THE INSIDER INTERVIEWS: BRADLEY QUIRK
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.
This interview was hosted by producer, James Cotton.
What do you do on an average day at Altitude Films?
I work at Altitude Film and Entertainment as Head of Development. Basically, Altitude produces, sells and distributes films. We produce films out of the UK, but they can be international films. We’ve made two films thus far, BIG GAME and KILL YOUR FRIENDS, both of which have had international components.
We sell films internationally, so we sell our own films in the marketplace, and we also sell third-party films. Should you have a film produced by an independent producer, you could approach us and we could sell your film at Cannes, Berlin, and other international film markets. This is all great because it helps us control the destiny of the films that we produce ourselves, and to some extent helps facilitate filmmakers getting their movies made.
We also distribute films in the UK. Last year our biggest release was the Amy Winehouse documentary by Asif Kapadia. That was a really great journey for us, and that’s gone on to win an Oscar and a BAFTA, and hopefully it will continue to do well for us. It was a great opportunity, we could flex our muscles as a relativity new distribution company.
I find myself in a company that has three activities. My job is to get films made, but also to ensure that I am servicing my sales team with product they can take to the market, and also service my distribution team. Not all production companies have those facilities housed under one roof, so I’m quite lucky in that sense. Other companies that have similar setups would be Studio Canal in the UK for instance.
In a sense, it’s a very privileged position I find myself in as a development executive, because I can talk very quickly to distribution experts and say “Will UK audiences see this?” “What comparable films should I be thinking of here?” I can also talk to my colleagues in international sales and say “Will this idea sell in Germany? Will it sell in Japan?” I can get very quick feedback.
Hopefully I’m not lead entirely by what my colleagues say, because that would be a bit too reactive! You’ve always got to take a certain degree of risk, but at the same time it’s a very useful setup to be in as a development individual.
In terms of my day-to-day, I run the development slate. We have approximately 14 titles in development over film and television. I’m responsible for managing all the creative decisions. That means giving notes, and adding new material to the slate. That means hiring writers, discussing contracts with them and their agents, and it also means reading material that’s coming into the company that looks like it will sell well.
There’s a film that we’re currently working on that’s in post production right now, it’s called THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS. It’s something that came into Altitude and I was one of the first people on the team to read it. I said to my colleagues: “We need to see if we can partner with these filmmakers,” and that was the beginning of a process that’s lasted a year and a half. The film is in pretty good shape at the moment. We’ll be taking that to Berlin to try to sell the film in its promo form.
How did your first experience in film influence your passion for the industry?
Well, I’m ancient now. I grew up alongside VHS and spent an inordinate amount of time in my local video store. I wouldn’t necessarily get anything out, I’d just check the covers out of the various movies. That was the beautiful thing about physical product, you could stand there and really gain much more perspective on what was out there to see. For me, it was a way of educating myself on what films I’d like to see, along with Time Out reviews. This was between the ages of twelve and eighteen during my school holidays.
I was at a boarding school so I had a limited amount of time at school to watch movies. So, when I was at home I used to devour them. Then in my last year of school I started a film society. I think the first thing we screened was Woody Allen’s MANHATTAN because we were young and full of angst.
Then I got to Oxford. There was a short film being made, I got onto it as a runner, and I just really enjoyed it. It was the most fun thing I’d done in my first year of university. I don’t think it was a particularly good film in the end, but it was a hell of a lot of fun, and the crew were great. I thought, “Next year, I want to be doing more of that!”
Then the next year, a script came up from a guy called Daniel Peak, who now writes sitcoms for the BBC, and I thought to myself, “OK, I’m going to try to pitch myself as a director on this.” And I did, I fibbed to the producers, telling them I was going to make it like a John Ford movie, though I didn’t know what I was saying, or how to achieve that.
That film was a lot of fun to make, it was a really brutal production. It had a milk float, most of the scenes were shot on it, carrying this explosive liquid that looked like milk. It was a comedy, I promise you! The film, fortunately, was useful to me, because it allowed me to apply to film school on the back of it. And that’s how I got into film school.
Can you tell us about your experience in Chicago?
Basically I did a year in-between university and film school, where I worked for a hip-hop magazine called Trace. I did film reviews for them, which exposed me to a few more movies along the way. I also worked for the art department of London Weekend Television, which at that point made THE SOUTH BANK SHOW. It gave me an opportunity to see a bit of theatre and hang out, doing cool things in London for a year when it was still relatively cheap to do that sort of stuff.
