At a time when Hollywood studio movie making will steer even more aggressively toward global tent poles with the Disney acquisition of Fox, Working Title partners Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan continue to be those outliers who’ve used the harbor provided them by Universal Pictures to swim against the tide with Brit-centric, thoughtful films that often can’t be log lined in a sentence. They hit twice this year with Baby Driver and then Victoria & Abdul, and today comes the Focus Features release Darkest Hour with a Gary Oldman performance as Churchill that has established him as a frontrunner in the Best Actor race.
DEADLINE: The films you and your partner Tim Bevan generate are never formulaic, and it seems like you are hitting a faster moving, narrower target each year. Still, you scored three times with Baby Driver, Victoria & Abdul, and now with Darkest Hour. The run started with Baby Driver and after just writing a long piece on how Ridley Scott and Dan Friedkin spent $10 million to rescue All The Money In The World by removing Kevin Spacey and reshooting with Christopher Plummer six weeks before release, I gotta ask. Spacey was one of the stars of Baby Driver. Fair to say you dodged a bullet?
FELLNER: Well, we just got very lucky with timing. Because it’s a rare time, where a film can be a huge success one minute and potentially dead the next. I haven’t seen All the Money in the World and I don’t know what its end result will be, but I just have to give Ridley so much credit for what he did. Whether it was necessary or not, who knows, but it’s just brilliant, isn’t it?
DEADLINE: Well, in some ways Hollywood has been paralyzed by these sexual harassment scandals and what Scott himself called a necessary purge. What do you attribute to Working Title generating three distinctively different films that worked in 2017, films that studios are hardly clamoring for without your advocacy?
FELLNER: I guess Tim and I are probably old-school masochists who still like the kind of movie that it’s really, really, really hard to get made. We remain very wedded to a narrative, character and story. We’re slowly getting dragged into the modern world of concept first but we just really like filmmakers. Working Title built its success on working with the best directors in the world, and then the best writers and then the best actors. I guess that’s what it is. We’re drawn to those projects, and every year we just try and get as many as we can made.
DEADLINE: When you see something like the Disney purchase of Fox, which is about a future of OTT and streaming and more billion dollar global grossing tent poles and will probably lead to more mergers, how is this going to impact the sandbox you and Bevan play in?
FELLNER: I’ve always found in 30 years of doing this that every time one tries to work around a trend, you end up getting hammered because something that you didn’t appreciate or realize comes around the corner at you. So I would say that intellectually, one has to accept that the way audiences are choosing to see movies is different and you would have to move with those times and that distribution platforms are different than the traditional ones that we grew up with. Or you’d probably die. That’s the intellectual approach to what’s going on. Emotionally? If we had heeded this trend, then none of these three films this year would’ve existed and lauded as being original films in a world of non-original movies. So I think one has to just duck and dive a bit.
DEADLINE: So no change or adaptation to what has got Hollywood gobsmacked going into 2018?
FELLNER: We are going to have to choose our targets more carefully. We’re already doing that. We’re going to have to be really, really passionate about everything that we touch and we’re going to have to adapt to the new distribution platforms. And create content that will stand up. When these mergers stop and then five, ten years down the line there’s only going to be, what, three, maybe four major studios that have theatrical, and Over The Top distribution. We’ll have to pick and choose projects and where they’ll work in the best possible way for people to see them. We’re not the guys who are going to determine the structure of what the industry ends up looking like so we will go with the flow. I don’t mean that, because that’s not what we do, but we will work with the changes that are coming. Otherwise, you die. We don’t want to do that.
DEADLINE: You are paying attention to these changes though. As Darkest Hour opens, Netflix simultaneously launches its biggest movie with Bright, seeing if they can make features that have the zeitgeist potential of films like Baby Driver, with a whole different distribution platform and not nearly as much P&A expenditure. What opportunities does this new world order bring to the kind of movies you make?
FELLNER: The opportunity to make anything is now there, so there are more ways you can tell more stories with far less risk. Whenever we decide whether or not to make a traditional cinematic release movie, we have to really, really, really dig into the belief that they going to come, and can you market it to that audience. If you make something for streaming only, ultimately it’s more about, can you attract a core audience? No one’s actually saying, the film made money or lost money. It’s whether it did its job on the platform. So a lot more content is going to be make-able, which is exciting. But how you monetize that as a producer? That’s the struggle and that is going to be something we’re going to have to learn over the next few years as we go through it.
DEADLINE: The Netflix model on Bright paid the creatives like Will Smith and David Ayer retail and bought out their projected back ends. It was Netflix’s biggest budget commitment at $100 million or more, with half going toward production.
