THE INSIDER INTERVIEWS: RHODRI THOMAS
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.
From 2005 to 2009, Rhodri Thomas was vice-president of production and development at The Weinstein Company, overseeing their UK operations and working on films such as THE KING’S SPEECH, NOWHERE BOY and THE READER.
Rhodri Thomas joined The Ink Factory at its inception in 2010. There he has produced A MOST WANTED MAN, THE NIGHT MANAGER and BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, among others.
This Q & A was compered by producer Pete Smyth.
You’re the President of Production at The Ink Factory. Can you tell us a little bit about what the company does and what you do?
Sure. The Ink Factory’s been going for about seven years. Its unique aspect is that it was founded by two of the sons of John le Carré, the author, and as a result we control the film and TV and other rights to his books. That means his upcoming book and even books which have been made as films previously, such as THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. Over the last few years, we’ve been finding ways of bringing those rights back under one roof. We have a long term deal with le Carré himself, although they call him “Dad”.
So it sounds like a permanent relationship with le Carré?
Exactly. Until recently it was a goodwill relationship, but we’ve now raised some money both to pay for our productions and to pay him essentially a long-term option fee, making official what was unofficial before. Having all these rights means we can then plot out a sequence of adaptations for the next five or ten years.
We don’t just do le Carré, although that’s been our core. Like any other production company, we look at projects from anywhere, books I find, articles, and original scripts. And we’re also looking to build relationships with other IP-creators. It sounds so corporate, but basically that means storytellers, authors. If someone has written a long list of books, we’d love to go to them and say, “Let’s work together in partnership and figure out a way of adapting them all, or most of them.”
It must be a very exciting time at the Ink Factory because, while le Carré has always been a respected and commercial author, his work seems to be undergoing a real renaissance at the moment.
I don’t think we can claim full credit, but we can claim some of it. I think one of the things we decided to do at the very beginning of the company’s foundation was to take an author who was famous and many people have read but wasn’t necessarily as relevant to younger generations.
I’m pretty well read, I’ve worked in the film business, for The Weinstein Company, and I’ve read le Carré books because they’ve been submitted to me or I’ve picked them from a book report. As I met him and began to explore who might be appropriate for adaptations of his work, I discovered that there were lots of really exciting filmmakers who count him as his favourite author.
I had a meeting with Chan-wook Park, who made OLDBOY, years ago, and he said le Carré was one of his favourite authors. And here’s this Korean director who makes these hyper-violent movies and he’s a big fan. Anton Corbijn, who we got to make A MOST WANTED MAN, is als a big fan of le Carré, although I knew him from his music videos.
To answer your question, what we decided to do was take this work that had been assumed to be great but not really appreciated and bring it back by matching it with interesting talent that you would not necessarily think of. I always thought about it as the equivalent to the Johnny Cash albums that Rick Rubin produced.
Rubin is famous for producing heavy metal and rap but he made these incredible records, choosing songs from Nine Inch Nails for example. The person you thought you knew, Johnny Cash from country music, now suddenly had this incredible gravitas and depth, and it was just an interesting and cool way of rediscovering an artist. In a way, what we did with le Carré was similar.
That’s a great analogy. You’re rediscovering the work through interesting directors.
Ultimately it’s not like le Carré was ever boring. You meet him and go, “Wow, this guy is more of a punk than any 20-year-old.” He’s very anti-establishment, he’s a punk and he’s 86. It’s not that he needs to change, it’s that we need to see him in a different light. The way to do that is by using the tools you have with film and TV, making it cool and moody in the case of A MOST WANTED MAN or TINKER, TAILOR [SOLDIER, SPY], which I can’t claim the credit for.
When TINKER, TAILOR was released, because it was so high profile, did that help you?
Definitely. The Ink Factory didn’t make that film because the company was founded when that was already in the works, but it ended up that they company was started long before that film came out. Had that film not been successful it wouldn’t have helped, but as it was [writers] Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor and [director] Thomas Alfredson did a great job. They did exactly what we would have hoped to have done if we were adapting it, meaning putting a really exciting filmmaker on it. We’re very fortunate to surf that wave.
In terms adaptations in general, is that a rule that you’ve observed during your career?
I think so. This is just my philosophy, my taste, but I always try to make something that’s additive, rather than just a straight retelling of the story. It isn’t just about filming the book, it’s about finding the film, and actually that’s something le Carré is very keen to do as well. He doesn’t want a copy of the book. It’s something that’s different, otherwise why bother doing it?
You’re also balancing adaptations across film and television. How different is that process, and how do you choose between the mediums?
