“It’s about bloody time!” said Clare Stewart, the BFI London Film Festival’s Artistic Director, in her introduction to the first woman to give the festival’s annual industry keynote address, the fourth. British producer Alison Owen focused her 40-minute talk at the Curzon Soho Cinema on “The Power Of The Story” and exhorted the film industry not to be afraid of the internet, but rather embrace its potential because “the internet is a container, not a substance.” (Previous keynote speakers were James Schamus, Ken Loach and, last year, Harvey Weinstein.)
Among Owen’s extensive credits are “Elizabeth,” “Sylvia,” “The Other Boleyn Girl,” Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation of “Jane Eyre” and “Saving Mr Banks,” which closes this year’s festival. The British producer had only arrived from South Africa at 6.30am that morning, having come directly from the set of Phillip Noyce’s sci-fi fantasy “The Giver,” which stars Alexander Skarsgard, Taylor Swift and Meryl Streep.
When she took the stage, Owen explained that she nearly missed giving the keynote address because one of her partner’s on the film, Weinstein, demanded that she stay until Friday – “until Taylor Swift is gone.” “I said, ‘Harvey, I can’t, I’m giving a speech on Friday,’” she said. “’What sort of speech?’ I said, ‘It’s actually the one you gave last year at the London Film Festival.’ That shut him up and I managed to get here.”
At the end of her talk, Ben Roberts, Director of the BFI Film Fund, conducted a short Q&A session with Owen in which she revealed that she’s a big fan of focus groups and test screenings and believes that the growth in high-quality television drama is an opportunity rather than a threat to film producers. She also revealed how she had attempted to secure the rights to “East Of Eden,” one of her favorite novels, with the idea of creating a small-screen series, only to be trumped by Ron Howard. The two most imminent projects on her slate at Ruby Films are “The Fury,” a suffragette drama written by Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”) that will star Carey Mulligan, and her long-in-gestatation passion project, an adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s 17th-century Amsterdam-set love story “Tulip Fever.”
At one point, Owen read out a quote from Joan Didion: “We tell each other stories in order to live.” It’s a principle that has certainly defined Owen’s own approach to the female-centric stories that have been her forte. Here are a few highlights from Owen’s LFF Keynote Address:
On the internet
“The first point to make is that to my mind it is crazy to say the Internet is going to kill off movies. The Internet is a container, not a substance. To say the Internet is the death of books and movies is like saying someone invented a new, more efficient kind of cup and it heralds the death of coffee – a new improved form of CARRYING something, which is essentially what the Internet IS, should be helpful to our business.”
On the death of drama
“People didn’t suddenly wake up one morning and unanimously say ‘I’m fed up with mid budget dramas. I’m only going to see action tentpoles from now on!” Human nature just doesn’t work like that. Human nature stays the same, the one thing that stays constant, like death and taxes. And people still want good stories!”
On the power of movies
“Movies began as a communal experience. Even though we now watch them as DVD’s, sometimes alone on our computers, mostly in the history of cinema it has been a communal experience. And even now, we prefer to go to the movies with a friend, with our family, with our partner. Even at home, we’d rather watch with someone else, given a choice. It’s a different experience to watching a YouTube clip, or playing a videogame, or watching ‘Come Dine With Me.’ I would argue that it’s a different experience from even TV drama: I would happily watch Eastenders alone, but I’d always much rather watch a movie with a friend. Even box set TV is more like a kind of ‘visual novel’, that can be happily ‘read’ in your own time — sometimes twenty minutes, sometimes four episodes of Breaking Bad in a row… There’s something about movies that makes us want to watch them with others.”
On the less is more approach
“Movies alone have the hideous capacity to do everything for you. So in directing movies, you have to figure how to leave things out — because when you leave things out, you evoke the imaginative participation of the audience. That’s when things get good. When movies do everything for you, they don’t stick to your ribs very long, they don’t last. We have this phrase: ‘eye candy.’ Well, somebody should note that candy is not good for you; it’s not nourishing. So the greatest filmmakers are not the ones who put everything in; they’re the ones who can figure things to leave out, and in doing so, invite your participation.”
