THE INSIDER INTERVIEWS: FAYE WARD
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.
Faye Ward joined Ruby Film and Television as a producer soon after its founding. After 14 years she left to co-found Fable Pictures. Her credits include SUFFRAGETTE, JANE EYRE, SMALL ISLAND for BBC, the Golden Globe nominated series DANCING ON THE EDGE and the Netflix series THE CROWN.
When did Fable Pictures come about?
Two years ago. I hadn’t planned to open a company, in truth. I decided to walk into the abyss a little bit, without any plans. In between making THE CROWN, which we’ll come onto later, I started to gather material that really got me excited.
I bought a couple of books, and I started to talk to actors and directors about different ideas they had. I suddenly realised that I was creating a slate, and I thought that if I have a slate I need people to help me work on the slate.
I always thought that if I was going to have a company I’d need backing. Backing allows you support, so your decisions on material are based on creative reasons rather than cashflow. If you are lucky to avoid that blur, I think you make better decisions.
So I didn’t want to do it on my own. I was lucky, I pitched around town to see if anyone wanted to invest in me. I was lucky, I think I just found a moment where people were interested in investing in new companies. I met with Sony Pictures [Television], and talked through my slate and my ambition for it. They invested in Fable and in return for 25% of the company.
What’s that meant for the company?
It means I can pay everyone’s salary without having to worry. For a while. I can have a development slate where I can buy IP [intellectual property] and invest small amounts of money into ideas, whether it’s an article I purchase a treatment or research.
And of course, with Sony backing me, if there’s a bidding war for a piece of IP, I can call Sony and see if they are interested in backing me on that idea. That’s really useful in order to be able to compete against studios and the big producers, who have more money at hand.
Fable Pictures is a really small company. There’s me and four others, I’ve got a wonderful assistant producer Clark [Crewe], assistant Anu [Henriques], head of development Hannah [Price], and a business partner called Eugenio Pérez, who does all the nuts and bolts.
We have a growing slate, with a quarter movies and three-quarters television. The logic behind that is that, while both movies and TV are incredibly hard to make, movies in particular are difficult. Because movies take so long to make, it’s rare that you’ll make more than one every other year. So your TV slate should be the heavier of the two.
What kind of things do you look for, for your slate?
It’s always hard to describe. You know it when you see it. I can say what I definitely don’t look for. I don’t really do horror. I can’t say that I’d never do sci-fi, because obviously that’s quite broad. HER is one of my favourite films in the last ten years and I would have done that, but that’s very character-based.
I like to make projects that are not necessarily about real people but are about something real in the world, that feel like they’re a comment on the world. I wouldn’t have said that’s what I was looking for at the start of the company, but if you scratch the surface on the projects we’re picking up, they’re all about social issues in some way, even if that’s hidden under the main theme of the movie or TV series.
What would you say the average day or week is for you?
I‘ve pretty much not been home the whole of this year. I’ve been travelling since last November to now, because we’ve had a really lucky year. We made a movie called STAN AND OLLIE, about comedy duo Laurel & Hardy, starring John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson and Danny Huston.
We shot that from February this year, and then immediately afterwards we shot another movie called COUNTRY MUSIC starring Julie Walters, Jessie Buckley and Sophie Okonedo. So this year’s been a great year because we’ve been in production, and obviously making stuff is what you want to be doing.
However, at the same time when you’re in production you have limited time to do anything else, and by that I mean strategize about other projects. Your other projects tend to bubble along not quite as fast as you’d want them to, because you’re spending 15 hours a day on the production.
The movie has 200 people you have to answer to, and then 5 important people you really need to answer to, and each of those five people have at least three agents each.
Competitors gazump you all the time
You have to balance the firefighting with spending time to brainstorm the other projects you’ve got and strategize what you’re going to do with them, how you’re going to push them forward, where they sit in the market, and what your competitors have got at the time.
Annoyingly, competitors gazump you all the time. You might have a pitch on something and suddenly someone else has got a similar logline. Even though it’s totally different, you have to slightly reinvent it, to find its own voice.
So it’s just about balancing your time really, just like anyone else’s job.
