The UK's Film4 rarely buys a book without a production company involved, but chief Tessa Ross did just that when she first read Q&A by Vikas Swarup, the source novel for Slumdog Millionaire. 'It had a fantastic landscape, a clever plot and a way of telling the story of a boy's life in the present that I liked,' she recalls.
Ross pitched the book to screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who agreed that the book would make a good film and signed on to write it. Beaufoy went on two research trips to India and wrote a first draft of the screenplay, working closely with Film4's then head of development Juliette Howell to develop it. During that time, Ross pondered her next challenge. Since the story depended so heavily on the Indian TV version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire' she knew that she had to secure the rights.
'I had gone as far as I could go without knowing if we had the game or not,' she says. 'We had to access the rights to that material.'
Cleverly, Ross approached Christian Colson, a prolific UK producer with credits including Separate Lies, The Descent and Dirty Pretty Things, who is in charge of Celador Films, a company under Paul Smith's Celador group which created and owned the Millionaire franchise.
'Tessa came to us because she was in need of a producer and because we were a pathway to the rights,' recalls Colson. 'For me it was a very good first draft. I remember standing up in my office and saying we must find a way to get it made.'
Although Paul Smith sold the Millionaire franchise in late 2006, Colson ensured that Slumdog acquired the rights it needed before the sale went through.
'We did the deal with Film4, sorted out acquiring the format rights for the specific purposes of making the film with Celador International (the international distribution business which was sold along with Millionaire),' he says. 'Then we went through the second and third drafts. Six or seven months after we became involved, we felt it was ready to go out to directors.'
Danny Boyle was Colson's first choice and within a fortnight of receiving the script, Boyle said yes to the project and made some key suggestions. 'Danny came up with two very valuable and immediate notes,' recalls Ross. 'He wanted to push the love story even further. And in the book Jamal has already won the money and is up for fraud. Danny wanted to change that so that he hasn't yet won.'
'By the beginning of 2007, we felt we had a script that was ready to shoot,' says Colson, 'and luckily for us, Danny's availability changed in that something he was supposed to be doing fell through. So in March 2007, we began the back-and-forth to India.'
The first priority for Boyle was casting. At that point, the script was entirely in English and the assumption was that two sets of actors would play Jamal, Salim and Latika. 'We thought that seven- or eight-year-olds could play the young children and we could get 17-year-olds to play both 15 and 19,' says Colson. 'But Danny decided that he wanted three sets of actors to create three distinct phases in the characters' lives.
'That was risky because you are asking the audience to reinvest twice,' Colson continues. 'It would also present us with casting challenges because we then needed to find even more brilliant child actors and match them.'
Colson's financing plan, meanwhile, meant he could avoid taking Slumdog to distributors immediately. Film4 came in with the UK TV licence and a small equity position, the UK government provided a tax credit ('I wrote an essay to the Film Council on why it was a meaningful contribution to British culture,' he says with a smile), while Celador would majority finance the £8m production using its own funding capability. 'We all felt relatively confident that we could justify the financing,' he says. 'Bizarre though it sounds, we didn't think it was such a bold thing to greenlight. We had a genius director, a brilliant script and a real scale of ambition. A third of it wasn't in Hindi at this point, I grant you.'
The search for actors
Indeed, casting would provide problems for the Slumdog team. 'Working with Gail Stevens in the UK and Loveleen Tandan in India, we found Dev (Patel), Freida (Pinto) and Madhur (Mittal) relatively quickly, in a matter of months,' says Colson.
But the team couldn't find the middle leads who would play Jamal and Salim at the age of 15. 'We were about 10 days away from shooting and we still didn't have them,' says Colson. 'I remember sitting with my head in my hands one Sunday afternoon because we had seen hundreds of kids from all over India. Then this kid Tanay (Chheda) came in and he could do it and he recommended his schoolmate to play the middle Salim. They were crucial because they have to carry the story for 40 minutes.'
As for the younger children, Boyle couldn't find any who could speak English convincingly, 'so,' says Colson, 'we made the decision to make the first part of the film in Hindi.'
At the point where the casting was complete, the movie was greenlit and Colson went out with the script to distributors, asking for the entire budget on a negative pickup basis for worldwide rights. 'No-one really passed on it, but nobody stepped up for worldwide rights either. Eventually we entertained the idea of splitting rights and pre-selling North America separately from an international deal. People came back to us with low offers, but in the end the Warner Independent Pictures (WIP)/Pathe International combination worked for us. They really stepped up and put down minimum guarantees that justified us making the film for the price we were making it.'
