THE INSIDER INTERVIEWS: PAUL WEBSTER
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.
Paul Webster has been involved in making 100 films over the last 30 years. He is Oscar nominated, and a BAFTA and Golden Globe winner. He’s one of the leading British film producers of his generation.
He produced 5 features with Working Title and set up their LA office. He then independently produced LITTLE ODESSA and THE YARDS while based in America.
Paul went on to become Head of Production for Miramax Films, supervising THE ENGLISH PATIENT, GOOD WILL HUNTING, and SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE.
A 12-year association with Joe Wright, has seen them working together on award-winning films such as ATONEMENT.
He has created or co-founded numerous companies – FilmFour, which produced 50 films (6 Oscar noms) and numerous shorts over 5 years; Kudos Pictures, making – among others – EASTERN PROMISES and BRIGHTON ROCK; and, most recently, London-based production company Shoebox Film & TV.
Some of Paul’s most recent work includes PAN, LOCKE, ANNA KARENINA and SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN.
This interview was hosted by producer, James Cotton.
You’re producing at Shoebox Films, you recently launched Shoebox Television with Guy Heeley and Joe Wright, you have 51 producer credits; but what do you do day-to-day in 2016?
I get up pretty early, do my exercise and meditation. I work from home initially from around 9am, then I go into the office as late as possible, usually for meetings at around 11am. At the moment it’s mainly development, so depending on the project, I will be working on the finance plans, the casting, as well as a lot of script work.
Every week we have a development meeting where we go through the entire slate and the new submissions. I have very few phone calls, which is a change that I’m still getting used to. My life used to be about being on the phone all the time, but now I’m in offices which are dead silent, because everyone is glued to their screen. So I try and break that routine by calling people and having old fashioned analogue conversations. I usually work until about 7pm. LA phone calls will start from around 4.30pm, because you have to catch them before they go into their staff meetings at the agencies from 9.30 until 11am. I have a 9pm shut off for LA calls these days, unless absolutely necessary, in which case I’ll finish those calls at 11pm. Usually in the evening, I will go to a screening or a play.
This of course is very different to the beginning of your career, when you were working as a despatch clerk at the Gate Cinema.
I fell into the film industry by complete accident. I needed a job, and so I was a freelance cleaner, until I answered an ad in the back of Time Out for an assistant manager position at the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill. It was an independently run cinema with a small distribution company attached. I didn’t get the assistant manager post, but they called me back and offered me a position as a despatch clerk. I was checking films and shipping them off to various film societies and cinemas around the country. The people who ran it, an American couple called David and Barbara Stern were total cinephiles. It was a very art house based cinema and distribution company and they kind of educated me about film. I did that distribution and exhibition for ten years before I made a short film.
Moving into production, how formative were those years in understanding the industry?
The first thing it did, was it cemented my taste. What I like is art house movies. I was also very interested in the audience, and what I learnt very early on is that film is a collective medium, made to be viewed by audiences. One of the first things that you should do as a filmmaker, a producer or a writer, is you should know your audience. It doesn’t matter if it’s five people or five million people, you need to know who you’re making a film for. David Stone used to say that he could tell you how many people would come to the cinema based on the first two shows on a Thursday afternoon. He would tell you almost unerringly what the box office figures would be for the weekend.
Would you say that’s the same even now, with how a film performs the at the first weekend of the box office?
Less so, I think, because films have a longer tail now. Films for an older demographic tend to pick up as they go along. But it is still vital because the competition is so fierce, that if the film doesn’t do well, you will get kicked out of the screen. The variety of films that you can see today far exceeds anything in the history of films. It’s an amazingly fecund time for filmmaking. Most films that get made don’t see the light of day. We make something like 250 or 260 films in Britain every year. The majority of them are tiny micro-budget films that you don’t expect anyone to see. It’s still the big studios that make the bucks and get people in the seats. I made one big budget movie, but truly I make art house cross-over films; films that I like to think have integrity and dramatic appeal that can crossover to a bigger audience.
Can you tell me about your first feature film DREAM DEMON.
I was working at Palace Pictures in the 80’s and they had distributed the EVIL DEAD, Sam Raimi’s first movie, very successfully. We picked up a film called NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET by Wes Craven and it worked very well. Stephen Woolley said to me, ‘Why don’t we make a cheap British knock-off and that could be your first film? I, being an opportunist, went along with that idea. But it didn’t work out very well because the script never panned out. It was an art house movie masquerading as a horror movie, a horror movie masquerading as an art house movie and consequently it got terrible reviews and was a flop.
So am I right in thinking that your second feature film THE TALL GUY was more to your taste? Working Title have a set structure of bringing in a third producer to actually physically produce. Was that the case here?
