THE INSIDER INTERVIEWS: ED CLARKE
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.
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Ed Clarke is Head of Development at Shoebox Films and was previously head of development at Kudos, working for three years under Paul Webster as Head of Film; they worked on projects including BRIGHTON ROCK and SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN. Prior to that he worked at Capitol Films and Arista Development.
What does your role at Shoebox entail on a day-to-day basis?
First thing, Shoebox is the director Joe Wright’s production company and there are currently five of us in it. There’s Joe, his long term producer Paul Webster, who produced ATONEMENT, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and ANNA KARENINA and just recently PAN. He was also involved with Film 4 back in the day, he’s worked for Harvey, for Working Title, produced about 100 films.
There’s also Guy Heeley, another producer in the company who was Joe’s longterm first AD and then transitioned into producing 5 years ago. He was lead producer on HUMMINGBIRD and on LOCKE, which are Shoebox’s two official productions even though we’ve been doing other stuff. It’s sort of a new company with old heads and my role, I came in 2012, is to run development for them – also as a producer and to look for projects for Joe, both as ready-made scripts and stuff we might want to develop.
And then also to build up a slate of film projects for the company outside of that relationship with Joe and, more recently, we set up a TV arm and now I’m also dedicated to running the TV side of things and building a TV slate. It’s essentially a development role across film and television but strays off at various junctures and there are two or three projects on the slate that I would be a producer on myself as well.
So you described Shoebox as “a young company comprising of old heads,” so presumably you’re including yourself in that and so we’ll cover your range of experience… Your first job in the industry was in TV sales, so was that the job you wanted at the time and how did that give you an introduction to the market and the full landscape of the TV industry? And did it give you any film insight?
This was back in 1995, I left university and I’d done languages but specialised in film, particularly European film. I loved New Wave movies and was particularly inspired by LA HAINE, I remember seeing that and wondering where our versions of those films were and wanted to be involved with making those sort of films here.
I wrote to everyone I knew and found in the film industry and tried to get to meet people and get a job and failed. Although, as a note to myself, I remember everyone who responded and I remember all the names of the people who wrote back and who said they would meet, and some I still know. So the job in TV sales that I ended up doing was the only thing I could find, and it was through a friend of a friend of a friend.
But I didn’t want to work in sales, selling game shows to Eastern Europe, I wanted to work in film so I applied to the National Film School to the Producer’s course to try and get myself back on track in the film business and spent three years doing a Producer’s course there, which was a fabulous experience.
So you always wanted to be on that development side very firmly, rather than production or did that education give you a balance?
I thought I wanted to be a producer when I went to film school mainly because I had strength in breadth, as I wasn’t that good at any one thing but I was quite good at lots of things, and that seemed to me a good qualification to be a producer. But while I was there one of the things I learnt was that producing was mad and not a very sensible career option.
At the same time development was fascinating to me and the part of the process that I think I responded to the most. I suppose I’m kind of reverse engineering this to make myself look more clever than I was but I felt that I needed some sort of specialty or something that would make me stand out in terms of producing. I was a terrible hustler and there were definitely other people on the course who were much better at blagging things than I was, but I thought I was pretty good on story and could talk to directors about Antonioni and they were quite impressed.
I focused on that area and when I left I felt that development was where I wanted to be and that if I could do a job in development I could maybe transition to producing down the line and so I got some contacts and experience and met some filmmakers that I wanted to work with.
So presumably after your time in TV Sales and the NFTS you went round Soho again waving your CV again and, this time, one door opened?
You’re setting this up perfectly… I left the film school thinking that I wanted to be a development executive or work in development. But a friend of mine who was on the course with me had left the previous year to work at a training company called Arista Development and used to run training courses around the world until about 2007/2008 – training writers, producers, directors, development people generally on residential workshops all over the world, mainly in Europe and the UK, but also New Zealand and Australia. So I spent five happy years there travelling around the world talking about stories with some lovely talented people.
So after those five years with that training, the education and the TV sales, you went round Soho waving again and this time you got in as a Head of Development?
No, so I think there was a danger I was pigeon-holed in training a little bit and I think people thought I’d been in the warm fuzzy world of training and was somewhat disengaged from the business. So I still struggled. There aren’t too many jobs in development, there’s only so many companies that have development people, so there are a lot of people who want to get these jobs and the people who get them tend to stay in them – so you’re waiting for people to go on maternity leave before you can actually get in there, it’s quite a tricky thing.
