In Conversation: Alison Owen (Producer of Saving Mr. Banks, Shaun of the Dead, Tamara Drewe)

Hi Film Folk!

The Film Doctor Team have another little In Conversation treat for you – this time with producer of Saving Mr. Banks, The Other Boleyn Girl, Shaun of the Dead and owner of Ruby Films, Alison Owen.

Thanks to Goldsmiths University, this is a bit of a bumper interview – so below you will find an exclusive interview with The Film Doctor Team followed by a larger conference talk held at the University. Enjoy!

 

Film Doctor interview - Alison Owen

 

FILM DOCTOR EXCLUSIVE

(interview by Ksenia Safrey, transcribed by Catherine Wooding)

 

When was the first time you realised you wanted to be a producer? Was it something you always wanted to do?

It actually was when I was about twelve, I read one of those girl’s career books about girls who become vets or doctors or whatever and I happened to read one called Claire in television and it really grabbed my interest and I decided I wanted to be like Claire and work in television although I ultimately ended up doing movies rather than television. 

 
 

How did you realise at twelve years old that you wanted to be a producer?

All I like to do is read and I’m just the biggest reader of all time and so I always love to read books and I love to read stories and tell stories and write stories and so the idea of having a job where I could just read books and scripts and make stories all day was always an amazing idea to me so it appealed to me from a very young age.

 
 

You started doing work with PolyGram a long time ago, how did you end up working for them and how was that time period for you?

It was a great time for me, I’d been working at Limelight doing music videos and then I produced my first movie which was Hear My Song and a TV series called Diary of a Teenage Health Freak and at that point Working Title who were part owned by PolyGram coached me and came to me and offered me a job there so I went to set up the low-budget film division over at Working Title which was owned by PolyGram so all the movies they did at that time were all PolyGram movies because they were funded by them but it was a real time of learning and it was a real time of change for the British film industry and change for women in the industry and it was a real learning curve for me.

 
 

Then you set up the Ruby Films company, was the decision to set it up a part of the closure of PolyGram?

No, it was unconnected with that. It was because personally in my life my kids had just got to a teenage age and so I was able to be in a position where I was more flexible with my time and also financially they had got to the end of their expensive bit and so when you start your own company you have to be prepared to not have a salary coming in for a little while. I was a single mother, I had my first kid when I was 18 so I was always a single mum and had these kids around and when I had just done Elizabeth and so I’d been nominated for an Oscar and my kids were at a certain age I felt like now is the time to start my own company so it was really all personal decisions for me, it was unconnected with PolyGram.

 
 

When you’re choosing which film to produce how much is it ‘Story, story, story!’ and how much is it about money? What is the ratio?

More about story, I try and discipline myself for it to be more about money but it’s always about story for me.

 
 

Moving forward in this digital age, how do you see the film industry panning out and what should young directors and writers be focused on?

I don’t think they should be focused on anything different than what they’ve always been focused on which is they should be focused on their own passions and their own interests and telling their own stories with as much truth and character and passion and depth as they can. The medium on which those stories land will always be fluid whether it’s cinema or television or a web series or a series of YouTube clips – it will find it’s form but the best examples of all those things are always going to be things that have passion and truth behind them because that’s what people want to watch. That’s what makes us ask the questions about ourselves and our existence and provides the answers.

 
 

 How do you feel about the amazing things you have achieved? Do you have a strategy, just luck or is it persistence?

I would say mostly persistence, certainly no strategy! Some luck and some persistence: no strategy!

 
 Film doctor - Alison Owen - Saving Mr. Banks
 
 

GOLDSMITHS INTERVIEW 

(by Professor Sean Cubitt, transcribed by Catherine Wooding)

 

Your first credit was on Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers, how did that come about?

I didn’t produce that. I was working in the production crew and so I wanted to get some experience of production and I had produced a few student films so I sort of knew what producing meant and I was making my way in the industry and that was really the only production job I ever had on Peter Greenaway‘s movie but it was very fun, I learnt a lot.

