Dolly Parton Movie Producer Discusses Producing for Film and Television

Sam Haskell photo courtesy of Sam Haskell

Dolly Parton Movie Producer Discusses Producing for Film and Television

By Sam Haskell, President, Magnolia Hill Productions

Everything starts with a story.  Whether it’s something personal, historical, or entirely fictional, that is the genesis for any show that I create.  In fact, most producers, writers, directors, actors, and artists alike, consider themselves first and foremost, storytellers.  As humans we crave narrative, and you could say that the practice of making filmed content is the art of immersion.

My mission at Magnolia Hill always starts with a central question, does this story need to be told?  If the answer is yes, then the next question becomes, how do I tell it in an original way?  This involves focusing on a specific part or perspective from the story that portrays it best creatively.

For example, the first film I produced, DOLLY PARTON’S COAT OF MANY COLORS for NBC, followed a young Dolly Parton growing up in the Smoky Mountain foothills of East Tennessee.  Dolly and I have known each other since we first met at the Golden Globe Awards back in 1982.

I came to work with country music’s greatest icon first as an agent, and today we’re producing partners. Dolly is also the godmother to my children and is an honorary member of the Haskell family, so needless to say, I know a lot of Dolly’s stories.  Her growing up as one of twelve in a small two-room mountain home, with no electricity or running water, only reinforces what an incredible talent she truly is today.

The key for us in telling Dolly’s story as a little girl, was choosing a special moment from that time that went on to shape and define her life.  When we first started discussing COAT OF MANY COLORS, she knew immediately that it had to be the story of the time that her mother, Avie Lee Parton, had made her a patchwork coat of many colors, how she wore it to school, and how she was ridiculed and bullied for wearing it.

The story is the basis for what Dolly regards as the most personal song she’s ever written, the eponymous COAT OF MANY COLORS.  Indeed, Dolly’s track and lyrics served as the narrative foundation for the movie itself.  This is what I mean when I say that choosing the best lens through which to tell your story is just as paramount as the story itself.

The next step in producing a movie is teaming with the right partner, who can bring your vision to light through a written script.  For me, this is all about relationships.

My relationships at Warner Brothers Television are incredible. They support me AND my projects as my projects are formally developed and then executed!  In addition, I’ve worked in the entertainment business for quite some time, spending over 27 years at the renowned William Morris Agency as Executive Vice President and Worldwide Head of Television.

Of course, I’m now enjoying the next chapter of my career working as a producer, but my years of representing top actors, writers and showrunners has given me a wealth of artistic talent to tap into.  Moreover, not only do you need to find someone with the writing ability, but also someone who is collaborative and willing to share the creative direction.

I was very fortunate in working with several fantastic writers on our Netflix anthology series, DOLLY PARTON’S HEARTSTRINGS Sean Smith, Jim Strain, Mary Page Keller, Thomas Ian Griffith, and Lisa Melamed. Each writer had a unique voice and in delivering more of Dolly’s music to the screen, it was imperative that I hire the finest writers suitable for each of the eight different HEARTSTRINGS stories based on Dolly’s songs.

Great scripts are the absolute foundation for any film/television production.  I have a production philosophy: producing and writing a show is like baking a cake, so if you have a wonderful cake, the acting, directing, cinematography, production design, and costumes are the icing on that cake, allowing you to serve up something wonderful for the world to enjoy.

It’s why you’re eating it to begin with!  On any of Magnolia Hill’s projects, I’m constantly reading, editing, and giving notes on our scripts, trying to make the cake as delicious as it can be. Adding in special effects and a gorgeous score adds flair to your already tasty pastry.

Story and script are generally considered part of the development process.  This again is building the groundwork before the actual filming and production takes place.  The shooting and physical making of the show is typically the most difficult part of the filmmaking process.  That’s because so many carefully planned elements are suddenly placed into an unpredictable environment.

Props, lighting, camera, sound, set décor, etc. all come together for the actors to perform and create the magic.  However, I’ll tell you that you’re always racing to get your day’s scenes finished, and there is never a day of filming where some sort of unexpected problem, big or small, arises.  It’s all part of the excitement with hundreds of people working together to craft something in unison.

What’s highly important is having those in charge, serve as strong leaders, be they directors, producers, or department heads.  For myself, I am on set each day before call time.  I watch every take of every shot, and I’m more than willing to jump into any problem or issue.

It’s stressful but exhilarating, and I talk to everyone on all levels, so they know that their contribution is acknowledged and significant.

After the weeks spent on location, drinking too much coffee and eating too many bags of Cheetos, we take the footage into postproduction.  This consists of the editing, sound design, coloring, and visual effects processes.  ‘Post’ as we nickname it, is really where the show comes together.

We choose the best acting performances for each scene and stitch them together so that the story is best told dramatically.  We’re also conscious of the length and oftentimes have to trim or remove certain things we’ve filmed, so the story flows smoothly.

On our most recent project, DOLLY PARTON’S CHRISTMAS ON THE SQUARE, a musical that’s now available on Netflix, we spent considerable time and energy ensuring the music and sound were truly beautiful.  With so many dance numbers and 14 original songs written by Dolly, we spent considerable time in the music studio and on the dub stage, ensuring that everything was perfect!

One of the greatest moments for me on this show was going to the famed Capitol Records, to record the score of the film with members of the LA Philharmonic, ensuring Dolly’s beautiful music came to life.  I’d say it was one of the highlights of my entire career.

I’ve always been a dreamer even as a little boy.  Growing up in Amory, Mississippi (population 6,871), I loved going to the local movie theater most afternoons and reading TV Guide.  While my parents wanted me to become a doctor, I had other aspirations – to work in show business.

After graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1977, I moved to Los Angeles and fought my way into the renowned William Morris Agency mailroom, making just $125 a week!  It would take many years of hard work and dedication to eventually get to where I am today, but I followed my passion.  Making film and television is difficult work but it is rewarding work.  From the tiny seed that starts as an idea, to delivering a huge movie to a network, and having it watched by millions all over the world, I could not have asked for a better job.

Editor’s Note: Two-time Emmy nominated producer Sam Haskell, III was named in 2007 by Television Week Magazine “One of the 25 Most Innovative and Influential People in Television of the Last 25 Years,” an honor he shared with Ted Turner, Barbara Walters, Oprah Winfrey, Walter Cronkite and other television legends. Haskell earned his ranking among the industry’s best through his 27-year career at the renowned William Morris Agency where he was one of the most powerful agents and dealmakers in the business.  Since 2012, Mr. Haskell and his company Magnolia Hill Productions, have had a development deal with Warner Bros. Television, and have produced several shows for NBC and Netflix with country music icon Dolly Parton.  The most recent, Dolly Parton’s Christmas On The Square, stars Christine Baranski, Treat Williams, Jenifer Lewis, Josh Segarra, Mary Lane Haskell, Jeanine Mason, and Dolly Parton.  It is currently available on Netflix.