Then I went off to Chicago to do a master of fine arts in Film Production. I made two short films out there, very well-resourced. American students really knew what they were doing, both undergraduates and post graduates, and I had a great time there. Sadly, my visa came to an end, and my funding came to an end. I got a free ride at this school as well, it was a teaching assistance-ship, so I taught film production, video production, screenwriting and editing to classes of undergraduates.
It was a very good time. It was a small intake of postgraduates, there were only about six of us. Because of this we could just do what we wanted. A friend of mine is a screenwriter in Germany, another friend of mine is one of Singapore’s leading art-house directors and won a Student Oscar.
It’s really great because when you go to the States for film school, what you find is that most of the undergraduates who take film gravitate to LA, and take up roles in the industry there. So there’s a bunch of people in LA now that have roles like head of development or VPs in different production companies. So should I choose to go to LA it’s an opportunity to talk with some old friends as well.
What were the hurdles you had to get through to become who you are today?
Coming back from the States was strange, because film is so much about collaborating. That’s true for films of fifty million dollars and it’s true from films of five million quid, or five quid! It’s about working in a team and trusting in your close colleagues to have the right instincts and to make the right calls. And if not, at least to value them enough to go along with the mistakes you collectively make.
Film is about collaborating. It’s about working in a team and trusting in your close colleagues to have the right instincts and to make the right calls.
So when I returned I had no film-making network or colleagues, I didn’t have someone I could share scripts with, so I was like, “What do I do?” I have these skills (I think) but I don’t know where to apply them.
Then a job came up for trainee script editor on LONDON’S BURNING. I applied through a lovely lady called Kristy McDonald, who was the script executive at the time, but I didn’t get it! I was crushed. But then, I got a call from her, saying there’s another show starting that she needed another trainee script editor. She asked if I wanted to do it and I thought, “Great!”
So I joined a show called NIGHT AND DAY. The show was a new soap opera with the hook that it was going out at tea time but it would also have a Thursday night transmission with added adult material.
It was quite interesting being at the start of a new soap opera, seeing how it works and trying to create long story legs and introducing characters. But frankly, it was a bit of an oddity. A lot of the people who worked in the script department have gone on to do brilliant things.
It was a good experience, and when we hit crisis points, I would volunteer to write scripts, and they’d let me. So it enabled me to keep writing, and build up a bit of a CV as a writer. And that’s why, when 2005 came along, I had enough material behind me to get onto the Writers’ Academy.
Could you explain who John Yorke is and how he helped you during that formative time?
I spent three months in the room of the Writers’ Academy with him. The Writers’ Academy was housed in the studios at Elstree, Borehamwood. Basically he’d set up this kind of long table, around which all the writers would sit with our laptops. And it was almost like we were in some sort of weird science lab.
But John’s theory was, and I think it’s a pretty strong theory, all dramatic structure can be broken down into five acts. So if you think of three act structure, you’re thinking about a three act structure with two pinch points in the middle of the acts, to create a five-act structure.
It’s a very Shakespearean device, the idea was that he would get all of his writers thinking about and building up to the turning points at the end of each and every act. That would be our way of plotting through the huge amount of story that is required in long running TV series.
So what he had was a brilliant idea, which was “I’m going to create a talented factory of people who can produce the vast amount of story required” for EASTENDERS, CASUALTY, HOLBY CITY, and beyond. And all of those writers, excluding myself, went on to become core writers for those shows.
I remember being at university and sitting in a room at Oxford with people, pretty smart kids, just sitting there, glued to the box, trying to anticipate the story lines of the Mitchell Brothers in EASTENDERS. So, for me, I was really excited to try and work with John, but for it didn’t really work out at BBC in the end. He’s gone on subsequently to run Company Pictures now, which is like a drama power house.
I really enjoyed all of John’s lessons, and all the practical examples he showed us. Writing the show wasn’t for me. I didn’t love it as much as I thought I was going to. So I’m the only person, probably, who got fired from EASTENDERS for writing his namesake, Bradley, in a bad way.
You sound quite negative about your drama writing, did you lose the passion for it, or did you just want to move to another area of the industry?
I think the self-deprecation prevents me from sitting around and thinking “Ah! I must write something.” And going a little insane with it. But also, I like to think that the one thing I’m good at is recognising talent, and recognising the limitations of one’s own talent. I’m pretty good at spotting material, and writers, and filmmakers, and I get a lot of pleasure out of that.