To be honest, right now, if it can be TV people will choose TV because it’s way more lucrative and it seems to be less difficult to get made than a film. It’s not like we try to make a TV adaptation when it should be a film adaptation, but I think the reverse was true in the past. People would try to make a movie when perhaps it was much better to make it as a TV piece.
THE NIGHT MANAGER is a case in point. It’s a 600 page book and it had been attempted as a movie by Sydney Pollack and Robert Towne back in the mid-90s when it was first published. That fell by the wayside, and it was attempted again by Brad Pitt and his company Plan B with a different writer, five or more years ago. On both occasions it didn’t work, and one of the reasons why was it’s one of those stories that should be told over anywhere between four and eight hours. We did a six-hour version and it worked much better, because it just had the time to evolve in a really intriguing way. The movie scripts I’d read of it never had that richness because suddenly it was just plot, plot, plot and not character, because it had to tell so much.
So the material felt unsuitable for a movie?
Yeah. If ever a piece of material comes along that’s better suited to a movie, we’ll definitely make it as a movie. It’s not like we’ll try to make it as a TV show when it doesn’t work. But right now most producers are more open to TV when before they were slightly dismissive of TV. The worlds were very segregated, and now they’re very much bound together. And TV is also getting better.
Let’s touch on the beginning of your career. How did you get into working in film and television?
I spent a lot of time at places like this [the BFI], and I used to work in a video shop. I always had a passion for film and as a kid I was drawn to movies. Working in film is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. The video shop was where I got my training, which was called Video City in Notting Hill Gate. It had every Werner Herzog film, every great movie, and I watched them when I could.
I went to university, did nothing to do with film, left, and spent a lot of money on my credit card doing balance transfers and going to the cinema and drinking beer and not knowing what to do. I didn’t know how to get into film, I thought maybe I’d be a producer, because if I was going to be a director I probably would have picked up a camera by now. I didn’t know what I was doing.
Working in film is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.
Then eventually, through James Richardson (who coincidentally now runs Vertigo) who I worked at the video shop with, I was alerted to a media course in Spain. It was three months long, a residential and two months internship and another few weeks to do a presentation. It was amazing and really eye-opening. That was definitely the beginning of my film career, because I learned so much about the different aspects of the business and how they interconnect.
We had a couple of weeks of script development, and then we’d have legal, accounting, finance plans, selling a film, who the players are, what a distributor does versus what a sales agent does. I lapped it all up, I was really interested. That basically eventually led me to work for the BBC. I’m not unique at all, but I’m good at doing deals and also at the creative side, which was entirely due to what I learned on this course.
You were at the BBC as a development executive. How did you get into that from your internship?
Between the internship and working at the BBC there was about a year where I battered my credit card again. I started working freelance as a script reader and script editor. I probably worked for five or ten different companies in the early 2000s, when people had money to spend on freelance script readers. Now they give that work to unpaid interns, but this was before the slave labour of internships. I’d made a bit of money, just enough to get by, reading scripts and writing reports on them. I’d do between five and ten a week. And this got me into all these different companies, and then the job at the BBC came up and I applied and got it.
How important was that period where you were reading all of those scripts?
It was great. You probably don’t know how a script should read until you’ve read 500 of them and I definitely read hundreds. I think you get a sense of the rhythm of a screenplay, where the benchmark is, what’s good and what’s bad. I also read a lot of books to see if they should become movies, for companies like Working Title.
What’s interesting there is that they have a very high quality threshold. What I thought might be interesting they wouldn’t take on. I learned early on not to recommend things too readily because by and large they want to take on very few projects.
It strikes me that producers who have that sort of background, who have read lots of scripts and written reports, have almost a sixth sense.
Yeah. It’s also about going to the movies and being aware of what’s out there. I used to go to book shops and libraries and read Variety and Screen and The Hollywood Reporter and Broadcast religiously, reading in the bookstores so I didn’t have to buy them. You realise who’s buying what, what movies are being bought, what actors and directors are popular.
To me it’s mad if someone’s not doing that. How can you be a professional in a business and not know what your colleagues or competitors are doing? You need to have a broader sense of what else is out there. You can’t know everything, but I would say to any producer or writer, you have to know what everyone else is up to because it can give you some clues about what you should be doing or not doing.
It’s funny how many people you speak to who are potential producers and couldn’t name the films in the top ten box office. From that experience of having read so many scripts, when you open a script what are you looking for?
I’m not sure how much you can tell from the first few pages. Interesting world, something that’s not a cliché, a character that grabs you… I wouldn’t say I’m looking for anything in particular other than thinking about how I’d make it.