FELLNER: We haven’t tested it yet so I can’t answer that, but a lot of my friends have. Some people can get that deal, the one you just outlined and others get a way lesser deal. But it’s not only just about money. It’s also about, you want your film to be visible and I don’t know yet if the streaming services have found ways of doing that. They pick one or two that they put a big marketing campaign behind. It is complicated and it’s early days for me to talk about it. We’ll have to go through the process to have a meaningful point of view.
DEADLINE: Winston Churchill saved the world from the Nazis a long time ago. What made now the time to tell his ascension to Prime Minister and his refusal to appease Hitler?
FELLNER: Anthony McCarten brought me the first draft. I live in England, and we’ve been looking for a film to tell about Churchill for 20 years. I never knew this story. I had no idea that in a span of three weeks, Europe could’ve come crashing down in the way that this story shows. I was absolutely fascinated by it, and the display of the artistry and power of leadership. That is something that is a relatable theme now just now but any time. It played like a thriller and I thought there was a potential audience out there big enough to make it work.
We’ve had success with historical IP, with Theory of Everything and Stephen Hawking, and we have it with Queen Victoria, a brand that is marketable and is free IP from history, where you don’t have to compete with the studios for these massive bits of IP that is difficult for independents to get their hands on. That was the reason for doing it, but it was all about finding a director and an actor who could bring it alive. The last thing we wanted to do was make a TV movie biopic, which is why we went with Joe Wright. We’ve been lucky to work with him a lot and we consider him a proper visionary director who brings craft and real visual prowess to everything he touches. Then it was about finding the right guy to play Winston and I was very lucky. My first film ever was Sid and Nancy, and it was Gary Oldman’s first film too. The two of us haven’t directly worked together since, so the idea of going from Sid Vicious to Winston Churchill was just too delicious. He was taken by it and we then did an awful lot of work on the prosthetics and he had to get totally comfortable with the idea. Because after you have met Gary, you know he does not scream Winston Churchill physically when you meet him. Watching Gary and Joe together, pulling sequences out of a hat, it just got better and better. Joe would surprise us with the way in which he took things that on paper were you know a lot of old white men talking in small rooms and turned it into an incredibly dynamic, thrilling piece of material.
DEADLINE: What about Oldman’s performance exceeded the possibilities you saw in McCarten’s script?
FELLNER: The first thing was the way he inhabited the role. At first, you can’t stop yourself from trying to find Gary in there. Then it’s about his bravery, combined with that script and what Joe did. There’s a big statue of Churchill in Parliament Square and Joe said what he wanted to do was take him down off that plinth and look at him straight in the eye, warts and all and see every aspect of this guy. His doubts, his depression, his fears, his family, his love, his drinking, really digging into it so that it wasn’t just this kind of one dimensional, Churchill is a hero type guy that we’ve so often. I think that’s what made it special.
DEADLINE: Those qualities you mentioned might bring him down in today’s climate, but it is almost unimaginable he was the main reason that Faustian bargain with Hitler wasn’t made by the appeasers in Parliament.
FELLNER: You take these snapshots with movies like this, and you see the right person at the right place at the right time, it’s quite astonishing. We’ve seen a lot of the wrong person at the wrong time in the last 10, 20 years. Look at Brexit in my country. These are things directly attributable to the one person either making a mistake or taking people in the wrong direction. Churchill was a leader and compares favorably to any contemporary leaders. He wrote all of his own speeches which alone is an astonishing thing. He wrote millions of words and that’s how he made his living. He made his money from writing.
DEADLINE: Baby Driver was a real summer sleeper. How long did it take to get it made?
FELLNER: Ten years.
DEADLINE: Why so long? It has a delicious premise with a young lead and a strong ensemble around him. There’s action, it’s thoughtful. And the protagonist pays a price for his wrongdoing even if he never loses the audience’s rooting interest. And Edgar Wright is as close to a branded filmmaker with a segment of young moviegoers as you’ll find. Why so long?
FELLNER: Mostly circumstance. He wanted to do Scott Pilgrim and then we decided to do the third in the trilogy of the Cornetto trilogy, which was World’s End. There was the the Ant-Man situation, where he developed that and then left. A number of those things got in the way but all through that time, I was not sure we were going to get Baby Driver made. It wasn’t until he came out of Ant-Man determined to make it, that we focused all our attention on that effort. Sadly, I couldn’t persuade our own studio [Universal] to make it, but we ended up with very good partners elsewhere. But it wasn’t an obvious film at all at the time, so I understand why we had to move.
DEADLINE: What was the biggest hesitation?
FELLNER: Ensemble movies are always difficult to get financed because you can’t really get big stars in them. We ended up doing really well there because Edgar is much liked. Marketing finds it difficult because they don’t know how to focus on an ensemble, as opposed to an individual lead. Edgar had never made a big mainstream American hit before, so there were maybe confidence issues. And it was in that price point where studios are more and more nervous, between $30 million and $80 million. It’s a tough area to be because you can if you get it wrong, lose an awful lot of money.
