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FeaturesInterview with a Producer

Interview with a Producer

The opening scene in one of film producer Stephen Woolley’s films, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, shows a little boy glued to a TV screen. At a young age he is obsessed by film stars and the glittery life that comes with it. I asked Stephen if that little boy could have been him and he quickly points out that it is more likely to have been Toby Young, the writer of the book that the film was based on. However he does admit that to some degree we are all drawn to the glitter of the silver screen, and like me, he grew up during a time when television showed films in prime time. Today films are mostly relegated to their own channels and the main stations concentrate on lifestyle. Stephen remembers a different TV era: “I was very lucky in as much as, when I was growing up, things like Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy and all those great classic movies from The Big Sleep through to the Marx brothers, were on television. If you pick up a Radio Times from 1967 or 1986 and you look at only having two stations ITV and BBC, the amount of classic films that were shown at that time was extraordinary, because they were thought of as fillers. Now you would be watching reality TV shows. People love those shows, the selling antiques and making hairdos and cooking countless pies, and all the rest of it that goes on—Big Brother times fifty.  But for me, I grew up with the great classic films and in those days they started to show subtitled films as well, late night on a Friday on the BBC.”
If that is what gave Stephen Woolley the motivation to start making films then the world is an infinitely better place for it. A fraction of the movies he has produced includes: The Company of Wolves, Absolute Beginners, Mona Lisa, High Spirits, Scandal, The Crying Game, Backbeat, Interview with the Vampire, Michael Collins, And When did you last see Your Father and Made in Dagenham. His list of credits goes on and on but there is one unique thread that has run through his whole career, and that has been his interest in finding stories that stand out from the norm. Asked what he looks for in a book, script or idea he said: “I have never been guided by anything other than a personal desire to see things that are unique or different, or take a unique and different view of something, and that are going to be able to be exciting and stimulating and entertaining for an audience. As an independent film maker I am not necessarily looking for big budget projects because that is not the world that I live or work in. Although I have made big budget films, generally if I were in the business of making big budget pictures I am more likely to be living in Los Angeles than Europe. I suppose the kind of films that we make are the kind of films that we have made, and they do fall neatly into original ideas which have a contemporary resonance now, like Made in Dagenham did. And then adaptations of novels and books that hopefully do have a resonance now, and also have a smaller inbuilt audience because they are books that people can reference, like And When did you last see your Father’ for instance, or Great Expectations. And then genre films like Byzantium and movies like How to Lose Friends and Alienate People which are comedies but were slightly more edgy and subversive.”
Stephen Woolley’s films are littered with unique and often slightly offbeat characters. Jim Broadbent goes from a slightly ironic bartender in The Crying Game and an emotional train wreck in Perrier’s Bounty to an endearing GP come inventor, ‘not always right, but never wrong’, in And When did you last see your Father. Cillian Murphy, whom Neil Jordan has referred to as a ‘transformative actor’, shows his wide ranging talents in Perrier’s Bounty and transformative skills in Breakfast on Pluto.
Whilst much of the character and direction of a film can be attributed to the Director and the actors, it takes a producer to tie together what others may not be able to achieve. Stephen Woolley has an eye for the people and stories that make us slightly uncomfortable but yet gripped. I asked him if throughout the development process he was trying to learn more about what makes characters what they are. “I think that you are searching for stories that somehow fell between the cracks” he said. “And sometimes those stories fall between the cracks because it is very hard to identify a definite hero or a definite villain.  If you look back at films like Scandal, Stephen Ward, who was played by John Hurt, is an ambiguous character. And we all love stories about heroes and heroines but ambiguity is something that is more difficult to pinpoint. And what is good and bad and what society perceives as good and bad, is something I think I have always been drawn towards. I suppose if anything we have always made films for the people that don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that life is full of winners and losers, and life is more complex and there is a grey area. And there should be movies which are about that kind of complexity and that ambiguity—that you don’t necessarily have to win it all.  That is really what makes it very hard to work in a situation like Hollywood, where the onus is always going to be, in the final analysis, on the box office and achieving the highest gross that you can. Then you just reduce everything to the lowest common denominator, which is something that I don’t think yet in the movie world in Europe, we have to do.”
Stephen began his film career tearing tickets at his local cinema and gradually worked his way through the system to own a cinema, and then a distribution business, before starting his own production company—this on the advice of many in the industry such as Jeremy Thomas and John Boorman who told him ‘you should produce films’. The process has left him with, not just a wide ranging knowledge of the industry, but also an insight into the extraordinary patience needed to see a project through. The period from initial concept to the completion of a film can take many, many years. Stephen cites Michael Collins as an example. “Ironically Michael Collins was the film that Neil Jordan was working on when we made Company of Wolves together” he said. “We didn’t make the film for another 12 years.” He is keen to encourage young writers and film makers to persevere. He points out that a lot of films come together out of a convoluted mix of events rather than from a set formula. “In my life as a producer I think things have gone from as little as nine months to a year, up to twelve, thirteen, fourteen years.  Other projects that we have could well have been around for decades. So there is no prescribed amount of time. It is that kind of experience with different writers about how scripts and books and ideas become convoluted into other movies, and they sort of emerge at strange places where you didn’t expect them to. You can have a great idea and a great script but it never finds its audience because of bad timing. The wonder of the film business is that it is all made up as you go along and the downside of the film business, in terms of funding and financial security, is that sadly, it is all made up as you go along.”
Stephen admits that he never set out to be a film producer. “I suppose that’s the luck of it”, he says. What consumed his life was cinema—seeing films, writing about them and discussing them. He may not be the little boy glued to the TV screen, obsessed with celebrity, but he certainly was the little boy that was captivated by film. It gave him a passion for the industry and he has become a great promoter of the business as well as an engaging speaker.

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