It’s one of the great things about my job is that I can get to meet amazing talented people on a daily basis. And I don’t have to make up fibs about it to see them, I’m just like “Come and meet me!” And hopefully they make time in their day to do it so that we can try to make stuff together.
My own writing, I think, having gone through the process of the writers academy, has gotten to the level where I’ve thought “Okay, this might be where I’m at as a writer.” While it is a very useful muscle to have as a developer, I don’t sit there and envy anyone in the process of writing because it’s completely hard work. I do some hard work in my office, but I don’t have to drive myself crazy, as some writers do, in order to get scripts out.
The process of writing is completely hard work. I do some hard work in my office, but I don’t have to drive myself crazy, as some writers do, in order to get scripts out.
You won’t go crazy writing the first draft, the first draft is your own. Go have a massive amount of fun with your first draft, but when you’re on draft eight, and someone is querying a scene or a beat or something like that, and you’ve got nothing left to give, that’s a case of a situation where you’re really earning your money. So I do love writing, but I don’t wake up in the morning thinking “If I haven’t written today, I’ve not had a great day.”
How did your experiences as a writer shape your approach to working in the UKFC (Now the BFI)?
I actually think my time in Chicago had formed me more than my time working as a writer. As a writer you become awfully siloed, and you find yourself in you office or your room or wherever you’re writing, and you don’t necessarily have a huge range of networks or contacts to turn to. You might have an agent, for instance, you might have a writers group, you might be working with people, directors, other writers, producers and the like.
But what I found gave me the initial impetus in the Film Council job, is that I’m a massive film fan. I was going every Friday night to see the new releases religiously. I probably saw more movies then, in a way, than I do now, as an audience member, as a punter.
That enthusiasm for film is the thing that got me through the first six months in the film industry, because I wasn’t part of the film industry before that. I was either an independent freelance writer, or I was working at the fringes of TV, but I wasn’t at the heart of it. Suddenly I went into the Film Council and it was, kind of, the heart of the film industry.
There’s lots of film activity you don’t see in places like the BFI or the Film Council, but you meet a lot of producers, writers and directors. And what you realised was, especially in the BFI or the Film Council at that time, the whole point was about giving people with talent money to make good work. That hopefully meant popular work, but if you can’t make it popular, at least make it good.
And that was the approach from Tanya Seghatchian, Lizzie Francke, who’s a Film Fund executive now, Chris Collins, who sadly passed away last year, but backed so many amazing films, and Natascha Wharton who was at Working Title, and executive produced BILLY ELLIOT among other things. That was a great place to go and learn about the film industry, and I was very, very privileged. Really what happened is that I was at the right place, with the right people, at the right time.
What was it like working at a multinational company like Pathe?
In France, the company has great taste and talent relationships, and they make very, very populist French films that take huge amounts of money. Often they can be comedies, which often don’t travel sell so well in the UK, unless they’re more art-house leaning, and have Catherine Deneuve in it. POTICHE being a recent example of that.
The UK set up is a much smaller company. It no longer has a large distribution team, it distributes through a relationship with 20th Century Fox. But the UK wing of the company tends to make these very prestigious films that do very well when it comes to the awards season. PHILOMENA being an example of these films. PRIDE, being another, and way before that, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE.
It’s run by Cameron McCracken, who is a fantastic film executive and distributor. While I was at Pathe, as a creative executive, I would often find myself handing over my notes to Cameron, and he would re-write them for me. It wasn’t like he had a million things to do already! He would re-write my notes to make them better, which would make me look better in the long run!
The target of what we were looking for at Pathe was very defined, so you couldn’t necessarily engage with lots of material. Frankly you knew that the films had to have a certain stature, because that’s what supported the Pathe infrastructure. And that would mean that you’re looking at films that have international legs on them, and hopefully can do well when it comes to the awards season.
If not in the awards season, they’re a kind of box office cross over, in the mold of a sort of THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL. Where you make a film for £8 million or so and it goes on to take £20 million in the UK, and goes on internationally to do a load of business as well.
With Pathe, you’re also selling. Pathe have a sales division in France. That team, who are all fabulous, basically go out into the market place and sell those films around the world. So again, you’re feeding a bigger machine than an independent production company.
If you’re an independent producer, you’ve got to go out and deal with third parties, which is very, very hard. But at the same time if you’re a company like Pathe or Studio Canal, you know you’re having to feed a bigger machine. That means a lot of mouths, and a lot of mortgages, so you start to think about your films and what you’re producing in a particular manner.
