Lillian LaSalle Does a Sweet 180
By Noë Gold (January 21, 2011)
The personal manager has branched out as a movie producer. Now she is re-imagining her Sweet 180 firm to more fully integrate these activities so that her clients can get involved with her projects and vice versa.
Lillian LaSalle is Sweet 180. and Sweet 180 is all the projects and the creative people that Lillian obsesses about. Most recently she Produced the acclaimed Indie film TODAY’S SPECIAL, starring and co-scripted by her client Aasif Mandvi, of The Daily Show fame. She also served as Executive Producer on the Sundance Competition film LOGGERHEADS, Independent Spirit Award Winner SWEET LAND and Morgan J Freeman’s, JUST LIKE THE SON, with Rosie Perez, FIND LOVE from British director Erica Dunton, as well as the romantic comedy HEAVY PETTING, with Malin Akerman, and MENTOR, which starred Rutger Hauer. Sweet 180’s personal management clients include numerous actors of stage and screen, writers, directors and composers. On the movie production front burner is a film based on MADCAP: THE HALF-LIFE OF SYD BARRETT, a biography of the Pink Floyd front man, and THE PEDRO SANTANA STORY, a documentary about the inner workings of a New York Times-lauded Middle School Principal in the South Bronx.
The Hollywood Reporter’s Noë Gold spoke with her from her New York headquarters.
Q: Why don’t we start with a mission statement? If you were to sum up what you do and what you hope to do in a capsule comment, what would that look like?
A: I am a personal manager for mostly actors – that’s the main thrust of my business – some writers and directors and a couple of composers. But the main focus of my personal management business is working with actors.
I also produce film. What I hope to do in the future is to more fully integrate those two things where ultimately the relationship I have with the artists that I represent yields more creative properties that we produce and co-create together.
Q: Now, let’s fast-forward a little bit to how that process worked, most recently, with one of your management clients, Aasif Mandvi. You have produced a film, not only with him as an actor but also as a creator. Is that a good paradigm for how you see Sweet 180 shaping up in the future?
A: That situation for me was like a dream come true. I had been a fan of Aasif’s for many years. TODAY’S SPECIAL was one of the things we talked about at our first meeting. He brought me that script and I think he understood that I was someone who is actively producing as well as managing. We probably saw the same thing, a potential to be client and manager but also a potential to make this movie together. He had already been working on that project for years and developing it but we were together able to take it to the next level.
It was his dream for a decade to have this movie made, to play this role, to see the finished
product. Just as a manager to see that kind of fulfilment in a client is already a dream come true, then to have been a part of it from the start of pre-production to the completion of the film was an incredible joy for me and it also was a way for us to solidify our relationship as collaborators and so that became for me the paradigm for what a dream client is.
Q: What is it about what you do that made that happen? You met him as a client and then you put on your producer’s hat and you kick-started it, you made it happen. Tell me a little bit about that process.
A: I think I have an uncanny ability to facilitate things and also to troubleshoot. That is my
strength. So when Aasif came to me and when I sat down with him and Nimitt [Mankad, her
fellow Producer on TODAY’S SPECIAL] who had been working with Aasif for many years on
the script, they had visions of making a more expensive film, and I came to it with, here’s really what you need to make this a really good, New York Indie, a low-budget film that resonates.
You can raise X amount of dollars and I can get this thing started, and that’s what we did.
I felt that Aasif’s priority as an artist was just to play this role, not to spend a lot of money and cast actors that would mean something to the box office. Here’s the minimum amount of money we need to just do it – in New York, in Queens. And I had over the years culled a list of production people, below-the-line talent and people who could put something together, so when we pulled the trigger, I went to that list and started rallying the troops.
Q: That is what a producer does. You pulled it together from the resources you had.
A: Also, as a manager I was in touch with many great talent agents who were so supportive in helping and getting lists to us. Despite our low budget, we were really embraced by the entertainment community; I was very surprised and humbled by that positivity.
