THE INSIDER INTERVIEWS: SARAH RADCLYFFE
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.
Sarah Radclyffe has a host of impressive credits on often challenging-to-finance pictures, including MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE, CARAVAGGIO, THE WAR ZONE, THE EDGE OF LOVE and RATCATCHER.
You have been running SRP since 1993, can you tell us about your day-to-day life is like and the project you are working on at the moment?
I am working on my first animation, which is mind-blowingly different – there is not as much adrenalin from a producer’s point of view as there is with live action film-making.
It’s an adaptation of a Michael Morpurgo children’s book – KENSUKE’S KINGDOM, which we originally tried to do as a live action film – which I am reliably told is NOT the way to pick an animation! It features orangutans and we managed to find some who had worked on the film CREATION who live in Thailand, but it proved to be completely impossible insurance-wise and budget-wise.
Then I met some incredibly talented animation directors, who had both done amazing shorts. We set out on this journey, which has been a very long journey, but we have recently teamed up with Camilla Deakin at Lupus Films, who made ETHEL AND ERNEST and suddenly with that kind of knowledge on board the development process became much easier.
We’ve just completed about a minute’s worth of test animation – like a teaser. You can’t approach a sales agent, like you can with a script for a live action film, unless you can show them what it is going to look like. I naively thought you could go with character sketches and drawings. But no, you can’t. The test cost about £90,000.
It’s very different to everything I have done before – it’s a bit like going to work (!), but I am enjoying it.
I’m also developing two live action projects. One is an Australian co-pro, based on a novel – JULIAN CORKLE IS A FILTHY LIAR – a coming of age story, it’s quirky, and set in Tasmania in the 1980s. I am setting that up with Marian Macgowan, an Australian producer, and we’ve been co-developing it with the BFI and Screen Australia who have been incredibly supportive. We have a script, and a fabulous director – MJ Delaney, who did POWDER ROOM, attached and we are just doing a polish and hope to go into production next year.
Then I have a project with a theatre director, Tom Morris, who is Artistic Director of the Bristol Old Vic. It will be his first feature. It’s a gothic thriller, also based on a novel, adapted by screenwriter Nick Vivian, also developed with the BFI – I have been very lucky with them recently.
The other project I am working on is a female action movie. I’ve never done an action film before but the young director, Vicky Jewson, is so talented , so I am exec-ing and introducing her to as many people as I can.
How do you pick who you work with, because there’s certainly a variety of collaborators there?!
Variety is good! The JULIAN CORKLE book was sent to us by a literary agent. It is very quirky and different and made me laugh, a bit like JUNO in terms of genre. I had worked with Marian before on another film and really enjoy working with her so she was the obvious choice as a co-pro partner.
I usually find collaborators just through meeting people and conversations, and a personal connection – there is no real rhyme or reason, difficult to put your finger on exactly how you pick projects. It’s an instinctive thing, you spend meetings or the odd drink talking about working together and then you decide whether you REALLY want to work together. It’s a long haul. I tell all my interns: “When you start to develop something, think about whether you’d be happy to have your director or producing partner in your own home with your family on the seventh day after a six-day shooting week. If you aren’t sure, then don’t go there. You have to click. It’s a lot of years to spend together – development, production, marketing, festivals…
I’m now going to take you back through a whirlwind tour of your working life… Your first credit is an associate producer on THE TEMPEST?
I used to work in the music industry and I met Don Boyd at a party and he needed someone else to come and help. So I was a runner on things initially and then Don managed to raise production finance for a package of 6 films which was amazing at that time – I knew someone who knew Derek Jarman, and Derek had THE TEMPEST, which he was developing and was looking for finance.
I knew zero! But I got a producer credit. It was wonderful – we made it in Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire. It snowed and no one could come anywhere near, we were stuck! And then we got kicked out of the hotel so we had to stay in the Abbey. Everyone had to do everything to help, it was like being in a hippy commune. I would love to make another film like that again!
So you are starting to work in film, you move into production managing and working in a creative way on television, but you were also making music videos – and it must have been the hey day of music videos?
I met Tim Bevan after THE COMIC STRIP and we set up Aldabra, which was purely for making music videos, and with the intention of making money and meeting film directors so we could worm our way into their films. We reckoned it was easier to ask them what they were doing if you were working with them, than ringing up someone like Stephen Frears and asking if you could work with them on a movie, when you have zero credits. Film was always the end goal.
The early days of Film4, had so many classic films, but MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE is a stone-cold classic of British cinema – how did that come about?