I didn’t really have much to do with the French team, apart from the sales team in France, who I would see occasionally at international festivals such as Cannes. Generally the things being made by them in France wouldn’t be the type of thing that Pathe UK would make, and visa versa.
Pathe was a really good place to go if you’ve been on a film council. Think of the Film Council as soft public money, you’re accountable to the lottery fund, you’re accountable to the public and the industry. So you have to be very, very transparent. Now that’s not always possible, but you try to be transparent in your decision-making.
Then you move to a commercial set up, funded by a French billionaire, where the accountability is to make very good films, that are memorable, and make money. And that was a really refreshing change of scene for me personally. I loved working with the film council, and the BFI. But it was also really good to do something completely different.
Was there ever heated debate between the French and English sides of the company?
There was heated debate, as there should be in any exciting film company. It’s about taste, you’re going to like something, and I’m going to like something. There are going to be times where we disagree about it, but you have to have it out. If you don’t try to support the things you’re passionate about, and don’t try to get rid of the things you really don’t like, you’re missing a trick.
If you don’t try to support the things you’re passionate about, and don’t try to get rid of the things you really don’t like, you’re missing a trick.
When I was at the BFI film fund, we used to have major debates. We’d have a Friday editorial meeting, and we’d all read a certain amount of material during the week, and we’d have to feed back on it, and feedback on a Monday as well. And we’d have spectacular arguments, and that was great because we all understood that we were being passionate about the material, and about the talent, and we were just trying to support it in the best way that we could. And, if we thought it wasn’t very good, we’d say “This isn’t good enough.”
You have to have those sessions behind closed doors inside a company, because eventually you’re going to put this out in front of cinema audiences. If your stuff isn’t as sharp as it can be, they’ll just turn their backs on it.
How far can a new writer push their passion and anger when collaborating with more experienced writers?
Don’t be angry, be passionate. I’d hate you to think that we’re having meetings where we get angry, when we’re really just passionate. And that’s happening at Altitude right now as well. In terms of writers and what you can present, at the end of the day it comes down to what’s on the page. If you have managed to make something that is utterly compelling and a real page turner, then, if it’s driven by anger, fantastic.
Likewise, if it’s driven by charm, or romance, or whatever. If it’s compelling and it makes me want to turn the page, then brilliant. It doesn’t matter what the fundamental drive for the writing process is for you. Whatever emotion it is, or whatever intellectual question you’ve got that you want to derive an answer to in the screenplay.
In terms of how you react in the room, and how you manage your relationships, it’s really easy to get pissed off with notes, and be like “I don’t want to do that” and disagree. And that’s fine, you should definitely defend your point of view. But at the same time always be open to the fact that, if someone’s got a problem with something, or they’re flagging it up, their note may not be the solution, but it’s articulating what is probably a problem.
Step back from your work and think “Okay, maybe something doesn’t work there, is there a better solution?” I personally get really wary when, as an executive, you identify a problem in a script, you offer them a solution, they try it, and when you look at it you’re a bit disappointed. That’s because you, as the executive, already know what you’re getting. Part of the read is the surprise, and it’s very easy to forget how important it is to be surprised.
You don’t want surprises on a huge level like “Oh we were making a movie about romance and there are dinosaurs in it, what’s that!” But just in a small way, so you’re constantly kinda of going “Oh, that’s a new thing, I quite like that!” Because it keeps it fresh for you. That’s really important, and as a writer, it’s really important to use your anger as an energy, and channel it in useful and constructive ways.
Ultimately you’re being employed within that team to do a very, very specific job that no-one else can do. The producer can’t write, the director can’t write, but you can write it. That’s your chance to really contribute and really lead the way. However, at the same time, it’s the director’s medium, and the producers are the ones who break their backs trying to get them made. And then, at the end of the day, an exhibitor and the distributor will come in and take the great majority of the value from it in some respects.
Everyone is having to make their accommodations. It’s very easy for writers to get into that mindset of being siloed, and I certainly did when I was doing stuff for TV. But actually, we’re all servicing up a chain. It’s one of those things where you have to be aware of the eco-system, be aware of your value in it, and use your energy positively.
How into TV is Altitude getting as a company?
We’re taking baby footsteps basically, we’re all incredibly aware of the rise of the digital platform and what that means. And when we’re selling films internationally now, it means constantly having to accommodate the Amazon and the Netflix of this world with their various offers. They have an enormous amount of money to spend, and they’re curating really good stuff on their platforms.