 
 

Your first production credit was for Hear My Song.

That was the first film I produced.

 
 

How did you make that breakthrough into producing?

I sort of had this ambition that I wanted to do my first movie before I was 30 so I had this very distinct challenge for myself. When I left University, I kind of climbed up on the drawbridge of music videos which was a great time. When people ask me how do you get into the film and television industry, I think it’s never a straight forward route getting into these industries but it was a useful time when I left University which was 1982 because it was right slap-bang in the middle of the birth of music video. It was a bit like the dot com boom, it was like the Wild West and anybody could pretend to be anything so it was a great time for bluffers and for people who maybe didn’t quite know what they were doing but could pretend they did and I was certainly one of those people so I sort of climbed up on the drawbridge with the music video and started in a company making music videos.

I then got poached by a much bigger company called Limelight that I went and worked for and I suggested that Limelight start up a TV and film department because at that time they were doing music videos and commercials and they indulged me in this as long as I kept producing music videos at the same time. So I sort of put the word out with agents that I wanted to do a movie and they started sending me scripts and I think the thing that worked for me was that I was incredibly diligent and tenacious and the agents recognised that: that I was not flaky. Because whenever you say you want scripts all the agents basically get all the dud scripts out their filing cabinets and chuck them all at you and I actually read every single one and I wrote a reply letter to every single one. So when someone got a decent script in, they actually sent it to me.

Peter Chelsom, who made Hear My Song, had made a fantastic short film called Treacle and he’d kind of got interest from all the big companies: from Channel 4, from Working Title. But he’d had a slightly bad experience where the script had gone a certain amount forward and hadn’t happened so he was a little bit disenchanted with the bigger producers so he thought ok, I’ll give this young girl who doesn’t know anything a chance. So I got the script for Hear My Song and I sort of knew it was a winner because it was a great script. Peter was a great director who had a great piece of work to show: the short movie. I knew he was in the affections of Film4 and British Screen which were the main funding buddies at that time so it was a relatively straightforward path to go down – that provided two thirds of the funding and I only had to find another third, which was the hard bit but we got there in the end.

 
 

What exactly does a producer do?

Well that’s a hard one to answer because a producer can do many different things and a producer can also do nothing. If you canvas most of the people who’ve got credits as producers and ask what they did, you’ll find it was nothing. It’s a quite annoying title because often if you go to Cannes there’s so many people going round saying they’re producers and they’re not really and they never get to make a film. Often producers are just financiers which is not nothing, they give them the money but they don’t actually do anything on the film. Some producers are much more money people and put the money together, some producers are much more creative and are involved in the development process, some people are much more line producers. If you’re a producer and you work with someone like Peter Greenaway, for instance, which was something I decided very early on that I didn’t want to do – if you work with an auteur, you think that’s going to be fantastic but actually for a producer all you’re doing is arranging the money and ordering the lights because they have their own vision. I’m not particularly interested in doing that because I like to work with someone who has a vision but is much more collaborative. I often come up with the ideas for my movies or I opt in a book or I read an article or it’s about something I’m interested in and I will get together with the director to do it but I want to have my voice in there, I don’t want to just go “ok genius – go ahead!” And that’s perfectly fine for those people that do but that’s a different kind of producing. There are many different kinds of producing, I tend to be very much an A-Z producer and I go right from the beginning right to the end because they’re my babies and I like to make sure that the baby gets fed well and the baby gets dressed well.

 
Film Doctor - Alison Owen - Moonlight and Valentino
 

After Hear My Song, you did a Harvey Keitel thriller then a comedy special of Smashie and Nicey and then you took on Moonlight and Valentino, very much a woman’s film. Was that because the package was so strong or was that a particular direction you wanted to follow?

I think if you look at the breadth of what I’ve done it’s certainly not exclusively female driven but its bias is certainly very female. Moonlight and Valentino was absolutely fantastic writing, actually the script was much better than the eventual movie. Ellen Simon wrote a fantastic script and she’s a really great writer and I responded to the writing in that one: the character writing. Very much if you look at my work you can sort of see my life in a way.

