This weekend at the Hamptons International Film Festival, a special tribute to Working Title Films was held as part of the festival’s strain of British-themed programming (it just so happened to also coincide with the 10th anniversary of their beloved rom-com “Love Actually“). On hand for the panel were the company’s current co-chairs Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan, who were later joined by special guests Edgar Wright and Richard Curtis, whose new film for Working Title, “About Time,” also played the festival. Together, they helped illuminate what makes Working Title such a unique place for filmmakers, how the company was founded, and what they think the future of cinema holds.
At the start of the panel, a brief highlight reel was run, reminding the audience of what an impressive and diverse roster the company has had—everything from the Coens‘ “The Big Lebowski” to the studio’s breakout hit “Four Weddings and a Funeral” to, um, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” (not sure you need to brag about this one, guys). While the reel had some occasional missteps, it went a long way to reinforcing what a unique company Working Title is and just how many spectacular features they have helped nurture and release (a few more just to jog your memory: “Sid & Nancy,” “Shaun of the Dead,” “Dead Man Walking,” “Frost/Nixon“).
When moderator Raj Roy asked the co-chairs where Working Title came from, Fellner was quick to say, “Desperation, probably. A need or desire to express one’s self creatively. I just wanted to get things done and make things happen creatively, in music and film.” Bevan added: “We were running music video companies and we had the same goal to move past music videos and work on films. It was the perfect storm because music videos were making inroads for people who would never be able to make films. Thatcherism made the film business quite unionized, which was beginning to end as well. All of those things created an opportunity for us.”
Making their first films in the ’80s was beneficial for a number of reasons, with Bevan noting that, “Through the ’80s, we used our first films to learn how the independent film world worked.” In the climate, he said, “There were a lot of independent film companies back in that day which made it easier for us to get movies made, for better or worse.” Additionally, Fellner added that there was “a big appetite for English films. And that kept going until the mid-’90s, then it tailed off.” While the duo are now two of the most powerful producers in the world, this wasn’t always the case. “We worked through the ’80s and learned that making independent films is not a great way to make a living,” Bevan joked.
On one level what makes Working Title so remarkable is the company’s ability to maintain relationships with several key filmmakers, among them the Coens (who have produced seven films with Working Title, most recently “A Serious Man“), Joe Wright and of course Curtis, whose hit script for “Four Weddings and a Funeral” really established the company as a major player whose incredibly British films could play well all over the world. Fellner did his best to sum this up: “We’re very lucky to have a number of creative relationships and that collaboration is just something that grows. Both Eric and I like to agree what the size of the box is that we’re trying to work in, and agree with the filmmaker that we’re making the same movie for the same price. And our job is to make sure that job is protected and the director’s job is to stay in that box. We’ve been remarkably lucky because these directors and these creative relationships have become the backbone of the company, they’re sort of the movie directors of this generation.”
Two of those filmmakers, Edgar Wright (whose “The World’s End” was just released by Working Title this past summer) and Curtis joined the conversation. When quizzed about first meeting the pair, Curtis recounted a wonderful story that involved his first film as a screenwriter, 1989’s almost wholly ignored “The Tall Guy,” starring Rowan Atkinson and Jeff Goldbum. “I thought Tim was annoyingly handsome and therefore not that good to his job. I first met with Tim on ‘The Tall Guy’ and the thing I remember about that one is when Tim got the money. I said to them, ‘What did they think of the script?’ And Tim said, ‘Um, actually the script didn’t come up.’ It turned out that they had just bought Rowan Atkinson for 90 minutes and I don’t think they’d even read it,” Curtis joked.
Wright then told an amazing story about how he was trying to get “Shaun of the Dead” off the ground and the kind of abject fear that accompanied a visit to Working Title at that time, after the major successes of films like “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “Notting Hill.” “There was a sense of intimidation. I do remember when I first went in to talk about ‘Shaun of the Dead,’ doing a really half-assed pitch thinking that they wouldn’t do it. That was 3 years before we did the movie,” he shared. When the audience (and moderator) kind of gasped at this, Wright finished the story: “So basically what happened was I had done this pitch and we had gone away and developed it with a TV company Film 4, who had done my TV series. I was developing it for 2 years and that company collapsed and they went bankrupt and we had this embarrassing thing of having spent all this time working on this thing and now go back to all the companies we had been around to before. It felt very humiliating to go back and begging and the only company that didn’t make me feel like that was Working Title.”
Wright went on to say that the title had even changed between the two times that he had met with Working Title. “It was originally ‘Tea Time of the Dead,’ ” Wright explained. The saving grace from Working Title really did save the project and essentially launched his career. “I remember when I got the call right before Christmas and I was about to leave my apartment, I had to borrow money from Simon Pegg. And it was finally happening. And the irony is that they turned my movie into something. If it had gone to another studio it would have played in ten theaters. So with them my movie was in cinemas in a wide release. So without that vote of confidence I wouldn’t be here.”
When the subject came to why Americans are often cast in the decidedly British productions, Curtis shared a fascinating anecdote about Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant being in “Notting Hill.” “With Julia, the only English actress at that moment was Emma Thompson but she is Hugh’s best friend so it would have been pathetically uninvolving. The credit should be shared between Universal and Tim and Eric, they don’t argue, they might make suggestions. We were determined to not hire Hugh Grant because we thought it would be surprising if she had fallen in love with someone no one had ever seen before. But we interviewed ten ghastly actors and sent it to Hugh.” Wright claims that the company’s Britishness is what helps it stay so strong. “You realize when you’re working with Working Title you’re already working with a major. Before that a lot of great directors went straight to Hollywood and never made good on their promise because they immediately got eaten by the machine,” Wright explained. “‘Hot Fuzz‘ was my second film and we made it as British as it possibly could be.”
When moderator Roy brought up recent grim assessments of the film industry by Steven Soderbergh and Steven Spielberg, Wright offered his own opinion. ” I think that it goes in waves. You go in the summer and it’s all the same kind of movie and then fall breaks and it’s like, ‘Oh there are good movies.’ Smart movies and commercial movies are not mutually exclusive and ‘Gravity‘ is proof of that. I just feel fortunate to make every movie full stop,” he said. “I treat every movie like it’s my last. From my point of view I never get blasé about the future. I just want to do the best job I can. I want to keep making films. Sometimes when the business looks like it’s in trouble you just feel fortunate you’re lucky enough to put out films. It’s not a bleak future. It’s the films in the middle that need to be supported, there are always going to be great indie films and huge studio films.”