But yeah, we’re looking into it, and if there’s a piece of material we’re really passionate about, and we can’t accommodate it as a film, TV is a great place for these long running series. Then we might consider it. Obviously, like everyone else, if I want to watch something of real heft, I move towards TV at the moment, and I have done for a few years.
If you watch season one of MAD MEN, you’re hooked, and so you keep looking for that material. It’s not always there, I start a load of shows, and I don’t get past episode two, there’s loads of stuff I just forget about.
There are talents that we’re working with that clearly want to explore the TV space, and we have the capacity to help and do that. So we’re going to do that, but it’s really early stuff that I can’t really talk about sadly.
Are there any projects on the slate that you’re particularly passionate about?
We’re doing a HORRIBLE HISTORIES movie, with the Horrible History team. It’s a lot of fun, because it’s a huge brand for children. Trying to make that material work when I’m not awfully familiar with it, until we started developing it in earnest, has been great. And the creative team know how to make that very fun for young audiences. I went to see some children’s material on stage recently, and loved the level of ingenuity and gags, and realised this is what is a young audience can really get their teeth into. So that will be a brilliant thing to do!
How does the company break down?
We’ve got about 15 people in the office right now. The distribution team is the largest team, because it’s a very intensive process releasing films. Whether that’s booking cinemas, getting materials and printing them out, running the creative on the campaigns, running the digital aspect of it, because now so much of it occurs online. Then we have our sales team, the sales team is four strong, headed up by Mike Runagall, who was previously at Pathe. He’s the Managing Director of sales.
Mike has sold everything from THE IRON LADY to SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, on to 47 METERS DOWN, which is a film that he partially came up with, and managed to take to market on the back of a two-minute promo. It was literally someone in a cage, in a water tank, and sharks swimming around them. We sold that for seven figures, and then went on to develop the material and the script, which was paid for by that sale. That film is now in post production.
So there’s that team there. The development team is me, and Will, the chairman of the company. He works with me developing the movies. We have a development associate with us too, who’s there researching the material. There’s another person in the development team who works across development and acquisitions, so she’s often out scouring the globe for different films we can acquire for the UK.
That’s helpful to me because I get to see films in development that other people don’t get to see, I get privileged access to a degree. Development is a strange business, because some days are incredibly busy, and you never stop. But then there are other days when you don’t have a delivery to hand in, and you don’t have to make notes, and you haven’t got a meeting lined up. And then there are days you really just have to read some novels.
What are some frequent mistakes you get from writers assessing the material before it comes in?
For me, I look at things in terms of scale. I think to myself: “Does this feel like a movie?” It was my big failing as a writer, the scale of what I wrote. I wrote quite intimate stuff, and I think if you’re asking people to go and watch material in a box, the box of cinema, it’s got to have an emotional scale to it, or a physical scale, and that’s got to be implicit in the premise from the get go.
You don’t have much time to build, to be honest. You sometimes get stuck in this place where you get to page 30, and people drop the hook on you. And you just go “Well, I’ve left the room by this point.” The audience is no longer there, no-one has that time. We live in an incredibly quick society, and that’s not necessarily a positive thing, because to get people engaging with your stories, you have to get it working a lot quicker, and it has to be on a scale that works with their time.
Now, where do we stop in that arms race of speed and scale? I don’t know. I do worry about that, because it can’t go on forever. Different films can challenge that in different ways.
Look at ROOM – which is an amazing film by the way – the premise is tough in a sense, but the emotional rewards far exceeds the toughness of the premise. The emotional scale is being a young woman, trapped in a room by an awful, awful man, and raise a child in that space. How do you go about doing that? How do you create, for that child, a world that is as innocent as a child’s world should be.
That, to me, has inherent scale, even though the action takes place in a tiny room. The emotional honesty of those characters in that terrible predicament – there is a hook there. At the same time, you can watch something that has much, much bigger physical scale to it, that won’t necessarily work.
That’s the big thing for me. As a writer, you’ve really got to say to yourself, has it got enough of a hook? And be honest with yourself. My failing is that is thinking “People will read it anyway.” But they don’t! There is no obligation for someone to read your material.
What have been your experiences with taking on scripts that have a great premise, but the writing is sub-par?
There’s always going to be pieces where premise and execution don’t marry up. That doesn’t mean you stop engaging with it. You go “Well this is a great idea, what can we do?” The process you probably have then is asking the writer to meet with you, and then you can throw ideas back and forth across the table, and you see if they stick.
You can’t walk into a room with the attitude of: “I’m going to impose my ideas on you.” You’ve got to hope that you can get someone interested in the idea, and make them want to go on that journey. You want someone to feel ownership of it.
