THE INSIDER INTERVIEWS: OLLIE MADDEN
The Insider Interviews series started in 2010 as a set of recorded interviews, featuring the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Gareth Unwin, who produced THE KING’S SPEECH, Ben Wheatley and Hossein Amini, the Oscar-nominated writer of DRIVE and THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY. You can watch these here.
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Ollie Madden is an Executive Producer at Kudos, one of the world’s leading television production companies, where he works in both TV and film.
He started working in the industry in 1999 in film production and development at Graham Broadbent and Damian Jones‘ Dragon Pictures, before becoming Acquisitions Executive at Atom Films, and then Director of Production and Development for Miramax.
Ollie Madden went on to become Head of UK Production and Development at Intermedia Films and then Vice President of Production for Warner Bros. Pictures, where he was an executive on both Guy Ritchie SHERLOCK HOLMES films.
This Q & A was compered by producer James Cotton.
You’ve had a relatively unusual career in the British film industry – your career has taken in working in acquisitions, working in a production/executive role, and now you work in one of the world’s biggest film & television companies. I wondered if you might be able to tell us what the role of working as an executive producer within Kudos Television is like?
Sure. Kudos is one of the leading TV production companies in the UK, originally built on shows like SPOOKS and LIFE ON MARS. The second era of the company includes shows like UTOPIA, HUMANS and BROADCHURCH. Some of our upcoming shows are TROY for BBC, TIN STAR for Sky, and my own show GUNPOWDER for BBC1.
The company was started by Stephen Garrett and Jane Featherstone, who have both now gone off to do their own things. We are owned by Endemol Shine, who have a number of other production companies in the UK. We have about 12 shows in stages of production at the moment.
It’s a diverse slate – from the big shows like TIN STAR for Sky Atlantic, all the way to a single for the BBC called BOY WITH A TOP-KNOT, which is set in Wolverhampton in the 1970s. Despite this diversity, the focus is of course on big returning series. As executive producers there are six of us, and we can use the infrastructure of Kudos but we are pretty autonomous in terms of what we develop.
It’s a collegiate sort of set-up, where each of the executives run their own slates and projects. It’s quite unusual in the UK. With most film and TV companies in the UK, there is normally one person at the head who is the creative lead on all of the projects. We have a CEO – Diederick Santer, who also runs his own shows – but we’re encouraged to go out and set up our own projects directly with the broadcasters. It’s a very liberating proposition.
So logistically, you have a development slate of how many projects, thereabout?
Well, as a company probably about 60–70 projects. For myself, about 15.
How does the commissioning process work? Do you have to have a meeting between a team, or can you sort of ‘push go’ yourself?
One of the benefits of being a reasonably large company is that we do have a healthy development budget. So our slate is split evenly between projects we are self-funding and those that are broadcaster funded. It’s something we debate all the time.
Certain ideas are easier to sell in script form, more execution dependent pieces if you like. Then there are very ‘pitchable’ ideas, which we feel we can sell earlier. Although it’s a real luxury to be able to commission our own stuff, and sometimes the best approach, getting a buyer involved at an early stage arguably means they might be more invested in it. Buyers will tell you if they can see a script rather than a treatment or outline, all the better – but I often think there’s a benefit to getting your end user involved at an early stage.
It depends what the project is, really. If there’s something we feel needs to be packaged, attaching a key piece of cast or a director, potentially, there’s already a team assembled – attracting that talent often means you need a script. I’m developing a script with Richard Warlow who did RIPPER STREET. It’s a true crime piece called MIDNIGHT IN PEKING, about a girl who was murdered just before the Second World War. It’s got shades of EDGE OF DARKNESS.
Richard has written an amazing script, but it’s really ambitious and expensive. Also, historical stuff is kind of an easy thing for a broadcaster to bat away. So hopefully we’re going to attach a Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen level of actor, and possibly a great director, and then take it out to not just UK broadcasters but places like Netflix and Amazon.
