Jonathan Duffy is a film producer best known for the award-winning 2013 film Pit Stop. Directed by Yen Tan, and co-written by Tan and David Lowery, Pit Stop tells the story of two gay men drawn to one another across a quiet Texas town. The feature premiered to significant acclaim at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and stars Marcus DeAnda, Bill Heck, Amy Seimetz, John Merriman, Alfredo Maduro, and Corby Sullivan. Mr. Duffy spoke over e-mail with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary about working on his first major motion picture, what being a producer truly means, and the state of American audiences today. This interview has been compressed and edited from text for publication.
SM: Your IMDB profile only lists one credit and it’s a film that just premiered this year. Can you tell me some about your background in general, and then how it led you into the industry?
JD: Speaking very generally, I graduated from the film program at the University of Texas and have primarily worked as an entrepreneur and fundraiser since then. On the fundraising side, I worked as the Director of Development for The Austin Film Festival for a couple of years. While there, I met [producing partner] Kelly Williams, who was the film programmer, and I also met my wife. During those years I was always thinking about producing, but the costs and risks seemed like too much of a barrier. I left the AFF to join two of my friends from college in launching a company that I am still proud of called Greenling. That experience taught me a great deal about partnering with people you believe in, as well as how to take a shared vision and make it real.
Looking back, I have had the itch to be a part of the storytelling process for years, but none of the scripts I read seemed viable or right for me at the time – I just did not see exactly how I could help [with them.] However, when Kelly told me about Pit Stop over lunch at Veggie Heaven one day, it seemed like there was something there. I was very intrigued when he mentioned that the script was written by the same guy that made Ciao. I read the script after that and met up with [director] Yen [Tan], and the rest is history.
SM: The “producer” credit can be a mixed bag and indicate many levels of involvement on a project. How involved were you in the filmmaking of Pit Stop?
JD: I worked quite closely with the team. I was intimately involved in the filmmaking process itself, and remain very much involved in the process of getting the film out into the world.
SM: Was there a process in which you were brought in, or were you an initiator for the project?
JD: I was not the initiator. By the time I read Pit Stop, it had been several years since Yen had taken the script through the OutFest Screenwriting Lab. He had worked with [co-writer] David [Lowery] to shape it into the story we are now familiar with. After meeting with Kelly and Yen, I joined a team that already included [producers] James Johnston and Eric Steele. Together, we agreed to do whatever was necessary to get Yen’s film made.
SM: While I recognize that collaboration is the name of the game in getting any picture made, this particular project has several credited producers in one capacity or another. As a producer on a film with Kelly Williams, James Johnston, and Eric Steele, what was your most invaluable ability or skill?
JD: Collaboration is incredibly important. I would put it right up there with commitment, resilience, passion and a must-do attitude. I would say my most valuable skill is figuring out which of the above is needed on any given day and bringing that to the project and the team. I cannot claim to be perfect in any of these departments, but I did my best and made some very good friends along the way; ultimately, that helped to make something of which I am quite proud.
SM: Looking at the finished film, can you observe concrete ideas or items that owe themselves to your tastes, choices, or work?
JD: I was involved in conversations about story, casting, locations, visual style, editing, etc. But ultimately, you are working to help the writer(s) and the director fulfill a vision that will reach and connect with audiences. I think we achieved that, so I have and will continue to point to it.
SM: This project must have seemed too good to pass up as an opportunity to produce: intensely emotional sex scenes; high-concept script; ensemble drama. But I also imagine that it would scare anyone looking to break into the filmmaking game. Did it ever feel like you were taking a gamble or risk making this film?
JD: I knew that the hurt and hope the characters felt in the script connected with me, and that I believed fully in the team. Beyond that, we knew it would not be a film for everyone, but it was the kind I wanted everyone to see; I wanted to help make that happen. Our desire as filmmakers is to work in a space where we can still take such risks. With films like Pit Stop and others that fall into the “independent” niche, the stakes are high for everyone involved, but there is a greater willingness to explore a story in ways that larger projects might not. For that reason, it is great just to consider a project risky.
SM: Can you speak about another producer’s career that has inspired you to get into the field or to continue as a filmmaker?
JD: There are so many accomplished filmmakers out there that I admire and hope to learn from in some way that the list could be pretty long. But to be honest, I am inspired daily to continue working as a filmmaker by my producing partner, Kelly Williams. He is a consistent advocate for those he works with and has a real sense for which stories and actors will connect with audiences today.
SM: In my interview with Yen Tan, he explained to me that one of the worst parts of getting Pit Stop ready was putting it through test screenings, which were sometimes quite useful and other times just a blow to his confidence. Did you find the process of finally showing the film around to be equally excruciating, or were you more assured of the power of the piece?
JD: I think Yen pretty much summed it up, though I look back upon that time differently now. Most of the harder moments have been smoothed over by the amazing work and commitment that our Editor (Don Swaynos), Colorist (Joe Malina), and Sound Mixer (Eric Friend) brought to the table. I also think about how I began humming the lyrics to the soundtrack everywhere I went…
SM: When films with queer sexuality at the center are released, they oftentimes come under scrutiny for having too much or too little to do with their protagonists’ sexual orientations. For example, see Tom Ford’s 2009 film A Single Man (too little) and, of course, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) (too much.) Do you think that classifying Pit Stop as a queer film is more likely to help or hurt the film?
JD: I guess every film comes under scrutiny for something. You want people to write about it, but in doing so, there becomes this need to put a film in this box or that box for readers. I never thought of Pit Stop as a queer film but I can understand why some people characterize it in that way. Ultimately, I think labeling it Queer Film will make it easier for audiences looking for a film with those components. It is incumbent on us to continue to talk about the other layers captured within the film as well.
SM: Though Pit Stop is still on its journey to theatrical release, could you speak a bit about upcoming projects of your own?
JD: There are at least three projects that I am really excited about, though I cannot say that I think of any of them as my own. One of them is a dramatic feature entitled Hellion. The short film that inspired the feature was written and directed by Kat Candler and produced by Kelly Williams. It premiered at Sundance in 2012. I am excited to be collaborating with Kat, Kelly and a whole team of other wonderful people helping to bring the feature version to life.
I am also working with Alexandra Roxo and Devon Kirkpatrick on a romantic comedy that has been selected to participate in IFP No Borders this September. Alexandra and Devon have collaborated to write a screenplay that will be directed by Roxo, who has a very unique and refreshing voice. And finally, I am on the edge of my seat to help Yen with his next feature.