Stephen had done two music videos with us and he had obviously enjoyed the experience. Hanif (Kureishi) had written a couple of drafts of the script and sent it to him and there was nobody attached to produce. Stephen – I gather – said to him: “There is this young couple I know, we could give them a try?” It literally came to us like that. We developed it further with David Rosen and Karin Bamborough at Channel Four but basically it had landed in our laps. We were incredibly lucky – right time, right place.
You are doing a lot of work with the BFI now. How does the BFI development process compare to how it was then?
It’s another world! To start with, Film4 was fully financing films in those days – films were cheaper so Film4 could afford to do that. MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE cost £650,000 or something like that, OK it would be worth more now. But it’s still comparably much cheaper.
There are also so many more financial sources in a film now, and just when you think you have satisfied your key investors, somebody else comes on board and demands something different.
Script development was meetings around a table and very good discussions. It was much more organic – not the script notes you get now, which can be more difficult to find your way through. I personally find it more productive to sit down with a writer, and say: “Hang on, you’ve lost me…” and then discuss why. And quite often the writer has the answer, and can solve it, you just have to ask them to explain.
It’s much harder now. It was probably a bit more rewarding as a producer back then. And more fun! You’re more involved.
Does all that affect the end product?
If you are developing something with two sources of finance, the producer should merge any feedback on script drafts before sending to the writer, because the writer should only have one voice coming to them or they have got no chance of understanding what everybody wants! I guess by merging the notes, you lose a little of the essence of the original notes.
You used to only need one producer, but nowadays you really need two. One to be on set/troubleshooting, and one dealing with the pile of legal documents. I did a kids film up in Manchester – THERE’S ONLY ONE JIMMY GRIMBLE – and we had me, Alison Jackson and Jeremy Bolt, all as producers. Pathe was funding it – and they said: “what do you want three producers for? You are going to drive each other mad?!” But we were all working full-time on that film – even back then.
If writers have to come into meetings with execs, do you have any advice with dealing with that?
Try and make it personal, try to make it about the characters, try to make it so you are leading it and asking the questions so you feel you have something out of it at the end. You quite often get notes before a meeting, so even if they are really tough , get the producer to show them to you, and then you can learn something from them. Try and get them to open up and get away from the written word. Sometimes the execs can be busy typing up what everyone is saying so they aren’t listening to what is being said. Get them to connect, which is usually easily done with a character question. It does depend on the people. With some execs, you could say: “I loved ‘so-and-so film’ and I’m trying to do that – but if I’m not achieving that, please tell me why…”
You need to try to get enough positive help out of a meeting to help you onto the next draft, rather than a major attack of depression!
Do you think meetings are more problem-focused these days?
My main concern is that there is not enough positive feedback. They all forget to say that they like your script, but they have to like it or they wouldn’t be seeing you. The fact that you are in their room means you’ve written something good. But the amount of negative feedback, I think, is their way of getting to the next stage, or getting all their notes taken on board.
Has part of your role always been to protect the director or the writer?
Absolutely. That always used to be the key role for a producer – but now it’s a lot about dealing with the ever-sliding plates of finance. The time perameters have changed so much, and that’s why you need two of you. Somebody needs to work creatively on the film, and somebody to else has to the business side.
That’s why Tim and I worked so well together. I loved making the films so if somebody gave me money, I would be out of that door, going off to make the film. Whereas, Tim would be out that door getting a better deal from someone else.
I love the challenge of pitching something, but all the legal stuff and putting it all together doesn’t interest me as much – that’s what you have a good lawyer for! You have to tell the agents how their clients could make good money. That bit is not for me.
Did you realise you and Tim would work so well together?
No, it was pure luck. We didn’t really know each other very well, we just decided we would set up a company over a drink in a pub on Brewer Street or somewhere.
He had come for a job at THE COMIC STRIP – which was always scary – they would all sit round the table and interview you, you’d have Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Ade Edmondson, so the with around the table was intimidating and it was a horrible experience if they didn’t like you.
Anyway, Tim didn’t get the job, and I was really embarrassed because he was a friend of a friend so I said: “ Let’s go and have a drink… I don’t know what went wrong in there.”
Tell us about the early days of setting up Working Title?
We had a music video company called Aldabra, because it looked a beautiful set of islands and it began with A so we would always be top of the list.
We wanted a different company to make films. It was Tim’s idea of calling it Working Title. We didn’t really have a slate, we had directors we wanted to work with. We were very people-led and director-led. We just looked for directors who had projects, and there were so few producers, so it worked well doing it that way.