I suppose it’s also about knowing when to hit the angle, as it were? Because you only really get one shot. How did that project come in, then?
That was based a book that we optioned. We have a brilliant literary exec called Sue Swift who knows all the publishers and all the agents and sees stuff really early. It’s so competitive now, the book market. She identified it early on. We loved the idea and loved the book, so preemptively acquired it.
We were lucky enough to get Richard, who is a really Grade A writer. The process of attaching a writer is basically reading material and seeing who might be good fit for it. Then, perhaps having developed a relationship with them in the past, you go out and ask them.
Things are changing, and TV is becoming more like film, in that directors carry a lot of weight in television. But it’s still a writer’s medium, so writers are the key talent. Trying to engage a writer with a track record is the single-most important thing. Great writers know that their shows get greenlit more often than not, so they’re selective. They’re busy, so you quite often have to wait.
It’s great to be a writer in television with a series already under your belt. There’s definitely an appetite for new writers, and an openness at the broadcasters for them, but if you have a major credit or two behind you, you’re in a great position at the moment.
So I wanted to dive back into your history, and perhaps go through chronologically. How did you get your start in the film business?
It’s sort of shameful to say, but it really was a minor act of nepotism. My dad is a film director, John Madden, who directed SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. He had just done that movie when I was coming out of University and trying to work out what I wanted to do. He brought the whole family out for the Oscars, where there was a thing called the BAFTA Tea Party, and where I met the producer Graham Broadbent.
I told him I had ambitions to work in production. He said, ‘Oh, well come and see me when you graduate.’ So I started working for him as a runner for his company with Damien Jones. Both are extremely successful in their own right, but have since set up separate companies. So I started as a runner there and when you’re a cocky, arrogant University graduate thinking, ‘I’ve got so much to offer the world!’ it’s slightly demeaning when you’re doing the washing up and packing boxes for most of your working day.
But it’s all about access. I got access to all these scripts, and gave notes to anyone who would listen.
But it’s all about access. I got access to all these scripts, and gave notes to anyone who would listen and figured out what I wanted to do, as well. At the time I thought I might want to be a producer, but thought I might want to do the ‘on-set’ route. I nearly took a job as a runner on SNATCH. Then funnily enough I ended up working with Guy Ritchie years later.
I did English at University and script development interested me. It was something I felt I had a little bit of training for, by virtue of having read a lot. It was fascinating seeing first hand what producers do, getting a sense of the daily hustle. Both Graham and Damien hustled in their own way. I learned how much you have to believe in your projects, how not to be broken down by rejection. It was a great start in the industry.
When you read material that was being sent in, was that the moment you thought you wanted to work very closely with writers on the development side as a producer?
I sort of fell into it, in a way. It was a small company. There were only five people there. So everyone was creative. Everything was done in-house really, reading the scripts and project drafts. You got to feel part of the creative process, and part of the creative team. I would go down on set and deliver a box or something, but hang around for as long as I could to see the scenes being filmed that I’d recently read. It was just about trying to absorb as much information as I could. Seeing the process of scripts developing and getting better was interesting.
Then you moved onto the short film scene, is that right?
It was the height of the dot-com boom. This would have been about 2000. I felt incredibly jealous of friends of mine who were launching start-ups and sort of riding the wave. I thought, ‘I’ve gone into old media, just as new media is going stratospheric.’ But I love film, and I didn’t want to abandon that. I found out about a company called Atom Films, who were kind of a precursor to YouTube in that they were a destination where you could stream short form content. This was at a point where a few people had broadband, and most people were watching things via dial up.
Atom had rights to the Aardman library, including shows like ANGRY KID. Scholars of Aardman will know ANGRY KID. But also some great short films. Jason Reitman’s films were on there, some really good stuff. Because it was the dot-com boom, they had offices in Seattle, LA, London, you know – we’d all go on fancy company retreats.