On movies versus religion
“It’s only in periods like the relatively economically stable and war-free ‘70s that movies about ‘important’ and philosophical topics with ambiguous endings can proliferate. You might point to Shakespearian tragedies which played to housefuls of people living in poverty — but you’ll notice that even when bad things happen to good men, it’s because they had a fatal flaw. It makes sense in an ordered universe. And that’s what a lot of stories and movies do — attempt to make sense and order out of what is essentially a random and chaotic world. Isn’t that what religion does, even? Aren’t they the best and most powerful stories of all? Who wouldn’t want to believe in a lovely heaven where we’re rewarded for all our good deeds, and the schmucks that fucked us over are downstairs burning in hell? What young guy doesn’t want to believe in 99 virgins? They’re all great stories, or they were in their time. To be honest I don’t think they’d make it through a focus group in Forest Hills today. Some guy would stick his hand up and say, ‘I just lost it when that dude fed all the people with the loaves and the fishes…just not believable, love.’”
On her personal connection to her own movies
“I have made a career telling the stories of extraordinary women. Because, well, someone’s got to. Occasionally people would come into my office and look at all the posters –‘Elizabeth,’ ‘Jane Eyre,’ ‘Sylvia,’ ‘Temple Grandin,’ and Tamara Drewe’ — and wonder aloud if I ever intended to make a film that didn’t have a girl’s name as its title.
But certainly I was making movies that reflected my own preoccupations at the time. I’m not a writer, or a director, so I don’t claim authorship or ownership in the same way, but certainly I was drawn to material that explored the same themes that I was exploring in my own life. If stories help us to live and make sense of our lives, it follows that I chose to make movies that shed light on what I was going through at the time.
When I made ‘Elizabeth,’ I was a single mother trying to make my way with a career, and it certainly wasn’t easy. Elizabeth’s story spoke to me because I related to her struggle between what she wanted to do as a young woman, and what she had to do in her public life. It seems crazy to make a comparison between a 16th century queen and a film producer in her thirties, but it had a resonance for me, and for many other young women at the time.
When I made ‘Sylvia,’ I was struggling with a broken relationship, and I was drawn to the story of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, who loved each other so much but couldn’t make it work between them. That intense love that burns itself out had such an attraction for me, and I wanted to explore it more fully. “The Other Boleyn Girl’ deals with sibling rivalry, and so on.
When it came to my latest movie, ‘Saving Mr. Banks,’ I thought I was making it because of my kids. Myself and my children are pretty much word perfect on ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ or ‘Jolly Holiday,’ as anyone who’d been on a long car journey with us with attest, and I knew they’d love the idea of an origin story of ‘Mary Poppins.’
But as we developed the story, I remembered Hannah Minghella telling me how Amy Pascal always used it as a trick question for prospective interviewees or writers — asking them who ‘Mary Poppins’ was about. And the answer, of course, is not Julie Andrews, or Bert, or the children — but Mr. Banks.
And it was at that point that I realized I was making this for my dad. It was no coincidence that as I began to develop the film more, I also started to re-examine my relationship with my father and it, too, began to change. My dad and i had always had a good relationship, but had never been super close, and as he was getting older, and the threat of losing him was closer, I had unconsciously chosen a movie to look at this, and put things right before it was too late. I’m very glad I did. My father became very ill just as we went into pre production on the movie. I wrote to him by email every day, as the themes of fathers and daughters played out in front of me, telling him what was going on, remembering incidents from my childhood, nostalgic family moments, and my mum and sister read them out to him. And while we were filming the young Pamela Travers gazing at her father with adoration, I was suddenly struck with the need to jump on a plane to go back to him. He died in my arms six hours after I arrived back, and we had never been closer. I was able to put my head on his shoulder and tell him i loved him, and he squeezed me and said ‘you’re a good kid, Ali,’ and died in my arms.
That wouldn’t have happened without ‘Mr. Banks,’ and for that I’m truly grateful.”