At the age of 14, on the advice of a teacher, Lillian auditioned for and got into the theater program at the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. 4000 kids auditioned that year and 60 were accepted.
Q: It sounds like you were on track to be a performer.
A: That experience for me was totally surreal. I still remember the audition. We had a pretty terrific class, amongst us some really notable talent –Jennifer Aniston, Reno Wilson, Dondre Whitfield, Eagle-Eye Cherry and Chastity Bono.
Q: How did your path change to one of nurturing performers?
A: I started playing the classical guitar seriously then, and music won me over acting. I went to SUNY Purchase and became a classical guitar major. That became my life for the next several years or so, practicing music and eventually, performing professionally.
Then carpal tunnel syndrome interrupted my path and I changed course. Because of the inability to play for a couple of years, my business sense kicked in. I was surrounded by all these classical and jazz musicians and I started to help them get work.
I discovered that I had a knack for taking care of artists in a good way. When I graduated from school I opened a little company, Cadenza, repping classical and jazz musicians. I was 20 years old and working out of my living room. Basically, I helped my friends get gigs.
A few years later I had the opportunity to do an internship at a small talent agency representing actors. I did that internship with a lot of verve, got noticed and after three weeks became an assistant at a small agency in New York. Very shortly after I was promoted to agent and began booking talent. I spent three years in the world of boutique talent agencies and just decided rather blithely that I wanted to open my own company and become a personal manager.
Q: That essentially is where you began on the journey you are on today. You started with the name LaSalle in various configurations, once with a partner, then in 2005, you went with “Sweet 180”. What is the significance of the name?
A: I was transitioning out of that partnership at that time and taking control of the company on my own again. I knew I was going to use 180 – I liked the idea of doing a 180, of emerging into this new chapter. Unfortunately the name 180 Management was taken (laughs). One of my clients, Ali Selim, the director of SWEET LAND, came up with the name. He said, “Sweet 180,” and I said I don’t know, it sounds kind of feminine, and he said, “No, like Sweeeet! – Dude, that’s sweet!” That’s how unhip I am, I didn’t know what he meant.
I like the name now because it actually has become the way in which I also envision the path that I take in working with clients. It speaks to the way people’s careers change, evolve and are refreshed. In order to be a successful working artist you have to be OK with change. It reminds me and my clients that nothing is ever constant.
Q: And speaking of constant change, would you consider having a partner again?
A: Sure! But that person would have to be like Ghandi in a business suit. [laughs] Know anyone?
Q: So what about your initial work with musicians –where did that end up?
A: I have now expanded my list to include composers, which started with [recording artist] Duncan Sheik, mostly out of the pure enjoyment of working with musicians again. Also, a lot of actor clients, namely Lucas Papaelias, Michael Esper and Shannon Esper, happen to also be amazing musicians. (Not to mention, Joan Jett.) So I think I attract that.
Q: So in a way, you’ve actually done a 360.
A: I guess so! In fact, I am returning, after all these years to recording music on guitar – in my spare time, of course.
Being a Manager
Of course, before there was producing, the bedrock of Lillian LaSalle’s business was established from her amazing rapport with performers. From her beginnings booking gigs for her musician friends to the manyfaceted personal management infrastructure she has built, the common denominator was always that empathy.
Q: What do you do, as a manager, day to day?
A: I strategize, I sell, I calculate, I faciliate and connect – and often overthink. I like to keep my list small, because I can then spend more time with individual clients. So signing a new client is a big deal for me.
Q: What makes a good client? How do you choose a client?
A: I feel a tremendous responsibility and obligation to each client- so I want make sure we are on the same page-a good fit.
Someone who is collaborative and is ready to enter into a creative alliance with me. Someone who is very clear about where they want to go, obviously, is enormously talented but even more than that is that someone that I want to spend a few hours a week talking to – that I respect. I have found that the client relationships that wind up being built on that kind of trust have wound up being the most successful.
