EXCLUSIVE: “You’re popping our cherry,” Colin Firth laughed as I sat down to lunch with him and his production partner Ged Doherty last week at the Four Seasons.
He was referring to the fact that he and Doherty had not done any interviews to date about Raindog Films, the production company they founded in 2011. It has been five years since the Oscar-winning actor of The King’s Speech, and so many other films, teamed with Doherty, the former music company executive who was most recently Chairman and CEO of Sony Music UK and before that had posts at BMG, Arista and Columbia Records. Initially the thought was that their company would focus on several areas including film, music, TV and comedy, but instead they decided that for two novices in this area they needed a focus and that is when the word “films” was added to the Raindog moniker.
Now that 2016 has brought to fruition the first two of those films, both widely acclaimed and in the Oscar race, they decided that perhaps it was time to tell people what they have been up to — though they still are reluctant to discuss a “slate,” as they say. “We are not used to talking about our deal at all. I am not sure we are ready to. If they don’t work out then we have announced a failure, ” said Firth, even though their first two films — the March release Eye In The Sky, starring Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, and the November 4 release Loving with Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga — certainly would not be described as failures by any definition. “We have never announced anything. We are the complete opposite of many,” added Doherty.
Firth said every time Cannes comes around he hears announcements about projects of which he was barely aware “that I am suddenly in.” Raindog’s films are the real deal. Eye, grossing $20 million domestically for U.S. distributor Bleecker Street, was the top-earning independent of 2016 until Hell or High Water eclipsed it last month. Loving, the Southern-set interracial marriage story from director Jeff Nichols, has been winning praise ever since its Cannes competition debut in May. Not bad for a couple of newbie producers who had never done this end of it before. “I took a class on indie moviemaking called Raindance (not to be confused with their company moniker), and I bought two books. I bought Filmmaking for Dummies and I bought No Budget to Low Budget: A Guide to Independent Filmmaking,” Doherty said about his preparation for making two films that would end up in the awards-season conversation. “All three things came in very handy.”
Doherty had to urge his new partner — who he first met when both were on a fair-trade mission to Ethiopia — to seriously come on board with the idea of adding Producer to his résumé. Firth had come upon the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, the couple whose interracial marriage got them banished from their home in Virginia in the 1950s only to end up as a triumphant landmark civil rights victory in the Supreme Court in 1967, and he was intrigued with the idea of doing something with it, not from an acting standpoint but just because he felt it was important to get it out there. It came up at the end of the pair’s first conversation about a joint company, but still he tried to dissuade Doherty. “I told Ged I don’t know if I am going to be reliable enough, I don’t know if I am going to be there for development meetings. My job takes me all over the place. I am wired in a particular way. And I wasn’t trying to generate more acting work, ” he said. But nevertheless he encouraged filmmaker Nancy Buirsky, whom he met when he was filming a movie called Main Street, to do a documentary on the Lovings. That documentary would end up on HBO in 2011, leading to further talk for the now Raindog partners of making a narrative film.
They had seen Nichols’ Take Shelter and determined that he would be the perfect writer and director for the project, but it took some convincing since Nichols only had done his own developed projects such as Mud and had other commitments, but patience ruled the day. As it was, Firth’s King’s Speech awards run came along, sidetracking him for a while, but after that, the Loving feature got revived with huge enthusiasm from Doherty, who it turns out was born the week the Lovings were married in 1958 and was involved in his own interracial relationship. The story had to be told.
But before it got going, Doherty went to a party in 2012, where he was introduced to writer Guy Hibbert, who told him of his drone movie script Eye in the Sky. Firth already knew about it since he had come across the project early on to act in it. That never happened, but there were other factors that were not dependent on whether he could be in the movie or not. “I can basically only ever play a middle-aged white guy, but my interests are not limited to that. The music I listen to and the books I read are beyond that. There are some fantastic stories about middle-aged white guys, but it doesn’t stop there. Suddenly I realized how much freedom I had to explore,” he said in describing his nascent producing career with development meetings and an emerging slate of Raindog projects. In fact, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was a book he saw in galleys even though they did not end up pursuing the movie that would go on to be directed by Ang Lee. And even though Loving was the impetus for his entrance into producing, Eye in the Sky was in a more advanced stage, given even more urgency when President Obama admitted to killing civilians in drone attacks in 2013. “I rang up Guy Hibbert and asked what happened to the project, which it turned out was languishing. I said: ‘Give me the rights. I promise I will get this made,'” said Doherty, who is used to the faster pace of the music industry. He moved to Los Angeles within a week and got director Gavin Hood involved almost immediately. Remembering advice he had heard from Firth, he picked a start date and then told everyone when they were starting the movie. He picked August 11. They started August 12. He recalls the first page of that book he got about filmmaking for dummies. “It said, if you want to be a producer, just tell people you are a producer,” he laughed.
Eye in the Sky, produced with eOne, went to the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was quickly snapped up. In my opinion, it remains one of the best and most important of this year, a movie that should receive serious Oscar consideration if there is any justice — as should Loving as both have very pertinent and urgent stories to tell.
Raindog now is involved with The Happy Prince, actor-director-writer Rupert Everett’s movie about the last days of Oscar Wilde. Firth says the company came on board later than their other films since Everett already was far along. It ran into trouble just before starting to shoot, but Firth, who also co-stars in the film, was able to bring Raindog in, and they are in the middle of filming right now. Another project they are working on that deals with Iraq is coming along, but they can’t talk about it yet. Remember, these guys don’t do “announcements”; they just make movies. And in that regard they have help from Silver Reel, the company that got involved with them after it financed Firth’s and Nicole Kidman’s drama The Railway Man. Firth arranged for Silver Reel’s Claudia Bluemhuver to meet Doherty, who told her about their slate. Silver Reel jumped on board three years ago and has helped in development and overhead financing. She also is on Raindog’s board and is a shareholder.
The name Raindog appropriately came from a love of music. It was the title of a 1985 Tom Waits album that Firth loved. “I wanted to embrace a sense of starting things from the beginning. As an actor I struggled — I didn’t have a place to live, I slept on people’s floors, and Tom Waits made that romantic, ” he said, though he couldn’t figure out exactly why the name Raindog fit exactly. “You liked the image of a dog outside in the rain, and we were outsiders, ” Doherty reminded him.
“It’s unsettling. I don’t know quite how we found ourselves here, ” said Firth. “It’s step by step. Getting a movie off the ground is not to be taken for granted at all — just getting something made. And then the idea that they worked out as well as they did defeats the law of averages. We keep pinching ourselves. My experience from hearing about the Lovings’ story to today is now beginning to have a feeling of inevitability. It is always best to be the underdog. Our motto is ‘Let people discover it.’ It is strange to talk about it. We say let the movie do the talking itself.”