TIP 031 | Lego Movie

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Seanne Winslow is a master of bringing people together around a common goal, so it should be no surprise that not only did she produce The International Block Buster, The Lego Movie, but she created one of the most extraordinary communities of AAA creatives Hollywood has ever seen.

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How Community powers Master Builders

Producing The Lego Movie with Seanne Winslow

Welcome back, listeners. As many of you have already guessed, I’m hosting Seanne Winslow. Seanne, thank you so much for coming on. Can you tell the listeners a little bit about yourself?

I’m Seanne Winslow. I am a writer, director, producer. I was the on-set producer for The Lego Movie from the very beginning when Dan Lin had the idea of what would happen if we built a movie out of bricks to the very end of handing out Lego-built Oscars at the Oscars that we weren’t nominated for. The thing that was most exciting about that was being able to build an environment where people were able to come and be creative and do their very best work and break the mold and embody that sense of play and adventure that each of us had when we were kids playing with Lego, without becoming a giant commercial for a toy. Incredibly proud of that. My company, Required Reading, produced Kanye West show in Madison Square Garden where he released Life of Pablo and Yeezy Season 3. It was an incredible live art installation that crashed title with 20 million views and was broadcast into a thousand different theaters around the world. We make movies and tell stories that build bridges between people.

I have to say I was a huge fan of the movie. I’m all for breaking things. Congratulations on crashing title. That’s so cool. When people hear what you’ve achieved, what are their most common questions? Are they obsessed with Lego? Do they want to know about Kanye? 

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My company, Required Reading, produced Kanye West show in Madison Square Garden.

I think when people meet me, the question that I get most frequently is, “How have you been able to remain so normal?” I have been very privileged in being able to be involved in doing some really cool stuff that really has shifted culture in different ways. A lot of people assume that would go to your head. I think that the reason that I’ve been able to be instrumental in bringing those things about is because in the midst of it, I’ve stayed true to who I am and authentic. I’ve surrounded myself with people that hold me accountable both towards artistic excellence and towards taking big risks for the sake of other people or being kind and being generous and being courageous and creating spaces where people can thrive because of that. I think that a lot of the time when people first meet me, they don’t always assume that I’ve done what I’ve done because I come off as that girl that you’d love to hang out with and grab dinner with versus someone who knows how to put together a movie from start to finish.

There’s a ton of competition in your industry. Everybody’s producing something either on the entertainment front of music and culture or on the film side. What do you think is really essential for people to actually succeed?

I think the most important thing right now in entertainment, be it music or be it film, is community. When I look at what Chance The Rapper’s doing with social experiment in Chicago and that community of people that are collaborating and helping each other out and really blazing a new trail in the music industry. Or when I look at the community that Anna Perna has built and that place where people are helping each other out in trying to treat people well and tell great stories at the same time. Even what Amazon or Netflix right now are doing in a way, A24, those are the shooting stars that one can point to. The people that I most admire right now and that are succeeding in this very, very new frontier where this summer so many movies didn’t do as well as they were expected to do in the box office, a big piece of that is building a community and being able to take risks. The company that I used to work for, Lin Pictures, was one of the producers of It and we developed the script. Jon Silk has always been incredibly passionate about the story and brought it to the company nine years ago. For seven years, I would read drafts and give notes on that movie until I left the company. His tenacity to tell that story but also then the moment that something starts to happen and magic starts being made is when you find that right team of people and the community to actually support an idea in being born.

It’s interesting because it seems that no matter what industry you’re in, when you have the right team of people, it almost doesn’t matter what you’re working on. That’s where the magic actually happens.

It’s because it becomes play. One of the things that’s so phenomenal about our world right now and about storytelling right now is that up until just ten years ago, someone had to hand you a microphone. Now, Tangerine was shot in an iPhone and The Florida Project looks incredible. We’re able to tell these really incredible elevated stories with very little financial resources in order to be able to tell them. What ends up making those pieces stand out is the quality of the storytelling. Great story-telling, I believe, most frequently happens in community. When you look at the greats of cinema, oftentimes what we don’t think about when we think about Spielberg or we think about J.J. Abrams is we don’t think about the team of people. Chris Nolan is a great example of someone who’s been surrounded by the same team of people for a really long time, and the quality of their work is informed by that team that is around them, even if those aren’t the stars that are shining really bright and who are doing interviews. One of the most interesting things about movies for me is that so often in someone’s career, you can see when they’ve broken with their original team and their movies lose that authenticity, that luster and that sense of play and courage that came from playing loose and fast and taking risks. We think that we’re graduating past our initial community but really we sometimes lose our rooting and who we really are in the stories that each of us uniquely should be telling in this world.

