Skip to main content

David Thompson reunites DiCaprio, Winslett and Mendes

The news that Kate Winslett and Leonardo DiCaprio are to reunite for the first time since Titanic, in a feature directed by hubby Sam Mandes, is a great coup for BBC Films who developed the project. I interviewed David Thompson, head of the department, in 2005 for the last funding guide and he said some interesting things about how he likes to work with producers, commissioning structures and budgets.

From Oscar winning Iris to the $100m grossing Billy Elliot, Thompson has steered BBC Films through a string of critical and commercial successes. With a £10m annual budget for mainly co-productions, including Woody Allen’s first non US features, BBC Films have become one of the UK’s most active, successful (and well funded) producers.


What sort of skills are you looking for in the new producers you work with?
We’re looking for a combination of skills which is hard to find because producers don’t get many chances to make films. Sadly producers get a chance to make one film and then not another one for a long time.
You need a combination of creative ability, ability to work with scripts, and understanding casting. You also need to be able to put deals together and run productions so it’s a very complex list of skills that are required which is not easy to achieve except on the job. And that’s the paradox and the challenge for the British film industry really.
Unless you’ve been working say in television where you’re acquiring many of the same skills or up to a point in commercials, it is very hard to learn on the job.
But you do need a big range of skills. You need tact, diplomacy, creativity, some vision, and a kind of mad, manic drive really, a manic belief in turning the impossible into the possible.

And generally the first time feature producers you’ve worked with, have they all come from a particular background?
No they come from all kinds of backgrounds, documentary, commercials, theatre, all kinds of worlds. I wouldn’t say there was a particular way in but I would say TV and commercials are really good as a way in. But also coming up through the production line - a lot of big first ADs or big script editors become producers. There’s all different ways. Through the script editing route; through the production route; up from runner. No one way is better than the other. You also need to have also an understanding of how the creative process works. Both the nuts and bolts and the creative process are really important.

At what stage should an indie producer approach BBC Films? How developed are you looking for projects to be?
You can come with an initial idea. We often get treatments, scripts a mixture of things. There’s no right or wrong. You can come early or late. Come early with a treatment if it’s a really hot idea. If it’s just ‘lets do an adaptation of a classic book’ and you’ve got no take on it then it’s kind of pointless. But if you’ve got the rights, or nearly got the rights on a really interesting book then that’s worth coming to us, or a really unusual idea - albeit in a short treatment form - then its still worth coming to us.

What kind of films is BBC Films looking to develop?
Well we do all kinds of film. If you look at our past range, from comedies to drama, strong drama like Iris, to uplifting films like Billy Elliot, to more gritty social films reflecting the many aspects of our culture like Bullet Boy, through to musical comedy, like Mrs Henderson, there’s all kinds of films we are doing.
We’re particularly looking for comedy, and particularly lighter, more uplifting films, they’re the harder ones to find. Films that can play on BBC1. Ones that can really cross over and be hits. We have more drama, and so does the industry in general.
We’re not big looking to do horror, we would do spoof horror maybe if it was the right kind of thing. Comedy, entertainment uplift, and some strong dramas but we’re quite well stocked with strong dramas.
So the emphasis is on films that can cheer people up and make them feel better about themselves and the world. Which are harder to find. Which is not to say we’re not only going to do those films, of course not. The bulk of the films we do will be more on the edge, that’s the truth of it.
But we’ve got a big range in the films that are up and coming. From Michael Winterbottoms new film Cock and Ball Story, to Danny Boyle’s new film Millions which is more of an uplifiting family film, and we’re still doing period films from time to time, but not so many.
I should rephrase that slightly, we are particularly looking for comedy.

How much is your commissioning strategy defined by programming for BBC channels?

We’re trying to find more that will play on BBC1. In the past the bulk has been on BBC2, but we’re trying to shift it a bit more so more of it will fit on BBC1. The bulk of it will probably still go on BBC2.

There was talk of your budget which is £10m being raised.
I’m hoping it’s going to happen, but it’s not happened yet. We’re awaiting an announcement. We very much hope we will get funding. Obviously we feel we need it and we want it and we can use it very wisely and we think that the British film industry will benefit from it if we have more to spend.

It is remarkable how much you achieve with that budget

I must admit there is a kind of slight of hand and magic a bit like the feeding of the five thousand with not many fishes and loaves. The truth is we do make our money go a long way because, we gear up more money, in other words we co-produce so much. Everything we do almost is co-produced, a little seed money can go a long way. It’s a big strain to get a film going on those terms. And it’s harder and harder to do it. Us trying to put in a tiny bit of money into films where we still want to retain very strong editorial involvement. Which is always what we want to do. Even if we get more money we’ll still have to make the money go a very long way, it’s not suddenly going to be bread and jam tomorrow. It’s still going to be a strain, because some of the money we get will only go to replace the tax funding that has dropped away. So it’s not going to suddenly be all easy, but I hope it will be a little bit easier because right now it’s very tough. Certainly we’ve got a very strong co-production team. And co-production, co-financing and partnership is at the heart of what we do. Almost every project we do is partnered. But that of course that has its problems, because sometimes partners don’t see eye to eye and the film suffers in that mix because people take different views and the film ends up in a hole down the middle.
Much more straight forward if you’re fully funding your own thing.

Do you fully fund anything?
Hardly ever. We sometimes regret we haven’t. We very much regretted not fully funding the Summer of Love. But we couldn’t do it, and very rarely can we do it. Can’t remember the last film we fully funded, actually, it was a long time ago.

