UK film producer Stephen Woolley delivered a BAFTA Craft Masterclass at the Bath Film Festival on Friday night. It was genius – I fell in love with film and cinema all over again. His film credits include The Company of Wolves, The Crying Game, Absolute Beginners, Made in Dagenham, Scandal, Backbeat, Great Expectations, Interview with a Vampire. He is about: “stories that move me, touch me in different ways. Stories that reach inside our minds and prompt emotion. Real life stories that have happened but we missed. Gothic, fantasy, horror. Stories that push imagination.”
He begins by apologising for the name ‘masterclass’ for, although he has made over 50 films, he doesn’t consider himself a master. Of course he absolutely is and it’s a joy to listen to someone who loves what they do and speaks of it with the depth of a lifelong, passionate relationship to it. Particularly when you love it too. Embracing of desire and deep human urges he is inspiring, energising and humble.
Stephen started in cinema selling ice creams and tearing tickets at the Screen on the Green in Islington. He went on to own his own cinema, the infamous Scala, followed by Palace Video which released the likes of Evil Dead, Nightmare on Elm Street, Diva and When Harry Met Sally on VHS back in the day. He apparently discovered he was a film producer when two other filmmakers told him so and now produces under No 9 Films with his producer partner and wife Elizabeth Karlsen.
He weaves us through clips and experiences from his films as illustrations of the key stages of film production – development, finance, production and marketing & distribution. Story after glorious story come at us. So much detail. So generously shared. A few reminders I needed to hear:
Relax. It can take 7 years. It can take 3 weeks.
The Crying Game started out under the title of The Soldier’s Wife and try as they might with Neil Jordan, writer/director, they could not come up with the ending. Seven years later – yes, that’s 7 whole years later – they were together at 3am in Dust Jungle, a famous transvestite club in Berlin. Stephen recounts: “We couldn’t believe that these women were men. We’d had a few drinks and Neil said: ‘What if at the very end you discover The Soldier’s Wife is really a man?’ And I thought, wow, this was the best idea I’d ever heard. I just loved it. We had the ending.”
And then Neil Jordan wrote Interview with a Vampire from Anna Rice’s book and screenplay in 3 weeks. Neil directed Interview with a Vampire. Stephen shares: It was brilliant and faithful to the heart and core of the book. I said: ‘Right are we going to take it to the studio?’ Neil said: ‘No way. We have to wait. They won’t pay me if they think it only took me 3 weeks.’”
The stronger the rejection the more passionate you must become. It probably means you are on to something.
Channel 4 hated the script for Company of Wolves. “They threw it back at me. So, we made it ourselves.”
The Crying Game was met with complete hostility. “One American studio I took it to was absolutely furious. Americans will never buy in to a film about an IRA soldier, let alone one who falls in love with a black woman, who then turns out to be a man. What on earth did I think I was doing?
“Of course this just gave me more resolve to make it. The stronger the rejection, the more passionate you must become. However, sometimes they are right and it won’t work. And often they know as little as you do. It is your belief in the story, your belief as a producer to see it through that counts. You must go with your instinct. Often the point of tension is the reason you cannot get the funding, which is the very point that results in the movie being so successful. From this strong reaction I knew we were on to something.”
The Crying Game was loved in America and nominated for 6 Oscars.
What you fear can turn out to be joyful.
Stephen was bought in to produce Interview with a Vampire for his experience in visual effects. This was the first time he’d worked with a big studio and he’d heard all the stories about how nasty the studios were. That they destroy you. You will never work again. They are evil. They are bad. He recounts: “I was scared. I had always been cavalier. We will make it up tomorrow, juggling with great crews to work round it, begging, stealing and borrowing. Suddenly I’m with Tom Cruise and Warner Brothers and now the emphasis is all on getting it right. So I would write all these very long memos justifying all my actions and covering my back.”
However, the reality of working with the David Geffen and Tom Cruise, two of the most powerful people in Hollywood, was creative freedom. “Tom Cruise was absolutely dedicated, so committed to getting it right and so pleasant. It meant access to funds, resources and helicopters! And we shot in New Orleans and Pinewood Studios so it was like making a big budget European movie, which made it even more pleasurable. The whole thing turned out to be a very joyful experience. They said to me later. ‘What were all those long memos about you used to write? We thought you were quite mad! We never read them you know.’”
Just do what you love.
He ends with: “I came to film producing from the cinema seat because I love films, because I love falling in love with film and cinema. There is nothing quite like being in a dark room surrounded by strangers going through a cathartic emotional experience together. You don’t experience these emotions in other forums. I will always be in this world.”