THE INSIDER INTERVIEWS: EMILY LEO
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.
Emily Leo started her career as an acquisitions executive at Capitol Films before moving to Kudos / Shine as a development executive in 2008.
She worked for producer Paul Webster on films such as SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN and BRIGHTON ROCK and was part of the core creative team developing and acquiring studio level projects.
This interview was compered by producer, James Cotton.
**Please note the Q & A was conducted before Emily won her award**
We always start with the present and then do a bit of a rewind to where it all began. So 2017…where are you and the company heading?
Wigwam Films is a company that I started with two friends of mine many years ago. In 2017 we find ourselves with two BAFTA nominations (Emily has won Outstanding Debut since publication) which we’re incredibly honoured and excited by and a movie called iBOY which is coming out on Netflix.
We’re shooting a film in America at the moment called AN EVENING WITH BEVERLY LUFF LINN, which is Jim Hosking‘s next film. I don’t know if you saw that absolutely crazy film of his – GREASY STRANGLER – it’s completely unforgettable. This is his follow-up movie.
There are quite a few things in the pipeline actually so it’s a really exciting year.
Taking it all the way back to the beginning, you grew up in Thailand with a Thai father and a Swiss mother – when was the moment you realised this industry was for you?
I think at university I knew that I wanted to work in film and I basically pulled out of my international relations degree at the LSE in order to go and study English Lit. Growing up in Thailand, the only way to access the wider world, when I was a kid, was through reading books and my mum was a voracious reader.
We had walls of books in our house and we also had one of the first satellites, which I thought was incredible. It was amazing to have TV from the outside world and it meant I grew up watching movies all the time. With that and reading books, I really became a bit obsessed with storytelling.
My first job was for the Edinburgh Film Festival. I was a volunteer during the summer of 2002.
Was there quite a period of internships and knocking on doors?
Straight out of university I got running gigs. I phoned everybody. I had no idea about the film business. I didn’t know what a sales company did, why it was different a distribution company, I had no idea whatsoever. So I just knocked on people’s doors, begging for work.
One of the first jobs I got was running on a commercial and then, through that, I ended up getting running work in various commercial production companies but very quickly realised this wasn’t what I wanted to do.
I focussed on moving away from that to a company that was developing movies and had some foothold in the industry. The first job I had was at Feel Films where a friend of mine, Daisy Allsopp (who produced ORTHODOX, featuring Stephen Graham) worked as head of development.
I was hired as an assistant but they allowed me to read the books and write notes on scripts and do script coverage and eventually I got trusted to the point where they let me get involved in meetings with writers.
That led to a job at Capitol Films, at a time when they were a sales agency. They no longer exist sadly, but when I joined them they were they were a really successful leading international sales company.
I went in there as an intern for acquisitions, which is basically reading a lot of scripts – all the time, and then from that I got offered a job.
So you worked your way up in that company to become a development and acquisitions executive. Which films passed through your hands? And which of those were you proud of spotting? Or did some get away?
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE got away. THE WRESTLER got away. They were both movies that we all loved dearly. But we were part of a competitive situation. I do remember those scenarios really distinctly though.
It was really a case of your instincts driving your decision-making in acquisitions. With SLUMDOG, it was a foreign language movie (because at the time it was going to be mainly in Hindi), Danny Boyle was coming off the back of SUNSHINE. It was pitched at quite an expensive budget level (considering it was a foreign language movie) but the script was utterly incredible – genuinely heartwarming and inspiring and it was about humanity. It just touched on a nerve and it was going to make a truly special film. It was the same with THE WRESTLER as well.
BLUE VALENTINE was something that we had on the books because we were also involved with a U.S. distribution company called Think Film at the time. That was an absolutely incredible script.
We worked on a range of movies – you will know critically successful ones such as THE EDGE OF LOVE. There are also some less critically and commercially successful ones too!
When you moved on to work for Paul Webster at Shine, as a creative exec, how much of a leap was that in terms of getting involved with writers on a day-to-day basis?
At Capitol Films my job was really acquisitions. The development part of the title was almost in name only. I did a little bit of development with a lovely lady called Josie Law, who was running this scheme that Capitol Films had with the Film Council, but my job was mainly in acquisitions. So when I moved over to Kudos Pictures, as it was called then, to work for Paul it was a change in job and focus.
