THE INSIDER INTERVIEWS: ANDY PATERSON
The Insider Interviews series started in 2010 as a set of recorded interviews, featuring the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Gareth Unwin, who produced THE KING’S SPEECH, Ben Wheatley and Hossein Amini, the Oscar-nominated writer of DRIVE and THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY. You can watch these here.
The Insider Interviews now exist as live monthly events in central London, which is a combination of a compered interview and taking questions from audience members. If you would like to check out future speakers and join an Insider Interviews Live evening, you can see more details here.
Andy Paterson is a British producer best known for period pieces RESTORATION and GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING, Bobby Darin biopic BEYOND THE SEA, terrorism drama INCENDIARY, and THE RAILWAY MAN, which is based on a true story about the complex trauma of war.
When you’re choosing projects, do you pay attention to what’s in the zeitgeist? Or is it much more instinctive than that?
It’s always hard to know. Inevitably, you have to find reasons why something is relevant and why an audience is going to want to see it. Sometimes you’re looking at different kinds of audiences.
When I was talking to Zygi [Kamasa] at Lionsgate UK about THE RAILWAY MAN, when he was bidding for the UK rights, I told him he had to persuade me.
He was so clear about why this story would appeal to a particular demographic, why Colin Firth was the right person to appear in the role, and the number he thought he could do with it in the UK. He knew what he could do with it.
When you’re starting out, you’re just desperate to get a film made. When you’ve had a few films that didn’t really perform, you really don’t want to go through it all and then have another that doesn’t perform.
So you’re looking at what the audience might be and why they might want to watch it. Sometimes, if it’s something they don’t yet know they want, you have to feel out the way to do that. And obviously, you make costly mistakes all the time.
You’ve been in the industry for a long time. How have you seen it change?
It’s difficult to imagine that I’ve been doing it so long, because it feels like it all happened the other day. We’ve been through so many different technologies, so many different ways of doing things, but I don’t think it’s so different now in terms of making people want to watch a story.
Long ago, we made our first student movie. We were lucky enough to have John Schlesinger, who was a friend of a friend, come along to talk to us. He said there’s only really one thing you need to know – there’s only one camera. You can work everything else out from there. And we did.
We watched movies and planned out where the camera was, the technicalities of it. What’s hardest, and what drives me, is what is it about the story that makes the audience desperate to know what happens next? How do you get the energy into the story?
For example, when I was sitting at Telluride watching an audience watch GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING for the first time. In the last 20 minutes of that movie, the American audience barely breathed.
That’s when you know something is going to work. They have to know what’s going to happen, and they will not move until it’s played out.
Often when you read scripts, you feel like that maybe isn’t as obvious as it sounds. I sometimes wonder if people realise that is the most important thing.
It’s the feeling of sitting in a movie audience and wanting to be there, as opposed to thinking, “I know where this is going. I know what that next line is going to be.”
It’s dramatic tension. That hasn’t changed, and that’s what you want to find.
That was just a bunch of students knowing no better and one American saying, “Why don’t we make a movie?” Why not?
What this guy had, which nobody else at that time had the ambition to have, was the idea that, if we’re going to put all this together and make a short film, why don’t we make a proper film? Who wants a short? The hardest thing to do in this business is to get the chance to make a film.
Nobody’s getting paid. We’ll have to beg or borrow the equipment. We have no idea what we’re doing.
The hardest thing to do in this business is to get the chance to make a film.
It was a very long time ago. There weren’t very many film schools. We found a cameraman and editor from the London Film School and the rest we really did make up as we went along. We were very naive. But we did work on a script and tried to puzzle out as much as we could about how things worked.
Hugh was a student there at the time, and he was ridiculously beautiful. I had just left university and I had a job, so I had a battered old car which was basically the unit transport. It was completely trashed by having lighting gear in it every night.
It was just a bonkers experience
After ten hours of shooting, Mike and I would get in the car, put Springsteen on so loud it would make your ears bleed, and drive to Technicolor with the film. We’d pick up yesterday’s film and drive back.
It was just a bonkers experience, but we got through it. We did manage to get it released. The BBC bought it, although I have a deal with Hugh Grant that he owes me one more movie as long as I never ever let anybody see the film!
Then, for the next three years, we ran a film foundation. We came up with a screenwriting competition and raised some sponsorship.