How much do you care about the zeitgeist, what’s cool and commercial now?
I don’t really. I think you choose things based on whether that story resonates with you, and whether no-one’s made a story like that before, or, if they have, whether your version of it has a different angle.
As a producer, you’re thinking constantly about the prospect of a package. You start to understand on instinct how things work, especially in film, which is where most of my experience is.
Obviously you’ve got an amazing CV and been in the industry a long time. I’d love to hear you rewind to the beginning, when you first knew you wanted to work in film and TV, and what your break was?
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with working in film & television. I also wanted to be the ballerina Munchkin in THE WIZARD OF OZ. I just knew I wanted to work with stories and in movies. That was literally the one thing in the world I wanted.
One example of my desire to be a producer, which I was not conscious at the time, was when I was nine. There was a WIZARD OF OZ production at my school and they were holding auditions. I’m a terrible actress but of course I wanted to be in it, so I did an audition, even though the Munckins weren’t auditioning.
They said no and fobbed me off with costume. I was going in my head, “I’ll show you costumes like you’ve never seen in your life!”
I got my pocket money and I did a deal with a lovely man who owned the local dry cleaners. He’d give me leftover material. I turned up three weeks later with a whole array of costumes.
When you make independent films, you get to do everything
My Mum had a friend who worked for ITV in their sales and marketing department. She got me a little runner job, an internship for a month, over the Easter holidays. I booked the taxis on TV AM. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was able to say I had a credit. I was probably around 17 at the time.
Then I went to Camp America, because I didn’t have any money and wanted to go travelling. While I was there, teaching the kids to swim, the guy who ran the camp was filming the kids. He was creating a camp showreel that goes into schools to advertise the camp, and asked if I could help.
He told me he was a director and that he had his first independent movie. He had a million dollars from someone fancy in Los Angeles. I asked if I could come back next year and work for free on his film, and he said yes.
So I flew myself back out. The film was low budget and independent, so it wasn’t fully staffed or equipped. Which meant everyone had duel roles. I didn’t have a clue about what to do and what not to do, because I’d never done a film – it was really great.
I ended up staying the whole six weeks. When you make independent films, you get to do everything: the casting of the extras; driving the actors around; booking the locations; begging someone to give you free muffins. Whatever you have to do that day you do it, and it was such a learning experience.
I came back and I could say that I’d been a runner in Los Angeles, so then I could immediately get a job. Then I did runner job after runner job.
The major break on my career was really meeting Alison Owen. Alison was – and is – my mentor. I started off as her assistant and, over 11 years, became her business partner. We made tons of projects together.
I was a runner for her originally. She didn’t even know my name, but I realised she was the boss, so I always asked if she wanted coffee, and after a while she learned who I was. I was left in London to be their UK runner, but then I got a phone call to ask me to fly to Ibiza, which is where the project was, and be their flight coordinator. So I said yes.
I got to Ibiza, I was 19 years old, and the film was with Danny Dyer, Will Mellor, and Ralf Little, basically a 19-year-old girl’s dream. I was being paid to be in Ibiza. I got to sit next to Alison Owen.
It was a time when the internet didn’t really exist. You didn’t Google someone before you met them, and I was young, and at the end of it Alison asked if I would be her assistant. I was like, “Oh, I don’t want to make this kind of stuff, I want to make movies.” It was really embarrassing, because she’d just been Oscar-nominated for ELIZABETH, and I had no clue!
I went back to the office and worked for her. One of the first things I remember her asking me to do was write a logline for SYLVIA, and then she asked me to buy The Bell Jar and put it in a package to Gwyneth Paltrow.
Ruby Films was run by two women. Is that quite unusual in this industry?
It’s less unusual now, but it very much was then. It was really funny, totally like AB FAB. We had a tiny little office and there were loads of mice everywhere. It was so hot, no air conditioning, but we got to make really fantastic movies.
There were three or four of us, just making these films and going on that journey. Watching how those two women worked, what stories got them going, and how the process was with them was great. I learned everything through those two.
You worked on some amazing films, any particular persona highlights?
