Film4’s senior commissioning executive talks to Screen about the Film4 philosophy, discovering new talent and why SXSW is the festival to be at.
Katherine Butler was head of development at Film4 for five years before being promoted in 2009 to the role of senior commissioning executive. Previously, she was head of development at the New Zealand Film Commission and at UK independent production company Ruby Films.
In her current role, Butler is responsible for handling the lower-budget films on the Film4 slate including Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur, which recently screened at Sundance and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List which will have its world premiere at SXSW on Saturday. International sales are being handled by Protagonist.
Butler’s slate also includes Terence Davies’ feature adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play The Deep Blue Sea which is in post; Peter Strickland’s horror film Berberian Sound Studio, which will start shooting at the end of this month; and a feature documentary about a French con-artist, The Imposter, which is being directed by Bart Layton and executive produced by Simon Chinn and John Battsek.
Also screening at SXSW is the Film4-funded film, Attack The Block, the debut feature of UK comedian Joe Cornish which is about a group of London teenagers who have to defend their tower block against aliens. It is the first feature to come out of Film4’s production partnership with Big Talk and will be released by Optimum in the UK in April.
Butler anticipates that the next two Film4 features to shoot this year will be Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin and Roger Michell’s Hyde Park on Hudson.
What makes SXSW the right festival to showcase Kill List and Attack The Block?
So many people were talking about the festival in Toronto last year and we were really aware of how brilliantly it had launched films like Gareth Edwards’ Monsters and Duncan Jones’ Moon. We were also really interested in thinking about how films work in the digital world as well.
The one that came first was Ben Wheatley’s film Kill List. Ben’s first film Down Terrace had played at Fantastic Fest, a sister festival to SXSW, so we knew that the audience there already loved Ben’s work. We always hoped that is where it would end up, the selection team was incredibly enthusiastic when they saw it so that felt like a really good decision.
The SXSW team were also very keen on Attack The Block from quite a long way out, and timing wise it all worked. In terms of the audience as well, we just feel that the public audience at SXSW is so enthusiastic, so embracing of genre film particularly, that they were the target audience for these films.
Joe Cornish started out on Channel 4, before making his breakthrough into films. Is it a natural fit for you to take talent from Channel 4?
We take talent from wherever we can get it to be honest! Joe is someone we have known about for years, I loved the Adam and Joe Show, when it was on Channel 4 and we had actually started talking to him about another project when he had the idea for Attack The Block.
We felt that his sensibility was so clear for film and it was so obvious that his ideas and humour and his knowledge of film was going to add up to something very special. What we loved about the idea was that it was taking American genre and placing it completely and utterly in a London estate. It’s a really fast paced funny frightening ride of an action adventure movie. But it also has a truth underpinning it which gives it a depth and makes it even more special.
We hope it is for a teen audience, which is an incredibly difficult audience to get, a real challenge and one we wanted to take on. Both we and the distributors [Optimum in the UK] feel really confident that we’ve got a shot at that audience.
Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, which Film4 co-financed, is currently in post. How is it looking?
The idea of Andrea married with this material seemed too good to be true really. We always knew she was going to do something visionary and extraordinary and very different to anything you’ve seen before. I’ve only seen little bits but it looks extraordinary and compelling. It looks like the pure essence of Bronte.
How would you sum up a ‘Film4 film’?
When you look at every single one, they involve film-makers of absolutely distinctive voice. Our philosophy is to follow the director’s voice and look at subjects in a really challenging unique way. And to support those film-makers who we feel have real vision and have something to say, whether it be in a horror genre or whether it be in comedy or in serious drama. Our desire is to keep pushing at the boundaries and not to do the thing that is expected of us. And keep ourselves on our toes as well.
Film4’s annual budget has been increased from $16m (£10m) to $24m (£15m), with the new budget coming into effect in January this year. What impact has that had on your strategy?
It means we can make a couple of extra films a year. We can also afford to do some bigger budget films and put some more money into development. Of course it adds that extra level of comfort, but the work is still trying to find the filmmakers we are excited about and marry them with the material that we think is really interesting. We can’t compromise on the kind of films we are involved with.
We have always said we aim to make 8 and 10 films a year, but with the $24m (£15m), we hope to make between 10 and 12, although it always depends on what comes through that year.
There seems to be more crossover between film and TV at the moment, with Shane Meadows, for example, turning This Is England into a TV series for Channel 4…
There is more fluidity between the boundaries. We have particularly seen film-makers coming across to make television and then coming back across to make films, and there is not that silo mentality that maybe there has been in the past. We try to work very closely with different parts of Channel 4. We work closely with the drama department and are co-commissioning a project a the moment called Random, to be directed by playwright Debbie Tucker Green from her own play which was very successful at [London theatre] The Royal Court.
We have commissioned it to broadcast on Channel 4, but in the lead up we are going to do a lot of activity in releasing it as an event film in lots of different venues around the country to bring it to different audiences.
We want to make films that people will see. And that can be a real challenge, especially at the low-budget end. In that respect, Monsters was a great inspiration and a wake up call, not just for us, but for the whole industry.