I was looking at projects from an acquisitions point of view for an international sales company before, and now – in the new job – I was looking for material at a much earlier stage for a producer.
Our remit was to find projects for a joint venture that we had with New Regency, which was a ‘mini major’ that was housed by Fox. I had to look for material that had studio scope, and was high-concept and that was very ‘filmmaker driven.’
They started out making the really wonderful Michael Mann movies and then, as a company, had segued into making ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS, and wanted to revert back to the days of making movies that they were really proud of, like FIGHT CLUB. The guys that were running the company were real cinephiles, so the focus was very much on finding material out of the U.K. and Europe with that aim in mind.
So which films did you work on with Paul (Webster) during that time?
We did not get anything away with Regency in the time we were there, but we made BRIGHTON ROCK and SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN.
I think the most important thing I learnt from Paul was about integrity as a filmmaker, and as a producer, and about choosing the right team – choosing people that you connect with, and that you respect. Also where there’s a mutual respect – obviously that includes the writer / producer, writer / director dynamic.
Then, stemming from that, is that nobody knows what the hell they’re doing, or what they’re after, and a lot of people are just constantly trying to second guess the market all the time. So finding good material very much comes from keeping your ears open and keeping abreast of much knowledge as you can. Ultimately though, I think it has to be driven by your instincts.
Who was the writer that you had your first close working relationship with?
I worked under a Head of Development mostly and we worked very closely together. The writers that we were working with ranged from really quite high-level people. With Simon Beaufoy on SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN, I was involved in a lot of script notes and sometimes the meetings.
A lot of the newer writers were on my slate so I met one-on-one with them. I worked closely with a guy called Gabriel Bisset-Smith, who we’re still working with at Wigwam. He has written us a really wonderful dance film called OFF BEAT, which we have set up with Lionsgate in the U.S. and we hope to shoot this year. Also a lovely Scottish writer called Nicole Taylor.
We were all across projects together though. There was a very nice flat lined structure.
What was the process of going from that more corporate set up, to three people working out of a tiny little office, with barely any room to move, making movies together?
I kept trying to implement systems, and I’m still trying to do that. Weekly development calls, submissions lists… but actually everybody works in such a specific way and likes to work to the beat of their own drum, so trying to implement corporate structures hasn’t work for us at all. I think I will try again this year though!
I went from a really well-paid job with massive support and fantastic resources, to a company where we were very aware that we had to make our money last. We weren’t completely under resourced – we found seed money and development money. But we didn’t have any readers so we couldn’t send the scripts out to anyone. If we needed to get a schedule or a budget done we had to figure it out ourselves. The money side of things is just tough as an independent producer vs. working for a very well set-up company. You just have to be careful with every penny.
Someone said to me: “What’s the best way to make a million dollars as a producer? Start with a billion.” It just takes forever…
But on the other hand you don’t have the politics of a large company – you have a different sort of internal politics, but you’re not working for a boss. You’re working for yourself and can’t get fired! And if you don’t like a script you can just pass on it on that basis – you don’t need to justify it to anyone.
You see are seeing the benefits of all that hard work now with UNDER THE SHADOW. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, how would you pitch it?
It’s a psychological horror film, set in Iran during the Iran / Iraq war. It centres around a woman who has incredible career potential to be a doctor and she’s in the middle of her medical studies. But the new regime forces her to give up her studies.
The film starts with her being told that she’s has to end her dream of having a medical career and that she has to return home to take care of her daughter.
Doctors do military service for the government at that point, and her husband is a doctor, so he has had to go away for a month and she at home with her daughter. A missile hits the building that they’re living in, and she is already in a neurotic, anxious state of mind.
She believes that it’s brought with it the equivalent of a demon and it takes hold of her being. She also thinks it’s infected her daughter. It’s scary.
So what’s the plan for distribution?
We sold it to Netflix around Sundance time last year. We were very fortunate to have been already one of the ‘buzzed about’ titles at Sundance. So Netflix bought it and that way it meant that the theatrical window we could have for the film was fairly limited. We got three months.
But we were able to choose the date of release with Netflix, which allowed us a year to do festival after festival in a full-on way. The film had a theatrical release in the U.K., the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, some of the Asian territories, and some of the Middle Eastern territories. Being a Farsi language psychological horror movie, theatrical release was always going to be a little bit limited.
