One of animation’s most successful producers reflects on her work, her NFB legacy and her plans for retirement.
Marcy Page hardly seems the retiring type. In the 15+ years I’ve known her, she’s always been busily engaged in any number of simultaneous productions. Interesting films made by interesting directors. Annecy Grand Prix winners. Genie winners. Oscar winners. Her films have garnered hundreds of awards since she joined the NFB in 1990, including Academy Award wins for Ryan and The Danish Poet. But knowing Marcy means you know her focus has never been on awards or accolades. She’s focused on helping great filmmakers bring their stories to life. Making animated shorts is often lonely, solitary, tedious, frustrating and downright frightful. Marcy is like a cool aunt, regularly checking in to make sure directors are taking their vitamins, their power bill gets paid and they don’t drink away their disability checks.
Despite her quiet demeanor and undemonstrative manor, Marcy has always fiercely championed her filmmakers and their vision, a caring and thoughtful collaborator whose steadying presence has helped countless directors become better filmmakers. More deliberate filmmakers. More focused filmmakers. More successful filmmakers.
After 24 years pacing the halls of Montreal’s NFB headquarters, Marcy retired yesterday. And while there’s no shortage of top talent waiting in the wings who I’m sure will more than capably fill her shoes, I can’t help but think things will never quite be the same at the NFB.
I recently had a chance to sit with Marcy, who shared her thoughts on impending retirement, the importance of the NFB and its legacy of taking risks and pushing animators into uncharted territory.
Dan Sarto: I understand you will be retiring soon, so….what’s the story?
Marcy Page: Well I guess I’ve been thinking about this for a while. It’s been percolating in my brain for some time. The glib answer would be I want to retire while I still have enough time to decide what I want to be when I grow up. [Laughs] There are certainly some things that I’ve planned, like spending time with a grandson and spending time in Portugal at a place we’ve invested in with Abby Feijo and Regina Pessoa. They’re such lively people and it is such a big rambling place with lots of potential. I am sure it will include lots of animation workshops. Abby wants to open an animation museum. There are all these outer buildings that will I’m sure be made into studios. Who knows what will happen. It will be another big adventure. I like the idea of Portugal as a place almost at the nascence of embracing animation. For such a long time under Salazar [Portuguese leader Antonio de Oliveira Salazar] the film industry was just shut down, and so with people like Abby and Regina it’s kind of flourishing now. So to play a small tiny part in that growth might be interesting. But it would be only part-time, as we [with husband Normand Roger] will spend a fair amount of time in Canada and also with my family in California.
So that is the known part of the plan. But there are a lot of unknowns that go with that known. Another part of me is really just looking forward to unplanned time, when I don’t know what the plan will be. You might wake up one day and say, “Oh! I feel like writing a poem today…or maybe some lyrics for a song… or maybe I will be a mystery writer or maybe…”
DS: Maybe bake some scones…
MP: Maybe I could bake some scones or write a cookbook. Maybe I will go paint. Dare I say, maybe I will even make an animated film…But I don’t know about that. I’d have to think seriously about that.
DS: Well it sounds like you’re ready for a change of pace from the production rigors you’ve been involved with for so many, many years.
MP: Yeah. It’s a change that part of me wants to embrace.
DS: Invariably, when you speak of retirement, you speak of legacy. Looking back at your career, are they any achievements that you’re especially proud of, that you especially enjoyed?
MP: Oh that is such a big question. [Laughs]
DS: I know. It’s one for you to struggle with, not me…[Laughs]
MP: I really, really enjoyed working with creators and with creative people in all facets of production, in all the ways that productions happen. That includes directors, animators, designers and writers, and how sometimes, those were one in the same person. That has always really been a fantastic fixation of mine. But there are also so many creative people in this building here. The NFB is just chock full of creative people, visionary administrators and leaders, so that has been fun. I’m happy to be working with an organization that I suspect has enough longevity that the work I have done will actually be archived and hopefully outlast me.
DS: I’ve known you for many, many years and you’ve never struck me as someone focused on your own sense of “self” in your work. You’ve been involved in making so many fantastic films with so many truly talented individuals. Do you ever think about your place within these hallowed NFB walls? Your place in the legacy of the NFB and their championing of independent animation?
MP: Sure, I do. My father was involved in education, but in an interesting way. His philosophy about education is in my DNA. It’s not about the teacher. It’s about what the student feels, what the student embraces. It’s about them learning and achieving. The best educators in a sense may be those who are a little less visible in some ways. It is important for a team to really feel like they did it themselves, and that everybody is working to maximize their own potential. So, in my job as a producer, I have embraced that philosophy, that it is not so much about “me.” It is not so much about power. It is not about a lot of things that perhaps other producers get bagged with a lot. It is really about the project and enabling people as best you can to really embrace it as passionately, fully and deeply as they can. So they are able to go to dark scary places sometimes. Or, they are able to push the envelope on film language and take risks.
