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netribution > features > interview with robert jones > page one

It's always the little things you remember about interviews. I won't forget Stephen Daldry asking to borrow my cigarette lighter before swiftly (and no doubt subconsciously) putting it in his pocket. Likewise I won't forget arriving at the office of Robert Jones, head of the Film Council's Premiere Fund, awkwardly apologising in advance that my Dictaphone could run out of battery juice at any moment. Quick as a dart Robert leapt to his desk and pulled out a box of Duracel AAs.
Aside from making me realise how easy it is to get a loan from the Film Council (in fact there were no repayment conditions in this case) it illustrated the spirit of direct and practical solutions that Robert and the rest of his team are trying to find for the UK's problems.

| by nic wistreich |
| photos by nic wistreich|
| in london |
     
 

For indeed the UK industry has a lot of problems. 45 minutes with Robert turned a sunny day quite dour as we chewed over major skills shortages, the lack of a star system, exhibition and distribution shortfalls, unimaginative producers and the high cost of producing a feature in the UK. We're in danger of having a UK industry revolving only around Working Title - Robert's aim is to nurture, encourage and boost UK production so that in three years we have 10 to 15 companies regularly releasing successful pictures, in the same way Planet24, Talkback & HatTrick do in TV. Big ambitions indeed, but Robert is a seasoned and well-qualified producer - having spotted and produced the first big films of Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight), Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) and Ben Hopkins (Simon Magus). That Singer has gone to blockbuster A-list status, against Anderson, now master of the US mainstream-independent; and Hopkins, king of the ultra-low-fi-indie, pays homage to Robert's belief in backing talent rather than projects. As the fund's debut slate indicates, this diversity of strong filmmaking at a range of budget levels looks set to continue at the Film Council. And I don't think the fund could be in more capable hands: Robert is a pragmatist - refreshingly honest and realistic - yet with the passion of a keen problem solver and the logical savvy of an astute diagnostician.
Of course the question you want to know is - does he have money for you? Well, read on…

Can you start by talking through the first films that the Premiere Fund has backed?
We're involved in four films at the moment. The first is a mocumentary, Spinal Tap type thing called Mike Bassett , England Manager with Steve Barron directing, Neil Peplow producing and Ricky Tomlinson and Amanda Redman in the lead. We've got Robert Altman's Gosford Park - that's the nearest we'll get to an event feature. Sort of Robert Altman does Agatha Christie, although it's an original story. There's a thriller called Miranda, that's FilmFour and stars Christina Ricci and John Simm by first time director Marc Mundan. We've also just started shooting Fragile Films' The Importance of Being Earnest which Miramax is distributing in English speaking territories. That stars Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and Judi Dench. Mike Bassett and Miranda have both now wrapped, they've gone into post and Gosford Park will wrap towards the end of the month.

Gosford Park seems an ideal film to kick off the fund - bringing an A-list director to the UK for the first time to work with a very English cast and crew. Was there a lot of negotiation on your part in trying to get that film made?
Yes definitely, although I could never take credit for Robert Altman's decision. We actually announced three projects at once. I didn't want to go out and announce a single project first because, having already talked about trying to achieve certain things, it's quite obvious that within three films rather than one it's easier to cover all our desires and aspirations. But I did want to go out with a mixture so I was very happy with Mike Bassett as a lower budget, more domestically based, mainstream comedy. Then Gosford Park, which is a much bigger budget, event-style picture with a legendary name and a legendary cast, and hopefully it will travel. And then Miranda which is by a first time writer and director, which together shows we are dipping our fingers in many different areas.

An Ideal Husband and Gosford Park fit the conventional mould of English period drama.
Yes absolutely. Although I must say that Ideal Husband and - well I've only seen the rushes of Importance of Being Earnest - certainly for that kind of film, Fragile's style is very popular indeed. Oliver Parker has managed to give it a very modern feel for a period film and I think that with Robert Altman putting his style into Gosford Park that type of film is also very interesting. What you have to do is back talent and put your faith in people who have done interesting things.

How do you gauge that?
Part gut instinct, part taste and part market experience - you just have to be passionate about it. The difference between the way the lottery was run and the way it was under the Arts Council - not a criticism because the rules have been changed a lot - is that we are going to fund things out of passion and not because no one else will make them. When the lottery money became available for the first time the idea was that it would fund things that wouldn't ordinarily get made. With the benefit of hindsight that doesn't seem a great decision because a lot of films got made that shouldn't have.
My background in distribution, acquisition and production has always involved getting fired up about something if you are actually going to commit to it. Particularly now when we are going to be getting hundreds of applications and scripts a year, with only 10m to spend. We are going to have to be committed and I'll be the one who'll have to stand up at the end of the day and perhaps say, 'it didn't turn out as we had intended but at least we did it for the right reasons.' I'm reasonably pleased with the way the first six or seven months have gone in that we have managed to find four films that we felt we should put money into.

Are those your projects for the year now?
Well it rolls over because the first year wasn't a full year, it was really only October to April. Plus you're committing money but not giving it all at once. It's probably better to look at it as 30 million over three years.

Is the Film Council planning to use returns on investment to become self-sufficient?
The fund isn't designed like a franchise, it's not supposed to become self supporting. What it's trying to do, along with the development fund, training fund and the other production funds, is help the British film industry support itself by helping production companies become stable businesses. To develop the film industry into something attractive for people to view as a viable career option, which I don't think many people do at the moment. Although many of these aims are long term we need to get film on the agenda and make it appear more exciting.
We've got particular problems as an industry that we have to try and get over, and they are not easy ones. A major problem is the cost of making a film in this country. The budgets we are getting here are averaging at 3.5m to 4m and apart from the no-budget FilmFour Lab type films, that's a low budget film in this country. When you compare that with what you can make them for in North America and in Europe, it makes us one of, if not the most expensive filmmaking countries in the world. I think that is a huge problem.
We aren't getting the people coming through and wanting to work as crewmembers. In America you've got great numbers of people coming through all the time, who want to get into the industry at every level. I'm not saying one should exploit people at all, I'm just saying that if we want to move forward we need to take risks and attempt to bring down the cost of making films.

It's certainly the case that a lot of people want to direct. In which areas are there talent shortages??
All over. There's a lot work that needs to be done in terms of training. We've a lot of writers with good ideas but not that many who have master the technique of screenwriting. Our traditions are that of theatre and literature whereas America really has a cinematic tradition. I think the training fund that we've got has to work very closely with the production funds - we've just got to attract more people at every level into the industry. And I don't think we do that by saying 'look at all the money you can make'; we get artists into the industry by offering an environment that is creatively exciting - in a way that the fashion world and the art world and the music world have succeeded in doing so. We need to do that in this country.

Would you say one of the problems facing the UK industry is the lack of a star system - there's hardly a British actor or actress that can open a movie?
We don't have star system. It's not just about film but what is our culture? We speak the same language as the Americans and, unlike a number of European countries, we haven't actively preserved our culture. We are a little bit adrift. Whilst the pressure is on me to make a return - not necessarily to make a profit - but to make a return on this money, I am very mindful of the fact that I'm not just looking for the next Bridget Jones or the next Full Monty. Those will always be financial mainstays but if we only pursue those types of films then we shall have a very dull, bland industry.
Take Moulin Rouge for example. I haven't seen it but I passed on Strictly Ballroom in acquisitions, like so many others, because from the script one just couldn't tell. Just like Romeo and Juliet, you have the perfect example, you've got to put your faith in talented people. These films aren't made by financiers they are made by great talent and that's what we have to encourage here - always bearing in mind the many financial constraints that exist in this country.

 
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