If you’re sitting in a room and say: “I think it would be a good idea to do this!” but you don’t own that, and they’re not feeling that, then you’ll probably come back with a thing that’s worse than what you started with. That’s part of the collaborative process. Or another person might say: “Well I don’t know if I can take this on, but I want this thing to exist. Do I become a producer on it, and you guys go and develop it elsewhere?” What I’m saying is, there are different ways to crack an egg.
When you’re on the outside, as an unproduced writer, and you’re in that situation where you’ve created a thing, and someone is excited by it, but don’t want you to do it, that’s horrible. Emotionally it’s a very sad feeling, you feel kind of gutted. However, you must focus on what you can get out of the process. See if there’s something else you can extract from it, if you’re not going to be writing it. Is there an opportunity to go on to be a producer, or some sort of producing capacity on it so you can see more of the guts of the film industry?
I’m big on access. I think, when you’re sitting in your room, you’re not necessarily engaging with the industry. You’ve automatically put yourself at a disadvantage. I know a few people who have been development executives who have gone on to write. And the access they had as development executives, not only to people, but to ideas that get people excited in the industry, gives them an automatic leg up.
Development executives start from the baseline of: “This is what people want to take to market to sell.” And what you’ve got to remember is, that everyone engaging with your script has to live with it for a year, maybe two. If it’s the producer, they’ve got to live with it for three years! If it’s a sales agent, they’ve got to take it to market, and have a million meetings with people all across the world. They’ve got to be enthused by your material!
If you’re selling something to someone in a really tough territory, and they don’t really like any aspect of your society, you’ve got to be really positive about the film that you’re actually selling to them. So that’s the thing, you’ve got to make sure whatever you’re doing is going back to scale and premise.
How can you build it big enough? And in terms of being in the room, how can you get yourself into the industry of the film industry in any capacity? Whether that’s marketing films, working in film festivals, working in production. Whether that’s doing the books and being a production accountant. Whatever it is, the more you know about the industry, the better armed you are to deliver scripts to the industry, that they’ll get excited about, and go on a journey with. And that’s, in the end, better for your career.
Would you ever consider reading a script from a writer without an agent?
Well the first thing I do with a script is I look at the log line. What is it about? If it sounds like it’s going to be something amazing, then (cynically) I’m always going to be engaged with it. At the end of the day, I’ve got to justify my existence and my salary, so I’m always going to engage. But if someone who’s unrepresented comes to me, and there aren’t that many sell-able elements, that I can sell internally, to my teammates, then I’ll have to do something about it. If I know that it’s never going to fly, I’ll come back pretty quickly and say: ” Thanks for the submission, but it’s not really for us.”
It costs either me or a colleague time to read your script, or it costs the company to employ a reader to read it. If you stack up all of those read, it comes to thousands of pounds. So it has to have some sort of element that I think is going to work. The question I always ask is: “Does it have that scale, physical or emotional?” We all have our own take on what that constitutes, my take might be different from yours, but hopefully we can strike a chord.
What I would say, is try to pay attention to what is currently working in the marketplace. In the UK, what kind of films get made. For example, if you write a western, and give it to me, I won’t engage unless it’s based on a true character. We do watch westerns, we spent 12 million pounds watching THE REVENANT, we spent another six million watching THE HATEFUL EIGHT, that’s a lot of western for a two-month period.
Those were all good films, don’t get me wrong, but we’re not the people to make them. What do we make? We make heritage dramas brilliantly, we’re the world’s best at doing that. We sometimes make comedies, but generally, only from people who have great track records in comedy. There’s always someone who breaks the mold, but generally, if you’re looking at models and patterns, you start to see things that emerge from the UK very clearly.
We’re very good with strong literary adaptations as well. We don’t generally make genuine films for young people, but we’re very good at making films for the “grey pound.” Whether that’s art-house, like 45 YEARS. or whether that’s something more mainstream, some thing like BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL.
There are models, so what you should ask yourself is: “Am I conversing with any of those? Or am I doing something completely distinct?” If you’re doing something completely distinct, never been seen before, you should consider going out there and making it yourself. The big question being: “Is the industrial set up that’s in front of me going to permit me to pursue what I want to pursue?”
That’s where writer/directors have an advantage over writers. At the end of they day, if you want to make it happen as a writer/director, get a crew, get some money, and just shoot it. Then you can try to get it out, and exhibit it at festivals. It’s very, very tough if you’re a writer.