Ludicrous amounts of money over something which was, well… How do you make money out of short films? You don’t. But it was great. I got a job there after they’d turned me down a couple of times – I really wanted to be there. And eventually got a job as an acquisitions executive.
That’s a very grand title, isn’t it?
Maybe that’s why I was keen to do it?! And it was good, because I got to go to short film festivals, and persuade short film directors or rights owners to let us stream them on the site. I got to see lots of incredible short films, and some terrible ones too.
Also Miramax, in the final days of Harvey Weinstein?
He had another four or five years to go in the Miramax era. Christian Colson, Danny Boyle’s producer, now a double Oscar-winning producer, hired me as a development assistant. Has he ever done one of these? It would be good to get hold of him, he tells a good story.
He liked that I had an encyclopedic knowledge of all the good short film directors over the past few years. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, back into traditional media.’ Then as the dot-com bubble burst, I thought, ‘Phew! I would have been out of a job anyway.’ Working for Harvey is an education.
There’s a whole generation of filmmakers who have come through the Harvey Weinstein school. I think they’re still in counselling.
I did it for about four years before leaving, so I was reasonably intact. But the intensity is overstated – there was nowhere more exciting to be working at that time, and Harvey is one of a kind. A real, old-school mogul. And look at the alumni – amazing. People like Jason Blum.
Was that your first introduction to dealing with Hollywood? What was that like?
It was fascinating. We had a huge slate, maybe 120 projects. At that time Harvey could greenlight his own projects. He had a massive production budget, courtesy of Disney. I feel like it was half a billion a year, or something. Independent film was at its biggest, and Harvey and Miramax were feeling the competition a bit by that point. But he still had Minghella, and Tarantino, and Rodriguez.
It was all about serving Harvey’s vision. What does Harvey want? How do we get this to the point where Harvey wants to say yes? It was a little bit like a royal court. How do we make Harvey happy? All the stories you’ve heard are probably true, but part of those stories is that he’s an incredible lover of film with a tremendous drive and determination to get things done. An incredible memory, too. It’s an amazing thing when you see someone with this impossibly amazing memory where they can meet someone they met 10 years ago and say, ‘How’s that project that you told me you were working on?’
He has that kind of mind where he’s a walking IMDb. He can make all these connections in his mind. So when he’s in flattery mode, he’s unstoppable – there’s no one better. He will make you feel like you’re the most important person, and the most important artist, around. It’s kind of a marvel to watch. When he’s in full force, he’s pretty impressive.
He’s very smart at knowing what the market wants. Were you kind of looking where you could place things you brought in the door?
Miramax had quite a sort of strong brand, then. Commercial auteurs, films that were artistic but could reach an audience. It was really about the filmmakers. It was a precarious time, because Harvey and Bob were making bigger and bigger bets; it was getting harder. The market was busier. Harvey’s ambitions had grown, but if you’re a studio you can weather big blows. If you’re Miramax at that tie, you can’t.
I remember when CHICAGO came out, if that hadn’t worked, that would have been game over. When GANGS OF NEW YORK came out and didn’t totally hit, everyone was fearful for their jobs. So nobody knows. Harvey’s got a great track record, but I think box office-wise he was getting very frustrated with Disney and not being allowed to do television and having his wings clipped.
When I was there, he met his now-wife, who is a Brit. So he was in London a lot. For years we were the satellite office where our main contact with him was seeing his faces memos with, you know – ‘Yes! No! Buy it! Get it done, I want it done by Monday!’ – and then suddenly he was there, in person, in the office. He had literally never been to the office, because he would always stay at the Savoy. Then he just started wandering around the office, which of course terrified everyone.
So then you went to Warner Bros.? I’m fascinated to talk to you about your time at Warner Bros.