People sent us a lot of scripts – or what they thought were scripts – so we learned a lot about what people thought scripts were. And we got David Puttnam to judge the competition.
We managed to persuade EMI to finance the film, RESTLESS NATIVES, which we produced from the winning script. It’s a Scottish comedy that became a cult classic much later, although it was completely trashed by the press at the time.
That was really when video had just started. The theory was, because VHS was this amazing new market, that if you made a film for $3 to $3.5 million, you couldn’t lose money.
So about a thousand films got made, and 990 of them lost money! But that’s kind of how the business works, and we just rode that wave. We were a little team. Mike was directing, and we were the production team.
You were also working with the screenwriter Rupert Walters?
Yeah. He’s a very active screenwriter. He and Mike wrote the first one, Mike wrote PROMISED LAND, and Rupert wrote a film called SOME GIRLS.
It’s kind of hilarious. PROMISED LAND had Meg Ryan and Keifer Sutherland when they were very young. SOME GIRLS had Jennifer Connelly and Patrick Dempsey.
This is the classic independent nightmare – you have all these stars before they’re stars! Although it’s good when they become something, because you do sometimes get to work with them later.
Do you think it helped being part of a collective? Could you have achieved so much by yourself?
No, I couldn’t. There were always four or five of us with the energy to try to have a new idea, to try to do something.
You’re always working in a vacuum of information. You don’t really know anything until you’ve tried to do it, and getting the chance to do it is almost impossible. So you have to just think of what to do that day to learn something or get something done.
Would you advise people to be part of collectives?
You can’t set out to do something the way someone else did it. Everybody’s journey is completely different. There was no infrastructure. It wasn’t like we could get development money from the BFI, because there wasn’t any. I don’t think BBC Films existed.
There weren’t obvious places to go. I used to sit there thinking that this is impossible. There’s no industry that I can see. But then you meet another person, and another person, and something happens, but they still just take forever.
After we’d made the student film, RESTLESS NATIVES, PROMISED LAND and SOME GIRLS, we started a TV company.
We went off to Hollywood to make a documentary series [NAKED HOLLYWOOD]. It was purely a way of spending six months in Hollywood, saying, “We’re the BBC,” knocking on the door and persuading people to talk to you.
We learned a lot doing that, in terms of how the Hollywood system works. Not that we existed within the Hollywood system, but it meant we were familiar with it.
We did six episodes of a TV show, focusing on the director, star, producer, writer, agent and the studio. I used to sit in assistants’ offices with my Steadicam Junior and DV or Hi8 camera. Some of those assistants are quite big agents by now.
Even if we trashed them in the series, they still loved being part of it!
Did that Hollywood experience help with RESTORATION? It’s based on a book by Rose Tremain, had a cracking cast, and ended up winning two Oscars.
RESTORATION was a Booker-nominated novel, a huge 17th Century story, and it took years to get it made. We went through all the classic problems on that.
It was a big, big film. It takes place before, during and after the Great Fire of London. We weren’t going to be able to do it for a low budget. We waited for Daniel Day-Lewis for about a year and a half.
Nobody wanted to make it with Robert Downey Jr. at that point. He was, in his own words, going through his “troubled period” at that time.
It happened when a guy you may have heard of called Harvey Weinstein sold his company to Disney. Suddenly he had production money for the first time. He’d kept the British film industry alive during the late ’80s and early ’90s, but by this point he’d sold.
They kept on saying to us, “You have to make it for $12.1 million.” We said, “OK, but the budget’s $18…” I couldn’t work out why it had to be 12.1.
The best answer we got was that when Bob Weinstein negotiated the deal with Disney, their cap on spending was $12 million and not a dollar more. Finally, just to shut him up, they said it was 12.1, and he felt he had won the battle.
They hauled me in and said, “OK, we know it’s going to be 15. You have to agree to make it for 12.1, then go over budget.” I said, “Great, and then I get fired and the movie gets made.” Because there’ll be a completion bond. They promised it wouldn’t happen. I said, “I may be young, but I’m not that stupid!”
That’s one of several books you’ve adapted. Do you scout for books, or do they come to you through recommendations?
What we learned on RESTORATION was that you have to really be sure what the movie story is. Adapting a book isn’t about reading it and putting the book on screen.
The first question now, with these decades of wisdom, is “Why does this story want to be told in this medium?” Is it because you want to get a movie made? If that’s the answer, then years of pain will follow, because it’s too difficult.
