THE INSIDER INTERVIEWS: HUMPHREY ELLES-HILL
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.
Humphrey Elles-Hill is currently a literary agent at Independent Talent Group Ltd., one of Europe’s leading talent agencies. Previous roles include: assisting producers Kenton Allen and Matthew Justice for award-winning production company Big Talk Productions, acting as Development Executive for Power TV, and producing TV movies and short films.
This interview was hosted by producer, James Cotton.
I believe reading things you love is how you got into this realm of work. You told me you grew up in Winnie the Pooh’s forest – Ashdown Forest – surrounded by books, and gained a passion for literature very early on.
My Mum is American and came over just for the love of literature, really – so there was always something built in. We grew up in Eeyore’s gloomy place – my house was right there, so Winnie the Pooh was the first big inspiration.
I ended up studying classics at University, and my love of reading molded into a passion for Film and TV. I started working as a journalist, writing film reviews, features and interviews, but I never really understood the creative process. My sister was working for Miramax at the time, and she sent me a script of SHAUN OF THE DEAD, and I was completely blown away. I remember feeling very excited about what it could turn into – what it could be – and from that moment I never looked back.
I immediately shifted from journalism to working in film, and moved straight into a job reading fem-jep (female jeopardy) thrillers for Power TV. I think we made six a year for Lifetime TV, the kind of show that’s made for housewives. There was a formula, and there was a certain amount of creative licence, but it was quite a sobering experience, seeing how some things are just made to be on TV and fill time.
But, the company grew, and we started making British telly, projects like DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS and a TV film called THE FLOOD for ITV. I got to work with writers and directors, which was a big eye-opener and a big joy.
Tell me about your move to Big Talk and starting to specialise in Comedy?
That felt like the perfect job at the time. I wanted to move to comedy – that was always the thing I loved most – and an opportunity came about just as I was running out of notes to give on fem-jep thrillers.
I don’t think I was particularly good at working in development anyway. I could tell when things were not working, but I never really had a great grasp on solution. So I was looking to leave, and there was an opportunity at Big Talk: I got to work with Kenton Allen on the TV side and Matthew Justice on the Film side. It was the dream job with the dream company. Their calibre of shows and their standards of work are just so high – and they make things they love.
You were there for almost two years, and you mentioned that the turnaround was still quite significant for a company that size. HIM AND HER, FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER, ATTACK THE BLOCK, SCOTT PILGRIM – how many of those projects did you have involvement in?
More the TV projects. I started the same time as Kenton and of course he was sent everything under the sun. We had to read a lot of scripts. HIM AND HER stood out because it was so extraordinary and sparse. Nine out of ten of us who read it just didn’t get it. To begin with it was just Kenton who said that there was something special, and willed us to re-read it. Sure enough, we began to realise that there was something pretty remarkable there. I was assisting Kenton and Matthew, and essentially my job was to do whatever they wanted me to do. And I worked it out by doing it. My Dad called it ‘sitting with Nellie’ – where you learn by doing…
There was a nice phrase we had: ‘it’s better to apologise than ask permission.’ The principle there is that you just do, which is very much a producer’s mind-set, getting things out there and moving things along. It was always a very fast pace – and those projects were pretty much green-lit all at the same time. So, the job suddenly became production, which wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do and I wasn’t very good at it – I think there’s a certain type of person that’s good at it.
How many roles within the industry could you sympathise with and understand at this point – and how has that made you a better agent?
I don’t think many people become an agent straight from University. I think having the experience I had certainly helped. There’s a stigma surrounding some agents; that they can charge around and be insensitive or impatient with producers and not appreciate how long it can take to get things off the ground. So, it really helped that I could understand how writers and producers are feeling. A lot of our work is dealing with lawyers, execs and commissioners, and having done all that as a producer, I think it can only help.
So, at that point, did you think ‘agenting is a concoction of the many things I love’? Or was it an opportunity that came out of the blue?
Very much out of the blue. It was a fluke. I was turning thirty and I knew I didn’t want to work in production, and fortunately Hugo Young lost his assistant around that time. He found out that I was leaving Big Talk, and as I knew so many of his clients he asked me when I was coming to work for him.
He offered to teach me more about business affairs, which was something I didn’t have a particularly strong grasp on – so I thought I’d do that, give it up after 6 months or so, and find something new. But, within those six months I just learned so much, everyday was different, it was amalgamation of all of the things that I loved, and there were opportunities left, right and centre. It was exhilarating! Also, within the first six months, I saw a director who hadn’t worked in a while get a really big job and that was a real thrill. That’s when I thought ‘hold on, this could be it’, so I stuck with it and have never looked back.
Tell us more about Independent Talent as a company…
It’s the biggest agency in Europe. Duncan Heath tells us to take the work seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously. That’s the ethos. Originally it was a casting agency, and while being involved with high calibre actors and actresses, the founders saw various opportunities out there for producers, writers and directors that not many other people could see – so the literary department was formed and the agency grew from having this great overview of the industry.
