THE INSIDER INTERVIEWS: MICHAEL KUHN

The Insider Interviews series started in 2010 as a set of recorded interviews, featuring the likes of Tom HiddlestonGareth Unwin, who produced THE KING’S SPEECHBen 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.

In the early 90s Michael Kuhn set up Polygram Filmed Entertainment, which made and distributed over 100 feature films and which, between them, won 14 Academy Awards.  These films included FOUR WEDDINGS & A FUNERAL, DEAD MAN WALKING, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, and TRAINSPOTTING.

He then went on to set up Qwerty Films, producing features including I HEART HUCKABEES, KINSEY, SEVERENCE, THE DUCHESS, and FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, starring Meryl streep and Hugh Grant, directed by Stephen Frears.

His published book, 100 Films and a Funeral, was adapted and released as a documentary in 2009.

He was appointed Chair of the National Film and Television Society in 2002 and awarded a fellowship in 2008.  BAFTA awarded him the Michael Balcon Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Film in 1998.

This interview was hosted by producer, James Cotton.

 

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF MICHAEL

What is your average day at the moment?

I think like most people, there isn’t an average day. You’re either in production or pre-production. You’re running around from morning until night doing various stuff, whether that’s pre-production or going on location scouts. The rest of the year is made up of waiting for writers.  I think there are lots of writers here. They’re always late. Always troublesome. They always have some excuse!

Overall, I have a mixture of development meetings, making lists of directors for new projects, and meeting with writers. You get in as late as you possibly can justify, leave as early as you can and pretend you’re working. That’s the average day.

 

THE EARLY DAYS

For this interview, I have used the gospel according to Michael Kuhn, which is 100 Hundred Films and a Funeral, which I highly recommend. It’s an amazing resource which I’ll turn to a few times during this interview. Now we’re going to go all the way back to you reading law at Clare College, Cambridge in 1968. What made you choose law?

In those days you did what your parents wanted you to do, and that’s what they wanted.

What was that experience like?

Horrible. All my friends were doing history, geography or land economy and having a great time not doing any work while I was learning case studies for three years.

Let’s fast forward to 1975 when you joined PolyGram. What were your roles before 1991?

I qualified as a solicitor. I did two years in a law firm which had an entertainment department. It acted for a lot of studios so I got a taste of the industry. Then they asked if I wanted to take a year out doing industrial experience, as it was known then. I thought: “great!” I went to a record company, which was a joint venture between Philips and Siemens. By accident, I couldn’t have joined at a better time because it was the beginning of Punk music. So I had a fantastic ten years in the music business.

After that, I got involved in successfully establishing a worldwide standard for the CD disc, and that revived the fortunes of PolyGram, and its parent company Philips, which has been in decline. By that time, I was on the Board, and we needed a follow-up act because we couldn’t keep showing year on year 15% growth profits based on CDs.  Eventually, everyone would have bought replacement CDs, and we needed a new story for the shareholders.

I suggested doing film. The reason was that at the time, home video was half the revenue of the film business. Video involved distributing bits of plastic to the public. We were already doing that with audio. We were already doing what the film industry was doing, which was marrying creative freedom to get good work with strong financial discipline. We just had to work out how to add the marketing of movies, distribution of movies and producing of movies. Those are the three key bits.

If the opportunity came along we could buy a studio, and we nearly bought MGM, or while we’re waiting, we could build up a studio. We settled on the latter, but not all at once. We had to do it bit by bit and prove ourselves for each stage, and we had to go to L.A. to run it from there.

So 1990 to 1991 seemed like a very important period for this trialling production activities for PolyGram. They acquired an interest in Working Title, Propaganda Films, Manifesto Film Sales so different areas of the value chain became vertically integrated to mitigate risk. Then there was WILD AT HEART that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. What was it that you learnt from that short period?

My very first film cost $800,000 and made $2 million, so we sold everything. Making it for that and selling it for as much as we could – that was good. That was our first brick in the wall. And then as we built confidence we decided to sell everything except the UK. We kept it and built it up. We thought: “If that works then we’ll do France, then Germany, etc.” Eventually, we would come to a point when we’d have to decide if we wanted to take on America. That’s a big decision, and that is what we did. That was on the distribution/risk side.

On the production side, I thought that the record company model used by a man called Steve Ross (who set up not only Warner Brothers Studio, but Warner Brothers’ Worldwide on the music side) was fabulous. He developed what I thought was a brilliant scheme, which was to run a label system with three main labels run by the creative people. Warner, Electra and Atlantic – all labels run by iconic people.

