On the set

February 10, 2000|By KATE COLEMAN

See also: Support from the home front | More women are becoming film producers

I'm coming off a pretty big high," said Shelly Strong in a recent cell-phone conversation from her East Los Angeles home.

She wasn't talking about her ride on "the world's highest" roller coaster at the Stratosphere hotel and casino, although she did that and came out $40 ahead when she stopped in Las Vegas on her drive home from Park City, Utah.

cont. from lifestyle

The "big high" was this year's Sundance Film Festival in Park City. Strong, 32, grew up on a farm near Leitersburg and graduated from Smithsburg High School and Towson State University. She was at Sundance because she's a film producer, and "Other Voices," a film on which she shares credits, was one of 16 films selected for the festival's dramatic competition. There were 849 entries.


"Just being there, I feel like a winner," Strong said.

She is.

In the world of independent film, Sundance Film Festival is the Major Leagues. The annual event is presented by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, an organization dedicated to the development of artists of independent vision, according to the festival program and Web site at

How did Strong get from Leitersburg to Sundance?

"I was always interested in films. I always loved cinema," she said. She cites "The Sting," the 1973 movie starring Redford and Paul Newman, as a particular favorite. Her mom bought her the soundtrack. Strong was a little girl and thought it would let her see the movie over and over in her head, she laughed. She also loved "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "Jeremiah Johnson," both of which starred Redford. Now she's made it to his festival, to Sundance, the most prestigious independent film festival in the world. She plans to write him a letter.

Towson graduate

Strong was a mass communications major at Towson and worked on films as a student. Strong worked on the set of the 1991 film "He Said, She Said" starring Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth Perkins when it was filmed in Baltimore. She saw what everybody did. She got "the bug." And although working in the film industry wasn't something she felt was accessible, she decided she wanted to try it.

Next she got a job as an office production assistant on David Mamet's 1991 film "Homicide," also filmed in Baltimore. She liked that, too.

Working on those films, she met people who encouraged her to come to L.A., she said. After graduation in 1991, she packed up her truck and all the money she had and drove west.

"You've got to ride the wave while it's there. You have to jump off the cliff. I just felt, I have to do this now or regret it for the rest of my life," Strong said.

She planned to give her dream a few months. She found work. At one point she was a $25-a-day production assistant. The production coordinator was fired, and she got the job.

"It was baptism by fire," she said.

As an independent film producer, Strong works without affiliation with any company or film studio. She free-lances. On "Other Voices," Strong shares producing credits with Ruth Charny.

"We made a really good team," Strong says.

Charny's specialty is getting financing. Strong came up via the production coordinator-production manager route. Her background is "line" producing, which includes getting money as well as dealing with the director and actors. It's an incredible amount of responsibility, Strong said. And although it sometimes can be a burden and there's a lot of stress, she enjoys it.

"The great thing is I know how to make a movie."

Casting "Other Voices" took 2 1/2 years. The film stars David Aaron Baker, Stockard Channing, Peter Gallagher, Mary McCormack, Rob Morrow and Campbell Scott. Strong met writer-director Dan McCormack through mutual friends. She got a co-producing credit on his 1993 "Minotaur," a 55-minute film that premiered at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival. Being there opened the "first door" for Strong.

"It made a big difference in my career. You know you're legitimate," she said.

Dan McCormack also knows that Strong is "legitimate."

"She's the best, the greatest producer I could ever hope to work with," he said in a mid-festival cell phone conversation - of course - from Park City.

"She gives me everything I need to make the best film possible."

Although "Other Voices" did not win the festival's Grand Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Film, "the buzz" was good, according to Strong. Last weekend, they took the film to New York for a screening for the cast, crew and a couple of distributors who may be interested in buying it. Strong expects that "Other Voices" will be picked up for theatrical release in at least five or six major cities, be seen at a circuit of film festivals and then probably will be in local video stores in about six months.

What's next? Strong already has four or five irons in the fire, a few scripts to look at.

"There's never time to rest on your laurels for very long," she said.

Her passion for cinema has not waned.

"I hope to direct a film someday," Strong said. She knows a lot of people who will help her.

Strong wants to take some time to explore her own creativity. In the work she's done so far, her job has been to support everybody else's creativity.

Kind of like a mom?

"Exactly," she said. She compares filmmaking to giving birth: it's conceived, you carry it and you get it on the screen, she said.

Strong calls her work addictive. "It's different. Every day is different," she said.

She likes that.

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