Get to know the artists behind Teddy Tracker Entertainment
Teddy Tracker Entertainment is here to give you a voice. The production company was founded by producer/composer Elizabeth Phillipson-Weiner as a means of encouraging diversity of thought, gender, and race. Filmmaker Alejandra Parody joined the company soon after, and the duo have already released the short films Rosa and The Magic Knight under the Teddy Tracker banner. They recently collaborated on the short Gets Good Light.
Both Parody and Phillipson-Weiner have had success in the film industry. Parody is an NYU graduate and recipient of the King Prize Award, while Phillipson-Weiner is an award-winning composer whose scores have premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, HollyShorts, Urbanworld Film Festival, and Raindance. Their work on Gets Good Light has earned them a nomination for 2021 NAACP Image Nomination for Outstanding Short Form (Live Action).
Film Daily had the pleasure of talking with Alejandra Parody and Elizabeth Phillipson-Weiner about their careers, their collaborative process, and their plans for Teddy Tracker Entertainment. Here’s what they had to say:
Alejandra Parody: Tell us about your history as a filmmaker. How did you start your journey?
My whole life my mom instilled in me a passion for reading and immersing myself in stories. That passion evolved into wanting to tell my own stories and create my own fantasy worlds, so I fell in love with writing.
Being the nerdy reader/writer I was, I was in good graces with most of my school teachers to the point where eventually, when I became curious about filmmaking as another storytelling medium, I was able to negotiate turning in assignments as video pieces rather than written works– video essays as opposed to regular ones, for example. It sounds fun, but it was always so much more work; that’s filmmaking for ya!
However this allowed me to get acquainted with the array of crafts associated with film, from photography, to acting and sound design. By sixteen, I was dead set on being a filmmaker. Despite the grueling amount of work that I realized it entailed, I was taken with the possibility of creating entirely new, shared realities. That holds true even today.
Elizabeth Phillipson-Weiner: You have a unique compositional style that combines synth with organic instruments. How did this style come about?
Necessity is the mother of invention and that has been key in developing my voice as a composer. As much as I’d love to hire a full orchestra for every film I work on, it’s not usually in the cards budget-wise, which has actually allowed me to be really creative in my scoring approach. My style combines genres and instruments that I love, to create something unique for each project.
In addition to being a film composer, I am a folk singer-songwriter. I’m a huge fan of 1970s folk music with rich vocal harmony. I also have a background in classical music, playing trombone in orchestras for the last ~15 years. Additionally, I’ve had the opportunity to study with an amazing composer, educator and mentor, John Kaefer, who saw I had an interest in analog synthesizers and really encouraged me to run with it.
My style has evolved as a mishmash of all of that musical history. I absolutely love using folk instruments like banjo, mandolin, ukulele, fiddle in conjunction with synthesized sounds, experimenting with analog synthesizers and I’ve even found a way to alter the sound of my trombone for use on projects. On a recent horror film I used a bowed trombone, playing my bell with a violin bow to creative eerie metallic swells.
It’s really fun to develop these parts of myself as a musician and composer and to be able to express myself while inhabiting the stories of the characters I write about.
AP: You studied at New York University, where your thesis film Rosa earned a King Prize Award. What was the most useful skill you learned during your time at NYU?
The film program at NYU forces you to work on a variety of sets with a wide range of crews while fulfilling different roles within relatively short periods of time. So I’d say the most useful skills I got from TISCH were adaptability and communication. Learning how to communicate effectively –whether you’re talking to your longtime business partner or a new actor you’ve never met– is key because as a director, you have to take all these different mediums (cinematography, music, editing, production design), all of which use different languages, and create a cohesive piece that tells a single story.
EPW: Who are the composers who have influenced you the most?
Thomas Newman is the composer who made me interested in film scoring. He creates a sonic world for each film he writes while maintaining a signature sound himself. I really aspire to write cues with the emotional depth with which he can. I’ve also been heavily influenced by Jon Brion – he uses really unique soundscapes and writes such beautiful themes.
I draw a lot of inspiration from songwriters and folk artists as well including Joni Mitchell, CSNY, Jackson Browne and Madison Cunningham. They are masterful musical storytellers, which I always aspire to be. Pinar Toprak and Ariel Marx are two film composers who have massively influenced both my style of music and how I approach being a business-person in the industry. They are fantastic leaders to look up to.
AP: Your latest film is the drama Gets Good Light. What was the initial inspiration behind the story?
Daniel Solé wrote the screenplay for the film and contacted me about whether I’d be interested in directing it (we had met a couple of years prior at a film festival I’d attended with Rosa). This was in 2017, and at the time, the 2016 election hung heavily over many of us. There was a sense of disappointment and powerlessness at the way in which the country’s leaders had successfully used vitriolic rhetoric to gain support.
Of course, many times, undocumented Latin American immigrants bore the brunt of that rhetoric, and being a Colombian immigrant myself this was especially enraging. So when I read Daniel’s screenplay about two oppressed people coming together to retain their agency even in the face of a powerful authoritarian system, I jumped at the chance to tell that story.
I wanted to speak to the times, to how dystopian it all felt, and to humanize the sorts of people that were routinely being dehumanized by the administration.
EPW: You’ve composed music for the stage and the screen. Does your approach to music differ depending on the medium?
There are differences in technical approach to writing music for different mediums, but creatively speaking I am just trying to be the best musical storyteller possible. I am always working in service of a story whether that be the story of a film, a play or a song.
The great thing about being a composer is that no matter the medium, the process is really collaborative and engaging. My approach is to work together with my creative teammates to tell the best story possible, and to have fun while doing it.
AP: Gets Good Light was nominated for best narrative short at the Tribeca Film Festival. Have you been taken aback by the overwhelmingly positive response to the film?
I have been moved by the way in which the film has resonated with so many, especially given how much is going on in the world right now with the pandemic and everything. We worked hard to make something that was thoughtful and provoked nuanced conversations, and seeing people react to that is incredibly rewarding.
EPW: How did you approach the music for Gets Good Light? How does it differ from the scores you’ve done in the past?
I had the unique advantage with Gets Good Light of being attached to the project from its inception as a producer, so that gave me the opportunity to talk extensively with Alejandra about her vision for the project and what these characters and their world sounded like. I wanted the score to reflect the world being built – one that appears opulent and inviting from far away but is insidious underneath.
I wanted the score to reflect the emotional state of our two main characters – Manny and Andrell, who constantly live with the anxiety of inhabiting spaces that could turn on them at any moment. I decided I wanted to represent the sound of a siren in the score in a beautiful way that simultaneously played on this constant state of anxiety. This is represented in the score by a cello using a technique called portamento, which are these long sliding motions.
These long slides contrasted with a synth bed of rising textures really ramps up the tension. What was great about working on this film is that Alejandra really gave me a lot of freedom to explore and put a lot of trust in me. When I first showed her the score I hadn’t recorded the cello yet and there’s no sampled cello that can demonstrate the portamento technique – I basically described to her what it would sound like and she fully trusted me to deliver.
That’s definitely different from other film scores where you need to present a perfect sounding demo for approval. It was really amazing to be given that opportunity.
AP: Do you prefer to tell stories that you have a personal connection to?
For me, a connection to the story is a necessity. This doesn’t mean that I need to share a literal background with characters or anything like that, but at the very least there does need to be emotional commonground; in this way, it’s kind of like acting.
So it’s not so much that there has to be a personal connection built into the story for me, but rather, if I’m telling a story, part of my job will be to find ways in which I can draw from my own life experience. I have to find or create those personal connections to the story.
EPW: You’ve had tremendous success as both a film composer and producer. Do you prefer one role to the other?
I find producing and composing to be weirdly symbiotic but I am definitely a composer first. I sort of fell into producing when a friend asked for a hand on a film set in college and have been doing it ever since. I think that having the ability to fully produce stories that I feel are important and need to be told is such an asset and has really facilitated my career as a composer in a lot of ways.
In this industry if you are relying on others to hire you for work, you may end up waiting a long time to be working on projects that matter to you. The fact that I’ve been able to get projects made, handle every aspect of their trajectory AND score them has allowed me to score so many more meaningful projects. Working as a film composer is my dream job and any way I can facilitate that dream, I will go after with my whole heart.
EPW: You founded the production company Teddy Tracker Entertainment. What pushed you to start a company instead of pitching to existing companies?
I am definitely driven a lot by impatience and self reliance. I would love to, and plan on working with, existing companies throughout my career, but I just knew I had some amazing stories and collaborators, as well as the skills to make something myself – why should I wait?
There’s a feeling amongst young creators that someone big in the industry is going to notice you, pluck you from obscurity and suddenly give you amazing opportunities. I think that’s largely a myth and that if you want to be a storyteller, you have to make it happen yourself, no matter how small you start.
EPW: What do you think sets Teddy Tracker Entertainment apart from other production companies?
Teddy Tracker is unique in many ways – it’s super small and agile, it’s driven, and it’s singularly focused on making a difference for people through ridiculously good-looking art. Alejandra as a director is really focused on making films that look like they came out of a studio and I as a producer have to make that happen on an indie budget.
Building Teddy Tracker has taught me to never be afraid to ask – you really don’t know what the answer will be. So many of our successes have come from just asking for something we thought we were too small to get. As far as helping people and our commitment to diversity, this isn’t just a quota to fill or a trend to follow – this is how we choose which projects to create at Teddy Tracker and how we choose our collaborators.
I want to be a part of projects that are meaningful to me and push our viewers to be more empathetic and understanding and learn something myself in the process.
AP: Teddy Tracker Entertainment promotes diversity of thought, race, and sexual orientation in its projects. How important do you think diversity is for future generations?
If nothing else, diversity is the most surefire way to get unique, original stories. Filmmaking is an incredibly young art medium, only roughly one hundred years old. Compare that to how long we’ve been making music, painting, or writing. So the medium is still ripe for exploration, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what we can do with film.
And yet, there is often a sense that it’s hard to come by something original, that many movies are formulaic, that all stories have been told. This is less a reflection of the limits of filmmaking, and more so of the fact that so far, our film history has had such homogeneous perspectives at its center. The medium will remain fresh as long as we supply it with a diverse body of artists that reimagine its possibilities.
EPW: What do you consider the most difficult part of producing a film?
What isn’t difficult about producing a film?! It’s hard to pinpoint honestly because producing is such a ubiquitous role. You are simultaneously in charge of logistics, accounting, HR, managing interpersonal relationships, and supporting the director’s creative vision for the film. This also makes it an incredibly rewarding position when the film is out in the world.
I think there’s always a point in the filmmaking process where the team falls out of love with the film temporarily, either due to fatigue, or seeing how different the film is becoming from its original script form – that might include you as the producer but you can’t show it. You have to rally the team to continue working and to fall back in love with what they’re doing. That can be really difficult but also ultimately very rewarding.
AP: What has been your biggest success as a filmmaker?
Success for me entails becoming better at telling stories, better at translating what’s in my mind into the screen. I think it’s what all artists struggle with, getting good enough at their craft that what they produce is an accurate reflection of the idea in their head. I consider my biggest success to be Gets Good Light itself, because it has been the most faithful externalization of what I had in my mind’s eye during pre-production.
EPW: You released your debut album, Haven’t Found It, in 2019. Was it something you wanted to do for a long time or something that came about organically?
I started writing my first few songs after I quit my desk job in the film industry in 2017. I had not been able to focus on music while working such demanding jobs and I wanted to get back into it full force but I didn’t know where to start.
I ended up playing my songs for the first time at an open mic night with some friends and afterwards many of the audience members came up to me and asked where they could listen to my music, and I realized if I wanted to keep playing live I needed to record something! I started working on Haven’t Found It soon after. It was something that kind of grew organically out of my love of storytelling through music and it’s been great to see people respond to it.
AP: Who are your biggest filmmaking influences?
I grew up on a steady diet of David Lynch, Cuarón and Kubrick. I love suspense, stylized genre films, and big beautiful sets. I also love character-driven stories. Later on, Lynne Ramsay completely redefined what suspense could be in my eyes, what character exploration could look like.
Jennifer Kent’s [The] Babadook also gave me a clearer understanding of what I aspire to do, these unapologetic character films that are set in genre worlds, in Kent’s case, horror. More recently, I’ve become fascinated with Yorgos Lanthimos’s use of humor.
EPW: Did your experience with film scores come in handy when you were recording the album?
Yes! I try to tell a concrete story with each of my songs which is the same way I approach each film cue. I also think the process of experimenting with different sounds and recording techniques was so helpful when it came to my album. I didn’t have a huge budget to work with so we actually recorded my album at my producer’s house.
All his roommates are musicians and we just spent a few months playing around with all the instruments and synths available to us. Definitely similar to how I approach scoring and even better to have so many amazing musicians right there at my disposal.
AP: Can you tell us about any upcoming Teddy Tracker projects?
We have some really exciting projects in the works! Hopefully we’ll be back to tell you all about them soon.
EPW: What advice do you have for aspiring producers/composers?
I actually only know of one other producer/composer but I think it’s a great multihyphenate for anyone who likes to switch back and forth between right brain and left brain. My biggest piece of advice would be to simultaneously be like a sponge – take in all the information and help from those around you and more established in the industry – but don’t let any advice or noise knock you off your path.
I remember when I was in college I would tell people I wanted to be a producer and composer and many responded with “that’s not a thing” – they made me feel like I had to choose one or the other. That I’d be a jack of all trades and a master of none. As I’ve grown more as an artist and a producer I know that this unique combination is what makes me an asset in this industry. I think everyone is on that path in their own way. You have to find out what makes you, you, and then go after it.