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Paul Webster

The veteran UK producer talks about Salmon Fishing In The Yemen’s audience appeal; Jason Statham’s new side in Hummingbird; and Joe Wright’s inventive take on Anna Karenina.

Producer Paul Webster has certainly tackled a range of topics for his latest productions: a salmon-obsessed Yemeni sheikh, Jason Statham in dramatic mode, and an adaptation of one of Tolstoy’s great epics.

And there’s more to come — Webster, formerly of Working Title, Miramax, Film Four and Kudos Pictures, recently set up London-based production company Shoebox Films with Guy Heeley (first AD-turned-producer) and director Joe Wright (who Webster worked with as a producer of such past films as Pride & Prejudice and Atonement).

“Guy, Joe and I have complementary skills. Joe is a director, but he’s also dipping his toes into the producing side of things. He’s also a talent magnet. Guy is already brilliant at doing the day-to-day management on a movie and he’s learning fast on everything else.”

Heeley, who previously served as first AD on films such as The Iron Lady, Hanna and Brighton Rock (another Webster film) gets his first feature film producing credit on Hummingbird, Shoebox’s first production.

The London-set drama marks the directorial debut of Steven Knight, who Webster worked previously with as the screenwriter for David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises.

Hummingbird
stars Jason Statham as an ex-soldier trapped in London’s criminal underworld who is transformed into an avenging angel. The project shows a different side to Statham. “It’s a complete departure, it’s a dramatic role,” Webster notes. “There’s a romantic element to it, a sensitivity, it’s a complex piece. There are some elements that will please the action crowd, but it’s more akin to Eastern Promises than Crank or Safe.” (IM Global handles international sales.)

The film is finishing its eight-week shoot on May 6 and Webster is bullish on the results so far. “I’m quite excited about it. It’s always nice working with a first-time director. Also, I know Stephen very well, and he’s a grownup. He’s taken to it [directing] like a duck to water…He brings a complete calm, he’s very, very prepared. He knows the movie inside out because he wrote it. It’s a big advantage working with a writer-director.”

After leaving Kudos/Shine (but before the Shoebox banner was set up) Webster also produced (alongside Working Title’s Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner) Wright’s Anna Karenina, which is now in the final stages of post for a likely autumn festival debut. [Shoebox itself also continues a close relationship with Working Title.]

Of the Tolstoy adaptation, which stars Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Aaron Johnson, Webster says: “Aesthetically it’s an enormous leap forward for Joe. It’s a very bold interpretation. Hopefully people will be wowed by it, the ambition is to do something different from the normal stately home period piece. The interpretation is very, very different, it’s very expressionistic and impressionistic.”

The film has a budget of about $40m and is expected to be a prestige title that could attract awards attention at the end of the year.

Next for Shoebox will be the sequel to 2007’s acclaimed Russian mob story Eastern Promises, which will reunite the key team of Webster, Cronenberg, Knight and Viggo Mortensen. That project will be made with Focus Features and is likely to shoot in early 2013.

While still at Kudos, Webster produced Lasse Hallstrom’s Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, which Lionsgate UK releases tomorrow, after it already proved to be a hit in Toronto (where it sold to CBS Films for the US). It has made $6.1m on its US release as of April 15, and as for the UK, Webster quips, “Hopefully we’ll catch a bit of that Exotic Marigold business.”

He adds: “The movie is a crowdpleaser, it still seems to resonate even outside of festivals.”

The story follows a fishing enthusiast Yemeni sheikh (Amr Waked) who tries to bring salmon to the deserts of Yemen. Ewan McGregor plays a fisheries expert who tries to help, and Emily Blunt plays the sheikh’s consultant. Kristin Scott Thomas is a hilariously bitchy spin doctor trying to get a good news story out of the Middle East.

Webster continues: “It’s a movie with a big heart. It’s also another version of the quirky British fish-out-of-water comedy. People like Ewan and Emily. And Kristin Scott Thomas as the flat-out comic bitch is brilliant. It’s a great canvas, Scotland and the Middle East.”

“I hope it repays people’s faith. Lionsgate and the Film Council/BFI and BBC Films have been amazing supporters. We ran into a bit of trouble because our sets were washed away three times by flash floods [in Morocco], and they helped us out a lot. I’m very happy that in the wake of the foreign sales that we do, that they can recoup. You want to make a good movie and you also want to make sure that your financiers are looked after.”

Of the US release, he adds: “CBS Films have been second to none, in terms of the way they cover the bases as a distributor and the amount of feedback and how inclusive they are, they are really on another level. They are really impressive.”

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