I thought it was best to do finance, marketing, and distribution centrally and let people in the labels lead creatively. They knew if they didn’t deliver we would find someone else – which concentrated their minds and gave them the freedom to do what they did best (hopefully), which was to make the product. So instead of wondering if I’d picked the right films, I worried if I had picked the right people. It turns out some of them did really well.

For distribution, you grow it bit by bit and on the production side, pick people, not projects. Unlike studios where everything is centralised. There was another model, which I loved so much, used by United Artists under Arthur Krim.  They used to get in bed with all kinds of well-known producers and gave them money. If you let them down once, you never let them down again. They’d ask: “What is the film? How much is it? Who’s doing it? OK, see you later.” Out of that came the Bond movies and 50 Oscar movies. Quite unbelievable. It’s one of the greatest unknown studios ever.

 

RELATIONSHIPS WITH TALENT

Officially in 1991 PolyGram Film Entertainment was set up. It made and distributed over 100 feature films. If you look through this list in 100 Hundred Films and a Funeral in includes FARGO, THE GAME, THE GREEN MILE. The list goes on and on. That quickly led to operations in L.A. in 1992.

Fargo

I read up about your AFM parties where Robert Redford, Jodie Foster, Brad Pitt, Michael Bay had been guests on Monday evenings because you worked out Hollywood stars had nothing else to do on Monday evenings. So you developed talent relationships that way.

Talking about your relationships with talent, I heard you colleague Malcolm Ritchie did the catering at the first L.A. office party, and it went a little bit wrong. What happened?

Two things: He’s an accountant, and he’s from Aberdeen – so he’s the meanest man in the world. We were involved with Propaganda Films and with Jodie Foster and her film, so I said we could have a little office Christmas party and he should organise it. I didn’t really pay too much attention… we ended up in a tiny room above a pub in Santa Monica, with Jodie Foster and lots of other people. She thought it was great because she also doesn’t like wasting money, but it wasn’t really on the scale of what we were used to. It was three peanuts and a couple of bottles of beer.

The reason we had those Monday nights was that I was on the board of the Sundance Institute, and we had to raise money. So I had this idea that during the America Film Market, we would invite foreign buyers to my house – it was $1000 a head to meet a star. It was always on a Monday in February and the reason I went grey was because every year it was the same. On Friday I had sold 100 tickets, so $100,000… and I didn’t have anyone – no stars. So I spent the whole weekend on the phone.

It always worked out because in February on a Monday no stars had anything to do, but won’t commit until the last minute in case something better comes up. The most memorable was when I came home late one year and got in the shower. Loads of people were setting up for dinner. I heard the front door bell ring and assumed someone else was going to get it, and nobody did. So I went to answer it, towel around me, I open the door… it was Brad Pitt – an hour early.

I’d like to move onto the writing and directing talent you befriended in L.A. and a quote from your book on the Coen Brothers: ‘The tension between everydayness and creative genius is a common aspect of the most exceptional amongst creative people.’ So that ‘everydayness’ and being able to connect easily with people, is that something you’ve always looked for in creative relationships with writers?

Well, there’s no rule about it. The Coen Brothers asked me if I wanted to do their next movie. They said it was a kind of Western. I asked, “Is there any action in it?” They said, “There’s a wood chopper.” I asked, “Is anyone in it?” They said, “No one that I would have heard of.” I asked, “Is it being filmed in an exotic location?” They said, “No, snow.” I asked, “How much is it?” They said “About seven million dollars.” Great! Let’s do it. I knew you’d get your money back on seven million dollars with the Coen Brothers.

On the other hand, when Steve Golin pitched BEING JOHN MALKOVICH I thought they were taking the p***. I made the fatal mistake of not immediately saying no. I asked, “Have you got John Malkovich?” They said “No”, so I said, “Come back when you’ve got John Malkovich”… They did. I asked, “How much is it going to cost?” They said, “15 million dollars”. I said, “That’s far too much, do it for seven.” They couldn’t… until they came back and had a plan to do it for seven. I said, “Well the cast isn’t great”… they came back with a huge cast. Eventually, you run out of reasons not to make it.

Could you tell us about the time you got stuck outside a Venice lagoon on a broken water taxi during the Venice Film Festival with some very special guests?

This is an example of bad management practice. If you’ve got to pull in your horns, you shouldn’t do it across the board. You should never say, “Everyone has to cut their overhead by 15%” because they have to cut the right bit of the overhead. We got a budget, but I nearly fell off my chair.

