The Carbon Pictures sibling duo quiz producer Jim Wilson about keeping low overheads as a one-man band, learning from mistakes and the response to The Zone Of Interest’s Oscars moment.

L-R: Abiola Rufai-Awojide, Elizabeth Rufai, Jim Wilson

Source: Screen International / Peter Searle

L-R: Abiola Rufai-Awojide, Elizabeth Rufai, Jim Wilson

Jim Wilson is a London-born creative producer with more than three decades of experience in the industry. He has worked as an executive in the US at Fox Searchlight — as Searchlight Pictures was then known — and in the UK at Film4, as well as forging close partnerships as a producer with directors Jonathan Glazer and Lynne Ramsay. Wilson won his first Oscar and Bafta for Glazer’s Holocaust-set drama The Zone Of Interest. He is currently UK-based with his outfit JW Films, and in post-production on Aneil Karia’s modern-day take on Hamlet, starring Riz Ahmed.

The night of Wilson’s Bafta win was also a career-defining moment for Elizabeth Rufai, one half of London-based production company Carbon Pictures (see page 24), as she scooped the best British short film Bafta with director Yasmin Afifi for Jellyfish & Lobster. Rufai is a graduate of London’s National Film and Television School (NFTS) and is working as associate producer on Harris Dickinson’s untitled debut feature. She runs Carbon Pictures with sister Abiola Rufai-Awojide. Older sibling Rufai-Awojide has held posts at BFI Network, Channel 4 and Sid Gentle Films, and has credits on Disney+ series Extraordinary and Molly Manning Walker’s How To Have Sex.

Abiola Rufai-Awojide: Jim, you started your career over in the US. What drew you to go stateside?

Jim Wilson: When I left college in the late 1980s, the British industry was very small — that was my sense of it, anyway. I wrote a bunch of old-fashioned letters to producers and I didn’t get a job in any meaningful way. I expanded my search for an entry-level job, and I ended up working for an independent TV company that did documentaries and factual stuff for Channel 4. I always hankered after working in film, but I didn’t know how to achieve that.

Then, I was working as an associate producer on a series, and I was in LA for the first time. I went to the American Film Institute [AFI], and applied a little bit impulsively to go as a producing student — I was always quite fascinated by America, and still am. David Lynch and Terrence Malick had gone [to AFI], and they were godlike directors for me. I was able to do it, I was supported by my family. That’s a part of my story. There was an element of privilege and class. Not everyone could do that.

Rufai-Awojide: Obviously NFTS has a prestige to it. I always wanted to go, but couldn’t afford to. But when the opportunity came for Elizabeth [who was awarded a BBC scholarship], it was great.

Wilson: So Elizabeth, you came through an institution like I did. Whereas you, Abiola…

Rufai-Awojide: I was very much self-taught, on the ground. We were from the Blockbuster era. Going to the cinema was a treat for someone’s birthday, we didn’t come from much privilege, but we would go and take out videos. For me, the idea of wanting to work in film was about wanting to build worlds that people could get lost in. We didn’t know anyone [in film] at that point. It was about building a strategy. I’m a “get me in the room” sort of person — I don’t know about the room, I don’t know who’s in it, but I’ll find out when I get in.

Elizabeth Rufai: What prompted your decision to set up your own production company?

Wilson: I ended up staying in LA and, by accident rather than design, I became a production executive at Fox Searchlight, pretty much as it launched in 1994. I started as an assistant. I was an executive for four years at Fox Searchlight, then I came to Film4 [for] four years. It was amazing — I look back and think about what I learnt from that. I got to do a film with Jonathan [Glazer], I tried but didn’t quite with Lynne [Ramsay], but it deepened our relationship. It was incredible, you learn about distribution, you learn about sales.

But I was jealous of people like you, who would pass through my office with their baby. As an exec you have to move from one [project] to the other. I wanted to only do what I wanted to do. I probably wasn’t a good exec. A lot of people told me I was nuts and to keep my job. What people told me, which is true, is that you’ll get creative freedom at the expense of total financial instability.

Rufai-Awojide: How do you manage financing?

Wilson: I love the medium of cinema, but I really struggle with producing. I find it hard. I am excited and stimulated by the end result, still. I’m not jaded by that. I love the creative part of that process.

I don’t like the financing. I try to work with companies I already know, like different incarnations of Film4, A24, BBC [Film]. I can navigate it, but I’m not great at it.

For all of what I’ve said, I did work for financier-distributors for a very long time. I’ve been quite supported by groups of companies that, although the people have moved around, have remained consistent. If you’re doing stuff with filmmakers that those people want to work with, you’ll get to go. It’s very much driven by Jonathan [Glazer] as well — he needs a safe space to be able to experiment, and there’s a particular working methodology. It’s long [The Zone Of Interest was a 10-year development journey]. How do you do that in a structure that’s not set up to do that, given how expensive it is? One of Jonathan’s things is, you try to work with the same people on the financing side.

