Uncommonly candid with a wealth of experience in the British film industry, independent UK producer Jonathan Weissler reveals all, exclusively to BLOUIN ARTINFO.
Tell us about your history in the industry.
I am one of those guys who just loves movies. I have thousands of DVDs and Blu-rays and a great home cinema. I saw “Jaws” as a five year-old, “Close Encounters” as a seven year-old and “Ghostbusters” as a ten year-old. From the time I saw “Jaws” I wanted to make films.
At school I was a great student who never did any work. I used to ace end of year exams and then do precisely zero work in the following year. I used to skip school and go to the cinema almost every day. So I ended up getting expelled from three or four schools including some very good schools and then some very bad schools. I finally left school with no exams and no qualifications at the age of 15. So I did what everyone did at that time and partied. I became a fully signed up member of the British rave scene and for about a year I partied my ass off. I even had a 21 year-old girlfriend with a car! About a year later I was 16 years old and legally able to work.
This was all before e-mails and mobiles so everything was done by phone calls and letters and I was relentless. I got a list of producers and their numbers from the UK Production Guild and began calling and in many cases stalking people until they either met me or gave me a job.
I remember working on “Interview with the Vampire” as photocopy boy for £50 a week and I beat 3000 people for the job. I then worked on movies like “Braveheart” and “Mission: Impossible” in junior roles in the AD and Production departments.
In those days all the movies I did had $60m dollar budgets and big cinema releases. I just assumed that was how all movies were made. While working on these big movies I also worked on commercials, music videos and short films as Assistant Director or Production Manager. I soon got a reputation for being good with a budget and found myself Line Producing small movies.
A Line Producer is the guy in charge of the physical side of filmmaking. We take the money and script and create the best possible budget and schedule to get the film made. We work closely with the director making sure we make the film he wants while sticking to the budget and schedule. We employ the crew, negotiate the many deals and elements that need to be in place and ensure the film itself sticks to plan. It’s a tough job but you’re in the centre of a great machine and it’s a great rush!
After “Mission: Impossible” I was going to do “The Saint” with Val Kilmer. Simultaneously to that I was offered a small film as a Producer. I had a choice of being King of Hell or a Servant in Heaven. I chose King of Hell and took the small film, producing “Time Enough” with Dexter Fletcher and Foster Marks. The film went on to win Best Foreign Film at the Houston International Film Festival and the film made a profit. My career as a Producer had begun. I was 21 years-old.
By the late 90s I was the go-to Producer for a whole generation of directors. We shot the movies for terrible budgets but we didn't care. This was before digital and we shot on Super 16mm and often the most expensive part of the budget was the blow up to a 35mm negative!
They were fun days and I produced a lot of movies. However I wasn't making much money. Certainly not enough to justify my impressive job title. I did films like “Colour Blind,” “Mexican Standoff” and “The Truth Game.”
Fifteen years later you realise a lot of the guys from that generation didn't make it. I had lunch with Tom Waller last week and we realised we were the only ones from our original group still active as filmmakers. A lot of people just fell away.
You’ve made a lot of films in Asia. How did that happen?
I got into commercials and absolutely thrived. I loved the money and the travel and the speed we worked. Six months before “The Matrix” came out we did a commercial with flo mo photography, where stills cameras shoot in rotation around an event and create the illusion of suspended time. You could never afford that on the movies I was doing and the scripts never called for those effects anyway.
I remember I was producing a commercial for Japan Airlines and the client had flown in from Tokyo for the edit. We were sitting in a high end Post Production house in London and I noticed there was one guy who looked slumped on a couch and he wore sunglasses in a dark room. At dinner that night he introduced himself to me as a Japanese film director and said he was looking for a UK Producer. We hit it off and that night I drove him around London showing him locations and talking about his movie. A couple of weeks later I started pre-production on “Killer In Me.” We shot nine weeks in London and two weeks in Tokyo and the film went on to be a hit in Japan.
After that my name spread in the Far East and I ended up producing a lot of Asian movies. The biggest was “The Brasserie,” which we shot in London and Hong Kong and which opened at Number One across Asia, grossed $38 million and became the fifth highest grossing film in Asia of 2001.
I shot several more movies in Asia and continued to produce commercials all over the world. I was working with the best crews and the highest profile actors out there. I regularly worked with Hing-Ka Chan, Amy Chin and Patrick Leung and they did all the early John Woo movies like “The Killer,” “Hard Boiled” and “A Better Tomorrow.” Also I worked with actors like Louis Koo, Edison Chen and Charlene Choi. It was a great life with my bag always packed for a foreign trip and I got to love the challenge of arriving somewhere new in the world and making a movie. In that time I shot movies literally all over the world including a ten-hour miniseries in Israel, a movie in Budapest, commercials in Brazil and many more places around the world. You get really good at ordering room service in foreign languages.
