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EDITORIAL December 12-12.2001


Sam North

It's a curious thing but you could think from a distance that British filmmaking is not a thriving industry. You'd probably think that especially if you had wasted money on seeing The 51st State recently with Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Carlyle. You'd probably make a special note in your mind never to see anything that has Rhys Ifans and Sean Pertwee in it as well, or anything written by Stel Pavlou or Directed by Ronny Yu. Yes the film is awful, terrible and shouldn't be out there but you can see the finance guys at Alliance around 18 months ago getting really excited when Samuel L. Jackson came on board. Yes, we are going to make a British Pulp Fiction. Of course what they have made is just British Pulp and the sooner it is the better basically.

But is all British film hopeless? Obviously not. We have brilliant film makers here, but why exactly can't we make good 'popular' films. Yes yes, Harry Potter looks British, but it isn't, nor is Indiana Jones or Star Wars, I am not even sure Bond is either, almost certain the profits go back to America somehow. But there is our problem. For some unfathomable reason, our financiers do not either have deep enough pockets or the courage to bid for projects that scream large profits and when they do...they end up making The Avengers.

There is another type of British film out there. Well several. The deeply unpleasant troubled sexual film. usually gay related but not always. This month saw Rocket Film finally release Women Talking Dirty Directed by Coky Giedroyc. Although it stars Helna Bonham Carter and is set in Edinburgh it is about women who have disappointing sexual adventures. It will do no business and will disappoint the people who eventually rent it on video expecting ranchy sex and inuendo. Other writer/directors struggle and eventually come up with the money to make a film they feel passionately about. Peter Capaldi gave us 'Strictly Sinatra' in October with Ian Hart, but it sank without trace. Sank with a reason becasue who really cares about a two bit working men's club curly haired singer who can imitate Sinatra and lets his ambition suck him into the Liverpool gangster world. Been done before and better by Stephen Frears with Albert Finney around thrity years ago. It isn't the audiences fault OK. Films need to be larger than life and with luck funny or scary or whatever, but something more than you can get by watching Inpector Frost or the unbelievably dull Cold Feet on TV. For the record DNA financed 'Strictly Sinatra' for around £3.5 million and if it takes ten percent of that it will do well.

This year did see an adventurous and often extremely funny film 'Very Annie Mary' but aside from it's London showing, it went nowhere and if you look at the top 25 top earners of films for the last 12 rolling months. although there are several British location films in there Harry Potter, The Mummy Returns, and TombRaider, that's it. Absolutely no British films. Or Scots or Irish for that matter. In fact there is just one European film in the current charts, the universally adored Amelie. Looking across Screen International's charts for successful Britsh films the world over Bridget Jones is the only one with any legs, as it were.

So you probably think this is a negative article, knocking Brit film. But no. In the last three months I have been attending seminars about upcoming British made films at places like the Script Factory or New Producers Alliance and one can see there is resilience and vitality there. Americans like to film here. Fred Schepsi for one (Russia House) has just completed Last Orders based on the Booker prize winner Graham Swift's novel and it stars Michael Caine, David Hemmings, Bob Hoskins. Of course I am not entirely sure who'd want to go and see this extended version of Last of the Summer Wine -certainly not the multiplex crowd, but it will be well made with love and affection. A bigger chance for success with the Butterworth brothers film Birthday Girl starring Ben Chaplin, Nicole Kidman , Mathew Kassovitch and Vincent Cassells. A brilliant cast a funny script by Jez Butterworth by the guys who brought us Mojo and they are young, confident, witty. It has a real chance of success. But guess where the money came from - now guess where the profits will go. But that is reality. Film Four come on board in the UK but so do Miramax in the USA. At least with Miramax on board they have savvy when it comes to marketing and audience and it much more liekly to find an audience.

Attending Script Factory workshops you meet people who state that British film makers need to think about about Passion, Audience, Clarity and have Tenacity. I'd like to add that a decent script might well be a good place to start. Only yesterday I heard that ' I have a budget of £4 million, I'm cobbling a script together now. Well cobblers repair shoes. Cobblers is what you'll probably get.

I teach screenwriting and I know just how much work my writers have to put into the script. We start from scratch, building characters, building that story, making it work. The very idea that someone has a tap into so much money without a script means that everyone involved with that project has got it utterly wrong. The best films start with a script. OK sometimes they may have to be written in haste, but in general, and I know with my own material, there's never usually a page that cannot be improved somehow. It is just never worth shooting it until it is ready, right down to consideration for what they will wear, what music they will listen to, what food or drink they will need. Yet that is what is happening. Kieslowski used to work with the composer before he even wrote the script, so important is music to his films. Yet even now a British film will often add a soundtrack afterwards, almost radomly, whatever is cheap and available.

Again, titles. I met a producer the other day who was complaining that their budget for £1500 for the titles to their movie had gone over. In Hollywood, the titles are so good sometimes they win Oscars. The Bond movies understand this. but if you are snippy with titles and snippy with music, you'll just get a snippy audience who will show you the same attitude and go and see Oceans' Eleven instead where they care about EVERTHYTHING. With the software we have now titles should be fantastic for a reasonable sum.

I suppose we have been living with a make-do attitude for a long time now. 'It got us through the war'. people say. Well, maybe it did. But right now I'm off to see a real film maker's film. Mulholland Drive. Sure it will be creepy and odd, everything David Lynch does is odd, but it will be crafted and polished and every quirky thought over fifty times and I'm listening to the Wild at Heart soundtrack right now, at least ten years later. That must mean something.

Attending the NPA meetings there is no doubt that there is enthusiasm. Many writers chasing producers, many directors chasing money, and lawyers creaming off the fat...hell I am one of those writers looking for the right person who will 'share the vision' but perhaps, in all the chasing and merry go rounds if we thought harder about quality rather than quantity and we employed real actors instead of Sean Pertwee we might find that elusive audience for our films.

If you want to join me next year for screenwriting development classes I'll be at the Salignac Foundation in France in March and May. It will be fun and there's two types of programmes, beginners and professionals. Be good to see you there.

A Salignac Diary

New Producers Alliance

Sam North - Managing Editor
Author of 'Diamonds'

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