The Young Americans was something that I did and it was an exercise that I decided I didn’t want to repeat – much like working with an auteur. Through my career, I’ve evolved rules for deciding what to do and the two major rules that I apply now that I have learnt through doing loads of movies when I look at a script or project is that it has to be something that I would personally want to see and that I feel I have something to offer creatively in collaborating to make it. In that I think you can only contribute properly to something if it’s something you like. Like if somebody put two glasses of real ale in front of me and said Alison could you judge which is the better one, I’d go no I don’t like real ale, I can’t tell you! Now, if you gave me two glasses of red wine, I’d be much more use because that’s my tipple. And it’s much the same with movies. I’m not big on sci-fi, if you put two sci-fi scripts in front of me I wouldn’t be much use. I could tell you roughly whether they had the inciting incident in the right place and the three act structure – you know I could do that which any book can tell you but I wouldn’t have the visceral emotional response that’s needed.

So that’s my number one point and my number two point is that I have to be able to see a way to get it made and to have an angle that I can get it set up, get the people in the cinema and hopefully make some money. And it’s amazing how if you apply those two rules there’s very, very few projects that fit both. Many, many that fit one or the other but not many that fit both.

I would say The Young Americans was a thing I did that wasn’t really my cup of tea and it was an exercise that was kind of ‘can we make a glossy thriller set in London’. It was sort of this idea, a notion. And we went for it and we kind of could but it wasn’t really a movie that I would have gone to see actually. So after I’d done it, I thought well if I’m in this business, I’m a reasonably bright person, I could probably go and make more money selling stocks and shares in the city but that’s not what I want to do because I want to be creative. But if I’m going to be creative I might as well use my creativity not be second guessing something that I’m not particularly interested in. So since that time I started to bias towards female projects because I’m a woman and those are things that speak to me and things that I feel like I can judge best, not exclusively but that’s my bias.

 
 

How early do you come on board a project and what’s the secret of getting Oscar nominations?

I always come on board my projects – most of them I come on pretty early. Usually I’m involved with the genesis of the idea. With Elizabeth for instance, I had been at Working Title on staff and I was running the low-budget film department which is where I went after Limelight and I then, for various reasons mostly to do with kids and family, I’d elected to have more of a satellite personal relationship with them so we used to have think-tanks where I’d go in and we’d figure out what we were aiming for. We wanted to do a historical movie and our instruction to ourself was to do a historical movie in the style of Trainspotting and that was what we wanted because that had just come out and it had been terribly successful. We got a bit of fed up, we felt like we were really fed up with the nurtured ivory chocolate box view of England and let’s do something that’s really down and dirty and visceral and gritty. So taking that as our brief we then looked at the whole of English history to decide what would fit that and it was actually a very strange way of going about a film, I have never done that before or since. Anyway we came down to Boadicea and Elizabeth, those were the two subjects and in the end we decided to go with Elizabeth. And then we heard lots of different writers’ takes on them and Michael Hirst came up with this amazing take which was about a woman choosing between the personal and the political and reinventing herself into an icon. We felt that it had a real resonance with a modern woman and at the time we were, 1990s, a lot of women had to make that choice between job and family and we felt that it had a resonance so that’s how we chose it. And that’s how most of movies come into being: it comes from an idea or a book or an article or a zeitgeisty notion.

Your second question, Oscars are surprisingly predictable – if that was all you really wanted, you could probably do it on quite a regular basis but I do want to make money, it’s not the same thing. I’m often presented with projects and I’m like to be honest with you I could probably get an Oscar nomination for this but it’s ten years of hard work and it’s not gonna make any money – what shall we do, shall we do it or not?

 
 Film Doctor - SAVING MR. BANKS
 

You are now back on a project called Tulip Fever. In 2004, you wrote a passionate editorial piece in The Telegraph called ‘The Tax Man Killed My Movie’ about the fraught history when this was in development with Dreamworks. Could you bear to tell us a little about that?

