Photos by Julian Tran
"The most important part of any job is showing up." Annapurna Pictures', Jessica Biddle, credits this piece of advice as something that's helped her get to where she is today. With an eagerness to tell stories through film, the question wasn't if she was going to do it, it was how. Her dreams of becoming a writer soon evolved into becoming the point person who fits all of the pieces together to tell the story. Biddle often has her ear to the ground finding new stories to tell, putting together the creative elements and then seeing it through. Curious about what it takes to become a key player at a major film production company that produces favorites like Booksmart, Her, and American Hustle? This one's for you.
This interview took place over email between Tate VanderPoel Smith and Jessica Biddle in Los Angeles
How did you get to where you are today?
I’m a big proponent of going with the flow. My grandfather always told me that the most important part of any job is showing up, and it’s really stuck with me. He became a production designer by virtue of the fact that he graduated from architecture school in the middle of The Great Depression, and the only place he could get a job was on a studio lot.
I think I’ve probably wanted to tell stories for my whole life, but the planning has never been as much fun as experiencing. When I plan less I am more available to all of the different ways I can be involved. I try to remind myself of this constantly. Take jobs with people you like being around, who you respect and admire. The rest will fall into place.
In my senior year of college, I had an internship with a producer I really looked up to (and still do!) and he advised me to go work at an agency. I went into the mailroom at a boutique agency thinking that I wanted to write, that I’d become an assistant to a TV agent, and then from there try to get a job in a writer’s room. Instead, I became an assistant to a book-to-film agent because I really liked her. I realized I liked reading books more than many of the screenplays that were coming in, which I didn’t consider all that interesting.
From there, I had an interview to be assistant to a producer, and I connected with her the second we met. I think I got the interview because she wanted someone who knew a lot about books. In the interview, she asked me if I felt we have a responsibility as filmmakers for the kind of material we put out into the world and the way it’s received. We both had a really similar point of view about that. I decided that I’d put a pause on writing for at least six months to really learn about the job of being a producer, and to be the best assistant I could be to her. Six months flew by, I fell in love with the job, and I haven’t really had the urge to write since. I was her assistant for several years—she taught me how to be a producer and she really believed in me.
What is your role now? How does it vary at different stages of production?
I’m the Director of Development at Annapurna Pictures. My role changes depending on the stage of development or production a movie is in. A big part of my job is looking for new stories. I am constantly reading, watching, and listening to things that could lead to a possible new project. Once we take on a story, I’m giving feedback and helping a creator in whatever way they need to make the script the best it can be. From there, everything else can happen in different orders depending on the way the development comes together, but at some point, I’m attaching a director (if the writer isn’t also the director), I’m attaching cast and I’m securing financing. When the film goes into production, I’m on set—helping in whatever way I can—ultimately making sure both the director and the financier are getting what they need.
What advice would you give to someone in a junior position reading scripts for the first time? What should they be looking for?
Can you get lost in it? Is it something you’ve never seen/read before? Do you feel like you want to talk about it with your friends? That kind of passion for a piece of material is going to be much more valuable when you’re pitching it to your colleagues or to your boss than any sort of data or statistic about “what’s working in the industry right now.” Especially after this past year, I don’t think anyone can fairly say they know the answer to that question anyway. Your gut is your biggest asset when you’re reading a story. Also, if you’re not making movies that you want to see, you can forget why you’re in the business.
I often think about movies I love—Eyes Wide Shut, Amadeus, Brazil—that challenge my perspective on the world or bring together concepts and ideas that seemingly have nothing to do with each other. I wonder if that script had come across my desk, would I have been able to see the possibility for what it would become? I think it’s important to find the scripts that became the movies you love and read them. Because, while it’s important to listen to your gut and go with stories you love, it’s equally important to humble yourself, to recognize that you may not yet understand someone’s vision. If you take the time to understand, you might discover something truly new.
Save the playlist below to hear songs from Jessica's favorite film soundtracks
Images Courtesy of Julian Tran
Special thanks to Polaroid