Stephen and Simon Cornwell, the sons of writer John le Carré, tell Screen why their company Ink Factory (with Rhodri Thomas) is following the models used by Unknown and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to produce a slate of upscale thrillers with global appeal out of Europe

It is hard to keep a secret from the world’s most famous spy novelist John le Carré (born David Cornwell). So when his sons, Simon and Stephen Cornwell, were starting their own production company, Ink Factory, their father was keen to hear more.

Initially, the brothers — Los Angeles-based Stephen, whose screenwriting credits include the Liam Neeson thriller Unknown, and London-based entrepreneur and venture capitalist Simon — had not planned to work closely with the le Carré list.

“Then our dad found out about it, as he would, and he said, ‘Why don’t we work together?’” explains Stephen.

Ink Factory’s debut slate now includes two le Carré adaptations, set up as co-productions with Potboiler Films’ Gail Egan, who worked with Simon Channing Williams on Fernando Meirelles’ 2005 le Carré adaptation The Constant Gardener (producer Andrea Calderwood is also now a partner in Potboiler).

Anton Corbijn is set to direct A Most Wanted Man, adapted by Andrew Bovell and due to shoot mostly in Hamburg in March 2012 with Malte Grunert’s Amusement Park Films as German co-producer and Film4 also on board.

Hossein Amini (Drive) is adapting Our Kind Of Traitor, about a young couple sucked into a world of Russian mobsters that is out to directors now. 

“[Le Carré] is so genuinely excited by film, movies having for a while been very elusive for him,” explains Stephen. “That changed with The Constant Gardener, and [is] being reinforced with Tinker Tailor [set up by Working Title at StudioCanal before Ink Factory existed]. He’s suddenly seeing how it can be done right.”

Audiences also seem fascinated by the Cold War, Stephen adds. “He’s very eager to be engaged to see how these stories can be modernised, to find a relevance for contemporary audiences.”

Of the financing, Simon explains: “We are funding our own slate at the moment, and bringing in development money from conventional sources as well. Film4 is on board for A Most Wanted Man, and that’s working really well. Our focus is getting our first movies off the ground and building the content proposition.”

Ink Factory is also working on a host  of non-le Carré projects, including scripts by Stephen and his writing partner Oliver Butcher, as well as nurturing third-party projects.

“The reason we wanted to put the company together was that we saw an opportunity for well-told stories, films made in Europe that can reach out to an international market,” says Stephen.

Rhodri Thomas, former vice-president of development and production at The Weinstein Company, joined the company about a year ago and it now has several high-profile projects in development or pre-production.

Stephen’s experience on projects such as Unknown will come in useful, as he wants to build on the studios’ desire to release thrillers and dramas in the $20m-$30m range.

“There is an increasing appetite for intelligent, mid-level movies,” he says. “The studios realised they didn’t have the capacity to make what they needed. But they want to distribute them.”

His contacts in the US are also paying off with an action film in development with Vin Diesel’s production company (that will also lend itself to transmedia). Other projects include James McTeigue directing $35m thriller Message From The King, written by Stephen Cornwell and Butcher, that will shoot later this year or in early 2012, with FilmNation and Ash Shah also producing.

The company has also optioned VM Zito’s sci-fi zombie novel The Return Man (due for publication in 2012); as well as 1970s-set Hong Kong coming-of-age story White Ghost Girls by Alice Greenway; and is working with producer Colin Vaines on Burial, a Neil Cross adaptation.

Ink Factory is also working with VFX experts now on Chalk1, a Cornwell-Butcher project with transmedia at its heart. Stephen says the basic idea for the world they are creating is “The Shining meets Platoon.”

TV and multimedia projects are important too, says Thomas. “We see ourselves as a content company, not just a film company. We’ll be looking at all kinds of ways of telling le Carré stories and other stories too. That’s with TV… or the digital sphere as well.”

Ink Factory

  • Simon Cornwell is an entrepreneur and venture capitalist based in the UK. For the last decade he has been a partner in leading European venture capital firm Amadeus, where he has specialised in communications and digital media.
  • Stephen Cornwell has a masters in film from the University of Southern California and has been a US-based screenwriter for 25 years. He and his writing partner Oliver Butcher have written screenplays including Unknown, which was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra starring Liam Neeson and Diane Kruger. Their latest script, Message From The King, will be directed by James McTeigue.
  • Rhodri Thomas was vice-president, production and development at The Weinstein Company from 2005-09, overseeing UK operations. At TWC he worked on titles including The King’s Speech, Nowhere Boy and The Reader.