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Veteran Producer Christina Sibul Talks New Movies Monica and Butter & Her ‘Accidental’ Film Career

Dec 25, 2022


“I didn’t make a conscious decision to do film,” Christina Sibul said in our Zoom call of how she initially became involved in the movie-making industry. It was actually her boyfriend at the time, who, in a way, kick-started her trajectory. An advertising copywriter in New York, he had dreams of becoming a screenwriter, so Sibul suggested that they move to Los Angeles. While he pursued a career in writing movies, she would have sought creative work elsewhere. “I’d always been tied to the act of creating — that’s always been my interest in a sense — but what field it’s in [wasn’t] necessarily a big deal to me.”
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Shortly after landing in Los Angeles, Sibul nevertheless found herself in the film industry, specifically in the independent film scene. “I was really lucky. I got set up with a really extraordinary independent producer, who had phenomenal taste in projects and material [and] who was deeply kind and willing to mentor you about the industry.” That producer was Michael London, who has, to date, produced dozens of acclaimed films like Alexander Payne’s Sideways and Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (both of which Sibul also worked on). “He’s always been a very profound influence. He also gave me, truly, my first job in many ways in the industry.”

On Discovering Cinema & Building Her Career

Solo Five Productions

Sibul grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and it was, in fact, here that she was first introduced to cinema via two avenues. “One was the birth of cable,” she said, specifically recalling being an avid watcher of the AMC channel, which “played all black-and-white movies for the most part, and I fell in love with every single Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant movie.” The second, perhaps more formative, avenue through which she accessed cinema was a place called The HUB. “I don’t know what it stands for, but it was one of the student unions [at Penn State University]. They had a foreign film series, and you would sit in these desperately uncomfortable plastic chairs and watch foreign films.”

These films from the latter half of the 20th Century — from Frederico Fellini’s movies to 1986’s Betty Blue — had a profound impact on Sibul, which led to her attending Yale School of Drama, where she earned a degree in dramaturgy. “The essential definition of dramaturgy is to try to listen to the artistic identity of something,” she said. In terms of how that translates to film, Sibul then detailed how her work as an indie producer often shifts between development — “which is that idea of working with a writer/director and [trying to] listen to what they actually want to say in this piece” — and production. And, sometimes, it involves both, depending on the project. “I came up at a time in the industry where you didn’t just work in development — meaning you didn’t just work with scripts — you worked with filmmakers, and then you took those movies all the way through production, rather than just kicking it off to the production team.”

This is perhaps why, in her interview with AVenue for their September / October 2020 issue, Sibul described herself as the “Ray Donovan of independent films.” When you take a look through her credits, her involvement in films like Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown, Sideways, and The Visitor ranges from development consultant to production executive to producer. Sibul, simply put, is the “fixer,” doing whatever it takes, in whatever capacity, to get a film made. Echoing these sentiments, Script Magazine more recently dubbed her “the indie whisperer.” When asked to comment on these titles, she said, “I think part of it is that I’ve worked on both sides of the coin: studio releases and indie films. I [also] really enjoy engaging with filmmakers.”

Related: Highest-Grossing Indie Movies of All Time

Butter: Making a Movie in 20 Days

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One of the earliest conversations Sibul had with writer/director Paul A. Kaufman was about her experience in the development and production of book-to-film adaptations, which included films like Sideways — “My largest involvement or contribution to Sideways was the fact that I read every single draft of the novel as it was being formulated.” — and House of Sand and Fog. Considering the success of these films, Kaufman later called Sibul about his desire to adapt Erin Jade Lange’s novel Butter. “I read the book in a day, and I was like, ‘There’s definitely a movie in this,'” she said. “I was very captivated by the story for a number of reasons. First, for Butter’s story and that desperate want for somebody who’s grown up socially awkward to fit in. And then, [how] Erin Jade Lange thinks critically about the teenage flock in many ways.”

Butter tells the story of the titular “Butter,” as everyone calls him, an obese high school outcast (played by Alex Kersting) who decides to eat himself to death live on the internet, and invites everyone to watch. In a turn of events, his announcement draws positive attention from those around him, which begins to feel like popularity. This puts Butter in an awkward situation when his suicide deadline comes around. “That shoot was actually kind of a moment in time, in terms of there was a lot around it,” Sibul said of the movie’s 20-day shoot, which filmed in California during the Woolsey Fire that raged in L.A. and Ventura Counties and, in fact, burned down the homes of some of the cast and crew. “I think we were all just really happy to be working, happy to be focusing on something creative and productive.”

Related: 7 Actors Who Found Success in Both Blockbusters and Indie Movies

Monica: Making Its World Premiere at Venice Film Festival

Solo Five Productions

Directed by Andrea Pallaoro, with a script co-written by Pallaoro and Orlando Tirado, Monica is a deeply intimate examination of family, redemption, identity, and trauma in a story about a woman, the titular Monica played by Trace Lysette, who returns home in order to take care of her terminally ill mother (played by Patricia Clarkson). “Monica, in many ways, is coming home for an end-of-life crisis with her mother, but she’s also coming home in many real ways to meet herself, meet her authentic self, [in order to] put these pieces of what had become fractured in her life back together,” Sibul said. “I’m much more comfortable, I will say, in that dark, moody, personal template that Monica brings. It speaks to my soul in a very real way.”

Monica couldn’t be any more different from Butter, from its tone, story, and even its aspect ratio. (“But there are similarities in that idea of ostracized populations, populations that we haven’t fully embraced with the love that we should, societally.”) The film first came to Sibul via her producing partner on the movie, Karen Tenkhoff. Working alongside Monica’s primary producers, Sibul and Tenkhoff focused greatly on the script, “clarifying some threads, trying to make the psychology of what’s happening to Monica clear.” Significantly, reading the script elicited an emotional reaction in Sibul that she hadn’t felt since reading the script for Catherine Hardwicke’s movie Thirteen, which was one of the earliest films in her career. Visceral, almost like a call to action, she knew that she needed to be part of bringing Monica to life.

The film had its world premiere at Venice Film Festival this past summer, and looking back, Sibul feels “the absolute pleasure and gratitude” to have been part of that film. Everyone on Monica’s set, she recalled, had “skin in the game,” which is indeed not uncommon for anyone who works in indie cinema. “Independent film is never going to be easy, but [we try to look at] how can we make this route doable? How can we actually push that Sisyphean boulder up over the hill? Indie film tends to be about pushing that boulder up and up and up, and then it rolls down for years. Until, finally, it goes up and over.”

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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