Producer Tim Zajaros, a metro Detroit native who moved to Los Angeles in 2006, is celebrating the five-year anniversary of Armory Films. The company, which he co-founded, has financed and produced a number of movies in its short life, including Mudbound, a period piece about post-war race relations, distributed by Netflix and nominated for several Academy Awards this year. Zajaros spoke with Hour Detroit about his involvement in the standout film, his success in the industry, and how he went from an automotive marketing job to his dream career.
Hour Detroit: What were your responsibilities during the production of Mudbound?
Tim Zajaros: It was [shot in] 29 [days]. From a difficulty in shooting standpoint, it was exceptionally difficult. Not just the amount of time that we had, but the conditions because it was so hot. [We filmed in] New Orleans in the summer — it’s 90 degrees and 100 percent humidity. Not to mention the movie’s called Mudbound, so we were creating mud and [there were] bugs. We had war scenes. We even shot three days in Budapest. Our biggest responsibility was trying to give [director] Dee [Rees] everything she needed to make the movie we knew was on that page.
What attracted you to the project, and how does it feel to see how well it’s been received?
It was such an incredible script. [Mudbound] felt so relevant and important. Mind you, when we first read [the script], it was in 2015. It was almost like our responsibility, if you will, to make it. Who would have thought that two years later it’s somehow more relevant? It makes us even more glad that we decided to make the movie.
It had the potential to touch a lot of people. I think, fortunately it did. When we made the movie, the most important thing for us was to get it seen by as many people that could possibly see it. Netflix really did an excellent job promoting the film and getting it out there.
What are you looking to accomplish with future projects?
[Mudbound] was the first [movie] we did where you felt something. We want to make movies that got us in the business in the first place, that touch you, that move you in a way that is special.
We’ve got some really amazing things on the horizon. The Peanut Butter Falcon and another movie called Arctic, while different than Mudbound in topic, [are also] heartwarming stories that really are important.
“It has not been an easy road by any means, but persistence and perseverance are everything in this business.”
— Tim Zajaros
You moved to Hollywood over 10 years ago. What was your life like in metro Detroit before that?
I was a finance major and then started working for an automotive marketing company in Detroit. I made money. I was able to travel. I was able to hire people underneath me. I was 24, 25 at the time. You’d think that was the perfect situation. But it was like the Office Space scenario, [where you ask] ‘when’s lunch?’ and look at your watch and it’s 9:30. That was the time I thought, ‘what do I love?’ The only thing I could think of was movies. I got into the car and said, ‘I want to be a producer,’ but I didn’t even know what a producer did. To say it was a steep learning curve when I got [to California] would be an understatement. It has not been an easy road by any means, but persistence and perseverance are everything in this business.
Have there been any thoughts about returning to your home state to shoot?
There’s so many unique things about Michigan and about Detroit that people love. I have these conversations all the time about shooting there, and everyone’s like, ‘God, I wish they had that incentive…’ But there just isn’t one. It makes it hard to leave a million or $2 million on the table just to shoot there. Fiscally, it’s not usually possible. I think Michigan was a little too aggressive with their tax credits. But the tax credits are working for a lot of states, and there’s a real opportunity to bring it back in the right way, to not be too aggressive, and to make sure that nobody takes advantage of it. If it’s structured the right way, it can be really great. People are already intrigued by the state, so anything I can do to help them revive that I certainly will. I would love to be shooting in Michigan.
What is your advice for other metro Detroit creatives who are interested in pursuing a career in film?
We’re in a unique time now, [and] it’s much easier to make content. People can make things with their iPhone or an inexpensive camera, and have really high quality. Try shooting things, writing things, dabble in [film]. If it’s something that you still love, I think moving [to California] is still a wise move. It’s really hard to move up in the business, or at least in a reasonable amount of time, if you’re not in the state. That said, there’s a lot of platforms. People can shoot things in other states and get noticed. It happens all the time.
Name: Tim Zajaros
Education: Bachelor of Business Administration in Finance and Financial Management, Western Michigan University
Armory Films Lineup:
Zombeavers: The 2014 horror-comedy is about a vacationing group of friends who are attacked by zombie beavers.
Cabin Fever: A recreation of the 2002 horror classic, the 2016 film follows five friends who encounter a flesh-eating disease.
Mudbound: Carey Mulligan, Mary J. Blige, and Jason Mitchell appear in the 2017 film exploring race relations in Mississippi following World War II.
Mom and Dad: In this horror-thriller that was released in early 2018, Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair live in a world where parents violently attack their children.
Arctic: Production has wrapped on the film which follows a man stranded in the Arctic.
The Peanut Butter Falcon: Zarjaros says the not-yet-released film, which stars Shia LaBeouf and a young man with Down Syndrome, is “essentially [about] letting a caged bird free.”