I was able to get a job as Head of Acquisitions for a film sales company called Capitol Films, which was most famous for doing GOSFORD PARK, and we used to sell Woody Allen movies and we did a movie with Keira Knightley called THE EDGE OF LOVE. At that point I really learned about the sharp end of the business and how films get put together on the international market and what people were looking for. It was a fascinating but slightly salutary experience at the same time.
Over these years was there a key relationship that led to the job at Kudos or how did that come about after a period at Capitol?
It was through a relationship with Paul but it wasn’t a relationship that had existed previously. Paul Webster had come to Capitol with an Abby Morgan script that I really loved and we’d struck up a rapport over that project and trying to get that going. And then he was looking for someone to work in development with him and I was keen to finally get the job I’d been looking for for the past eight years and so I was happily able to get it with Paul and work on that script.
Obviously during that time BRIGHTON ROCK and SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN happened, for you what were the ones that got away during that time?
I think, and this is the thing about development, if you look at my credits from that time and you see two movies and you look at my time at Shoebox and see two movies and think ‘well, what have you been doing for six years?’ but one’s always working on many other projects, maybe at Kudos we’d have 20/25 projects on the slate at any one time and Shoebox 15-20 maybe, so you’re always on the go. I’m not twiddling my thumbs most of the day, there’s a lot of stuff going on. I’d like to think we were quite passionate about everything, at Kudos and at Shoebox we were quite a taste-driven company and part of the reason we work together is that we share taste I suppose.
Was there an opportunity for you and Paul to bring projects that were on the Kudos slate across?
Yes there was, HUMMINGBIRD was one and there was a year gap in between because Paul and I left Kudos at the same time, but Paul left to set up Shoebox with Joe and Guy, and I left to do my own projects as a producer and do some consulting for a little bit. It wasn’t until a year later, when there was a book that I’d optioned that was a big epic period romance and there was no way they were going to let me produce that by myself.
So I went back to Paul and asked if he’d like to produce it with me and he said yes, as it was actually a book we’d looked at in our Kudos days. The paymasters at the time had felt it wasn’t big enough for them so we’d let it go but I’d always loved the story so when I left I went back to the agent and optioned that book, attached a writer and got some BFI funding to develop it, and asked Paul and we got working together again.
To bring it to the present day, Shoebox have got a first look deal with Endemol Shine and you’re balancing the slate between features and high end scripted TV, so with that in mind how can writers approach you, at what stage, what do they have to have done to get a meeting and pitch that idea that may go on the slate?
We’re a small company and one of the trickier bits about the British film business is that it’s an industry of small companies, by and large. There are a few that are big, and have a number of people working for them and are better resourced than others – that’s another reason why there are so few people working in development, only certain companies can literally afford to have someone on staff. You have to be making a movie a year in order to afford a development person and probably every two years to afford to pay yourself.
So that also means we have to manage our resources and that generally means that we only look at solicited material presented by agents – purely because we don’t have the resources to look at everything that comes in and that’s all it is. And so the agents provide a level of filter. And in terms of the material that interests or excites me it’s stuff that’s distinctive and feels true.
I think there are two schools of thought in terms of how one should approach the business as a new writer and how one should train and develop new writers. One school tends to say: be more artisan and teach skills and talk about genre and things that might be commercial. I’m probably more of the opinion that one should develop voices of writers and really look to find something that’s true or distinctive in a writer and I think the other stuff comes later down the track.
More often than not, whether we’re looking for writers or directors, we’re looking for people who have made or written interesting or striking pieces of work that normally move you in some way or another. I would probably think that’s the thing that does it for me.
Is it good for writers to try and write a lower budget thing with more chance of getting made? For younger writers should they develop their voice with a higher period drama if that’s their bag or should they look for the smaller, contained piece?
On LOCKE – very much a contained film – the equation was fairly straightforward – a Steven Knight script and him directing, Tom Hardy in it and it’s not an expensive film to make so it’s an easy call for a financier to make. You’ve got a pretty good sense of Tom Hardy’s value on the international market and if you can make something that’s relatively cheap people will want it or buy it.