I asked them to cut 25% of the budget. Otherwise, we were not going to Venice at all. So, of course, the budget appeared the next day with 25% off but in Venice, what they had economised on was boats. I had Robert De NiroTom CruiseNicole Kidman and a whole boat load coming back at 1am from the LIDO.

We got to the lagoon to find a slightly leaky boat that they had got on a deal. It was unbelievably embarrassing.  That’s a good lesson for life. If you’re going to cut something, do it discreetly and not across the board.

 

INFLUENCES

You mentioned Arthur Krim as an influence. Throughout your answers already there’s been an element of entrepreneurship. You mention him in your book, and I wanted to ask you about Lew Grade and how much of an influence he was?

In the 60s or 70s, if you wanted to do anything in the entertainment business in England, you had to deal with the Grade brothers. Lew Grade ran ATV, one of the biggest and most important TV franchises in London. He was like Mr Big in television. He was an extraordinary, wonderful man who started out as a champion Charleston dancer. He then began as an agent and joined his brother at an agency. Actually, when he was in his 50s, he saw an ad for ITV and applied for it. He nearly went bankrupt but built it back up.

Lew Grade (1906-1998)

Lew Grade (1906-1998)

His brothers were Bernard Delfont, who ran theatres, and Leslie Grade, who was a wonderful agent – the three of them were staggeringly important at the time. Lew was the showman of all showmen. He received a Papal Knighthood from the Pope for doing JESUS OF NAZARETH. The Pope said to him, “You’re Jewish, aren’t you? Do you know anything about Jesus?” Lew replied, “I read it all. The apostles. There was Mathew, Mark… well, that’s as far as I got.” He was fantastic.

In the course of building up our operation, we would buy as many catalogues as we could, and we brought the ITC catalogue, which had been built up by Lew Grade. In his late 70s/early 80s, we offered him the position as honorary chairman. It seemed like a nice thing to do, but there was nothing honorary about it. He was determined to prove his worth. He used to go over to Channel 4 where Michael Grade, his nephew, was chairman at the time and Lew would try to get him to double the price.

He was in an era of people who are more or less gone now. In the old days, if the NFTS ran into financial difficulties they would ring up Lew Grade who would contact the other media barons and by the afternoon he had plugged the film school’s deficit. Can you imagine that happening today? You wouldn’t know who to call, or who would be able to do such things.

Years later I bumped into Patrick McGoohan from THE PRISONER, who told me after he came off a successful TV series, he went to see Lew Grade. He asked Patrick, “What are you working on next” and Patrick said, “I’m thinking about something called The Prisoner.” “I’ll buy it! I’ll buy it!” was Lew’s response. Patrick said, “I’m not ready to do it yet.” Lew would ask, “Well, what’s it about?” Patrick said, “It’s very complicated.” Lew replied again “Well I’ll buy it. I’ll buy it anyway.” Patrick would try to explain that it’s not ready, but Lew would literally chase him around the office trying to put a cheque in Patrick’s pocket. That’s apparently (and maybe appropriately) how THE PRISONER got made, and Lew never understood a word of it.

Lew had a feeling for people. He used to go off to America, find successful TV shows and bring them back here. One of the most amazing stories is when he went to go sell JESUS OF NAZARETH to America, which was a huge investment for ATV. There had almost never been a major British series sold to an American network before.

He said he sat on the plane and thought, “how much should I ask?” and came up with the number ten million dollars – the biggest number he could think of. He was able to sell it and during his pitch, there was a very nice, young business affairs guy who Lew got talking to. This was the most junior business affairs guy. Lew heard he was getting engaged and going to England for their honeymoon. Lew said, “I have loads of flats in London, and you can have the flat for however long you want. And I’ll get a car to pick you up at the airport.” Well, that was Michael Eisner, who ended up running Disney for 20 years. Lew saw something in him that no one else would have paid any attention to the most junior business affairs guy in the room.

 

GREENLIGHTING

Let’s talk about your approach to greenlighting. Another quote from your book: “The rather depressing statistic is that it doesn’t really matter who’s running a studio.” And you talk about how if Hollywood movies are marketed properly you get a big hit every three years and a TITANIC every five, and it all works out in the end. So I wanted to ask you about how you control that financial investment and the concept of the control sheet?

It’s nothing very complicated. It has actually been statically shown that, no matter who runs the studio, the average hit rate works out the same. That’s quite an astounding thing when these people are being paid $5 million a year to decide things.

