THE INSIDER INTERVIEWS: CAMILLE GATIN
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.
Camille’s feature, THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS, earned her a BAFTA nomination for Outstanding Debut, as well as a win at the BIFAs for Breakthrough Producer, and an Empire Award nomination for Best British Film.
In 2014, Camille produced the second season of Endeavour for ITV, the reboot of Inspector Morse. Camille Gatin’s first feature as a co-producer, SHADOW DANCER, directed by Oscar-winning director James Marsh, was released by Paramount in the UK in summer 2012.
Prior to this Camille was Head of Development and Acquisitions at Unanimous Pictures and worked in development at Intermedia Film.
This Q & A was compered by producer, James Cotton.
What’s a typical week like for you?
Every week is very different. I think what I like about my job is that I do 20 different things simultaneously. On any one day, there’s always something to read, there’s always something to watch. That might be a short, or a feature, or a work-in-progress cut. There’s a lot of chats with my writers and directors. There’s a lot of chats with lawyers. There’s a lot of chats with agents. Day-to-day it’s very much a project manager type of job. You have to have a list, so you know where you’re at with each project, who’s going to deliver what each week, offer support to those who need it.
A few weeks ago was completely different because it was the Berlin Film Festival. I was having a lot of meetings with people who were not in the UK and, for once, are in one place. It’s very convenient. I was catching up with American distributors, American financiers, German financiers and my Japanese distributor on THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS.
Then I came back to the UK for 24 hours to go to the BAFTAs, which was surreal. Then I went straight back to Berlin, where you end up watching four movies a day and having eight meetings a day with various people.
I tell them about all my projects. I read a lot about each company, so I know what their tastes are and what they’re looking for. Some companies only really want to do romantic comedies or action thrillers. So you do your research beforehand, and you pitch the projects on your slate that you think they’ll like.
You then go to a lot of screenings. What’s great about Berlin is that it’s well organised. If you follow the schedule, you can watch up to six movies a day. They’re usually world premieres. Sometimes they’re films that will never get distribution in the UK. It’s an exciting way of encountering new talent.
So, I saw GOD’S OWN COUNTRY, which was the only big British film at Sundance. It was really special to see it with a European audience and see their reaction. The audience was a mix of industry and the general public. I also familiarised myself with Francis Lee’s work of which I knew nothing about.
As a producer, I’m always on the lookout for remake rights, so if there’s a really interesting Hungarian film with an interesting concept, I want to be there to catch up with that producer.
We’re preparing for our next film at the moment and our German sound mixer had a great contact for that specific project, who happens to be in Berlin for the festival. Next thing you know, they’re reading the script, and now we’re making a movie together. That’s really the purpose of places like Berlin – you can just make connections, face-to-face. Nothing beats face-to-face.
Berlin is not a typical week, but there are a few of those every year. Berlin, Cannes and Toronto are the big three, and then there’s the London Film Festival as well. I probably wouldn’t miss any of them unless I was shooting and unable to travel.
I’ve been doing this for quite a while, but as we don’t know what will be happening over the next few years, it’s important to widen your network by finding other producers and other financiers.
I’m currently doing my very first co-development with a German producer, and he’s brilliant. I’ve seen a couple of his films, and I’m really excited. We’re making a movie by a British female writer-director from Suffolk, set in Venice with a German financier. That’s a first for me.
That is what is so exciting about my job. Every day is different. Every project is different, and you’re just meeting people all the time.
Let’s take it back to the beginning. What was the first moment when you knew you fell in love with film?
My dad loves Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. I just had an affinity with these types of stories growing up. My sister’s first movie was BAMBI. Mine was STAR TREK: WRATH OF KHAN and I’ll never forget it. I saw it with my dad. I was four, and it was just amazing.
Every summer we would have this ritual. On French TV, on a Tuesday night, we would watch a film–they always played all the Romeros. My mum and my sisters don’t enjoy horror. But I loved it. It is a little thing me and my dad would do together.
I was sort of primed for genre, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like watching a wonderful, beautifully crafted period drama. I think that’s what is so interesting about our industry. There’s a difference between a movie I want to make and a movie I want to watch again and again. There are films I’ll watch, and I’ll know I wouldn’t have been the right person to make it, and I bow at the feet of the producers who made it happen.
