The producer of Philomena and The Invisible Woman talks about working with Stephen Frears and Ralph Fiennes.
London-based producer Gabrielle “Gaby” Tana of Magnolia Mae is busy at Venice with the world premiere of Stephen Frears’ Philomena, which will then travel to Toronto. Judi Dench and Steve Coogan star in the drama about an Irish woman searching for the son she had to give up 50 years before (it got a rapturous reception in Venice today). Also at TIFF, Tana has the world premiere of Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman, starring Fiennes as Charles Dickens and Felicity Jones as his mistress Nelly Ternan. Tana’s past credits include The Duchess, documentary On The Ropes, and Fiennes’ directorial debut Coriolanus. Her Magnolia Mae partner Carolyn Marks Blackwood is an executive producer on Philomena and a producer on The Invisible Woman.
How was it that both of these films were ready at the same time?
I was working on Philomena for longer, actually. We started developing it three years ago and then actually made it happen. But I was determined to make it when we made it because I knew we had Judi Dench then.
Philomena started with Steve Coogan and his company Baby Cow, right?
Correct, Coogan and I started it off together and then went to Christine [Langan] at BBC Films and then got Jeff Pope on board and he started writing with Steve.
We got Judi involved pretty early on and then Stephen Frears came on board later. We were already with Pathe by the time Stephen came on board.
Obviously the film is a triumph for Judi Dench but it also shows a new side to Steve Coogan, working on a drama, co-writing it and also producing and starring in it. Do you think this is going to make people see him in a new light?
I think it will. I think it proves that he’s capable of being much more than a funny guy. When we set out on this journey, that was the desired effect. If that works it will be triumphant because he has been pigeon-holed and I think he can do other things and this shows that. So it’s exciting.
Do you think Dench will attract awards-season recognition?
I hope so. I think she’s really splendid, she’s magical, she’s wonderful. I think it’s a really hard year. It feels like there’s a lot of competition but we’ll see. But she is very deserving.
How was Frears to work with?
He’s extremely collaborative. He’s very, very generous. He’s a little scary to begin with but once that goes away then he’s just wonderful.
He’s a real collaborator and a team player and he loves to bring everybody into the process. It was a kind of wonderful family in the end.
He’s one of the wise old men; he knows so much, he’s smart and he knows so much about movies.
You worked with Ralph Fiennes on Coriolanus. Did you immediately know you’d work with him again?
I did. I loved working with him. We had worked together before when he acted in The Duchess. That’s when I first met him. I love working with him. He’s a real kindred spirit and inspiring and exciting.
Do you think his directing style has grown or evolved since Coriolanus?
Yes. I think so. This is very different film from Coriolanus. He brings the same thing to anything he does: the intelligence and the detail. But it was great to do something that was very different for him. He’ll keep doing things that are very different.
Once again, it was him acting and directing but this time it really felt Herculean. Both times it did. He’s extraordinary.
When you have a director that’s in front of and behind the camera, do you as the producer step in even more to help?
I’d say that I’m very much there on side, to make sure he has another sounding board and to be as supportive as I can be.
He has a great team around him, the wonderful John Washington [dialogue coach] who also worked with us on Coriolanus and the fabulous script supervisor Susanna Lenton. We were the trio behind the monitor giving the thumbs or the thumbs down.
But I try to be there in any way that I can, in terms of performance but also making sure that everything else is harmonious.
Does it add a lot of headaches shooting a period piece or is it just part of the process for you now?
It’s part of the process. There are more details to be attended to. But, in a funny way, when you have more to do, it keeps you more astute.
But I don’t think it’s actually that different. It just keeps everybody more on their toes. And you have a bigger crew.
You probably don’t want to keep comparing the two films but in terms of getting them financed and packaged and rolling, was one harder than the other?
Definitely. The Invisible Woman was much more of a challenge because it is period drama and to do period drama properly costs a certain amount of money. It’s very difficult in this marketplace to get a period film financed.
Costume dramas are difficult so it was just that much more money and so ultimately it was about bringing in private investors in order to be able to get there and that was it.
It was tough but we got there.
BBC Films backed both projects and is the BFI Film Fund an investor in both films?
Yes. They were incredibly supportive in both. Neither of these films could have been made otherwise. We’re blessed, we really are.
We’re very fortunate [in the UK] and not even just in terms of funding. Also in terms of the support to the filmmaker and producer throughout the process.
What’s next for you?
Then there’s a film that looks like it’ll go ahead in this coming year, which is with BBC Films and Clerkenwell Films, called The Dig. There’s no director on board at the moment but a lot of interest. It’s a period drama, set just before the Second World War in the 1930s, to shoot in 2014.
It seems like you’re on a roll. Are you finding producing easy in the UK at the moment?
You could never say that it’s easy but I love doing what I’m doing and love the people I’m working with. I’d say it’s a great time.
There is definitely a stride and I think that for me it’s a good moment. There is so much talent here [in the UK].
It’s never easy but there is a mechanism now that can really work and you have to make sure that you’re making the right movies too - always.