Then it’s the question of: “Am I writing in the right medium?” “Does radio allow me to do bigger worlds without the budget?” Absolutely. “Can I do intimacy of character, but at the same time, intellectual scale in theatre?” Yes, in a way that you can’t probably do in mainstream cinema currently. You just have to ask yourself before you press “Send” on that submission email, or even at the beginning of your writing process, “Where is this best going to land?”
You’ll notice in the UK, there’s a really strong tradition of bringing theatrical writers through. So, if you like theatre, and you’re writing, and you’re kind of edging towards cinema, just think, “can I write theatre?” Greg Burke, who wrote 71, which is a great film, he loves cinema. You meet him and you get this feeling like “This guy loves cinema.” But he made his name writing BLACK WATCH, writing for theatre, and writing these amazing, award-winning plays. That’s the very smart thing about the guy. He could do it, so he did it, and it got made.
So sometimes it’s about finding the right place to put yourself. If you send something to me, and it tickles my fancy, I will read it. if it doesn’t, I’ll be very critical, and let you know.
Do you find yourself getting involved in films with different budget levels in different ways?
In terms of the micro budgets, let’s characterize them as films being made for a million or under. You definitely want to see as many elements of the film in the package as possible. it’s so much easier to get an idea of the identity of the film like that at that stage.
We’ve been engaging with a finished film that’s been made for roughly that amount. It came to us, over a year ago, and we could have engaged with it, but we didn’t. We knew the film maker was very talented, but for whatever corporate reason, we just said no, not at this moment, we want to do stuff at a bigger scale. The film is really a very well made film, so I just sit there, holding my head in my hands, weep, and eat loads of biscuits again.
But for us, yes. More flesh on the bones in terms of low-budget stuff. Generally, it doesn’t really rub with all of the industrial activity that the company is doing, so you really have to believe in it, and think “This is a thing that will work out and do some business.” It really depends on what you’re planning to do with it.
We can certainly sell it, and we were selling a film called WYRMWOOD last year, which was a film two Australian brothers made over weekends for something like two years. It’s this crazy zombie movie, like proper DIY, but cool! Cool in a way that a mainstream Hollywood studio will never do, because there’s too many people to offend and too many people to be scared of. These guys were just rocking up and doing it on their weekends. It’s brilliant fun, and that sold really well, internationally. Hopefully they’ll go on to have a really long career.
But again, that was something with a lot of material to engage with, in terms of sales. But in terms of other material that we want to engage with, movies that have a budget of around 8.5 million quid, like THE KINGS SPEECH, are popular. It works because of the elements it has. It has to have a star. Without a star, it’s not going anywhere. And anything over two million pounds in budget has to have a star, or some kind of box office draw, otherwise it’s very difficult to make it happen.
Unless you have someone who’s got a lot of money that they’re willing to put in as equity, it tends to not go forward or be heavily compromised for whatever industrial reason. We sell and distribute amazing material, whether that’s the AMY documentary, which we were on to distribute long before it was finished.
Similarly, we worked on FRUITVALE STATION, which was Ryan Coogler’s first film. We acquired that film for a pretty small amount of money. Not many UK distributors wanted to do a film about a young guy, who was unlawfully killed on the San Francisco/Oakland transport system by a stupid cop. But, at the end of the day, we did it, and he went on to make CREED. Fortunately we’re in a position where we can back talented film makers at this stage in our career. We don’t always have to worry about it being huge, huge box office returns for us.
Obviously Ryan Coogler is now going to make massive films for the rest of his career, and good luck to him. But hopefully we can help first-time filmmakers. And sometimes, we’ll sell a film with somebody, and hopefully the relationship will be there for something else. It may be the case where you don’t do something together for five years, but you then do something. From my point of view, that’s lovely, because I get to engage in lots of conversations with people I otherwise wouldn’t be able to get to, or, at least, I’d have to do a lot more seeking out of those individuals.
What are the trends you think are coming up, and what ideas make you most excited?
In terms of trends, I’m not as market savvy as my friends in sales, or in acquisitions, who are there seeing all of that material, all of the time. I tend to go a little bit more on my gut, which is not necessarily the best thing in the world. But we’re talking about rebels and outsiders in the office this week. That’s partly provoked by the death of David Bowie, or not so much the death of David Bowie, rather the immense appreciation of him, and the sense that he was an outsider who defined his times, in various ways.
