Hello Film Doctor friends.
Whether it’s Quentin Tarantino, Charlize Theron, Steve Zaillian or Krysty Wilson-Cairns taking to the stage to collect an award, one thing’s for certain, they will be thanking their agent; the mover, shaker and dealmaker overseeing a multitude of details behind-the-scenes as their filmmaking client pursues cinematic perfection.
Today The Film Doctor team talk to two brilliant British agents, Emily Hickman and Ian Benson of The Agency about their work, career journey and client relationships in another Film Doctor In Conversation.
Ian represents the BIFA-winning writer/director behind mind-bending Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and last year’s In Fabric, Peter Strickland, and Emily looks after Kieran Hurley, the playwright, theatre-maker and screenwriter behind Beats (2019) which picked up two BIFA awards in the December just passed.
Tell us about how you became agents.
Emily Hickman: I came into it from theatre. I did a lot of student drama and wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do but wanted to work in theatre. I ended up working at the Donmar Warehouse in a mixture of jobs between casting and fundraising and, while I was there, I got chatting to their literary manager and realised that the literary side of the industry – working with writers – is what really interested me. From there, I moved to an agency called PFD and originally thought I would end up working on the theatre side but I worked for several years as an assistant for an agent who had more film and TV clients. Although I was managing a lot of his theatre clients, I totally got swept into the film and TV world. I really enjoy working across all three.
Ian Benson: I come from a producing background. Independent producing is very, very tough and so about 14 years ago, I came to need a change in direction. I’d been introduced to a couple of agents here at The Agency and really liked them, the company and what the company stands for. It was a very easy move for me. It meant I could continue to work with writer/directors, which was one of my favourite parts of producing. It was a nice transition into agenting. It’s a lot of work and it does take time.
How do you see your jobs? Some agents are more work-led, some are more deal-led.
Ian: I love the work. As a producer, I was always drawn to particular writer/directors – those auteurs and world creators – so that drive continued and continues. Yes, it’s a business and that aspect is very important, but I think first and foremost it’s the work that excites me.
Emily: I’m exactly the same really. Particularly when you’re taking on clients at the start of their career. If they’re fairly new, you’re probably working with them quite closely on their material before you take it out to market and you’re the person who’s really got to champion that work. It would be quite hard to do if you didn’t love the work. You have to be driven by it.
Ian: Passion is important when you first get introduced to a client. You need that spark of excitement when you see something of theirs. Peter Strickland I was introduced to by Katalin Varga (2009), a feature that was nominated for a Golden Bear and won a Silver Bear at Berlin. Often we meet clients when they have written or directed short films and that can be a hard transition, from short film writer/director to features or television. It’s a lot of work and takes time. That passion and commitment is really important.
Tell us about your relationships with clients in terms of working with or as a manager. Also, what if your client wants to/or is working in the US?
Emily Hickman: It’s very client specific. We probably have those kinds of conversations only if the client is working very actively in the US where there does tend to be a partnership, whether that’s with an agent or manager. In terms of the work we do here, we are essentially a client’s agent and manager and lawyer and we cover all of that within one building. So there’s no need for an additional representative unless they’re very clearly targeting the US market.
Ian Benson: Some clients naturally straddle the UK and US in terms of their appetite to work here and there. We act very much as agent-managers because we work very closely and deeply with our clients in a way that managers do in the US. Depending on what the client wants, we have multiple relationships in the US so we can absolutely help that client straddle the Atlantic. It’s very much driven by the client and the work.
How did you, Emily, start working with Kieran? Tell us how Beats came about?
Emily Hickman: With Kieran I actually took him on after seeing Beats the stage play at the Edinburgh festival at the Pleasance Courtyard. I think it was its second outing there. I’d seen another play of his, Chalk Farm, which he co-wrote with AJ Taudevin and thought that was fantastic, so I went even though it was on at quarter past 11 at night or something. It just really blew me away.
He’s one of the clients on my list who I pursued myself – he hadn’t contacted me at all. I tracked him down and, after a couple of meetings, we agreed to work together. Around the same time Brian Welsh, the director of Beats – and co-writer of the screenplay – had also seen it, in London, and approached Kieran about turning it into a film. At the time, Kieran was very much a playwright and theatre-maker – he performed the play Beats as a one-man show – but he really hit it off with Brian and they took it out to producers. They teamed up with Camilla Bray who produced the film.
My relationship with Kieran started at the same time as Beats was transitioning to screen so it’s been really exciting seeing that through. Initially, it’s doing the deal for the film and the play but then it’s seeing it develop over the years through multiple drafts and then seeing it get greenlit to production. Then flash-forward to Kieran being BIFA-nominated, it’s been amazing to see that journey.
And Ian, how did your relationship with Peter come about? And tell us about In Fabric.
I saw Katalin Varga before it was at Berlin and was lucky enough to be introduced to him via a producer. I was blown away by it. It was so unlike any other film by a British filmmaker. It was just an incredible breath of fresh air. We met afterwards and we agreed to start working together. He followed that with Berberian Sound Studio; another extraordinary piece of work, a deconstruction of a horror film. There was the Bjork concert film – which was fantastic – then Duke of Burgundy, another visual treat. He just has the most fantastic way of looking at the world. You want to immerse yourself and get lost in the worlds he creates.
In Fabric is just unlike anything I’ve seen in terms of a horror film or ghost story. I know the producer, Andy Starke, very well and so got more involved with the development and production of it, hence the executive producer credit. It also ties in with the production office I run at The Agency as well. Andy is a phenomenal producer and took the lead on it but I was able to be quite helpful in the process of putting it together financially.
Finally, what is it about Kieran and Peter as individuals that is so attractive to work with?
Emily Hickman: Kieran’s voice and take on things is incredible. His work always has something to say and he’s so character driven. They’re always so sensitively drawn. It’s also really exciting and fun to work with somebody who can work across theatre, film and television. When you have those mediums available it’s about ensuring you choose the right story for the right one.
Ian Benson: Peter has such a fresh take on material, whether that’s an adaptation or an original piece of work. He’s funny and totally refreshing to work with. Just going on that journey with him, and to watch his work evolve and grow and reach a wider audience is fantastic. Being able to work more deeply with him on In Fabric was terrific and I can see that happening with other clients or across the company.