Financing the film with Celador/Film4 equity, Colson believes, enabled Boyle to make the film that is so beloved today. 'The price would have been forced down if we'd made it for a studio,' he says, 'so we had the right amount of time to shoot it. We were also in a creative protective bubble, if you like. The script read tough - there were torture scenes and children having their eyes poked out. I am sure we would have been asked to tone that stuff down significantly.'
The film wasn't cheap for WIP and Pathe. Financed in pounds and rupees, the picture was budgeted at around $13m and the Warner slice alone was $5m.
Paul Federbush, then senior vice-president of acquisitions and co-production at WIP, had been tracking the project ever since Tessa Ross mentioned it to him years before. 'When I first read (the script), I became a bit obsessed,' he laughs. 'Scripts like this don't come across your desk very often. It was a Dickensian tale wrapped in a love story and set in a very rich culture. I knew it would be a tough sell, but it did have Danny and an amazing story and I just felt it would work. Furthermore we didn't have our big movie for 2008 and only a few prospects in the development pipeline that had a chance of coming together in time.'
Federbush took the project to his boss Polly Cohen. 'Thankfully Polly also responded to the material,' says Federbush. 'We were obviously trying to get it for less money but that's what the filmmakers needed and I figured we were going to have to pay a premium regardless.'
He adds that, knowing the conservative corporate culture at Warner Bros, WIP would be unlikely to win out in a bidding war if the film ever reached a festival without a distributor.
'It took a while with Warner,' adds Colson. 'The deal memo was signed in September or October 2007 but we didn't sign the longform until several weeks after completion of principal photography. Still, we cashflowed it with this deal on the table.'
One issue that delayed the WIP contract was the Hindi dialogue. If the film ended up containing a certain amount of foreign dialogue, it would fail to meet criteria for the studio's TV output deals. 'I think we worked out that it was 27% in Hindi,' says Colson.
Colson credits Federbush with fighting internally for Warner Bros to pony up the sizeable minimum guarantee. 'Without that, we would have made the movie for less money and that would have meant it was less good,' he muses.
The film was shot from November 5 2007 through to February 12 2008, by which time Pathe International had already started preselling rights at Berlin. Based on what Colson says was a 'fantastic promo reel', Pathe sold 'loads more' territories in Cannes.
WIP closes down
But just before Cannes, the call came through to the production that Warner Bros was preparing to shut down Warner Independent Pictures. 'When we finally got to the point where the cut was beginning to come together in a really exciting way, we got the call,' says Colson. 'They said that we were not to worry, that they would honour the contract, but of course we were worried. The people who had brought the project into WIP weren't going to be there and we didn't know if anyone else at the studio was emotionally invested in it.'
Boyle and Colson continued finishing the film and arranged to show Warner Bros the final film when it was close to completion.
'Danny and I flew out to Burbank about four or five weeks later and showed them the film,' recalls Colson. 'They thought it was a good movie but said that they were no longer in that business, and suggested that they sell it. (Studio chief) Jeff Robinov said that he didn't want a big auction process and told us to think over who we would like it to be.'
The choice to show the film to Fox Searchlight was no surprise to anyone. Boyle had a long history with the Fox specialised label and its president Peter Rice had even overseen his big Fox production The Beach in 2000 not to mention distributing Millions, 28 Days Later and Sunshine.
'I flew out to show the film to Peter and he assembled the Searchlight staff to screen it,' recalls Colson. 'They seemed to love it, and afterwards Peter thanked me and said he would call me. 15 minutes later he called when I was in my car and said that he wanted it. What do I have to do, he said.'
Fortunately for Boyle and Colson, Searchlight didn't have an awards hopeful for late 2008 and Slumdog came at the perfect time.
In the final negotiation, Searchlight stumped up $2.5m for the US distribution rights to the film and Warner Bros remains a financial partner. 'Warner Bros did the right thing by this film,' says Colson. 'But it came just in the nick of time. We had invitations from Telluride and Toronto and we closed the deal with Fox a day before Toronto started.'
The rest, of course, is history and it is astonishing to believe that a UK film which is one third in Hindi is now the runaway favourite for the best picture Academy Award.
Tessa Ross, with whom it all started, describes the turn of events as 'absolutely exhilarating' but is keen to applaud Boyle, Colson and Beaufoy. 'I did visit the set and was involved in all the big decisions we made,' she says, 'but ultimately it was the relationship between these three men which made it happen. They are a brilliant team.'