THE INSIDER INTERVIEWS: COLIN VAINES
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.
Colin Vaines is a producer whose impressive credit roll call includes GANGS OF NEW YORK, CORIOLANUS, THE YOUNG VICTORIA, THE RUM DIARY and MY WEEK WITH MARILYN – to name but a few.
He began his career as a journalist with Screen International, which he went on to edit. Later, he oversaw UK development for Columbia Pictures during David Puttnam’s tenure at the studio.
He made his debut as a producer with the Emmy-winning TV film A DANGEROUS MAN: LAWRENCE AFTER ARABIA, which introduced Ralph Fiennes in the title role.
In 1999, he was appointed Executive Vice-President for Development for Miramax Films. And in 2005, he went on to be Executive Vice-President for European Production and Development for The Weinstein Company, working closely with Harvey Weinstein.
He joined Graham King’s GK Films in Los Angeles as Co-President of Production in 2007, before returning to freelance production.
His latest film, which he is producing alongside Bond producer, Barbara Broccoli, is FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL (from the book by Peter Turner). It stars Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham, Vanessa Redgrave and Julie Walters, and will be released in 2017.
Let’s start with your most recent project, FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL. Tell us a bit more about it and your involvement…
I read this book 30 years ago, when it came out. It’s a memoir by a young actor called Peter Turner – a true story and a very funny book. When he was 27, while he was doing rep in London he was in the same boarding house as an actress in her 50s. And he was completely entranced by her.
I should add he was essentially gay – but he just found this woman very vibrant and attractive. Initially they became friends and then they fell in love.
He lived in Liverpool and she went there to meet his family and she became besotted with Liverpool, things became serious, and he ended up going to America with her. One day while they were in New York, she suddenly broke off the relationship and he never knew why and was devastated.
A year later, he was ‘repping’ in Liverpool and heard that she was ill in Lancashire. This was 1979 / 1980 so before we all knew where everyone was via social media. A friend told him he should go and see her, and when he did, she asked if they could go back to his family home and she could be looked after there…
It has been described as SUNSET BOULEVARD on the Mersey. But I think it’s more MY WEEK WITH MARILYN meets SHAMELESS.
It’s a really charming, strange, and moving story about a really unusual but powerful love affair. The book has a really unique quality. You laugh on one page and you’re really moved on the next.
When I worked at Columbia Pictures, 28 years ago, they optioned the book and developed an absolutely dreadful screenplay, so nothing happened with that. At one point Working Title picked it up. They worked with directors on it – such as Stephen Frears, and David McKenzie. That didn’t work out either. At one point they were trying to cast Joan Collins, but Joan Collins as Gloria Grahame wasn’t going to fly.
The actress in this story was an amazing woman called Gloria Grahame – the real femme fetale of forties film noir. She was a stage actress who went into film and won an Oscar early on in her career, as best supporting actress, and went on to do OKLAHOMA! and IN A LONELY PLACE among many others. She was a real maverick – but she was always running into trouble and wouldn’t play by the rules. One of the things that upset the establishment of Hollywood was that she was married for a while to Nicholas Ray, and then after she divorced him, and had gone through another marriage, she married Nicholas’ son. She really didn’t care about anything!
It then fell in to the hands of Barbara Broccoli, who was really interested in it because she knew both Peter Turner and Gloria Grahame during this relationship. She then acquired it with a director in mind, and developed many scripts over the years but nothing ever really happened.
When I left working with Graham King in LA, I drew up a list of all the projects I had loved but that had never happened and this was top of the list. I discovered Barbara had the rights…
I went to Matt Greenhalgh, who I had just worked with. He wrote CONTROL and NOWHERE BOY and he had done some uncredited work for me on MY WEEK WITH MARILYN. There was obviously some crossover between the two stories, in that it is a love affair between an actress and a younger man, but it’s a totally different story. The fact that Gloria was relatively unknown and Marilyn had an iconic element to her made it different also.
Part of the pleasure of this, is that – like in reality with Peter discovering who she is – you discover in the film who she is. So the fact that a lot of people don’t know who she is – which is what the BBC was concerned about – really doesn’t matter. I sent him the book, he loved it.
Barbara through Eon Productions put some money up for development and Matt delivered a very good script. Then we hit a strange point – there was a slight odour of ‘used goods’. Directors liked the idea of it in principle, but kept shifting away because they felt like they had heard this story 20 years ago – even though the public hadn’t. Purely because the project had been around for a long time and they had been aware of it all that time. So this was a really tricky time for us.