Tim Bevan had already recognised that Working Title would only grow if they made more than one film at once, hence their policy of sharing producer credits. So he asked me if I wanted to do it, and I did, because I like a bit of comedy. It was a very nice film to have made.
That began a relationship that spanned five years and culminated in ROMEO IS BLEEDING.
I’ve been working on and off with Tim for a long time. It’s a good partnership, I like working with Tim.
How did your move to LA come about? In respect to writers, do you think that they should do a trip to LA and at what stage?
I went to America to make a film, DROP DEAD FRED, which is being re-released this summer for the 25th anniversary. I was in LA as a producer and I decided that I liked it there and would stay. I had a base because Working Title had a house that they would rent out. I used Working Title’s desire to have an American presence to justify myself. I therefore wasn’t just turning up out of the blue, trying to get things done. I had some momentum behind me because of the film that was being made. I’m an opportunist which is very helpful as a producer. As a writer looking to make an LA trip, I would say that it depends on your work. It depends if there is someone in LA who is reading your work.
Talking about being an opportunist, I’ve heard that there may be gaps in the market in China, as they are keen to get more and more content. Would you say there are any opportunities for writers in that market?
Yes, if you know what Chinese filmmakers and financiers want, you need to know your market. As a producer I would not know what to do in China. Certain colleagues of mine, such as Stuart Ford from IM Global have spent the last few years cultivating relationships there. That is based on making films which appeal to the Chinese sensibility. Hand on heart, I couldn’t really tell you what that sensibility is. For example, the movie WARCRAFT which is based on the videogame, has taken more money in China than in the rest of the world put together in ten days, by some degree.
How did the American market differ from the UK market for you?
This was in the early 90’s at which time there wasn’t really a British film industry. It was beginning to bear fruit, but America had a real industry. That is reason that I went to America, for an opportunity. My first feature film in 1988 was one of twenty eight made in Britain that year. America has a real industry that runs along industrial lines. The British industry has caught up to some degree, thanks to writers like Richard Curtis who have proved that British talent can hold its own. I was there for about six years and I was always in production. I found it very exhilarating. Through Brits, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner and Micahel Kuhn of PolyGram, there was a British-American connection there. I was a bit of rebel at first when I moved there, because I hated the agency system for having too much power. The agency system was really starting to take control in the 80’s.
Can you elaborate on what the role of the agents is…
In the 80’s and 90’s the agencies started to realise that the power lay with the talent, the directors and primarily the actors. So they used their representation of the actors to gain more power over the production process, which in turn led them to bring in the money and to have control over the financing of films. The agents are now the single most important people in the business. A lot of actors nowadays spend a lot of time talking about their agents, which you don’t get as much in Britain. Where the writers have been able to take more control is in the television business, which is a writer-driven business, as opposed to film which is a director- driven business. So that shows you how the American agency system has taken over from what used to be the studio system.
After that, you went back in house at Miramax, supervising films such as THE ENGLISH PATIENT, GOOD WILL HUNTING and SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. What was the specific role for you at that time at Miramax?
I was making a film called the PALLBREARER, which is another one of those movies that didn’t know what it was. It started off as a comedy, then it became a tragedy. I realised that there was a 24 year-old Bobby Cohen on set, who was checking everything that I did. He was from Miramax who were financing the film. He worked for Harvey. I figured that at that point, if there was so much interference, then I was on the wrong side of the desk. Harvey sure enough offered me a job as Head of Production at Miramax. I knew I was doing a deal with the devil. He said ‘I’ll burn you out in two years, it will be really tough’. But I figured that it was worth it for the exposure to talent. That is what we as producers need, that’s our oxygen – we need relationships.
The first film I supervised on Miramax’s behalf was THE ENGLISH PATIENT, which was fantastic. I’m still friends with Walter Murch who was the editor. I made a list of all the directors I wanted to speak to and I ended up working with about half of them. Miramax were really on a roll then, they had just had PULP FICTION and their key relationships were with Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Harvey and Bob are brilliant businessmen and have fantastic taste, so that allowed me to have a lot of access. Because they were so beastly, the talent would talk to you. It was great fun, it allowed for closer relationships, which I found very gratifying and very fruitful.
Do you have any light-hearted anecdotes about working with the Weinsteins?
There are literally support groups in America where people go who have worked with them. People go there every week to discuss their experiences with them and how they are recovering. But of course Harvey is still around, and he is exactly the same as he has always been. I worked with him on and off for eight years, doing a lot of films. Since 2002, I have only had one business meeting with Harvey, that lasted for twenty minutes. That was a ‘Cannes twenty-minuter’. We are always perfectly cordial when we see each other.