Last resort was done on a  £400,000 budget..
We did fully fund that. Often we are in the invidious position of where we have so little cash we end up selling off rights not necessarily in the way we want to just to get the film financed. So we weaken our own position in films, but because we only have £10m for the whole operation we have to do that. It doesn’t involve us adopting the soundest commercial principles.
Billy Elliot was a classic example of that, if we had lots of money we could have fully financed the film and we’d be very rich by now. But there we are.

Do you come in at a certain stage as a co-producer. Are you usually first in?
We’re often first in, we’re usually first in, but we sometimes come in right at the end, we look for opportunities when things are fully developed, we’re not adverse to that, particularly where people are looking for smaller sum. The bulk of things we do we  developed ourselves, but we’re not exclusive about that or precious about that. We’ll take a good script from wherever it comes, even if we haven’t developed it, more than happy to.

Do you retain the option if a project hasn’t come out as you expected to move it away from a theatrical release to a TV broadcast?
Only by consent - of the producer involved. It rarely happens, but if it needs to happen we would rather that than it not happen at all.

How many projects have you got in development at any one time?
We’ve got about 30 projects in active development, maybe a little more.

And how many will go into production? One in three?
Well in Hollywood it’s one in a hundred. We’d like one in four to get off the ground at one stage or another. One in four, one in three, somewhere in between the two. That’s quite a difficult thing to pull off. Because in the film industry it’s not good enough just to have a good script, like it is in television where it will get made properly. You need a good script that will attract finance at that particular time, that will attract actors at that particular time. So what you need is many more good scripts that are ready to go.
It’s not always the best script that tickles someone’s fancy at a particular time. You need to have a lot of scripts ready. We’d be happy to get to a ratio of three to one, compared with Hollywood which is hundreds to one I think we do pretty well.

The success ratio on the films seems pretty good.
I think we’d like to have more ‘commercial hits’, obviously making more money, but that’s not what we’re there to do. The primary reason we’re here is to reflect the BBC’s public service remit, which is to make films which explore British society in all kinds of different ways, which deal with all kinds of different issues and reflect the world we live in all its manifold aspects. To back new talent, express ideas in forms that might otherwise not be expressed and be doing something a bit from the general market place, that is our brief, thank goodness. As well as having some mainstream films as well.
I must say one other thing about development of scripts, which is a really important thing. Just because a script doesn’t get made at a particular time doesn’t make it’s a waste of money. It’s all part of a process of training and people learning and all that, obviously they learn more if it does get made, but for a first time writer it often won’t get made the first time. It’s all part of the process of building an industry. It’s something that’s not readily available in the industry always to work with script teams and editors and build an idea.
It’s part of R&D development and it’s not necessarily a waste of money because you don’t make a film at a particular time out of the script. There’s all sorts of things that may come out of it, a relationship with the writer, the writer may have learned other things.
It’s all part of the process

And what’s the best way for a producer or writer to approach you?
With an idea I would say. Or if it s a writer with a script, with a spec script is always a good idea, or a play they’ve written for the theatre.

You will take unsolicited material?
We do, it will get read one way or another.  Not absolutely out of the blue, they’ll get read by something called the Writers Room – it will get read by someone in the BBC.
From time to time we’ve made films from unsolicited material, it does happen from time to time.

And do you see BBC Films moving into microbudget as some screen agencies are exploring?
We want to be in all the sectors. We want to do lower budget films and bigger budget film. I do think that many British films are far too expensive for what they are, unnecessarily expensive. And made in old fashioned ways. And we’ve been trying very much to pioneer new ways to make films. And the films that we’ve done with Dominic Savage, Francesca Josepf and Pawel Pawlikowski have been good examples of that. Working with different technology in different ways.
But British indie films are far more expensive than American indie films and that’s not really sustainable in the long term.

And what do you think will be the key thing that changes that?
There won’t be the money around any more. There won’t be these tax breaks, it won’t be so easy to do it. So we’ll have to find ways to make films more cheaply.
Multi crewing, multi-tasking, all this stuff, using different equipment, the equipment is getting cheaper all the time so the process should get easier. Big budgets and big crews for all kind of films. Michael Winterbottom has pioneered this, with In this World which was done with very small crews and new technology. There needs to be more of that going on.

With a new Director General it seems the culture is quite positive towards BBC Films.
For years film at the BBC was quite an equivocal process, people weren’t sure if they did or they didn’t want it. Because it wasn’t top of the agenda. But now the BBC has got right behind it and stated its commitment to backing British Films and that’s really good news. It makes it a much more positive environment to work in. We’re very much part of the proposition for the charter renewal and that’s obviously a good position to be in. We can offer something valuable to the British film industry and indeed the BBC.

Let me just say one more thing, which I think is really important, there will have to be more spec script writing, I think that’s the way to get started, I’m afraid. It happens much more in America, people can’t hang around waiting to get a commission. Having said that there is money for commissioning with all the money from the Film Council for development. But people will have to be more prepared to write spec scripts and do more work on spec, because that’s how the industry works in the rest of the world.

Dirty Pretty Things was kind of a spec script kind of. We didn’t commission it in the first place, we got the script and then commissioned further drafts of it. We got that from Steve Knight who created Who Wants to be a Millionaire, but he hadn’t been a writer before that, or not much. We got one before called the Theory of Flight that literally came through the post, for Ken Brannagh and Helena Bonham Carter.You just have to be slightly insane, totally driven, never give up and be prepared to suspend all disbelief to make a film, and push through and make your vision happen.