They all have their own journeys. SYLVIA was really fascinating, because I didn’t have a clue. It was really interesting to see such a huge film back when movies were made for proper money. Same with PROOF. The landscape of film budgets are now radically different.
I have to say I’m really proud of SMALL ISLAND, although it wasn’t my idea at all. It was a really hard production for many reasons, but it was such a beautiful, powerful story. Even though it was possibly the hardest thing we did – and I don’t even think I’m credited as a producer on it – it’s one of the things I’m most proud of.
I was watching it last night and it’s so powerful. I was reading an interview from when it was made, and you were saying that at the time when it was being conceived, feminism was a dirty word.
That movie took over seven years to get made. I’d say on average movies take about three to seven years.
BRICK LANE was quite a moment in my career, because I met Sarah Gavron. In that year we had BRICK LANE and THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL. That was a huge studio movie and BRICK LANE was a tiny film, comparatively. It meant that Alison was working on the bigger production and in turn and I was looking after the smaller film.
Sarah Gavron and I got along so well. It was possibly mine, Sarah and Abi’s first theatrical credit on a film. Abi was pretty gangbusters already, but I’m not sure she’d actually had a credit on a film at that point. Just meeting those three, having time with them, watching two people who were incredibly good at their jobs going through that process and being part of that core team was really interesting.
The moment we finished that film we all started to think about what to do next. Alison had a meeting with Focus Features. Sarah had actually written a thesis on suffragettes, and she’d already said that was what she was thinking about for her next project.
Focus said they were interested in the idea, and from there we started to research the subject matter. We only knew the broad strokes of the Suffragette subject, so we did over a year of research, getting researches to feed us with as much information as possible, so we could figure out where we wanted to point.
What do you remember from the shoot? Of course the cast is incredible.
We had Carey [Mulligan] in mind from halfway through the development process. I think Abi would be fine for me to say that she originally wrote a first draft that was actually about Alice, who is played by Romola Garai. The script was about a posh lady who becomes militant. The script was phenomenal, but what was interesting was the character we liked the most was the maid upstairs who couldn’t read.
We asked Abi to throw away the whole draft and start again, which was pretty nice of Abi I have to say! But that’s how ideas go. You think you want to do one thing, but sometimes the more you get into the nitty-gritty, the detail of it, the more you start thinking differently.
Obviously don’t just dramatically throw things away, that ends up costing hundreds of thousands of pounds! But hone it. You might think you want to make one thing, but be open to changing your trajectory, even when you’re deep into the project.
Carey was the first person we attached, and then it was Carey who suggested Meryl [Streep] as Emmeline Pankhurst. I wanted to attach her as the last piece of the puzzle, because she should be the icing on the cake. She was the icon to play an icon.
I asked Helena [Bonham Carter] to do it. I’d worked with her once at that point, but we’d kept in touch, and I really like her. We’ve got two more projects that we’re doing together that I’ve developed specifically for her, and she’s producer on those. Then everybody else came into place.
I’d like to talk a little bit about JANE EYRE. I’m curious what the experience was, and what the decision was about adapting a classic text?
I think it came from a brainstorm from BBC Films. We actually developed JANE EYRE before we developed TAMARA DREWE, so it was Moira Buffini’s first screenplay, although she’d written many many plays and radio before.
BBC Films were talking about classics. We came back to Ruby and had a brainstorm of the classics, and it was Alison Owen’s favourite book, so she went to that immediately. You can see its themes run through all the things that Alison and Ruby love to make.
It’s noticeable that there are lots of stories about strong, interesting, powerful women. Is that something that’s a conscious choice for you?
Yes. In fairness, I inherited it from my experience at Ruby. Even at Ruby though it wasn’t a conscious thing. We were predominantly women. Not to say we don’t empathise with men, but the female-driven stories are the stories that get under your skin. They are the stories that I connect with. I like to do projects where there’s a true story element, something that’s not been told before.
Film and TV is masculine balanced, not only behind the camera but in front it as well.
Yes. People say we work with a lot of women, which we do, but it’s an instinctive thing. It’s not like it’s been a strategy. Of course we want to make stories that are meaningful to us, and these are the things that get us going, that make us really excited.