The genius of Steve is that he’s able to write something that’s contained in that way and doesn’t feel forced, it feels organic. You don’t sit in that car with Tom and feel like you’d wish he’d go to the shops so we can get out the car for a bit, whenever it was tested in cutaways people didn’t want to leave that car because the writing was so compelling you wanted to find out what happened next as quickly as possible. In other hands it could have felt a lot more contrived.
For new writers, principally I would say that it’s best to do what’s most true for you. If you love massive action thrillers then it’s pointless writing a drama set in a car. Unless you can write an action thriller that can be low budget, like a CRANK or something like that. I think it makes sense to have stuff that is of a lower budget because it is true that it’s easier to get those sort of things made in general, but it’s tough to get anything made, so I wouldn’t recommend anyone go out of their way because they think that’s the sort of thing that’s going to work – the chances are if you’re doing something you don’t believe in, even 95%, that’ll show through in the writing and people will smell it.
To give an example, there’s a new writer who we’re now working with a lot, who we got a spec script through an agent, had no major fanfare as a writer, had never been produced before, and I read it – it was a story about Louis Wain, the Victorian cat illustrator, famous for anthropomorphic pictures of cats, and the script was a biopic of him. He was famous for going slightly mad after he lost his wife, and his art began to reflect his madness to the point that by the end of his life he was entirely hallucinogenic.
The writer had written it in such a way that the madness of Louis was demonstrated by the fact that people around him slowly started turning into cats and by the end of the script the doctor tending to him is a six foot tall cat. I read it and I think I was still crying by page 30 and by the end of it I thought, ‘that’s one of the most amazing scripts I’ve ever read’ and not like anything I’ve ever read before, and that will never get made because it’s so insane.
But I loved it so I got the writer in and read everything else he’d written and straight away we hired him onto another project, and we ended up optioning the first Louis Wain script and attached an A-list actor and director and it’s probably one of the more likely films on our slate to go in a couple of years’ time because we have to wait for the talent to be ready.
We found that having stuck our heads out on the block for it a little bit there’s maybe only ten directors and ten actors in the world who could make this happen but let’s go out and see if we can find them. Actually it’s been fairly straightforward but it’s been possible to do that because they’ve responded to the material so strongly and the market place has responded to it too because they are looking for things that are different.
Definitely sounds like a case of voice over artisan skill initially, were you drawn towards his voice or was the story structure there but just not an obvious choice market-wise?
We all knew it needed work; it was pretty episodic in the second half. But it was so particular, a BEING JOHN MALKOVICH moment. It was so different and we knew we could take it out to talent and even though the script wasn’t ready it was so clear what it was. We knew that people would read it and they’d either go for it or they wouldn’t. It wasn’t a case of slaving over crossing every t, it was what it was.
Do you feel that’s the way with talent and the market – they don’t know what they want until they see it or did you think this one had more of a chance with talent and maybe the market would respond?
What we knew, and this is the same of a few of the things that we work on and that we’ve liked, is that we responded to the writing and just felt it was a strong piece. On the TV side we’ve got a multi-stranded, gritty hard-core drama – set exclusively in Kenya and about elephant poaching and the ivory trade – and you get those things off the ground by packaging them with talent, you attach your starry casts or directors and then those things can get made. But they have to be pieces that people will really care about and want to be involved with.
You’ve also got a children’s book being published, what instigated that happening? Did you write the book to then make it into a film?
On that front it was an idea I had for a family film, about a girl who turns into a fairy. If it was going to be a family film it was going to be an expensive one or an animation and everyone said to me: ‘it’s a great idea, we love it but it’s a Harry Potter scale and you need a Harry Potter level successful book for people to have the confidence to develop it as a film.’
That tends to be the way with a lot of family material, unless it’s Pixar or DreamWorks or an animation house that are their own brand that will develop stories internally, most stuff is developed on stuff that is pre-existing. Most people said it should be a book first, so I spent a long time wondering what to do but in the end I decided to have a go at writing it and the worst thing that can happen is that my two girls will read it and then I’ll have at least written a book for them and if I get it published they can hold it, which will be even better.
So I went about it without too many expectations and was lucky, in as much as people seemed to like it and I got an agent and got a publisher and so I’m on that journey and will see what it will become but it’s due to be published this time next year. Hopefully at some point it’ll be a film but it’ll have to be incredibly successful for people to justify making a movie out of it.