Yeah, I can because it was a passionate article and it was because I was very, very, VERY cross with the government at the time and particularly with this woman at the tax office called Dawn Primarolo. What had happened was – Tulip Fever is just a fantastic, fantastic film story. Deborah Moggach wrote the book and it’s a good book but it’s not a great book, it’s not gonna win the Pulitzer prize any time soon but it’s a great movie story. I had got the manuscript early, before anyone else, because I had been reading this beautiful book by Anna Pavord called The Tulip which had come out which was just a beautiful book and I really like gardening (sorry it’s not very hip to say that but anyway I really like gardening). I bought this The Tulip book for myself and I was reading about the tulips and it was talking about this amazing period in Dutch history which was called Tulip-mania and tulip bulbs were the first example of the futures markets so it was the first time that speculation came into being and things were worth a different standard from the gold standard. So things were not manifest examples of worth but indicators of worth so it was a fantastic time and tulips became worth the price of a palace and when the market crashed it was the first depression and everybody threw themselves in canals and I thought oh my god this is a wonderful kind of canvas for a movie and I just started to think about that as a backdrop for a movie and then I was reading an article in The Sunday Times at Christmas, those kind of what-to-watch-for-in-the-year-ahead things, and it said ‘Coming May – Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever’ and I thought oh god, someone’s written the story.

So I called Deborah’s agent and I got the manuscript way ahead of anyone else and I read it and I persuaded the agent into giving me a free option, don’t know how I did that but I did, so she gave me free option and I sent it out and everybody went crazy for it and I suddenly had Harvey Weinstein, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, they were all competing for this project so I thought ‘oh this is jolly good, I’m in a good position’ and so I was kind of leveraging it up and we ended up going for Steven Spielberg which Harvey still does not forgive me for to this day! So we went forward with Steven, Steven was originally going to direct it and then for various reasons he got his timetable all clogged up so John Madden came on to direct it right after Shakespeare In Love and we had a beautiful script by Tom Stoppard and we were making it with Keira Knightley and Jude Law and we were building sets at Pinewood and it was going to be a really beautiful film.

But at that time, there was a scheme called the sale and leaseback scheme that was being operated by the government which provided kind of about a third of your funding and it was to do with investors being able to write it off against tax. You kind of give that to the accountants and they figure it out, I don’t know whether it was legal or dodgy, it’s just one of those schemes that you use and the whole of the British film industry was using this scheme. Then we were six weeks from filming and we woke up one morning and someone had woken me up with a phone call and they were like “have you heard they’ve changed the tax laws?” It was like the Berlin wall, they didn’t give everybody six months to change their affairs or it was like gone and so we lost our funding, the movie. I had to go into the office the next day and make 200 people redundant and all the actors had to go home and we pulled the sets down and it was awful. I was really furious that’s why I wrote the article and I remember I went on Newsnight and I had an argument with Jeremy Paxman. I gave him what for.

 
 

And it’s back in the land of the living?

Yes, the rights eluded me. I had about a year to try and set it up again but I couldn’t because the trouble with movies is when they go down is that so much money goes against them so by this time Tulip Fever had about six million and rising because they put a very high interest rate against it and I couldn’t really set it up quickly enough before the rights went back to Dreamworks. Then the Dreamworks library got sold to Paramount and Paramount would never let the rights come out because they’d just had a famous case where someone at Paramount let somebody buy some rights off them and it was Twilight. So basically the whole department got fired and nobody was ever allowed to do stuff again. So it was locked up in Paramount and the only chance we could get them out, and we did get them out, was Harvey. But Harvey and I knew we had a joint passion to do it – but Harvey, really legally, he doesn’t have to get me to produce it – he just knows that if he didn’t then he might be dead.

 
Film Doctor - Alison Owen - Brick Lane
 

How do you select properties that you think are going to make the best projects?