A good example is when I got involved with Tim Bevan and Working Title. They had zero success and were fed up. I said, “I want you to be one of our labels. I’ll give you money for development and enough to make two or three films a year and then it’s up to you from there.” But what I didn’t say to them was that I knew they had been developing in order to make a living. They were developing scripts not to a state of goodness but to the state that you can get it made. And therefore that leads to disaster.

You can’t wait long enough to make it good. You have to just make it when you can get the director, the script and the money together. So I thought it was going to take them two or three years at least to turn around their development slate, so I had to assume three years of losses. My business plan had to account for three years of losses before I could expect anything to happen.

So, on a bigger scale, you want to look at the income you’re likely to be getting, look at the expenditure and try to make sure at least when you greenlight it you have a low, medium and high. That way you can see roughly if it goes pear-shaped you won’t lose your shirt, if it does medium, it’ll make a little money, and hopefully, they’ll be one or two that hit the high.

So it was all about the relationship between development and the end product being marketed?

And the risk. What is the risk? Again, look at FARGO or BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. We had the cast and the Coen Brothers so there’s no way you’re going to lose a lot of money if it all goes wrong. Hopefully, you’ll make a little money. As it’s low risk, if it has some small success it should make you money. Some worked out. Some didn’t.

Is this something you implement to this day?

No, certainly not. Now I just try to get something good enough to get it made and earn a living, like all independent producers.

 

QWERTY FILMS

In 1998 you received the Michael Balcon Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Cinema and then came back to the UK to set up Qwerty Films in 1999. What made your decision to come back from L.A. to make this a British company rather than an American company?

It was absolutely nothing to do with business. I had just had two children born in America and I wanted to bring them up as British in England.

And you’re an Arsenal fan so you need to be close to home.

I didn’t really want to bring up American children. That was the main reason. The company had been brought and I just wanted to do something different.

Qwerty Films has produced titles, including I HEART HUCKABEES, THE DUCHESS and FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. I just wanted to ask you about your relationship with Saul Dibb. How did that come about?

He’s off doing other stuff at the moment. THE DUCHESS was initially brought to me by Gabrielle Tana, who recently did PHILOMENA. And strangely, we hired an American to do an 18th century period film. This was Jeffrey Hatcher. The reason was we had seen something he wrote which had fantastic, wonderful and totally convincing 18th century dialogue. We thought how is that possible? And he has gone on to make a career out of doing that.

I was interested in Saul simply because, in my experience from previously being involved with period films, they needed something modern. If you’re making a period film which doesn’t have something modern to offer about its tone, then why would you do it? You are looking a sense of modernity.

The Duchess

THE DUCHESS is about a woman who was intelligent, beautiful, wayward, mad and brilliant, but being completely constricted and destroyed by what society was in those days for women. It was terrible, and it had modern resonance. So I was looking for a director who I felt could do a wide range. Saul had done BULLET BOY, a black gangster film, and he had done THE LINE OF BEAUTY, the Margaret Thatcher world of Notting Hill. It was a very wide range. That’s why I got involved with Saul and Jeffrey.

So they’re relationships you would like to continue for many movies to come?

Obviously, but you have to find the right stuff. Every movie is different, and every project is different. Some can continue those relationships. I’ve just done FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS with Stephen Frears. The last thing I did with Stephen Frears through Working Title was in the 80s or 90s. A long time ago! And it’ll be a long time before I do anything with him again, although we’re great friends.

In terms of writer opportunities, how do you get a spec script picked up?

I don’t think there’s a magic formula except persistence. Nick Martin, who had been a television writer for years, had done several drafts of FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. He had worked on it a lot. He worked with a director in L.A., but he had been rejected everywhere with this script. Four or five good production companies rejected it. I don’t know why. I thought it was a really, really good script. The downside was that I couldn’t imagine anyone except Meryl Streep playing that part. It’s not Judy Dench, Maggie Smith or Helen Mirren. And I didn’t know Meryl Streep.

Anyway, I optioned it and sent it to Stephen Frears’ agent Jenne Casarotto. She laughed and thought it was funny so she sent it to Stephen. A week later he said he would do it if Meryl would do it. So I sent it to Meryl’s agent, who also thought it was funny, so it was sent to Meryl. A week later Meryl said she would do it. Then another week later I met Cameron McCracken in a café who agreed to finance it… easy. It’s not that easy very often.