Is it true that when you were 12, you told your dad you wanted to produce?
That’s what he tells me. I probably said it. God knows why because I wouldn’t have known what it meant. The irony is that he doesn’t know what a producer does so when he talks about me at dinner parties he says that I tell actors what to do… that’s literally the only thing I don’t do.
Most people don’t know what a producer does. It’s all a bit nebulous. There are loads of different types of producers. I’ve produced film and TV, and it’s completely different. Every project is different. Sometimes you’re alone. Sometimes you’re with a team of people. Some people are great at doing deals. Others are great at development and having that relationship with talent. There’s quite a wide range of producers. I’ve had a very unusual career.
I’m French. I moved to the UK to study telecoms engineering, so all my university friends all work for Google and are incredibly wealthy. But I really wanted to work in film. Completely by accident, I was offered a job at Saatchi and Saatchi, but it didn’t work out because it’s advertising and it’s not very creative. Then I met a friend, of a friend, of a friend. No idea what she did for a living. Six months into our friendship I asked her what she did, and she was Mike Leigh’s researcher.
Two weeks later I was a body double for Ashley Judd. That’s how I got started. I began working on movie sets, then in development and then in distribution. It’s quite unusual to have done all three aspects of film, but it really helped me understand what a life cycle of a movie is.
Having said that is has changed a lot since I started. My first week at Saatchi was the week of 9/11. It changed a lot of things anyway in terms of sensibilities and what kind of stories people were interested in, but also financing models, distribution models.
That’s one of the aspects of the job that I enjoy the most – everything changes all the time. It’s almost like gossiping. You always need to talk to a lot of people and know what the latest is on everything so you can find the right path for each project.
Moving past the stunt double work to your first in-house job in 2004 – at Intermedia Film as a development assistant. Tell us more…
My first two jobs were working for the company that made back-to-back ALEXANDER THE GREAT and BASIC INSTINCT 2. I learnt so much on those jobs for completely different reasons.
For ALEXANDER THE GREAT, there was only one hard copy of the script, and it was chained to the CEO’s desk. That’s how careful everyone was. That’s the time when we only had faxes, so it actually worked.
In my experience, it’s very rare for a project to start in a good place and then lose its way. Usually, you know from the beginning that things don’t feel right and everyone is trying to soldier on and make it happen.
My experience, especially with THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS when everything feels right, everyone is making the same movie, and everyone is on the same page – there’s a lot of momentum, and it’s incredibly enjoyable.
You worked all the way up to Director of Development. So, is it MAGICIANS, the Mitchell and Webb movie, in which you were most involved with in that capacity?
My boss was Ollie Madden, and I was his Development Assistant. I don’t really know what titles mean, to be honest. I know in the US it’s very specific. In the UK you’re either an Assistant, a Development Exec or a Head of Development. There were only two of us in the company, so it was just Ollie and me really. The good thing for me was that I had on set experience, but that was the first time I saw what a budget looked like.
Ollie had learnt the Weinstein way of working, and that’s what he taught me. That was my first development job, and I’m so grateful I learnt ‘the Weinstein way.’ It’s very simple. There are three pillars to it:
- Read all the trades every morning. Always be completely up to date. What projects are getting green lit? Who’s on board? What is it about? Who are the financiers on board? So, read the trades – religiously.
- Read everything yourself. Read and read and read.
- And meet everyone regularly. In London, I would say there’s 60 of us doing this, so if you meet with everyone every couple of months, it means you do two days a week with back-to-back meetings with everyone. Nothing replaces face-to-face.
Ollie taught me that, and it was a very useful thing to have learnt.
“Read all the trades every morning. Read all the trades every morning. And meet everyone regularly. Face-to-face.”
You then moved to Unanimous Pictures – were you headhunted?
Chris had been looking for someone for quite a while. He was doing a Michael Haneke film, and I just really wanted the job, and I really wanted to work on a Michael Haneke movie. He was doing FUNNY GAMES with Tim Roth and Naomi Watts. I just remember thinking I really want this but can’t show it, and we met, and I got the job the next day.
