonderful, and I think people will always go to the cinemas. It’ll just be a more select few movies that get seen that way.
In this day and age, when there is so much content, how do you, as a producer, help your projects transcend?
I’d like to believe—and perhaps this is naive, but this is what gets me through my day—that quality will always be found. If you make something wildly compelling that people are attracted to, they will find it. And what I do see with streaming that, as a producer, is really wonderful, is there’s a patience with the audience. It’s not about weekend numbers; it’s not about overnights. It’s OK if it takes a few months for that momentum and that word-of-mouth to build. It doesn’t have to be instant. That’s something that I think is actually really exciting, because you’re not necessarily looking for that big bang, “Gotta get ’em because the Nielsens are coming in in the morning, and we’ve got to make sure we hit our numbers,” or, “The weekend box office on Saturday morning—oh, gosh, it’s done.” And then that’s it—one weekend and you’re over. There is something really compelling you’re able to do when things can slowly build in a different way than they used to. That’s what I think, ultimately, is going to reign supreme. People want to be challenged, and people want good storytelling. I believe if you’re just always striving for that, people will find you, and that’s where streaming has given people the opportunity. You can live under the radar for a minute, and that’s OK because there’s a flip side. People will [say], “Oh, somebody told me about that!” or, “Maybe I’ll check that out!”
How does the company decide which projects to put its producorial muscle behind?
We get asked that question all the time, mostly as it pertains to Leo—like, “What does Leo want to do next?” The truth is, on one hand, it’s incredibly undefined; and then, on the other hand, it’s incredibly specific. Really, it starts with character. Everything we do, we try to start from [the question of]: Who is this character at the center that is complicated and compelling and dynamic enough? And then we kind of move out from there and look at the story and the world and the context that character’s living in. Obviously we’re very attracted to true stories [and] real history. There’s no character that anyone could create that’s more complicated than a real one, right? Even the greatest writer in the world can’t create a character as complicated and interesting as a real person. And so we’re really drawn to that, and also to just extraordinary moments in history and people who do extraordinary things. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re always good people, but it means they’re great people, and that’s something we always strive to find.
In the literal sense, how do you find projects? Are they brought to you, or do you seek them out?
It’s everything. Reading a book for pleasure and saying, “Oh, my gosh, I think there’s something here. I’m going to try and get [the rights to] this book.” It’s somebody calling us and saying, “Hey, I’ve got this article I think you would find really interesting.” It’s a lot of work on our part, but also, we’re fortunate enough that people do call us when they find those things. I think people kind of know now the sort of material we’re attracted to. So we definitely have people reach out to us, but we do a lot of it on our own as well.
Why did you want to produce “The Right Stuff”?
At the end of the day, we started looking at one character, Chuck Yeager, and for whatever reason, that didn’t transpire. But from there, we started talking about “The Right Stuff,” which was an incredible book and a really wonderful movie. And there were seven guys—instead of one really compelling character, we had seven. When we went back and looked at the book, it became a little bit of a no-brainer. The book has so much detail in it and so much that the original movie didn’t get a chance to explore, so we were like, This is the perfect moment in time and the perfect piece of material for us to be able to go back and really tell the story.
What is your advice for the next generation of producers?
I say the same thing all the time, which is: Find something that you believe in, and never let it go. If you believe that a story is worth telling, you’re right. Just never stop. If it takes two, four, six, 25 times to get something going, it’s your own personal belief and passion that ultimately is going to be what drives something all the way home. You can’t be daunted by the nos.
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 12 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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