The two-hour movie is actually quite an unforgiving, simple beast. It’s why I love it, because you have to set up a story and characters, somehow turn that story into something else, and then resolve it in an unexpected but understandable way.
I think we could have done that with RESTORATION, but what we tried to do was tell the whole story.
The story’s about a physician in the 17th Century. Medicine didn’t really work, so he was in some ways gifted, but the last thing he wanted was to exercise that gift. He falls in love with Charles II’s mistress and is cast out of paradise.
He meets a woman and they form a relationship and they have to go back to London, which is in the grip of the plague. Through the plague and Great Fire of London, he has to find the means to become what he should have been in the first place.
The only problem in that concept is that – and God knows, we went through this a million times – the only way to really become what he should have become is to cure the plague. The movie, as it was set up, required that he cure the plague. So we’d set something up that we couldn’t finish.
If we set up to adapt it now, we’d find a way of doing it that wouldn’t try to tell all this story. We’d focus on what the journey of this character has to be.
If there’s a problem in the script and you think you’ll figure it out in the cut, you won’t. Adaptation is all about why is this story in that medium, rather than the medium it’s perfectly happy in at that moment.
So GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING is one that works perfectly in that sense?
Only because my wife and business partner [Olivia Hetreed] is a genius. She read that manuscript, came downstairs and told me I had to read this book, now.
She knew why she was the person to tell that story in this medium.
If you’ve read the novel, it’s in first person. There was a paragraph we used to quote where the narrator describes all the things she could have said and done, but in the end said nothing. If you want to send a screenwriter screaming out into the night, get them to tell you how to put that on film!
What Olivia understood was the peril of this girl being sent into this household where she has no power, of this patron that controls everything and decides to “have” her because of the power he wields. She sold it to me as a thriller.
I tried to sell it to the market as a thriller, which was more challenging. But she absolutely knew what the power of that story would be and how it represented something about her.
I’d love to talk about THE RAILWAY MAN, which is also based on a book. You knew Eric Lomax, the author? And it was fourteen years in the making?
Yes, he died in the fourteenth year, although he knew the film had been made, which was, I think, what got him through his last Winter.
It was extraordinary to know that you were telling a true story and that you knew the real people. You have a responsibility to them to tell the story in a way that they would understand.
Frank Cottrell Boyce said to me at one point that we thought we were adapting the book, but then we realised that he didn’t actually understand what had happened to him.
If you told Eric’s story, that he’d set off on a journey that was, as far as he was concerned, to kill a man who had been responsible for his torture all these years ago, and yet he found forgiveness, you’d have to explain how he could make that transition.
And he didn’t know. He said, “Somehow the pain just went away.” How could you possibly write that?
Frank wrote this extraordinary, beautiful screenplay, but it was a linear telling of the story. You’d have met Colin Firth on page 72. Almost every fabulous piece of dialogue that’s in the movie was in that script. But it didn’t come to terms with that question. We only realised it was a question much later.
At a certain point, Patti, who’s Eric’s widow, wife at the time, refused to accept that her story was relevant. She said,
How can anything I’ve been through mean anything in relation to what those men went through on that railway?
I worked with her to share more of what she’d experienced. Eric told me they’d bought a second home because of all these books he’s accumulated. He showed us around all his stuff, including the world biggest’s collection of Bradshaw’s railway timetables. There was a moment where Patti looked at him and asked me if I really thought they’d bought a second house just to put some books in it.
She said, “We have a lot of friends come to visit. And you can’t have friends staying in a house where every night your husband wakes up at 3 in the morning, screams the house down and walks down the stairs and screams at the moon. You can’t share that with people.”
She was starting to trust us enough to tell us some of this story. We managed to persuade her that she represented all the families and all the people who had to cope with the wreckage of war.
The story started to shape itself in a different way. We could start with that gorgeous sequence of two older people meeting on a train, as they did, and just falling in love.
And then, she starts realising what she’s fallen in love with. And then, having the strength that woman has, to say, “I’ve seen that wonderful man and I’m going to get him back.”
That gave us a different structure. It’s a complicated story. Suddenly there was something we could use as a kind of detective story, as a drive through it.
I hope at the end of Act 2, when she realises that Eric has gone, you have a moment where you think, “Oh my God, now what’s going to happen?” You may know that the story is going to end in forgiveness, but at that moment you can’t work out why or how.