DS: How has the NFB changed during your tenure? How has your job as a producer changed during that time?
MP: Well, institutionally it always gets harder. Cultural institutions are having trouble all over the world, and that’s a very sad thing. There has been increasing pressure on the NFP from the Canadian government, to be accountable and document things endlessly in ways that maybe leave us spinning our wheels more than in the past. It’s sort of a necessary evil that will probably continue. Certainly, we have to be accountable. We are supported by taxpayer money. But in general, production has actually gotten harder. Clearing rights is much more complex. Legal issues are much more complicated. It does sort of grind down your soul a bit.
There is certainly proportionately less of the fun stuff, where you are jamming about ideas or giving feedback at a creative level. It’s bad because it misplaces the attention of the producer onto things that are more about accountability than about focusing on making the best work possible. It’s a big balancing act.
The nice thing about this institution is that it will survive. It has survived and it will continue to survive a lot of pressures and forces that would probably tear other institutions apart. Because of this weird anomaly, to be doing creative work in a government institution, there has always been a weird tension there. It is almost an oxymoron, to do creative government work. It’s a bizarre thing.
But McLaren’s [Norman McLaren] imprint on this institution is really fundamental. He really is in the DNA of the institution. I can always look back to that, that this institution was made for experimenting. It was made for taking risks. That it is part of the ecology of the Canadian filmmaking landscape. McLaren was visionary enough to be looking outward in that way and so we still have permission to do that.
DS: How would you describe your sensibilities and sensitivities with regards to the types of projects you sought out and chose to produce over the years? Would you say you have a style or a type of sensibility that characterizes the choices you made?
MP: I don't know. [Laughs] Clearly I worked on projects that I liked, but how does one define what one likes? I came to producing from having been an animator. So as a producer I try to imagine what would have been useful to me as an animation director.
There were people that shaped me along the way, that were formative for me, that I have been lucky enough to work with. When I had my own autonomy as a producer, some of my choices allowed me to gravitate towards some people. I wanted to work with Paul Driessen. I wanted to work with a number of directors that I have actually ended up being able to work with. There is a raft of people like Caroline Leaf, Wendy Tilby, Chris Hinton…Oh god! [Laughs] I’m having a Subconscious Password moment.
DS: So part of what shaped you was being able to work with artists that you were drawn to, that you sought out to work with?
MP: I thought they were all great filmmakers. I am finishing a film with Lynn Smith. I just started one with Sheldon Cohen. I’ve worked with Janet Perlman. These are people I admired at different stages of my career. I just thought they were great filmmakers. My trust in people has guided some of those choices. But then, I have always tried balancing that with finding new talent and seeing who is out there, who needed to be discovered. I was really happy to have pushed through the first project with Torill Kove, who was at the time worked at the NFB but not in a directorial capacity. So, with Torill’s first project, My Grandmother Ironed the King’s Shirts, that was my first international co-production. It was formative in a good way. Initially I was told we couldn’t do the project unless I could put together a Norwegian co-production, because the story was so Norwegian-centric. Even though Torill was a resident of Canada. So I managed to rise to that challenge with a lot of help from my friends.
That opened the door to a number of other projects. With Paul’s films, we managed to do co-productions with the Dutch and various other interesting partners. I was also really happy to have taken a chance with Clyde Henry Productions [2007’s Oscar-nominated Madam Tutli-Putli]. Perhaps it was a risk at that time, but they were interesting. So it’s just kind of a balance, you know. Something old, something new, something borrowed…
DS: Looking back, are there any projects that you really wanted to do, any film that you really wanted to make that for whatever reason, just didn’t come together?
MP: Oh yeah. Those are the ones that…[Laughs], well you know the jury is still out on a lot of those. They seem to always come back in other forms. We tried to get an Imax project off the ground on “the brain.” But I have a feeling that all the wonderful and incredibly exciting research we did will come back in many ways. It’s already come back in Subconscious Password, which in a way is a funny by-product of some of that fixation. And with Munro’s [Ferguson] work I think perhaps we’ll find a new interactive incarnation. There is a project with Chris and Maciek [Clyde Henry Productions] that is still trying to find its feet. And there are people that I wanted to work with like Igor Kovalyov. I tried to pitch working on Milch, but at the time it was too far along, so the NFB didn’t think our participation would have been significant enough. But maybe something will work out with Igor before I leave. Maybe I can open the door for the person who follows me to see if there is some interest. So you know these things…
DS: They never really completely go away?
MP: They evolve into other forms, yeah. You can never do all the projects you want to do. There is just never enough time or money. Never. You become friends with every director you’ve had a successful production with and you want to do all of their subsequent films. The math is impossible. The math in animation is always daunting. It always crushes us. When you are a producer, it is the same thing. You want to do films with the directors you love, but then when they start to tell about their next film ideas, you realize, “Oh no, I can’t possibly make all these films!”