I was always working with Derek Jarman and did CARAVAGGIO straight after THE TEMPEST. Derek had films he wanted to do, which kept us busy. Tim went off and did PERSONAL SERVICES and I worked with David Leland, who wrote that, and he wrote WISH YOU WERE HERE while PERSONAL SERVICES was being made. We just built relationships and landed on our feet.
It wasn’t until we had money from Polygram that we had an actual development slate. Then we raised money through an individual, Nick Fry and then we had a development exec, in Alison Jackson, but that wasn’t for several years.
Polygram acquired Working Title and then you went on to start Sarah Radclyffe Productions. Were you looking for a more independent group?
I started SRP when I had left Working Title. I had a very young child, and was a single mum, but the main reason I left, is that it wasn’t deemed cost-effective for me to make films. That’s the only thing I do well! I’m not very good at board meetings and all the other stuff… We just wanted to make different things.
We were majority owned by Phillips at one stage, and it all got very corporate, and that wasn’t me. Various rules came in – for example, we weren’t allowed alcohol in the fridge, not that we were all alcoholics, but if you are talking to a writer at 11pm, and you have reached stalemate you could both do with a beer. It all got very grown up…
Was it very difficult making independent films in that environment?
Well, I wasn’t really there very much. I did WISH YOU WERE HERE so I was in Worthing for a very long time. I was then in Zimbabwe for about 9 months and then before the Phillips deal went through, I got a phone call from Joe Roth asking me to do ROBIN HOOD, and I said no. I went into the office the next day and said to Tim: “Even I have been asked to do a ROBIN HOOD now.” Everyone was doing Robin Hood at that point, the Kevin Costner one had already started. Tim asked: “Who asked you?” so I told him and he looked at me and shook his head. He said I had to go back because we needed the money. So I went back and it was a disaster to make – one of the main actors got ill, then it was winter, so it took forever. But it was fun. It was done for American TV, but went out theatrically here with Patrick Bergin and Uma Thurman. I was doing it for Twentieth Century Fox so I had to be there the whole time – about a year.
This was just before the Phillips takeover so I missed all the politics, but that suited me because Tim was much better at dealing with that sort of stuff than me.
This shows again that you have to be a filmmaker as well as a finance person as a producer – and the two don’t necessarily go together?
Yeah, you do now, and it was even obvious back then – that’s why you need two of you so that the financial side is covered. If, as a producer, you start off on set every day and dealing with elements of the production, you can’t then disappear. You have made a role for yourself. I love that aspect – being on set – I love being part of it.
Producers who do that now then get to the end of the film, and you have nothing to go onto – so it’s tricky to earn enough to survive.
You partner up with a lot of people for making films, do you choose people carefully so that you can always have someone to help you keep the plates spinning?
Yes, but you don’t want to have too many in development because if they all start moving in the right direction at the same time it’s not fair on the others if you are only concentrating on one. So I’ve never had that much in development. In my Working Title days we probably had a dozen going at the same time. Now, I’m sure they have ten times that, but they have more staff to deal with that.
Did you do anything differently when you then set up SRP – how did it compare to setting up Working Title?
Everyone thought I was mad when I left Working Title. They all told me to sort my differences out with Tim, my lawyer told me that it would be so hard to set up all over again, but I really wanted to be independent.
SRP is not the way to do it really, because it’s just me and Anna, which isn’t very cost-effective – we should be bigger and making television. But I’ve been around so long I know enough people to be able to get jobs to pay the office overheads, rather than have too much in development.
I have never done television, which I should have done. It’s exciting, innovative, with enormous budgets – what’s not to like?! There are so many people who know so much about television, and I haven’t got any TV ideas at the moment – but ask me again in six months and that might have changed…
From when you set out and throughout the 90s you were incredibly busy. You produced or exec produced twelve films in that ten-year period…
I had a first look deal with Fox – they developed COUSIN BETTE, which helped, but those deals are very few and far between now. So if they had anything in Europe, I would get the chance to get involved.
They are a double-edged sword – I set up another company with an American – Courtney Pledger – just to do family films, which I completely failed at because I couldn’t get anyone to finance them.
I had a first look deal with Harvey (Weinstein) – the trouble is, if you have a deal with anyone, they take you for granted. So if you pitch to them they assume you’ll get it because you are part of the family. I would pitch about a book I had read and was excited about – it would go into a black hole. Emails would fly back and forward. I would tell them Paramount was interested, and I would hear nothing. Then I would get the inevitable: “Harvey wants that” – I would say: “Too late, it’s gone to Paramount,” and they would say: “You have a deal with us – he wants it.”
It’s almost harder being on the inside. First look deals sometimes aren’t as successful or easy as you would think.
