As a general rule, movie producer Neil Kopp is happy to stay out of the spotlight. At age 28, he's already overseen two of the best films to come out of Portland this decade: He produced director Kelly Reichardt's Mt. Hood male-bonding movie Old Joy, and he teamed with fellow local David Cress to produce Gus Van Sant's latest project, Paranoid Park. But until last week, he'd never even been asked for an interview.
This weekend, however, as the biggest stars in cinema head to the Academy Awards' red carpet, Kopp will catch a plane to Los Angeles as well. He's nominated for a Film Independent's Spirit Award—sort of the indie-movie kid cousin of the Oscars—for producing Paranoid Park, Old Joy and Reichardt's upcoming Michelle Williams movie Train Choir. He'll be sitting in a tent on the Santa Monica beach on Saturday, Feb. 23, hoping to hear his name called by host Rainn Wilson. Kopp recently took a lunch with WW at the downtown Noodles & Company, where he explained what he's being noticed for. It turns out his award has a lot to do with filing tax returns.
I think most people assume a producer is just the guy with the money. What exactly do you do?
We're the ones who figure out the plan of attack. We get the permits [from] the city, we figure out where the trucks are going to go, we make sure we don't film any Pepsi signs that would tie us up later. [We] make the budgets. Usually we know going into a film what the budget range is. For instance, budgeting Old Joy and Paranoid Park, there's a target number. So we just figure out how we're going to cut the pie up.… Each film is, in its own timeline, graduating on to the next phase. Those phases require attention. I mean, someone's got to file the taxes.
When I'm watching a movie I don't usually think, "Someone had to file the tax returns on this."
Somebody had to send out 1099s, and get the W-2s out, and make sure the air-zone emissions policy doesn't expire. A lot of that, when it's handed off to the distributor, they'll do that. But we still gotta make sure the copyrights are in place. These movies are companies. They need business licenses and they need permits from the state and, yeah, they file taxes.
It's not like other art forms in that sense.
It's pretty crazy. I never thought I'd get into such a business role. I didn't go to film school thinking, "I'll be a producer and I'll file tax returns and deal with insurance and clearances and deal memos and above-the-line agreements." No sense of that.
You didn't go to film school to be a lawyer?
No. No. No. So part of what's been interesting to me is realizing that this stuff goes on, and needs to go on for a film to run, and that it takes so much time to manage all these things. I don't know—I went in thinking I'd be a director or something. But I can't even really imagine doing that now. I think this is where I contribute best. I love what I do.
Are you excited about the nomination?
It's an honor. It's kind of easy—and liberating, in a way—living and working here, to feel kind of left out of the main [moviemaking] engine. It's easy to feel like we're kind of forgotten up here. And that's nice. I like that.
You were very involved with Old Joy's location scouting. What spots did you know?
I grew up in outer Southeast Portland in the suburbs of Clackamas, and so the back roads to Mount Hood by Estacada and around to Bagby Hot Springs were just kind of my stomping grounds. When we got our driver's licenses and would go camping on the weekends in high school, that's just where we went. Now, Bagby was written into the script, it was an inherent location in the story for Old Joy. And I had been there, and knew how to get there. So it was just Kelly and I, basically, for two or four weeks just driving around and finding our spots…. I try to interpret what the director of the script wants, and get them to that area, and while they're figuring out whether it works creatively or not, I'm trying to figure out if it's actually possible to lock as a location in a logistical sense.
So they're painting a picture in their heads and you're figuring out how it'll work.
Yeah, I mean, how far is it from Portland, and how many hours can we actually ask our crew to work, and how much drive time is there? Where are you going to have lunch? Where are you going to park the vehicles? How are you going to manage the sound issues? Is there an airport nearby? Are there going to be jets taking off over our set all day? We might send a [production assistant] out to see if there's any crazy stuff that goes on out there, sound-wise. Do semi trucks air-brake all day? What are the train schedules? Because sound is a big thing to consider.
How do you learn to ask those questions?
By getting it wrong once. [Laughs.]
The Spirit Awards ceremony is televised live at 2 pm Saturday, Feb. 23, on IFC, and will be re-broadcast on AMC at 10 pm. For more awards-season coverage, including Aaron Mesh's highly inaccurate Oscar predictions, visit wweek.com/screen.