Neal Dodson knows how to come out of the gate strong. The first feature film he produced with partners J.C. Chandor and Zachary Quinto was Margin Call, which was made for a pittance with an incredibly timely script and a smack-your-head- great cast (including Quinto himself, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, and even Dodson’s wife, actress Ashley Williams). That film won the Robert Altman Award at the Indie Spirits, and its script was nominated for an Oscar. His followup film, again with Quinto and Chandor, is this month’s stunning All is Lost, which stars Robert Redford. And no one else. Literally. His next project stars Javier Bardem and Jessica Chastain. Are you getting the picture yet? You can’t even say Dodson’s on the rise any more; he’s already there. Today is Part One of a four-part interview we did with the producer. Come back for Part Two tomorrow.
: Let’s start out at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
Neal Dodson: I grew up in York, Pennsylvania. I went to a public high school there. My parents were both high school teachers. They grew up in York too. They sort of fell squarely into the camp of people who swore they would never go back to their home town the day that they left for college, and then found themselves back there after adventures farther away. They graduated in the same high school graduating class but didn’t know each other. They met at their five year class reunion and then ended up moving back to the town they swore they’d never return to. It’s a small little farming and commuter town. You can commute to Philly, DC, Baltimore; it’s a long commute, but you can commute to Pittsburgh. Or New York as well. Or Harrisburg as well. So, it’s sort of a suburban sprawl meets Amish farm town. I grew up there, and my father was an art teacher and my mother was an English teacher. I always thought if you stick those two things together you get what I do.
They were always really supportive of me and my younger brother in the arts. There was a small theatre in my home town called York Little Theatre. We would do plays at children’s theatre and otherwise, you know, we did twenty or thirty plays there from the time I was five years old to the time I graduated from high school. It’s really where I got my love for it. My brother was doing it because his big brother was doing it, and had no real interest in it. He’s an anthropologist now. And lives in Texas. I sort of got hooked. I was the star of all my high school musicals and all that stuff. Then I went off to college for it.
: Was it that high school acting experience where you got bitten and knew that was what you wanted to do? Or was it earlier than that?
Dodson: Yeah, I was one of those obnoxious kids of which there are many-and I’m not sure I would advise most of them (myself included, maybe) to have gone on to pursue it, knowing what I know now. But yeah, I was one of those kids who was told “You’re gonna be famous,” and “Will you sign my high school program, cause that’s gonna be worth something someday!” which is of course totally ridiculous because that’s nowhere near being true and still not true, even remotely. Nor is it my goal, anymore. But yeah, from very young I knew that that was what I wanted to do in some form. I don’t think I knew, quite then, that I wanted to produce-I was still pursuing it as an actor. Although I think part of that was “What the hell does that even mean?” especially in high school…to be a producer. I sort of always was doing shows on my own and my friends and I would shoot ridiculous, offensive short films at sleepovers. But yeah, I always had a bit of a producer in me for sure, but I didn’t even really know what that job was until a little bit in college. So, I went off to one of the best drama schools in the country as an actor-with the goal of being an actor.
: That was Carnegie Mellon, right?
Dodson: Yeah, That was Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. Part of it leads to the formation of my company. I had met, in high school, Zachary Quinto. We had met at a summer acting program in 1994 where, as I joke, he played a much better Mercutio to my Romeo in a production of Romeo and Juliet. We met in 1994 and stayed in touch. He was a year older than me and went off to college in the year of 1995 at Carnegie Mellon, and then I joined him a year later in 1996. That’s also where I met my other partner, Corey. And then the directors or some of our projects and a lot of the other people we’ve worked with and the writing of our graphic novel and all this different stuff. A lot of these relationships were certainly formed at Carnegie.
I was there as an actor. In the summers I would go off and do summer stock; Shakespeare in southern Utah or bad musicals outside of Philadelphia. Or, wherever it might be. While I was there, my sophomore year, was the first time I’d ever really produced anything. I produced a stage production of a dark German play called Woyzeck which is also an Opera called Wozzeck but it’s the same basic story-it’s this old German play. I did that in a basement at Carnegie Mellon-in a basement. I built the theatre and I ran a four month advertising campaign that we did for free. I went and sought out the actors that I thought were the coolest including the most beautiful and talented senior actress in the school and she said yes to coming and doing my little play in the basement. And I adapted from five different translations of the play and made sure that the play was exactly what I wanted to do, and that the play had special effects, and it was terribly adapted and terribly directed. But really well produced.