The film which was your first co-producer credit was SHADOW DANCER, which I noticed was on Unanimous Picture’s slate back in the late noughties. Could you tell us a bit about your transition from Unanimous to having that role on the film?
Co-producer can mean a tonne of stuff. I was Head of Development for Chris, but really it was just Chris and me. So he was the producer, and I was his Head of Development, Acquisitions, Distributions and Publicity. I was doing everything else. It was amazing because suddenly I was going to all the Festivals and meeting all the sales agents.
I knew how to get a film made on set. I knew how to develop a script, but suddenly I discovered that getting a film financed wasn’t some voodoo science that no one could explain to me. It was just knowing the right people, knowing their taste and saying: “This is the filmmaker, this is the package, here is how much money I need.” Chris gave me a lot of freedom to go out and see things.
In fact, when I had the job interview with Chris he had just had his first chat with Tom Bradby about SHADOW DANCER. Their kids went to the same school. They were the two dads who got along at the school gates. Tom gave him his book, SHADOW DANCER, which was all based on real interviews he had done in Northern Ireland when he was an ITN journalist.
Can you give us a logline for those who haven’t seen SHADOW DANCER?
SHADOW DANCER is based on a lot of interviews Tom had done with people in Northern Ireland who had spied on their own families, mainly to keep out of jail. Often, they had been caught by the police or by undercover cops. It was very acrimonious at the time. It would mean if you were a single mum they would send you to a jail in Suffolk and they would move you every few weeks so that your kids and your family could never come and see you because it was too far to travel.
So, what the UK undercover unit would do is that they would do a deal with those people. They would say: “You can go back home, as long as you become a spy within your own family, because we know your brothers are potentially active terrorists.”
Tom had written it as a novel, and it was a good basis for a film. That’s when my job came into its own. Tom and I would sit for three hours every couple of weeks on a Monday afternoon. He was working as a parliamentary journalist at the time. We would talk and talk about the characters and the structure.
Then when it came to getting it financed, I remembered that Wild Bunch really wanted to work with James Marsh. I also remembered that Sue Rogers, who was Danny Boyle’s and James Marsh’s agent, called me a week before Cannes and said: “James loves the script.”
I met with Wild Bunch the following week and told them about the project and James Marsh, and suddenly they were the first to blink. Then the BFI and BBC Films were interested. That’s how it works. It’s about getting that first person and then, often at times, it all falls into place.
So, James Marsh – of MAN ON WIRE – who had only previously done documentaries. Why him?
He had done one narrative feature, but it was micro budget, and no one had seen it. The reason why James was on our radar was that Chris and James had bumped into each other and James said he really wanted to do a political thriller. That’s how he ended up on our list. It’s about networking I suppose.
And then an amazing cast including Clive Owen, Andrea Riseborough and Gillian Anderson.
I was a big fan of the X-FILES as a teenager, so that was great.
Was James one of those relationships you nurtured over the years?
Not at all actually, because by that point the economic crisis had kicked off and that really changed everything in terms of how films were getting made. I didn’t really know what to do about my career at that point, and my best friend said: “This is the opportunity to go it alone as a producer.”
It had never crossed my mind to do that. I simply didn’t have the confidence. I thought you had to know things which I didn’t know at the time, and my best friend said: “No, you already know everything. You have to just try it.”
So, I saw the financial crisis as an opportunity because a lot of the established producers were working with established talent, established writers and directors. There was a whole new generation of filmmakers who were just getting ignored. In order to keep their companies ticking along, their producers would only work with the top guys and weren’t really working with the new kids on their first feature.
I made it my remit to concentrate on breaking new talent, writers, directors, ‘baby’ TV directors who are working their way up, etc. I was working solely on original ideas. I didn’t have any money so I couldn’t option books. I couldn’t pay people. All I could do is make people think: ‘If I work with Camille then we’re going to do something really awesome together.”
Working with Chris taught me that I could create a slate from scratch. SHADOW DANCER came out of my work for him. The Netflix project, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS, is a French remake of ENVOYÉS TRÉS SPÉCIAUX, which I picked up.
I went to WEM in L.A. which is how Ricky Gervais came on board, and then I left, and they did their own thing, but that was one of my finds. I sort of found all these ideas, developed them and left and Chris got them made. I realised that I could find ideas, package them and get them done and so basically, I was a producer. I just had to go out and do it.