They’re generally things that I read and that stay with me and I can’t get out of my brain. Brick Lane, I really, really didn’t want to make Brick Lane because I knew it would be a long journey and it was going to be an art movie but the book, it just really got in my brain. It was like a duel in my brain and I felt like it really had to be made and so I couldn’t stop myself. The Other Boleyn Girl when I read that story I could not believe anyone had never told this story. It was like insane. You suddenly read that Anne Boleyn had a younger sister who had an affair with Henry VIII and she had this kid and then Anne Boleyn just got off with Henry VIII to get her own back on her sister it was like “wow, this is such an amazing story how comes no-one has ever told it before?” You find good stories and you can see the cinematic possibilities and you can only hope that if something affects you viscerally as a human being, if it makes you laugh, it makes you cry – you figure it’s going to do the same to other people because we’re all human beings.

 
 

How different is it producing for TV compared to producing for film?

The mechanics are a bit different but the actual creative side of it is very similar. The difference is with a returning series and that’s a very different craft to drama but with movies and a mini there’s very little difference structurally other than it’s divided up into different bits. You’ve still got to have a beginning and an end and an arc and character developments and it’s sort of the same shape even though it might be stretched out. Where my mind boggles, and what I’m not very good at, and what I ought to be good at, is figuring out the returning series because it’s a different skill spotting and identifying a returning series and the whole over-arching arc of the story of the week – it’s kind of a different thing and it’s annoying that it eludes me because most companies that are successful in television are built in the bank of returning series so to make a successful business model it’s good if you can figure out how to do that.

 
 

You are still working as a creative producer, how does that work when you’re dealing with Disney?

I had a fantastic experience with Disney, I loved working with Disney and they were the most hands-off company I have ever worked with which is kind of crazy but you know I love all the guys at Film4 and BBC but everybody wants to have their say and whereas at Disney, once they decided to make the movie and it was a huge step for them to do that – Walt had never been portrayed on screen before, Diane who was still alive at that time but sadly passed away a few months ago had said that she didn’t want that to be done until she passed away. So it was a huge move for them to decide to do it but once they did do it they did absolutely no meddling whatsoever. They did not change one line of that script or one frame of the movie – we did exactly what we wanted to with one exception which was that we couldn’t show Walt smoking.

In Disney’s defence that’s not really even about Disney it’s about the studio assigned with the surgeon general. We argued about that for a bit but knew we weren’t going to win because they have this famous thing at Disney where everywhere you go they have pictures of Walt Disney and the famous thing is Walt with the two fingered point because he’s always like some movie star pointing but he’s got two fingers because he’s got a cigarette. All the cigarettes have been digitally removed, all the pictures have two fingers pointing.

 
 Film Doctor - Walt Disney
 

Is it any easier or harder to raise money for something so clearly a women’s historical film and a famous film?

I think you just have to get the timing right. I think any time up until about the last couple of years it would have been harder but it’s taken a long time to develop this film – we thought we’re getting near a time where there’s been nothing about this subject for ages. When I was growing up there was a thing called Shoulder to Shoulder on BBC telly that was all about the Pankhursts, but really nothing about this subject for a long long time. We felt that we were getting to a period in our cultural life where we could make this without it feeling all womeny and feminist and we were at a point now in the status of women in our society where it didn’t have to be a thing anymore and we could look back with a relative relaxation to see how it came to be.

I also really felt strongly that I wanted to remind young women about how fragile their rights are. I find even with my own daughters they don’t really realise. Even when I was growing up, when I took my first job as part-time washer-up in a hotel when I was about 14 or 15 – those jobs were advertised as women 30p an hour, men 50p an hour. That was in my lifetime so I feel like it’s only this far away guys, you need to be careful of what you’ve achieved. The votes are very important so go along and vote. These are people who have fought to get it and I found it really moving. Not last night but the night before, when we were filming a rally of the suffragettes and Meryl Streep was playing Emmeline Pankhurst and she was giving this amazing speech from the window and the extras just simultaneously started singing the Suffragettes song that they’d learned and it really made me cry, I felt like “oh god these women were really here and it wasn’t even that long ago, it was in my grandmother’s time”. So we developed the script with Abi and Sarah, and Sarah I knew would take a little while to be able to make the film because she had sort of taken time off from Brick Lane and had two kids, so we always planned to make it in a few year’s time. We’ve managed to get a great cast – Meryl calls it “12 Years A Slave for women”.