The first time anybody said anything about me being a producer-my friend, Victor Quinaz who just directed our movie that came out this year called Breakup at a Wedding so we’re still friends although he’s a director now, not an actor-the first time anybody ever said it was after that production of Woyzeck, he gave me a postcard, I still have it, that said “Those are some dark woods you took us through, my friend” which was certainly true“I had a revelation about you today. What an amazing producer you would make. That’s a high compliment. Congratulations,” and I still have that today. Nobody had ever said that to me nor had thought about it.
: It’s so crucial. It’s so crucial when someone tells you what they think you are and it strikes a chord in you and you think, “Huh. Maybe that is me.” That’s such an incredible gift to receive from somebody.
Dodson: Yeah. It was pretty amazing and pretty defining. A few years later, when I was still acting, an early manager of mine in Los Angeles said it to me in a different way. He said, “You’re a good actor, but you’re going to get bored.” That always stuck with me as well. It was very true and when I finally made the decision to make the change, that was as true as ever.
I went through the drama program with the goal of pursuing a career in acting, and I thought I would move to LA right after school because I was interested in film and television. I ended up in New York. I felt a draw to move to New York. Just felt a real gut instinct to go there. So, I did. That would have been the summer of 2000. I worked as a waiter and a bartender on the upper west side. Then, I got a Broadway play as an actor. I was 22, I guess. So, I did a Broadway play.
: The Stoppard play?
Dodson: Yeah, Tom Stoppard’s play Invention of Love. I didn’t do much in the play but it was an amazing experience. I got to meet and spend time with Tom Stoppard and these amazing actors. The play itself was nominated for five or six Tony awards and won both best actor and best supporting actor and nominated for best play and it was this whole… incredible experience to have as a 22 year old and get to be there and experience that whole thing and show up at a theatre. We did the play for about six months. So, it was great and it was amazing. I’m grateful to this day to have had that experience. At the same time I was doing two days on All My Children, and two days on Guiding Light and a little commercial for something stupid here and there. Tthe play came to and end and I did another play right after that up at Yale Rep. A Shaw play. Which I did with my now dear friend who was also in the Broadway play, Mireille Enos who is now the star of The Killing and World War Z. We got to play brother and sister in the Shaw play at Yale Rep. But we’d also done the Stoppard play together so it was a great little One-Two.
: She’s great on that show. She’s fantastic on that show.
Dodson: Yeah. She’s a phenomenal actress and the nicest person. So anyway, we did that play-that was during September 11th, I was up there. After that, I decided I was going to spend pilot season the next year in LA. So I moved to LA and explored LA a bit. I was cast in a couple of pilots and did a guest spot on a show that ended up never airing. I was doing all the things that you’re supposed to do when you’re 23 or 24 and you want to be an actor… I came back to New York for a bit and I did an independent film here that never got distributed, and I did a play with Lincoln Center’s directors lab, and I did a reading off Broadway with Gore Vidal, and all these really cool little experiences. And I was paying my bills — ish — but I was not feeling sort of aggressively stimulated by all this. So, I did finally decide to move to Los Angeles and got there and I managed to find a really amazing housesitting gig. So I had a free amazing place to stay while I was there. I ended up doing this play downtown at the Mark Taper Forum and while doing that play I decided “You know what? I am bored,” to sort of quote my old manager. “I don’t want to wait for the phone to ring. I’m working but I’m not working in a way that’s making me excited. I want to try this other thing that I’ve always had an inkling towards doing,” and I called my agents and said “I’m out. Do you know anybody in production or development?”
This was after I had met my wife, which also certainly helped me make my decision. She was not my wife at all at the time. But upon meeting her and watching her actually be a real working actress who was both challenged by it, making money and having fun, enjoyed auditions, enjoyed rehearsal, you know, some of the stuff that didn’t ever stimulate me in the same way. It was easy to think, “Well, that’s what a working actor looks like. What I’m doing is something else.” I felt like I had a different skill set that I could be better at. At this point I had produced my first short film which was a little short in Cantonese which was directed, again, by my friend who was a director who was the first person to say I would be a good producer.
He had sent me this whole idea and we put it together and we shot it on super 16 in New York City and finished the short and took it all over the world. It played at dozens and dozens and dozens of film festivals all over the world. Won quite a few of them. It ended up being on the short list for the Oscars. It didn’t get nominated but it was close enough to be pretty proud of what had happened with it.
So, that little short film and a little bit of chutzpah became the basis for me trying to bust out. And certainly my wife’s encouragement became the basis for me thinking I could be a producer. I didn’t know what that meant and I didn’t know what -whether I should work at an agency or what I should do. Within about two weeks of announcing to everyone I knew that I wanted to give that a shot, I had an interview at Warner Brothers with a feature film producer there and got a job as his third hand in the office.
To find out what happened to Dodson at Warner Brothers, come back for Part Two tomorrow!