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Mark Herbert, Mary Burke, Andy Stebbing

The three producers of Richard Ayoade’s feature directorial debut Submarine talk about the making of the film, ahead of it world premiere in Toronto.

Submarine is the feature directorial debut of Richard Ayoade, the British writer/director actor who created the 2004 Channel 4 spoof comedy series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, before going on to act in UK TV comedies The Mighty Boosh and the Emmy Award winning IT Crowd.

Ayoade has written the script for the feature adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s novel about the trials and tribulations of a teenage boy growing up in Swansea, Wales. The film stars Screen Star of Tomorrow Craig Roberts as the film’s lead, alongside Yasmin Paige (also a Screen Star!), Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine and Sally Hawkins.

Produced by Warp Films, Submarine is funded by Film4, the UK Film Council, The Wales Creative IP Fund, The Film Agency for Wales and Dragon DI. Protagonist Pictures will be selling the film internationally out of Toronto, with Optimum Releasing set to distribute in the UK, following its European premiere at the London Film Festival. The film is also in assocation with Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Films. Stiller who shares the same agent as Ayoade, came onboard after reading - and loving - the script.

Founder of Warp Films Mark Herbert and Warp producer Mary Burke talk about producing the feature, along with Andy Stebbing (credits include Centurion, which he line produced) who came on board as a third producer on the project.

How did the project come about?

Mary: My assistant at Warp at the time [2006], Ally Gipps told me about his friend, Joe [Dunthorne], who was a writer. He gave me Joe’s dissertation [a shortened version of novel] which he was writing for his degree at East Anglia University.

I read it and thought, oh my god, this is good, and I asked him to send it to me when he had expanded it into a book, which he did, at the same time as he was sending it to publishers. I showed it to Mark and we optioned the book. Then Joe won the Curtis Brown award for the book and everyone was talking about this kid. So it was lucky that I got in early.

Why did you think it would make a good film?

Mary: I always read books with a film in mind, and when I read it I just thought it was really funny. As an American, I thought it had an American sensibility in terms of the humour, it felt a lot like Rushmore and was really punchy, but also that the story is obviously very British, so I thought it would work well in both markets. Plus there was just something really appealing about the type of fresh young comedy voice in the writing.

Did you immediately think of Richard to direct it?

Mark: We had been working with Richard for a while on his Arctic Monkeys videos and we were big fans of Garth Marenghi, so we had wanted to work with him for a while, even before This Is England.

Mary:  I had been looking for a project for Richard for quite sometime, he had done some script editing on Bunny And The Bull, so I knew the kind of writing he could produce and I thought he would be a great person to adapt it.

So I gave it to him and said, although you’re not as sadistic, the character [played by Craig Roberts] reminds me of you in some ways.

You were taking a risk with a first time feature director. Did he live up to your expectations?

Mary: He was better. He is so well versed and well read, and he knows the language of film-making, so it was natural to him and I don[‘t think it was as much of a struggle as it can be for other first time directors.

I think what Richard has brought to it is an artistic sensibility that I would never have foreseen. But that’s why I’m the producer and not the director!

Andy: Richard is one of those directors who has it all. He is very good with the talent, very good technically, he has fabulous film grammar and is also very original. Because he has such a clear vision,  we knew where we were going with it, and we just did our best to support him in everything he was trying to achieve.

Richard wrote the film’s script. Did the novel’s writer, Joe Dunthorne, collaborate on the project?

Mark: Joe was always involved. He had created the world and was very precise about the place it was set, so throughout the development and production it was very collaborative between Richard and Joe. Joe even has a little cameo as a teacher.

Any challenges during the shoot?

Andy: Richard’s quality metre is incredibly high and so the film we were making pushed everything to the edge. We shot on 35mm, and on the kind of money we were working on, that was pretty tough to pull off. We also had a tight schedule, so often Richard, the DoP and I would start an hour earlier than the rest of the crew, and do some little shots, to keep the magic going and to get everything he wanted. We shot in winter, and the last couple of weeks were fabulous because we were getting a magic hour at the beginning of the day and a magic hour at the end.

What was the casting process like?

Mark: Sally, Paddy and Noah were people that Richard really liked and they all read it and loved Richard. But it was finding Craig and Yasmin that was the key thing, because the film is told through his eyes and Richard knew that he had to find him before we closed on the others.

We searched high and low. We did some street casting, but it was a big ask, and we wanted someone who we knew would be able to deliver. Both Craig and Yasmin had done acting before and they just “had it”.

Were you always going to shoot in Wales?

Mark: As an independent producer when you are putting a film together, you’ve got to look at other places seriously, if you can get money from somewhere else. But what was great about Wales was that creatively it worked for the story, and we also got support from the region. It was a great place to shoot.

You managed to get Ben Stiller’s company Red Hour Films onboard. That must have been a coup..

Mark: It was really funny when I got the call, because I was taking my daughter and her friend in the car, and I had to pull over and take the call. I couldn’t believe they loved the script. And then they said they wanted to help push it.

Ben is a really big fan of British comedy, and Ben and Richard talked about the script and gave comments on the edit. I also asked them on a few occasions if they could understand the Welsh dialect!

Mary: Anything that can lift the profile of a low budget film is great and it’s exactly what you want attached to your film, because it’s so hard trying to export small films to the American market. And  Ben will be at the Toronto premiere, which will be great. It’s by far our biggest premiere to date.

Are you hoping it will sell well internationally?

Mark: You can never tell. The ingredients are there, Richard is a real talent, and the film has delivered what we hoped it would.It’s the kind of genre that the American indies do really well, it feels a bit like The Graduate, very authored, very smart. What I like about it is that the themes are universal and the characters are universal. So I’m more hopeful than I’ve been for a while.

Do you think the Toronto Film Festival is a good fit for the film?

Mark: We launched This Is England and Dead Man’s Shoes there. I like it, it’s a good festival for audiences. They are receptive, and you don’t feel like it’s just dominated by the industry. A lot of festivals feel like there are no members of the public.

It’s a good fit for Submarine, because the film has got a universal theme, and Richard is a real talent to watch. So launching it in Toronto is good because it’s a real audience film, and also a real author’s film, which they love.

Would you like to work with Richard again?

Mary: I would love to work with Richard again and I hope that we can find another project that can suit his creative juices.

Mark: Definitely. Richard fits in with what we are trying to do at Warp, because he has a fresh take and is very literate and smart. I would be disappointed if we didn’t work with him again, I’d hate to think Warp would be the people that launched talent and then have to say goodbye. We’ve just done Chris Morris’ first film [Four Lions] and now Richard’s and we’d like to have relationships with them, like we do with Shane [Meadows].

What are you all working on now?

Mary: I’m producing Peter Strickland’s film Berberian Sound Studio, which we are hoping to shoot in February.

Mark: We’ve got a couple of Warp projects bubbling away, but after doing Four Lions, Submarine and This Is England 86, my next project is to recharge my batteries!  

Andy: I’m hoping to do Frank, a Film 4 film with writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, which Lenny Abrahamson is directing.

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