The company has continued in that vein; we have a couple meetings a week where we all share information, tip-off’s, and from there, it’s remarkable how much you can strategize someone’s career. Some meetings you might hear about producers optioning a book, or a financier looking for a certain kind of screenplay or director.
We have many agents, all working as a team, and we are a big resource for each other. When I first joined, I didn’t intend to stay for very long, but the opportunism that I saw those first few weeks was really exciting. It’s a very exciting place to work.
Within that big structure that you have, different agents must be doing different jobs – for example, packaging agents, representing actors and writers exclusively. What is the full range at Independent?
Well, the company evolves a lot. We also represent presenters, and internet stars. We in the lit department work very closely with the casting department, we hear about things quite early, and casting is a very handy muscle for getting a film green-lit.
When I first joined, I found there was a certain amount of ‘faking it until you make it’ – but working with people who could show you the ropes and introduce you to how certain deals are done, having that wide source of support, it was a brilliant place to learn and the teamwork was crucial. We do lean on each other a lot, and within that, we do different things.
When I first arrived, I aimed to specialise in comedy, which was something that we didn’t do that much of. Within the company, there are some people who look after writers or directors only, there are others who looks after producers, books – and we all gain a lot of insight from each other.
What does an average day entail for you?
First half of the day is defined by panic; the second half by heavy drinking! Overnight, I’ll have had a lot of emails from agents in America and clients with news. When I wake up, first priority is deciphering what the Americans have unearthed and what is actually real. Getting back to clients is something you want to do before you get to the office, because by then, there will be a whole heap of new opportunities and enquiries flooding in.
I’m fresher in the morning, so I tend to conduct more important meetings and any legal work then. The whole time the phone is ringing, with some real opportunities, some that aren’t – so I need to be proactive and make sense of those too. Normally, in the afternoons things die down in terms of enquiries, so attention turns to submissions, mail outs, viewing materials – scripts or projects clients have made or are interested in.
There’s usually some round-table meetings, and in the evenings there may be a show, screening or drinks party. An important part of the job comes at the end of the day with the social side. I think a lot of the job is matchmaking, essentially. I go out and watch a lot of films and shows with other producers and execs, and I’m always trying to work out who I am selling to, and what they like and are looking for.
A bad day will be mired in contracts and calls with agents in America, I find that less fun – but the best side is screenings, reading something you love and want to get out there, and meeting inspiring people. But no two days are the same and that’s one of the best things about the job, the variety is always pretty exciting.
From your early clients, how far have you got them?
Claudia O’Doherty was my first client and she’s now writing with Amy Schumer and Judd Appatow, so she’s done pretty well. Will Sharpe and Tom Kingsley went off and made a film called BLACK POND a couple of years ago; I intercepted a screener that was meant for Richard Ayoade and took them on. They’ve done pretty well.
Will is now shooting his first Channel Four series as we speak. But a few I did take on too early, and a few were friends, and I probably made a few mistakes. I think that’s something I’ve learned – if you take on someone who works in the industry who you’re really close with, you might make the mistake of over-promising, or thinking you can get them exactly what they want, and not view things realistically.
I’m sure people are approaching you left, right and centre for representation. What’s the funniest approach you’ve had?
There are many. I once received ream upon ream of handwritten notes; just rambling idle thoughts, including recipes for casseroles! That really stayed with me – mainly because the man turned up and demanded a meeting and just wouldn’t leave. He offered to do some photocopying – just anything to be useful. That was pretty extraordinary. I once received a call from somebody who sounded pretty normal, pretty ‘with it’, was picking up jobs, and said they would send me a present. That’s always a good move – but it was a silver-plated, framed portrait engraved with the words: I want YOU to be my agent. That was quite unnerving, really!
Also, quite recently, I was contacted by quite a heavy-hitting writer /director; he told me he was leaving his current agent and asked me if I had time for a coffee, and I thought it was great, because that never happens. Somebody who was earning and genuinely a star had singled me out! So we went for coffee, and I gave it my all, and he called me back about two days later and I thought – this is it. He said he really enjoyed the meeting, but then he said: ‘Can you introduce me to Hugo Young now?’ So, I was basically auditioning to be the agent for his new agent.
Going further into the acquisition of clients, what are a couple of examples of positive processes you’ve gone through that didn’t involve anything framed or untoward?
It’s normally references – a producer who says ‘this person is really talented’. Or somebody who is just really clear about what they want to do… I have taken on a few people who got passed over by other people in our agency, and a few of the casting team have said I met this person at a party and introduced us. I suppose all my clients have done a bit of networking before they’ve got to me.
How upfront and honest are you about the harsh truths of the industry?
Normally my first thought is best-case scenario, but you don’t ever want to raise expectations to beyond what’s possible. You should know your limits, I suppose. Harsh reality is very important. One of my big bugbears at the moment is the over-promising by some agents. Certainly in America – they’re far happier saying ‘one day you’ll direct STAR WARS or JAMES BOND’ and don’t really look realistically at the process of how to get there.