One of the books I read on this film course was about budget to box office potential. One of the examples of how not to do it was [Bernardo] Bertolucci’s THE SHELTERING SKY. It’s not fair, necessarily, because if [Anthony] Minghella had made that in a different way it could have been a massive movie. But it was kind of an art film, not a commercial film necessarily, but they made it at a huge budget which meant that it was destined to fail. The number they would have had to hit to make that film a success would have made it such a huge outlier that you couldn’t reasonably expect it to happen.
So if I’m reading a script and it’s a big overblown epic but based on a tiny story with no potential to do well, then even if I love it I’m not going to make it.
Is there a script above any others that you’ve read and thought, “I have to make this?”
I remember reading and loving SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. I was at The Weinstein Company at the time and we didn’t go for it. It wasn’t a cheap movie to make, it was $15 or $16 million, and it’s mostly not in the English language with Indian child actors. Even though it was directed by Danny Boyle, he’d come off SUNSHINE which wasn’t that successful at the box office. There were a number of factors there that made it a little bit risky, even though everyone loved the script and thought it was great, and it has the marketing hook of WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE? Ultimately we didn’t go for it, and we should have done.
On the other hand, I did THE KING’S SPEECH which again, wasn’t obvious. It wasn’t cheap, it had Geoffrey Rush attached but nobody else, and [director] Tom Hooper had done some TV but nothing particularly big. We bought that movie because it had an interesting hook to it. Before, people definitely questioned why I’d want to make a film about someone with a speech impediment. It didn’t seem like a very sexy subject. But of course, underneath it all, there’s a great human story. That’s an example of a film that we loved and went for.
THE KING’S SPEECH was such a success – artistically, critically, commercially – but on paper, retrospectively you can look at it and say it’s almost something that shouldn’t have succeeded.
When you’re buying for a studio or distributor, there’s a lot of clever analysis which goes with your decisions. They do P&Ls, profit and loss. They work out that if the film’s budget is $10 million and we can sell it to our foreign territory subsidiaries for $X million, that means the risk against North America and other territories is Y, and if you spend $10 million in P&A, prints and advertising, and you think you can get to $15 million, then that triggers a TV deal… Ultimately, at the bottom it’s money in and money out. The decision is made on whether that seems like a good risk or not.
Although it may have seemed like it’s risky, we made the decision that, at that budget level, we could have offloaded the movie to various international distributors who would buy the film if it had a certain value of cast. That’s what international sales are based on, basically, the cast analysis. We figured out that the risk was small. Even if no-one saw it we might have only lost $2 million or so. If you spend $10 million releasing it, you basically can’t lose. That’s how you work it out, although it’s never exact. There’s method that goes into all these things. That’s why, when we got involved in the movie, we had to make sure the cast was of a certain stature.
It felt like it was such a Weinstein Company film, the perfect fit.
Someone else could have definitely done a good job on it, and we were actually competing against Fox Searchlight. I’d say that Harvey, to his credit, is great at that kind of movie, smart but populist, triumph over adversity, feel-good, and British. He’s the best at that kind of film. When he has a hit on his hands he can feel it, and he’ll put more and more effort behind it. He’ll make sure the cast go the extra mile to appear on talk shows, all that kind of thing. It seems like it’s happening naturally, but it’s driven by a big machine, and a lot of effort by someone like him.
How different was it working for a company like The Weinstein Company, with such a big personality at its head, compared to BBC Films? Was there a culture shift at all?
When I went to the job, someone who works at the BBC and had worked for Harvey, said, “Oh god, you’re going to get eaten alive.” It was definitely a culture shift, but I felt very at home. First of all I’m interested in deals, in who’s distributing what. Also, I got my job because Harvey recognised in me someone who loves old movies as much as he does. He started quizzing me on old movies and we bonded over that. I felt at home at The Weinstein Company because ultimately it’s not like many other places where you have 23-year-old execs who’ve never heard of THE GODFATHER. It’s actually a company steeped in cinema history.
From that time, what made The Ink Factory appeal to you?
I guess the idea of growing a business, of working somewhere I could start at on the ground floor, was appealing. The idea of working with this set of rights was appealing. One month led to a year and now it’s been seven. It’s not like there’s been a masterplan, but it was definitely really interesting being more entrepreneurial, finding new ways to use the skills I’d acquired at places like the BBC or Weinstein Company. And also to work with all these people I’d met along the way – I could now work with a lot of other companies who’d previously been my competitors.
You’ve worked with incredibly talented filmmakers, including producing BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALF-TIME WALK with Ang Lee. Could you tell us a little bit about that film, especially because it was very innovative when it was made?
