LONDON — Despite notable amount of success over his 22-year career as a producer, Stephen Woolley has always been a self-styled outsider. So when his directorial debut “Stoned,” about the life and death of Rolling Stones’ guitar player Brian Jones, was turned down by the Cannes fest, he didn’t even break stride.
Woolley will unveil “Stoned” in the Cannes market with a splashy premiere and party. There’s something about bowing outside the official fest that suits the renegade spirit of the man who put together Oscar winner “The Crying Game” (another Cannes reject) and founded the hip shingle Palace with Nik Powell in the 1980s.
Woolley, 47, still sports his trademark long hair. He swings between being a powerful insider and a self-proclaimed outsider — he is both a commercially successful producer (“Interview With the Vampire”) and a cinema purist unwilling to sacrifice commercially difficult material he believes passionately in.
As a working-class lad growing up on a housing estate in north London in the ’60s, Woolley knew he was in the minority in his love for uncompromising arthouse cinema, and he knew he had to like either the Rolling Stones or the Beatles to fit in.
He plumped for the Stones, admiring the “more daring, anti-establishment” image they projected. Woolley now considers that image something of a myth: “Although the Beatles had the clean-cut image, they were, in fact, working-class kids, whereas the Stones were art school kids. That idea of deceit fascinated me. That’s why I made ‘Backbeat’ (the story of Stuart Sutcliffe, the fifth Beatle) — to burst that myth.”
Defying expectations has been a recurring theme of Woolley’s producing career, which begun when, at 16, he landed a job as an usher at the Screen on the Green cinema. That introduced him to quirky indies like “Evil Dead,” and he soon started buying up U.K. video rights to such pics.
His long relationship with Neil Jordan, starting with the helmer’s second film, “The Company of Wolves,” and continuing through his upcoming “Breakfast on Pluto,” has been the backbone of Woolley’s career. But his other projects, from the ambitious musical “Absolute Beginners” to Shane Meadow’s debut “twentyfourseven,” have been distinctive choices.
After producing and distributing for two decades, Woolley now is making his directing bow with the $10 million “Stoned.”
As a producer, Woolley has consistently developed projects that reinterpret historical events from the point of view of the plucky protagonist long since consigned to the scrap heap of history. “Scandal” was a sympathetic portrayal of Dr. Stephen Ward, the scapegoat for the Profumo vice girl affair, which toppled Macmillan’s Tory government. Jordan’s “Michael Collins” brought the life and death of the Irish independence leader to a wider audience.
Woolley acknowledges that stories that reopen the history books “appeal to the subversive side to my nature.”
“Stoned” does not shy away from controversy. The pic tells the story of the hedonistic life and controversial death of Stones co-founder Brian Jones, played by Leo Gregory. The film’s claim that Jones’ live-in builder Frank Thoroughgood (Paddy Considine) drowned Jones reportedly came close to having the police reopen the 1969 case.
Typical of Woolley’s contrarian brand of filmmaking, “Stoned” is not a joyous celebration of Swinging ’60s London, but a film he describes as “about the upside and downside of hedonism. It is the visual equivalent of listening to the White Stripes” — more “Performance” than “Austin Powers.”
Woolley’s transition to helmer only occurred when scribes Robert Wade and Neil Purvis implored him to direct “Stoned” himself when it looked like it might not get made unless he took the helm.
After producing more than 40 pics, the switch to behind the cameras proved less tortuous than Woolley feared. Although he concedes that cutting scenes in post-production felt equivalent to “cutting the fingers of his baby,” Woolley was able to fall back on the support of good friend and producer Finola Dwyer (“Backbeat”), whose career he helped launch, as well as pic’s d.p. John Mathieson.
Woolley knows the youth vote is key to the success of “Stoned,” and the marketing campaign will be aimed at young auds unfamiliar with the Stones’ early sound. Hot young acts including the White Stripes, Kula Shaker, the Bees and the 22-20s figure alongside ’60s outfits the Small Faces and Traffic on the soundtrack.
However, the Rolling Stones themselves do not appear on the soundtrack. Although Woolley sees no reason they should object to his pic, he is adamant that “this is not the Mick and Keith story.” It is about the artist who became an outsider and was left behind by history.