By NANCY BETTER
Photography by CHICHI UBIÑA
Clay Floren can’t remember a time when he wasn’t fascinated by the film business. “I was writing screenplays when I was 10 years old, and asking my family to give me critical notes,” he recalls with a laugh.
Fast forward 30 years, and the Greenwich native now runs Floren Sheih Productions, the Manhattan-based movie company he co-founded a decade ago with industry veteran Aimee Sheih. This talented duo is behind “1985,” a centerpiece of the 2018 Greenwich International Film Festival.
“Every film has its own unique backstory and trajectory,” Floren explains. In the case of “1985,” he was jogging along NYC’s East River on a Saturday morning when he received a phone call from Yen Tan, a well-known Hollywood director. Tan was pitching the expansion of his acclaimed short picture ”1985.” He had already lined up actors Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis, but needed help financing and producing the film.
“It was an incredibly moving story about a closeted young man with late-stage AIDS returning home to say goodbye to his family,” Floren says. “After reading the script, I immediately called my childhood friend Clay Pecorin, with whom I had made another film, and asked him to take a look. By Monday, we were committed.”
Timing was of the essence, because both the budget and the co-stars’ availability were tight. The picture was shot on location in Texas, where Tan resides, in shadowy black-and-white 16 mm film. “While many projects take years to get off the ground, this one came together very quickly,” Floren says. His team jumped into pre-production and finished in three months. After showing at summer festivals, it will be released theatrically in the fall.
“1985” resonated closely with Floren on many levels. “It captures a period of history that’s important to remember,” he says. “The AIDS crisis of the 80’s was a horrific time for the LGBTQ community, further ravaging a population that was already openly persecuted and marginalized. There’s a timeliness that extends beyond the film’s scope because our country still wrestles with bigotry, and there’s an obvious need for more stories that inspire acceptance, inclusion and love.”
Telling stories has always been Floren’s passion. After graduating with a B.A. and M.A. in psychology from Stanford University – while holding summer internships with New Line Cinema in L.A. and Tribeca Productions in N.Y. – he landed a job at Endeavor (now William Morris Endeavor).
“My mother’s a politician [Livvy Floren, a Republican CT state representative serving her 9th term in Hartford] and my father’s in finance [Doug Floren, a partner in DCF Capital a Greenwich hedge fund], so I struggled to get my foot in the door of the industry,” Floren says. “I had a master’s degree but I was working in the mailroom.”
Floren left Endeavor to join a startup entertainment company that represented a promising stable of writers. While there he met his future business partner, Shieh, who was overseeing East Coast literary affairs for Paramount Pictures. With their extensive backgrounds in film and publishing, the pair began consulting on projects and producing movies including “Lost in the Sun,” “Shelter,” “Bad Milo,” and “Girls Against Boys.”
“It all starts with stories,” Floren says. “Aimee and I go through two or three unedited manuscripts each week, alongside script submissions. We’re always trying to identify viable film or television adaptations.”
With “1985,” Floren felt strongly about the movie’s potential, as well as its message. “Coming out remains a traumatizing experience for the vast majority of our LGBTQ population,” he says. “My husband Andrew and I were fortunate to have sympathetic and supportive families, but we are well aware that our respective experiences were outliers compared to those of most. “1985” addresses head-on what it was like coming out during an exceptionally dark period for the LGBTQ community, and my hope is that audiences will leave with a deeper sense of compassion as well as respect for those who fought the hardest battles.”
Next up for Floren Shieh Productions: “Skin Trade,” a 1970s true crime story starring Chris Hemsworth. The plot follows an FBI agent who is sent undercover to infiltrate the pornography industry and take down top-level Mafioso bosses – but winds up struggling with his own identity and a blurred sense of reality. Says Floren, “It’s definitely a different animal from “1985,” but that’s part of what makes filmmaking so much fun.”
Floren credits much of his success to the relationships he’s built throughout his career – many of which can be traced to his hometown. “If it weren’t for the handful of Greenwich residents who helped me get started, I wouldn’t have had opportunities in this industry,” he says. “That’s why I always have a rotating team of interns in my office – I love paying it forward.”