In 2005 I remember shooting six episodes of a Chinese miniseries in London and Scotland and we found ourselves in glamourous Bushey, a suburb in North London. We had scouted and confirmed a house on a residential street and when we arrived the director changed his mind, as they often do, and wanted to film in the house next door! Despite not having prepped it, we made a quick deal with the new house, apologised to the original house and I then watched our Chinese film crew literally swarm the house and climb over walls and onto roofs - Health and Safety does not really exist in China! All of this happening in Bushey. Then it started to rain. I remember turning to my production manager and asked him, ‘Is this what we signed up for in life?’
I was an English producer who hardly shot in England. So I made a conscious decision to work more in the UK. In 2006 I produced “In Your Dreams” for Gary Sinyor who directed “Leon the Pig Farmer” and “The Bachelor.” The film starred Linda Hamilton, Parminda Nagra and Dexter Fletcher and was co-produced by Sir David Frost of Magnet films. Despite our best intentions the film didn't really work as well as expected. In that time I produced more movies in the UK. Some were good, some were bad but none were great or set the world on fire.
How would you describe the current state of the British film industry?
On the whole it’s great. From many perspectives it’s really strong. The UK film industry employs a lot of people and a lot of money is spent. As a country we are among the best in the world and our production teams, art departments and set construction are the best in the world. Our studios are full of big American movies shooting with UK crews. Alongside the Tax Credit and now the TV Tax Credit and the value of the British pound we are an excellent choice for large scale event movies.
This year alone we have the new “Star Wars” movie, “Avengers 2,” “Cinderella,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Ridley Scott's Bible movie and “Man from Uncle” all shooting in England. All together we will have over ten $150m budget movies shooting here. Our post production is among the best in the world and companies like Double Negative and MPC are world leaders in Visual Effects and De Lane Lea and Twickenham Studios, which I love, are among the best sound mixing facilities in the world.
However while this money buys a lot of jobs and resources the profits all go abroad too. There is such a disparity between a big American studio movie shooting with $140m budgets and an 80 day shoot and a typical British movie shooting with $4m budget and a 35 day shoot.
I have produced a lot of commercials over the years and many of them have won awards and been at the cutting edge of visual effects and production quality. This gives me a real ace in making movies look fantastic on much smaller budgets. But it’s hard. It’s hard for everyone. And if I offer a crew member £1000 a week on a low budget movie and he turns me down to get paid £2200 a week on an American studio film, it creates many challenges. I always say that big budget films have big budget problems and small budget films have small budget problems. But the disparity is there and maybe because I am in the fight day after day it feels like the gap is widening.
So alongside a booming studio-led industry, our local product is as flimsy as ever. We don’t really have a lot of good sustainable distribution for UK films and as producers we only have a small group of companies to assist us in selling and distributing our movies. And it all gets very nickel and dime and there is a lot of suspicion and sometimes genuine problems with the transparency and intentions of some of these companies. As a result most UK movies get a bad run at selling and recouping. And there is a feeling of being ripped off and undersold.
In England, we have a track record of making event prestige movies, movies about righteous issues and we make a ton of bad exploitation movies. Does anyone need to see “Strippers vs Werewolves” or any of the terrible sub-par gangster movies that are made each year? And too many of these low budget films end up in a storm of bad debt, unpaid vendors and crew and producers who seem to take it all. There are a handful of people at the centre of many of these films who create a really bad name for both themselves and also to the industry and potential investors. While these films give a lot of people entry positions into the industry, it’s wrong to accept that getting ripped off is part of your journey to greatness.
I recently did a French/UK co-production. And although it meant working with a bunch of French filmmakers of varying talent levels and temperaments, it was refreshing to see how the French Government supports its industry by ensuring the films get French cinema releases. It’s part of a quota system. China does the same now. What’s sad is that we used to as well. It was called the Eady Levy, and as a result England produced many homegrown movies and the profits went back into our industry.
A whole generation of actors, directors and film crews rose to prominence through their years of good and sustained work. I think we should be looking at this model again, but in a smart and realistic way that ensures the films that are made are good enough to commercially and creatively appease everyone. However, controlling and running this system has inherent flaws and risks. Quoting from a great movie, ‘Who watches the Watchmen?’
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