THE INSIDER INTERVIEWS: CAROLINE HARVEY
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.
Caroline Harvey has worked alongside Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack at Mirage and been Development Executive at Working Title. Now she’s an independent producer.
Films she’s been involved with include – COLD MOUNTAIN, MICHAEL CLAYTON, THE READER, ANNA KARENINA, No 1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY, LES MISERABLES and TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. She has also written, produced and directed award-winning short films.
Caroline currently runs Sally Greene’s film and TV slate at Greene Light Films.
This interview was hosted by producer, James Cotton.
Can you, in your own words, describe where you are today in the industry?
I would say I’m a ‘Jack of all trades’. I am currently producing, but also doing bits of writing. I’m also running a development slate for Sally Greene. Sally Greene owns the Old Vic Theater and Ronnie Scotts, and she’s just started a company called Greenlight Films, because she wants to move into the film business. She also produced BILLY ELLIOT the musical, so she’s very familiar with everyone in film.
Could you tell us a bit about your early experiences that lead to your career in film?
I read a lot as a child. I was ill when I was little, so I wasn’t always at school. I think that’s what really pushed me towards reading and watching films. I watched a lot of stuff when I was little, stuff I probably shouldn’t have watched! I just became fascinated with storytelling, I knew I wanted to do something in that arena, so studying English Literature seemed like the natural thing to do. It was what I was best at, the thing I really got good results in, so I decided to go on to study it at a higher level.
What was it like taking American Studies, and trying to make it in the US?
I studied film for a year in California, which was really useful. I made three appalling student short films, learned a lot from them , and studied all sorts of things within film, whilst doing literature at the same time. It was really good to be there. Unfortunately, I couldn’t sneak in any work experience while I was over there.
What was your first experience in the UK?
Whilst I was still at university, it was in my fourth year. I did a four-year course because it allowed me to have a year in the states. I did running at Working Title. My sister was an assistant at Working Title. Whenever they needed somebody, they’d call me, and I’d bunk off of university for three weeks, or a month, to try to keep up with the reading for my English degree!
From then, after I graduated, I worked with them over the summer. But I did write a lot of letters to other production companies, because there wasn’t a permanent job for me there. I sneakily wrote it on Working Title headed paper to help me get a look in!
I had a lot of meetings with people after that, but it’s very difficult to get a job working as a runner. So I started freelancing running on set for music videos, being a receptionist, working in post-production houses. Just a lot of jobs to really keep me afloat, whilst continuing the relationships with the people I’d met in working title, and the other companies I’d worked in.
Are there any people who you worked with in the early days that have risen to the top of their game?
One of my friends is Faye Ward, she started at Ruby Films. She’s just produced the SUFFRAGETTE movie, and started her own production company, Fable. I’m working with her on different things, as a freelancer. One of my best friends is Rhodri Thomas, who works at The Ink Factory. We met because he worked for Harvey Weinstein when we were little, and we’ve sort of grown up together. He’s just produced Ang Lee’s new film.
I continue to work with all those people, I think that idea of community within film is really important. I think anything I’ve got to say to you this evening is not nearly as useful as the conversations you lot are going to have afterwards! I still work with a lot of the people I chatted to in pubs in Soho when I was 21.
Would you recommend your route into the industry for aspiring writers?
I think definitely, in terms of learning about the inner workings of any production company, it’s worthwhile. Seeing how they find material – illuminating what you should be looking for in your ideas.
Reading loads of scripts and learning about form and style is integral to the writing process. I think it’s a more difficult route now. For instance there’s an internship scheme at Working Title, that means the opportunities are probably more limited there – because there’s only two spots a year.
What is the range of freelance work you were prepared to do to get into the industry?
I started out making tea, working for nothing. Even just cleaning up after directors in editing suites, after they’d spent an evening cutting and there was a terrible mess. I took anything I could get. I think I was really fortunate, because I was from London, and that really gave me such a foothold. I was able to work for very little money, I could stay with my parents and not need to pay rent.
It’s quite worrying really. If you don’t live in London, but you want to work in film, not only are there very limited opportunities but also you are working for nothing. In fact, I’ve had interns and assistants working with me at Mirage that have two jobs. They would work in film in the daytime and pull pints in the evenings. Thankfully all of those people went on to get a job at Mirage over time.
