'Find mentors to support you' Hereditary movie producer Lars Knudsen on his film career so far

Horror mystery Hereditary has racked up a whopping $80 million (£62m) in worldwide box office from just a $10 million (£7.7m) budget as well as garnering awards and award nominations the world over. Here producer Lars Knudsen – who also produced American Honey, Frank & Lola, The Witch and Little Men – tells Mandy News how he started out in film, how he produced Hereditary and what aspiring producers can do to succeed.

23rd November 2018
/ By James Collins

hereditary movie producer lars knudsen A24

Lars, tell us a little bit about how you got involved in the film industry and how you became a producer?
I grew up in Denmark and lived there until I was 21. In my late teens, I discovered the world of cinema and told myself that it was a world I wanted to work in. I knew that I didn’t want to be a writer, or a director and took a year out of high school in Columbia Ohio, of all places, and just educated myself about the film industry.

I came out of that year knowing that I wanted to be a producer. I knew that I wanted to enable creative people and their vision. So I went to business school because that would help me in some way. I don’t know if it did, but I was able to get into film school in Denmark.

Denmark has a very small film community. I lived in Aarhus, which is the second largest city after Copenhagen, where the main movie work and film school is. So, after trying to get into the Danish film industry and not having any luck – they just don’t have internships in the same way as they do in the U.S. – I decided that I would just move to New York and figure out a way to get in with Scott Rudin, the producer I had read a lot about in Denmark. He was someone I looked up to. I wanted to learn from him. I wanted him to be my film school! I thought I would learn by doing. So I just moved. My Mom’s American, so getting U.S. citizenship was a little easier.

I moved to New York without knowing anyone and was able to secure an internship with Scott. Scott has six assistants who got rotated out quite often, back then. Most interns at the time were students. I was there every single day, all day, until Scott fired someone, so I basically just got in that way, by being there all the time. I became one of his six assistants and a couple of months later, moved up the ranks. After three months, I became his right-hand guy. I was there for two years, which in the world of Scott Rudin is a very long time. So Scott Rudin was how I got my film education. That was how I got my foot in the door. I worked for Scott from 2001-2003. I was ready to start in 2004.

I wanted to be a producer who knows everything and anything that goes on in the making of a movie, whether it’s development, financing, casting, production, post-production or distribution. I always wanted to know every aspect of it. You can help your director as much as possible. So, I worked for Scott, and then told him that I wanted to produce and that I wanted to start a company, like him. He helped Jay and I out by giving us a first-look deal. It wasn’t like Jay and I were going to be making movies for Disney or Miramax – we were just starting out.

Scott paid us, essentially, to inform him and educate him about films with reports on festivals. We introduced him to up-and-coming filmmakers. He paid us a little money to do that and we were able to focus on developing our projects with writer-directors. In those years, we did our first movies: Kelly Reichardt’s OId Joy and Wild Tigers I Have Known. These two movies went to Sundance, which gave us some confidence. We took that a step further and decided that we wanted to be responsible for some of those movies, using them to seal the deal with distributors. In doing that we forged relationships and learned a lot about how movies are sold and distributed, especially in Europe. So I think those first five years, Jay and I learned basically everything about producing these low-budget movies that we were developing, from Scott.

Jay and I stopped our partnership a couple of years ago but we did around 30 movies together over a 10 or 12 year time-span. Now I’m in the next phase of my career. My twenties and early thirties were about saying yes to everything, learning and doing as much as possible. That’s the short version of how I ended up where I am!

So, how do you go about spotting a script or director that you feel you want to get involved with?
When we started out, Jay and I was never had any development money. We don’t come from money. Everything we did was accomplished without that, except when we had financing to get the movies made.

When it comes to development, an inexpensive way to is to work with writer-directors who are writing so they can direct. Most of our movies at Parts and Labor were with writer-directors (not solely for that reason, obviously). Just filmmakers with a strong vision who gravitated towards us who happened to write their own scripts.

A lot of it’s just instinct too. You watch a short film and love it and you want to work with the filmmaker. It’s a combination of the script and the filmmaker. When we started out, a lot of filmmakers hadn’t done much, so a lot of it was based on our gut feeling; how they talked about the movie.

Robert Eggers (The Witch) is a good example. When we developed a film with him, he hadn’t really done anything except a couple of shorts. We just knew when we met Rob that he was unlike any other filmmaker that we’d met. Rob had wanted to direct for a while, it wasn’t like we got to him first… it’s hard to explain!

For me, when I meet them it kind of feels effortless, but we’ve done a lot of other movies that didn’t do what we thought they would so we don’t get it right every time.

You’d be the most sought-after people on Earth if you got it right every time!
Yeah! I think the reason why people like what we’re did is that we didn’t just talk about making movies; we made them. In an industry where there’s so much talk, we just focused on getting the movies made. Getting movies made is extremely difficult, especially at a very low budget, which also means that there’s a lot of risk creatively.

You can’t solve problems with money. In production, you’re limited by anything that can happen. That affects the footage you get to cut the movie. A lot of movies are limited by what you can shoot. The script will be ambitious, but it’s all about what you can afford.