Then I bumped into a friend, Paul McGuigan. We had distributed LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN when I was at Weinstein Company. He jumped on it immediately. Interestingly, his background is as a photographer and his work is very visual. he reacted well to this because he could see it was full of strong emotional drama and visual possibilities, and could see that something could be made that was a very British film but with a heightened sensibility. So he came on board.
Stuart Ford, from IM Global, came on board as a sales agent, which was a typical triumph of my ineptitude. I wasn’t thinking about pitching it to him, but I had a drink with him at Cannes, completely forgetting he is a very proud Liverpool boy. So the minute I mentioned to him he was interested. He read it overnight and agreed to back it fully – that was about 5 years ago. In the intervening years the market for independent films completely tanked. He went from saying they could fund $9/10 million, which was quite standard at that time, but by the time we came to do it they could only back around $4 million – so we had to do a radical rethink about what we were doing.
We found no support from the central British industry, but we did have support from Lionsgate, who I had a relationship with after CORIOLANUS, and they just ‘got it’ and liked the idea of what it was about. Then we got private investors as an extra pot of money to cover North America, because it is almost impossible to pre-sell a film to North America these days. Barbara’s reputation helped to get that pot of money. But we have had to constantly slash and burn the script as the budget has changed. It was always coming out too expensive. Eventually I brought in a line producer I knew, that could help me look at it from another angle. It was a struggle, and we never got the budget quite where we wanted it to be, but it still feels like the film that we set out to make.
The visual conception was that we wanted to reflect Gloria and her hey day and what that meant; and reflect both the style of films she was in and the actual films she made. This was made all the more possible by casting the brilliant Annette Bening, who found a way into that character that is so believable. She is so much like her, and it’s not an impression. Sometimes we see a brief clip of her in one of her films.There are wonderful moments – such as when Jamie Bell, who plays Peter Turner, moves in for a kiss after she’s annoyed with him, and we used a clip of Gloria from IN A LONELY PLACE where she says: “ I said I liked your face, I didn’t say I want to kiss it.”
Essentially we shot it like a studio film – mostly at Pinewood. So most of the transitions are physical transitions. We did Malibu beach as a studio set – with an 80ft back projection and sand. There’s a transition from a flat in Primrose Hill, when they first made love in 1979, and then everything stops and moves around them and they are in the house in Liverpool, and having been on the bed together it pans down and finds her sick in the bed and Jamie walking through the door.
So – even after your years of experience – you’re still having to leap the same hurdles?
Absolutely. It’s a nightmare. I want to make certain types of films. I define what I do as the arthouse end of commercial or the commercial end of arthouse and that whole scene has gone into a tail spin. No-one knows what works – no-one ever has – but for independent distributors, costs continue to rise, and if you make two or three mistakes pre-buying a film, you are out of the game.
The number of distributors that have gone out of business is shocking worldwide, the amount that they can pay is low, no-one can put a value on VoD, people can sell to Netflix and Amazon, but they need some profile and big names so they can sell films too.
The pressure from the top is to make it as cheaply as possible, but they are still not sure they can sell it. International distribution has got problems – we saw Fortissimo go down the other day.
Stuart showed me the list that he is working on and I was genuinely shocked at what films are getting made for. The Don Cheadle / Miles Davis project was made for $5 million, which I can only imagine happened because Don deferred his fees and he will never see them and that Ewan McGregor did a really low deal, and they must have found tax deals too. But that is the realistic price for a lot of indie films.
The other end of the market, like Alice Lowe’s film, PREVENGE, is where films are shot in 11 days and I assume cost nothing. But that’s Alice Lowe and her association with Ben Wheatley, and their combined connections, getting that made. People have to use their connections more now than ever. It is just really, really tough at the moment.
How do you decide what projects to take on?
As a producer, you have to feel like you are going to die to get involved in it. I will not do anything now, unless I feel 100% sure about it. I have done one film in my whole career that I regret. I did it for completely the wrong reasons.
My old boss, David Puttnam, said to me 20 years ago: “If you have 1% doubt about a project going into it, don’t do it, because that will turn into 99% doubt by the time you start shooting.” I ignored his advice due to the worst combination of things: Fear and ego. They are the two biggest killers in the industry – fear of where the next pay cheque is coming from, and being too egotistical.
I did one film because I was flattered by a big agency asking me to do it, and by the person involved, and I didn’t know when the next paycheck was coming to pay the mortgage. So I did it, even though the script was terrible. And that’s the worst reason to do anything. I regretted it from the moment we started shooting.
Is it more difficult for you to find projects, being at the more arthouse end of the market?