At what point did it turn from those kind of tasks that let you get stuck into the story?
Well I worked at TV Loonland. It was a television company based in Dean Street that produced children’s television and animation. It wasn’t really what I wanted to do, but it allowed me to continue meeting with my friends who worked within film, and hearing about things that you wouldn’t hear about otherwise, which is where I heard about the job in Mirage.
What sort of people and opportunities did you encounter at Mirage?
Mirage Enterprises was Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack’s company. I worked there for seven years, and I left in 2008. It consisted, at that time, of Anthony, Tim Bricknell, who is a producer, Bruna Papandrea, who is a producer, and two assistants for Anthony.
They needed a development assistant, and an assistant for Bruna. I was very fortunate to be able to go in and interview for the job, and thankfully, I got it. I learned a lot from Bruna about persistence – not taking no for an answer. She really is a force of nature.
What was it like working with Sydney Pollack, and how did he differ from Anthony?
I think Sydney was a true director, whereas Anthony considered himself a writer before he was a director. They had many commonalities in taste and Sydney thought like a writer – he’d talk a lot about structure. He was obsessed with the ‘intellectual idea’ – that there must be at the core of the script a theme or a question he wanted to explore. He was always trying to get to the bottom of that – whatever stage of the process. This idea gave his films their backbone.
Sydney was an amazing person to work with. He’d come to London about once every six months, and I’d go to LA occasionally to see him.
Anthony ran his ship quite differently to Sydney. Anthony was Italian, his office was like a family place. We’d have lunch together every day – it was a very relaxed place. Sydney loved coming to London and enjoyed spending time in the office in Hampstead.
Could you let us know what you learned from the two of them?
I really noticed their passion for filmmaking. They had a passion for the material they chose and they loved the process. When I’d ask Anthony, “What are we going to do next?” he’d reply, “Well, what do you want to do? What have you read that you love?” And that’s really the ethos behind the company – make films about things you are passionate about: material you love with people you like. And I’d like to keep hold of that impulse more in my work.
What I now choose to work on, as a freelancer, are projects that I really care about –not just for the commercial motive. Some of them are really hard – some of them will take years. Most of them will take years – if they happen at all! And I think that’s something I really learned from Anthony and Sydney.
You have to really care, because you’re going to be spending at least 3 years with these stories and characters, and you’ve got to really want to do it – you have to enjoy it. Because it’s not about the end product, it’s about the process. It can be heartbreaking, if something goes wrong – a competitive project beating you to the line, a script taking a wrong turn, losing a director…
Can you tell us about some of the great films that you worked on in your time at the company?
I came into Mirage when Anthony was just making COLD MOUNTAIN. I think, at first, I was rather in awe, because I loved his work, and I thought he was an absolutely brilliant filmmaker, and I still do. What amazed me, about his process, was the level of collaboration and how he managed that.
He cut COLD MOUNTAIN with Walter Murch upstairs in our office. He would call up to us at different points in the day and say: “Come and watch this scene.” Obviously we’d read the script a million times, so he would say “Tell me what’s happening in this scene.” Just so he could verbally hear what the film was telling you. You wouldn’t know if you were giving the right or wrong answer, but it would give him an idea if he was cutting it properly.
Anthony would do this, not only with the people he worked with, but he would also do it with the cleaner in the middle of the night, because everyone is a member of the audience. There was no pretension with him, and that’s something that I learned watching him work on his films. He wanted to hear from everyone.
He had this Post-it note above his desk that said “If ten Russians tell you you’re drunk, lie down.” No idea where that comes from but he’d listen to his Russians – us. If we all said something wasn’t working, that something doesn’t make sense, then he would look to change things. I think that is quite a rare quality in a filmmaker.
He would quote the “Ten Russians” thing all the time. He also fondly called me and his assistant, Karen, Statler and Wardorf – the old men from The Muppets, who heckle the end of every muppet show! That speaks volumes about our role in the company and in Anthony’s process!
He’d also say he had “one deaf ear.” He would invite comment and criticism but go temporarily deaf if it was detracting from what he was trying to achieve with the film.
