Read the interview with Richard from The Guerilla Filmmakers Handbook 3rd Edition
Q - How did you originally get into film making?
Richard - With Stefan Schwartz, who directed three of the films I produced, and I worked in a comedy double act based around film sketches. We realised we were never going to set the world alight, so we started to write short films. We made two in between writing feature films that never got made, tried to learn and teach ourselves, and read books about structure and story-telling in a visual medium. One of the shorts was good and that brought an investor to the table, who invested a substantial sum on a personal basis, to make a film called ‘Soft Top Hard Shoulder’, which was written by Peter Capaldi. That came out when I was 30, and now I am 42, and I’ve made six films, so it’s been a film every other year.
Q - Did making ‘Soft Top…’ open doors?
Richard - The problem with the first film, is the second film. Often, you work so hard and long on that first film that the idea of having anything to do next is almost impossible. Even if you’ve got something that you think is developed, having made your first film, you now regard it as underdeveloped, you tend to go right back to the drawing board. Yes, it does open doors, people will speak to you, but they will only speak to you if you have got a script that they like.
Q - So really the 1st film is film school for people who didn’t get into film school?
Richard - Yes, I tried to get into film school, but they wouldn’t let me in.
Q - In terms of your career, you started with a low budget picture, then moved up the ladder. What would your advice be to someone who has made one or two low budget films and is finding it hard to move up the ladder?
Richard - Nothing. So much of this is down to luck. I’m not religious, I don’t believe in God, and I don’t believe in luck in the spiritual way, but as an example ‘Shooting Fish’ or ‘Waking Ned’ which are two films that I’ve made and have done well, have sold internationally, and were picked up by good distributors for good money - had they been made one or two years earlier or later, I suspect they would not have found a market at all. They would have been nice little films that no-one saw. The further away I get from them, the more I’m aware how lucky we were in terms of timing.
You can’t rely on one project. A producer relies on their slate. Very often, through no fault of your own, a project stalls or becomes impossible, or through good opportunity becomes impossible. For instance, you have got a great script and a piece of significant talent attaches themselves to it, but says, ‘I am not available till next year!’ So, what are you supposed to do this year? I would suggest that the thing that may be going wrong is that after having been very focused on getting their first and maybe second very low budget film off the ground, they become used to being monogamous. You need to spread your opportunities over at least three projects. They will be at various stages of readiness, but you can nudge each along and tickle all of them at the same time. You have got to be out there doing as much as you can, not just banging on the same doors with the same project that has been turned down.
Take a realistic assessment. It is probably going to be a year before what is a good first draft script becomes a financiable, attachable, makeable film. You have made a few films, financed in very canny ways, maybe very hand to mouth, maybe friends and family, maybe a rich benign investor, but I would try to raise some capital - you want to be able to stabilise yourself. The only way to be successful in this business is to be in the business. Most people fail, because they leave, not because they are bad, but because they have to give up. If you can raise a bit of capital, you can remain at the table, and that is absolutely essential, it is all about stamina in the end.
Q - Do you have any tips on how to survive?
Richard - I can only talk about myself. I did comedy and acting and enough to keep the wolf from the door. I married an actress who works, she is not famous, but she works. I came from an age when the DHSS could support you with enough money to buy food and survive, but that’s really gone. You have got to eat. This is why the industry originally attracted people that can afford not to work, people with a benign parent or some kind of money in the bank. Not necessarily rich, but with enough resources so that they can tick over and pay the rent for an indefinite period. A lot of this game is ‘last man standing’, it’s stamina. I recommend a second string to the bow, the ability to line-produce, consult, teach, something to keep the wolf from the door. Up until the point when I made ‘Shooting Fish’ and ‘Waking Ned’, I earned almost nothing, £7k a year if I was lucky, and that was from odd bits of acting work. You need a transferable skill that can make you money.
Q - After the first ‘wing and a prayer’ movie, how important is your location?
Richard - For us, it is essential to live in London, although that is not a popular thing to say. I think you also need to be based in the West End, which is expensive. We have made a very conscious decision to travel to America too, for a week every two months or so. We camp out there, see agents, managers, production companies, and if we can, go face to face with talent, with the specific aim of attaching them to a specific project. Also with the aim, that if we need something quickly, if they don’t know who you are, it is difficult to get them to engage, but if they have met you a few times, then they think you are real, that helps. In terms of attending markets, I think you should go, if only once. Definitely go to Cannes, you really need to know how it operates. People joke about producers hanging around at parties, and I’ve never done the party thing very well, but I do think it is essential to put your face about. Then people know that you are serious.
Q - Do you think being an actor has helped you in business?
Richard - In selling, certainly. I wasn’t a good actor, I was the kind of actor that as a producer would dread hiring! I was lazy, never did any work, always learning my lines in the taxi to set! But I could do it and through auditioning I got confidence in selling myself and my role in the projects.