DS: Of all the roles you have to play as a producer, is there any one part of your personality or any one skill you feel has served you best in doing this job?
MP: Another easy question. [Laughs] Well I am ambivalent about power and that is a good thing. That has served me well. A lot of women are culturally forced into that situation, but that it is how you can be effective. It’s not always about calling attention to yourself. In the game of “Show Business,” other producer models out there are much more about personal aggrandizement or about gathering power in more conventional ways.
One should also never underestimate the luck of being in the right place at the right time. I came to Canada for romance. I ended up falling in love with a Canadian and being taken advantage of at a weak point in my career, by……essentially by my composer. That put me in Montreal at a time when Eunice Macaulay, a lovely, lovely person who recently passed away, was retiring. Then John Weldon asked me if I would consider taking the producer job…
DS: Aside from dealing with increasing bureaucracy, what have been the most difficult and challenging parts of your job?
MP: Getting the trust of younger directors. Getting them to understand that your role is not about taking away their creative control. It’s about making them achieve their vision...and more. When they are young, they are inexperienced and often take an adversarial approach in figuring out what is “right.” It’s difficult for them to recognize that as a producer, particularly with my style of producing, which is pretty non-threatening, I’m trying, in effect, to be their first line of defense against sending that film out to audiences who are either going to scratch their heads or yawn. It’s actually in their best interest to listen sometimes.
But ultimately you have to negotiate that trust. Often it means letting them make their own mistakes. With Chris and Maciek, we would have huge fights about 10 frames of film. But with them, I would actually feel comfortable enough to really fight. With other people like Paul Driessen, if I would say something was unclear and maybe he could try this or that, if he accepted that it was a problem, he would invariably come up with his own solution. I could pretty much count on him to not take suggestions, A, B, or C. He would come up with his own solution…
DS: But he would take your suggestion it was something to be dealt with?
MP: Yeah. He would address the weaknesses. A lot of experienced directors are like that. That’s one of the great values of the NFB. You have this incredibly great environment filled with talented animation directors. So if you screen something for them, you get a plethora of succinct, to the point suggestions. A lot of suggestions for animation are really useless, actually. But you know at the NFB you will get useful suggestions. No one will suggest undoing three quarters of your film.
DS: You mentioned you have tried to stay true to McLarens’ original vision with regards to your work…
MP: It’s more than staying true to his vision. It is that his vision actually protects a whole swath of activity here. I may never make films like McLaren made, but he gave me permission to experiment however I thought I should. He tended not to do narrative films. He posited himself against the Hollywood tradition of story-telling. I would not specifically take McLaren’s tack. There is a lot of room to experiment with narrative conventions. But you can animate anything. Absolutely anything. There is nothing that can’t be animated. Institutionally, he gave us a reason for allowing that experimentation.
DS: Where do you see the NFB fitting into the contemporary world of animation and within Canadian society today?
MP: It’s hugely important to look at the inner connections of so many creators whose lives were shaped by the opportunities this place offers. The Canadian film industry is now an “industry.” There are probably two degrees of separation between everybody in the industry and the NFB. I meet people around the world, like in Brazil at Anima Mundi, and you realize that, “Oh the people who are organizing that festival, they were all in that workshop that the NFB organized a number of years ago.” You realize it’s a really small world. It actually works, spreading our culture. All of these films are ambassadors for Canada. All of these filmmakers are ambassadors for Canada, spreading a certain kind of openness, a set of values. It worked on me. I came to Canada from the United States because of it.
The NFB was tremendously formative in my film education and when I was teaching. We taught classes on the NFB. The Canadian Consulate gave us 16 mm films and brought directors down to lecture in San Francisco. It was very important. I look at Norway for example and the Film Institute there. The fact of the NFB’s existence has made it possible for other countries to think about having film institutes of their own. It has been tremendously influential around the world.
But we have to keep on producing. If things get lost to memory, you forget. You forget somebody’s participation as a teacher or somebody’s participation as a mentor. You can forget about an institution’s effect on an ecology. The NFB’s influence is absolute and undeniable, as far as I’m concerned. And yeah, I think ironically, coming to Canada from the United States, we had in the U.S a much clearer idea outside of Canada of the NFB’s importance and how rare and beautiful something like the NFB was. I find that Canadians really often take it for granted or don’t know about it at all…
Yeah it’s ironic. For me, coming from the U.S., things like the Academy Awards are a big deal. What’s funny is how big a deal it is for Canada, how often this country needs validation from the Motion Picture Academy. That’s what makes the news. We can have a film that wins a Grand Prix at Annecy and some people will hear about it. But if you get an Academy Award nomination that is something else! We’re actually very grateful for that. The Motion Picture Academy has recognized the NFB quite often. It helps make our work much more visible to Canadians. We’ll take it! [Laughs]. It’s a good thing for Canada and I think it’s a good thing for the world as well.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.