All I have ever done is think: “Do I love it? Do I want to put time, energy and effort into it? Do I have a shot at making it work?”
So it’s down to my own peculiar taste, but I do look for a USP to give me something to help sell it. I can tell you what I hope I will be working on next:
A friend of mine optioned a show that was running in Palm Springs, called The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies. The average age of the cast was 70 years old. They were all former showgirls and boys that came on in ridiculous outfits and sang and danced American classics and told their life story on stage and then there was a big pageant at the end – it was so corny, but so moving, and people would come in busloads from all over America to see this show.
My friend optioned this 20 years ago and bored me to death for years talking about it all the time, but I never went to see it because I thought it sounded awful. He got money from Paramount – when Sherry Lansing was there she committed to it and Colin Welland – who wrote CHARIOTS OF FIRE – wrote a treatment, and then she left and, in typical form, it was buried. For 15/16 years my friend was told “no-one is interested in films about old people…” and then EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL came out and that changed.
By that time, I had seen the show, and thought it was fantastic. I took Martin Sherman to go and see it – having worked with him before. He is a fabulous writer who can write heart-searingly tough stuff like BENT and then also comedies like MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS. He saw the potential in it, especially in the characters.
He liked the idea of setting it like “a day in the life of the show” focusing on five characters and their individual stories, meeting them in the morning, you follow them through the matinée, various things happen, and then – despite all revelations and battles – they have to get through the evening show.
Now, we’re in negotiation with a major US company because the “grey market” is one people have recognised. Martin has written a lovely script with characters you fall in love with. And that’s a big thing for me – I need complex characters but enough of them that I care about. Unless I am emotionally engaged in what’s going on, and particularly with the characters, I’m not interested. I don’t like things that are too nihilistic. I see a lot of films where I think: “Why am I putting myself through this?”
Do you feel that there’s an increasing trend for anti-heroes at the moment?
Well, Vince Gilligan famously pitched BREAKING BAD as ‘Mr Chips becomes Scarface’ – which is a brilliant concept. He never would have sold that as a film, and it was lucky that AMC had the balls to keep going with it when the ratings were dipping really badly after the third series. It was such a compelling character though that it won through and things turned around.
I am not against dark characters – one of my favourite films is THE WILD BUNCH, where the leads are all completely out of time and do dreadful things, but they have a code of honour that you can buy into. Again, Bill the Butcher in GANGS OF NEW YORK is an incredibly compelling character.
My favourite scene from GANGS OF NEW YORK is him sitting by the bedside talking to Amsterdam and he throws in that line: “I never had a son,” and there is a moment where the veil is lifted and you see into the heart of the character. The most interesting characters are fundamentally flawed. You just have to understand where they are coming from – and have a complexity where they can move you for a moment.
What irritates you when reading a script?
Predictability KILLS me. I need to be surprised. Otherwise I am bored. I loathe screen courses that teach “you must do this by page 30…” – what I look for is a voice and one that doesn’t just follow mechanical rules. I want things to be interesting!
When I ran the Performing Arts Lab, we never sat down and instructed what had to happen by a certain page. In all the scripts I read there, I never responded to scripts that were too ‘coiffeured’ as I call it. I was looking for a voice. I wanted to see something that didn’t just follow the pedantic, mechanical rules completely. Even if the script was too long, but had something special and interesting, it had a better chance.
My greatest moment to illustrate the problem of finding a distinctive writer’s voice these days came when I was working with Harvey Weinstein. We optioned a book by Alison Pearson – I DON’T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT – and struggled with finding a writer and eventually decided to give it to a guy who’d been both a playwright and written a hugely successful comedy, so it seemed like he had the right Rom-Com mechanics and he had done some good stuff. But it was so ‘by the numbers’ when it came in – depressingly so.
We had a meeting with him, and the late Anthony Minghella was there (because it was being produced by his company, Mirage) and Anthony gave an impassioned speech about how it needs to be written with your own voice. “It’s about what you feel as a writer. MUST be in your own voice!” And I remember the writer noting this down – “Must. Be. Written. In. My Own. Voice…” and me rolling my eyes at Anthony and the other producer, Sydney Pollack.
By the way, I’m not against classical structure or a classic story matrix, as long as the elements involved seem fresh.
I was breaking GANGS OF NEW YORK down recently and it so clearly fits the hero’s journey and a classical structure and obstacles along the way. For me, the best thing was that it was instinctive and the message was under the surface – it was beautiful that Bill the Butcher’s character, the iron man, represents the wildness in America, he is someone who is a life force and the tragedy (and the necessity) is that you have to kill that off if you are going to have some sort of civilization built on it.