 
 

Are you a hands-on producer when it comes to working with directors?

I would say the time that I work most closely with the director is on the script: I’m very, very script focused. I love words and I love scripts and I feel that if I have a talent, my talent is knowing the right shape of the script and that’s when I come into my own. I’m really not blowing my own trumpet but you might as well be practical about the things that you are good at. What I’m good at is when a script comes to me and it’s really good but not quite there, I am really good at just going “you know what we need to take page 57 and put that there and that character needs to say that and we’ll do this and this and this” and you sort of rearrange it and I’m really good at working with writers and directors at that point so I work very closely with them then.

I’m weirdly less visual when it comes to actually making the movie, I wouldn’t say I was particularly good. I’m always a little bit scared when studios call me up and they go “did they cover everything today and I’m like I think so.” I’m not so brilliant at that, at the different camera angles and all that – but those are things that I have to make sure I’ve got: a really great camera man and good continuity people and I use the people that I employ to do that but I would be very hands on in consulting with my director.

You know, if there was an important speech and they wanted to make sure that we got it. When we had Meryl on the last three nights, we wanted to make sure she had the right accent and we wanted to make sure that she wasn’t re-doing Margaret Thatcher and so I was huddled very closely with my director going “was it too drawly?” – doing all of that stuff. 

 
 

Is it more difficult to get funding for adaptions or original scripts?

I would say it’s much easier to get funding for adaptations than it is for originals because people like to say no much more than they like to say yes and people don’t want to lose their jobs and it’s much easier for them if they’ve got a successful book and then they put the funding up for it and it’s a total turkey then it’s more like “well how was I to know? It was a great book.” Whereas if it’s an original script, that’s much more of a gamble for someone to take – that’s no reason not to do it but that’s the truth.

 
Film Doctor - Alison Owen - Shaun of the Dead 
 

How was Shaun of the Dead financed?

I was a little bit of a fraud with Shaun of the Dead because it was something I was involved in at an early stage and then I sort of went down to the set and visited but I wasn’t A-Z like I am on most movies. Shaun of the Dead came to me because I was friends with Edgar, I’d known Edgar a long time, and Edgar and Simon came to me and pitched this movie which was just like the craziest idea of all time. I kind of loved it but they already had producers and they had this woman Nira Park who is also a good friend of mine, but Nira hadn’t produced a movie before, she’d done Spaced and that was it, so Nira said “will you help me put it together and I was like of course, I’d love to” – I thought it was a great idea.

They went off and wrote the script and they came back with the script which I thought was fantastic but I hadn’t helped get the development money for that, it was all with their own company but I said I would come aboard as a producer and help raise the money. So we put together a package for them from many different sources of finance, however, right at the last minute one of the sources of finance which was Ingenious pulled out which was very, very annoying. At that point, we had slightly run out of time and so I said to them all that I thought the best thing to do was to go to Working Title and do the movie there because there was one source of finance and by that tim,e because the film had got a little bit buzzy around town, Working Title were quite keen to do it so they went up to Working Title and did it and that really meant they didn’t need me so much anymore because Working Title were filling the role that I was going to do in terms of putting the money together and being the godmother for the project but I very selflessly sent them on to Working Title because that was best for the movie. I took the role as an executive producer and just did a bit of rah-rah-rah for the rest of the movie.

 
 

Was it hard for them to go from a sitcom on to a feature or was it seamless?