And so, I did. I started Golden Arrow in 2011. After years and years of applying for money from the BFI, and the UK Film Council at the time, for other companies I never got a dime from them. Then when I set up by myself, the very first thing I applied for was for a short film by Jonathan Van Tullenken who had just been BAFTA-nominated for a short.
I checked out his work. He had done a lot of comedy with Tim Key and Tom Basden. It was really warped, dark humour. They sent me this script basically as a dare because the opening line was: Dead of Winter – Lapland – Day – Santa crash lands with his sleigh in the snow.
They just thought no-one was stupid enough to do it, but sadly for them, I was. So I went to the BFI and got the money, and we went to Lapland for six weeks and shot the movie. That was a really amazing experience. We were in the middle of nowhere, 200 kilometres north of the Article Circle and I didn’t have the internet. I didn’t really have a phone so I couldn’t report to the BFI every day.
I knew all the other producers, who had received a grant, had to send off rushes, reports and all that. I was like… meh. It was minus 32 degrees, and I’m just hoping my camera would be fine. We were completely left to our own devices. We made the film we wanted to make, and I never got a note from the BFI. Even in the cut we just absolutely made the film we wanted to, and people loved it.
We went around a lot of festivals. We won loads of awards. That was confirmation for me that I was doing the right thing. Meanwhile, I was still at Unanimous I met Colm McCarthy who was a TV director on the rise. We had both read a really cool book called House of Lost Souls. I optioned that book for Chris. Colm and I really got on creatively, we talked about the book over and over again.v
Years later, Colm did ENDEAVOUR, and then DOCTOR WHO, then PEAKY BLINDERS. Suddenly he was on the up and up. While Colm was doing ENDEAVOUR, they were looking for a producer for the second season – he recommended me.
So, I went to shoot prime-time ITV Sunday night TV. It’s basically like shooting four indie movies back-to-back. It’s four 90-minute episodes. Each one is a stand-alone story. Each one has a different director. It taught me a brand new discipline.
Basically, you shoot all the episodes back-to-back with the same crew, but you get to a point in episode three where you’re sound-mixing episode one, cutting episode two, shooting episode three and you’re prepping episode four simultaneously. So you’re dealing with four directors simultaneously who are at a completely different stage in the process. It was very interesting.
I was very lucky because I was allowed to bring in a couple of foreign directors. One of them was Kristoffer Nyholm, who had done THE KILLING, then THE ENFIELD HAUNTING, and who has just done TABOO. His episode was a noir thriller. Then I worked with an awesome Italian director called Giuseppe Capotondi who had won in Venice for his feature debut – a beautiful film called LA DOPPIA ORA. He made a really cool TURN OF THE SCREW episode.
You mentioned earlier how TV producing is very different to film. Can you explain a little more about what you mean?
In TV, the script already exists and you haven’t developed one iota of it. The relationship with the writer is with the exec producer. You’re not really there to have an opinion on the script. You’re just there to keep things moving and to stay true to the writer’s vision. You’re sort of a drill sergeant.
It sounds like an exec in TV is what a producer in film would be, and a producer in TV is more of what a line producer would be. Is that right?
There’s a line producer in TV as well, which is a job I couldn’t do and which I really respect. I don’t really know how other producers work so I can’t really comment. I like to do everything because I enjoy it and I’m a control freak. But I really like ‘the coal face’, in the trenches of battle, producing side of things as well.
I’m not just in the office reading scripts, talking about ideas, and concepts and what the films are about. I love doing that. I did a lot of that when I was working with development but…
Instead, you’re out there in Lapland in a Gore-Tex.
That was amazing. It was a very different role because suddenly it wasn’t down to me. Even if there was a script note and I would say: “This really doesn’t work,” they could absolutely ignore me. I just had to suck it up and carry on. And that was fine, it’s their show. It was also incredible because it was the first time I had done anything and seven million people watched it on TV, on the same night. You could see people reacting on Twitter. It’s completely different to film. The reaction in TV is immediate and instantaneous, and then people forget about the episode and never mention it again.