The unique thing about that was it was the first film to be shot in 120 frames per second, 4K and 3D. You’d expect that kind of film to be an action film, but this was a drama about a kid coming back from war in Iraq and returning to his hometown in Texas. He goes to the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving football game and has an existential experience where he thinks about his place in the world. It was based on a book by a great American author called Ben Fountain.
That film was an interesting experience, and one I’m very proud of, because we worked with a master filmmaker trying to move the medium on in some way. I bought this book, which I’d been given by a friend, and brought Film4 on board to fund development with us. We hired Simon Beaufoy to write the screenplay, who wrote SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and THE FULL MONTY, among other things, and he’s great at doing tricky adaptations. That’s what gets him excited.
This was absolutely a tricky adaptation. A lot of it was told in the mind of this young kid, it had flashbacks, and the story was basically one moment in time. It didn’t really have a beginning middle or end, and yet it expressed so much about life experiences, our culture in the US and internationally, and what it means to be alive today. It was all in there in this incredible book.
But bringing that out into a movie was the challenge, and Simon did a fantastic job. That led us to setting up the movie at Tristar, which is part of Sony and run by Tom Rothman, who’s now the chairman of Sony. Tom had been chairman of Fox when they made LIFE OF PI. Who’s one of the best filmmakers in the world, an equal to this great material, someone who’s done incredible movies about what it means to be alive in America right now? Something like THE ICE STORM? Ang Lee, of course.
We went to him and he took it on. He appreciated the script, admired it, but it wasn’t really the story that spoke to him. He read the book and the book gave him this one image, this one idea, to bring these two big events in the movie, the halftime show and the battle that defines this kid, together into this one sequence which doesn’t happen in the book. In the book you don’t really ever see the battle, and in the same in Simon’s script, but Ang wanted to bring these two things together.
So he reconceived the movie in the way that he wanted to do it, and in 3D, high frame rate, because he wanted to take cinema to a new level and make the audience experience things in a way that they never experienced them before. For Ang the clarity and the brightness you get with high frame rate was better than some of the negatives of the format.
We made the movie and it’s quite experimental. I think in 20 years’ time, if people adopt high frame rate filmmaking, people will look back at this movie as the equivalent of the train coming into the station. He literally rewrote the language of filmmaking. If you study it closely, he breaks all the rules of cinema in this movie. You think he’s making mistakes but he’s not, he’s deliberately undoing the conventions of film.
A number of your peers have commented that it’s quite difficult to finance British films over £5 million. And recently a lot of these big budget productions in the States have been struggling. Do you think that might create an opportunity for more financing to come into the mid-market?
I don’t think that because big films are failing that more people will go to mid-budget films. The studios have decided what they’re doing, and they will occasionally acquire smaller films once they’ve seen them but they’re not going to make mid-budget movies that aren’t based on IP [intellectual property] that they control. There’s definitely opportunity for companies like STX, EOne, and so on, to go in that mid-budget level, but at that level, $25 – 40 million, you still need a big cast.
What’s interesting about what’s been happening in movies this summer is that having a big cast doesn’t always make a successful movie. What it does do is help you in the international sales market. However, if you’re at a $40 million budget, that’s a lot. You’re not going to sell $35 million worth of international sales. You might get to $25 million, but then you still have $15 million to make up, or you’re risking money against your North American box office, and that’s way too much.
You can get wound up about budget levels but all it means is make a film for a bit less than you can sell it. And if you have no elements in it, you can’t assume you’ll cover the budget with pre-sales. And to get those elements, you need to have something that will get their attention, whether that’s a big director or being based on a famous book.
I’d definitely say people are getting more risk-averse in terms of drama. In the ‘90s or ‘00s, you used to havea lot more money to makea drama than you would do now. That’s basically because the DVD market was very buoyant, whereas now that’s not the case.
I was going to ask about THE NIGHT MANAGER. What were the factors that made it so good?
There’s always an element of luck. The casting was great; it was nice to see Hugh Laurie back on British TV in a serious role. Susanne Bier, the director, is known more for melodramas. She found something in these scenes between the three of them to make those dinner scenes as thrilling as any chase scenes. The adaptation was very good and the book itself is le Carré’s most Bond-like. It was a story you could relate to, more black and white.
The other thing is something that we keep being given all this credit for but it seemed obvious to us at the time. We made the TV show as if we were making an extra-long movie. If you were making a six-hour movie, set in Majorca, London, Switzerland, and so on, you’d show a big hotel, show a speedboat, show all that cool stuff. Don’t just do interiors because you’re told you can’t afford it because it’s TV. Let’s up the production value and give the audience this big world.
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