Yeah. There was actually a job inbetween that, which was Intermedia. That was a company built on German tax money and for a few years they were making deals with all the biggest stars. Then it all imploded within about two years. While I was there, they were making Oliver Stone’s ALEXANDER.
Wow. Who’s idea was the Irish accent?
Ha. I also produced a small British comedy called MAGICIANS, which was the first film that I produced.
So how did that come about?
This is kind of what I mean by the hustle. I was in-house, working as an executive, backing other producer’s films. We did some of our own development, too. This was a film that I developed, and then it quickly transpired that Intermedia didn’t have the money to fully finance their own films, so they asked if I could go out and raise some more cash, which then became all the cash.
I remember getting the BFI form where it asked for the name of the producer, and I didn’t know what to say… so I just wrote my own name and waited for someone to say otherwise. They never did! In the end I was the hands-on producer, though. As an executive you will occasionally be doing the exact same job as a producer in all but name.
Did you learn anything from the experience?
Yeah. I learned that producing is the most incredibly rewarding job, and also the most horribly stressful and awful job, both at the same time. All the things that you hear – the money almost fell out at the last minute – that always seems to happen.
On MAGICIANS, when it almost fell apart a week into the shoot, I’d actually drafted my speech to the crew, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have money to pay you next week.’ It was brutal. Many, many sleepless nights. It’s the highs and the lows.
Was it UK Film Council in those days?
Yes, it was. It was just pre-BFI if I remember. Ben Roberts [current Director of Lottery Film Fund at the BFI], in fact, was the exec at Universal who acquired the film and released it. He really got behind it and put up a pretty good advance. There was some regional money, too.
Was that the spur to go and get a proper job at Warner Bros., then?
Just after making MAGICIANS I got a call from a man called Kevin McCormick who was president at Warner Bros. at that point and was looking for someone to be a creative exec in the UK.
So that was the full studio experience?
To be honest, I still had to define the job myself quite a bit, but yes. Kevin is an incredible guy – he produced SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. He knows everyone, he’s seen everything. Warners were producing HARRY POTTER and a lot of superhero movies here in the UK. Kevin wanted someone creative on the ground, but he was still working out exactly what he needed.
I was quite eager to continue my hands-on production type role, I wanted to be an executive, not just a scout. I didn’t want to pop all the good projects on an e-mail and then say goodbye to them, so we organised this role where I could spearhead a project if I found it. The challenge with that is that, like most studios, the creative team at Warner Bros. is based in one building on the lot where all the key decision makers reside. So I had to get good at navigating those corridors from afar.
I worked on the SHERLOCK HOLMES movies and PADDINGTON, amongst other things. It’s hard, because you’re dealing with LA hours. The work ethic is different there. They don’t really take holidays, or when they do, they fudge it and say they’re travelling. I had video conferences where they were all in one perfectly polished meeting room, and I was on a video screen. At first it’s a bit of a novelty, and then I became part of the furniture and they kind of ignored me. I had an amazing birds-eye view of the room.
When you’re in a meeting in person you can only really make eye contact with a few people in the room – whereas I could see everyone, every single dynamic playing out. At times it was pretty cutthroat, dramatic stuff. Massive decisions about massive budgets getting made around a table. The executives who got their projects greenlit were often the ones who could be the most convincing in the room.
So the SHERLOCK HOLMES movies – how did they get made?
Lionel Wigram, who produced the films, had an idea of doing a modern take on Sherlock Holmes. Warners had just made 300. Lionel came up with this graphic novel inspired, gritty take on Sherlock. It was conceived as a lower budget piece by tentpole standards, in the region of $20-30 million.
We started developing with Guy Ritchie, then we got a call from the head of the studio saying he’d heard that Robert Downey Jr. was interested in playing Sherlock. Robert hadn’t read anything, but he was interested in the character. So within about 2 hours the concept of the piece (i.e. Sherlock as a 20-something) changed and it became this amazing vehicle for Downey!