So, it’s very different, but really interesting. It helped me grow in confidence, in terms of knowing what I was doing. By the time I finished ENDEAVOUR the script for THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS was ready.
THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS is a totally unique development story. Usually what happens is that you read a book, you option it, you find a writer to adapt it, and you go from there. With THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS, I had found a book about Lewis Carroll. He’s fascinating. He’s someone I’ll try and do something about at some point. Lewis Carroll used to keep diaries religiously but the four years of records before Alice in Wonderland was published are missing, and no one knows why.
This journalist, who’s absolutely obsessed with him, found all his bank statements for those four years and managed to piece together what he was up to. There have always been lots of theories about what Alice in Wonderland is really about, and I wanted to do something about that.
And… wait for it, my best friend’s work replacement’s best friend from school’s mum… is the journalist who wrote the book. She has an agent, who is also Mike Carey’s agent. And that’s how I met Mike Carey. The journalist introduced me to her agent because perhaps she might have someone who could write the Lewis Carroll project. The agent introduced me to Mike Carey.
The moment I met Mike we really got on. We talked about Lewis Carroll, and then at the end of the meeting, he said he had just written this short story for Charlaine Harris, who is the novelist who created the True Blood novels. She was putting together an anthology of horror stories, and she asked me to write one. ‘I have to submit it tonight’ Mike said – I was the only person he knew in film and TV and he asked whether I’d mind reading it to get my opinion… It’s the first eight minutes of THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS. I read the short story. I loved it.
What usually happens when you’re prepping a TV show is that you usually take over an abandoned factory. That’s where you set up your production office. As a kid, Colm grew up on council estates in Edinburgh and South London. His big thing was what he calls “dereliction porn”. He loved to go around abandoned factories and abandoned buildings with his siblings. He found it visually interesting. He always wanted to do a movie set there. When I read Mike’s short story, I sent it to Colm and started talking about what the film should be.
The BFI gave us money. You have to remember that Mike Carey was an unproduced screenwriter and unknown to the BFI. He had written awesome comic books, but he was a first-timer. Colm had done a small first indie film which hadn’t really even had a release, but the BFI said they loved the story. They took a chance on us, and Mike wrote the first draft of the script.
And in parallel he started writing the novel based on the film treatment. And books being books and films being films, the book came out straight away. And we just got really lucky. Joss Whedon was in the UK doing AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. He was in prep. He knew Mike Carey’s comic book work and picked up the book in Waterstones and tweeted about it the weekend the book came out.
Then a few hundred thousand copies of the book later, I realised I had the rights to a hit book and it’s awesome author was writing the script. That suddenly changed everything. When you email financiers and show Joss Whedon loves the material, all of a sudden they start reading it. At that point, Colm was shooting PEAKY BLINDERS with Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy. So suddenly people began to realise he was capable of dealing with that calibre of talent.
So, when we started putting the cast together on THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS that was the mood from the financiers. We’ve got a hot book, and we’ve got this director who’s doing very high-end TV. This can happen. We had very supportive financiers. Our main financier was the BFI. Creative England was very supportive as well, which is why we filmed in the West Midlands.
It all happened very quickly. Paddy Considine was the first to sign on. Then Gemma Arterton and then Glenn Close two weeks later. It all worked around the fact that Glenn and Gemma had six weeks overlapping. That really helped. It meant that we had to shoot then, otherwise it wasn’t going to happen. It suddenly all came together.
What was really amazing was that it felt like the Lapland short. I just knew everyone was on the same page and making the same movie. It’s very difficult to talk without hindsight. Maybe in three years’ time, I can talk about THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS. It’s my baby. I’ve seen it probably 300 times because of the different cuts, etc. I’m far too close to the film.
Everyone says how amazing the BAFTAs are, but it all feels a bit surreal because it happens so quickly and it’s not why you made the film in the first place. That’s all great, but the best part was getting to make the film we really wanted to make. As a producer, the financiers letting us do what we wanted to do is almost more important because of those financiers, who have now all made their money back before the film was even released, know that we’re serious and that we can be trusted to do our thing.
That means that making the second and third film is going to be a lot easier and I can focus on different challenges instead of trying to convince people who I can be taken seriously.
So what are you working on next?