I worked on BREAKING AND ENTERING, and I was very involved in that. At that point Bruna had left and I’d been promoted to running the development department. I remember having a discussion with him about the ending of that film. It was perhaps more tense than our usual communication! At the time, I didn’t feel the film ended quite in the way that is should have. Maybe it’s because I’m more misanthropic than Anthony was – most people are! But in retrospect it suited Ant’s world view – how that film ended. He used his deaf ear.
Most of my memories of working with Anthony and Sydney are rather difficult now – because they are no longer with us. It’s hard for me to recall lots of very useful specifics about their process because my brain has decided to just keep hold of the strong memories of fun I had with them.
What funny stories can you share from those times?
I’ll tell you a fun story about working with Anthony and Sydney though. Sydney came over to release his documentary, THE SKETCHES OF FRANK GHERY. Which was the first and only documentary that he directed. He had a little party at Nobu to celebrate it. Sydney and Anthony didn’t really drink, so the slipped off after a couple of hours and said “Enjoy yourselves”. Me and my fellow Miragers ended up enjoying the hospitality of Nobu. We were dancing, even though there was no music playing, and thoroughly enjoying the occasion.
The next morning we all came into the office quite hungover. Sydney came into my office, and he asked me what happened at the party. I told him nothing, because I couldn’t entirely remember, I was rather hungover. And he paused –then said “That’s strange, because Nobu have just phoned my publicist, and they’ve said that because of the way you guys behaved last night, me and Anthony are never allowed to visit any Nobu again anywhere in the world!”
Bearing in mind that Sydney was a brilliant actor, I was absolutely petrified. I wanted to climb under my desk. But then Anthony came in laughing. That was during the development of THE READER, and is one of my fondest memories.
Is it true that Anthony loved the game Championship Manager?
Yeah, that’s true! He’d be buying obscure players during out development meetings. He would do it sneakily in the edit as-well!
Having experienced the loss of your colleagues, what happened to the company?
It was very difficult. We lost Anthony very suddenly, and then, we knew Sydney was not well. As a group we decided we continue to try to serve the projects. We knew that we were going to produce THE NO.1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY. I went on to script edit that. We organized Anthony’s archive whilst we were developing that. That was just the natural next step, because there were only four of us at Mirage at this point, and we wanted to stay together for as long as we could.
So that’s why we made THE NO.1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY. That was a really difficult period for all of us, and it’s the only television I’ve worked on as a script editor. It was a brilliant project, and when I think about Anthony, I think he’s more like Mma Ramotswe than any of his other characters! He loved those books so it was a lovely thing to do in his spirit.
You worked on so many great movies, then you ended up back at Working Title working on even more! Tell us a bit about that.
I had a period where I wasn’t working. Fate intervened yet again, and we were going to do a second series of THE NO.1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY. But, Jill Scott, who played Precious Ramotswe, got pregnant, which meant that we couldn’t do a second series. That left me out of work again, so I started reading for anyone that would have me to earn a living. I started doing bits of writing as well, and that’s how I got back into Working Title.
They would give me scripts and novels to read and do coverage on to help me pay my rent. After a year or so of that, they offered me a job. I got parachuted in with another one of their readers who also had a strong history with the company.
We were very familiar with their development slate at that point. Something had happened internally that meant they needed roles filled straight away. So they took me, and another development executive on, and we just hit the ground running. We went straight on to BRIDGET JONES 3, LES MISERABLES, ANNA KARENINA.
Any anecdotes about Harvey Weinstein?
I have so many, and none of them are printable! I once had to buy him M&Ms, and I got told off by his assistant, because he shouldn’t have had them. He was supposed to be on a diet!
And then you went on to make some shorts?
Yeah, I made a film called MAN AND BOY, with two directors – David Leon and Marcus McSweeney. It starred Eddie Marsan and Geoff Bell. It went on to do very well. I made a film called YEAR SEVEN, which Rafe Spall, the actor, wrote. It is a lovely rite of passage story – Rafe has got a great distinctive comic voice. And I wrote and directed my own short, as well, called EMILY. Felicity Jones was the producer and the star.
