One-To-One: UK Star Of Tomorrow producer Laura Rees talks to indie producer Elizabeth Karlsen, of Number 9 Films, whose work includes And When Did You Last See Your Father', Ladies In Lavender and How To Lose Friends & Alienate People.
Laura Rees: How did you get into the industry'
Elizabeth Karlsen: I graduated in a film studies which was more on the academic side of things and then went to New York where I got a job as a runner on Bill Sherwood's Parting Glances and I moved up to production coordinator and then assistant editor.
The film went to Edinburgh and then I got a job with Palace Pictures. Although I noticed a difference with how things work in the US - New York is faster, the unions function differently, sets are different - it was very exhilarating working at Palace because it was young and vibrant and it was making interesting films.
Rees: You've produced all your films through you own company but you've worked with a lot of different financiers.
Karlsen: Yes, Miramax, HBO, FilmFour, it depends on the project. Number 9 [the company Karlsen owns with Steven Woolley] has a slate deal with FilmFour and the UK Film Council (UKFC) for development money.
The financing goes on a project by project basis and FilmFour and the UKFC have first look. The model on the last three films we've done - And When Did You Last See Your Father', How To Win Friends And Alienate People, and Starstruck - was similar but something like Mr Harris was originally developed with FilmFour but fully financed by HBO.
Rees: How have you put your films together' You've got backing from many different sources - private, public, British, US.
Karlsen: On the last three films we've had equity investment from the UKFC, TV rights and equity investment from FilmFour, some pre-sales and a bank filling the gap. That's been the model. On Mrs Harris, it was HBO with 100% financing, it was a first time film-maker, HBO were making exciting stuff and it was a really attractive offer, we knew we'd have the opportunity to work extra hard in post if we needed to.
What's vital is that everyone is making the same film because if you're not making the same film from the outset, that's going to carry through the whole process. You have to make sure you get into bed with people you can work with.
With private companies you might get 20 pages of script notes but that's part of the process; it's your job as a producer to shield the director from that, you filter things, you smooth out relations, you make sure there's a constant flow of dialogue, that people's ideas are being listened to, you engineer the situation so that things you think are wrong don't happen. It's part Machiavelli, part Kofi Anann.
Rees: Have you ever had to compromise on creative decisions'
Karlsen: I don't think I've ever had to make compromises. I can't say there was something I was forced into doing that I objected to. There may have been suggestions about the script or casting or crew that I baulked at initially and thought about them and thought, 'OK let's explore them'.
Today it's a celebrity- and star-driven culture and financing has become contingent on your cast in a way that wasn't so obvious 20 years ago. You could make low budget, independent and you didn't have people saying, Who's in the lead' It didn't go on as much. Like John Maybury's film, it's not huge budget but it stars Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller.
That's a pretty high bar. The sales company's expectations are going to be higher. So when you come to them and say 'I've got a £4m with a first time director', well, no one likes first-time directors, and they'll say, 'OK, who's in it''
You've also got the problem of who is a star internationally and who is a star in North America because they're not necessarily the same thing.
Rees: What kind of pressure to cast certain actors have you been faced with'
Karlsen: I've never cast anyone who I didn't think would work. But yes, on 'The List' that comes through from financiers, there are names which are completely unsuitable. But have I ever been forced to cast a name or forced a director to' No. I've been very lucky in getting the first choice of actors on the films I've done.
Rees: So if you have a project with a first-time director what's the secret to getting it financed'
Karlsen: You have to sell the director. That's your job as a producer. You make a great showreel if they've done something you can use, or if you've got a great script you use it to get A-list actors. You have to shore up the anxieties of the financiers - that includes a high-calibre cast, a tiny budget, producers with a track record, anything that will make them feel more comfortable.
Rees: How do you identify new talent'
Karlsen: There's a small talent pool, so you're competing with a lot of other producers. But there are some really great new talents out there. But people come to us too. Phyllis Nagy, for example, was a playwright and theatre director who was suggested to us by her agent and we talked over ideas and she made her screen debut with Mrs Harris.
Rees: You're currently making Jamie Jay Johnson's first feature Starstruck about the junior Eurovision Song Contest. That's the first documentary you've produced. Would you like to do more' They've become much more popular theatrically in recent years.
Karlsen: Starstruck has been a terrifying experience so far! We've ended up with 120 hours of footage which we hadn't had time to watch it properly while we were shooting
Rees: Yes, documentary-makers really know how to shoot a lot of footage, don't they.
Karlsen: Well, it's so cheap, you just stick the tape in. I've always loved documentaries but they're more frightening than features in terms of how they play in the theatrical market. We got backing for Jamie's film from UKFC's New Cinema Fund almost immediately and with them on board we could attract other financiers including equity company Aramid Entertainment Fund and The Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation (Britdoc) which were instrumental in getting the film made.