We’re working with Mike Carey again on his new book. This time we’ve read the book first! I’ve now set up a company with Colm. We’ve got a lot of projects together. So I still do three things:
- I have a TV agent, so I’m being offered TV dramas quite regularly.
- I have my Golden Arrow company, which for me is still about breaking new talent. That’s something I feel very passionate about. So I’m working with Joanna Coates who won at Edinburgh a couple of years ago with HIDE AND SEEK, which was her feature debut she made for £20k. I’m working with Alice Troughton who is a really high-end TV director, and we’re working on her first film. It’s a script by a first-time writer who wrote an absolutely amazing script.
- And lastly, there’s also the company I have with Colm.
The films include both ones he will direct, and we’ve also just picked up a film by Brett Goldstein. He just won a British Independent Film Award for Best Supporting Actor in ADULT LIFE SKILLS. He’s a writer and stand-up comedian. I’ve known Brett since the beginning because when I was at Intermedia the Finance Director’s assistant came up to my desk and said: “My mate has written a script and it would be really cool if you could read it.”
It’s really heartbreaking to hear that because 90% of the time I’m going to say: “I’ve read your friend’s script, and it’s awful, and if you’re a good friend, you should tell them not to write anymore.” But I read it, and it was incredible, so I met Brett. It was awesome to find someone new and fresh. Then four years ago he did an Edinburgh show, and at the time I didn’t have the money to afford development on that, but now I do. So now I can say: “Let’s make the thing we talked about four years ago.”
A lot of the ideas I’m developing now I didn’t necessarily find in the last six months. A lot of them are things I saw eight years ago, six years ago, four years ago, which I’ve always kept an eye on. A good idea will still be a good idea in ten years time. If you really have a good idea then it’s not going to change, it’s not going to go away. Sometimes there’s a project which is really timely, which should be made now, but sometimes you just have to be patient.
I think since the financial crisis I’ve had seven different jobs. There was a time when I did three different jobs, none of which were connected to filmmaking. I just really, really, really wanted to do this and to make it work. But all of them have somehow contributed to what I do now.
For one job, I was a project manager for a branding agency that did graphic design. They made my company logo for free and I love it. Without that job on the side I would have probably had a rubbish logo, I would have drawn it myself. So it can be pretty hard, and I’m not going to lie, 2009 to 2011 were pretty bleak but absolutely necessary.
But in 2011, I met Mike Carey during my lunch break whilst working at the branding agency, and he was amazing and has really changed my career. I guess you have to really want it and to be a grafter.
You mentioned Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton and Paddy Considine but not that wonderful little girl. How on earth did you find her?
Well, let me tell you how I pitched it to financiers. You’ll see why:
So we open in an underground base, and our protagonist is a ten-year-old girl called Melanie. She’s in a prison cell and every morning soldiers come into her room at gunpoint and force her to sit down into this wheelchair, which she is strapped securely. She’s a really sweet girl. She’s wheeled into class along with 20 other kids who are also wheeled in. The soldiers refer to them as IT and dehumanise them, but you don’t understand why. Melanie doesn’t realise she’s a monster. She loves class. She loves her teacher. She loves stories. She’s just a normal little kid, but she doesn’t realise that she is a monster and this is the story of her and that realisation.
The reason why I used to pitch it that way is because the second you say zombie people assume it will be shoddy. There’s been a lot of those recently. When you say zombie to filmmakers they say low quality, low production values, it’s not about anything when actually zombies are only about social commentary.
I remember zombies with trolleys in supermarkets and my dad saying this is about capitalism, and I’d say “Yeah!” So for me, zombie movies have always been more than that, but I also understand why people would have that reaction.
So when you go back to the short story, it was all told through the eyes of Melanie who loved Greek myths and her teacher. The character is what I signed up for. I was planning to make a zombie movie. I wanted to tell that story of that little girl who basically wants to hug her teacher. She’s never had any human contact.
The catalyst in our story is that while she’s strapped to her chair, Gemma touches her hair, and you realise she’s never been touched before. There’s just this surge of emotion from this little girl. Pure love for this woman who she admires and suddenly she knows what being touched feels like. It’s that humanity inside her that awakens, and that becomes the driving force behind the story.