DEADLINE: You wonder what happens to that $30 million to $80 million corridor with that Disney Fox deal and the prospect of more mergers and more of an embrace of either making $5 million movies like Get Out, or else $250 million global tent poles. Most people would find a lot of their favorite movies lived in that $30 million to $80 million corridor that will be pressed further with this move toward conglomerization.
FELLNER: Well, the move towards conglomerization is absolutely a concern. You saw it last week, and the idea that Rupert Murdoch didn’t feel that he could compete, that speaks volumes. Is conglomeratization a word?
DEADLINE: Let’s coin it right here and make it the buzzword for what’s about to happen in the wake of this Disney Fox deal.
FELLNER: There’s no stopping that, but in terms of Tim and I, it goes back to what I said. Every time somebody creates these rules, someone comes along and breaks them. New Line is making films in that corridor and so are some of the independent guys. I’m sure a studio or two will now start to make films in that area. It’s all going to change. Everything’s going to…I sound like I’m so old, but every time someone makes a rule, five years later, the opposite is true.
DEADLINE: The goal of these studio movies is to launch sequels, and you’ve done a lot of them. Is another Baby Driver in the offing?
FELLNER: Yeah. Edgar definitely has loads more ideas and I think in the New Year, he’s going to decide whether to sit down and write that script.
DEADLINE: We get a lot of sequels that feel like retreads, but there are places to go with this hearing impaired getaway driver who lost the girl.
FELLNER: You could take the end of the movie two ways. But I’m sure if we do more, we’ll find out whether it was a dream or reality. I sure think it would be great to see Ansel and Lily James back again. They were brilliant together.
DEADLINE: What are you doing with the movie version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber smash hit musical Cats? There has been word that Lee Hall was working on a rewrite, that Anne Hathaway is kicking the tires and that The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper is getting serious about it.
FELLNER: Lee did the script. Tom is basically doing the very final touches of what the film would look like, because it needs a completely unique look if we’re going to make it. We’re nearly at the end of that process so I would imagine come February, we’ll know if we’re going ahead with it. The intention absolutely is to try and make it happen.
DEADLINE: What else?
FELLNER: We got Mary, Queen of Scots with Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth with Josie Rourke, fantastic theater director, first-time film director. We’ve got another Johnny English, which does enormous business internationally and very little domestically, which is a shame but maybe we can try and change that this time around. The first two were big hits. We’re shooting Joe Cornish’s new movie, The Kid Who Would Be King with four young, new kids in the lead and Patrick Stewart and Rebecca Ferguson.
DEADLINE: It seems a luxury that you don’t have to rely on huge domestic grosses to sustain these films.
FELLNER: We are very lucky. We’re based in London and so the international marketplace has always been our domestic. Nearly all of our films do 75 to 85 percent of their business internationally where the smaller films don’t get as squashed as they do in the U.S. There is a feeling there that these are English movies. They’re English language but they often get perceived by the domestic audience to be almost a foreign language film. Other than Notting Hill, which had Julia Roberts in it, we’ve never had an English movie do a hundred million dollars in domestic, whereas we’ve had many do $200 million or more internationally.
FELLNER: I’s an interesting question. I guess the cultural specificity speaks loudest internationally. The big American movies, the high concept movies, they’re always going to do well wherever. It doesn’t matter what the language is, but I think the kind of films that we make comedies, dramas…English independent movies play better internationally than American ones do. The other way we got lucky is, it is 20 years since we did our deal with Universal. We work really closely with their international distribution guys who are brilliant. If we were in London, working with another studio, you would have to go through LA and the pure geography of that becomes an issue.
DEADLINE: Even for you, Victoria & Abdul seems an unlikely little movie.
FELLNER: Again, we’re drawn to these historical stories that people don’t really know and are magical. The idea is astonishing that in Victorian England, probably one of the most racist cultures in history, the Queen was being advised by a young Muslim servant. When we read the book we said, this can’t be true. We did the research and sure enough, it was true. We said, we’ve got to do this. But we weren’t actually brave enough; we bought the book and then got cold feet, so we gave it back to Lee Hall. He took it away and developed it without us and then when the script was ready, he showed it to me and I realized I was completely wrong. They found a way of getting it right. We dove back in again and helped them put it together. Got Stephen Frears on board. Judy Dench as Victoria was the reason it got made, a bit like Gary as Churchill. Without Judy, you couldn’t have made the movie and without Gary, you couldn’t have made Darkest Hour. These are tiny little bullseyes that you have to hit in casting and we just got lucky twice. Dame Judy is sensational. She’s just so gorgeous, in every frame and it’s thriller to see that at age 80 whatever, she gotten the Golden Globe and SAG nomination. It’s a tiny movie about a tiny little story but brilliantly acted, well directed, nicely written.