EXCLUSIVE– Getting one high-end, sophisticated independent film off the ground in today’s climate is no mean feat. Carol producers Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen and their company Number 9 Films seem to have cracked a way to turn good taste into a viable business. They are on the verge of having their biggest ever year. Buoyed by the critical success in 2015 of Todd Haynes’ period love story, not to mention Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, Woolley and Karlsen now have a quartet of high-end projects in various stages of production.
As exclusively revealed by Deadline, the husband and wife team have brought Brooklyn actress Saoirse Ronan on-board On Chesil Beach, with acclaimed theatre director Dominic Cooke (The Hollow Crown) making his feature directorial debut with the adaptation of the bestselling Ian McEwan novel. Production is set to start in the fall.
Number 9 also has Keira Knightley biopic Colette, about the French novelist who wrote Gigi and Cheri, which sold out for Hanway Films at the recent EFM in Berlin. The project, is a co-production with Killer Films and Bold Films- who also finance.
What’s more, Woolley and Karlsen have two other prestige pics in post: Jane Goldman’s adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s best-selling novel Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem, which Juan Carlos Medina (Painless) has directed. The film, which will simply be called The Limehouse Golem, is set in 1880 London and is a gothic murder mystery described as being in the style of David Fincher’s Seven and James Watkins’ The Woman In Black. The late Alan Rickman, Olivia Cooke, Bill Nighy and Douglas Booth star in the film.
Also coming out later this year is Their Finest Hour and a Half, starring Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy, in a screwball World War 2 caper set around the misadventures of a British movie crew trying to make a patriotic film to boost morale during the Blitz. An Education’s Lone Scherfig directs.
The busy duo managed to find time to sit down with Deadline to discuss the challenges- and appeal- of staying resolutely independent in an unforgiving industry.
DEADLINE: You guys are on a roll. How do you manage to keep everything afloat given how hard we keep hearing it is to get the kind of high-end fare you produce moving along?
EK. We aim to make two films a year. We’re very hands on producers. We are still a very small company. There is only Stephen and I, Joanna Laurie and two assistants. So there’s five of us. To make two films a year is quite a big ask for a company of our size but we really try. We have a development slate of I’d say about six or seven projects. It has just happened that those projects have come through in the way they have. With our conversion rate being so high, we have found by the time we get to the end of next year it means we might have come to the end of our slate. And we’ve never had that experience before. You become a victim of your conversion rate success because as a small company you can’t really afford to have this massive development slate and not get anything into production. It means we’ve kept it to projects we feel very passionate about and feel fit our sensibilities and our passions.
SW: It’s a miracle because our slate is very small and we don’t plan to have a huge slate. We are looking now for the first time in a while at expanding the slate a little bit but we’re not out there just searching. The reality is that our projects organically grow. We’ve done a lot of projects with the same directors, the same writers. We enjoy an extremely good relationship with talent and that’s what our strength is. Our strength has always been, from my first movies with Neil Jordan, from working closely on the scripts, working closely on conceptual ideas of what it is we are trying to achieve. We’re not dictatorial but at the same time we’re very hands on from the beginning, which means we generally are very close to the book, the ideas, the development, the development department, the partners, the process and we tend to take that through till the bitter end. That stretches all the way back to when we had Palace Pictures and when we were making films for distribution. We kind of knew we were having to make films to get to an audience. So we do like to think that we try and make films for audiences. We don’t simply sign on for the ride if some auteur or some writer says ‘I want to do this’. We are quite investigative in terms of the quality of the material and what we would like. Which is not to say that if somebody walked in now with a great script that we wouldn’t go, “great we love this, too.”
DEADLINE: How do you get access to material. That is always the biggest challenge, isn’t it?
EK: We were approached by Indigo films, Paolo Sorrentino’s producers, to be the producers on Youth. We read the script and loved it and we knew that they were talking to a few producers. We read the script on a Wednesday, we flew to Rome on the Friday to have lunch with them because we felt so passionate about him and that particular project. And having Michael Caine attached – this is the fourth film that we’ve done with Michael – which was a big draw for us. We clinched the deal there and then at lunch. Out of that has come a relationship with Indigo where different projects have been passing between the two of us. We have one that’s in development and other scripts that they keep sending us, ideas we’ve been sending them. Similarly with Killer Films. We have done two films together and now we are doing Colette which is something they brought to us because it’s European based. They asked us to help shape the whole thing and push it forward. To have a spirit of collaboration that works with another small – like ourselves – production company and producers has also been something we’ve enjoyed in our company. To develop a project right from the idea stage- as we did on Made In Dagenham, which was a radio program, or theatre pieces like Little Voice. It’s a very, very long process that can last up to five years. It has been wonderful having relationships with another company who are also hands-on creative producers, who know how to build finance, how to build a project creatively and see it right through to the end. Those kind of projects can kind of pop in there while the other things are being developed from scratch.
DEADLINE: Given your limited resources, how do you find yourselves able to compete against some of the bigger companies and even studios when they dip into the indie market. Do you ever want to play in a bigger sandbox?
EK– I find where I am very exciting. We can’t be in the game of acquiring the bestselling books. We can’t compete against the Working Titles. We don’t have that kind of financial access. But there is a wealth of material out there. It’s just identifying that thing you want to make. There are bestsellers, but sometimes they only last for a moment and a lot of stuff very quickly falls away and is forgotten. I’m interesting in finding material on the margin or it will be things that people tried and couldn’t get off the ground. There’s examples of that all over. Just look at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel , which was somewhere, didn’t get off the ground and then Blueprint picked it up and it becomes what it becomes. We had that experience with Carol, where in many ways we were building it from scratch. It was something I had been desperate to do but the rights weren’t free for so long. I do find it exciting because you’re working in a world where everyone is focusing on what the thing is of the moment and then you go, well, actually there is this story over here and no one has seen it or maybe no one believed in it. But we’re going to pick this up and run with it.
