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What was your background before you joined the Film Council?
Before I joined the Film Council I was head of development at British Screen Finance. It was in a certain sense the predecessor to the Film Council in that it received money from the government, but it had a very different remit. I was there for four or five years I suppose and worked in both the production and development funds, I worked with new writers a lot and then moved over to the main development slate.
Prior to that I worked freelance as a script consultant for a lot of production companies - I wanted my independence - I basically started my career in television production.
How did you get from TV production to script consultant?
Well I joined an independent TV production company while at college, just as work experience. It went so well that they asked me to stay, I thought it was a better way to get into the industry than by finishing my degree so I dropped out in order to start a career.
I started work on a TV series there and I found it a great way to get an overview of what happens in the making of a programme. All the things that, prior to working in the industry I thought would be extremely glamorous, weren't really very interesting from my point of view. The brilliant thing about that company was that they wrote everything in-house so I was extremely lucky to be able to sit in on script meetings, and by watching that side of the process happen I realised it was probably the most interesting part of the business.
When I came to leaving the TV company to move into film, which is what I'd always wanted, I just touted myself around. I'd gone for an assistant's job which I didn't get, but as I was walking out of the interview I noticed that the head of development at the time, a lady called Tessa Ross, had a huge pile of scripts outside her door. They were running a script competition at the time called The Short & Curlies and this was the pile of submissions that no one had had the time to go through. I offered to read them for free, and that just got me in there. So I started reading for Tessa and as always in this industry, when you meet someone with contacts you move forward.
Yes, you always seem to hear these stories
Yeah, people come into this industry eager to please and you are obviously really interested as well. So if people are generous enough with their time to let you walk with something and bring it back with questions on how to proceed then it's a wonderful introduction.
I dropped out of university to set up Netribution, do you ever feel that has counted against you at all?
To be honest, when I look back at the people I was studying with I feel that I'm ahead because they finished with a pretty general qualification, and a lot of them have ended up in side line jobs when they wanted to be at the centre of the industry. I remember my Dad suggesting I stay and get a qualification and I could see the worth of that but I feel that certain areas of this industry operate in a different way. I never regret the decision I made.
What sort of training do you think is most needed for this industry?
It depends because there are so many different types of jobs. I can speak from the development perspective and say that the best kind of training is a combination of on-the-job training and formal training. On the job training is about finding someone in a company who is good at what they do, someone willing to let you learn and also to let you make mistakes. The formal training should go in hand with that and concerns being taught what to look for in a script, how to help structure a script and how to work with writers. That can only help and that balance of the two is the ideal scenario for development.
Paul and Robert commented that a lot of scripts lack the cinematic quality of Americans. Would you say that's something that can be solved by training or is it just a difference in culture?
I think that it can be solved by training in part but you have to look very closely at the type of training you apply, for some the best training is to read 10 great American scripts that got made.
For instance, a young filmmaker is making a very poetic ghost story, a beautiful and personal vision - one of the first things I gave her was a copy of The Sixth Sense. I told her to look at how the writer/director has written the script, it's actually a very enjoyable read, purely by reading you get involved in the story and that is part of the craft.
A lot of American scripts allow the reader enough space to actually fall into the story, rather than trying to give the reader all the information possible. Like any profession you need to look at the work of people who have excelled and learn from it. I think there's also a lot of good to be had, in training or in practice, from being able to sit down and spend some time with the practitioner and the execs who are commissioning it, understanding what they need out of the process.
A writer/director needs to know what to put down on the page in order to get their film sold into the market - before they actually make the film. That sounds like a crude distinction but it's quite difficult convincing people of the benefit of this.
I imagine people are hesitant of making their scripts too commercial or writing them solely for the acquisition exec. How do you balance that?
If someone comes through the door here with an original idea that has a spark to it and a passion behind it, they have to bring it to the table but we have to present to them the reality of what they have to do in order to make it. The aim is to get it made and, I would hope, to get it made and have it succeed, whichever way they define success.
From our side, that's what we try to get people to work on, to define what they regard will make this film a success. Whether it's huge box office acclaim or huge critical acclaim, you then have to look at how that's going to impact upon your story, and ultimately the budget and who you'll want to sell it to.
Personally I find it shocking that commercialism is treated as a dirty word because actually it should be something to aspire to. It's a very broad subject, you'd hope a success meant huge critical and commercial success. There's Something About Mary, which is a very broad comedy, is also critically interesting in terms of what it is doing with the genre. You don't have to lose quality for the sake of commercial success, I think you just have to embrace both.
Where would you say you got that mentality? British Screen was choosing projects that wouldn't otherwise get made.
The remit for British Screen was to fund projects that the marketplace, at the time, wasn't naturally willing to fund. From a development point of view it's actually quite an interesting line to tread because it meant that we worked with a lot of first timers. You'd often work on their first script which might, after going through the development process, actually go on to get made. You could tread the line of taking on a film that may be a risk and then try to make it more commercial.
It's quite difficult in this country because there aren't many companies producing commercial material, so it is very difficult on one level to learn, particularly on the job, exactly what's going to make a film commercial. I think the way to learn is to watch as many films and read as many scripts as you can and to listen to those who have written them. Then you have a sort of tool belt of information and contacts to deal with any eventuality, like having a commercial idea that's not working, and you'll have far better means to get the film up there.
Which projects came your way at British Screen that have since gone on and made it?
There was The Lowdown, which doesn't fit in the commercial realm but was made by a really interesting first time director. It was part of a very particular initiative to persuade younger filmmakers to make films for less so that the pressure on their shoulders wasn't so great. That was great for Jamie Thraves because he had more freedom to let his original voice grow with less of the financial pressures. I hope he felt very relaxed throughout the process because he had people around him who were making demands but were also quite understanding of what he was trying to do. It think that shows in the film, I mean you'll either like it or hate it but I certainly felt that it was very distinctive, not the kind of film that was coming out in the UK.
The whole point is that Jamie will grow and whatever he wants to do in the future he's had the chance to make a really strong imprint with a feature. This is often a problem for first time filmmakers; they go in with an inflated budget for production, the aim of the game is to get a professional job done not blaze a trail to get your voice heard. This is often why first timers don't get another film set up.
How many applications have you had so far?
We've had a huge amount actually, about a thousand and we seem to get around three times the amount of the production fund, on average. That's understandable because you can come to development with less, you can turn up with a treatment or an idea so the volume is always going to be higher.
How do you accept applications?
In the guidelines we set out the chance for people to come to us with a treatment. That's obviously because one of the caveats of being set up is that we can accept applications from all over the country, and indeed all over Europe. We have to set some boundaries because there aren't enough hours in the day to take a pitch from everybody.
People can come to us with a treatment or with a book that you've optioned with some notes from the adapter on how you are going to take it forward. That's the earlier stage and beyond that you can come at any point. The interesting thing about this fund is that you can come for creative development at any point but also, when the project is fully developed creatively, you still need to go out and raise the finance. There's a mechanism here to give you the money to go onto that next phase. That's a critical point in a film's progression, the point where an extra £10,000 will help you go out and get hold of a line producer for example, something to keep the ball rolling.