Alix Madigan ’84 talks filmmaking career

by Kaina Chen | 10/26/14 5:52pm

Alix Madigan ’84, producer of award-winning “Winter’s Bone” (2010) and cult favorite “Smiley Face” (2007), was on campus Friday for a screening of “Laggies” (2014), her most recent film, at the Black Family Visual Arts Center.

Madigan, a drama and philosophy major at Dartmouth, has worked in investment banking, film marketing and film production.

How does it feel to be back on campus?

AM: I’m so excited about Dartmouth’s renewed emphasis on the arts. Dartmouth has so much at [its] fingertips and great resources in terms of venues, spaces and professors. The arts are certainly much more prevalent than when I was here. Hanover is also much more fancy — we used to have kind of grungy restaurants here.

What aspects of film production are you responsible for as a producer?

AM: There are many different types of producers and many different definitions of the job. Basically, my job is developing the material, working on the script with the writer, putting on cast, taking it out final product for financing, post-production — which is editing, putting the movie together and taking it out for distribution, [i.e.,] selling the movie for distribution.

Is your role as a producer for independent films different than that for mainstream films?

AM: It’ll be different. What they’ll do with a studio movie is that you’ll be given a script and work in tandem with the studio to put the movie together, and then the studio will release the film. Looking for a buyer to distribute the film is taken out of the equation.

What risks are associated with independent filmmaking?

AM: The biggest risk that you’re taking is that you’re going to chase a project that might not eventually get made, or if it does get made, will not succeed with audiences or not earn its money back, which is hard for the investors. It’s a very risky profession.

You just never know if a movie is going to succeed or not. I worked on a movie called “Smiley Face” [(2007)], which had a really small release, but ended up being really loved. It kind of became a cult film, and a lot of people have seen it. And as the saying goes, no one sets out to make a bad movie, but unfortunately, that happens too.

Is there any underlying commonality among the films you’ve worked on?

AM: I like the main character to have some relatable factor to them. They don’t necessarily have to be likable, but they have to be relatable. That’s a big thing I strive for in a film. I don’t really pursue one specific genre.

What’s a typical day at work for you?

AM: It depends. If I’m on production for a movie, I’m typically on set the whole time. If I’m not on production, I spend a lot of time pushing the projects I have forward, whether it’s casting, editing the script or working on material. I spend a lot of time on the phone and on my email. It’s a very networking kind of business.

How did you get into production?

AM: As a student, I saw a ton of great movies at [South Fairbanks Hall]. I found out that it’s now the Tucker Foundation building. But Fairbanks used to screen amazing movies, and I spent a lot of time at Fairbanks. I majored in drama and philosophy. Production is a very apprenticed-type business. You start off as an assistant, and you work your way up, so that’s how I started.

Did you start apprenticing right out of college?

AM: Right after I graduated, I went into investment banking, and then decided that’s not what I wanted to do. I ended up reading a great book called “Final Cut” by Steven Bach, who was an executive at United Artists studio during the disastrous making of “Heaven’s Gate” [(1980)], which was a very infamous film that went way over budget. I loved that book, and it showed me that I could make a living making movies.

I have an MBA, so I thought I could do more of the marketing side of film. I worked for two years in the [Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer] marketing department, and I decided that I wanted to work more in production. I moved to out to [Los Angeles] right after I graduated from business school and worked as an assistant. The first time I ever produced was for a Dartmouth alumnus, Jonathan Nossiter [’84]. I worked with him [on “Sunday” (1997)], and it ended up winning the [1997 Sundance Film Festival] Grand Jury prize. It was a very surprising turn of events — it wasn’t something we were expecting at all.

If you weren’t producing films, what do you think you would do?

AM: I think I’d like to do something along the lines of teaching and education. I’ve had a great time here at Dartmouth talking to various classes.

I’m also doing work for the State Department in conjunction with [University of Southern California] film school. They send cultural ambassadors to various countries to teach seminars in these foreign countries for a week. I am going to Egypt at the beginning of next year. Travel and teaching is going to be really interesting.

I love independent film, but I think I would like to do it for maybe another 10 years, and then depart nicely.

This interview has been edited and condensed.