Theater-bred UK producer Colin Callender stays ahead of the competition by mining the rich intersection of theater, film, and television. Back in 1983, he produced the Emmy-winning nine-hour miniseries of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” the first original program for Channel 4. He moved stateside in 1986 to shepherd and define the first decade of HBO Films, from Gus Van Sant’s Palme d’Or–winning “Elephant” to Mike Nichols’ “Angels in America,” starring Al Pacino, Emma Thompson, and Meryl Streep.
Callender has chased quality ever since, with such tony productions as “Wolf Hall” (BBC, PBS), Broadway’s “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” and this season’s limited-series Emmy-contending literary adaptations “Howards End” (BBC/Starz) and “Little Women” (BBC/Masterpiece Theater), both directed by women.
“I wanted to take the high road,” he said. “There is an audience hungry for it and not being served, and that only got more true. The middle ground between top-end franchise movies and independents is being lost, and that’s where television is going.”
At the start of HBO Films in 1986, “no one would return our calls,” he told me from his Fifth Avenue midtown office with three desk clocks showing the time in New York, Los Angeles, and London. “We couldn’t get anyone to work for us. Then the worm turned and HBO went from being the insurgent to the incumbent.”
When Callender left HBO, he set up UK-based Playground Entertainment so he could have ownership and control of his multi-platform projects. When he first developed Hilary Mantel’s bestseller about Sir Thomas More, many funders passed due to “The Tudors”; Callender figured that its popularity proved there was an audience eager to sample a better-mounted production “told properly,” he said. “This is the smart version.”
Hw wanted to cast the best British theater actors, including star Mark Rylance (“Jerusalem”), not only “because he is brilliant,” he said, “but he wasn’t known as a TV actor. Coming into the role, he was mysterious.” So Callender stuck with the BBC and PBS, which did not demand star casting; TV star Damian Lewis did make a powerful foil for Rylance as Henry VIII.
Callender has a first-look deal with his old HBO boss, Chris Albrecht, to supply a slate to Starz of awards-worthy dramas to supplement their mainstream programming and build their Emmy and Golden Globe cred. So far he’s made “The White Queen,” “The White Princess,” and is finishing up “The Spanish Princess,” along with “Howards End.”
Needless to say, Callender wanted Kenneth Lonergan to direct “Howards End,” even before the Oscar-winning “Manchester by the Sea.” Callender had to persuade him to write the adaptation after the playwright-screenwriter first turned it down, worrying about being faithful to E.M. Forster. Callender encouraged him to further explore the characters and add storyline beats as needed. “We want your adaptation,” he told him.
Lonergan actually shot “Manchester by the Sea” while he was writing “Howards End.” Callender held back production by six months because he wanted to finish the shooting script, as shaping each of the four episodes was not easy. “The length of the episodes was an ongoing conversation,” he said. “What was the right way to break, was it five or four hours? We discussed that at length, it was ever-evolving, until all that was sorted out.”
Lonergan’s period story, focused on Britain’s changing class and gender dynamics, is not just a romance between Margaret Schlegel (Hayley Atwell) and Henry Wilcox (Mathew Macfadyen) after his wife (Julia Ormond) dies. It’s centered on how that growing relationship affects Margaret’s bond with her idealistic younger sister, Helen (Philippa Coulthard). And it allows its characters room to engage in high-level intellectual debate about the issues of the day. Even after the brilliant, Oscar-winning Merchant-Ivory classic, Callender felt there was room to deepen the novel adaptation. The series director, theater veteran Hettie McDonald, started out with Lonergan at the Royal Court. “The fact that she did theater helped,” said Callender, “as we had several scenes 8-10 pages long.”
#MeToo was not happening when they started writing four years ago. “The starting point is the Schlegels,” said Callender, “trying to make their way in a man’s world, clinging onto each other fearlessly as each other’s anchor, watching how the men come into their lives, impacted their relationship, separated them and brought them together again. All the themes — the different classes, the horse and cart vs. the motor car, as three families cross at a moment in time — are richly drawn, with humor. His skill is that all those conversations grow out of character. He did find beneath these archetypical characters real human beings.”