SW: The zeitgeist doesn’t need to dictate. That bestseller today is not necessarily going to be popular during the 2 years it takes to make the film. So often – and I think this is why Hollywood often relies very much on remakes of old classics- they recognise things sometimes are sustainable over a long period of time and never go away. It takes a while to develop and get a great script. It takes you a while to shoot it and to edit it and release it. You can’t afford as filmmakers to make too many films that don’t make an impact. Which is not to say that we’re aiming to outgrow Avatar or become the next Star Wars.
EK: Or Deadpool
SW: Deadpool is an interesting one . I like Deadpool. What we can do is nurture ideas and originality and uniqueness and that’s something we try to do so that we aren’t falling into a groove of making what everyone expects us to make. You look at The Revenant, which had about 150 times the budget of Carol, or Mad Max, there is no chance in the world that we would produce necessarily either of those two films. Mad Max is a franchise movie even if it’s winning lots of awards. We can’t be in the Mad Max business. I’m not saying that in a limiting way. We’re in the David business, not the Goliath business. And actually that David business is a huge business and I think we realise that.
EK: When you get it right
SW: – There is a huge audience there for unusual, unique, different types of movies. In Britain we have always been able to mine that incredibly well.
EK: I feel that because of the way that Stephen and I work, I don’t think we will will be able to change. There is huge amounts of pride that come with making a film like Carol and working with a filmmaker like Todd Haynes. As a producer to think that you have made something that will enter the canon of great films and will be written about for generations to come. Because of the hands-on way we work even with the VOD/ DVD release we’ll be there working on the cover art- I think for us to do more than two films a year would be very challenging because we won’t be exercising the same control and that nurturing presence. We’ve always said that we want to move into TV, for example, but we felt an organic move into TV is really the best way to go instead of setting up a structure/infrastructure and then try to fill that infrastructure with materials. We’ve always been talent and material driven so it feels as though establishing that TV arm should really come organically from either a spin-off project that we’ve done or talent that we’ve worked really close with who’s coming to us with an idea.
SW: As for the sandbox, I have no problems making big-budget films. I made Interview with the Vampire with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. We’ve worked on big budget films with Dreamworks, Columbia, Warner Bros. I don’t have a problem with that at all. iIthink it has to be the right kind of film, that’s all. It’s all well and good to do a studio deal but it has to be a studio deal that allows you to bring to the project what can make it thrive. Not simply a deal where you’re making films that they want you to make.
EK: One of the things we’re really proud of is building some really seminal creative and financial relationships in this industry. We’ve worked with Hanway on five films, for example. Some distributors, who share our passion for filmmaking and share the aesthetics and the sensibilities, and who have done well with us are now coming to us and saying “Do you want some development money?” That’s really beneficial because it takes away our whole anxiety level. Developing a project is a long and sometimes tedious and flawed business. You’ve got to stick it out. You cannot be frightened to make those changes to the script, for example. It’s very hard for us to develop something with the U.S., for example, because they’re 3000 or 5000 miles away and you don’t have that same kind of relationship that you can develop. We’ve got some great relationships with Studio Canal. We have another Phyllis Nagy script we’re working on with them now which will tie in well with Universal Music Group. Those relationships are important to us. You also have to try and get into a position where talent want to come to you. This year in particular has been a terrific one, because for such a tiny, tiny company, based in the UK, to have had the productions we’ve had with the co-producers and talent, it’s phenomenal. All we’re doing is putting our heads down and getting on with it because it’s a roller coaster ride.
SW: We’d rather make one great movie where we’re sharing a few producers credit than 10 lousy movies where we’re getting all the credits and acclaim. We’re looking for great ideas and sometimes that’s not an easy life.
EK: We wouldn’t be in this business if we were
SW: We wouldn’t be making the kind of films we’re doing if we were looking for an easy life.
DEADLINE: Is the focus on female driven stories intentional?
SW: What we really found interesting about Colette was it fits into what we’ve always been attracted to, namely the telling of a story that people think they know but from an angle which is unique and original. That’s what we loved about the script. It was from a very modern perspective. It shares sensibilities with what Baz Luhrmann did with his totally modern version of Moulin Rouge, even this is not a musical. It transports you into the eyes of Colette as a modern woman, born out of time. You’re looking at a modern relationship but in the setting of what you’d consider to be archaic and old-fashioned. It’s a story that shows you the past not only through today’s eyes but as though it is today. That’s why it is such a great script. t’s a similar thing we did with Backbeat all those years ago about The Beatles in Hamburg. It was a story that people didn’t know about and it also made John Lennon a human being , not a god. It told the story about when the Beatles were just kids, and people loved that. They love humanising the past, rather than glorifying it.
DEADLINE: You’re reuniting with Saoise Ronan on On Chesil Beach after working together on Byzantium
EK: We were approached by Saoirse’s agent, Chris Andrews, who must have heard we came on the project. We said yes that’s true and we set a meeting up with Dominic Cooke, who is directing, and Saoirse. We’ve worked with her before in Byzantium and she was just terrific. Her performance in Brooklyn was just radiant and transcendent. Dominic met her and just fell in love.
SW: She has an ethereal presence, which is extraordinary. She is in the top 4 or 5 actresses in the world. You just have her walk into a scene and you immediately want to know who she is and what she’s about.