So, the film is really about that violence that underpins America and is bubbling under the surface the whole time. But this isn’t overly spelt out in the film, because ultimately it is a story about a son and his surrogate father and how America developed. The moment you start advertising your message, or articulate your theme, that is really bad. It always should stay slightly buried, or you are in trouble. Hollywood does this all the tim
We took an hour out of GANGS OF NEW YORK, over the course of a year. Harvey wasn’t creatively against long films, but like me, thought people were too indulgent and thought every film was ten minutes too long. Why do you want to sit through three hours of film? I am with Hitchcock that a movie should be the duration of the human bladder.
I have written a political thriller, which is 136 pages that has had lots of interest in it, but I have been told my characters talk too much, and that I need to cut it to 120 pages. I’m really struggling to ‘kill my darlings’ what shall I do?
If I read something 140 pages with a lot of talk that I really liked I would push for it, but people cling to those writing course ideals and perfect formulas, and execs are so fearful about losing their jobs so want to do everything ‘by the book.’ It’s very hard for them, and very hard for the writer. Just keep bashing your head against the brick wall. You just have to keep going and going until someone ‘gets it’ or likes it.
The problem is, as I’m sure you all know, that coverage is often done by a guy sat in a coffee shop in L.A. who hasn’t got anywhere in film so is doing this to stay in the industry. People are so reliant on coverage, and it is generally people at a low-level, who may be smart and right, but not very experienced, and they are your one shot because no one further up the company is going to look at your script unless it gets through that filter.
When I was at Miramax it was relentless and a barrage of scripts – we had to read 16 scripts in a weekend, and that was stuff that HAD worked it’s way through the pile. I use coverage a lot, but I always use people I really, really trust and I always look for readers that will look at material in the way I look at it. I need to have the same taste as them.
Are there any genres you are chasing, that you can do so with a bit more freedom from the daily remit of development?
I set up a little company with Hamish McAlpine (who used to run Tartan Films) to make some smaller films, which always had some unique selling point. I have a ghost story that I have always wanted to do, which I had to find a way of doing. It is a classic ghost story but I have relocated into the celeb world to bring it into today. I like to subvert things I do, or bring it into an area that gives it a freshness.
I do think it is necessary to consider your marketplace. Having no mindfulness of it, will make it very difficult to argue the case for it and get it to sell.
If someone like yourself is finding it difficult to find finance for projects, do you feel the industry is dying in this country, or do young filmmakers have to go somewhere else to make it happen?
It’s not dying. Here’s the weird thing, it’s never been easier to make a movie. Anyone can pick up a camera and make a film. Someone said to me once, “Isn’t it great there are going to be all these garage Kubricks?” And I thought, “No! there are going to be a load of garage Ed Woods.” That’s the problem, there is a lot of dreadful stuff out there. There is no ceiling on it. But, what there is a ceiling on is, ‘who’s going to pick the film up and distribute it and show it?’ That’s what it comes down to.
People will always make film here. What has irrevocably shifted though is that there is a greater level of quality low-budget drama on TV than there has ever been. There is also an increase in up market, more expensive TV drama too – in America there are pilots being made with budgets of $15/20 million, which are old feature film budgets. The long form TV piece is an interesting area.
On the other hand 141 shows were cancelled last year. Just one season and they were gone. There is a barrage of content available and I don’t know what the answer is for new writers, starting out.
Ted Hope and I were talking about this on a panel recently. He suggested people make 6-minute shorts because that’s the attention span of most executives. In fact it has probably shortened to 4 minutes since then! I watched the new Pixar short, that’s about 7 minutes long, the other day, and it’s brilliant! You’re hooked in immediately. My friend, Phil Davis, the actor who was in QUADROPHENIA, has just made an eight-minute short, and again I was hooked from the start. As a piece of storytelling and direction it is really good.
It has got very, very tough for those starting out. One of the greatest losses for me from the business was the BFI Production Board that was there 20 years ago, which my friend Ben Gibson ran, because they took big chances on little money. And it’s what Channel Four set out to do. But it just feels there is much less money than there ever was.
Has the industry become totally risk averse?
Yes. The reason we get relentless comic book movies is because someone sat at a desk is looking for a guaranteed hit, and is too scared to take a chance on anything else. In the past you took risks and some of it worked and some of it didn’t.
It is risk aversion, but also it is SO expensive to launch a film, with the publicity involved etc.