Rufai-Awojide: We talk a lot about sustaining our career, not being in-house — it’s not the easiest thing to do.

Rufai: It’s partially something you touched on, Jim — the people we want to work with, the financiers want to work with too. There’s buy-in from them, which gives us some level of access.

Rufai-Awojide: There’s the glossy part [of the business], we want to tell stories and build worlds, but I also have to be able to pay rent.

Wilson: Sometimes people say, “What’s your superpower?” One of them is having a low overhead — plus advantage, and class, definitely if you’re in the UK. I’ve had the ability at times to coast a bit because I’ve got the safety net of class advantage.

Rufai-Awojide: And in the absence of a safety net, you have to be strategic about the steps you take and the jobs you take on, and the time you take jobs on. For me, the strategy was, be in the building, learn in the building, meet people in the building.

Rufai: For us, at the forefront is — keep the lights on.

Rufai-Awojide: Some of my current privilege comes from having been able to do TV [at Sid Gentle Films]. For me, that is a timely and welcomed privilege. It heavily influences how I sustain myself as an independent producer making films.

Wilson: Do you have much of an overhead in your company?

Rufai-Awojide: Currently it’s just us — but you’re also a one-man band.

Wilson: There’s no assistant. I don’t understand how people balance the fees we make on films with having an assistant. It’s intentional as a survival mechanism, but it’s frustrating. I would like to have less to do. I still to this day spend more time doing what I’m palpably not good at than I do what I’m probably better and stronger at.

There is so much bureaucracy and administration in making films. How do you navigate the bureaucracy and admin?

Rufai: It’s based around doing the other things that sustain us outside. So at one point Abiola was on a series, there wasn’t a lot of time for us to sit down together and get into the admin, so then the other person takes it on.

Wilson: Where would you like to be in two years?

Rufai-Awojide: Having made Jellyfish & Lobster [Yasmin Afifi’s feature in development with BBC Film and Agile Films]. We’ve got a couple of TV ideas we’re hoping to get made in tandem with that. And getting involved in the growing with filmmakers, like Abraham Adeyemi and Yasmin, while also trying to make the things we want to make.

Rufai: You’ve been an executive producer on a number of films. What is your level of involvement and what brought you to be executive producer on Savanah Leaf’s Earth Mama?

Wilson: It speaks to being a one-man band and sometimes not a very good multi-tasker. There are things that come along, or people you want to help in different way. I’m noticing it’s coming up a bit more after the Oscar. On Earth Mama, I met [director] Savanah Leaf when I was finishing Waves [directed by Trey Edward Shults], she was friends with [Waves actress] Taylor Russell, and they were collaborating on a documentary [The Heart Still Hums], which was sort of a study for what became Earth Mama. It was being produced by [UK-US commercials producer] Academy, and I know them well. I was so busy on The Zone Of Interest, I didn’t get to do much on that but I watched lots of cuts.

Rufai: What have been some of the mistakes you’ve learnt from in your career?

Wilson: When I was an executive, I felt I wasn’t doing a good job because the projects I was doing weren’t commercial enough. I brought in a film, and pushed to do it, where I didn’t have my heart in it creatively and it didn’t work. It wasn’t good, people didn’t see it. I was unmoored by it, I felt empty.

One thing that I have found, more in the mature producing phase of life, is that there are forces outside a film that make a film feel like it has to happen when it isn’t ready. It does take a bit of courage, and sometimes conflict, to have the presence and toughness to say, “We aren’t ready to do this, we’re going to get this wrong and it’s going to be an expensive mistake.” It’s hard to be the person to say, “This isn’t working, stop the bus.”

Rufai-Awojide: How did you find managing the backlash after Jonathan Glazer’s Oscars acceptance speech? [The Zone Of Interest won the Academy Award for best international feature, and Glazer, a Jewish filmmaker, was accused of antisemitism for a speech advocating for peace in Gaza and Israel.]

Wilson: We expected a reaction, given the silence about Gaza during the whole awards season. Privately there was support from Jews and non-Jews, but I underestimated the extent of the negative reaction from some Jewish people, and at first that was the noisiest. But that shifted. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz’s editorial that week said plainly that Jon was right, as did Tony Kushner, and Naomi Klein thoughtfully. And there was a supportive open letter by 500 Jewish artists, including many Israeli Jewish filmmakers, against the mischaracterisation of it by others. I think to misunderstand the speech as antisemitic, you had to choose to mishear it, which speaks to the repression and denial going on.

It was consistent with what we’d said publicly since its premiere at Cannes. And privately through the years of making it, looking for the similarities not differences between the perpetrator culture and ours. To reflect our present, which of course is shaped by our pasts. Finding connections between the Nazi project and centuries of European colonialism, America’s conquest of its West, and the ripples of all those through the Nazi era, to now.

We were trying to make the film an uncomfortable mirror to dehumanisation and compartmentalisation for any audience — are there people “over your wall”? The speech wasn’t saying the film’s about Gaza and October 7th, but that what’s happening there now is in a continuum of what it was always about.