On Being a Film Producer

Most writers live very boring lives.

*sighs jealously*

In my very first posting on this site, I claimed to have had a colourful life as a spy, explorer, murderer, and film producer.  Students of Palmer irony will recognise this was largely a pack of lies; I’ve never done any of these exciting things!

Except, um, being a film producer.  Because, unlikely as it sounds, I actually am one.

This is, let’s face, a cool kind of a job,  and I’ve written about it before on this site.  I’ve blogged about going to Cannes; and I wrote about my trip to the American Film Market, in LA, and conceded that being a film producer is indeed a curious hobby for a science fiction novelist.   

The truth is -  producing a feature film is HARD.  And no matter how much effort you put in, there’s no guarantee of success. That’s why being a movie producer is not a job for a sane person.

Hence – I qualify!

At the moment though, rather to my surprise in fact, I find the process of getting a movie made is happening all around me. Co-producers. A director. A casting director.  Cinematographers reading the script.  Funding sources identified.  Casting discussions. It’s exciting as all hell and, let’s face it, it’s glamorous too. It’s much cooler than my real life as a nerdy (nay, one of the MOST nerdy!)  SF novelist.

Here’s a glimpse of the location for my movie, which is called Inferno:

This is an image of the steel works at Port Talbot – the visual inspiration for Ridley Scott’s opening sequence of Blade Runner (he was driving past on the M4 and saw THIS.)  And this is the mythic landscape for my film about murder, sex, love and gritty working class life in a Welsh seaport.

This is the kind of movie I’ve always wanted to make – it’s inspired by Double Indemnity and Body Heat and Chinatown and that whole noir tradition; and a passion for genre movies like those  is why I became a screenwriter.  But the film business is a extraordinary industry:  mad, criminal, incompetent, unfair, glorious, inspiring, and I LOVE IT.  And because it’s such a mad business, the only way to achieve your vision as a movie writer is to GET OUT THERE AND MAKE THINGS HAPPEN.

As a novelist – especially if you work for the wonderful Orbit Books (*creep* *creep* but I do mean it) (and hey guys – how about a hike on that last advance?) it’s much easier. The guys who run SFF publishing care; they are passionate; they take risks; they support creativity. 

In movies, however, it’s all about being a distributor, stealing all the  money off creatives, and spending it on lap dancers, champagne and coke.  NO GUYS! GIVE US THE MONEY, SO WE CAN MAKE REAL MOVIES! (And, er, if there’s any left over, I wouldn’t mind a glass of champagne?) 

I used the ‘V’ word – Vision – just now, and that  sounds a wee bit pretentious I know. But you really have to HAVE to have one, or indeed several, if you’re going to be a creative artist.  Obviously you have to listen, collaborate, accept that other people have valid points, take notes, etc etc etc.  But once you’ve done that: you must STICK TO YOUR VISION. 

My vision of Inferno is a lot to do with landscape, and a lot to do with myth. I mentioned the Ridley Scott story above – this is one of my pitches for the movie when talking to potential financiers.  And when I first read that story, in Empire magazine, I realised – this is my back yard - my home town -  and Ridley himself believes it’s a mythic landscape. So why don’t I do something with that?

Another part of my vision for the film is a rebellion against the dominant social realist verite-filmmaking tradition of the British film industry – the kind of lowkey, truthful movies that Ken Loach makes, and Andrea Arnold makes. I love many of these movies; but I don’t want to make them. I’d prefer to create films that are visually rich, intense, utterly enjoyable, and which offer a rollercoaster experience with soul and passion. Movies like The Last Seduction, Body Heat, Grosse Pointe Blank, Sherlock Holmes (the recent one) and Kill Bill excite me far more than Brit flicks like, for instance, An Education. (Which is a lovely little film – but not for me THRILLING.)

My love/hate relationship with the British film industry goes back a bunch of years.  One of my first jobs was a script reader for major companies like Columbia UK and Granada Films, when I met wonderful producers like David Puttnam and Lynda Myles and Margaret Matheson and Scott Meek. I script edited a movie called The Bull Dance by the legendary Robin Hardy (who made The Wicker Man); though sadly the company who made it became kaput.   And Granada Films, one of my major employers at that time,  also went out of business. Goldcrest – slightly before my time – was the great UK film company, and they  too went bust (though, technically, they didn’t declare actual bankruptcy.)

You get the idea; it’s a volatile and unpredictable industry; just about as safe as building houses on volcanic rock, in the shadow of an active volcano.  And so, as I say,  you have to go out make your own chances. And that’s what I’m doing now.

And all this helps to explain why I’m a gamekeeper turned poacher; a writer turned producer.  I have 3 movie projects in all; and  one of them – Inferno,  my Welsh film noir - is now at  that key stage where small platoons of people are behaving as if it will definitely happen.

Because that’s the only way movies get made; a critical mass of belief and passion has to be there, key personnel have to be attached, vital creative decisions have to be made; and then the money magically falls into place. (Okay, it may be a BIT harder than that – but fortunately I have two seasoned co-producers on board with 20+ film credits between them, and they do actually understand the details of film finance, and have the contacts to access it.)

And what I’ll be doing on this site, in irregular blogs like this one, is writing about the process of producing a movie.  How it works; why it often goes wrong; and why no stars EVER sleep with the screenwriter. The ups, the downs, the more downs, the sudden unexpected ups again. 

This is a story which doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending – we may fail to raise the finance, the movie may never get made. Well, guess what; that doesn’t scare me.  I can handle eventual defeat; NOT TRYING is the one thing that’s utterly alien to my nature.

Or, alternatively, the movie WILL get made; in which case the readers of this blog will have been on the inside track of the genesis of a moderately major new British feature film WHICH YOU WILL LOVE. (Trust me on this!)

The next step is preparing a budget (in hand), and finding a cinematographer.  So watch this space….

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