When we developed the script Colm knew that she needed to be in every scene, it needs to be from her point of view. And of course, nothing makes a producer happier than a ten-year-old little girl having to be in every single scene.
Suddenly I had to become an expert in child labour laws. She was only allowed to a performance time of five and a half hours a day. That even included the director saying hello to her in the morning.
So we had to be very regimented when constructing the schedule. We wanted to shoot everything in order to help the little girl perform as well as possible, so that she could get her head around the story as much as she needed to. So the two things we knew were going to be really tricky with the film were:
- Finding great derelict locations where we could film to make the world feel real. We actually went to Chernobyl to shoot a lot of the second unit there. You can go as a tourist. I highly recommend it. It’s great. Not many jobs can say they’ve been to Chernobyl for a couple of days, but it’s really quite amazing.
And 100% safe?
You get a Geiger Counter, and if it makes a noise, you walk the other way until it goes quiet. And…
- Lastly, we had to find this rare pearl who would be in every scene.
Colm really likes natural performances. We sent the ad out, and we met a lot of girls from London acting schools in the first two weeks. It’s a challenging role. For the first 20 minutes, she’s strapped to a chair, and the camera is just on her face. She can’t do anything but show emotion on her face. She has to be very subtle, and in control, but not theatrical.
We got a casting assistant who went around the UK to a lot of schools to meet a lot of girls who had no acting background. We watched three thousand tapes. We met 500 girls, and that was in the space of three months, so it was really quite intense.
The 500 were just a chat then the 120 came back to read three scenes. Then another 50 came back to read another three scenes with an actress. Then I interviewed all the parents of the 15 girls on the short list and then six girls did a chemistry read with Gemma.
It was a very thorough process and as it turns out interviewing the parents was a critical part. Some parents have the expectations that they can be the chaperone to their daughter and quit their job, and you have to tell them… No, we’re here about your daughter.
We just needed someone who would have a lot of support at home and wouldn’t have a breakdown because most of us couldn’t hack being in front of a camera with a crew of 20 on any given day so imagine being ten years old and having to do that. So we had to find someone who could deliver what Colm needed, and I had to make sure they had the maturity and the emotional intelligence to go through all that.
We were doing the chemistry read on the Monday with Gemma. Colm was in Birmingham doing location scouts. I was in London with the lawyers closing financing, and Ian Smith from the TV workshop called us. He discovered Toby Kebbell, Jack O’Connell and Sam Morton. He’s known for finding and nurturing young talent, from any background. He called up and said he’s got some girls you could see. Colm really respects Ian Smith, so he made the detour. I’ll never forget his call.
He called me a 6pm on a Friday and said: “There’s one more girl.” That was Sennia Nanua who ended up as The One. We met her completely by chance because Ian Smith called us at the last-minute. I interviewed her mum over the weekend. Then they came to London the next day to do a chemistry read with Gemma. We just knew instantly it was her.
“We watched three thousand tapes. We met 500 girls, and that was in the space of three months. Then we found The One.”
I go on about this amazing, thorough process… in reality, it means sod all. You never know how people will react. I was really worried about Glenn Close’s reaction to our derelict locations, but she loved it and she was such a delight. Gemma was just coming back from Canada, this was her fifth film shoot on the trot that year.
They wanted to do the film because there’s one scene in a lab – it’s a six-page scene where four women just talk about science. Two of the actresses said they had never done that before. There’s not a single conversation about fancying men, marrying men, feeling validated by men, seeking their approval… None of that. It was all about science and women driving the story. Women were the solution to all the problems.
So, it would have passed the Bechdel test?
We designed it that way. And actually, Paddy is number four in the cast list in terms of number of lines so I completely respect him for coming on board, but it did have meaning for him too and he loved Colm. He did it for the final scene with Sennia. That was something he really wanted to explore as an actor.
You never know how people are going to react in these derelict and deprived areas, but everyone was loving it. We had this amazing abandoned hospital. Most of that shoot day was spent running after Glenn and her camera. She was exploring and taking photos and looking at the vegetation through the windows, the moss and dirt on the ceiling. It was an incredible set, it was real.