Q - In a traditional world, how does a producer put a deal together?
Richard - Producers have a mobile phone and they own a script. Very often they have written it, or a friend has written it, so they can say to the world that they control it. You have to own or control the project in some way, and for enough time, at least two years to get the project developed and set up. I would suggest British film makers should try and get some corner stone financing from the UK, ideally from a decent distributor willing to put up 10% of the budget. They are not going to write it down until things become more solid, but you know you can refer to your distributor as the person backing the film. It will give you confidence, it will give talent confidence that it is real, and it will give the other international community, financiers some comfort that a proper commercial distributor has gone for it. It could be a broadcaster. Everyone can put a tax fund or regional fund to their film, so you should really get some commercial corner stone financing to build confidence. After that it becomes a puzzle. Once a distributor is fully pregnant with it, and thinking ‘I would like to distribute this film’, then they will ring you and ask ‘How’s it going, can I introduce it to a distributor in Germany that I’m very close to’, and it can get itself into motion.
You have got to know about many aspects of financing, and you have got to know about banking, that is essential to learn in order to cash flow your film. If you are an independent producer with multi-party financing, you are not going to get a single person to cash flow the film. You might get one of the tax funds to do it, but even they go through banks. You have got to understand the requirements and the feasibility of banking, and you’ve got to know how to write a finance plan or a control sheet that makes sense to people.
Q - In terms of attaching talent (actors), how does that work?
Richard - I have not yet, on the basis of talent alone, been able to put a project together. Talent tends to be driven by the advice that they get. Actors just want to act. As long as the part is not crap or pornography, they are very often uncritical of what comes through the door. If it seems to make sense, and it is a good part for them, they will do it. Actors of a certain stature often rely on their management and advisors as to whether they should do it, and whether it is real. You will find most projects with an interesting director, and one interesting or good actor, will be largely without a full cast, right up to three or four weeks before the shoot, and then suddenly all sorts of actors will attach themselves because it is now actually happening. They like that certainty. Talent in the UK is often driven in a more cultural manner. Talent in America is a different game. If you will require American talent I would suggest that you get in with the agencies and managers on a regular basis, they need to know who you are.
Q - What do you feel about the producer / director / writer dynamic. There is a strong and collaborative trio there, and often people get confused about where their roles actually fit?
Richard - It really comes down to the script and the story that you are trying to make, and from where that story originates. If you are a producer who comes up with ideas for films, you can be a producer / writer, however I think that is a particularly difficult one to do, in terms of attracting a director to your project. If you are a producer who comes up with ideas, that tends to mean you are the one who commissions the writer. As a writer, not a writer / director, you can develop a script to a certain stage, then try to attach a director. There are all sorts of relationship threads set up at that point, some of which are benign, some of which are difficult to knit together. Often, if you’ve had an intimate relationship with the writer, and have pushed it through several drafts as a producer, the writer inevitably feels that they could direct it themselves. Then you bring this third party director in who has a profile and will help you attach talent, and therefore money - you could have friction there and you’ve got to allow the writer and director to form a relationship together. That may be impossible, and they may always have to relate through you. On a project that is inspired by the producer this will rarely work smoothly. However if a writer / director comes to the producer, or a writer / director team comes to the producer, then that can be completely different, and it can be benign from the outset.
Q - Who are the most important people in the making of the film, in terms of getting the film made?
Richard - Literally the writer, and then the director, those two are essential, as they will also help you attract the talent, and the interest in the project. Without those two, the thing won’t fly. It doesn’t mean they have to be famous, but they have to make sense for you and your project, and the kind of money you are trying to attach to it. Getting outside of the physical production, the core relationships are with your distribution and finance, and very often that’s the same thing. Also it will help if you understand that they are trying to look for an upside, but also defray risk and cost at the same time. They are looking for the bargain, so that if it tanks, it is not going to embarrass them. If it goes well, they are going to look like gangbusters. You must understand where they are coming from.
In the end it’s not. In the end the projectionist is the most important person on your film! I’ve had at least one film completely cocked up by a projectionist, whose projector broke down on the crucial screening to the buyers!
Q - Who do you need to make friends with, in the business?
Richard - No-one. There are real solo flyers in this game who rely totally on the material, and if it’s good material, people will come. I’m full of admiration for people who don’t whore themselves about, but to be pragmatic, you need to have relationships with writers, if you need something written, and you are not a writer but do have a great idea. It is good to know, if not agents, then agencies. Know how it works, know the key agencies in the UK and abroad. They are not mobsters, they are there to try and get the rent paid, and their clients work, and to try and build their business through talent. Also, to know the distributors and financiers. You don’t have to take them to lunch, but you have to know who they are and how they operate, how the structure of companies work, if you know the top, go to the top. You need to be an everyman in certain aspects of film-making. Someone who people feel that they can come to, the responsible party, and can therefore be approached by people who have problems or ideas that can be resolved or put forward.