After that, it was Film 4 Limited with films such as SEXY BEAST and TOUCHING THE VOID. How integral were those years in setting up what is now Film 4?
Film 4 have always made iconic films, they have been really brilliant ever since the 80’s when they were working as Channel 4 films. We were set up specifically to set a profit. I would argue that what went before me and came after me was qualitatively better. When I left Film 4 they dismantled the distribution and financing set up, reduced the funding, and made it purely about Tessa Ross’s instincts. I think that is a better way to go. If Channel 4 can afford Film 4 as a benchmark of the British industry, then that’s the way Film 4 should be. Tessa Ross was brilliant and did a fantastic job, so I hope Daniel Battsek does the same now that he has joined them.
What can you say about Joe Wright and your twelve-year working relationship?
One of the reasons our working relationship has lasted so long, is that we don’t insist on working with each other all the time. It’s about trust and it’s about a mutual taste. I know what he likes. So we at the moment work as a filter, sending Joe what we think he should work with. He’s a lovely guy and makes the production experience very fun.
The production experience on PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and ATONEMENT was fantastic and very inspiring. It was great to work with a young filmmaker who had such a clear vision. Deborah Moggach had done the script and the adaptation for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, which was hued more towards television. We edited it and made it into a more muscular version that Joe wanted to work with. I’m very proud of that movie and I think Joe is a phenomenal director when he has the right material to work with. He’s making a movie with Eric Fellner and Working Title about Churchill called DARKEST HOUR, with a very good script by Anthony McCarten who did THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. It’s all about Churchill’s ascension to becoming Prime Minister and that period through to Dunkirk. It’s a very nice script and I think that Joe will do a lovely job of it.
In a Guardian interview you mentioned that TV is now supporting film. Could you elaborate on why you think that is.
That interview was s few years ago. As a writer, TV is still where the money is. What is interesting about film is that it is an antiquated medium, but people are still going out to the cinema to watch films. Despite being able to watch films at home or on your watch or whatever, people still go out. If you look at research, admissions are projected to rise over the next fifteen years, not tail off. More and more cinemas are being built. The old Olympic studios have been turned into a fantastic cinema. We celebrate this. I think it’s because when you are writing a script, you are writing it for an audience and you are writing it for people who want that collective experience. That magic pertains somehow.
Film is hanging on, but it’s very, very difficult. None of the studios use their own money to make films anymore, they use other people’s money because the costs are so colossal. More and more films are being made than ever before because the means of production are more accessible. TANGERINE for example, was shot on an iphone. The medium is there for everyone to exploit now. But nevertheless, we crave production value. We crave lushness and the quality of drama. We crave to be taken somewhere else and that tends to cost money to produce.
Do you think that writers should write for both mediums, TV and film, in order to complement the exposure with the money?
What you shouldn’t do as a writer, is write a screenplay feature and then if nobody is interested, turn it into TV. You need to reconsider it because TV is a different medium, with a particular set of challenges for a writer. You should aim to write for both, at least when you’re starting out. When you’re established then that is a different question.
There are so many films that I could ask you questions about, but I will jump straight to Locke. I want to ask about the polarisation of budget levels in the industry and where Locke sat in relation to your bigger movies.
The two key creative relationships that we have at Shoebox are with Joe Wright and with Steven Knight. Steve of course has his own business as well, writing studio scripts, but when he wants to direct a movie he brings the script to us. With LOCKE he said ‘I want to make a film that is not a film, that should belong in an art gallery’. That was the inception of the film and it came directly from his experience with making the HUMMINGBIRD. On that film he had to stand around for hours in the middle of the night in Soho, filming in the cold. He is a writer and so was used to a more comfortable setting and did not want to repeat that physically demanding experience. He wanted to set himself a challenge to make the least physically demanding film as a director, that was still worthy of being a film.
He started writing an ‘art gallery’ movie and then he brought the idea to us. We told him that he needed to make it as a low budget film, but needed to cast a big actor. He cast Tom Hardy because he already had a relationship with him and was working with him on a TV mini-series called TABOO. They sat down and made a deal, and Tom told Steve that he could give him two weeks at the end of February. At the time of the deal it was mid-November and there was no script and no money. We were able to get it together, because we had Steve Wright who I knew would deliver the script, a low budget and a high profile actor, which is a very rare combination. From Steve’s first pitch to it being absolutely done and dusted, it was six months. He said that he wrote the script in two months, but I think he really wrote the script in two days between Christmas and New Year. The script he wrote was then good enough to give to Tom Hardy and the financiers.
