December 9, 2011 5:04 pm

Film actually

The men behind UK cinema’s biggest hits on why the industry is no longer a ‘joke’

Tim Bevan In the very beginning, I had been making music videos and Stephen Frears had worked on a couple. He didn’t do a very good job on them but we got on quite well. This was right at the beginning of Channel Four, and they had commissioned writers around the country to write things. Hanif Kureishi had written a script, My Beautiful Laundrette, about his experiences as a Pakistani in London, and Stephen said to me, “I’ve read this really interesting script. Do you want to read it?”

Eric Fellner It was in the days when there was a lot of television money available for English films. The first film I did was Sid and Nancy (1986) virtually at the same time as My Beautiful Laundrette.

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Peter Aspden Were you aware, when you started out, of a particular moment in British social history, as opposed to film history?

Bevan We were in the middle of Thatcherism and there was a lot going on. It was an entrepreneurial time. Kids didn’t come to their first job wondering about what their pension was going to be.

Robson Would you say Thatcherism furnished a subject and an opportunity?

Bevan It was definitely an opportunity.

Fellner If you look at our industry, that period utterly curtailed the power of the unions – a massive thing. All this new young talent was coming out of music videos and going into film, be it directors or cameramen and before that they couldn’t get into the business. Which is why I – and Tim – had ended up in the music business. People have such polarised points of view of Thatcherism and we have our own personal views of the good and the bad, but it really did shake up this country.

Aspden And Beautiful Laundrette was an amazing example...

Bevan Even watching it now it stands out. It took the lid off a world none of us really knew about and I think that’s what was interesting about it. Some of my favourite movies are when the director is on a voyage of exploration – with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, one of the things that’s great about that is that Tomas Alfredson didn’t really know too much about it. He is Swedish and the film is his journey of exploration through British culture. And I think Laundrette was Stephen’s journey of exploration through this world that Hanif opened the door to.

We’re not apologetic. We can make Tinker Tailor or a Coen Brothers or a Rowan Atkinson movie and be equally proud

Aspden In those early days, did you enjoy the hustle of making the money?

Bevan Yes, loved it. It was all hustle, hustle.

Fellner Maybe you ended up with a grand at the end of the day. It was f***ing amazing.

Bevan I never cared whether I made any money. I just wanted to keep the whole thing going. It was the absolute critical thing. I was down the pub until midnight. It was very very good fun. But it wasn’t that good creatively because you didn’t spend the time. We didn’t even have a development department in those days, it was just some room down the end of the corridor where the scripts ended up.

Robson Was it a case of taking one project at a time?

Bevan No, one of the things that I always thought – and it came right from Laundrette – was, “I had better have something else going before they find out about this!” That was the beginning of the concept of having a slate. It’s become a little bit more mature but there is still that element to it. If you want to make more interesting movies, where the bull’s-eye is much smaller and you have to get it absolutely right in order to find an audience, then you had better be doing something that’s a little bit more commercial.

Kristin Scott Thomas and Hugh Grant in ‘Four Weddings’

Kristin Scott Thomas and Hugh Grant in ‘Four Weddings’

Aspden How did you get it right with Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994?

Bevan Luck.

Fellner There was no design. It was a well-written, well-acted, well-directed movie at the right time, and it was funny and people love funny.

Bevan And it had a cultural specificity to it. I think one of the things that’s interesting about British movies that work overseas, like Billy Elliot , The Full Monty and Four Weddings, is that they all have a cultural specificity and they’re quite honest. It may be that you don’t like upper-middle-class people going to weddings, it may be that you don’t like mining kids or whatever – but it is totally culturally specific. Where you tend to get into trouble is when you’re being dishonest or mid-Atlantic and people realise that you’re not coming from quite the right place.

Aspden Tell us about how your relationship with Richard Curtis started.

Bevan Richard had written Not the Nine O’Clock News and co-written Blackadder. He wrote a film script – it had the title Camden Town Boy at the time, but it went out as The Tall Guy (1989). We got Mel Smith to direct and we got Emma Thompson and Jeff Goldblum to be in it. London Weekend paid for it and they gave me the full benefit of the tax write-off, so although the film cost £2m, that cost was written off and the film did all right. It was one of the first films that Harvey Weinstein at Miramax took for domestic distribution but it wasn’t a big hit.