Q - Many new film makers get too wrapped up in the idea of shooting and not the ‘putting together’ of a deal and what happens after the shoot?
Richard - I think the most essential thing to remember, if your film is not going to be paid for by a single source or from money in your savings account, is that you are going to have to attract commercial finance to the table. The most important thing is positioning. Sell yourself first, sell the company second and sell the project last. They want to know that you are competent, committed and passionate, and invested in it. That your company, however big or small, will deliver, you have the infrastructure and the knowledge to make it happen. Then they feel comfortable and receptive to the project itself. In terms of positioning the project, cold reading will rarely work in your favour. Therefore we work hard on pre-meetings to get people interested, so that when the script hits their desk, they are already intrigued.
Supply background material to go with it too, so they feel that this is not simply a first draft. It has been researched, there is a plan behind it, timing for it being considered etc. If they like the first 30 pages, but put it down, they might pick up this booklet and go, ‘oh actually, that is very interesting, they have got ideas for casting, they have thought it right the way through’, and then they will go back and finish the script. If they like both, then you are set.
Q - What do you think the qualities of a good producer are?
Richard - Stamina. You really do have to take the rough with the smooth - in order to do something that is fundamentally exciting and glamorous, you will have to pay in other ways. Imagination, you do need to imagine something at an ideas stage. Empathy, both personal empathy with talent, and commercial empathy with distribution and finance. Knowing when you are being ripped off, knowing what a good deal is, having basic skills of business. Try and be organised, and if you are not organised, make yourself organised.
Q - Do you have any comments about bending the truth to get films made?
Richard - What we do is often all hot air, trying to persuade people to do something based on an idea - it is very difficult, very intangible. It tends to make people desperate, and they will do and say things that may not be entirely true, but that will get them to the next stage. Dishonestly is prevalent. You do have to make quick judgments about whether what people are saying is real. I know what it’s like, someone comes through the door and says, ‘I want to make your film’, and you will believe that for as long as possible. Even though other people are telling you that it is not real, they don’t have the money - you want very desperately to believe. I teach my kids that most people are good, very few people are full-on ‘badd-uns’! Most people do not want to let you down, but all of us are out there trying to make people believe that it’s real. As we all know, 95% of it isn’t.
Q - How do you think a producer should view their career plan, as opposed to a director?
Richard - I had a partnership with Stefan Schwartz that lasted twelve years, and was extremely successful. Most relationships though, aren’t forever. People die, people change, people fall out, over specific or non-specific things. Often producers feel frustrated because they struggle through their 20’s to get their first film made, they make a few in their 30’s, all of which are slightly experimental, in terms of learning the process. They get to their mid to late-30’s, early 40’s feeling that they have experience, that they have maybe one or two films that have worked. They understand it now, but they have got nothing to do - effectively they run out of things to do. It is very humiliating. As soon as you feel fit for purpose, you feel you are not being given the opportunity to do it. How do you plan? I don’t think you can. All I can say is, be modest in terms of, don’t get killed by your overheads, don’t be flash, until you can really afford to be flash. Realise that the greatest success could be followed by four years of dark, four years of ‘can’t get the film made’, and for reasons that are not your fault.
I, like you, was an early member of the NPA where we used to go out and just get it done. That is fine for your 20’s or 30’s, but this particular game does not breed many happy people. The weird irony is, that it is not just the failure that breeds bitterness, it’s success too. There are producers who have made a great film, then get no money from it and are ripped off, and it drives them bonkers. It would drive me bonkers, I’ve been lucky.
Or they could be abandoned by the director that they had a success with and they don’t see the benefit from the success they co-launched. It is not a healthy environment for most adults. I surround myself with a great partner, who is sane, with a wife and family who are sane and stabilising, and who also take the piss out of me and what I do. It keeps me grounded.
Q - What common mistakes do you see in other people?
Richard - Naiveté. I try not be cynical, but when people come out of another career, out of distribution into production, or out of an institutionalised media company into production, and they say ‘I’m going to be making a film with Joel Schumacher next year!’ - I want to say ‘No, you are not, believe me that is not going to happen!’, and I stop myself every single time, because what’s the point of that? I am not trying to crush them. The key thing is the naïve belief that they are going to buck the system. Some people do, some people win the lottery, there are those great stories where people just are very well organised, and partly because they are, they get the breaks and it happens for them. Then, market realities, people just ignoring market realities, making a film that is too expensive for that particular market, or saying ‘I’m not going to cast that kind of actor in it, because they don’t feel right’. Whereas that is the only way a film is going to get made. That sort of common naiveté I find irritating.
Q - What advice would you offer a new film-maker?
Richard - Never give a personal guarantee, and never build anything with a flat roof.
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