With a film like The Witch, that script must read off the page as high-ish budget. Is it part of your job to find your way round the money side of things?
No. We made The Witch for $3 million (£2.3m). It’s very contained. It was about the period detail. Robert Eggars had such attention to detail it was extraordinary. He knew exactly what he wanted – how to build the village so we were able to make the movie for that amount. Apart from the period setting, we didn’t see that as impossible to do, budget-wise.

The problem was that no one wanted to finance that script. It took a long time to come together. People saw it as a foreign language movie. It was so different, so original. They were scared off by it.

So you came to work with Ari Aster on Hereditary. How did that project come about?
One of the most important lessons I ever learned was on American Honey. It was a life-changing experience. Jay and I prided ourselves on being part of the development process from the very beginning. We fought for the movie, developing the script with the writer, getting the finance, we had to reinvent the wheel. It never got easier. You would think that after making a lot of movies that it would get easier at some point, but no, every movie was hard.

The process was always the same but it was the new personalities. Every movie’s different. Every movie we did, except for a couple, we drove it from the beginning.

Hereditary came, shortly after Jay and I split and I was on my own. All of a sudden this project fell into my lap. I’d been a fan of Ari’s shorts and Kevin Frakes called me and said he was producing Hereditary and needed someone to produce it with. I read the script and was blown away. I met with Ari, we hit it off and it was an effortless relationship.

My producing process – and I don’t know if it’s the same for other producers – is to trust the filmmaker. I really have to let go and let the director do their thing. I mean, Andrea Arnold and Ari – they’re like night and day. Ari is a perfectionist but Andrea thrives on chaos. They could not be more different as filmmakers, but they’re equally as passionate. Their work is highly personal. They’re both extremely hard on themselves. Production is always painful – it’s not pleasant, ever. So, for me, I don’t change the way that they work.

With big studios, the filmmakers have to adapt to their way of working. Filmmakers like Rob or Ari, whoever works with them has to adapt to their way of working. It’s about enabling their vision. The best way to do that is to completely surrender to their process and not have them get out of their comfort zone. Obviously, you can push them within that zone and help them make the movie be as good as it can be.

Hereditary taught me that movies can come to you at different phases. It came to me essentially in pre-production. I was with Ari every minute of the day for a long prep period, in production and post. We got very close and now I’m his producer. I’m doing his next movie and we’re two thirds through that. I’m working with Ari, Pavel, his DP, and a lot of the same people. This is the first time I’m not reinventing the wheel.

Working with the same crew isn’t easy – Ari’s films are never easy! – but to be around the same people is wonderful. Working with A24, the financier, means that I can concentrate on being a creative producer, which is what I always wanted to be. When you’re working on independent movies, your job becomes so much more, and gets overshadowed by all the other stuff: finding the money, dealing with financiers, budget limits and all that stuff.

Working with Ari has been great because, almost for the first time, my main focus has been him and the movie, and that’s a great feeling.

You mentioned working with Andrea Arnold on the extremely successful American Honey. When it comes to working with female directors, do you feel that the industry truly recognises them? Is that something that’s changing? How was it, getting that film up and running?
It is changing, for sure. We worked with a lot of female directors. People came to us. A lot of companies are focusing on female directors. Financiers are focusing on films with female directors. It’s night and day from when we started out, because those companies weren’t there.

Obviously it has to be built up over generations in film schools, and the business as a whole has to change and that’s happening now. The most creatively rewarding time I’ve ever had was with Andrea! There’s really no one quite like her as a filmmaker. I learned the most working with Andrea.

With all the changes going on in the industry of late, with streaming services and so on, what kind of impact does that have on your work and the independent film industry?
I think that, given where I am now in my career, less is more. When Jay and I stopped our partnership there were literally seven other producers coming up under us. There was this idea that we had a lot of producers doing a load of films. If that had happened then the whole thing with streaming would have been a much bigger thing, because we would have been doing three or four times the amount of stuff than I could do on my own.

At that point, I was looking for first-look deals with companies and when you’re producing like that it becomes a different conversation. Where I’m at now, my focus is on specific filmmakers like Ari, or Rob. They’ve already carved out a frame for themselves. I think the movies that I’m doing now are a lot more attractive in the marketplace. It’s less of an uphill battle to get them financed than anything I’ve done before. So now my focus is finding the right home for those projects.

I’ve still got movies on my slate that are going to go through years of development. Jay and I had movies on our slate that had been there for 10 years! Some movies just take forever. I haven’t worked with Netflix yet. I’d love to! That’s something where a producer needs to not just see themselves as a film producer but able to work across all platforms.

It’s a good thing when there are more opportunities. There’s so much content out there now. If you’re good at what you do and you have good taste, you should be able to take advantage of it.

You mentioned you’re working on Ari’s new film, are you allowed to tell us anything about that?
I can’t say too much! There’s stuff online you can find. It’s his follow-up to Hereditary. It’s with Florence Pugh, Jack Rayner, William Jackson Harper and a lot of amazing Swedish actors. It’s A24 that we’re dealing with. This movie will be in the same genre as Hereditary.

What advice would you give for writer-directors to get their film made?
Find mentors to support you and give you advice. When Jay and I started – I’m not a writer-director so it’s a little different – there were people that believed in us and were there to support us through it.

I don’t know if we’d have been able to do what we did if we didn’t have that support and advice at the time. There is no magic that helps people get their stuff made, but I think if a creative surrounds themselves with creative people who are more experienced than they are and who believe in them, that’s very important.