Have you seen the industry change in terms of attitudes to gender do you think?
I think it’s about to change. I think we’re at a tipping point in the next five years. The industry is changing on a million different levels but especially about diversity.
It comes from a place of necessity. Audiences are so savvy now, and they understand drama. They’re not scared of unusual voices and different stories. Audiences are proving that they like to find something they’ve never seen before.
I think that comes from the internet, from young people. Look at how young people consume music, it’s completely different. It’s less about accepting what the masses are consuming. Now you can source your own stuff and be excited about your own thing.
Is there any advice you’d give to someone starting out, particularly to young women?
Be really tenacious and stand your ground, and stand out. Send the right people emails, try to get as many coffees, also watch and see as much as you can. The one answer I’d always be armed with, whether you’re going in to pitch a movie or to be a runner or an actress, is for when they say, “What have you seen recently, what do you really like and enjoy?”
Be massively honest. That’s what they’re testing for, whether you’re going out for a part of “Busman no. 5” or you’re going into adapt a new play, be aware of everything that’s out there in the world. It’s important that you keep your finger on the pulse, even if you’re just being asked to make someone tea.
You’ve worked on a lot of period pieces and true life stories. What sort of challenges do they bring?
Alison is the one who adores period pieces, and I inherited a bit of that, because when you do something once people associate you with it. I do find that it’s quite effective to make a comment about today with a story in the past. I think there’s something very powerful about that.
You can secretly hide agendas without your film being “worthy” or about an agenda in the same way. It can be very hard to make something that’s about “now.”
SUFFRAGETTE is an example. It’s about the lack of women’s voice now, but shown through people fighting for their voice then. I’m doing a project which is about four women in the UK who were part of a team who helped create research to understand how AIDS was being spread so quickly, in the 1980s.
These women decided to come together and use their expertise in their field. Of course, that’s very much about AIDS, but it’s also, if we do a good enough job, about people investing in medical. Rather than focus just on cure. Medical giants profit from the cure, but not from prevention.
I bought a book I was obsessed with for ages, written by Deborah Cadbury, a factual book about the Quakers. I think they’re fascinating. That’s essentially about the industrial revolution, about capitalism, and how we got to where we are today.
Of course, speaking of period pieces, you worked on THE CROWN, which was an unusual project for you because you weren’t there from its conception.
THE CROWN is the only project I’ve been hired in on. All the other projects I’ve been part of the team that started it. Whether it’s an idea that I’ve read in an article or something that someone’s pitched me, normally I’m part of that process and go on that long journey.
THE CROWN was really interesting for me. They had the amazing Peter Morgan, who I’d met on THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL. They already had the scripts, which were incredible. I was asked to sit in on the room with Stephen Daldry, Julian Jarrold, Philip Martin, Adriano Goldman (who shot JANE EYRE), and Andy Harries.
We’d sit in tone meetings and talk about how we’re making it, what we’re making, what we’re trying to say with it, what it’s going to look like. It was fascinating. It was great to see how other companies make projects. I feel very honoured to have worked on that project as a bit of an outsider coming in.
In film, executive producers are normally financiers, the money people, but in TV they’re actually more the creative umbrella. What they did in this scenario, they brought in two film producers, myself and Andrew Eaton.
Andrew Eaton was hired as the series producer over the whole show. And I was the extra hands, because there were four directors, ten huge stories and multiple units in different countries.
It’s supposed to be one of the most expensive TV shows, certainly the most expensive that Netflix has done.
You could feel that it had great big ambition and support. But still, you didn’t have tons of money. You can’t just have a crane whenever you want – there’s still a crane budget. There was a little more money than normal on a set, but it wasn’t a splashy affair. It was a big deal logistically.
We probably shot in 20 of the most expensive houses in the UK, because we were trying to recreate all the palaces.
The streaming services are doing some really interesting projects at the moment. How did you find working with Netflix, and would you be keen to do that again, on a film for example?
I’d love to, and on TV. They seem really great. I haven’t worked with Amazon before, so I don’t know them that well, but they’re making really interesting work and supporting storytellers.
