This month, AFI spoke with Diane Becker (AFI Class of 2006) who has made a name for herself as a creative and versatile producer in the documentary space. Her credits include SERGIO – shortlisted for the Oscar®, the docuseries FIVE CAME BACK, THE FINAL YEAR, SID & JUDY, WHIRLYBIRD and TINA – for which she was nominated for an Emmy Award®. Diane recently produced NAVALNY, which was made in secret and explores in fly-on-the-wall fashion the near-fatal poisoning of Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, activist and political prisoner. She also produced AMERICAN PAIN, released this summer, which delves into the seedy world of Florida’s pill mills and the toll of the opioid epidemic in the U.S. Co-founder of Fishbowl Films, she is also a member of the Producer’s Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
AFI spoke with Diane about her love of producing, how she developed into the creative she is today from her experiences at the AFI Conservatory and what she hopes audiences take away from her latest work.
AFI: What do you enjoy most about working in the documentary film world?
Diane: One of the most rewarding things I’ve discovered in my work in nonfiction film is that it is an incredibly creative and challenging art form – especially from a producing perspective. Some of the most innovative storytelling is happening in the nonfiction space and we are seeing it in the way filmmakers are experimenting with their approach to enrich their storytelling.
There is no script for a producer from which to execute a production plan. You are constantly revising the creative, the budget, the schedule and your approach to the problems you need to solve. No two films ever feel the same and you almost never have enough money to execute the plans. You are working on stories about the world we live in: the people, the places, the events happening and shaping our world. There is a real opportunity to make a difference and an impact. And the people you meet along the way can change your life.
AFI: What would you say are the key qualities of being a good producer and establishing a good working relationship with your director?
Diane: The most common and defining role producers play is one of leadership across all the creative disciplines working on a film as well as conducting the orchestra of the day-to-day work and keeping everything moving forward. We are the organizers. We are the caretakers and the therapists. We are the change agents. We make space for all of the creative collaborators on a film to assemble together and dream collectively.
Establishing a good working relationship with your director is paramount to the success of any film in my opinion. And the key to that is respect and trust. Sometimes you have an instant connection and other times you have to meet them where their process is and earn that over time. Hopefully, there is enough mutual respect to foster those lines of open communication which are crucial when things get difficult or money is tight or the creative falls off the tracks.
AFI: What makes you gravitate toward a particular story, and how do you choose which projects you ultimately want to be a part of?
Diane: I have a personal credo that I have been using since my early days at AFI: “it’s the people and the project.” I have never been someone who could just have a job and execute it. I care too much about the work I do and the people I’m doing it with. Working in a creative field is not just a business. There’s a real emotional element to what we do and that can be so satisfying when it goes well, or a living mental hell if you are not interested in the subject or the project, or you find yourself working alongside people who don’t respect you.
If I am drawn in by a particular story, knowing who the team will be and how the process of working together will unfold is important. Films can take a long time. It is not a 9 to 5 job, so I need to feel connected and inspired to give 100% of myself to the effort. Having the opportunity to build new collaborative relationships with young directors and emerging talent is also something that drives my choices as well. I’m not afraid to take a risk on someone new if I believe they have the passion and drive to succeed.
AFI: In the case of NAVALNY, it was imperative that the project be under the radar due to the sensitivity of the subject. What was it like working with director Daniel Roher, and what were the major challenges you encountered in producing this harrowing documentary?
Diane: Daniel is a young talent at the precipice of a huge career. He has all the hallmarks of a great director: intelligence, a singular point of view, creativity, passion, drive, obsessive focus, leadership and enough ego to know when to stand his ground without question and when to thoughtfully consider ideas and opinions to do what is best for the film. He is a true collaborator, and his passion drove all of us to give more than we thought possible.
Working together was really challenging at the beginning because it was during the pandemic, and we were all separated around the globe. There was an enormous amount of pressure to get the film finished quickly given Alexei’s circumstances, and the security risks were real and present all the time. We could not tell anyone what we were working on, and we all knew the heavy weight of responsibility Daniel had on his shoulders to help deliver Navalny’s story to the world and to make the best film we all possibly could.
