John Smithson, one of the producers on the multi-Oscar nominated survival story “127 Hours,” sums up his shtick in two words — “persuasion” and “sensitivity.”
Factor in tenacity and deep pockets, as well as his seasoned sense of what makes a great story and how to tell it, and you’re close to discovering the secrets to Smithson’s sustained success.
He set up his own U.K. shingle, Darlow Smithson, 21 years ago to specialize in docus. Lately the company has branched out into drama, though the fiction is fed by a strong factual bent.
Two ownership changes later — Endemol bought the company from TWI in late 2009 — and Darlow Smithson, whose 2004 film “Touching the Void” was an international box office hit, continues to enjoy a reputation for high-end films that play well on both sides of the Atlantic.
Smithson, 58, describes himself as a “stalker” of big stories capable of resonating on the big- and smallscreen.
Darlow Smithson’s recent telefilms include “Miracle on the Hudson” (about the US Airways jet that ditched in the river with no loss of life), shown by Discovery in the U.S., and “Stephen Hawking’s Universe,” also aired by Discovery.
Smithson pursued the “127 Hours” project for six years. Originally the story of mountaineer Aron Ralston’s survival and self-amputation was earmarked for a documentary feature, but then Danny Boyle became interested in the story.
Persuading Ralston to sell Smithson the rights to his against-the-odds tale was time consuming. “Not long after it happened, the story of Aron’s accident went around the world. Like everyone else, I emailed him,” recalls Smithson.
With his gleaming bald head and cultivated English voice, the producer resembles a character actor forever cast as one of those charming British baddies in crime capers.
Smithson says the climber received “a thousand approaches” from would-be filmmakers. He had given up on the project when “out of the blue” Ralston contacted him six years ago.
Smithson’s entre was, perhaps inevitably, the iconic “Touching the Void.” “What changed everything was that he saw and loved the film,” he says.
Even so, tying down the rights to Ralston’s story took patience. “Lots of big Hollywood players wanted them too. We had to pay a lot of money (he declines to be specific), but I don’t think it was the money that persuaded Aron to go with us. He could have got more elsewhere, but he trusted us to handle the story with sensitivity. People like Aron live with what happened to them every single day of their lives, and letting go of that story is very difficult.”
Originally the climber rejected Boyle’s approach, but in 2009, they reached an agreement.
“It was a challenge to get Aron to go with Danny’s creative vision,” Smithson acknowledges. “He told him, ‘You’ve got to lend me your story; I will tell it and then hand it back to you.’ ”
With a clutch of kudos action (“127 Hours” won several critics’ awards and was Oscar-nominated in six categories including best film), it seems like everyone involved made the right decision to approach the picture as a dramatization rather than going for a straight docu.
Dealing with people who have undergone a near-death experience appears to be second nature to Smithson and his team at the shingle.
With several Sept. 11 films under his belt, including “The Falling Man” and “9/11: Phone Calls From the Towers,” Smithson is working on two TV docus (one for a U.S. broadcaster and another commissioned by a U.K. web) on the subject, timed to coincide with the attacks’ 10th anniversary this fall.
“My interest lies mainly in the experience of ordinary people caught up in what was the most extreme event of our lifetimes,” Smithson says.
“Nine-eleven is now 10 years old. People can start to see it from a distance. There will be a lot of programs and coverage this September, so ours will have to stand out.
“In common with ‘Touching the Void’ and ‘127 Hours” you have to be sensitive to the needs of the people whose stories you are telling, in this case the survivors and relatives of those who died.”