Was that a golden era in the 90s for independent filmmaking, or is that just rose-tinted glasses?
I am part of the British Independent Film Awards, and I think there is some fantastic material coming out of this country. There are obviously the big, high-profile films like I, DANIEL BLAKE, but coming out of the iFeatures scheme there are some fantastic first-time films. In a way that’s where we have to concentrate our energies because the named directors are going to move towards TV. Trying to find writers is getting increasingly harder because all the top layers are going to television. British writers are getting more chances to be show runners, which is great.
It is true that your second film is the hardest as a film director, everyone will do all they can to help you with the first one, and there are a lot of schemes for first time directors, but very few for second time around. Everyone thinks that they have already helped you – you have used all your favours up and you are probably asking for more money next time.
You mentioned you loved being on set, have you ever considered directing yourself?
I did when I was doing music videos, just because I often thought I could do a better job! But no, not really…
Talking of being on set though, writers should be on set. It really does help – immeasurably – having writers around.
How has raising finance changed in the last 20 years?
You need an awful lot more sources of finance these days because no one really fully finances any more. I am very wary of rich individuals putting private equity into a film, because somewhere down the line they will want their daughter or wife to be in the film and it’s not really appropriate. Or their business advisor tells them it is better to invest it in a yacht and they pull out…!
When you are doing a business plan you need some UK money as a building block because if you have a film that is set here and it doesn’t have money from here it will look suspicious to the rest of the world. It will look to them like the film won’t do well here.
This can be difficult because if it doesn’t fit with what the BFI and Film4 and the BBC are looking for it’s problematic. But you must start with them… Then go to the distributors… Even the smaller distributors are a tick of approval for the wider market.
And then you need a sales company. You need one of these quite early on. You need your sales estimates to make sure everything adds up, and they’ll most probably want a say in casting.
You need whatever you can get out of your own country, then a group of pre-sales – ideally through someone like Studio Canal, a big distributor who take more than one territory – and then a sales company that will cash flow the gap.
There is a lot of American money for independent films at the moment. In the past there was only the studios, and they would look at you as if you were wasting their time, and they wouldn’t get involved with anything political or controversial. So we financed all our early films out of Europe.
Then there was a period were you could sell to the art-house division, Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics etc.
But over the last 5 years a lot of American companies have come up, which finance really good intelligent, independent films. Just look at the films that are being talked about this year; they quite often have got American money. MOONLIGHT, for example, was financed by a company called A24. Companies like that are so much more approachable these days.
Look at all the films that are close to what you are doing on all the BIFA and BAFTA lists and see who has financed them. If there is a name of someone who you recognise – they are a friend of a friend / colleague – then you can always use the trick of: “so-and-so recommended I get in touch with you…”
They also go to all the small festivals – that’s where you get to talk to them. So get to those as well to learn a lot and meet as many people as possible.
As a producer, what tempts you to receive a script and read it from an unknown writer?
It depends on how busy I am, but regarding random scripts, I try to read everything we’re sent – along with Anna. If someone has spent many, many hours of their life writing it, I feel we owe it to them to read it.
I am more likely to read a random script, or one that has come through a friend, rather than through an agent, because I think that the writer is already halfway there if they have an agent. ‘Repped’writers don’t need me to help them.
But if I am looking for a writer for a particular project I will go to the agents, contacts, Creative England schemes, and hunt around looking for the right fit.
I like to read the logline first to see what the writer is aiming for – followed by the full script.
Do you have a genre that you look for?
I was told firmly recently, by a major source of finance, that “Drama is not a genre.” So I have gone off genres since then…
Sally Potter and I did a series of documentaries for Channel Four called ‘Tears, Laughter, Fear and Rage’ and that was about the emotive response of audiences to films. I realised off the back of this that I have always looked for material that makes you cry, laugh, get angry, or feel fear. Ideally you want a combination of a couple of those. I am more likely to go for something that I feel a connection with.
If drama wasn’t a genre then the British Film Industry would be finished!
Can you tell us more about the teaser you made to pitch your animation film?
We did 50 seconds of actual animation – character design, trying out the pipeline, which was very useful. We felt that it was a bit too short though – blink and you missed it, so we then turned it into a teaser trailer, setting the story up over visuals, and then it literally opens into full animation.
Is there a film you wish you had made?
I wish I had done more of the kids’ films and also wish I’d done more with Derek Jarman, because he had some wonderful project ideas. We spent hours working on a script called NEUTRON, which was starring David Bowie, about the end of the world. We got a long way down the line with that, so that springs to mind. I found some of the character sketches in my attic recently, and I thought: “Oh, that would have been so amazing.”