“Little Women” was a much faster process, as Callender got the greenlight from BBC last January for a Christmas slot. “This did happen more in the wake of #MeToo,” he said. “It’s about the politics of men and women in the real world. I felt there was an opportunity over the three hours to explore the sisters more fully than the previous movies, and make all the characters have their moment. The inevitable result of a single drama is that Jo inevitably becomes the lead character. [Screenwriter] Heidi Thomas gave all the daughters a moment, as well as Marmee.”
TV director Vanessa Caswell (BBC’s “Thirteen”) likes to create intimate dramas via handheld cameras. “I want the camera to be a fifth sister,” she told Callender, “like another member of the family.” BBC and Masterpiece Theater agreed to cast four American girls as the March sisters, and for the older generation, book British royalty like Michael Gambon and Emily Watson. A scion of Hollywood royalty (Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke), 19-year-old Maya Hawke made her screen debut right out of Juilliard as Jo, while at the other end of the age spectrum, 92-year-old Angela Lansbury has a shot at her first Emmy win after 18 nominations for Aunt March. The series shot in late summer in autumnal Ireland without a hint of snow in the air. (VFX delivered frozen winter.)
Next up: During the filming of the TV remake “The Dresser,” starring Ian McKellen, Anthony Hopkins and Emily Watson, Amazon’s Head of Digital Content Acquisitions, Brad Beale, approached Callender. “Can you do an HBO slate of original movies for Amazon?” he asked. “Hello? Yes,” replied the producer. The negotiation for a six-film deal at Amazon took too long for the first movie to be “The Dresser,” which went to Starz instead.
Callender’s first Amazon Prime Original Movie is Richard Eyre’s contemporary take on Shakespeare’s “King Lear” (September) starring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and Jim Broadbent. “It’s not an acquisition, it’s a co-production,” said Callender. “It didn’t come through the studio.”
“King Lear” grew out of “The Dresser.” The role Hopkins played as an old-time Brit theater actor-manager was “King Lear.” When they went to film the Lear scenes, it marked Hopkins’ first time on stage in some 30 years — he had long vowed never to return to the theater. Callender was sitting in the house next to Hopkins’ wife; as her husband delivered the climactic final speech, carrying his dead daughter Cordelia on stage, she burst into tears. “I understand why he does acting,” she told Callender. “We’ve got to get him to play Lear,” he responded.
Hopkins had already told his new UTA agents he wanted to play Lear. So Callender brought on board “The Dresser” director Richard Eyre with Emma Thompson, Emily Watson, Jim Broadbent, Jim Carter, and Andrew Scott joining Hopkins in a contemporary Lear shot on historical locations including the Tower of London. “I never intended to do Shakespeare for Amazon,” said Callender, “but that became the first film. I didn’t want [a theatrical release], didn’t want to clutter it. A theatrical release would be satisfying ego, it would be expensive and wouldn’t work.”
In order to work out the complex Amazon deal, Callender brokered a second-play miniseries arrangement between Starz and Amazon. As a sign of the changing times, over the past few years the value of such deals has fluctuated and now don’t exist at all, as Amazon and Netflix want first-play on everything. “I should like to define a new era,” he said, as he preps other films for the Amazon pipeline.
“King Lear” will launch at fall film festivals instead. “We will screen it properly and position it with Emmys via festivals,” said Callender. “I am intrigued by the intersection of what is a movie, the whole debate about Amazon, Netflix, and the theatrical debate at Cannes. It’s déjà vu all over again. We had this back in the day with ‘Elephant,’ which was released theatrically and ‘The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,’ starring Geoffrey Rush, which played in Competition at Cannes but did not release theatrically. Now with day-and-date releases, with a certain kind of movie, this model will prevail more and more.”