“It’s great; that was such an exciting little treat and not expected and we’re super humbled by it,” Vaisman tells Variety of winning the trophy for producing HBO’s “Bad Education.” “The problem is we have young children, so they’re literally going to take it and bash each other with it. I guess we probably have to keep it in the office.”
“They’re much heavier [than you’d expect] — I held Lena’s when she won it, at the after party,” Lebedev adds, recalling Lena Waithe’s historic Emmy win in 2017 for writing “Master of None.” “I was like, ‘I’m gonna give this back to you because I’m definitely gonna drop it.’ I think the office is a safer place.”
Of course, the producers haven’t been in the office much since COVID-19 turned the world and the entertainment industry upside down, but that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped working. Their latest film, “Bad Hair” dropped Friday on Hulu, after a buzzy debut at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. In addition to a streaming rollout, a theatrical release had been scheduled for the satirical horror film from Justin Simien, but plans changed as a result of the pandemic. Since the film was already slated to premiere on the streamer, the “Bad Hair” team didn’t “have to deal as much with the business side of things and changing plans dramatically.”
“I think surreal is probably the best word to describe it. It feels good to be a distraction, even if momentarily, to everything going on in the world,” Lebedev says of the release, which featured a run in drive-in theaters spearheaded by NEON. “We were very much looking forward to that experience of getting everyone back together and going to see it at a theater, but now we’re doing that in a drive-in way.”
It’s been a long road to the screen for Simien’s film, the writer-director’s third partnership with Lebedev after both the “Dear White People” film and series for Netflix, but the wait was well worth it. Joking that she and the Sight Unseen team (rounded out by partner Oren Moverman) would love to clone Simien to get all of the work done, Lebedev adds that hopefully “Bad Hair” is “the third project of many.”
“We’re just thankful to be in this partnership with him — because he’s bold and he’s not afraid to tell a story that made people a little bit uncomfortable,” she says. “We’re grateful to kind of be on the sidelines helping him do all that and get it all out. And I know there’s just a lot more in that crazy brain of his that we would love to be able to tell and help him get out.”
“Everyone talks about how movies are hard to make and ‘Dear White People’ was a much smaller movie in terms of scope and timeline, but both of them took years,” Lebedev recalls. “Justin worked on ‘Dear White People’ for many years before I came on board and financed and produced it, and then that started our journey,” she recalls. “We were friends before that project came to life and, to be honest, I was sort of reticent to work with a friend, because it’s risky in all walks of life. But since then, we’ve been lucky in that he’s just a tremendously hard worker and he just dives full in and has so many ideas. There needs to be three of him to get them all out. But thankfully ‘Bad Hair’ was an idea that kind of stuck with him through doing the TV show and then he was ready to kind of dive back in.”
That kind of friend-turned-family dynamic is the sort of collaboration Sight Unseen prides themselves on, leading the producers to partner with other filmmakers that they already know, like Waithe, with whom they’re set to make a biopic about Sammy Davis Jr.
“We grew up as huge fans of Sammy’s, but our parents and that generation were obsessed with him,” Vaisman says. “My parents are Russian immigrants and they came here and they talked about him all the time; they listened to his music and they played it in our house and we watched him as a performer. He was such a unique talent and such a compelling person and we felt like it was the right time to be part of telling his story.”
“He’s a beloved human being and entertainer; [but] he was a complex individual — the relationship he had with his family, the relationship he had with his Rat Pack buddies. The social piece of it and race and what he was going through growing up in this country and how his career was evolving and other aspects of his story were just one of those things that you have to really dive into. You hear these incredible stories and it’s almost unbelievable,” he continues. “Obviously Lena was very passionate about it and we managed to find a fantastic writer and, thankfully, we found a great home at MGM. And now the search begins for who’s going to play Sammy, which is even more exciting; everyone has opinions and we get texts and emails on the daily from people. The list is growing by the minute.”
In partnering with filmmakers like Simien and Waithe, the Sight Unseen team is also able to further their mission of sharing stories about cultures different from their own, directly from the filmmakers who’ve experienced them.
“We’re trying to be part of the effort to create art that’s more representative of what our world looks like, that’s important to us just as people, and that helps make our work feel fulfilling,” Lebedev explains. “[But] we’re going to let our creatives speak to the experiences that are authentic to them, and as producers, walk that careful balance of giving them our input, our take, our advice, and knowing that there are certain things that we can’t weigh in on or shouldn’t weigh in on and are not our experience to talk about.”
She continues: “So it’s about walking that balance of being supportive and [giving] what we think is the best advice, and knowing also when to step back and let them tell the story that really speaks to them and their experience that we don’t have the authority on.”
“I think that’s a sign of good producers — they help set up their filmmakers and their writers to succeed, but they also don’t get in their way,” Vaisman adds, sharing what makes the team sign on for projects like “Bad Hair” with fellow producer Angel Lopez. “On a pure creative level, just being moved by the material — we don’t do things that we’re not excited about. We’re lucky enough to have a setup where we can work on as much or as little as we want to, so we try to work on movies or any creative projects that we love, that we’re passionate about.”
In the three years since founding the company, Vaisman says the most important thing they’ve learned is how to be adaptable.
“We have to continue to evolve with the business as it evolves and as the world evolves socially, culturally. From a business perspective, you know it’s changing on a daily basis, which is good. It needs to change and it should change and it should’ve changed a long time ago,” he begins.
While the Sight Unseen team is confident about where the industry is moving in terms of the push for diversity, the state of Hollywood and the way the pandemic will affect the industry’s future is more of a wait-and-see game. “In this COVID world we’re living in, it’s all changing very quickly, so I think that we’re trying to be ahead of it if we can and we try to anticipate where we can. We roll with the punches, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously, but we try to do it in an elegant and nice and happy way,” he concludes.
Referencing COVID-related innovations like “Bad Hair’s” drive-in premiere, Vaisman says, “It’s a new world for sure, but it’s exciting. I think we feel [Hulu’s] done a phenomenal job, considering what’s going on in the world. It was very festive, and they made it a real experience.”
Though Vaisman predicts that some things, like virtual press events, drive-in screenings and the work-from-home lifestyle might stick around, both he and Lebedev are hopeful that theaters will rebound.
“I feel like people were equally nervous before the pandemic about the future of theatrical,” Lebedev says. “I just hope that there’s a silver lining in all of this that we miss theaters, and we miss being with people, and we miss that experience of celebrating art and culture, so that it’ll come back with a vengeance. And maybe it will look differently than it did before, but I know that I miss [theaters] on a human level. And I’m grateful that we have the opportunity to see things like ‘Bad Hair’ and ‘Bad Education’ at home — that’s been great — but I truly believe we can have it all. I don’t think it’s one or the other. And I’m just going to keep that opinion going until I’m proven wrong.”