Take Two: Sam Jennings and Kristina Ceyton
Sam Jennings and Kristina Ceyton.
No one could accuse Causeway Films’ Kristina Ceyton and Sam Jennings of resting on their laurels. The producers’ thriller Cargo is about to debut at the Adelaide Film Festival ahead of its launch as a Netflix Original, they’re in post on Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, and have just gotten the greenlight on Buoyancy, the debut feature from writer-director Rodd Rathjen. The two speak to IF about establishing their company and working together.
Sam and I met over 10 years ago when I was producing my first agency funded short film [Small Boxes]. The director I had been working with had spoken highly of Sam for a while as a great story producer, and I really loved her short film Deluge that had just won the Jury Prize at Clermont Ferrand. We brought her in as script consultant and then to give feedback on the edit, and that’s really how we connected. I loved her energy and passion and honesty. We became friends very quickly and I’d always go to her for very trusted script or edit feedback along the way, including on The Babadook. We’d also go to international markets together and shared an office space for a while before formally joining forces a few years later. By then it felt like we had in many ways collaborated already, albeit informally, and been part of each other’s projects in one way or another.
We joined forces just before the release of The Babadook at Sundance in early 2014. I wanted to form a proper company and had been thinking that I really wanted to try to team up with someone. Producing can be such a lonely endeavour, and really tough at times. If you’re doing everything on your own it also means you move much slower through projects; it’s very difficult to develop more than one or two projects at a time. I wanted to create a company where we could get things moving and create some momentum in the way that so many companies in the US and UK do.
This thinking also coincided with the six month placement I did in Los Angeles at a company called FilmNation. Watching how they operated as a business really confirmed in my mind I wanted to form a company that wasn’t just “me”. So I approached Sam to join forces and I have never looked back because to share the load and have a sounding board to bounce off on every project is incredibly valuable. It’s the power of two.
The formation of the company also coincided with the announcement of the Screen Australia Feature Enterprise grant, which got us to sit down together and work out a considered business plan. Receiving that grant was a significant kickstarter for Causeway – it allowed us to fully focus on our projects and our combined slate, while not having to worry about overheads or take valuable time out for other gigs to help pay for the running of the company.
We both read every script that comes in and we decide on which projects we take on. We’re usually in sync because we have similar tastes, so it makes that process naturally organic. I really trust Sam on all levels: creatively, on the financing and marketing front etc. And because we’re usually both across every project on our slate creatively and financially, we are able to jump in and pick up where the other has left off if something comes up. Where we are lead producer on a project, it’s usually because of an already established relationship or the way it came to us. But because every project has its own momentum, we’re always conscious of remaining flexible and being able to pitch in when needed. We both also juggle families, so it’s just so wonderful to have such a trusted partner in crime.
We each started out being these one-man band producers, and so joining forces and building Causeway really got us to take a step back and look at it as a business; as a commercial as well as artistic endeavour. Over time, we’ve also come to crystallise what it is we like and want to work on. It’s an ever-changing thing, but we feel we’re increasingly able to articulate what it is we are about as a company so that we can create a kind of a brand for it. What’s exciting is coming together to identify projects that we feel can be both passion projects as well as have commercial or critical potential. There’s a lovely sense that we’re growing creatively and intellectually together as a unit, heading in the same direction with a unified vision for the company.
Sam is a great story brain and a really hard worker, but what I love most is that she has a huge amount of integrity – her creative and business values are strong, honest and ethical. She’s passionate and super talented – and she has a wicked sense of humour. She cracks me up so it’s a lot of fun coming into work every day. Sam is very good at ‘constructive’ critical feedback with writers and directors – feedback that nurtures and encourages, rather than demoralises. And that is a real art. People who have poured their heart and sweat and tears into a piece of writing are understandably sensitive. Sam is very respectful of that which I admire. I’ve learnt what a delicate art this is having worked very closely with writers and directors over the years too, so I feel very lucky she has a similar attitude toward protecting and encouraging talent.
We met about 12 years ago. A young director had asked me to mentor a short film, and Kristina was the producer. I was really impressed with her straight away, and we just creatively clicked. From there we continued to collaborate as friends and colleagues, I loved reading scripts or seeing edits of Kristina’s work while I was working in funding agencies; I thought the projects she was making had courage and depth.
[Causeway began after] Kristina had just finished The Babadook. It had just been accepted into Sundance, and I was really excited about the film. We met for a drink and we were talking about how hard it was to run a company on your own, how nice it would be to share the process of producing, to have a comrade in arms, and it just naturally happened from there.
We both naturally work really hard, and take a lot of responsibility for what we do. We both have to love every project that Causeway takes on but we remain flexible about how the configuration of producers might work for each project. It’s really about what is best for each individual film, and second to that about how we best divide our time and work to fit how each project evolves. If we need to bring on others, we do, we don’t want to fit the timing of films around our own schedules, they each have their own momentum.
We have a very similar sensibility, both in terms of creative judgment and values. We’ve often had people work with us who think it’s amazing that they will get separate feedback from us on the same script or cut or whatever, and Kristina and I will have almost identical notes. That makes trust so much easier; you just know that the other person will make decisions you are in sync with. It’s also really valuable that I come from development and Kristina comes from production, but we both cross over into both. On top of that, I appreciate that Kristina has lived, been educated and worked in Germany, France and Hong Kong, as I think that international perspective is incredibly important – we want to make international stories.
It’s pretty rare that we butt heads. When we do, we have to talk it through with mutual trust and respect. It’s often a result of doing so much, that sometimes we have to step back and look at the big picture together, to make sure we are protecting and growing the business as much as the projects within it.
Every time we read a script or story that really moves is a special moment. It’s very exciting when something hits that spot and we feel like it might genuinely affect people; it might contribute something to the world. That’s what we are here for. I remember sharing a room in a youth hostel with Kristina in Berlin several years ago, before we were business partners, where she was so sick we had to go to chemist at all hours. She was medicated and so ill and jet lagged and she had to get up on stage and pitch The Babadook to an auditorium full of people as part of the Talent Campus. I remember walking to the venue that morning in the freezing cold with her practicing her pitch. She got up, in that state, and she won the pitching award.
I think we’ve matured together, we’ve had families and taken on more responsibilities, our international networks and experience have grown, and we’ve become more business minded – Kristina has certainly taught me a lot in that respect. We can communicate in an increasingly short hand way now too. Things don’t need much explanation; a lot more about how we work and how we like things is just a given. We recently moved our office out of a share warehouse. It kind of felt almost like graduating, or moving into your first home out of share accommodation. We are naturally growing up together.
Cargo makes its world premiere tonight at Adelaide Film Festival. It also screens tomorrow at 11.30 am.
This article was originally published in IF October – November (#179).