About a year after, I got a royalty cheque from London Weekend. It was £100,000 that Working Title really needed at that point. But for some reason, honesty got the best of me and I sent Richard a cheque, and he was so pleased to receive this cheque that he sent us the script for Four Weddings. We found a successful formula together.

Aspden That word you just used, “formula”, did that ever worry you?

Rowan Atkinson in ‘Johnny English Reborn’

Rowan Atkinson in this year’s ‘Johnny English Reborn’

Bevan I think it’s critical. One of the things we shy away from in British film is the genre thing and that’s what makes the movie world go round. We created a romantic comedy genre in Britain. When you make a film that a big audience enjoys – that’s a very, gratifying feeling. There are people who say why do we make Rowan Atkinson’s movies. Well, I love Rowan. He makes people laugh, and sitting in the middle of an audience when there’s that sort of experience going on is a fantastic thing.

Fellner It’s an interesting question because it’s the natural place of the British [film] community to start apologising for being commercial, and I think the thing Tim and I are quite proud of is that we’re not apologetic. We can make Tinker Tailor or a Coen Brothers or a Richard Curtis movie or a Rowan Atkinson movie and be equally proud of all of them. I think it would be a good thing in the creative community if there was less embarrassment of this word “commercial” because that’s how you make a business. Film is very much about straddling the line of art and commerce.

Aspden So how were the numbers for Four Weddings and a Funeral?

Bevan It cost $5m and did $250m worldwide. The biggest film we’d had before that was probably £3m-£4m at the box office.

Fellner It was a shift in how you could make a film with no real stars in it – Andie MacDowell was the only person you’d ever heard of – and have that kind of success.

Bevan Post-1992, we began to set up a development department and also to have an internal marketing component to everything. We would be thinking, how can we sell it? And even on the more arty and more difficult films, such as Atonement (2007), you have to be thinking, from the very beginning, how are we going to get this out to an audience?

Aspden And was [Four Weddings] your first entry into making films internationally, by working with American producers and directors?

Fellner The first one we did was The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) with the Coen Brothers.

Aspden Such a weird title.

Bevan I remember in the production office of that movie that Joel and Ethan had all these letters from people getting the title wrong – The Hooplucker Proxy, The Hubplucker Proxy – typical Coen Brothers.

Fellner But even then we had made films separately as producers in the States so it didn’t really scare us.

When Johnny English Reborn grosses over $1m in Vietnam, you just think ‘Wow’

Bevan One of the things we learnt from the music videos was to travel. Even if you work in the film industry all the time in the UK, you have to have the Hollywood element to your business because at the end of the day, all of the talent agencies are in Hollywood, all of the distribution comes out of Hollywood, and most of the money comes out of Hollywood. Too often, British producers even today are nervous of the whole Hollywood thing. We started going there 25 years ago – and we didn’t start at the top. You start by getting to know all of the assistants in the agencies and the assistant assistants in the distribution companies and, just like you, through their career they go up through the ranks. A number of those people are very senior in the business now. We learnt that you can’t be there yourself all the time but it’s a good idea to have somebody there. Otherwise, when you leave town – out of sight, out of mind.

Fellner The international part of our industry has grown unbelievably in the past 10 years. We get these reports every weekend of how the films are doing all over the world. Johnny English Reborn (2011) became the first non-3D film to gross over $1m in Vietnam. You just think, “Wow”. Vietnam two years ago, three years ago, you’d get $50,000.

Robson Looking back, do you think you’ve made any errors?

Fellner Yes, we’ve made plenty.

Bevan We’ve probably pushed it a little too hard in terms of some of the decisions we’ve made with films. Three or four years ago, we made a series of movies which all cost too much money.

Robson Does that include Green Zone (2010)?

Bevan Green Zone would be the last. The Boat that Rocked (2009) was one of them, State of Play (2009) another. We were doing a lot of movies that just cost a little bit too much money.

Robson Isn’t the virtue of the slate that the risk is offset – ideally anyway?

Bevan Ideally it is, but if they’re all costing too much then...