How do you go about getting rights for books?
You can usually find out the publishers and go there first. The publisher will usually quite quickly direct you to whoever looks after those. It might be the publisher, but more often it’s the agent. Then you can simply inquire if those are available.
If they are, then it’s a more complicated question in terms of whether they’re going to sell them to you.
If it’s HARRY POTTER, you’ve missed the boat already – long before any of us had finished reading the first book, the rights had been tied up.
On the other hand, LORD OF THE RINGS had been out there quite some time before anyone persuaded the estate to let it be done.
It was, literally, eight years on and we’d just got the rights.
At the beginning of the summer, I was in Waterstone’s in Piccadilly and saw, winking at me, a book we’d tried to get the rights to eight years ago. We’d been outbid by Johnny Depp. Olivia loved that book.
I called the agent and asked if anything was happening. Actually, the rights had just come back to them. It was, literally, eight years on and we’d just got the rights. Olivia’s working on that at the moment.
So don’t despair if you don’t get them. I’ve been outbid by some of the best people in the world.
On THE RAILWAY MAN, there are six executive producers. Could you talk through getting it set up, getting them on board, and where the money came from?
The film I’ve just done is a Netflix original movie. There’s one producer, and that’s me, end of story. That’s how they work, and I can assure you, I liked it! The crew liked it. It’s a very efficient way of making movies.
But THE RAILWAY MAN is not an easy sell. It has a lot of difficult elements. It was really hard to get made, partly because I am insistent that I won’t make a film for the sake of getting it made.
I wouldn’t make that film until I could do justice to what I think audiences want, which would involve a certain amount of scale. I didn’t want to make a domestic drama that avoided that.
We were reasonably clever about finding a way to do it. But going out to raise $20 million for that film is impossible on paper, because it’s a dark drama. Colin obviously made a huge difference.
When we first got the rights for the book, I was going to do it with my friends from HILARY AND JACKIE, with Anand Tucker directing it and Frank Cottrell Boyce writing it. That script was written.
We were still with Intermedia, who were putting up some of the money for HILARY AND JACKIE. They wanted Sean Connery to play Eric Lomax. He, eventually, passed.
We went through endless incarnations. At one point Ian McKellan would play the older character and Ewan McGregor the younger version. We couldn’t set it up with them in those roles, again because of how much money I needed.
When we finally came round to this version of the script, with Colin on board, I had just produced a film called BURNING MAN for an old friend of mine in Australia. It was his personal story, a fairly low-budget movie we made in Sydney.
I just loved working with this director, Jonathan Teplitzky. I saw there could be a way of doing it as an Australian-UK co-production.
The plan became to shoot Scotland in Scotland, shoot the Death Railway at the real Death Railway in Thailand, and shoot the Prisoner of War camp and everything else in Australia.
Suddenly we have access to:
- some softish money from Screen Australia
- the 40% tax rebate in Australia
- some money from Screen Queensland and Screen New South Wales for doing post-production there
- some money out of Scotland for shooting there
- Lionsgate UK putting up some money for the UK
- the UK distributor who was on the previous film putting up some money for Australia
- and Lionsgate coming in for foreign sales, managing to pre-sale to 30 territories on the back of Colin
This is five years ago. That wouldn’t happen today. We pieced together a hugely complicated financing package. Then somebody has to come in and bankroll that money, because you only get all the tax rebates and the pre-sales at the end.
Somebody has to lend you all that money against those pieces of paper. Somebody has to put up the last 10% at risk. Two of those executive producers were from Silver Reel, who took all that risk bankrolling the soft money and putting up some gap [financing].
Two of the executive producers were from Lionsgate UK, the UK distributor. A couple of people put up early development money.
Anand was an executive producer because at that point he wasn’t going to direct the film. He stepped away to do other things and took one of those credits.
They all have a piece of the history of the project. We had a line producer who’s putting all this together, and an Australian co-producer because we did it that way.
The only way to learn producing is by doing it
It does bother me when people from public funding companies take those exec producer credits. A few years ago, Tessa Ross and Film4 decided that they wouldn’t take executive producer credit, but everybody else was.
So if you look at films now, the BFI, BBC Films, Film4, all those people take executive producer credits on films.
The only way to learn producing is by doing it, and if you have public funding bodies saying producers are useless and putting things together themselves, then it diminishes the role.
