The German and French producers of Sandra Nettelbeck’s English-language Mr Morgan’s Last Love tell Melanie Goodfellow how they put together the complex pan-European project.
Michael Caine is sitting on a bench in Parc Monceau in Paris’ upscale 17th arrondissement, pretending to bite into his umpteenth fresh baguette sandwich of the morning.
Caine is on the set of German director Sandra Nettelbeck’s new project Mr Morgan’s Last Love, an English-language adaptation of the best-selling French novel, La Douceur Assassine, by Francoise Dorner. The 78-year-old actor is starring as Matthew Morgan, a recently widowed US expat living in Paris who finds solace in an unexpected friendship with a young woman, played by rising French star Clémence Poésy. Other cast members include Justin Kirk, Jane Alexander and Gillian Anderson.
Nettelbeck gives directions for a dolly out shot, a French assistant calls for silence and German cinematographer Michael Berti is pulled along by a compatriot grip as Belgian soundmen hover off to the side of the shot.
‘I had been keen to work with Sandra for a number of years, and I already loved the book’
Helge Sasse, Senator Film Produktion
“You’ve got the Common Market in a bloody movie crew,” comments Caine jovially, back in his trailer after the shoot wraps for lunch. “The young ladies who do my beard are Belgian, the camera crew is German and everyone else is French apart from the actors, who are from all over the place… Oh and there are even some Dutch… a couple of electricians.”
The cosmopolitan make-up of the cast and crew reflects the production’s multinational financing structure, combining German federal and regional fund money, the French Tax Rebate for International Production (the TRIP), the Belgian tax shelter and US finance.
On paper, the project — an adaptation of a French novel, shot mostly in France, employing mainly French crew — looked like a perfect candidate for a Germany-France co-production.
But the decision to shoot the film in English meant it was not eligible for the accord under strict French rules.
German co-producers Kaminski.Stiehm.Film, Bavaria Pictures and Senator Film Produktion, instead wove an intricate web of finance derived from former contacts and alternative sources of soft money to plug the finance gap.
“We decided early on it should be an English-language adaptation but it was also important to keep the original backdrop of Paris — it’s a city with a special identity that appeals to audiences all over the world,” says Ulrich Stiehm of Berlin-based Kaminski.Stiehm.Film, which spearheaded the creative development of the project.
Having attached Nettelbeck as director and writer in 2010, Stiehm started looking for partners to help finance the film. German cinema powerhouses Bavaria and Senator boarded the project in early 2011.
“Ulrich knew I had been keen to work with Sandra for a number of years, and I already knew and loved the book,” says Helge Sasse, managing director of Senator Film Produktion and CEO of parent group Senator Entertainment, which joined as a co-producer and picked up German theatrical rights.
Nettelbeck had set her heart on Caine to star. At the end of 2010, Caine’s agent was approached with a second draft of the script and gave a positive response within days.
“The first three things that attracted me were the script, the script and the script. Sandra is a wonderful writer. Sometimes something comes along and you know you’ve just got to do it,” says the actor. “My agent said, ‘You’ve got to do this one,’ and my wife read it and said, ‘You’ve got to do this one.’”
Armed with script, director and key cast, the co-producers secured the backing of the Cologne-based Film- und Medienstiftung NRW and Medienboard Berlin-Brandenberg regional funds, and the Filmförderungsanstalt FFA federal fund.
“Clearly this is public money and we have to fulfil certain obligations on how it is spent and recoup the costs, but there’s no restriction in terms of the language of the film — unlike in France,” says Bavaria Pictures’ head of production finance and co-production, Philipp Kreuzer.
It was at this point the German co-producers came to terms with the fact there was no flexibility on France’s co-production rules. Stiehm, however, had heard Patrick Lamassoure, head of Film France, the French agency promoting the country as a shooting location, give a presentation on the TRIP at the annual German French Film Meeting in Heidelberg in 2010.
“I thought it was interesting and kept it in mind. When it became clear a co-production was not going to be possible, we applied for the TRIP,” says Stiehm.
The scheme, offering a 20% rebate on the French-based costs to foreign film productions spending at least $1.3m (€1m) in France, was introduced at the end of 2009. Since then, it has been accessed by projects including Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris and Jackie Chan’s Chinese Zodiac.
Paris-based Denis Carot of Elzévir Films, who Stiehm also met in Heidelberg, came on board as the required French line producer. Carot, who also produces in his own right alongside business partner Marie Masmonteil, recently made Tajik director Jamshed Usmonov’s Le Roman De Ma Femme.
“The TRIP definitely helped but it meant the French contribution was far lower than it would have been if the film had been a true co-production,which would have secured us a distributor, an MG and probably the support of Canal Plus,” suggests Sasse.
The co-producers started to look elsewhere to fill the finance gap. Kreuzer got in contact with old acquaintance Genevieve Lemal of Brussels-based production Scope Pictures. She boarded as a minority co-producer, bringing Belgian tax shelter money in her wake, the first time Bavariahad used the mechanism.
‘This is public money and we have to fulfil obligations on how it is spent and recoup the costs’
Philipp Kreuzer, Bavaria Pictures
Nettelbeck, meanwhile, “reached out” to old friend Jim Tauber, president of Los Angeles production company Sidney Kimmel Entertainment (SKE), whom she met during her time living and working in the US.
“I had always loved her work, particularly Mostly Martha, and when she called me about Mr Morgan’s Last Love, I read it immediately,” says Tauber, who is handling US rights. “As soon as I finished the script I sent it to Sidney, who absolutely fell in love with the project and committed to it immediately. Sidney knew Michael, and in fact one of Sidney’s first films, Curtain Call, starred Michael.”
The complicated financial structure directly impacted the shooting locations and schedule. Kicking off at the end of October, the production shot for two weeks in Paris before heading to the Brittany coast in northern France, the Belgian capital of Brussels (doubling up as Paris) and studios in the German city of Cologne. It wrapped on December 22.
Global Screen, the newly created company arising from the merger of Bavaria Film and Telepool, plans to show the first footage of Mr Morgan’s Last Love at February’s European Film Market in Berlin. Deals have been done already with Hopscotch for Australia. Senator will release the film in Germany.
“We regard the film as a broader art-house movie,” says Sasse. “We’ll release it on 80-120 prints across Germany in high-quality arthouse theatres — though we think the film has potential to cross over.”