If I wanted to become a really phenomenal storyteller, what would you recommend that I actually did?

Live life and be present.

There’s a difference between experiencing something and knowing how to share it.

I was a guest professor at a film school for a couple of years. The first exercise I had my students do in each semester was to tell me their life story. They all started out with, “I did this and then I did this, I did this, I did this, and I did this.” Then we would reshape that story to, “What is the biggest setback that you’ve experienced and how did you overcome it?” Each person, no matter where we are in the world, can relate to struggle and hardship. Each of us is cheering for the human spirit to overcome. In a way, when one goes really personal, things become more universal. You mentioned as we were going into this podcast that you’re dyslexic. I’m also dyslexic. For me, one of the big setbacks in life is I’m a writer, I’m a director, those are the things that I aspire to do from the time I was six years old. My school teachers would say, “You could never be a writer, you can’t spell.” Learning having the tenacity to overcome that and having a dad who’s, at fourteen, was like, “You used to write these short stories and poems. Why haven’t you been writing in the last two years? Don’t’ let anybody tell you you can’t do that.” Those moments of overcoming are the things I think that we all share. Each of us has had those experiences in our lives.

It’s one of the things that I keep coming across in any great adventure, unless you’ve grown from it, unless you’ve had some challenge to overcome, then it wasn’t an adventure. It was fundamentally maybe a pleasant experience. It may have been interesting. If you’re the same person at the end that started, then it wasn’t adventurous, it wasn’t remarkable.

It begs the question of, “What does it mean to be human?” Last night I was watching The Farthest, the documentary about Voyager going out into space. I don’t think I realized that just fifteen years ago we didn’t know that there were other planetary systems. I think that unless we as humans and as societies and as tribes, our leaning towards mystery and the unknown and learning, I don’t think we can continue to evolve. I think that sense of curiosity is the thing that combines all of us as a human species.

What do you think are some of the biggest pitfalls or secrets in your industry? What would you push people away from, or at least want to make them aware that it’s really hard, or what you should or shouldn’t listen to?

The most beautiful thing about stories is that in a way they are the anchors that we as humanity cast into the future. It’s the reason I tell stories. We didn’t have cell phones until Star Trek dreamed them up and then scientists rushed to go create them. I think that stories have this immense power, and I don’t even mean in a sci-fi way. We, as story tellers, we create war, we create distrust towards other people. We can use stories to really tear people apart and we can also use stories to bring people together and to demystify the other and humanize the other. The Harvey Milk Story just came to mind, how powerful that film was in humanizing this person that not everyone in America could relate to at the time. When you’re telling a story that is talking about a world that is not the status quo that we currently live in, there’s a ton of resistance. My greatest warning to anyone who aspires to tell great stories, not mediocre stories but the truly great stories that transcend their generation is be prepared for it being really, really hard because nobody is going to believe that you can do it.

When we first started talking about making a Lego movie that wasn’t a toy commercial, it was really hard for people to wrap their mind around the fact that we could actually tell a meaningful story built out of Lego. That’s such a small example of what that means. I think that’s, as artists, the push back towards ideas that are new and fresh and innovative is almost staggering. In fact, sometimes I wonder how I get out of bed in the morning because it’s so hard.  People tell you no all the time. You have to keep going.

It’s pretty incredible that for It to be made, how many years ago did you guys have to get started?

I think Jon started working on it at Lin Pictures nine years ago. It’s incredible.

The amount of perseverance that you have to go from toying with that idea to writing it down, to then taking the feedback and not getting all angry about it, then pitching it, getting it approved, signing a deal, finding a director, the complexities to make anything is incredible.

TIP 031 | Lego Movie

The Lego Movie

Finding the person that shares that vision for what you’re making is, I think, going back to the team conversation, which is maybe the heart and soul of The Lego Movie anyway. Everything is awesome when you’re part of a team. The song, Everything is Awesome, which I still have mixed feelings about not because it’s a really awesome song, but a friend did it as a favor to our co-director at the time right when we were going up for green light. It stuck because it’s really catchy and really great. After listening to it for six years, it’s exhausting. Everything is awesome when you’re part of a team. Building that team is such a huge part of making great stuff. I think you’re right, it wouldn’t have gotten made without the right director. Seth Grahame-Smith stepped on as a producer and really cared about it and fell in love with it and was able to push it past the initial inertia into making it. Niija Kuykendall, it wouldn’t have gotten made without her. There’s just that all-star team of people that it takes to make a difference is pretty phenomenal.