Comparing that to PAN with Warner Bros. which is maybe 300 times the budget…
That project was already going, they already had producers, but they wanted Joe on board, and he said that he would do it if I came along. I didn’t know if there would be anything for me to do because I didn’t know how to make such a big budget movie. But in fact, I did have a lot to do because the Hollywood producers also didn’t know how to make such a film. I was the only one out of them who had made a film before, so my job was to work with Warner Bros. and the line producer, which was very interesting for me.
What is your budget range sweet spot where you can attain the cast you want and have the production value that you want?
I don’t know, it depends on the project and on the market. Like with Steve, when he told me the idea and I told him what the budget should be and who the audience was- that’s my skill. What I bring to the party is reality. That’s my training now, being in the business for over forty years, I can value things and make a guesstimate of what the value of the film is down the line.
I want to talk about what you can bring to the party for younger filmmakers and the importance of supporting the next generation. You’ve been an NFTS producing mentor and a mentor to the best young sales execs in the industry who used to be your assistant. That’s quite a helping hand you’re sending down.
Well I’ve always liked doing it. There have been points where I’ve had so many people wanting advice that I felt like a careers advisor. When I did PAN there was something about it that was so industrial and so enormous as we had over a thousand people working on it every day, just behind the camera. It was so alienating that I felt absent from the process and so I was very keen on giving people a helping hand. After helping my assistants I decided that I should do more of that. A lot of the time with producing you have to say ‘no’, so I decided to say ‘yes’ for a while and see what happens. I said ‘yes’ to some terrible things, which have now gone away, but I also said ‘yes’ to some wonderful things that I’m still a part of.
I’m producing a short and have just been involved with a documentary called THE CONFESSION which has just shown at Sheffield. I’m also working on a low budget film to be set in Jordan. I’m enjoying giving back, and at this stage of my career I’m quite lucky because I can do these things and it’s ok that I’m not going to make money from them. Young people are exciting. I’m set in my ways so I’m stimulated by them.
What advice do you have for someone who is coming into the industry later in life from a completely different professional background?
It is a difficult industry and it is very nepotistic. I think that it is a good thing to come into something late because you bring with you a lot of life experience that other people might not have. You have to compensate for it by finding the energy, but it really is about persistence. It’s about knocking on doors. I started off wanting to be a writer, but the fatal mistake I made was that I didn’t write anything. I just talked about it and read other people’s writing. Most people will reject you all the time, but that’s just the business. My definition of a producer is someone who asks for something, gets told ‘no’ and pays no attention.
Are people writing a little bit more for the smaller screen than they used to be?
I don’t know quite how to answer that question because at the very top end, the big spectacles have kind of dispensed with the three act structure. The very good films like DEADPOOL or the latest CAPTAIN AMERICA movies haven’t done that and yet the special effects are very good. I think people are writing for whatever size they want to do, especially with this age of Netflix that doesn’t care how long your idea is, as long as they are interested in it. There are a plethora of ways to go, which can be very confusing for a creative person. In the way that books have become longer and longer, I think that TV can be a dangerous place to go if you dispense with some kind of structure.
I‘m just wondering how open the industry is to new writers, in the sense that such a lot of money is at stake. Are people worried about getting a return on their money? How would you compare that to established writers who financiers might be more comfortable backing?
If you’re a new writer then the first step is to get representation. I don’t read unsolicited scripts and that is because I spent years reading them and I never read anything good. That’s the first part of quality control for new writers. If you’re good enough then agents will pick you up, because agents do have to read everything. You’re likely to have to write on spec first, before you get picked up. We have a script that my team picked up, written by a doctor about a Victorian illustrator Louis Wain, called THE NINE LIVES OF LOUIS WAIN. He wrote it on spec, nobody had ever heard of him. So it can happen, but you just have to create the opportunity first. This individual had an English agent and someone who works with me brought it up through the agent.
I was wondering if Shoebox TV were looking for a particular genre of submissions?
I think anything that is a version of what we already do on film. Genre-wise we would probably do a horror movie or drama. All the projects we’ve got are basically drama. We have a big sweeping historical drama about Nelson. We also have a family piece set in a fictional hotel which is tonally similar to SIX FEET UNDER.
When you’re raising finance quickly for a film like LOCKE who are you going to?
If I can help it, I never go to private money. I always go for money that is connected to the market, because what I’m seeking is for endorsement that my faith in a project is reflected in the market. Otherwise it is just speculation. The reason I got LOCKE financed is because I already had a pre-existing relationship with Steve and with Stuart Ford. We tried to go through other places like the BFI but their process was too slow. The difference between LOCKE and 99% of other independent projects is that it had a big star, which you almost never get with a low budget.