Someone told me that “UNDER THE SHADOW wouldn’t be the film it is without the one-on-ones between Emily and Babak.” So what was that process like? How intense was it?
The way we work at Wigwam is that we split out our three roles to suit our different skillsets, and I tend to look after the creative side because that’s very much where my passion lies. Lucan (Toh) looks after the business side largely, although he is a breast of the creative stuff as well. Ollie (Roskill) is very production focussed so doesn’t necessarily get too involved in the early script stage.
Everybody feeds into the process though and we all chat about it together, but yes, Babak and I did have a lot of one-on-ones and it was really great because it was pretty informal.
He was working at MTV at the time as an editor. He was holding down a full-time job. So we would either email each other or he would come into the office, or I’d go over to him and we would sit down for an hour, two hours, three hours – whatever it took to chat through wherever we were in the script.
In a more corporate environment, the way development often works is you get a script and you respond to the script with a set of notes. There is a very structured process in place and you go through the steps.
But actually we found that it was really nice to keep it quite an ‘open door’ approach and keep the conversations flowing as he was writing. He would often email and write: “What do you think about this?” or “I really didn’t like that note that you gave me, but what if we tweaked it like this?” It was hugely collaborative.
If he was holding down a full time job I presume that that was about two years of going back and forth?
It was a year and a half going back and forth on the script. He was he was working full-on. Also he was writing in Farsi and then translating it back into English and then translating it back into Farsi. So he was doing it twice.
Tell us some anecdotes from the ‘making of’ UNDER THE SHADOW….
It was a load of fun because it was a low budget movie. Really tough, but it was a passion project for a lot of people on it – including many of the crew.
Stories from behind the scenes… For some reason the locations guy just couldn’t get anything sorted. So on one occasion we were shooting out in the road, and I was there with the walkie talkie blocking off a road, and then the walkie talkies stopped working because they there were the Fisher Price toy ones – we couldn’t actually afford real ones.
I started walking back down into the road, shaking this walkie talkie, and it was in the middle of this really intense scene where the actress is crying, tears streaming down her face. On the rushes you can hear Babak yelling at me: “Get out of the shot! Emily – get out of the way! MOVE!” And I’m just waving, totally clueless – not even aware we are shooting. So I walked into shot in my own movie.
Also, weirdly, the girl turned up to shoot one day with a red swollen eye. This is on the day when the script said she had a red swollen eye. It was really weird. We decided to take her to hospital. But, as soon as we stepped into the hospital she was better and told us she no longer felt ill. Then five hours later we were back and she was totally fine and we had to put make up on her eye to make it red again!
Also, on the last day of shooting we were chasing the light, we had to get the shot, but time was running out. We needed to rig the camera up onto the car but the grip had disappeared – he’d gone off to do an interview! So my producer partner Lukan had to do it. No-one else would do it because they weren’t insured and if it fell off we couldn’t finish the movie – so as producers we had to step in. Needs must!
Now, tell us about iBOY….
It’s a teen super hero film in which a boy gets mysterious powers after an iPhone is shot into his brain.
Why didn’t you go the theatrical route?
We tried to find a more traditional way of funding it but found that it was incredibly difficult. Being a superhero movie, with the cast we had, made it very hard to do – for a number of different reasons. Whereas, Netflix read the script, loved it, and came onboard in a quick and easy way.
It was actually wonderfully simple. They gave us like two or three notes on the script. Paid for the budget and then brought it out as an original.
What was the journey from taking the original source material to adapting it for screen? Because there are three writer credits?
It was a long process. It was one of the first pieces of material that we optioned for Wigwam. Our co-producer, Gail Mutrux, was already on it, and she got Adam Randall as the director and Joe Barton as the writer on board.
Joe was the main writer, and had done some really wonderful incredible versions of the script over three years. But it got to the point where we needed to do a new draft of iBOY because the money we had wouldn’t allow us to do some of the visual effects that were written into the script. But the visual effects were so integral to the story that they required a proper rewrite.
Joe was on another TV series at the time and he just didn’t have the time to do it. So he very kindly said it was fine to hand over the work to these other writers. And so Mark Denton and Johnny Stockwood came on board did some really good work on the script and basically got it production-ready. And then Joe came back into the process as we were going into production.
There wasn’t any animosity in that process. Normally when you’re in that situation it’s because the project’s felt dead for a while and so you have to ask why you’re still there. You evaluate how much passion you still feel for the project and how much passion the writer still feels for the project. But it wasn’t like that on iBOY.
