Monday, 8 November 2010

LSF 1: In Conversation with Tim Bevan and Michael Gubbins

The London Screenwriters' Festival opened, appropriately, with Tim Bevan, the head of the most successful production company in the country.

The conversation took the form of a history of Working Title Films, which was very interesting, particularly for those looking to establish their own company in the industry in this country. But for the purposes of this blog entry, I've picked out the bits most relevant to screenwriting.

Bevan admitted that in the beginning, script development was quite incidental. They just had to get the next film made and were never allowing the development process to take as long as it needs to. An Indie is in the terrible position of having all their money in development, but your income is dependent on getting a film made, because that is where you get your fees from. And because getting the thing on becomes the be all and end all, you forget a little bit about the quality of the thing. (I actually believe this is the single biggest reason why movies in this country fail - which I think I got from Phil Parker, but can't recall for sure.)

Bevan came to the conclusion that you need capital. Because you have to spend money on developing a script and at the end of that process, be able to take a long hard look at it, and if it's not good enough, to chuck it in the bin. And an Indie doesn't have the luxury (and my guess is that 98% of the producers and companies in this country don't either.)

Bevan felt that there was a lack of ambition in British movies - partly because of money - but he realised that audiences wanted to be entertained. At Working Title they think about the audience from Day One. What's the genre? They made mistakes early on with films that fell in between. Now a marketing person sits in on development meetings. Ultimately they have to sell this. It shouldn't be based purely on that. Bevan doesn't believe that a marketing person should run a studio, but they should be in the room.

But the question in the first development meeting isn't a sales or commercial one, it's is there a good story here? The only thing Bevan expects to see in the first draft is - is there a decent story in here? What you want to see is a narrative running all the way through the script. And in the first draft the narrative is normally very up front. Script development is about getting the characters to carry that narrative. And so throughout the process the characters evolve and become more and more important.

Notting Hill is set up as an overtly commercial movie - but Billy Elliot isn't. But there is something in the middle of that movie about aspiration and emotion, and father and son relationship, that affects people all around the world. And Bevan believes this is the key. That what one is looking for is the emotional core, whatever the movie is; funny, serious, a Richard Curtis movie or United 93. It's the emotional core that appeals to audiences.

So the three questions Working Title asks is; are there characters, is there a story, is there emotion?

Bevan stated that he didn't think people went to the cinema to have their own lives reflected back at them. They go because they want to escape for a couple of hours. Maybe it's a serious movie. But all great cinema is slightly heightened. So if Notting Hill is two feet off the ground, most films are at least two or three inches off the ground.

When you go to the movies you either want to laugh or cry, be frightened or spectacularly wowed - and these are all emotional responses. (Which interestingly, also, in a loose way, correspond to comedy, drama, horror and thriller.) And if you don't get that emotional response it's a disappointment. If you don't have an emotional connection with something it seems to be a little bit pointless.

I've never understood the criticism Working Title gets. There was some talk about the Working Title 'formula' (which Bevan said if that means making 200 million dollars on a movie then it was a formula he was all for.) But there is a tendency to associate the company purely with sugary rom coms. It's true they had a run of films like Four Weddings, Notting Hill, Love Actually, About a Boy and Bridget Jones - all very successful movies that I can watch over and over again, especially when I feel unwell or it's bloody freezing out. What's wrong with that? But the company also provides a home for the eclectic cinema of the Coen brothers, as well as movies like Elizabeth, Frost/Nixon, The Interpreter and Atonement.

Of course not everything they make is great. But that's not what this is about. The sniping about a perceived philosophy of filmmaking I think comes more from a place of jealousy. But not listening to one of the most successful producers of all time surely comes from a place of stupidity.

No comments: