Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2008-2009

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Making Movie Magic

Making Movie Magic
Todd Traina ´91

Close-up with independent film producer Todd Traina ´91

By Mary Howard


“There isn´t a second of the day that I´m not working, or thinking about work,” says Todd Traina ´91. The 39-year-old, who was named one of “10 Producers to Watch” last year by Variety, likens his job to that of a wedding planner, “who is also the father of the bride in a wedding that lasts a whole year.”

But for Traina, who has seven feature films under his belt and many more in the works, the sacrifices are worth it. The owner of Red Rover Films, Traina has produced “Blackwater Transit,” a $35 million thriller starring Laurence Fishburne, due for release this Christmas; “Night Train,” an action film (currently in post-production) with Danny Glover, Steve Zahn and Leelee Sobieski; and “What We Do is Secret,” a biopic of Darby Crash and his late-´70s band the Germs, starring Shane West and Bijou Phillips (in theaters this fall and on DVD in January). His film “Grace is Gone” with John Cusack, which tells the story of a father who loses his wife in the Iraq war, was nominated for two Golden Globes and won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007.

But it is “My Suicide,” a low-budget coming-of-age film with a mostly unknown cast, that makes the producer the most proud.

“This (film) is why I´m here, why I love Hollywood,” he says. The movie centers around a media-obsessed high school student who plans to kill himself on camera for his final film project. “My Suicide” is scheduled for release later this year, and a part of the film´s profits will go to Regenerate, a Los Angeles-based organization that focuses on saving teenagers´ lives. “I can´t think of another Hollywood movie where a portion of the proceeds was donated to charity,” he says. “Obviously you want to sell tickets, and this film is engaging and funny, but it is also a film to make a difference.”

As a producer, Traina spends a lot of time reading scripts, books and articles, looking for his next project. When he finds the right story, he works to get the project off the ground, finding funding, a director and a cast. How often does a movie idea fail to make it to the big screen? “It happens anywhere from most of the time to all of the time,” he says.
Traina has a long legacy at Connecticut College. His grandmother, Ruth Hale Buchanan ´39, and mother, Dede Buchanan Wilsey ´65, are graduates. The San Francisco native wanted to attend an East Coast school, and with its liberal arts curriculum and the family connection, Connecticut College was the obvious choice.

Traina majored in government and minored in English, but he also attended many theater department productions. “I was very impressed with that department,” he says. “But I knew I didn´t want to act or direct. The job of a producer has the right balance between the right and left brain, between the creative and business sides.” By the time he graduated, Traina knew he wanted to make films. “I think it was those cold New England winters and having a blockbuster open in New London. I did a lot of research,” he jokes.

Traina cites fellow alums Leland Orser ´82 and Wallis Nicita ´67 as inspirations. “I´ve known Leland for many years, and he´s had such great success as an actor,” Traina says. A producer, Nicita screened her film “Mermaids” at Connecticut College while Traina was an undergraduate. He remembers thinking, “I can do that!”

After graduation, Traina headed to Hollywood and started at the very bottom. Though he comes from a long line of successful people — his mother is a prominent San Francisco philanthropist; his grandfather, Wiley Buchanan, was chief of protocol under President Eisenhower and an American ambassador; and his stepmother is novelist Danielle Steel — he was “left in the wind” in Hollywood. “I didn´t know anyone in L.A.,” he says. “I didn´t realize how little I knew about the business. It was a shock.”

Traina started his career as a production assistant for NBC, bringing coffee and doughnuts to directors and spending hours over the copy machine. He also worked on several movies of the week, based on Steel´s novels. “I got my toe in the door because of her,” he says.

He once asked a television producer how one becomes a producer. “He basically told me, ´It´s hard. Do what you can. Good luck.´” But it´s been more hard work than luck that´s taken Traina to where he is today. A good producer is involved in every aspect of a film, he says. “After everyone has gone on to other projects, it´s the producer who´s left holding the bag,” he explains. “It´s his job to market the film, to sell it. You´re married to the project.”

The process is labor-intensive, and Traina, who is married to Katie Traina and father to 2-year-old Daisy, usually juggles no fewer than eight projects at a time. It isn´t unusual for him to be on a movie set until the early hours of the morning, and he confesses he´s constantly on the phone.

Though Traina has worked with studios, he prefers to make his own films. “Independent film producers have the freedom to make the movies they want to make. ´My Suicide´ and ´Grace is Gone´ would never be green-lit by a studio. They don´t scream ´box office,´” he says. He admires independent productions like “Juno” and “Monster Ball” and says “The Sixth Sense” knocked his “socks off.” But Traina´s all-time favorite film is “Young Frankenstein.”

“I´m the biggest Mel Brooks fan,” he says.

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