Is there a cache to having a book, so when people coming knocking saying they want to adapt this book you can say you’ve already written it? Are you seeing this more and more often, or is that only if it’s a New York Times’ bestseller?
There’s clearly sense to writing a book for a writer in as much as it’s a work of art in itself in a way that a screenplay isn’t. So I think there’s certainly something satisfying for writers in writing a book they have complete control over and there’s not x number of people in the way of making it happen. I think if you’re a screenwriter in general you have to buy into the idea that your script is a blueprint for other people to work on and isn’t a finished work of art in its own right.
Just in terms of alleviating the frustration that that might cause, writing a novel probably isn’t a bad idea. But you still have to get an agent, and you still have to get a publisher. They’re cheaper to produce than films, you can self-publish as well. One of the biggest problems with film is that the price of entry into the market is so high, writing a movie costs a serious amount of money to get it out on to the screen.
You’re immediately beholden to all the vagaries of the market place or financiers who are giving up a lot of their money to make something happen. They want guarantees that this thing is going to be a success and those guarantees can’t be had, because they don’t really exist either. So you’re immediately in a world of insurance, people trying to second-guess other things and justify the decisions they’re making.
What is the budget range Shoebox are operating within? Do you have a lower threshold of what you’re making?
Generally speaking we’re in a $10-25 million dollars area, just because we’re a reasonable-sized company and we’ve got a reasonable overhead and so there’s a floor beneath which it’s quite tricky to make a business work.
LOCKE is an exception to that rule because it had such a clear market and it was clearly something that had a sales value, so that made sense. Generally speaking though, that budget level doesn’t make sense to us and so I suppose the material we’re looking for doesn’t correspond to what we’re looking for. We don’t look for low budget dramas or horror or micro-budget films where, as a producer, you’re not going to be earning decent fees and so on. We’re looking for stuff that can attract the high-end directors and actors that we have relationships with.
Is there currently a gap on your slate? Do you wish you could find the next conspiracy thriller? Or find the next action rom-com? What do you want to find that you’re not finding?
I’ve always wanted to find a British WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, but that’s never happened. I think we’ve gone off the boil with rom-coms. I do have a soft spot for them actually, because I do think it’s something we can do well in this country because it’s generally about the strength of the writing and they’re not expensive. Richard Curtis did a couple of great ones and there aren’t that many more great ones out there. We wouldn’t necessarily do it the same way it’s been done previously but a romantic drama that feels true, whether on TV or on film – I’d love to find something like that. I don’t think there are enough of them.
Do you think that’s generally dictated by the market somewhat? Maybe after the mid-90s there were a plethora and recently it’s dipped, is there just not the appetite or is the material not there?
I think what happened is that they seemed to be doing well and then suffered from diminishing returns, as much as they became more and more formulaic. And once they became formulaic they became less true, and people stopped believing them and stopped wanting them.
But I think there’s an enduring need for romance and those sort of stories about relationships that people want to see. We’ll do all sorts but I do find that with the BAFTA DVDs there are always piles of films that I’ll have to watch, depressing British films and I’m happy to sit and watch but no one else in my family will. I’m yearning for the sort of films I can watch with everyone else.
What general pieces of advice would you give to writers, pitching to you or working away at home?
Just be you, I think the one thing that really comes across is when people are pretending to be something they’re not and trying to pitch you in that way. Or telling you what the market is. It all comes back to truth and being able to communicate that in your writing. It can be a truthful conspiracy thriller, just something that feels real.
Do you only do TV series?
We set up a TV arm back at the beginning of the year, and it was quite an organic thing for us even though it industrially makes sense. There’s clearly a convergence of the two worlds in a way that they were very separate previously, and particularly for us who are interested in high-end drama, and drama in a purest sense is harder to make on the big screen and it lives on television more than anywhere else. So purely from a point of view of wanting to continue to make the things that we love we had to be in television.
At the same time, the talent we’re working with are interested in working in TV in a way they hadn’t been previously and so now there’s much more of a decision, when you read a book, read a script or talk to a writer, of how long is this idea? Is it a feature length idea? Is it a 3-parter, 6-parter, 10-parter? I think it won’t be long before we’re not talking about film and TV, it’ll just be drama full stop and we’re just finding the right home, be it on film or TV, non-linear, network, whatever it is. Just the right home for the right idea.