What are the differences in the ways British and American agents operate?
There are so many more opportunities in America. It can lead to things being more confused, but of course the rewards can be so much greater. They can be life-changing! There can be a lot of hot air and getting ahead of the game.
For example, one thing British agents don’t do is show directors scripts that the producer would never send to that director. The script gets to them from the US agent and the director wants to have a meeting, and we have to be the ones to talk them down, usually from a position of great excitement. That’s not fun.
Describe your model client.
Self-starting, chasing up their own leads. Somebody who isn’t scared to get out there, will chase people down and will keep me posted about what they’re up to. Somebody who is humble. A lot of writers won’t take notes or won’t be interested in collaboration, they don’t find it appetising or necessary. Well, you have to work with other people, and there is always some compromise.
Patience is important, especially with so much work expected on spec these days. Someone who has their ear to the ground, will listen to industry fads and acknowledge what’s being sold – that’s very important.
Overall, I see it as a partnership; I’m not just somebody who is trying to help them fulfil their potential, we’re both working off of each other.
So by that rationale, you want your client to encompass all of those elements in their day-to-day, but your own taste must have influence over who you want to pick up and who you want to work with. What genres or mediums are you tending to work with at the moment, and also if you were looking for clients today/tomorrow – who would you be looking for?
It’s pretty subjective, who I take on, and I think I have very broad tastes. I do doubt my own salesmanship though, so I haven’t picked up anybody who I think represents ‘good business’, who can write an action script for example – I would never do that, as I would find it hard to sell something I don’t really believe in. I always pick up people whose talents I’m impressed by, but also work I really love and want to see get made because essentially, this is an industry built on passion. That’s integral when you go on a massive journey together.
Personal identification and love for the work is crucial. Comedy – as I’ve mentioned – is a genre I lean towards. At the moment there is a big appetite for family-friendly material – with the success of films like PADDINGTON there’s big demand for that sort of project. Someone with a kickass sixty-minute drama pilot – there’s a large array of potential homes for that sort of thing. I wouldn’t want to make any rules – there are always rules until they aren’t rules anymore.
I suppose people do come to me because they see other people that I represent and maybe they identify with and love those sorts of stories, that sort of style, or that style of humour. Taste is definitely a big part of it.
Do you have any general industry gripes?
Oh, there are many. I think there a lot of posers out there and people who enjoying showing off or do it for the kudos of working in film, but don’t really follow through. A lot of my job is really looking at who’s ‘for real’ and who’s not and trying to figure that out. It disappoints me when producers ask to read material, but then don’t.
I suppose a slapdash approach to client material, people who dump their meetings, people who don’t make the most of opportunities. I could get very specific, but I won’t! I made a lot of mistakes when I was new to this and I was pretty naïve, and thought that producers I knew well or were friends or who I’d worked with would honour certain agreements. People who don’t follow through on what they’ve promised is the lowest of the low. Still, it happens a lot, but I would say that’s the worst offence.
How many scripts do you read a week?
It varies massively. On holidays I read many more, sometimes a couple a day. I’d say it’s somewhere between 2 and 5 – there won’t be a week I go without reading something. The priorities of that list are pretty tyrannical – as soon as a client sends me something they’ve written that goes to the top.
Can you give an example of what you said earlier about ‘leaning on’ colleagues?
Well, today, a director was being shifted off of a film project, so I was trying to work out what the move is there. I went to a very experienced agent and he just immediately gave me the framework of what was realistic and what was not – for example, he gave me advice on whether a lawyer should be hired, what I should let the American reps do, what the settlement should look like, etc. Just giving me what’s not in the small print, which would save a lot of stress. I also asked to be introduced to a producer today who I haven’t met but who I’ve heard good things about, who had a script – so I got a colleague to speak to him and mention that I had some ideas. That sort of thing happens daily.
How do you help a client when they’re in a situation of bad development?
I try to get the project freed. In my experience, if there’s a creative difference, you’re best to get it out as quickly as possible. I’d read the script and try to understand everything from everyone’s point of view. Then I’d talk to the client first and find out what they want. If it’s going round in circles, nobody wants that. I’d try to free it up completely so that you can start again, but sometimes that’s not possible. In my experience, as soon as things stop simmering, they’re not going to happen, so you’re better off walking away. I think the pain of letting something go is offset by the freedom to refocus on something else.
I find it so difficult to find out anything information on your website.
There are reasons for that. The idea is that you start a dialogue with someone, and there’s only so much you can convey on a CV anyway. Anyway, we are getting a new website within the next few months and all client details will be up online.
How does the money work – who do you charge your fee too?
In my department we charge twelve and a half per cent on client’s earnings. There are exceptions and fluctuations but that’s the company protocol.
What’s your advice on coming across as proactive rather than annoying?
You’ve got to play hard to get to some degree, at the same time there’s a certain amount of hustle needed. I think a friendly hello after a few weeks isn’t a bad idea, but I wouldn’t nag after first touching base. That would be my advice – a bit of patience.