A lot of the times those decisions are driven by finances. And, as a producer, you have a choice to back your writer – or not. But this was not one of those times because it was all very open. We like working like that. I think it’s just much easier to be transparent, than not be.
So Will Poulter was originally attached and then you got Bill Milner and Maisie Williams, of Game of Thrones fame – how was it on set?
It was all smiles on set and now Bill and Maisie are best of friends and living together as flatmates. So it was fun. It’s got to be a nice atmosphere on set – especially for low budget movies and iBOY is considered a low budget movie. You have to feed people well, make sure they’re as happy as they can be, and try to create a nice working environment for everyone.
You’ve also got OFF BEAT in development – where is that getting made?
We actually managed to finance it out of the U.S. – having knocked on the usual doors in the U.K. we found the most enthusiastic response was out of the U.S. So we are doing it with Lionsgate.
Being a high school movie, it’s such a well-known genre in the States and they are so familiar with the tropes of it, that when you subvert it, the shorthand, the language, the characters are already there. In the U.K. I think it was much more difficult for people reading it to understand the tone of it. So, weirdly, our sensibility feels more aligned with the U.S. in that sense.
Someone said to me, about you, ‘You can’t pin down her taste’ – so is your slate quite mixed?
It’s just about stories that ‘get you’ and whether you can you see a route to market for this film. That’s always lurking at the back of your brain.
You have to ask yourself: ‘Why is this film going to hit out when every other of its type has failed? Why is it any different? Is it too different? Is it too obscure? Are we going to waste our time as producers trying to get this to market?’ I mean it’s not a charity. We work out of passion but we’re also trying to run a business.
Basically there are so many different ways of telling the same story, you’ve just got to find a way it hasn’t been done before and challenge the way you do it, using complex characters.
With UNDER THE SHADOW what set it apart was that it was about a strong and complex woman. So many people told us she is an unlikable character and that we couldn’t have an unlikable character in a film but we never agreed with that. We were always interested in her story.
Our premise also got likened to THE BABADOOK, even though that wasn’t really anywhere near our thinking. For Babak it was a very personal story and he hadn’t even seen or heard of THE BABADOOK when he was writing it. So people will always find similarities in your film to other things, you just need to make sure your setting and your characters, and all of the little details set it apart enough. And then it’s ensuring those differences connect with the wider audience.
So, knowing the current state of the industry, what nuggets of advice do you have for writers and producers?
At one point people were saying: “Drama doesn’t exist anymore” – well, it does actually. And people want to watch it. So ignore anyone saying that.
I tend to be more interested by quality. I hate genre for the sake of genre – I can’t bear it. If you go into writing something because you think it’s commercial and easy, don’t do that because you can spot it a mile away.
I would say – always write from experience and it’s always the small details that add light.
How do you find material?
Through agents. As part of my job, on a regular basis, I go out and meet the swathes of agents at various agencies – you know all the main ones: Casarotto, United, Independent Talent Group, Curtis Brown. These are relationships that have built up over a number of years.
Some people you connect with more than others. They’re always the ones who tell you about new writers that they’ve got coming through, they know your tastes, they know where you are as a company.
So I’ll speak with a lot of my favourite agents on a weekly basis. The other ones I’ll touch base with once a month to see who’s new and exciting. And also they’ll often send us material as well, when they’re making general submissions.
With iBOY did you have direct contact with Netflix or did you go through a sales agent?
We’ve got a really close working relationship with the sales and production company in the States called XYZ, and they have pretty much an outfit deal with Netflix. So we went through them initially. Then once the film was basically set up and we knew they liked it and they wanted to do something with it, we all did it together. Actually we co-produced the film with XYZ – so they were very much part of the process.
In your experience does it preclude traditional sales agents from looking at your project, when such a big chunk of the platforms have been taken away by Netflix?
You make a decision as a producer – if you’re going to go down the Netflix route you know straight up that theatrical life is going to be fairly limited. There are some sales agents that are willing to work with it and have figured out ways of making it work for them. XYZ is a really great example of that – and I think they’re almost pioneers in that way.
It’s really movie dependent though – so which movies we think would work for the Netflix relationship and which movies don’t. Also like they very rarely develop, so it’s always about going to them with a package or a completed film that they’ll buy – so UNDER THE SHADOW was an acquisition at Sundance.