Is there a certain book or person that really inspired you? Something that when with all the rejection that you deal with, that you keep going back to, to find strength or wisdom.

 

I was thirteen when I read How To Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie. It’s a great book. The thing that I have most fiercely struggled to hold on to in my career is that I deeply believe that human beings want good. I deeply believe that we as a human species have survived and thrived and prospered because so many people, not everyone in the world, want good. One of the things that Dale Carnegie talks about in that book is the need to create an eager want in someone. When you can talk about why something is important and make it personal for them, they will rise to the occasion. That can be really manipulative and has a dark side. For me one of the things that I aspire to do and sometimes succeed at doing is not trying to see people for who I want them to be but to see them for who they truly are and believe into them reaching their potential to be exactly who they were meant to be and helping them and standing by them when sometimes they doubt that for themselves. In a weird way, stories are people for me as well. When I’m working on a story or a script, believing into what it can be versus what it is, is really core to who I am. I think that’s deeply informed by How To Win Friends & Influence People.

What’s even more interesting is that the way we originally met is because for years you ran a private community of some of the most important thought leaders and creators in Hollywood. Speaking to you now, it’s so obvious how community-driven you are. Can you just tell us a little bit about what this project was and how it came about?

I founded The Creative Salon with Dan Lin about nine years ago. He still runs it at Lin Pictures and it’s continued on after I’ve left. In order to be courageous and to make really beautiful things, you have to be reminded that you’re not alone in that struggle because so often it feels like a struggle. Dan Lin and I, both had different reasons for why we cared about this community that we built together. For me, it was driven by a very specific moment. I was 24, 25 maybe, and was overseeing the Sherlock Holmes franchise for Lin Pictures. We’d gotten a draft in of the script and it needed some work and Dan handed it to me and said, “Make it better.” I vividly remember thinking I don’t know how to make this better. I studied writing but I don’t know how to make someone else’s story better.

At that point, I met a couple of really incredible writers and directors and I started calling them. I was like, “Can you help me? Can you tell me how you make things better when someone tells you make this better?” Most of them responded with, “That’s one of the hardest questions in my career. I often don’t have an answer to it. Sometimes I pop a Xanax when I ask myself that question.” I don’t really have anyone I can talk to about it because if I talk to studios about it, they’ll doubt me. If I talk to producers about it, they’ll second-guess me. I don’t have a lot of people where I can wrestle with that question. We’ve got a bunch of wine and cheese and hung out in my office and talked about that question, “How do we tell better stories?” They would invite their friends and their friends would invite their friends, and it grew from eight people to a guest list of about 200 writers and directors now.

It was really formative to see the power of that community of these people coming around, and not just talking about how do we tell better stories, but really actively rolling up their sleeves and helping each other solve really specific problems on set, in scenes, on scripts, in their deal making. I can’t get into detail because one of the golden rules of The Creative Salon is what’s said there stays there. It has to remain that confidential. It became a really powerful community.

The people that you would have at this event are some of the big names in Hollywood, award winners and even a few household names, isn’t that right?

Yeah. Everybody needs a safe place where you can go and talk. We’re all artists. We’re all trying to do our best work. I think one of the most meaningful things to me about that season of my life was at the end, they became dinners. John Sheff from Animals started cooking for us. A friend of mine, John Buckmaster at Microsoft, they were able to come on as sponsors and were just one of the most generous kind sponsors where they didn’t ask for anything. They just held a space for us and created a budget for us to be able to have John cook for us and have these dinners. It was just really magical. The most important thing for me was at the end of these nights as they’ve grown, 50 people would show up, people would come up and give me a big hug. These Triple-A list people that we all just go gaga for, they’d say, “Thank you so much. This has been such a great night. I need to go home and write. I’ve had writer’s block for the last three weeks and I now know how to solve this scene. I just had this great conversation with so and so and I’m so excited to go home and write. I’ll see you in a week.” Those moments of seeing people pulled out of the isolation that we so often feel as creators and brought into community, and because of that community, being able to go and be courageous and fight another day. That to me is just the most magical thing ever.

I think this is a good piece of advice for the listeners. Seanne, you do amazing work. Many of us aren’t going to ever be the absolute best in our industry. If you know how to curate people, if you know how to bring them together and create a safe space, you could really develop a community around you that supports everything, and then supports your involvement and your success. That skill in itself is invaluable and either, as Seanne did it in a company or you could do it on your own, the ability to bring people together is a skill of its own that really has a huge impact and potential for your career. 

TIP 031 | Lego Movie

The Creative Salon: it became a question for me as what is the community of the future?

