Number 9 producers Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen talk to Screen about Mike Newell’s adaptaiton of Great Expectations and the challenges of running an independent production company in the UK.

Number 9 Films, the production company formed by Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley in 2004, is about to embark on one of the busiest periods in its history. After a lull during 2010, during which much of the company’s energy was devoted to promoting Made In Dagenham, Number 9 is cranking up. By the end of this year, the London-based company may have three films in production. “It’s all suddenly bang!” says Woolley. “Like buses, they all come at once.”

The London based company’s $17m adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations directed by Mike Newell with Ralph Fiennes as the convict Magwitch and Helena Bonham Carter as the wealthy recluse, Miss Havisham, is due to shoot in London in the early autumn. HanWay is selling the film, which is scripted by David Nicholls, and Lionsgate has already taken UK rights. Rising British stars Jeremy Irvine and Holliday Grainger play the key roles of Pip and Estella.

Meanwhile, Neil Jordan is directing vampire film Byzantium, which could also shoot before the end of the year. Scripted by Moira Buffini, it will star Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton.

The third new Number 9 project is London-set gangster thriller Hyena from writer-director Gerard John. This film, produced by Joanne Laurie and exec produced by Woolley and Karlsen, will look at how Albanians and Turks have muscled their way into the London gangland scene. International sales are being handled by Independent.

How challenging is making three films at once for a relatively small company like Number 9?

Elizabeth Karlsen: The trick for us, with the three productions going, is to make sure that the development projects are still pushed through with Kate Lawrence, our head of development. We want to make sure that they don’t stall. We have a script called Dan Leno & The Limehouse Golem, which Jane Goldman has adapted from Peter Ackroyd’s novel. It’s in really good shape and probably just needs another couple of polishes. We just need to make sure that while we have these three productions going, that still keeps going…the challenge is keeping the company going and the other projects moving along so that when we’ve finished these, we don’t have great gaping holes.

How many of you are there at Number 9?

Karlsen: There are five of us. Then, we tend to bring back the same c-oproducers. Laurie Borg is our co-producer on Great Expectations. Tracey Seaward is coming back on Byzantium.

Is Great Expectations a traditional Dickens adaptation?

Stephen Woolley: Everything that is in the film is in the book. We’re faithful to the book but we’re not faithful to traditional Dickens adaptations of Great Expectations. What (screenwriter) David Nicholls has done is make it into a much more faithful adaptation of Dickens’ book than anybody else has done.

Karlsen: There has only been one straightforward film adaptation, which is the David Lean (made in 1946). Our version is not updated. It is set in the 19th Century – 1830 to 1850. What we decided was to go very young. Jeremy Irvine (who plays the protagonist Pip) is 20 and Estella will be the same age. It is much more moving and emotionally fraught and engaging because there are these two youths who are managed by their puppetmasters, advertently and inadvertently.

Mike Newell has made some very big films in recent years (Prince Of Persia, Harry Potter etc.) What led you to him?

Woolley: It’s a great return (to the UK) for Mike and (a chance) to do a movie really in his heart. Mike is a fantastic director who has done some great movies. If you look back at films like Four Weddings And A Funeral and Dance With A Stranger, this (Great Expectations) is more of that very, very British-centric Mike Newell.

You’re tying in the release to coincide with the Dickens bicentenary in 2012?

Woolley: what we’re hoping to do is to make a big theatrical splash in October of next year. We are hoping this will be the big theatrical event for all the things that are going on (around the bicentenary).

You’ve cast Holliday Grainger as Estella. Is she the new Jean Simmons?

Karlsen: Obviously, we’re doing Mike Newell’s version of Great Expectations. She is just an incredibly fine actor and has the beauty that is needed for Estella as well as an extraordinary technical ability.

Where will you be shooting?

Karlsen: At the moment, we’re trying to work out how much we build, what we shoot on location. That will depend on what studio we go to. The studios are very, very booked up. There’s an old air base near one of the studios we’re considering and and there’s an old factory. Shooting inside London these days is pretty much cost prohibitive as well as a logistical nightmare.

Even with Film London?

Karlsen: Film London are doing a most brilliant job but when you need to park up all your trucks, your trailers, and find a catering space, it’s very difficult and the cost can be very high.

What about the vampire film, Byzantium, and working with Neil Jordan again?

Karlsen: That’s a Moira Buffini script from an original idea of hers.

Woolley: We’ve been developing for three years and working very closely with Moira. It’s really very close to Company Of Wolves. It has a very female perspective on, in this case, vampires. In Angela Carter’s case (with Company Of Wolves), it was werewolves. When we were developing it, I thought very fondly about my experiences on Company Of Wolves and how much fun we had doing Interview With A Vampire. When we got a script we liked, I sent it to Neil and he just loved it.

Is it on a big scale?

Karlsen: Not a huge scale. It’s an £8 million budget.

Woolley: It’s about two young women who arrive in a seaside town in Britain. They may or may not have been involved in a murder. We’re not sure. What we do know is that they are in fear of something and on the run. It transpires that the school the younger girl goes to is the school she originally went to 200 years ago. The relationship is between a mother and a daughter.

Karlsen: What’s fantastic is that they’re roughly the same age. The mother is 24 and the daughter is 16. They became vampires very close in time. The script has had a very strong response. It has a brilliantly moving love story at the centre between the young girl and the kid.

And you’re making a London-set gangster movie too, Hyena?

Woolley: What’s fascinating for us is that underground world of the Albanians and that whole way that the crime world has changed. If I look back at Mona Lisa, it was really about Paul Raymond and the drug scene and Soho. That has all gone now. There is a huge Albanian influence over the whole sex and drugs market in London.

How do you see the landscape for British film funding now we’re almost a year on from the decision to close UKFC?

Karlsen: There is the same team (at the BFI Film Fund) – Tanya Seghatchian, Chris Collins, Lizzie Francke, Natascha Wharton. We’ve got a very strong relationship with them. There is continuity.

Woolley: They (the public funders) are supporting established producers like us and expecting us to bring on younger producers. The other things they cut – the smaller things, the invisible things, the regional funding – that’s the worry. It isn’t the short-term effect. The short-term effect is that they (the Government) have pledged to support experienced filmmakers and films but the infrastructure that existed before is not being so well supported. That’s the worry for all producers. It’s not today or tomorrow but three or four years. Will there still be the same young up and coming Shane Meadows, regional filmmakers like Lynne (Ramsay) in Scotland and Andrea Arnold?

Karlsen: Generally, it takes about 10 years to get something up and running. It (UKFC) was a very well oiled machine. Of course, there was some fat there. That inevitably happens. But it could easily have been trimmed. I am sure that closing the whole thing down, rebranding it and setting it up again is probably just as much as it would have cost (to keep it.) But you have to hope and be optimistic that with further and continued success, they will once again put money into diversity, into distribution. You have to look at Creative England and (hope) that they’re still going to be committed to the regions now they have three hubs. 

How important was the slate funding from the Film Council to the growth of Number 9?

Karlsen: It was a major, major building block for us. Without that slate funding, I don’t think we’d be where we are today. Most of the projects we developed bar maybe two have all gone into production.