As a voracious reader, how many scripts do you get through?
I‘ve been reading less recently and I must change that. I read two scripts last weekend, which for me is terrible. I would say I read four on an average weekend. And maybe 3/4 – maximum six – in the week.
It’s different though for me now because in my old job I was basically there to cover scripts, so I was reading two to three scripts a day. But obviously you can’t do that as a producer and there’s a lot of other stuff that you need to be across so.
You know very quickly whether something is going to work for you – whether the quality of the writing is there. You’ll know from the concept of whatever the pitch was You’ll go in with a sense of whether or not something is going to work or not. And then the quality of the writing is very much Yeah very much then dictates whether or not you keep reading the script.
What percentage of script do you go all the way through?
Maybe 30 percent. If I see something I like, I flag it up and we jump on Skype and chat about it. That’s the great thing about having your own company. And generally if I love something, everyone else will, and vice versa.
Do you think platforms such as Amazon and Netflix are more open to edgy material?
I think so. Have you seen THE OA? Or STRANGER THINGS? I think it’s really interesting that STRANGER THINGS came out of nowhere. THE OA is being talked about a lot and it is very risky as a TV piece – it is very unorthodox in it’s storytelling. I can’t imagine anyone else, apart from maybe Netflix taking a risk on material like that. So I think that’s incredible.
But they’re working with some huge filmmakers now. They are doing Brad Pitt’s new film – WAR MACHINE. They’re spending a lot of money.
BEASTS OF NO NATION was a Netflix film that didn’t get financed. Cary Joji Fukenaga had a first look deal with Focus. He couldn’t get the movie off the ground in a more traditional, conventional sense. But Netflix came in and I think they wanted the relationship with the director.
My experience with Netflix is that the guys there are a very small team. They’re proper cinephiles – they know their movies – and that’s really cool because you’re working with people who love it.
How encouraged are you about the sustainability of the independent film industry?
I think we need to figure out how we make Netflix and Amazon work for us because they are taking risks where a lot of people aren’t taking risks – but they’re buying out movies at a point where you’re not going to see the back end – you’re selling your movie and that’s it, you’re done. You know you won’t get to see any profits if your movie happens to be a big hit. They’re taking all the risk.
So that’s both good that’s both good and bad because you are going to hit a glass ceiling of income. I think that is difficult as a production company. But I also don’t share the sort of dismay and just negativity that a lot of people have about the film industry.
I don’t know whether it’s because we’re riding a bit of a wave after the success of UNDER THE SHADOW and everything just seems a little easier… But when I go to my local cinema twice a week, and it’s always packed out. I know it’s tougher to get movies in there but a lot of films that are being made don’t deserve to be in cinemas frankly.
I think we would be doing ourselves a disservice to assume that the independent model is dead. Because I don’t think it necessarily is – yet. At least not for the next like couple of years. And we can still make that work for us. And then I think everything else is going to change, regarding the types of stories we tell and how we tell those stories.
There are going to be new competitors to Amazon and Netflix and how we access those sorties is going to change further. People are going to be watching more on phones. And we – as content providers – have to be more business savvy. This is now a tech business. We’ve got to own that space a little bit more.
How did you get the money together to set up Wigwam Films?
Well I was very lucky that one of my friends Lucan, who is my business and producing partner, comes from that background so he knew a lot of people and treats it like a game and really enjoys it. Whereas a lot of people would have been a bit nervous, he just gets on with it and does it incredibly well. We were very fortunate in that instance. I don’t know who I would have approached.
How different is the commissioning and development of TV and film? And how central is that to your company?
TV is really central to our business model because it’s harder to make proper money in film. With movies, if you think you’ve got a hit in some way, you have to consider whether the independent model will work for you and your film.
So, for example, would you still make money out of THE KING’S SPEECH now? I think you probably would, if it came out as before and did it’s Oscars run and that whole campaign… There’s still scope for that in film and you have to go for that as production company. And not do quantity over quality…
But TV is central because you make a lot more money out of that both short term and in what it leads to longer term. So that’s why a lot of film producers are also doing television. We have maybe three or four TV projects on our slate and ten feature films in development.
TV is essential to our business model because we know that getting a TV show off the ground enables us to move off from a basic, scrappy, hand-to-mouth position into a world where you are paid like a normal human being.