As for Nick, as a writer, he just kept going. When people gave him feedback he was very willing to take on board all the suggestions and rework things. And obviously, if Frears tells you something, he’s very experienced. He knows so much about the nature of film and script.

Sometimes even I think, “what on earth is Frears talking about?” Then when you actually get to shooting you know exactly what he’s talking about. He would do rewrites and reshoots, even with Meryl, to make it better. And then when you saw it and what he had seen, how he reshaped it, and why he wanted to rework it, all became clear.

It was so right because his attention to detail and attention to through lines of emotions. There’s nothing small enough that you shouldn’t focus on in a script that can transform things or make something crash down. I think that’s a great talent.

 

FUTURE GENERATIONS OF FILMMAKERS

I’m going to talk about how you are sending the elevator back down for the younger generation, but before I do, I should also mention Stephen Frears also does that as well. He’s tutored at the NFTS for years with the editors. There’s an anecdote I heard about how he encourages the editors to have a printed piece of paper above their editing suite that says exactly what the movie is about.

So, he seems to be imparting that knowledge to the next generation…

He once said in a class that people often hide things from themselves, and they don’t realise it. Sometimes I say to someone who has directed something, “Didn’t you do a close up here and a long shot there?” They say, “It wasn’t very good”. I ask to see it, and it transforms the sequence. People hide things from themselves, consciously or unconsciously. I think that may be true in writing as well. While focusing on getting to A from B, you’ve forgotten that diversion is very important, and it would make it much better.

In terms of you sending the elevator down, you’re Patron of Skillset, Chair of the Independent Cinema Office and the National Film and Television School, and you’re on the boards for Northern Ireland Screen and UK Jewish Film. So you clearly you care about the future?

Actually, the one you missed out which is the most important one, which is Inside Pictures. It’s a course for Executive Producers, and it’s been going 14 years now. It’s three weeks (two in London, one in L.A.) teaching a 360-degree view and it’s only taught by practitioners. If you’re taught marketing, it’s taught by Head of Marketing at Fox. If you’re taught Development, it’s taught by Head of Development at Working Title. That’s been really fantastic. I’m really worried about it now because it’s currently funded a lot by Brussels, so who knows what will happen to that funding.

And then there’s Northern Ireland Screen, for which I chair the investment committee.  It’s a fantastic, tiny part of the country, which is making such an important contribution to the economy. They have GAME OF THRONES, loads of BBC productions including THE FALL, loads of animation.  It’s just brilliant.

Also, because GAME OF THRONES has been going so long, people who started off as runners are now heads of departments. The result of that is the industry is growing up, and there are incredibly good writers, directors and heads of departments coming up.

What’s next and do you have any words of advice for writers?

I’m trying to put a film together about Rose Kennedy called AMERICAN ROSE. The writers here might be interested in the history of that. A friend of mine who is a theatre producer heard a radio play about her. It was written by Charlotte Jones who is a playwright who also did HUMBLE BOY. He commissioned her to write a theatre play based on it and just because we were having lunch he showed it to me. I thought it was marvellous and thought it could make a really great film.

We agreed I would buy him out, and we commissioned her to write a screenplay, which she had never done before. I thought it was one of the best screenplays I’ve read. Without the usual stuff that happens with playwrights who write screenplays. There was no need to open it up. Charlotte had successfully turned her play into a film. That’s how it originated, and now I’m trying to get it made.

What I would like to say to writers, especially beginner writers, you have to before anything else make sure the idea is a good idea. That’s hard if you’re not exposed to marketing disciplines – but you have to get a feel for what’s a good idea, whatever genre you’re in. If you have what you think is a good idea, don’t start on anything unless you’ve left it at least a month, if not two months. Then see if it’s still a good idea or if it has fallen apart.

Before anything else make sure the idea is a good idea.  If you have what you think is a good idea, don’t start on anything unless you’ve left it at least a month. Then see if it’s still a good idea or if it has fallen apart.

Too often you return to what was a good idea to find it’s not going to hold up. You see this so many times with scripts. Writers slave away for two years and then no matter how good a writer they are, they will never turn a bad idea into a good idea. Even if the script is great.

If it’s a bad idea, it’s never going to get better. How do you know a good idea? Part of it is experience. Part of it you’ll never know. And part of it is pitching it to people in the business. Often that will save you a lot of grief if you navigate it correctly.

QUESTIONS FROM THE FLOOR

I was surprised to hear that FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS was being made. How did you see immediately that it was a good idea or was it that the script was so well executed?

