Michael Lee Simpson
INTERVIEW WITH ACADEMY AWARD-WINNING PRODUCER MARYANN GARGER
Script Magazine contributor Michael Lee Simpson interviews award-winning producer Maryann Garger about her journey developing and producing animation films, and working on the Academy Award-winning animated short film If Anything Happens I Love You.
Garger is currently developing and producing the feature animated film, Groove with Jamie Foxx and Michael Becker. She previously produced on the hit Lego family film franchise, The Lego Ninjago Movie starring Jackie Chan for Warner Brothers Studios. She was a producer on the acclaimed DreamWorks and Aardman Animation comedy adventure Flushed Away, directed by David Bowers and Sam Fell, which swept the 2006 Annie Awards with five wins and three nominations and earned a BAFTA nomination for Best Animated Feature. She later reunited with Bowers producing his 2009 feature Astro Boy for Imagi/Summit Entertainment. She then returned to DreamWorks to produce the family animated film B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations, starring Seth Rogen, Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy. Garger’s animation producing credits also include the award-winning animated theatrical short “First Flight,” which screened to acclaim at film festivals including SXSW, Tribeca and Montreal International. She also produced the family theatrical Legon Ninjago short, The Master and two animated Astro Boy shorts. Garger began her career at Walt Disney Feature Animation, on the animated feature Pocahontas, before segueing to a twenty-year tenure at DreamWorks. There, she was among the first employees to build DreamWorks’ animation division, under Jeffrey Katzenberg, and rose through the ranks from Production Manager, Line Producer, Production Executive, Creative Executive to ultimately Producer, working on such memorable titles as Madagascar, Shrek, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and Prince of Egypt. Following that, she produced for Warner Bros. On the animation television side, Garger was the Supervising Producer on the satirical DreamWorks & Fox prime time animated series Neighbors from Hell, which aired on TBS. She is a recent member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Her recent caused-based short, If Anything Happens to You, which she made with her friends Will McCormack and Michael Govier, was picked up by Netflix and won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at the 2021 Oscars.
How did If Anything Happens I Love You come to fruition and what drew you to the 2D animated short format?
I was introduced to Will McCormack through his agent at UTA, Keya Kehyatian who I am friends with. Will, and his partner Michael Govier, had a short film script that he wanted to make into an animated short. I read the script and was moved by the story and subject matter. I am the mother of two teenagers and gun violence in schools in America is something that is always on our minds, unfortunately. I wanted to help in any way I could, and we decided to figure out a way to make it. It was very difficult to do because we had no budget, no equipment and no artists! A turning point came for us when Gary Gilbert, Peter Morgan and Zach Levine from Gilbert Films helped us with financing which we administrated through Film Independent. I highly recommend fiscal sponsorship through Film Independent for micro-budgeted projects. Gerald Chamales joined our producing staff and later Laura Dern, Jayme Lemons, Robyn Klein and Jeremy Ross as executive producers. We did the project in the span of two years. Another fortunate "get" for us was our animation director Youngran Nho who had recently graduated from Cal Arts. She expertly guided storyboarding as well as animation. We had an all-female team of animators who did a fantastic job bringing the visuals to life. A good friend of mine Peter Ettinger edited the piece for us and Michael Babcock did the sound design. Lindsay Marcus, a fabulous female composer, wrote the score and we were very fortunate to have the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles perform the Beautiful Dreamer piece of music.
How does it feel to win an Oscar for that?
It still hasn't sunk in. This project really was the underdog in every way. Will, Michael and myself meet weekly and literally made this around my kitchen table—week after week. We were told "no" a million times by a million places for everything—financing, distribution, etc. We got really good at developing a high "failure tolerance!" Somehow through grit and determination, we forged ahead, with no professional equipment and a few recent graduates and made a short film that we were proud of. The message of gun safety in schools really was our "north star." Making an artistic statement on this profound United States issue allowed us to never lose our motivation. Everytown for Gun Safety also advised us and supported our artistic undertaking every step of the way. We started on the film festival circuit and had a lot of success. Eventually, we caught the eye of Netflix Animation and they released our film. Immediately, the film went viral on Tik Tok. There was an If Anything Happens I Love You challenge which garnered over seventy million hashtag shares. The movie did absurdly phenomenal on Netflix all over the globe. Ultimately, our initial goal of getting the message out about grief and school gun safety was achieved. That to us was the true definition of success. The fact that it won the Oscar meant a lot in that it allowed us to bring the message to a wider platform. We are grateful for how the film has been received. We never could have predicted it—to go from nothing to an Oscar. Wow.
As your first major stepping stone into the business, Pocahontas clearly opened doors for you. How did you get involved with that and creatively what did you learn?
Working at Walt Disney Feature Animation on Pocahontas as a production coordinator was the most exciting job I ever got. It was my first job in film and to be at Disney, during what ultimately was a transformative time in animation, was beyond thrilling. Everything was new and everything was interesting. I was a sponge just soaking up knowledge I observed in various filmmaking meetings. I flourished in this artistic environment and learned everything I could about animation and met several artists who I still work with twenty-five years later.
What was it like working at Dreamworks?
I was one of the first hires at DreamWorks so it was very much a "start-up" company in those early days. My mentor, Jeffrey Katzenberg, taught me resilience, fearlessness, perseverance and great storytelling. Working at DreamWorks for twenty years was the best. The culture that Jeffrey created was inclusive, flourishing and inspiring. I feel so lucky to have had a career there. So many great movies I had the honor of working on. I am so grateful for having that experience.
Can you tell us about your upcoming Groove Tails with Jamie Foxx?
As is the case with If Anything Happens I Love You, this movie is another labor of love that I know will make its artistic mark in the marketplace. Jamie is a phenomenal creative talent that both myself, and my partner Michael Becker have the honor of producing with. I am more excited about the creative and artistic innovation on this movie than the other twenty-two movies I've worked on!
-Script Magazine, Writer's Digest