Donald Rosenfeld on the set of Mr. & Mrs. Bridge in NYC. Photo Credit: David Salle
Making movies isn’t like making most other things. Unlike making a chair, a necklace or even something as referential as an oil painting, the final product isn’t quite there in the same way. Sure, there’s the actual film reel or more likely today, the digitized images stored on a hard drive, but that’s not the movie. The reel has no utility in and of itself, it’s just the vehicle to what a movie really is.
No, what a movie really is, is an experience. It exists not entirely as a physical thing you can touch but as a repeatable experience, somewhere between that oil painting and a day at a theme park. This is what Donald Rosenfeld makes. He makes experiences.
Donald Rosenfeld is a NYC-based film producer, by way of St. Louis. For over a decade, he was President of Merchant Ivory Productions and produced such award-winning, critically acclaimed films as Howards End, The Remains of the Day, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Surviving Picasso, and Jefferson in Paris. Merchant Ivory has been considered one of, if not the best, at portraying English history and culture. It was at their upstate retreat in the Hudson Valley, that Rosenfeld helped his audacious mentors, James Ivory and the late Ismail Merchant, establish The Merchant and Ivory Foundation.
Click to purchase Howards End.
Click to purchase Jefferson In Paris.
Today, he is director of his own independent production company, Sovereign Films, along with his Norwegian born Co-President, Andreas Roald. Rosenfeld explains, "A lot of the core principles that Andreas and I follow for Sovereign come directly out of the fierce work ethic and deeply independent values of Jim and Ismail."
Rosenfeld says “the difference between me and most producers is that I actually make my films, every single detail passes through me and Andreas.” He has never resold a project he develops, and he does not farm his movies out. He chooses what he wants to make carefully and follows the production from the very start to end, through post production, sales, marketing, and distribution.
He has never bought a script. Instead he finds a book, or a play or an original idea himself and starts there, developing from the concept stage into a script. Once he has the script, he finds investors to make the movie, and during the filming he supervises production beginning to end. He does nearly everything but hold the camera (sometimes he’ll even play the back of the head of an actor who had to leave early).
Donald Rosenfeld and Emma Thompson on the set of Effie Gray in Venice, Italy. Photo Credit: David Levinthal
He treats the whole thing like “a small business,” describing himself as “wildly micromanaging” and “beyond hands on.” But despite his closeness to the production, he never wants to overbear on the artistry of a movie itself. Not only does he believe in the importance of the film he makes, he also believes in the alchemy of moviemaking. “The beauty of movies is you don’t reshoot them. You shoot in the rain if it’s raining. . . I don’t really like control, I like the chance that happens and chance is usually a great improvement over anything planned."
Ismail Merchant and Donald Rosenfeld (left to right) on the set of Slaves of New York in the Meat Packing District, NYC.
Another point he likes to stress (not without some ego) is how cheaply he makes his movies. “It’s very easy to make a movie for a hundred million, I make them for ten.” His philosophy implicitly rejects the idea of Hollywood movie making which throws money around. He prefers an ascetic sort of production style to “make sure the money’s actually on screen.”
Keith Carradine, Vanessa Redgrave, and Rod Steiger on the set of The Ballad Of The Sad Cafe.
Over the course of three decades in industry nurturing films, he has developed a few criticisms. He is saddened by the way cinemas are now controlled by a few big distributors. There is no longer opportunity to “build” a film at a cinema, and have its popularity decide how long it stays in cinemas, as would happen a few decades ago. He especially decries Mark Cuban’s purchase of Landmark Theatres, likening it “to taking all the independent booksellers and giving them to Jeff Bezos.”
But for Rosenfeld, struggles like these can be part of what ultimately makes filmmaking so satisfying. Some of his films with the most troubled production are the ones he holds most dear. He recounts the difficulties he had in developing The Tree of Life directed by Terence Malick. It was announced in 2005 and it was to star Mel Gibson in the leading role. But, in 2006, Gibson went through a number of personal crises and dropped out.
Rosenfeld then brought on Heath Ledger to play the role but in the months leading up to filming, Ledger tragically died. Finally, at the last minute, they were able to attach Brad Pitt to play the role. Over the six years from announcement to release, Rosenfeld juggled changes in budget, issues over distribution and myriad of other problems. Despite the issues, the film premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim and won the Palme d’Or. The film also secured three Oscar nominations.
Since forming Sovereign Films seven years ago, Rosenfeld and Roald have completed award-winning Tree of Life, Terrence Malick's' epic Voyage of Time: Life's Journey, Victorian-period masterpiece Effie Gray, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s critically acclaimed, worldwide sensation Dune, and Cradle of Champions, the first feature film to be set in the New York Golden Gloves Boxing Championship. We Love You Charlie Freeman, shooting in Upstate New York, is their next film production.
Rosenfeld’s New York State of Mind is “up,” looking up that is. They say New Yorkers never look up at their buildings. As a transplant from Missouri to New York, he’s always dreaming as he walks down New York streets, looking up at the sky and up at the skyscrapers