Felicity is a very good friend, and I wrote the film with her in mind. She’s a great actress, but she’s also incredibly smart. She wanted to go behind the camera as well as in front of it and asked me if she could produce it too. She went location scouting on her own, came to meetings about kit and lenses – she really went to town. She’ll produce more in the future.
Can you tell us more about your own works, and how you’ve moved between the different roles in film?
Having worked with those two filmmakers for seven years, who really moved between the roles – as writer, director and producer. They would say that there’s some films they wanted to write, some they wanted to direct, some they wanted to produce and some they just wanted to see. And that’s how I moved forward into producing and doing bits of writing and having a crack at directing. I didn’t see the roles as mutually exclusive.
LOVE YOU MORE, was the first film that I produced and Sam Taylor Johnson’s first short film. It was also actually Anthony’s last completed film. We optioned a novel called The Story Of You. Anthony knew Sam, and felt that she was a filmmaker. So, we took the book with her attached to Film 4 and they told us to make a short. So that was my job, with Sam, to do that.
Patrick Marber wrote the script, it was an amazing experience for me. It went on to be nominated for the Palme d’Ore and the BAFTAs. Also, after Anthony died, it gave me a bit of oxygen – something to keep working on that I’d produced with him. So it was a gift to me, along with all the relationships that I created that still continue now.
Can you tell us more about the process on your own development slate?
Sally’s slate is full of idea that I’ve tailored to her taste. If I think about Sally Greene, I think about Ronnie Scotts, I think about jazz, and the Old Vic Theatre and Billy Elliot.
I think, in terms of other ideas, I’m quite self-generating, so I find a lot of my own material and try to attach filmmakers to it. I find ideas in the oddest places. I’m working with my friend Faye, who just produced SUFFRAGETTE, on a television series: a comedy, based on a blog called MY HOUSEMATES DIARY. I found a reference to it buried in The Guardian’s Comment Is Free section.
It wasn’t in the main article of the Guardian, it was someone randomly saying “Oh, have you read this?” We’ve optioned the material. It’s about a man finding and reading his flatmate’s diary. It’s about all the mischief you can get up to if you know everything your flatmate is thinking and obsessing about. We really wanted to do something fun together and this is the perfect project for us to work together on. It’s just getting set up now.
How far do you take the projects in terms of writing yourself?
I write treatments mainly. For other projects like MY HOUSEMATES DIARY, the guy who writes the blog wanted to write the script himself, and so we’ve honoured that. He’s a great writer so we were thrilled that he wanted to have a crack himself.
What level of writing talent are you looking for? Do you give opportunities to less experienced writers?
I think I’m quite targeted. I know at Greene Light we are interested in finding a young, female writer to author a female-driven story set in London. That’s something we’re looking to work on together – I’m currently meeting lots of writers coming out of theatre for that. I wouldn’t rule anything out, but most of my experience has been working with quite established writers.
Mirage was set up to provide experienced filmmakers with a buffer from the studios on more difficult projects. Anthony and Sydney provided that buffer as producers – a bit of protection from some of the rigours of that world. This led filmmakers like Kenny Lonergan and Tony Gilroy to bring their projects to Mirage.
What kind of genres and scope do you look for while running Sally’s slate?
All of her output is in theatre, and is high-end and prestige, so we would want to replicate that. Sally is so established in theatre – I’m trying to move her theatre life into film and capitalise on her great relationships and taste.
There will be no slasher flicks, no horror and probably no genre pieces. She runs a theatre company as well, called Greene Light Stage. They have a deal with Elton John to produce his next three musicals on stage. One of those being Rocket Man: the story of Elton’s life and his music. She very much in the sphere of theatre and music so it makes sense to pursue stories in that area.
What type of ideas were Working Title looking for when you worked with them?
They’re such a great brand, Working Title. I think you can see one of their films a mile off. They’re moving away from the more, Richard Curtis type material, into doing more things like EVEREST and TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER, SPY. That material is also very branded – heavyweight adaptations of classic novels. Obviously TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER, SPY is John le Carré and EVEREST is a very famous story about mountaineers.
I think they’re starting to take more interesting risks with material – they are currently in production of THE SNOWMAN by Jo Nesbo – again a bestselling novel but darker material than we are used to from them.