I am also someone who works on instinct. Listening to my gut has become a huge part of my work for clients. Because this is ultimately a business of relationships, how a client feels about a situation, a decision, an opportunity has become the basis of the conversation for me.
Q: What part of the work that you do as a manager do you find the most gratifying?
A: It’s a hard question because every client relationship is different, but nothing beats the inspiration you get from having creative conversations with talent.
As a manager, you spend part of your time on the small-picture stuff – the day-to-day logistics, administration, negotiation, and the other part on the fun stuff, the big-picture stuff. The big-picture stuff involves being a creative participant, and naturally the creative energy flows from the client to me and I hope back to the client. For me the natural extension of producing is part of that. I am inspired to do creative work on my own that might eventually loop back to the client.
The manager is also sitting at the pinnacle of all the elements in a client’s career. A client will have other collaborators, an accountant, various agents, a publicist, a lawyer. etc. The manager is the person who oversees all of that and interfaces with all of the people who are involved in helping a client’s career. There should be one person who is with that artist is guiding and helping steer the ship. With that many people involved in an artist’s career there is a potential for a lot of stuff to fall through the cracks. Potential for confusion, miscommunication, and I feel like a good manager is someone who provides the glue to keep that team together.
Q: And what do you think is your biggest strength?
A: I seem to have the ability to be a great facilitator. I am like an over-analyzer. I go to bed at night thinking about all the things that need to be fixed and I spend the week taking care of these things. And then there is the seeing what the next opportunity is for the client, and then laying the groundwork for it. I visualize it as a Yellow Brick Road, where I am kind of a few steps ahead of my client, laying those yellow bricks down.
Q: You’re kind of an Obsessive-Compulsive in a good way.
A: When it comes to my clients I am completely obsessive. It’s a blessing and a curse. It includes being in the place of awe of what these artists do and to participate in it. I have tremendous respect for artists. And we do have a lot of emotional conversations here at Sweet 180. Everybody wants to be successful and make a good living and have a great review in the New York Times. I ride the wave between the art and the commerce.
Q: So in terms of Sweet 180, what is your Yellow Brick Road?
A: I’d like this next phase to more replicate the TODAY’S SPECIAL model and include more of a connection between management projects and film production projects with and for my clients.
Being a Producer
Q: So the management activity is a natural conduit for your long-held dream of being a producer. You said you wanted to more fully integrate the two. Let’s talk about that now.
A: The next few years I want to expand into producing larger projects, in partnership with other production entities or studios and to welcome any and every opportunity to work on those projects with a Sweet 180 client, whether my client would star in it, or whether my client would write it, or one of my directors would direct the film. And one of my clients is developing a musical theater piece, so it’s possible I would be expanding into theater production, and ultimately I would like to work in television.
Right now, producing has become a natural creative extension of what I do as a manager.
Q: You made your bones as a producer on some very lauded indie projects. What was it about your most recent one that really took you to the next level?
A: When we sat down with our film to see what we had in terms of a finished product, I wasn’t happy. My first big challenge was how to make this work as a commercial piece, because it wasn’t there. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t working. I felt very strongly that we had gotten stuck creatively as a team. It was a crucial point in the completion of the film, where it was tempting to race to the finish line. I had to put the breaks on at that point and be a toughie. I took it upon myself to look outside our team and – I took a leap of faith. I took a look at what the film needed in terms of pacing, of music and in terms of feel. I talked to everyone I knew in the business and asked who do you know who is going to help us make this into what it could be. The fix, I knew, was going to have to be done in the editing room. It was pacing, music and the overall feel of the film.
The save came from this editor I found who I’d never met. I sent him the film. I put the footage in a Fedex envelope and I sent it to him in LA. And I sent him all the music I loved and had imagined in the score when we starting shooting. I sent him the temp music and he did this rough cut and it changed the film.