One of the best mentors I’d ever had, even though we met when Harvey Weinstein sent him in on RESTORATION to fire me, said, “You just have to remember that you’re in charge. It may not look that way. People might think the director’s in charge, and for large parts of it they are. But as the producer, you better carry the ultimate responsibility, otherwise it’ll all fall apart in a big way.”
My job is to be across all of it, to be as useful to a writer as I am to a director as I am to a grip. I take pride in that job.
Did THE RAILWAY MAN make a profit?
It repaid its costs to the commercial money, and it made money for its distributors. It did not pay back all the Screen Australia equity, but that’s a much broader question.
I’m not cynical about this, because you have to remember that Lionsgate probably bought ten other films that year that lost them money. We’re dealing with a business where most films lose money for everybody. That’s simply the nature of the equation. Most films fail. The ones that succeed have to pay back the money that the others lost.
Money filtering down through that waterfall back to the producers really doesn’t happen! You have to get to the level of THE KING’S SPEECH before you’re paid more.
When you do a deal with Netflix, you agree a production budget and then they negotiate a premium. That’s to pay effectively the back-end that you won’t get – because the movie will only be on Netflix.
When they started out, they would really lure filmmakers in with a nice number. Now, they know that it’s so rare. You have to be wise to the economics of the whole business.
What we’re trying to convey at the moment to the Government, is that this is an industry where you have colossal inward investment, where we service STAR WARS and GAME OF THRONES. It’s a wonderful employer and revenue earner for the country.
However, we have an increasingly niche arthouse public funding system. There’s this big missing bit in the middle, which is where THE RAILWAY MAN, GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING and THE KING’S SPEECH are. They’re the films of a certain scale that we don’t know how to make at the moment.
Putting money into that sector and developing a few hits, like THE KING’S SPEECH, will pay off everything else. But you have to look at the whole organism, which is very difficult and complicated to do.
I was wondering how your upcoming project THE GRAND SOPHY is going?
It’s a classic case in point of how impossible it is to get films like that made at the moment. This is a Georgette Heyer adaptation. It’s written by Olivia, a glorious script with a fabulous female role. Lionsgate UK want it, and we developed it with BBC Films.
Again, it needs to be made at a certain budget level, because it’s a period film with some action and a good deal of adventure. Our financing model at the moment simply doesn’t make that viable.
We simply can’t pull in the international sales we used to pull in. Distributors had to put up money to buy a film, then spend huge amounts of money to market it. They get a chunk of that money back from DVD, which is becoming replaced by VoD in a certain way, but not by enough.
We simply can’t pull in the international sales we used to pull in.
The amount they would then be able to sell it to free television – BBC, Film4, ITV – that would be the amount they could actually afford to pay for the rights to the film. That has gone, because TV stations just don’t show films any more.
If you look at the schedules now, they’re not what they used to be, because you have iTunes, Netflix, now, all those other ways of seeing films. The ancillary revenues that a distributor needs to be able to afford to buy movies has gone.
You can’t sell a film to television in Germany now. THE KING’S SPEECH only sold to Germany once it won the Oscar. There are so many territories that simply can’t buy independent films. The model of making a £5 million film, a million from tax credit, a million from BBC Films, a million from BFI, two million from international – that’s almost gone.
You can still do some work in America sometimes, there are more buyers but they are looking for very specific things. We’re just in the latest crisis in terms of financing. It’s a big problem for distributors, because I can go off and make films for Netflix.
Do you see any potential or future in self-distribution?
Two good friends of mine have tried the self-distribution route recently, with very strong films and a lot of hard work.
The problem is that, last year in the £5 – 10 million budget range, there were 30 – 40 films made. In the £1 – 5 million, there were many more. In the range under £1 million, there were something like 700 films made.
Even if you persuade cinemas to show the film and have it online soon after, it’s just so hard to get noticed.
We spent £2.5 million marketing THE RAILWAY MAN here, which means you know about it. If you’re not getting above that noise, you might get a few people to watch your film, but the dream of self-distribution over the internet, when you try it, takes so much work.
It gives you a lot of respect for distributors actually, for what it takes to get a movie out there.
I remember on our very first movie there was one screening on Kensington High Street where we knew all five people who were in the cinema. It’s not far away from that. So I don’t think that dream is going to get you above the noise.