UK producer Teddy Leifer has two films at Sundance, Steve James’ The Interrupters and Ian Palmer’s Knuckle.

Teddy Leifer is the founder of London-based production company Rise Films, which kicked off in 2007 with multiple-award -winning documentary We Are Together. Rise now heads to Sundance with two films — Steve James’ The Interrupters, about former gang members in Chicago trying to stop the spread of violence, and Ian Palmer’s Knuckle, about bare-knuckle fighting among an Irish traveller community.

The company also recently finished a documentary about controversial runner Caster Semenya for BBC Two (it will air in early 2011). Also forthcoming is Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War, about abuse in the US Army.

And We Are Together director Paul Taylor, who now lives in Canada, is actively developing another project with Rise.

Rise has recently set up a comedy arm, run by Teddy’s writer/director brother Sam Leifer, to develop comedy projects for TV as well as film.

The company also houses the Rise Foundation — a UK charity first set up alongside the launch of We Are Together — which supports education for orphans in South Africa.

What has Rise been up since We Are Together?

It’s been an amazing few years for Rise. We Are Together was the launch for Rise as a company, and it had a real impact on what we were able to do after that. And we followed that with Rough Aunties, which won Sundance in 2009, and that was another milestone for us.

What is the genesis of the comedy division?

I love producing comedy, and the comedy we like has a truth to it. [The new division] grew out of me producing [Sam’s] shorts, and Sam is now involved officially at Rise. The comedy arm will mainly develop for TV [a major partnership will be unveiled soon]. There is also an ambition to produce narrative comedy features as well. We’re developing a romantic comedy, Ten Meals With Mandy Moon. It’s the story of an unlikely relationship between two muddled people seen over 10 meals in and around contemporary London. Sam will direct and is currently writing it together with award winning new writer, Rose Heiney. Hilary Bevan Jones is on board to produce with me.  

How did you get involved as executive producer on the Steve James film?

With Steve, he had this germ of the idea already, and we just reached out to him and said ‘We’d love to work with you.’ We pitched it with him with a promo at IDFA Forum 2008, and people really liked it, broadcasters came on board. He really delivers with this, I think it’s his best film since Hoop Dreams.

What do you learn working with someone like Steve James?

He makes very, very difficult stuff look easy. It’s a master craft. It’s the same with Kim (Longinotto). Those two really have something in common, they shoot observationally and really make you feel like you’re in there. It’s astonishing. It’s also down to the editing. It’s about the cinematic way that they cut those scenes, that’s what makes these films theatrical and stand out from documentaries that you might only see on TV. I think that’s partly what gives filmmakers like these an edge — the editing process, the length of time devoted to the editing process.

What about Knuckle, why is that something you wanted to produce?

The director had been making the film for 12 years by the time I got involved. [Editor and frequent Rise collaborator] Ollie Huddleston started looking at the material and called me up and said, ‘We need help, we need money, we need a producer.’ The project started when Ian had been asked to film a traveller wedding, and they were happy with that, and then a couple of weeks later they called him up and said, ‘Do you want to come film one of our fights?’ From there he developed a relationship with these families, and he followed them for 12 years.

With the recession, are you finding it harder to finance documentaries?

There’s never a film where you find it really easy. At Rise, we’ve made films on a shoestring often, and I think we’re good at that, and that’s important now. It doesn’t mean we have to, but we are able to if necessary.