Edgar (Wright) always thought very cinematically right from the beginning. From Edgar’s point of view, the TV work was practice for the movie. He has a very cinematic, very film literate imagination and I remember Eric from Working Title called me up and was like ‘this is crazy, this script, is he gonna be able to do this? Is he the real deal?’ And I was like yeah, he’s the real deal and he is. Everything Edgar has always done has always been a rehearsal for making movies.

 
 

What do you think the value of going to University is for a young filmmaker?

I think both routes are really valuable but largely because I think filmmaking is something, particularly for a writer and director, that you have to get a bit of life experience first. You have to get some life to write about before you go and do it and I think you look at the great work that’s being done by teenagers and kids on iPhones and put out on the net and actually it’s always much better technically than it is with heart and depth because that’s something people need to grow up a bit more and get some life under their belt to do it.

So in a sense I think it’s great to be at a University or college where you’ve got access to the equipment and to a great peer group that you can learn and discuss things with but, likewise, if you can find that peer group and access by doing internships then that’s valid as well. I think they’re both different routes that can work for different people.

 
 

What advice would you give for students transitioning from working on student films to network films, building connections and getting your foot in the door?

It’s really, really hard and I appreciate it’s much harder for you guys now than it was for me when I was that age and I really feel for everybody. But I think the same things ring true which is passion and tenacity and people will always recognise those things. I can recognise people who come to see me with scripts or just wanting an internship and then I can recognise the people who just want to make a movie. As opposed to people who have got real passion and heart and a drive to do it: you can tell the difference and if you’ve got that and you keep going, you will eventually get somewhere.

 
Film Doctor - Alison Owen
 

How have you seen the industry change for women?

By one thousand per cent, yeah. When I first came in to the industry, 1. – there were very few women about, hardly anyone and 2. – I’m afraid to say that the women that were about were not very nice. When I was in my early twenties and I would go for a job, I would always be terrified if there was a woman because there was a lot of women-hating-women about and there were a lot of women that didn’t like other women around and particularly young women and that was the function of the seventies and early eighties I guess.

That’s totally changed with organisations like ‘Women in Film’ and there’s so many more women in the industry. I think women are really great at putting down the ladder and helping other women up it – and I think that’s fantastic that that’s developed and there were very few role models for me when I first came in. People like Sarah Radclyffe and Jenne Cassarotto – there were a few people about but not very many and now there’s probably more women than men out there. Certainly in the production sector which is fantastically affirming and brilliant.

 
 

How do you pace yourself from one project to project?

That’s a real art and an art I probably haven’t mastered yet – I’ve tried but I always have too many projects in development. I’m a real magpie and I find it hard if something’s glittering not to go and get it so my staff are often berating me for picking up too many things so I’m trying to be more disciplined about that. At the moment Saving Mr Banks has just sort of finished it’s whole journey and that’s gone on to paid TV so that’s sort of done. I’ve just done a whole round of marketing and publicity for that. I did stints on two other movies that were not really my movies that I rescued as a favour to Harvey Weinstein who always thinks he’s going to parachute me in on problematic things. So I went out to rescue a film called Jane Got A Gun in the desert after I did Saving Mr Banks for which I was three months in New Mexico sorting that one out and then I took a month off to come back and see my grandchildren and I love them very much but after about four weeks I was a bit bored. So I’d said no to going to Cape Town which was another one Harvey wanted me to do but after about four weeks I was like “is that film still going, can I go and do it?”

So I went to Cape Town to do this movie called The Giver which is not something I developed but something that needed some sorting out which was tempting to me. So I did that and then by that time we were coming up to unofficial pre-production on Suffragette so we locked ourselves to that and then we lost all the money on Suffragette because Focus got closed at Universal so we had to re-finance it with Pathé meanwhile we’d got Justin on to direct Tulip Fever so we knew we were heading towards Tulip Fever which will start shooting May 15th and I’ve usually got something I’m developing.

