Like most, if not all, successful UK producers, Paul Webster is not afraid of the US. "We're trying to work on projects with scale, so that means we need American partners," says Webster, the former Miramax head of production and Film4 chief executive who now oversees the film division of TV powerhouse Kudos. "If you're making commercial films you've got to be able to compete with what's commercial, and that's dictated by Hollywood."
Webster's latest productions are on a scale to compete internationally: Joe Wright's $30m Atonement opens Venice on August 29 and David Cronenberg's $20m Eastern Promises debuts as a gala presentation in Toronto on September 6 before opening the San Sebastian and London film festivals.
Webster, and Kudos joint managing directors Stephen Garrett and Jane Featherstone, set up the film arm in late 2004, building on the success of Kudos' TV productions including Spooks, Hustle and Life On Mars. "I was determined to work in a collaborative arena and I wanted that partner to have other activities so we didn't rely entirely on film to run the business," Webster says. "It's a fertile ground for sharing ideas and having synergies. It's proving a really, really interesting marriage."
Outside Kudos, Webster continues his relationship with Wright and Working Title (who all teamed for the Oscar-nominated Pride & Prejudice) on Atonement, the Ian McEwan adaptation.
Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan and Vanessa Redgrave star in the Second World War-era story of a young couple and a family torn apart by a girl's lies.
"Because it's so much Joe's vision, I can say I think it's brilliant, it's a bit of a triumph," Webster says. He notes the budget was not much bigger than Pride & Prejudice, but the scale and ambition - including scenes in the English countryside of 1935, war-torn Dunkirk, and London in 1940 - move Wright ahead as a director. "Because of his incredible visual empathy, he had a great understanding of Ian's novel. He was intrigued by playing around with form, content and points of view," Webster says.
Working with Cronenberg presented an entirely new experience. Webster explains that the director joined Eastern Promises when the script had been developed at BBC Films, just as Focus Features was coming on board. "We had our list of directors, we sent it out and David responded, much to our pleasurable surprise. He was attracted to the exotic existing in the mundane, this Russian criminal subculture." The film reunites Cronenberg with his History Of Violence star Viggo Mortensen in the story of a Russian mobster in London whose life collides with that of an innocent midwife (Naomi Watts).
The Canadian auteur then polished the script and "in that Cronenbergian way drilled down and focused it," Webster explains.
With these two large projects in the can, Kudos is now in post-production on another Focus Features project, Bharat Nalluri's Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day starring Frances McDormand and Amy Adams, which Webster executive produced with Garrett as producer.
Kudos is working with Disney on Crimson Wing (formerly known as Dreamscape), Leander Ward and Matthew Aeberhard's flamingo documentary shooting in northern Tanzania. "I thought it was a much more complex take than the simple lifecycle wildlife films we see so many of," Webster says. "There's a musical dimension to this and a pictorial element that's almost literally out of this world. And it's something completely new for me."
Other projects on the horizon are Simon Beaufoy's adaptation of children's story Journey To The River Sea; John Hillcoat's Death Of A Ladies Man (on hold as Hillcoat works on a US project); Spy By Nature with Iain Softley attached; and a retro-futuristic sci-fi thriller adapted from Philip K Dick's Ubick.
Garrett is his partner on every project, and Featherstone is producing two features with him: a film spin-off from the Hustle TV series, which is set up at Fox 2000, and Abi Morgan's script If The Spirit Moves You, in development at Film4. There is also Sophie Goodhart's adaptation of bestseller Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, being developed with BBC Films and the UK Film Council.
Webster is accustomed to the ups and downs of the UK film business and says the loss of Gaap funding schemes is "a terrific blow" but "there's an underlying health and robustness for the business now. We've got a terrific talent base here."
He points to the success of Working Title as proof that UK films of a certain scale do work. "When is the last time a film could come out of nowhere along the lines of Bend It Like Beckham, The Full Monty or East Is East' I've said for 10 years that we overproduce in this country, we make far too many low-budget movies. I don't see that our infrastructure or international capability can support 130-odd films per year."
- See Venice Buzz, p16-22
PAUL WEBSTER'S ACTIVE PROJECTS
Atonement (Dir: Joe Wright)
James McAvoy and Keira Knightley star in this Ian McEwan adaptation about a couple torn apart by lies. Opens Venice in competition.
Partners: Working Title/Universal, Studio Canal, Relativity Media
(Dir: David Cronenberg)
A Russian mobster (Viggo Mortensen) living in London crosses paths with an innocent midwife (Naomi Watts). World premiere in Toronto before opening the San Sebastian and London film festivals.
Partners: Focus Features, BBC Films, Serendipity Point, Kudos
Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day
(Dir: Bharat Nalluri)
Frances McDormand stars in the story of a governess who suddenly enters a world of glamour.
Partners: Focus, Keylight, UK Film Council, Kudos
(Dir: Matthew Aeberhard and Leander Ward)
Flamingo documentary shooting in northern Tanzania.
Partners: Disney, Natural Light, Kudos.