AFI: The film premiered at Sundance and has only become more timely with Navalny’s imprisonment by Putin as well as the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What do you hope audiences take away from seeing the film?
Diane: As the war in Ukraine unfolds with gruesome brutality, it is critical that we remind the world that good Russian people exist and an alternate vision of the future of Russia is possible. This is the vision Alexei Navalny yearns to realize and it is the reason he is in prison today. It is imperative that people know that Putin is not Russia and Russia is not Vladimir Putin.
The film is also a stark reminder that authoritarianism continues to be a very real and present threat to democracies around the world. The people in power matter, and if we do not support free and fair elections and human rights, then we could find ourselves in similar, dire circumstances. As Alexei reminds us in the film, every single one of us can make a difference, and we must not be afraid to stand up to corruption.
AFI: You also just released the documentary AMERICAN PAIN this summer that centers on the opioid epidemic in the U.S. What was it about the experience of the two brothers that made you want to tell that story, and what did you learn from the experience?
Diane: When director Darren Foster first told me about the George brothers, my jaw was on the floor. I knew about the pill mills in Florida, and I knew the opioid crisis was a huge problem and that we as a country had not paid much attention to what was happening and how many lives were destroyed in the process. But as he kept peeling back the onion layers to the story, it was almost too insane to believe it was real.
I knew that Darren’s passion for the story and his access to the George brothers, alongside all the investigative work he had done over the years, would make a powerful film. I was drawn to this idea of telling a story about unbridled greed from both sides – the pill mills and the pharmaceutical companies – which is still very much affecting so many families across the country. There is a real disconnect here as neither the George brothers nor the drug companies fully accept responsibility for their roles in fueling this crisis of addiction. But I was inspired by the investigators who spent years gathering this unbelievable evidence and ultimately took down their operation.
AFI: Looking back at your time in the Producing program at the AFI Conservatory, what were some of the most important lessons or tools that you learned?
Diane: My years in the Producing program at the AFI Conservatory were fundamental in shaping who I am as a filmmaker, as a producer and as a creative collaborator. One of the most important lessons I learned as a producer at AFI was how to find my voice. So much of the creative experience at AFI is led by directors with the producers standing alongside them to execute those ideas. When you are starting out and learning how to make films, depending on the collaborative experience, your ideas can at times be unheard or overlooked. Sometimes there is an expectation on producers to just deliver the physical production side of filmmaking and go along for the ride creatively. My experiences at AFI were creatively satisfying and rewarding, and I always felt as though my voice was present in the conversation.
One of the most valuable parts of the program at AFI is the toolbox of skills you leave with and all the direct, hands-on work you learn about physical production. You absolutely without question know how to make a movie – from creating a realistic and solid budget and a schedule, to building a creative team, to negotiating and building relationships with vendors, to running a set on location, to managing the post-production process, to delivering a film and putting it out into the world. It really is a full, 360-degree experience that allows you to graduate and work.
AFI: What advice do you have for AFI Fellows and/or recent AFI Alumni who are just starting out as or hoping to become producers?
Diane: I think the one piece of advice I could give anyone starting out their career as a producer is to be open to opportunities outside your expectations or dreams. Sometimes you are presented with work or the chance to collaborate with someone on a project that may not at first glance be something that would help further your immediate goals, but every job is a chance to step on a stone. Those stones will lead to other stones, and before you know it, you are creating your own path. As long as you are learning new skills, meeting new people and creating chances to forge new relationships, you will be moving forward.
It’s also important to not lose sight of your goals and to simultaneously keep developing projects and material that you are passionate about. It takes a number of years after AFI (sometimes more than you want to admit) to get your footing rooted in this industry and so much of your success depends on showing up and not giving up. Be prepared to get creative to make sure you can pay your rent and keep your overhead low so you can take more chances that are not always financially advantageous. And never lose sight of why you fell in love with making movies in the first place because there will be more days than you care to admit when you ask yourself, “why do I do this?” Having that answer at the front of your mind will help you keep going.