There’s a movie that I’m hoping to shoot. September I do this other movie called French Ladies with this amazing writer called Aline Brosh McKenna who wrote The Devil Wears Prada – and is like one of my favourite writers, she’s so good, she’s like a top Hollywood writer and it’s going to be her directorial debut because I’m planning to turn her into Nora Ephron and so that’s what we’re planning to do in September/October. There’s lots of things in development that will be next year.

 
 

What is your opinion of the new high quality TV series?

I think it’s due to a number of things. I think it’s fantastically interesting what’s happening on television, you’d be a fool not to think so. Look at the amazing stuff from Breaking Bad to True Detective I mean everything’s fantastic and as I think it was Steven Soderbergh who said ‘cinema’s alive and well and living on cable TV’ and that’s sort of what is happening. There’s less opportunity to do things in cinema where people want boring old sequels and tentpoles the whole time and it’s harder to get more interesting material made and there’s a ready place to go and do it instead.

So yeah, I’m really interested in doing more television and actively trying to do that. It’s harder to do it over here and I would need to spend more time in the States if I’m going to do that but I like spending time in LA. So when I was doing post-production on Saving Mr Banks last year, I didn’t have to be in LA January through May when we were doing the post, because I could have just commuted back and forth but I chose to stay there from January to May because that was my instruction to myself – to learn the lay of the land in American television.

So I spent that time half in the cutting room where I was doing Saving Mr Banks but the rest of the time going to meet A&E and Lifetime and HBO and stars and I’m just finding out the nuances of what everybody was looking for, just as in my head if I read a book I like and I think it could be a movie but I know exactly which studio or financing entity to go to. I now feel like I have an idea of that in television, in American television, which I didn’t before. I knew the domestic TV landscape, I knew when something was more Film4, Channel 4 or BBC or Sky Atlantic or Living but now I feel like I know America a bit better so I started to set up developments at all those places.

 
 

What would you say the trend is? What are they looking for?

Well they’re all looking for very different things. Stars look for things that are more sexy and more glitzy – you can tell that. You have to look at their output really and that gives you a good idea of where they’re coming from. It doesn’t tell the whole story because it doesn’t tell you where they want to go to and that’s where you need to go and meet them because it feels ‘very star-like’ and they’ll go “yeah but we’re trying to shift away from that now because we’ve got all that – we’ve bought all our cable access”. So they will tell you much where they’ve come from as where they’re going and you start to get an idea of where you can place things. 

 
 

How do you measure the success of your projects?

There’s personal success in having done something as well as you think you can. There’s critical success and then there’s financial success and I think different things, you measure in different ways.

Selfishly the most important thing for me is that I’ve achieved what I want to with it. For instance, Sylvia got mauled critically and it didn’t do very well financially but I still feel like we made a really good movie and I know what went wrong in the release of it and I learnt a lesson from that but I don’t think it was anything to do with the film. I think it’s a great film and I feel like I really wanted to make a film about Sylvia Plath and do her justice and I did and that makes me happy that I did it and I would do the same again. I would be more careful with the release. There are different measures of success. It’s nice if it achieves one, great if it achieves two and fantastic if it achieves all three!

 
 Film Doctor - Sylvia - Alison Owen
 
 

How disruptive do you feel that equity and non-equity based crowd-funding are going to be to the film industry?

I don’t think it will make any difference at all. I don’t think that they’ve got a point, I’m very happy to try and pay fair wages to everybody but I think the FAA are behaving stupidly.

 
 

How do you feel about non-equity like Kickstarter?

I think they’re brilliant if they work. I think there’s a limit to how many of those you can do because people will get a sort of novelty at first but I think people will get bored of it after a while. I do think there’s a danger of people funding things with stars in when actually the money is needed for the lower budget things where you haven’t got A list names and I think that would be a shame if it trended that way because it’s much better if you can get young filmmakers to get their films funded in an interesting way but without having to result in getting star names.

 
 

What is the hardest thing that you have to do as a producer?

The hardest thing to do is to fire somebody if they’re not doing their job properly but you have to do that every now and then. I hate doing that, it’s really hard.

 
 
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