I would say it doesn’t have to be high five. Right now at Required Reading, my company that I run with David Jacobson and Adam Sjöberg, when I left Lin Pictures and The Creative Salon, it became a question for me as what is the community of the future? The Creative Salon was all A-list people that are at the peak in their career and that’s super important, that type of community. I started asking myself, if we want to tell better stories and if I deeply believe that telling better stories has a huge global impact, how am I going to go about bringing people together around that? For the three of us, for David, Adam, and I, it’s about connecting dots. The more dots you can connect that are good people, the more change is possible. It can’t just be writers and directors anymore. It has to be everybody because everybody’s telling stories. Each person holds this huge potential to be able to tell stories in this business.

About nine months ago, we started hosting these dinners and they are so well-fire. We do them at my house. David cooks dinner. Adam makes a vat of cocktails and they’re called Good Egg Dinners. We invite a dozen good eggs and basically we’re saying these are a dozen people that we vouch for, that we trust, that we know we have a couple of defining traits that we look for is that they’re generous and courageous and kind and that they have good taste which is maybe the undefined in it. It’s been so fun. We’re hosting our sixth one in two weeks. They’re only film business and film in television, but it’s composers and actors and writers and directors and executives and acquisitions executives. It’s just been really fun to see these people coming together.

These dinners aren’t about the Triple-A list nature of who these people are. It’s about the fact that they’re people that are willing to challenge the status quo, willing to take risks, are generous, and that they’re genuinely good eggs that we are proud to connect with each other and we’re basically saying as a trio, “These are people we trust. You all should know each other and you should go forth and make magic even if we aren’t involved.” Hopefully we’ll be involved in some stuff that we all come together and do. I’m just really excited when two of them figure something out and go make something together. That’s been a really fun thing to see.

Seanne, that’s super generous of you to host something like that, and I couldn’t applaud you more. I think that the real differences that are going to be made in our society for us as a culture is going to be by bringing together people who care. I want to hop into a bit more of a personal aspect, which is every episode I ask people to share a super embarrassing moment or something that they normally don’t admit. I had some people who’ve shared stuff like, “I suffer from anxiety,” all the way to somebody shared a story about peeing themselves in front of Justin Timberlake. What’s something super human you’d be willing to share with us?

The most vulnerable personal human embarrassing thing is that I’m actually incredibly shy. It isn’t something that comes across the moment that I’m in conversation. In film or maybe in business in general or in our lives, as a whole we’re constantly meeting new people. I go out to dinner with people that I don’t know yet, future friends, two or three times a week. Before every single one of them, I sit in my car and I take a really deep breath and I have to psych myself up to go in. I build these crazy communities and people come together and I’m accessible and I’m down to have any conversation. The thing that people don’t know about me is just how shy I am. Having grown up as a global mutt, I really quickly realized that if I wasn’t going to take the first step, other people wouldn’t either. I would be friendless and that I wouldn’t actually be able to do the things in life that I want to do.

My entire adult life has been building habits of taking the dive, taking the first step, getting out of the car and walking in to dinner. I used to be a chronic re-scheduler because I was incredibly busy and my life was incredibly unpredictable being in production for five years. Also part of it was just being peopled out and not knowing how to go start a conversation with someone I don’t know yet. I think that’s something that we all can relate to in some way, shape or form, at least some of you can relate to it, not all of you. Some of you are actual extroverts.

Seanne, thank you so much for coming on. I really appreciate it. I appreciate all the cool things that you’ve created. I appreciate that you brought to life one of my favorite childhood toys and that you made everything awesome. 

Thank you so much, Jon.

If people want to find out more about you or find your website and Twitter and so on, where can they get in touch?

My Instagram is @othewisp and my company’s website is Required-Reading.co. I’m working on a new movie right now that hopefully will build some bridges between the Middle East and here. If anybody wants to talk about that, shoot me an email.

After everything else that you’ve created, I bet everybody who’s listening is eagerly awaiting your next project. Hopefully it will take less than nine years and hopefully you’ll have to deal with less rejection in the process. Seanne, thank you so much for coming on. It’s been a real pleasure.

Thanks, Jon.

Listeners, stay tuned because now we’re going to have an anonymous interview.

 

About Seanne Winslow

TIP 031 | Lego MovieSeanne Winslow has spent her career building a rarefied and highly sought-after creative environment where great ideas thrive and filmmakers come to do their best work. As a result she has been part of breathing life into two major franchises that have grossed over $1.5 billion worldwide. Driven by her commitment to see better stories told in Hollywood, she co-founded The Creative Salon with Dan Lin — a secretive underground community of over 200 A-list filmmakers who encourage and challenge each other to do their best creative work.