I was fascinated to hear you say there were cutaway scenes in LOCKE, as it seemed a script what was set up almost perfectly? Was it at the early point in the process that you took those out or was it the writer?
It was more cutaways to the motorway; it was felt that people wouldn’t want to be trapped for that long, and that they would want a little bit of breathing space here and there. It was never conceived that there’d be other characters, but many people feel like they’ve seen the other characters in the film. It was always intended that the calls would come in physically live and so the actors playing those callers were in a hotel room on the North Circular somewhere and it was done as a continuous theatre piece through the night so they shot it once and a half every night for eight nights.
I agree with you about contemporary rom-coms, but I watch a lot of teen rom-coms, which take a lot more risks because the budgets are so small and the actors aren’t getting anything and you get 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU based on THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, etc. With the accelerating maturity of teenagers, maybe you could look at classic dramas or Shakespearean take on contemporary society…?
Hollywood’s done that fairly well over the years, taken those classic texts and converted them. There’s a particular challenge here with the teen rom-com, I’ve developed one myself, so I know the struggles that we had with it, but part of the issue is an industrial one, in as much as it’s a genre in which we’re competing very strongly with the States and they produce these very glossy versions that the teen audience tend to prefer. And so even though I don’t necessarily agree, that was the difficulty that we ran into – people felt uncomfortable about making them because they were worried that British teens would see them as inferior to the American counterpart.
You mentioned attaching talent and directors to certain projects, have there been any scripts that you’ve read where you’ve thought this actor and that director could make it hugely successful? Against that, have you encountered scripts where you’ve thought that and then maybe the wrong actor has been cast or the wrong director and it’s been butchered?
Yes, but I can never say specifics on tape. Obviously when you’re reading stuff you’re thinking about how you’d put it together, or in what way it would get made. In terms of the Louis Wain story, the reason I thought it wouldn’t get made is because there are only a small number of directors who could do it. It is one thing saying this is perfect for x or y, but getting them to do it is another thing entirely.
So, in the majority of cases, you’re looking for something where there are number of people that could do it. Generally speaking, if you’ve got distinctive material there are generally a number of directors that could do it. Your first choice rarely happens and you end up with directors or actors who give you something slightly different. But then it takes on an energy of its own and it’s often better than you imagined it would be.
Have there been any scripts that you’ve wanted to get to someone for but for some reason haven’t been able to commit?
In a lot of cases it’s tricky to get stuff to people unless you have a direct connection. The agents are great in this country, but at the same time the American agents are less interested once their clients are at a certain level and will put it at the bottom of the pile. Often the client is quite happy to look at those things but quite often the agent is the buffer for whatever reason.
You were talking about the transition from development to production, especially given that the financing is complicated these days, re-writing often continues all the way into the edit, do you find that as Head of Development some of your projects have relationships with the writer that carry on through? Or do you hand over that story development process as you transition? Is the transition a clear one?
It often is actually, and it’s often the biggest frustration of development people and why a lot of them transition into producing. They get fed up of waving the script goodbye once it goes into prep and then all of a sudden nobody bothers asking you anymore. But then the relationship with the writer changes as well, and particularly from the point that a director comes on board, that key relationship is between director and writer and then director and himself.
Different directors have different relationships with writers through the production process and some get involved and some don’t. I’ve been fortunate to work with Paul and Paul is very generous and inclusive as a producer and I would get to be involved in cuts, etc. In post-production in particular there are a lot of voices for the producer to listen to and not least the financiers so more often than not it’s nice to be asked and you can give an opinion and you generally have one because you’ve been involved in that story.
Given your enthusiasm for European films, do you feel you’re still enjoying that or has it swung so far to America that you’re not making those kind of films anymore?
I think it’s important to remember why you started and what made you want to do what you’re doing and keep making regular checks on whether or not you’re doing that and getting yourself back on the right track. I think we do checks on ourselves as a company as well. Generally the measure by which we’ll take something on is whether we all believe in it or not and then generally we believe in things for creative reasons.
We rarely take stuff on thinking: ‘well we wouldn’t watch this, but other people would.’ You have to be pragmatic within the context of the market, but I think as much as possible we want to see stuff made that we care about and then you hope that the fact you’re invested in it means other people will be as well.