It was more the latter. Plus, and this is just a personal thing, I love the line she actually spoke in real life more or less on her death bed: “People may say I couldn’t sing but they can’t say that I didn’t.” It’s that something that strikes the heart of everybody around the world. Those two things.

It’s interesting. When you look at British independent films, how many of the really successful ones are father-son stories? It teaches you that it doesn’t matter where a film is set if it touches something that everyone around the world knows it resonates. Every son wants their father to say “I admire what you do” and every father wants their son to say “I love you.” That’s what they want no matter where they’re from or where it’s set.

I remember reading the book for SUITE FRANҪAISE a long time ago, and one bit that didn’t make it into the movie, but that I loved, was the way Paris emptied in the beginning. It was very much like The Grapes of Wrath, but for rich people. Was there a reason for that?

That’s the only film in recent years that I didn’t have anything to do with developing. I did it because Saul had been approached by TF1. As you rightly say, it’s a very non-filmic book in that sense so you have to compromise to make it filmable.

I live in Paris and last year I saw a film called MARGUERITE, which is the exact same story as FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, but a very different treatment because it’s a drama. Actually, it’s very tragic at the end. I find myself in a similar situation… I’ve written a biopic of Caroline Norton, and I’ve recently started marketing it. It won a major competition in America and then I learned that Film4 have recently commissioned a writer to write a biopic of Caroline Norton. What advice could you give me?

Get on with it. There’s hardly ever a film idea you have and a script you commission where there isn’t a competing project. Hardly ever. This has happened with my current project AMERICAN ROSE. My best friend Steve Golin has a project with a director and a big star attached about Rose Kennedy’s daughter who is lobotomized. He didn’t know that I was working on it, and now there’s a race on.

There’s hardly ever a film idea you have and a script you commission where there isn’t a competing project. Hardly ever…If there isn’t, there’s probably something wrong with the idea.

There’s usually a competing project. Ignore it. Just keep going. It would be very rare if there weren’t a competing project. If there wasn’t, there’s probably something wrong with the idea. If it’s a good idea, there might be two or three you don’t even know about. So don’t worry about it, just push on.

How hard is it these days to get a film made that isn’t based on a true story or a novel?  I’ve written a novel, and I’m currently writing the script and I’m hoping if the novel is published then I can get the script made. But it does seem like there are less and less original feature films…

I personally am a bit hesitant to do films based on novels because what happens is that you option a novel, which takes two years. Then two years have gone by so you have to option it again. It becomes unbelievably expensive. True stories are slightly different. In this country what we do is historical dramas, biopics, romantic comedies and horror. Those are what we do. We don’t do car crash movies or Tom Cruise movies because we haven’t got the money, we’re no good at it, and they’re good at it so why bother?

Genre films usually aren’t based on novels. I’m guilty of loving the biopics. Although there are a million Churchill films the one I’m currently working on will be about his relationship with his nanny, Mrs Everest. I love those stories. It’s not because it’s a biopic. It’s just what we do here in the UK.

You seem to take a few risks with quirky off-piste films, I was wondering what your decision process is?

Let me take it back a stage. By and large, I’m a big believer that there are only seven stories in Hollywood. I think that’s unbelievably true and the older you get, the truer it seems. On the other hand, the only movies that work are those that you don’t recognise that it’s one of those seven stories. It’s only later you know.

For example, FOREST GUMP appears like a crazy film, but actually, it’s exactly the same as MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. The little man against the system and he wins. It’s one of those great stories, but it’s so disguised. Another example is JAWS. It’s the horror in the house, but it’s set on a beach in midsummer and not in a dark wood. That’s the brilliance of it.

By and large, people in my position are wary of what’s new and different. As I said with BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, I did everything I could to stop it being made. It was made despite me. David Lynch was a slightly different story as we were just starting out. At the time he had done ELEPHANT MAN, DUNE, and he was an iconic auteur. And it did win us the Palme d’Or.

The thing I most remember about the Palme d’Or is the press conference. Can you imagine David Lynch at a press conference? There were about a thousand journalists there, and a very academic French journalist said, “Mr Lynch, what is it in common with DUNE, ELEPHANT MAN and this new film of yours?” And David scratched his head and said, “Well, I think it’s wood.” The journalist writes it down and says “Wood? How do you mean Mr Lynch?” David said, “Well, we used a lot of wood in DUNE on the set, and there was a lot of wood in… Yeah, it’s wood.” No one was sure if he was being serious. With Lynch, how would you know?

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The Insider Interviews: Michael Kuhn
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