Okay, so I’m keen to get you up to the Kudos phase, and talking a little bit about what the development process looks like? When you started what was the job role?
So when I joined, I joined Stephen Garrett at what was then Shine Pictures. We were a movie label within this massive TV organisation. The first film we made then was a spin-off of SPOOKS. So that was a kind of natural evolution of the series, that Fox released here and which sold pretty well internationally.
Through that I got to know Jane Featherstone, who produced the original TV series with Stephen. I had already started to develop a couple of TV things, and her and her partner Dan Isaacs said, ‘Look, you should come and work in TV properly.’ This was about two and a half years ago, when peak TV was really taking off. So, I moved over to Kudos. We still have Shine Pictures as a label within Kudos, but I moved over to Kudos properly at that point.
What were the main differences and similarities you noticed when you started to move over to TV? What was the culture shock that you found?
Even though broadcasters take an astonishingly long time to read scripts – sometimes six months or even longer – the flip side of that is that when a channel says yes, the project is 100% greenlit. Even if they aren’t putting up all the money… the BBC, for instance, is such a strong brand that our international sales division ESI feel confident enough to advance you the entire remaining deficit of the show. So once you’ve got one yes, you’re there.
So none of that indie film uncertainty of, ‘I’ve got to get the right director, the right cast, all at the same moment, as well as balancing all these different investors.’ That precarious house of cards. In TV if it’s happening, it’s happening. Then you go out and make it the best show can. That’s really liberating. It’s hard to get that yes, obviously, just like in film. But at this point in time, TV is still moderately simpler in terms of the way it’s financed.
Looking at newer voices, where are you finding those writers? Things like FLOWERS, which I thought was wonderful – one guy made a low-budget movie. Where are you looking for those voices? Is it theatre, or…
Everywhere. Theatre, people who come up through writing schemes… there’s still a tradition of staff writers on someone else’s show. Novelists and screenwriters, people who’ve just written a good script and have a good agent. As a producer, there are no rules about where projects are sourced. You’re just looking for great talent, innovative ideas, a killer script.
So you’re happy to find it wherever you can. But when you’re trying to sell a writer, it helps if they’ve got a play which got great reviews, or they’ve written a couple of episodes of a show that’s well liked, or just a good spec script. It’s hard selling someone who hasn’t had anything done before.
How are you getting those projects? How are you walling yourself up against the dam of hundreds of other screenplays flying in, and how do you stop that?
Well legally we can’t read anything unsolicited, so we can’t read anything which hasn’t come through an established agent or source. It’s a bit harsh, but it’s a pretty standard legal position. So that helps a bit. But we don’t mind lots of stuff coming in – that’s a good problem to have! In the end though it’s about direct talent relationships, and relationships with the key agents. That’s key.
What are you looking for in that initial meeting with a writer? When you’re kind of feeling out…
I‘ll tell you what I’m not looking for. A ‘Pitch’ with a capital P. I find the more formal, American style pitch a little hard to deal with. It’s maybe just a cultural thing. My favourite meetings are with writers where you can just have an informal conversation, and get a sense of what they’re interested in, what they like, what excites them.
Often it’s been one line – ‘Have you ever thought of doing something about X…?’ One simple intriguing idea or creative theme, married with who the writer is as a human being, with what fires them up creatively. That’s often the genesis of a project. Once you have that, then it makes sense for a writer to chuck a couple of pages down and send them through to you. I prefer ideas to be quite raw and un-formed. If it’s more formed, I rather read a script.
The feedback process can be quite delicate. Do you find you work differently with different writers?
That’s an interesting question, and a producer or anyone involved in producing scripts is always trying to get better at that. The general rule is always say something nice up front, congratulate them on the things they’ve done well. It can be easy to fail to acknowledge the things that DO work.