We’re so lucky it all came together, and for Sennia it was a complete gamble. A very unique experience for her. For me, the best moment was when we were offered the opening night at the Locarno Film Festival. It’s a stunning lakeside town in Switzerland. At that point, Sennia didn’t even have a passport. For her, it was an amazing experience doing her first red carpet in this beautiful location on a big screen with eight thousand people, it was a really special time. I’m so happy for her.
She’s up for Best Female Newcomer at the Empire Film Awards. She was nominated for Most Promising Newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards. She won Best Actress at Sitges, a Catalonian International Film Festival, and they only have two awards: Best Actor and Best Actress, and Daniel Radcliffe won Best Actor, and Sennia Nanua from Nottingham won Best Actress!
These are all the little victories. When I saw MOONLIGHT win I was so thrilled – we met those guys in Toronto, and they’re lovely. They were like: “We just made this little movie for a million and a half” – and they won the Oscar! That’s the crazy thing about our business, every now and again stars align, and you do something you’re really proud of.
So, shifting to the writers in the room, typically how many scripts a week are you reading?
If I’m in Berlin, zero. This week I’ve been catching up on my books. Depends on how good the scripts are. A bad script can take three hours. A good script can take an hour. I try to read between eight to twelve a week, but sometimes I’ll just do a week where I watch a lot of films.
My job is also identifying great Heads of Departments, and that’s very much what happened to THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS. I was in L.A. with Colm for January, and when we came back, we had 28 scripts to read. I went to Lapland and hired a log cabin for ten days and read 28 scripts.
What’s the genre mix on your slate?
VENICE is a high concept thriller. The way I pitch it is: “BOYHOOD meets MEMENTO meets DON’T LOOK NOW.” There no VFX in it. It’s all verbal sci-fi high concept, and it’s female led. THE TUTOR is a Harold Pinter style, noir, sexy thriller which is just brilliant writing. ESCAPE was on The Black List. It’s a straight drama based on the true story.
THE PRIZE OF PERIL is a big Action Thriller. So there’s quite a mix. The new thing we’re doing with Mike Carey is a ghost story set in a women’s prison. I have a romcom which is a sort of British BRIDESMAIDS.
So, I can’t say that I only like, or work with, one genre. I just want to make films I would want to watch. I love FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL. I love ALIEN. I love INDIANA JONES. As Colm and I build our slate, it’s become clear to me that writers are the same. They have all sorts of interests. It’s about finding the right story rather than the right genre.
Obviously in the UK a lot of the established producers are making very classy, lavish period dramas which I love to watch,, but I’m probably not the right Producer to get them made.
So putting aside genre, what can writers do to appeal to you? I know it’s the $64,000 question…
A really cool high concept. VENICE is an original idea by a literature professor at the University of Venice. It’s a story about a 22-year-old novelist who has this freak novel that went stratospheric. She’s married to an Italian man with an 18-month-old toddler. She’s trying to crack that second novel. It’s 1963, and she can’t remember yesterday.
What we realise, as the story progresses, is that she’s going to have massive lapses of memory. She doesn’t tell anyone about her memory. She goes to sleep that night and wakes up two weeks later not remembering a thing. She goes to sleep on day three and twelve years have passed, and she’s completely missed her son’s childhood.
She can see she’s written three books and her relationship with her husband is very different. Then she wakes up 20 years later with another man in her bed, and that’s her new husband who she knows nothing about. It’s a time travel going forward, but there’s no VFX, whirlpools, smoke, aliens or anything like that. It’s purely psychological. It’s pure drama. It’s about what it means to be a woman, avant-garde, a feminist and to be a woman in 1963.
It’s very poetic. It’s about the little pleasures of everyday life as a mother, as a wife, as a sister-in-law and as an artist. VENICE is great because it’s timeless. Doing a period film in Venice is fantastic. It doesn’t have to have alien invasions. Having said that I love alien invasions.
I’ve read three sci-fi scripts this weekend. One was a TWILIGHT-ZONE-style story. Another was about a true story of an SS Commando German soldier who just cracked in the final days working in Auschwitz and decided to find all the members of his SS Commando and kill them all. He rescued the Jewish sex slave of his unit master, saved her from a refugee camp to help him track down the head of the Commando. It’s all true. It’s incredibly moving. It’s by two brothers who have never written before. And it’s fantastic.