Two local men are the financial force behind ‘Adult Beginners’
TORONTO — Some days, being a producer of an indie film means shoveling snow in frigid temperatures, picking up an actor at the airport, and then setting the table for lunch.
“We’ll do anything. It’s not always pretty. It’s hard to ask your crew members to do it if you won’t. We are comfortable doing everything at this stage,” says Paul Bernon of Wellesley, who, with Back Bay resident Sam Slater, launched Boston’s Burn Later Productions in 2013. The company’s second major release, “Adult Beginners” starring comic Nick Kroll and Rose Byrne (“Bridesmaids”) and directed by Ross Katz, opens in the Boston area on Friday.
The opening is the culmination of two years of work that began when Slater and Bernon flew to Los Angeles to meet with Kroll, the star of Comedy Central’s “Kroll Show,” who’d developed the story, and Kroll’s colleague and executive producer on the film, indie actor Mark Duplass. “We fell in love with the story and signed on early. Our wives are happy it played so well [when it premiered in last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival] because we’d ditched them on Memorial Day,” says Bernon, interviewed with Slater at TIFF where “Adult Beginners” was quickly picked up for distribution by RADiUS-TWC.
Both men made money in real estate before turning to the business of movies. Only a few films in, Burn Later already has a brand identity: low-budget but polished character-based comedies for grown-ups. “Adult Beginners” is about cocky entrepreneur Jake (Kroll), whose company’s big launch is a disaster. His life in a shambles, Jake flees Manhattan for the suburban home of his estranged pregnant sister Justine (Byrne), her husband (Bobby Cannavale), and their 3-year-old son. He ends up working as a nanny for his nephew while trying to reconnect with Justine.
“Adult Beginners” follows a dramedy formula that worked well for Burn Later’s first film, “Drinking Buddies.” Directed by Joe Swanberg and starring Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick, it premiered at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival and was bought by Magnolia Pictures. Next out of the gate for Burn Later is “Results,” Newton native Andrew Bujalski’s new film starring Cobie Smulders and Guy Pearce. Magnolia picked it up after it premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and it’s set to open May 29 (it will also screen at the Independent Film Festival Boston on April 23). Beyond that, Burn Later has three more features going into production, though the particulars are still up in the air, says Bernon, including whether any of the films will be shot locally.
“Certainly we are trying to shoot here but we don’t know yet,” he says. Bernon and Slater say they tried to get parts of “Adult Beginners” shot in the Bay State, but “at the end of the day, logistically it was just not possible. People were set up in New York; actors who did favors and worked for scale were New York-based, so it just became financially unfeasible to bring everyone to Boston.”
In Toronto, he ran into Massachusetts Film Commissioner Lisa Strout. “She gave me a hard time and we promised to get her something soon. We’re dying to shoot in Boston.” (“The tax credit will make it much more possible,” he added, referring to the state’s controversial film tax incentive that Governor Charlie Baker has targeted for repeal.)
Bernon, who studied film at Boston University, says Burn Later Productions was designed to make money. But he and Slater, who studied history at George Washington University, want to make good movies, too. “Adult Beginners” impressed them, says Slater, because “it’s not just a bunch of sketches. It’s a real storyline that happens to be funny. For us, that was important, not just from an artistic standpoint but from a sales standpoint. The audience is smart, and the buyers know that. People can identify with a sibling relationship so this is really relevant to anyone that goes to movies.”
“We’re budget hawks,” adds Bernon. “We’ve built successful companies and watched the bottom line on those companies, so when we transitioned to film we brought that sensibility. . . . All businesses are tough but [with producing] you are bringing a film to the market and trying to sell it so you feel a little naked sometimes. But [as producers] we get involved from day one and we’re there to the end.”
Kroll developed “Adult Beginners” with help from Duplass, who signed on as executive producer. They hired married couple Jeff Cox, who wrote “Blades of Glory,” and Liz Flahive, a writer on Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie,” to pen the screenplay. Kroll says Bernon and Slater understand how essential producers are to films like “Adult Beginners.”
“On a movie this size, everybody is a part of the process. We wanted to establish a strong team and Paul and Sam are passionate about filmmaking. That really helped because it’s not always an easy thing to make a feature like this,” Kroll says. “It was freezing cold and snowing constantly in New York last winter. Hey, we’re not changing the world here, but it can be tough to do a movie on that scale.
“We put together a quality group. To get actors like Rose and Bobby and Jane Krakowski to come work on our movie and sit in a freezing pool for three days was quite lucky.”
Luck always has something to do with it, but for Slater and Bernon it’s all part of a sound business plan. The success of “Drinking Buddies,” says Slater, “fueled the fire. We’re hungry and invigorated; we want to keep going. This is a huge time commitment. It’s not a part-time gig. That’s how you waste your time and how you lose your money.”
Nick Kroll will answer questions after a special 7 p.m. screening of “Adult Beginners” at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on April 22. For more information, go to www.coolidge.org/content/adult-beginners.