My time there was largely spent serving the pre-existing projects on the slate – LES MISERABLES, LORNA DOONE, a new adaptation of REBECCA. Also I covered the theatre, so I’d go to the theatre a lot to go look for writers, directors and actors.
Because of my background at Mirage, where I read millions of novels, I would cover the more literary side of development on the Working Title slate.
What are the main things you’re looking for in film ideas?
For me it comes from my own personal interests as well as feeling passion for a distinctive brilliant story or new voice. For instance, when I was working at Mirage, I knew what books Anthony was reading, I knew what music he was listening to, I knew what newspapers he read. I knew what was preoccupying him. That helped me immeasurably knowing what material he, as a filmmaker, was going to respond to. I think that’s what I look for if I finding material for filmmakers or for the slates I work on.
Can you speak a bit about resolving situations of crisis and problem management in big movies like COLD MOUNTAIN?
I can’t remember specific examples for things that went wrong off the top of my head but COLD MOUNTAIN was such a huge film by anyone’s standards. No-one would make a film like that now. I think that Anthony felt, keenly, how hard it was to make it. That is one of the reasons he then went on to make a very personal, small film set in London next, something that he had absolute control over.
The more money you spend, the more questions there are every step along the way, the more interference. The more you need to have to have a poster with film stars faces on them rather than something more interesting or esoteric. He was incredibly proud of COLD MOUNTAIN but it wasn’t the always easiest journey. But then now film is.
To what extent is the film community in the UK open to newcomers to the industry?
I don’t read a lot of spec scripts, because I largely work on my own so I don’t have much time to do so. But as someone who makes short films and writes myself, I think you should make something in order to get start to get recognition. One of the best films I saw last year was TANGERINE at the London Film Festival, and it cost hardly anything – I think $120K.
It was all shot on an iPhone. It is an excellent film, it really stood up. I think that there are ways for getting stuff produced, without the muscle of a studio or huge money behind it.
I’d encourage you, as a writer, to work with a director and make a short. It really helps to start to open doors for you – you have something produced. So many people come out of short films, and then start writing their own features.
Having done your short film, would you every want to direct again?
I would actually! I’m writing something now. I’m going to try to make another short this year. I’d love to work with Felicity again. I’ve got three-quarters written of a feature film, for Felicity actually. I should practice what I preach, because I haven’t actually finished it! It’s been in my bottom drawer for a while! So I need to get on with that. It’s worth mentioning though, even if I haven’t finished that script, I’ve re-written those three-quarters about twenty times.
How did MICHAEL CLAYTON come together as a project, and how did Anthony and Sydney “protect” Tony Gilroy from the studios?
It wasn’t that he needed protecting, he was more than capable of looking after himself, but I think that it just felt like a natural home for the film – it feels like a film that Sydney might have directed himself. We made a film called MARGARET with Kenneth Lonergan that had a very difficult period of development, production and release.
It was a great film, but it took four years. I think that’s a better example that had a very difficult birth, but got there eventually. It was actually released after Anthony and Sydney passed away.
It’s said that 90 percent of scripts go in the bin, can you comment on that generalisation of the industry?
In terms of things getting read, it helps if they come from an agent.
In no place where I’ve worked, have I been allowed to read unsolicited material. Mirage and Working Title are very cautious about that – quite rightfully. So it’s difficult if you don’t have an agent.
The way around that is writing as much as you can, getting shorts made, and having work to show. Every development executive has a pile of scripts that they’re working through, and they all usually get read but the unsolicited ones have to be passed on.
I think if you develop a slate of ten projects, you’d be lucky to get two or three of them away, that’s true. It’s not for any lack of effort, or passion. Sometimes they come back round, for example it took Faye about five years to produce SUFFRAGETTE. Things don’t always look like they’re going to happen, so it’s about patience and waiting for the right time. But then again, if it’s a great project and you’ve got a good producer behind them, they should get made through sheer tenacity.
As a producer, do you think it’s difficult to pitch stories with female leads?
I think it’s changing now, because there’s so much in the press about it. I feel like there’s a real movement and I think people are trying hard to find and produce that material. I know that, among my friends, all of us are. And now, with so many actresses setting up their own production companies and as they start to generate their own material. It all feels really positive and I hope it begins to have an effect on the industry.