Britdoc give you the money and say, 'We come out last, just start filming'. The UKFC like any other source wants to see a business plan and the production finance distribution agreement has to be signed off before anyone can start cash flowing.
Independent producers have all been in week six of a seven-week shoot and we haven't closed the finance and you're ringing up someone and asking them to send £50,000 so you can pay the crew! Because we were shooting a competition with set dates that we couldn't miss, Britdoc's involvement was great.
Rees: Would you be interested in doing more TV'
Karlsen: Not really. We're a small company and we're sticking to our core business which is making feature film. Making programmes for TV is a different area, you have to be set up to do that and it's not a world I know much about.
Rees: I only ask because you can hold on to the TV rights much more. It must be quite tempting for a producer to look into diversifying into TV.
Karlsen: Everyone always tells me that the rights situation is much better in TV but then I have to wonder how come everyone in TV isn't making a killing.
Rees: What's the biggest risk you've ever taken with a project'
Karlsen: Your stress levels are the same if it's a big budget or a small one. Mrs Harris would have seemed a risk because Phyllis had never stepped behind a camera before but she'd written and formidable screenplay and she managed to attract Annette Bening and Ben Kingsley so that offsets the risk. Also HBO came on board.
On Starstruck, even though it's a micro-budget, we started shooting with hardly any money and had to hope that the rest was going to come. And with 120 hours of footage, a 14 week schedule is not going to be enough! I hope that when we show the first screening to the financiers, they like it enough to give us a bit of extra money. There are those kinds of risks. With Ladies In Lavender, we were in Cornwall in week five with no money
Rees: With that film you had the stars and the director and having the financing coming in while the shoot was going on must have been quite daunting.
Karlsen: It was very typical. The Crying Game is the classic example of a film where we were getting money from wherever we could during the shoot - the Scala Cinema box office [which Palace owned], anywhere! - but when you package independently, you close the financing half way through the shoot and I reckon 90% of independent producers will tell you the same.
You have to keep your wits about you, you have to keep the cast and crew motivated by being on set yourself all the time. It's very nerve-racking for the accountant and the production department and things filter down to the crew but you have to keep on going.
The other thing a producer has to keep in mind is that there's no correlation between a happy shoot and a good film or vice versa. So if you're in a jam you have, as a producer, to bear that in mind; you have to put that out of your head because it doesn't have any bearing on how the film's going to turn out.
Rees: The films you have made and are working on now come from a variety of different sources - memoirs, short stories, real life people or events. How do you choose material'
Karlsen: As an independent producer it takes a lot of energy and a lot of time to get a film going. I have to feel some kind of emotional and intellectual connection to the material to do it. Sometimes when I pass on a script and it gets made, I get frustrated that I didn't see its potential, but if you don't respond to the material, how can you go put yourself through the whole process'
Rees: Is there anything you've regretted passing on'
Karlsen: Someone else once said, 'If I'd said yes to everything I said no to and no to everything I said yes to I'd be in exactly the same place.'
Rees: How do you work with writers and directors'
Karlsen: The most important thing is once you've made the decision to work with someone, be as supportive as you can. You have to understand the director's vision and enable them to communicate that onto the screen.
As an independent producer, your relationship with the talent is vital; that's what keeps you going. You have to be truthful and honest with your script notes, rushes and edit but you have to primarily enable them to realise their vision.
Rees: How do you manage to juggle work and family' I'm at a stage where I'm at the start of my career but I do want to have kids and I'm apprehensive about what that's going to mean for my future.
Karlsen: It's tough. You muddle through. If you can find a wife to stick with you for 15 years, then you're sorted.
You see with a lot of women that there's a lull during their 30s or so. There are a lot of women producers who become very productive in their 40s when their kids are in their mid or late teens.
Rees: How many projects are you working on at any one time'
Karlsen: Development is a costly and risky process. You absolutely need development funds, they're the hardest to access but the most important to have. We work on about six or seven projects a year. Some companies have a buy, buy, buy attitude; we prefer less and try to do two or three films a year. Your turnover of what you move from development into production is important in terms of financing your company and attracting talent to it.
Rees: And when do you give up on a film'
Karlsen: I rarely walk away from a project even if it's been in development for years. To be an independent producer you can't have a giving-up kind of attitude. There are so many examples of films that had been knocking around for ever - Mrs Harris was 12 months from start to finish but that's incredibly unusual - so you just keep on. Things can turn just like that.
Rees: What would your advice be for a new independent producer'
Karlsen: It's obvious but just keep at it. Persistence, persistence, persistence. Believe in your instincts; you have to go for it. Close the deal; sometimes I think I haven't been quick enough off the mark. Have a good team of collaborators. And get a partner. Someone who complements you. To bounce ideas off, bolster your confidence, keep you going when things aren't going well.