As a producer, does the fact that with a lot of streaming services you can watch all in one go affect how you work, knowing that it’s not as episodic?
I suppose it does. I think it makes drama quicker. You have to keep everyone tantalised, But then one of my favourite TV shows of the last five years is OLIVE KETTERIDGE, which is more of a character piece. THE HANDMAID’S TALE is genius. That’s one I’d love to have made.
I’d like to hear about what projects Fable has going forward. I know you have STAN AND OLLIE and COUNTRY MUSIC, but is there anything else you can talk about?
I touched on a few of those other ones. Me and Helena are working on a TV piece about Mae West. It’s a small budget, but I’m obsessed with the story of Mae West putting on her first play, Sex, and getting arrested for it.
We’re doing another project together called SAINT MAZIE, based on a book by Jami Attenberg.
I have another movie with Sarah Gavron that I’m doing, about young girls in London, which we’re really excited about. We’re researching and casting for it at the minute.
I’m working with Tom Harper at the moment with COUNTRY MUSIC, which was written by Nicole Taylor, and we’re trying to figure out another couple of things we can all do together. I’ve bought an Israeli comedy TV show, LITTLE MOM, which I’m going to try to adapt for UK TV. And an array of all sorts of other stuff.
A lot of my projects come out of working with great writers and great directors. It’s that experience of creating something together that I really enjoy.
Do you think there’s a growing market for hybrid films, that have commercial appeal and are in English and a foreign language, or is it risky?
The world is turning. I think multi-language is definitely going to be consumed more. Traditionally it’s been difficult. I think on television right now, we’re consuming things in a different way, and there are multi-language or foreign programs that are doing very well. Which in turn means commissioners are maybe less scared of them, as there is proof of an appetite.
With Netflix and Amazon, do they have a development fund, or are they looking for production companies that have done a certain amount of development already?
I think the latter. If you have an agent you can approach them through them. From what I gather from Netflix, it’s an always-evolving beast. On the whole, if you have eight hours for example, they’d want at least a first episode and a bible, so they’ve got an understanding of the voice of your show.
If you’ve got those two things, I think you can go to them. If you’re going in cold and don’t know anyone in there, going through an agent or production company is the right thing to do.
When you’re developing a script, in the early stages with the director and the writer, how do you judge when things are going the wrong way? How do you give constructive criticism?
It’s a bit of a tap dance, in truth. You try to be as eloquent as possible about the reasons why something’s not working.
First of all, any time anyone sends me a script that I’m working on with them, I am very complimentary, even if I have problems with it. It’s important to give people affirmation, to make them feel relaxed. Then, delicately but not in a way that you don’t get your point across, I ask questions rather than giving notes at first, especially if there’s a big problem.
I try to guide the answers out of them
What are they happy with, what they’re not happy with, thematically what they’re trying to say with it. I try to guide the answers out of them, as they will always have the key to the solution.
From the scripts that are sent to you, do you have any main bugbears, thing that you really hate in scripts?
I don’t think so, not particularly. If you’re a writer, the most important thing to do, especially if you’re breaking through, is that if you’re lucky enough that someone’s actually read it and come back to you is not to be too defensive about the notes.
If they’re giving you notes, it means they really quite like it, or they think you’re on to something. Something I say when we’re going to see commissioners is to be open, because they want to have an enjoyable experience with you. They want to know that it’s a mutually collaborative process, and I think that’s really important. And really listen to what they’re saying.
it’s a mutually collaborative process
Their solutions could be bad, but if everyone keeps saying the end doesn’t work, it normally means that there is something that’s not working. I think it’s important to show willing and investigate the issue.
You can always go back to the pages you had. Time is precious, but if you rewrote those ten pages just to try something, whether you thought it was a bad idea or not, it’s not like those pages are going to go somewhere.
Do you read scripts yourself or use readers?
I read a lot, but I definitely couldn’t read everything that came in. I have a head of development who reads a lot of stuff, and Anu and Clark go and see a lot of work as well, a lot of short films for example.
We basically try to consume everything, but we all take home our reading, and every week we have a development meeting to talk about what projects we have and what everyone likes or dislikes.