Producer of 12 Years a Slave Dede Gardner (CC’ 90) Visits Columbia

This past Thursday, Columbia University's Alumni Association hosted a talk with American film and television producer Dede Gardner. Members from Columbia’s film clubs and societies including the Society for the Advancement of Underrepresented Filmmakers, Delta Kappa Alpha, and Columbia Undergraduate Film Production attended the event, eager to hear from a successful alumna who once stood in our shoes.

Céline James, a member of CUFP, mediated the Q&A session, asking Gardner about her time at Columbia and the progression of her career. Interestingly enough, Gardner majored in Comparative Literature and English, as their was no Film Studies major at the time. She doesn’t regret it though, stressing the importance of having a grasp on narration, and how that has been beneficial in her career in the film industry. She says the reason she knew she wanted to be a producer is due to her love of storytelling. She wanted to be a part of the story from the very beginning to the very end.

Gardner still relies on her experiences in both her core and english, citing LitHum as her favorite class and To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf as her favorite text as the theme of inquiry within it has served as an inspiration to her and her career. She also enjoyed the people she met at Columbia, saying she enjoyed spending time with people she genuinely liked. I could hear the passion in her voice when she spoke about the value of her education at Columbia, and how she felt, and still feels extremely lucky to have attended this university. Her love for Columbia should remind us of how lucky we all are to be here at an institution that does so much to prepare us for successful futures.

Being that the room was full of aspiring filmmakers, producers, critics, etc., we all wanted to know how the transition from graduating college and becoming a renowned producer occurred. Gardner, although you’d never guess, says she never had a clear cut plan for her career. She drove dailies back and forth to Long Island, and was a PA on numerous sets before she began climbing the ranks. She attributes her success to constantly exposing herself to the industry, meeting new people and keeping in contact with them, and taking opportunities as they come. Producing, she says, is a “process of elimination,” kind of career in that you find  what you like and what you don’t like by getting out there and doing. “Just try stuff, just do and you’ll know, you’ll just know,” she says. “You can’t make mistakes. That’s how you learn.”This advice resonated with all the aspiring filmmakers in the room, from one grieving scholar who is searching for a way to materialize her feelings on the death of her father in a documentary film, to one mother who is figuring out how to stay in the industry while taking care of her kids. It was an amazing experience  getting to hear the backgrounds of both current students and alumni, all aspiring to make it in the movie industry, but don't know how, or when is the right time, or if they should being New York of in LA. Gardner’s advice, yet simple and concise, is inspiring. It’s as simple as getting out there and exploring.

We were all probably equally as excited to hear about her experience on 12 Years a Slave as we were about hearing how she made such an amazing caree.Gardner says she believes that movies should be provocative and cause discomfort. They should ask questions because they prove to be such a powerful medium for creating discussion. 12 Years a Slave did just that. It’s is the first movie to capture  slavery so “unapologetically,” as mediator James puts it. Gardner describes the set as “sensitive,”“calm,” and “quiet.” There were many difficult scenes to shoot given the graphic nature of the subject matter. Sha says the actors, specifically Lupita Nyong'o and Michael Fassbender’s dedication got her through some tough moments on set.

Perhaps one of the most interesting questions asked of Gardner had done what she wanted to. Her answer? “No, never.” There’s always a new story to be told and a new experience to be had. One of her favorite things about being a producer, she says is that everyday is different. The atmosphere surrounding not only each movie, but each step of the way in individual productions varies everyday.

A few other questions asked by present students and alumni extracted some fantastic advice from Gardner. For example, one student asked how aspiring filmmakers should support themselves while chasing their dreams in the industry, Gardner stressed the importance of being a PA, as that is the way to climb up the ranks. She also offers additional advice on how to be successful. Along with exploring and being involved, she gives says we shouldn’t ever make something because we think it will be popular. We should make stories we care about. Regarding the communal environment of film, when it comes to other people’s input, she says that it is important to to listen but don’t take it all in. Be loyal to our instincts. And lastly, never presume anything because things change.

I found her discussion of her career particularly inspiring as a woman, because it certainly won’t be easy breaking into an extremely male dominant industry. Gardner didn’t pay much mind to that though, only recalling one instant where she felt as if she was treated differently because she was a woman. Her focus on storytelling and putting everything into a movie to ensure its success probably wouldn't leave much room to worry about such things and i’d say she’s doing a pretty damn good job at staying focused.

Gardeners advice helped to put things in perspective for all of us at future filmmakers, producers and critics at Columbia, while still inspiring us to shoot even higher. And for that, I would like to thank her