I’m not a writer, but I know how hard it is. They want to hear about the things that are working before you get into the critical stuff. So I always start with that. Then, the earlier the stage a development is at, the more macro and broad I try to keep the notes. There’s nothing worse than saying about a first draft, ‘Well on page 22, the car’s red, does it have to be?’ It should be broad strokes. Then as the script gets more developed, the feedback gets more detailed. That’s the plan.
Do you feel sometimes in the process, ‘Actually, I can’t really say this…’
That does happen occasionally. Not that often, to be honest. Usually when you start working with a writer or director there’s a vetting process where you’re each working out that your creative take on things is compatible. Sometimes late on in a development you realise it’s not, after all! Then the project slowly dies. We’re all nice and polite in Britain, so no one ever kills anything. You just slowly let it die.
Moving forward on a project, who decides or is it a mutual decision, whether it’s going to be a feature series or longform. Who makes that decision? Do you sometimes change your mind?
Early on you usually have a sense of whether it’s a single film, a mini-series, by which I mean 2-4 parts, or longer, so 6-10. Usually you know how closed ended it is. You kind of know from the material whether there’s an ability to do that, so you try and have the broad parameters worked out. GUNPOWDER, for example, we wanted to be 4 episodes. The BBC wanted it to be 3. So you have to be reasonably flexible.
What kind of genre is your favourite? What makes a story to you most appealing? How do you look at a script and think, ‘yes that’s for me’?
For me, it’s a very instinctive, raw, emotional thing. I think the same way as when you watch a film or have any kind of artistic experience, it affects you on a subconscious emotional level before you start considering why or how it might have done what it did. Then there’s a checklist as it were, of thinking:
Well, does it feel fresh? Can I sell it? What kind of talent could I attract with it? Does it move on the genre?
All the things you need to consider in order to look at trying to get something made.
But I remember something Christian Colson said to me a long time ago. He was talking about the fact that people think development, producing, etc., is a really fun job. But a lot of it is just a long, hard slog. However, when you get that rush of reading or seeing something amazing, when you see or have that immersive, artistic experience that gives you genuine goosebumps, that’s such a thrill. And for me, that’s what I’m looking for, in essence. That ultimately is what decides it. Everything has to have a direct emotional effect.
Is there anything a writer could do for an agent to say, ‘Oh, that’s definitely a script to send to…’
I can’t be that helpful on that front. Like a lot of people, I just want stuff that’s really, really good! I’m not a huge horror fan, necessarily – but movies like GET OUT or THE WITCH I loved because they’re great films. I’m not an automatic lover of costume drama, but I loved THE CROWN. As we know, quality rises above genre and can make a seemingly narrow proposition pretty universal.
What is the ratio between someone pitching something and you saying, ‘I love that’ versus you saying, ‘I want something in this area’?
I would say almost 100% the former. I have just have never found being prescriptive about what we need a particularly productive way to find things. Obviously there are parameters according to where you’re working and budget ranges, etc. But my preferred approach is to go to talent I love and talk to them about things that excite them. Or I read existing material like a book or a play. I’ve never really strategically planned how I’ve built my slates. That’s just not my way.
What’s the kind of budget process for first time directors? What would you say is a realistic level to go for? What would you suggest?
Well, it’s kind of different in features and television. In features, the middle of the market is tough. So £7-10m is not an easy budget to find. The lower you go, the easier it is to finance. If you go too low, you can’t deliver the production values.
LADY MACBETH was half a million quid. I don’t know if you saw that movie, but it was a really brilliant film. It’s kind of a perfect example of a story that can be told really well on a low budget. You wouldn’t look at it and think, ‘I wish they had lots of money’, because it’s kind of a chamber piece, albeit still cinematic.
So that would be a good marker for a first timer. That way you can have just one big backer. It’s simpler. It’s closer to the TV model where you have one key anchor financier funding it. The higher you go, the more you’re having to assemble different pieces and keep them all together. So it’s more about finding stories and developing stories which can be made well at that budget level, instead of having to squeeze something big into a smaller hole.