That kind of chimes with me, because I’ve worked on a lot of films that are based on real life events or characters. Biography is an incredibly rich right now. So I keep thinking to myself, who are the people who we’re going to remember in twenty, thirty, forty years time. If you look at films like DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, that guy isn’t someone who everyone knows his name, but you see that movie, and you’re blown away. You go “That is an amazing story of transformation.” Not all of those stories can fit that model, but, increasingly we’re fascinated by true life characters.
Partly it’s a reaction to the strength of TV. TV now can deliver novels to us in a way that cinema just can’t do. You get such a deep immersion in a fictional world with TV. So mainstream drama cinema is trying to get a head start on the industry by saying “Watch this, it really happened.” Now there are different ways to do that, more subversive ways. THE BIG SHORT is a brilliantly funny way of doing something that is really, really serious. It’s kind of hard to get your head around, but it does it really well. MONEYBALL is a personal favorite of mine as well.
I tend to look for these real life stories. PHILOMENA was really instructional in that process, as was PRIDE, as was SUFFRAGETTE. Not all the stories that we do will be like that. I think that new film making talent, and emerging film making talent don’t always have the resources to go after stories based on biography. So you’re hoping that someone comes along with a new, brilliant vision of the world. Whether that’s Benh Zeitlin making BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, which was as original as it gets.
Or whether it’s Sebastian Schipper, a German film maker, who brilliantly made a one take movie, that lasted for two hours and something minutes set in Berlin, it’s called VICTORIA. That was a film maker where the practical film making challenge was the thing that you really got excited by. I think one other thing that’s happening right now is we’re getting away from world that are dominated by CGI, and we’ve gone to practical film making, because we realize it’s truthful.
You watch THE REVENANT and you see the character grunting his way across the wasteland, eating raw bison. You go “That’s really happening!” But, you watch Marvel AVENGERS two or three, or whatever, and buildings are just crumbling, and you think “It’s just not happening, this isn’t truthful.”
And I think for adults, who are the target audience for drama, the truth that comes through in the story line, the film making, or the performance, is really, really important. It’s more important that it’s been in a long time.
So that’s the stuff I get excited about. In terms of genre, I just want something that tees you up in a generic sense, but deviates in a some way, flips it. So you think “Oh I know what’s happening” but then you don’t. EX MACHINA does that in quite an interesting way, you think it’s going to be his story, but it’s her story. Other things like that appeal to me.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is a genre movie that I still go back to, again and again, because it’s got lots of soul to it. I think part of the reason we backed THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS is because we were crying at the end of the screenplay. And it’s very rare that you read a genre movie that makes you shed tears, in the way that MOON had people shedding tears. And that’s why people remember the movie ten years after it came out.
So again, it needs to be about the emotion behind those things as well. In terms of what I’d love to see on my desk tomorrow, I really don’t know. Something amazing, that could read itself, do the voices, and act in front of me would be great! But seriously, anything that will get people excited and passionate about it. Community and warmth is something that I think we’re in short supply of, as an industry, and as an audience. We’ve got very dark times about, and the films that we tend to respond to are films that have very positive messages. Even if they don’t wholly succeed at the box office. PRIDE didn’t perform as well as we’d hoped, although it did well. But it did have community and warmth in its heart, and we’d like to do more of that if possible.
Have you ever passed on a film, only to regret it when it get made by someone else?
I’ve done that loads. I’ve passed on stuff that people have loved. Things that have gotten Oscar nominations and wins, that have become the darling of the industry. Yeah there have been those, and everyone will pass on stuff. It was the same on the film council as well. Sometimes, stuff will come in and you’ll say “Well, that’s got money from so many sources, it doesn’t need us. It’ll get made anyway, and when it gets made, it’s brilliant. And you’ll go ” Oh no! We could have been associated with that!”
But, it got made, and it’s brilliant anyway, so it doesn’t matter. I suppose everyone likes to be associated with winners, it’s psychological, that need to feel like part of the cool kids. But at the end of the day, it’s the things that you can’t back, for reasons of taste, execution, or corporate. When that then dies, despite people taking ages trying to make that happen, it’s more upsetting. You might not like it, and you might be professionally right to say “No, we’re not doing that.”
But it’s sad, nonetheless, because people have put time and effort into it. It’s very attritional. My old boss,Tanya Seghatchian used to head up the film fund at the BFI, she was executive producer on the first three HARRY POTTER films, and was instrumental in getting those films made. She said “Only one in every ten developments gets made.” That’s a high attrition rate, so you have to get used to things not happening.
But equally, you have to back a lot of horses to get any one of them across the line.