Robson When you have a failure do you find that it furnishes you with a real concrete lesson in the way that a success – which can seem more fluky or unknowable – doesn’t?

Bevan It’s almost always in its foundations. In the basic idea and then getting the wrong cost point.

Fellner But it’s very hard to work out when a film doesn’t work that you liked and you believed in and created.

Robson Green Zone is a case in point because it’s a terrifically good film, directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Matt Damon but it didn’t have the kind of success that they had with the Bourne films.

Bevan It’s not just that; for example in United 93 (2006) [also directed by Greengrass] we came out with one of the best movies this company has made. A fantastic piece of cinema. But we got that exactly right. It cost $20m and we were allowed 15, 20 gross and that was it. With Green Zone, we went “Oh let’s go and make a film about Iraq,” which is a good idea but there was too much Bourne brain and not enough United 93 brain.

Robson Did it cost more than the Bourne films?

Bevan It cost a lot but not that much! It was a good movie but it’s just never going to find, because of what it’s about, a Bourne-size audience. It was going to find a United 93-size audience.

Robson Have there been projects that you’ve passed on which you have particular regrets about?

Fellner Well, there are definitely films that have come through our door and have gone on to be hugely successful, The King’s Speech being one of them. But it went through everybody’s doors, in a different incarnation. What else?

Bevan Pulp Fiction?

Fellner P ulp Fiction, yes. What else? Not too many actually. Not too many.

Aspden You’ve had such an influence on the British film; the industry used to be something of a joke and something that didn’t feel very vital.

Bevan Yes, well, I think it is fantastic that you can make a British film now which is going to do £20m at the box office. If someone had said that to me in 1985, I would have said, “What a joke!”. That was completely inconceivable.

Robson Were there always certain films you envisioned making, not as a model, but the kind of thing you always wanted to do?

Bevan No, I was brought up in the 1970s, the age of Scorsese and Coppola and Hal Ashby and all of those people making great narrative-driven movies. Actually, when we were making Tinker Tailor we said, “Let’s make a 1970s movie where it kind of feels like you have room for the character to develop and all the rest of it.” And that sort of thing was very much my influences. It was something that was not necessarily carried totally into what we do, but that was why I went into it.

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Leo Robson on three decades of British cinema

1982 Colin Welland, writer of Chariots of Fire, announces “The British are coming” when accepting his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

1984 Working Title Films is founded by Tim Bevan and Sarah Radclyffe. Margaret Thatcher’s government publishes its only white paper on the British film industry.

1985 The Films Act abolishes the Eady tax concession, which benefited foreign companies that filmed in the UK. Working Title makes its first film, My Beautiful Laundrette, with funding from Channel Four Films.

1987 Withnail & I, produced by George Harrison’s HandMade films, is released.

1988 Mike Leigh makes High Hopes, his first cinema film since 1971’s Bleak Moments.

1992 Working Title begins its association with Polygram. Sarah Radclyffe leaves the company. Eric Fellner joins as Bevan’s partner.

1994 Working Title releases Four Weddings and a Funeral, which takes $250m at the box office, and The Hudsucker Proxy, its first of seven collaborations with the Coen Brothers.

1996 Trainspotting is released. Secrets & Lies, directed by Mike Leigh, wins the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

1997 The English Patient, produced by Miramax, is awarded nine Oscars.

1998 Working Title makes a deal with Universal, reported to be worth $600m. Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels is released.

1999 Working Title launches Working Title 2 Productions, which would make films such as Billy Elliot. Working Title releases Notting Hill, which makes $350m at the box office. Shakespeare in Love, produced by Miramax, wins seven Oscars.

2000 UK Film Council established by the Labour government, funded in part by the National Lottery.

2001 Working Title releases Bridget Jones’s Diary, which earns $250m at the box office, and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which is an unexpected flop.

2003 Working Title collaborates with Richard Curtis on his directorial debut Love Actually, which takes more than $200m at the box office.

2004 Working Title releases Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, which makes more than $200m at the box office.

2010 Working Title makes its most expensive film to date, Green Zone. It is considered a commercial failure.

2011 UK Film Council closed. The King’s Speech is awarded four Oscars. Working Title releases Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Senna, and starts production on Anna Karenina (the company’s 100th film) and Les Misérables.

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