Seanne applied these values of collaboration and community to her work as the on-set Executive Producer of The Lego Movie, where she built a culture in which creative courage triumphed over fear. The incredible success of The Lego Movie led Warner Bros. to dedicate resources to building an entire animation studio around this model. The new venture is called Bricksburg and will produce the next five Lego movies.

Seanne is applying all of her experience to building the boutique production company, Required Reading, which she co-founded with David Jacobson (THE BUTLER) and Adam Sjoberg (I AM SUN MU) in 2015.

Anonymous Guest Interview

Listeners, now for my favorite part of every episode: the anonymous interview. We have Youssef with us. If you had any idea what a big deal Youssef was, you’d be freaking out right now. Youssef, thanks so much for coming on.

Thank you. I thought that I will be your favorite part, not just every show.

This is actually truly an honor. I’ve been a huge fan of yours for years ever since I saw you come on The Daily Show and I heard your story. Let’s give the listeners a bit of a hint about who you are and what you’re known for. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a very ancient country; one of the most ancient countries of the world. It has one or two of the Seven Wonders of the World and this is where I grew up.

Would you ever get to run around playing on these wonders?

You shouldn’t be. One of them is already gone. I think it’s one of the ancient wonders and one of them is still there. People take pictures and it’s huge. This is where you go and see them. I ran around.

Was there an incident or a teacher that really inspired you to go down the direction that you went? I know that you have two careers. One is in medicine and the other one is in entertainment. I assume that there are probably two different moments or inspirations.

I hate to disappoint you and disappoint our listeners because I don’t have an inspirational story to tell you how I was inspired by a teacher or by an elder person. Basically, I went into medicine because in the Middle East that’s what you do. You try to be an engineer or a doctor so you can satisfy your parents. Basically, we are almost Jewish in that perspective. The second career was not inspired by someone but it was inspired by major events that happened a few years ago that inspired me to do that. However, since you mentioned The Daily Show, I was inspired by the host of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart, to do what I did. Even when I was doing it, it was something that I never thought it will go anywhere.

I remember hearing the story that you threw up a video with some cut outs on YouTube. You were hoping for a few thousand hits. What did you end up with?

I ended up with 5 million people watching my videos in less than a few weeks. Right now, when you say 5 million, this is the number of views that you get for your cat. If your cat makes a back flip, that will get you 10 million instantly. At that time, six, seven years ago, that was a big deal especially where I came from. There were not like an original content on YouTube from where I came from.

I’m assuming at some point your life story will be told in a film. Who do you think would play you?

I was hoping for Ryan Gosling since he’s in everything right now but he’s too blonde. Maybe Javier Bardem, a movie by Aronofsky. I would still go for Ryan Gosling so people would think that I’m more handsome than I am.

What was the craziest thing that you’ve ever done that has led to your success maybe like a bet or a stunt? I know the YouTube video itself was a total unexpected hit but besides that.

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You stand against people who represent authority, patriotism, religion.

The craziest thing that I have ever done, it was not a stunt. It was the concept of going after people in power, is to go in every single week on my show in television and stand against authority and make fun of it. You might think, “What’s the big deal?” which is true. In America, it’s no big deal. Where I come from, where we lived under patriarchal societies for years, this is something unheard of. You stand against people who represent authority, patriotism, religion, because they would like to coupler themselves with these concepts. To do that day in day out, that was crazy.

At a certain point, didn’t you have to flee your country, which is what brought you to the US?

After three and a half years of cracking jokes, the joke was finally on me. The authority didn’t put up with this anymore and I had to leave. It was 2014 I escaped because I was bombarded by fake files so I had to leave. I ended up a year and a half later in the United States.

I think that was an incredible loss for your country and for the region, although I love having you in the US and the addition of your creativity and your perspective. Coming from a Middle Eastern country, I really understand the value of what you provided for years to the local population. I can’t imagine how difficult the transition has been.

You’d be surprised it’s not that difficult. I fit in the United States quite well. It seems that long years of watching sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends prepares you. These are more like New York-centric sitcoms, but I actually ended up going to Los Angeles.

Are you really good at sitting in a coffee shop with your friends as if you don’t have a job?

I’m very good at it. This is one of my best talents, sitting in a coffee shop with people.

Last but not the least, what hint or riddle would you give people to figure out who you are?

I am usually called the Jon Stewart of Egypt.

I think Jon Stewart would be flattered if he had as many followers as you did.

We just reproduce faster. That’s it.

Listeners, you have a ton of material to figure out who Youssef is. If you can, you can win an invitation to me or The Salon by Influencers. Good luck.