Q: There were chunks of the movie that were originally longer exposition, which were condensed or excised, or used as leitmotifs rather than what was in the script. That is kind of what the producer Carlo Ponti did when he told Antonioni there was no budget to make “Blow-Up” a traditional courtroom drama. The result was a succinct, enigmatic masterpiece, and that was done by a producer’s decision.
A: It is humbling for me to hear that because, I am not a director,… I felt so horribly arrogant as a producer to make a move like that, but it had to be done. Especially for a director who is so gifted. If it were not for the incredible talent of a director like David Kaplan and the footage that he shot, and the way he directed these actors in those beautiful moments, I would have had none of that.
But what I learned from that experience as a producer is to always trust my gut. And that experience for me changed the way I think about being a leader.
Q: That too is what a producer does. A producer orchestrates the elements and the people. Tell us about what you have coming up as a producer.
A: I am interested in compelling material and stories about the way people think.
For instance, the Syd Barrett piece [a film based on MADCAP: THE HALF-LIFE OF SYD BARRETT, a biography of the Pink Floyd front man which she optioned] is just a story that I just want to tell. I haven’t figured out how that might or might not lead back into working with some of the people that I represent but that is a project that started with the story.
I had read an article a few years ago in the New Yorker about how he died, and I remember being very moved by how mental illness incapacitated him. I became really intrigued by his story and read a bunch of his biographies. The one that caught my eye is simply a straightforward account written by a British guy named Tim Willis, “Madcap: The Half-Life of Syd Barrett.” I was really struck by the notion in that title – half-life.
In Syd’s case, the Syd that created this amazing music, amazing art – that started Pink Floyd – that Syd died. But he didn’t really die, he kept on living. And it was that image of an older Syd on a bicycle with a basket riding around town in solitude, a slave to his mental illness – schizophrenia, specifically – that spoke to me.
My process was this. I don’t think rationally, like, how does someone like me with a small company in New York go about making a movie about Syd Barrett? I don’t think about that part. I just thought, this is a movie I want to make, this is a book I’m going to option, and let’s take it from there.
I wrote a very – I guess – compelling letter to Tim Willis and his response was sort of like, Yeah, you sound groovy! And that’s where it began, but then we went into production on TODAY’S SPECIAL so I’m hoping to now start talking to writers and directors. And the movie that I see will be about Pink Floyd, but it’s really not about Pink Floyd. It’s going to be about Syd Barrett and how he saw the world.
So through that, if I am lucky enough to get the rights to some of that music, wonderful, but I am not basing that part of it as my decision on whether or not I should make this movie. I am not a director but I imagine this movie living somewhere between “Shine” and “Control” – it’s not a big-band biography movie, it’s not “The Doors.” And it’s not a concert film.
What I want to explore as well is they say that schizophrenics have this quality – even before a psychotic break – this quality that they always have. He had this very magnetic, extremely charming, can’t take your eyes off of him personality. I would love to see that part of the story, how he existed in this group of young people.
Q: And your other front-burner project is a documentary, right? Well you know there is a documentary aspect to TODAY’S SPECIAL, and for that matter, Syd Barrett’s story too.
A: PEDRO SANTANA is a middle school principal in The Bronx. He is now Vice Superintendent of Schools. I was fascinated by the story. Now I am in the beginning stages of making a documentary with him.
Why am I interested in telling his story? Because of the way he approaches the world and the way his mind works. He is one of the most uplifting, inspiring guys I have ever met. He kind of has his own language, and the more time I spend with him I thought the more fascinating he is and so we’ve been shooting some footage. I didn’t really see myself as a documentary producer but this one thing really caught my eye.
Lillian LaSalle and Sweet 180 have come full-circle, and more than likely the projects they engender will also involve her close-knit group of clients. After all, as LaSalle says, “the natural extension of producing is that I am inspired to do creative work on my own that might eventually loop back to the client.” Which makes Sweet 180 a full-service shop indeed.