45 YEARS is hardly a mainstream movie – it’s just two people talking! – but it’s a very emotional film, that was beautifully made, and hit that target market perfectly. So it shows that there is a further audience out there and risks can still pay off.
A lot of projects these days seem to come from existing material, but I find that really frustrating, as I am trying to do something new. So, what would make you read something original?
Oh, I do that all the time. When I do get to read scripts, when I am not in development, I do read pre-existing stuff, but completely original material too. I am making a film next year about the early life of Noel Coward, another original Martin Sherman script, and no-one needs to know anything about him to ‘get’ the film.
It is ultimately about a young man from Clapham, who is inventing himself in something different. It is very much about his sexuality and how theatre is going to take over everything in his personal life. If you take the names out of it, it is a very original, interesting script.
For me, it is all about the first ten pages. If I feel it is clunky or uninteresting, I won’t go past the first 10/15 pages. I need to invest in the characters, and to like the set up and want to carry on reading to find out what happens. I react negatively if I feel something is being spelt out, or I am being force-fed it, or I am not seeing it dramatised.
I used to say that, as a producer, you need one script which has everything explained in it, and another which has none of that stuff in it which is going to get made. Some people don’t have the skill to picture clearly enough what is happening on the page.
A lot of actors hate being told what they should be feeling too, remember. I have watched scripts become a totally different experience when watching actors read it in their own way – ignoring the script’s ‘directions.’
How do you access scripts? Do you read unsolicited stuff?
I get most of my scripts from agents, producer colleagues who I am close to, or from me going out and says: “ I want to make a film about this” and commissioning a writer from there.
The problem with being a one-man band is time. I have a folder on my laptop, which used to be called MUST READ and now it is called REALLY, REALLY, REALLY MUST READ.
I have a script, which is three drafts in, and it is complex characters with a visual story. My script editor suggested that I should write in ‘what it’s really about’ at the beginning, through the dialogue – what do you think?
If it’s not apparent in the storytelling then it’s deadly. What I hate – more than anything else – is stage directions that you can’t actually dramatise. My friend, Bruce Robertson, writes hilarious scripts. So, in THE RUM DIARY, he writes stage directions that read: “It’s the year of our Lord 1959, and the airwaves are soiled by Dean Martin’s Volare”, and you think, “Oh, that’s really funny” but then in the film, when you hear Volare playing as a plane flies over, so many of my friends have said, “What a cliché!” because it’s not amusing when you don’t hear the other stuff.
I loathe scripts jam-packed with stuff like: “As Shadrack sits, staring out at the sunset, thinking of his daughter that he left behind…” What?! You can’t see that – he’s just looking out of the window!
I don’t think any exposition or spelling things out is a good idea. I like scripts to be quite simple. But that’s me and my opinion.
Would you ever do a musical?
I don’t know… FABULOUS PALM SPRINGS FOLLIES is sort of a musical as it has musical numbers, and it is clear, with LA LA LAND, that there is an appetite for musicals – it has been so well-received. That reaction could certainly help open up the borders of people considering musicals. Amazingly, LA LA LAND has an original score, which is very enjoyable.
It is very, very tough. Even Harvey, who loved musicals, found it difficult, battling for years to make CHICAGO. Years ago, when I worked with Harvey, we worked on BRIDE AND PREJUDICE, that was a fun movie, taking the tropes from Bollywood and playing with them. That was a big hit in India and had reasonable success here, because it was doing something different.
There are going to be big musicals coming out – WICKED is going to be made into a film. But whether I’ll do one apart from THE FOLLIES, I’m not sure…
A lot of people are asking questions about funding or raising interest, but surely it is also your job as a writer/producer/director to give the financier something else, and put yourself in their position?
Yes, I am always thinking about how I need to package my projects: ‘what can I sell it as?’ Most of the time, people are thinking of a reason to say no. So, the only reason they are going to say yes, is if they are really excited, they like the elements attached, or they can see that it is going to make them some money. You always need to think about budget too though. Be realistic.
I spent a year in L.A. talking to private investors, and it was really tough. They are looking to get in, and then don’t want to see their money wasted, and then they are looking for an exit point.
Is there anything you have passed on that you regretted?
As an exec, all the time. It is just the nature of the beast, you can’t do everything, and you can’t agree to everything. Sometimes you simply don’t see what’s in front of you. When I was at Miramax we passed on the TRAFFIC remake, when Soderbergh was going through a rough patch. And then I saw it and thought it was fantastic.
One of the problems was the TV series was so good that you thought, ‘it can never be as good as that.’